Around the turn of the first millennium of the Common Era, Heathens in Iceland were feeling threatened by the new (to them) religion of the White Christ, brought by missionaries from Europe, where polytheistic religion had been ruthlessly suppressed since the fourth century, some six hundred years earlier.
So when the missionary Thangrand was sent by the Christian King of Norway to force the island’s Heathens to avail themselves of the opportunity of conversion before it was forced on them with molten metal or snakes down their throats, traditional religionists were justifiably nervous.
Thangbrand was no “gentle Jesus meek and mild” sorta guy. Few Norse Christians were. The old chronicles refer to him as “a passionate, ungovernable man, and a great manslayer; but he was a good scholar and a clever man.”
Manslayer…missionary. Sure. In truth, it wasn’t all that uncommon, though most of them did their killing at a distance, manipulating kings like Charlemagne to do their dirty work. Charlemagne once killed 4,500 committed Heathen Saxons in a single day two centuries before (the Massacre of Verden). The Heathens on Iceland likely knew the stories. They knew what they were up against. This was not, as we say today, their first rodeo (though it was to be their last).
But fear of Norway’s king or not, there were limits on behavior. So when Thangbrand’s convert Hjalti went to the Allthing (the national assembly that governed Iceland) and pronounced these verses,
I don’t want to blaspheme the gods,
But Freya seems to me a bitch.
He got himself exiled for three years. A moderate sentence, as it turns out, for blasphemy. Yes, Heathens could be more moderate than Christians, whatever the stories claim.
For example turn to the 21st century and Mumbai (Bombay), India, and a statue with plumbing problems. Superstitious Christians were quick to claim the statue in a Catholic Church was weeping. Sanal Edamaruku, the founder-president of Rationalist International, arrived on the scene, the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni, and, according to the Guardian, proved that it was not holy water but a plumbing problem that accounted for the tears. For his work, he was charged with blasphemy (u/s 295 of Indian Penal Code).
Yes, blasphemy. Weeping statues predate Jesus by many centuries, even if they have today (along with bleeding statues) become a Catholic staple. A writer from Patheos has some reservations about the story since the pictures do not show a statue resting up against the wall. But it is a mistake to think water can’t leak through a ceiling and onto a statue anywhere there is a ceiling and pipes overhead. In any event, in this video, Edamaruku explains his discovery:
Conservative Christians like to claim they are persecuted the world over (including here in the U.S.) but in Ireland Christians can force women to have babies and die, even though fundamentalists in this country claim that’s impossible; and in India, you can apparently be charged with blasphemy for pointing out that a statue is not, in fact, crying. The charges against Edamaruku carried a three-year prison sentence and he received death threats as well. He finally fled into exile in Finland.
Speaking to the Guardian, Edamaruku warned that “There is a huge contradiction in the content of the Indian constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and the blasphemy law from 1860 under then colonial rule.”
You might notice that both Hjalti and Edamaruku got three years for their offenses. Once forcibly exiled and one self-exiled. You might also notice that more than a thousand years lie between the two events. India, like the United States, likes to present itself as a modern liberal democracy. Both fall somewhat short of the mark where religious conservatism is concerned. The United States, after all, is still waging religious crusades and our military being employed like modern-day Teutonic Knights.
In an enlightened world such as ours is supposed to be, several centuries after the Enlightenment and well into a new era of scientific advances, you would think a simple thing like pointing out a plumbing problem would be, if disappointing, not blaspheming. You would think the need to believe would not be so strong that a man’s life would be accounted of less value than a dripping pipe.
But conservative Christians are running scared that their days of privilege are passing them by.
Turn back the clock again to turn-of-the-millennium Iceland. Heathens were justifiably terrified by the looming destruction of traditional religion, the ways of their ancestors, a religion far older than Judaism or Christianity, if far less militant.
The Norse settlers had been in Iceland themselves only since the mid-9th century, but they had made it home, a refuge from politics back in Norway, where their version of the middle class had found themselves disempowered and disenfranchised by a Christian king. Olaf Trygvasson was forcing the Norse to convert to Christianity. He was sparing no effort and no form of coercion. He wanted Iceland to be converted as well, so he sent Thangbrand, his personal chaplain.
The message to the Icelanders was clear and unequivocal: here is your chance. Convert or die. This is not a choice facing most Christians in the world today, despite what they want you to believe.
The Norse Heathens were remarkably flexible in their beliefs, just as had been the Mediterranean world’s Pagans, able and willing to accommodate various religious beliefs thanks to freedom from Abrahamic monotheism’s curse: the true/false distinction in religion.
For example, Helgi the Lean was nominally a Christian but only nominally, since he prayed to Thor for protection while at sea, believing like many Heathens that Thor was best with sea travel. That Jesus would walk on water meant nothing to Helgi. He trusted the evidence of his own eyes, and Thor was better. The Sea of Galilee was not, after all, the North Sea, which had to be crossed to get from Norway to Britain and beyond.
Various missionaries had come to Iceland over the decades, bringing various gospels of the White Christ. There is no reason to believe these gospels were all the same, given that three of the missionaries were reputedly Armenian, and therefore, likely Orthodox rather than Catholic. Too, the Irish monks who had inhabited Iceland before the Norse came, had their own brand of Christianity.
Thorvald the Far-Traveled came to Iceland as a missionary in the 980s, along with a German companion/lover named Friedrich. The Heathen Norse took a dim view of men who allowed themselves to be taken sexually by other men, and so the pair became the butt of jokes. This act was ergi, or what Heathens thought of as sexual perversion. So this poem ran around Iceland:
The Bishop [Friedrich] has borne nine children;
Thorvald was the father of all of them.
Thorvald was a Christian, or so he said, but enough of a Heathen still to disregard the White Christ’s injunction that he turn the other cheek and love his enemies. Instead, he followed Heathen custom and answered the insult by killing the two poets who uttered the unflattering verses. He killed a third man who stood up to his proselytizing.
Thorvald had to flee, having no desire to test martyrdom, whatever claims he made about his beliefs (he eventually ended up in Constantinople, from whence the Roman emperor sent him into the wilds of Russia to trouble the Pagans there).
Thangrand didn’t last long either – a couple of years. It is written of Thangrand that “When he had been here one winter or two, then he went away, and he had killed here two men or three, those who had lampooned him.”
Something of Jesus’ message had clearly been lost by the year 1000, when Iceland finally voted to convert. It hasn’t been found yet today by those vociferous opponents of a more enlightened world.
People make much of the fury of the Norsemen, but these fears were recorded by scribes of a religion that had already made a business out of killing for God. In truth, history reveals that the Norse were no more savage than the Christian kings they warred with. Nor did the Norse ever kill for religion, or force conversions on those they raided and conquered. They didn’t much care what people believed or who the believed in. It isn’t a big deal to polytheists and has never been, since all gods exist.
But even a thousand years later, conservative Christians are willing to kill if their beliefs are challenged. The unsigned hate mail I’ve received for openly expressing my beliefs in my community are nothing compared to what many Pagans and atheists and secularists have been subjected to by a religion supposedly being persecuted by those it persecutes. Death threats are a staple of conservative Christianity.
I said the Icelandic Heathens and conservative Christians both felt threatened with loss. But their responses are somewhat different, and the conservative Christian response is far more savage than that of the supposedly ruthless Vikings a long millennium ago.
The Dark Ages are past. We live in a modern era where, you would think, we could point out plumbing problems without fearing to be killed by religious fanatics. Such is not the case. Nor is it the case that conservative Christians are really Christians at all, as they prove by their behavior, completely ignoring Jesus’ most simple instructions, to love your neighbor and to turn the other cheek.
Edamaruku is not a hero, though perhaps secularists will turn him into a rationalist Joan of Arc (Richard Dawkins Foundation has rushed to his aid like nobody rushed to Joan’s). He is just a man who relied on the facts on the ground rather than belief. He is just a man he let his belief be determined by the facts rather than letting his facts be determined by belief
Meddlesome? Perhaps. But no more meddlesome than missionaries who regularly poke their noses into the affairs of people who just want to be left alone. My front door is as sacrosanct as any church.
And no matter how the debate tips or however one-sided it becomes, one fact looms clear: nowhere on this earth in the 21st century should facts be equated with blasphemy.
Photo of Velankanni Church from India Net Zone
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.