The Religion of the Northmen
DECLINE OF THE ASA-FAITH
A historical representation of the development of the Asa-Faith cannot be given. As its origin is enveloped in total darkness, so is the period of its highest glory unknown to us, and it is in fact only in its decline and fall that history reveals it to us as appearing in the popular life and acting upon it. We know not what revolutions and changes the system may possibly have undergone during the long course of centuries in which the faith was cherished by the Northmen, but that these changes were not wholly unimportant, and moreover, that the religion was very differently understood at different times---now with greater warmth and a more special reference to its deep fundamental ideas, now with more coldness and more immediately in reference to its external form, its symbolic dress---the very character of the religion leads us to presume.
The religion which draws man into reflective meditation, which, as it were, strives to separate him from the finite world in order to absorb him in the contemplation of the Infinite, can maintain itself through a long course of centuries with unimpaired power, even amid violent outward convulsions. But the Asa-faith was not such a religion. It is evident, on the contrary, that in the form under which we know it, it must of necessity draw its votaries into a life of activity, or rather, tear them almost involuntarily out into the wildest tumult of the world. History shows us also how the Germanic nations in earlier times, and afterward the Northmen, inflamed by this faith, developed a warlike power and boldness which shook Europe's former social fabric to its foundations---how great hosts of Northmen were driven by this faith to a Víking-life which knew no home, no rest, and but few of the milder feelings of humanity; and how the warlike spirit among them toward the close of heathendom blazed out with a wild ferocity which, as it were, consumed itself.
But in this agitated life, which the Asa-faith, although it did not, perhaps, call it forth from the first, yet did so strongly support, there lay an effective germ, not only of changes in the doctrines themselves, but more especially of revolutions in the religious opinions of its votaries---revolutions which, in the course of time, were, of necessity, to involve its decline and fall.
The Víking's life and uninterrupted warfare kept many of the chieftains and large troops of men the greater part of the time away from their homes and from the sanctuaries of the people, and made them by degrees foreign and indifferent to them, while they, at the same time, came in contact with people of another religion and other customs. Many returned to their homes with contempt at heart for the faith of their fathers, and as free-thinkers who had become accustomed to rely upon their own powers alone. For every new generation that grew up in that wild Víking-life the faith became more powerless and insignificant. They persisted in their warrior-ferocity from habit and by the force of example, but no longer directly impelled by a longing for the society of the Æsir and the joys of Valhalla. And though they did not yet give up the faith entirely, still it was only the exterior, the sensuous form, to which they paid attention. It was in idols and sacrifices, divination and sorcery, that they placed confidence, and it was the grossest superstition that formed the counterpart to the free-thinking. That wild life, agitated by all manner of passions, which also transferred itself to their homes, and toward the close of heathendom gained the ascendency everywhere in the North, could not be favorable to any well-regulated system of religion whatever, and the foundations of the Asa-faith were thus undermined by the very spirit which it had helped to awaken, and which it had itself strongly supported.
In this condition, then, we find the Asa-faith at the period when history first properly makes us acquainted with it---in its last stage of existence. It is free-thinking and abject superstition which we find here presented as the counterpart of each other. While the Northmen on one hand worshiped stick and stone, animals and dead men, and believed their idols to find sustenance in bloody sacrifices, even of human beings, there were many, on the other hand, who lived without God and thoughtlessly put their whole trust in their own power and strength. There were some, indeed, who thought more deeply. They rejected a plurality of Gods and put their trust in one only Supreme Being, "in Him who created the Sun and all things that have a being." In this Supreme Being the first sovereign king of Norway, Harald Hárfagri, professed to believe. (1) The Icelandic chieftain Thorkel Máni in his last sickness requested to be carried into the rays of the Sun, where he commended his soul to the God who created the Sun. "And he had led as virtuous a life as the best Christian." (2) The Icelander Thorstein Ingemundsson said to his brothers, that their departed father would certainly enjoy a blissful reward for his piety "with Him who created the Sun and all the world, whoever He may be;" and this same Being, whom he regarded as "the Mightiest," he called upon to deliver his brothers from the Berserksgang. (3) The Asa doctrine itself, with its not indistinct presentiments of a Being higher than all Æsir, might awaken such conceptions in the pious and contemplative mind who felt disgusted with the gross superstition of the times, and yet was not willing to give up every consolation of Religion. But these few individuals could not contribute anything to support the Asa-faith, now tottering to its fall; on the contrary it was they who left it the most hastily when they became acquainted with Christianity.
It was of no avail that the zealous Asa-worshipers portrayed the calamities which could strike one or another of these free-thinkers as punishment because he did not bestow upon the Gods that worship due unto them. Nor did it avail any more that they disclaimed that toleration of other believers, which otherwise appears to have been a characteristic of the votaries of the Asa-doctrine, and sharpened the severity of the laws against those who showed disrespect toward the Gods. At the time when Christianity was approaching the North, the Asa-faith no longer satisfied the more deep-thinking portion of the people who were nominally its adherents, and, therefore, it could not long sustain a conflict with the new faith, when that faith came to be promulgated with zeal and energy.
1. Snor.: Har. Hárf. S. 4. [Back]
2. Landnmb. I. 9. [Back]
3. Vatnsd. S. 23, 37, 46. [Back]