Early Christian Viking artifacts

"Wolf head hammer" from the Iceland National Museum

“Wolf head hammer” from the Iceland National Museum

My next post from the Iceland National Museum is another that isn’t quite directly related to costumes, but still pretty neat…

This display was all about the transition from Paganism to Christianity in Icleand. Iceland had a fairly different transition than a lot of other places in the Nordic world, and the display discussed that many Icelanders probably continued their pagan practices although they had also taken the Christian faith. The display elaborated that “occasionally Christian items are found in pagan graves; this may indicate that they were seen simply as ornaments, or that people were ambivalent about their beliefs”. It also said that it took some time for the Christian church to aquire paraphernalia in Iceland, and so there are very few artifacts from the early Christian days in Iceland.

Bronze staff-head

Bronze staff-head

The first object is probably a bishop’s crosier, found at þingvellir. “The ends of the crooks have animal heads in the Urnes style, which dates the object to the 11th century.”

Cruciform pendant from the Iceland National Museum

Cruciform pendant from the Iceland National Museum

The next object is “a cruciform pendant of cast silver” made in the 10th century. “Similar items have been found in southern Scandinavia, England, Russia, and the Baltic region. Some are from silver hoards from the Viking Age”.

"Wolf head hammer" from the Iceland National Museum

“Wolf head hammer” from the Iceland National Museum

The last item in this display is the one I really liked – the þórshamar – Thor’s Hammer, also known as the Wolf Cross or Wolf head hammer. The display said that it bears more resemblance to a Christian cross than known examples of Thor’s Hammer from the Viking Age, and that it may be from the 11th or 12th century. It also noted that an axe was reported to be found near the hammer/cross, which may indicate the artifacts were from a grave.

One of the reasons I also really like this piece, is because I have a reproduction of this pendant – though if the dating is 11th century, I think it will fit with the costume pieces I’ve been making… though if it’s 12th century, it might be a bit too late to wear with my costume.

"Wolf head hammer" from the Iceland National Museum

“Wolf head hammer” from the Iceland National Museum

The display also said:
“Around 1000 AD the King of Norway began pressuring the Icelanders to adopt Christianity, which they did without bloodshed at a session of the parliament, Alþingi, but retained the right to continue pagan practices in private.”
The display added that few pagan relics have been found that postdate 1000 AD, suggesting that the conversion was successful.

There is speculation that this might either be a figure of Thor, holding his hammer, or a Christ figure holding an (upside-down) cross

There is speculation that this might either be a figure of Thor, holding his hammer, or a Christ figure holding an (upside-down) cross

The final item dated to early Christianity in Iceland is this figure – though it’s unknown if it’s supposed to be Thor or Christ. The display stated: “This human figure made of bronze has been dated on the grounds of style, to around 1000 AD. It is believed to depict þór (Thor), one of the major Norse gods, but it could also represent Christ enthroned in glory. The figure grasps an object thought to be þór’s hammer, but also similar in shape to the Christian cross.”
“The figure was unearthed in 1815 or 1816 in Eyjafjörður in North Iceland. It was sent to Copenhagan in 1817, but was returned in 1930 with other objects from the Danish National Museum.”
“During the period 800-1000 AD, the prevalent religion was the pagan worship of the Norse gods, but the beginning there were also Christians in Iceland, apparently in peaceful coexistence with the pagans.”

At the display in the Victoria museum, there was a very similar statue/figure of another Norse god as well – Frey/Freyr if I remember correctly.

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