Religion in Sweden: From Norse gods to Christian God and now No God

IKEA, the Nobel Prize and Thor. These are easily the best know things from Sweden.

But the Thor most people (like me) know about is probably from a comic, Marvel’s Thor.

thor-cartoonThor (Source)

In the binary world of Marvel, Thor is the good guy and Loki the bad guy. When thunder claps and lighting strikes, Thor has hit his hammer in anger. Thor is the god of power and a really useful character when playing Marvel vs Capcom (shows how old I am).

To the ancient Vikings however, Thor and the many other Norse gods meant even more.

The Vikings were originally followers of the Norse religion. The religions and beliefs of the original Scandanavians was very close to the northern German peoples. It was not passed down through sacred scriptures or prophets but through poetry. Nordic mythology has influenced the way we name the days of a week. Thursday, for example, is called Torsdag which means Thor’s Day.

The Norse religion rarely had temples, religious worship (blót) could take place in sacred groves, homes or special piled stone altars. Norse worship was sacrificial (not unlike Christianity for example) and involved sacramental meals.

disablot-by-august-malmstromDísablót by August Malmström (source)

However there was a special holy place within the Norse religion in Sweden – Uppsala.

Norse gods were gods of the natural world, anthropomorphism of naturally occuring phenomena. For example, Dagr was the god of the day, Iðunn was the god of youth and Ēostre the god of Spring. At the top of the pantheon of gods were the Æsir gods like Thor who were warrior gods similar to giants and the Vanir gods who were peace-loving fertility gods related to elves. These two pantheons warred with each other.

The Norse god however were not strong enough to stave off competition from the Christian God. And after a few centuries of combat were close to eradicated by the new Christian religion.

Christian missionaries began to arrive in Scandanavia in the mid 700s. The first missionary to any Scandanavian land was Willibrod who was sent to evangelise to the Frisians (in modern day Netherlands and Germany). Part of Frisian land was then under the Kingdom of Denmark. Willibrod like most early missionaries failed. Unlike southern and central Europe, the Norse gods were very difficult to replace.

The first Nordic christians converted for the sake of war. Denmark’s Harald Klak, King of Jutland was forced out of his kingdom by a rival King Horik and approached the Louise I of the Holy Roman Empire for help with reclaiming his throne. He was promised support in exchange for swopping religions. Klak duly converted. It was then that a Bishop, Angsar of Hamburg-Bremen was sent to accomy Harald Klak and his people to oversee the religion. Klak however lost again and instead of following Klak, Angsar moved westwards to work on the Swedes at Birka on the invitation of then king Björn på Håga.

angsar-in-birkaAngsar preaching at Birka (Source)

Angsar built a church on Birka but the Swedes weren’t interested. Subsequent attempts were made but all ended in failure.

It was in the 10th century that a small outpost was successfully set up by English missionaries in Västergötland. Christianity’s beginning arrived after Erik the Victorius moved the capital to Sigtuna. While a follower of the Norse religion, he was partial to Christianity. His son Olof Skötkonung too over a secure position in Sigtuna and became the first Christian king of Sweden. The decision was considered more religious as it was political.

Many conversions followed this vein. Not everyone out of belief and faith but due to politics and trade. Harold Bluetooh of Denmark became Christian out of political neccesity – to stave off the hungry Holy Roman Empire at his doorstep. Some kings realised how useful single god, single king and practical devotion to the religion was for their rule.

Others converted to gain access to trade with the rich Christians (particularly in the Roman Empire).

In the small city of Sigtuna a total of 5 churches were constructed on a single street barely 2 km long.

Today, only one church remains. St Mary’s Church which was originally inaugurated in 1247 as a Dominican Monastery.

However the kingdom was weak and Olof Skötkonung was unable to enforce the new religion through his throne. Sigtuna lived in an uneasy peace with the nearby Old Uppsala (Gamla Uppsala). Gamla Uppsala was the centre of the Norse religion and would remain the final stronghold of the religion until the 1300s when Christianity took complete hold of the country

So as not to upset the apple cart, Olof Skötkonung established two small dioceses of the budding religion away from Gamla Uppsala, one in the capital of Sigtuna and another in his political stronghold of Husaby. As the new kingdom grew in power more and more people became Christians and there was enough political confidence to move the Diocese of Sigtuna to Uppsala in the 1130s. Christian morality came to take over the life of the people.

This has since been the most important diocese of Sweden through both the Catholic and Lutheran era.

uppsala-cathedralUppsala Cathedral (Source)

If Erik and Olof brought Catholic Christianity to Sweden, then Gustav Vasa replaced it with Lutheran Christianity. 400 years after Catholic christianity emerged as a dominant force in Sweden, the reformation wave took over and a new Church of Sweden was founded.

Vasa made his move to remove himself from the influential control of the Papacy in Rome after the ideas of Martin Luther took root in northern Europe.

The new church was proclaimed the state church and religion and took over the property from the Catholic Church. The move was considered more political than spiritual. The Church in Rome had too much political influence and that was going to be a problem because the Medieval Church was considered the most corrupt ever in human history.

The newly proclaimed Gustav Vasa was then still a weak king. To consolidate his power, he had to remove the power of the church both temporally and spiritually and concentrate them with himself. The Church of Sweden became first the de facto and later de jure state church.

After 500 years of separation, the Catholic and Lutheran churches are making headway in re-approaching, with a visit by Pope Francis next week to attempt to bridge the gap between the two Christian churches.

This rapprochement comes at a time when Christianity is at its weakest in Sweden, and the pews in most churches are populated fewer and fewer devotees. Religion in Sweden has now entered a new phase, a secular phase with the country being one of the least religious in the world. A nascent neopagan movement has also risen.

In a way the evolution of religion in Sweden has gone full circle – Norse, Christian and now (in some circles) Norse. The Viking ruinstones (christian though they are) in front of the church of St Mary’s in Sigtuna are powerfully symbolic.



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