January 15, 2006


Orthodox Christians in North America 1000 Years Ago (Fr. Andrew Phillips, Orthodoxy Today)

The Vikings were heathen, and they had their own dark and hopeless mythology of pagan gods and fates. Though their onslaught on Christendom led at first to bloodshed, the spiritually sensitive among them began to accept Christianity. By the end of the ninth century, the Danish Vikings who had settled in England after wreaking such havoc, had accepted the Faith at the hands of Alfred the Great. (It is notable that the Danish homeland itself did not accept Christianity until later still.) A century later the Swedish Vikings had begun to accept missionaries from England, whose presence is proved by, among other things, the Old English-style church of Saint Peter at Sgituna. Among the western Norwegian Vikings, the influence of English Christianity was greater still.

In 994 the leader of the Norwegian Vikings, Olaf Tryggvason, laid siege to London, famously destroying London Bridge. Olaf, however, had a change of heart and was chrismated and confirmed at Andover in the south of England by Alphege, Bishop of Winchester, the then English royal capital. When Olaf Tryggvason left England in 995, a new man, he took with him bishops and priests from Winchester and elsewhere in England, including a Bishop Grimkell, an Englishman of Danish origin, who was to become Bishop of the Norwegian capital at Nidaros, now called Trondheim. It was this mission which was to lead to the spreading of Christianity in Norway and the veneration there of such English saints as Saint Swithin of Winchester. In time, the Christian influence of Olaf Tryggvason spread to all future Norwegians, and outside Norway as well. Thus, the Icelandic Kristni Saga and the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason relate how, at his behest, the Christian faith was brought to the Norse settlers in Iceland in about the year 999. Such was the success of Christianity here that it is recorded that in about 1050 one Icelandic missionary, Thorwald, died in Kiev on a visit there. Let us now rejoin the saga of Eric the Red, the voyager and discoverer of Greenland, where our story begins in earnest.

One of the Norwegian Icelanders to join Eric the Red's expedition of settlers to Greenland, was a man called Herjolf. According to the Greenlanders' Saga, on board Herjolf's ship there was a Christian from the Hebrides who, sailing into the unknown, addressed the following prayer to Christ:

Master of monks, most pure, Thee
Do I beseech, shield my journey.
May the Lord of Heaven bless me
And stretch forth His hand upon me.

On arrival in Greenland, Herjolf made his home on a cape or "ness" not far from Eric the Red, who set up a farm in a place they called Brattahlid, "the steep slope."

This Herjolf had a grown son, Bjarni, who was a merchant. When Bjarni Herjolfsson returned to Iceland from Norway, where he had been on business, and discovered his father gone to Greenland, he decided to seek him out. It was the Year of Our Lord 986. Heading for Greenland but driven southwards by bad weather, Bjarni sighted land, wooded, not mountainous. Realizing that he had lost his way, he headed northwards, only to see a second land, flat and wooded, and then a third land with flat stony coasts and mountains of ice. Finally he arrived at the cape named after his father, Herjolfsnes, in the south of Greenland: Bjarni had sighted - but not landed in - new and unknown lands.

Herjolf's friend and guide, Eric the Red, had four Greenlander children: three sons - Leif, Thorvald, and Thorstein - and a daughter, Freydis. In 999 this first son, Leif Ericsson, "most excellent to look at, and in addition wise and moderate in everything as well as highly respected," set out from Greenland and went to Norway. There, while wintering at the royal court in Trondheim, he met King Olaf Tryggvason and, almost certainly, the English Bishop of Trondheim, Grimkell, whom we mentioned before. According to the sagas, King Olaf received Leif with much honor and, as a new Christian ruler, converted him to Christianity. According to the Saga of Olaf, "it was easy to baptize Leif," and Olaf assigned to him the task of converting the still heathen Greenlanders to Christianity.

The next spring, in the year 1000, Leif set out as a missionary to return to Greenland. He took with him a priest, perhaps one of the many English missionaries then at work in Norway, as well as "other holy men to baptize the people there and teach them the right faith." The Saga of Eric the Red records that on Leif's arrival at Brattahlid, his mother, Thjodhild, was baptized, and here they built the first church in Greenland. Leif and the "papa" or priest soon baptized most of the Greenlanders, and this first church was followed by some sixteen others, including a cruciform cathedral and also a monastery and a nunnery. The ruins of this first church were discovered and excavated almost a thousand years later, in 1961. It was a small wooden building, some twelve yards long and four wide, with turf walls, surrounded by sixteen graves.

Here in Greenland in 1001, Leif Ericsson first heard of Bjarni Herjolfsson's discovery of new lands to the southwest. This story moved him to buy a ship from Bjarni, with the idea of discovering for himself these new lands. What Leif's exact motives were we cannot say, but since Leif had been entrusted with bringing Christianity to Greenland, which he had done with the aid of clergy, his purpose may have been partly missionary. Thus it was, probably in the year 1002, that Leif Ericsson set out from Greenland with thirty-four companions and indeed discovered the same lands as Bjarni, but in reverse order, from north to south.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 15, 2006 8:59 PM

Interesting article. It turns out that the Norse had been converted through contact with the British isles and by the ministry of British missionaries. How this made them Orthodox and not Roman Catholic Christians remains unexplained.

We did read that an Icelandic Missionary, Thorwald, died in Kiev around the 1050. Since the Russians and most of the Ukranians are Orthodox Christians today, we may conclude that Thorwald's mission was unsuccessful.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 16, 2006 12:39 PM

Gotta mention Harry Harrison's book "The Techicolor Time Machine", in which a bankrupt Hollywood studio needs a film in a week to save it, so "Viking Columbus" is filmed "on location". And Bjarni Herjolfsson plays a part, too. Sort of.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 16, 2006 3:12 PM

Lou: Huh? The Norse were most definitely NOT Orthodox.

Posted by: b at January 16, 2006 6:30 PM

Lou: I realize that the author claims the the Norse were Orthodox, so my disagreement is with him and not you. Read "Kristin Lavransdatter", for instance, for a picture of Norse culture in the Middle Ages that is definitely very Catholic. Further evidence can be seen in that they are mostly Protestant now--which doesn't jibe with an Orthodox past, of course. Obviously the author isn't too concerned with historical accuracy, in his historical article.

Posted by: b at January 16, 2006 6:37 PM

The Kievan Chronicles tell the story. St. Olga was the first Russian ruler to embrace Christianity, but she could not convert her son and successor, Sviatoslav. He had two legitimate sons, Yaropolk and Oleg, and a third son, Vladimir, by his mistress. Sviatoslav gave Kiev to Yaropolk, and the land of the Drevlani (further west) to Oleg. But, as neither Yaropolk nor Oleg would accept the rebellious ancient Russian capital of Novgorod, Sviatoslav gave it to Vladimir. War broke out between Yaropolk and Oleg, and the former conquered and dethroned Oleg. Vladimir feared a like fate and fled to the Varangians (Vikings)* of Scandinavia for help, while Yaropolk conquered Novgorod. A few years later Vladimir returned with a large force and retook Novgorod. He pressed on and besieged Kiev. Yaropolk fled and was slain upon his surrender to Vladimir; who made himself ruler of Kiev and all Russia in 980.

By 987 Vladimir was able to plan a campaign against the Byzantine Empire. The Kievan Chronicle says that he sent envoys to the neighboring countries for information about their religions. The envoys reported adversely about the Muslim Bulgars**, the Jews of Khazar, and the Germans with their plain Latin churches, but were delighted with the solemn Greek ritual of the Great Church (Hagia Sophia) of Constantinople***.

The next year (988) he besieged Kherson (in the Crimea) within the borders of the Byzantine Empire. After he took the city, he then sent envoys to the Emperor Basil II at Constantinople to ask for his sister Anna in marriage, adding a threat to march on Constantinople in case of refusal. The emperor replied that a Christian might not marry a heathen, but if Vladimir were a Christian prince he would sanction the alliance. To this Vladimir replied that he had already examined the doctrines of the Christians, was inclined towards them, and was ready to be baptized. Basil II sent this sister with a retinue of officials and clergy to Kherson where Vladimir was baptized. He then married Princess Anna, put away his pagan wives, surrendered Kherson to the Byzantines, and returned to Kiev with his bride.

When Vladimir returned to Kiev he urged all his subjects to become Christian, and established churches and monasteries at Kiev and many other cities. Christianity spread rapidly, but that may be because it had already spread secretly and many Christians were waiting for an opportunity to practice their faith openly.

His feast in celebrated on 15 July in the Russian Orthodox and Ruthenian (Ukrainian) Greek Catholic calendars, and he has received the name of Ravnoapostol (equal to the Apostles) in the title of the feast and the troparion of the liturgy.

*The Vikings traded and raided not only in Northwestern Europe around the North Sea, but also south along the great rivers of Russia, the Dniester, the Don and the Volga, into the Euxine Sea and then on to Constantinople, the metropolis of the world. The Emperor was so impressed with the ferocity and skill of the Vikings as warriors, that he maintained a retinue of them as guards. It also helped that they were not involved with local politics, which was Byzantine, so to speak.

** After retuning from their visit to the Bulgars, the envoys reported that they could not accept Islam, because it forbade alcohol and "Strong drink is the great love of the Russian people." Some things never change.

*** It was like being in heaven, they reported.


Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 17, 2006 2:55 AM

Hagia Sophia is really beautiful, and would have been even more stunning back when it would have been one of the largest and most ornate buildings most people ever see, from any culture.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 17, 2006 4:20 AM

Robert: Thanks, That had been the point of my comment.

The Byzantine conversion of the Kievans has many simlarities to the Roman conversion of the Polani, which took place at about the same time.

Thus was drawn one of those great historical fault lines, this one to set the course of last hundred years. The Norse were still not Orthodox Christains.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 17, 2006 10:19 AM

Clearly the conversion of the Russians was a political move. The Byzantines got their city back and an ally against the Bulgars, who were a real problem for them, and Vladimir, who was not Sviatoslav's legitimate son, got the legitimacy of an Imperial marriage and a new religion which would overtop the tribal religions of his subjects and legitimate his rule.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 17, 2006 10:35 AM