“The Vikings” Breakdown #2: Athelstan’s Dilemma

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An image showing King David with his harp from the Vespasian Psalter, an Anglo-Saxon book of Psalms written in the eight century – around the same time as the setting of “Vikings”

In a show dominated mostly by Norse Pagans, the one character who is used to bridge the gap between the two disparate faiths in the History Channel’s Vikings is Athelstan, the poor monk who is captured during Ragnar’s raid on Lindisfarne. I find this character interesting because he is used by the writers of the show to illustrate the process of conversion. He struggles throughout the show whether to believe in Christianity or the Norse Gods. One of the things that has actually impressed me about the Vikings show on the History Channel is its portrayal of religion, especially Medieval Christianity. That being said, Athelstan’s character is the one aspect I have mixed feelings about. So, as I have with several other blog posts (which you can find here and here), I will share a little bit about religion in the Early Medieval Period and where the Vikings show does a good job at teaching this history.

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He may or may not be a tad confused…

Athelstan, a Soul in Conflict

Athelstan’s story begins when he is captured and turns into a slave by Ragnar. Athelstan then lives with Ragnar’s family for all of Season 1, and among other things gets to see a human sacrifice at the great Pagan center of Uppsala first hand. In Season 2 he is captured by Anglo-Saxons when he participates in a Viking Raid, and is then crucified. However, he is saved at the last minute by King Ecbert, who needs him as a translator. Now in Season 3 Athelstan is wrestling with his beliefs while also trying to decide whether to remain loyal to Ragnar or Ecbert – two dilemmas which go hand and hand.

I have several major problems with this plot line, but let’s begin with what the show does right. First, Athelstan is a former monk, and he thus serves as a vehicle to share some information about the Medieval Christian faith, such as the importance of relics and ceremonies. Athelstan is a character who is literate, has knowledge of Christian practices, and often times speaks in the manner of a Christian from that period. When the writers write his dialog correctly Athelstan adheres to the “politically correctness” of his day. What do I mean by that? Well, just as it’s considered appropriate today to speak openly about gender and racial issues but not say racist slurs, in Anglo-Saxon England it was expected for people to speak openly about Christianity. So, for example, Athelstan lecturing the princess about her lust for him was perfectly acceptable in that period. Athelstan’s openness to accepting Norse beliefs, however, would not have been considered “PC” at all. But I will get back to that. What the writers also do well in the show is that they give Athelstan several visions, and these visions for the most part give a visual illustration of Christian spirituality in the Early Middle Ages.

The first vision is during season two, after the raid on the saint shrine in Wessex. Athelstan is looking at an image of the crucified Christ in a manuscript, when suddenly he sees the stigmata of Christ bleeding out of the book. “Stigmata” means the wounds of Christ, namely the nail holes in His hands and feet, as well as the wound in His side, which He received on the Cross. Historically the first person to have stigmata (other than Jesus) was St. Francis of Assisi, but the idea of seeing a bleeding image of Christ goes much farther back. Pertaining to the eight century, when the Vikings show is supposed to take place, we have the poem the “Dream of the Rood.” The poem takes the form of a vision in which the writer sees the Crucifixion from the prospective of the Rood (aka the Cross). This poem is important first because of its unique prospective. It personifies the Cross, which, to my knowledge, has rarely been done before or since. Second, the poem shows how Christ was viewed by early Christians – as a fierce warrior mounting the Cross as a king would a throne. For the purposes of our current discussion, it also has imagery of blood soaking the Cross, which we see as well in Athelstan’s vision. Many Medieval Images also show Christ images or Christ Himself bleeding into the Eucharistic Chalice, so the vision fits well into a wider set of Medieval Christian tropes.

The second vision involves Athelstan seeing the Virgin Mary. She is depicted as Mary is typically shown today in white and blue robes. What I find interesting about this scene is that she transforms into the disfigured woman that Athelstan helped earlier that same episode. To me, I am reminded of the line from the Bible “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me.” But it also is a nice visual illustration of Medieval Mysticism. Though I am not familiar with stories of seeing the Virgin in early medieval Christianity, reports of people seeing saints appear bodily before them are common in written sources from that period. The first example I can think of off the top of my head is St. Olaf, who had visions of St. Martin appearing before him to give him advice about converting the Norwegians to Christianity. The cult of saints was already very active in the early medieval period, as well as the veneration of the Virgin Mary. So again, overall I like this scene too.

The last is one is when Athelstan is at Mass and sees images of pagan human sacrifices while looking at the Crucifix. In one sense this is an interesting mixing of religions, since Christ sacrificed Himself and was hung on the Cross and in Norse practice human sacrifices were hung in sacred groves. However, what bugs me about the scene is what bugs me in general about Athelstan’s character development. The writers are trying to make him bridge the gap between Christianity and Paganism by having him debate whether he believes in the Norse gods. Historically, there is no evidence that Christians in the early Middle Ages ever converted to Paganism. One of the reasons for this fact could be that the sources we have left were written by Christian authors. It would be pretty bad PR for Christianity if the word got out that Christians were converting to Paganism. That is not to say that it could not have happened, since we know many Christians were exposed to Pagan beliefs when forced into slavery by the Vikings or by other means. But I feel that the show does a disservice to the historical facts by portraying Athelstan in this way.

First of all, Norse Paganism was very accepting of different forms of belief and practice, so in no way should Athelstan feel forced to change his inner beliefs to appease the Vikings. Norse Paganism did not have a “dogma,” or a strict set of rules and beliefs, as in the Christian sense. (I will go into greater depth about this in a later article).  Religious belief and practice in Scandinavia varied widely depending on the region, with some people even being “Atheist” by modern standards. Furthermore, Pagan Vikings really had no problem adding Jesus into their pantheon of gods. Where the trouble started was when Christian missionaries told the Vikings that they had to adhere to Christian practices and abandon all the older practices and gods. Still, we see many cases of “converted” Vikings still practicing Paganism at home. And this was perfectly acceptable. For Christian priests and missionaries in the eighth through the thirteenth centuries, the criteria for an area being “converted” was that the inhabitants were baptized and the community performed public acts of worship such as going to church or participating in feast days. What happened in the home, or in the hearts of the individuals, was not an immediate concern.  As well, there is evidence to suggest that elements of Christianity were often combined with older Norse beliefs to make it easier for the local Scandinavians to understand Christianity. Therefore, from the Norse prospective the two religions are not so incompatible. So, the show is inaccurate when it shows the Vikings pressuring Athelstan to believe in the Norse gods. They would expect him to attend ceremonies, but that’s it.

On the other hand, Athelstan was born and raised a Christian and in a time when Christianity had already been firmly rooted in England for several hundred years. He would have been taught growing up that to convert to Pagan beliefs was the gravest sin. It would commit his soul to Hell, and it would ostracize him from the community – if not get him killed. But you may ask, dear reader, shouldn’t he be free to make his own choices? Well, that’s a tricky thing to answer. In Anglo-Saxon England one did not have the luxury to choose his or her faith. You were Christian because your family was Christian and the community was Christian. Even if you did not believe in the faith wholeheartedly – which many did not – you would never admit it publicly. You would still go to church and celebrate Christian holidays because it was what you were expected to do. As a way of analogy, they celebrated holy days in a similar way to how we celebrate Super Bowl Sunday in the US or the World Cup Football championship. Some people are really into sports, others are not. But you still go to a sports party hosted at your friend’s house because you get to be with your friends and eat good food. It’s a social event that marks a time of year. Christianity was pervasive in medieval society in a similar way that sports and popular culture is in today’s society. It was inescapable.

In the Medieval world, Christianity was embedded into the culture. It dictated the cycles of the year and peoples’ notions of reality. It supported the entire structure of society, including why the king had supreme power and why people should pay taxes. It dictated people’s morals and what they could expect in the afterlife. It is really hard to describe to a modern audience exactly what that experience is like, but I really want to stress that some of the thoughts Athelstan thinks and says in the Vikings show would have been considered unheard of by other Anglo-Saxons, or if nothing else radical and dangerous. He certainly would not be blurting out “I love God and Odin” at the table in front of King Ecbert. Most Anglo-Saxons would be like King Ecbert’s noblemen, who balk every time they are exposed to pagan beliefs and practices. Accepting pagan beliefs just simply wasn’t done, according to politically correct notions of the day. In fact, if you want to learn what most Medieval Christians were like, watch the actions of the Anglo-Saxon noblemen and priests. You will find them quoting scripture off the top of their heads, crossing themselves, and cringing at pagans. This was how one was expected to act in Anglo-Saxon society.

As for Athelstan, I will admit that his situation is slightly plausible. He is trying to reconcile his understanding and acceptance of Norse culture with his Christian upbringing. However, to me his character seems like the writers are trying to make conflict in the story while also trying to illustrate the conversion process. If that is all they want to do, then it would be more historically accurate to have a Viking character struggle with conversion. The writers have indicated that Ragnar is the character struggling with conversion, yet the show neglects to portray how Ragnar is wrestling with these two very different belief systems. If they could display his view of spirituality as vividly as they show Athelstan’s, then they would do a much better job at showing the audience what really happened to Viking culture and society from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries.

Furthermore, if the writers wanted Athelstan to show the mixture of Norse and Christian faiths, then they should not have crucified him or given him stigmata. Crucifixion imagery and stigmata were very important Christian images in the medieval period. We see this in the interaction between Athelstan and the disfigured woman, as she wants to kiss his wounds so that she could receive a blessing. What is more, it is very unlikely historically that Athelstan could get stigmata. And as I said earlier, only a few very men of faith, such as St. Francis, have ever gotten stigmata, and they apparently received these wounds through a divine experience. Athelstan’s crucifixion is completely inaccurate. According to my research, the Anglo-Saxons did not use crucifixion as a form of capital punishment. Most often people were hanged, and in some instances they were beheaded. Logically this makes sense, since according to Christian teachings Jesus died on the Cross so that none of his followers would have to suffer the same punishment. To crucify a criminal in Anglo-Saxon society would go against their fundamental beliefs. So the entire crucifixion scene in season two, to me, seemed to be more for theatrics than historical content. It was fine bit of cinema, perhaps, but I think it would have served better as another one of Athelsan’s visions.

Now why is this at all important? Why does it matter that the character who symbolizes conversion does not match the historical record? There are several answers to this question. In brief, I think his character is a modern interpretation of history which ignores historical realities.  Christianity was a fundamental part of Anglo-Saxon society, and to have Athelstan act contrary to this culture without repercussions gives an inaccurate picture of what life was like in that period.  I think the show’s writers could capture the different cultures of the Middle Ages more accurately if they paid attention to the source material and current scholarship about Medieval religions.

So I hope this post has given you a little insight into the medieval world and medieval religion. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. Next time I discuss the show I will go into greater depth on how Norse religion is portrayed in the Vikings show.

-The Valkyrie

For more on this topic: 

There are numerous books on this topic, but here is a small selection of books that I recommend.

Primary Sources

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Oxford World’s Classics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. (This probably has the “Dream of the Rood” in it, but if not that can be found online.)

Murphy, G. Ronald, S. J., trans. The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Swanton, Michael, ed. and trans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. (This is a fascinating book!)

Noble, Thomas F. X. and Julia M. H. Smith, eds. Early Medieval Christianities, c.600-c.1100. Cambridge History of Christianity. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Southern, R. W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. The Penguin History of the Church. New York: Penguin Books, 1970.

Yorke, Barbara. The Conversion of Britain: Religion, Politics, and Society in Britain c. 600-800. Edinburgh: Pearson Educated Limited, 2006. (This is an especially interesting book.)

Also, the History Channel does an interesting video on religion and conversion: http://www.history.com/shows/vikings/videos/secrets-of-the-vikings-conversions 

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3 thoughts on ““The Vikings” Breakdown #2: Athelstan’s Dilemma

  1. Up until now I wasn’t interested in this show at all. You’ve changed that to some extent – I was positively surprised to learn that religious topics are dealt with in the first place, and at the same time disappointed about the way they’re dealt with. Now the question is if the show’s trying to be like “Game of Thrones” in terms of violence and tastelessness? If not, I might risk taking a look.

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    • I very much agree. It took me a long time to become interested in the show, and even now I still have mixed feelings about it. Part of me does want to give the writers credit that they mention religion at all, but yet it is somewhat disappointing the way they’re dealing with it. I’m planning on writing a post on the way they show Viking religion, which arguably is a bit more disappointing than their take on Christianity. Alas. 😦
      As for the violence, I have not seen Game of Thrones, but from what I’ve heard of GoT I think the two shows may be similar. (Also, that is the very reason I have not seen GoT!) The ‘Vikings’ doesn’t pull any punches. To some extent I see why they do it, for “realism,” but there are many points when the show goes too far. The crucifixion scene was a bit overdone, honestly, as was the bloody eagle scene. This article does a good job at analyzing the violence of the show, and the author basically concludes the show does a lot more for theatrics than historical accuracy. So how you feel about that is up to you.

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