Saturday, 12 January 2013

More On Paganism And Christianity

In Mother Of Kings (New York, 2003), Poul Anderson's fascinating imaginative account of early interactions between Paganism and Christianity continues. Eirik Blood Ax hears mass before going in viking. Does the priest not mention "Thou shalt not kill" or "Thou shalt not steal"?

Eirik lands in Morecambe Bay and attacks Cumbria. I grew up in the town of Penrith in the county of Cumberland, the latter now re-integrated with neighbouring Westmorland into a reconstituted Cumbria. I have lived since 1973 in the City of Lancaster whose  District boundaries include the town of Morecambe facing across the Bay towards the Cumbrian hills. So, although Anderson's narratives favour our rival City of York, this part of the novel focuses on events here in the North West!

Eirik and his wife, Gunnhild, receive Communion at Easter for political reasons but she withholds information from her confessor:

"She didn't believe it fooled Christ. Maybe he understood and forgave. If not, maybe she could make it up someday...
"Besides, there were other powers. Who could tell which of them had roots running deepest down into the world and most widely below the earth?" (pp. 259-260)

Christ and his saints have not answered her prayers for redes but this may be because she has not confessed fully? However, Christ is only one "power," not necessarily the greatest, and the source of power is the earth, not the heavens. The powers include the Man on the Cross, the Man on the Gallows and the Man with the Drum. Gunnhild, modelling deities on kings, thinks that it befits their greatness to reward their followers, even her holding back from her confessor. Odin, the gallows god, wants offerings and stalwartness, gives victory or death and, it is believed, hospitality in Valhalla till doomsday.

Following the shamanistic way of the drum, albeit quietly in the shadow of the Cross, Gunnhild sends forth her soul to witness Eirik fall in battle. Above the battle, the departing souls of the newly slain force hers aside and she does not know where they are going. This is the limit of the fantasy in this novel. Anderson shows us Gunnhild's clairvoyance but not a hereafter. And he tells us how she reflects on the powers but does not show us the powers themselves behind the scenes or as they intervene in Midgard.

Meanwhile, the Christian King Haakon, accompanied by his chaplain, thinks that it is alright for his men to kill, burn, plunder, enslave and rape because:

" 'They've done the same to our folk.' " (p. 291)

"They" obviously does not mean the particular individuals being killed, enslaved or raped. Christians and secularists alike have morally progressed to the idea that willful harm to non-combatants is a war-crime, a concept that did not yet exist back then.

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