Civilized Men in the Savage North…

As I read the accounts of Christian and Moslem visitors to the Heathen North during the 700ds AD, I keep being struck by the extreme discrepancy between the way they describe their feelings towards the Heathens, and the way they describe how they are actually treated by them..

Because, so far, without exception, these “civilized” visitors keep FEELING that the Heathens are terrible, cruel, dangerous and stupid, ignorant people who will make them into martyrs at sight, but all the time they are actually treated with respect, generous hospitality, and extreme patience to the point of being endlessly humored by those terrible Heathens no matter how badly they act.

I am going to give an account of how the Christian missionary Willibrord and the Moslem diplomat Al-Ghazal experienced the savage, Heathen Danes and their incredible tolerance towards them (a tolerance which they themselves utterly failed to perceive).

Some of these visitors are so zealous they genuinely HOPE that they will become martyrs and keep being thoroughly disappointed about it, like dear young master Willibrord (658 – 739 AD) a Northumbrian missionary saint, known as the “Apostle to the Frisians” in the modern Netherlands. Sponsored by the Frankish kings who wished to secure important trading routes away from the Heathen Danes by making the people who lived on these routes Christians, Willibrord was sent to Friesland first, trying to convert their king Radbod (the one who finally decided that he would rather be in Hell with his ancestors than in Heaven with his enemies the Franks), and then went into Denmark “at terrible peril for his life”…NOT, it would seem, although dear Willibrord keep insisting that this was very dangerous.

In the year 725 AD, Willibrord traveled from Friesland to Denmark. It was a dangerous journey, he claimed, but it was in fact danger that he sought – he had long been doing his missionary work in Friesland but found that it was too easy – not that he managed to convert many people, but he could see no hope of becoming a martyr among those Frisian Heathens, because oddly enough they refused to kill and torture him no matter how rudely he behaved towards them.

And so, in the hope of becoming a martyr, he traveled to the people thought to be the most barbaric and savage of them all – the Danes. Willbrord notices with astonishment that the savage and Heathen king Radbod did not even try to hinder him in travelling wherever he wanted to speak the word of God..! Why, they kept disappointing him whenever he expected them to persecute him, but he never stopped hoping!

Now Willibrord sought the Danish king Ongendus (probably Angantyr), and said that (I quote the words of Willibrord: …“he (Ongendus king) was grimmer than any wild beast and harder than any stone and yet (!) he treated the messenger of God and the Herald of Truth with respect.”

Uh…yes…this is in style with all that Willibrord writes. He keeps telling us how terrible and beastly the Heathens are, and yet how they fail to treat him with anything but hospitality and kindness and extreme, overbearing tolerance. As we shall see…

Willibrord asked the beastly and hard Danish king if he could spread his divine message among the Danes, and tried of course to also convert the king. Ongendus did not accept the faith, but saw no reason to stop him from trying to convert other Danes. Willibrord was even allowed to take thirty volunteering young boys with him to learn more about Christianity and the foreign languages, and to see if he could convert them. Willibrord accepted this generous offer, understanding that it would be far easier to convert Danes later if some of their own people could return, speaking their own language, and trying to convert their fellow Danes.

Willibrord´s return journey was dramatic. He went by sea, and a storm forced his ship to take refuge on an island called Fositeland (after the Norse god of justice and fairness, Forseti, who had a sanctuary on that island, which is probably the island Helgoland).On the island he found many Heathen temples that were so sacred they should not be touched. The sacred cattle that roamed free on the island must never be butchered and eaten, and nobody was allowed to bathe in the water-sources and lakes. The water on the island was so holy that even when taking water to drink one must do it with great reverence and in silence. These rules were carefully explained to the shipwrecked crew who were received and helped by those who guarded the island…

In absolute lack of gratitude for the island-priests´  help and hospitality and in absolute disrespect for anything Heathen, Willibrord now saw his opportunity to become a martyr after all – this was his expressed and foremost wish. And so he proceeded to baptize three men in one of the sacred water-sources, against all custom going into the water with them making a lot of noise, after which he also let butcher many of the holy cows and ate them.

He was very proud of his sacrilege, by the way. The Frisian King Radbod got to hear of the blasphemy on the island, and when Willibrord and his crew returned to Friesland, they could expect terrible punishment. They were indeed taken as captives and led to the Heathen king, who again failed to make Willibrord a martyr. Instead of persecuting all the guilty men, the king let them draw lots and executed one of them – and that one was not Willibrord. To his great disappointment.

Moving onwards to around 844 AD, we hear of the Spanish ambassador Al-Ghazal, a Moslem who visited Denmark. The Danes and other Norsemen traded a lot with the Moslem world both in the east and in the west, since the Moslems did not have any rules against trading with Heathens, which the Christians did. When Al-Ghazal came to the Heathen North, he looked so down on these filthy, Heathen barbarians that he feared more than anything that he would have to kneel down or bow deep before a Heathen barbarian king, the way he would have to kneel and bow before a Caliph. He heard that he would not have to kneel, but he hardly believed that, not knowing that the Norse people never knelt to anyone, hardly even to their gods.

But when he was to enter the house of the King, he discovered that the door was so low that one would in fact have to bow deep just in order to enter. Al-Ghazal did not bother to inquire as to why. If he had asked, he might have learned that all doors into important places were made this low as a matter of security – it would be very difficult to make an attack on a house if you had to bow down in order to enter – and it would be far easier for just one person with an axe to defend the entire house if those who had to enter had to do it one by one while bowing low. But all this escaped our civilized ambassador. He was convinced that the door was made thus low just to spite him after his request to not have to bow or kneel, and that they had put it there so that he would have to bow nevertheless. The world just centered around the ambassador, you see.

Now Al-Ghazal decided that he would outwit the wicked Danes. And so he sat down on his behind and shoved himself through the door in a seated position. The Danes just stared curiously at the crazy visitor. The King inquired, and when he learned the reason for the Spanish visitor´s act, he said; “If he had not been an ambassador, we would not have tolerated this from him.”

And that was all the retribution he got from those savage Heathens. Afterwards, Al-Ghazal was treated him with the utmost hospitality for the rest of his stay. Despite his civilized arrogance towards the barbarians who continued to treat him with a great deal more courtesy than he returned to them, Al-Ghazal has provided some very interesting entries into Danish culture, especially regarding the free-spoken and freewheeling Danish women, since he was amazed at the relative equality between the sexes and even more impressed by all the free sex, and wrote extensively about it.




2 Responses to Civilized Men in the Savage North…

  1. Pingback: Round-up of Interesting Links! | Temple of Athena the Savior

  2. Lydia Norder says:

    Very interesting article! As a woman of Frisian and Scandinavian descent, I am very proud of our King Radbod, the last Pagan King of the Frisians! Willibrord was eventually killed in a Frisian village called Dokkum, where some of my fathers ancestors come from. I find the total lack of arrogance and respect for all that was holy on that island unbelievable. It’s pretty clear who the real savage was.

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