“There were many whose hearts told them that they should begin to tell the secret runes.” Thus begins an ancient manuscript written in Old Saxon. It may surprise the reader to learn that these are, in fact, the opening lines of the Christian Gospel in the version known as the Heliand, produced for the Saxons in the early ninth century, after their conquest by Charlemagne. More than a mere translation, it is a reimagining of the Christ narrative on so fundamental a plane as to constitute a message utterly distinct from the Mediterranean cultus that became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It took a thousand years for even an official conversion of Northern Europe, from the fourth-century mission of Ulfilas among the Goths to Grand Duke Jogaila’s formal adoption of Christianity for Lithuania. Why conversion took so long there, and by what methods, hinges on the relationship between the individual and the community.
Northern Europe vs. the Mediterranean
The oft-quoted statement of Aristotle, “Man is a political animal,” is actually a mistranslation. A truer rendering of his words would be, “Man is the kind of animal who lives in a polis.” That Greek word encompasses more than “city-state,” its usual translation. First of all, the English term “city-state” makes the city the dominant element and the surrounding countryside an afterthought, whereas in ancient Greece, most people lived in villages and farming communities. Even in the polis of Attica, which had the bustling city of Athens, the citizens it sent to fight at the Battle of Marathon were mostly farmers.
Such a community, moreover, must be relatively small. Athens was the exception: most Greek poleis had a total population of fewer than 50,000, with perhaps 5-10,000 citizens. In the Laws, Plato sets the ideal, with characteristic precision, at 5,040 citizens. Aristotle did not have Plato’s affinity for applying mathematical exactness to human affairs, but he did believe that a man should know his fellow citizens, if not personally then at least by reputation – else how could he properly judge if a man is fit to govern? He also thought it important that the citizens should be able to assemble in one place. Still, the polis must not be so small that it cannot meet its economic needs and defend itself properly.
Most important of all, by polis Greeks understood a whole nexus of ideas centered around a self-governing community that is bound not just by laws but by traditions and a common religion, language, and history. Absent these elements, the polis ceases to be. If the community is ruled not by itself but from a distant capital, or if it is a vast metropolis comprising a kaleidoscopic range of ethnicities, it is no longer a community in the true sense. What is more, its inhabitants cannot reach their moral, spiritual, or intellectual potential, because their nature has been cramped. Thus, life in the kind of community Aristotle describes is intimately bound up with Western man’s nature; without it, he becomes less human.
Using Aristotle’s criteria, we can see that medieval Iceland, for example, meets the definition of a polis. Overwhelmingly rural, it possessed no metropolis drawing off all financial and intellectual capital from the countryside. While spread over a large territory, the citizens of the Icelandic polis managed to assemble once a year at the Althing. That they knew of each other by reputation, or through a sort of medieval Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, is evident from the impressive corpus of their sagas. In these, newcomers in the narrative always identify their kinship and lineage to an impressive degree, often crossing over between sagas, giving others the proper context in which to place them. The Icelanders governed themselves and were as fiercely independent as the Greeks who faced the Persian invasion. Above all, they were bound by a common history, language, and religion – this latter unity being such an important point that the official conversion to Christianity was decided at the Althing.
It does not take much imagination to see that the polis can also be a tribe: that is, kinship proves more important than geographic location. Aristotle was adamant, in fact, that whatever we call a collection of people who happen to live in the same place and interact merely for the purpose of making money off each other, we cannot call it a polis. Upon closer inspection, then, any of the Germanic tribes described by Tacitus meet Aristotle’s definition of a polis, and this would apply even later, during the period of the great Völkerwanderung that hastened Rome’s demise. But the polis had long since died out in Aristotle’s homeland, which had much to do with his most famous pupil.
Alexander the Great & globalism
The seminal event in the ancient world was not the birth or crucifixion of Christ but the career of another man who preached universal brotherhood, Alexander the Great. His conquest of Greece, and the subsequent centuries of rule by his successors over various kingdoms, proved disastrous for Greece politically, economically, ethnically, and culturally. Politically, it put an end to the last vestiges of self-rule that marked the Greek polis, as once-proud cities like Athens and Corinth had to get used to being ruled by potentates in distant capitals. Mercenary armies did their fighting, or rather fought over them, and patriotism all but disappeared. Economically, foreign gold flooded the market, leading to spiraling inflation, which crushed the farmers. The availability of goods from places with cheap labor eroded the ability of local producers to compete in the suddenly “global” economy Alexander’s conquests had produced.
Ethnically, Greeks themselves numbered no more than fifteen percent of the population of Alexander’s empire, vastly outnumbered by Middle Easterners. Today, less than half of Greek Y-chromosomes are of European origin, but with due credit to the Turks, this process began much earlier than people suppose, when Alexander the Great inaugurated mass weddings of thousands of his troops to non-Europeans (setting the example himself, as always). Furthermore, the old borders of the polis, once so jealously guarded, had suddenly vanished, and a period of immigration by non-Europeans began. Free Greeks had always regulated the foreign population in their cities. In Athens, for instance, the metics were actually a class of freeborn Greeks who were simply not born to Athenian parents, and were thus not eligible to become citizens. Sparta forcibly expelled any foreigners on an annual basis. All of this changed once Greeks lost the self-rule that Aristotle argued can only exist in a small community.
Flooded by foreign influences and foreigners themselves, with no power to change their situation, the Greeks grew indifferent, forsaking their old ways and their old Gods for fashionable escapes from society like Cynicism, Epicureanism, or foreign cults. With the death of the polis, Greek culture itself essentially came to an end. What remained were merely second-rate thinkers and dime-novel writers warming themselves over the embers of Plato and Homer. Wherever people decide their own destinies in small, ethnically homogenous communities, we find cultural self-confidence and a flourishing of art, be it visual or literary. But wherever people feel hemmed in, ethnically isolated, and powerless, we find them seeking spiritual palliatives from foreign sources to alleviate their alienation and give them a sense of belonging.
Before passing on to the religious ramifications of this titanic change in the ancient world, we should note that Rome, though it was originally a polis, adopted the Alexandrian globalist model. According to this view, the community can expand indefinitely, ethnic and cultural borders are meaningless, and a civilization can survive the gradual disappearance of its original ethnic stock. As early as the second century BC, the “Punic curse” of Rome’s conquest of its Mediterranean rivals was flooding Italy with foreign slave labor that tilled vast plantations, driving the free farmer out of business and chasing him into the city, where his descendants would grow up without any sense of community or local tradition. The results of mass immigration and racial intermarriage can be seen in portraits that survived the destruction of the Italian resort-town of Pompeii in the first century AD. By that time, Roman women were dying their hair blonde and using lead acetate to make their skin whiter, in an effort to mimic the appearance of the original Romans and the few surviving noble families. Regardless of what the citizenship rolls said at any given time, centuries of population transfer had made true Romans so rare as to be statistically insignificant.
The “good news” in the Roman Empire
Two distinct cultural zones of the Mediterranean had emerged well before that division found political expression in the division of the Roman Empire. In the east, Greek was the lingua franca – so much so, that Jews living in Alexandria did not even understand Hebrew anymore, making it necessary to translate the Old Testament into Greek. A thin veneer of debased Greek culture and language lay atop this simmering racial stewpot, the final fruit of Alexander’s dream. In the west, it was a debased version of Roman culture and language that provided a semblance of cultural unity. Yet here, too, the process of urbanization, ethnic mixing, and erosion of local identities was well underway, only less advanced, depending on how recently a land had been conquered by Rome’s legions.
It was to the denizens of the Mediterranean’s tenement-crowded cities that Christianity made its primary appeal, far more so than any other foreign cult. People who lacked any sense of tribal identity, community, or even family responded well to a religion that offered instead a tribe of the elect, a community of faith, and even a substitute family to replace the old one, replete with “brothers” and “sisters.” The cities St. Paul visited in his missionary travels and to which he wrote – Corinth, Thessalonica, and Athens – were no more necessarily Greek than New York City is Dutch because Dutchmen lived there three hundred years ago. He and the authors of the Gospel accounts wrote in Greek for the same reason that a rapper will employ English today: because that is the language his people have come to speak, and because he will reach a larger audience with it. Such use does not imply that the rapper is Anglo-Saxon.
Three centuries after its founding, Christianity remained an overwhelmingly urban religion. It made its greatest strides in areas where the polis, and all that concept entailed, was weakest or non-existent. The very origin of the word “pagan” indicates how little success Christianity had in the rural areas, where identity and tradition held out longer. This word originates in the Latin word pagus, which originally denoted a rural district, sort of like a modern county but culturally whole and readily identifiable by all those around them as distinct – in other words, very much like the Greek polis, with no urban connotation whatsoever. From this, the Romans derived the adjective paganus, referring to anyone or anything belonging to such a village district. By the first century AD, the word as noun had acquired the pejorative connotation of English “yokel,” “hayseed,” or “redneck,” reflecting the urban bias of Imperial Rome. But it was only after the cities had adopted Christianity, while the rural districts had not, that the word acquired the added meaning of “someone who follows the old ways and worships the old Gods.” It was in the villages, farms, and forests that the ethnic identity, ancient customs, and religious practices of old continued, so to call someone a redneck was also to say something about his religion, not unlike today but with an even stronger association.
To look at maps of Christianity’s spread and conclude that even the rural areas of the erstwhile Roman Empire were Christian by 600 AD would be an error, because such dates reflect official conversions, such as that of the Frankish king Clovis in 496. How well that decision was even conceptually understood by the ruler making it is one question, and how well it trickled down to the common people is yet another. In Charlemagne’s day, three centuries later, Franks in the countryside were still reciting the old pagan songs, which his grandson Louis the Pious – unfortunately – uprooted and ended.
Into the North
The missionaries to the North, carrying out Christ’s injunction to baptize all nations, encountered a preaching environment utterly different from the Mediterranean. Here there were no large cities and no alienated, deracinated masses eager for something to give their lives purpose. Whether we use the term pagus or polis, the peoples of the North clearly lived in the type of communities Aristotle regarded as ideal: small, self-governing, and bound by common kinship, religion, language, and history. The greatest difference of all, which perhaps encompasses all the rest, is that these people knew who their ancestors were. The line from which each individual sprang was not an unknown quantity to him – a faceless crowd that had bequeathed him nothing and to which he owed nothing – but a sacred lineage of names and deeds that ultimately issued from deity itself. These people did not hunger for an artificial family and tribe, for the one they had was dear to them.
This dramatic difference is illustrated by the attempt to convert Radbod, King of the Frisians. Intrigued by this religious force that had apparently swept through every land, he was curious as to what it had to say of his own ancestors. Told rather blithely that the unbaptized were in Hell, he immediately dismissed the missionary priest, declaring he would rather spend eternity in Hell with his ancestors than in Heaven with his enemies.
To absorb peoples apparently immune to the siren-call of universal brotherhood, the Church employed two other tools: physical violence and religious syncretism. Zealous authorities had employed both in the Roman Empire, but on nothing approaching the scale they would in Northern Europe. Because the communities of the North were stronger and more confident, the conversion process was far more violent than it had been in the Mediterranean, although the peacefulness of its spread in the Empire has been exaggerated. The beheading of 4,500 Saxon nobles by Charlemagne in 782 was far from exceptional: witness, for instance, the career of St. Olaf, whose tortures his Christian biographers quite readily detail. Recently, historians such as Robert Ferguson have even suggested that the entire period of Viking raids began as an asymmetric resistance to the violent conversion efforts undertaken by Charlemagne. Even the adoption of Christianity by Iceland, long presented by historical apologists as the poster-child for peaceful conversion, took place under the threat of armed invasion by the King of Norway, who also held several prominent Icelanders hostage during the negotiations at the Althing.
In the Mediterranean, men like St. Augustine had engaged in intellectual combat with intellectuals who adopted a fashionable skepticism toward the old Gods. In the North, the combat was often real, and the missionaries’ audience had little patience for the idea that the old Gods did not exist, which sounded as plausible as denying their ancestors’ existence – especially since, as told in works like Rígsþula, the Gods were their ancestors. And so the missionaries tacitly acknowledged the heathen Gods, but introduced the “White Christ” as a stronger entity. In Iceland, for instance, the Saxon missionary Thangbrand did not try to convince the Icelanders that the Gods didn’t exist, but argued that they were no match for Christ. We find this curious exchange with a heathen woman:
“Have you heard,” she said, “that Thor challenged Christ to a duel and that Christ didn’t dare to fight with him?”
“Wha I have heard,” said Thangbrand, “is that Thor would be mere dust and ashes if God didn’t want him to live.”
As if to prove the point, during one duel in his blood-soaked mission, Thangbrand used a cross to kill a man.
More important than the violence was the purpose it served, for the actual wielders of the sword were less interested in the fate of their enemies’ souls than in the consolidation of royal power. From the deification of the emperors to Constantine’s cooption of the Church, it had long been recognized that religious standardization made it easier to rule, especially if the centers of religious life were under the watchful eye of the ruler. Throughout the North, Christianity’s representatives did not win by appealing to some disenfranchised lumpenproletariat, but by emphasizing the services the Church could render to Caesar. Thus, in Scandinavia, the official conversion paralleled the emergence of centralized kingdoms and the erosion of local liberties.
But while violence might win obedience, it could not win belief. To accomplish the latter, missionaries turned to syncretism. While the Church had employed this, too, in the Roman Empire, such as adopting the vestments and titles of the old pagan Pontifex Maximus, the need was much greater in the North, where people maintained strong ties to their ancestral ways. So, for instance, the Irish were given St. Brigid, with the same feast-day and associations as their Goddess by that name. Pope Gregory urged St. Augustine of Canterbury to let the Anglo-Saxons keep their sacred groves and feasts and merely repurpose them, while the more zealous St. Boniface cut down the sacred tree known as Thor’s Oak and used its wood to make a church.
These examples of syncretism are easy to spot, but more often the process was subtle. In Njal’s Saga, for instance, one of the Icelandic chieftains is considering conversion and asks if he can have the archangel Michael as his guardian angel, as the term is usually rendered in English translations. As Stephen McNallen points out, the Old Norse word the chieftain uses is actually fylgja-engill, prefacing the new, foreign word “angel” with the pagan word for a type of guardian spirit of the kin-line, or tribe. By a similar process, the missionaries combined the Hebrew word for the ultimate destination of the wicked, Gehenna, with the Norse word for the pleasant meadows where the dead are reunited with their ancestors, Helja. After centuries of association, Gehenna was dropped, and Hell alone sufficed to induce shudders in the descendants of those who had happily looked forward to such a destination. The most ambitious effort of syncretism was an entire reconfiguration of the Gospels for the Germanic mindset, in a form that would have perplexed – and mortified – St. Paul.
The Saxon savior
The author of the ninth-century Saxon gospel known as the Heliand undertook much more than a translation, as difficult as that task has proven for missionaries. In his harmonization of the four Gospels into a single narrative, he presented Christ as an Odinic wizard-chieftain, with the apostles as his war-band. Consider the episode of St. Peter cutting off the ear of the Roman soldier arresting Jesus. While it takes up only two verses in John (the other Gospels do not even mention that it was Peter), in the Heliand, Christ’s foremost “swordsman” flies into a berserker rage:
Then Simon Peter, the mighty, the noble swordsman flew into a rage; his mind was in such turmoil that he could not speak a single word. His heart became intensely bitter because they wanted to tie up his Lord there. So he strode over angrily, that very daring thane, to stand in front of his Commander, right in front of his Lord. No doubting in his mind, no fearful hesitation in his chest, he drew his blade and struck straight ahead at the first man of the enemy with all the strength in his hands, so that Malchus was cut and wounded on the right side by the sword! Blood gushed out, pouring from the wound! The cheek of the enemy’s first man had been cut open. The men stood back – they were afraid of the slash of the sword.
Similarly, the author of the Heliand knew that the episode of Joseph and the pregnant Mary searching in vain for a place to stay for the night would be incomprehensible to the Germanic peoples, whose valuation of hospitality is clear from the Hávamál. So when the parents of Jesus arrive at the “hill-fort” of their clan, they are tended to by horse-guards, not shepherds, the former being suitable representatives of the warrior class, while the infant Jesus is placed among jewels. There is more at work here than cultural transplantation, or even such ambitious modifications as moving the Last Supper to a mead hall or having Satan don a Germanic cap of invisibility to deceive Pilate’s wife. There is little to no valorization of victimhood in the Heliand, and the Beatitudes are reworked as praises of warrior endurance. Sin, fate, and even generosity are all revised to fit a Germanic hero such as Christ is made out to be (problems which the sympathetic Jesuit who translated it into modern English is at great pains to square with orthodoxy). The author of the Heliand even seems to imply that the twelve members of the apostolic war-band might not even be Jewish, and hail instead from a northern people.
Notably absent from the Heliand gospel, moreover, are two famous parables that would not have sat well with a Germanic audience. The events described in the story of the Prodigal Son would have been unthinkable to a society in which kinship was paramount. The absence of the Good Samaritan parable is even more suggestive, since in the original, Christ uses it to introduce a universal moral obligation to treat strangers and foreigners as one would kin. Such an idea was foreign to the free peoples of the North, and one that Aristotle rejected as well.
And here we come to the nub of the problem. The Mediterranean audience for the Gospels and missionary work of St. Paul had been subjected to a political unification across ethnic and racial lines. Long before its decline, the Roman Empire displayed ample signs of declining civic engagement and social trust, qualities Harvard Professor Robert Putnam has statistically linked to diversity. What kept everyone’s Fagin-like concern for “number one” from pulling the whole thing apart was both the iron fist of Rome and the emperors’ insistence on public worship of the state. Political universalism was thus reinforced by religious universalism, and Christianity proved more determined and well-equipped to insist upon that universalism than any of the pagan emperors had. Thus, either individualistic hedonism, or some variety of universalism, seemed the only choices to a people who had lost all of the intermediate institutions that tribe and kin provide.
The free peoples of Northern Europe, in contrast, maintained all of the strong links Aristotle identified as natural to our condition. As a result, they rejected individualistic hedonism quite readily and had no concept of universalism or of out-group obligations. The sagas instead teem with people who have clear obligations framed by ties of kinship and friendship. Had the author of the Heliand presented the parable of the Good Samaritan, his Saxon audience would have incredulously asked, “Where were this man’s kinfolk?” Having no notion that mere physical proximity implied extra-tribal duties – an idea originating in the ethnic melting pot of Mediterranean cities – they would have difficulties extending that concept universally, as the parable seeks to do. That would require centuries of patient indoctrination.
Through syncretism and outright omission, Christianity was presented as – and ultimately became – something less foreign and less threatening to the peoples of the North. A faith that was Semitic in origin won only by becoming partially Europeanized, as James Russell describes in The Germanization of Medieval Christianity. (The Greek language has an admirable way of expressing this phenomenon: in addition to the active and passive voices of verbs, it also has a middle voice, in which the agent is both acting and acted upon.) Yet today, the Völkerwanderung of Third World peoples is a reminder that this syncretism has gone on throughout the world, giving us such bizarre phenomena as the wildly popular cult of Santa Muerte, reviving the worship of the Aztec queen of the underworld trussed up as a skeletal Catholic saint.
Many tradition-minded people seem to be calling for a revival of Victorian “muscular Christianity,” yet the muscles have always been provided by the pre-Christian elements in this amalgamation, which tends to downplay the very things that the Heliand left out altogether. It is as if such people are trying to work their way back to something more familiar and more intuitive without sacrificing orthodoxy. Yet beyond the trappings of old-school Europeanized Christianity lies a core message that, of necessity, consigns ethnic identity, ancestral traditions, and ultimately this life itself to irrelevance in the face of our ultimate unity with God.
Universalism’s pyrrhic victory
It took centuries of relentless indoctrination to get the peoples of Northern Europe to extend the in-group boundaries outward to embrace, first, all those who said the words and bent the knee before the cross, and eventually all of humanity, whose encompassing by the true Faith is a Christ-given goal. But at the moment of its greatest success, with European missionaries dispatched to the remotest corners of Africa and Asia, Christianity found itself assailed by the very universalism that had provided its appeal in the first centuries. The same weapons it had wielded to discredit the pre-Christian myths and folkways were now turned against it by the advocates of a universalism that had no need for something as quaint as deity. If, today, the notion of God seems less and less of a possibility to the rootless inhabitants of our soulless cities, it is partly because Christian universalism paved the way by making our tribal identities, ancient customs, and cherished myths ultimately irrelevant.
The wandering of peoples, then and now. Left image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user MapMaster (CC BY-SA 2.5); right image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Maximilian Dörrbecker (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Today, with that thousand-year resistance behind us, we can see how the triumph of universalism, set in motion by a very different sort of savior in the fourth century BC, has gradually left us without a folk, without a polis, and without the means to even comprehend how fully life was once lived. All that remains, it seems, is to double down on Christian universalism, throw oneself instead into a substitute universalism such as Marxism, or chuck it all for an unabashed individualism.
Yet as the past century-and-a-half shows, ethnic identity has a habit of returning with a vengeance. Those who rediscover such myths, folkways, and traditions as have come down to us often find that these things strike a chord within them. They simply fit, without all the caveats and yes-but’s of syncretic universalism. Ultimately, however, a folkish way of life must have a folk community, and not the virtual communities that exist only on social media. We must have a polis again, in all that the Greeks understood by that term: small, self-governing communities bound by common language, ethnicity, customs, and religious traditions. Such a thing, far from being utopian, would spring from our nature, life as it was lived across thousands of generations. What is artificial is our divorce from the land, our crowding into cities to live alongside strangers for the purpose of endless consumption, and our insistence on universalism even when we ourselves – those of European descent – lose the most by it. In the long view, all this is fairly recent, and in the North, quite recent indeed. That should give us confidence, for though the line is frayed, it is far from broken.
Bibliography & further reading
Aristotle, The Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984).
Ferguson, Robert, The Vikings: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).
Greer, John Michael, A World of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism (Tucson, Ariz.: ADJ Publishing, 2005).
The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel, trans. G. Ronald Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
McNallen, Stephen A., Asatru: A Native European Spirituality (Runestone Press, 2015).
Njal’s Saga, trans. Robert Cook (New York: Penguin Books, 2001).
Plato, The Laws, trans. Tom Griffith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Russell, James C. The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Woden’s Folk Kindred, Heathen Handbook (Waxahachie, Tex.: Woden’s Folk Kindred, 2012).
Ash Donaldson is a veteran of the war against ISIS – the Muslim group, that is, not the goddess. A refugee from academia, he lives in exile somewhere in the Midwest. His most recent book is From Her Eyes a Doctrine , a dystopian novel of America’s future. He is also the author of Blut and Boden: A Fairy Tale for Children of European Descent .