Whilst we know much about the interactions of people in Viking societies with Western Christianity, little attention has been given to their encounters with the Christianity of Eastern Europe.

Christianity and the Scandinavian kingdoms 

Some historians have argued that the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100) ended because Europe's most feared warriors became good little Christians. 

Whilst this drastically oversimplifies a process that took centuries to unfold, it is undeniable that the spread of Christianity among Viking societies starting in the 8th century played a significant role in the emergence of the three medieval Christian kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden

Not only did Christianity allow Viking rulers and elites to tap into the broader Christian network of Europe, for power and prestige, but it also helped foster closer economic and cultural links between the Viking homelands and other Western European Christian kingdoms. 

Christianity helped to establish the medieval Scandinavian kingdoms by facilitating alliances with neighboring Christian kingdoms, which provided access to trade routes and resources. 

Many Viking leaders saw adopting Christianity as a way to strengthen diplomatic ties and secure their political positions. 

The adoption of Christianity by Viking societies, a very top-down approach, is best epitomized by Iceland's overnight conversion following a heated debate at the Althingi in 1000. 

A painted copy of the Jelling stone at the National Museum of Denmark showcases the oldest known likeness of Christ in Scandinavia. Photo: The National Museum of Denmark (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Western experiences 

Even before the first Viking ship ever sailed, Christian missionaries, especially from the Holy Roman Empire, had been arriving on the shores of Scandinavia with mixed results. 

Historians believe that, by the time the Viking Age arrived in the late 8th century, Scandinavia had seen limited exposure to Christianity for at least a century. 

Exposure to this strange new religion, which rejected the Old Gods in favor of monotheism, grew as the Norse expanded outward into the wider world through trade, raiding, and settlement. 

Charlemagne's military success saw his empire's boundaries push as far north as the Dannevirke, in the southern borders of the Viking homeland of Scandinavia. 

This gave the Frankish realms closer access to Viking societies, which they could exploit for economic, military, and spiritual purposes. 

Yet this was a double-edged sword, as the expansion of the Frankish realms under Charlemagne meant the demise of the Saxons, who were seen as a "buffer state" between Western Europe and the Northmen. 

Soon, Vikings were conducting raids deep into the Frankish heartland, which only accelerated after the political fragmentation of this empire following Charlemagne's death in 814. 

Across the English Channel, Vikings experienced Christianity from the traditional start date of the Viking Age, a bloody raid of the monastery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England. 

Countless monks living on the British Isles were put to the sword before the Vikings decided to settle more permanently, establishing the Danelaw in the mid-9th century. 

When they arrived on the island of Ireland to establish a slave trading port at the mouth of the River Liffey, they encountered a society with its own highly developed Celtic Christianity. 

This Christianity was capable of sending Christian monks to what would eventually become Viking settlements on the Orkneys, Faroes, and even as far north as Iceland. 

However, this exposure to Christianity in Western Europe is only half the story. 

Even before the raid on Lindisfarne, people from Viking societies had been sailing across the Baltic Sea to trade, raid, and settle in Eastern Europe. 

They found Christianity there, along with the myriad cultures and people. 

The Saint Sophia Cathedral, constructed between 1045 and 1050 by Vladimir of Novgorod, a descendant of the Varangians, stands as the oldest church building in Russia outside the Caucasus. Photo: User№101 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Eastern adventures  

It has only been in recent times – thanks, in part, to the collapse of the Soviet Union and greater access for Western scholars to Russian archives – that the story of the eastern exploits of people in Viking societies has been better studied, analyzed, and understood. 

A whole new generation of scholars has shifted the historical narrative of Vikings eastward, to the lands between the Don and Dnieper rivers, and between the Baltic and the Black Sea. 

Once across the Baltic Sea (a Viking pond for much of the early medieval period), people in Viking societies utilized the many river systems that snaked across Eastern Europe. 

Their magnificent ships – able to navigate as easily downstream as across the North Atlantic Ocean and light enough to carry overland when the river ran dry – enabled them to sail down to trade, raid, and settle vast swathes of Eastern Europe. 

These "Eastern" Vikings, known as the Rus, eventually established the Kievan Rus empire, which modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine consider their cultural ancestors. 

However, in addition to encountering, conducting business with, and subjugating Slavic, Turkic, Finno-Ugric, and many other populations, the Vikings also interacted with the (Eastern) Roman Empire, known as Byzantium. 

Since the collapse of Rome in the West in the late 5th century, the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire, with its shining capital on the Bosphorus, Constantinople, had held out as the beacon of enlightened Christian civilization. 

Like moths, people from Viking societies were drawn to the shining economic and cultural primacy of the Eastern Roman Empire. 

The allure of Constantinople's economic and cultural prominence drew Vikings to engage with the Byzantine Empire, contributing to a rich tapestry of cultural exchange and religious transformation. Photo: Benh LIEU SONG (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Byzantines, Varangians, and Christianity 

For more than two centuries, from the mid-9th to 11th centuries, Vikings fought, raided, and battled the Byzantines everywhere, from the Black Sea to the walls of Constantinople. 

They became such a feared opponent that, in periods of peace, a group of Vikings became mercenaries for the Byzantines, eventually forming the Varangian Guard

These Vikings not only fought for the Byzantine Emperor but also settled in the region, contributing to aspects of cultural exchange – including religion - between the Romans and the Northmen. 

There is evidence of Viking individuals who converted, similar to those in the West, to Christianity, which, from 1054, became Orthodox Christianity. 

These Vikings encountered a distinctly different religious and cultural environment compared to what their brethren experienced further west. 

Some aspects of Eastern Christianity that people in Viking societies may have found intriguing include its rich iconography, well-established by the early medieval period, mystical theology, and elaborate liturgical rites – elements that some historians have described as a combination of "pomp, ceremony, and prestige." 

What Princess Ingegred can tell us about Christian influence on the Vikings? 

The Viking experience with both Eastern and Western Christianity is perhaps best personified by Princess Ingegerd Olofsdotter. 

Born the daughter of Swedish king Olof Skötkonung, she was married off at a young age to cement diplomatic ties with the Kievan Rus. 

Her husband, Yaroslav the Wise, was the ruler of this empire, and together they had ten children, three of whom became queens of France, Hungary, and Norway. 

She is credited with initiating the construction of one of the most important early churches in Orthodox Christianity, Saint Sophia's in Kiev and another one further north in Novgorod. 

Pulled between two worlds, between the paganism still rife in her birth country and the powerful Christian courts of East and West, she was later anointed as a Saint in the Orthodox Church. 

The interactions of people in Viking societies with both Western and Eastern Christianity, which would evolve into Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity after 1054, facilitated cultural exchanges that contributed to the spread of Christianity throughout Viking territories. 

For more information on recent academic debates involving Eastern Christian iconography, visit The Conversation here.

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