Published by the Corcoran Department of History at the
University of Virginia.
"Viking" Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
fram! fram! cristmenn, crossmenn, konungsmenn!
(Oláfs saga helga, ch. 224.)
Jessica A. Browner
"Viking pilgrimage"--the phrase seems a contradiction. For three centuries, from
circa A.D. 750-1050, the political and economic life of the Northern world was
dominated by Scandinavian military activity and trade, but it was as Vikings
that the Norsemen became known to the peoples of the Christian world, who
depicted them as reavers and slayers of unparalleled ferocity. The piratical
phase of Viking activity, however, was relatively short-lived, and was followed
by a more restrained colonization phase. When the Scandinavians first began to
settle in the West in the latter part of the ninth century, they came into
sustained contact with Christianity and its clergy, and it became inevitable
that the barbarian Northmen, with their primitive beliefs in outmoded gods and
with their lack of writing and literacy, would be greatly influenced by the
higher Christian civilization which they now encountered at such close quarters.
Not surprisingly, the conversion of the Viking peoples and their integration
into the Western European Christian community has influenced decisively the
historiography of the Northern world. Previously defined in terms of what they
were, Scandinavians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were implicitly
defined in terms of what they were not--sea-borne adventurers and predatory
warriors of the type familiar in old heroic tradition. The creation of such a
marked dichotomy between "Christian" and "Viking," however, has tended to place
undue emphasis on the forces of change, often at the expense of native cultural
traditions which persisted through the Viking age and well into the Christian
era. Indeed, it was the pagan traditions of the Northmen which ensured that the
transition to Christianity would be a relatively simple and painless process.
After all, the new religion was a royal one, and its literature, notably the Old
Testament, described a world very much like their own in which the success of
kings as they led their armies in search of glory and gain depended upon their
obedience to the will of God. Some Norsemen thought the worship of Christ
compatible with that of the pagan gods. Icelander Helgi the Lean, as mixed in
faith as he was in blood," believed in Christ, and called his seat in the
Eyjafjord Kristnes ("Christs Headland"), but when at sea or in times of great
stress he would invoke Thor.1 A soapstone mould from Trendgården in Denmark,
too, was clearly intended to accommodate either belief, since both crosses and
hammers could be cast from its mould. It is hardly remarkable that some
Scandinavian kings, like other barbarian rulers before them, were willing to
accept that the God of the Christians was more powerful than other gods, a
lesson reinforced by their awareness through piracy and plunder, admittedly of
the achievements, wealth, and magnificence of their great contemporaries in
France, Germany, and England. Norse settlers in these countries, too, whether
royal or otherwise, may have converted simply out of political expediency. In
1016, a Scandinavian empire of Denmark, Norway, and England was ruled by Cnut,
a Dane and a Christian; by his death in 1035, Scandinavia and her Viking
provinces had been almost completely integrated into the world of Western
Christendom. Whilst adopting the forms and practices of their new religion,
however, these ex-barbarians did not entirely abandon the elements and practices
of their earlier culture. The persistence of cultural continuity through the
conversion process and beyond can be demonstrated in several areas, but nowhere
as clearly and yet as unexpectedly as in the institution which epitomized the
Christian experience, that of Holy Land pilgrimage.
It has often been assumed that the northern lands remained largely outside the
great pilgrim movement of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Information gleaned
from Icelandic sagas, Latin accounts, and pilgrimage itineraries, however,
suggest otherwise. Indeed, some of those who are commemorated on Swedish
runestones as having died out East or in the land of the Greeks well may have
been on pilgrimage. One stone from Broby in Uppland bears the eleventh-century
inscription: "Estrid had this stone raised for her husband Osten; he went to
Jerusalem and died abroad in the land of the Greeks." Another lost inscription
recorded near Stockholm was made for a woman who hoped to journey east to
Jerusalem and recorded her intention in stone.2 Even before the conversion,
however, the Vikings were no strangers to the wealthy and powerful Byzantine
world, lured by the adventure and good pay in the campaigns overseas and by the
gleaming spires of Constantinople. The eastern route to Constantinople was
pioneered early on by the Swedes, down the river route to the Dneiper and to the
Black Sea; this road was later followed by Christian kings of Norway and Denmark
until Tartar invasions put an end to the old pattern and blocked the way east.3
An alternative was the "west" road by sea round Spain and through Gibraltar,
used early on by piratical Danes and later by Norwegians traveling in large
companies on crusade. There was also a "south" road through Germany to Rome and
then east by sea; this route is described in detail in the pilgrim-diary of
Nikolás, abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Munkathverá, Iceland (1155-59).4
This itinerary is particularly useful, being unusually detailed for its period
and unique for its country of origin.
The earliest Scandinavians to visit the Byzantine world came as they did to many
parts of western and southern Europe as traders, explorers, and warriors. Much
of the history of the Vikings in the East is concerned with their attacks on the
Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Later, however, their exploits won them
the respect of the emperors for their endurance, loyalty, and splendid fighting
qualities. A long line of Scandinavians, mostly anonymous, served the Byzantine
rulers in the army and fleet and finally in a section of the Imperial or
"Varangian" Guard in Constantinople. Nor did this wide traveling stop with
secular journeys; on the contrary, after the conversion Constantinople became
a convenient stopping-place on an even longer journey as the call to the Holy
Land found frequent response in the hearts of the devout or the curious. The
uual Scandinavian name was Jórsalaland, literally, "the land of Jerusalem"; the
Holy City itself was Jórsalir or Jórsalaborg.5 One of the earliest northern
pilgrims to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Places, circa 990, was Icelander
Thorvald the Far-travelled, a distinguished Viking before his conversion by a
Saxon bishop, Frederick. Thorvald himself tried to preach the new faith to his
countrymen, but when he killed two poets who made mocking verses about him and
another man who opposed his preaching, Bishop Frederick withdrew his support.6
The Viking predilection for travel and adventure made it easy for Christianized
Scandinavians to adopt the idea of pilgrimage. It was, after all, not entirely
unlike their own secular tradition of going a-viking. But there were other
factors, also, which allowed Holy Land pilgrimage to be quickly assimilated into
their own cultural tradition. The Scandinavians had long been familiar with the
concept of holy places. The presence of sacred groves in Denmark is recorded
as early as the first century A.D. in Tacitus Germania,7 and it is no surprise
that when the first Christian bishop established himself in Sweden in 1164, he
chose as his seat Uppsala, site of the most sacred temple to the old gods.8 This
concept of a holy place, although more closely related to the Greek tradition
of setting, nevertheless lent the idea of a Christian Holy Land a certain degree
of familiarity. Even more remarkable, however, is the pre-Christian parallel
with Jerusalem itself. Medieval tradition placed Jerusalem at the centre of the
world; Nikolás of Munkathverá, in his own pilgrim-diary, reported that "the
center of the earth is there, where the sun shines directly down from the sky
on the feast of John."9 This view is further evidenced by Jerusalems central
position in world maps down to the fifteenth century, particularly noticeable
in the thirteenth-century Psalter Map and Higdens fourteenth-century map. The
explanation is provided in Ezekiel 5:5: "I have set it in the midst of the
nations and the countries that are around her."10 According to popular Christian
belief, the Cross itself stood at the mid-point of the earth when it was raised
at Calvary, at the very spot once occupied by the fatal tree of Eden. A similar
belief was held in the Norse pagan tradition, only instead of the Cross the
world had for its center a great Tree, a mighty ash called Yggdrasill, whose
branches stretched out over earth and heaven alike and whose roots delved down
into the world of the dead. It was characteristic of the World Tree, too, that
its life was renewed continually; thus it became, like the Cross, a symbol of
constant rebirth (or, at least, of regeneration) and offered to men the means
of attaining immortality. Jerusalem, of course, was not merely the physical
center of the world but the spiritual center as well, as the site of the Lords
Passion. Yet even this has its parallel in the pre-Christian Viking tradition:
just as Christ suffered on the Cross, so was Odin crucified upon the World Tree,
as described in the eddic poem Hávamál:
I wot that I hung on the wind-tossed tree
all of nights nine,
wounded by spear, and bespoken to Othinn,
bespoken myself to myself,
[upon that tree of which none telleth
from what roots it doth rise].12
The gods sacrifice is voluntary, but here the resemblance with the Christian God
ends. By hanging on Yggdrasill, Odin is not sharing in the suffering of the world
or saving men from death; his purpose is the acquisition of secret knowledge, and
the end result is not the redemption of mankind but the discovery of the runic
Neither horn they upheld nor handed me bread;
I looked below me
aloud I cried
caught up the runes, caught them up wailing,
thence to the ground fell again.13
Thus, while much of the pattern was the same and while in many ways the old
religion pointed forward to the new, the Christian conception of the relationship
between God and man was immeasurably richer and deeper.
Another attraction for travellers and pilgrims from the North was the acquisition
of relics. Unsurprisingly, the pagan Norsemen had their own amulets and talismans
which were important personal tokens of faith and which, like Christian relics,
were often reputed to be prophylactic or curative in nature. There were even
special stones which, like the Christian eulogiae, could be filled with "magic"
powder to ensure health and long life.14 After the conversion, of course, the
Scandinavians, like other Christians, sought instead to acquire the relics of
saints and apostles. Interestingly, relics of famous northern heroes also were
considered in this category. A sword and helmet at Antioch and a coat of mail in
a Jerusalem monastery, for example, were said to belong to Olaf Tryggvason, the
mighty Norwegian king who disappeared in a sea battle in the year 1000 but who,
according to legend, later appeared in Syria in the form of a mysterious monk, a
man of distinguished appearance and manners who sent gifts and messages back to
Norway, but whose identity has never been revealed.15 The relic of greatest demand
in the Christian age, though, was undoubtedly the True Cross. Some went to
unusual lengths to acquire a fragment of this object: Egeria relates how a
fourth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem obtained his souvenir by biting a piece out
of the Cross during the ritual kissing of the relic.16 Royal Scandinavian
pilgrims, too, frequently sought to acquire a piece of this most holy relic,
although usually without resorting to such drastic measures. Indeed, in more than
one instance Christian authorities seemed most accommodating in such matters.
Knytlinga Saga, relating the history of the Danish Kings, tells how Eirik the Good
decided to visit Jerusalem:
I describe how the king
bold in conflict, to cure
his souls scars, from the north
set out with his soldiers:
he prepared himself for Paradise,
and went to explore
the peace of Jerusalem,
to make his life pure.17
En route to the Holy Land, Eirik called at Constantinople in 1103 for a protracted
stay. Here the twelfth book of Saxo Grammaticus Gesta Danorum picks up the
narrative.18 As the Danish king was preparing to continue his journey, the Emperor
asked him what he most wished to receive as a parting gift. Eirik replied that
he desired holy relics only. He was given the body of St. Nicholas and a fragment
of the True Cross, which he sent home to Roskilde and to a church at Slangerup
which he had himself built. Unfortunately, Eirik never reached the Holy Land; he
fell ill of a fever and died in Cyprus, and was buried, according to Abbot
Nikolás, in the church at Baffa, where there was a Varangian garrison.19 His
queen, Bodhild, died soon after, but not before reaching Palestine with the rest
of the Danish company.
There is much in the pre-Christian tradition to recommend northern participation
in the post-conversion pilgrimage movement. We have already observed how pagan
cultural traditions could be easily absorbed into a justificaton of Holy Land
pilgrimage. The best means of demonstrating cultural continuity, however, is to
examine directly one or two of the surviving Scandinavian pilgrimage accounts.
One of the most complete pilgrimage accounts we possess is that of Sigurd (see
appendix), called Jorsalafarer ("the Crusader", or even "the Pilgrim"--literally
"Jerusalem-farer"), although its completeness is derived from the collation of
several diverse sources.20 Snorri tells us in Magnússona Saga how the two sons
of King Magnus Barefoot, Sigurd and Eystein, ruled Norway jointly until a
decision was made to mount an expedition to the Holy Land. Sigurd, then only
nineteen years of age, was chosen to lead the venture.21 He and his company
journeyed by the "west" route, sailing around France and Spain with various
adventures on the way: battles with pirates on the sea, fights with the Arabs
in Spain, and profitable treasure hunting on the Balearic Islands. Sigurd was
welcomed warmly by Roger of Sicily and then went on to the Holy Land where he
was received by Baldwin of Jerusalem. The arrival of the Norwegian fleet of
fifty-five ships (other sources say sixty) at Joppa during a crucial point of
the campaign-when Acre was besieged by the Saracens-is described in the History
of the Expedition to Jerusalem by Fulcher of Chartres, the main source for the
Jerusalem expedition from 1095 to 1127.22 Sigurd himself is not named, but the
leader of the Norwegian expedition is described by Fulcher as "a very handsome
youth, a kinsman of the king of that country." There is also a reference to the
meeting of Baldwin and Sigurd in the Chronicle of Albertus of Aix, although for
a more detailed account of the visit we must return to the saga sources, in this
case Sigurdar Saga Jórsalafara.23 Here it is said that the Egyptian fleet
retired from Akrborg (Acre) when the Norwegian ships appeared and Sigurd entered
the city. Baldwin begged him to stay for a time and help with the conquest of
the Holy Land, and Sigurd replied that this was why he had come, but that he
also wanted to visit the Holy Places. Baldwin then took him to Jerusalem, where
clerics in white robes led a procession to the Holy Sepulchre, and to all the
Holy Places. They picked palms and visited the Jordan, where it would seem that
Sigurd swam over, as was the custom, and recorded his crossing by tying a knot
in the brushwood on the other side, or so he later claimed. Then the King asked
Sigurd what he most desired to have, and Sigurd, like Eirik, asked for a piece
of the True Cross. After some discussion with the patriarch and bishops, this
was agreed to, on condition that it was placed beside the shrine of St. Olaf in
Norway. After this Sigurd supported Baldwin in the siege of Sidon, before
returning home in the winter of 1110 by way of Cyprus, where he no doubt visited
Eiriks tomb, and Constantinople, where his activities suggest a concerted effort
(as with his request for a fragment of the Cross) to equal or surpass Eiriks
earlier achievements in that city.
The last Northern leader recorded as visiting Constantinople and the Holy Land was
Jarl Rognvald of Orkney, whose journey is accounted for in the Orkneyinga Saga
(see appendix).24 It was Eindridi the Younger, who had spent a considerable time
in the service of the Byzantine emperor, who is said to have persuaded the Jarl
to undertake the pilgrimage and who volunteered his own services as a guide.
Several Scandinavians of rank took part in the expedition, whilst Bishop William
of Paris went along as an interpreter; there were also four poets in the
company. The expedition of fifteen ships set out in 1151. The voyage down the
east coast of England and round France and Spain was, like Sigurds, an exciting
one, with some fighting on the way and chances to gain booty, including an
attack on two huge merchant ships near Sardinia. They sailed to Crete and the
Holy Land, finally arriving at Acre. Then they visited the Holy Places, and
Rognvald and Sigmund Fishhook swam across the Jordan and, like Sigurd, tied
knots in the brushwood on the other side, after which they composed verses,
evidently i sport, in which they referred derisively to those who had not made
the journey.25 Then they sailed for Constantinople "as they knew Sigurd
Jorsalafarer had done," and on to Bulgaria, returning to Orkney via the "south"
route overland by way of Rome, Germany, and Denmark.
There are a number of common elements in these two pilgrimage accounts, some of
which for example the evident spirit of adventure and the search for relics have
already been discussed. Another central theme of both accounts, however, is the
game of one-upmanship with previous Holy Land visitors. Sigurds activities in
Palestine and Constantinople clearly imitated Eiriks earlier voyage, just as
Rognvald later sought to surpass Sigurds accomplishments; hence the inclusion
of the four poets in the latters pilgrim company. The most significant
manifestation of such a competitive spirit, however, is in the Vikings visit to
the Jordan. The first recorded Scandinavian leader to visit the Jordan was King
Harald Hardradi, "Harald the Ruthless," famous primarily for having been
defeated by Harold of England at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire in 1066. Harald
was said to have visited the Holy Land while on his tour with the Imperial
Guard, during which he went to the Jordan and bathed in the river "as is the
custom of all pilgrims."26 By Sigurds time, however, a new element had been
added to the ritual: that of tying knots in the brushwood on the far side of
the river. Upon his return home Sigurds own words to Eystein indicated that he
had tied such a knot for his brother across the Jordan, and suggested that
unless he went and untied it he could not escape a curse laid upon him evidently
a reference to the old association between a knot and a magic spell, the spoken
words being valid until the knot which secures their power is untied.27 A
similar meaning can be attached to the verses spoken by Rognvald and his
companions after their own completion of the ritual (see appendix). It seems
as if the Northmen turned a familiar custom, that of swimming the Jordan as a
proof that the pilgrim had accomplished his vow, into a boast and challenge to
those who had not proved themselves their equals on a dangerous pilgrimage.
Indeed, it becomes apparent that the Christian kings and jarls on pilgrimage
from the North were not so different after all from those earlier Vikings who
sought out the Byzantine world as the place where they might win wealth and
renown and establish their superiority over those who had remained at home.
It would be foolish to suggest that the northern converts came to the Holy Land
merely as a continuation of their pagan activities. On the contrary, more often
than not they came for the same reasons as other pilgrims-as an affirmation of
faith. Thorvald the Far-travelled, stopping off at Constantinople after his
pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Places, was praised by the bishops of
Greece and Syria for his work in spreading the faith and even commissioned by
the Emperor to lead a missionary party into Russia.28 Nevertheless, there is no
denying the continuation of a cultural tradition which allowed even first
generation converts like Thorvald to embrace wholeheartedly the new religion.
Elements of pagan religious belief, as well as a tradition of travel and
adventure and a spirit of competition amongst warriors-whether warriors of Odin
or of Christ-allowed the Scandinavians to adopt Christian pilgrimage practices
with an enthusiasm unparalleled in Western Europe. Their nearest competitors,
the Normans, were themselves Vikings who had settled in northern France in the
early tenth century. Considering the depth of the response which the call to
the Holy Land found in the hearts of northern converts, it no longer need
surprise us that cultural continuity played its part in the rapid evolution of
"Viking" pilgrimage. The battle-cry in Oláfs saga, quoted above, gives ample
evidence of this transformation: "Forward! forward! champions of Christ, of the
Cross, and of the king!"
1. Alfred P. Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland A.D. 80-1000 (London, 1984),
2. H. R. Ellis-Davidson, The Viking Road to Byzantium (London, 1976), 247-8.
3. Ibid., 13.
4. There is no single comprehensive English translation of Nikolás journey. The
following however, contain translations and commentary on specific sections of his
route: Joyce Hill, "From Rome to Jerusalem: an Icelandic Itinerary of the
mid-twelfth century," Harvard Theological Review 76  175-203; Francis P.
Magoun, "The Rome of Two Northern Pilgrims: Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury and
Abbot Nikolás of Munkathverá," Harvard Theological Review 33  267-89;
Francis P. Magoun, "The Pilgrim Diary of Nikolás of Munkathverá: the Road to
Rome," Mediaeval Studies 6  314-54.
5. Hill, "Rome to Jerusalem," 188-9; Knytlinga Saga (The History of the Kings of
Denmark), tr. H. Pálsson and P. Edwards (Odense, 1986), 194.
6. Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Byzantium, 254.
7. "On an island of the sea stands an inviolate grove, in which, veiled with a
cloth, is a chariot that none but the priest may touch . . ." Tacitus, The Agricola and the Germania, tr. H. Mattingly and S. A. Handford (Harmondsworth, 1970), Ger. 40.
8. H. R. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Harmondsworth, 1964), 12.
9. Hill, "Rome to Jerusalem," 180.
10. Even as late as 1664, the eminent French priest Eugene Roger in writing of Palestine dwelt on the references in the Old Testament in order to prove that the exact centre of the earth is a spot marked on the pavement of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. George H. T. Kimble, Geography in the Middle Ages (New York, 1968), 186.
11. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, 26, 192.
12. Hávamál, stanza 139. In the Poetic Edda, tr. Lee M. Hollander (Austin, 1962), 36. It has often been thought, on the basis that the Edda was not committed to writing until after the conversion, that this image of the suffering god hanging from the tree must have been derived from the Christian Crucifixion. However, we know from independent witnesses, such as Procopius in his Gothic War and Arab traveller Ibn Fadlan, that ritual human sacrifice by noose and spear was a custom which preceded the Viking Age and continued at Uppsala as late as the tenth century, a fact further confirmed by archaeological evidence. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, 51-2.
13. Ibid., stanza 139.
14. Peter G. Foote and David M. Wilson, The Viking Achievement (New York, 1970), 404-5.
15. Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Byzantium, 255.
16. Egerias Travels to the Holy Land, tr. J. Wilkinson (Jerusalem, 1981), ch. 37.2.
17. Knytlinga Saga, ch. 81.
18. Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Byzantium, 257-9.
19. Hill, "Rome to Jerusalem," 179.
20. After Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Jerusalem, 259-61.
21. Ibid., from Sorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Magnússona Saga, I.
22. Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, tr. F. R. Ryan (Knoxville, 1969), II, xliv, 199.
23. Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Byzantium, 260-61.
24. Orkneyinga Saga, tr. H. Pálsson and P. Edwards (London, 1987).
25. Ibid., ch. 88.
26. King Haralds Saga, tr. M. Magnusson and H. Pálsson (Harmondsworth, 1966), ch. 12.
27. Ellis-Davidson, Viking Road to Byzantium, 265.
28. Ibid., 254.
29. Sixty ships (Ibn-al-Qalanisi, The Damascus Chronicle, 106; Ibn-al-Athir, RHC, Or., I, 275; Albert of Aix, XI, xxvi).