A young Viking, King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, became a convert to the Christian religion some time before AD1000. His passion for the new religion was backed by a military force that threatened all who refused baptism. Some Norsemen had already become Christians, mainly through Irish influence, though on the whole the Vikings were content with their own gods. Gradually Norway was Christianized, then the Faeroe Islands and Iceland, and finally Greenland. The first Christian missionaries in Greenland were brought there from Norway by Leif Ericson.
A Viking chieftain was buried with everything he might need to get to Valhalla. One third of his property might be used in this way. (Another third went to his widow and the remainder to his children.) The goods buried included money, tools, changes of clothing, weapons, horses, chariots, boats, and even ships. Women’s graves contained many of the things they might need in afterlife, such as needles and thread, looms, kitchen utensils, and cooking vessels.
Sometimes a dead warrior would be placed aboard his ship, which was set afire and allowed to drift out to sea. Sometimes people were buried in boat-shaped coffins, which were covered with earth mounds. Fortunately, ships were not always burned, and a few have been preserved.
Next to the sagas, graves have been the best source of information about the Norsemen. In Scandinavian museums there are examples of almost every art known to the Viking Age. Among these are jewelry, weapons, furniture, and bronze and silver utensils. Most have survived because they were made of such durable materials as stone, metal, and hardwood. But woolen clothes in good condition have been found in parts of Greenland where they had lain in the frozen soil for centuries.
History from the Sagas
The Norsemen, like the Greeks of Homer’s time, were storytellers and poets. At all assemblies, weddings, and funerals, those skilled at storytelling and reciting verses would perform.
When Christianity came to the mainland of Scandinavia, folk poems and stories were frowned upon by the clergy. But Iceland was protected by distance from the influence of Europe. So, long after Christianity became the official religion, the Icelandic people struggled to preserve their historical and literary heritage. Their religious leaders enjoyed the storytelling and found no offense in it.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, the clergy and scholars of Iceland wrote many manuscripts. All were written as the saga tellers related them. Some were true and some were pure fiction. Among the serious historical records are sagas that tell of the kings and of Viking conquests. They tell of their discovery and colonization of Iceland and Greenland and their discovery of the American mainland.
Two significant manuscripts dealing with the religion and philosophy of the Norsemen were written in Iceland–the Elder Edda (in poetry) and the Younger Edda (in prose). Much of what is known of early Norse mythology came from the Eddas. In Iceland much of the old Norse language has been retained. In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark the languages are as different from the old Norse as modern English is from early Anglo-Saxon.