Good and bad polytheists (parts 17-19)

Owing to the influence of conquests by both Islamic and Christian rulers, polytheism continued to decline into the Middle Ages. Islamic armies suppressed cruelly and immediately a rebellious movement of apostasy that spread through Arabia after Mohammed’s death. Polytheism likewise had already vanished in North Africa and other parts of West Asia, conquered by Muslims, because these were regions that had previously been strongly Christian. Only the fringes of Europe remained in the old ways, but that was to change gradually. Various crusades were waged against polytheists in Europe, who were viewed as polluted and lost souls that required either guidance or death. In those distant places, instances of noble resistance and vile treachery are known.

 

HAAKON SIGURDSSON

He was in effect the king of Norway in the late 10th century. After his father, who was a Jarl (or noble), was killed by King Harald Greycloak, he avenged him and gained power, with the help of the Danish king Harald Bluetooth, whereby he became his vassal. He did gain more independence, however, when he assisted Harald in 973 CE during an invasion from the Holy Roman Empire, which had been established by Charlemagne about 200 years before. As a nobleman who claimed descent from Odin, he was a staunch polytheist, and refused to become Christian, after Harald, who was influenced by Holy Roman missionaries, pressed him to do so. In 977 CE, he received Vladimir of Kiev (see below) in his court, who had sought refuge following a defeat by Christians, and he offered him warriors to assist him. It is said that Haakon defeated a Danish fleet that attempted to invade Norway in 986 CE. He continued in power for ten more years, until his claim to the throne was challenged by a descendent of a former king. Having lost all support for his claim, he was unfortunately murdered during his escape by his slave and friend, who had hoped for a reward, but later lost his head instead.

 HARALD BLUETOOTH

The first Christian king of Denmark. Accounts on how he was converted differ, but the most probably one is that he entered the new faith after observing a “miracle” performed by a Sicilian missionary called Poppa. It is said when Harald requested that Poppa prove his devotion to Christ, the missionary carried, without being burned, a heavy weight of heated iron. One is to wonder whether this was another instance Bluetooth baptizedof usual Christian tricks performed by missionaries. Nevertheless, it is possible that Harald was also pressed into the decision of conversion by attacks from the Holy Roman Empire, which he feared would ruin the country. This is why he baptized his son Sweyn in the name of the Emperor, Otto. However, there is a difference between hypocritical conversion and a true one (see Mindaugas below). Harald not only built Churches and allowed German missionaries to preach, but also removed his parents from an ancient burial mound and entombed them in a church. The latter was a personal choice that could have been avoided, had Harald been still secretly a polytheist. The erection of a rune stones in honor of his parents celebrating explicitly that Harald “turned the Danes into Christianity” is yet another sign that he had become sincere in his new faith. Historians agree that he attempted to propagate Christianity among Danes, but was rather unsuccessful. His son Sweyn seized the throne and exiled him sometime before 986 CE, and unfortunately Christianity continued to spread in Denmark with the influence of English clergymen.

 

 

SVIATOSLAV  I  OF KIEV

This was the Grand Prince of Kiev who ruled in the latter half of the 10th century. Although inhabiting East Europe and bearing a Slavic name, his people were Kievan Rus, descendants of Scandinavians who had established a trading post and colony far from their native lands in what is today Ukraine and Russia. There was Byzantine influence near the region, through missionaries and commerce, that seemed to be encroaching slowly on his borders. His mother, who had ruled as regent, is known to have converted in Constantinople in 957 BCE, when he was still in his teens. However, because Sviatoslav had always been an unruly child, preferring the company and habits of aristocratic warriors to learning, he remained a strong polytheist like them all his life, as well as a belligerent prince. Six years later, when he became prince, he rallied neighboring Slavic tribes and began a campaign over trade routes against Khazaria, a Turkic empire that had conquered the Caucuses and was now inhabited by many Jews and Muslims, who were expanding commercially. After vanquishing the region altogether, and adjoining the lands of Volga Bulgars, he entered in an agreement with the Byzantines to conquer Bulgaria (a Slavic kingdom), receiving a large payment for that purpose. However, although Sviatoslav was successful in Bulgaria, the Byzantines bribed some of his mercenaries to besiege Kiev. This made Sviatoslav wage an ambitious war against the Byzantines, but this was unsuccessful in the long run. His Bulgarian stronghold was besieged, and so he was forced to surrender as well as relinquish the Balkans. The Byzantines then bribed mercenaries again during his return home and they managed to assassinate him at the age of 30 in 972 CE. Although his resistance to monotheism was not always explicit, his noble character and military glory was a strong obstacle as well as contrast to the servile cunning of the Byzantines.

 VLADIMIR OF KIEV

One of the three sons of Sviatoslav, but the lowest born, since his mother was a housekeeper. After the death of his father at an early age, before he could provide for the succession, rivalry broke out in the principality whereby the legitimate brother, Yaropolk, killed Oleg, the third brother.  Vladimir was forced to flee to his ancestral land, where he stayed at the court of Haakon Sigurdsson. There he gathered warriors to capture his father’s lands, which by now were in danger of becoming Christian at the hands of the newly baptized Yaropolk. However, before he succeeded in conquering the Kievan Rus, he passed by Rogvolod, another Scandinavian colony (but to the north) to request the hand of a princess. When she refused because he was of low birth, he attacked the principality, murdered her father, and took her by force. When he took Kiev and in 978 CE, and slew Yaropolk, he remained a strong polytheist like his Coin of Vladimirfather and he actively built temples and raised statues of his ethnic Gods. However, after a Christian father and son were murdered because they had abused the religion (which caused persecutions of Christians in the region), Vladimir began to doubt himself gradually. Instead of trusting to his native ways, he sent out envoys in 987 CE to study the great religions of his day. As could be expected, his envoy to Constantinople was surprised by the magnificent appearance of the city and the Christian rituals there, which he had not known were remnants of Roman polytheism. The treacherous Byzantines presented their city as one that was blessed by their Christian god and so when the Kievan envoy returned, he called the religion and city divine. Vladimir converted to Christianity in the same year, shamefully baptized with the Emperor’s name, and received a Byzantine princess in marriage. His active measures to spread the new religion in his lands has earned him a sainthood among Slavic Christians and the Orthodox Church.

  

 

TRAIDENIS

This was the glorious Grand Duke of Lithuania who ruled from 1270 until 1282 CE. He came to power after a period of instability which lasted 11 years, following the death of Duke Mindaugas, who after Baltic knifeembracing Christianity for a strategic purpose, renounced it. At this time, crusades were taking place in the Baltic region, which included Lithuania, mainly at the hands of the Germanic Livonian Order from the east. In the west and south, there was some Mongol influence. In spite of being at odds with both invaders, Traidenis was victorious in battles, most especially against the Livonian Order. Three masters of the Order were killed at his hands, and he captured some of their castles, allowing more subjected Lithuanians to rebel and join his cause of independence. He honored his polytheism by being a great leader and warrior; he was the first Grand Duke to die a natural death, and his successes in battle and diplomacy led to Lithuania’s continuance in polytheism for a solid hundred years.

TALIVALDIS

This was a Latvian chieftain who flourished in the latter part of the 12th century. At this time, Northern Crusades were being carried out by Germans in the Baltic regions, particularly against the Estonians. Talivaldis, like all other ambitious nobles before him, converted to Christianity in order to further his power, and became a vassal of the Albert, the murderous Bishop of Riga. But instead of staying behind, he actively took part in the crusades, undoubtedly to claim more land for himself. As proof of this, when a revolt broke out in 1212 CE, he sided with his vassal. A year later, he was captured by the Lithuanians, but succeeded in escaping. Pressure increased from the north in the next two years, by tribes that raided the lands of Talivaldis. The Ugandians managed to capture him in 1215, and they gave him the very same punishment with fire that was given to Christian heretics and traitors.

4 thoughts on “Good and bad polytheists (parts 17-19)

  1. Paul

    I had an interesting conversation with a follower of Rodnovery about the baptism of Rus. I made the remark that I was glad that at least Islam hadn’t been adopted, and his reply was that it ended up that the end result was the same – the eclipsing of the Native Faith of the Slavs. Absolutely true. The people weren’t eager to turn their backs on the Gods and their statues were supposed to have moaned as they were destroyed. Slavic religion is incredibly beautiful. The written sources for it are very small, but the traditions and folklore that can be drawn upon as it is revived are incredibly rich.

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  2. Paul

    Indeed! Speaking of polytheists in eastern Europe, have you read of the Mari people in the eastern part of European Russia? Their traditional religion was never fully eclipsed or conquered by Abrahamic religion(s) and is still alive and well to this day, although not all of the Mari follow or practice it. There are some videos on YouTube about their religion, “Europe’s Last Pagans” was the name of one and from there, there are further videos and articles and such.

    I’ve gone a bit off topic from your post (I do that sometimes and I apologize), but your research here on polytheists in eastern Europe made me think of the different peoples of the area. Many of the Uralic and Finno-Ugric peoples and regions in eastern Europe have preserved their traditions quite well (or even in full) and it is very heartening and inspiring.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      I think I saw that video about the Mari some time since, and read a little about them. Eastern Europe has indeed preserved a good deal of its ancient tradition; nowadays the Baltic states are very irreligious and provide much opportunity for the restoration of polytheism. The European Congress of Ethnic Religion is known to have its headquarters in Lithuania. Quite heartening!

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