Viking Lessons on Cultural Decline
To distract myself from the chaotic and, frankly, embarrassing display in our nation’s capital during the first full week of the new year (desecrating the week of the Epiphany), I caught up on History Channel’s Vikings. If I’m being perfectly honest, it was also to distract me from studying for the bar exam…. In its sixth and final season, it did not disappoint, even though the fifth season lagged a bit. Disclaimer: this is not a review of the series, so no spoilers ahead. It is one of the few shows that predates my own binge-watching habits that I’ve stuck with. (The Walking Dead was in the running for this designation, but it got so very boring.) I highly recommend Vikings. The unique and intriguing aspect of the show is the mystical mood that pervades nearly every episode. Myriad religions are encountered throughout the show, from the indigenous paganism of the Norsemen to the Catholicism of East and West—it predates the schism of 1054, but still features the unique expressions of each side—to Islam in northern Africa and tribal rituals of North America. The representations of each are fairly accurate, but what is fascinating is how each religion is treated as if it were real, at least to their respective adherents. The undead oracles of Odin wander Scandanavian fishing villages; Jesus Christ is visible on the battlefield.
This seriousness afforded to each cult lapses, at points, into syncretist dialogue, but more regularly it injects the narrative and landscapes with a sort of sacred immanence. A sometimes trance-like cinematography lets the viewer step into another world, a far more brutal and violent (but also more spiritual) world. One gets a feel for the kind of worldview the vast majority of people in human history have possessed—even as “recently” as Martin Luther and, the New England Puritans. For those who lived before the true advent of modernity, the material and spiritual were not so divided. Just as each human being is a composite of soul and body, so, too, is the world. The interaction between the two was apparent to medieval Scandinavians. A poor crop yield was the judgment of the gods, a thunder crack was Thor’s hammer, clear skies and a strong headwind was divine provision for travel (and raiding).
What’s more, both Christians and pagans had a sense that their own earthly clashes with heretical forces mirrored otherworldly, cosmic battles. The here and now corresponded to the hereafter and beyond. This tighter correspondence, and the sense of greater spiritual immanence, which those people enjoyed—or were haunted by, depending on how you look at it—is an evident difference between their worldview and ours, making me think that Owen Barfield was on to something. We simply don’t think like people not all that long ago did. Perhaps modernity, with its logic of technology and economy and mechanistic account for reality, has totally stifled our ability to perceive certain dimensions of reality. Maybe the fullness of reality alludes us, even as we profess it on Sundays.
In Vikings, religion is properly depicted as the center of each civilization, each culture encountered. Conflicts emerge over a sense of providence that fuels each diametrically oppressed people—the battle of the gods is played out in real time. After encountering Christianity, the vikings do not deny the existence of the “Christ-god,” but rather fear that he will overtake and kill their own deities. The implicit acknowledgement throughout the show is that only one faith can triumph, only one can serve as the foundation of a people and their culture—a purely civil, religionless society is unfathomable, as is a pluralistic coexistence. The clash of civilizations, then, was a war of the gods. As went the deity, so went the culture; as went the culture, so went the people.
The viking saga is a lesson in civilizational decline. The peoples of what is now known as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark fostered a vibrant culture and economy, protected by unrivaled (if disorganized) military prowess. They were, at the time, arguably the world’s best navigators and explorers, reaching North America half a millenia before Columbus. Their fame, both then and now, is undeniable. Their culture and language influenced our own, as well as those of Normandy (France), Germany, the Baltics, and, of course, England, Scotland, and Ireland. But the glue to this civilization was religion. This is inferred not only from historical data evidencing the centrality of religion to daily Scandinavian life (as with all medieval Europeans), but by the fact that the so-called Viking Age (793-1066), which stretched from the ascension of Charlemagne to the Norman Conquest, ended with the rise of Christinaity in Norse territory. A series of military defeats in England, Norway, and Sweden were almost incidental. Once Christianity (and Christian monarchy) were introduced, a Scandinavian could no longer identify as a viking. The medieval Spartans of the sea were no more because their religion was no more. The distinctive way of life that was viking was antithetical to any other spiritual outlook. A warlike, adventurous people needed the prospect of Valhalla to fuel their often reckless pursuit of fame and conquest, to justify their exploits. And though Scandinavia continued to reflect the viking influence for centuries—even stave churches are evidently Norse—this was a facade.
In fact, binging the last half of Vikings’ final season was an insufficient distraction. (It didn’t help that the face of the mayhem at the capital is a delusional QAnon shaman cosplaying as a viking.) From the vikings, we learn the necessity of the religious core to peoples and to cultures as a socio-political glue. John Jay, in Federalist No. 2, and a host of others, have recognized this. The demise of the cult precedes the erosion of the culture, which foretells the defeat of the civilization. This pattern seems almost an iron law of history. Rome tells the same story, though it was more suicidal than the Norse. What we’ve witnessed over the past year—most especially the civil unrest over the summer and the pitiful insurrection that kicked off 2021—speaks of, at the very least, a regime riddled with sickness; perhaps fatally so.
A critical mass of the country discerns racist causality behind (seemingly) every disparity, as endemic to Western society, its norms, narratives, institutions, etc. Another sizeable portion is infinitely suspicious of established political processes, believing their inner workings to be co-opted by a worldwide pedaphilia ring. Distrust and cynicism is the order of the day. For one reason or another, and not always unjustifiably so, a large swath of the populace feels left behind, forgotten, and finds the status quo intolerable. Social cohesion is at an all time low, and along with it, public spiritedness. The systems of government and mechanisms of law enforcement are no longer trusted. Were we living in the medieval period, when military invasion and conquest were an ever imminent threat, we would be ripe for it. If tension and instability pervade the political level, and at the scale we’ve seen, then concomitant cultural and religious rot should be assumed—a civilization’s demise at hand.
When there is no shared cult, people necessarily direct their religious impulses elsewhere. Unless this “elsewhere” is shared, the culture will fracture and the religiously informed—and culturally cultivated—political norms will erode. The common good, our very conception of reality, becomes chaotic, absent agreement as to the spiritual, moral, and metaphysical fundamentals. This we no longer have, and maybe we were never going to. Though it seems obvious that what the founders of this country hoped to pioneer was a sort of broadly Protestant ecuminism, expressed within a federalist system, that version of the “experiment” was never truly tried, or at least, not for long. In short order, and especially after the Civil War, pluralism better described it.
The post-truth, performative politics we have witnessed of late is a result of the personalized, psychologized, self-serving, a la carte religious practice now in vogue, and so well captured by Tara Burton’s Strange Rites. Bespoke religion leads to bespoke truth, a conflict of realities (plural). As Tom Holland argued in his must-read book, Dominion, things like the social justice movement inescapably embody Christian forms. It could only have happened here. But just as the stave churches of Norway resemble the great mead halls of viking warlords, the liturgy and sacraments of the woke faithful, and the bastardized evangelicalism of MAGA Nation, merely mimic the faith of our forefathers.
We were told, for the sake of tolerance, to keep religion out of politics. Now it would be easy to say that politics has become our religion. But more accurately, our politics, classically defined as the art of symbiotics, of living together, is hollow and soulless, just a rowdy amalgamation of competing truth claims—scratch that, reality claims—with no agreed upon, trusted means of adjudication. Republics, more so than other polities, have always depended upon what people are willing to accept. Now they accept nothing, nothing but demagoguery and conspiracy. And as Patrick Deneen has pointed out, republics require the most of their citizens. The responsibility of self-governance seems desirable but few are willing or able to bear it. John Adams warned us that only a truly religious people had a chance at sufficiently shouldering that burden. The second president’s heretical Christology notwithstanding, I doubt he had our new postmodern political “faiths,” our cults of grievance and victimhood, in mind.
The Viking Age ended when its religion was conquered. Its people weren’t so much overtaken as they were enveloped by, and integrated with, the triumphant civilization, namely, Christendom. As Christians ourselves, we, of course, can regard this as a net good. But this time, the lessons of history bode ill for us. These lessons are merciless. Were it not for our confidence in Providence, we would have cause to despair; as it is, we have reason for sorrow. Just as in death the soul forsakes the body (until the resurrection), one wonders whether, at present, the soul of our culture and civilization has flown to afterlife, and all we are haggling over now is the rapidly decomposing corpse.
Image Credit: @sukhavarau/Unsplash