"Bonifacius" by Carl Emil Doepler, 1905, in Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin. Page 16.

Thor’s Oak and First Contact with Christianity

The above illustration of Bonifacius, née Winfrid of Wessex, now known as St. Boniface, was made by Carl Emil Doepler for Walhall: Die Götterwelt der Germanen (Valhalla: Gods of the Teutons) by Wilhelm Ranisch.

In about the year CE 724, Boniface, a Christian missionary bishop sent to improve missionary efforts in the region of Hesse, proclaimed that he would fell a great oak tree of Thor’s. He then proceeded to do so, in full view of the converted, lapsed, and pagan alike, in order to show the power of his god over the most powerful of the pagan gods.

While this was hardly the first interaction between Christians and the Germanic pagan peoples, it is one of the most notable events of an era when Christianity didn’t yet have a firm grasp on political power and the pagan North had yet to realize that the visitors from the South had come not to live peacefully among them as followers of a different faith, but to unmake their entire way of life.

Let’s dwell on the moment itself before reviewing its implications.

Boniface chops down a cult tree in Hessen, engraving by Bernhard Rode, 1781
Boniface chops down an oak tree in Hesse, engraving by Bernhard Rode, 1781

A great many legends have come from the story of the felling of Donar’s oak, even going so far as setting this as the day the Christmas tree was invented (evidence for this claim is weak). We can at least trust that one source, with temporal proximity to the actual event, has some truth in it, even though The Life of St. Boniface by Williband, another bishop of the church, may be predisposed to hyperbole as well. He says:

Now many of the Hessians who at that time had acknowledged the Catholic faith were confirmed by the grace of the Holy Spirit and received the laying-on of hands. But others, not yet strong in the spirit, refused to accept the pure teachings of the church in their entirety. Moreover, some continued secretly, others openly, to offer sacrifices to trees and springs, to inspect the entrails of victims; some practiced divination, legerdemain, and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries, auspices, and other sacrificial rites; while others, of a more reasonable character, forsook all the profane practices of the Gentiles [i.e., pagans] and committed none of these crimes. With the counsel and advice of the latter persons, Boniface in their presence attempted to cut down, at a place called Gaesmere, a certain oak of extraordinary size called in the old tongue of the pagans the Oak of Jupiter. Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagans stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch. But when he had made a superficial cut . Suddenly, the oak’s vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall. As if by the express will of God (for the brethren present had done nothing to cause it) the oak burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length. At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord. Thereupon the holy bishop took counsel with the brethren, built an oratory from the timber of the oak and dedicated it to Saint Peter the Apostle.

Whether the felling of the tree was quite so spectacular as that description or not, the basic story is consistent with our understanding of Boniface’s life at least: as the bishop for missionary work in Germany, he encountered not only pagans, but also priests who had not been properly ordained, converts who had fallen from the faith, and difficulty in keeping his mission functioning at all. A symbolic act, whether its impact was felt in days or years, is exactly the kind of action such a man might take to help stanch the loss of converts from his Faith. It seems likely this event actually happened.

But despite its fame in the story of a Christian Saint and in the longer-term tale of Christian domination of the pagan North, we don’t have any reason to believe that this was the Axe-Cut Heard ‘Round the Pagan World. Despite its chronological primacy over other major events in Christian-Pagan history, we don’t have any reason to believe this event had a major influence on the Germanic pagans’ understanding of Christians or response to missionaries, at least from sources I’ve been able to uncover in the past week.

The next major event, the raid on a Christian monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 which is generally accepted as the beginning of the Viking Age, is more the dramatic event which changed the relationship between Christians and pagans, though the pagans most likely had no such intention at the time.

The difference has a lot to do with the way Christians and pagans think of sacred space.

As we understand the Germanic pagans, they believed that all of nature was sacred, that the divine spirit flowed through plants, animals, people, and all the forces of nature. Where possible, they conducted their worship outdoors, in sacred groves, and, at least before substantial contact with Christianity, there’s little evidence that they built buildings for use solely as temples or places of worship. Our best account comes from the Roman senator Tacitus, which I’ll quote again here:

The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.

It’s most likely the case that the Thor’s oak that Boniface chopped down was merely one of many in a sacred grove. We have other sources that indicate that the oak was particularly associated with Thor, but none that indicate worship involved just one tree, when we have many that indicate that entire groves of trees were involved in ritual practice. So while Boniface was harming nature, and was undoubtedly doing so in a manner disrespectful to the beliefs of the pagans themselves, it’s difficult to imagine that this act was deeply blasphemous, a tale that struck fear into the hearts of the Norsemen for hundreds of miles. It may not have even had the power of conversion that Williband assigned to it, though it’s a fool’s errand to second-guess a third-hand source over 1,200 years later.

ca. 1967, Holy Island, England, UK --- A carved stone grave marker outside the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory depicts a row of Viking raiders. Viking warriors devastated the Anglo-Saxon monastery in 793 AD. --- Image by © Ted Spiegel/CORBIS
ca. 1967, Holy Island, England, UK — A carved stone grave marker outside the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory depicts a row of Viking raiders. Viking warriors devastated the Anglo-Saxon monastery in 793 AD. — Image by © Ted Spiegel/CORBIS

Lindisfarne is another matter.

Christians and other monotheists treat God as occupying a separate sphere from man and nature: He is supernatural, above us and beyond our comprehension. To better mediate our experience of God, we create sacred spaces, churches and temples and synagogues and mosques. Here we are separated from our daily cares and a step closer to experiencing closeness to God, even if He remains radically Other.

The raiders who attacked the monastery at Lindisfarne had little, and likely nothing, to do with an attack on Christianity or Christians themselves. Life in the Eighth Century was, to quote the overquoted, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Raiding was one way to acquire treasure for the vast trade that supported a seafaring people who couldn’t depend on farming to support them at all times. Looting the monastery, killing the monks, burning the building, was just common practice during any raid. The raiders didn’t follow up with additional attacks on Christians in general or churches specifically. It was just another raid.

But to the Christians of the British Isles, who treated churches and monasteries as sacred spaces, who had invested much of their wealth and spiritual energy in supporting the Church and its outposts along the shore, this wasn’t just an assault on one geographic site. It was an assault on civilization as they knew it.

I’ve not yet studied the extent to which Lindisfarne, or the actions of Viking raiders more generally, accelerated the Church’s missionary outreach into Northern Europe. But the attack certainly had a substantial psychological impact, and the long-standing tendency of Christians, and southern Europeans dating back well into the Roman Empire, to see the northerners as barbarians who needed to be civilized, certainly played a role as well.

I can’t see evidence or plausible reasons that suggest that Boniface’s encounter with an oak tree 70 years earlier had a similar effect for the northerners’ understanding of the Christian missionaries beginning to mingle among them.

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