In the northwest of England, in the small village of Gosforth (pop. 1,200) in the district of Cumbria, just a few miles from the Irish Sea, there sits an old church with an ancient graveyard. The graveyard contains a monument of significance not only for its age, now nearly 1,100 years old, but also because it shines a light on all the many ways the Viking Age was a period of transition.
This monument is called the Gosforth Cross. It’s a tall stone pillar around 15 feet (4.4 meters) in height, but rather slender in diameter. While it’s been somewhat withered by the years, it still stands tall, and so we can still see the carvings on each of its four sides. Those carvings depict Germanic mythological figures in various scenes from mythology, but mostly at Ragnarok. It seems to be an excellent metaphor for how the Viking Age was a transition period from the old gods and traditions to Christianity. Let’s examine some of the carvings on the cross in detail to get a better idea of what’s going on here.
In this first image, in the area that looks roughly like a circle, a scene is depicted that’s well known as the final fate of Loki in mythology. After finally infuriating the gods for the last time, either for his responsibility for the death of Balder or for the belligerent badgering of the gods in a hall of peace, Loki is punished by the gods to be bound in a cavern, much as his son the Fenris wolf is. In addition to his shackles, a serpent is placed above his head to drip venom into his eyes for the rest of time. However, his wife Sigyn comes to his aid and uses a bowl to catch the poison, but when she removes the bowl to empty it, he writhes and screams in anguish, and this is where earthquakes come from. Loki escapes to set Ragnarok into motion.
This second image is a bit difficult but if, as scholar Finnur Jónsson believed, this is a depiction of the god Heimdall, then this is the norm, since both the images of Heimdall and the literary sources regarding him are complex and difficult to interpret. He is understood to be the father of humanity, possibly the creator of the human race. He is the god who stands watch at the gates of Asgard, with unmatched vision, and who will blow his powerful horn when the enemies of the Aesir gather to call all the gods to arms against their foes. At Ragnarok, he and Loki slay one another. In this image, he appears to be gathering his horn to call out while also holding a sword or staff against some form of monster.
One of Loki’s children, the massive wolf Fenris, will kill Odin during the battle at Ragnarok. But he will be avenged. Odin’s son Vidarr, a mighty warrior himself, takes on the task of avenging his father and succeeds in killing the beast. Here we see Vidarr in the act of killing the beast, stepping down on the lower jaw of Fenris as he lifts the upper jaw with his powerful arms, snapping Fenris’s jaws. Notably, Vidarr’s mother Grid played an important role in one of Thor’s stories I related recently, and after killing Fenris, Vidarr is one of the very few gods to live beyond the destruction of Ragnarok to help renew the world.
We’ve discussed the story of Thor’s fishing trip with the giant Hymir at some length before, but this turns out to be a key battle between Thor and Jormungand before Ragnarok. This image isn’t actually on the Gosforth Cross itself – there are ruins of other crosses (likely a total of four) in the graveyard and this image was recovered from one of those. It’s perhaps most amazing that the Gosforth Cross was able to survive at all given that the others were most likely carved around the same time and yet didn’t survive.
Of course none of these images must necessarily be interpreted exactly the way Finnur Jonsson did in his analysis in Goðafræði Norðmanna og Íslendinga eftir heimildum in 1913. And this final image is somewhat controversial. It could be, as Jonsson says, Christ on the Cross, with a spear (hard to see here) being poked at him to confirm his death. Or it could be Baldr, returned from Hel, now to lead the gods, including Vidarr (see above), as they rebuild the world after Ragnarok ends.
And it’s worth noting, too, that this isn’t necessarily a situation where these options are mutually exclusive. It could be both Baldr and Jesus. This may seem like a strange claim.
But one of the key facts of the Viking Age was change. The Old Way was experiencing its own kind of Ragnarok. So when a Viking colony established itself in Northwest England, and set out to establish itself as a community that had to exist with pre-existing communities, it had to find a way for its old traditions to interact with the traditions of the natives. And the natives were predominantly Christian. Already Christianity had been taking on the practice of putting Christian meaning onto pagan festivals and traditions. Balder was no exception – his rebirth was well known to Germanic peoples, and mirrored the mythology of Christianity and Jesus’s resurrection. It’s quite possible that the ambiguity in this image is intentional or, at least, that our ability to see two stories in one image reflects the fact that pagans were in transition, from the Old Way to a new, less familiar faith.
One last way to point this out might be to look at the “cross” part of the Gosforth Cross. Sitting next to a Christian church, in a graveyard, we might simply assume this was intended to be a monument that was showing the triumph of Christ over these ancient pagan gods and myths, because the cross was at the top of the hierarchy of the monument itself.
But take a close look at that cross.
It’s a sun cross, a symbol that predates Christianity and even the Germanic faith, and it and the swastika symbol seem to be related to one another, depicting the sun, a moving chariot wheel, or some other circular phenomenon much older than recorded history.
A more detailed reproduction of the cross (see below) shows that the arms of the cross each have a triquetra symbol, the central boss protrudes several inches, and the circular wheel of the sun cross has intricate ornamentation of its own. All of these are details that place the cross more in the artistic style of the Vikings who settled in Gosforth rather than the Christians who lived nearby.
And yet: it is a tall stick with arms on either side nearer the top than the bottom. It’s a cross.
It’s the perfect monument to the Viking Age. It’s a flag planted in England, a claim for the Vikings that this land is now theirs. It’s a loving reproduction of the myths those Vikings grew up with. But it’s in a place associated with Christians, in a land associated with Christians, it looks vaguely Christian from a distance, and it was made when Vikings were becoming Christians (voluntarily or otherwise) in large numbers. This tall, ancient monument in a small village off in northwest England has a great deal to say about the history of northern Europe.