EASY APOSTATE

Hakon the Good of Norway


(935-961)

As was the Norwegian custom, Hakon, son of the aged Harald Fairhair, was fostered to England's king, Athelstan. Across the North Sea, Hakon not only took on English customs but also its Christian God.

When his father died, the 15-year-old Hakon sailed for Norway to claim his kingdom and bring his Christianity to Norway, 45 years before Olaf Trygvesson. When his rival (and brother) Erik Bloodaxe was killed by the English in 954, the Christian youth took Norway's throne.

"King Hakon was a good Christian when he came to Norway," writes Snorri Sturluson in Heimskringla (c. 1220). "But as the whole country was heathen, with much heathenish sacrifice … he resolved to practice his Christianity in private … It was his intent, as soon as he had set himself fast in the land and had subjected the whole to his power, to introduce Christianity." But that time never came, and when he did try to encourage Christianity, local chiefs complained that he was trying to take away their freedom. The opposition became so fierce that Hakon's rule was threatened.

He decided he didn't have the power to force Christianity upon his country, so he allowed his subjects to continue practicing paganism. But that was not enough, and the chiefs, to ensure that Hakon was a true pluralist in religion, demanded that he sacrifice to the Norse gods.

Hakon complied. To satisfy his conscience, he made the sign of the cross over the sacrifice (though he said publicly he was making the sign of Thor's hammer), but eventually he forsook the charade and made straightforward sacrifices to the pagan gods.

Even though he proved a faithless Christian, Hakon was treated well by later Christian historians. His title of "the Good" did ...

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