In the small Cumbrian village of Gosforth, in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, there is a sandstone cross which has stood there since the 10th century. It’s tall, nearly 15 feet, which immediately distinguishes it from any other sculpted stone cross you might find in churchyards across Britain. Up close, it’s even more unusual. The imagery is weird: men wrestle with giant monsters that snake up the cross’s shaft. The depictions weren’t identified until 1883 when William Slater Calverley, a vicar and amateur antiquarian, realised that the cross doesn’t show Christian subjects at all. It shows scenes from Ragnarök, the end of the world in Viking mythology.
On the west side of the cross there’s Loki, the god of mischief, bound in a cave with a serpent dripping venom into his eyes, his punishment for betraying the gods. Above him there’s Heimdall, the all-seeing watchman of Asgard, home of the gods. Heimdall holds off the advance of the giant wolf Fenrir and the Midgard Serpent. In his hand he grips his horn which he will use to rouse the gods for the final battle. On the east side of the cross, Odin’s son Vidarr stamps down on the bottom of Fenrir’s mouth as he lifts the upper jaw, tearing apart the beast’s maw.
What are these non-Christian scenes doing on a Christian symbol? Well, perhaps the imagery isn’t quite as pagan as it seems. Also on the east side, enclosed within a frame, there’s a man with his arms stretched out on either side of him. Blood gushes from his side. Some scholars have suggested this is the Norse god Baldr, ‘the beautiful, the peace-giver, the bright son of the Father’, confronting Hel. For any Christian there is a much more obvious explanation. The answer could be he’s both Baldr and Christ.
Once you start reading Christian double-meanings into the cross’s apocalyptic imagery it becomes hard to stop. Loki could also be Satan, bound for 1,000 years and cast into the abyss as described in the Book of Revelation. Vidarr’s slaughter of Fenrir could represent victory over evil and chaos, enabled by Christ’s sacrifice. The Gosforth Cross looks Christian from a distance. When you look closer it seems pagan. And then it starts to seem Christian once again.
The most famous example of Christianity fused with Viking paganism is ‘The Heliand’ (‘The Saviour’), a 9th century Old Saxon poem which is essentially a paraphrase of the gospel. It was probably the work of a missionary from the Frankish court of Louis the Pious intended to endear Christianity to Viking chieftains. Christ is a ‘drothin’, a mighty warlord. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, perches on Christ’s shoulder during his baptism like one of Odin’s wise ravens. God is the ‘All-Wielder’, the magi are ‘war-men’, the disciples are ‘good earls’, and the Lord’s Prayer is ‘secret runes’. ‘Lead us not into temptation’ becomes ‘Let not loathsome wights lead us astray’.
The Gosforth Cross could be a pictorial version of the same idea — an attempt to use Scandinavian references to communicate the gospel message. Perhaps Odin and his pantheon of old pagan gods are passing away with Ragnarök. Christ takes their place.