The Incident at Thor's Oak
Ed Friedlander, M.D.

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Winfrid Boniface

In 723, a Christian missionary named Winfrid cut down an oak tree sacred to the god Thor. This action is said to mark the beginning of the Christianization of the Germanic peoples, my own ancestors.

On June 5, 754, Winfrid (now established as Bishop Boniface of Mainz) was surprised and killed by angry non-Christians. The ringleaders said they had acted lawfully because Boniface had destroyed their places of worship.

This page deals with Christian witness, superstition, religious tolerance, men acting like men, and the strange ambiguities of our world. It's my Lenten project for 2008. Not everyone will like Boniface. But over these weeks, my admiration for the saint has grown tremendously.


Psalm 29

    Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
    Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
    The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is mighty upon the waters.
    The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is splendor.
    The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
    He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
    The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
    The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.
    And in the temple of the Lord, all are crying, “Glory!”
    The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.
    The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Psalm 46: 9-11

    Come now and look upon the works of the LORD, what awesome things he has done on earth.
    It is he who makes war to cease in all the world; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.
    "Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth."

1 Corinthians 8:4-6

    So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many `gods' and many `lords'), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

Galatians 4:4

    When we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe.

Galatians 5:22

    The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The Challenge of Thor
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    I AM the God Thor,
    I am the War God,
    I am the Thunderer!
    Here in my Northland,
    My fastness and fortress,
    Reign I forever!
    Here amid icebergs
    Rule I the nations;
    This is my hammer,
    Miölner the mighty;
    Giants and sorcerers
    Cannot withstand it!

    These are the gauntlets
    Wherewith I wield it,
    And hurl it afar off;
    This is my girdle;
    Whenever I brace it,
    Strength is redoubled!

    The light thou beholdest
    Stream through the heavens,
    In flashes of crimson,
    Is but my red beard
    Blown by the night-wind,
    Affrighting the nations!
    Jove is my brother;
    Mine eyes are the lightning;
    The wheels of my chariot
    Roll in the thunder,
    The blows of my hammer
    Ring in the earthquake!

    Force rules the world still,
    Has ruled it, shall rule it;
    Meekness is weakness,
    Strength is triumphant,
    Over the whole earth
    Still is it Thor's-Day!

    Thou art a God too,
    O Galilean!
    And thus singled-handed
    Unto the combat,
    Gauntlet or Gospel,
    Here I defy thee!

Genesis 6:4

    There were giants in the earth in those days.

Winfrid / Boniface

The felling of Thor's Oak took place at Geismar, now part of the town of Fritzlar in North Hesse, Germany. The people who lived in the area were mostly worshippers of the Germanic gods best-known to us by their Scandinavian names (Thor, Odin, Freya and the others from Norse mythology.) Germans called Thor "Donnar." The word "thunder" is cognate. Possibly the name of the Vedic thunder-god, Indra, is too. The Roman historian Tacitus thought that Thor / Donnar was Hercules, because of his great strength. Others thought he was Jupiter because of the thunderbolts.

The oak tree was the usual community meeting-place. Our sources tell us that Boniface greeted the local militia there. He stripped to the waist, took an axe, and chopped the tree down. The god Thor did not strike Boniface dead with a lightning bolt. The soldiers were then baptized into the Christian faith.

The fanciful embellishments came later. Some stories say the tree fell miraculously after a single blow. There's a version with Boniface rescuing a boy from human sacrifice at the hands of the druids. Sometimes Boniface even invents the Christmas tree for the occasion.

Pious legends aside, what really happened at Thor's Oak was politics. Boniface was sponsored and protected by Charles Martel, who was bringing the region under his control. Charles was facing the Umayyid invasions from Spain, and needed stability on the opposite side of his nation. The non-Frankish Germanic tribes were divided, and Charles sought the allegiance -- by persuasion or force -- of the local chieftains. They would become his "margraves", semi-autonomous allies who provided security for his northeast borders.

Of course, this is the same Charles who would stop Islamic expansion into Europe at the Battle of Tours / Poitiers in 732. The stabilization of the German frontier made this possible. And Boniface played a key role in handling the cultural concerns.

Anyone who has read the Iliad or old inscriptions knows how important "the gods" were to soldiers and governments of heroic societies. Particular gods were invoked to validate treaties, given credit for victories, and even "seen" helping in battle or during times of disaster. In times of great personal danger, people lay aside their doubts and pray for supernatural help. (The aphorism, "There are no atheists in the foxholes" is countered by opponents of religious infighting, who say, "If there were more atheists, there would be less need for foxholes.") In any case, the god(s) that one worshiped determined one's cultural identity. When Ruth says to Naomi, "Your god will be my god", she is joining a culture as much as choosing a code of behavior.

During the Middle Ages, a region often became formally Christianized through the mass baptism of its soldiers. This had happened in France under Clovis, and would happen in Norway under Olaf and in Russia under Vladimir. Boniface was at Thor's Oak to baptize the local army. They would now fight and worship alongside Charles Martel's main forces, which were Christian. Cutting down the tree reassured the soldiers that no harm would befall them from abandoning their old faith.

Of course, Boniface was not introducing Christianity. Our sources acknowledge that the Christian faith was already popular in the region. We read of bishops, regular services, and devoted missionaries. The words used in baptism and worship were not always the same as in Rome, and they did not use the Roman method for calculating the date of Easter. (The latter business was settled in Great Britain only centuries later, by a conference called by Margaret, the wife of Malcolm who appears in Shakespeare's Macbeth.) The Roman idea of clerical celibacy was not enforced. Local pastors conducted themselves as they thought best, and some had interfaith ministries, offering reverence to Thor and the other old gods as well as Christian worship. Our sources on Boniface also complain that missionaries weren't ordained, that they didn't take their hard questions for a decision from Rome, and that some were illiterate -- though decades later Charlemagne would become famous for having made the monks learn to read.

Christian readers who favor the congregational principle of church government, and who don't mind a pastor's family leaving cookies for Santa Claus, will wonder whether Boniface's taking charge was really a good thing. Probably the local warlords who stage-managed the incident at Thor's Oak didn't care one way or the other. The mass baptism marked the militia's joining the empire of Charles Martel, who was unifying the region and was allied with the more urbanized Roman culture. Whether or not the local Christians were glad to have a Papal legate exercising authority, he did offer good organizational skills and protection by the government.

From the wood of Thor's Oak, Boniface built a chapel. Being the Papal legate, he named the chapel for Saint Peter, considered the first Pope. One could argue that the incident at Thor's Oak marked the founding of the Holy Roman Empire. The site is now the site of Saint Peter's Cathedral in Fritzlar, with a modern-style statue of Boniface on an oak stump.

Drama or no, Germany had to become Christian. Progress can't be stopped.

In a savage era, the Christian faith was the best hope for political stability and recovering civilization. Christianity was the repository of classical learning, including secular and moral knowledge. Christianity was international, not bound a particular racial or cultural group. It brought members together with people from all over the known world, with the possibility of friendship and common interests. Even in a dark age, the idea of that one could walk in love and kindness with anyone must have appealed to many. Tacitus was very impressed with the political and military leadership opportunities available to women in the German society of his era. We do not know what opportunities for spiritual leadership were available to women in pagan Germany, but Christianity made much use of women's gifts. In fact, Saint Walpurga (cf. Walpurgis Night) was one of Boniface's distinguished female co-workers.

Christianity must also have been more appealing to thoughtful people. Whatever reasons you may have for believing or not believing, the Gospel offered a broader and more emotionally satisfying outlook than the traditional faith. If the Eddas actually reflect the beliefs of the cult of Thor and the other Germanic gods, happiness in the afterlife required death in battle. Perhaps beginning with Socrates (who expressed his doubts about "the gods" of polytheism), the classical philosophers taught that happiness in the afterlife was available to anyone who had tried to practice justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance. Christianity continued this wisdom tradition, offering happiness as a result of doing good and trusting God.

In a way, Thor appeals to the most simple-minded folk in a way that Christ cannot. One could see his hammer-blows in the lightning. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob is not a nature-god. (Perhaps this is why the Torah prohibited making pictures for use in worship.) According to Bede (and I believe he is correct), evidence for the Christian faith comes primarily from the high quality of the scriptures, the impact for the better on human lives, and certain widely-reported experiences that seem paranormal, often around the time of death. Christianity is more subtle than superstitions about nature. But by the late 700's, people surely had begun to realize that lightning must have a natural cause, and that Thor's hammer is fiction.

I've been told that civilizations progress from animism and magic thinking, through a time of heroic polytheism, and then to monotheism and a focus on good living and kindness to others. If this is correct, then even non-Christians can appreciate Boniface as the bringer of a higher ethic.

According to Bede's history of the English church (book II), when one of the Saxon kings was considering with his council whether to adopt the Christian faith, one of the Druids stood up. "Our lives are like a bird that suddenly flies into one of our homes. It flutters around, and then flies out again. We do not know where it comes from, or where it goes. I seek Eternal Life in Christ." No one else had anything to add, and everybody became Christians. Read about it here. It's a great story, and maybe even a true one.

However, we hear nothing about any king or druid asking the Pope to send a delegation. When Rome finally did ship its representatives to Canterbury, they were mostly ignored by the already-robust British Christian community. And we read nothing about the early kings trying to suppress devotion to the old gods.

Born and educated in what is now England, Winfrid (whose name means "friend of peace") joined the Benedictines, was ordained priest, and showed great intelligence and leadership ability. He chose a career as a missionary, and after some early failures and successes was selected by Pope Gregory II (who nicknamed him "Boniface", or "Maker of Good") to lead the Christianization of the non-Frankish Germanic tribes. Boniface went on to serve as a capable administrator, unifying German Christianity and became Primate of Germany.

On June 5, 754, the eve of Pentecost, Boniface and a few dozen of his fellow-missionaries were killed at Dokkum, Friesland, in the Netherlands. The place is called Moodrwoud ("the murderwood").

Now an old man, Boniface had resigned as bishop and returned to spreading the Gospel on foot. Friesland was still non-Christian territory. Our sources tell us -- and we can believe or doubt -- that Boniface and his team were destroying non-Christian places of worship where they knew they were not welcome. The Pentecost-eve event was to be a group baptism. When Boniface and his companions arrived, they were greeted not by the faithful but by a mob of very angry pagans. Afterwards, a bloodied copy of Anselm's book, "The Advantage of Death", was found near Boniface's body. This was improved in the retelling to Boniface's having been stabbed to death through his Bible or prayer book.

If we believe that his group was destroying the indiginous people's holy shrines, then Boniface was asking to be murdered. In any case, he knew the risks of proselytizing in enemy territory. Did his government put "the old guy" up to this, hoping for the political gains from a martyrdom? Did he himself seek a martyr's crown? Did his companions realize the danger? Does the fact that Boniface was carring a book by Anselm about glorious death suggest this dark motive for his journey? Did Boniface consider that he was leading his companions to their deaths? Did they realize it? Did they discuss the risks? As he died, did Boniface reflect that this was the kind of death that would guarantee Valhalla to a non-Christian?

These are unsettling questions. We will never know the answers.

    Almighty God, you called your faithful servant Boniface to be a witness and martyr in Germany, and by his labor and suffering you raised up a people for your own possession: Pour out your Holy Spirit upon your Church in every land, that by the service and sacrifice of many your holy Name may be glorified and your kingdom enlarged; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

        -- Lesser Feasts and Fasts

    I think with these facts before you, you will unhesitatingly render a verdict of suicide while of unsound mind. It is the only charitable verdict you can give upon one who was, after all, a great man.

        -- T. S. Eliot, "Murder in the Cathedral"

Whatever we make of his death, there is no question that Winfrid-Boniface was an effective Christianizer. Officially and politically, he was the Pope's legate and Charles Martel's man for cultural affairs. But what kind of pastor was he? Soldiers since the time of the Iliad have sought help from their gods without being preoccupied with theology. Army chaplains and people bringing the Gospel to "indiginous peoples" are not noted for focusing on subtleties of doctrine. They provide guidance, emotional support, and good examples for the troops.

The following prayer, attributed to Boniface, probably shows us the man.

Eternal God, the refuge and help of all your children,
we praise you for all you have given us,
for all you have done for us,
for all that you are to us.
In our weakness, you are strength,
in our darkness, you are light,
in our sorrow, you are comfort and peace.
We cannot number your blessings,
we cannot declare your love:
For all your blessings we bless you.
May we live as in your presence,
and love the things that you love,
and serve you in our daily lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This looks totally genuine to me.

For starters, Boniface's prayer is INTERFAITH. Apart from the standard Christian last line, it's one of those rare prayers that almost ANYONE who believes in one or more divine beings can use. If you're thinking, right now, that the man who cut down Thor's Oak exemplifies bigotry, then the prayer shows us a very different person. And if someone were to draft a bogus prayer to attribute to "the great opponent of paganism", there'd probably be some sign of religious intolerance. I see nothing of the sort here. The goodness seems genuine.

Second, Boniface really asks for nothing specific, only guidance and a chance to express his gratitude. This is the sort of prayer that springs from the depths of a genuine, living faith.

Finally, Papal legate or not, this is the prayer of someone deeply involved with real life. The author is not worrying about doctrinal problems. He accepts the limits of his understanding and ability. He believes he is helped and protected, but he does not presume to say exactly how. He wants to lead a good life. He is thankful that others are cared for as well. Probably he realizes that loving and serving God is inseparable from loving and serving those around him.

The kind of Christian that I'd like to be.

The Pre-Christian Gods

We know the Germanic gods best from Scandinavia, though the Roman historians recognize that the gods of what is now Germany were mostly the same. Names cognate with Donnar / Thor are attested even in the Celtic nations. The pagan spritual leaders of northern Europe were the druids. They seem to have been much like their counterparts in another Indo-European civilization -- the Brahmins of the Aryan invaders of India. They were probably a civilian learned group, perhaps hereditary, whose authority was accepted by the military. The German druids must have been ministers in the cult of Thor.

For two thousand years, Christians have enjoyed the old tales of "the old gods", recognizing that they are fiction but appreciating both the fun and the good examples. Although Christianity taught that these gods are fictitious, they've been treasured in our cultural heritage. The classic myths of Greece and Rome gave us the names Dennis (Dionysus), Dmitri (Demeter), Cynthia / Cindy, Diane / Diana, and Juno.

CS Lewis loved paganism (both classic and Norse), and saw it as a path to Christ. Tolkien has his races of elves, dwarves, and humans worship gods such as Manwe, Aule, and Elbereth, modeled on the old Germanic gods. Even the Eddas, which are probably authored by Christians, were written to preserve the old tales for posterity.

Milton demonized the pagan gods in "Paradise Lost" and "The Hymn on Christ's Nativity", specifically saying that devils had presented themselves as the gods of Olympus. Yet his uses the name "Phoebus" (Apollo) for the Holy Spirit in "Lycidas", and elsewhere identifies Zeus / Jove with the One God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. And he has dozens of other examples of classic mythology presenting "types" prefiguring the Gospel.


He's just a "pagan god" from Norse mythology. But everybody likes Thor.

The Poetic and Prose Eddas are our best sources of information on him. There are many other references as well. He was known to the Germanic people as Donner. In Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, there are more personal and place names for Thor than from any other source. In Thor's honor, Thursday was usually the day for community events.

Thor was a massively-muscled, red-bearded god who was usually said to be the son of the primary god Odin. His mother was the giantess Fjörgyn, whose name is perhaps cognate with that of the Baltic thunder-god Perkunas (Indo-European *perkuno), or Jöord, personification of the earth. Thor had a magic hammer that was his principal weapon, special gloves to wield the hammer, a magic belt that doubled his already-great strength, and a chariot drawn by goats that produced the thunder. Especially, his hammer, called "Mjolnir", or "thunderbolt", created the lightning and was a powerful weapon.

Thor did not use sorcery. He fought fair. He did not lie or engage in diplomacy. He did not tolerate deceit or treachery from others. He was the friend of the human race.

Thor was one of the Aesir, the family of gods most revered by the Scandinavians. (Another group of gods, the Vanir, were also revered in Norse mythology, and considered a separate family that had made friends with the Aesir. Perhaps they originated with a different group of people.)

Thor was a tough god for a tough nation. Our Thursday is named for Thor, and the fifth day of the week is named for him in most other countries with Germanic roots. The Swedish scientist Berzelius named the element Thorium for the old god. Proper names from Thor are common in Scandinavia. I grew up on tales of Thor Heyerdahl, the great sailor who reconstructed old Polynesian technologies.

Thor is not a deep thinker, but he is a strong upholder of good, honest behavior. Loki, god of mischief, is sometimes his helper and sometimes his enemy. Thor's portfolio included maintaining law and honor, and promoting brave and effective combat, He was also invoked against natural disaster, especially as a rain-god against drought. The Vikings had the most to fear from freezing winter. At least the writers of the Eddas -- which came from Iceland -- knew about volcanos. The enemies of the gods lived in two realms -- one cold and cloudy, one of burning fire. Thor fought enemies in both places.

The Greek myths deal either with heroic conquests or the usually-sad origins of familiar things.

But the tales of the Norse gods are mostly comical, even ribald. Germanic mythology as preserved in the Eddas is a lot of fun.

Once the frost giant Thrym somehow stole Thor's hammer and agreed to return it only if the goddess Freya would be his bride. Thor took Freya's clothes and jewelry, and disguised as the goddess went with Loki to Thrym's home. Of course, the tale is told with burlesque humor. As soon as he got his hammer back, Thor smashed the stupid giants.

Peter Madsen -- How Thor Got His Hammer Back
Hrana Janto -- How Thor Got His Hammer Back
Bruce Coville -- "Thor's Wedding Day"

Despite all the fun, there is a distinctive, tragic undercurrent in Germanic myth that is lacking in classical cultures. In the oldest Greek myths (for example, Homer's poems), the dead all became mindless ghosts in dismal Hades. According to the Eddas, those dying of disease or old age would still languish in a gloomy underworld, but the souls of those who died in battle would be taken to party in Valhalla with Odin.

Viking society had a shortage of land for farming, and its economy was based on raiding. Because of the high latitude, rickets must have been prevalent, and this would have led to high mortality among the women in childbirth. There must have been a surplus population, especially of adult men. My best guess is that the legend of Valhalla was devised to encourage soldiers to fight recklessly. Ultimately, this made success in raiding more likely, and kept the population manageable.

I understand how men think. Probably the warriors realized this fact of life in their dark era. And they incorporated what they knew -- we won't survive at all unless we're willing to accept very high casualties -- into a religion that was anything but gloomy.

The myth about the duty to die in battle was backed up by the story that the gods themselves -- including Odin and Thor -- would someday be killed fighting their monstrous enemies.

In another famous tale, Thor and some of the other other gods scouted the giants.

They found shelter in what they thought was a cabin with a side-room.

In the morning, they discovered that it was the glove of a sleeping giant, and the little warm room was the thumb.

Artist Peter Hurd

When the giants received their visitors, they proposed contests. Loki lost an eating contest and a foot race. Thor lost a wrestling match against an old lady, and was unable to empty the drinking mug. And Thor could not even lift the giants' cat.

Afterwards, the giants revealed that Loki lost the eating contest to all-devouring Fire, and the foot-race to infinitely-rapid Thought. The drinking horn was the ocean, the nurse was the unconquerable Old Age, and the cat was the Midgard Serpent. The giants were amazed by the gods' power despite the illusions.

Again, the myth harks back to the Norse theme of inevitable defeat.

Thor in Utgard
The Games at Utgard -- humorous retelling of a humorous story

Medieval Illustration
Thor once went fishing with the giant Hymir. (Perhaps he is the same as Ymir, the original giant.) The giant warned Thor not to go too far to sea for fear of the Midgard Serpent.

Thor used the head of the giant's ox as bait, and succeeded in hooking the monster.

Just before Thor could kill his ancient enemy, Hymir cut the rope. The monster snake escaped. It was destined to kill Thor in the end.

Once again, the Norse saw their favorite god's nasty upcoming death as something inescapable.

Thor by Fuseli

Thor and the Snake of Midgard -- including Elfwood painting
Thor and the Midgard Serpent
Thor and Midgard Serpent
Thor and Giants -- adapted from the Eddas

One of the most appealing things about Thor is a number of statements, including two from the Eddas, that he had built a happy place for his society's non-combatant males in the afterlife.

Tacitus wrote about the German non-warrior class, which we would call "serfs" or "slaves." He was amazed by how well they were treated, how rarely corporal punishment was required, and how seldom they disobeyed or deserted their masters.

According to the Poetic Edda, the enigmatic Odin received the souls of those who fell in battle. However, Thor had an even larger house ("Thrudvangar" or "Bilskirnir") to which welcomed "thralls".

Despite the overall emphasis on dying heroically in battle, it's clear that Germanic paganism offered servants, too, a place with the beloved rain god.

The old Germanic hero was expected, at the end, to die in battle. This was often a lonely defeat, as we read in "Beowulf".

According to the Eddas, Thor would perish at Ragnarok, an apocalypse called the Twilight of the Gods. Thor would kill the Midgard Serpent, the snake that encircles the earth. After taking nine steps backwards, he would be overcome by the serpent's poison.

Thor's sons would survive, along with some of the other more peaceable gods, in a new creation.

Probably the theme (as in Beowulf) is that although individuals perish in battle, their deaths enable society to survive.

Thor's Home Page -- folklorist's site, very nice
Viking History -- shows Thor, Hymir and Serpent
Thor -- includes Fantalov paintings
Thor Painting by Black Mamba, and much more
Sacred Texts -- Tales of Thor, including Fogelberg statue
Thor -- Leif Eriksson site
Thor -- "Heathen Gods" appreciation site
Thor in Vinland -- the North American Viking settlers included some who worshipped Thor rather than Christ
Norse Myth -- en francais
Thor -- encyclopedia of myths
Thor and the Giants

Aegir's Feast

Thor's Duel with Hrungnir -- scholarly paper going much beyond; Thor takes part in creation, against the powers of both cold and fire
A History of Pagan Europe

Among the Aesir, Thor is the only one who is called "the friend of man" (vinr verlidha).

Poetic Edda -- Mrs. Hymer calls Thor "Friend of Man"
The Gods of Our Forefathers -- Thor is best loved
The Call of our Ancient Nordic Religion
Eddic Mythology

Special Trees

Google Earth Oak Tree
Oak Tree -- Google Earth

    The biggest tree in an area is the obvious assigned meeting-place for people arriving on foot, since it's easily seen from a distance. Zeus's oaks at Dodona were famous, and said to whisper future events.

    When I was a young child, we lived a short walk from a historic Indian council tree, actually a group of three trees where the Potowatomie Indians would meet. I remember my family and the entire community being outraged when the famous trees were cut down in 1956 by developers. The truth used to be online but now you can see a sanatized version here.

    I've heard that JRRT originally sat down to write "The Lord of the Rings" after the people at Oxford cut cut down an ancient tree at Oxford.

Golden Bough -- Worship of the Oak

Religious Tolerance

If I were asked what I would most like to see change in our world, I would answer, "I want to see a world where religious differences no longer make people hostile to one another. I want organized religion to stop peddling hate. I want complete freedom of choice in matters of faith, limited only by respect for the common laws of humankind." You can cite your own examples.

I admire Boniface, and I know that he needed to cut down Thor's oak to reassure his people that the old gods would not take revenge. But the whole story is spoiled for me because the mass conversion was mandated by the government.

The Bible never claims that other nations' gods are evil spirits. Elisha even allowed Naaman to continue to take part in the Syrian cult of Rimmon, even though Naaman knew that Rimmon was just make-believe. ("Bowing to Rimmon" was the precedent, until Antiochus tried to force his own religious intolerance on the Jewish people.) The Old Testament simply ridicules belief in idols, and says up front the other gods -- or at least their powers -- are imaginary. The New Testament also suggests that perhaps the old gods now serve the One God in Christ. Paul reminded people who had scruples about eating meat killed in pagan temples that the old gods "have no real existence", and that as long as nobody else nearby got upset, worrying about this was silly.

    Historically, "demonization" means telling folks that their old gods were evil spirits. Especially in left-wing discussions, "demonization" also means saying anything that the discussant can't deny but doesn't want to hear. (For example, in 1995 some leftists at U. of Virginia complained I was "demonizing" Stalin when I reminded them that he had killed tens of millions of his own people.)

    Do the pagan gods serve the devil? The Church Fathers were divided. Justin Martyr thought Socrates was guided by the Holy Spirit, while Tertullian saw all of classical learning as satanic. Cyprian, the generally-likable bishop of Carthage, was prosecuted only when he rabble-roused his congregation into vandalizing non-Christian places of worship.

    Boniface probably did not demonize Thor, but simply showed everyone at Thor's Oak that nothing bad would happen by their leaving his cult. Later baptismal formulas from the region do include renunciations of some of the Germanic pagan gods and the "fiends" with whom they are allied. A few old sermons by German preachers urge folks to discontinue worship of the old gods in their homes. One sermon even warns against "dough idols", i.e., specially-shaped cookies. ("Give your people a break, Pastor. Gingerbread Thors aren't a peril to anyone's soul." -- Ed.) And we even have an old blacksmith's double mould, for making either cross amulets for Christians or Thor's-hammer amulets for old-believers.

My own life-experience is that the Christian faith, as people actually live it, is by far the strongest power in the world, and on balance a tremendous force for good. Organized religion is merely the tip of the iceberg, the "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." And I've observed that good people from all backgrounds find themselves drawn to Christ. Hence my emphasis on religious tolerance -- since I really believe in the power of Christ, I also believe in evangelizing only by example and offering friendship. (Forced conversions are the mark of proselytizers who themselves have no real faith -- a point made in a 2008 talk by the Archbishop of Canterbury.)

If your experience has been different, you must conclude that I am wrong.

European Paganism -- old book with accounts of "Christians" vandalizing the holy places of Thor and other gods

"Bishop, Is Thor Real?"

1. Yes, my sons. Thor is your ancient enemy. He is an evil spirit. Our scriptures tell is that there are spiritual beings ("demons" or "devils") that hate God and therefore seek to corrupt and bring sadness to the human race. Thor must be one of them. Think about it. You were taught that there will never be an end to war and senseless killing. Thor's wicked priests taught you to throw your lives away for nothing. If it seemed that Thor answered a prayer, it was only done by your spiritual enemies for your final ruin. But be glad. By cutting down the old tree, we proved that these evil spirits need no longer have any power over you, and you don't have to listen to their lies. You are free to worship without fear, and to share in a better life.

2. Yes, my sons. Thor is your ancient friend. He is a good angel. Our scriptures teach that the One God reveals Himself to every nation. And they tell us that when the world was young, we were under the care of the nature spirits, "the elements", like Thor. Over time, He teaches us more and more. Indeed, Thor's ministers already knew about the coming end of our world, and that it will be replaced by a better creation. In the end, all will come to the One God as He is revealed in Christ. Thor is one of God's many servants in heaven. Many people have seen these supernatural beings. They are His creations like we are, only much stronger and wiser than us. Their home is in heaven, and it's true that they welcome us after we die. And Thor himself may well have rescued you in situations of mortal danger. But Thor and the other angels never wanted to be worshipped. Now that you have accepted Christ as commander-in-chief, you are a fellow-warrior with Thor in an army that will not be defeated. And despite the old tales, Thor will not die. He will be your friend and companion forever.

    Thor Bust by Monte Moore

3. No, my sons. Thor is make-believe. Fun is fun. But we are adults. The tales about Thor teach children to be brave and to get along with each other. And even adults enjoy the tall tales. But why pray for help and guidance to someone that you know perfectly well never existed? You know that lightning isn't really the result of someone throwing a magic hammer, and the thunder that follows isn't the hoofbeats of giant goats. By becoming Christians, you are giving up this foolishness for a faith based on a cosmopolitan ethic of kindness and good-will. The truth will set you free from superstition and worry. We do not yet know the causes of thunder and lightning, but it must be something natural -- and ultimately discoverable by humankind. Ancient Greeks and Romans tried hard to make sense of the natural world, and with some success. Christians are now stewards of this knowledge. Let superstition die. Humankind will surely discover more of nature's secrets. Perhaps someday we will even harness the power of lightning.

4. Yes indeed, my sons! YOU are Thor! Thor represented everything that was best in your culture. He was your courage in battle and your ability to survive in a harsh natural world. He was your pride in work well done, he was your forthrightness, and he was your good humor and sense of fun. In fact, Thor even had a special welcome for your slaves -- a kinder and more generous offer even than the old Greeks and Romans ever considered. We're all Christians now, building a better world. Rather than a false god to be discarded, Thor can still be your team symbol, your mascot, an image to honor and love.

They must have asked. What answer do you think Winfrid Boniface gave?

What answer would YOU give?

Show Some Muscle

Especially as a male, I welcome the tendency of today's iconographers to show Christ and His followers as they must have looked -- robust, physically-fit men. Carpentry isn't a career for weaklings. Commercial fishing remains our world's most dangerous job. And Christ withstood torture without breaking.

In the accounts of the incident at Thor's Oak, we read that Boniface took off his shirt and axed the tree himself. You'll need to decide for yourself why iconography shows Boniface either directing others to do the physical work, or chopping while wearing his Benedictine habit.

Boniface was a man's man in a rough era, getting half-naked and doing hard physical work like the muscular god that Christianity was supplanting. No other image does justice to the incident at Thor's oak.

Action figure, anyone?

Click here, here, here, here or here for more accounts of Boniface at Thor's Oak.

Thor in Popular Culture

Probably no one today believes in a literal Thor who makes thunder and lightning, any more than people believe in Santa Claus, the Grim Reaper, Mother Nature, Jack Frost, Lady Justice, or Lady Luck. However, Thor is still well-liked.

Scion -- adventure game from White Wolf, in which human player characters are the children of the old gods. On the cover, Eric Donner is Thor's natural son.

Wagner's Operas feature Thor as a baritone. Some people like Wagner, though others don't. According to Mark Twain, "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

Marvel Comics features Thor. In the backstory, his father Odin sends him to live on earth, minus his memories, as a handicapped medical student.

Thor Movie scheduled for release in 2009.

Now please don't be offended. Thor can still be a cultural icon for hard work and service to the poor. A men's lodge with Thor as mascot, made up mostly of men who profess the Christian faith, could probably do more good for a community than most of today's right-wing and left-wing churches. ("Free auto maintenance and minor repairs for the poor every Thursday!") And today's churches -- both liberal and conservative -- could benefit from the example of Boniface of Mainz, the effective, bare-chested warrior-chaplain who cut down Thor's oak and paid with his life.

At the End

Boniface took nine steps backward. He felt his blood wash over him.

Suddenly, everything became clear.

Boniface saw a united Europe, free and at peace.

Christian scholarship led to science. People no longer had to endure malnutrition, or die young from infections or childbirth. Europe's health, liberty and prosperity was beyond anything Boniface could have imagined.

The Christian message had changed human attitudes. Even if they did not remember why, people wanted to approach one another in kindness and good-will. They needed to defend themselves, but they now hated war. And while the world was still full of hatred, evil, and treachery, the only soldiers fighting honorably were fielded from nations founded on Christian principles.

His action at Thor's Oak had made possible a world where knowledge had replaced superstition, and love could win over violence.

Had he ever doubted? We cannot know.

Thor took nine steps backward. He felt the dead snake's poison wash over him.

Suddenly, everything became clear.

The old order was indeed passing away at Ragnarok. A better world would follow.

Thor had kept his people alive, secure, and living together as a community under savage conditions.

He had built a nation that was now ready for something far grander. Life need not end as a lonely defeat.

He would live on as an idea of courage and strength.

He would be an image of past greatness in a safer, freer, kinder world.

Perhaps Thor even foresaw this writer. My veins run rich with the blood of the German peoples. It's as a sympathetic, strong Christian that I am honoring Thor today. And I am writing these words in strange glowing runes, crafted from Thor's own electricity.

Had Thor realized all along that he was his people's good angel? We cannot know.

Heathens Against Hate Heathens Against Hate -- anti-neoNazi site uses Thor's hammer as symbol

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