I know this is not the right time of year, but I have been wanting to write about The Heliand since I read it in the summer of 2016. It is one of the stories I wanted to write about from the start: it is incredible, and more relevant than it could seem. Anyway, now is when I have the time, and who knows when it will happen again.
So this is the story: I will start it in the second person singular.
Imagine you are a Saxon. Not a Saxon in Engla-land, a Saxon in Saxony, what one day will be Germany. You worship many gods, like your cousins overseas – gods who ask you to be brave and loyal and encourage pride, adventure, and knowledge. You believe in fate, but not as a sentence passed on you: as a way to be free from fear in a very tough world.
It is the end of the 8th century, and your life, the life of your people is under attack from the West. The Franks used to be like the Saxons, but they have long forsaken the many gods for the one god, one who is (confusingly) also three. This god’s priests preach humility and submission, especially to women, and call everything that is good in life (including pride) a sin. You don’t like it. Your people don’t like it. Your lords refuse to abandon the gods, just as you do. So you fight for years, until defeat comes, at the hands of a king that will be remembered as Charlemagne. To this king, military victory is not enough: he wants spiritual victory, too. The Saxons must be christians. Those who do not accept baptism are put to death: in a place that will be called Verden thousands of warriors and chieftains are slain in one day.
A Frankish Gospel from the Ninth Century
Yet the Saxons do not give in, and even after the destruction of the sacred Irminsul many keep to their pagan ways. Even though it can cost you yor life to refuse to baptise your children, or to celebrate a pagan funeral. The cult of the one god is just too unlike who you are. The Franks may punish and kill, but it doesn’t work. Until they have an idea.
Irminsul/Yggdrasil (this depiction is in a Longobard site in Tuscany)
No one knows who conceived and wrote The Heliand, but whoever had the idea was a genius – of the same kind as Leni Riefenstahl. It is believed he must have been a monk. He must have thought, ‘If we can’t make the Saxons Christians, we can make Christ a Saxon’. It worked. The Saxons were converted by the strangest gospel you will ever read.
You can read The Heliand – The Saxon Gospel in the annotated version by Professor G. Ronald Murphy of Georgetown University, but others are also available ( The original is in Old Saxon). I found it incredible, I kept telling myself, ‘did they really do this?’
In The Heliand, Christ and the apostles are a small warband. Christ is the earl, and the apostles his noble thanes. They ride horses and carry swords, including when they enter Jerusalem. They are “good people”, and good people in the archaic germanic world are young, strong and intelligent. Christ’s mother is given the status of a lady in germanic society, so visitors, like the Three Kings, approach her with great respect.
As you read on, there is the weird feeling of going through an unexpected transplant of a well-known story: a little like when you realise where Apocalypse now comes from. The episodes are all there, but they are also different, starting from the setting, because here Galilee is a land of forests and lakes, with hillforts instead of towns: there is Fort Jerusalem, Fort Canaan and so on. When Christ goes away for forty days, he doesn’t fast or do penance in a desert, he tests his strength in the forest, just like a young warrior at a time of peace would (think of Bjorn Ironside in Vikings season 3). When he preaches, he does command to tolerate wrongs (not to FORGIVE them), but never asks to turn the other cheek to those who are attacked. When his time comes, he accepts his fate bravely, he does not implore to keep the cup away from him.
Crucially, the concepts of fate and time as they were in the germanic world-view are maintained, allowing this foreign story to look more familiar and acceptable. Magic is also there to explain miracles: we must not forget that “gospel” is originally “God’s spell”, the magic that god/the gods can work. In some points the original has words written both in the Latin alphabet and in runes, which were supposed to have magical powers. The architecture of reality remains germanic: the Lord’s prayer says “Do not let evil little creatures lead us off to do their will”, as many sorts of supernatural creatures were thought to share the world with humanity and many (the black elves, for instance) were malignant. When Christ explain how Doomsday will happen, he says the fire from Muspelheim will devour the world.
We know how it ended. The Saxon lords were finally converted, just like all the other germanic peoples had done or would do in time.
Incidentally, The Heliand is one of the reasons for the fair-skinned and blue-eyed saviours and virgins in christian iconography. Unfortunately, it is also one of the many origins of antisemitic attitudes, because only Christ and his people undergo the transformation: the Romans and the Jews are depicted and dark and smallish, so that a feeling of “US, the brave and beautiful” and “THEM, the small cowardly dark-skinned others” is at least potentially there. One of those cases of “in the eye of the beholder”.