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Why did the Vikings call Jesus the White Christ?

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

Jesus is often refered to by the Vikings as the "White Christ". Thor was called "Red Thor." Thor is easily enough figured out. He has a red beard. But Christ? Certainly not all that "white". He was a Palestinian! I've heard Christ got his nickname "White Christ" for the white robes Christian converts wore. Is that true?

(signed) Questioning the Color Controversy

Gentle Reader:

The term for "White Christ" or Hvítakristr came into currency among the heathen Icelanders at the time when pagan and Christian religions were in conflict with each other. A direct reference to this is made in the Flateyjarbók: "Þeir sem þann sið hafa, taka nafn af þeim guði, er þeir trúa á, er heitr Hvítakristr."

That the Christian god was called Hvítakristr was originally probably due to the fact that the newly baptized converts were obliged to wear white robes (i hvítaváðum) during the first week after the baptism.

The adjective hvítr when applied to Christ was not meant to describe his physical appearance. At one time in the development of Old Norse, the term was used of either sex to denote someone who was blonde and/or pale-complected.

However, by the Viking Age, the term hvítr had acquired a perjorative connotation. To call a man hvítr was to say that he was cowardly, effeminate, and guilty of argr. (See the Viking Answer Lady's article on homosexuality in the Viking Age for more information on the term argr and how it was related to to the concept of cowardice by the Vikings). A related phrase was to say, "your liver is white" meaning again, a coward... which is almost identical to modern English usage, "lily-livered" with the same meaning. (Modern usage also uses "yellow" in this sense.)

In stark contrast to the peace-loving Hvítakristr, who was considered by a pagan warrior culture to be effeminate or cowardly, the Vikings revered their manly, virile god Red Thórr, red not only for his red beard and flashing red eyes, but likewise for the blood that a warrior spills.

Red Thorr White Christ

The conflict between pagan and Christian views crystallized around the dichotomy of Hvítakristr and Red Thórr, becoming a recurring theme in saga events near the time of the Conversion, as in this scornful poem by Steinunnn, mother of Refr Gestasson, describing how Thórr wrecked the ship of a Christian priest, Thangbrand, showing to Steinunn that Christ therefore was the weaker god:

Þórr brá Þvinnils dýri
Þangbrands ór stað longu,
hristi borð ok beysti
barðs ok laust við jorðu;
munat skíð um sæ síðan
sundfært Atals grundar,
hregg því at hart tók leggja,
hánum kennt, í spánu.

[Thórr altered the course of Thangbrand's
long horse of Thvinnil 1,
he tossed and bashed
the plank of the prow 2 and smashed
it all down to the solid ground;
the ski of the ground of Atall 3
won't later be buoyant on the sea
since the baleful gale caused by him splintered it all into kindling.

Braut fyrir bjollu gæti
(bond ráku val strandar)
mogfellandi mellu
móstalls vísund allan;
hlífðit Kristr, þá er kneyfði
knorr, málfeta varrar;
lítt hygg ek at Guð gætti
Gylfa hreins at einu.

The killer of ogresses' kin 4
pulverized fully the mew-perch bison 5
of the bell's guardian 6
(the gods chased the steed of the strand 7)
Christ cared not for sea-shingle stepper 8
when cargo-boat crumbled;
I think that God hardly guarded
the reindeer of Gylfi 9 at all.
  1. long horse of Thvinnil = Thangbrand's ship
  2. plank of the prow = the ship
  3. ground of Atall = sea, ski of the sea = ship
  4. ogresses' kin = giants, giant-killer = Thórr
  5. mew-perch = the sea, sea bison = ship
  6. bell's guardian = the priest, i.e. Thangbrandr
  7. steed of the strand = ship
  8. sea-shingle stepper = ship
  9. reindeer of Gylfi = ship

It was during this period of conflict between religions that amulets of Thórr's hammer, Mjollnir, increased in popularity as ornaments,perhaps in response to Christians weraing the symbol of the cross. Jewellers at this time were hedging their bets by making molds for casting crosses and Thórr's Hammer's simultaneously, as is shown by this tenth-century soapstone mold, found at Trendgården, Jylland, Denmark.

Soapstone mold for casting both crosses and Thorr's Hammers from Trendgaarden, Jylland, Denmark

Other amulets were hybrids representing the Cross and the Hammer simultaneously, as in the silver pendant, found near Fossi in Iceland, shown below.

Hybrid amulet combining both a cross and Thorr's Hammer from Fossi, Iceland

The perjorative sense which became attached to hvitr was not associated with other words meaning white, including bjartr, "bright", bleikr, "wan, pale" or ljóss, "light".

For a full discussion, see:

Sturtevant, Albert M. "The Contemptuous Sense of the Old Norse Adjective Hvítr, 'White, Fair'." Scandinavian Studies 24(3): 119-121, 1952.

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