When Christianity was getting its start, the religion didn’t exactly spread like wildfire. In its early days, the world was a tough place to be spreading new ideas. To create converts, Christians had to appeal to many, many different kinds of people for centuries. Selling the “Prince of Peace” to the Germanic-Saxon tribes of Northern Europe was particularly hard, so Christians framed Jesus in a way the locals could better understand.
Saxons were pretty much forced to take on Christianity in the 8th and 9th Centuries after a guy named Charlemagne rolled across Northern Europe with a giant sword he named “Joyous” and forced everyone there to take Communion or take three feet of steel.
But that didn’t mean they were thrilled about it.
So, to make the idea of accepting the Christian god more amenable to the erstwhile pagan northerners, Jesus was recreated in a Saxon poem called Heliand, an epic poem that incorporated the Christian ideals with the Germanic warrior ethos – and that’s what caught on like wildfire. Not only did the Saxon warriors begin to accept the tenets of the new religion, the mix of cultures became the foundation of Medieval Europe and the culture of knighthood.
From there, the budding religion blossomed in the north and became widespread among the Saxons and beyond.
But it wasn’t just that the idea of God’s son being a warrior chieftain that appealed to the northerners. It was actually just a really rockin’ good poem for the time. It was so popular, in fact, that multiple copies of Heliand still survive. If we’re being honest with ourselves, no matter what we think of the Christian religion, the stories are pretty good. Of particular interest in the Heliand are the stories of Genesis, the Revolt of the Angels, the story of Cain and Abel, and the Destruction of Sodom.
Imagining the same characters from these Biblical stories in a different setting would changes the way we see Christianity, even today.
Another reason it caught on so fast was that it was written in a way familiar to the Saxons. It’s the largest known work ever written in the Old Saxon language and it was written in the epic poem style that was already popular with those people at the time. Jesus became a chieftain, prayers became runes, and the last supper became “the last mead hall feast with the warrior-companions.”
The poem still exists in many forms, with manuscripts being held by the British Museum, the Catholic Church in Vatican City, Germany’s Bavarian State Library, and more. You can buy an English-language copy of the Heliand on Amazon, which includes lines from the life and times of Jesus like:
• The Chieftain of mankind is born in David’s hill-fort.
• The three foreign warriors present their gifts to the Ruler’s Child.
• John announces Christ’s coming to Middlegard.
• Christ the Chieftain is immersed in the Jordan by His loyal thane John.
• The Champion of mankind fights off the loathsome enemy.
• Christ, the might Chieftain, chooses His first warrior-companions.
• The mighty Rescuer calls twelve to be His men.
Now admit that Christmas and Easter just got a whole lot cooler.