We took a long drive to Colorado recently, and one of the books-on-disk we took along, the only one we actually managed to finish, was The Thrall’s Tale by Judith Lindbergh. It is a 2005 novel we found at a local used bookstore, and the packaging was well-worn, implying it had gone through many previous sets of hands. It was a purchase based solely on the package notes, but one that turned out very well. The Thrall’s Tale is a well-written novel built on extensive historical research, an absorbing plot and interesting characters, one that takes the reader effectively into the assumptions and activities of a foreign culture and a distant time.
Thrall is the word for a Viking slave. The Thrall’s Tale begins with a slave’s view of one of the first expeditions to settle Greenland, more than 1,000 years ago. It explores daily living conditions and personal and social relationships among people with limited tools in a very difficult environment. Well-known historical figures, including Eirik the Red and Leif Eiriksson, appear briefly in this story, but the focus is clearly on ordinary people, especially women.
The settlement of Greenland occurred at a time when Christianity was making inroads into the Scandinavian countries—in Iceland, the official conversion was made by a vote during the annual meeting of parliament in 1000 A.D. Religious disputes, between followers of the ancient Norse religion and promoters of Christianity, form one of the major themes in the novel, and one of the leading characters, the thrall of the title, is a Christian woman captured during a raid in England.
The novel’s discussion of the meeting of two incompatible traditions, of the conversion of a society, of the inevitable occurrence of cultural inertia, conflict, and mixed acceptance, along with its accurate description of the many challenges of life in early European communities, stimulated thoughts about the many reasons why human cultures have created religious stories and built and maintained religious systems. Our earth’s many and diverse religions often promote themselves as complex transcendental truths, beyond (above?) the mundane concerns of everyday reality, but they undoubtedly began and gained adherents as responses to pragmatic needs and emotional desires. Gods and myths arose and spread as devices to understand and control, as much as possible, the world around us.
Human societies all face experiences which are uncontrollable and often inexplicable. In the present, because of our increased scientific knowledge and technology, the uncontrollable and inexplicable are a relatively small proportion of the total number of events in our lives. One thousand years ago that proportion was significantly higher. People simply did not know what caused disease, and had fewer methods to fight illness or injury. They had few tools to predict, or to mitigate the effects of, hazardous weather. When possible, early cultures did respond to such uncertainty through careful observation, and created oral traditions and physical structures to systematize the knowledge gained. Anthropologists have found that a single hunter-gatherer society can maintain the knowledge to collect and prepare thousands of plant species for a variety of human uses, even in an environment as sparse as the Australian outback. Cultures also created stories to explain observed phenomena and to provide a comprehensive mental representation, a cosmology or world-view, to pull their knowledge together and help fill in the many gaps in direct observation. Almost universally these stories involved supernatural beings, and rituals were created to call on gods or spirits and their powers when needed. The names and characteristics of supernatural beings and the methods for invoking their assistance differed widely across the world, but the general construct was, and is, universal. Religious stories were created to provide useful solutions to the related problems of understanding the world around us and responding to crises. Religion was, first and foremost, utilitarian and purposeful.
Each human society tended to coalesce around and consolidate one dominant and interrelated collection of religious stories, and each was resistant to alternatives that might be brought in from outside. A common religious structure grew from, and supported, cultural and social cohesion. Any individual would know from birth where they stood in society, who they should worship, where they should go when injured or aggrieved, and why events happened—or as much of the why as they were willing or able to accept. Yes, there were conflicts, but these occurred within a shared framework. Yes, there were crises, but there were explanations for these and actions—sacrifices and rituals and prayers—that could be performed to reduce the duration and the damages (or the perception of them).
Religion has been an effective tool for strengthening social unification and providing reassurance to individuals within each group. If so, then, how is it that some religions have spread and others disappeared? Many proponents of the major systems would have it that one faith replaces another because of divine intervention. Others argue that successful religions spread because they are somehow preferable or more effective. On the individual level, certainly, people do choose to change religious preferences for a variety of reasons. If you look at historical evidence, however, it becomes obvious that large-scale changes have occurred primarily through military conquest. What the Roman Empire did for Christianity the Ottoman Empire did for Islam. In other regions, conversion began as compromise intended to facilitate trade with other cultures. From the standpoint of the individuals who were accepting, or pretending to accept, the new religious practices, the conversion was generally pragmatic. After all, for all of the attention given to the historical Thomases, Beckett and More, the percentage of any population willing to sacrifice their lives or livelihood for specific religious principles is extremely small. Today in the United States, most individuals who convert do so to conform to the wishes and practices of their friends, a decidedly practical goal.
Do I base all of the above on the fictional events in The Thrall’s Tale? No, that would be too much credence to be accorded to any single book, fiction or not, whatever the reputation of the author. This book simply and effectively brought into focus, through vignettes featuring well-developed and believable characters, the realities of life in northern Europe a thousand years ago, helping to bring to mind, and to make more concrete and immediate, much of the sociological and anthropological information I have absorbed in the past 40-odd years.
Proponents of any specific religion, particularly evangelical believers who want to promote their own “true” religion and denigrate all others, will not be happy with the concepts expressed above. But these are the facts. Religions were cobbled together out of ignorance and desperation. One set of religious stories and rituals is pretty much as effective as any other set, and no religious tradition has a monopoly on truth, logic, or desirability. Every religion has significant deficiencies, and the continuation of each represents a multifaceted compromise involving competing social needs, institutional power, individual emotions, historical research, scientific progress, and logical assumptions and methods.
The Thrall’s Tale provides no answers or solutions. It merely allows us to experience human struggles, accomplishments, and diversity. In that and many other ways, it is honest and realistic, and not just in regard to religion.
“There ain’t no answer.
There ain’t gonna be any answer.
There never has been an answer.
That’s the answer.”
– Gertrude Stein