“High Ruler of the Storm-Tents”: The Christianization of Iceland
Iceland was first settled by people from Norway at the end of the 9th century. Almost a century later, king Óláfr of Norway decided to send a priest named þangbrandr in order to convert the population -which was still partly heathen- to Christianity. However, he had succeeded to baptize only a few and “[…] when he had been here for one or two years, þangbrandr left, and had killed two or three men here who had libelled him.”
From this account, given by Ari þorgilsson in The Book of Icelanders, it is easy to imagine a very bad-tempered Viking priest leaving Iceland due to the stubbornness of the people in worshipping Thor. Luckily for him, the process of Christianization would be completed only a little later according to Ari.
Nevertheless, it will become apparent that in spite of the well-defined character of Ari’s report, the process for Christianising Iceland was a troublesome one from the very beginning, and it gradually acquired some interesting characteristics.
It is known that before the arrival of settlers from Norway, some monks had previously arrived to Iceland, probably from Ireland. However, they left as soon as the Norwegian settlers arrived for they did not want to share land with the heathens, from what is stated in The Book of Icelanders. For a hundred years settlers lived there as heathens, and created a complex yet apparently very practical and efficient legal system by importing the so-called Ulfljótr laws from their motherland and establishing the Althing -the assembly of the chieftains- as well as local gatherings.
The centrality of laws and the legal apparatus is striking. Not only does the author make reference to law-speakers -those in charge of transmitting the law- at the end of many sections of his work, but we are told that Icelanders created a more efficient calendar merely in order for the Althing to run more smoothly. The division of the island in four “legal districts” was supposed to be a measure to grant more fairness in trials, after an unfortunate case of murder not dealt with properly.
What is even more interesting is the profound correlation between the coming of Christianity and laws in Iceland.
The first unsuccessful attempt at conversion by the king of Norway through his emissary þangbrandr has already been mentioned. However, in 999 0r 1000, Gizzur, one of Iceland’s Christian chieftains, proposed a deal to the king: that he and Hjalti -another chieftain- would try to bring Christianity to his people by law, making it proclaimed at the annual meeting of the Althing. After a dispute over Hjalti’s presence at the assembly -he had said, in a previous meeting, “I don’t wish to bark at the gods: it seems to me Freyja’s a bitch”- the two of them managed to persuasively talk to the other chieftains. Not all of them were convinced, but they recognized that such division in religion -and thus law, as Ari implies- could not do. The next day, after a night of thinking, the law-speaker declared that it is for the sake of Iceland’s unity that whatever law he was going to announce to them, everyone must agree on it. So it was done, Þórgeirr proclaimed the Christian laws, and although people would be still free to perform heathen rituals as long as no witnesses were present -this policy would then be abandoned-, all chieftains submitted to the Christian creed.
Historical veridicality of the very facts that Ari recounts is debatable. Yet, the overall importance given to law, the chieftains’ unity and their relationship with religion should not be dismissed, for it was probably intended by the author. Scholar Siân Grønlie remarks that in spite of the various Christian significances Ari brings about, like the portrayal of Ulfljótr the first law-speaker as Moses, Christianity seems to be more meaningful to Icelandic identity due to its legal character than its spiritual one. For example, Gizurr, who would later become one of the first Icelandic bishops, is praised more for his eloquence at the assembly rather than his piety or other “Christian qualities.”
In his study of the early Icelandic laws contained in the Grágás, scholar Peter Foote notices that rather than a comprehensive law corpus dictating a definitive liturgy, they were meant to regulate Christian life in the Icelandic context: for example, given the geophysical morphology of Iceland, indications are given on how to help each other dispose of corpses or make a baptism happen.
Priests, given their scarcity in 11th and 12th centuries, are told not to give mass more than twice in a day in the same church, for they would have better moved around and given the chance for as many people as possible to attend service. Thus, major emphasis would have been on “social interdependence,” to put it in Foote’s words.
Early Churches and Burials
Further evidence on the “practicality” of Icelandic Christianity can be found in archaeology. Until relatively recently -around the 1960s-, Christian archaeology did not enjoy the same relevance in the field as the heathen one, due to antiquarians’ excitement for local legends and sagas. When digs were carried out, major controversies arose about both burials and cult-centres, for the distinctions between Christian and heathen ones seemed very blurred: why were there Christian manufacts in supposedly heathen burials? What differentiated a church from a heathen temple? Was it possible that the holiness of a place passed on from one religion to the other? Some of these questions were answered by the latest analyses.
The institution of liturgy and a system of churches throughout the country was a gradual process. In 11th century, a great number of churches existed in Iceland, although they were both very small and sometimes attached to chieftains’ estates and farms. The main purpose of their existence was to provide a space where rituals such as baptism and funerals could be performed, rather than hosting masses for the crowds. This supposition is supported by the fact that some of them are to be found near heathen burial soils. In fact, the sacred character of specific places related to the idea of death -hills, mountains, specific localities and, of course, burial soils- seemed to have generally survived in the Christian age. Some Christian burials are to be found near heathen ones and, more in general, they follow the same principle: most of them were attached to farm sites, and, possibly, were being used by the same community living in that estate. Church-sites would have originated from burial soils.
Nevertheless, historian Orri Vésteinsson points out that there is evidence for some early churches to be moved closer to estates -with rules strictly regulating the moving of bones etc., meaning that they must have been a certain distance from them. On one hand, it is possible that these movements were dictated by geographical circumstances.
However, another possible answer is that bigger churches were being built for masses and that the small homesteads’ ones were increasingly becoming sanctuaries and status symbols for the personal use of a chieftain’s family in the 12th and 13th centuries.
A peculiar phenomenon is the growth of the so-called staðir: in the 12th century, some churches began to acquire -even only partly- the farms in which they were located and started to finance themselves.
“High Ruler of the Storm-Tents”
By focusing on the “practical” aspect of Icelandic Christianity, we might incur the mistake of assuming the non-existence of its spiritual aspect.
As mentioned above, when the major wave of conversion took place around the year 1000, Icelanders were not at all ignorant of the Christian religious teaching. However, most of them still worshipped Thor, Freyr and Oðinn, with Thor being the major object of devotion.
It might not be surprising then that during the conversion major emphasis was given to his Christian counterpart, Christ himself. From Dag Strömbäck’s remarks on skaldic poetry, the opposition between Christ and Thor appears to be very “physical,” for the main area in which they competed was prowess. To put it simply, Christ was the one to be worshipped because he was more powerful than Thor, as he has no weaknesses and can grant strength and success in mortal life as well as granting a seat in Heaven to the good men, punishing those who commit injustices.
Heaven was a key theme in skaldic poetry which mingled with the one of Christ. Icelanders believed in the Valhọll as afterlife. It was considered to be a merry place, where the dead who had lived a worthy life could feast and have banquets in the company of the others. Strömbäck persuasively argues that this idea of “happy afterlife” could easily match the newly imported one of Heaven.
In Sun of Sorrow, a poem by Gamli kanóki, an Augustinian canon in the South of Iceland in the 12th century, the depiction of the Last Judgment seems to borrow its imagery from the one of the Ragnarọk from previous poetic traditions.
Further literary evidence on the peculiar character of Christian spirituality is provided by the kennings -formulaic metaphors- contained in the poem. Many times God is referred to as “high ruler of the storm-tents,” “pure king of the storm-hall,” “king of the sun-tent” or “excellent warden of the high path of the storm.” According to Katrina Attwood, this “obsession” with weather, which is both beautiful and powerful, would occur because typically it had been an Icelandic literary topos rather than a biblical reference.
There is no doubt that the conversion of Iceland to Christianity was very much shaped by the historical, social, cultural and even geographical circumstances in which it took place. However, it would be misleading to take for granted that this kind of process did not happen, to a certain extent and with different outcomes, in the continental context. From the example of Iceland, it can be argued that conversion requires acceptance from the society -at least to a certain degree- and that it would become part of the people’s culture rather than completely subvert it. In other words, Icelanders were not “less” Christian than any other people because they incorporated to the depiction of God their appreciation of the weather, or because they followed the same principle of selecting soils for Christian burials as they did for pagan ones, or because they might have partly decided over Christian religion for a political reason.
This given, this article presents several limitations due to its length. First of all, only a selection of primary sources was used, with Kristni Saga and most of the skaldic poetry corpus remaining sidelined along with sources for bishops and saints’ devotion, which played an important role in Christian spirituality in Iceland. Secondly, archaeological evidence has maybe been oversimplified and only general patterns been highlighted. Finally, and most importantly, no attempt of direct comparison with examples of conversion on the continent has been made. More research in the field might lead to different conclusions.
Written by Vania Buso
Íslendingabók: The Book of Icelanders & Kristni Saga: The Story of the Conversion. Translated by Siân Grønlie. London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2006.
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