Christianization of Iceland


Christianization of Iceland

Iceland converted to the Christian religion in 1000 AD. In Icelandic, this event is known as the "kristnitaka" (literally, "the taking of Christianity").

Earliest observance

The earliest Christian observance in the country in all likelihood began with the arrival of the first settlers during the settlement of Iceland in the 9th and 10th centuries AD. Some of the settlers were from the British Isles and had adopted Christianity through their contact with the Irish. However, the vast majority of the initial settlers were pagan, worshipping the "Æsir" (the Norse gods), and organized Christian observance probably died out within a generation or so.

ources

Iceland's adoption of Christianity is traditionally ascribed to the year 1000 (although some historians would place it in the year 999). The major sources for the events preceding the adoption of Christianity are Ari Thorgilsson's Book of the Icelanders, the Icelandic family sagas and Church writings about the first bishops and preachers. Ari Thorgilsson's account of the events surrounding the conversion seem to be reliable. Ari was born 67 years after the conversion, and cites first-hand sources.

Missionaries

Beginning in 980, Iceland was visited by several missionaries. The first of these seems to have been an Icelander returning from abroad, one Thorvald Konradsson (Old Norse: "Þorvaldr Konráðsson inn víðförli"). Accompanying Thorvald was a German bishop named Fridrek, about whom little is known. Thorvaldur's attempt to convert Icelanders met with limited success. He was the subject of ridicule and was eventually forced to flee the country after a conflict in which two men were killed.

King Olaf exerts pressure

When Olaf Tryggvason ascended to the crown of Norway, the effort to Christianize Iceland intensified. King Olaf sent an Icelander named Stefnir Thorgilsson back to Iceland to convert the Icelanders. Stefnir violently destroyed sanctuaries and images of the heathen gods -- this made him so unpopular that he was eventually declared an outlaw. After Stefnir's failure, Olaf sent a priest named Thangbrand (Old Norse: "Þangbrandr"). Thangbrand was an experienced missionary, having proselytized both in Norway and the Faroe Islands. His mission in Iceland from c. 997-999 was only partly successful. He managed to convert several prominent Icelandic chieftains, but killed two or three men in the process. Thangbrand returned to Norway in 999 and reported his failure to King Olaf, who immediately adopted a more aggressive stance towards the Icelanders. He refused Icelandic seafarers access to Norwegian ports and took as hostages several Icelanders then dwelling in Norway. This cut off all trade between Iceland and its main trading partner. Some of the hostages taken by King Olaf were the sons of prominent Icelandic chieftains, whom he threated to kill unless the Icelanders accepted Christianity.

The Icelandic Commonwealth's limited foreign policy consisted almost entirely of maintaining good relations with Norway. The Christians in Iceland used the King's pressure to step up efforts at conversion. The two rival religions soon divided the country and threatened civil war.

Adoption by arbitration

This state of affairs reached a high point the next summer during the meeting of the Alþing, the political hub of the Commonwealth. Fighting between adherents of the rival religions seemed likely until mediators intervened and the matter was submitted to arbitration. The law speaker of the Alþing, Thorgeir Thorkelsson, the "goði" of Ljósavatn, (Icelandic: "Þorgeir ljósvetningagoði"), was acceptable to both sides as mediator, being known as a moderate and reasonable man. Thorgeir accepted responsibility for deciding whether Iceland should become Christian, with the condition that both parties abide by his decision. When this was agreed, he spent a day and a night resting under a fur blanket, contemplating. The following day he announced that that Iceland was to become Christian, with the condition that old laws concerning the exposure of infants and the eating of horseflesh would remain, and that private pagan worship be permitted. Thorgeir, who was himself a pagan priest, took his pagan idols and threw them into a large waterfall, which is now known as Waterfall of the Gods (Icelandic: "Goðafoss").

The problem of changing religions was thus solved, as people abided by Thorgeir's decision and were baptised. Civil war was averted via arbitration. Iceland's peaceful adoption is in many ways remarkable, given the decades of civil strife before Norway became fully Christian. A likely explanation is that the major "goði" chieftains of Iceland preferred religious change to civil strife.

Bargaining with the Church

Icelanders did not convert before stipulating that Iceland would be exempt from two laws of the Church. Icelanders would be permitted to eat horsemeat, even though Pope Gregory III had banned the Germanic custom of eating the meat of horses in 732. Icelanders would also be allowed to continue to practice infanticide. The practice of exposing "surplus" children was an established part of old Icelandic culture. It was strongly believed that there was a limit to the number of people the island could support and that rearing too many children would bring disaster for all.Fact|date=April 2008 The Church accepted these conditions, along with a provision that Icelanders be allowed to continue to practice pagan rituals in private. All three conditions were guaranteed by Rome in perpetiuty. It was quite usual for the Church to make concessions to pagan practices as part of the conversion efforts. Once the church was firmly in control in Iceland, the Church reneged on its pledge and horsemeat, infanticide, and pagan rituals practiced in private were banned. [ Gwyn Jones, The North Atlantic Saga: Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, and North America, Oxford U. Press, 1986, pp. 149-51.]

References

Sources

* Byock, Jesse "Viking Age Iceland", Penguin 2001


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