Is Iceland Returning to the Old Gods?

Hey guys! It’s happening! The Vikings are returning and ready to plunder once more! Grab your swords and axes and hide your precious gold chalices!

Well, not quite. We Vikings are not quite ready to organize yet. But I did read a very interesting article about Iceland today. Apparently, we could be seeing a resurgence in older Viking culture, which is also really cool.

I read an article today titled: “Iceland to Build First Temple to Norse Gods Since Viking Age.” Immediately I was intrigued. It was a short article, basically explaining what the temple would be for, where it would be located, and a brief mention about the current practice of Norse Paganism in the modern world. The article quips that it is the first temple to be built in Iceland in over 1000 years. Well, its 1015 years since Iceland converted, to be exact.  I would argue, however, that this new temple is not so much a shift back to the old but a new iteration of the way Scandinavians have practiced religion since the tenth century, when the Scandinavian kingdoms began to convert to Christianity. The story of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity is a particularly interesting case, as it was decided not by kings or priests but by one meeting and one lawspeaker after three days of contemplation. While Norse Paganism is considered by some circles to be an outdated religion, Norse Paganism is still vibrant today, though in different ways than in the Viking Era. But in order to understand how Norse Paganism is in our world today, it is first important to understand its origins.

Iceland was founded by Scandinavian settlers, mostly Norwegians, starting in the late ninth century. According to the Heimskringla, this emigration was due to the growing power of King Harald Fairhair, who was infringing on the rights of the landowning farmers in his kingdom. Historically there were other factors, such as a growing scarcity of resources, which pushed these Norwegians to travel to Iceland. But it is this specific anger at the king’s centralized power which saga authors cited as the reason for Iceland’s unique form of government.  In Pre-Christian Norway the inhabitants were ruled by local lesser kings and by things. Things were regional assemblies where anyone from the community could come and determine the laws of the community. The people of the thing were also in charge of enforcing the laws and determining the punishment of lawbreakers. (Take that, Athens!)  The Norwegians brought their culture with them to Iceland, though it evolved once they arrived. At the height of Medieval Iceland, the island was divided into four districts ruled by godi, who had a voice in the local thing and represented their region at the larger Althing in the spring. The Althing was open to anyone in Iceland and it was overseen by the lawspeaker, who memorized the entire law code and recited it to the assembly.

In 1000 AD, King Olav Tryggvason was putting pressure on the leaders of Iceland to convert to Christianity. The issue was presented to the Althing, and many were against the conversion. The lawspeaker, Thorgeir, was given the final say, and so he hid in a cave for three days to think. (Typical Scandinavian.) After three days of not eating or talking to anyone, he came out and said that Iceland should convert.  He reasoned that “the people would be in a sorry plight if men in [Iceland] were not all to have the same law.” (Thorgilsson, The Book of the Icelanders, 66). Thorgeir’s decision was based on several factors, the most important of which I will outline below:

  • Norse Paganism in the medieval period was more of a set of cultural practices than modern conceptions of religion like Christianity. The practice of Norse Paganism varied widely by region, with each local king and village having its own favored god. Therefore, Norse Pagans were very accepting of variations in belief and practice. The pagan Icelanders did not have a problem with adding Jesus to their pantheon. Rather, they distrusted Christianity because Christianity forbade the worship of the older gods. In accepting Christianity as the new religion, the Althing came to a compromise. The people could practice Norse Paganism at home, but they had to practice Christianity in public.
  • Becoming Christian had deep political implications in that period. It meant, in essence, an alliance with King Olav Tryggvason of Norway, who was quickly consolidating power in Norway and the surrounding islands at the time. More broadly, Christianity was the currency through which political actions were made in the Middle Ages, and to reject Christianity was to cut oneself off from the development of the rest of Europe. Without Christianity, Europe did not recognize the Scandinavian kingdoms as a legitimate, which affected not only politics and war but also trade.

This is not to say, however, that the conversion in 1000 AD made everyone in Iceland into fervent Christians.  Conversion is a very slow process, both at the individual level and in communities. In the eleventh century, however, baptism was considered akin to conversion, so once Iceland was baptized they could reap the political rewards that came with that new allegiance. Meanwhile, the people carried on most of the same cultural practices that they had for generations, including Norse Paganism.

Later conversion efforts of Scandinavia tried to wipe out more of these older practices, but once again these conversions came in the form of compromise. My favorite illustration of this is a scene from “The Saga of Olav Tryggvason” by Oddr Snorrason. Olav Tryggvason was wondering how he was going to convert the people of Norway when St. Martin came down from heaven and spoke to him. I shall paraphrase the scene thusly:

St. Martin: “Hey, Olav! You know how you all drink to Odin, Thor, and the other gods and have great drinking parties?”

Olav: “Yeh, those are awesome.”

St. Martin: “Well, how about you do the exact same thing, except have one party for me and others for Jesus?”

Olav: “Good idea, St. Martin!”

St. Martin: “Of course it’s a good idea!” *disappears back into heaven*

This, you may be wondering, is how they got Christmas and other Christian holidays to be celebrated by the Scandinavians.  The Christmas tree comes from the burning of the Yule long which was practiced by Germanic, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon pagans.  Now of course, you might be thinking: well yes, the Christmas tree is based on pagan tradition, but now it is divorced from its older cultural meaning. Well, here’s a case in point: when I was a kid I had a Russian Jewish piano teacher who wanted to bring an evergreen tree into her house during the winter because that was what her family used to do. She was upset that she could not carry on this tradition, however, because her Jewish American friends told her that only Christians do that in the US. So, apparently, in some parts of the world evergreens are still brought into the house as a celebration of winter and rebirth, not because of Christ. In that way, the Christmas tree isn’t as divorced from the pagan tradition as Christians would like to think.

Another fun thing that has kept on from Norse Mythology is the word “Hell.” Hell in the modern usage is based on the Christian theology of a place where sinners souls are sent after they die. There is no Latin word “Hell,” and the closest word that that early Christians could have used was the Roman word for the underworld: “Tartarus,” or perhaps “infernum” (if Whitaker’s Words is to be believed). The word “Hell” as we use it comes from the Norse goddess Hel, who lived in the underworld named Hel, because the Norse were really creative at naming things. I have read several instances in the sagas where someone will say, in essence, “Go to Hel,” and mean both the place and the goddess. But the point is clear. And 1000 years later we say the same thing.

I am, admittedly, much less of an expert in Norse Paganism as it is practiced today. My general sense, from talking to some of my friends who do practice Norse Paganism and from observing modern Scandinavian culture, is that the practice of Norse Paganism today varies depending on the individual and the community. In some cases, like in the article I referenced above, people do still carry on the old ceremonies and beliefs of their Viking ancestors. In other cases, Scandinavians blend modern Christianity and more ancient practices.

As a way of example: my mother sent me a picture of a pendant worn by a Norwegian-American woman at her church, which had upon it a humanoid figure who was wearing a crown and who was surrounded by other human-looking mischievous creatures. My mother wanted me to figure out what the pendant meant. As it turns out, at the bottom of the pendant was the word “dovergrubben,” which, roughly translated, the king of the mountain trolls. I learned through this conversation with my mother that this woman’s family came to America around the 1800s, and that she kept this pendant because her mother or grandmother told her about “dovergrubben” who protected their village in Norway.  How can this woman, who is devoutly Christian, carry around a pagan looking amulet of the local troll deity? Because it is part of her culture. She saw no discrepancy between her Christian beliefs and the stories her family passed down.  From my research, I would say that Christians in Norway and Iceland during the Middle Ages would have made the same argument.  Belief in Norse Paganism, therefore, is just a facet of Scandinavian culture, different than Christian Scandinavians but still in the spirit of celebrating the Scandinavian culture that we share.

I think it’s really cool that the Icelanders are making a temple to the Norse gods. They have every right to choose to openly practice Norse Paganism now since it was their choice to give up 1000 years ago. They gave up their old faith not because they all believed in Christianity, but because they knew that in order to keep up politically with Europe they had to adopt the faith of the more powerful European nations.  So in this day and age, when countries like Iceland and the US allow their citizens to practice whatever religion their want, it is only natural that some people would return to the old faith. It is imbedded into Scandinavian culture.  And aren’t we all, with our Christmas trees and our cursing people to Hel, still practicing a little paganism ourselves?

As for me, I’m still waiting to meet some of the trolls from Trollhunter.

– The Valkyrie

 

If you want to read more on this topic, I have included a list of sources below, including the original article I reference.  I also want to cite, informally, the thesis I wrote about this topic for my undergrad, where I got the majority of the information on Medieval Iceland and conversion.

The original article:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/02/iceland-temple-norse-gods-1000-years

 

Primary Sources:

Agrip af Noregs konunga sogum (chapters 16-20).” In The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Translated and edited by Theodore M. Andersson. Vol. 52, pp. 162-165. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Cook, Robert, trans. Njal’s Saga. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Dennis, Andrew, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins, trans. The Laws of Early Iceland, Grágás I: The Codex Regius of Grágás with Material from Other Manuscripts. Edited by Haraldur Bessason and Robert J. Glendinning. Vol. 3. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1980.

Historia Norwegiae (MHN 110.4-119.16).” In The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Translated and edited by Theodore M. Andersson. Vol. 52, pp. 158-162. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

McDonald, R. Andrew and Angus A. Somerville, eds. The Viking Age: A Reader. Readings in Medieval Civilization and Cultures: XIV. Series editor Paul Edward Dutton. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2010.

Monachus, Theodoricus. “De Antiquitate Regum Norwegiensium (chapters 4-14).” In The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Translated and edited by Theodore M. Andersson. Vol. 52, pp. 151-158. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Murphy, G. Ronald, S. J., trans. The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Snorrason, Oddr. “The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason.” In The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason Translated and edited by Theodore M. Andersson. Vol. 52. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Sturluson, Snorri. Heimskringla: The History of the Kings of Norway. Translated by Lee. M. Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.

Thorgilsson, Ari. The Book of the Icelanders (Íslendingabók). Edited and translated by Halldór Hermannsson. Islandica Series. Vol. 20. New York: Oxford University Press, 1930.

Secondary Sources:

Bagge, Sverre. From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom: State Formation in Norway, c. 900-1350. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010.

Berend, Nora, ed. Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy: Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus’ c. 900-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Sawyer, Birgit and Peter Sawyer. Medieval Scandinavia: From Conversion to Reformation, circa 800-1500. The Nordic Series, Vol. 17. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Short, William R. Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, INC., 2010.

Winroth, Anders. The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and the Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Wolf, Kirsten. Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen. New York: Sterling, 2004.

Articles:

Byock, Jesse L. “Saga Form, Oral Prehistory, and the Icelandic Social Context.” New Literary History, Vol. 16, No. 1, Oral and Written Traditions in the Middle Ages (Autumn, 1984), pp. 153-173.

Jakobsson, Sverrir. “The Process of State-Formation in Medieval Iceland.” Viator 40, (2009), pp. 1-20.

Miller, William Ian. “Of Outlaws, Christians, Horsemeat, and Writing: Uniform Laws and Saga Iceland.” Michigan Law Review, Vol. 89, No. 8 (Aug., 1991), pp. 2081-2095.

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One thought on “Is Iceland Returning to the Old Gods?

  1. Pingback: “The Vikings” Breakdown #3: Norse Religion and the Portrayal of the “Other” | Midgard to Middle Earth

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