Until the late seventh century, Iceland was apparently uninhabited and unknown to Europeans. At about that time, Gaelic (Irish and Scots-Irish) monks began sailing the seas northwest of the British Isles, looking for isolated places to build new ascetic monastic communities. (The medieval text “Voyage of Saint Brendan” reflects this.) The most famous of these hermitic monasteries is on the island of Skellig Michael, southwest of Ireland, where the ruins of hermitic cells can still be visited. (That island was used as a setting for the movie “The Last Jedi” in 2016.)
Some of these monk-explorers eventually reached the archipelago of the Faroe Islands and, from thence, Iceland, only 280 miles away. There, Gaelic monks — known to the Vikings as Papar — established small hermitic communities, hoping to escape the world’s wickedness. But their hopes were dashed when Vikings began to explore Iceland in the late ninth century. A Norseman named Hrafna-Floki (“Raven” Floki) discovered Iceland by following the flight of birds, which could see distant land from the sky. Their flight patterns guided Floki to a new land, which he named Iceland because of icebergs found in the fjords . (Polynesians likewise observed bird flight patterns to navigate to unknown islands in the Pacific.)
Thereafter Iceland was quickly overrun with land-hungry Norsemen. The few helpless and scattered monks who didn’t flee Viking immigration were either enslaved or exterminated. These Vikings brought with them Norse paganism — the worship of Odin, Thor and Freyja, and the host of the Aesir (Nordic gods). Irish monks seeking heaven through prayer had been replaced by Norsemen seeking Valhalla through combat.
Since the relatively isolated Viking communities in Iceland had limited cultural contacts with the European mainland, Christianity spread slowly to Iceland. The first missionaries arrived there only in the 980s. At about that time a Norse lord, Olaf Tryggvason, converted to Christianity. On becoming king of Norway in 995, Olaf began systematic attempts to force the Norwegians and Icelanders to become Christians, including the persecution and execution of pagans and the destruction of their sanctuaries and idols.
Civil war soon loomed between the new Christians of Iceland — backed by King Olaf — and their pagan relatives. To avoid this, in 999 the Icelanders gathered in a great council (“althing”) at the “logberg” — the “Law Rock.”
There, seeking reconciliation, the Icelanders submitted the question to arbitration by the “law speaker,” Thorgeir Thorkelsson. Though a pagan priest, Thorgeir concluded that the country should officially convert to Christianity, while allowing the private practice of paganism to continue. Thorgeir took the public pagan idols and cast them into a waterfall, which became known as God’afoss — “the gods waterfall.” Although Iceland was now nominally Christian, its full conversion required further decades.
Christianity had become universal in Iceland by the 13th century, but its pagan Viking heritage was carefully preserved in books and oral traditions. Like medieval Ireland, the sparsely populated land of Iceland became a remarkable center of literary productivity in the 13th century. Ancient Eddas, skaldic poetry, sagas and histories were recorded and preserved by Christian Icelandic scholars, led by the remarkable Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Indeed, most of our knowledge of Viking religion and mythology comes from books written in Christian Iceland during the 13th century.
For the next 500 years, Catholicism dominated Iceland, in its medieval Scandinavian form, with formal political and religious links to Norway (1262-1380) and Denmark (1380-1944). The official conversion of King Christian III of Denmark to Lutheranism in 1528 was followed by state attempts to convert Iceland as well, led by Gissur Einarsson (1512-1548), Iceland’s first Lutheran bishop.
After several decades of disputes and persecution, Iceland became officially Lutheran in 1552, and Catholic churches and monasteries were plundered. The Bible was first translated into Icelandic in 1584, and Lutheranism has remained the official state religion of Iceland until today.Comment on this story
As with Europe generally, Iceland has become increasingly secularized in recent years. Membership in the official state Lutheran Church of Iceland has dropped from 92% to 71% over the last three decades. During this time there has also been a neopagan revival, among a small minority of Icelanders, of the worship of the old Norse gods of the Icelandic sagas. Snorri Sturluson probably never imagined that, by preserving the ancient traditions of his ancestors, he would someday facilitate the revival of the worship of Thor in the ancient land of ice and fire.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.