In one sense, Iceland began as a Christian land. The earliest history of the volcanic island, Ari Thorgilsson's Islendingabók records, "There were Christian men here, whom the Norsemen call 'papa' (priest); and they later went away, since they did not want to be here with the heathen men, and they left behind Irish books and bells and crooks, from which one might judge they were Irishmen."

But when the Irish monks left, Iceland was left to Norwegian settlers with their own religious customs—some Christian, some pagan. The clash between beliefs was not unlike that in the rest of the Viking world at the time, but its resolution is one of the most unexpected conversion stories in the world.

Lampooners and hotheads

Iceland, called the ultima Thule in ancient geography, first came to the attention of Norwegian Vikings intent on settlement in the year 870. There were already Christians among the early settlers, people such as Audh the Deep-Minded, who wished to be buried beneath the water line, to be able to touch the same living water as Jerusalem.

Then there were some, such as Helgi the Lean, who believed in Christ but prayed to Thor when out on the sea. And there were those, like Hall and Thori Godhlaus, who claimed to have no religion, "trusting in their own might."

The Book of the Settlements (Landnamabok) would have us believe that Christianity, such as it was, died out after the first few generations, but we find Christians in Iceland throughout the era. We know that Irish missionaries came to convert the heathen, and Ari even mentions three "Armenian" bishops, Petrus, Abraham, and Stephanus.

The Vikings were, however, a rough lot and not easy to convert. Though their reputation for hostility to Christianity has been exaggerated, ...

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