tyrsbiest  asked:

I saw a documentary recently, in which they said, Iceland became Christian basically because Denmark became Christian and imprisoned every Iceland not der on it's soil, sending an ultimatum to Iceland, that they would execute them, if Iceland wouldn't convert. A heathen law man, respected by Christians and Heathens alike, was in the end asked to decide. After some days he decided that Iceland should become Christian by name but in private every Icelander was free to do whatever. Can you confirm?

Sæl vinur,
(Hello friend,)

For the most part, yes, but also not exactly, because we should add a dash of ‘it’s complicated’ just to be safe. Allow me to briefly retell the story:

All of the parts are correct, but the interpretation of all those parts together is up for some debate. After all, documentaries are not exempt from having a bias, and not in the sense of having an agenda, but just because it is simply human nature to have certain inclinations. I suppose it is better to say that the documentary may have made some claims or assumptions that could be seen from various perspectives, and every interpretation is but one perspective out of many. I am finding myself being carried away in a moment of philosophical contemplation, so I digress (my apologies, but, in my defense, those are things we ought to think and talk about).

Anyway, Iceland was indeed pressured by Norway and not exactly Denmark. To be more specific, though, it was King Olaf Tryggvason who truly pressured the Icelanders, especially after his missionary, Thangbrand, returned from there with little success in 999.(1.) After this, the king not only imprisoned Icelanders as hostages (not a ton, mind you), but he also closed off Norwegian ports to Icelandic merchants.(2.) Now this was a big deal. Iceland was an island, after all, which meant that many goods needed to be imported. I would argue that it was not only the pressure from executing hostages that placed an ‘ultimatum’ on Iceland, but the economic strangling that King Olaf placed around their necks.

Yet, there were hostages, and they were the often the “sons and daughters of prominent Icelandic pagans.”(3.) Furthermore, King Olaf did threaten to “maim or kill [them] unless Iceland accepted Christianity.”(4.) Yet, this, as I mentioned above, was not the only force creating pressure. Believe it or not, there were already Christian Icelanders, some of which were fairly prominent, too.(5.) Why would they need to care about someone else’s family members? Unless they had some sort of bonds through kinship, they didn’t. 

There was something else on the line here, though. An aspect of Iceland’s foreign policy was to maintain a good relationship with Norway for two reasons: family and economic ties.(6.) Many Icelanders, whether pagan or Christian, had family in Norway, and therefore would prosper from continued positive relations. Furthermore, as already mentioned, Norway was Iceland’s major trading partner, and a falling through would be devastating on the economic front.

As for the “heathen law man,” his name was Thorgeir Thorkelsson, a chieftain (goði) from the farm of Ljósavatn in the Northern Quarter.(7) Most of what the documentary seems to have said pans out to be true, although his motives are, you guessed it, up for debate. Various accounts do agree, though, that he was indeed the Lawspeaker to make this decision.(8.) Here is an account from Njal’s Saga:

“Thorgeir lay for a whole day with a cloak spread over his head, and no one spoke to him. The next day people went to the Law Rock; Thorgeir asked for silence and spoke: ‘It appears to me that our affairs will be hopeless if we don’t all have the same law, for if the law is split then peace will be split, and we can’t live with that. Now I want to ask the heathens and the Christians whether they are willing to accept the law that I proclaim.’” 

They all assented to this. Thorgeir said that he wanted oaths from them and pledges that they would stick by them. They assented to this, and he took pledges from them.

‘This will be the foundation of our law,’ he said, ‘that all men in this land are to be Christians and believe in one God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and give up all worship of false idols, the exposure of children, and the eating of horse meat. Three years’ outlawry will be the penalty for open violations, but if these things are practiced in secret, there shall be no punishment.’

All of these heathen practices were forbidden a few years later, so that they could neither be practiced openly nor in secret.” (9.)

He was indeed a heathen, and he did, as illustrated above, for some unknown reason, deem that Iceland should adopt Christianity. It is also true that heathen practices were allowed afterwards, but not indefinitely. In Ari Thorgeirsson’s Íslendingabók, he says this about what happened afterwards:

“And he (Thorgeir Thorkelsson) brought his speech to a close in such a way that both sides agreed that everyone should have the same law, the one he decided to proclaim. It was then proclaimed in the laws that all people should be Christian, and that those in this country who had not yet been baptised should receive baptism; but the old laws should stand as regards the exposure of children and the eating of horse-flesh. People had the right to sacrifice in secret, if they wished, but it would be punishable by the lesser outlawry if witnesses were produced. And a few years later, these heathen provisions were abolished, like the others.” (10.)

So, given that account, people were “free to do whatever,” but only during this period of transition. Now, we may enter the realm of reasonable probability, but that, of course, comes with its limitations. Still, we can assume that it was quite possible that people still remained heathen for quite some time, yet this would have been difficult, mainly due to social pressures. It may have been more likely that some families retained their heathen traditions in somewhat of a hybrid religious state, in which they worshipped both Christ and the old gods. This was actually not unheard of. In Landnámabók, the Icelandic Book of Settlements, a man named Helgi the Lean is described as such:

“Helgi’s faith was very much mixed: he believed in Christ but invoked Thor when it came to voyages and difficult times.” (11.)

My final judgement is to say that this documentary was correct, of course, but not an ‘absolute truth’ on the matter. Besides there not being such a thing as an ‘absolute truth’, especially in regards to history, the documentary only provided one telling of a complicated tale; there were quite a few complications likely not discussed in the documentary. 

After all, there was more going on behind the scenes back when King Olaf was taking hostages. Furthermore, although Thorgeir allowed heathens to continue practice, this was only a temporary condition. Yet, even so, we do not truly know the reality that was in place. All we have are generalized accounts that tell us the ideal or legal standpoints. Let us not forget, either, that these very sources were written by the ‘winning’ party. As I said when I began this post, we all have a bias, whether we like it or not. There is no shame in this, but it must be known to properly handle the sources that we are given.

My advice, then, is to understand that documentaries, and even many works of academia, often only grant you one version of the story. Even the version I have told above leaves out certain details that honestly need consideration. Still, the documentary was not wrong, but there are always many levels of intricacy that truly need consideration before we can fully understand any given situation. 

Anyway, I truly am grateful that you asked this question. It was a pleasure to respond to it, and I do hope that you and many other prospers from my insights.

Með vinsemd og virðingu,
(With kindness and respect,)


1. Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland. (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 299.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. I could talk about this for quite a while, but it would take us further from the question at hand than we ought to wander, at least for the time being.

6. Byock, 299.

7. Ibid., 300.

8. Ari Thorgeirsson’s Íslendingabók, chapter 7, and Njal’s Saga, chapter 105, give good accounts of this, and arguably with slightly different motives.

9. Robert Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, vol. III, edited by Viðar Hreinsson, Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz, and Bernard Scudder. (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 127-8. (Chapter 105, pages 180-1 in the Penguin edition)

10. Ari Thorgeirsson, The Book of the Icelanders: Íslendingabók, translated by Siân Grønlie, edited by Anthony Faulkes and Alison Finlay. (London: University College London, 20016), 9. (Chapter 7)

11. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards trans., The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók. (repr., 1972; Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 97. (Chapter 218)

A Look into the Grágás: Medieval Icelandic Law.

On the Obligations of the Community in Regards to Child Baptism:

“It is the first precept of our laws that all people in this country must be Christian and put their trust in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.(1.)

Every child that is born is to be brought for baptism at the first opportunity, however deformed they are.(2.) If the child’s natural heir is present, he is to bring the child for baptism, and a second man must go with him if he asks him to. If the child’s natural heir is not present, the the householder who is lodging the woman who has given birth is to bring the child for baptism and a second man must go with him if he asks him to. If neither of them is present, then the men who are legally resident in the house are to bring the child to baptism. If such men are not available, or if there are not enough of them, then those who live closest must take the child for baptism or give help. If someone whose duty it is does not bring a child for baptism or a man who is asked to go refuses, the penalty is lesser outlawry and the case lies with anyone who wishes to prosecute.(3.) That is the penalty for both of them and the summons in the case is to be made locally and nine neighbors of the man prosecuted are to be called at the assembly.”


Gen. Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I. (Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 23.

1. This may come across in a rather unpopular way, but it is something I must often stress: the people who wrote these texts, including the Eddas, were Christian. Now, this does not have to be an ‘evil’ or ‘corrupt’ thing, mind you. In fact, it is terribly irresponsible to assume that such sources are immediately invalidated on these terms alone. Nothing, after all, happens suddenly; change takes time. I will leave it at that, however, or else this footnote will turn into a long discussion (or rant) regarding the complexity of the medieval relationship between Christianity and heathenism. Though, I should mention that, although the laws say that “all the people in this country must be Christian,” it does not mean that this was actually enforced, being more like a social pressure if anything. In fact, it probably attests to the insecurity of it all, if it must still be stated in their laws. Also, although I should provide concrete examples for this,  it was not unheard of for people to worship both religions. 

2. In medieval Christendom, it was imperative to make sure that your child received baptism immediately, because, if the child died before being baptized, he/she would not be granted access into heaven.

3. This is a serious punishment. Lesser outlawry meant that the individual was forced to leave Iceland for three years, and if he did not oblige, he was then sentenced to full outlawry, which meant leaving Iceland permanently. If he did not abide by that, he could legally be killed.


Skyrim leather journal…

Full leather bound blank book is in 8" x 10" (26 x 20 cm) size and thickness around 3 inches (8 cm). Leather is hand toned and aged in dark brown color tone. The front cover plate has specially made map, surrounded with embossed frame and handmade brass corners. Central detail, Skyrim symbol has hand carved from thick leather and hardener with special bookbinder mixtures. The book block has 350 leaves (700 pages) of special, thicker, cream toned vintage paper type in 100 gsm paper weight. Paper edges are gilded and aged.

The Ogham Tree Grove.

Ogham is an Early Medieval alphabet used to write the early Irish language (in the so-called “orthodox” inscriptions), and later the Old Irish language (scholastic ogham). According to the High Medieval Bríatharogam, names of various trees can be ascribed to individual letters. According to the Damian McManus, the “Tree Alphabet” idea dates to the Old Irish period. Its origin is probably due to the letters themselves being called feda “trees”, or nin “forking branches” due to their shape. 

The Ogham Trees have been objects of veneration, sources of wisdom, inspiration and medicine for unknown centuries. Each of the twenty British native trees and shrubs has particular powers of its own which may be useful in improving any magical rituals. Each has its own moon cycle span of twenty-eight days and an Ogham letter symbol. There is no definitive proof about the origin of this alphabet, but it can be certain that the Druids, in the late Iron Age and beyond - last century BC and the first and second centuries AD - used this system in the form of a calendar, based on the thirteen cycles of the Moon, and the celebration of the four Solstices. The word ‘Druid’ itself comes either from the Celtic name for the oak - 'duir’ - or from the Welsh - 'derwydd’  - meaning oak-seer.

Nature in her forge

(Roman de la Rose vv. 15897-15905: ‘Nature, whose thoughts were on the things enclosed beneath the sky, had entered her forge, where she was concentrating all her efforts upon the forging of individual creatures to continue the species. For individuals give such life to species that, however much death pursues them, she can never catch up with them.’ – transl. F. Horgan)

Roman de la Rose, Bruges ca. 1490-1500

BL, Harley 4425, fol. 140r