Tales from Iceland #1: Democratic Conversion to Christianity
Few trees. Few people. Many churches. On our first day driving the Icelandic countryside, I observed the ratio of churches to people and asked my husband, “Since Iceland was first settled by the Vikings in the 9th century, wouldn’t they have been a pagan country?” We pondered how Christianity became the dominant religion.
By the end of our trip, we’d learned the answers, along with other meaningful historical context. Yes, Iceland started as a pagan society, worshipping the Norse gods and natural phenomenon. But how they converted to Christianity is a more interesting story. Our tour guide, Jon (Yon), embellished the story with colorful local commentary that brought the past to life.
Democracy and Freedom
In AD 930, a group of farmers from across the island created an assembly of free men, the Althing. Delegates gathered in the open air in Thingvellir (Ting-vee-lur), which is located in southwestern region of Iceland near a glacier-fed lake, to establish laws and settle disputes. Preserved in the Thingvellir National Forest, the ruins of Althing sit where the North Atlantic and Eurasia Tectonic Plates meet. Looking across this bucolic valley with gentle grassland slopes, the landscape would have offered a hospitable location for a medieval caravan village.
- Lingering Curiosity: Did these wise farmers intuitively understand the geographical significance of meeting on the land that bridges two continents?
- Tourist Tip: Worth spending some time in this national forest. If you have time to hike for a few hours, check out where the tectonic plates have separated, leaving a gulch.
Facing harsh living conditions, the settlers where dependent on aid and support from their neighbor, Norway. The King of Norway, a Christian convert, was pressuring Icelandic leaders to ban paganism and adopt Christianity. At the Althing Assembly in AD 1000, Thorgeir Thorkelson, the lawspeaker (leader/lawyer) felt the heavy weight of this decision. Some leaders supported conversion to ensure Norway’s support. Others felt strong ties to their pagan traditions, rituals, and symbols. The fear that Norway would invade if they did not voluntarily convert loomed over their deliberations.
After retreating into private contemplation, Thorgeir emerged with a compromise: Christianity would become the official religion of the land, but citizens could worship their pagan gods in private without retribution. The assembly adopted his proposal. To publicly declare his commitment to Christianity, he ceremoniously threw his pagan idols into the waterfall near his northern home in the Lake Myvatn area. Thus, Iceland’s conversion to Christianity began. Because of Thorgeir’s symbolic declaration, the falls were named Godafoss (waterfall of the gods) and have become an Icelandic national treasure.
- Lingering Curiosity: Do pagan rituals and symbols continue to influence Icelandic culture and traditions?
- Tourist Tip: One of the most visited waterfalls in Iceland. Visit in September for a less crowded experience.
Travel to the Assembly
Thorgeir (Toor-geer) Thorkelson lived on the other side of Iceland from Thingvellir , separated by glaciers and frozen moors. Without the modern-day Ring Road to circumvent the rugged Icelandic interior terrain, how did Thorgeir travel to the Althing assemblies? Jon quickly provided an answer: They traveled by foot over the Highlands. That’s why the Althing assembled in the summer for two weeks, when it stays light for 20+ hours/day. Adding travel time, they spent almost half of the Icelandic summer to engage in an open and free society and resolve their differences with compromise and diplomacy.
- Lingering Curiosity: How did they communicate and negotiate throughout the year when Althing was not in session?
- Tourist Tip: If you want to explore the Icelandic interior, modern hiking trails are built on the footpaths that these settlers used to traverse the island.
Pagan Inspiration for the Winter Solstice
Pagans worshipped the Winter Solstice or Solar New Year (the turning point when the sun shifts from its darkest point to its ascent). Since their calendar revolved around the sun, the winter solstice was a reverent moment. It marked the end of darkness and return of light. This cycle of nature carried deep symbolism for those living in the Northern Hemisphere before artificial lighting.
Pagans brought evergreens and candles into their homes. They gathered with family and friends for feasts to counter the solitude and darkness of winter. Pagan rituals involved reflecting on the “solar” year past … and the new year ahead.
Today, many symbols of pagan are reflected in various religious and secular traditions when the earth reaches its darkest moment and starts to brighten again. This is a spiritual moment. Consider a few modern-day twists on paganism to punctuate the sun’s turning point:
- Build a Yule Altar—The purpose is to honor the return of the sun by bringing candlelight into your home. Evergreen boughs, wreaths, pinecones bring plant life to indoor spaces. Light candles and ponder the darkest night.
- Live in Candlelight for an Evening—Imagine what life was like before electricity. How did people living then cope with darkness 20 hours/day? Light your evening space with only candles and indirect lights. See how it changes your rituals. Do you talk more softly? Move more slowly? How does candlelight enter your thoughts and reflections?
- Fire Ritual—Pagans saved their largest log for the Yule (New Year). Can you mimic that experience with an outdoor firepit or indoor fireplace? Around the fire:
- Write down your reflections on the year past (e.g., what did I accomplish? what do I want to let go of?). Throw them one at a time into the fire. Their flames light up the darkness and ashes make room for new dreams.
- Write down your aspirations on the year ahead. Add them to the fire and dance to your heart’s content.
- Weather permitting in Minnesota, I like to surround the outdoor firepit with ice candles. The juxtaposition of fire and ice looks magical
- Hygge Inspiration—Growing in popularity, many think hygge (hyu-ga) means creating cozy, comfortable hang-out spaces (e.g., candles, throw blankets, soft rugs, pillows, and slippers). But this Danish word describes more than that—it’s a way of life. For Danes, hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying good things in life with good people. In The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, Meik Wiking shares 10 principles: Atmosphere, Presence, Pleasure, Equality, Gratitude, Harmony, Comfort, Truce, Togetherness and, finally, Shelter. Danes generally score very high on the Global Happiness Index. Consider adding reflections on hygge principles to your fire ritual … and take them into the next solar year!
- Honor Nature and Humanity—What can you do to help those in need? Can you find something in common with someone different than yourself? Pause to reflect on the glory of the Earth. Is there a climate or nature cause you might support with your time or money?