Iceland’s early settlement and history was a bit messy and difficult, as might be expected when attempting to settle a land with little wood for fuel or building, low temperatures even in summer, and winters of near-perpetual darkness. The proto-country never developed central rulership.
It did, however, have a governing body: a general assembly called the Alþingi (pronounced althing). The most important position inside the Alþingi was the law-speaker, who in this pre-literate society had the rather important task of memorizing all the laws and reciting them. The law-speaker was simultaneously law and judge.
In the year 1000, Norse king Ólafur Tryggvason attempted to coerce Iceland to convert from paganism to Catholicism. The people of Iceland, as well as the Alþingi itself, were divided. There were two law-speakers: Síðu-Hallur for the Catholics, and Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði for the pagans. After internal deliberation, the Alþingi recognized that having two sets of laws enforcing two separate religions was untenable, and Síðu-Hallur stepped down. In order to avoid a civil war of religion, it was up to Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði to determine whether the country of Iceland would convert.
This truly impressive name is not actually his surname (he was born Þorgeir Þorkelsson, pronounced something like thor-gear thorkel-son), but at some point he received Ljósvetningagoði as a sort of title. Vexingly, I haven’t been able to figure out what exactly it means. A goði was a sort of tribal chieftain, so it could simply mean that he was a chieftain for the Ljósvetninga people. Ljós means “light,” but I can’t find a suitable translation for vetninga (vatninga means “watering,” which supplies some neat potential meanings). Until someone who knows better tells me differently, I’m going to assume that it’s just his title as chieftain.
Back to our story
Þorgeir stepped away to have a think. Many of the modern accounts take pains to point out that he crawled under some hides, though given that he was sequestered for over a day, that’s sort of implied since he didn’t freeze to death. Eventually, he emerged. After receiving assurances from both sides that they would follow his decision, he made the decree that Iceland would convert to Catholicism. Following pagan practices would be illegal…but only if discovered, and could still be freely practiced privately if desired. The threat of civil war was over.
There’s a side story which goes that once Þorgeir returned home from the above ordeal, he took his pagan idols to Goðafoss, a waterfall not too far from Akureyri, and threw them over the falls. This story is not included with the original tale of Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði in the Íslendingabók, which is the source for the above story of how Iceland converted to Catholicism. Thus, the tale is generally regarded as apocryphal and a later invention, though there’s no explanation for how the waterfall came to be known as Goðafoss (god-falls) before the supposed fabrication of this idol-chucking story came about.
The Church in Iceland
Iceland later rejected Catholicism in the Icelandic Reformation, culminating with the beheading of Bishop Jón Arason in 1550. The reformers adopted Lutheranism as the state religion and outlawed Catholicism. The state religion remains Lutheran today, though in 1874 Iceland received its own constitution (as part of its eventual independence from Denmark) which guaranteed freedom of religion (including Catholicism). I was somewhat befuddled to read certain phrases such as “the bishop’s wife” and “the priest’s son” until I learned of the Icelandic Reformation.
I really wanted the story about Þorgeir and the waterfall to be true, but tragically there’s no real evidence that it is. Nonetheless, the waterfall is absolutely breathtaking and researching the story helped provide context for me to understand a lot of the disjointed pieces of information I learned while here in Iceland.
(In a few days I’ll be posting more photos of this beautiful waterfall to my other blog, hopefully.)