Icelandic Religions

 

Celtic knot of two dogs.

 

Icelandic Religion
Norse Beliefs| 1000 Years of Christianity| Asatru


Norse Beliefs

"Long ago the world was made of ice and mist and flame. Out of the vapors swirled an evil frost-giant and a great ice cow. The cow licked the snow until she licked a god into being. The god's grandson murdered the frost-giant and then made nine worlds from his huge body." (Favorite Norse Myths, Mary Pope Osborne)

This is the way the universe was created according to the Norse people. Odin was the grandson that eventually defeated the frost-giant. Odin was considered the chief god of War and Death and Poetry. Poetry was revered among the early Icelanders and other Norse people. The profession of poet was considered as much an honor as being a brave warrior. The god Odin was usually depicted as a man without an eye because it was sacrificed for the words of wisdom and having two ravens perched on his shoulder. Odin also had a wife, Frigg, and she was considered as the goddess of knowledge and could also foresee events in the future. Their second son, and most notable among the Norse gods was Thor.

An illustration of Odin from a paper manuscript from the Younger Edda, 18th century.
Thor was the strongest of all the gods and was often shown holding a hammer. He was the god of the sky and thunder. Thor was more widely accepted among the Icelanders and considered the king of the gods.

Small bronze statue of Thor.
Thor with his hammer.


Freya, goddess of fertility and pleasure also drove a chariot pulled by cats. She had a brother, Freyr, another god of fertility , springtime and harvests.There are many gods, goddesses and supernatural beings like trolls and elves that comprise Norse mythology.
The retelling of Norse mythology and pagan practices made its way from an oral tradition to documents that could be read over and over. The sagas, Poetic Edda and Prose Edda became the primary sources of history for the pre-Christian days of Iceland.

The early Icelandic settlers practiced beliefs in the religion of their Norse ancestors until 1000 A.D. In the year 1000, all of Iceland was forced to adopt Christianity. There was a mix of Norse mythology, pagan beliefs and a growing belief in Christianity.

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1000 Years of Christianity

Why was Iceland forced to make such a radical change in their religious practices?

Since Iceland was under the authority of Norway, they had to accept the dictates of the Viking prince, Olaf Tryggvason of Norway. Tryggvason accepted Christianity and made it his mission to also convert the Icelanders. Iceland had already earned a reputation as a lawless territory and was a place for criminals and those who fled execution in Norway.

In the Icelandic parliament or Althing, the division among the Christians and pagans reached a decisive point. National unity was threatened politically and possibly geographically. Therefore a compromise was hammered out and was stated in the Islendingbok, Book of Iceland. Ari the Learned wrote:

"It was decreed that everyone...should be Christian, and that those who had not yet been baptized should receive baptism.
But the old laws should stand...Also, people could make sacrifices (to the old gods) in private if they wished to, but sacrificing would be subject to a criminal sentence if it were done in public before witnesses..."

Thus began the millennial struggle and fostering of belief in Christianity. For approximately 500 years, Iceland followed the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. Then the great Protestant revolt led by Martin Luther was embraced by the Icelanders in a violent manner. Icelanders were now told to follow the religious doctrines established by the Lutheran Church. Many Catholic Icelanders were not given tolerance when they failed to convert to Lutheranism and were killed.

The Protestant Reformation was brought to Iceland by Christian III, king of Norway and Denmark (1534-1559). By 1550, Lutheranism was established as the official state religion of Iceland.

The chief political figure and poet of the Reformation was Jón Arason, last Catholic bishop of Hólar, beheaded in 1550. By his life Jon showed that he was a Viking as well as a martyr, although most of his surviving poetry is religious.

The effect of the Reformation on Icelandic learning and literature was that Catholic poetry was discarded and attempts were made by the first Lutheran bishops to replace it with hymns poorly translated from Danish and German. The Bible was translated into Icelandic during the Reformation period by Gudbrandur Thorlaksson, who was also Bishop of Holar for 56 years. Much of the Old Testament he translated himself, and the work, published in 1584, was adorned with woodcuts and ornamented initials. Copies commanded the price of two or three cows.

Monk copying a manuscript.

 

thumbnail image from illuminated manuscript.
An example from an illuminated manuscript.

Image of male troll?

 

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Diana T. Mackiewicz
last updated February 2005.

Asatru

Today the religion of the country of Iceland is predominantly Lutheran. There is religious tolerance for other faiths, as well as, for beliefs in the supernatural and the old Norse faith of Asatru.

The picture is of a troll sorceress.

They are keepers of the ancient wisdom, and always available for medical and sound advice. Notice the black raven on the troll's arm and the runes attached to the end of her scarf.

 

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