Memory, Nostalgia, and Identity in the Narrative of Icelandic Conversion

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Iceland’s governance at the timeof its conversion to Christianity was unique within western Europe. A highly litigious society, distrustful of kingship, the governance of the island was quasi-parliamentary with matters of island-wide importance resolved at the annual Alþingi [assembly].In the year 1000, it was the topic of conversion to Christianity with which the Alþingi was concerned. Under pressure to convert from the Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, factionalism had riven the island as goðar [chieftains] and Þingmenn [free-men] aligned on religious grounds. Placed under the arbitration of the pagan lögmaður [law-speaker] Þorgeir Þorkelsson, both sides of the debate agreed to abide by his decision. Spending a day and night in meditation, Þorgeir declared for Christianity, and Iceland converted. An event known as kristnitaka.This tale, as it comes to us, is mediated through Christian authorship, yet it displays a lingering sense of identity attached to Iceland’s pre-Christian culture. Portrayals of contact with missionaries prior to kristnitaka invariably portray the Christians as aggressors, while descriptions of ongoing private pagan practice in the saga corpus are often sympathetic. Þorgeir’s own mental torment in arriving at his decision serves as a poignant and undoubtedly deliberate metaphor for kristnitaka: conversion may have been the right choice, but it came at the sacrifice of personal identity. It is this nostalgia for Iceland’s pagan past that this paper proposes to examine, exploring the tension between belief and identity that inhabits the idealised portrayal of pagan Iceland created by the Christian Icelandic writers of later centuries.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 2018
EventReligion and Emotion in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, c. 1100-1800 -
Duration: 22 Nov 201823 Nov 2018


ConferenceReligion and Emotion in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, c. 1100-1800
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