Degree Year

1988

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Department

History

Advisor(s)

Marcia Colish

Keywords

Iceland, Scandinavia, Paganism, Christianity

Abstract

In the summer of the year 1000 A.D., the General Assembly of Iceland voted to convert to Christianity. The basis for this decision was political rather than religious, as it was to prevent civil dissension. This factor influenced the subsequent impact of Christianity on Icelandic society, and made possible the survival of numerous pagan practices and values. Contemporary literary sources, especially the Icelandic Family sagas, not only cover the conversion of Iceland, the ensuing conflicts and tensions between paganism and Christianity, and pagan survivals under Christianity, they also include many descriptions of pagan religion and pre-Christian society in Iceland.

A study of the Family sagas requires a knowledge of pre-Christian Germanic religion and society, of Christianization of Scandinavia in general the conversion and and Iceland in particular, and of the different forms of literature which have preserved this information. Background information on Germanic paganism is important for the study of Scandinavia paganism, as the two are closely related. Information on Germanic paganism comes mostly from Roman accounts, such as the Germania by Tacitus, and archeological evidence. A more specific study of Scandinavian paganism is necessary to understand pre-Christian society in Iceland, and to understand the conflicts which later arose between Christianity and paganism. The Poetic Edda is one of the most important sources of information on Scandinavian paganism, as well as archeological discoveries.

The conversion and Christianization of Iceland was a process covering over 200 years, affecting all aspects of Icelandic society. Iceland was the last of the four Scandinavian countries to be converted, and it also produced most of the literature written in the Norse languages surviving from that time. These facts help to explain the frequent accounts in Icelandic literature of pagan religious practices and values, many of which evidently survived in Icelandic society well into Christian times. There are many contemporary written sources for the conversion and Christianization processes, from ecclesiastical records, to works by Icelandic historians, to less historical saga accounts.

A discussion of the various forms of Scandinavian literature is included here, with an emphasis special importance is the debt on the Family sagas. Of owed to Christianity for its introduction of the Roman alphabet, and the importance of Christian leaders in educating the population. However, the Icelanders quickly adopted the alphabet for use in writing secular works in the vernacular as well, including the Family sagas. The various debates concerning the historical validity of the sagas are covered as well. Next, the Icelandic Family sagas are each discussed individually. All of them contain at least some historical facts, as well as information on pagan religion and pre-Christian society. There is also some evidence of the conflict between paganism and Christianity around the time of the conversion. The final chapter summarizes the impact of Christianity on Icelandic religious, social, and political institutions , focusing on the evidence of pagan survivals in these areas.

Pagan religion and Germanic social and moral codes were not eradicated by Christianity. Rather, Christianity adopted and adapted many aspects of pagan religion into its rituals and festivals. Many pagan and Christian values and customs were similar enough to fuse without any effort, while others simply continued to exist along side one another. The Family sagas, when cross-checked against more reliable historical sources, can provide an informative picture of paganism, the conversion, conflicts between Christianity and paganism, and the survival of pagan/Germanic concepts well after Christianity had been accepted.

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