The Althing (Icelandic: Alþingi) is the national parliament of Iceland, established in 930 A.D. at Thingvellir (“the assembly fields”), 28 miles east of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. “Things” were representative meetings of freemen, common throughout medieval Scandinavia. The Althing of Iceland is unique—it was the first representative body to exercise authority at a national level, establishing Iceland as an independent commonwealth. It is one of the oldest existing legislatures in the world.
The Althing would also unwittingly help catapult Christianity into the culture of Iceland. The story is chronicled in The Book of the Icelanders (Íslendingabók), written cir. 1122 A.D. by Christian Icelandic priest, Ari Thorgilsson.
The Unusual Advent of Christianity into Iceland
The Book of the Icelanders mentions Christian fathers who settled in Iceland in the 770s A.D., before the first Norse settlers arrived in the 870s. They left Iceland upon the arrival of the Norsemen, leaving behind many Irish books, staffs, and Christian symbols. Settlers from Ireland, England, and Scotland followed the Norsemen. The majority practiced the Norse worship of Thor and Odin, and Christianity survived only in small pockets.
After the majority of Iceland was settled, two men arrived, Grímr and Úlfljótr, who brought laws to Iceland from Norway and sought to establish a meetup of sorts, which they would call the Althing. After exploring the country, Grímr eventually chose a location east of the capital. He named it Thingvellir, and the Althing was established by a meeting of the Icelanders. Thingvellir became public land, and Úlfljótr became the first “Law Speaker”—a wise and knowledgeable person who recites the law.
As many of the leading men of Iceland were also leaders within the Norse religion, the cult of Thor and Odin became even more entrenched.
In 995 A.D., a Christian king, Ólafur Tryggvason, seized the throne of Norway. He sent missionaries to Iceland, and while several chieftains became Christians and were baptized, the majority opposed and mocked the missionaries. Ólafur responded by taking all the Icelanders in Norway hostage, many of whom were sons or relatives of the Icelandic chieftains, and threatened to mutilate and kill them unless their fellow Icelanders converted.
That same year, at the annual meeting of the Althing, a Christian chieftain by the name of Hjalti Skeggjason was sentenced to lesser outlawry for writing and singing verses mocking the Norse goddess Freyja. He and his father-in-law, also a Christian chieftain, went to Norway for the duration of the sentence. While there, they met with King Olaf, and negotiated the release of the hostage Icelanders (regardless of the hostage’s faith). In return, they would go back to Iceland and promote their Christian faith publicly. The king agreed.
The Icelanders were set free, and the two men returned to Iceland in 1000 (or 999) A.D. in time for the meeting of the Althing, gathering supporters along the way. The Icelandic faction that practiced the religion of Thor and Odin also gathered supporters; both sides met at the Althing prepared for battle. Upon arriving, the Christians nominated their own Law Speaker. It was becoming apparent to the leaders of Iceland (pagan and Christian both) that Iceland was dividing into two states, with two different law systems, and that civil war was likely.
The Christian Law Speaker made a proposition—the traditional (Norse) Law Speaker, who was known as a thoughtful and just man, should proclaim the law for both sides, with the stipulation that he must come up with a compromise that satisfied the majority of each side. The traditional Law Speaker agreed. Both sides committed to abide by whichever way he decided the country should go, all submitting themselves to one law.
The Law Speaker spent a day and a night in seclusion, seeking a way to satisfy both factions. The following morning, he asked that everyone meet at the Law Rock at Thingvellir. There was only one way to maintain peace in Iceland, the Law Speaker stated. That way was for everyone to keep the same laws. In an unexpected move, he proclaimed that all Icelanders would be baptized as Christians. But, in private, they could worship whatever and however they chose. Both sides agreed. The leading chieftains and prominent farmers tore down the old temples and built churches. Instead of being leaders in the cult of Thor and Odin, they now became the leaders in the Church. Civil and religious leadership thereby remained intact. But pagan worship and practices, such as infant exposure, were permitted and persisted.
In 1015 a new king, Ólafur Haraldsson, took the throne of Norway. He found a gentler way to convince the Icelanders to end their pagan practices—by sending priests and bishops to Iceland as teachers. Prominent Iceland families then sent their sons overseas to study to become priests and, ultimately, bishops of the Icelandic church. By the middle of the 11th century, Iceland had its own church hierarchy, with their own Icelandic bishop at its head. Thus, Christianity was established and the leadership of Iceland remained in the hands of local leaders. ✤
Ari Thorgilsson (Þorgilsson) was an Icelandic chieftain, Christian priest, and historian. Ari studied at in Haukadalur, Iceland, under the son of the first Christian bishop of Iceland. There he was exposed to a classical education. In his work, Ari skillfully incorporated the method of the Latin chroniclers with the Icelandic oral storytelling tradition, of which he was a master.
Due to his careful research, and his proximity to the events he recorded, historians consider The Book of the Ice-
landers the most historically accurate and reliable source on the settlement and early history of Iceland.
The Judicial System
A need for a standard judicial system across Iceland becomes apparent soon after the establishment of the Althing. A man named Þórðr gellir proposed that the country should be split into judicial quadrants, each of which should contain three assemblies. Each quadrant, then, should contain a special assembly for appeals. The motion passes with the amendment that the northern quadrant would have four assemblies as the northerners couldn’t agree on just three.
Greenland became Christian in the same time frame as Iceland by the efforts of Leif Erikson. Leif Erikson’s family had a colorful history. His father, Erik the Red, was banished from Iceland for killing two men in a personal dispute; his father before him (Leif’s grandfather) was banished from Norway for manslaughter. This pattern of scandal and banishment stopped at Leif. Leif was raised by one of his father’s slaves, whom Leif referred to affectionately as “foster father.” Leif was known to be a strong, thoughtful, and well-respected man. As a young man, Leif left Greenland and sailed with his crew to Norway, where he spent time in the court of the Norwegian King, Ólafur Tryggvason, around the time that Olafur was in a standoff with the Icelandic chieftains concerning their conversion to Christianity.
While at the Norwegian Court, Leif became a Christian. He then sailed back to Greenland, bringing with him a Christian priest, intending to share his new faith. On the way back, Leif and his crew were blown off course, landing in a country they called “Vinland ” and which we now know was Canada, making Leif and his crew the first Europeans to set foot on North America (settlers from Greenland did return to Canada and settled there for awhile). Leif and his crew finally reached Greenland, where he shared his new faith, converting his mother and the majority of Greenland to Christianity. Leif’s father, however, clung to his Norse gods and refused to convert, at least initially, although another history says that his father did become a Christian.