Christian Iceland Long Before Columbus

by Francis Nigel Lee

Though its existence was known to the Ancient Greeks, Iceland was actually visited for the first time by Culdee Christian Irish Celts—around A.D. 500. Shortly thereafter, the great Culdee Brendan and his party inspected it around A.D. 560—before they proceeded further on their way to America. Yet Iceland remained uninhabited until the end of the eighth century.

Iceland: World’s first empty country colonized only by Christians

Around 790 A.D., a colony of Proto-Protestant Irish Christians is known to have been established in Iceland—before Pagan Vikings from Scandinavia subsequently invaded it almost a century later. Consequently, Iceland is the only country on Earth which was never inhabited by Pre-Christians. Indeed, only Europeans but no Amerindians or Eskimos have ever lived there.

Both Celtic Icelanders and Scandinavian Icelanders alike later established it to be a Christian country. That occurred around A.D. 1000.

Early awareness of Iceland’s existence before her colonization

According to the New Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is possible that Mediterranean seafarers of the Ancient World knew about the existence of Iceland. However, the earliest settlements on the island seem to be Irish. (See Dasent’s “Introduction” to the famous Icelandic epic Burnt Njal.)

Isabel Elder remarks in her book Celt, Druid and Culdee that the Culdees—alias the Proto-Protestant Celts—acquired great missionary zeal. Great numbers of them went forth as Missionaries, and christianized the whole of Europe—from Iceland to the Danube. One such Culdee was the Irish Christian Brendan. He visited Iceland in the sixth century.

In Katharine Scherman’s informative book Daughter of Fire: A Portrait of Iceland, it is rightly stated that the first to settle in Iceland were Irish. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the occupation of most of Europe by barbarians, culture was dissipated. It was kept alive chiefly in isolated and often beleaguered monastries—especially those of the Proto-Protestant Celtic Culdees.

Some Christian scholars, fleeing the rule of the heathen, found their way to Ireland. Insulated by sea, Ireland escaped most of the holocaust.

From 500 to 800, Ireland was the most truly civilized country. Yet Irish Monks had a tendency to roam.

For they knew the Earth was round. See De Mensura Orbis [Concerning the Measurement of the Globe], written by the Irish monk Diccuil in the year A.D. 825. There, he also referred to settlements of Christian Irishmen and Irishwomen in Iceland.

For, long before the coming of the Vikings, the boats or curraghs of Irish monks had touched on various remote islands in the North Atlantic. They knew of Iceland as Tila—a corrupted spelling of Thyle or Thule—from their classical reading. Therein they had found accounts in the journeys of the Greek explorer Pytheas of Marseilles.

In about B.C. 300, Pytheas had discovered “the farthest island of the Ocean, lying between north and west, six days voyage beyond Britain—getting its name [Thule] from the sun, because at the summer solstice there is no night.” Thus the Irish Celt Diccuil’s Latin-language book: Liber de Mensura Orbis.

According to Scherman, Pytheas’s Thule was Iceland. The Irish monks so believed it. By the time of the voyage of Saint Brendan in the early sixth century, Tila was already known—though not settled.

Brendan, in his curragh—a “very light little vessel”—set sail with seventeen monks on a voyage of forty days. He was not looking for Tila but for a land (viz. America?) across the sea where saints could live in perpetual joy.

Instead, however—at least during that particular voyage—Brendan arrived in Iceland. Soon he and his Culdee fellow mariners were gazing upon the fiery furnace of the famous volcano, Mount Hekla.

“Soldiers of Christ,” said Saint Brendan, “be strong in faith unfeigned—and in the armour of the Spirit! For we are now on the confines of hell!”

The Celtic colonization of Iceland after the visit of Brendan

Scherman explains that the voyages of Saint Brendan gave heart to monks of the following centuries, when fleeing from this or that discomfort [especially caused by raiding Vikings] in Ireland. By the year 793, there was already an establishment of Celtic Culdees on the southern coast of Iceland.

An account by an Irish monk written around A.D. 820 stated of Tila: “It is now several years since Culdees…had lived on Iceland.” Its closest neigbour was Greenland, 180 miles to the west—which was also discovered by monks from Ireland.

For eighty years, the monks were undisturbed in Iceland. By 874, there were probably more than a thousand of them scattered along the southern shore. It is probable that they did not know of the coming of the first Viking. He, one Naddodd, was the first Scandinavian to set foot on Iceland—and indeed around 860.

In his book Conquest by Man, Paul Herrmann states that the Irish sailed to Iceland circa A.D. 795. In addition to ancient Irish sources, the Scandinavians themselves attest that there were Irishmen living on Iceland before them.

The circa A.D. 1120 Landnamabok account runs in part as follows: “At that time [circa 875], Iceland was covered with trees between the shore and the mountains. There lived here then, Irishmen—called by the Norsemen papar [alias presbyters]. These men later went away, because they did not wish to live with heathen. They left behind bells, crosiers and stone crosses—from which it could be seen that the people were from Ireland.”

The Scandinavian colonization of Celtic-Christian Culdee Iceland

Soon a positive flood of Norsemen was pouring into Iceland. By about A.D. 1000, there were some twenty to thirty thousand people living on that lonely island.

One of the first men to explore Iceland, Gardar, was a Swede. It is recorded further that Ingolf’s brother had several colonists on board. Thus the Landnamabok.

In Olive Murray Chapman’s book Across Iceland, we are rightly told how that country is certainly unique among European lands. For—never having been inhabited by a primitive and savage race—it contains no prehistoric remains.

The first colonists from Scandinavia were wise and high-born chieftains, who brought from their mother country an already advanced civilization. But before their arrival in the ninth century, there were some even earlier settlers who called the country Thule—and who were apparently Culdee Christian Irishmen.

For when the first Norwegian settlers took possession of the island, they found books, bells and croziers left behind by the monks who fled at the Vikings’ approach. These people were called papar—a Norse name meaning presbyter—by the Norsemen. There are a few places in the Southeast of Iceland, such as Papafjoerdur, Papey and Papaos, whose names bear witness to settlement by these early Christians from the British Isles.

Unknown is the general extent to which Proto-Protestant Culdee-Christian Celts of Iceland influenced the Germanic Scandinavians—when the latter next arrived there. However, it is certain that the marriage of Celtic Culdee values and Germanic representative government, ultimately proved very fruitful in Iceland.

Thus, the Encyclopaedia Britannica revealingly states that the re-discovery of Iceland, by the Scandinavians, around A.D. 850—for it had long been inhabited by a small colony of Irish Culdees—led in sixty years to the establishment of some four thousand homesteads. In this immigration, three distinct streams can be traced.

(1) About 870-890, four great noblemen from Norway settled with their dependents in the southwest. (2) In 890-900, there came from the ‘Western Islands’ Queen Aud, widow of Olaf the White, King of Dublin—preceded and followed by a number of her kinsmen relatives, many like herself, being Christians. (3) In 900-930, a few more incomers direct from Norway completed the settlement. Among these immigrants, there was no small proportion of Irishmen.

The Constitution of Ulfliot (around 930) appointed a central moot for the whole of Iceland—the Al-thing. The reforms of Thor Gellir (964) settled a fixed number of moots and chieftaincies, dividing the island into four quarters. To each a head court—the Quarter Court—was assigned. Then the innovations of Skapti the lawspeaker, who died in 1030 A.D., set up a fifth court—as the ultimate tribunal in criminal matters.

Encyclopedia Americana on the earliest colonies in Iceland

The Encyclopedia Americana adds that Iceland is without doubt one of the countries mentioned as Thule by Greek and Roman authors in Pre-Christian times. There are references by the geographer Dicuil, to an Irish settlement in Iceland some time before 800 A.D.

In the ninth century, Scandinavian Vikings began to explore Iceland, and the first permanent settlement by Norwegians was made about 870 A.D. The settlers soon formed assemblies (each called a thing) for the adjudication of their controversies. In 1000, they established a central Parliament (called the Al-thing) for all Iceland.

This is the oldest surviving Parliament in the World. Besides being a Legislative Assembly, the Althing was also the Supreme Court. This oldest republic in the World, lasted for over three centuries—a period which is recorded as Iceland’s golden age.

The sons of the chiefs could sail to foreign countries and live splendidly abroad. They roamed the high seas, explored Greenland, and discovered America. Leif Ericsson, a born and bred Icelander, built a house in Wineland (or Vinland).

Probably this was in the vicinity of Boston. The first European’s child born in America, in 1004, returned to Iceland where he founded a great family.

Katharine Scherman on the earliest colonists in Iceland

According to Katharine Scherman, it was entirely evident to Iceland’s older inhabitants that the Norsemen were moving in. How a thousand or so holy men, established for eighty years or more, managed to disappear after 874 is a deeply shrouded secret—though, as now about to be pointed out, the intermarriage of those Culdees with converted Scandinavians may very well have been one of the chief causes.

The earlier extant accounts are noncommittal. The A.D. 1127 Islendingabok (alias the Iceland Book) is the most explicit of those records.

It states: “The Christian men whom the Norsemen call Papar, were here. But afterward…they left behind Irish books…From this, it could be seen that they were Irish.”

The place became Kirkjubaerklaustur (alias Church Farm Cloister). The Settlement had brought in books and crosses. These were those who had come to Iceland from Ireland.

The Celtic Culdee Christians in Ireland chose their most respected convert, who in turn went to see a renowned leader named Thorgeir. Though the Scandinavian Thorgeir was a Heathen, he was known to be reasonable and wise.

Thorgeir convened a meeting of the Althing alias the National Parliament. There, he said: “Let us all have Christianity! For it will prove to be true, that if we divide our men—we also destroy the peace…All men in this land shall be Christians, and believe in the one God —Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!”

“They shall renounce all worship of idols! They shall not expose their children at birth, nor eat horsemeat. The penalty for carrying on these practices openly, shall be outlawry.” Pre-Rushdoonyian Icelandic theonomy!

Thorgeir then went on to decree the national observance of the Lord’s Day—a long-established Celtic Culdee practice. Everyone, at the Althing, then finally agreed to be baptized around 1000 A.D.

The first Icelandic journeys to Greenland and North America

The Icelanders had always been, and thereafter continued to be, great sailors. Scherman gives very interesting details of this. That includes information about Icelandic journeys not only to Ireland and Scandinavia—but also to Greenland and America.

North America—just like Greenland—was found by mistake. Bjarni Herjolfsson, sailing from Iceland to find his father who was farming in Greenland, ran into fog and northerly winds which pushed him south. Consequently, he missed Cape Farewell on the southernmost tip of Greenland.

After many days, he sighted a wooded land of low hills. He was later criticised for his lack of curiosity about the new shoreline of forests.

The first to organize an expedition to remedy this ignorance, was Leif—one of Erik the Red’s three sons. Erik the Red himself—Eirik raudha—flourished around 990-1000 A.D. He is thus described in the later Eirikssaga.

In 1001, Erik and his expedition sailed to the west, and found the last land Bjarni had sighted. He named it Helluland (alias Land of Rock Slabs). This was probably Baffin Land. He then continued toward the southwest.

The next land he sighted was “flat and wooded, with white sandy beaches.” Indeed, “the land sloped gently down to the sea.” Thus the Graenlendingasaga.

Leif named that place Markland (alias Forest Land). That wooded territory was probably Labrador.

As the wind from the northeast continued, they sailed before it for another two days. Then they again reached land—this time an island to the north of a mainland.

The Graenlendingasaga records: “They went ashore…There was dew on the grass…It seemed the sweetest thing they had ever tasted.”

Next they went back and sailed into the sound. They entered a river which flowed out of a lake. There were also salmon in the river and the lake. “There they found the land so fair that they decided to stay the winter.” Observes the Graenlendingasaga: “There was never any frost all winter, and the grass hardly withered at all.”

One day, Leif’s foster-father managed to tell them—in Icelandic—that he had found grapevines and grapes. They also found wild wheat there. The trees, especially the maples, were excellent for building. When spring came, Leif went back to Greenland with a cargo of timber and the towboat full of grapes. He called the country he had left: Vinland.

Wounded Thorvald Erikson requested a Christian burial in America

After giving the above glowing report about Vinland when again back in Greenland, Leif did not have to work at all hard to entice footloose compatriots to Vinland (the Land of Wine). His brothers and a half-sister Freydis followed his initial expedition with several of their own.

While exploring to the south, along the coast, a party led by Leif’s brother Thorvald was set on by a horde of Skraelings [or pagan Redskins] in skin boats. Thorvald was wounded by an arrow.

He asked his men to take him to the lovely headland where Leif Eriksen’s brother Thorvald had wanted to build his house. “Bury me there,” he urged, “and put crosses at my head and feet and let the place be called Krossaness for ever afterwards!”

The settlements of Leif and succeeding explorers are thought to have been on and near Cape Bauld, Newfoundland. There the sites of two large Norse dwellings, and several smaller buildings, have been excavated.

The Eriksaga on Thorfinn Karsefni’s colony in America’s Vinland

Scherman also stated that next to Leif Eriksen, Thorfinn Karlsefni was the most courageously adventurous of the early explorers and the one who first envisaged the possibility of establishing a colony in Vinland. Karlsefni was the husband of Gudrid, the granddaughter of Vifil—a Celt from the British Isles. In 1010, Thorfinn and Gudrid and their expedition set sail for the West, intending to make a permanent settlement in the new land.

They sailed directly across the 65th parallel to Helluland; turned south to Markland; and then spent several days passing long sand beaches (probably in Labrador). They stopped for the first winter at a fjord—north of Vinland. “There were mountains there, and the country was beautiful to look at…There was tall grass everywhere.” Thus the Eirikssaga.

In spring, they moved south—to Vinland. “They found wild wheat…and grapevines…and streams teeming with fish…When the tide went out, there were halibut…In the woods, there was a great number of animals of all kinds.” Thus again the Eirikssaga.

They decided to settle there. The winter was kind. There was no snow at all. Their livestock grew fat on the fine grass.

In the first autumn after they left Greenland, Karlsefni’s and Gudrid’s son Snorri had been born. He lived in the new land until he was three. Then all the settlers sailed back toward Greenland. They reached Markland, where they surprised a family group of five Skraelings—viz. Amerindians or Eskimos.

The Icelandic Greenlanders gave particular attention to the children of those Skraelings. They took their little boys on board; taught them to speak Norse; and baptized them.

The children became friendly enough to talk about their own people. They described a country “across from their own land, where the people went about white…This is thought to have been Hvitramannaland” alias White Man’s Land. Thus the Eirikssaga.

Katharine Scherman on the Celtic Hvitramannaland in America

Scherman explains that Hvitramannaland was a legendary Irish preserve…Some mediaeval sources connect it definitely with the Western Atlantic. In the A.D. 1120 Landnamabok, there is reference to Hvitramannaland as being “six days’ sail west of Ireland.”

The Hauksbok is a codex of sagas and other learned writings compiled in Iceland in the fourteenth century. It refers also to another land in the Western Atlantic, calling it: “Greater Ireland.”

The Irish themselves, in their literature, have allusions to “a land…to the west, across the Sea, which knows…simple human joys…without care.” Indeed, a place (viz. Florida?) -found by Saint Brendan in his forty-day journey across the Atlantic—was “warm, fruitful, bathed in…autumn sunshine…[and] laden with fruit.”

Scherman concludes that Karlsefni and Gudrid went back to Iceland with their little American son Snorri, to the farm in the north which Karlsefni had never given up. There he recounted all these events, which were written down by scribes.

After Karlsefni’s death, his widow became a deaconness or nun. Three of their descendants became illustrious presiding preachers. “Many other great people in Iceland are descended from Karlsefni and Gudrid…May God be with us! Amen!” Thus the Eirikssaga.

The North American adventure did not end absolutely with Karlsefni’s flight. Sea travel was as easy from Greenland to Markland as from Iceland to Greenland or to Europe. Journeys for timber to North America’s forests continued at least until very deep into the fourteenth century.

A map of the coast of North America, drawn in 1590, still used the old Norse names. But along with the forfeiture of their political freedom and the deterioration of their literary genius, the Icelanders evidently lost their taste for seagoing enterprises.

Early history in C.M. Boland’s book Iceland and Greenland

So, as C.M. Boland stated in the book Iceland and Greenland, some of the first White visitors to America were Vikings. They came, originally, from Iceland.

In the tenth century, an Icelander named Eric the Red discovered and colonized Greenland. A scant twenty years later, his son, Leif Ericsson led an expedition to the West. Eventually he is said to have come to the coast of New England, which he called Vinland. His visit apparently started an attempt at colonization that lasted for many years.

A tribute to Leif’s exploits is his statue, a gift of the American people, which now stands in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. The original settlers of Iceland, apart from some Celtic clergy, were Scandinavian.

Christianity, in its great sweep across Europe, touched the island of Iceland during the ninth century (when it was settled by Celtic Culdees). Later, the Celto-Scandinavian Icelanders, in their own typically representative way, voted themselves into the new religion at a meeting of the Parliament in the year 1000.

Icelander Palmi Hanneson’s modern book Islenzhar Myndir

We close with an extended passage from Rector Dr. Palmi Hannesson’s Islenzkar Myndir (alias Pictures of Iceland). Translated from the modern Icelandic, the passage states that the Icelanders are a Scandinavian people, with an admixture of Celtic blood. The latter is noticeable. Its influence may be felt in their character and mental qualities.

Icelandic is the oldest literary language in Scandinavia, and writing in it began more than eight centuries ago. From the very beginning, the Icelanders have been thought eager for study and learning.

There have been many prominent scholars among them, particularly in the fields of history and philology. General education is of a high standard, and there is much more interest in literature here than in other countries.

In ancient Greek writings, mention is made of a land called Thule—lying to the north of Scotland. It is probably Iceland which was so designated. In the middle of the ninth century, Norse Vikings discovered the country. Then, it had no inhabitants except the Irish.

The majority of the settlers came directly from Norway—though others came from the British Isles, among them a number of Celts. In the year 930, the people established a constitution—an aristocratic oligarchy on a representative system.

In the year 986, Eirikur the Red discovered Greenland. It was subsequently peopled from Iceland. In the year 1000, Leifur the Lucky—son of Eirikur—discovered America. He named it Vinland. He was born in Iceland, and was a Christian.

Rector Hannesson concludes that shortly after 1100, the Icelanders began to write their laws and the history of their country on parchment. Their ancient literature is the most precious heritage of the Icelandic people, second only to the land itself.

It is the most splendid art which the Nordic soul has created, and has contributed to the civilization of the European. For Iceland’s manuscripts, concludes Hanneson, are invaluable.

© 2012
Used by Permission

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