It is a little-known fact that Iceland is the only country in the world to have been uninhabited until its discovery and settlement by Orthodox Christian monks. For the first inhabitants of Iceland were Irish hermits at some time in the late eighth century. How did this happen?
Orthodox Christianity was first brought to Ireland from the monasteries of south Wales. Welsh monasticism had in turn come from Gaul, brought from Egypt and Palestine, where it had developed from the example of St John the Baptist and the Gospel. However, Irish monasticism was unique, for it was based not only on withdrawal from the world, but also on penitential exile.
This brought Irish monks to travel all over the known, and unknown, world. It brought them to live on isolated rocks off the Irish coast or make long voyages to the lonely islands of the North Atlantic, sailing in simple boats, made of skins stretched over a wooden framework, the so-called curach or coracle. The most famous example of this is, of course, St Brendan, called ‘the Voyager’. In primitive but seaworthy craft they voyaged to the Hebrides and Orkneys, then sailed on to Shetland, the Faeroes and Iceland, and finally, perhaps, even further, to Greenland and Vinland (North America). The extent of their voyages can be seen from the occurrence of place-names in Pap on these Atlantic islands, and, in some instances, from the traces of their habitation in caves and cell-like houses.
In Norse a hermit of this kind was called papi, in Irish pap, pupa (cf. pobba), from the Greek papas, meaning ‘father’. From the Hebrides in the south, to Iceland in the north, there is a whole series of place-names which has this word as an element. Very often such names refer to smaller islands, inaccessible places away from regular routes: Pabbey in the Outer Hebrides, Papa Vestray, one of the remotest and loneliest of the Orkneys, Papa Stour in Shetland and Papey off Alftafjordr, on the east coast of Iceland, an island with precipitous cliffs where landing is difficult. This last was just the sort of place to which the Irish hermits were drawn. Other names in Iceland also bear witness to their isolated dwellings, usually in caves or rock-clefts.
References are made to these anchorites in the Icelandic chronicles, the Islendingabok and the Landnamabok. Here it is recorded that when Norsemen first landed in Iceland, they found Christians, ‘whom the Norsemen call papar, but they went away because they would not stay here and share with heathen men’. It goes on to say that they ‘left behind them Irish books, bells and croziers; from this one could understand that they were Irish’.
However, the earliest reference to them comes from about the year 825, when the Irish monk Dicuil, then living in France, wrote a book called De mensura orbis terrae. Here, speaking of the islands north of Scotland and the location of Thule, he refers to Irish monks in Iceland. Thirty years before, in c. 795, when Dicuil was probably still in Ireland, monks had given him an account of their experiences in the far North. Hermits told him of an island in the North Atlantic. They told him that they had been on the island from late January to late July and that the summer nights there were remarkably light; the sun went down but only as if it were hiding behind a hill. It did not get dark, and one could see to work just as well as if it were bright daylight. One may imagine, he continued, that if one went up onto the highest mountain, one would perhaps see that the sun never disappeared at this time. They related further, he says, that there was open sea around the country but that north of the island, a day’s sail away, they had met the frozen sea. This is the earliest account of Iceland and it confirms what later Icelandic literary sources tell us about Irish anchorites there.
We also find other early traces of Christianity in Iceland. A number of the first Norse colonists came from Norse areas in Ireland and the Hebrides and some of them had been instructed in the Christian faith of the Celtic population among whom they had lived. One of them was Helgi the Lean, the forefather of all the most distinguished families in and around Eyjafjordr, who called his farmstead Christian - Eyjafjordr Kristnes.
Another is a man called Orlygr Hrappsson. According to the account in the Landnamabok, he was a Norwegian who had been brought up by an Irish bishop in the Hebrides. When he decided to go to Iceland, the bishop gave him consecrated earth, an iron bell, a service-book and other things, and described to him the place where he should build both his farm and a church dedicated to St Columba. Orlygr was blown off course and first made land in the Vestfirbir. From there he sailed south and on Kjalarnes, below Mount Esja, he found the place he was seeking. There he built his home and a church dedicated to St Columba in accordance with his instructions. The text says that Orlygr and his kinsmen put their faith in St Columba, and a later tradition added that the treasures from his first church, the bell and the book, were still in existence in the thirteenth century.
Yet another settler of the heathen age, Asolfr Alskik, appears to have attempted to introduce Irish Christianity into Iceland. The account of him in the Landnamabok is unfortunately not entirely clear. It seems that on account of his faith, the heathen shunned him and drove him from one place to another in the south of the country. He seems to have been a quiet, peace-loving man, one who would rather give way than fight. Finally, he settled on Akranes and ended his days there as a hermit, taken care of by a friend who was also a Christian.
More details concerning these first Christians in Iceland and others like them could be given from literary sources. In conclusion it can be said that these hermits must have been influential in some areas, especially in the south and just north of Reykjavik. However, their Faith was not sufficient to make headway against organized pagan cults and the social order associated with them. It was to be only in 999 (traditionally, though incorrectly, 1000), under pressure from King Olaf Tryggvason in Norway, that Christianity was officially accepted in Iceland. King Olaf, brought up in Russia, baptised in the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast and confirmed at Andover in southern England in 994 or 995 by the future St Alphege, insisted that all his people become Christian. Thus, in June 999, ‘one hundred and thirty years after the slaying of Edmund’, the Althing or Icelandic popular assembly, met and officially accepted the demands of the Norse King.
It is then the glory of Iceland that it is the only country in the world whose first inhabitants were Orthodox Christian monks. However, it is also the tragedy of Iceland that it only officially came to the Orthodox Faith at the beginning of the Second Millennium, just as that Faith was changing course and so drying up in Western Europe. However, today, at the beginning of the Third Millennium, a Russian Orthodox church is planned for Reykjavik. It remains to be seen whether Icelanders will be able to see into Russian emigrant Orthodoxy and find there the same spirit which enthused the first settlers of Iceland, the Irish monks of the First Millennium. The spirit of St Columba and St Seraphim are indeed one. If Icelanders do come to this understanding, then they will find their Orthodox roots and thus spiritual renewal.
Holy Columba and Seraphim, pray to God for the Icelandic Folk!