Early Religious Practice in Norse Greenland: From the Period of Settlement to the 12th Century
Master’s Thesis, University of Iceland, 2012
Introduction: The Norse colony in Greenland existed from its discovery and settlement by Eiríkr rauði in 985/6 until its decline in the 15th century. The exact causes of this decline are widely disputed and are the topic of many books and papers but will not be discussed in this paper due to its complexity and lack of relevance to this thesis. The exact population of Greenland is unknown but modern estimates place the population of both Eastern and Western Settlements to between 3000 and 5000 at the peak of the colonies and an overall population during the colonies’ existence at about 70 000. The history of this period is not well known for there are no accounts written by the Greenland Norse yet the memory of Greenland remained alive in archaeology, the medieval Icelandic Sagas, contemporary knowledge, Grœnlendinga þáttir (Tales of Greenlanders), Icelandic annals, and several other works. Its status became known as an independent but secondary settlement from Iceland with its own political organization and connections to Norway. Contact between Greenland and the rest of the world was not well recorded but there is much evidence that suggests that trade was abundant. Scholars believe that communication between Greenland with Norway and Iceland started strong but slowly deteriorated or eventually stopped sometime during the 14th and 15th centuries. All the sagas written about or that include Greenland were written at least 200 years after its settlement (1200 C.E. +) and were not based on accurate historical knowledge, rather they were based on multiple oral traditions both contemporary and older, hearsay from travelers and merchants, and creative fiction by the authors. The sagas kept the memory of early Greenland alive and portrayed an image of the remote land which included tales and notions of savage paganism, the supernatural including trolls and other monsters, outlawry and exile, and an unforgiving harsh and barely inhabited wilderness which served as a perfect setting for Icelanders to explore and meet physical and religious conflicts in a heroic narrative. It can be discomforting for readers and scholars to know that Greenland’s history will never be fully known. Fortunately we can still gather much information and a lot can be said without too much doubt.