Thingvellir - Inside the Godic Althing

Everyman's priest (Allsherjargodi). The Godi of Reykjavík, a descendant of the first settler there, was called the Everyman's Priest. He had the office to open the Althing each time it convened; to sanctify the Thing, and to dissolve it 14 days after opening it. This office remained with the Reykjavík family up to the middle of the 12th century. The everyman's priest was the first among equals of all the Godi's , but apart from that he had his clientele in the same way as all other Godi-s. The following formula was recited by the Everyman's priest every time the Althing was opened - according to the record of the last Reykjavík-Godi, Thormodr, who was called a wise man, so saying:
(It was the beginning of the heathen laws that): Men shall not take the course to Iceland on war ships with war tokens on their stems. But if they have such tokens, they shall take down the head before they come into the sight of land, and never sail to the land with gaping heads and yawning snouts - so that the Land-Wights may be offended.
From: The Book of Settlements
With reference to the Land-Wights (unseen Guardians of the Land), it is forbidden by Law to sail towards the Land of Iceland with warlike tokens. This can, of course, be interpreted as a kind of unison between all of the in-habitants of the Land against foreign invasion. As already stated this Law remained effective as long as the Godic Republic lasted. During the time of the Godic Republic not a single invasion of Iceland was ever attempted. There were plans certainly about the conquest of Iceland among some foreign rulers which shall be mentioned later in this writing. The Land-Wights do indeed enter the scene in that connection relative to possible conquests of Iceland.
Word-combinations. The name Allsherjargodi - Everymans's Priest - is a name parallel to several Icelandic word- combinations, old and new. When Icelanders speak of Allsherjardrottinn (God of Everything) which is done even within congregational limits, they mean the All God of the entire Cosmos. Thus nothing that exists is exempted from the Allsherjar Drottinn. When our people go on strike (which they do too often) that may, in critical cases, develop into a general strike, which is called allsherjarverkfall, while the opposite tendency results in allsherjarsamkomulag, which is a complete and general agreement of all.
A Main Temple (höfudhof) belonged to every Godi in his district, as already stated, and was the meeting place in the religious sense for his clientele, while the Things were of a more "worldly" character. The Main Temple of the Everyman's Priest was in an area named Hofstadir, which is located about 5 kilometers south of Reykjavík. However, no archeological excavation have been undertaken in the area to verify if a Main Temple was located there. (In 1995-1997 archeologist Ragnheidur Traustadóttir completed excavations there, and her materials now await publication. ThG)
The Lawspeaker (Master of Jurisprudence). The office of the Lawspeaker was not an Icelandic invention, however, in Iceland it got a new meaning and importance, and especially so because this was a land where there was no supreme ruler. The custom honored by the people of the Isle of Man, that the Governor shall ascend to the Tynwald Hill and read all new laws, reminds us not so little of the Lawspeaker's office. He was required to recite one-third of all the laws of Iceland during every Althing, within its 14 days' duration, so that anybody who could, and desired to, might learn all the laws of Iceland within three years time by this process.
When Ulfljótr had completed his reading of the introduction and his explanation of the first Law-proposals, they then elected a new Lawspeaker, who was Hrafn Haingsson of the South of Iceland. Hrafn Haingsson is usually referred to and recognized as having been the first regular Lawspeaker of Iceland. All Lawspeakers from 930-1271 are known by their name and their number of years in this office are known and recorded. About the most outstanding representative of this office is Thorkell Máni (Th. the Moon) of Reykjavík, who was also everyman's priest during his lifetime.
The Lawspeaker was the chairman at the Lögrétta meetings, and he had the right and power to decide at what time special sittings were to be held. "He summons to the Lögberg those people he wants". The Lawspeaker thus had a strong position which could influence the proceedings in both of the central institutions of the Althing: Lögberg and Lögrétta.
The Lawspeaker had a salary from the Althing and he thus seems to be the only man rewarded in that way by the Althing.
Even though the Lawspeaker was a most honored man, he was not excepted from the Law.There was a special amendment to the Law about his penalty, if he should neglet his office. "Anybody who cares could take up the matter of neglect" - this amendment said. The Law in this respect rested upon the assumption that human reactions were alive, not dead, and that people cared to do the necessary things.
The Land-Wights (Unseen Guardians). We should avoid the use of the word "spirit" in relation to beings cultivated by the Northern Folks. We may put off here the real philosophical question about the nature and existence of such beings (although the riddle has been completely solved in modern Icelandic philosophy). It must be stressed, however, that the word " andi" (spirit) does not even occur in the secular vocabulary of Iceland until towards the end of the Godi Republic.
The Land-Wights are repeatedly referred to in connection with Settle-ment accounts, and as already stated, so it was in the first Law. The "Book of Settlements" relates that a certain Molda-Gnúpr and his family had a special favor conferred upon them by the Land-Wights. There are a number of accounts, even whole Sagas relating to that distant realm of the Land Wights. Sometimes this realm is associated with hills, mountains, and other parts of the landscape. The most famous of all the Land- Wight stories is that related by Snorri Sturluson in his (Sagas of the Norwegian Kings). In these sagas it is told that the Danish King Harald Gormsson planned an invasion into Iceland about 975. He sent a wise man, in the shaman-like fashion ("out- of-the body"!) to investigate the conditions. This shaman met four large beings; each of them representing the foremost Godi in each of the four parts - Quarters - of Iceland. The shaman was confronted with "all mountains and hills being full of Land- Wights, some of them small,some large. Even in this story it appears clearly that the Land-Wights had the task to defend the country against foreign aggression.
There is no reason to assume that the Land-Wights werer just stereo-type ideas, formed according to some oriental models, as some writers have believed. The diversity of the numerous beings and their organic coherence is such that this needs no more refutation. The Land-Wights mentioned by Snorri were as follows: a dragon for the quarter of the East; an eagle for the North; a bull for Breidafjörd (West); and a giant for the South. These figures must be considered the "Fylgjur" (foregoing emanations) of the respective Godi-s, indeed closely corresponding to the recorded mental characteristics of each of them, namely: Brodd- Helgi in the East (a harsh character - the dragon); Eyjólf Valgerdarson in the North (the eagle, a dominant character); Roaring Thord (whose voice was strong as the roaring bull's) in the West, and Thorodd (a mighty, influential Godi - the giant) in the south.
Each of these beings had with them a large train of fellow beings moving to and fro and least of all behaving like sterotypes. When the Arms of Iceland were depicted at a later date, however, it could not have been avoided to stereotype some of the most important Fylgjur of these Godi-s.
Godi-s and their Thing-Attendants (clients). The word Thing-Attendant had a meaning partially resempling that of the modern "voter" or "supporter". In the politics of Iceland, up to the present day, some flavor of the old relationship between the two has survived, although this was much more complete in the old days. Every free man could declare himself into the Thing of the godi he choose, with the latter's consent. This was a free agreement between individuals, the Godi and the Thing-Attendant. Icelanders could even support a Godi who lived in the farthest part of the country. The choice of Godi was entirely up to the individual, but most supported a Godi who was located close to them. When they moved from one district to another, they usually declared themselves "out of the Godword" of the previously neighboring Godi, and into another Godword, by personal agreement with his new Godi.
The mutual confidence between a Godi and his followers, seems to have been quite important to both parties. Godi-s took it as their duty to protect their clients against encroachments from outsiders; to support them in legal suits; and on the other hand to reconcile his own clients mutually . To be sure, these relations were different with the different characters involved. One of the finest features of the Old Icelandic public opinion is that it favored uprightness and sincerity. A Godi who was both strong enough and sincere was most respected, and the number of clients to each Godi was not larger than that they could know each other personally. With the increase of the number of clients to each Godi towards the end of the Republic the stable rerlationship between Godi-s and their clients began to slacken.
Kálfr Guttormsson, a rich farmer in the North of Iceland could expect execution by his enemy, and his Godi, Sighvatr, was unable to assist hims for his residence wass far away. Then Kálfr remarked to his wife: "Today I will declare myself into the Thing of the Holy Peter" (St. Peter). "The Chieftains of this world are becoming less dependable".
Nothing shows better than these remarks of Kálfr how important the Godic relations were stil in the final phase of the Godic reign. St. Peter and the Godi Sighvatr were comparable figures in the Kálfr's mind, and the choice was between them for protection. And this was about 235 years after Iceland's conversion to Christianity !
For a Godi it was important to select the proper people for the Althing expedition with him. Among them had to be the best Lawmen (lawyers), the quickest riders and connoisseurs; the most dexterous with arms, in the case of confrontations. Young people were anxious to get to the ALthing and were "advanced" when they came back. Often the unmarried daughters came with their fathers and in many cases liasons were formed during their stay at the Althing. In Godic times there were as a result of this practice far more weddings between people of different districts than there were in later times, when the Althing meetings had become weaker.
The Thingvellir Eloquence. Philologists have often wondered why there has been so little difference between dialects in Iceland, contrary to the condition that has developed in most other Germanic countries, regardless of whether these other countries were large ones or small ones. Here in Iceland, the dialect differences are so negligibly small that they can in no way be compared to dialects in other neighboring countries. This is all the more to be marvelled at because our island is very large and hence communication between its distant districts, was exceedingly difficult in former times. Of the explanations for the slight differences between dialects, that have been attempted, are: the wide distribution of Folk songs in strict metre (rímur), over many centuries; the distribution of all kinds of other poetry and literature; the free movement of persons and families between districts; the pursuit of and valuation of genealogies; the folklore arts of all kinds, the common schools in which the would-be ministers gathered from widely distant parts of the land to learn the art of preaching; the speeches of Law-men at the Althing which had to be intelligible to all. In addition there was a deep rooted respect for the language itself (málvendni) among our people. Even during what we call the "humiliation period" of about1600, the Bishop Gudbrandur remarked that "our language needs not borrow from the broken language and the bad grammars of other nations". This respect for the language was a valued heritage from the Old Althing.

"To carry a Godword" meant, in the beginning, nothing less than speaking the language of the Gods and we need not doubt that there was a strong ring in such a voice. It even meant power for him who spoke so, for this power of the voice helped the Godwordsmen to become Rulers of the land. In the first Lögrétta they spoke loudly and clearly, so that every syllable was distinctly heard.
Poems like "Husdrapa" (In Honor of a New House) by Ulf Uggason, Thorsdrapa ("In Honor of Thor") - and "Kristsdrapa" (In Honor of Christ), could not have been composed except in a society where the power of expression was honored. Sometimes it depended on the speech made in behalf of a certain matter, or against it, as to what ends the matter was brought in the Althing. In the Althing of 984 the missionary Thorvaldr tried to preach Christendom for the audience. His heathen opponent proved more eloquent and with better argumentation, so that the case was dropped automatically. The missionary became very hateful for this outcome, and deceitfully murdered the opponent in a Norwegian forest a year later.
Sagas were recited at the Althing. "Sturla was at home at his Booth and was being entertained (by saga-tellers), says the Saga of Sturla. And in the account of "The Saga-Telling-Icelander",we are told of two Saga-tellers, one of whom was a man named Halldór Snorrason, who lived in the 11th century and told Sagas at the Althing - after his famous Viking-expeditions in the Mediterrean, along with his friend and leader of the champaigns, Harald Hardrada,later King of Norway. Other people listened to him and learnt much from about the art of Saga- telling, and about the substance of various Sagas. These early roots of the Sagas are often ignored by some false historians of the present time, who want to put the sagas into the realm of "fiction". The Saga-art was very old in Scandinavia even before the settlement of Iceland, but it can surely be inferred that the Saga tellings at the Althing contributed to the refining of this art. And historical criticism, relative the accuracy of each saga, was obviously sharper there at the Althing than in any of the districts where local opinions might prevail.
The Althing was the unifying center of all national life in Iceland during the Godic period. Ever since that time Icelanders have born this mark of their origins within their dispositions. Anybody who reads the Njals Saga with attention - which saga is like clairvoyant through all Icelandic history past and present to the author himself - will not fail to understand that all of the main threads of the Saga are like woven together through Thingvellir and are Thingvellir oriented, in a higher degree than any other saga. A Saga that relates the proceedings at the Althing with accuracy and at length can hardly be written except by some of the Godis or their assistants. No Saga author is as thoroughly acquainted with the Althing and Thingvellir as the author of the great Njals Saga.
The Dates of Conventions and the Journeys Thereto. The riding distance to Thingvellir was, of course, very different from the different districts or Quarters of Iceland. The Saga of Hrafnkell says that there is a seventeen days' riding from Fljotsdalur in the East to Thingvellir. That means that it takes 34 days to travel both ways and add to this travel time the 13- 14 days' stay at the Thing which totals about 48 days. However, from most districts the journeys were considerably shorter. Nevertheless, to ride to the Althing must have been an expensive and difficult enterprise for most men and even so it is indeed astonishing how much participation there was in it, when all of this is taken into account. The harbor nearest to Thingvellir was at a place called Eyrar, which is now known as Eyrarbakki. At Eyrar, the ships from other countries with cargoes for Arnessysla and for the Althing landed, and it was from there, in those days, that they sailed out to other countries. There are no indications however, that the seaway was used for travel to attend the Althing from other parts of Iceland (in strict contrast to Norway (West and North from where most settlers came from to Iceland).
At the Althing, the week commenced on Thursday. The date for the holding of the convention was, up to the year 999 the Thursday of the 10th week of Summer according to the special Icelandic calendar. In the year 999, it was decided in a flurry, that the next year's convention should be in the beginning of the 11th week. This date for the conventions was held until the end of the Godic Republic. At the end of the day of the convening, Thursday evening, all Godi-s should have convened. In that evening the Thing was sanctified by the Allsherjargodi.
On the Friday morning, after convening on Thursday, the Lawspeaker announced the rules for the Thing procedures. >Immediately after the rules were announced a new Lawspeaker was elected at the Lögrétta, if such an election was necessary that year. Then the Lögbergsganga took place, and this seems to have been quite a festive ceremony. On the first Friday, and the Saturday following, the summons and announcements were made at the Lögberg. On the night before Sunday (Saturday night), "courts went out", which meant that they sat under the free sky all the night. Prior to this going out under the free sky, the judges had been appointed by the Godi-s who then put them into "the pass between the cliffs" as we have already mentio-ned in this writing (p.38). The place where they did this was close to the still preserved ruins of the Snorrabud.
"The Wednesday in the Mid-Thing" (the 7th day after beginning the convention) was the "Payment date" for all Iceland - so fixed by Law. This was the date when both personal and official debts were to be paid. The place where this took place at the Althing was "the farmer's churchyard", at Thingvellir, which was close to the bridge, and therefore, an ideal meeting place for people from Búd-s from both sides of the Axe-River. Thew last day of the convention was the second Wednesday in the Thing-time, and it was called "Thing-dissolving day" or "the taking of arms". This was a necessary act, for during the Thingtime,arms had to be placed in , and preserved at a certain place so that men shuld be, as was required, without arms in the Thing area. So, when they were about to leave on their journey, they "took to their arms, and beat with them on their shields as they rode away from the Thing-area.
Leidar-Thing. When the Godi-s with their followers had returned from the Althing to the respective districts, they had to hold a special Thing that was called Leidar-Thing. In the Laws, only three regular duties were stated relative to that Thing: to announce new laws proclaimed at the Althing, to explain the Icelandic claendar, and to explain the Church Calendar (feast days). But we understand that in practice the Leidar Thing was a means to distribute all kinds of informations collected during the Althing journey. Just as the Vorthing was the first preparation to the Althing, in each district, so the Leidar-Thing was the last of all the Thing procedures every year.

The Calendar. Some scholars have argued that astronomical observations and related calculations had risen to a high level among the Teutonic Nations, before and about the time when Iceland was colonized. According to O.S. Reuter they achieved for example, that a proper Pole Star for the North was established for the Middle Ages and it was known among the Germans and the Englishmen of the early middle ages as the Loadstar (32 camelopardalis hevelii is its present designation). Apparently soe sailing routs went along Grand Circle routes of the globe. Astronomical measurements by specially designed instruments are indicated in our language by wors like "sólbord" (sun-board); sólarsteinn (sun-stone) and others.
According to Ari-the-Learned, however, the Icelanders, by the beginning of the Althing (930), had not proceeded further in their astronomical calculations than reckoning 364 days or 52 weeks in a year. Accordingly when they began to assemble at a fixed date every year, that date gradually moved "back to the Spring", for it had then followed the 364 days' rule."They discovered this from their observations of the Sun", says Ari. He adds that they could not explain it. A man named Thorsteinn Surtr (Blackhair) living near the Breidafjördr in the west of Iceland, proposed at the Althing that: "every seventh year should be increased by a week". Consequently seven full years would thus become 365 days each by proportion. This occurred either in 953 or in 960, and the proposal was immediately made Law at the advice of Thorkell Moon and other wise men.
This illustrates that the regularity of the meetings of the Althing created the need for a more precise calendar than before. Still decades passed and the remaining one-fourth part of the day in a year began to add up and to be felt. About 1140 the astronomer Stjörnu-Oddi (Oddi-the-Star-Gazer) made a new amendment to the calculations and thus at the same time with this amendment made the Icelandic calendar harmonize with the Julian Calendar of the Church. By 5 extra weeks added in each 28 years, a kind of perpetual calendar (or perpetually concurrent with the Julian Calendar),was attained for Iceland. "This Farmers' Year's calendar, invented by Thorsteinn and Oddi in the Godic era, was still the common calendar reference on the countryside in Iceland, even into the beginning of this century. This traditional Icelandic calendar, was no scanty "folk calendar, such as the folklorists hafe been able to trace in some other countries. It was a regular and carefully calculated calendar which had been accepted and legalized by the Godic Althing long, long ago.
Lögberg. Lögberg is the place, which through the power of memory reigns over Thingvellir more than anything else. The Lögberg is located on the eastern, lower brink of the Almannagjá (Everyman's Cleft). It can be located just behind the flagpole which was erected on it when the Republic was reestablished in 1944. It is on this spot, where the Allsherjargodi (Everyman's Priest) sanctified the Thing meetings in the 10th week of Summer, and it was here that he dissolved the Althing 14 days later. On the Friday of the Althing meetings, the Lögberg procession walked to "the spot". It was there that all kinds of summoning and announcements took place. Close to the Lögberg was the "pass between the cliffs" where Judges were appointed. In addition to these major events the chief attraction, that secured attendance throughout the whole Thingtime, was the Pronouncement of the Laws, made by the Lawspeaker, which he made from the Lawspeaker's Chair. Into this place came those people of Iceland, and from abroad, who wanted to bring news to the Thing, and consequently, all those who wanted to hear the news, even assembled there, too. This was the "mass media" of that time. It is a positive sign of the free and unprejudiced spirit there that it was possible for Thorsteinn Surtr to convince the Thing-Officials and all of the attendants by his speaking, at the Lögberg spot, of the necessity for a calendar reform.In Rome, the authority of a powerful Ruler, of Caesar himself, was needed for enforcing a calendar reform). - The first descriptions of the settlement possibilitiesin Greenland were delivered there. It was there that the news about all kinds of great events in Europe were disclosed. It was there, also, that Hedinn-the-Mild defeated Thorvald-the Missionary's articles of religion in 985. The first news about the discovery of lands in the North-American Continent, in the years 985-1000 was heard here. From the shores of the Black Sea in the East; from Nova Scotia, from St.Lawrence and Boston in the West; from Gibraltar (Njörva-sund) in the South, and from the North of Greenland (Nordrseta) news came together in Thingvellir. For a while the focus of views upon the world's events was in this place.
The Lögrétta was, as we have already stated, the center for legislation in Iceland. At first, its seats were occupied by 36 Godi-s and later on by 48 Godi-s. From each of the 13 District Things came 3 Godi-s, this making 39 in all. For reasons of equal weight of the power for each Quarter of Iceland, there were added 9 "Godwords of provisional validity" to the number of 39 thus making a total of 48 (12 from each Quarter of Iceland. This arrangement remained as long as the Godic Republic existed.
Every Godi had with him at meetings, 2 Counsellors. One of them sat on the bank in front of his Godi, another on the bank of the rear of the Midbank, where only Godi-s had their seats. The Midbank was extended to form a circle as the other banks. When Bishops at a later date were introduced to the circle, they too sat on the Midbank.
To convene a meeting of the Lögrétta a call was made for all to hear to "clear the Lögrétta". This call was to drive away anybody not concerned who might be obstinate eneough to remain there. Disobedience to the call to "clear the Lögrétta" had a high penalty. As already mentioned, the Godi-s were originally Priests of the Temples taking messages from the Gods. They went with a Godword to the Althing. Later on, the Godword became an inheritable office. They could even be bought and sold. However, they were never subject to the tithe. "That is a reign but not a fiscal property", says the Greygoose-lawbook. It seems as if the Godi-s found it important that the Godwords should not be subject to taxation by the Church. For a long time there was a reasonable stability in the Godword-order. However, around 1200 the Godwords began to be assembled into the hands of a few rich and influential families. Some of these rich and ambitious families carried the names of: the Oddaverjar, the Sturlungs, the Asbirnings, the Haukdalir, the Svínfellings and the Vatnsfirdings - among the most prominent ones of those times. The final period of the Godic Republic, 1229 -1262, is dominated by the power struggle between these families. The Lögrétta at Thingvellir was as already stated, in the beginning like its Norwegian precedents, a court. That Court however, apparently in its first sitting transformed itself into a legislative body. When Iceland went under the sway of Norway in 1262, the Lögrétta characteristically returned to its former Norwegian type of function.Thus it became a court in which the will of the King was predominant, represented as it came to be gradually, by a representative of the King. Nevertheless the Lögrétta long retained, under camouflaged forms, the power to issue Laws, which were therefore called resolutions - but they were put in force. The Laws ("Our Laws"). The Ulfljót's-Laws (Oldest Laws) were the first section of Laws to be accepted. We may assume that a rapid development of Laws took place throughout the 10th century. Among the most important of the early amendments was the one establishing the division of Iceland into four regional Quarters: The North, the South, the West and the East. This made a more stable arrangement of the District Things, and the three separate Godwords composing each of them. This arrangement remained unchanged after once being established. Another very important amendment was that of establishing the Fimtardómur (The Fifth Court), which was their high Court, to which cases could be appealed. On the whole the constitutional amendments proved sound and effective, as if they had been thought out for longlasting. The writing of the Laws is recorded to have begun in 1117-18 at Breidabólstad in North Iceland, at the farmstead of a rich Godi named Haflidi. The first writ was called the Haflidi-writ (Haflidaskrá ). It constituted the basis of the Code of Godic Laws later called Grágás ("Greygoose"), which is our current name for the complete existing collection of Godic Laws. - Some scholars have anticipated that prior to Haflida-skra the Laws were preserved not only for recollection, but that memory was supported by Runic writs, now completely lost. They find their support to this hypothesis in the fact that in the oldest preserved parchments, some runes are used as abbreviations for words in the texts. such as the M-rune for Madr ("m") and others. The language used in the Laws of the Gragas is: pure, forceful and elegant; the instructions are clear and the main concepts well defined. There are two main manuscripts: the King's Codex and the Book of Stadarholl. Both of these are recommended to those who want to learn the Icelandic language and to know the Icelandic pattern of thought thoroughly. In the Days of Our Fathers "In the days of our fathers the Law was made that all men in this Country should be Christian, and believe in one God,father, son and the holy ghost". Book of Stadarholl It is agreed among scholars that the Code of Christian Laws in Grey-goose (the christian part of the Greygoose Laws), was written in the years 1122-1130. It is possible that the above passage was worded even before that time, but anyhow, no other Nation in Europe has such a sentence about its conversion to Christianity. This shows that it was a predominant opinion in Iceland 120 years later that the conversion had been brought about, not by missionaries, miracles or martyrdom, but just by a simple vote in the Lögrétta, or by an acceptance of the Lawspeaker's proposal. One gets the impression from the above that the lawmaking of the Fathers was the primary, decisive action, and therefore more basic than the conversion itself. Note how the "air" of this original wording is more dignified in this than in later, "more christian" manuscripts: "It is the beginning of our laws, that all men shall be.... etc.". Apparently a decline in the style of writing. It is obvious that subjects that are made Law are revertible, can be annulled and the opposite be established again.