Is there any tangible proof that there were Irish monks in Iceland before the time of the Viking settlements?

Asked By

Gunnar Gunnarsson


Is there any tangible proof that there were Irish monks in Iceland before the time of the Viking settlements?

According to written sources, there were Irish monks called Papar living in Iceland when the Viking settlers first arrived in the 9th century, but that they then went away. Although, obviously, ancient manuscripts are tangible objects, the questioner is presumably referring to hard evidence of other kinds.

The problem with written sources is that they can lie or get things wrong, especially when they are written a long time after the events they purport to describe. In contrast, 'hard evidence' - by which I mean archaeological remains - only lie if they are downright faked, though this is by no means unknown. On the other hand, the information they supply us with is generally far more limited than what we can get from written sources and interpreting it is fraught with complications. Archaeological remains can, however, provide hard and irrefutable evidence on particular points where the written sources are limited or untrustworthy. This could, indeed, be the case with the matter of the Papar in Iceland.

Our oldest source for the existence of Papar in Iceland comes from the historical work Íslendingabók ('Book of the Icelanders'), written by Ari fróði Þorgilsson some time in the years 1122-1133. When Ari was writing, something like 250 years had passed from the time when Scandinavian colonists started to settle Iceland (according to the traditional, though not necessarily entirely unproblematical, chronology), and his testimony is thus open to doubt and question. Icelandic written sources cannot, therefore, be taken as proof positive of the existence of Papar in Iceland.

In a geographical work written in Latin by an Irish monk called Dicuil early in the 9th century, there is an account of the wanderings of holy men in lands to the north and of their time spent in these places. Dicuil's account has often been interpreted as providing evidence for the existence of Papar in Iceland, though there is no absolute proof that Iceland is among the places mentioned in his book. On the other hand, there were certainly Celtic hermits on Orkney and Shetland, as is proved by archaeological finds in these places.

A number of placenames in Iceland appear to refer to Papar, and as a result it has often been claimed, for example, that there was a settlement of Irish monks on the island of Papey off the S.E. coast. There are, however, no written sources linking Papey with Papar, and it may well be that the placename was imported from the British Isles, where 'Papar'-placenames were fairly common in areas settled by the Vikings. Placenames thus prove nothing about the existence of Papar in Iceland.

Several attempts have been made to find remains that might be traceable to the Papar's time in Iceland. The archaeologist, for example, investigated the sites of ancient dwellings on Papey but found nothing that pointed to Papar having once lived there. Various remains have been found that might be interpreted as going back to Papar, for instance some crosses inscribed on the walls of manmade caves in the south of the country, and the ruins of a number of simple constructions from the settlement period, but in all cases there are other, more probable explanations.

Archaeological research can never disprove the existence of Papar in Iceland, and it is perfectly conceivable that remains might turn up one days with sufficiently strong Celtic Christian characteristics to prove beyond doubt that Papar once lived there. However, as yet no such remains have been found. Despite this, people have generally not seen any reason to doubt that there were once Papar in Iceland and been happy to trust Ari's testimony in the matter.

Recently, however, in his book Um haf innan (Reykjavík, 1997), Helgi Guðmundsson has put forward the view that Ari's account in Íslendingabók is based on the account of the Papar by the Irish monk Dicuil mentioned above, which Ari interpreted as referring to Iceland, though without any firm evidence for this. If Helgi Guðmundsson is correct, the two accounts by Dicuil and Ari are not independent of each other; Ari's statement would then become worthless, and we would no longer have any sources linking the Papar with Iceland.

So the conclusion is this: there is no tangible evidence to prove that there were ever Papar in Iceland; indeed, there is good reason to doubt that they were. On the other hand, there is no reason to rule out the possibility either.

Translated by Nicholas Jones.

See also: What was known about Iceland in the world outside before the time of the Viking settlements?

Um þessa spurningu


Published 5.3.2005


Answers in English


Axel Kristinsson. „Is there any tangible proof that there were Irish monks in Iceland before the time of the Viking settlements?“. The Icelandic Web of Science 5.3.2005. (Skoðað 25.6.2024).


Axel Kristinssonsagnfræðingur, forstöðumaður Safnahúss Borgarfjarðar


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