Viking Age Iceland: Decentralized Government

A picture of Leif Eirksson's statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

This 64 of our ongoing series about Viking Age Iceland. For centuries, this island country, unique in Medieval Europe, operated with no king, no great lords, no foreign policy, and no defense forces but which developed legal and judicial systems to limit the violence of bloodfeud and protect the rights of freemen. Far out in the North Atlantic, Iceland was where the famous sagas developed. To explore Iceland’s place in the medieval world, we present selections from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland that investigate the history, archaeology, culture, systems of feud, and sagas of this magical place.

Whatever the truth in Ari’s story, a decentralized government specifically designed to satisfy Iceland’s needs was established about 930. Initially there appear to have been approximately thirty-six chieftaincies (goðorð), and a higher number of goðar, since each goðorð could be shared by two or more individuals. The number of goðar in the early centuries was perhaps double or more the number of goðorð. Selection was made on the basis of kinship alliances (some among the descendants of Bjorn buna) and local prominence. Although scholars generally agree that no other governmental or societal structure could have served as a direct model for the Icelandic chieftaincy, the word goði was not new. It may have been written in runes in Norway around the year 400, and it is found on several Danish rune stones from the island of Fyn dated to the ninth and perhaps to the early tenth century.[i]

As noted earlier, the word goði is derived from the word goð (god), reflecting a religious connection, and Landnámabók (S297, H258) refers to one Thorhadd from Mæri(n) as a temple priest (hofgoði) in Norway. In Iceland, Thorhadd settled in the East Fjords. In the absence of a recognized priesthood, the chieftains seem to have been responsible for hallowing the local assemblies and performing official sacrifices. Since religious life centred on ceremonial cult acts, these duties may have been substantial, at least in the earlier period. The religious functions of the goðar lent an aura of importance to the individual, distinguishing him from neighbouring rich and influential farmers. Attendance by a farmer at a chieftain’s ceremonial feast served as a public announcement of a goði-thingman relationship, and goðar competed with each other in holding such feasts.

[i] Jakob Benediktsson 1974a: 172; Wimmer 1899-1901 2: 346-51, 352-61, 368-83; Magerøy 1965: 31-3.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

Published by Jules William Press

Jules William Press is a small press devoted to publishing the best about the Viking Age, Old Norse, and the Atlantic and Northern European regions. Jules William Press was founded in 2013 to address the needs of modern students, teachers, and self-learners for accessible and affordable Old Norse texts. JWP began by publishing our Viking Language Series, which provides a modern course in Old Norse, with exercises and grammar that anyone can understand. This spirit motivates all of our publications, as we expand our catalogue to include Viking archaeology and history, as well as Scandinavian historical fiction and our Saga Series.

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