The Armenian Connection

Pétur Pétursson
Professor at the University of Iceland

Old Icelandic texts (Íslendingabók of Ari the Wise and Hungrvaka) tell of foreign missionaries who came to Iceland. Among them were three bishops, who were said to be “ermskir”, called Peter, Abraham and Stephan. It is likely that they were from Armenia and one can imagine that their attire, their sacred objects and their rituals, attracted much attention since they came from the world’s oldest established church, where religion, culture and history are united, similarly to what we find in Israel throughout the centuries. 

Although the meaning of the word “ermskr” is controversial, manuscript research suggest that the texts must be interpreted in such a way that these bishops were indeed Armenian and not, as it has been previously argued, from Ermland on the Baltic Sea, in what is now Poland. Very early on, Christian national culture became extremely strong in Armenia, forming the basis on which the Armenian nation state rested for centuries – as it still does today. This manifests itself not least in the ecclesiastical visual art and architecture; after all, it is known that Emperor Basil II of Constantinople consulted an Armenian architect when he decided to rebuild the massive basilica Hagia Sophia, which still stands today. 

Armenian bishops in Iceland would have found it an easy task to teach Icelanders to build Armenian-style churches, arguably resembling Irish churches made of turf and rock, standing in the middle of the cemetery where the relatives of the church-owner were buried. Such churches were indeed found in this country in the 11th century. Chances are that the Armenians also had church models as shrines for use at religious ceremonies, in the absence of actual churches, and also to store sacred relics and the remains of saints. It can be speculated that the Icelandic chieftains who went to study abroad, or to serve in the army of the Emperor of Constantinople, persuaded these unemployed bishops, who did not accept the authoritarian rule of the Pope in Rome and were sometimes opposed to the Patriarch of Constantinople, to accompany them to Iceland and serve local congregations and churches there. So much is certain that when a formal bishopric was first established in Skálholt, there already existed in the country a deep-rooted Christian culture that flourished in the subsequent centuries. 

I believe that the foreign migrant bishops are to be thanked for this. Nothing will come of nothing, contrary to what one might imagine given that historians tend to doubt everything that can be called into question due to lack of sources. But in this case one can seek inspiration from creative artists like Rósa Gísladóttir, who fills in the gaps with authority and sensitivity, shedding unexpected light on obscure historical connections.

English translation: Thórhallur Eythórsson