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Noble heathens: Jón Jónsson Aðils and the problem of Iceland's pagan past

Nations and Nationalism

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In the course of the nineteenth century, traditional Christian conceptions of Europe's pre‐Christian paganisms made way for a more favourable image of the ‘noble heathen’, inspired by Romantic primitivism and the quest for national authenticity. Poets and philologists in Scandinavia turned to medieval manuscripts containing the remnants of the worldview of the Vikings (Ásatrú), and cultivated them as a repository of topoi and motifs for patriotic art. In this essay, I investigate how this positive reassessment of paganism tied into the national historiography of Iceland, and how it influenced the idea of an Icelandic ‘Golden Age’. For this purpose, the oeuvre of Jón Jónsson Aðils, Iceland's most prolific historian of the early twentieth century, will be scrutinised. This essay demonstrates how Aðils envisioned Ásatrú's role in the formation of Iceland's national character, and addresses the problem of reconciling a glorified pagan past with the nation's contemporary Christian identity. In so doing, it contributes to our understanding of the complex ways in which processes of national identity formation can affect and transform long‐held ideas on religious and spiritual matters.