The story of Tróndur í Gøtu highlights the reluctance with which Christianity was adopted by many people in Viking societies throughout the early medieval period.
When any sort of study or analysis of people or events in the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100) takes place, it is always worth remembering a huge historical bias that is evident.
Much of the story of people in Viking societies was written down and chronicled centuries after the fact.
Furthermore, many of these historians and writers – ranging from medieval monks to Icelandic politicians – were Christians and thus had their own political and religious agenda against their "pagan" ancestors.
The story of Tróndur í Gøtu presents one of these historical dilemmas.
On the surface, Tróndur is most famous for opposing the Christianization of the Faroe Islands.
He plays a prominent role in the Færeyinga Saga, where he opposes Sigmundur Brestisson, a contemporary Faroese chieftain who embraced Christianity.
However, this saga was composed around 1200, two centuries following the Faroe Islands' conversion to Christianity.
Given its timing, the saga's portrayal of events, including the depiction of Tróndur í Gøtu and other pagans resistant to the new religion, warrants a cautious approach.
The anonymous authors likely aimed to cast Christianity in a favorable light, potentially exaggerating the negative aspects of those adhering to the Old Norse religion.
The Faroe Islands, with their rugged landscapes and deep Viking heritage, served as the backdrop for Tróndur í Gøtu's defiant stand against the tide of Christianity in the early medieval period. Photo: MiroRosa / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A royal heritage?
With that word of historical warning in mind, we can scroll through the sagas to find out the life and story of Tróndur í Gøtu.
Unfortunately for we moderns, who expect all information ever produced to be available with the tap of a finger, the Færeyinga Saga has little historical detail about the early life of Tróndur.
We know he was born in the village of Gøtu, on the Faroe Islands, sometime around the middle of the 10th century. Some historians date it to c. 945, a time of great turmoil in the Viking world.
Whilst there is evidence of Irish monks and hermits inhabiting the Faroe Islands since the 6th century, widespread human settlement did not begin until the arrival of Norse people in the early 9th century.
The islands soon became absorbed into the Viking world, which saw settlers arrive, especially from the British Isles.
According to the sagas, Tróndur's descendants were said to have arrived from the Viking settlement in Dublin, perhaps even from a Viking king of what was then a slave-trading port.
Royal heritage aside, he had some sort of early conflict with his brother, Thorlac, when their father died.
He would inherit the family farm, having cast his brother out, but he seems to have changed his heart and allowed him and his family to live with them.
This would stand out as one of the few times Tróndur showed a degree of flexibility.
A 2000 Faroese stamp features Tróndur í Gøtu wielding Thor's hammer against Christianity, while a 2004 stamp illustrates his curse against Christianity and Sigmundur Brestisson, inspired by Janus Djurhuus' poem. Photo: Postverk Føroya / Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
A night attack
Perhaps it was because of his famous ancestral heritage that Tróndur emerged later in life as some sort of local elite, perhaps a chieftain and certainly a man of influence.
It was at this time that the King of Norway, Olaf Trygvasson, wanted to absorb the Faroe Islands into his kingdom.
Aside from being a good Christian king (at least according to later medieval chroniclers), Olaf was also wise enough to send someone else to do his dirty work.
He sent a local from the "Southern Isles" (the Viking settlements on the Isle of Man and the Hebrides) to sail north, convert the local population to Christianity, and force them to swear allegiance to the Norwegian king.
The man dispatched by Trygvasson was Sigmundur Brestisson, whose fate would become inextricably linked with that of Tróndur.
Arriving in the Faroes in the early 11th century, Brestisson gathered all the local elites, including Tróndur, at the Løgting to read out the royal decree.
In one fell swoop, this decree converted the islanders to Christianity and brought them under the rule of the King of Norway.
The locals were, to say the least, less than pleased, and Brestisson was fortunate to escape with his life.
The sagas recount how many attempted to behead him after he issued the royal and religious decree.
Brestisson decided, so the sagas say, to "change tactics."
Here, the sagas portray Tróndur as a man of influence and power, so much so that Brestisson was said to lead a night raid on Tróndur's home with armed men, surprising the powerful chieftain in his bed.
Brestisson gave him an ultimatum: convert to Christianity, accept Trygvasson's overlordship, or face death.
Tróndur reportedly chose the former, but this was far from the end of their story.
Not far from Tróndur í Gøtu's birthplace, the Church of Norðragøta stands as enduring evidence that, despite his resolute efforts, he could not ultimately prevent the Christianization of the Faroe Islands. Photo: Erik Christensen / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Battle of Sigmundarstakkar
Having barely escaped with his life, Tróndur appears to have rallied the locals and those who did not want to convert to a new religion nor pledge allegiance to a foreign king.
Though the historical details are few and far between, a battle between the forces of Brestisson and Tróndur was said to have taken place, the so-called "Battle of Sigmundarstakkar."
It was during this battle that Tróndur was said to have cursed Brestisson and denounced this new Christian religion, which was the subject of a poem by 19th-century Faroese poet Janus Djurhuus.
Whether an actual battle took place or whether this was inserted into the sagas to represent the symbolic struggle for the preservation of cultural identity and traditional beliefs is open to debate.
However, the battle portrays the obvious societal upheaval that took place in the Faroe Islands, like so many other Viking societies, with the introduction of a new religion.
This ideological conflict would continue until the Faroe Islands were eventually converted to Christianity later in the 11th century, meaning that even if Tróndur was successful on the battlefield, he would eventually lose the ensuing religious war.
It appears that Tróndur, however, would have the last laugh as he was said to lead a night attack against Brestisson sometime in 1005.
Not for the first time, Brestisson was said to have fled, barely escaping death for a second time.
A powerful figure of resistance and protection
Following his dealings with Brestisson on and off the battlefield, Tróndur disappears into historical obscurity.
From the sagas, we have a tentative year of his passing, in 1035, which would have made him between 80 and 90 years old.
Given the life expectancy during the early medieval period, this would have made Tróndur an exceptionally old man, and he would probably live to see the Church's growing influence in the Faroe Islands.
Tróndur's narrative serves as a snapshot of the broader cultural and religious dynamics evident in the Viking Age.
His resistance to Christianization has made him a powerful figure of resistance to outside influence and oppression for many Faroese and a symbol of a community's determination to try and safeguard its cultural heritage.
For more information on the settlement of the Faroe Islands, visit the Icelandic Times here.
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