The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2022, 109-126

At the Intersection of Paganism and Christianity: Peace-Oaths in Rus and Iceland

E. A. Melnikova

In the transitional period from heathenism to Christianity the manifestations of the influence of the new faith were very uneven in different spheres of the social life while the developing church organization followed different strategies in its interrelations with heathenism in spite of the general negative attitude to it. The practice of swearing in the 10th-century Rus and the 10th to 13th century Iceland provides a striking example of this. Taking oaths is witnessed for Rus in the Russian-Byzantine treaties of the 10th century; for Iceland – in many mentions in the family sagas but first of all in the three similar ‘normative’ texts of the ‘peace oaths’ (trygðamál) preserved in the Icelandic law code Grágás and in two family sagas. Analyses of both complexes demonstrates cardinal difference in the appreciation of the pagan past. The procedure of taking oath after the conclusion of the treaty s.a. 944, the most representative of the three, was strictly differentiated for the ‘baptized’ and ‘unbaptized’ Rus, most probably under the influence of the Byzantine party. The former took oath according to the Christian ritual in a church ‘on the honorable cross’, the latter – according to their ‘law’ under the open sky on the gold ‘oath-rings’ and weapons. The fragments of the texts of the oaths included in the treaties concern sanctions on those who break the oath, and it is the sanctions that reveal a certain mixture of Christian and pagan notions. After the official adoption of Christianity in Rus the pagan ritual together with the accompanying text goes out of use and already in the mid-11th century the ritual of cross-kissing is witnessed. The pagan tradition thus is utterly eliminated and substituted by the Christian one. In Iceland the practice of taking a peace-oath, deeply archaic, deriving from the times before the migration to the island, continued up to the 14th century. Consisting mostly of alliterating pair formulas, the oath described the pagan world with its sanctuaries and sacrifices. However, appellations to Jesus Christ and God to stand surety for keeping the peace and be the ‘avenger’ for its break as well as some Christian actuals were incorporated in the text of the oath. The most important innovation was the usage of the Bible in the ritual of the oath-taking which is mentioned in the Grágás but left unnoticed in the sagas. The symbiosis of pagan and Christian notions in the text of the peace-oath was one of the manifestations of the general strategy of relative tolerance of the Icelandic church to heathenism.

oaths, heathenism, Christianity, Russian and Byzantine treaties of the 10th century, Grágás, Icelandic family sagas


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