Goðafoss, meaning ‘Waterfall of the Gods’ is a raging but majestic waterfall located in the Mývatn region, near the town of Akureyri. The water falls from a height of 12 metres (39 feet) over a width of 30 metres (98 feet). The surrounding area is a 3,000 year old lava flow, through which the Skjálfandfljót river flows to form Goðafoss.
Like most places in Iceland, the waterfall’s name is derived from its history. The story behind the name is linked to the country’s conversion to Christianity, which began in the first century AD.
Paganism was Iceland’s religion of choice at the time that the Norwegian settlers arrived in the new country. Icelandic paganism was a mixture of the old Norse deities (spirits who took on the likeness of men or beasts) and fetishes which made trees and waterfalls objects of veneration. Temples were built in holy places with rituals taking the form of animal (and possibly human) sacrifices.
One of the most concerted efforts to introduce Christianity to the country took place in 984 AD. Thorvaldur Kodránsson the Widely-Travelled had been baptized in Germany in 981 AD and returned to Iceland with Bishop Fridrek in order to convert his countrymen. Through singing, the ringing of bells, burning of incense and liturgical vestments they made a favourable impression, however the number of genuine converts was disappointing. When Thorvaldur preached at the Alþingi (parliament presided over by a law-speaker) of 984 AD, Hedinn of Svalbard, an arch-opponent of Christianity, engaged comedians to mimic and poke fun at the missionaries. Thorvaldur leapt on them, killing both and, as a result, both he and the Bishop were outlawed from Iceland.
Olaf Tryggvason, the future king of Norway, converted to Christianity while resting in the Scilly Isles, off England’s southwest coast. He then applied all of his Viking energies to the conversion of his countrymen in Norway, leaving them little or no choice. News of his mission reached Iceland as the people learned that Norway had changed religion and Olaf had Christianized the western colonies of Shetland, the Orkneys and the Faroe Islands – he was heading for Iceland. Olaf entrusted the conversion of Iceland to the chaplain Thangbrand.
Thangbrand was sent to Iceland as a missionary and won a few converts, relying on his patron’s proven formula of exemplary terror, however on returning to Norway in 999 AD he had to admit that his mission had not been a total success. Olaf was furious and ordered the seizure and execution of all heathen Icelanders in Trondheim, a large and freshly baptized expatriate colony. The expatriates were ordered to return to Iceland and to spread the word. Their return coincided with the Alþingi of the year 1000 AD.
The current law-speaker of the Alþingi, Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi, attended a suspenseful gathering and asked for time to think. He spent a day and night lying in his booth, in silence, under an animal hide. Eventually he emerged and made what has been described as perhaps as the most important oration ever delivered in Iceland. Although he was himself a pagan, he came down on the side of the Christians and advised all parties to back down and acknowledge that the law, and not any of them, was supreme using the words “it will prove to be true that when we surrender the law we end the peace”.
It is said that after he made this speech he travelled back from Þingvellir to his home at Ljosavatn. On the way he passed a giant waterfall and decided to toss all his carved images of pagan gods into its waters, the waterfall was then given the name Goðafoss.
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- Insight Guides: Iceland
- Information provided by Akureyri Tourist Information Office