A series of small hops then, brings one from Europe to North America, and even in the absence of archaeological evidence it is not hard to understand why, when Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence in the 1530s, local Iroquois ran out to greet the ship with furs in hand, ready, to all appearances, to resume a well established trade. The Basques and the Norse are the likely first-comers in those parts. Of the latter, an early-medieval settlement in Newfoundland is now considered a certainty, while their colony in southwestern Greenland, well documented both archaeologically and textually, is know to have endured for several generations.
The Norse were preceded in Greenland by Skrælingjar, which is to say Inuit, but only if we consider that massive island as a whole. When the Norse established their settlement in the 10th century, the Inuit were confined to the northern part of the island. Norse and Inuit coexisted in the same region from the 13th century, and by the 15th century the Norse had been entirely driven out. As far as we can tell, Scandinavians were also preceded in Iceland by an indigenous people, of sorts, even if they do not meet our ordinary criteria for counting as such: the so-called Papar are thought to have been Irish hermits, probably monks, who drifted up on rafts by mistake, and hunted and gathered for bare subsistence. (Their presence as well remains unconfirmed by archaeology, and is based entirely on textual sources, as well as on toponymy: in particular, the Vestmannaeyjar are islands off the south coast of Iceland, thought to have been settled by the ‘Westmen’, a Norse designation for the Irish.)
The Skrælings and the Papar together should cause us to reconsider our ordinary understanding of indigenousness: the Inuit came after the Vikings to southern Greenland, and drove the Vikings out thanks to their superior adaptation to the environmental demands of the region; the Irish came first to Iceland, were vastly more primitive than the Vikings who arrived after them, and were exterminated or assimilated. (I would argue, in fact, that there are many good reasons for seeing the Celtic nations of Europe as aboriginal within Europe proper, and not only on a distant satellite of Europe, but that’s another topic.) The matter gets even more counterintuitive when we consider that at the moment of first contact the indigenous hunter-gatherers were Christians, while the invading Europeans were pagans.
As is well known, this point of difference would not remain an issue for long, not only because the Celtic element would soon be entirely erased, but also because Iceland would be converted to Christianity, en masse, just before the dawn of the 2nd millennium. 999 CE is extremely early for such a distant extremity of the West. Lithuania and neighboring Baltic regions, by contrast, squarely on the mainland and practically absorbed into the Prussian sphere of influence by the high middle ages, would nonetheless hold out against conversion until the 15th and 16th centuries. Nonetheless, as might be expected in such a case of mass conversion, the majority of the converted likely had little idea —and some, out on their homesteads, under the glacier, at first surely had no idea— of what was going on. Even those who did know that they were now to call themselves ‘Christian’, we may assume, probably brought with this new name a universe of connotations that would have been quite foreign to the Romans who believed they had won a whole island, all at once, to the true faith.
To return to the ethnographic data from a neighboring island, we know from the early-20th-century explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen that Inuit conversion was in fact a movement within one and the same universe of signification. Rasmussen reports that Greenlandic Inuit shamans would take their ‘first communion’ by ceremonially devouring those organs of the walrus that had hitherto been prohibited to men of their status. The body of Christ as tabooed walrus meat: that is the essence of conversion. Should we suppose that the case of the pagan Icelanders was much different? They were ‘white’ and originally European, but so what? These categories didn’t mean anything at all at the time.
And so we find the well-known survival of pagan preoccupations well after 999. Unlike the case of Britain, where charlatan neopagans began in the 19th century to construct a wholly imaginary romantic past of high priests and priestesses, in Iceland the enduring power of animistic explanations for natural phenomena, complete with personified forces inhabiting every ditch and spring, is well attested by both indigenous and outside sources. The 16th-century Swedish author Olaus Magnus gives us a lengthy account in his Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus [History of the Northern Peoples] of the enduring folk-beliefs, including all the spells and incantations, of the Icelanders, and some decades later the German scientist and astrologer Johannes Kepler claims in his Somnium (at least if we take the protagonist as a stand-in for the author) that his own mother was Icelandic, that her name was Fiolxhilda, and that she was (therefore) a witch. (Kepler took Iceland to be the ideal spot from which to teletransport to the moon.)
So paganism lived on, and the conversion was an ambiguous affair. One of the pièces de résistance of the stunning, and stunningly empty, National Museum of Iceland is a small figurine, in bronze, dated to around the beginning of the 11th century, depicting either Thor or Jesus Christ. He is holding an object that is either a Valhallan war hammer, or a crucifix. Who knows? The people who have spent their lives studying the matter don’t. It’s possible no one ever did.