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A depiction of a godi leading the people in sacrificing to Thor in this painting by J. L. Lund Offering by Lund.jpg
A depiction of a goði leading the people in sacrificing to Thor in this painting by J. L. Lund

Gothi or goði (plural goðar, fem. gyðja; Old Norse: guþi) was a position of political and social prominence in the Icelandic Commonwealth. The term originally had a religious significance, referring to a pagan leader responsible for a religious structure and communal feasts, but the title is primarily known as a secular political title from medieval Iceland.

Icelandic Commonwealth republic in the North Atlantic Ocean between 930–1262

The Icelandic Commonwealth, Icelandic Free State, or Republic of Iceland was the state existing in Iceland between the establishment of the Alþingi (Althing) in 930 and the pledge of fealty to the Norwegian king with the Old Covenant in 1262. With the probable exception of ermitic Irish monks or Papar, Iceland was an uninhabited island until around 870.



The word derives from goð, meaning "god". [1] It possibly appears in Ulfilas' Gothic language translation of the Bible as gudja for "priest", although the corresponding form of this in Icelandic would have been an unattested *gyði. [2] In Scandinavia there is one surviving attestation in the Proto-Norse form gudija from the Norwegian Nordhuglo runestone (Rundata N KJ65 U), [3] and in the later Old Norse form guþi from three Danish runestones: DR 190 Helnæs, DR 192 Flemløse 1 and DR 209 Glavendrup. [4] There is also a few placenames, such as Gudby in Södermanland, Sweden, that probably retain the name. [5] Otherwise, there are no further surviving attestations except from Iceland where the goðar would be of historical significance. [2]

Ulfilas Bishop and theologian

Ulfilas, also known as Ulphilas and Orphila, all Latinized forms of the Gothic 𐍅𐌿𐌻𐍆𐌹𐌻𐌰 Wulfila, literally "Little Wolf", was a Goth of Cappadocian Greek descent who served as a bishop and missionary, is credited with the translation of the Bible into the Gothic Bible, and participated in the Arian controversy. He developed the Gothic alphabet – inventing a writing system loosely based on a combination of a Runic alphabet and the Greek alphabet – in order for the Bible to be translated into the Gothic language. Although traditionally the translation of the Bible into the Gothic language has been ascribed to Ulfilas, analysis of the Gothic text indicates the involvement of a team of translators, possibly under his supervision.

Gothic language language

Gothic is an extinct East Germanic language that was spoken by the Goths. It is known primarily from the Codex Argenteus, a 6th-century copy of a 4th-century Bible translation, and is the only East Germanic language with a sizable text corpus. All others, including Burgundian and Vandalic, are known, if at all, only from proper names that survived in historical accounts, and from loanwords in other languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, and French.

<i>Codex Argenteus</i> Gothic bible translation

The Codex Argenteus is a 6th-century manuscript, originally containing a 4th century translation of the Bible into the Gothic language. Traditionally ascribed to bishop Ulfilas, it is now established that the Gothic translation was performed by several scholars, possibly under Ulfilas's supervision. Of the original 336 folios, 188—including the Speyer fragment discovered in 1970—have been preserved, containing the translation of the greater part of the four gospels. A part of it is on permanent display at the Carolina Rediviva library in Uppsala, Sweden.


Mainland Scandinavia

Ragnhildr placed this stone in memory of Alli the Pale, guþi of the sanctuary, honourable þegn of the retinue.

Inscription from the Glavendrup stone [6]

From the pagan era in mainland Scandinavia, the only sources for the title are runestones. The Norwegian Nordhuglo stone from around the year 400 seems to place the title in opposition to magic, using a word related to the Old Norse gandr. The inscription's Ek gudija ungandiR means "I, gudija" followed by "he who is immune to sorcery" or "he who does not engage in sorcery". [7] The three Danish stones are all from Funen. The early Viking Age Helnæs and Flemløse 1 stones provide no details about the function of a guþi, but mention a guþi named Roulv whose name also appears on two other runestones, the lost Avnslev stone and the Flemløse 2 stone. The early 10th-century Glavendrup stone uses the term for a local dignitary who was associated with a , which is a religious structure. It thus attaches the title to a simultaneously secular and religious upper strata. [4]

Magic (supernatural) Type of beliefs and practices

Magic is a category into which have been placed various beliefs and practices considered separate from both religion and science. Emerging within Western culture, the term has historically often had pejorative connotations, with things labelled magical perceived as being socially unacceptable, primitive, or foreign. The concept has been adopted by scholars in the humanities and social sciences, who have proposed various different—and often mutually exclusive—definitions of the term. Many contemporary scholars regard the concept to be so problematic that they reject it altogether.

Funen island in Denmark

Funen, with an area of 3,099.7 square kilometres (1,196.8 sq mi), is the third-largest island of Denmark, after Zealand and Vendsyssel-Thy. It is the 165th-largest island in the world. It is located in the central part of the country and has a population of 466,284 (2013). Funen's main city is Odense, which is connected to the sea by a seldom-used canal. The city's shipyard, Odense Steel Shipyard, has been relocated outside Odense proper.

Viking Age Period of European history from the 8th to the 11th century dealing with the Scandinavian expansion

The Viking Age is a period in the history of the Scandinavians, during which they expanded and built settlements throughout Europe and beyond after the main European Migration Period. As such the Viking Age applies not only to their homeland of Scandinavia, but to any place significantly settled by Scandinavians during the period.

The goðorð system in Iceland

The most reliable sources about the goðar in Iceland are the Gray Goose Laws, the Landnámabók and the Sturlunga saga . After the settlement of Iceland, a hofgoði was usually a wealthy and respected man in his district, for he had to maintain the communal hall or hof in which community religious observances and feasts were held. The office over which a goði had leadership was termed a goðorð, a word that only appears in Icelandic sources. [1] Initially many independent goðorð were established, until they united under the Althing around 930. In 964 the system was fixed under a constitution that recognized 39 goðorð. The role of the goðar as secular leaders is shown in how the word was used synonymously with höfðini, meaning chieftain. Over time, and especially after 1000, when the Christian conversion occurred in Iceland, the term lost all religious connotations and came to mean liege-lord or chieftain of the Icelandic Commonwealth. [2] A goðorð could be bought, shared, traded or inherited. If a woman inherited a goðorð she had to leave the leadership to a man. [1] The office was in many respects treated as private property, but was not counted as taxable, and is defined in the Gray Goose Laws as "power and not wealth" (veldi er þat en æigi fe); nevertheless the goðar are frequently portrayed in the sagas as concerned with money and expected to be paid for their services. [1]

Gray Goose Laws ~1157 legal code

The Gray (Grey) Goose Laws are a collection of laws from the Icelandic Commonwealth period. The term Grágás was originally used in a medieval source to refer to a collection of Norwegian laws and was probably mistakenly used to describe the existing collection of Icelandic law during the sixteenth century. The Grágás laws in Iceland were presumably in use until 1262–1264 when Iceland was taken over by the Norwegian crown.

<i>Landnámabók</i> Medieval Icelandic written work

Landnámabók, often shortened to Landnáma, is a medieval Icelandic written work which describes in considerable detail the settlement (landnám) of Iceland by the Norse in the 9th and 10th centuries CE.

<i>Sturlunga saga</i> Norse contemporary saga

Sturlunga saga is a collection of Icelandic sagas by various authors from the 12th and 13th centuries; it was assembled in about 1300. It mostly deals with the story of the Sturlungs, a powerful family clan during the Age of the Sturlungs period of the Icelandic Commonwealth.

During the Icelandic Commonwealth, the responsibilities of a goði or goðorðsmaður ("goðorð man") included the annual organization of the local assemblies várþing in the spring and leið in the autumn. At the national Althing they were voting members of the Lögrétta, the legislative section of the assembly. When quarter courts were introduced in the 960s the goðar became responsible for nominating judges for the Althing courts. When a court of appeals was established in the early 11th century they also nominated judges for this court. Further, they had a few formal and informal executive roles, such as confiscating the property of outlaws. They also had a central role in the redistribution of wealth, by holding feasts, giving gifts, making loans, extending hospitality, as well as pricing and helping to distribute imported goods. [1] The holder of the goðorð of the descendants Ingólfr Arnarson, the first Scandinavian to settle permanently in Iceland, had the ceremonial role of sanctifying the Althing each year, and was called the allsherjargoði ("all-people goði"). [8] The followers of a goði were called þingmenn. Every free landowner in possession of a certain amount of property was required to be associated with a goði, although he was free to choose which one—a goðorð was not a geographical unit—and the contract could be canceled from either side. The goði would help his þingmenn to bring cases before the court and to enforce their rights, and the þingmenn would in return provide the goði with armed manpower for his feuds and carry out legal sentences. [1]

Ingólfr Arnarson Viking settler of Iceland

Ingólfr Arnarson is commonly recognized as the first permanent Norse settlers of Iceland together with his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttir and brother Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson. According to tradition, they founded Reykjavík in 874.

Allsherjargoði was an office in the Icelandic Commonwealth, held by the goði who held the goðorð of the descendants of Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland. The role of the allsherjargoði was to sanctify the Althing as it began every year.

Bóndi was the Norse core of society, formed by farmers and craftsmen in the Scandinavian Viking Age, and constituted a widespread middle class. They were free men and enjoyed rights such as the use of weapons and the privilege to join the Thing as farm owners landlords.

By the 13th century, all the goðorð were controlled by five or six families, and often united under office holders who in modern studies are known as storgoðar ("great goðar") or storhöfðingjar ("great chieftains"). These goðar struggled for regional and sometimes national power, and occasionally sought to become retainers for the Norwegian king. The institution came to an end when the major goðar pledged fealty to king Haakon IV of Norway in 1262–1264, signing the Old Covenant, and the Norwegian crown abolished the goðorð system. [1]

Monarchy of Norway head of state of Norway

The Norwegian monarch is the monarchical head of state of Norway, which is a constitutional and hereditary monarchy with a parliamentary system. The Norwegian monarchy can trace its line back to the reign of Harald Fairhair and the previous petty kingdoms which were united to form Norway; it has been in unions with both Sweden and Denmark for long periods.

Fealty Pledge of allegiance of one person to another

An oath of fealty, from the Latin fidelitas (faithfulness), is a pledge of allegiance of one person to another.

Haakon IV of Norway King of Norway

Haakon IV Haakonsson, sometimes called Haakon the Old in contrast to his son with the same name, was King of Norway from 1217 to 1263. His reign lasted for 46 years, longer than any Norwegian king since Harald Fairhair. Haakon was born into the troubled civil war era in Norway, but his reign eventually managed to put an end to the internal conflicts. At the start of his reign, during his minority, his later rival Earl Skule Bårdsson served as regent. As a king of the birkebeiner faction, Haakon defeated the uprising of the final bagler royal pretender, Sigurd Ribbung, in 1227. He put a definitive end to the civil war era when he had Skule Bårdsson killed in 1240, a year after he had himself proclaimed king in opposition to Haakon. Haakon thereafter formally appointed his own son as his co-regent.


In the early 1970s, the words goði, goðorð and allsherjargoði were adopted by the Icelandic neopagan organization Ásatrúarfélagið. Following this, goði, godi or gothi is often used as a priestly title by modern adherents of various denominations of Germanic neopaganism.

See also

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Runestone Raised stone with a runic inscription

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Þingvellir place in southwestern Iceland

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The Scandinavian Runic-text Data Base is a project involving the creation and maintenance of a database of runic inscriptions. The project's goal is to comprehensively catalog runestones in a machine-readable way for future research. The database is freely available via the Internet with a client program, called Rundata, for Microsoft Windows and ASCII text files for other operating systems.

Age of the Sturlungs

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Istaby Runestone runestone

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Christianization of Iceland historical process by which Iceland was converted to Christianity

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Velanda Runestone

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Arkils tingstad

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Odinist Community of Spain – Ásatrú organization

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Norse religious worship is the traditional religious rituals practiced by Norse pagans in Scandinavia in pre-Christian times. Norse religion was a folk religion, and its main purpose was the survival and regeneration of society. Therefore, the faith was decentralized and tied to the village and the family, although evidence exists of great national religious festivals. The leaders managed the faith on behalf of society; on a local level, the leader would have been the head of the family, and nationwide, the leader was the king. Pre-Christian Scandinavians had no word for religion in a modern sense. The closest counterpart is the word sidr, meaning custom. This meant that Christianity, during the conversion period, was referred to as nýr sidr while paganism was called forn sidr. The centre of gravity of pre-Christian religion lay in religious practice — sacred acts, rituals and worship of the gods.

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Ålum Runestones runestone

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Västergötland Runic Inscription 73

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Allsherjargoði (Ásatrúarfélagið)

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Magnús góði Guðmundarson was a medieval chieftain (gothi) of Þingvellir in Iceland. He was the allsherjargoði of the Althing from 1197 to 1234. He inherited the office from his father Guðmundr gríss Ámundason, who was the descendant of Ingólfur Arnarson, one of the first Viking settlers on the island. Magnús was the next-to-last allsherjargoði before the dissolution of the Icelandic Commonwealth in 1262. He had no offspring, and contemporary sources only offer conjectures about his successor, possibly Árni óreiða Magnússon, nephew of Guðmundr gríss Ámundason and son-in-law of the skald Snorri Sturluson. In fact, the sagas narrate that Sturluson caused Magnús's fall: during his first term as lawspeaker, Sturluson convinced the Althing to outlaw (skógarmaðr) Magnús. Despite his title, Magnús was not one of Iceland's more powerful citizens.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Byock, Jesse L. (1993). "Goði". Entry in Medieval Scandinavia, an Encyclopedia (Phillip Pulsiano, ed.), 230–231. Garland: NY and London, ISBN   0-8240-4787-7.
  2. 1 2 3 An Icelandic-English dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson (1874) p. 208.
  3. The article gotiska in Nationalencyklopedin (1992)
  4. 1 2 Klaus Düwel (2008). "Runen als Phänomen der oberen Schichten". Studien zu Literatur, Sprache und Geschichte in Europa. p. 69.
  5. Hellquist, Elof. (1966). Svensk etymologisk ordbok. C.W.K. Gleerups förlag, Lund. p. 308
  6. Project Samnordisk Runtextdatabas Svensk Rundata.
  7. Terje Spurkland (2005). Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions. p. 49.
  8. Gunnar Karlsson, Goðamenning. Investigation of the role of the goðar (chieftains) in the Old Commonwealth period. ISBN   9979-3-2553-4. ISK 4990. (2004)

Further reading