Armenian Icelandic Missionaries

There are accounts of two Old Icelandic sources concerning the Armenian ((h)ermskr) and Greek / Russian (girskr) missionaries visiting Iceland in the 11th century. In Islendingabok, Ari Thorgilsson writes: “Furthermore there came here other five [men] who claimed to be bishops. Örnulf and Godescalc and three ermsker, Petrus and Abraham and Stephanus”. The “hermskir” bishops are mentioned also in the Old Icelandic Laws (Grágás): “If bishops or priests come to this country, who are not versed in the Latin language, whether they are hermskir or girskir, then people are allowed to attend their service if they want to”.

Several interpretations of the term (h)ermskr have been suggested. The most persuasive of them, appeared at the end of last century, is that the term means “Armenian” (derived from the Old Icelandic country name Ermland “Armenia”). Correspondingly the bishops who visited Iceland at that time were Armenians. However, in 1960 M. Már Lárusson proposed that they came not from Armenia (Ermland), but from Ermland on the south-east Baltic coast. This seems to have become the accepted view nowadays. However, (h)ermskr has no ethnic meaning in Old Icelandic Laws, but designates the representatives of the faith. In other words, the term (h)ermskr in Grágás refers to someone professing the Armenian variety of the Christian faith. The same observation can be made concerning the second term in Grágás, girskr, which signifies first of all the representatives of the Greek Church, who might also be Russians. It is essential to stress that the word gerskr / girskr served in the Old Icelandic written literary tradition as a term for both Greeks and Russians, although an etymologist would reveal here two originally separate terms.

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