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The Papar (from Latin papa, via Old Irish, meaning "father" or "pope") were, according to early Icelandic historical sources, a group of Irish or Scottish monks resident in parts of Iceland at the time of the arrival of the Norsemen. Their existence is confirmed by archaeology.
The Scandinavians began settling in Iceland in 874 AD, but the oldest source which mentions the existence of the Papar was written in the Íslendingabók ("Book of the Icelanders"), between 1122 and 1133. Such figures are mentioned in the Landnámabók (the Icelandic Book of Settlements) which relates that the Norse found Irish priests in Iceland when they arrived, together with bells and crosiers.
An earlier source that could possibly refer to the Papar is the work of Dicuil, an early 9th century (825 AD) Irish monk, which discussed the wandering of "holy men" to the lands of the north. However, it is not known whether Dicuil is speaking about Iceland, as Gaelic hermits also settled in other islands of the north such as Orkney and Shetland.
Several Icelandic toponyms (see Toponymy) have been linked to the Papar, including the island of Papey, as well as the Vestmannaeyjar ("islands of the Vestmen") but no archaeological evidence has yet confirmed the link.
Another theory is that the two sources were conflated and that Ari Thorgilsson, the author of Íslendingabók, based his history on the writings of Dicuil.
The Landnámabók (the Book of Settlements), possibly dating from the 11th century, clearly states on page one that Irish monks, had been living on Iceland before the Norse settlers arrived. According to this account, the reason the Norse thought so was that these monks had left behind Irish books, bells and crosiers, among other things. Hence, the Norse arriving at Iceland had no difficulty identifying the nationality of the monks. According to the Landnámabók, the Irish monks either left the island when the Norse arrived, or they were no longer living on the island when the Norse arrived.
Papar in the Faroes
There are also several toponyms relating to the papar in the Faroe Islands.
- "According to the Faereyinga Saga... the first settler in the Faroe Islands was a man named Grímur Kamban – Hann bygdi fyrstr Færeyar, it may have been the land taking of Grímur and his followers that caused the anchorites to leave... the nickname Kamban is probably Gaelic and one interpretation is that the word refers to some physical handicap, another that it may point to his prowess as a sportsman. Probably he came as a young man to the Faroe Islands by way of Viking Ireland, and local tradition has it that he settled at Funningur in Eysturoy."
Papar in the Northern Isles
Originally those islands were inhabited by Pents and Papes. Of these races, the Pents, only a little taller than pygmies, accomplished miraculous achievements by building towns morning and evenings, but at midday every ounce of strength deserted them and they hid for fear in underground chambers. [...]The Papes were so called on account of the vestments in which they clothed themselves like priests, and for this reason all priests are known as papen in the German tongue. However, as the appearance and letterforms of the books that they left behind them testify, they were from Africa and clove to the Jewish faith.
Joseph Anderson noted that:
The two Papeys [of Orkney], the great and the little (anciently Papey Meiri and Papey Minni), [are] now Papa Westray and Papa Stronsay... Fordun in his enumeration of the islands, has a 'Papeay tertia' [third Papey], which is not now known. There are three islands in Shetland called Papey, and both in Orkney and in Shetland, there are several districts named Paplay or Papplay, doubtless the same as Papyli of Iceland
The Orcadian Papeay tertia might conceivably be Holm of Papa, which lies off Papa Westray.
Papar in the Hebrides
The Outer Hebrides have many examples of the papar, but with the crucial difference that the Norse language died out early in this area, and it is arguable whether Scottish Gaelic ever died out at all. There are at least three islands originally named Papey, now spelt "Pabbay" (Gaelic: Pabaigh) in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland:
- Pabbay near Barra lying in the Bishop's Isles
- Pabbay near Harris
- Pabbay, South Uist grid reference NF775195Pabay, is in the Inner Hebrides, near Skye.
- Celtic Christianity
- Great Ireland
- Hiberno-Scottish mission
- Christianization of Scandinavia
- Papa, Scotland
- Sandnes, Berit (2010) "Linguistic patterns in the place-names of Norway and the Northern Isles" Northern Lights, Northern Words. Selected Papers from the FRLSU Conference, Kirkwall 2009, edited by Robert McColl Millar.
- Schei, Liv Kjørsvik & Moberg, Gunnie (2003) The Faroe Islands. Birlinn.
- Sandnes (2010) p. 11, quoting Historia Norwegie (2003) Edited by Ekrem and Mortensen, translated by Peter Fisher.
- Anderson, Joseph (Ed.) (1893) "Introduction to Orkneyinga Saga". Translated by Jón A. Hjaltalin & Gilbert Goudie. Edinburgh. James Thin and Mercat Press (1990 reprint). ISBN 0-901824-25-9