The Discovery and Settlement of Iceland

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The Discovery and Settlement of Iceland


Iceland is the only European country whose history has a definite beginning. Norwegian outlaws, exiles, and adventurers began to settle this previously uninhabited land about 874. In 930 they established what is at the dawn of the twenty-first century the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world.


The first visitors to Iceland may have been Romans but were probably Irish. The kayaks and umiaks of the Inuit could not have traveled as far as Iceland from Greenland or North America. Roman and early British records refer to a place called "Thule" or "Ultima Thule," which must have been Iceland. A very few Irish monks lived in Iceland in the eighth and ninth centuries, as the Irish monk Dicuil stated in 825 in Liber de mensura orbis terrae (Book of measuring the circle of the world), but they had either abandoned this refuge or been driven out by the time the Norse settlement began in the 870s.

About 850, a Swedish Viking named Naddoddur was blown off course west of the Faroe Islands and landed in the east fjords of Iceland, which he named "Snowland." Supposedly he was the first Scandinavian to see Iceland. A few years later, another Swede, Gardar Svafarsson, circumnavigated Iceland and stayed on its northern coast over the winter. Since he proved that the land comprised an island, it was renamed "Gardar's Island."

Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerdarson ("Raven Floki") sailed from Norway via the Shetland Islands to find Gardar's Island about 860. Floki got his nickname because he navigated with ravens. In search of land, he would release a raven from his ship, then follow its path if it flew straight. His first sight of Iceland was the peak Vesturhorn in the southeast, near the present town of Höfn. From there he sailed west along the south coast, rounded the peninsula of Reykjanes, crossed Faxaflói, the great bay named after one of his companions, Faxi, passed Snaefellsnes, continued north across Breidafjord, and finally landed at Vatnsfjord near Bardastrand in the west fjords.

Floki spent a severe winter and an unusually cold spring at Vatnsfjord. Fish sustained him and his men, but their livestock died. In late spring, Floki, disgusted at the sight of drift ice still in the fjord, gave the land its present name, "Iceland." He tried to sail back to Norway that summer, but could not tack around Reykjanes. He was forced to spend a second winter in Iceland, this time at Borgarfjord, an inlet of Faxaflói. When he finally was able to return to Norway the following summer, he had nothing good to say about Iceland, although several of his shipmates praised it. A town near Vatnsfjord is named Flókalundur in Floki's honor.


About 874, the settling of Iceland began in earnest when Ingólfur Arnarson, Hjorleif Hrodmarsson, and their party arrived. News of Ingólfur's success led about 30,000 more Norse to move to Iceland over the next 60 years. The period of Icelandic history from Ingólfur's landing until the establishment of the national assembly, the Althing, in 930, is called the "Age of Settlement." The lives of most of the leading settlers are chronicled in Landnámabók (The book of settlements) compiled in the thirteenth century. Most of today's Icelanders can trace their genealogies back to the pioneers mentioned in Landnámabók.

The Age of Settlement was concurrent with the long reign of the first king of Norway, Harald. That concurrence was not coincidental. Harald's tyranny drove many Norwegians into exile, and Iceland was a natural place for many of them to find new homes.

Harald was the son of the warlord Halfdan the Black. Having sworn as a young boy never to cut or comb his hair until he had conquered Norway, he was known as Harald Lúfa (Harald the Shaggy). He achieved his goal while still a teenager, sometime in the early 860s, and thereafter was called Harald Haarfager (Harald Fine-Hair). He ruled southwestern Norway and several tributary lands as a dictator until 930, when he abdicated in favor of his son, Eirik Blood-Axe. Harald died in 933 in his mid-eighties.

Among the Norwegian Viking chieftains who fell afoul of King Harald was Ketil Flatnose, son of Bjorn Buna, from whom a great many of the most prominent early settlers of Iceland were descended. Ketil conquered the Hebrides at Harald's request, but then refused to pay tribute to Harald. In retaliation, Harald confiscated all of Ketil's Norwegian lands and outlawed Bjorn the Easterner, the only one of Ketil's five children who had remained in Norway. Ketil and his daughter, Jorunn Wisdom-Slope, stayed in the Hebrides, but Bjorn and his other three children, son Helgi Bjolan and daughters Aud the Deep-Minded and Thorunn Hyrna, all went to Iceland.

Helgi Bjolan received a land grant from Ingólfur and settled at Hof, near Esjuberg, across the bay from the present capital, Reykjavík. Jorunn's son, Ketil the Foolish, was the first settler at Kirkjubaer in the southeast. Thorunn and her husband, Helgi the Lean, took possession of the land around Eyjafjord in the north. One of the first Christians in Iceland, Helgi the Lean called his home "Kristness."

Another early Icelandic Christian was Helgi the Lean's sister-in-law Aud (sometimes known as Unn). As survivor of both her husband Olaf the White and her son Thorstein the Red, she led her own expedition to Iceland about 915 and became the matriarch of the fertile dales region at the head of Hvammsfjord in the west. Women in early Iceland enjoyed more rights than in any other medieval culture, and nearly full equality with men in legal matters such as divorce and inheritance. Among Aud's descendants were Hoskuld Dala-Kollsson, Thord Gellir, and Snorri Godi, all powerful chieftains frequently mentioned in the sagas about Iceland's early years as a settlement.

Thorolf Mostur-Beard hid Bjorn the Easterner from Harald in Norway until both men decided to emigrate. Thorolf went directly to Iceland about 882 and settled at Helgafell on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, where Hvammsfjord runs into Breidafjord. Bjorn went to the Hebrides first, then to Iceland two years later, where Thorolf granted him land on Snaefellsnes between Hraunsvík and Hraunsfjord. Eyrbyggja Saga and Laxdaela Saga concern, respectively, Bjorn's and Aud's descendants.

Kveld-Ulf Bjalfason was a Norwegian chieftain who did not oppose King Harald, but refused to become his retainer. Harald, enraged, conspired for years against Kveld-Ulf's powerful and influential family. On trumped-up charges, he had Kveld-Ulf's son Thorolf executed about 890. Kveld-Ulf and his surviving son, Skalla-Grim, fled to Iceland, but not before they had recovered a ship that Harald had stolen from Thorolf. Kveld-Ulf died during the voyage. Skalla-Grim threw his father's coffin overboard, buried it where it washed ashore at Myrar, north of Borgarfjord, and built his home there. Skalla-Grim's son, Egil, is the eponymous hero of Egil's Saga.

Ketil Trout, another Norwegian chieftain, defended Thorolf Kveld-Ulfsson against Harald and killed the two slanderers who had engineered Thorolf's downfall. Ketil then decided that Norway had become unsafe and brought his entire household to Iceland. He took possession of a large stretch of land between the Markar River and the Thjórsá Estuary and became the dominant chieftain in southern Iceland. Among those to whom he granted land was Sighvat the Red, many of whose descendants had roles in the most important Icelandic epic, Njal's Saga.

Laxdaela, Eyrbyggja, Egil's, and Njal's are generally recognized as the four greatest Icelandic sagas. They are works of historical fiction, written two or three centuries after the incidents they describe, yet they seem more history than fiction. They tell the story of early Iceland's unique political, social, and religious development.

In Viking society, power determined wealth. Raiders, sailors, and farmers who put their trust in their own skill, might, and ingenuity had no need of monarchy. Nearly all of the first Icelanders were there precisely to escape monarchy. Very early in the Age of Settlement, the new settlers formed regional democratic assemblies to adjudicate local disputes. Soon, as the population rapidly increased and as more disputes crossed local boundaries, the need grew for a national assembly on the same model. The chieftains chose a natural amphitheater at Thingvellir in southeastern Iceland for this annual national legislative and judicial meeting, the Althing, which convened for two weeks each June beginning in 930. The Althing decreed in 1000 that thenceforth Christianity would be the universal religion of Iceland, replacing the worship of the Norse gods. The Althing remains the world's oldest parliament, and now meets in a building in Reykjavík.

After about 930, Icelanders considered the land fully settled, and thenceforth few new immigrants were made welcome. The golden age of Iceland, the "Saga Age," lasted from the founding of the Althing until about the middle of the twelfth century. During the subsequent "Sturlung Age," corruption, clan rivalries, and blood vengeance weakened the social structure sufficiently for Norway to annex Iceland easily in 1262. When Denmark united with Norway and Sweden in 1397, Iceland became a Danish possession and remained so until the Danes granted it limited home rule in 1874 and full independence in 1944.

Until about the fourteenth century, Iceland was warmer than it is now. The sagas of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries refer matter-of-factly to trees and meadows in Iceland that could nowadays not survive. As the climate deteriorated, severe volcanic eruptions, ensuing famines, and other natural disasters also contributed to about six centuries of general Icelandic misery from 1262 to 1874. Since regaining its independence, Iceland has enjoyed a steady renaissance. It is now one of the most highly educated countries in the world, with nearly 100% literacy.


Further Reading

The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók. Trans. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 1972.

Egil's Saga. Trans. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1976.

Eyrbyggja Saga. Trans. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1989.

Laxdaela Saga. Trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1969.

Magnusson, Magnus. Iceland Saga. London: Bodley Head, 1987.

Njal's Saga. Trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1960.

Swaney, Deanna. Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. Hawthorn, Australia: Lonely Planet, 1994.

The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of North America: Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik's Saga. Trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1965.

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The Discovery and Settlement of Iceland

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The Discovery and Settlement of Iceland