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What Do You Know About Iceland’s Viking History?

When Norwegians and Icelanders started writing, the word viking referred to nordic men that went sailing overseas to do robberies. In Egils Saga, Egill is said to have as a six year old killed a 10 or 11 years old boy. His mother interpreted it as a sign that he was a viking. Viking in this context is a profession rather than a lifestyle. The settlers of Iceland were mainly farmers and agriculture workers rather than vikings, even though some of them may have “gone viking” from time to time to add some variety to their daily life. 

We could trace back Iceland’s viking heritage to the year 874 AD, when Ingólfur Arnarson and his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir, set foot on the island. After escaping political unrest in Norway, they stepped on the shores of South Iceland after battling their way through uncertain seas, founding the first settlement in Reykjavík. The Book of Settlements (Landnámabók) tells the story of these early settlers.

But various sources indicate that Irish monks came to Iceland before the Norse vikings, but had left again before they arrived. Icelandic language has many similarities with old norse. However, a book by Þorvaldur Friðriksson published in 2022 explores the Celtic influences in Icelandic, indicating a mix of Celtic and Nordic (viking) roots in the early settlements of the country. Recent research indicates that half of Iceland’s female settlers were Celts. The book looks at words in Icelandic for e.g. place names, domestic animals, birds, fish and flowers which are not Nordic but Celtic. 

The Icelandic sagas give a glimpse into the Viking times, originally being passed orally, they were transcribed a few hundred years later. Other vikings followed in the footsteps of Ingólfur and Hallveig and saw Iceland as a land of new opportunities. The population gradually grew and with it the need for law and a place where people could gather and settle conflicts and agree on rules. The parliament Alþingi was founded in 930 and that marks the beginning of the Commonwealth Age in Iceland.

Where Can You Learn More About Iceland’s Viking History?

The Icelandic sagas might be the most obvious answer, such as Egils Saga, Laxdæla and The Book of Settlements. But a more convenient and faster option for many people would be visiting a museum. And for that, you can find a variety of museums to choose from, such as the Settlement Exhibition downtown Reykjavík or The National Museum of Iceland at the edge of downtown. 

The National Museum of Iceland has a permanent exhibition dedicated to the settlement period from 800 to 1000. In the viking age, Nordic people managed to build ships suitable for sailing from Norway to Iceland and the UK.

The Settlement Exhibition is an excavation where Viking ruins are highlighted with digital technology. These remains of the past were discovered during construction work and are the earliest evidence of human settlement in the city.

The Saga Museum recreates key moments in Icelandic history from the time of the first settlers, using life-like replicas of historical Icelandic figures, based on descriptions found in the Viking sagas and chronicles.

The Viking Village in Hafnarfjörður is a restaurant in a house from 1841 and the second oldest one in Hafnarfjörður. The décor is Viking style with paintings directly on the walls.

Þingvellir is today a national park but used to be home to Iceland’s first parliament, the name literally means Parliament Fields. There you can find remains of the Althing (parliament) built from turf and stone.

Stöng in the valley Þjórsárdalur, South Iceland, is referred to as The Commonwealth Farm in English and is a reconstructed farm based on the excavated farmhouse Stöng. There, you can learn more about the daily life of people who brought the valley to life around a thousand years ago.

The Settlement Centre in Borgarnes, West Iceland, recreates Iceland’s earliest days and introduces visitors to one of the best known Icelandic Vikings, Egill Skallagrímsson. 

Glaumbær Farm in Skagafjörður, North Iceland, is where a farmhouse is said to have stood on the hill since the Age of Settlements (900 AD). The current farmhouse is built of turf, stones and timber.

1238: The Battle of Iceland in Sauðárkrókur is an interactive historical experience that takes you in an instant from modern times back into the middle of Viking battles and historical events. The exhibition stages the most famous Viking battles and events of the age of Sturlungs (1220-1262).

With the Reykjavík City Card (24, 48 or 72 hours), you can get access to the National Museum of Iceland and The Settlement Exhibition at the Reykjavík City Museum

Iceland Museum Guide is a guide to museums in Iceland, published online and in print. You can see the online brochure version here and pick up a copy in print in various public places.

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