Iceland is one of the few places in the world whose entire past is more or less known. But the story has over the centuries lost some of its nuances and has become simplified to “Vikings settled Iceland.” But what do we really know about the discovery and settlement of Iceland? Buckle up, as we take a stroll through history (and some myth).
In some classical literature, Thule was more of a metaphorical place – the furthest known place on Earth, i.e. an unattainable goal. However, it is possible that Iceland was known in the ancient world. As early as 320 BC, Greek explorer Pytheas is said to have visited an island off the coast of Northern Europe that he called Thule. Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, provided more context in AD 77, saying that Thule was six days sailing from the northern coast of Britain. Other classical writers and historians continued this line of thinking. Thule began to take shape as an island that sat north and west of Ireland and Britain.
These descriptions are pretty vague. And while some historians and scholars have tried to connect Thule with Iceland, others have argued that it was in reference to Ireland, Estonia, or other islands in the North Atlantic. A contemporary of Pliny‘s wrote that the inhabitants of Thule were painted blue, which led many to believe the island was connected to the Pict people, a tribe from the British Isles whose culture disappeared during the Middle Ages.
Isidore of Seville wrote in the 7th century that Ultima Thule was northwest of Britain and that the sun did not stretch beyond the island, thus the sea around it was frozen. Throughout the Middle Ages, more and more historians and writers began to assume that Thule was indeed Iceland (or Greenland). And while we can only guess, it is not inconceivable that the ancient world knew of the existence of our little island in the North Atlantic.
Landnámabók, or The Book of Settlements, gives us most of the information about how Iceland was discovered and then settled. It is an invaluable source of information, but it has to be taken with a grain of salt. The discovery of Iceland reportedly took place in the early 9th century – but The Book of Settlements was not written until around the 12th century. Even so, the oldest extant manuscript to contain this narrative dates from the 13th century. So we are talking about 400 years between the supposed events and when these events were committed to written memory.
According to Landnámabók, the first person to spot Iceland was a Norwegian sailor named Naddodd. He lost his way sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands when he came in sight of a huge land mass. He went ashore in Eastern Iceland, near where the town of Reyðarfjörður sits today. He allegedly climbed a mountain and looked around for signs of humans, but he did not see anything. He went on his way, sailing to the Faroe Islands where he would settle in 825. And he told everyone that would listen that he discovered – not Iceland – but Snowland!
Some time passed before another Norse adventurer stumbled upon the island. This time, a Swedish Viking named Garðar Svavarsson, got tossed about in a storm and found himself looking at Iceland. He was reportedly the first to circumnavigate the island, stopping briefly in what is now Húsavík in the northeast where he even built a house. He did not stay but returned to his home in Zealand. He didn‘t use the name Iceland or Snowland to describe the island but rather Garðarshólmi – Garðar‘s island.
Around 868, a Norseman named Hrafna-Flóki set out to find Garðarshólm. He made his way from Norway to the Faroe Islands. From there, he reportedly used ravens to help him find Iceland, which is how he got his name Hrafna (Raven) Flóki. He sailed along the southern coast and eventually set up camp in Vatnsfjörður in the West Fjords. Along the way, Flóki noticed that some of the fjords were filled with drift ice. So he renamed the country Ísland (Iceland). Hrafna-Flóki reportedly did not like living there and was unprepared for the cold. He complained about it after returning to Norway. Nevertheless, Hrafna-Flóki would come back to Iceland and live out the remainder of his days.
Around 870, farmers, warriors, and merchants from Norway and the North Atlantic began coming in earnest to the island to settle permanently. The first to lead the charge was a man named Ingólfr Arnason, a man who is heralded as the first settler. He sailed in 874 from Norway to Iceland and set up his homestead in Reykjavík – the eventual capital of the country.
However, according to The Book of Settlements, there actually were some people living there before Ingólfr showed up. The Norse found papar – Irish Christian hermits – living in caves around Iceland but swiftly kicked them out. According to some archaeologists, there is some merit to this story, but the number of papar would have been relatively few.
Over the next 60 years, families poured into Iceland to gobble up the available land. Early settlers claimed huge stretches, then gave or sold big chunks to the latecomers. The majority of settlers came from Norway, but many came from the British Isles. In fact, recent scholarship has argued that the Celtic aspect of the Icelandic settlement is greater than previously believed.
Several factors brought the immigrants to Iceland. First, and most obviously, people love free land! Even with Hrafna-Flóki‘s bad reviews and the obvious limitations of the land – not much could grow – people still needed a place to stretch out and settle down. The Viking Age expansion of the Norse people across the Atlantic was driven by adventure but also need. Some scholars have argued that because the eldest son would inherit the family farm, younger sons around Scandinavia were left without a home. So they ventured out to make a home for themselves, settling in Iceland, Shetland, and the Faroe Islands. And of course trying to take for themselves England, parts of France, and other parts of Europe.
According to the Icelandic sagas, one of the most important driving factors of the settlement of Iceland was the tyranny of King Harald Finehair. Determined to become the sole king of Norway, Harald was eliminating petty kings and jarls that he saw as threats and taking over ancestral holdings and lands that free farmers had had for generations. Although later scholars say that the medieval sagas greatly exaggerate Harald‘s oppression, it certainly drove some families away.
Some of these settlers had, in fact, been Vikings. And for generations, the sons of Icelandic farmers would leave during the summers to join Vikings on raids around the North Atlantic and Europe. But it is misleading to say that the Vikings settled Iceland. Viking was an occupation – something you did. And most of the settlers were farmers and merchants – though certainly skilled warriors!
By 930, the majority of free land had been claimed and the mass settlement had ceased. For the next 300 years, Icelanders set up a government without a head. Some say it was egalitarian and classless, but that‘s a romantic view. It is true, though, that there was no king, no president, and no official ruler. Some farmers became chieftains, some served on juries or on the law council to help write laws. There were no police or official militaries. Disagreements and criminal criminal cases were resolved by neighbours, farmers, chieftains, and the victims. The highest public office was the lawspeaker, which was a fixed 3-year term. This era of Iceland‘s history came to an end around 1252 when Iceland officially became a part of the Norwegian kingdom. The nation wouldn‘t be an independent country again until 1944.