The Viking Discovery of Iceland
The Vikings’ next step out into the Atlantic – the discovery and settlement of Iceland – is one of the best documented events of the Viking Age. Medieval Icelanders were fascinated by genealogy, not only because, as emigrants, they wanted to know where their families came from, but because such knowledge was essential when it came to establishing property rights. To begin with, family traditions about the settlement period were passed down orally from one generation to the next, but in the early twelfth century they were committed to writing in the two earliest works of Icelandic history, Landnámabók and Íslendingabók, both of which were written in the Old Norse language. Íslendingabók (‘The Book of the Icelanders’), a short chronicle of Icelandic history from the discovery of Iceland to 1118, was written between 1122 and 1132 by Ari Thorgilsson, a priest from Snæfellsness.
A page from a skin manuscript of Landnámabók, a primary source on the settlement of Iceland. ( Public Domain )
Ari relied on oral traditions and, for more recent events, on eyewitnesses, but he took care to establish the reliability of his informants, naming many of them, and avoiding Christian prejudice and supernatural explanations of events. Though not proven, it is generally thought that Ari was also the author of Landnámabók (‘The Book of the Settlements’), which gives details of the names, genealogies and land claims of hundreds of Iceland’s original Norse settlers.
Tapestry embroidery featuring Viking Floki Vilgerdarsson and crew. ( Public Domain )
The first Viking to visit Iceland was Gardar the Swede, who in c . 860 set out on a voyage from Denmark, where he had made his home, to the Hebrides, to claim some land his wife had inherited. While passing through the Pentland Firth, the straits that separate the Orkney Islands from the Scottish mainland, Gardar’s ship was caught in a storm and blown far out into the Atlantic. Gardar eventually sighted the mountainous coast of an unknown land.
Modern-day portrait of Garðar Svavarsson, or Gardar the Swede. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
What Gardar saw was not at all inviting, it was the rugged Eastern Horn on Iceland’s forbidding south-east coast, guarded by high cliffs and huge scree slopes tumbling into the sea. Undeterred, Gardar began to follow the coastline westwards, eventually circumnavigating Iceland and establishing that it was an island. Gardar spent nearly a year exploring his new-found land, wintering at Husavik on Iceland’s north coast. When he set sail in the spring, Gardar was forced to abandon a man called Nattfari, together with a male slave and a bondswoman, when the small boat they were in went adrift. These three survived, inadvertently becoming Iceland’s first permanent inhabitants. Naming his discovery Gardarsholm (Gardar’s island) after himself, Gardar sailed east to Norway, where he began to sing its praises.
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Another accidental visitor to Iceland around this time was Naddod the Viking. He was sailing from Norway to the Faeroe Islands when he was blown off course and made landfall in Iceland’s Eastern Fjords.
Norsemen landing in Iceland. ( Public Domain )
Naddod climbed a mountain to look for signs of habitation and, seeing none, left in the middle of a heavy snowstorm. Naddod too gave favourable reports of the island, which he decided to call Snæland (Snowland). Shortly after Naddod’s return, the Norwegian Floki Vilgerdarson set out from Rogaland with the intention of settling in Naddod’s Snæland. Floki had a reputation as a great Viking warrior but he was a hopeless settler. Floki spent his summer hunting seals at Vatnesfjörður on Breiðarfjörður in north-west Iceland but he neglected to make any hay, with the result that all the livestock he had brought with him starved to death over the winter. This doomed his attempt at settlement but pack ice in the fjord prevented him sailing for home. By the time the pack ice finally broke up it was too late in the year to risk trying to return to Norway, so Floki was forced to stay another winter, this time at Borgarfjörður further to the south. Thoroughly disillusioned by his experiences, Floki decided to rename Snæland ‘Iceland’. Floki’s name was the one that stuck even though his men gave more favourable reports of the island: the most enthusiastic of them, Thorolf, swore that butter dripped from every blade of grass. For this reason he was known ever afterwards as Thorolf Butter.