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.
Thorolf must have been a born optimist. Iceland is a large volcanic island lying exactly on the mid-Atlantic ridge, where magma welling up from the mantle is gradually pushing Europe and America apart. Despite lying only just south of the Arctic Circle, the influence of the warm Gulf Stream current keeps the climate mild for the latitude. Glaciers and ice sheets on the mountains cover about 14 per cent of Iceland but the rest of the island is free of permafrost.
The beautiful but unforgiving landscape of Iceland ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Iceland’s combination of ice and fire must have reminded the settlers of the Viking creation myth, in which the world emerges in the void between the fire realm of Muspel and the frozen realm of Niflheim.
Icland landscapes remind of the frozen realm of Niflheim. (Olivier Toussaint/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Today, less than a quarter of Iceland is vegetated, the remainder of the unglaciated area being mainly barren lava fields and ash deserts. However, when it was discovered by the Vikings, around 40 per cent of Iceland was covered with low, scrubby, birch and willow woodland, so it would have looked considerably less bleak than it does today. Even so, Iceland turned out to be a distinctly marginal environment for European settlement and the settlers were very vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather and volcanic eruptions.
Hearing the reports circulating about Iceland, two Norwegian foster-brothers, Ingolf and Hjorleif, made a reconnaissance trip to the Eastern Fjords in the late 860’s to assess the prospects for settlements. The foster-brothers had lost their estates paying compensation to jarl Atli of Gaular for killing his sons and they urgently needed a safe refuge. Liking what they saw the foster-brothers made preparations to emigrate. Ingolf had the resources to fund his expedition, but Hjorleif did not, so he set out on a víking trip to Ireland. Even the Viking settle-ment of an uninhabited land involved violence. In Ireland, Hjorleif plundered a hoard of treasure from a souterrain and captured ten Irish slaves to take with him to Iceland.
According to the Lándnámabók, Ingolf and Hjorleif set out for Iceland again in 874. Study of layers of volcanic ash called tephra confirm the date. One of these layers, known as the landnám layer, which is found over almost all of the island, has been dated to 871–872. Evidence of human impact on the environment is found above the layer but not below it. Ingolf sacrificed to the gods and gained favourable auguries. Hjorleif did not bother: he never sacrificed. The two sailed in company until they sighted land and then split up. Hjorleif settled at once on the south coast at Hjörleifshöfði (‘Horleif ’s Head’). Ingolf, seeking the guidance of the gods, cast the carved pillars of his high-seat overboard, vowing to settle wherever they were washed ashore. Finding the pillars would take Ingolf all of three years.
After spending the first winter at Hjörleifshöfði, Hjorleif wanted to sow crops. He had only brought one ox, so he made his slaves drag the plough. It wasn’t long before the slaves had had enough of this: they murdered Hjorleif and the other men in his party, and sailed off with his possessions and the women, to a group of islands off Iceland’s south-west coast. These became known after them as the Vestmannaeyjar (‘isles of the Irish’). Shortly after this, two of Ingolf ’s slaves, who were following the coast looking for his high-seat pillars, came to Hjörleifshöfði and found Hjorleif ’s body. Ingolf was saddened by the killing, ‘but so it goes,’ he said, ‘with those who are not prepared to offer up sacrifice.’ Ingolf guessed that the Irish had fled to the Vestmannaeyjar and went after them. Surprising the Irish while they were eating a meal, Ingolf slew some of them. The others died leaping off a cliff in their panic to escape.
After spending a third winter in Iceland, Ingolf finally found his high-seat pillars. Ingolf named the place Reykjavik, the ‘bay of smoke’, after the many steaming hot springs in the area. It is now Iceland’s capital.
Ingolf commands his high seat pillars to be erected. ( Public Domain )
Ingolf took into possession the whole of the Reykjanes peninsula west of the River Öxará as his estate and settled his followers and slaves on it as his dependents. More settlers soon followed. The Landnámabók gives us the names of 400 leading settlers, and over 3,000 other (mainly male) settlers, who migrated to Iceland in the settlement period. As the named settlers brought wives, children, dependents and slaves with them, it is possible that around 20,000 people had migrated to Iceland by around 900. By the eleventh century the population had probably reached about 60,000, though there was little fresh immigration after c . 930, by which time all the best grazing land had been claimed.
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Most of the named settlers came from western Norway but there were also a few Swedes and Danes, as well as a significant number who came from the Norse colonies in the Hebrides. Many of this last group were second-generation emigrants and several of them, such as the powerful matriarch Aud the Deep-Minded, were already Christian, while others, like Helgi the Lean, who worshipped both Christ and Thor, were partly so. However, the religion did not take root in Iceland and it died out with the first generation of settlers. Even Aud was given a pagan ship burial by her followers. Some of this group were the product of mixed Norse-Celtic marriages and two of the leading settlers, Dufthakr and Helgi the Lean, claimed descent from the Irish king Cerball mac Dúnlainge (r. 842–88). Many settlers, like Hjorleif, also took with them significant numbers of British and Irish slaves.
Recent analysis of the DNA of modern Icelanders has revealed just how significant the British and Irish contribution to the settlement of Iceland was. Analysis of the Y chromosomes of Icelandic men indicate that 75 per cent have Scandinavian origins, while 25 per cent have British or Irish origins. Strikingly, analysis of mitochondrial DNA of Icelandic women shows that the majority – 65 per cent – have British or Irish origins, with only 35 per cent having Scandinavian origins. The sexual imbalance suggests that, as in the Hebrides and the Faeroes, a majority of the Viking settlers were single men of relatively low social rank, who perhaps had been unable to marry at home because they had no access to land. Although only a bare majority of the settlers were Scandinavian, their social, political and cultural dominance was total. This is most clearly seen in the Icelandic language which, apart from some personal names, shows only insignificant Celtic influences. As a result of Iceland’s isolation and cultural conservatism, modern Icelandic remains close to the dönsk tunga (‘Danish Tongue’), the common Old Norse language spoken by all Scandinavians in the Viking Age.
King Haraldr hárfagri receives the kingdom out of his father's hands. From the 14th century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbók. ( Public Domain )
Excerpted with permission from Northmen: The Viking Saga 793-1241 AD by John Haywood, published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. Copyright 2016.
By John Haywood