The first people who are to said to have explored Iceland came from Norway. The Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), one of the famous Icelandic sagas, describes how the first settler, Naddodd the Viking, came to be in Iceland. The story goes that in the early 9th century Naddodd was swept off course when sailing from Norway back to the Faroe Islands, where he had settled. Noticing snow on the mountains as he approached the island, he called it Snaeland or Snowland. It is said he established a settlement near present-day Reyðarfjörður but left within a year to return to Norway.
A few years after this Garðarr Svavarsson (also known as Gardar the Swede) is said to have made his way to Iceland. Gardar lived on the Danish island of Zealand and had heard of Naddodd’s travels to the mysterious Snowland. His mother, who was a sorceress, urged him to go and look for Snowland. Gardar circumnavigated Iceland, determining it was an island, and stayed for a winter on the northern coast before sailing back home. It was briefly renamed ‘Gardar’s Island’ because of this.
Next came Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerdarson (“Raven Floki”), a great viking who sailed from Norway via the Shetland Islands to find Gardar’s Island in about 860 in the hopes of forming a new colony. He is known as Raven Floki because of the legend that he brought three ravens to help him find the precise location of the island. The first would not leave the ship, the second flew away and then returned swiftly but the third led them safely the Gardar’s Island. Floki’s trip, however, would end in disaster. Floki lost his daughter to the sea en route to the new settlement and when he arrived, his men failed to make hay and all his livestock died from lack of fodder. On top of this, Floki was forced to stay longer than he wanted on the island because of ice blocking access to the fjord he needed to sail out of and, in his frustration with the place, he named it Iceland – a name that stuck.
Finally, Ingolfr Arnarson, inspired by the news of Floki’s discovery, set out for Iceland with his foster-brother, a Viking raider named Hjorleif. They liked the land but did not have enough supplies to create a settlement so returned home to raise money and gather volunteers while Hjorleifr resorted to his Viking method of raiding Ireland and returning with treasure and slaves. The two men then set out again for Iceland. Ingolfr, a pious and god-fearing man, threw two carved pillars overboard as he approached the land and vowed he would settle wherever the pillars landed. He sailed along the coast until the pillars were found in where is now known as Reykjanesskagi. He settled there with his family in a place he named ‘Smoke Cove’ (Reykjarvik), most likely due to the geothermal steam surrounding the area. This spot is now the capital of Iceland: Reykjavík
Between 870 and 930, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people made their way to Iceland. Many were from Norway with many Norse chieftains, their families and slaves settling habitable areas of the land. It is believed that many went to Iceland to escape the oppressive regime of King Harald Fairhair. Danes, Swedes and those of Irish and Scottish origin were also colonists and today, DNA testing shows that 2/3 of modern male Icelanders are of Norse descent and 1/3 are of Celtic descent.
The Landnámabók tells the story of Iceland’s settlement, although it was compiled and published almost 200 years after settlement in the early 12th century. However, there is some archaeological and genological evidence to support the story laid out in the book. Both the Landnámabók and the Íslendingabók detail how Iceland was fully settled within 60 years, which likely means that all arable land had been claimed by various settlers.
The Commonwealth and Christianisation
For the first century of the island’s recorded history, many Icelanders were pagan and worshiped the Norse gods, among them Odin, Thor, Freyr, and Freyja. Pagan worship was organised around a class of chieftains known as godar and there were around 40 godar who ruled over their own goðorð (county) or the area around their farmstead. The godar formed the ruling class in the country and in 930 the godar established an assembly known as the Althing. This parliament convened each summer and the godar would amend laws, settle disputes and appoint juries to judge lawsuits. Today, the Althing is considered to be the world’s oldest existing parliament.
By the tenth century, political pressure from Europe for the country to convert to Christianity mounted. Towards the end of the first millenium, many prominent Icelanders had accepted the new faith and there were already Christians who lived there due to the settlers and slaves who had come from Ireland. By 1000, Iceland was on the brink of civil war and so the Althing appointed one of the chieftains, Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi, to decide the issue of religion by arbitration. He decreed that the country should convert to Christianity but that pagans would be allowed to worship privately. In 1056, the first Icelandic bishop was consecrated by the bishop of Hamburg.
With the conversion to Christianity, many slaves were set free and the number of free farmers and crofters increased significantly. In terms of trade, Icelanders exported wool products, falcons, horses and later, fish. Import goods included timber, soapstone, wax and metals. The development of the Viking trading ship known as the knarr, a type of merchant ship, made trade possible as it allowed for live animals to be traded.
Around this time, Icelandic historians began to document the nation’s story in books that would become known as the sagas of Icelanders and cement Iceland’s reputation as a literary capital.
Today, Iceland has a population of 360,390 and is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Following a period of civil strife, Iceland acceded to Norwegian rule in the 13th century. Following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Icelanders began to agitate for independence, culminating in the country’s independence in 1918 and the founding of a republic in 1944. It is now a popular tourist destination, ranked the sixth most developed country in the world by the United Nations’ Human Development Index, and first on the Global Peace Index.
Iceland remains volcanically and geologically active and this environment makes it one of the most beautiful and interesting destinations to visit. With fantastic fjords, glittering glaciers and many other wonders, including geysers, lagoons and waterfalls, Iceland has many unique travel experiences on offer. The best way to get to the Iceland is to fly into Keflavik International Airport. Keflavik is a forty-minute drive from Reykjavik. From Australia, the best route is usually to fly via London to Iceland or via Vancouver or Chicago.
If you are interested in an Icelandic holiday, discovering Icelandic heritage and its North European roots, and seeing the sagas in real life, please take a look at our tours to Iceland.
Articles about Iceland published by Odyssey Traveller:
Questions About Iceland
Visiting Iceland for Mature and Senior Travellers
Lunar Landscapes and Geology in Iceland
For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.
External articles to assist you on your visit to Iceland:
Inspired by Iceland: The national tourism website
Travel + Leisure: How to travel to Iceland
Ice, Fire and Feuds: On the Trail of Iceland’s Sagas
Lonely Planet: Ten things to do in Reykjavík