Ingólfur Arnarson And The Foundation Of Iceland’s Capital City, Reykjavík

According to Landnámabók (a medieval manuscript detailing the Norse settlement of Iceland), Ingólfur Arnarson is widely ascribed to have been one of the first permanent settlers of Iceland, alongside his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir, and his foster brother Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson.

A nobleman of Norwegian descent, Ingólfur (his name literally meaning ‘noble wolf’) was forced to leave early medieval Norway during the late part of the 9th century in the wake of a skirmish in which he and his foster brother took part against the sons of a powerful Norse jarl (earl).

So it is that after he had murdered two of the Norse jarl’s sons he was forced to give up all of his land possessions to him. Having virtually speaking nothing to stand for in his native land, Ingólfur decided to set sail westward, in a quest for a better life.

At some point throughout the early 870s, he embarked along with his wife, Hjörleifur’s family, some slaves in their service, and anything else valuable that they could pack up. Among these things were a pair of carved wooden pillars he had thrown off board while in the proximity of Iceland. Because he wanted to live in a place directed by divine intervention, these pillars represented the will of the Norse gods. Thereupon, when the pillars reached the shores of Iceland Ingólfur knew he had to settle there.

Shortly thereafter, he and his crew spent their first winter on Icelandic soil at the Ingólfshöfði headland which is situated in the southern coast of Iceland. Subsequently, he sent two of his slaves to scout the surroundings in the search for the drifted pillars. They have done so all the way on the south-western coast of Iceland until they saw them in a bay with some hot springs.

Thus, in 874, Ingólfur Arnarson is credited for being the founder of Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík (or the ‘Smoky Bay’ as it literally translates to in English) by building his new farmstead there. He named the place this way because of the ‘smoke’ (actually steam) which came up from the hot springs in the vicinity of present day Reykjavík.

Ingólfr Arnarson and his men founding Reykjavík, as depicted in a 1850 painting by Danish artist Johan Peter Raadsig. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It must be equally mentioned that Ingólfur was, even for a relatively brief period of time, the legal owner of the south-western part of the island, but since he could not inhabit all of it he had either donated or sold much of his land property to the upcoming waves of Scandinavian colonists who took part in the Norse settlement phase of Iceland. Nowadays, on a small hill called Arnarhóll in the middle of Reykjavík stands a statue erected in the honour of Ingólfur.

Statue of Ingólfur Arnarson in downton Reykjavík. Image source:

Nonetheless, not much is known regarding Ingólfur’s fate after the foundation of Reykjavik. What is for certain though, is that his son Þorsteinn (Torstein) grew up to become a noteworthy chieftain in Viking Age Iceland and is also remembered for his efforts of establishing one of the country’s first assemblies at Kjalarnes, currently a district of the capital city.

Prior to the foundation of Reykjavík, however, there was also another Norse navigator who settled in Iceland intermittently, namely Flóki Vilgerðarson, but the first time was not permanently. It was thanks to the previous voyages made by him and another Swedish explorator by the name Garðarr Svavarsson that Ingólfur reached the shores of Iceland.

Documentation sources and external links:

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5 Responses to Ingólfur Arnarson And The Foundation Of Iceland’s Capital City, Reykjavík

  1. There were actually several Norse navigators mentioned to have visited Iceland before Ingolfur and Hjorleifur did. Archeological evidence has now indeed exposed the Landnamabok account as a myth. There was extensive use of natural resources in the country prior to this settlement of Ingolfur. The Reykjavík area may even have been already settled by Celts when Ingolfur came there. There are still in-escavated ring formed ruins at the end of Vesturgata (one of the oldest streets in Reykjavík). Celtic structures were round while Norse were rectangular or close to rectangular.

    • Walter D.Whiting says:


      • Victor Rouă says:

        Yes, actually, the Papar more specifically, but t’s not 100% known. Thank you very much for stopping by, for your readership, attention, and time on The Dockyards! All the best!

        P.S. Irish hermit monks were to be found across many islands across the North Atlantic, including the Faroe Islands, before Iceland (and it makes sense, geographically and chronologically).

  2. Janice Beach says:

    I need to take a trip to Iceland.

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