The Norse Discovery And Settlement Of Iceland During The Viking Age

During the Viking Age (late 8th century-mid 11th century) the Norsemen travelled, traded, and established permanent colonies in many locations throughout mainland Europe and overseas. In their way to Iceland, they encountered the Faroe Islands, disposing of the small archipelago as a resupplying check point for stockpiles of resources that they could subsequently transport in their journeys far up north.

Previously, it must be mentioned that both the Faroe Islands and Iceland were not uninhabited as some might assume given the fact that Irish hermit Catholic monks were already present there prior to the arrival of the Norwegian Vikings, being most likely part of a Hiberno-Scottish mission. In fact, the discovery of Iceland by the Norsemen was actually an accident.

A Faroese explorer by the name Nadodd (who initially set sail from early medieval Norway to reach the Faroe Islands) and his crew were blown off by the course in the North Atlantic Ocean and incidentally landed on the shores of Iceland.

After he had landed, he climbed up a nearby mountain to its peak and scouted the area from there. He didn’t see any smoke rising up, so he came to the conclusion that the land was not inhabited. He also gave it the name ‘Snæland’, meaning ‘snow land’.

Map highlighting the Norse expeditions to Iceland during the 9th century. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

He then returned to Norway and told his fellow comrades the story about a new uninhabited land located a long way westward. Even though Naddodd didn’t encounter any Christian hermit monks while he was scouting a certain coastal part of Iceland, this doesn’t mean they weren’t already present there upon his arrival.

Hearing the rumours spread by Naddodd, a Swedish Viking explorer known as Garðarr Svávarsson sailed to Iceland and encircled its coastlines in order to prove that it was an island. After he had finished his voyage, he returned to Norway and told the others that he noticed it being ‘wooden from mountains to the sea’. He changed its name to ‘Garðarshólmi’ after himself.

But the Viking explorer who is mostly credited for establishing the first Norse colony in Iceland is Flóki Vilgerðarson (also known as ‘Raven’ Floki), who went on in a quest for Svávarsson during the 860s. According to the legend, he brought three ravens with him in order to guide his passage to Iceland.

After releasing the third raven, that one guided his way to the land he had heard good news about. Flóki, along with his crew, met with an unfortunate voyage and ran into many problems before and after setting foot on Icelandic soil. He is known to have temporarily settled Iceland for several years before returning back to Norway.

It was him who gave it the name ‘Iceland’, but when he returned to Norway he had little good to report about his journey. However, the surviving members of his crew spread good rumours and encouraged potential convoys to set sail on purpose in order to colonise the area. The foundation of the Norse colonies in Iceland is documented in two Icelandic sagas, specifically Landnámabók (meaning ‘The Book of the Settlements’) and Íslendingabók (meaning ‘The Book of the Icelanders’).

Old farm house near Vestrahorn, Iceland. Image source:

The subsequent waves of Norse colonists found a land which met with all of their requirements for permanent settlement, since the coastal areas were favourable for agriculture and other human activities. The centre of the island couldn’t have been inhabited because it comprises either volcanoes, deserts, or frozen fields of glaciers.

Subsequently, the Norse colonists also established a local form of democracy which they called ‘Althing’. This form of democracy was initially represented by open-air gatherings of the local populace at what is now Þingvellir national park.

19th century painting by English artist W. G. Collingwood depicting the Althing in Iceland. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Documentation sources and external links:

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