A Viking History of Iceland

Iceland is a country with a rich literary history, going all the way back to the poetic eddas that were written in the Medieval Ages.  Important texts from around this time include Landnámabók (“Book of Settlements”), which describes in detail how the Norsemen settled in Iceland between the 9th and 11th centuries.  Although historians initially thought that the Norse landed in Iceland to search for fertile farmland, there’s evidence that indicates they were looking to raid coastal monasteries.  The term Viking was used by Scandinavians as early as 950 to describe these seafaring people, who braved unrelenting oceanic conditions to expand their empire.  By the 15th century, the word had taken on a disparaging context, thanks to the medieval sagas that referred to them as little more than barbarians and scoundrels.  Vikings have come to be regarded in this light due to the influence of these sagas on popular culture.

Regardless of their predatory nature, the Vikings were thoroughly skilled seafarers.  Their longships are marvels of pre-modern sailing technology.  Made from oak trees, with a symmetrical bow and stern, longships could carry up to sixty men at a time.  This graceful wooden boat could reverse course without turning around (thanks to the symmetrical bow and stern), and its sleek, sturdy build allowed it to navigate glaciers and sea ice easily.  Called “dragonships” by English adversaries, due to their dragon-shaped bow, the longships were unrivaled for their time, and are a testament to the Vikings’ talents at sea.  You can find replicas of longships at Viking museums around the world.

Without modern methods of navigation, the founding Norsemen of Iceland relied on their familiarity with tides, sailing times, and landmarks in order to chart courses.  Naddodur Ásvaldsson, the first Viking on Iceland, actually landed on its shore by accident.  As he was on his way to the Faroe Islands, Naddodur he had no intention of staying in the uninhabited country for long, though he did speak of his unexpected adventure when he returned to his homeland.

Inspired, fellow Norseman Flóki Vilgerðarson left in 867 to find the country that Naddodur had named Snaeland (“Snowland”).  During the journey, Flóki released three ravens to help him navigate.  When the last one didn’t return to the ship, he followed the bird – straight to Snaeland’s shore.  As described in Landnámabók, this resourcefulness earned him the name Raven-Flóki, by which he was remembered forever afterward.  Raven-Flóki rechristened Snaeland as Iceland, and only returned to Norway when his entire herd of cattle died during a spell of severe winter weather.

By 870, families began arriving from Norway, Scotland, and Ireland, hoping to take advantage of the newfound farmland.  By 930, over ten thousand Vikings were living in Iceland.   Landnámabók and the medieval sagas were written two hundred years later.  Though their authors are unknown, these texts describe the founding of Iceland in incredible detail, and have long been fascinating sources for historians looking for clues as to what life was like during this ancient period of civilization.

About the author:

Dana Silverman credits her passion for travel to Girl Scouts, which provided her with amazing opportunities to attend summer camps throughout the United States during her childhood.  She’s lived in Australia and New Zealand, and she’s planning a trip to Japan around her appreciation for the country’s cuisine and temples.