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History of Iceland
 
 
 

Early History

Iceland is, in geological terms, a young island. It started to form about 20 million years ago from a series of volcanic eruptions on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The Iceland hotspot is likely partly responsible for the island's creation and continued existence.

Iceland remained for a long time one of the world's last larger islands uninhabited by humans. It has been suggested that the land called Thule by the Greek merchant Pytheas was actually Iceland, although it seems highly unlikely considering Pytheas' description of it as an agricultural country with plenty of milk, honey and fruit. The exact date that humans first reached the island is uncertain. Ancient Roman coins dating to the 3rd century have been found in Iceland, but it is unknown whether they were brought there at that time, or came later with Viking settlers, having circulated as currency already for centuries.

According to Landnámabók (The Book of Settlement), Iceland was discovered by Naddoddr, one of the first settlers on the Faroe Islands, who was sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands, but got lost and drifted to the east coast of Iceland. Naddoddr named the country Snæland (Snowland). Swedish sailor Garðar Svavarsson also accidentally drifted to the coast of Iceland. He discovered that the country was an island and named it Garðarshólmi (literally Garðar's Islet) and stayed for the winter at Húsavík. The first Scandinavian who deliberately sailed to Garðarshólmi was Flóki Vilgerðarson, also known as Hrafna-Flóki (Raven-Flóki). Flóki settled for one winter at Barðaströnd. It was a cold winter, and when he spotted some drift ice in the fjords he gave the island its current name, Ísland (Iceland).

The first permanent settler in Iceland is usually considered to have been a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson. According to the story, he threw two carved pillars overboard as he neared land, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed along the coast until the pillars were found in the southwestern peninsula, now known as Reykjanesskagi. There he settled with his family around 874, in a place he named Reykjavík (Bay of Smokes) due to the geothermal steam rising from the earth. This very place would eventually become the capital and the largest city of modern Iceland. It is recognised, however, that Ingólfur Arnarson may not have been the first one to settle permanently in Iceland – that may have been Náttfari, a slave of Garðar Svavarsson who stayed behind when his master returned to Scandinavia.

Much of the above information comes from Landnámabók, written some three centuries after the settlement. Archeological findings in Reykjavík are consistent with the date given there: there was a settlement in Reykjavík around 870.

Ingólfur was followed by many more Norse chieftains, their families and slaves who settled all the inhabitable areas of the island in the next decades. These people were primarily of Norwegian, Irish and Scottish origin, the Irish and Scots being mainly slaves and servants of the Norse chiefs according to the Icelandic sagas and Landnámabók and other documents. A common explanation for this exodus from Norway is that people were fleeing the harsh rule of the Norwegian king Haraldur Harfagri (Harald the Fair-haired), who is believed to have been uniting some parts of modern Norway during the period. It is also believed that the western fjords of Norway were simply overcrowded in this period. The settlement of Iceland is thoroughly recorded in the aforementioned Landnámabók, although it should be remembered that the book was compiled in the early 12th century when at least 200 years had passed from the age of settlement. Ari Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók is generally considered more reliable as a source and is probably somewhat older, but it is far less thorough. It does say that Iceland was fully settled within 60 years, which likely means that all territory had been claimed by various settlers.


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