Iceland is mentioned for the first time in a book written in 825 AD by an Irish monk named Dicuilus. He relates of Irish monks living there who were forced to flee from Northmen arriving to the island. Today place names like Papey and Papafjorður are reminders of their presence.
An Irish abbot by the name Brendan (Brénaind) living in the mid 6th Century (died 583 AD) founded several monasteries in many remote islands. According to legend he set out on an adventurous expedition in boats made from cow hides to find the blissful islands. He and his crew roamed the seas for several years and experienced many wondrous things, until they eventually reached the island of paradise. Many researchers are convinced this must have been Newfoundland or Vinland as the Vikings called it. If this is true, it seems strange they did not know about Iceland at the time. In 1994 Iceland issued a joint stamp edition together with Ireland and the Faeroe Islands to commemorate this event.
In an ancient Icelandic source – Islendingabók – it is said that the Celtic monks abandoned the island of their free will when the Northmen arrived, because they dreaded mingling with heathens. Recent genealogical research however has proved that the Celtic strain in blood samples from the Icelandic population are considerably stronger than was earlier assumed. Iceland was rediscovered by the Swede Garðarr Svarvarsson and the Norwegian Naddodur – independent of each other.
Naddodur was a Norwegian Viking living in the mid 9th Century. He was outlawed and fled to the Faeroe Islands. On a voyage back to Norway a storm blew him towards Iceland. According to Old Norse sources Naddodur went ashore, but found no humans there.
The Norwegian Floke Vilgjerdsson (“Hrafna-Floki”) settled and lived in Iceland for two years. He got the nickname Raven-Floke because he brought with him three ravens to help him show the way – the first raven he let go flew back to Norway, the second stayed in the boat, but the third flew in the direction of Iceland. He gave the name Iceland to the island after all the polar ice he saw in the north. In the old Icelandic Landnåmabok (Book of Settlers) we can read that he sometimes in the 860’ies AD sailed from Rogaland in Norway to Hjaltland (Shetland), and from there northwards to find Garðarsholm. He found it, and stayed winter over in Bardastrond in the Western fjords. After his second winter he returned to Norway, but came back and settled in Flokadal in Northern Iceland.
The first permanent settler in Iceland was Ingolfr Arnarson from Fjaler in Sunnfjord. Due to some disagreement in his homeland he emigrated in Iceland together with his foster brother Hjörleifur in the year 874 AD. They also brought with them their families, domestic animals and other belongings. They settled in today’s Reykjavik. Excavations in the city centre have unearthed remnants of these early settlements. For almost 60 years a steady stream of immigrants found their way to Iceland. We can read about this great taking of land in Landnåmabok. This “Book of Settlers” has been written down over a long period of time, and many authors have made their contributions, among them the historian Ari Frodi, who wrote Islendingabok (Book of the Icelanders) from 1120 AD. Styrmir Frodi edited a version of the book in 1225 which now is lost in original, but was adapted by Sturla þordarson approximately 50 years later. Around the year 1300 AD an Icelander by the name Haukr Erlendson integrated the elder versions of Sturla and Styrmir into the Landnåmabok we know today.
Landnåmabok relates of the families who settled down in Iceland in the years 870 – 930 AD, when Alltinget (the Law assembly) was founded. Here we can read about where they came from, which family they belonged to, and where they settled down. Some were mighty chieftains, arriving with large fleets, others were simple peasants in small boats. The majority of them came directly from the Western part of Norway, while quite a few came from the Western Isles and Ireland. Among the settlers were also men with Celtic blood in their veins. The actual proportion of people of Celtic descent has been an issue of debate among researchers, but some claim the proportion must have been close to 50 %! Several place names of Celtic origin have survived, for instance Irafjell (Mountain of the Irish), Kjaransvik (Ciaran’s bay) and Bekansstaðir (Beccan’s place). All together 430 settlers are registered geographically all around the coast. All marriages and descendants are registered in detail up until the 13th Century (3500 persons and 1200 place names). This comprehensive family chronicle is mixed with legendary material of how Iceland was discovered, and with ancient Norse mythological heroic deeds (like in poetic Edda). The first settlers worshipped the Old Norse religion (Åsatroen), and the most distinguished among them – the godes – built temples for the Gods (hof) and held offerings there. All together there were 39 goder, serving as secular leaders as well. They started early to hold regular law assemblies (Things) many places, like they were used to from Norway. In another Old Icelandic chronicle – Eyrbyggja saga (Saga of the Island builders) – there is a story about a man named þórólfur Örnólfsson from Moster in Norway, who brought with him the timber from his local hof in Moster. When he approached Iceland he threw the altar posts with the carvings of the God Thor over board. He intended to settle down at the exact point where the altar posts drifted ashore. There he built a large farmstead he called Hovstad and founded a hof there.
In this aristocratic democracy the godes ruled within their own goðorð (county) surrounding their farmstead. The farmstead stayed in the family, and was inherited by the eldest son (allodial possession). Soon the need of a mutual thing and a common law forced its way through in Icelandic society. One of the early settlers by the name Ulvljot drew up the first law which was to embrace the whole island, patterned after the Norwegian Gulatingsloven, and the first Law Assembly or Alþingi was held at þingvellir in the south-western part of Iceland in the year 930 AD. The first Law-announcer (lovsigemann) was Hrafn Hængsson. The Alþingi was assembled once a year, and lasted for 2 weeks. At the same time a legislative assembly and a jury (lagretten) were established. The population in Iceland at the time was approximately 20 000.
How then was this new discovered country like? The first Norse settlers had different opinions. Raven-Floke, who had given the island a name, was pessimistic in his judgements. No wonder, as all his cattle and sheep had died from hunger already the first winter. Þórólfur however was enthusiastic and pronounced that “Butter dripped from every straw in the new land”. He later got the name Torolf Butter. Herjólfur was more realistic, and he had both positive and negative things to say about the island.
Iceland is not abundant with remnants from their early past, but there are some. The volcano Hekla had an enormous outbreak in the year 1104, and many farms were completely covered in ashes. One of these farms was Stöng, unearthed by Scandinavian archaeologists in 1939, and restored to its former splendour. The walls consist of peat and turf resting on a foundation of stones. The interior walls have panel boarding. The 12 metres long main hall is dominated by a fireplace, with benches and sleeping beds along the walls. In addition to the main building there is a barn, a cowshed and a smithy.
The farmer at Stöng bred cattle and sheep, in addition to cultivating his land. The women’s chores were to card, spin, weave and colour the sheep’s wool. Women also bore the chief responsibility for the drying and preparing of meat and fish.
Around the year 900 AD it is reckoned to have been almost 4000 farms in Iceland. A subordinated class of crofters developed – in addition to the slaves. These were employed on the farms and in the fisheries. After the introduction of Christianity around the year 1000 AD, many of the slaves were set free, and so the number of free crofters increased. To begin with, the Icelanders exported wool products (frieze), sulphur, falcons and horses. Fish as a trading article was introduced some years later, and flourished during the Crusades. The stockfish trade brought the Icelanders in close contact with the cultural streams of the Mediterranean world. Important import goods were timber, soapstone, wax and metals. It was foremost the development of the Viking trading ship – the knar – that made this possible.
It was from this country Eiríkur Rauði and his son Leifur Eiríksson embarked on their world-famous sailing expeditions. The father “discovered” Greenland in 982 AD, returned four years later with 25 ships, and settled down in Breiðafjörður. These settlements in western Greenland endured for almost 500 years – then suddenly disappeared in a mysterious way! There were once many hundred farms, several churches, an Episcopal residence and a monastery. According to the Sagas Leifur had been the king’s bodyguard at Nidaros. King Olav Tryggvason had given him the assignment to bring Christianity to Greenland. It was on this mission he sailed out of course – and “discovered” Vinland (New Foundland). During his relatively short reign as king of Norway (995 – 1000 AD), Olav Tryggvason managed to convert many Norwegians from the old faith of Åsa to Whitechrist (the Viking’s name for Christianity), not only in his homeland, but also in the Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland. In the year 1000 AD Alltinget in Iceland proclaimed that Iceland should be a Christian country.
In the year 1056 Ísleifur is appointed bishop of Iceland – the first Icelander to be honoured with this title. He had studied in Germany, and was a distant relative of Olav Tryggvason. He settled down on his ancestors farm Skálholt in southern Iceland, where he founded a school for the education of future priests. The old Godes (Godene) now started building churches instead of temples in honour of the old gods. In 13th Century Iceland only 6 – 7 family clans share almost all power in Iceland. One of these clans was the Sturlung clan (Sturlungeætten). The famous Saga author Snorri Sturluson belonged to this clan. He eventually grew into becoming the mightiest man in Iceland. Snorri was born on the farm Hvammer in Dalir in western Iceland in the year 1179 AD. On his mother’s side he descended from the famous bard Egill Skallagrimsson, and his father Sturla þórðarson was law keeper and chieftain of their district. At the age of three Snorri was placed for fosterage in the home of the chieftain Jón Loptsson at Oddi, where he stayed till he reached the age of 20. The stay at Oddi proved to be decisive for Snorri’s development as an author. Oddi was an educational centre at the time, and Snorri studied Latin, theology, law and geography. He was a good friend of the young Norwegian king Håkon Håkonsson’s guardian – Duke Skule. When later Snorri was accused of conspiracy against the young king, and for supporting a rebellion under the leadership of Duke Skule, Snorri’s destiny was sealed. He was murdered in his home in Iceland in the autumn of 1241 AD. In 1262 Iceland was integrated into the Kingdom of Norway.
The Faeroe Islands.
The Faeroe Islands were – like in Iceland – settled by Norwegians early in the 9th Century. As was the case in Iceland they were surprised not to find the islands uninhabited. Irish monks had been there before them. In the year 825 AD the Irish monk Dicuil relates:
In an Icelandic source we can read about Grimr Kamban - the first monk to settle in the islands. Kamban is a Celtic name. In the Irish monk Brendan’s narratives from his many sea journeys – Navigatio Sancti Brenandi (550 AD) – he relates about all the different islands he passed on his way to the Promised land in the West – Tír na nÓg or Land of eternal youth. He passes an island with spurting fires which he names Island of the Smiths (Iceland?), an island covered with grazing sheep (Island of Sheep), and mountainous islands covered with birds (Paradise of Birds). The two latter descriptions fit well in with the appearance of some of the western Faeroe Islands (Mykines?). It is not at all improbable that some of these islands already were inhabited by Picts before the Irish hermits arrived in the 6th Century. Brendan and his loyal crew-members also went ashore on one of these islands. We can read about this adventure in the legend of Iasconius:
It is little doubt that they had experienced an earthquake. The fire spurting mountains they observed probably were Eyjafjällajökul in Iceland. Perhaps this was an era in the geological history of Iceland and The Faeroe Islands with exceptionally amounts of volcanic activity?
The Faeroese’s own name on their island – Föreyar – means sheep islands. In ancient Norwegian and Icelandic writings – like Historica Norwegica - the name most often appears as fær (plural of får = sheep). This interpretation is now widely accepted among researchers. The majority of the island names have a clear Norse origin, apart from the most isolated of the islands – Stora (big) and Litla (little) Dimun. Dimun is of Celtic origin, and is made up of the Celtic words di (two) and muin (ridge, top) – two mountain tops. The name of the island Mykines is made up of the Old Norse word for shit (mykr/myki) and nes (headland) – the island of bird-shit. The Faeroe Islands consists of 18 volcanic islands, of which 16 are inhabited. All the islands – except for Mykines – are sinking at a rate of 15 centimetres per century! This means that the islands have sunk 1.5 metres since the Viking Age! Due to the Gulf Stream the climate is relatively mild, and seldom goes below -10 degrees Celsius in the winter.
The largest island is Streymoy (Current Island), where the capital Tórshavn is situated. Here the first parliament in Europe – Lõgtingið - was founded around 900 AD. This was 100 years ahead of Iceland! Streymoy is also the location of the first Episcopal residence and cultural centre of The Faeroe Islands – Kirkjubõur. The medieval Norwegian king Sverre (1184 – 1202 AD) was born and raised here – and studied to become a priest. A church and a bishop’s residence from medieval times are preserved – together with the ruined walls of St. Magnus Cathedral, which was never completed. Outside the village of Kvívík, archaeologists have unearthed a farming settlement and a graveyard from the Viking Age. They coincidentally stumbled across it during some constructional work in 1942. Two house foundations have hitherto been excavated – one of them being a family household, the other a cowshed. The walls are about 1 ½ metres thick, stone built with grass and peat isolation. The archaeologists have unearthed many interesting objects on the location, giving them a vivid picture of Viking daily life 1000 years ago – fish pots and other fishing equipment, cod-liver oil lamps, toys for children (horses and boats) and women’s jewellery made from pearls. The most astonishing find was a pair of women’s shoes from Paris! It was also surprising to find so many nut shells! This proves the inhabitants were far from isolated, but quite the contrary they must have traded extensively with the main trading ports around the North Sea, like Kaupang in Norway, Dorestad in Friesland and Hedeby in Denmark. Archaeological excavations have also taken place in Tjörnuvik, and in Húsavík on Sandoy.
Around the year 1000 AD Christianity was introduced forcefully by the Norwegian king Olav Trygvason, and in the year 1035 The Faeroe Islands is subjugated under the Norwegian kingdom. The building of St. Magnus Cathedral starts around 1300 AD, and in 1380 The Faeroe Islands – together with Norway – is subjugated under Danish rule. During the Second World War The Faeroe Islands were occupied by British forces. In 1948 it becomes established by law that: “The Faroe Islands is a self-governing and independent community within the Danish Empire”. The Faeroe Islands is not a member of the European Union.