Around 870, farmers, warriors, and merchants from Norway and the North Atlantic began coming in earnest to the island to settle permanently. The first to lead the charge was a man named Ingólfr Arnason, a man who is heralded as the first settler. He sailed in 874 from Norway to Iceland and set up his homestead in Reykjavík – the eventual capital of the country.
However, according to The Book of Settlements, there actually were some people living there before Ingólfr showed up. The Norse found papar – Irish Christian hermits – living in caves around Iceland but swiftly kicked them out. According to some archaeologists, there is some merit to this story, but the number of papar would have been relatively few.
Over the next 60 years, families poured into Iceland to gobble up the available land. Early settlers claimed huge stretches, then gave or sold big chunks to the latecomers. The majority of settlers came from Norway, but many came from the British Isles. In fact, recent scholarship has argued that the Celtic aspect of the Icelandic settlement is greater than previously believed.
Several factors brought the immigrants to Iceland. First, and most obviously, people love free land! Even with Hrafna-Flóki‘s bad reviews and the obvious limitations of the land – not much could grow – people still needed a place to stretch out and settle down. The Viking Age expansion of the Norse people across the Atlantic was driven by adventure but also need. Some scholars have argued that because the eldest son would inherit the family farm, younger sons around Scandinavia were left without a home. So they ventured out to make a home for themselves, settling in Iceland, Shetland, and the Faroe Islands. And of course trying to take for themselves England, parts of France, and other parts of Europe.
According to the Icelandic sagas, one of the most important driving factors of the settlement of Iceland was the tyranny of King Harald Finehair. Determined to become the sole king of Norway, Harald was eliminating petty kings and jarls that he saw as threats and taking over ancestral holdings and lands that free farmers had had for generations. Although later scholars say that the medieval sagas greatly exaggerate Harald‘s oppression, it certainly drove some families away.
Some of these settlers had, in fact, been Vikings. And for generations, the sons of Icelandic farmers would leave during the summers to join Vikings on raids around the North Atlantic and Europe. But it is misleading to say that the Vikings settled Iceland. Viking was an occupation – something you did. And most of the settlers were farmers and merchants – though certainly skilled warriors!
By 930, the majority of free land had been claimed and the mass settlement had ceased. For the next 300 years, Icelanders set up a government without a head. Some say it was egalitarian and classless, but that‘s a romantic view. It is true, though, that there was no king, no president, and no official ruler. Some farmers became chieftains, some served on juries or on the law council to help write laws. There were no police or official militaries. Disagreements and criminal criminal cases were resolved by neighbours, farmers, chieftains, and the victims. The highest public office was the lawspeaker, which was a fixed 3-year term. This era of Iceland‘s history came to an end around 1252 when Iceland officially became a part of the Norwegian kingdom. The nation wouldn‘t be an independent country again until 1944.
For those who would like to know more about the settlement of Iceland and the Viking Age, here is a brief, non-exhaustive list of resources for further reading.
For historians, a primary source is a document that originates from the historical period in question. The study of primary sources is one of the best ways to really see what life might have been like, but at the same time, it can also be difficult to interpret these documents, as the period in question may be very far removed historically and geographically. Luckily, the Settlement of Iceland and the Viking Age produced some rather useful and interesting sources that even modern readers can enjoy.
The Icelandic Sagas: To put it very briefly, the Icelandic sagas are semi-historical works of prose literature written about the settlement of Iceland. These stories were first put down several centuries after the events they depict, but there is reason to believe that they also reflect a tradition of oral storytelling that may have even older roots. Many editions of these stories abound, and although there is perhaps no wrong place to start, it’s best to get a modern translation from a major publishing house. Some of the most important Icelandic sagas include Njall’s saga, Egill’s saga, Laxdæla saga, and Eyrbyggja saga.
The Travels of Ibn Fadlan: The Viking and Arab worlds often came into contact through Rus merchants and slave traders travelling via Constantinople. One of the most interesting products of this cultural exchange is this work, the travel writings of an Arab ambassador. The work preserves an account of a Viking burial that is one of the only written accounts of such an event.
The Poetic Edda: These poems concern Norse mythology and are still one of the best sources that modern academics have in the study of Viking Age belief. Some well-known poems from this text include “The Sayings of the High One,” a poem from the perspective of Odin on ethics and wisdom, and “The Seeress’ Prophecy,” a cosmological poem about the beginning and end of the world. Buy an edition that comes with a good introduction.
As you might expect, secondary sources include everything written after the fact. Mostly, this will mean academic studies on the period. But luckily, many academic works on this period are quite accessible to the average reader, and there are also many worthwhile popular offerings as well.
The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: This authoritative, multi-volume work is an essential beginning point for studying Iceland and the Vikings. It is rather pricey, but it is possible to access it online through library credentials, and your local community or university library may also have a copy in the reference section.
Valkryie: The Women of the Viking World: This recent academic work by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir is quite accessible and provides an interesting account of the place of women in Viking society.
The Children of Ash and Elm: Neil Price is one of the most established figures in his field, but don’t worry- this is also a book that was written to be read. It provides one of the best modern summaries of the state of our knowledge of this period, while also showing the deeper historical roots that led to the “Viking Age.”
The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga: A rather self-explanatory title! This slim volume comes in at just around 200 pages and would be an excellent read before delving into some of the sagas listed above.
Viking Age Iceland: Written by Jesse Byock, this is also another very good summary of its subject matter. Byock is an archaeologist, so the emphasis is placed on the physical remains of the past, but like all other scholarship of the period, he also relies on readings of the Icelandic sagas to flesh out his image of Iceland.