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Greenland - Wikimedia Commons

Why is Iceland called Iceland?


A popular story about the settlement of Iceland goes like this: to attract settlers to their new colony in Greenland, crafty Viking marketers named the settlement Greenland to attract more settlers. Iceland, so the story goes, was the more desirable real estate, and its settlers named it Iceland in order to guard their well-kept secret.

It’s a good story, but unfortunately, not entirely true.

There is good reason to believe that at the time of its settlement, Greenland was, in fact, rather green. Ice core analysis from the Greenland ice sheet suggests that from 800-1300 CE, average temperatures were slightly higher in Greenland than they are today. Norse settlements (creatively named the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement) were clustered around the southern tip of Greenland, at more southern latitudes than Iceland itself. Over time, the climate deteriorated, disease struck the settlers, and isolation from commerce gradually wore away at these settlements until they had disappeared by the 15th century. At the beginning of its settlement, however, Greenland may well have supported limited farming and may have been much greener than it is now.

Iceland, though warmed by the jet stream, is still rather cold. And although the Norse settlers did come to Iceland for the plentiful farmland, some of the first adventurers to come across Iceland were left with a rather cold impression. According to Landnámabók, the first person to spot Iceland was a Norwegian sailor named Naddodd. He lost his way sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands when he came in sight of a huge land mass. He went ashore in Eastern Iceland, near where the town of Reyðarfjörður sits today. He allegedly climbed a mountain and looked around for signs of humans, but he did not see anything. He went on his way, sailing to the Faroe Islands where he would settle in 825. And he told everyone that would listen that he discovered – not Iceland – but Snowland! Clearly, the Norse had a tendency to be rather descriptive in their naming. Their name for the New World, Vínland, referred to the wild berries that were found in abundance near their camps at L’Anse aux Meadows.

So while it’s true that Iceland is relatively more habitable and verdant than places at similar latitudes, it’s not entirely a hidden paradise either. Indeed, as we write this (nearly June), sharp, cold winds and hail continue to buffet visitors!

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