Sigurður is a literary critic. He has worked as a university lecturer in literature, the artistic director of two professional theatres, director of the Icelandic Saga Centre, a TV host and a journalist. For the last three years, Sigurður has been working as a Driver Guide for Arctic Adventures. He is a bookworm who loves travel and travelers.
Who are Icelanders? Where did they come from? When did they discover and settle the land we now call Iceland? Why did they come? Was anyone there before them? Are they really descendants of Vikings? What is their history?
1. Prehistory: A Young Country
Iceland is one of the youngest countries on earth. In fact, it’s only around 20 million years old. This may sound like a lot to us mere mortals, but on a geological scale this is a very young age. It was created by extensive volcanic eruptions at the bottom of the sea along the North Atlantic ridge, a divergent plate boundary. Iceland is so young that it is actually still in the process of being created. Today 30 active volcanic systems continue to form and reform the magnificent landscape.
2. The Viking Age
Iceland was one of the last countries in Europe to be discovered and settled. It was not until the 9th century – the beginning of the Viking Age in northern Europe – that Iceland was first settled. No indigenous peoples lived in Iceland before it was settled by the Vikings.
The Viking Age (800 – 1066 CE) is the period when Scandinavians known as Vikings undertook large-scale raiding, colonizing, conquest and trading throughout Europe. They even reached North America. For a long time, the Vikings conquered and ruled large regions in the British Isles.
Then, one day, the Vikings sailed to Iceland. Did they know where they were going or did they land on the mysterious isle by chance? Nobody knows for sure. Whatever the reason, the Vikings found themselves on the land of fire and ice around the year 870 CE.
3. The Settlement of Iceland
Icelanders often brag about being the only nation in the world to have documented evidence of their history from day one.
We have many books describing the age of the settlement. They tell vivid and (mostly) convincing stories about the first explorers and settlers: their names, line of ancestry, where they came from, why they left, how they were related to each other, and where they settled. These documents explain how they gave names to new places – names that still are in use – and describe the rules of declaring and dividing new land. The books even describe what they believed in, their rituals, gods, superstitions, culture, laws, ethics, traditions, habits and customs.
These wonderful stories are still preserved and considered national treasures. But are they true? That can be disputed. The stories were not written down until several generations after the events they describe. One may wonder about their precise historical value. Regardless, they show a vivid snapshot into early Icelandic life.
The two major books about early Iceland are Ari the Wise’s “Book of Icelanders” and “The Book of Settlements,”
Written around 1130 CE, “The Book of Icelanders” describes the discovery and settlement of Iceland, the establishment of the Althingi (Parliament/General Assembly) in 930, conversion to Christianity in 1000, and the discovery of Greenland.
The problem is that the book is written 260 years after the first settler set foot on Icelandic soil. It is argued that this information was maintained by oral storytelling until Ari finally wrote it down. Still, it means the contents of “The Book of Icelanders” are somewhat contestable.
Landnámabók – The Book of Settlements - is the other medieval source of information about the settlers. It was written in the first half of the 12th century. The book gives the names of all the main settlers, enumerating 3000 settlers and 1400 topographical names.
From these names, we learn that the vast majority of the first Icelanders were of Norse origin and a better part of them of noble ancestry. These freedom-fighters were escaping the tyranny of enemy kings back home.
4. The Celts Come to Iceland
In the Age of Settlement in Iceland – lasting from the year 870 CE to 930 – the 3000 settlers listed in The Book of Settlements are not the only people who came to Iceland. There were at least 30,000 others, probably more. Modern scientific research has proven that at least half of them were not of Nordic or Germanic origin, but Celtic. These were emigrants from the British Isles, many of whom may have been the Vikings’ captives or slaves. However, most of them appear to be free people who traveled from the Celtic lands.
5. An Independent Society
In the year 930 CE, 60 years after the first settlers came, the Icelanders established their own independent society with no centralized executive authority. That means no king, no emperor, no president, no centralized government. This was truly unique in its time. The newly formed parliament (called Alþing, or general assembly) was a legislative assembly. Their law book was based on regional Norse laws adapted to the new democratic reality. Nonetheless, relatively few people had power to vote in the assembly, making it more of an oligarchy than a democracy.
6. The Ruling Class
From the foundation of the new society, the ruling class, the local chieftains and goðar (who were both religious leaders and executors of secular authority in the region) were entirely of Nordic origin. The Scandinavians ruled while the Celts were an underclass. Gradually, of course, they merged into one uniform society. But the Nordics apparently believed themselves to be of a more illustrious or eminent origin, perhaps because of their Viking settler origins.
Ultimately, though, the fundamental class difference was not decided by nationality or origin but instead by wealth, as in all nations.
7. The formation of an ancient language
Norse settlers spoke the Norwegian language of the 9th century. Today this language is called Old Norse. It is essentially the language that became known in Iceland as the Icelandic language and is still spoken today. Modern Icelandic, with some minor changes and modifications, ias basically the language our Norse ancestors spoke 1200 years ago. The Celts, of course, spoke their own Celtic language(s). In Iceland there is very little trace of any remaining Celtic influence on the language.
8. The Sagas
In the 12th and 13th centuries, something remarkable happened in Iceland. Icelanders composed and wrote marvelous literature of international eminence and importance. These documents included histories of Iceland and Scandinavia both contemporary and prehistoric, chronicles of kings and saints, biographies of influential bishops and missionaries, mythology and cosmography, and poems and stories about the old pagan gods. Some of that material was of ancient origin and preserved in oral form.
The Sagas of Icelanders comprise dozens of amazing stories about life in Iceland in the years 920 – 1020. These are realistic stories featuring highly advanced narrative technique. Over forty of these stories still exist, preserved in original manuscripts and later copies. They are now considered a true jewel of international literature.
9. The Onset of the Dark Ages
The golden age in Iceland did not last long. The old Icelandic Society came to an end in the 13th century and the country became a Norwegian and later Danish dependency for many centuries. By the end of the 18th century, the population had dropped to fewer than 30,000 people. Icelanders did not really rise up and regain their former dignity until the 19th and 20th centuries. It became an independent republic again just 76 years ago in 1944 and has been and has been smiling ever since.
10. Modern Icelanders’ Achievements
In the 1980s, Icelandic women were twice crowned Miss Universe and while Icelandic men won the title “Strongest man in the world” over and over again. Now the tables have turned in recent years and our women have repeatedly won international Cross Fit competitions while the boys have conquered the world with their good looks, especially the football (soccer) players.
Icelanders have many more international achievements in recent decades, including a Nobel prize in literature in 1955, more Grand Champions in chess per capita than any other country, several pop and rock stars of global eminence, an Academy Award for music in 2019, best selling authors translated to dozens of languages, awards for movies and TV series, and acclaimed attainment in various fields of art and culture.
Iceland’s history and people are just as rich as its stunning nature. We look forward to seeing you in Iceland!