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At the time when the Irish had discovered Iceland and started regular sailings there, boatbuilding and skill in navigation were also developing on the west coast of Norway. The settlements in the deep and narrow fjords were cut off from each other by high mountains and woods. Hence, sea transport was soon to become the most important mode of communication. Wood was plentiful for shipbuilding and it is believed that shortly before 800 the Norwegians were able to build seagoing ships. Sailing skills developed, first in the fjords and along the coast, whereby the isolation of the many small places was broken, finally resulting in the quest for the open sea, the westward voyages. Before 800 the Nordic peoples had hardly any links with the mainstream of European civilization, but then suddenly the Vikings came on the scene, sailing in elegantly shaped, fast-running and beautifully decorated ships to distant shores.

Seagoing ships and certain navigational skill were obviously a prerequisite for the settlement of Iceland. No remains of seagoing ships from the Viking age have been found in Iceland. This ship is the Oseberg ship located at the Viking Ships Museum in Oslo

In the beginning they raided and plundered wherever they went or traded with the people they came into contact with, but later they settled in other countries, establishing colonies. This was the Viking period, from about 800 to 1050, the beginning of an extremely dynamic epoch in the history of European exploration. The Norse Vikings first went to the Shetlands, then to the Orkneys, Scotland and Ireland. There they may have heard of the voyages of the Irish to Iceland and therefore sought this island in the north, but they might also have stumbled upon it accidentally. Anyway, it could hardly be long before the Vikings with their increasing number of ships at sea would discover Iceland. Seagoing ships were, of course, a precondition for the settlement of Iceland. No remains of ships from this period, however, have been found in Iceland, only fragments of small boats in burial mounds. Information on the Viking ships has to be sought in Norway, where two big Viking ships have been found, and in Denmark where some old ships have been excavated at the bottom of Ros- kilde-fjord. Among them was the knörr, a type of vessel considered to have been the cargo ship of the Viking period. Norse seafarers discovered Iceland around 850 A.D. or shortly thereafter.

Ingólfur Arnarson is considered to have been the first Norse settler in Iceland. He arrived in 870 or 874, but the latter date has received traditional recognition. He built his home at Reykjavik where his high-seat pillars had drifted ashore.

 

Three Vikings are mentioned by name in written sources as explorers of Iceland. The Viking Naddod- dur is said to have been the first Norseman to come to Iceland and he did not find any sign of human habitation. He sailed back to Norway, calling the country Snæland (‘Snow- land’). Gardar Svavarsson, a Swedish viking, sailed to Snæland. He was the first Nordic man to sail round the country, finding that it was an island. Consequently he named it Garðarshólmur (‘Gardarsholm’). He wintered at Húsavik on the Bay of Skjálfandaflói. Next spring when he was ready to sail back, he lost a boat from his ship with a man called Nátt- fari together with a man and woman slave. They settled in Reykjadalur. Therefore Náttfari is the first Nordic man to settle in Iceland, but as he did not come to Iceland on his own initiative, he has not been included with the settlers.

Flóki Vilgerðarson, a Norwegian viking, sailed to Gardarsholm, intending to settle there. He therefore took with him his family and livestock. For guidance he took with him three ravens. When he released the first some way out, it flew back to Norway. When the second was set free further out, it returned to the ship, but later when the third was released, it flew straight ahead, directing its owner to Iceland. After that Flóki was called Hrafna-Flóki (‘Raven- Flóki’). They sailed along the south coast and to the fjord Vatnsfjörður on the north coast of the Bay of Breiðifjörður. Here they spent the summer fishing without procuring any hay for the livestock, which consequently perished during the following winter. Next spring Flóki climbed a mountain to look around. He then had a view over a fjord filled with ice. “Therefore they named the country Iceland, a name it has had ever since”, says Landnáma, the Book of Settlements. 

After three years in Iceland Flóki sailed back to Norway. Flóki had no favourable reports to make on Iceland, whereas his crew spoke well of some things and ill of others. — It is believed that Garðar Svavarsson and Hrafna-Flóki came to Iceland around 865 or later. The first Norse settler in Iceland is traditionally considered to have been Ingólfur Arnarson. On sighting the Icelandic south coast, he cast his high-seat pillars overboard, vowing that he would build his home wherever they drifted ashore. Ingólfur landed on or near the promontory of Ingólfshöfði on the south coast where he spent his first winter in Iceland. Next winter Ingólfur was at Hjörleifshöfði, the third at the foot of Mt. Ingólfsfjall, but when his slaves finally found his high-seat pillars, which had drifted ashore at Reykjavik, he built his home there.

It has been estimated that Ingólfur came to Iceland in either 870 or 874, the latter date being traditionally recognized as the year when Norse settlement began in Iceland. Ingólfur’s wife was Hallveig Fróðadóttir, Reykjavik’s first housewife. The age of settlement lasted for about 60 years, ending in 930 when the general assembly, the Althing, was established at Þingvellir. During this period about 10-20 thousand people, mainly from Western Norway, the Scottish isles and Ireland, settled in Iceland. This was the first permanent settlement of European people on the other side of an ocean, and as such it was an important historical event. The settlement of Norsemen in Iceland was a natural continuation of their Viking incursions to the west from Norway. Soon after the settlement it became evident toTcelandic seafarers that there was a land to the west of Iceland.

Landnáma (the Book of Settlements) relates that the Viking Gunnbjörn drifted westward from Iceland, coming to a land called Gunnbjarnarsker (‘Gunnbjörn Skerries’). Snæbjörn galti found this land again in 970. Eiríkur rauði (Eric the Red) was born at Drangar on the north-west coast of Iceland. His son was Leifur heppni Eiriksson (Leif Ericsson the Lucky). Eric the Red sailed to the west around 982, looking for Gunnbjarnarsker. He sailed up to the east coast of Greenland and then southwards along the coast, inside the drift ice. He was then the first man known to have rounded Hvarf (Cape Farewell), the southernmost tip of Greenland. When reaching the western coast, he found inhabitable areas. He explored the region for three years, calling the country Greenland as he realized that an alluring name would attract more settlers.

After one year back home in Iceland, Eric sailed again for Greenland in 986, now accompanied by 25 ships and more than 300 settlers from Iceland. Only 14 of these ships arrived safely in the settlement area, the other ships being lost at sea or returning back to Iceland. The Icelandic settlements in South-west Greenland were in two regions: One was called Eystribyggð (‘the Eastern Settlement’) now the Julianeháb district, and the other Vestribyggd (‘the Western Settlement’), now the Godtháb district. Eric the Red built his home at Brattahlíð at the bottom end of Eiríksfjörður (‘Eric’s Fjord’), now called Kagssiarssuk. Brattahlíð was ever after the focal point of the Icelandic settlement in Greenland and the Þjóðhild Church was built there.

On the occasion of the eleventh centenary of the settlement of Iceland in 1974 a memorial was erected at Ingólfhöfði where Ingólfur Amarson, the first Norse settler in Iceland, first came ashore.

One of the settlers who went to Greenland with Eric the Red was Herjólfur. He lived at Eyrarbakki (Eyrar) on the south-west coast of Iceland. His son was Bjarni Herjólfsson. When he came back home from a voyage abroad later that same summer, he was told his father had emigrated to Greenland. Although late in the season, Bjarni set off on his ship to follow his father to Greenland. He and his men drifted westwards, passed Greenland, came to a low wooded coast, sailed north and northeast, and finally arrived at Herjólfsnes in the Eastern Settlement of Greenland (now Ikigait). Around 990 Leif Ericsson sailed from Brattahlíð on an exploration voyage on Bjarni Herjólfsson’s ship, and it is believed that Bjarni himself went with him on this voyage to the west. During this expedition they came to Helluland (Baffin Island), Markland (Labrador, Newfoundland), and an area further south which they called Vinland, but it is uncertain where that land was.

Several expeditions were made from Brattahlíð around the year 1000 for the purpose of further exploration and settlement of Vinland. The leader of the main expedition was Þorfinnur Karlsefni, whose wife was Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir. They intended to settle down in Vinland, but due to a conflict with the natives there, most likely Eskimos, the settlers returned to Greenland after a two-year stay in Vinland. Later Þorfinnur Karlsefni and his wife Guðríður moved back to Iceland together with their son, Snorri Þorfinnsson, who was born in Vinland. He is the first white man known to have been born in America. Although permanent settlement in Vinland was abandoned in the years around 1000, fishermen from the Icelandic settlements in Greenland had stations there later on, bringing back with them many products, especially timber, as it was much shorter to transport it from there than from Norway.

The Vinland voyages, therefore, did not result in permanent colonization by Nordic people on the American mainland. There was the end of the westward drive during the Viking age with only a small community remaining behind in the homeland, Iceland. The connection with the Icelandic settlements in Greenland was also disrupted shortly after 1410, the fate of the settlers there being unknown. Therefore, the only permanent settlement during the Viking age in a new land was in Iceland. During the first few years of Norse settlement in Iceland it is believed that the number of inhabitants increased rather slowly, the first settlers appropriating very large areas. The main influx of settlers in Iceland occurred during rather few years towards the end of the age of settlement, between 890 and 910. The settlers came mainly from southwestern Norway, a famous Viking area during the age of settlement. Land was scarce there, and most of the Vikings who raided the Scottish islands and Ireland came from there.

vinland sailing routs

Above is a map showing the routes followed by the Nordic Vikings on their western voyages before and during the age of the Icelandic settlement. From the west coast of Norway the yikings first sailed to Scotland and Ireland where Viking colonies were established. Iceland was settled both direct from West-Norway and from the Viking settlements in Ireland and Scotland. From Iceland the Vikings sailed to Greenland where they established Eystribyggð (the Eastern Settlement), and Vestribyggð (the Western Settlement), both on the west coast of Greenland. Bjami Herjólfsson sailed from Iceland around 985 or 986 for Greenland, but drifting farther west he discovered America. Leifur Eiriksson (Leif Ericson) sailed from the Icelandic settlement in Greenland to explore the American coast further during the years 1000 to 1014, and then he found the land he called Vinland, which has not been conclusively identified. The Viking settlements in America were not permanent as the Vikings withdrew from there after fighting with the aborigines, most likely eski- mos. Shortly after 1410 the connections with the Icelandic settlements in Greenland were disrupted, the fate of the settlers there being unknown.

 

Later they established Viking colonies and in due course they intermarried with the Celtic population of these countries. The Vikings had also taken Celtic people as slaves and brought them back to Norway. Thus, during the Icelandic age of settlement these Vikings had come into close contact with Celtic people and must, therefore, have been considerably influenced by Celtic culture. At that time there was no uniform nation in Norway as the separate fylki (‘shires’) were independent communities. Harald Fair hair was the first king to reign over most of Norway after his conquest of the different shires. The Vikings in south-west Norway fought bravely against him, but in the Battle of Hafursfjord towards the end of the 9th century Harald Fairhair won a famous victory over the westcoast Vikings. After that many of them fled from Norway to their relatives on the Scottish islands and Ireland, whereas others went to Iceland.

Later the Vikings on the Scottish islands raided places in Norway until King Harald Fairhair sent a fleet with warriors to the islands and conquered them. Then several of the Vikings fled from the Scottish islands to Iceland. But at the same time as the West- Norwegian Vikings were faced with this defeat both in Norway and on the Scottish isles, the Norwegian colonies in other areas were also overpowered, sustaining heavy losses in many places. They were thrown out of Dublin in 902 and their areas were reduced both in Scotland and on the Hebrides. As King Harald Fairhair had conquered the areas of the west-coast Vikings in Norway, they could no longer expect any support from Norway. Therefore the situation both in Norway and on the British islands no doubt encouraged mass-emigration to Iceland during the decades just before and after 900.

Þorfinnur Karlsefni, an Icelandic seafarer, was the leader of an expedition from the Icelandic settlements in Greenland to Vinland in North America around 1000 A.D. His statue in Reykjavik is by Einar Jónsson, the sculptor, whose museum in Reykjavik contains many splendid works of art.

It is interesting to note that due to inexplicable fate or a remarkable chain of events it was mostly the West- Norwegian Vikings who had had the closest contact with Celtic people who emigrated to Iceland. Vikings who had been living for two or three generations in Ireland and on the Scottish isles had established close relations with Celtic families through inter-marriages and friendship when they moved to Iceland, and it is well known that both free people and slaves of Irish origin came along with the Vikings to settle in Iceland. It is therefore historically proved that the people who settled in Iceland were almost entirely of Norwegian-Irish stock. The Nordic root, however, is dominant with respect to language as all the settlers spoke the then common Nordic tongue, and only very few Irish words found their way into the Icelandic language except in personal names and place names.

On the other hand, it is believed that Irish culture had great influence on the saga writing and other literary activities of the Icelanders. The fact remains at least that nowhere else in the Nordic countries did saga-writing become as common as in Iceland. Indeed, the Icelandic sagas are the main source of information on all the Nordic countries during the Viking age and the period of the Icelandic Commonwealth. Irish culture also influenced Icelandic religious traditions and enhanced navigational skills during the Viking age. As mehtioned above, the Irish had sailed to Iceland long before the Vikings arrived, and it is not impossible that some of the Norse settlers who came from Ireland brought with them Irish navigators. Furthermore, it may not be entirely an accident that after the Vikings had been in contact with the Irish and become acquainted with their navigational skills, the Icelanders discovered Greenland and later Vinland on the American continent. It is not being suggested, however, that the navigational skills of the Norse Vikings might not have been sufficient for them to achieve what they did.

So far historical sources have been drawn upon in an attempt to verify the origin of the Icelandic population. By measuring skeletons in burial mounds from the pagan period in Iceland and comparing them with skeletons of a similar period in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Viking settlements on the Scottish isles and Ireland, scientists have demonstrated that height and headforms indicate that the settlers in Iceland were mainly of West-Norwegian origin, the same being true of the Viking settlements in Scotland and Ireland. These people are a mixture of Nordic and Celtic populations. Finally, it may be pointed out that blood group studies show that the A-group is the commonest among the Norwegians, the Swedes and the Danes, whereas the O-group dominates among the Icelanders. Similar studies in the British Isles show that the Scots and the North-Irish have a blood group distribution similar to that of the Icelanders. Thus, both archaeology and blood group studies support the historical evidence that the Icelandic population is of West-Norwegian/ Celtic origin, whereas the Icelandic language is purely Nordic.