It will forever remain unknown who was the first man to step on the shores of the island in the North Atlantic now called Iceland. It is, however, well known that human life there began a long time after all other inhabitable areas on the earth had been occupied. It is obvious that the settlement of Iceland required seagoing ships and a certain skill in navigation. The ocean surrounding the remote island kept it isolated even after coastal and other limited ocean voyages had developed in nearby countries.
Prehistoric time is the research field of archaeology in other countries, but in Iceland there is no prehistoric stage, a fact which is unique in the whole world. In Iceland there are no known remains which might indicate human habitation until some centuries after the birth of Christ at the earliest. The oldest remains uncovered so far in Iceland are a few Roman coins stamped during 270-305 A.D. These coins could have been brought to Iceland much later, either by the Irish or the Vikings, but they could also have been in the possession of an unknown seafarer drifting to Iceland from the British Isles around 300 A.D. when England was under Roman rule. Up to the present time, however, no other artifacts or evidence of human habitation have been found that might suggest visits by Roman citizens or any other persons to Iceland at that time.
Weathering over such a long period could, of course, have eradicated all such remains long ago, Icelandic nature being extremely efficient at covering relics, even entire buildings, by volcanic ash, sand and lava or removing such remains by water and wind erosion. But due to the lack of information from the field of archeology on the discovery and initial settlement of Iceland, the next step is to study written sources. ‘The Book of Settlements’ (Land- námabók) is a unique book, a veritable storehouse of information on the discovery of an uninhabited island and its settlement by Nordic men in the late 9th century (874 A.D. being the traditional date for the arrival of the first permanent settler).
A passage in the preface to the Baok of Settlements indicates, however, that the Nordic Vikings did not in fact arrive in a completely uninhabited land when they came to Iceland: “In the history written by the holy priest Beda there is a reference to an island called Thule, in written sources said to be six days’ sailing north of the British Isles; there he says there is no day during the winter and no night during the summer when the day is the longest. Therefore learned men believe that this land, Thule, is Iceland as there are many places in the country where the sun shines in the night when the day is the longest and many places where the sun cannot be seen during the day when the night is the longest. But the holy priest Beda died seven hundred and thirty-five years after the birth of our Lord and more than one hundred years before Iceland was settled by Norsemen. But before Iceland was settled from Norway, there were living in the country men referred to by the Norsemen as ‘papar’. They were Christians believed to have come from the west across the ocean as they were found to possess Irish books, bells, crosiers and other items, suggesting that they were ‘Westmen’. It is also related in English books that at that time there were sailings between the two countries”.
In the ‘Book of Icelanders’ (Islendinga- bók), written by Ari the Learned (Ari Þorgilsson), we are also told that when the Viking settlers came to Iceland there were already in the country Christian Irish people whom the Norsemen called ‘papar’, but they left the country as they did not want to associate with pagan people. There are still many place-names in Iceland reminiscent of the ‘papar’, indications of their abodes, but there is no indisputable evidence in the form of archaelogical remains. Nevertheless it is considered an established fact that Irish monks had been living in Iceland a long time before the arrival of the Nordic settlers and that there were sailings between Ireland and Iceland up to 150 years earlier.
The Book of Settlements refers to English books on such sailings. In De mensura or- bis terrae, written around 825 by the Irish monk Dicuil, it is stated that he got the description of Thule from monks who had been there 30 years before. This description is so convincing that there can hardly be any doubt that Thule must have been Iceland. There is one reference, for instance, to the sea around Thule having been icy. Hence, it is considered to be historically verified that there were Irish people in Iceland before 795 A.D., and there is no indication in this source that it had been newly discovered. On the contrary, it seems to be clear that Dicuil takes general knowledge of the existence of Thule for granted. The Irish, therefore, could have discovered Iceland much earlier. At that time they had for a long time owned ships that were seagoing by the standards of the age, The name Thule is, nevertheless, much older than the above references indicate.
In the oldest Greek and Roman literature the northernmost island in the world is referred to as Ultima Thule. The meaning of the word Thule is unknown; neither is it known for certain when the name Thule is first associated with Iceland. Somewhere around 300 B.C. the Greek explorer Pytheas of Massilia (Marseille) sailed to the British Isles. There he is believed to have learned that 6 days’ sailing to the north from the northernmost headland of Scotland there was an island, giving him an interest in surveying its position.
If this knowledge already existed in the British Isles then, some seafarers from there must have sailed to Iceland and known the island, whereas the name Thule is connected to Iceland after the voyage of Pytheas. – Let us now pay a visit to the home town of Pytheas, the seaport of Massilia, now Marseille, which already in 300 B.C. had been a Greek colony and a thriving merchant town for three centuries. Pytheas was a recognized scientist and philosopher. He had, for instance, calculated the position of Massilia with great accuracy, and he designed several instruments for his research work. It is considered likely that the town of Massilia financed his exploration, supplying a ship (or ships), a crew and funds to enable him to search for and explore lands known in the Mediterranean countries. After his voyage he wrote a comprehensive report on his travels.
This report is now largely lost. Only odd bits and references have survived, mainly in the works of others, chiefly those who objected strongly to the content of the Pytheas report, particularly to views that conflicted with the traditional ideas of the Greek philosophers of the period about the world. Several scholars have later drawn on these references to the report on the voyage of Pytheas in an attempt to get a general picture of his voyage and research work. If Pytheas had been given command over a warship from the town of Massilia for his expedition, it is likely that such a ship was about 50 metres long, 6 metres wide, with two decks, draft of around 3 metres and a crew of 100 to 200 men. Such a ship would have been about 400 to 500 GRT in size by today’s measurements. This ship, therefore, would have been bigger and more seaworthy than the Santa-Maria in which Colombus sailed to America and much bigger than the Irish leather-boats and the Viking ships. It is believed that such a Greek warship would have been fast-running, being able to cover 150-160 km in 24 hours under best sailing conditions.
Available information confirms that it would have been a 6 days’ voyage for Pytheas from the northernmost tip of Scotland, which he called Cap Orkas, to the island of Thule, said to be north of Scotland. This distance from Scotland could well be right for Iceland, but the course would have to be more to the northwest than due north. From the north coast of Thule Pytheas then sailed for one day further north where be entered the ‘consolidated sea’. There he says is a place which is neither land in its usual sense nor sea nor air, but a mixture of all three as if it were “the lung of the ocean”. There he says it is as if the land, the ocean and everything else are suspended in mid air and this inexplicable ‘everything’ binds it all together so that one can neither walk on it nor sail through it. On the basis of Pytheas’ measurements and calculations of the latitude of his position, it can be concluded that he has passed the Arctic Circle.
There can be no doubt that Pytheas and his crew had, most likely in fog, run into the half-frozen sea or ice-sludge which often accompanies arctic sea-ice. That could explain the expression “the lung of the ocean“. The island Pytheas had passed he positioned just south of the Arctic Circle, stating that it was the northernmost of the British Isles although it was a 6 days’ sailing time to the north. Several scholars consider that the island of Thule referred to by Pytheas must have been Iceland. Some, however, consider that it might have been Norway. Still, from the Arctic Circle off Norway there is usually more than one day’s sailing to the arctic sea-ice, and the course from the northernmost part of Scotland could hardly be due north.
Finally, it has been suggested that Pytheas never sailed to Thule, but that he had only been told about the six days’ voyage from Scotland to Thule when sailing along the coast of the British Isles. Even so, he would have had the knowledge of this island to the north and the sea-ice there from seafarers who had been there. That again would mean there could hardly be any doubt that Thule in the report on the voyage of Pytheas must be Iceland and that seafarers from the British Isles had discovered Iceland as early as 350 B.C. From Thule it is considered that Pytheas sailed back via the British Isles into the Baltic Sea and along the coast back to the Mediterranean and to Massilia.
On his return home Pytheas apparently had a fantastic story to tell so that very few believed him. Much of his knowledge was in direct contradiction to the commonly recognized Greek view of the world. It was not least his description of the sea-ice which was considered a proof of Pytheas being a liar, it being impossible for Mediterranean people to understand or to accept the idea that anyone could survive in areas north of the British Isles. But there are good reasons to believe that the existence of the remote island was already common knowledge in the British Isles. Already during and before the Bronze Age voyages took place from the European continent to the British Isles and along the British coasts to the islands north of Scotland. On the Shetlands Bronze Age artifacts have been found, possibly dating from about 1200 B.C. From the Orkneys to the Shetlands there are about 80 km. From there the distance is about 260 km to the Faroe Islands, and from there again about 430 km to the east coast of Iceland.
Although navigational skill had not been sufficient in the Bronze Age to sail regularly to the Faroe Islands and Iceland via the Shetlands, it cannot be excluded that even then some seafarers, before the birth of Christ, might have drifted all the way to Iceland and managed to sail back home. The fact that no remains have been found in Iceland does not exclude such a possibility. Thus it is possible that a tale about the remote island in the far north was known to people in the northernmost part of Scotland, a tale of Ultima Thule, six days’ sailing to the north. Pytheas could have used this information as guidance for his voyage to the north or as a source for his report. Although several artifacts and remains from this old culture have been found in the British Isles, their ships were made of materials that were too perishable to survive.
Generally it is believed that around 325 B.C. the boats used both in Scotland and Ireland were made of leather, stitched together and stretched around wooden frames and bound together with leather strips. Such boats were used in several early civilizations, even for voyages in the open sea. It is known that the Irish type leather boat, the curragh, is very old. The ox-hides were tanned in oak bark, stretched over the bulwark of the wooden frame and then tightened with melted tallow. This type of leather boat still exists in Ireland, but now mostly as small rowing- boats. In earlier times, however, such curraghs might have been much bigger, veritable seagoing ships by the standards of that period, no less suitable for ocean voyages than the wooden cargo boat of the Vikings, the knörr. These Irish ships were light in weight and could be powered either by oars or sails. They were probably fitted with a main-mast with a quer-sail forward. The crew of a seagoing curragh might have been twenty men or even more.
One of the main Irish sources of information on the Irish voyages before the Nordic settlement of Iceland is the tales of the voyages of Saint Brendan. Besides his fame for these voyages, St. Brendan was a renowned cleric who lived to a ripe old age. He was born towards the end of the 5th century, most likely around 489 A.D. Apparently St. Brendan had been at sea for long periods and due to his extensive periods of absence fantastic tales had developed. It must also be remembered, of course, that these tales of the voyages of St. Brendan were not written down until three centuries after he died, and as a saint he was associated with several marvellous incidents and miracles to strengthen people’s faith in his powers. It is possible, therefore, that the tales associated with the life of St. Brendan, handed down by oral tradition and written down by saga writers, were in fact fragments of the history of voyages by Irish monks over a period of two centuries or more.
It is known that the Irish settled in the Orkneys around 579. But let us have a look at the account of the voyages of St. Brendan, Navigatio Sancti Brendani, written by an unknown Irish writer in Latin, most likely in the 9th century A.D. To all appearances the book contains a report on a single voyage during the years 565 to 573. On the other hand the book may, in fact, be an account of several voyages. Some of the stories are similar to older reports and are, therefore, indebted to them. Nevertheless it is believed to be a fact that St. Brendan went on a long voyage. Hence, there is no reason to doubt the main outline of the course of events described here as far as the voyage to the North Atlantic is concerned.
The driving force of these voyages of the monks was principally their belief that a voluntary absence from their homeland would be looked upon favourably by God as an interruption of their connection with their families would bring them closer to God in their solitude. In the ‘Voyage of St. Brendan’ we are first told how the monks make their curragh. They also take with them extra hides and tallow for repairs in addition to tools, food and equipment for a long voyage. Besides St. Brendan, the crew is composed of 17 men when leaving Ireland. Often there are detailed accounts of sailing time and direction.
Descriptions of landscape and other details of the voyage enable the reader to follow the route. In between, however, the narrative falters, degenerating into long passages of purely religious meditation. After a forty days’ voyage St. Brendan and his crew arrive at a steep and rocky island. There they receive food and drink in a mysterious way. Next they come to a ‘bird-paradise’ and ‘sheep-island’, which doubtless are the Faroe-Islands. The sheep are said to be very fat even though they are left to look after themselves all the year round. There they meet a man who gives them food and advice so they stay on that island one winter. On Easter Sunday they sail to a smaller island, and after cooking a meal on this island they find out that it is a whale, whereupon St. Brendan sings a mass on its back.
Several more marvellous happenings are experienced during the long voyage. One day after singing mass they notice a big pillar rising out of the sea. It appears to be close to them, but it takes them three days to sail to it. When they come closer it seems to them that the pillar reaches into heaven. On the top there is a big dome above an opening through which the curragh can sail. It is of a material that is harder than marble and similar to crystal. This description could apply to a big iceberg, which the Irish may not have seen before. If so, it is an indication that they reached a very northerly latitude. Through the sea they can see the ‘foundation’ of the pillar deep below the surface of the ocean. They study this ‘crystal palace’ thoroughly, whereupon they sing a thanksgiving to God for showing them this marvellous work of His.
Later they come up to a rocky island denuded of grass and trees, but there are heaps of cinders and many open fires in smithies. “Brethren”, says St. Brendan. “That island makes me feel uneasy. I have no desire to go on shore or even to go near it; yet the wind is taking us straight to it.“ Suddenly the blowing of bellows and the clangour of hammer on anvil resound in their ears like thunder. Crossing himself with the sign of Christ’s victory, he prays: “Lord Jesus Christ deliver us from this island.” Hardly has he said his prayer when one of the inhabitants, a very swarthy and evillooking man with a light-red face, comes out of a forge. Catching sight of the approaching curragh, he turns back. St. Brendan crosses himself again. “My sons,” he shouts. “Let us flee from this place. Up with the sails and row as fast as you can“.
Barely has he uttered these words when the savage rushes down to the beach, carrying a hugh piece of blazing slag in a pair of tongs, hurling it at the boat, but it flies over their heads and far beyond them. Where it falls into the sea, smoke rises up as from a fiery furnace. When they have sailed one mile away front the island, all the inhabitants rush down to the beach, each carrying a glowing mass of slag. Some aim at the curragh, but then they run back to the forges, setting them alight. Soon the whole island is like a blazing furnace. All that day a long drawn-out wail can be heard. An unbearable fetid stench emanates from the island, still perceptible after it is out of sight. St. Brendan tries to comfort his companions: “Believers in God, stand firm in faith unfeigned. We are now at hell’s gates.”
This part of the tale of the voyage of St. Brendan is such an excellent description of a volcanic eruption in the ocean that those who had an opportunity of following the rise of the volcanic island of Surtsey out of the sea have no doubt in their minds that the Irish must have been eyewitnesses to such an eruption whereby an island is built up from the bottom of the sea. Most likely this happened southwest of Iceland. It is well known that several volcanic eruptions have occurred on the Reykjanes-ridge, and therefore it is most likely the area where the Irish saw such an eruption on one of their voyages to Iceland.
There is another incident worthy of attention. When St. Brendan and his followers come to a land with a high mountain to the north, its peak is enveloped in mist when they step on the shore at the side of a black rock, but when they leave the shore, looking back, they see the mountain, clear of clouds, belching forth flames sky-high and then sucking them back upon itself so that the whole mass of rock, right down to sea level, glows like a pyre. -This description could fit the volcano Beerenberg on the island of Jan Mayen, but it could also be appropriate for a volcanic eruption in the famous Mt. Hekla and the southwest coast of Iceland.
In spite of a vague sequence of events and the religious and legendary admixture, the tale of the voyage of St. Brendan is in many ways an excellent description of visits to different places. Therefore Navigatio Sancti Brendani has to be accepted as a reliable source on the voyages of the Irish to the Faroes and Iceland at least 300 years before Nordic Vikings arrived there. Furthermore, there is strong evidence of Irish people living in Iceland one or two centuries before the settlement from Norway began around 874. The first settlers in Iceland are supposed to have been Irish hermits called ‘papar’ by the Vikings as mentioned in early Icelandic manuscripts.
In recent years it has been suggested that in addition to the hermits there might also have been other Irish people in Iceland for several generations before the Vikings arrived. Although the Vikings had driven the Irish from their homes by force in some parts of the country, they could have withstood the invasions and kept their Christian settlements in other parts where they were more numerous. This might be an explanation of how easily and peacefully Christianity was accepted in Iceland later on compared to many other countries. However, the fact that several Christian Irish settlers came to Iceland later in company with the Vikings might also have been of great importance in that connection.
A picture of a manuscript of the ‘Book of Settlements’ (Landnáma). The preface states that when Nordic men arrived in Iceland, they found there Christian Irishmen referred to by the Norsemen as “papar’. It is also mentioned that at that time there were sailings between Iceland and Ireland
Frontispiece. Irish leather boat of an ancient type (curragh), sailing in the Greenland Sea about 100 miles west of Iceland. This view could have been reality when the first settlers came to Iceland from Ireland, possibly centuries before the Vikings arrived.
The oldest relics discovered so far in Iceland are some Roman bronze coins, forged in the years 270-305 A.D. These coins were found near Bragðavellir in Hamarsfjörður and at the mouth of the Hvaldalur valley in the Eastern Fjords. Later one coin was found at Hvítárholt in the south-western part of Iceland when the ruins of an old farmstead from the period of settlement were being excavated. On the map below the places where the coins were found are shown. In the other Nordic countries coins of this kind are very rare. The same applies to other countries outside the old Roman area, where they are common. It is possible that seafarers from the British Isles drifted to Iceland around the year 300 A.D. when Britain was under Roman rule. However, these coins could have been brought to Iceland much later as antique relics owned by the settlers. They could easily be from the same purse although they were found at three different places.
About 300 B.C. the Greek explorer Pytheas sailed from his hometown Massilia now Marseille, then a Greek colony. He passed the Pillars of Hercules, now Gibraltar, out into the Atlantic, sailing northwards to the British Isles. He wrote a report on this voyage upon his return. Most of this report is now lost, but parts of it have survived, mainly in the form of references by other authors. From the northernmost tip of Scotland Pytheas sailed to the island Ultima Thule, a six days’ voyage north of Scotland. It is considered likely that the island Thule is what we call Iceland today, but it cannot be proved. The map shows a likely route travelled by Pytheas.
Above is an illustration of the leather boat Brendan at sea in the ocean between Iceland and Greenland, about 100 miles from the Reykjanes Peninsula on the morning of 12th May, 1977. Tim Severin, the writer-explorer, wanted to show that it was possible to sail an Irish leather boat from Ireland to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and on to America and thus prove that the Irish could have sailed a leather boat (a ‘curragh’) this way before the Vikings came on the scene. This voyage was a success. Below is one of the crew members of the Brendan covering the outside of the hides of the leather boat with melted tallow when the boat was on a slipway in Reykjavik, preparing for the continuation of the voyage to America.
In the presidential residence church at Bessastaðir on the Alftanes Peninsula near Reykjavik there is a glass-mosaic window, showing the incident during the voyage of St. Brendan when he and his followers witness a volcanic island emerging out of the ocean, most likely during a submarine eruption on the Reykjanes ridge. “Believers in God, stand firm in faith unfeigned. We are now at hell’s gates”, St. Brendan says, making the sign of a cross and praying: “Lord Jesus Christ deliver us from this island.” The original painting on which this glass-mosaic is patterned is by an Icelandic painter, Finnur Jónsson (b. 1892). Tht boat shown here is not a leather boat (‘curragh’), but a wooden hul boat, riveted together with nails. Some people believe that the IrisI were also able to build that kind of wooden boats as the Vikings did.
This picture was taken on July 3, 1963 during the volcanic eruption in the island of Syrtlingur close to Surtsey. The small rowing-boat and the eruption in the sea are certainly reminders of the incident when St. Brendan and his companions approach the fire-island in the ocean in their leather boat fifteen centuries earlier. It is no wonder they believe their experience to be supernatural and feel sure that they are at the entrance to hell. But in spite of the religious and legendary admixture in the tale of the voyage of St. Brendan, the description of the volcanic eruption in the ocean is so realistic that nobody who saw the birth of the island of Surtsey can be in doubt that the Irish must, in fact, have witnessed a volcanic eruption at sea during at least one of their voyages to Iceland.
This sketch is a fantasy, an attempt to describe the story of the voyage of St. Brendan from Mt.Brandon in Ireland to the coast of Iceland. Both Icelandic and Irish manuscripts state that Irishmen, ‘papar’, had settled in Iceland before the advent of the Vikings. Below is a view of Papey, one of the many place-names in Iceland related to ‘papar’ (Irishmen) in Iceland. Old Icelandic sources state that Irish artifacts attributable to the Christian religion, such as books, bells and crosiers, were found on Papey when the Vikings came to Iceland. – So far, however, no such remains have been found in Iceland. Neither have archaeological excavations on the island of Papey brought to light any such relics that might be produced as evidence of an Irish settlement in Iceland in the pre-Viking era.
Below is a picture of an Icelandic sheep-pen, built of flat stones. Sometimes these pens are closed at the top with a dome-shaped roof. Then the flat stones gradually converge in the middle until they meet at the top. Ruins of such sheep-pens and mountain-huts are found in several places in Iceland, and in Ireland such stone-huts are very common. A study of the design and the building method reveals an unmistakable relationship. Even though most of these stone-huts in Iceland are fairly recent, they are considered to be a likely evidence of Irish culture in Iceland. The Irish used to build stone-huts in this way and most likely brought this skill with them to Iceland.
These three crosses were found a few years ago at the deep end of a cave in South-West Iceland. They were chiselled into the volcanic rock high up. The biggest cross is 94 cm high and 65 cm wide. These crosses are unmistakably very old, but nobody can tell how old they are. It has, however, been suggested that they may be of Irish origin. The cave could have been used for secret Christian services during the time when pagan belief was still dominant in Iceland. This is only a guess, however, and the origin of these crosses remains unknown.