A Saga of Ice and Fire: The Viking history of Iceland from settlement to strife

Iceland is a country born of the Viking Age. For millennia it remained uninhabited by humans, a little volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic hanging just below the Arctic Circle. It was only at the end of the 9th century that the first ships began to arrive, containing Norse settlers looking for a new life. By then, the Viking Age was well and truly under way: the Great Heathen Army was sweeping its way through Anglo-Saxon England and Alfred the Great was battling Scandinavian invaders led by – according to later tradition – the sons of Ragnar ‘Hairy-Breeches’. But the story that was unfolding in Iceland was rather less bloody. In fact, it’s possible that the first arrivals to the island weren’t even pagan Norse, but Irish Christians.

According to the Book of Icelanders (Íslendingabók) written by a 12th-century Icelander called Ari the Wise, when the Norse arrived they discovered that a group of Irish holy men had got there first. Other sources – both written and archaeological – back up the idea of holy men braving the Atlantic waters in search of islands where they could live in contemplative solitude. But in the case of Iceland, no physical record of these men has ever been found. Our only source is Ari, who tells us that they quickly left when they realised they would have to share the land with a bunch of heathens, leaving behind their bells, books, and croziers.

We’re on much firmer ground with the arrival of the Norse. For one thing, we know that many of them actually came from the British Isles, particularly the women. DNA tests on modern Icelandic men show that around 80 per cent of the first male settlers came from Norway, and 20 per cent came from the British Isles. By contrast, approximately 37 per cent of early female settlers were Norwegian, while 67 per cent were British. Perhaps, true to the old Viking stereotype, many of these women came to Iceland as concubines and slaves. Or perhaps the picture is more complicated than that. In any case, what followed became known as the landnám, or ‘land-taking’, where the land was claimed and divided among the new arrivals. In barely 60 years, the country was fully settled apart from the interior, an uninhabitable volcanic desert filled with mountains and glaciers.

Abraham Ortelius’s map of Iceland, 1585

Extraordinarily, we know almost the exact date when the landnám began. The aforementioned Ari the Wise states that it was:

“…when Ivar the Boneless, son of Ragnar Hairy-Breeches, had Saint Edmund, king of the English killed. That was 870 years after the birth of Christ.”

Ari is careful to name his sources, the oral accounts of his friends and family:

“According to the reckoning and tallying of Teit, my foster-father, who I consider the wisest of all men, and my uncle Thorkel the son of Gellir, who had a long memory.”

Given that he was writing centuries after the settlement itself, his dates may seem improbably exact. But a very Icelandic sort of evidence confirms his testimony: a volcanic ash cloud.

All over Iceland, almost all of the earliest settlement layer – containing turf-walled buildings, whalebone tools, shards of charcoal and fragments of bones – sits directly above a layer of volcanic ash. This tells us that, for the most part, the country wasn’t settled before that particular volcanic eruption. Traces of the same volcanic ash have been identified in Greenlandic ice cores, where layers are laid down year after year and can be counted up like tree rings. According to these ice cores, the volcano erupted in around 871, which almost precisely tallies with Ari’s information.

By around 930, Iceland seems to have been fully settled, and in this year the national assembly, known as the Alþingi, was established at Þingvellir (‘Assembly Plains’), 30 kilometres or so to the north east of modern-day Reykjavík. Geographically, this was a dramatic site for a national assembly. Iceland lies between two continental plates: hence its explosive reputation as the land of fire and ice. Every year, the two plates are drifting further apart, and Þingvellir stretches with them because it lies slap bang in the middle. As the first generations of Icelanders made their annual pilgrimage to the assembly, little did they know they were pitching their tents right on the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. In any case, they would have had weightier matters on their minds. In Viking Age Iceland – and throughout the Nordic world – law was a serious business. There was a popular phrase, “With law shall the country be built,” which even today is the motto of the Icelandic police force. Each year at the assembly, an appointed ‘law speaker’ would recite the country’s laws while standing on the ‘law rock’. When the Icelanders began to write things down at the start of the 12th century, the law codes became their first major project.

A ‘viking’ poses at Þingvellir, photograph by Berit Wallenberg, 1930

Today, Þingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which can be visited as part of the classic Golden Circle tour. As well as the site of Iceland’s first national parliament, the tour takes in the magnificent waterfall Gullfoss (‘Golden Falls’) and the gushing hot spring Geysir from which we get the English word ‘geyser’. However, visitors are far more likely to witness the eruption of Geysir’s more active sibling Strokkur, which goes off every few minutes reaching heights of 30 metres.

With Iceland fully settled and the legal system established, the young country entered a period known as the ‘Free State’. The early Icelanders were determined to have no king. Later saga traditions blamed the power-greedy, land-grabbing king of Norway, Harald Fairhair, for the fact that they had been forced to leave Norway and settle in Iceland. So rather than a king, the most important men in their land were a group of powerful chieftains who controlled various districts of Iceland and represented their followers at the Alþingi. In a society where feuds and grudges could bubble up and boil over into bloody revenge killings, legal cases were taken very seriously. The most severe punishments were lesser outlawry (when the criminal would be forced to leave the country) and full outlawry (when he could never come back on pain of death).

The settlers arrived as pagans. It seems that Icelanders were particularly fond of the Norse god Thor, known for his red beard and giant-bashing hammer. In the 19th century, a little bronze figure measuring just over six centimetres was discovered in northern Iceland. The small figure, sporting a jaunty handlebar moustache, wearing a pointy hat and clasping a hammer between his legs, most likely represents Thor. It has been dated to about 1000, which is also when Iceland officially became Christian. This was a slow and pragmatic process: the decision to convert was taken in order to stop warring factions getting into fights at the Alþingi, and for a time afterwards pagans were allowed to continue as before, making sacrifices and eating horse meat. In fact, in recent decades the pagan gods have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity: the neo-pagan religion Ástatrú is now the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland, and the construction of the first pagan temple for 1,000 years is now under way.

With Christianity came the tools of literacy. Over time, the Icelanders gained a reputation as the history keepers of northern Europe. According to Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian writing from about 1185, Icelanders, “…devote all their time to improving our knowledge of others’ deeds” and “regard it a real pleasure to discover and commemorate the achievements of every nation.”

Today, two sorts of Medieval Icelandic writings are particularly famous. The first are poems and tales of pagan gods and legendary heroes: figures such as the unscrupulous and wily Odin, the shifty demi-god Loki and Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. The second are the Old Norse sagas. Written down in the later Medieval period, from the 13th century onwards, many sagas look back to the time of the settlement and tell stories of early Icelanders, blending facts with fantasy, oral tales with literary influences. In these tales, we meet great saga heroes such as the legal-eagle Njal, burned alive by his enemies in his own farmhouse, and the hot-tempered Erik the Red, who was outlawed from Iceland and founded the Norse settlement in Greenland. We meet the tragic outlaw Grettir, who has superhuman strength but a childish fear of the dark, and the sharp-witted but manipulative Gudrun, oft-married and ofter-widowed.

Grettir demonstrates his strength in The Book of Romance, 1902

The 13th century was an era of great literary production, but it was also around this time when the Free State imploded – bloodily and dramatically. As decades passed, power in the country had been concentrated among a small number of families. Now they wanted more power. The result was 40 years of brutal civil war, an era that became known as the Sturlung Age, after the most prominent of the warring families. Saga accounts of the terrible battles and house burnings often read like journalists’ war reports, but they also include supernatural portents that foreshadow terrible events to come. According to one saga, “many dreams were dreamed” that warned of bloody deaths to come. One man dreams that he enters a house where there are two women sitting inside. Like a scene from a horror film, the saga states:

“They were drenched in gore, and rocking backwards and forwards. Blood poured in through the windows.”

By 1264, the Norwegian king had taken full advantage of the political turmoil and seized control of Iceland. The Free State was over.

By now, the ‘Viking Age’ had well and truly come to an end. In the centuries that followed, Iceland was batted from Norway to Denmark as the balance of power shifted between the Nordic countries. By the end of the 14th century, the male line of the Norwegian crown had died out, and Denmark gained the upper hand. For the Icelanders, day-to-day life could be tough, the climate poor and resources meagre, and from time to time, things would get a lot worse. For instance, in the summer of 1627, several hundred Icelanders were abducted by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery. Only a handful ever made it back home, after the Danish king paid a ransom for them a decade later. The following century, in 1783, a catastrophic volcanic eruption caused a period called the ‘Mist of Hardships’, during which a quarter of the population died of starvation and poisoning. All the time, Iceland remained under the Danish thumb to a greater or lesser extent. When the call for independence was taken up in the 19th century, the Old Norse sagas became a powerful symbol of Iceland’s struggle.

It wasn’t until the end of World War II that Iceland became an official republic, and the first thing they asked for was the return of their sagas, which were housed in Denmark. So it was, that one fine day in 1971, flag-waving crowds of Icelanders gathered down at the harbour in Reykjavík as a Danish naval ship approached, carrying the first batch of saga manuscripts to be returned home.

Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough is a Lecturer in Medieval History and Literature at Durham University, her latest book Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas is available now from Oxford University Press. For medieval history, pick up the new issue of All About History or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.