SETTLEMENT AND EARLY HISTORY

When the first Viking settlers arrived in Iceland in the late 9th century A.D., they found an uninhabited island. Today Iceland is thoroughly modern country – but evidence of past times and our rich cultural heritage is still visible everywhere you look.

Traditionally, the settlement (landnám, or ‚land-taking‘) period is thought to have lasted about 60 years, from around 870 A.D. to 930 A.D., by which time all inhabitable land had been claimed and the population stood at circa 30,000.

THE VIKING AGE

The majority of settlers came from Norway and emigrated because of a combination political and socio-economic factors. Others hailed from Denmark or Sweden, or from Viking settlements around the British Isles.

DNA analysis of modern Icelanders points to around 60% of female settlers being of Celtic origins; slaves belonging to the Norse settlers were likely largely of Celtic origins too.

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ALTHINGI - THE OLDEST PARLIAMENT IN THE WORLD

Early Icelandic society was organised first on a regional basis; there was no king or equivalent head of state. Disputes and other matters of importance were discussed and resolved at local assemblies.

In 930 A.D., the Alþingi – the National Assembly or Commonwealth – was founded and a common law established. Local chieftains and their followers met on an annual basis every June at Þingvellir. Legislation was passed and legal cases were conducted; crucially too, the assembly was a highly social gathering and a forum for trade.

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DAILY LIFE IN MEDIEVAL ICELAND

Medieval Iceland was a rural, farming society; there were no villages or towns though temporary, seasonal settlements grew up at trading sites and fishing posts.

ICELANDIC VIKING AGE FARM

Farms built by the settlers were constructed from the natural resources available, namely turf, stone, drift-wood, and forested timber – medieval sources describe Iceland as being thickly wooded in the early settlement period and zoo-archaeological analysis supports this.

A typical farm complex would comprise several outhouses and a main longhouse with a communal hall in which members of the farm lived and slept.

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SELF SUFFICIENT FARMERS

Daily life was governed by the seasons; farms were largely self-sufficient. The average temperature in Iceland was warmer in the settlement period, before the onset of the Little Ice Age in the late medieval period, and it was possible to cultivate cereals such as barley, oats and rye.

The settlers brought livestock (cows, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry) and other domestic animals (dogs, horses) with them; diet was dairy- and meat-based, supplemented by fish.

Meat from animals slaughtered each autumn was smoked or soured in whey; fish was dried.

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Interactive timeline

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  • ~8th~9th century

    Celtic monks may have reached Iceland

  • ~860

    Norsemen discover Iceland

  • ~871

    Ingólfur Arnarson settles in Reykjavík

  • 9th-11th centuries

    Events described in the sagas took place

  • 930

    Alþingi convenes for the first time at Þingvellir

  • ~985

    Eiríkur "the Red" settles in Greenland

  • 999 / 1000

    Christianity is adopted in Iceland

  • ~1000

    Leifur Eiríksson discovers North America

  • ~12th century

    Ari Þorgilsson writes Íslendingabók; Landnámabók also written

  • ~13th century

    Most of the Sagas of Icelanders are written

  • 1241

    Snorri Sturluson, author of the Prose Edda, is killed at Reykholt

  • 1262 - 1264

    Iceland accepts the sovereignty of the King of Norway

  • 1300

    Eruption of Mount Hekla

  • 1397

    Kalmar Act of Union unites realms of Norway, Denmark (and thus Iceland) and Sweden

  • 1402 - 1404

    The Black Death ravages Iceland. Over 1/2 of the population dies

  • 1530

    Printing press brought to Iceland and set up at Hólar

  • 1550

    Reformation in Iceland: Lutheranism replaces Catholicism

  • 1584

    The Bible is translated and printed in Icelandic

  • 1627

    Turkish Raids; Icelanders abducted by Algerian pirates

  • ~18th century

    Many medieval manuscripts collected by Árni Magnússon and sent to Denmark

  • 1703

    First census is conducted; population 50,358

  • 1728

    Great fire in Copenhagen; some Icelandic manuscripts and books are destroyed

  • 1783 - 1786

    Volcanic activity leads to widespread starvation

  • 1800

    The Danish King orders the closure of the Alþingi

  • 1830s

    The Nationalist movement gains momentum

  • 1870s - 90s

    Mass emigration to North America on account of dire powerty in Iceland

  • 1904

    Home rule is granted by Denmark

  • 1915

    Women receive the right to vote

  • 1918

    Union Treaty grants Iceland full sovereignty in a royal union with Denmark

  • 1930

    The National Broadcasting Service (RÚV) begins radio broadcasting

  • 1940

    Iceland is occupied first by British troops, then by US troops during and beyond WWII

  • 1952

    Halldór Laxness writes Gerpla, a novel based on the Icelandic Fóstbræðra saga

  • 1950s - 70s

    Cod Wars with Britain over fishing rights

  • 1971

    Denmark returns the medieval manuscripts to Iceland

  • 2004 and 2009

    Þingvellir and the medieval manuscripts given UNESCO status

  • 2008

    Economic crisis, near total collapse of Iceland´s banking system

  • 2010

    318,200 residents in Iceland, Icelandic citizens 293,700


Middle Ages

Settlement 870 - 930

Old Commonwealth 930 - 1262

Christianization 999 - 1118

Sturlung Era 1180 - 1264

Old Covenant 1262

Norwegian Rule 1262 - 1380

Reformation 1536 - 1627

Danish Trade Monopoly 1602 - 1874

Eruption of Laki 1783 - 1785

Modern Era

Independance Movement 1809 - 1874

Home Rule / Independance 1885 - 1918

Act of union 1918

Kingdom 1918 - 1944

World War II 1939 - 1944

Invation 1940

Invador Relationships 1940 - 1945

Republic

Founding of the Republic 1944 - Present

Cold War 1947 - 1991

Cod Wars 1948 - 1976

Economic Reform 1991 - 2008

Great Recession 2008 - 2011

BELIEFS AND SUPERSTITIONS

The first Norse settlers worshipped the pagan pantheon of gods and goddesses (Þór, Óðinn, Freyr, Freyja etc) though this was not a centralised, organised religion. Christianity was not unknown though in Iceland from earliest times; a small proportion of the first settlers had converted to the Christian faith before emigrating.

Christianity Adopted

Christianity was adopted as Iceland‘s national religion in the year 1000 A.D.. Religion then – as now – was a divisive issue and in order to settle the matter, the law-speaker at the time declared, at the Alþingi in 1000 A.D., that the country as a whole would accept the new faith by law.

To begin with however, certain pagan customs banned by the Christian Church (the eating of horse-meat and the exposure of unwanted infants) were not outlawed; individuals were permitted to practise pagan sacrifice too, in private.

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Superstition

Superstition and folk-tales have always been a strong part of life in Iceland and were often passed down orally from one generation to another.

Many superstitions are attached to features of the landscape – stones, cliffs, hills, bogs. Sorcerers and witches are described in some sagas. In the 17th century, the remote Strandir region in the West Fjords became the site of intensive witch-hunting. A number of accused men were burned, and women drowned.

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Enchanted Patches

Álagablettir (“enchanted patches”) are still found in some fields today: farmers will not mow here on account of the ill consequences that might follow if the elfish huldufólk (“hidden people”) within are disturbed. If you walk in a lava field at dusk, you will see how the looming rocks and shadows quickly take on the appearance of other-worldly creatures.

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Guardian Spirits

One of the four landvættir (“guardian spirits of the country”) said to protect the four quarters of Iceland from invasion is a mountain giant. The others are a poison-spitting dragon, an eagle whose wingspan fills whole valleys, and a ferociously bellowing bull.

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THE ICELANDIC SAGAS

Iceland has an exceptional literary heritage. Though economically it was a poor country for many centuries, Iceland was always culturally rich. The manuscripts that contain its literary wealth – the Sagas and Eddas first and foremost – were the people‘s treasures.

One of the most remarkable features of medieval Icelandic society was the production of an enormous quantity of sacred and secular written texts copied by hand on parchment in the vernacular language, Old Norse-Icelandic.

Runic and Latin Adoptions

The formal conversion to Christianity in 1000 A.D. brought with it the technology of the book and the Latin alphabet which was partially adapted to suit the Icelandic language: the letter þorn (þ) was incorporated from the runic alphabet, for example to represent th-.

Texts – laws, genealogies, mythological and heroic poetry, anecdotes about the first settlers – that had been transmitted orally from one generation to another before the introduction of book-learning/literacy began to be cast in written form from the early 12th century onwards.

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The Family Sagas

By the early 13th century, the saga had become the prevailing written narrative form in Iceland. The most widely-known sagas today belong to the genre known as the ‚sagas of Icelanders‘ or ‚family sagas‘ (Íslendingasögur).

These sagas describe the settlement of Iceland and chronicle the country‘s early history from a local, landscape-based perspective. A great range of vividly-drawn characters are presented, many of whom were historical characters; the sagas are best described as ‚historical fiction‘.

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* This page contains images from Anders Kvåle Rue and Jakob Jóhannsson

To learn more about history and heritage in Iceland, visit the Saga Trail site.