Iceland Through Time

In this chapter, our primary focus is on Iceland's culture—as created by its people and their past. The country has a fascinating and somewhat contradictory history. Among major world nations, for example, it was one of the very last countries to be settled. In this respect, it has a very brief history, although its governing body is one of the oldest in the world. In this chapter, you will find answers to questions such as: Who are the Icelanders? From where and when did they come? What has happened on this small island since their arrival? How have they forged a way of life in this harsh and remote place that in many respects has come to be one of the world's best places to live? How do they govern themselves? Our trip through time begins in northern mists.


Dense fog and mist shrouds the northern Atlantic Ocean much of the time.Howling winds and towering waves, piercing rain and sleet, huge icebergs and floating sea ice are commonplace. During the long winter months, the sun barely peeks above the horizon and visibility is limited to a few short hours. These are just some of the conditions that make navigation treacherous in the seas around Iceland.

Just as northern mist limits visibility, some aspects of Iceland's early history also are shrouded in mystery. Some historical geographers believe that Mediterranean Europeans may have reached Iceland at least four centuries before the dawn of the Christian era. Early Phoenician sailors told of seas that would hold ships in place (sea ice?), where monsters rose above the water (whales?), and where darkness fell over the earth (northern latitudes?). There is no evidence, however, that these Phoenicians actually reached Iceland.

To the ancient Greeks, the place called Thule was believed to be the northernmost area of the inhabitable world. They had learned of this northern land from the travels of a Greek explorer, Pytheas, who, in about 330 B.C., had sailed northward from the Mediterranean. It is certain that he sailed around the islands of Great Britain, which he described in considerable detail.While there, he was told of an island called Thule located six sailing days north of Britain. Pytheas continued his voyage northward and reached the place that he described as being the outermost of all inhabited lands and a place where the sun went to sleep [early]. The Greek geographer Strabo, writing around the time of Christ, said of Pytheas's trip:

Pytheas . . . speaks of the waters around Thule and of those places where land properly speaking no longer exists, nor sea nor air, but a mixture of these things, like a “marine lung,” . . . on which one can neither walk nor sail.

The marine lung that Strabo described, “on which one can neither walk nor sail,” almost certainly was thick sea ice rising and falling as waves passed beneath. In northern mists, sea, land, and sky often blend into one imperceptible landscape in which it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. Is this a description of the sea around Iceland? Was Pytheas the first person to reach this remote island that is frequently shrouded in fog? Unfortunately, we will never know. But the name “Thule” was used in reference to Iceland for some time during the Middle Ages.

It appears that even the Romans may have ventured into the waters of the North Atlantic soon after the dawn of the Christian era. Roman coins, dating from before 300 A.D., have been found in several locations in Iceland. Whether they were left behind by Roman sailors, or brought by early Nordic settlers, remains in doubt. The coins' origin remains a mystery, and there is no other evidence linking early Romans to Iceland and the region of northern mists.


Irish monks, seeking a remote location where they could serve God in total seclusion, were the first known settlers of Iceland. The exact date of their arrival remains open to question. Ancient Celtic (Irish) ruins recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists have been dated to about 680 A.D. Historical writings suggest that the monks reached the island early in the eighth century. Other writings indicate that they were established on a remote island that they called “Thule” by the mid-700s. The Irish monk Decuil wrote that other monks had been to Thule around 795. He reported that during midsummer there was bright light during both day and night—so bright, in fact, that the monks could pick lice from their shirts even in the middle of the night.

Regardless of when the monks arrived, several things are known about their time on Thule. First, they did not establish a permanent settlement, so they made no long-term impact on the island. Second, a small colony of monks was still living there when Norse (Viking) explorers first arrived in around 800. An early history mentions that when the Vikings reached Iceland, they met people whom they called papar, or fathers. It is also known that soon after the Norsemen settled Iceland, the monks vanished. Why they left the island is not known. Perhaps they simply found that the solitude they had sought on Iceland had been broken by the newly arrived “heathens” from Scandinavia.


The Vikings came from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. From the eighth to the eleventh centuries they were perhaps the world's foremost explorers, colonizers, warriors, and traders. To these brave seafarers, Iceland was just a short, seven- or eight-day voyage away. They became the island's first permanent settlers, thereby establishing a Scandinavian cultural imprint that remains dominant in Iceland today. It was not until 1944 that Iceland was able to free itself from more than 1,000 years of Scandinavian political control.

In 874, a Norseman named Ingolfur Arnarson became Iceland's first permanent settler when he built a home on a calm vik, or bay. Because the steam from the area's many hot springs looked like smoke to Arnarson, he called his new place Reykjavik, or Bay of Smoke. Today, of course, the country's capital and largest city now occupies the site on which he settled.

The next fifty years, from the mid-870s to about 930, are known as the Age of Settlement. During this half-century period, the island was flooded with new settlers from Scandinavia. The names of more than 400 settlers are recorded in the ancient Book of Icelanders and Book of Settlements. These two histories list settlers' names and family backgrounds and identify the places from which they came and where they settled down. But the books only listed the names of important leaders; hundreds of others flocked to the island in search of land and opportunity. Most came from Norway, but Sweden and Denmark also contributed to the wave. Others arrived from the British Isles, particularly Ireland and Scotland, and from the many small islands surrounding northern Great Britain. By 930 nearly all the good coastal land was claimed and occupied. It is estimated that some 60,000 people lived on the island at that time—nearly a quarter of the number living there today. The base population, racial stock, and cultural foundation that would characterize Iceland more than a thousand years later were now in place.

Early Trade

For all but a few commodities—such as fish, mutton, and wool—these early Icelanders were totally dependent on shipping. In the stormy north Atlantic, however, sailing was hazardous and ships often were damaged or lost.With few trees and no iron available on the island to repair the ships, import of lumber and iron was essential. In addition, grain and flour were major imports of the time. In exchange, Iceland's exports included dried fish, wool, and cloth.


Iceland's early settlers often came as groups from various locations. Once in Iceland, each group settled in its own territory and one leader rose to govern “his” people, establishing rules by which they would live and worship. In return for his “services,” the people paid taxes. This system created a small number of rich and powerful leaders who governed in a number of settlements scattered primarily about the country's coastal area.

This pattern of settlement and control led to unrest, lawlessness, and periodic open conflict among groups. While leaders quarreled among themselves, seeking greater power, most people wanted to live peaceful lives. Some leaders believed that the entire island should be brought under one set of laws and that all the island's people should be unified as one society. It was this early vision that led to the world's first parliamentary government and to the unification of what today is a single country.

Parliament (the Althing)

After Icelanders agreed to unite, they needed to decide upon the laws by which they would be governed. Around 920, one of their leaders was sent to Norway to study its laws and government. After three years, he returned with many ideas. Soon a code of law was recommended for the island, and, in the town of Thingvellir just north of Thingvallavatn, a lake east of Reykjavik, a parliament assembled in 930. This parliament, called the Althing, marked the first time an entire country was ruled by a single national assembly. Iceland became a commonwealth, and the Althing is believed to be the world's oldest existing legislative body.

Iceland's formal government began as a democracy, and the tradition continues today,more than a thousand years later. From the beginning, not only did chieftains and other rich and powerful persons attend the Althing sessions, but people from all walks of life came from throughout the country to attend the annual gathering. In fact, it became somewhat of a national annual festival. Historian Jon R. Hjalmarsson described the assembly as “a true melting pot for culture, national feeling and unity.” The early government had no president or king. No military or police force was established. A speaker was elected to a threeyear term, but he had no power to enforce laws. Rather, the person holding this office had to memorize and be able to recite all the laws since they were not written down until 1117.


The period between 930 and about 1030 was a time of heroic events. It was the century best remembered and described in the famous Icelandic sagas. These stories and poems were written mostly during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries from oral histories that had been passed down from generation to generation.

Westward to Greenland

For the brave and skilled sailors from Iceland, it was just a matter of time before they would reach Greenland and lands still farther to the west. Less than 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of Iceland, Greenland was first reached sometime during the mid–tenth century. Soon thereafter, in 980, Erik the Red, the Norwegian explorer, settled there and named the iceburied island Greenland, hoping that the attractive name would draw more settlers from tree-barren Iceland. He was soon joined by his son Leifur, or Leif Ericsson.

On to Vinland (America)

Sometime before 1000, an Icelander named Bjarni Herjolfsson sailed westward from Iceland in hopes of reaching the growing Greenland colony. Losing his way, he sailed much further south, where he saw a large and unfamiliar land. Rather than investigating, he turned back and finally reached Greenland. Here, Leif Ericsson heard about this new land lying to the west and decided to seek it out himself. In about 1000, with a crew of thirty-five, he set sail. Little did he know what lay ahead!

Leif Ericsson's party first reached a rocky place that they named Helluland (believed to be what is now Baffin Island, off far-northeastern Canada). Sailing southward for several days, they reached a wooded land they called Markland (coastal Labrador). Still farther south, they reached a coast where vines resembling grapes grew on the shores; they called this place Vinland. The location of Vinland was long debated, but in 1960 stone ruins were discovered and excavated at L'Anse aux Meadows, a site at the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland, that were determined to be those of a 1,000-year-old Viking settlement. Icelandic Vikings thus were the first known European discoverers of what is now America.


While Christian monks were the first visitors to Iceland, and many of the early settlers, particularly those from Ireland, were devout in Christian faith, many Icelanders held “pagan” beliefs. The first known Christian missionary to reach Iceland began his work in 981, and within 20 years, many Icelanders had adopted the Christian faith. After a period of heated debates between Christians and followers of pagan beliefs, the Christians prevailed, and the Althing adopted Catholicism as the country's official religion. All Icelanders were required to join the faith, and for more than 500 years, the Catholic Church was Iceland's most powerful institution, serving as a political, as well as religious, influence. The Church also helped broaden Icelandic culture and expand the islanders' intellectual horizons, since Icelanders who traveled to Europe to train to become clergy brought back with them European ways of thinking and living.


The period between the dawn of the eleventh century and the early nineteenth century was a troubled time for Iceland. In 1104, the volcano Mt. Hekla erupted, burying nearly half the country under as much as three feet (1 meter) of volcanic ash and other debris.

The thirteenth century was a particularly difficult period. Much of the natural environment was in ruin. Iceland still had not fully recovered from the Hekla eruption. Woodlands had been cleared and there was little lumber for building or repairing boats. Sheep had overgrazed much of the island, resulting in severe soil erosion. Politically, the country was also in turmoil. A small number of wealthy families held much of the land and power. Eventually, in 1262, weakened by internal conflict, Icelanders gave up their independence. In order to bring hoped-for peace, rule of the island nation was handed to the king of Norway (and later the king of Denmark). Foreign rule in Iceland was to last for 682 years.

Norwegian king Magnus (who became known as Magnus the Reformer) was concerned about the lawlessness of the Icelandic people. He believed that the country needed a new set of laws. In 1271, for the first time in Iceland's history, a book of laws was published. These new legal codes did not gain full support of Icelanders, however, and they were revised and republished in 1280. The new codes were more widely accepted and remained in effect for centuries.

The 1300s were a period of much change, not always for the better. This was particularly true of the island's cultural life. The Great Plague (also called the Black Death) was sweeping much of Europe and much of Norway.As a result, shipping and trade links between Norway and Iceland declined sharply. Another eruption of Mt. Hekla once again devastated a huge area of the island. Famine stalked the land, resulting in many deaths. The writing of the classic sagas declined, as did other forms of literature. Conflict was also growing between the king of Norway and the Church. Iceland became immersed in its own Dark Age.

Severe hardship also marked Icelandic life in the fifteenth century (1400s), during which the island was twice ravaged by the Great Plague. It is estimated that as much as one-half of the population—rich and poor, powerful and powerless alike—died. Farms were abandoned and fishing declined.

The cycle of misfortune continued during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Natural disasters once again stalked the land as the conflicting agents of fire and ice ravaged the island. In 1783–1784, Iceland experienced what proved to be its greatest natural catastrophe—the Laki eruptions. At the same time, a severe earthquake destroyed many farms in southern Iceland. The combined events resulted in the deaths of an estimated three-quarters of the island's livestock and onequarter of its human population. Also, during a period extending from the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries, much of the Northern Hemisphere was plunged into a period of bitter cold (known to meteorologists as “The Little Ice Age”). On Iceland, crops failed, resulting in the starvation of thousands of people and livestock. By the mid-1800s, Iceland had experienced nearly 1,000 years of severe hardship.


During its centuries of hardship, life became much more difficult for the Icelandic people. It was a period of repeated environmental catastrophe, disease, and famine. It also was a period of cultural decline. Economic, social, and political conditions suffered, as did the people. One event, however, did have a profound impact on Icelandic culture—the Protestant Reformation.

By the mid–sixteenth century, Catholicism had established a 500-year hold on Iceland's people and religious landscape. But this was soon to change, in a major transformation of the island's religious culture. In 1517, a German, Martin Luther, began a formal protest in Germany against what he believed to be abuses in the established Catholic Church. His move toward reform resulted in a break among his followers from Catholicism. The new religion they formed as a result what became called the Protestant Reformation bears his name—Lutheran.

In 1537, the Danish king—who, in 1380, had taken control of both Norway and Iceland—adopted the Lutheran faith. A year later, he attempted to establish the Lutheran religion in Iceland. By 1540, the New Testament had been translated into Icelandic, thereby becoming the first book ever written in the Icelandic language. In 1541, Lutheranism was adopted by the Althing as the country's official faith.

Many Icelanders did not welcome the new religion, which was much different than Catholicism. Lutheranism, after all, had been imposed by force, and many practices with which the people had long been accustomed were now prohibited. All things Catholic—including buildings, worship, clergy, art, saints—were destroyed, forbidden, or driven out. To many people, the change came as a terrible culture shock. Religious beliefs, after all, are at the very foundation of many cultures.

Today, Iceland recognizes freedom of religion, and many faiths are represented within the island's population. The church no longer plays as important a role as it did in times past. The Evangelical Lutheran faith, however, remains Iceland's official state church, in which some 93 percent of all Icelanders claim membership. Iceland's president is the leading church authority and ministers are government employees. Lutheranism has continued to be a strong influence on Icelandic culture.


By the mid–nineteenth century, Icelanders were becoming tired of foreign rule. The island was emerging from nearly a millennium of hardship and the people looked to the future with optimism. The economy was improving. In 1843, the Althing was reinstated as a consulting body, although Denmark retained the right to veto decisions. By 1854, Iceland became free to trade with all countries, thereby ending several centuries of economic oppression. In 1874, the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland's first permanent settlement, a huge step was taken toward independence: the country adopted its own constitution and gained control of its own finances.

Full independence was yet to come, however. Fully thirty years after adopting its own constitution, Iceland was finally granted home rule by the Danes. This gave the country its own government, but with continuing strong ties to Denmark. In 1919, Denmark recognized Iceland as an independent nation, although the Danish king remained the Icelandic head of state. Finally, on June 17, 1944, Iceland declared itself a free and independent republic. Sveinn Bjornsson was elected the country's first president and a new constitution was adopted.

Since gaining its independence, Iceland has prospered. The country has earned a respected place on the stage of world nations. Its people, too, have prospered. In the following chapter, you will learn more about these hardy people and their way of life.