So how did this Swedish merchant find Iceland, a rocky outcrop thousands of miles from his Swedish homeland in an era before GPS or airplane travel?

A hot tourist destination with a young history

Every year, hordes of tourists flock to Iceland to witness the sheer majesty of its stunning natural environment. 

From the magic of the midnight sun to the beauty of its many waterfalls and the power of the many volcanoes that dot the island, this remote island nation seems to heave with people, especially in the warmer months. 

If you walk through Reykjavík, you'd be forgiven for thinking people had been here since time immemorial. 

In fact, the history of human settlement in Iceland is historically young, as it only stretches back to the early medieval period.

If we are to believe the sagas, political exiles, and economic malcontents fled to Iceland after Harald Fairhair unified Norway in 871 CE. 

But how did these Norse settlers know where Iceland was in the first place?

Iceland lies over 1500 kilometers (900 miles) away from the coast of western Norway. Although people in Viking societies were among the most skilled maritime navigators of the period, it was still a considerable distance to sail into the unknown.

Only about a decade earlier, tales from a merchant began circulating about an uninhabited island full of possibilities on the edges of the known world.

A Swedish sailor sails forth

Like so much of early medieval Nordic history, we are indebted to the sagas. 

Whilst they may not necessarily be the most accurate historical record, they give much color to what can be rather dry historical events and details. 

Unlike other countries, Iceland can point to a series of sagas (collectively called the Sagas of the Icelanders) that explain the early beginnings of their island nation. 

One of the most important is the Landnámabók or the Book of Settlements

It provides details about the very founding of Iceland and lists the names of families believed to have fled the perceived tyrannical rule of Harald Fairhair.

Among these names was a Swedish sailor called Garðarr Svavarsson.

Frustratingly, we know little of Garðarr other than he was a Swedish merchant and sailor who was said to have owned land somewhere in what is now the Danish province of Zeeland. 

We have little record of any parts of his life or family, just his occupation. 

Sometime in the mid to late 860s CE (the sagas are never precise with exact years), Garðarr set off to sail from his homeland for trade and commerce. 

He sailed to the Orkney Islands, then very much in the Viking sphere of influence, to gain an inheritance from his father-in-law. 

As he sailed near the Orkneys, a great storm appeared to have blown him off course northward. After a few days, he had reached land, the eastern coast of Iceland.

Skjálfandi Bay is notable not only for its beauty but also as the place where Garðarr first landed in Iceland. Photo: TailoredPics / Shutterstock

The first human settlement in Iceland?

Despite Garðarr's bad luck, he had reached the eastern coast of Iceland alive and intact. 

Now, according to the sagas, Garðarr was not the first person to be credited with sailing to Iceland.

A previous sailor, Naddod, in very much a similar tale of inclement weather, was believed to have reached Iceland at an earlier date. Yet, unlike Nadodd, Garðarr decided to explore this remote and rocky island. 

He is credited as the first person to circumnavigate the island, sailing to both explore and scout for signs of human settlement.

The notoriously fickle and brutal weather of the North Atlantic set in, and Garðarr had to seek shelter in a bay (Skjálfandi) on the northern coast of Iceland. 

Here, he managed to build shelter and stay there for the winter. 

When the warmer weather finally arrived, he continued sailing around the island's western half, to the bay and surrounding region where Garðarr was said to have built his house.

What is interesting is that when Garðarr had finished and sailed back home, he was said to have left two thralls – a man and a woman – at this location. 

Slavery was a common feature of Viking societies, and these two slaves decided that they would rather live in freedom on the very edges of the world than go back to the pain and punishment of enslavement in Scandinavia.

Nestled under the shadow of Vestrahorn mountain, this Viking village in Stokksnes captures the spirit of Iceland's ancient Norse roots. Photo: Nick Fox / Shutterstock

A turning point in Viking history

Upon his return to Scandinavia, Garðarr had great tales of his adventures. 

However, it appears he was somewhat sly in his dealings with the truth. 

Having circumnavigated this new island, he undoubtedly saw that human settlement could prosper. 

He decided to call this island Island (Old Norse for Land of Ice) in what modern historians believe was a bid to discourage settlers from flocking there. 

Given that he had already staked his claim on this piece of prime medieval real estate, Garðarr wanted to claim as much of it as possible. 

In a later piece of egotistical naming, he also dubbed the island his – Garðarshólmi (Garðarr's Island), which is still one of modern Iceland's nicknames.

His exploration of Iceland marked a turning point in the history of people in Viking societies. 

By the end of the 9th century CE, people from Viking societies had sailed to Iceland to settle there and had established numerous farms and communities. 

From Iceland, sailors and explorers soon discovered other unexplored lands to the west, including Greenland and the eastern seaboard of what is now Canada

Both were later expertly explored and settled.

The sagas relate how one of Garðarr's sons sailed to Iceland years later to try and claim it for the Norwegian king and make himself a Jarl. 

However, the locals wised onto his scheming and killed him.

From the late 13th century CE, Iceland would become part of the Norwegian kingdom until the early modern period when it was passed to Denmark.

The story of human settlement in Iceland may be shrouded in mystery. Still, the story of Garðarr Svavarsson shows the daring spirit of adventure that was a feature of many people in Viking societies.

Forbes has recently published an article on the Viking history of Iceland, available to read here.

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