Among Iceland's many claims to fame – spectacular landscapes, fiery volcanoes, and being home to the midnight sun – is its distinction as the second-to-last landmass to be settled by humans. 

By the end of the 9th century CE, due to certain political and population pressures in the Viking homelands of Scandinavia, there was a steady stream of people willing to cross the vast North Sea for a new life. 

Unlike other histories of human settlement, medieval Icelanders chose to document their establishment on this remote island. 

The Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) and the Íslendingasögur (Saga of the Icelanders) provide insight into why medieval Scandinavians might travel hundreds of kilometers to a volcanic outcrop on the edges of their world. 

Both of these sagas attribute the migration to Iceland to the political changes that occurred after Harald Fairhair unified many of Norway's smaller kingdoms. 

Adding to the steady stream of would-be Icelanders was Fairhair's reportedly high level of taxation. 

It wasn't the first time many Scandinavians left their homeland for an island nation due to perceived governmental overreach.

Archaeological evidence supports the idea that human settlement began in Iceland around the mid-870s CE, with significant growth in the last two decades of that century. 

But how did these Norse settlers discover that Iceland existed in the first place? 

The settlement of Iceland can be traced back to the political upheavals in Norway, notably the reign of King Harald Fairhair, whose actions propelled many Norsemen to explore new horizons. Photo: Josh Reid / Unsplash

Who discovered Iceland first? 

Whilst academics agree that human settlement in Iceland began with individuals from Viking societies around the mid-870s CE, the question of who "discovered" Iceland first remains shrouded in mystery. 

Scanning through the histories and sagas, we have a colorful cast of characters who were said to have been the first to sight or settle the land. 

If we rewind centuries before the first Viking ship set sail, the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas is believed to have discovered a frozen land about six days' sail northwest of the British Isles in 325 BCE. 

He named this land "Thule". 

Whilst Thule appeared on many ancient maps, modern historians express serious doubts about whether this journey ever happened. 

Fast forward to the early medieval period, and the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) describes how Iceland was visited by Irish monk hermits from the British Isles sometime in the 7th or 8th centuries. 

This island would have provided the perfect place for inner reflection and solitude, hundreds of leagues away from civilization. 

The sagas also mention two other Norse sailors and adventurers, Garðarr Svavarsson and Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarsson

The former is said to have accidentally found the island after being blown off course from the Faroe Islands during the 860s CE. 

Whilst the latter is said to have set out on a voyage of discovery, trying to find the land that Svavarsson had stumbled upon by accident in the late 860s. 

Regardless of who truly discovered it, we may never know for certain. 

However, by the mid-870s, Iceland's existence was known to people in Viking societies and was seen as the ideal refuge for those who wanted to leave the Viking homeland behind, whether for economic or political reasons. 

Memorial at Ingólfshöfði, marking the spot where Ingólfur reputedly endured his first Icelandic winter. Photo: Guillaume Baviere / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Enter Ingólfr 

The man widely credited as the first Norseman to sail to Iceland with the intention of settling there is named Ingólfr Arnarson. 

According to the sagas, Arnason was said to have been born somewhere in Sunnfjord, western Norway, around 849. 

Modern historians tend to agree that individuals from what would become Norway, especially western Norway, sailed west to raid, trade, and settle in the northern British Isles, Iceland, and later Greenland

This notion of people from Viking societies sailing west to Iceland aligns well with historical details and archaeological evidence. In this instance, the sagas seem to hold more than a hint of truth. 

What sets Arnarson apart from other early explorers of Iceland is the motive behind his decision to leave Norway and sail across the open sea to settle on a remote and rocky outcrop. 

Somewhat disappointingly (especially for those who relish a good true crime podcast), the sagas do not provide much detail about a supposed blood feud that compelled Arnarson to leave his home and decide to settle permanently in Iceland. 

Unlike earlier explorers who ventured to Iceland either by accident or in search of adventure, it is Arnarson's (potentially deadly) feud that makes his story stand out from the pages of the sagas, even centuries after they were written. 

Whatever he did (or was involved in), Arnarson is said to have set sail for Iceland to live there permanently (in exile perhaps?) in 874 CE. 

It was on the shores of what is now Reykjavik that Ingólfr Arnarson, the country's first settler, decided to make his home. Photo: 1tomm / Shutterstock

Floating wood, founding a city 

Escaping the perils of Norway, Arnarson is said to have set sail with his wife (one wonders if she was as keen as he was to leave her life and family behind) and a stepbrother. 

The sagas, unfortunately, shed little light on their voyage – was it a leisurely cruise with the best wishes of their family or a madcap dash to save their lives? We sadly will never know. 

What we do know, however, is a classic, colorful Norse anecdote. 

When the intrepid threesome caught sight of Iceland, Arnarson was said to have thrown some ceremonial wood (high seat pillars, a sort of makeshift Norse throne where the head of the household would sit) into the water. 

He is said to have proclaimed that he would build a settlement wherever the Norse gods decided to bring them ashore. 

The familial group was not the only one on the voyage, however. 

It seems that the Norse gods were not especially favorable to these new settlers. The wood didn't merely wash ashore. 

Arnarson, like all men of status in Viking societies, had also brought with him some slaves who were, it seems, Irish. 

The slaves had the unenviable task of searching the shores of Iceland's coastline until, one day, two years later, they found the pillars.

The location where they found them would become Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.

It seems these slaves had something of a last laugh as they killed Arnarson's stepbrother, perhaps in retaliation for making them wade through the freezing cold waters of the North Sea. 

Arnarson then seems to have embarked on a revenge mission, eventually killing the Irish slaves on a series of islands called "Westman." 

The name of these islands would later become the term for the Irish in Old Icelandic (Westmann). 

Little is known about the end of Ingólfr Arnarson, except that he is said to have died in Iceland around 910 CE. 

If he truly was one of the nation's first settlers, by the time of his death, he would have seen this tiny Norse outpost evolve into a thriving small island community.

His son, Thorsteinn, was said to have been responsible for the establishment of an early precursor to the Althing, the Icelandic parliament still in existence today. 

Today, Iceland's purported first settler is best commemorated by both the hill named after him and an impressive statue of him, crafted by Icelandic artist Einar Jónsson, standing tall atop it. 

Iceland Review, one of Iceland's premier history and culture magazines, has more information on the early settlement of their country, available to read on their website here

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