The very foundation of human settlement on this barren but beautiful island was built upon the backs of slaves captured in Viking raids.

First settlers 

Along with New Zealand and Madagascar, Iceland was one of the world's largest uninhabited islands well into the early medieval period (c. late 5th – 10th centuries CE). 

Traditionally, the island was supposed to have been settled by peoples from Viking societies, specifically Norwegians from the Telemark region who had fled persecution after the Battle of Hafrsfjord in 872 CE. 

These Norwegians were said to have been opposed to Fairhair and on the losing faction of the battle. Fleeing to Iceland was, of course, a fate somewhat better than death.

There is now, however, academic speculation that the Norse were not the first humans to settle on this island. Using literary sources, especially the Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) - a medieval source that deals with the Norse settlement of Iceland but complied in the 12th century CE - academics have tried to interpret the frequent mention of possible monks from the British Isles. 

The most famous of these monks – who academics suggest may have arrived on the island to spread Christianity but ended up existing as hermits – was Papar. 

The sagas mention that the monks left when the Norse "heathens" arrived. This was dismissed as a mere tall tale until archaeologists discovered remnants of a cabin, believed to have been used by a monk, that dates from the late 8th century CE, more than a century before the Norse were said to have arrived.

Harald Fairhair and the arrival of the Norse

The histography of the settlement of Iceland provides us with a fascinating insight into how, over centuries, the foundational myths of a nation can change. 

As mentioned, the traditional reason – which is mentioned in both the Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders – a history of the Norse settlement of Iceland compiled in the 13th century CE) as well as the Landnámabók - for the settlement of Iceland was mostly northern Norwegians, and rebels, wanting to flee from the oppressive yoke (including taxation) of the first King of a unified Norway, Harald Fairhair. 

Indeed, archaeological evidence backs up this theory with the discovery of a Norse settlement around what is now Reykjavik, constructed around 872 CE.

Yet this is not the only theory as to why Iceland was settled. There is now a more nuanced view and some speculation about other motives for the human settlement of this remote island. 

One of the recent theories of the origin of the Viking expansion (from c. 793 CE) is down to population pressure. More and more people were sprouting up, unable to be sustained by the limited arable land in Scandinavia. 

The relatively warm climate that the North Atlantic world was experiencing (thanks to the "Medieval Warm Period" c. 900 – 1250 CE) meant that Iceland was an attractive destination with a tolerable climate and plenty of land.

Finally, the wealth of natural resources – especially walrus ivory, which was, academics say, "white gold" for the early medieval period – as well as the fact that the island was uninhabited (minus the odd hermitic monk or two), meant that Iceland was, indeed, an attractive option.

Whether the Norse arrived as tax exiles fleeing an oppressive centralized Scandinavian tax system (with which more than 30 current Norwegian tycoons can sympathize), for real estate purposes, or simply to seek fame and fortune across the seas, the slow drip of Norse colonizers sailing across the North Atlantic Ocean soon turned into a steady flow.

Sagas of old mention several Norse people who may have "discovered" Iceland. Photo: Guitar photographer / Shutterstock

The Age of Settlement and slavery

The sagas mention several Norse people who may have "discovered" Iceland but most did this accidentally, having been blown off course by the brutal winds of the North Atlantic Ocean. 

Regardless of who exactly sighted it first, we have a name passed down to us, Ingólfr Arnarson, as being the first permanent Norse settler on the island from 874 CE. Like so many of these settlers, Arnarson was seeking refuge from the long hand of the law – he had apparently been involved in a blood feud and sailed with his half-brother to Iceland.

What is interesting about his tale is that it foreshadows the early history of the new Norse settlement. Along with his half-brother, Arnarson was said to have brought along some Irish slaves. 

In fact, it was these slaves who, if we are to believe the Landnámabók had to scour the coast of Iceland for three years (!) to find some ceremonial pillars that Arnarson had hurled into the water upon sighting the coast of the island. 

He had promised that wherever they washed up, he would establish a settlement. The pillars were eventually found washed up on the southwestern coast, which is how Reykjavik is traditionally said to have been founded.

There is, it appears, an element of historical accuracy in this probably apocryphal foundational story. From the first Norseman (or woman) who set foot on Iceland, in about 874 CE, the following six decades are referred to as the "Age of Settlement." 

Historians estimate that between 4,000 to 24,000 settlers arrived in Iceland, yet not all of their own free will. Recent genetic research has shown that 62% of modern Icelanders' matrilineal ancestry arises from Ireland or Scotland. 

Conversely, 75% of modern Icelanders' patrilineal ancestry points to mostly Scandinavian origins. In layman's terms, these origins point to many slaves – probably female – who were ferried to Iceland along with the mostly male Norse settlers.

By the end of the "Age of Settlement," all of the arable land was taken, with thousands of farms listed in the Landnámabók. Slavery was an integral part of all Viking societies, especially one where that society had to, literally, be built from scratch. 

However, it appears that the effects of slavery have left an indelible genetic footprint on the modern population of Iceland, centuries after the last slave was brought forcibly to the island.

Iceland's history would be intertwined with Scandinavia until the 20th century CE. Photo: Adellyne / Shutterstock

The Icelandic Commonwealth and the rise of Christianity

The year 930 CE marks a turning point in Iceland's history. This was the year that the Althing (Alþingi in Icelandic) was established, which has been heralded as one of the world's oldest surviving parliaments. 

What was different about this legal and judicial body, compared to other contemporary ones in the British Isles or Scandinavia, was that the Althing ensured that chieftains met to decide legal and judicial disputes. 

Many historians have pointed out that the Althing was established to be the anthesis of the centralized state that Harald Fairhair was setting up across the ocean in Norway. 

The first Althing was held in 930 CE and saw free men from all over Iceland attend for a fortnight of discussions.

Whilst the Althing was firmly entrenched in Icelandic society by the end of the 10th century CE, seismic religious change was underway. Like most of the people in Viking societies, most Icelanders were adherents to the Old Norse religion

Christian missionaries soon came to the island, and with Olaf Tryggvason's conversion to Christianity in 988 CE, the island was split between adherents of the old and the new faiths. 

Civil war and strife threatened before the Althing declared, in 1000 CE, that the island adopt, en masse, the new religion of Christianity before a likely invasion from foreign powers. Concessions were made to the old pagan elites, but the history of Iceland would forever be changed.

By 1056 CE, towards the very end of the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE), Iceland had its very first bishopric. The Icelandic Commonwealth would go on to survive for two more centuries after the adoption of Christianity but, by the mid-13th century CE, fall into a four-decade-long civil war (which provides the prologue of the brilliant book "The Wolf Age" by Tore Skeie, available to buy on Amazon here) that resulted, by 1264 CE, with Iceland becoming a vassal state of the Norwegian King. 

From then on, Iceland's history would be intertwined with Scandinavia until the 20th century CE.

The BBC has written a recent article on the travels, into the Viking world, of early medieval monks from the British Isles, available to read here

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