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The Early Settlement and Trade of Iceland

Page history last edited by Carmen 14 years, 5 months ago

Iceland and the Viking World


To this day, Iceland is one of the shining examples of Viking life, culture, and history. Not only did Vikings make the first permanent settlements on Iceland, but also it is a country that still considers itself a Viking nation. This being the case, it is very easy to view Iceland as a microcosm for the larger Viking world. If we look from the pre-settlement time of Irish monks and hermits to the settlement of the town Reykjavík by Ingólfur Arnarson and Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson, we can see a vivid picture of the Viking world through the magnifying glass of Iceland.




In this project I will focus on both the pre-settlement history of Iceland and the actual settlement of Iceland by Nordic people. Following that, I will highlight the early agriculture and the trade of Icelandic goods to the rest of the Viking world.



Before I begin, presenting my research, I would like to define a couple of parameters of my research. One of the difficult things about doing research on the founding of Iceland is that most of it is still in Icelandic or Nordic languages. Iceland is well known for their prolific education rates and propensity to write. Because of this, throughout this project I provide links, references, and sources in both English and Icelandic. I will give the English translations of primary references when they are available. However you should know that they are not always available. If they are not available I will provide summaries of the primary texts in English.




Pre-settlement: St. Brendan and the Irish Monks



A recently published document called Journal Skírnir, suggest that according to carbon dating, Iceland might have been founded as early as the second half of the 7th century by Irish monks and hermits. Furthermore, the journal also accounts that the Irish monks and hermits that inhabitted the island before the Viking came moved due to the infiltration of Viking religion. There are also other accounts that suggest that people knew of the icy island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean before the major settling in the 9th century. 




Tim Severin, the great modern day Irish explorer, chronicles St. Brendan’s voyage from Ireland to the New World by reenacting it. St. Brendan was an Irish monk who according to the Navigatio Santi Brendani Abatis built a boat made from cow rawhide and sailed from Ireland to North America around 530 AD. Severin decided he had to try this and writes a wonderful book telling of the experience. In his book The Brendan Voyage, Severin describes the journey that St. Brendan would have taken from the Faroese Islands to Iceland in Chapter 8. This is a great reference on how medieval people would have had to handle the sailing from Europe to Iceland. In this chapter he recounts the many whales that would swim along with them giving certain credence to old myths of giant sea monsters.





 In his 9th chapter, Island of Smiths, Severin describes the experience of approaching Iceland from the east. According to the Navigatio, Trolls would sit on the cliff faces of Iceland throwing fiery balls of fire at St. Brendan and his monks. (Severin, 162-163).  Prior to Severin’s exploration, most scholars  considered the telling of the venerable Brendan' visit past Iceland as a retelling from another account. However, Severin concludes that due to his experience it is very possible that the "Irish navigators may have seen the volcanos of Iceland, which lie exactly on the Stepping Stone Route to North America, and could provide exactly the scene found in the Naigatio.”  (Severin, 163)




Tim Severin’s book The Brendan Voyage is an excellent read and a wonderful example of reenactment as historical research. From his description of approaching Iceland from the east it is not that hard to realize why the island was not actually settled and claimed until the late 8th century.







The Settling of Iceland by Nordic People


 Landnamabok pageAri Þorgilsson is the author of Íslendingabók (The book of Icelanders). It is one of the primary resources when it comes to the settling of Iceland. The other text we have is the Landnámabók (The book of Settlement). It is speculated that Ari Þorgilsson  actually had a lot to do with the writing of Landnámabók, but it is only certain that he wrote Íslendingabók. Both manuscripts recall the founding of Reykjavík by Ingólfur Arnarson and Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson in 874.


Links to Primary Texts:



-     English translation of Íslendingabók 

-     Outline of theÍslendingabók

-     FacebookÍslendingabók fan sight

-     Icelandic Translation of Íslendingabók



-     English translation of Landnámabók

-     Icelandic Translation of Landnámabók

-     Viking Names found in Landnámabók



 Ingólfur Arnarson


 Ingólfur Arnarson and Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson came to Iceland 10 years before they settled to scope out a good place to live. They were actually step bothers from Norway that became involved in a blood feud. A year after he had helped found Reykjavík, Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson was killed by his Irish slave. (Haywood, 92)


The majority of the original settlers were in fact Norwegian, however they did come from all over the Viking world. After Ingólfur Arnarson settled in 870’s, it wasn’t long before Iceland filled up. According to Heywood, “By 930 most of the good grazing ground had been taken.” (Heywood, 92)  




















 Shelter: Icelandic Sod House


Sod Houses

 According to Real Iceland, "Iceland has a long tradition of building sod houses. Although 40% of the country was probably covered with forests when first settled by the Vikings, those trees were soon consumed for building and burning, and Icelanders were soon left with only rocks and grass. So they built from sod. Sod houses are the log cabins of Iceland - a tie to an idealized, rustic past.


Today, modern buildings (including a large dairy in Reykjavik) include sod as a design element. In the late 1800's, new technologies made it possible to manufacture corrugated iron sheets in Europe, and transport them by steam ship to Iceland. In the 1930s and since, reinforced concrete has been the main building material."







Iceland: Agriculture and Trade



Due to the fact that Iceland’s climate is so extreme, Icelanders had to trade with the rest of the Viking world in order to sustain life. A study of Iceland’s agriculture necessitates understanding what was traded to them in the rest of the Viking world.


 Iceland has wonderful grazing land. Sheep, cattle, horses, pigs and poultry were abundanct in Viking Iceland. Beyond that, there are of course also fish. Both Hrafnkel's Saga and Egil's Saga tell a story of Viking warriors who are farmers. In fact, compared to most Viking sagas, there is a surprisingly good amount of farming going on.


According to the booklet Icelandic Agriculture, “There are about 3800 farms in Iceland at present, but their numbers are decreasing. The majority of Icelandic farmers, about 75%, live on their own land, and holdings have often been in the same family for generations.”


“At the turn of the last century, 77% of Icelanders lived in rural areas and were engaged in farming. By 1940, 32% of the employable population worked in agriculture. At the beginning of the nineties, the percentage had dropped to about 4% and will probably decline even more in the future.”



The web site Hurstwic has an excellent section on the Viking trade.


“Some of the exports from various regions during the Viking age include:

    Vínland: timber

    Greenland: walrus ivory, furs, skins, wool

    Iceland: fish, animal fat, wool cloth and clothing, sulfur, falcons

    England: tin, wheat, honey, woolens, silver, barley, linen

    Russia: slaves, furs, wax, honey

    Byzantium: silks, fruits, spices, wines, gems, silver, jewelry, brocade

    Frankish kingdoms: weapons, jewelry, wine, glass, salt, woolen cloth

    Shetland Islands: soapstone

    Norway: timber, iron, soapstone, whetstones, barley, tar

    Sweden: iron, furs

    East Baltic regions: amber, slaves, furs”


The BBC has a great lesson on Viking trade and exploration that includes annotated picture and videos. The lessons are at the elementary level, but still very informative and entertaining.


The Economic History of the Republic of Iceland:  This web site has everything you will want to know about the economic history of Iceland

Article on agriculture: This is the most comprehensive article I can find on the state of Iceland’s agriculture I could find.

Penn State research: This article is very academic.

State of modern Icelandic agriculture: This article is very presents a comprehensive analysis of Iceland’s modern agricultural sate.


Lectures on Iceland's history



Iceland's History Lecture 1 and 2



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Glima: Icelandic Folk Wrestling


One of the games the settlers of Iceland brought with them and made a national sport was Glima. Literally translated into “The Game of Joy” the Viking wrestlers would place runes on their shoes to invoke magical powers.


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Modern Day Iceland Travel Video


Reykjavík, Iceland


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More Iceland Travel Videos


Iceland - Part 1:

Iceland - Part 2

Steaming Iceland:



Old Icelandic Song on Icelandic Instrument



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 Annotated Bibliography



1.              Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. Harmondsworth Eng.: Penguin, 1995.

Note:  Not only does this book discribe in detail the history of the Viking world, but it also provides links to other sources found on the Internet. I will use this as the backbone to many of the historical fact about the Viking world. I will also use it to compare Iceland to the rest of the Viking world.



2.              Pálsson, Hermann. Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Icelandic Stories. Harmondsworth Eng.: Penguin, 1971.

Note: This saga will provide many scenes by which I can paint a picture of everyday life in Iceland. This saga is almost a manual that paints a picture of the every day, easotaric life of  historic Iceland.


3.              Skarsdt̤tir, Svanhildur et.al. Egil's Saga. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Note:  The Odin like story of the Chieftain Egil.


4.             The Gripping History of Glima:

            Note:  A great article that explores the game brought to Iceland's by its settlers.



5.             Black, Ron. Hurstwic

Note: This is an awesome site that looks at reenacting for fun, for history telling, and for research. 


     6.             Viking trade and exploration:

                 Note:  The BBC has a great lesson on Viking trade and exploration that include annotated picture and videos.          


     7.            Real Iceland:

                 Note: This site was created by a modern day realtor in Iceland.      


     8.           Pirenne, Henri. Medieval Cities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

                Note: This is a great resource the economic resouces of Midieval Cities, incuding Iceland.


     9.            Icelandic Agriculture: From the booklet "Icelandic Agriculture", published by the Icelandic Agricultural Information Service


               Note:  This is a great reference to the modern and past states of Icelandic agriculture.


     10.          Severin, Timothy. The Brendan Voyage. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.

               Note: Not only will this book be one of the best reads of the decade, but it gives a vivid picture of the sights, dangers, and myths behind North Atlantic travel. 



More Links


The History of the Republic of Iceland





-     English translation of Íslendingabók 

-     Outline of theÍslendingabók

-     FacebookÍslendingabók fan sight

-     Icelandic Translation of Íslendingabók



-     English translation of Landnámabók

-     Icelandic Translation of Landnámabók

-     Viking Names found in Landnámabók











Comments (2)

Carmen said

at 1:35 pm on Dec 18, 2009

Great page! I love it! I just edited a spacing issue.

John Karpe said

at 11:10 am on Dec 18, 2009

I like the pics you used, very nice. l linked to your page because you have a more detailed overview of the settlement of Iceland and as well as important. I feel a little relieved because of this so thank you

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