Early History of Iceland

Settlement (c. 870–c. 930)

Iceland lacks prehistory. As per the stories written down some 250 years post the event, credit for discovery and populating this country goes to Norse people who discovered it in the Viking Age. Íslendingabók (The Book of the Icelanders) is the oldest source written about 1130. It sets the period of settlement at about 870–930 CE. The other key source, Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), of 12th-century origin states unambiguously that the first permanent settler, Ingólfr Arnarson, came to Iceland from Norway to settle in the year 874 AD. He picked as his homestead a site that he named Reykjavík, which he farmed with his spouse, Hallveig Fródadóttir. The Book of Settlements then goes on to enumerate more than 400 settlers who sailed with their families, slaves and servants. Most of the settlers were from Norway, but some arrived from other Nordic countries and from the Norse Viking Age settlements of the British Isles.

Even though the island was not populated until the Viking Age, Iceland possibly had been known to people long before that time. Pytheas (The 4th-century-BCE Greek explorer) described a northern country that he termed Thule, positioned six days’ sailing distance north of Britain. In the 8th century Irish hermits who wanted solitude started to sail to Iceland and called the island with the same name. It is unclear, though, if Pytheas and the hermits were describing the same island. As per the early Icelandic sources, some Irish monks were present in Iceland when the Nordic settlers reached, but the monks soon left because they were reluctant to share the country with heathens.

Commonwealth (c. 930–1262)

Norse people worshipped gods whom they called æsir (singular áss) at the time of Iceland’s settlement, and this religion has an extensive mythology in Icelandic literature. Thor seemingly was the most popular of the pagan gods in Iceland, although Odin is believed to have been the highest in rank. It appears that heathen worship was organized around godar (singular godi), a distinct class of chieftains, about 40. Due to lack of royal power in Iceland, the godar formed the ruling class in the country.

A general Icelandic assembly called the Althing had been established by the end of the settlement period. It was held at midsummer on a site that came to be known as Thingvellir. This assembly consisted of a law council (lögrétta) and a system of courts of justice. In law council the godar made and amended the laws. In system of courts of justice householders nominated by the godar acted on the panels of judges. All farmers were legally required to belong to a chieftaincy (godord) but were free to change their allegiance from one godi to another theoretically; the godar also were allotted a corresponding right to expel a follower.


The Norwegians were forced by their king Olaf I Tryggvason to accept Christianity around the end of the 10th century. The king sent missionaries to Iceland too. As per the 12th-century sources, these missionaries were extremely successful in converting the Icelanders. In 999 or 1000 the Althing took a decision that all Icelanders should become Christians.

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