Great Viking discoveries: Iceland, land of ice

A Scandinavian people with revolutionary ideas and sometimes barbaric practices, the Vikings have a history mixed with fear and fascination. Immerse yourself in the story of the great Viking discoveries, and navigate the waters of a troubled history.

Warriors, pirates, plunderers. Violent, bloodthirsty, ruthless. These are just some of the adjectives used to describe the Viking people. A legendary, almost mythological people, they intrigue as much as they frighten. And yet, did you know that most of the writings telling the stories of these « terrible Vikings » were written by Christians, a population that fell victim to their colonization?

So why not give this pagan people the benefit of the doubt? Great explorers with a thirst for discovery, architects, pioneering craftsmen and talented merchants, today we’re unveiling a little-known portrait of the Vikings.

In this journey through time, we invite you to rewrite the history of their greatest discoveries.

Vikings

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Selenit & Feel Freedom

In this first episode, we stop off in a land almost as legendary as the people who discovered it: Iceland. Following in the footsteps of the first Viking explorers, here you are in a sublime, hostile land.

1. Discovering the ice island

Although we know that the Vikings originated in Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Norway, it’s difficult to date the exact appearance of this people, estimated at around 750 A.D. And with good reason: until the 12th century, Vikings only appeared in Christian manuscripts from the ancient kingdom of England, the land of the first barbarian invasions. An inevitably biased vision of this people, and one that tells the terrible legends we know today about a bloodthirsty population.

It was only four centuries later that the first manuscript written in the hands of Viking heirs appeared: the Landnámabók. Thus was born the first saga in history. For the first time, the book recounts in great detail the first real discovery and colonization of the Scandinavian people, that of Iceland.

Naddoddr and Gardar Svavarsson: Grand premieres

Islande

Black sand dune – Stokksnes, IcelandPhoto credit: Shutterstock – Andrew Mayovskyy

We begin our story with Naddoddr, a Norwegian Viking whose story takes us back to the middle of the 9th century, based on the writings of the Landnámabók. It’s 861, and Naddoddr and his crew are adrift on a voyage to the Faroe Islands. Lost between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea, the sailors finally run aground on the east coast of Iceland, at Reyðarfjall.

Determined to return to their Faroese homeland and become its first settlers, Naddodr and his crew don’t linger long, and soon set sail again. As they set sail, snow begins to fall on the Icelandic coast. Inspired by this white blanket, the Viking decided to name the country Snaeland, the land of snow.

Vikings, Islande

Map of Iceland’s discoveries / Portrait of Gardar SvavarssonPhoto credit: Wikipedia – Max Naylor & Artūras Slapšys

For several years, Snaeland remained uninhabited. Until, once again, chance brings a new Viking crew into its midst: that of Swede Gardar Svavarsson. In search of his father-in-law’s inheritance, Gardar sets sail for the Hebrides. His drakkar finds itself caught in the middle of a storm, resisting winds and tides, but unable to fight against the currents, which end up diverting its course northwards.

Once on the east coast, Gardar and his men set out to bypass the territory. But the land they were treading on had no borders. Gardar Svavarsson was the first Viking to define Iceland as an island. Conquered by the beauty of the landscape, he decided to spend the winter there. It was in the province of Skjálfandi, now called Húsavík, that he established Iceland’s first Viking settlement.

Skjálfandi, Islande

Tungulending, bordering the province of Húsavík, IcelandPhoto credit: Flickr –
VisitHusavik

Once winter had passed and the waters had calmed, Gardar Svavarsson decided to return to Norway, with the idea of sharing his mad discovery with the other Vikings, who were never short of good stories. But as he leaves Snaeland, one of his slaves, Náttfari, flees with a man and a woman, becoming the first permanent residents of a land that will soon become Iceland, the land of ice.

Flóki, the architect with crows

Our story continues, and takes a decisive turn for the history of Iceland, as well as for the history of the Vikings. And if we were to personify this turning point, it would take the name of Flóki Vilgerðarson, also known as Crow Flóki.

It’s only a few years after Gardar ‘s return to Norwegian lands, and the legend is still alive. A legend about an uninhabited land, full of beaches and plains. A land blessed by the gods, ready to welcome pagans and cattle to set up new businesses and expand the Scandinavian colonies.

Flóki, descendant of the ancient kings of the province of Hedemark – but more attracted by adventure than power – is not insensitive to these stories. Undaunted by his attraction to the gods and his desire for discovery, the Viking quickly decides to assemble a crew and set out to conquer this divine land.

Once he’d finished building the boat, he began looking for men and women willing to accompany him. But few are willing to accompany him on such a great adventure. After all, this new world fascinates as much as it frightens.

No matter, after gathering three men, Flóki embarks on his modest drakkar. Heading north.

Iles-Féroé - Islande, Vikings

Drangarnir & Gasaladur, Faroe Island Photo credit: Shutterstock – Costas Kariolis & Albert Photo

Floki’s makeshift crew includes three curious travelers, known for their ability to find their way: ravens. After passing the Faroe Islands, he releases the first raven, which unfortunately heads back towards the Faroese coast. The next day, he releases a second. Once again, the bird flew back. Flóki decided to let himself be led by the current for several days, before finally releasing the third raven…

This time, it’s forward that the bird is heading, proving to the navigator that the much-sought-after land is closer than ever. He and his poor crew followed the direction taken by the bird, until they finally caught sight of a large bay. To this day, this bay bears the name Faxafloi, the bay of « Faxi », one of Flóki‘s companions, as he was the first to catch sight of the long-awaited land.

Faxafloi, Islande

Faxafloi Bay, IcelandPhoto credit: Shutterstock – Paul B. Moore

In the end, it was on the beach at Barður that Flóki decided to set up camp, accompanied by his three companions and a few cattle. After a difficult winter for Vikings still unaccustomed to such harsh weather, the few animals they had brought with them succumbed, and supplies dwindled. Spring, with its similarly inclement climate, is a new ordeal for Flóki and his men.

So the explorer set off to conquer this new country, hoping to find more welcoming lands. Bravely, he climbed a high mountain alone to find a vantage point overlooking the entire territory. But after such an effort, his disappointment is immense. The land, which surrounds him as far as the eye can see, is white, icy, hostile… unworkable. And so it was that he became the first to name the country « Ice land », which would eventually become « Iceland ».

Glacier de Skaftafell, Islande

Skaftafell glacier, Iceland Photo credit: Shutterstock – Guitar photographer

Back at camp, Flóki aux corbeaux resigned himself to waiting for better days, in order to set sail back to Norway. Unfortunately, the seasons prove difficult and the sea impassable, forcing Floki and his crew to wait another year on this land. Finally back in Norway, and when asked about the value of these divine lands, Flóki explains that they were worthless. His sailing companion, Herjólfur, confesses that for him Iceland is a hostile land, with as many faults as qualities.

Ingolfur Arnarson, the Reykjavik legend

Flóki was the first Viking to sail intentionally to Iceland, and even gave it the name it still bears today. Yet other Vikings also left their mark on the country’s history.

Indeed, it’s the mid-870s when Ingolfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking, is forced to leave the country after a quarrel with Earl Atli. But he doesn’t leave alone: his friend Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson leaves his people to accompany him. Both, having heard of Gardnar and Flóki‘s exploits, see an opportunity. The possibility of a bright future that will enable them to go from « rejects » to great explorers.

It was a real stroke of flair, because in 874, they finally landed on the Icelandic coast. As they approached, Arnarson offered the wooden edges of his sacred high seat to the sea. Carved in the likeness of the gods, they would drift ashore and mark the location of the future colony.

Vikings, Islande

Reykjavik Blue Lagoon & Reykjavik, Iceland Photo credit: Shutterstock – klenger & Studio Dagdagaz

It tookArnarson ‘s men more than three years to find the wooden pillars nestling in Reykjavik Bay. As a result, the city quickly became one of the country’s most important landmarks, becoming its capital almost a millennium later, in 1845. Arnarson was thus the first Viking to be recognized as a permanent resident of Iceland. However, his companion and friend, Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson, was not so lucky. He was murdered a few months after their arrival on the island, by Irish slaves.

But if at that time, the pagan people had only proved their ability to explore, the land they had just arrived on was about to shake things up completely. The Viking people are about to change the face of the world, by creating the first parliament in history.

2. Thingvellir, the legacy of a new world

Conflicts and territorial wars: the first steps towards peace

Thanks to explorations, fabulous for the time and led by the Vikings whose history we now know, Iceland was gradually unveiled. The wonders of Iceland were revealed to the pagan population, and the news spread. It took no more than a decade for hundreds of longships to dock on Iceland’s coasts, and for the land to fill up with Vikings.

Vikings, Islande

Viking house reconstruction, Iceland Photo credit: Shutterstock – jonanderswiken & Olja Reven

But they come from different countries, regions and societies. Norwegians, Swedes, Danes… Each group of Vikings has its own habits, customs and way of life.

And so, of course, in the early years, conflicts of egos and territorial wars arose, notably with the descendants ofIngolfur Arnarson, who had by then become Iceland’s most powerful family. These conflicts eventually led to the greatest social invention of the Viking population. It was above all to counter this expansion, and in fear of having to endure a new kingship, that the conflicts ceased, and the newcomers allied themselves.

Vikings, Islande

Viking house reconstruction, Iceland Photo credit: Shutterstock – Matt Ledwinka & Mars0hod

Then, around 930, the decision was taken to create a general assembly: the Icelandic Free State was born. Things then accelerated. Several emissaries were commissioned to travel to their native countries to study the laws. The aim: to agree on the creation of new laws for all the peoples living in Iceland. A venue for the assembly was also imperative.

Easily accessible by all peoples, this place must allow everyone to gather, share and also feast. And as so often in life, timing is everything. While the search for this place turns out to be more complex than expected, a farmer from the Thingvellir region is on trial at the same time for murder. In addition to a fine, he is forced to give up his land, which then becomes public property.

Thingvellir, Islande - Vikings

Thingvellir, Iceland’s first parliament Photo credit: Shutterstock – Mike Ver Sprill

Perfectly situated between the most populated regions, it has wood for fire and meadows for horses. Above all, it lies in the hollow of a rocky fault, creating the perfect echo for the assembly’s speakers to be heard by all.

Thingvellir, the oldest parliament in history

It’s 930, in Thingvellir, Iceland, and the Vikings have just created the first parliament in history. An assembly of 36 local chiefs, from clans of varying influence, called theAlthing.

Every year, hundreds of Icelandic Vikings – landowners – gather at the summer solstice for a fortnight, to settle all quarrels and grudges between the various clans. A president is elected for 3 years, and holds legislative and judicial power for the whole of Iceland. Executive power, on the other hand, remains in the hands of each clan chief.

Thingvellir, Islande - Vikings

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland Photo credit: Shutterstock – elxeneize

The president, known as the « lögsögumad » – the one who lays down the law – has the most important role in this assembly. – the one who says the law – has the most important role in this assembly. First and foremost, each year he was charged with reciting a third of the country’s laws, so that no one would forget them. He would stand next to the « Rock of the Law », and list each of the laws that had not been mentioned in the previous two years. At the time, the pagans had no written law. Remember, the first text written by the « Vikings » dates back to the Landnámabók, which appeared almost two centuries later…

But if theAlthing is a place where conflicts are settled in a rather light and organized atmosphere, it’s above all a place for feasting. Games, dances, horse races and, above all, the telling of Viking stories. The beginning of the sagas! So, the great Ragnar Lodbrok and his great English invasions, his legendary courage and his death in a snake pit, with a smile on his face, ready to join his gods in Valhalla.

Ragnar - Islande, Vikings

Portraits of Ragnar Lodbrok Photo credit: Wikipedia – Hugo Hamilton

He, the legendary Viking, had initiated the Christianization of his people, with the aim of turning them into a cultured, thoughtful, peacemaking civilization.

Thingvellir’s great decision

The most important decision taken by theAlthing assembly was one that totally changed the history and future of the Vikings. In the year 1000, two Icelandic goðar – clan chiefs – spoke near the Rock of the Law, in an attempt to convince the Icelanders to Christianize, as they had promised the Norwegian king of the time, Olaf Tryggvason.

But the Vikings are not in favor, and the debates are stormy. Gissur the White, one of the goðar, appealed to the memory of Ragnar Lodbrok to justify the choice, leaving some Vikings in doubt. After a night of uninterrupted discussions, it’s up to the president, the « lögsögumad », to decide. The decision is made: in the year 1000, the Vikings become Christians. However, he granted those who so wished the right to perpetuate pagan worship, albeit with a certain degree of discretion.

While Viking history takes many twists and turns until it disappears, the Althing endures. Resisting Norwegian and then Danish takeovers, the Althing gradually lost its power, until 1662. Iceland and its free state came under Danish absolutism. Thingvellir in turn became a place of legend. A place cited in poems such as that by Jónas Hallgrímsson in 1835, recounting the emotional power still present at Thingvellir.

So if your steps ever take you to Iceland, head inland and walk to the Almannagjá fault. Close your eyes and listen to the « lögsögumad » recounting Viking legends. Smell the horses and the sound of their hooves clattering on the ground. Imagine the power of these people, so strong you can still feel it, after more than a millennium.

3. Iceland’s legendary waterfalls

Our story, linking the legendary Viking people to the fabulous lands of Iceland, continues into the present. The Vikings may be gone, but their stories will never cease to be told, just as the water in Iceland’s waterfalls never ceases to flow.

Skógafoss

Skogafoss, Islande - Vikings

Skogafoss, Iceland Photo credit: Shutterstock – StandARTP

The first waterfall on our journey is Skógafoss, and it tells the tale of its hidden treasure. This sublime waterfall takes its name from the river Skóga – translate « forest » – and flows over a width of -and flows over a width of 25 metres, dropping an impressive 62 metres below. And if it’s one of the country’s most visited waterfalls, it’s because it’s the source of a legend… a Viking legend.

Þrasi Þórólfsson, a Viking from the time of the Althing, is said to have deposited his treasure in the greatest secrecy, behind the rampart formed by this waterfall. A treasure that would make whoever found it the richest man in the world. Years later, a young child playing near the waterfall would spot the shiny gold coins on the other side of the waterfall. Although he couldn’t grab the treasure, he did manage to pull out a handful. A small part of the treasure that you can admire in the Skógar museum.

But finally, as you pass by this sublime waterfall, you may realize that the true treasure of the place lies in its majesty. Open your eyes, strain your ears, and become rich in the powerful energies escaping from the waterfall.

Godafoss

Godafos, Islande - Vikings

Godafoss, Iceland Photo credit: Shutterstock – Puripat Lertpunyaroj

As our journey in Iceland’s Viking footsteps draws to a close, we still have a few wonders left to discover. After the might of Skógafoss, it’s to the very north of the land of ice that we head, in search of Godafoss, the waterfall of the gods.

12 meters wide and 30 meters high, its flow is as intense as the noise that emanates from it. It’s impossible to hear yourself speak, breathe or even think. You find yourself almost oppressed by the power of the water, which seems to want to draw you down into its abyss. It’s as if someone is trying to pull your soul into the depths of these murky waters.

And the shock is all the greater when you learn about the history of this place, which dates back over a thousand years. Remember, it’s the year 1000 when the Althing takes the decision for the Icelandic Viking people to convert to Christianity. So, to set an example, the « lögsögumad » (the one who made the final decision) went to the top of this waterfall, and threw all the representations of the old pagan gods into the water.

This is how the waterfall came to be called Godafoss, the waterfall of the gods.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss, Islande

SeljalandsfossPhoto credit: Shutterstock – Olga Gavrilova

In the image of pagan civilization, it’s in the hollow of this waterfall that our story ends. Indeed, it’s at this sublime spot that we might equate the end of the Viking era, at least on Icelandic soil.

We’re now at the dawn of the second millennium, and the Vikings are no longer a pagan population, but a Christian one. While some continued to worship their ancient gods, the practice was increasingly seen as an act of rebellion against the Norwegian king.

The last Vikings, unwilling to abandon their beliefs, fled south. This escape led them to the fabulous Seljalandsfoss waterfall. The distinctive feature of this waterfall is that you can walk around it and hide behind it.

Seljalandsfoss, Islande

Seljalandsfoss, IcelandPhoto credit: Shutterstock – Zebra-Studio

According to legend, it was here, entrenched as in their famous fighting technique, and with a population as small as their first steps on Icelandic soil, that the Vikings slowly died out, clinging to their conviction.

But while the Viking people no longer exist, their legend remains fiercely attached to these wild, unique and precious landscapes. From the Snaeland discovered by Naddodr to the Iceland of Flóki, Icelandic legends are closely linked to those of the Vikings, a people of explorers, thirsty for discovery and longing for new horizons.

Their wanderlust doesn’t stop here, and will soon lead them to the discovery of the American continent, half a century before Christopher Columbus. To be continued…

Read Episode II: Vikings from Greenland to America!