Iceland: legends of the north

NOR Nordmennene lander på Island år 872
Oscar Wergeland (1877), The Norsemen landing in Iceland [not an archaeologically accurate depiction, but still rather wonderful]

According to the Old Norse Landnámabók – ‘the book of settlements’ – the first Scandinavian settlers to make their home in Iceland were Ingólfr Arnarson, his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttr and his brother Hjörleifr. According to the legend, they left Norway in 874 after a violent feud, sailing west towards a land of which they had heard rumour. The story goes that when he first sighted land Ingólfr tossed his ‘high-seat pillars’ into the sea and followed them as they drifted towards the shore. They washed up in what is now known as Faxa Bay, in the south-west of the island, and there the family built their farmstead – the first settlement on Iceland, chosen by the tug of wind and tide. Ingolfr watched the smoke, risen from hot springs, drifting low over the water and named his farm Reykjavík, the smoking bay.

The story may not be strictly true (Landnámabók was written several centuries after the events it describes) but archaeology confirms that the settlement of Iceland did indeed begin in the early 870s. The dating is unusually precise, thanks to a layer of volcanic ash that can be precisely dated to an eruption that occurred around 871. Below the ash there is no trace of settlement, immediately above it the earliest archaeology of Scandinavian culture can be found. Archaeology, language and written history agree that the majority of the new settlers arrived from western Scandinavia. But a substantial number came from the south, from Scandinavian colonies around the Irish Sea and the coasts and islands of Britain’s north Atlantic fringe. DNA studies of modern Icelandic populations suggest that as many as 60% of female settlers had British or Irish heritage, as did 20% of the men – the results of marriage, mixed parentage and the transportation of slaves.

The people who went to Iceland did not only take their language, their material culture, their families, slaves and livestock – they also took their gods and their myths. Another settler who entrusted his future to the elements was Thórólfr ‘Mostrarskeggi’ (the ‘man-with-a beard-from-Mostr’). Fed up with being harassed by King Harald ‘Finehair’of Norway, Thórólfr consulted with the god Thor about whether or not he should clear off to Iceland. Thor, apparently, was all in favour, and so Thórólfr disassembled his temple to the god, packed up the temple pillars and made his way westward. Like Ingólfr, upon spying land he tossed the pillars into the sea and followed them to his destination. He built his dwelling in the place they washed up, and alongside it he raised a new temple to the god that had guided him – a shrine equipped with pillars struck with ‘god-nails’, a holy ring, carven effigies and a bowl for the blood of sacrifices. Thus the gods arrived in their new home, buffeted by the briny waves, beached on the stony strand.

And it was here, in a new world, that their stories were finally committed to writing. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Iceland gave birth to one of the most extraordinary outpourings of literary endeavour the world has ever known: hundreds of thousands of words of history and poetry, tall-tales and family sagas, stories of monsters and heroes, outlaws and kings. Amongst them were the tales of the gods, retold in a coherent prose form for the first time, set out in the so-called Prose Edda by the Icelandic chieftain and scholar Snorri Sturluson in around 1220. But the Icelandic sagas were concerned above all with the lives of mortal men – of the Vikings – setting the template for how they have been remembered ever since. With troll-slayers and sea-rovers and swash-buckling adventurers, witches, berserkers and cold-blooded killers, Iceland gave back to the world the legends of the north.

Published by T J Titus Williams

Thomas James Titus Williams is a historian, archaeologist and writer interested in the language, history and culture of the medieval north.

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