Iceland was founded during the Viking Age of exploration and settled by Norsemen from Scandinavia and Celts from the British Isles. The early history of Iceland is chronicled in literary sources, the oldest of which is Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders) written about 1130. Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), of 12th century origin, records the histories of the first settlers in Iceland and traces their descendants well into the 13th century. Íslendingasögur (The Sagas of Icelanders) preserve the histories, poems and legends – cultural legacy that Icelanders had inherited from their Viking ancestors.
The discovery of Iceland is attributed to the Greek explorer Pytheas who made an epic voyage of exploration to north-western Europe around 325 BC. He mentions a land, Ultima Thule, or Thule, in the farthest north, six days’ sailing north of Britain and near a frozen sea. He also describes the phenomenon of the Midnight Sun. On later medieval maps Iceland is depicted as Thule.
The first permanent settler of Iceland was Ingólfur Arnarson, a rich and influential Norwegian chieftain who sailed to Iceland to settle in 874 AD. Together with his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir, he built a homestead on a site that he named Reykjavík.
Most of Iceland’s first settlers came from western Norway, but some came from other Scandinavian countries, as well as from the Norse Viking Age settlements in the British Isles. The settlers who came from Norway were mainly big farmers and powerful chieftains who were dissatisfied with excessive power of King Harald I (Harald Fairhair). They sailed in open boats with their families, kinsmen, serfs and livestock and settled on the lowlands along the coast where they could pursue farming. They established large farms and sustained themselves mostly by breeding cattle and some fishing. According to the early Icelandic sources, some Irish monks were living in Iceland when the Nordic settlers arrived, but they departed soon after.
There was no central administration or government in the beginning, but the early settlers had continued a Norwegian tradition of laws and district-wide legal assemblies, Þing (Thing), led by chieftains (goðar). These local assemblies were held regularly every spring and autumn.
In 930 AD the first Alþingi (Althing), Icelandic parliament, was established on the fields later called Þingvellir (Thingvellir) and a constitution was adopted for the whole land, modelled on the Norwegian constitution. Althing was both a legislative and a judiciary assembly and it was held annually at midsummer for 14 days. The laws were formulated, reviewed and amended by The Law Council consisting of the goðar and their advisors. The Law Council elected the Law-speaker whose job was to memorize the law and quote it. (The laws of the Althing were not written down until 1117-8 AD). Each goði (chieftain) was required to attend the recitation of the laws.
The convening of the first Althing marks the beginning of the independent republic. This period of governance is known as the Icelandic Commonwealth (Þjóðveldið) or Free State; “The Golden Age of Iceland”. The period 930–1030 is known as The Saga Age, since many of the events recorded later (in the 12th and 13th century) in the Icelandic sagas actually took place during this time. Moreover, many of the key events related in the sagas happened at Thingvellir. It was also at Thingvellir in the year 999 or 1000 that Christianity was adopted in Iceland.
The first bishopric in Iceland was founded at Skálholt in 1082, and in 1106 a second bishopric was established at Hólar. Jón Ögmundsson, the first bishop at Hólar, eager to eradicate all traces of paganism, also succeeded in changing the names of the days of the week, named after the pagan gods. Thus, týsdagr, after Týr (Tuesday), óðinsdagr, after Óðin (Wednesday), þórsdagr, after Þór (Thursday) and frijadagr, after Frigg (Friday) were changed to: “third day” (þriðjudagur), “midweek day” (miðvikudagur), “fifth day” (fimmtudagur) and “fast day” (föstudagur). He also forbade dancing and love poems.
1120s-1230s, the Great Age of Writing, was an epoch of remarkable literary achievements. Most of the Icelandic sagas were written during this time, as well as the great historical works: Íslendingabók and Heimskringla. Íslendingabók, the first national history, was written around 1130 by Ari Þorgilsson (Thorgilsson), called fróði – Ari the Wise (1067-1148). Heimskringla (The History of Norwegian Kings) was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241).
The year 1220 marks the beginnings of “The Age of the Sturlungs” – Sturlungaöld. This was a period of internal conflict in Iceland, and the last period in Iceland’s nearly 400 years as an independent free state. The Sturlungs were members of the most powerful family clan; amongst them were the authors of the classic Icelandic sagas. The most famous and greatest of them all was Snorri Sturluson. Through marriages and political alliances, the Sturlungs dominated great part of the country, but other chieftains and influential families opposed them. The prolonged feuds and power struggles between the chieftaincies brought about economic and social ruin. At the time, the Norwegian king Hákon Hákonarson (King Haakon IV) was attempting to extend his influence in Iceland, as part of his campaign to unite all Norwegian Viking Age settlements. Several of the greatest Icelandic chieftains had become the King’s liegemen, while Snorri Sturluson had fallen out of favour, due to his support for Earl Skúli, King Haakon’s rival. In 1241, at King Haakon’s instigation, Snorri Sturluson was killed in Reykholt. Ultimately, 1262-1264, Icelandic chieftains were persuaded to swear allegiance to King Haakon IV of Norway, partly in the hope that he would bring peace to the country. 1262 marks the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth period.
Iceland under Foreign Rule
Under the Norwegian Crown, Icelanders became dependent on Norwegian ships for supplies, which often failed to come. A period of great hardship and desolation followed. Ice often blocked the fjords and the sea approaches. Violent volcanic eruptions, recurring epidemics and famine ravaged the entire country. In 1349 the Black Death afflicted Norway, cutting off all trade and supplies.
In 1380 the Norwegian monarchy entered into a union with Denmark; however, the change did not effect Iceland’s status. When in 1397 the Kalmar Union was formed between Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Iceland came under the dominant Danish crown. The conditions in the country worsened further. Icelandic chieftains were replaced by Danish royal officials. Althing became a court of law; judges were chosen by royal officers.
At the beginning of the 15th century, 1402-1404, the Black Death afflicted Iceland, killing more than a third of the population. In the period 1540-1550 Lutheranism was imposed on Iceland by the order of the Danish king, and first Lutheran bishop installed in Skálholt. The opposition to the Reformation in Iceland ended in 1550 when the last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, was beheaded. In 1602 Denmark established a trade monopoly, forbidding Iceland to trade with any country other than Denmark, precipitating a period of extreme destitution. The monopoly remained in effect until 1787. The Danish Crown tightened its grip on Iceland on the constitutional level as well. In 1662, the Danish King assumed hereditary power, absolute monarchy was imposed in Iceland and the power of Althing significantly declined.
The 18th century in Iceland was a tragic period of population decline, increasing poverty and natural calamities. In 1703 when the first census of Iceland was conducted, the population numbered 50,366, and about 20% were destitute. After the smallpox epidemic in 1707, around 18,000 people perished. The series of natural disasters and famines that followed in their wake caused population decline to well below 40,000 twice more during the century. Katla volcano erupted in 1755 and in 1783 the catastrophic Laki eruption (Lakagígar) occurred, causing floods, ash and toxic fumes and the ensuing starvation killed 10,000 people.
In 1800 the Althing was dissolved by royal decree and later replaced by the Supreme Court. However, by the middle of the 19th century a new national consciousness was revived in Iceland, and Jón Sigurðsson (Jon Sigurdsson) had become the great leader of the Icelandic independence movement. In 1843 the Althing was re-established as a consultative body, but only a few powerful feudal barons and landowners were elected. When in 1848 King Frederick VII of Denmark renounced his absolute power, it also led to the question of Iceland’s status in the new form of government. Jón Sigurðsson’s stance was that the king could only give his absolute power rule over Iceland back to the Icelanders themselves, since they were the ones who had relinquished it to the Danish Crown in 1662. In addition, Iceland had originally entered the union with the Norwegian monarchy as a free state with certain rights vouchsafed under the agreement from 1262-1264.
In 1854 the Danish trade monopoly lifted, finally granting Iceland complete freedom of trade. Freedom of press was established in 1855. In 1874 the millennium celebrations of the Settlement were held and King Christian IX of Denmark visited Iceland. He presented Iceland with a new constitution, granting the Althing legislative power in internal affairs. In 1904 the constitution was amended, and Iceland got home rule under Denmark. The first Icelandic minister was established in Reykjavik.
Home Rule to Sovereignty
Whilst the years of home rule (1904-1918) were characterized by progress in economic and social spheres, Iceland’s struggle for greater autonomy continued. On 1 December 1918, Iceland became a sovereign state, the Kingdom of Iceland, in a personal union with the Danish king.
In 1930 festivities were held at Thingvellir to celebrate the millennium of the Althing itself. This was the first general celebration of Icelanders attended by a substantial proportion of the nation. It is estimated that 30,000-40,000 people were present.
In 1944, Iceland rescinded its union with Denmark. On 17 June 1944, the Republic of Iceland was founded at Thingvellir, Iceland’s national shrine. 17 June was chosen since it is the birthday of one of Iceland’s national heroes, Jón Sigurðsson, “Iceland’s longed-for child, its honour, sword and shield”. The proclamation of the Republic of Iceland had ended seven centuries of foreign rule. A new epoch in the history of Iceland had begun.
FACTS ABOUT ICELAND
Iceland is an island of 103,000 km2 (39,756 square miles) – 24% larger than Austria or slightly smaller than Kentucky. Iceland is the second largest island in Europe. The average height of Iceland is 500 meters above sea level and the highest peak is Hvannadalshnjukur, rising 2,111 m above sea level (most maps and books will quote the height 2,119 m but it was re-measured in 2004 to a mere 2,111 m). Over 11% is covered with glaciers, including Vatnajokull which is the largest glacier in Europe and outside the arctic regions. That is more land covered by glaciers than in all of continental Europe. Deserts and lava fields cover 63% of Iceland, lakes around 3% and 23% is vegetated land.
Iceland is located in the North – Atlantic Ocean, east of southern Greenland and northwest of the UK. The southernmost point of Iceland is Kotlutangi (63°23´N), the northernmost is Hraunhafnartangi (66°32´N), the easternmost is Gerpir (13°30´W) and the westernmost point of both Iceland and Europe is Bjargtangar (24°32´W).
Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is a hot spot of volcanic and geothermal activity. In the past two centuries there have been about 30 volcanic eruptions and Hekla alone has erupted over 20 times since Iceland´s settlement. The geothermal heat supplies most of the nation with cheap, pollution-free heating and hot water. Glacial rivers are harnessed to provide inexpensive hydroelectric power.
The Gulf Stream is what makes Iceland inhabitable, without it the whole country would most likely be covered with a shield of ice. The warm Gulf Stream tempers the winters so Iceland is not as cold as the name indicates.
Out of a population of approximately 320,000 around ¾ live in or around the capital of Reykjavik and its neighbouring towns in the south-west. The rest live mostly around the coastline although part of the north-west is uninhabited. The central highlands are inhabited. About 20% of the 103,000 km2 are populated. This makes Iceland very attractive for nature enthusiasts; hikers, mountain bikers, nature photographers and bird watchers.
Literacy is among the highest in the world, about 99,9%, and average life expectancy is over 80 years. The National Church of Iceland, to which 88% of the people belong, is Evangelical Lutheran. Icelanders are a fairly homogeneous mixture of descendants of Norse and Celts; population of foreign origin is around 6%.
The standard of living is high, with income per capita among the best in the world. The economy is highly dependent upon fishing which accounts for 60% merchandise export earnings although less than 10% of the workforce is involved in fishing and fish processing. Like in many other western countries, two thirds of the working population is employed in the service sector, both public and private. Iceland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA) but is not part of the European Union.
Settlement started in the late 800s by Norse Vikings and in 930 the Icelandic settlers founded one of the world’s first republican governments during the Old Commonwealth Age, described in the classic Icelandic Sagas. In 1262 Iceland lost its independence and did not become completely independent again until June 17, 1944 when the present Republic was founded. The country is governed by the Althingi (parliament).
Electricity: 230 volts, 50Hz, 2-plug sockets
Currency: Icelandic Krona – ISK (It´s easy and safe to change most currencies, credit cards -Visa/MasterCard accepted almost everywhere)
Time: Greenwich Mean Time – GMT
Language: Icelandic (English is widely understood)
Climate: Temperate, moderated by North Atlantic Gulf Current. Mild, windy winters and damp, cool summers. The average temperature of the warmest month is about 12°C (54°F) and of the coldest month about 0°C (32°F).
Clothing: Warm, wind-and-waterproof clothes are recommended as well as lighter clothes for nice weather. Basically, be prepared for anything.
Road system: In populated areas, asphalt but in the countryside there are a lot of gravel roads which demand attention. In the highlands there are only dirt roads and mountain tracks, many with unbrigded rivers. They require caution and skill. The fauna and vegetation are very sensitive and there are heavy fines for illegal off-roading.
Mobile phones: European system, US-phones need to be tri-band
The Lighter Side of Life
The most popular riddle to ask tourists: “What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?” – You stand up! (since there are not so many trees and the birch trees that do grow wild are not very tall).
The first question Icelanders are likely to ask you: “So, how do you like Iceland?” (Even if you just got off the plane… It has almost become a national joke).
Glaciers in Iceland
Iceland is unparalleled as a place to study glaciers and glacial landforms. About 11% of the land area of Iceland is covered by glaciers, or about 11,400 square kilometres (4,400 square miles). By far the largest of the glacier ice caps is Vatnajökull (Vatnajokull) glacier in south-eastern Iceland. Covering an area of 8,300 km2, up to c. 900 m thick, Vatnajökull is equal in size to all the glaciers on the European mainland put together.
Other large glacier caps are Langjökull (Langjokull) (953 km2) and Hofsjökull (Hofsjokull) (925 km2) – both in the Central Highlands; Mýrdalsjökull (Myrdalsjokull) (596 km2), Eyjafjallajökull (Eyjafjallajokull) (78 km2) and the small Tindfjallajökull (Tindfjallajokull) (19 km2) in the South, and Drangajökull (Drangajokull) (160 km2) in the Northwest. On the tip of Snæfellsnes (Snaefellsnes) peninsula, across the bay from Reykjavík (Reykjavik), one of the smaller glaciers, Snæfellsjökull (Snæfellsjokull) (11 km2), can be seen in clear weather – a fascinating sight at sundown. The main reason that most of the glaciers are located in the Southern Highlands of Iceland is the much greater precipitation in the South than in the North. At the time when the country was being settled, the glaciers were small, but they grew fast when it started getting colder during the latter part of the Middle Ages and up to the turn of the 19th century. Travelling across the glaciers was rare in earlier times, but nowadays it’s quite common when the weather is good. However, inexperienced hikers should not undertake glacier trips unless accompanied by professionals. You can join a glacier tour in a super-jeep, or go snowmobiling.
Types of glaciers in Iceland
Glaciers are classified based on their size and their relationship to topography. Almost all types of glaciers are found in Iceland, ranging from the small cirque glaciers (named for the bowl-like hollows they occupy, called cirques) to extensive dome-shaped glacier ice caps reminding one of the inland ice of Greenland. Most glaciers in Iceland classify as ice caps. Ice caps are miniature ice sheets, covering less than 50,000 km2, which form primarily in polar and sub-polar regions that are relatively flat and high in elevation. Ice caps may cover an entire mountain range or a volcano. Iceland´s Vatnajökull glacier (8,300 km2) is the largest ice cap in Europe; the area it covers is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, USA, and, hidden beneath its ice cap are no less than seven volcanoes, most of them active. The ice caps are drained by broad lobe-shaped outlets or by valley glaciers of the alpine type. Glacier tongues that drain an ice cap or ice sheet and outlet glaciers are also found in Iceland. Breiðamerkurjökull (Breidamerkurjokull), Skeiðarárjökull (Skeidararjokull), Skaftafellsjökull (Skaftafellsjokull), and Svínafellsjökull (Svinafellsjokull) are some of the larger outlet glaciers that drain the ice cap Vatnajökull.
Formation of Glaciers
During the last Ice Age almost all of the country was covered by permanent snow and glacier ice. Glaciers form simply because more snow falls in the winter than can melt in the following summer. A glacier is a thick mass of ice that forms from the compaction and recrystallization of snow. When temperatures remain below freezing following a snowfall, a fluffy accumulation of new snow soon begins to change. Evaporation and recondensation of water causes recrystallization to form smaller, thicker and more spherical grains of ice. This recrystallized snow is called firn. As more snow is deposited and becomes firn, the pressure on underlying grains increases. When the thickness of the snow and ice exceeds tens of metres, the weight is sufficient to cause the firn to grow into even larger ice crystals. In glaciers where melting occurs in the zone of snow accumulation, snow may be transformed into ice very quickly by melting and refreezing (over several years).
The size and extent of glaciers are determined by the climate of a region. The balance between what accumulates high up on the upper part of the glacier, and what melts near the glacier’s foot (terminus) is called the glacier mass balance. Accumulation occurs high up on the glacier (accumulation zone) where snow doesn’t melt even during summer. The ice in a glacier is moving under the force of gravity and, as this material moves down the glacier, it eventually reaches the end of the glacier and melts in the ablation zone. The line that separates these two zones is called the equilibrium line. The elevation of this line varies each year depending on the temperatures that year and the amount of snowfall. If a glacier has more accumulation than ablation for several years, the glacier may advance. If more ablation occurs than accumulation, the glacier will retreat. At all times ice is continually moving down the glacier, even when the terminus is stable for several years. No matter what the size of the glacier, these basic principles determine glacier behaviour. The Icelandic ice caps, with their numerous outlet glaciers, are wet-based and temperate. This means that they are at the pressure melting point throughout the ice mass and during the whole year (except for the surface layers in winter).
The yearly average temperature in Iceland is around 5°C, so there would not have to be a great temperature drop for the glaciers to start growing and advancing again. The Icelandic glaciers are the so-called thaw-glaciers with temperatures around 0°C. Another characteristic of Icelandic glaciers is the great number of constantly moving glacier tongues. Sometimes they advance fast and then retreat gradually again, until the balance between the advance and the melting has been reached. The glaciers are an important source of water for the electrical production in the country. For that reason, they are being constantly monitored and comprehensively researched.
We have a few more driver-guides who work with us regularly and others who are free-lancers so we can take larger groups. We only use driver-guides who are safe drivers with good knowledge of Iceland and have years of experience.
Iceland contains some fascinating volcanoes. The volcanism in Iceland is attributed to the combination of Mid-Atlantic Ridge activity and hot spot activity. Eruptions occur about every 5-10 years. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible on land in Iceland and gives an indication of volcanic activity not normally observed.
Almost 60% of the world’s regional fissure eruptions have been in Iceland.
Iceland is one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth. It is estimated that 1/3 of the lava erupted since 1500 A.D. was produced in Iceland. Iceland has 35 volcanoes that have erupted in the last 10,000 years. Eleven volcanoes have erupted between 1900 and 1998: Krafla, Askja, Grímsvötn (Grimsvotn), Laki-Fögrufjöll (Laki-Fogrufjoll), Bárðarbunga (Bardarbunga), Kverkfjöll (Kverkfjoll), Esjufjöll (Esjufjoll), Hekla, Katla, Surtsey, and Heimaey. Most of the eruptions were from fissures or shield volcanoes and involve the effusion of basaltic lava.
The 1783 eruption at Laki was the largest single historic eruption of basaltic lava (12-15 cubic km). Recent eruptions include the 1974 -1984 eruption at Krafla, a brief eruption at Hekla in 1991 and again on 26 February 2000, four eruptions at Grimsvotn: in 1996, 1998, 2004, 2011 and the eruption at Eyjafjallajökull (Eyjafjallajokull) in 2010.
Want to learn more about Iceland and Volcanoes? Check out our sister site Iceland-Travel.com