Geologically young, staunchly independent and frequently rocked by natural disaster, Iceland has a turbulent and absorbing history of Norse settlement, literary genius, bitter feuding and foreign oppression. Life in this harsh and unforgiving landscape was never going to be easy, but the everyday challenges and hardships have cultivated a modern Icelandic spirit that’s highly aware of its stormy past, yet remarkably resilient, fiercely individualistic, quietly innovative and justifiably proud.
Early Travellers & Irish Monks
A veritable baby in geological terms, Iceland was created around 20 million years ago. It was only around 330 BC, when the Greek explorer Pytheas wrote about the island of Ultima Thule, six days north of Britain by ship, that Europeans became aware of a landmass beyond the confines of their maps, lurking in a 'congealed sea’.
For many years rumour, myth and fantastic tales of fierce storms, howling winds and barbaric dog-headed people kept explorers away from the great northern ocean, oceanus innavigabilis. Irish monks were the next to stumble upon Iceland: they regularly sailed to the Faroes looking for solitude and seclusion. It’s thought that Irish papar (fathers) settled in Iceland around the year AD 700. The Irish monk Dicuil wrote in 825 of a land where there was no daylight in winter, but on summer nights ‘whatever task a man wishes to perform, even picking lice from his shirt, he can manage as well as in clear daylight’. This almost certainly describes Iceland and its long summer nights. The papar fled when the Norsemen began to arrive in the early 9th century.
The Vikings Are Coming!
After the Irish monks, Iceland’s first permanent settlers came from Norway. The Age of Settlement is traditionally defined as the period between 870 and 930, when political strife on the Scandinavian mainland caused many to flee. Most North Atlantic Norse settlers were ordinary Scandinavian citizens: farmers, herders and merchants who settled right across Western Europe, marrying Britons, Westmen (Irish) and Scots.
It’s likely that the Norse accidentally discovered Iceland after being blown off course en route to the Faroes. The first arrival, Naddoddr, sailed from Norway and landed on the east coast around 850. He named the place Snæland (Snow Land) before backtracking to his original destination.
Iceland’s second visitor, Garðar Svavarsson, circumnavigated the island and then settled in for the winter at Húsavík on the north coast. When he left in the spring some of his crew remained, or were left behind, thus becoming the first Norse to remain.
Around 860 the Norwegian Flóki Vilgerðarson uprooted his farm and family and headed for Snæland. He navigated with ravens, which, after some trial and error, led him to his destination and provided his nickname, Hrafna-Flóki (Raven-Flóki). Hrafna-Flóki sailed to Vatnsfjörður on the west coast but became disenchanted after seeing icebergs floating in the fjord. He renamed the country Ísland (Iceland), and returned to Norway; although he did eventually come back to Iceland, settling in the Skagafjörður district on the north coast.
Credit for the first intentional permanent settlement, according to the 12th-century Íslendingabók, goes to Ingólfur Arnarson, who fled Norway with his blood brother Hjörleifur. He landed at Ingólfshöfði (Southeast Iceland) in 871, then continued around the coast and set up house in 874 at a place he called Reykjavík (Smoky Bay), named after the steam from thermal springs there. Hjörleifur settled near the present town of Vík, but was murdered by his slaves shortly after.
As for Ingólfur, he was led to Reykjavík by a fascinating pagan ritual. It was traditional for Viking settlers to toss their high-seat pillars (a symbol of authority and part of a chieftain’s paraphernalia) into the sea as they approached land. The settler’s new home was established wherever the gods brought the pillars ashore – a practice imitated by waves of settlers who followed from the Norwegian mainland.
Assembling the Alþingi
By the time Ingólfur’s son Þorsteinn reached adulthood, the whole island was scattered with farms, and people began to feel the need for some sort of government. Iceland’s landowners gathered first at regional assemblies to trade and settle disputes, but it became apparent that a national assembly was needed. This was a completely novel idea at the time, but Icelanders reasoned that it must be an improvement on the oppressive system they had experienced under the Nordic monarchy.
In the early 10th century Þorsteinn Ingólfsson held Iceland’s first large-scale district assembly near Reykjavík, and in the 920s the self-styled lawyer Úlfljótur was sent to study Norway’s law codes and prepare something similar that would be suitable for Iceland.
At the same time Grímur Geitskör was commissioned to find a location for the Alþingi (National Assembly). Bláskógar, near the eastern boundary of Ingólfur’s estate, with its beautiful lake and wooded plain, seemed ideal. Along one side of the plain was a long cliff with an elevated base (the Mid-Atlantic Ridge), from where speakers and representatives could preside over people gathered below.
In 930 Bláskógar was renamed Þingvellir (Assembly Plains). Þorsteinn Ingólfsson was given the honorary title allsherjargoði (supreme chieftain) and Úlfljótur was designated the first lögsögumaður (law speaker), who was required to memorise and annually recite the entire law of the land. It was he, along with the 48 goðar (chieftains), who held the actual legislative power.
Although squabbles arose over the choice of leaders, and allegiances were continually questioned, the new parliamentary system was a success. At the annual convention of the year 999 or 1000, the assembled crowd was bitterly divided between pagans and Christians, and civil war looked likely. Luckily, Þorgeir, the incumbent law speaker, was a master of tact. The Íslendingabók relates that he retired to his booth, refusing to speak to anyone for a day and a night while he pondered the matter. When he emerged, he decreed that Iceland should accept the new religion and convert to Christianity, although pagans (such as himself) were to be allowed to practise their religion in private. This decision gave the formerly divided groups a semblance of national unity, and soon the first bishoprics were set up at Skálholt in the southwest and Hólar in the north.
Over the following years, the two-week national assembly at Þingvellir became the social event of the year. All free men could attend. Single people came looking for partners, marriages were contracted and solemnised, business deals were finalised, duels and executions were held, and the Appeals Court handed down judgements on matters that couldn’t be resolved in lower courts.
Anarchy & the Sturlung Age
The late 12th century kicked off the Saga Age, when epic tales of early settlement, family struggles, romance and tragic characters were recorded by historians and writers. Much of our knowledge of this time comes from two weighty tomes, the Íslendingabók, a historical narrative from the Settlement Era written by 12th-century scholar Ari Þorgilsson (Ari the Learned), and the detailed Landnámabók, a comprehensive account of the settlement.
Despite the advances in such cultural pursuits, Icelandic society was beginning to deteriorate. By the early 13th century the enlightened period of peace that had lasted 200 years was waning. Constant power struggles between rival chieftains led to violent feuds and a flourishing of Viking-like private armies, which raided farms across the country. This dark hour in Iceland’s history was known as the Sturlung Age, named for the Sturlungs, the most powerful family clan in Iceland at the time. The tragic events and brutal history of this 40-year era is graphically recounted in the three-volume Sturlunga Saga.
As Iceland descended into chaos, the Norwegian king Hákon Hákonarson pressured chieftains, priests and the new breed of wealthy aristocrats to accept his authority. The Icelanders, who saw no alternative, dissolved all but a superficial shell of their government and swore their allegiance to the king. An agreement of confederacy was made in 1262. In 1281 a new code of law, the Jónsbók, was introduced by the king, and Iceland was absorbed into Norwegian rule.
Norway immediately set about appointing Norwegian bishops to Hólar and Skálholt and imposed excessive taxes. Contention flared as former chieftains quibbled over high offices, particularly that of járl (earl), an honour that fell to the ruthless Gissur Þorvaldsson, who in 1241 murdered Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s best-known historian and writer.
Meanwhile, the volcano Hekla erupted three times, covering a third of the country in ash; a mini–ice age followed, and severe winters wiped out livestock and crops. The Black Death arrived, killing half the population, and the once indomitable spirit of the people seemed broken.
Enter the Danes
Iceland’s fate was now in the hands of the highest Norwegian bidder, who could lease the governorship of the country on a three-year basis. In 1397 the Kalmar Union of Norway, Sweden and Denmark brought Iceland under Danish rule. After disputes between Church and state, the Danish government seized Church property and imposed Lutheranism in the Reformation of 1550. When the stubborn Catholic bishop of Hólar, Jón Arason, resisted and gained a following, he and his two sons were taken to Skálholt and beheaded.
In 1602 the Danish king imposed a crippling trade monopoly whereby Swedish and Danish firms were given exclusive trading rights in Iceland for 12-year periods. This resulted in large-scale extortion, importation of spoilt or inferior goods, and yet more suffering that would last another 250 years. However, one positive eventually emerged from the monopoly. In an attempt to bypass the embargo and boost local industry, powerful town magistrate Skúli Magnússon built weaving, tanning and wool-dyeing factories, which would become the foundations of the modern city of Reykjavík.
Even More Misery
If impoverishment at the hands of Danish overlords was not enough, Barbary pirates got in on the action, raiding the Eastfjords and the Reykjanes Peninsula before descending on Vestmannaeyjar in 1627. The defenceless population attempted to hide in Heimaey’s cliffs and caves, but the pirates ransacked the island, killing indiscriminately and loading 242 people onto their ships. The unfortunate Icelanders were taken to Algiers, where most were sold into slavery. Back home, money was scrimped and saved for ransom, and eventually 13 of the captives were freed. The most famous was Guðríður Símonardóttir, who returned to Iceland and married Hallgrímur Pétursson, one of Iceland’s most famous poets – the three bells in Hallgrímskirkja are named after the couple and their daughter.
During the same period, Europe’s witch-hunting craze reached Icelandic shores. Icelandic witches were mostly men – of the 130 cases that appear in the court annals, only 10% involve women. The luckiest defendants were brutally flogged; 21 of the unluckiest were burned at the stake, mostly for supposedly making their neighbours sick or for possessing magical writing or suspicious-looking amulets.
It may have been the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, but it's a wonder any Icelanders survived the 18th century. In this remote outpost in the North Atlantic, the population of 50,000 was holding on for dear life, in the face of a powerful smallpox epidemic, which arrived in 1707 and killed an estimated 18,000 people, and a series of volcanic eruptions: Katla in 1660, 1721 and again in 1755; Hekla in 1693 and 1766; and Öræfajökull in 1727.
Things got worse. In 1783 the Laki crater row erupted, spewing out billions of tonnes of lava and poisonous gas clouds for a full eight months. Fifty farms in the immediate area were wiped out, and the noxious dust and vapours and consequent Haze Famine went on to kill around 9000 Icelanders; first plants died, then livestock, then people. Ash clouds from the eruption affected the whole of Europe, causing freak weather conditions, including acid rain and floods. Authorities in Denmark contemplated relocating the remaining Icelandic population, which by 1801 numbered just 47,000, to Denmark.
Return to Independence
After five centuries of oppressive foreign rule, Icelandic nationalism flourished in the 19th century, conscious of a growing sense of liberalisation across Europe. By 1855 Jón Sigurðsson, an Icelandic scholar, had successfully lobbied for restoration of free trade, and by 1874 Iceland had drafted a constitution and regained control of its domestic affairs.
Iceland’s first political parties were formed during this period, and urban development began in this most rural of countries. Still, it wasn't enough to stave off the wave of emigration that had started: between 1870 and 1914, some 16,000 Icelanders left to seek a better life in North America. Reasons for emigrating included lack of opportunity – the growing fishing industry could not employ all the workers who wished to escape the hard labour of rural life and move to the new urban centres – and yet another volcanic eruption, Askja, in 1875, which spewed livestock-poisoning ash.
By 1918 Iceland had signed the Act of Union, which effectively released the country from Danish rule, making it an independent state within the Kingdom of Denmark.
Iceland prospered during WWI as wool, meat and fish exports gained high prices. When WWII loomed, however, Iceland declared neutrality in the hope of maintaining its important trade links with both Britain and Germany.
On 9 April 1940 Denmark was occupied by Germany, prompting the Alþingi to take control of Iceland’s foreign affairs once more. A year later, on 17 May 1941, Icelanders requested complete independence. The formal establishment of the Republic of Iceland finally took place at Þingvellir on 17 June 1944 – now celebrated as Independence Day.
WWII & the USA Moves In
As a result of Germany's occupation of Denmark in 1940, Iceland was in charge of its own wartime foreign affairs (and on the path to full independence, to be established before the war's end). Wartime Iceland’s complete lack of military force worried the Allied powers and so in May 1940 Britain, most vulnerable to a German-controlled Iceland, sent in forces to occupy the island. Iceland had little choice but to accept the situation, but ultimately the country’s economy profited from British construction projects and spending.
When the British troops withdrew in 1941 the government allowed US troops to move in, on the understanding they would move out at the end of the war. Although the US military left in 1946, it retained the right to re-establish a base at Keflavík should war threaten again. Back under their own control, Icelanders were reluctant to submit to any foreign power. When the government was pressured into becoming a founding member of NATO in 1949, riots broke out in Reykjavík. The government agreed to the proposition on the conditions that Iceland would never take part in offensive action and that no foreign military troops would be based in the country during peacetime.
These conditions were soon broken. War with Korea erupted in 1950, and in 1951 at NATO’s request the US, jumpy about the Soviet threat, once again took responsibility for the island’s defence. US military personnel and technology at the Keflavík base continued to increase over the next four decades, as Iceland served as an important Cold War monitoring station. The controversial US military presence in Iceland only ended in September 2006, when the base at Keflavík finally closed.
In the 20th century Iceland transformed itself from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the most developed.
Following the Cold War, Iceland went through a period of growth, rebuilding and modernisation. The Ring Road was completed in 1974 – opening up transport links to the remote southeast – and projects such as the Krafla power station in the northeast and the Svartsengi power plant near Reykjavík were developed. A boom in the fishing industry saw Iceland extend its fishing limit in the 1970s to 200 miles (322km). This, however, precipitated the worst of the ‘cod wars’, as the UK refused to recognise the new zone. During the seven-month conflict, Icelandic ships cut the nets of British trawlers, shots were fired, and ships on both sides were rammed.
The fishing industry has always been vital to Iceland, although it’s had its ups and downs – quotas were reduced in the 1990s so stocks could regenerate after overfishing. The industry went into recession, leading to an unemployment rate of 3% and a sharp drop in the króna. The country slowly began a period of economic regeneration as the fishing industry stabilised. Today the industry still provides 33.6% of exports and 12% of GDP, and employs 4% of the workforce. It remains sensitive to declining fish stocks.
In 2003 Iceland resumed whaling as part of a scientific research program, despite a global moratorium on hunts. In 2006 Iceland resumed commercial whaling, in spite of condemnation from around the world. Hunting of minke whales continues, drawing further international rebukes; hunting of endangered fin whales was suspended in 2016 but resumed in 2018.
Financial Crash & Volcanic Eruptions
Iceland’s huge dependence on its fishing industry and on imported goods means that the country has always had relatively high prices and a currency prone to fluctuation. Its vulnerability was brought into focus in September 2008, when the global economic crisis hit the country with a sledgehammer blow. Reykjavík was rocked by months of fierce protest, as the then-government’s popularity evaporated along with the country’s wealth.
Prime Minister Geir Haarde resigned in January 2009. His replacement, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, hit international headlines as the world’s first openly gay prime minister. Her first major act was to apply for EU membership, with the eventual aim of adopting the euro as the country’s new currency, in an effort to stabilise the economy. EU membership was then and continues to be a contentious issue.
Iceland again hit global headlines in April 2010, when ash cloud from the eruption under Eyjafjallajökull ice cap shut down European air traffic for six days, causing travel chaos across much of the continent. In comparison, the Grímsvötn volcano, which erupted the following year, was a mere trifle – its ash cloud caused just three days of air-traffic disruption. In 2014, Bárðarbunga's rumblings shone a spotlight onto Iceland's volatility once again, as have Katla's jolts in 2016. In 2018 seismic activity was on the increase in Öræfajökull and continues in Bárðarbunga.
Tourism Boom & Political Scandals
Events in Iceland have proved there's no such thing as bad publicity. Triggered by the 2010 eruption and the free press it generated for Iceland, plus a concerted Icelandic effort to build airline routes and exposure, tourism has boomed, increasing 440% from 2010 to 2017. The country has become the fastest-growing travel destination in Europe, with all the benefits (economic growth and employment) and headaches (infrastructure issues and environmental impact) that such status entails.
Icelanders went to the polls in April 2013 with the national economy on the path to recovery, but with the population smarting from the government’s tough austerity measures (including higher taxes and spending cuts). The results showed a backlash against the ruling Social Democrats; the centre-right camp (comprising the Progressive Party and the Independence Party) successfully campaigned on promises of debt relief and a cut in taxes, as well as opposition to Iceland’s application to join the EU.
The two parties formed a coalition government. In early 2014 the government halted all negotiations with the EU – despite promising a referendum on whether or not to proceed with membership negotiations. Although polls show a majority of Icelanders still oppose joining the EU, making such a move without the promised referendum was deeply unpopular.
In April 2016 the Panama Papers document leak from the law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed financial improprieties implicating three Icelandic ministers, including Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. As a result of massive protests, Gunnlaugsson stepped aside as prime minister. Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson became the acting prime minister, and early elections produced no clear coalition.
In June 2016, on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, Iceland elected its first new president in 20 years: historian and author Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson.
In January 2017, a short-lived coalition formed with only 32 MPs out of 63, headed by the Independence Party and Bjarni Benediktsson, but in September, a scandal surrounding Benediktsson's father's defence of a convicted paedophile brought down that government.
A new government coalition was formed in late 2017, lead by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the chair of the Left-Green Party, in partnership with the Independence Party and the Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn), an agrarian-based party.