Who Discovered Iceland?

Iceland’s discovery and settlement history are as interesting as its name. There are many widely known accounts, some verified by experts and others not.

So who was the true discoverer of one of the most fascinating locations in the world?

The most widely-accepted discoverer of Iceland is Naddodd the Viking, also known as Naddador.

He’s believed to have discovered Iceland by accident in 830 A.D. and named the place Snæland or Snowland.

Meanwhile, Ingólfr Arnarson is regarded as the first historical settler of Iceland. 

Iceland today is the result of chance discoveries, brave settlers, and other rich stories.

If you’re interested in learning about these fascinating facts, this is an article you don’t want to skim through. 

Also, see What Side of the Road Do You Drive On In Iceland? to learn more.

When Was Iceland Founded and by Whom?

There are many exciting aspects of Iceland. Firstly, the name itself is curious, especially when you see how green the country is.

The country’s geography is also interesting because it straddles two continents. If you’d like to learn more about that, check out this post: “What Continent Does Iceland Belong To?

While the name and geography of Iceland are fascinating, nothing sparks more curiosity than the stories of how it was discovered and populated. 

Two books serve as important references regarding the discovery of Iceland [1]: 

  • Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders): This older source places Iceland’s settlement period between 870–930 AD.
  • Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements): This source states that the first settler, Ingólfr Arnarson, came to Iceland in 874 AD. 

These two sources agree that the first Iceland settlers were the Norse or Viking people. They began settling shortly after Naddodd the Viking found Iceland.

Let’s take a closer look at how the other settlements came to be.

Age of Norse Settlement

Iceland was discovered during the Age of Settlement. After its discovery, it was quickly populated by the Norse people. 

The most important milestones of that era can be summarized in this timeline: 

  • 830 AD: Naddodd the Viking accidentally found Iceland when he was blown off-course, intending to sail to the Faroe Islands. This discovery was noted in the Book of Settlements. 
  • 860 AD: Gardar the Swede or Garðarr Svavarsson was also blown off-course, like Naddodd. Unlike Naddodd, he did try to create a place to live in the bay of Skjálfandi, now known as Húsavík. He named the place “Gardar’s Island” before leaving. 
  • 868 AD: Flóki Vilgerðarson, AKA Hrafna-Flóki or Raven-Floki, is often believed to be Iceland’s original discoverer. However, he was actually the third Norseman to come across the country. His popularity may be because he deliberately searched for the place and named it Iceland
  • 874 AD: Ingólfr Arnarson strives to become Iceland’s first settler in The Book of Icelanders. He established Reykjavík, Iceland’s present-day capital. 
  • 930 AD: Over time, more and more communities were founded. Each had its leaders or chiefs that came together to establish the Althing, a form of parliament or assembly of free men. The Althing established a code of laws that would help dispute conflicts. However, their authority was not supreme or executive over the whole island. [2] 

Although Ingólfr Arnarson is identified to be the first historical settler based on The Book of Icelanders, this claim can easily be contested.

This is because all three Norsemen who came before him – Naddodd, Gardar, and Floki – all left men who settled in different locations across Iceland.

Who Was in Iceland Before the Vikings?

The Vikings or Norse are often credited as Iceland’s discoverers and first settlers. However,  certain accounts contest that, citing that other groups preceded the Norse people.

Irish Monks (Papar)

The Irish monks or Papar were mentioned in The Book of Settlements and The Book of Icelanders. [3]

Accordingly, they came before the Vikings to conduct a Hiberno-Scottish mission.

But unlike the Norse, they didn’t settle permanently. They left either on or before the Norse’s arrival. 

According to The Book of Settlements, Papar may have deserted Iceland shortly after the arrival of Ingólfr Arnarson.

It’s believed that the Papar left because they didn’t want to involve themselves with heathens like Arnarson.

However, there’s a chance they were driven away by the new, more terrifying settlers 一 after all, Vikings have a long history of doing that. 

Iceland As Thule

It is also believed that others (besides the Papar) were already aware of the existence of Iceland, but they referred to it as Thule. 

Thule was first mentioned by Pytheas of Massalia (Marseille), a Greek explorer in the 4th century BC.

Another attribution to the island came from a group of 8th-century Irish hermits. It is also believed that the Irish monks referred to Iceland as Thule. [4] 

However, these claims are often treated as dubious because many are unsure if Pytheas and the Irish hermits even referred to the same Thule.

That confusion is even more highlighted when you look into Pytheas’s description of the place. 

The Greek explorer painted a fantastic picture of Thule as a place full of “honey, milk, and fruit.”

As Iceland was then more known for its frigid climate and lack of agriculture, that description doesn’t hit the mark.

Instead, Pytheas’s Thule seems more like Norway, the Faroe Islands, or Shetland.  

Why Is Iceland Named Iceland?

Naddodd the Viking named Iceland Snowland before Flóki Vilgerðarson came up with the name Iceland.

However, the name seems no longer fitting if you look at pictures of present-day Iceland.

This irony isn’t lost to many people, especially after the circulation of a meme comparing a green Iceland to an icy Greenland. 

But if you trace historical accounts and scientific evidence, they both state that Iceland lived up to its name during the Age of Settlement. [5] 

Indeed, Floki’s story has it that a frigid winter came after the summer he and his party arrived.

During that season, he came across a fjord full of icebergs, prompting the name he gave – Iceland.

He even tried to spread his knowledge of an inhospitable land full of ice and snow. 

The remnants of such a cold past are still evident in the country; Vatnajökull, an ice cap in Iceland, is still the largest glacier in Europe.

Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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