Why Is Iceland Called Iceland?

Iceland’s name is a topic of debate amongst many people, as its sister island, Greenland, is far more frigid than Iceland.

However, Iceland’s name tells a story about the Vikings who attempted to settle the island and its eventual transition from uninhabited wilderness into a home base for many Nordic peoples. 

Iceland is called Iceland because the Norwegian Viking, Hrafna Flóki Vilgerðarson, named the land after the ice he saw floating in the fjords on the northern coast.

Floki was the first Viking to attempt settling in Iceland, but others followed suit after him. 

Despite its name, Iceland is not nearly as cold or icy as Greenland. However, this island’s fascinating history explains why the early Viking settlers of the area gave it as frosty of a name as Iceland. 

Also, see What to See in Iceland to learn more.

Is Iceland Really Covered in Ice?

Iceland is not really covered in ice, although it includes some ice caps and fjords.

In addition, sheets of ice from Greenland often float across the North Atlantic Ocean to Iceland, resulting in icy conditions along the coast. 

Only 11% of Iceland’s surface consists of snow caps and glaciers, and the landscape is littered with over 100 volcanoes. [1]

However, these volcanoes also heat Iceland, creating many hot springs and slightly warmer temperatures than average for an island bordering the arctic circle. 

For that reason and its slightly more southern location, the tundra of Iceland sustains crops, livestock, and other vegetation that Greenland cannot. 

These tundras maintain deep frost, especially in the northern areas. However, the surface becomes warmer in the summer when temperatures generally fall between 50 and 77 °F (10 and 25 °C). [2]

During this spring and summer thaw, broken ice sheets float south from Greenland, covering Iceland’s fjords and coastlines with ice.

Iceland got its name from these ice sheets thanks to a Norwegian Viking named Floki. 

How Iceland Got Its Name From The Vikings

Iceland had many different names before anyone called it Iceland. 

The Early Viking Exploration of Iceland

Most evidence for the cultivation and settlement of Iceland comes from the Landnámabók, an 11th-century Icelandic account of the history of Iceland. 

This manuscript explains that the Vikings were not the first people to inhabit Iceland.

Instead, the writer states that Irish hermetic monks dwelled on the seaside on the island, then called Thule, before the 8th century. [3]

However, accounts suggest that these Irish monks departed from the island by the turn of the 9th century. 

After that, in the early 9th century, a Swedish Viking named Naddodd stumbled across Iceland on his way to the Faroe Islands.

The Landnámabók states that it was snowing on the day that Naddodd landed there, so he gave the island the name “Snaeland,” or Snowland. [4]

However, he did not stay in the area for long and continued on his journey shortly. 

Following Naddodd’s discovery, another Swedish Viking, Garðar Svavarsson, landed in Iceland at Skialfandafiord after a storm set his ship off course in the 860s AD.

He reportedly remained in Iceland for an entire winter and returned to his home in the spring, telling his people about the new land, which he called “Garðarshólmi,” Garðar’s Island.  

Hrafna Flóki Vilgerðarson Names Iceland

Hearing rumors of the new and exciting land, a Norwegian Viking named Hrafna Flóki Vilgerðarson set out on an expedition in 874 AD to settle Garðar’s Island. [5]

Floki took his entire family with him, including his wife, daughters, and sons, indicating that he planned to move permanently to Iceland. 

However, according to the legend, Floki and his people had difficulty settling on Garðar’s Island and did not gather hay early enough in the year to keep their livestock alive. 

By the end of the winter, after all of his animals and crops had died, Floki supposedly climbed atop a large hill that scholars believe was in the Westfjords in northeastern Iceland. 

Contemplating his failure, he looked out over the waters containing glaciers and icebergs.

Hrafna Floki then changed the name Garðarshólmi to Ísland, or Iceland, upon looking at the glaciers in the surrounding fjords.

Miserable with his failure, Floki returned to his home in Norway and advised that no settler return to Iceland. 

However, the other settlers, such as Thorolf Srnjor, said that Iceland was well worth settling, inviting others to return. 

Ingólf Arnarson Bjǫrnólfsson’s First Permanent Settlement in Iceland

Although some scholars hold contrasting claims, most medieval Icelandic texts attribute Ingólfr Arnarson, also called Bjǫrnólfsson after his grandfather Bjornolf, as the founder of the first permanent settlement in Iceland. 

According to the Landnámabók, Ingolfr and his brother came to Iceland in exile after a complicated feud.

With no choice but to make their new home in Iceland work for them, they landed in Reykjavík and established a settlement that would later flourish.

Ingolfr’s son, Þorsteinn Ingólfsson, further helped to develop the Southern coastal areas of Iceland, forming the first parliamentary system in Iceland and initiating the first Althing in 930 AD. [6] 

Why Is Greenland Called Greenland?

Greenland is called Greenland because Erik the Red, an exile from Iceland, settled there and gave it an appealing name to attract more inhabitants to the island. However, Greenland is a very icy location.

Erik was an elite in Iceland until he killed two villagers in revenge for killing his enslaved people in 982 AD.

Naddodd, the first known Viking to visit Iceland, was Erik the red’s great-great-granduncle, and Erik’s son, Leif Erikson, would be the first known European person to visit North America. 

As such, Erik saw his exile as a way to expand Norse settlements and planned his home in Greenland accordingly. 

Eiríks Saga Rauða (Erik The Red’s Saga) of the 13th century quotes Erik, who allegedly named Greenland thus because “men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name.” [7]

However, another factor that may have contributed to the name may have been that circa 900 AD, the main temperatures in Greenland, Iceland, and the rest of western Europe were abnormally high.

This phenomenon is known as the Medieval Warm Period. [8]

Erik returned to Iceland after his three-year exile only to gather more colonists for his new land.

Over time, his settlement flourished and formed the foundation of most current cities in southern Greenland.

[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source
[5] Source
[6] Source
[7] Source
[8] Source

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.

Related Questions

error: This content is copyrighted.