Watch the BBC Viking Sagas or read this short article about the history of Iceland and its people.

Volcanoes Erupt

It’s hard to fathom that an island formed 20 million years ago could be considered ‘young,’ but compared to the rest of the world, Iceland is just that. 

The entire island is a product of a series of eruptions of underwater volcanoes that took place before the dawn of civilization. 

Although nobody knows when the first humans arrived on Icelandic soil, we do know that it was one of the last islands on Earth to be inhabited.

Iceland’s First Settlers

Landnámabók, or the “Book of Settlements,” refers to Irish monks to be the island’s first inhabitants. 

History of Iceland by Hugleikur Dagsson

Hundreds of years later, Iceland was given its name by a Scandinavian sailor, Flóki Vilgerðarson, after he spotted some drift ice in the fjords during an especially brutal winter.

Hrafna-Flóki as he is called was the first Norseman to deliberately set sail to Iceland. His story is also told in the ancient "Book of Settlements".

Ingólfur Arnarson is credited as Iceland’s first permanent settler. As legend has it, he threw overboard two carved pillars and pledged to settle wherever they landed. In due time, the pillars were found in current-day Reykjavik where he settled with his family in the year 874. 

Norwegian chieftains followed Ingólfur en masse through the next few decades to escape the heavy-handed King Harald of Norway, and in about 60 years, Iceland was fully settled.

Before the long period of growth Iceland would soon experience, the settlement had grown so large that a new government was in order. The ruling chiefs established the Althingi, which is believed by many to be the world’s oldest nation-wide parliament. 

See this fun depiction of the history of Iceland by satirist Hugleikur Dagsson in the picture here above.

The Mist Hardships

Disaster struck Iceland with the violent eruption of the Laki volcano in the 18th century, killing 9000 Icelandic citizens. 

Even more troublesome, the lava wiped out almost all of the nation’s livestock, estimated at 80%, bringing a famine that killed as much as a quarter of Iceland’s population. 

This period of starvation, one of the worst the civilized world has ever experienced, is known as the “Mist Hardships”.

The Age of Change

Most settlers were pagans and worshipped the Norse gods, but European influence converted many Icelanders to Christianity, and the two groups coexisted peacefully for many years.

Founder of Iceland, Jon Sigurdsson, portrait by Þórarinn B. Þorláksson

In the 13th century, the civil war known as the “Age of the Sturlungs” gripped Iceland and ended with the island being subjected to Norwegian rule, until it was granted to Denmark a century later. 

Denmark’s Christian III challenged the open religious practices of Icelanders and imposed Lutheranism on the people, with most present-day Icelanders remaining Lutheran.

Denmark’s rule over Iceland came to an abrupt end nearly 600 years later when Jón Sigurðsson bravely led a group of Icelandic intellectuals in an independence movement, recreating an autonomous Icelandic government. He is credited as the founder of modern day Iceland, and is often referred to as President Jón by Icelanders, even though he was never president of Iceland.

Modern Day Iceland

As we already know Iceland finally became a republic on June 17, 1944, when 97% of voting Icelanders opted in favor of independence from Denmark.

The nation had prospered during World War II and was in great position to bolster its fishing and agriculture industries, which successfully maintained Iceland’s high standard of living. First the British and then the American army had occupied Iceland in 1940 - ´41, and the Marshall Plan was a great support for the economy after the war.

football on a frozen pond in Reykjavik by Ingólfur Shahin

Unemployment was low, industries were prospering, and life was good, although a bit unstable if a year’s harvest was particularly unlucky. However, as recently as the 1990s, the Independence Party set into motion a drastic reform of Iceland’s economy. As with most major changes, it took some time to acclimate, but the economy began to grow again strongly and swiftly after a brief recession.

Growing at a rate of 4% per year on average, the Icelandic economy diversified its industries as to not be overly reliant on fishing.

Iceland joined the European Economic Area in 1994. More recently international banking would be the new cod, but as is famously known the banks didn't live long and collapsed one by one with the credit crunch of 2008.

Iceland has also been utilizing its resources for green energy production and has built numerous geothermal power plants and dams for hydroelectric power stations. This has not come without controversy and the debate on the preservation of our nature vs. the utilization of our energy sources split our nation in two opinions. 

The history of Iceland is rich with legend and lore, ranging from the first settlement that was established over a thousand years ago by vikings, to the prosperous and liberal nation it is today. Thanks to a healthy economy and the island’s natural resources, Icelanders are looking forward to a bright and beautiful 21st century.

Compiled by Ingólfur Shahin.