Iceland is a large Nordic island country, and one of the most sparsely populated nations in Europe.
This remote island is known for its iconic North Atlantic climate and somewhat inhospitable nature. But it is also known for its rich history and a strong Norse and Viking heritage, which has been well preserved to the present day in the Icelandic culture, language, and traditions. And one of the most interesting aspects of the Iceland’s history is its discovery and settlement by the Norse people, supposedly beginning with the explorations of Viking Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson.
Steeped in adventure and daring feats, the tales of Norse expansion to the west of Scandinavia continues to be an inspiration to many. In the true spirit of Viking exploration, from the Faroe Islands to Iceland, and on to prosperous colonies of Greenland, and even as far as North America, the Norse longships sailed far and wide. Viking Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson was a brave and fearless Norse explorer who is credited with establishing the first settlements in Iceland.
The carta marina map of Iceland by Olaus Magnus which Viking Hrafna-Flóki intentionally settled (Olaus Magnus / Public domain)
Iceland “Found” Before Viking Hrafna-Flóki Settlement
The Vikings of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark – and all Norse colonies – were famed for their seafaring skills, and their continuous desire to sail further west and explore new lands. For some, this need stemmed from poverty and the necessary search for new lands to be cultivated. For others, exploration was a way to escape taxation and centralized rule which quickly developed in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages . And for some, sailing as far west as possible was an efficient way to escape from law, blood feuds, and revenge killings. There was even some thirst for fame involved in these sailings: a proper chance for a daring Viking man to make a name for himself with deeds that were worthy of being immortalized in a Norse saga . And Viking Hrafna-Floki was certainly one of these men and his legacy still stands.
While the Swedish Vikings were mostly content with sailing eastwards on rivers into the lands of the Slavs and the Byzantines, the Norwegian Vikings on the other hand sailed ever westwards, on the open seas and oceans, and in search of new islands to settle.
The British Isles were one of the earliest places the Viking sailors targeted. In 793 AD, they first reached British shores, and they kept coming back, creating a major foothold throughout the islands. But these islands were already populated, and the Vikings found resistance, and some mingled with the local populace. The Shetland Islands , somewhat distanced from the rest of the British Islands, were the next to be settled by the Norse peoples, and here their culture and traditions remained unchanged. From the prosperous Shetland colony, Viking sailors had an excellent base for new exploratory voyages.
From the Shetland Islands the Vikings discovered the Faroe Islands , further to the west, about 670 kilometers (420 miles) west of Norway. Sailing such distances in traditional Viking longships were without a doubt a daring and dangerous feat reserved for the most skilled sailors or those driven by a truly strong need. The Faroe Islands, being a land with good resources, were quickly settled by many emigrants from Norway and other Norse communities. And once the Vikings were fully established there, they once again gazed west imagining new lands to conquer and settle.
Norsemen landing in Iceland from a painting by Oscar Wergeland (1909) (Oscar Wergeland / Public domain)
Accidental Discovery of Iceland by Naddod and Gardar
Iceland lies about 420 kilometers (260 miles) to the west of the Faroe Islands, and was first discovered by accident. The hero of our story, Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson, is credited as the first Norseman to intentionally sail to Iceland to settle there. But the truth is that he wasn’t the first to discover it. That credit goes to his countryman Naddod (Naddoðr), a man from Norway, and one of the early settlers of the Faroe Islands. Naddod discovered Iceland unintentionally.
He set sail from Norway for the Faroe Islands but got lost on the way and went far off course, eventually reaching the shores of a new land further to the west of his initial goal. He landed on the eastern coast of Iceland, attempted to survey the land, and searched for signs of human life. He found no people there. Initially he named the new land he found “Snæland”, meaning Snow-land. Eventually, Naddod decided to sail east and tried to reach the Faroe Islands, his original destination.
The next Norseman to reach Iceland, also by accident, was Garðar Svavarsson (or Gardar Svavarsson), a Danish man. He was married to a woman from the Hebrides in Scotland, and around 860 AD, he set sail towards the Hebrides to claim his inheritance. But as he was crossing the treacherous passage between mainland Scotland and the Orkneys, Garðar Svavarsson was thrown far of course when his ship was swept up in a major storm. Forced on a northerly course as a result, he reached the shores of a new which he circumnavigated. This proved that this new land was actually an island. He landed on the northern coast of “Iceland,” built a house, and stayed there for entire winter. Today, this place is called Húsavík (“House Bay”). It was the first place in Iceland to be settled by Norsemen. Svavarsson later returned home and spoke of the new land he found, praising it, and calling it Garðarshólmi, after himself.
However, no Norseman had sailed intentionally to Iceland until Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson. Having heard tales of a vast new land far to the west, Flóki decided to take his family to see the riches of this new land for himself and settle there if possible. Accompanied by his wife, Gró, their two children Oddleifur and Þjóðgerður, and three other men (Herjólfr, Faxi, and Thorolf), Flóki raised the sails on his longship from Western Norway and set course for the Shetland Islands.
The medieval Icelandic Landnámabók saga that describes Flóki’s journey, tells us that he met misfortune early in his journey. His daughter drowned off the Shetlands. Despite this tragedy, he continued on his journey and next reached the Faroe Islands. There his other daughter got married. Restocking his resources and still devoted to his mission, Flóki acquired three ravens from the Faroe Islands. Using ravens to find land was an old tactic used by Norse seafarers. When searching for landfall, a sailor would let loose a raven. If the bird took off in a certain direction and didn’t return, this was a sure sign it had reached land. The Viking explorers then followed the direction the raven flew.
Cape Dyrholaey, southernmost part of Iceland not far from the town of Vík
Viking Hrafna-Flóki’s Iceland Voyage: Longships and Ravens
Equipped with his ravens, Flóki thus earned his nickname: Hrafna-Flóki (“Raven-Floki”). One can only imagine the daring adventurous spirit of such an expedition in the 9 th century AD. Armed with the renowned Norse decisiveness and the fiery spirit of boldness, we can almost envision a group of rugged, grim Norsemen as they cut the waves of the Atlantic in their dragon-headed longship, battered by the saltwater waves. With storms brewing on the unknown distant horizons, with nothing but the vast expanse of the grey ocean in every direction, a man had to possess immense courage and dedication to master his own fears.
Seeing no land in any direction and alone between the water and the sky, Hrafna-Flóki and his tiny crew must have possessed amazing levels of hope and faith, driven by the belief that the distant horizon to which their wooden ship hurled held new lands and a promise of a better life.
Eventually, Hrafna-Flóki decided to use his ravens to find the land he set out to discover. The first bird he set loose promptly turned around and flew back towards the Faroe Islands. That was a sure sign that the land they sought was still a ways off. After a while, he let loose the second of his three ravens. This bird flew for a while but eventually returned to the ship’s mast. After sailing further, Hrafna-Flóki finally let loose his last raven. As a sign of hope to the crew, the last raven flew onwards into the northwestern horizon and did not return. Taking this for a sure sign of land, the crew followed this course and eventually came upon the land they sought. They soon came to a large bay, where Reykjavik, the modern capital of Iceland lies.
Sailing further around the island, the crew decided to make landfall in the northwestern part of the island, an area with many fjords. This peninsula is now known as Vestfirðir (Westfjords). Hrafna-Flóki spent the winter at Vatnsfjörður, which overlooks the wide bay called Breiðafjörður (“the Wide Fjord”). While their summer season was good with an abundance of fish, the winter they spent in the new land was very hard. The crew was not properly prepared for the harsh natural landscape of Iceland. During his winter stay, Flóki attempted to survey the new land by climbing the highest peak in the vicinity. From it he observed a large fjord packed with drift ice. Seeing this icy, grim landscape, he decided to name the island Ísland – meaning “Ice Land”. When spring arrived, Hrafna-Flóki and his crew, alive and well, sailed back to Norway.
When speaking about the new land to those back home, the crew had mixed impressions. Somewhat disappointed, Hrafna-Flóki claimed the new land was worthless and too inhospitable for good life. The other men in his crew were somewhat less gloomy about it and saw both pros and cons in Iceland. Nevertheless, word of a new land to the west quickly spread. A new expedition was organized, and many settlers followed the chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson in a mission to settle Iceland. The chieftain built a settlement in a bay in 874 AD that would later become the capital, Reykjavik. From then on, Iceland became another Norse colony, entering into a new period of rich, unique history.
Were Floki, Naddoðr, Garðar Really Iceland’s First Settlers?
Were Naddoðr, Garðar, and Hrafna-Flóki the first to set foot on this remote and inhospitable island in the far North Atlantic? Several details from Icelandic Norse sagas, as well as extensive archaeological research, tell us they were not the first. Both Landnámabók and Íslendingabók, medieval Icelandic manuscripts, tell of the so-called Papar, who dwelt on the land before any Norseman arrived. The papar were eremitic, ascetic Christian priests from Ireland and the Hebrides, who sought complete isolation on distant, isolated islands. They sailed in primitive, tiny boats and found refuge in some of the remotest islands of the Atlantic from the Hebrides to Iceland. The sagas tell of these Christian men in Iceland, who seemingly departed their hermitages after the first Norse arrivals either out of fear, or loss of the isolation they sought.
The unforgiving landscape of Iceland didn’t deter Hrafna-Flóki from settling
The exploits and the expeditions of Viking Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson served as a background for the creation of the popular TV show character “Floki,” one of the key characters in the popular show “Vikings”. Much like his historic counterpart, the TV show Floki embarks on a journey to far off lands, eventually stumbling upon Iceland, where he and his crew experience new ordeals as they attempt to carve out a life from the inhospitable, barren land. Before realizing what he had discovered, Floki believed he had discovered the “land of the Gods”, Asgard. This was because of the many new natural wonders of Iceland, such as geysers, smoke funnels, and volcanic landscapes.
The “Vikings” and the portrayal of Floki certainly serves as an entertaining insight into what the actual expedition of Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson might have been like.
Viking Hrafna-Flóki’s Legacy Paved The Way to Greenland
Even though Hrafna-Flóki was at first disappointed in Iceland for being too barren and inhospitable, he eventually returned there with his wife and settled, living out the rest of his life in the land he helped discover and settle. In the end it turned out that Iceland was not that barren, and that plenty of grazing pastures and arable land were available. And as the Norsemen in Iceland settled for good and carved their own identity through the generations, they got the chance to set sail even further west. The eventually colonized areas of Greenland which would flourish for 500 years. And with each swelling of the sails on their longships, the pioneering deeds of Viking Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson would resound in their experiences in the fierce North Atlantic.