Hell, Fire and Brimstone: The vikings land in Iceland

Hell, Fire and Brimstone: The vikings land in Iceland

Culture Facts

image: magic ship

Where: The vikings travelled from Norway to Iceland to form a new settlement
When: Iceland conquered in the 9th century, Greenland in the 10th, by the 18th century the Viking races here at died out or fled.
What’s it about: Early democracy and equality of women, individual’s obligation to society and a bit of raping and pillaging
How to Join in: Join a modern mission on a longboat to Newfoundland

Iceland was the last country in Europe to be settled upon in the 9th Century, and its history is relatively short but diverse and dominated by one fierce race – the Vikings.

Travelling through the night on a dragon ship

Who Were the Vikings?

The Vikings were a tiny proportion of Norsemen from Scandinavia. They were a technologically advanced race whose long boats – also known as “dragon ships” by their victims – were so advanced in craftmanship that when combined with their bravery and stealth, they were able to capture islands through force and cunning. The first Vikings were farmers who cherished their freedom and good friendship. But their good nature could easily turn, and Vikings were fierce when they went into battle using a special technique of going into a pre-battle rage beforehand.

Discovering Iceland

The climate was right for Viking exploration, as a softening of the harsh arctic climate made inhabiting the colder regions further north possible. Legend says that Iceland’s first visitors were Vikings Ingolf and his foster brother Hjorleif. They came to Iceland because they had heard about it from people who were lost at sea. The settlement of Iceland began around 870 AD with Viking settlers travelling from West Norway and some from the British Isles. They then moved on to form settlements in Greenland and later Newfoundland in America.

Viking Politics

After only 50 years of Viking settlement, a national assembly, the Althing, was established in Tingvellir. With no monarch or ruler this was a unique governing structure of the Middle Ages and the oldest parliament in Europe. Meeting only two weeks every summer, the assembly, comprised of both men and women from all around Iceland, passed new laws and settled disputes. The Althing held no power to implement punishment or change, this was left up to the individual, and individual’s obligation to society is a main theme of the Sagas.

The Sagas

The Viking Saga stories originate from the tension between the old and new societies of Iceland. Due to the small population, most Icelanders can trace their lineage back to characters from the Sagas. You can feel the Viking influence in Iceland, like the importance held in people carrying the names of their fathers and grandfathers and the meaning of these names, for example those called Thurston are supposed to be brave.

The women of the sagas are like the women of Greek Tragedy, full of power and heroic values, truly modern feminists. The depiction of women in the sagas is so powerful many scholars believe the texts to be the work of a woman.

The two main literary sagas are the “Book of Icelanders” by Ari Thrhilsson The Wise – written in the 10th century it tells of Iceland’s first 250 years – and the “Book of Settlement” tells of Iceland’s original settlers.

Decline of the Vikings

During a little recorded “mini ice age” which was experienced throughout Europe during the 2nd millenium, the population of Iceland shrunk to a tiny 38,00 by the 18th century. Harvests were poor, glacier activity grew and subsequent floodings forced the Icelanders turned to the seas to harvest their food and trade. By the 18th century the situation was becoming impossible, with the further failure of the fishing industry and the milder climate began to encroach back into the harsher climate prior to the Vikings arrival. In Greenland, the new settlers could not survive or adapt to the harsh cold, and the race died out there by the 15th century.

Vikings Revisited

In 1997, a crew captained by legendary Viking Leif Ericsson’s great (times 33) grandson set sail to try and replicate the original Viking voyage from Greenland to Newfoundland in America, which took place some 500 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Travelling in a replica of the original wooden ship called a knarr, they attempted to follow traditional Viking navigation using the stars and replicating many of the original conditions. Sadly, their mission failed miserably, proving that the Vikings missions were a miracle of skill and determination rarely encountered in this world.

By Susi O’Neill

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