The term Viking is a word generally used to refer to the inhabitants of Nordic countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland during the Middle Ages (800-1100 AD) who led the Scandinavian Expansion.

Better known as the Viking Age (or Viking Age AD), this period has long been popularly associated with the bold explorations of the Viking people but is also synonymous with looting, rampant piracy, pillaging and burning everything that stood in the Vikings’ way throughout civilized Europe.

However, these facts are now coming to be recognized as gross over-simplifications and generalizations. Today, new emphasis is being put on the achievements of the Viking Age in terms of Scandinavian art, craftsmanship, technology, marine exploration and trade development.

Viking expansion in the world

The origin of the word “Viking” is somewhat uncertain. It may be from Old Norse “vik” (a bay or cove) or the Old English “wic” (a trade agreement). Not all Scandinavians were Vikings or professional warriors and not all Vikings were pirates.

The causes of the Viking Age expansion are complex. Land scarcity in Scandinavia, improvement of the production of iron and the need for new markets were probably the principal reasons.

The first recorded Viking raid was an assault by sea in 793 AD by Norwegian Vikings on the holy island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England. The evidence indicates, however, that there was considerable migration of Vikings west across the North Sea and east across the Baltic long before that.

Swedish traders penetrated the interior of Russia, starting new trade routes through the Volga-Dnepr, founding cities like Kiev and Novgorod and opening the way to Constantinople and the exotic markets of Arabia and the Far East. In Constantinople, the Vikings formed the elite guard of the Byzantine emperors, the feared and famous Varangian Guard. Danish warriors fought in the cities of the Carolingian Empire in cities like Hamburg, Dorestad, Rouen, Paris, Nantes and Bordeaux, until in 911, one army arrived in northern France (now known as Normandy, “Land of the Northmen “) and settled there.

During the Viking Age, these brave men went through half the world in their open boats, greatly expanding their horizons. But having achieved much and reaching even remote locations, Vikings did not have staying power. With no reserves of wealth or political experience, they failed to achieve cohesion in Europe, or to effectively dominate the oldest, richest and most stable of those they attempted to invade.

Viking settlement in Iceland

Iceland was settled between 874 and 930 AD by the Norse settlers in search of new farmland. At that time, the weather in Iceland was warmer than it is now and the settlers and their animals thought they had found paradise, they began to be divided between them.

The first Viking to sight Iceland was Gardar Svavarsson, who had changed course while sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands due to harsh weather conditions. His reports led to the first attempts to settle on the island. The Norwegian chief, Ingólfur Arnarson, is usually considered the first settler who formed a permanent settlement on the island. He settled with his family around the year 874, at a place called Reykjavik (the present capital of the country).

Following Ingólfur, another group of Norwegians set sail on the North Atlantic in 874 with their families, livestock, slaves and possessions in an effort to escape the domination of the first Norwegian king, Harald I. They traveled about 1,000 km. in their drakkars to the island of Iceland.

According to the Icelandic sagas, these people were mainly of Norwegian origin, and to a lesser extent, of Irish and Scottish decent, namely Irish servants and slaves of Norwegian/Scottish chiefs. The Icelandic Age of Settlement (Icelandic: Landnámsöld) is believed to have lasted from 874-930, at which point the “Althing”, the world’s oldest parliamentary body, was founded.

The first settlers took huge territories were subdivided during the sixty years of “landnám” (settlement period). Some of the settlers with good social skills made smart partnerships and were made leaders. They represented groups of farmers in the “Althing” (Alzing).

Much of the knowledge about this time comes from the Icelandic sagas, a set of writings that not only document the settlement of Iceland but also the exploration of Greenland and the region of North America now called Newfoundland.

These sagas also tell us details about the daily life of the settlers and their descendants. Especially representative of the colonization of Greenland and America are the “Sagas of the Greenlanders” written in 1200 and the “Saga of Erik the Red” written in 1260.

Iceland is a key example of settlers moving to an uninhabited land and designing a new society. Written sources are useful, but do not tell us everything we need to know about the distribution of land, animals and trade to truly understand the inner workings of this unusual society.

The center of Viking settlement in Iceland – “Landnámssetur”

For lovers of Icelandic history and especially those interested in the history of the Viking settlement in this country, there is a place just an hour from Reykjavik, in Borgarnes on Highway 1 north, called “Landnámssetur Íslands” where two outstanding exhibitions can be found:

– The exhibition of Viking settlement.
– The first exhibition of the Viking and Icelandic poet, Egill Skallagrimsson.

After the visit to this place, travelers will be much more prepared for an informed and knowledgeable trip around Iceland.

It also has audio guides in 12 different languages, including English. The complete route for each exhibition will last about 30 minutes, after which you may understand many things and answer many questions that arise during your tour around Iceland.

This location also boasts a one of a kind restaurant with a unique stone-walled dining area.

Location and Information:

Brákarbraut 13-15310 Borgarnes
Tel: +354 437 1600 and +354 895 5460
Open all year from 10:00 to 21:00 except December 24, 25, 26, 31 and January 1.

© 2015 by Iceland24