What was known about Iceland in the world outside before the time of the Viking settlements?

Asked By

Helgi Hrafn Guðmundsson


According to the traditional view of Icelandic history, the country was settled during the years 870-930. There can be no doubt that knowledge of the country went back somewhat before this, perhaps to the time of the major advances in shipbuilding that occurred in Scandinavia in the 8th century, and even to the early years of that century or latter years of the 7th. Significant expansion westwards from the Scandinavian homelands seems to have got under way late in the 8th century, with the first recorded Viking raid on Lindisfarne in N.W.England in 793 and the settlement of Orkney and Shetland by the men of the North a little earlier. The Faeroe Islands appear to have been settled some time around 800.

The earliest definite written source to mention Iceland is an account by the Irish monk Dicuil from around 825, at a time when the North was still illiterate. According to Dicuil, there were Irish monks living there at the time, so far as can be seen untroubled and in peace. However, the presence of Irish monks in no way precludes the possibility, as some historians have suggested recently, that there were also fishing colonies in Iceland at the same time peopled by men of Scandinavian origin, many years before the permanent settlements; Iceland is quite large enough for there to have been various kinds of settlements scattered around it without significant contact between them in the years before the systematic settlement got under way.

A map of Iceland from 1547. Probably the first time that a special map of the country appears in a printed book.

But was the existence of Iceland known long before this? Was, for example, the Greek explorer Pytheas speaking of Iceland when he described the land of ‘Thule’ in his book written around 300 BC? There are various things that argue against it: for instance, the Thule of Pytheas’s account is an inhabited land, and there is absolutely nothing to indicate that there were people living in Iceland 300 years before the time of Christ! However, other parts of his description fit Iceland well. Nothing can be said about this with scientific certainty; all we can do is accept the conjectures or reject them. On the other hand, there is of course every possibility that ships plying the northern seas may from time to time have been blown off course and reached Iceland by chance, for instance Mediterranean merchants in search of amber or tin, or simply en route for Britain after it became a Roman colony in AD 44.

But the likelihood of permanent human habitation in Iceland at such an early date is negligible. In this context it is worth bearing in mind that the lands lying along the Atlantic coasts of north and northwestern Europe were very sparsely populated right up until around AD 600. It was these lands that were being settled up to this time and there was no need to look out into the ocean for lands to settle before the settlement of mainland north and northwestern Europe was more or less complete.

Translated by Nicholas Jones.

Picture: Forn Íslandskort

Um þessa spurningu


Published 5.3.2005


Answers in English


Gísli Gunnarsson (1938-2020). „What was known about Iceland in the world outside before the time of the Viking settlements?“. The Icelandic Web of Science 5.3.2005. (Skoðað 25.6.2024).


Gísli Gunnarsson (1938-2020)prófessor emeritus í sagnfræði við HÍ


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