Why Is Iceland Called Iceland?

In Culture, Icelandic Culture by Skjalden

Have you ever wondered why Iceland, with its green landscapes and geothermal springs, is called Iceland? It seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? The name suggests a land covered in ice, which isn’t entirely true for this North Atlantic island.

Iceland’s name has puzzled many over the years. Despite its chilly name, Iceland is far from a frozen wasteland. In fact, much of its terrain is lush and green, thanks to geothermal activity and a surprisingly mild climate, at least along the coast. So, why is Iceland called Iceland? The answer lies in its history, a tale of discovery, naming, and a bit of marketing savvy from its early settlers.

The story begins with the island’s discovery by Norse explorers in the late 9th century. According to historical texts, the first known settler was a Norwegian named Flóki Vilgerðarson. Flóki journeyed to the island with the intent of setting up a home there.

Hrafna-Flóki’s voyage was marked by both tragedy and discovery. After his daughter drowned near the Shetland Islands, he continued to the Faroe Islands, where he used ravens to navigate towards Iceland, earning him the nickname “Raven-Flóki.

However, his stay was marked by harsh winters, and after losing his livestock to the cold, he climbed a mountain only to see a fjord filled with icebergs. Disheartened, he named the land “Ísland,” which translates to “Ice Land” in English.

This moment of frustration from Flóki has left a lasting legacy on the island’s name. Flóki did eventually return to Iceland, becoming one of its permanent settlers, which underscores the complex relationship early Norse explorers had with the island.

iceland landscape

But Flóki wasn’t the only one to leave his mark on Iceland’s history. Before him, Naddoddur, a Viking explorer, stumbled upon the island and called it “Snæland” (Snowland) because of the snow he saw. After Flóki, the most notable figure in Iceland’s settlement was Ingólfr Arnarson, traditionally recognized as the first permanent Norse settler in Iceland.

Around AD 874, Ingólfr and his family made their home in what is now Reykjavík, the capital city. Unlike Flóki, Ingólfr’s settlement thrived, marking the beginning of Iceland’s journey from a rugged wilderness to a thriving community.

The settlement of Iceland didn’t happen in isolation. It was part of the larger Viking Age, a period of Scandinavian exploration and expansion. The Norse people, coming from present-day Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, were looking for new lands to cultivate and settle.

Iceland’s strategic location in the North Atlantic made it an attractive spot for these explorers. The island’s fertile land, ample fishing grounds, and geothermal resources offered much to these early settlers, despite the misleading name.

iceland landscape

Ownership of Iceland has been a unique aspect of its history. Unlike many other countries that have passed through the hands of various empires and kingdoms, Iceland was essentially settled as a free state. The early governance was established through the Althing, one of the world’s oldest parliamentary institutions, founded around AD 930. This assembly of chieftains helped manage the island’s affairs and maintained relative independence for centuries.

However, Iceland’s geopolitical status changed over the years. In the 13th century, internal conflicts weakened its independence, leading to Norway’s rule. The Kalmar Union later brought it under Danish control in the 14th century, where it remained until the 19th century. Despite these changes in rulership, the spirit of the Icelandic people remained resilient, eventually leading to independence from Denmark in 1944. Through all these transitions, the name Iceland remained, a testament to its early history and Flóki’s initial impression.

The backgrounds of those who played significant roles in Iceland’s early days are varied. Flóki Vilgerðarson, despite his initial hardships, is remembered for his pioneering spirit. Ingólfr Arnarson, with his successful settlement, symbolizes the beginning of Iceland’s transformation into a vibrant community. These individuals, along with countless unnamed settlers, shaped Iceland into what it is today.

Source: The narrative on Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson, who named Iceland after its icy fjords, is captured in the Landnámabók. This document details the Norse settlement of Iceland.