The Origins of the Icelanders

The Viking Age (800-1066) is the most famous period of Scandinavian history. At that time, the Norse seafarers took control of all the sea passages around northern and western Europe, as well the water trade routes in the east and southwards to Russia. They even went as far south as the Mediterranean Sea. On their voyages around the oceans, they discovered and settled uninhabited islands, among them Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

Norse Origins
In The Book of the Icelanders (Íslendingabók), the first Icelandic historian, Ari Þorgilsson the Wise (1068-1148), relates the following:

Iceland was first settled out of Norway at the time when Ivar Ragnarsson Shaggy Breek killed the English King Edmund the Holy. That was seventy winters into the nine hundredth year after the birth of Christ, as described in his saga. There was a Norseman called Ingólfr, who can truly be said to have first travelled to Iceland when Haraldr the Fairhaired was sixteen winters old and a second time a few winters later. He settled in the south, in Reykjavík. (the Icelandic version of Íslendingabók which can be found in Volume 1 of the Íslenzk Fornrit series)

There are reports of seafarers who came to the island before Ingólfur’s voyage and who stayed there over the winter. One of these was Floki Vilgerðarson, also known as “Hrafna” or Raven-Floki. He was a Norwegian viking who used the raven as his sailing guide, on account of which he acquired his nickname. He had intended to settle in Iceland but returned to Norway after a difficult winter. It was Hrafna-Floki who gave Iceland its name.
    According to The Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), Ingólfur Arnarson established himself in Iceland in 874. However, it is the Irish monks who are thought to have been the first men to settle the country in the eighth and ninth centuries, although there are few remains or remnants of their settlement. Most indications are that the majority of settlers came from Norway, but there is also talk of the mixing of Norse and Celtic blood when the Norsemen went on Viking raids.
    Place names throughout the country bear witness to the Norse origins of the Icelandic people, and some places are named after the Norse gods, such as Þórshöfn (Thor’s harbour) and Þórsmörk (Thor’s pasture), while other place names point to the nation’s Celtic origins, for instance Bekansstaðir (Beecan’s place), Njálsstaðir (Nial’s place) and Írafell (Mount Irish).

Genetic Research into Icelandic Origins
Not everyone is as convinced of the supposed Norse origins of the Icelandic people, and some believe that recent research into the genetics of men on the one hand and women on the other lends support to their doubts. The research has concentrated on genetic mitochondria which are inherited in the female line alone, from mother to child. Since almost all of the inherited genetic mitochondrion of Icelanders has been passed directly from women of the settlement period, it is possible through comparative research to work out their origins.
    The first results to come out of the research, which is one of the most extensive genetic research projects ever conducted in one country in order to investigate its origins, and done by DeCode in collaboration with the University of Oxford, indicate that 63% of Icelandic female settlers were of Celtic origin and had ancestral lines traceable to the British Isles. On the other hand, only about 37% of them were of Nordic origins. However, the research into male Y-chromosomes (inherited via the male line) revealed that a much greater percentage of male settlers were of Nordic origins, or 80%, and 20% have origins which can be traced to the British Isles.

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The Vikings - A True Story?

What's the story

The Vikings are possibly best known as brutal robbers. Today there are many pictures and stories about the Vikings, stories that describe how they traveled around the world, frightening the life out of people. This is not the true story of the Vikings. The Vikings were mostly peaceful traders. However, most of the people who lived in the Nordic Countries during this period were not Vikings. They were farmers, hunters and craftsmen.


The Viking Age

Mother Unna erected a rune stone in Uppland, a powerful woman trader was buried on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren and a prosperous farmer from Dalarna counted his wealth in iron. 

The years between 800 and 1050 are the bestknown period of Scandinavian prehistory, the Viking period. The tales of Viking voyages are known far and wide, as are the tales of their trading and pillaging. Nowadays the entire population in that period, both peaceful travelling trading families and colonists and the farming population, are called Vikings, though strictly speaking the term only applied to the minority who went off “on viking”. To most Scandinavians, the farming communities they lived in were the centre of things. Even so, the Viking period was a time of change, and the whole of society was fundamentally transformed by contacts with the outside world. Trade gathered speed, as witness large hoards like that found on the outskirts of Stockholm. This included jewellery and costume details from both Russia and the Moslem empire, the Caliphate. Some of the mountings came from an oriental riding coat. 

The aristocrats

The social hierarchy of the Viking period is described in the Poetic Edda, a collection of verses and apothegms written down a few hundred years later in Iceland. Kings and jarls (earls) rank highest in it – they were the upper class of the time. It is from their world we find most artefacts.
     Aristocrats, both male and female, owned exclusive gaming pieces and glass beakers, beads of carneol and rock crystal, tin-lined wine jugs, and quantities of jewellery and coins. These things came both from the Orient and from various parts of Europe, as a result of trade or, sometimes, warlike enterprises.
     Most of the population lived by farming, hunting and fishing. Occasionally they would visit the nearest trading point to sell agricultural produce and perhaps purchase superior craft products and some exclusive luxury article. 


      Iron became an increasingly important metal from the 6th century BC and throughout the rest of prehistory. It was obtainable within Sweden, partly in the form of bog ore, and it revolutionised the fabrication of both tools and weapons. A member of one of the Viking families that must have played a leading part in iron trading between north and south is buried, with an impressive array of grave gifts, in Dalarna.

Further north was the important fur trade. “Finnar” an old Norse word for the Saami people specialised in hunting. Winter hides in particular became an important commercial commodity for export further south.
By the end of the Viking period, Christianity had taken root in central parts of Scandinavia. 11th century rune stones are inscribed with the Cross of Christ. 

~ Weapons - Arms and Tools ~

Viking Weapons

Viking weapons were mostly of three sorts, spears, swords, axes and to some extent bows. Of these the spear seems to have been the most common of them.

Every free man was expected to own a weapon. As the spear was by far the cheapest weapon around, it was also the most common one. Axes were also popular, especially as they were also common tools on the farm.

Viking swords were popular weapons and can be found in many burial mounts. But as they were expensive to produce, the possession of a sword was quite often a status symbol. As such swords were looked upon as a priced possession and good ones were often given names.

The Vikings usually fought on foot and in a loose formation. As such the Viking armor would be rather light and designed to protect each viking warrior independently.

The Viking shields were round and would thus differ from the square Roman type, that was designed for a close formation of disciplined soldiers, the Viking shield being smaller and more flexible in single combat.

When it comes to armor, the viking armor was usually light, but at the same time strong. Plate armor was not used, instead the Vikings would wear mail armor or thick leather armor.

One of the strongest viking myths is related to the Viking helmets. Contrary to believe, the Viking helmets did not have horns or other excessive decorations. They did have some decorative carvings and facial protections.


~ Ships and Navigation ~

The Viking ship was perhaps the greatest technical and artistic achievement of the European dark ages. These fast ships had the strength to survive ocean crossings while having a draft of as little as 50cm (20 inches), allowing navigation in very shallow water.

Ships were an important part of Viking society, not only as a means of transportation, but also for the prestige that it conferred on her owner and skipper. Their ships permitted the Vikings to embark on their voyages of trading, of raiding, and of exploration.

Images of ships show up on jewelry, on memorial stones, and on coins from the Viking age. Some people were buried in ships, or ship-like settings made of stones, during the Viking age.


The picture to the left shows a sketch of the side view and hull section, and a photo of a 9th century ship that was recovered early in the 20th century in Oseberg. The ship was part of a very rich burial and is now on display near Oslo.

The Oseberg ship was once thought to be more representative of a royal yacht, rather than a true war ship, but more recent research suggests she was quite capable of sailing in open ocean.

In the 1970's, five 11th century ships were found and recovered from the Skuldelev narrows in Denmark, giving us more examples of the variety of ships used in the Viking age. These ships had been intentionally scuttled, probably to block the channel during a raid.

Two different classes of Viking era ships were found: warships called langskip and merchant ships called knörr.


Typically, a warship is narrower, longer, and shallower than a knörr, and is powered by oars, supplanted by sail. The warship is completely open and is built for speed and maneuverability. In contrast, a knörr is partially enclosed and powered primarily by sail. Cargo carrying capability is the primary concern.

The two Skuldelev warships are narrower and less spacious than the Oseberg ship. A sketch of the smaller of the two ships is shown to the right. She is 17.4m long (57 ft) and 2.6m broad (8.5 ft). These ships are probably more typical of the kind of vessel that was used by the Vikings on their raids.

A typical warship might have had 16 rowers on each side.

The crew's shields may have been arrayed along the gunwales, held in place by a shield rack outboard of the ship. This kept them out of the way, but also provided some slight additional protection against wind and waves.

The photos show the Íslendingur, a replica ship that sailed from Iceland to North America in the year 2000.

Both coins and pictures stones from the Viking age depict shields arrayed along the gunwale of a Viking ship. Additionally, the sagas say that shields were displayed. In Brennu-Njáls saga, Kári and his ten ships rowed hard to join a sea battle, with row after row of shields on display along the sides of the ships.

Several pieces of evidence suggest that shields were not routinely displayed while underway. On some ships, the shields interfere with the oarholes, preventing the oars from being used. Shield racks, to which the shields were fastened, were not robust, and probably were incapable of holding the shields securely in rough seas. Last, modern sailors of replica ships say they are very impractical.

The inboard side of the shield rack on the replica Viking ship Vésteinn is shown to the left. In this interpretation, wedges hold the shield in place in the rack.

Perhaps shields were displayed only for battle, or to make the ship look especially fine when approaching land. Landnámabók tells of Hella-Björn Herfinnsson who sailed into Bjarnarfjörður with his ship lined with shields. Afterwards, he was called Skjalda-Björn (Shield-Björn).

The oars of the Gokstad ship varied in length from 5.3 to 5.85 meters (about 17 to 19ft) according to where they were used on the ship. The oarholes were not a uniform distance above the waterline, and so the length of each oar was chosen so that the blades all hit the water in unison.

The oars were made of pine with a narrow blade, which makes for an efficient, lightweight oar. The photos show the oars for the Íslendingur, which was no longer afloat when the photos were taken.


The ship has been on display at an open air museum for several years, but in the fall of 2008, she was moved indoors to a new museum, Víkingaheimar at Reykjanesbær in Iceland.

The oarholes of the Gokstad ship were only 40cm (16 inches) above the deck. Most likely, each crewman's sea chest doubled as a rowing bench.

Oarholes were sealed when not in use by covers that rotated in place to keep out water.

The slot cut into the oarhole that is visible in the upper photo to the left allowed the blade of the oar to pass through the oarhole so oars could be deployed entirely inboard of the ship  The slot was located in a position that received minimal stress while rowing, reducing the chance for wear or damage to the strakes or to the oars from the force of the stroke.


Warships typically had minimal decking, with removable planks under the rowers laid on the crossbeams, and small raised platforms at the bow and stern. When anchored or in harbor, an awning was arrayed overhead to provide some protection from the elements.

The single square rigged sail allowed sailing close to the wind. This ability, combined with the capability to row during adverse wind conditions, allowed Norse sailors to run in to shore, engage the enemy on land, and escape retribution at will.

The Helge Ask is a modern replica of the smaller of the two Skuldelev warships. She is based at the Roskilde Ship Museum in Denmark. They report that with a full crew of 24 at the oars, she is capable of a speed of 4 knots. But only for about 15 minutes, which is when the crew collapses from exhaustion. For longer stretches, 2-3 knots is probably her top speed when being rowed.

Another clue to the speed capabilities of these ships comes from linguistic studies. The term víka sjóvar is the distance a man should work the oars before he should be released. The distance was set to 1000 strokes, about two hours work. The modern term is equivalent to about 4 nautical miles, implying that a speed of 2 knots was typical. The pace works out to one stroke every 5 to 7 seconds, depending on how one interprets the ancient texts.

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