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History of Iceland, politics, religion, etc.
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History of Iceland, politics, religion, etc.
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The Icelanders

In the middle of the North Atlantic lies an insignificant
volcanic island, somewhat larger than Ireland, devoid of trees,
having both areas of fertility and areas locked in glacial ice
sheets. Artesian springs, warmed by volcanic activity, are inter-
woven through its bowels, warming the land in certain areas, and
giving rise in many areas to a mist from which its capital, Reyk-
jarvik, the bay of mists, is named. Embraced by offshoots of the
Gulf stream on its south and western coasts, its climate is mild,
the average temperature in January being around 31o F. Birds,
fish, seals and whales were plentiful there, as well as bog-iron
and an abundance of driftwood. Though poor in many resources,
there lived during the latter part of the Viking age, a people
both proud and, surprisingly, rich. The little isle was a prize
coveted by the kings of many lands until finally, in the latter
part of the thirteenth century, it was annexed by the King of Nor-

Discovery and Settlement

Of its first discovery, there are many differing tales, but
the version that is given the most collaboration is that of one
Faroe Islander, Naddod, who was said to have been blown off course
while enroute from Norway to his home on the Faroe Islands. He
wintered there, and on his return named it snowland. The first ex-
pedition for the purpose of finding the island was that of Floki,
who journeyed there with three ships, and there wintered, naming
it Iceland on his return. The island was not to his taste, so the
story goes.

To be sure, the Norsemen were not the first to populate the
island, for Irish monks had settled there, probably as early as
the seventh century, as they had done throughout the islands of
the North Atlantic. The Norsemen called them _papars_, and evidence
of their presence still exists today in various place-names of the
island. The papars soon left, not wishing to stay with heathens,
so it is told by the Icelanders, but it is generally assumed that
many were killed off, enslaved, and generally persecuted.

Beginning about 870 AD, a tremendous surge of colonization
began, consisting mostly of Western Norwegians, but also consist-
ing of many groups from such places as Ireland, the Hebridies, and
the Isle of Man. This period, lasting for about 50 years thereaf-
ter, was known as the Landnamatide (the time of land-taking), and
is detailed in the book, dated at around 1200, called the
_Landnamabok_. This relates the names of some 400 families which
settled there, and from many of the names, a certain Celtic influ-
ence may be inferred, as it has been by some scholars from the
style of the literature which later appeared (pfui).

The first settler of Iceland was a Norwegian, Ingjolf, from
Sunnrfjord on the western coast. It was he that named the area
that is now the capital, Reykjarvik (Mist-bay). He staked as his
claim practically the whole of Reykjarvik, and built his farm
where the city now lies. The settlers chose the site of their
settlement by the custom of throwing the timbers which they used
as the High-seat pillars [1] into the sea, just off shore, and fol-
lowing them until they touched shore.

The most heavily populated areas of the Island were the
south and western coastlines, probably because these were the
most fertile. However, by 930, the end of the colonization period,
just about every fertile portion of the lowlands and coastline had
been settled.

As to why this remote island was populated so rapidly, the
pat answer is the political state of affairs in Norway at the end
of the Ninth century. Harald Finehair (Haraldr inn harfagri) had
finally subjugated and unified Norway, to the undoubted dis-
gruntlement of many chieftains. Many powerful men, it is gener-
ally believed, rather than 'cow-tow' to the whims of the new king,
left for the new found land, to settle and retain their beloved

This explanation was no doubt a factor in the colonization
of Iceland, but leaves many questions unanswered. In the first
place, many of the settlers, as I have said, came from the British
Isles, and it certainly doesn't explain why Haraldr and his court
gave aid to many who wished to settle Iceland.

In the British Isles, the Danes had decided that the south
of England was not enough, and had made the attempt to settle in
the rich lands of Ireland, while the Irish, fed up with the blot
of Norwegian tyranny (as opposed to Irish tyranny, I suppose), saw
in the Danish newcomers a new and valuable ally. The two joined
forces and managed to temporarily chase the Norwegians back to
their bases in Scotland, the Hebridies, and Man, already heavily
populated. Though this sad turn for the Norwegian forces was only
temporary (heh, heh), it must have encouraged many to take the
course of least resistance, and settle the unpopulated, supposedly
fertile lands of Iceland.

Though it is no doubt true that Haraldr drove many dissi-
dents from his new kingdom, and many settled on Iceland, it is my
belief that the major cause of the exodus from Norway was caused
simply by overpopulation. With settlement in Ireland and the
Scottish Isles no longer feasible, population pressure must surely
have been a problem prior to the landnamatide.

But for whatever reason, a mass exodus occurred from the
west of Norway, which towards the end of the period, began to de-
populate that land. Haraldr, concerned now that his kingdom was
becoming emptied, imposed a tax upon those leaving for Iceland,
which seems to contradict the theory of Haraldr's persecution.

The first colonists built their farms and raised corn, pigs,
and sheep. Sheep flourished on the island, which gave rise to the
chief import of the Icelanders, woolen cloth. They found a scar-
city of wood, using the driftwood as rapidly as it came ashore,
and found that they could not grow enough grain, so flour and tim-
ber became their chief imports.

The settlers were all wealthy families, probably of high
ranking in their homelands, since there was an overabundance of
silver. During the 10th century, six ells of wool (roughly 3
yards) had an exchange rate of one ounce of silver, yet within a
hundred years, the rate of exchange seems to be some 40 ells to
the ounce.

The early settlers had no real need of government, each fam-
ily an autocracy, dealing with neighbors by mutual consent. Fam-
ily feuds, which the sagas relate in great detail, seemed to be
the only form of civil unrest on the island, for no evidence
seems to exist regarding any attempts to gain temporal power by
any single household of force until the middle of the 13th cen-

By the time of the second generation, however, some adminis-
trative government was required, so an expedition was sent to Nor-
way to learn the newly instituted Gulathing Law, which was
converted for use in Iceland. Aside from the Danelaw, instituted
and written by the Christianized Northumbrian Vikings, Icelandic
law is the best-known law code that is detailed to any extent.

Government and Legal System

Sometime around 950 AD, Iceland was divided into four dis-
tricts, referred to by the Icelanders as Quarters. The largest was
the Eastern quarter, consisting of practically the entire eastern
half of the island. The Southern quarter was the southwest quad-
rant, extending from the halfway down the south coast to the east
coast just north of Reykjarvik. The Western quarter was the small
peninsula in the northwest quadrant of the island, and the North-
ern quarter was the north-central coastline area. The boundaries
were probably set by the number of settlements in each area rather
that any natural boundaries, since an even number of representa-
tives were chosen from each district.

The nation's legislative and judicial assembly took place
once a year in the summer. [2] The site of the _Althing_, which was the
name of the general assembly, was a beautiful open area around a
small lake, at the source of a river which often divided the dif-
fering factions. As said, the Althing met in the summer for a
fortnight, and there the law was amended and cases were brought to
trial. There existed a _Domr_ (judicial court) and a _logretta_(leg-
islative court)

Presiding over the Althing was the _logsogdomadr_, or
law-speaker, who was elected for a three year term by the chief-
tains, and was required to know the constitution, and speak one
third of it at each Althing. Thus, the law was completely recited
by each law-speaker during his term of office.

The legislative body, until 965 AD, consisted of 39 members,
called _godi_, meaning priest. They represented members of various
households on Iceland that were deemed outstanding for one reason
or another, wealth, power, acumen, etc. The godi had both civil
and religious responsibilities in his local district, and could be
fined or impeached should he fail to do them.

Marriage, divorce, settlements, etc. were presided over by
the godi, whom operated locally in groups of three. At assem-
blies, one would function solely as spiritual leader, and bless
the gathering. These triumvirs would elect the judges for the
local courts as well as the national assembly. Each godi would
nominate twelve judges, for a total of 36.

Each district, or quarter, was divided into three areas, each
with a specific meeting place, and each represented by three
godi, who presided over these meetings. The northern quarter was
the exception, having four meeting places and therefore twelve
godi. At the Althing, this would give a total of 39 godi. After
965, an extra trio of godi were elected for each of the south,
west, and eastern quarters, and another nine godi were elected
that did not participate in local things.

At the Althing, 36 judges for each of four courts were
elected, each court being a court of last appeal to their respec-
tive quarters. If a deadlock occurred in these courts, the pro-
cess could go no further.

At around 1000-1005 AD, a fifth court was established, in
which a majority decision, rather than unanimous decision, was re-
quired to find the case. Cases of procedural violation were also
tried in the fifth court, which tried those bringing a case in-
correctly, using the wrong quarter court, failing to have proper
witnesses, etc.

A settler could often find profit and fame by taking up the
law as a secondary profession, but one could find oneself on the
wrong side in a pitched battle, for representing the wrong person.
Judgements made at any level in the courts depended entirely on
the goodwill of the participants. If a judgement did not suit ei-
ther the plaintiff or the defendant, then a feud would often re-
sult, sometimes igniting into bloodshed before the local assembly
disbanded. A good example of this is in the recounting of the
trial of the burners of Njal and his family, in _Njal's Saga_. The
entire work, those highly innacurate in many places, gives us an
overall taste of the legal "profession".

Such was the case for the entire constitution of the Ice-
landers. Nowhere was there any kind of enforcement arm, no in-
strumentality of authoritative will. Penalties were assessed only
for damage to one's neighbhors or a failure of administrative du-
ties. The only truly punitive action that was taken against a man
on Iceland was to declare him out-of-law, usually for a period of
1 to 3 years. Outlaws could not participate in assemblies, or use
the courts, and, if murdered, the murderer could not be forced to
make reparations. The outlaw was outside of the law, could not be
protected by it, and conversely, could not be held to it.
Outlawry was usually followed by attempted murder, so those out-
lawed usually went abroad for their exile, and often did quite
well for themselves.

So, on a small island in the North Atlantic, there are a
group of settlers, all fiercely independent, most having been
chieftains and nobles on their homeland, who live in a state of
coexistence, civil war held back only by sufferance and mutual
aggreement. Each freeman considers himself a noble, and as it
turns out, is treated as one abroad, in the various lands of the
Norse sphere of influence. This curious reference to the favor-
able treatment of Icelanders in various sagas will be discussed in
the next article.


This equilibrium was to last only three hundred years, after
whichcivil war racked the island, until Iceland was annexed by
the Kingdomof Norway in 1211 AD.

[1]High-seat pillars - Two pillars, placed side by side at one
end of thehall, between which the seat at which the head of
the household sat wasplaced.

[2] Some sources have it that the Althing met twice, once in the
spring andonce in the fall, but the majority of sources claim
that it was annual.It is probable that the quarter things met
biannually or more often.


Brondsted, Johannes, _The Vikings_, 1965

Foote, P.G., _The Viking Achievement_, 1970

Foote, P.G., _On the Saga of the Faroe Islanders_, 1965

Johannesson, Jon, _Islendinga Saga_, 1956-8

Magnusson, Magnus, and Hermann Palsson trans., _Njal's Saga_, 1960

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