Modern day Icelanders have a great deal of pride in their Viking history and heritage. Much of the country’s early history is recorded in the Landnamabok (Book of Settlements), one of the early sagas. While there is some debate as to the motives of the first widespread Nordic settlement, convention holds that Norsemen fleeing the tyranny of the Norwegian King Harald Haarfagri (‘Fair-haired’), and landed in Iceland.
The first permanent settler of Iceland was Ingolfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking who around 874 AD made his home where Reykjavik now stands. In 930 AD the Viking settlers of Iceland founded the world’s first parliament, known as the Althing. They established a constitution based on individual freedom and land ownership, with local chieftains gathering annually to elect leaders at Thingvellir, a natural amphitheater formed out of lava.
It was a Viking era filled with optimism, even for Erik the Red, who arrived in Iceland after being banished from Norway for committing murder. Unfortunately Erik the Red committed murder again in Iceland and was to be banished from there as well, so he gathered a fleet of 25 Viking long ships and led a colonial expedition west to Greenland.
Before he left Iceland, Erik fathered the most famous Icelandic Viking, Leif Eiriksson who was also known as ‘Leif the Lucky.’ In the year 1000 Leif Eiriksson sailed even further west than his father, becoming the first European to reach North America, which he called Vinland.
Also in the year 1000 Iceland adopted Christianity, followed by a prosperous period as described in the classic Icelandic Sagas. In 1262 Norwegian King Haakon asserted control over the island by instituting devastating taxes and trade embargos that were upheld when Iceland was taken over by Danish rule under a Scandinavian union.
For over six centuries Iceland was plagued with abysmal poverty, disease, starvation and natural disasters that nearly extinguished the small country. After so many centuries of hard times, an independence movement began in the early 19th century and reached full force under the outspoken leadership of a nationalist named Jon Sigurdsson. His efforts helped end the trade monopoly in 1854, and domestic autonomy was established in 1874, followed by home rule in 1904 and limited sovereignty in 1918. Ties to the Danish crown were fully broken in 1944 and today Icelandic Independence Day is celebrated on June 17, the birth date of Jon Sigurdsson.
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