Origin Story Of Iceland's Naming In Dispute - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Origin Story Of Iceland’s Naming In Dispute

Published January 19, 2016

Photos by
Owen Hunt

The legend of how Iceland got its name has been called into question, and historians cannot come to a consensus on the matter once and for all.

According to the Book of Settlements, Iceland was discovered by the Norwegian Viking Flóki Vilgerðarson, also known as Hrafna-Flóki (literally “Raven-Flóki”). Flóki reportedly released three ravens, and then sailed in the general direction that they flew, eventually discovering Iceland. He is also credited with having ascended a mountain in the Westfjords, seen a fjord full of ice, and in a fit of inspiration decided to name the new-found country Iceland.

Both of these accounts have been brought into dispute by Icelandic historians.

“It uncomfortably reminds me a lot of Noah using the doves [to find dry land],” Helgi Þorláksson, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Iceland, told attendees at a meeting of the Office of Medieval Studies, Vísir reports. “This is what people call a learned fiction. You go into the Bible, take out some ideas and put it in your writing.”

Gunnar Karlsson, another Professor Emeritus of History, disputes the naming story. He refers to a medieval Norse book which details how Vikings sailing between Ireland and Norway would use the visible glaciers of Iceland as a navigation mark. This, he says, is more likely the way that Iceland became known as Iceland.

“When they saw these glaciers to the west, then they knew they had sailed too far,” he said. “And they called this land Iceland – because they never saw any other part of it than the glaciers. I find this a much better explanation [for Iceland’s name] than the story of Hrafna-Flóki.”

However, scientific research has shown that climate conditions in Iceland at the time were such that it is not just possible but likely that fjords were packed with ice at that time Hrafna-Flóki was said to have lived there. Furthermore, there is archaeological evidence that someone – quite possibly Hrafna-Flóki – was living in the area where he is said to have lived at that time.

As records during the time of the Settlement were scant, and most of these accounts were written decades or even centuries after the fact, the entire truth of Iceland’s discovery and naming may never be known.


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