No man's land: how a free Iceland came into being

When the Norwegians of the Viking Age did not like the “power vertical”, they fled to a distant island and set up their own country without a king, which was ruled by one of the oldest parliaments in the world

The people on board stared at the big island with all their eyes, towards which their fine Norwegian ship was heading. It was not in vain that they sailed for many days: they found this place lost in the ocean in the farthest west, where their fellow countrymen traveled. They heard different things, mostly disturbing: that the winters on that island are snowy and long, and the soil is infertile. But no taxes, no submission to the newly-minted king Harald. Freedom…

No Man's Land: How a Free Iceland Came to Be


It is not known exactly which of the Europeans and when discovered this uninhabited island in the North Atlantic. Medieval sources report that before the arrival of the Scandinavian travelers, several Irish monks lived on it, who subsequently left those places willy-nilly or not.

The colonization of Iceland by Scandinavians began in the last three decades of the 9th century. The main sources of information about these events are “The Book of the Icelanders” and “The Book of the Occupation of the Land”, the creation of which is attributed to Ari the Wise, who lived in the 12th century. There are many details, but it is sometimes difficult for historians to separate fiction from reality in works created more than two centuries after the era of the settlement of the island and preserved in even later editions.

No man's land: how free Iceland came about

“The Book of the Occupation of the Land” retells the legend that the island was accidentally discovered by the brave Viking Naddod for the Scandinavians, whose ship, en route from Norway to the Faroe Islands, was carried away by the current to the open sea. Naddod and his companions managed to find land, on which they landed, and then sailed to the Faroe Islands. Later, the Swede Gardar proved that Iceland is an island by going around it on a ship. Iceland, which means “ice country”, called this place another Viking, Floki, who explored its fjords.

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Scandinavian detective

The Icelanders consider Ingolf Arnarson to be the first Scandinavian to permanently settle on the island, and, according to the Book of Occupation of the Land, a massacre because of a woman brought him to emigration.

The young Norwegian and his brother Leif went on raids with the three sons of a powerful man, Jarl Atli the Skinny. Once, one of the three brothers decisively claimed the hand and heart of Ingolf's sister, Helga. Supporters of the latter, especially Leiva, who himself had views of the girl, did not like it, the conflict escalated into armed skirmishes, as a result, the two sons of the jarl died. give him all their lands in Norway. Then Yngolf and Leif, who married Helga, decided to move to a newly discovered island.

No man's land: how a free Iceland came about

On the way to Iceland, the brothers split up. Leif and his comrades landed on the shores of a fjord they liked, but soon their slaves, captured in a raid on Ireland, plotted against the settlers, killed them and, taking the women with them, sailed away from the island.

Pious Ingolf chose a place for the estate in detail, with an eye to the will of heaven. According to custom, the leader of the settlers threw into the sea the carved wooden poles that had previously decorated the honorary seat of the head of the family in his house in Norway, and sent servants to track down where they would be washed ashore: this would be a good sign. During the search, the servants discovered the remains of Leif and his companions. Arriving at the crime scene, Ingolf conducted an investigation:

“I went out to the cape and saw the islands lying in the sea in the southwest; it occurred to him that the slaves might have fled there, since the boat had also disappeared. They sailed to the islands to look for slaves and found them in a place called the Isthmus. When Yngolf and his men approached them, they were sitting at the meal. The slaves were horrified and scattered in all directions. Ingolf killed them, freed the captives and continued to search for a place to settle. The pillars were discovered in the bay, which, because of the steam from the geysers, was later called the “bay of smokes”, that is, Reykjavik.

Today, the capital of Iceland of the same name is located there, and there is a monument to the founder, who showed that to live you can live happily ever after on the island.

Soon, encouraged by the example of Ingolf, other settlers also followed. People were attracted by vast pastures and rivers teeming with fish. There was not enough fertile soil in Iceland, but the climate from the end of the 9th century to the 1170s, during the period of a small climatic optimum, was milder than the current one. Most of the immigrants, like Ingolf, sailed from Norway. After all, they have a powerful incentive to leave their native places.

No man's land: how a free Iceland came into being

Four Guardians

The state emblem of Iceland, adopted in 1944, is held by four magical guardians of the country: a bull, a vulture, a dragon and a giant. According to the legend cited by Snorri Sturluson, once the Danish king Harald Blue-tooth was angry with the Icelanders and planned a military campaign, but first he sent a sorcerer to reconnoiter. He took the form of a whale and tried to swim to the island from four sides, but all the shores were guarded by hordes of spirits. The leaders of these creatures were a dragon, a huge bull, a big bird and a mountain giant. Such a powerful defense of the borders of Iceland impressed the sorcerer, and he reported to the king that there was nowhere for warships to safely moor on the island. The trip was cancelled.

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Why do we need a king?

According to the legend that the 13th-century author Snorri Sturluson cites in The Circle of the Earth, it turns out that the future King of Norway, Harald I, started a war to unite the disunited region under his rule, having fallen, as they say, on the “weak”.

The girl Guda he liked allegedly stated that the local princeling was too small a fry for her. And she added that “she will agree to become his wife not before he subjugates all of Norway for her sake and will rule it with the same sovereignty as King Eirik – the Swedish power or Gorm king – Denmark.”

The warrior accepted the challenge, vowing not to cut or comb his hair until he fulfilled the condition, which earned him the nickname Harald Shaggy. And only when he defeated the main enemies and conquered most of the country, he cut his hair, changing his “call sign” to Fair-Haired. And he married Guda.

No man's land: how a free Iceland came into being

No Man's Land: How a free Iceland emerged

No man's land: how a free Iceland came into being

Legend is legend, but Harald is indeed considered the unifier of Norway and its first king. Under him, in fact, Norway began to call the whole country. Many landowners, of course, did not want any royal power over them. As he subjugated region after region, Harald encountered resistance from the locals; in the south-west of the country, he had to wage a real war.

The decisive battle was the Battle of Havrsfjord, in which Harald defeated the main enemies. However, even after it, uprisings broke out in the country every now and then. Harald's opponents and their relatives, those whose lands were confiscated on his orders, as well as everyone who did not want to obey the new ruler and pay taxes to him, felt uncomfortable in the kingdom.

It's time to leave, we decided for ourselves to those years, many Norwegians. And the remote island of Iceland seemed to them an attractive place to start all over again. The Book of Occupation of the Land lists such immigrants dissatisfied with the expansion of Harald who settled in different areas. However, there were also those who did not quarrel with the king, but simply wanted vast possessions.

One way or another, the outflow of the population from Norway became so massive that the ruler became worried. According to medieval authors, he tried to prevent emigration and imposed a duty on leaving the country. According to the Book of the Occupation of the Land, Harald even made a cautious attempt to subdue Iceland. With this mission, he sent a close – Uni Gardarson.

He and his people settled in the east of the island, but the locals, after they found out about his intentions, staged a uniform boycott for the newcomer: “They began to treat him badly and did not want to sell him livestock or food, and he could not stay there.” Uni tried to move, but he failed to gain a foothold elsewhere. Finally, he was received as a guest by a noble settler, but the enterprise still ended ingloriously: the emissary of the king of Norway seduced the daughter of the owner of the house and was killed by an angry father.

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Common cause

The colonization of Iceland is unique in that it was peaceful. The immigrants got the island without the natives, so there was no need to fight for the territory. Consequently, the settlers did not need to consolidate and strong military leaders with squads and corresponding privileges. Each arrived in his own way, chose the sites they liked, settled in separate farms.

In Iceland, cities and even villages did not arise for centuries. Noble people landed on the island with numerous relatives, in-laws, freedmen and slaves, occupied territories for entire clans, sold and donated part of the land to potential supporters.

However, at a time when a multi-stage social hierarchy with princes and kings at its top was taking shape in the Scandinavian countries on the mainland, the structure of the society of the colonists, on the contrary, was simplified. The population of Iceland consisted mainly of free landowners, who had their own elite, which, however, did not stand out much. Settlers on a distant island could afford to live without a ruler, and at first without any signs of a state.

No man's land: how a free Iceland came into being

Colonization was completed by the middle of the 10th century, when free land of acceptable quality for life and agriculture ended. At this time, there was a need to develop common laws and create an island-wide authority.

Following the model of local people's meetings, Things, since 930 they began to convene the all-Icelandic Althing. Representatives of the regions once a year for two weeks came to him in the Thingvellir valley. There was a natural platform, called the Rock of the Law: the volume of the speech of the speaker, standing on it facing the basalt slab, increased when the sound was reflected from the stone. At the Althingi, they spoke out the legislative norms, which were developed there by a special board, sorted out litigations and resolved especially important issues.

The Althingi was the forerunner of all European parliaments, the legislature and the judiciary. But without the structures of executive power, including the apparatus of coercion, the Icelanders who fled from the king managed for quite a long time. It was distributed throughout the population; the implementation of the court decisions of the Althing was entrusted to the interested party – for example, the plaintiff, who was awarded a fine from the defendant, had to come to him himself for this. Such a system was not without failures, but it worked, in large part because there was great respect for the law in Icelandic society.

As the contemporary Scandinavian Jesse L. Bayock writes, “Anthropology has long established the notion of a ‘cultural focus’, which is the tendency of any society to be especially complex and sophisticated in some aspects and institutions against the background of the relative simplicity of others. When a society focuses, concentrates its efforts on the development of any one aspect of its culture, this aspect becomes a hotbed of innovation, since it is he, and not others, that is in the center of attention. Iceland's cultural focus is law and law, and therefore society kept chaos in check not with swords, but with legal decisions, agreement on which was achieved through extrajudicial agreements between the parties and debate in the courts.

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The era of democracy in Iceland lasted until the middle of the 13th century, later the country fell under the rule of Norway, and then Denmark. However, the Althing remained an organ of internal self-government. In modern Iceland, the unicameral parliament is called the Althingi, and it no longer sits in Thingvellir, but in the administrative building in Reykjavik.


Material published in Vokrug Sveta No. 10, October 2019, partially updated in October 2022< /em>

Natalia Ovchinnikova

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