There’s a captivating allure to Iceland, a land where fire meets ice. The name of this intriguing Nordic island raises questions that touch on the narratives of history, geography, and culture. The Icelandic Sagas, ancient manuscripts detailing the adventures of Viking settlers, provide us valuable insights into the origin of Iceland’s name.
- Related reading: Guides to Icelandic culture
Historical Backdrop of Iceland’s Naming
Vikings and Their Exploration Era
The Viking Age, spanning from 800 to 1050 AD, was a period of expansive exploration and territorial conquests. One such explorer, the famous Erik the Red, father of Leif Erikson, played a significant role in shaping the northern landscapes’ nomenclature, including Iceland and Greenland.
The Story of Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson, the Navigator
Flóki Vilgerðarson, a skilled navigator and a central character in the Icelandic Sagas, set sail from his homeland in Norway, driven by tales of a land to the west, previously discovered by Naddoddr and Garðar Svavarsson. Accompanied by his family and crew, they embarked on a treacherous journey across the unchartered northern seas.
Flóki, ever the innovative mariner, brought three ravens onboard, intending to release them as guides when the sight of land disappeared. When he believed they were nearing the new territory, he released the ravens. The first flew back to Norway, the second hovered over the sea, but the third, to Flóki’s anticipation, flew northwest, pointing them in the direction of their new discovery.
Upon reaching the new land, they first landed in a verdant fjord teeming with life during the summer. Initially, they were hopeful. Flóki named the place as ‘Vatnsfjörður,’ or ‘Water fjord.’ They decided to stay through the winter, unsuspecting of the severe conditions that lay ahead.
Winter fell, harsh and unyielding. The fjord, once welcoming and abundant, turned into a cruel trap as their livestock starved to death, succumbing to the freezing temperatures and the scarcity of fodder. The conditions were far beyond what the hardy Vikings were accustomed to in their homelands, taking a heavy toll on their morale and sustenance.
In the spring, Flóki climbed a high mountain to survey his surroundings. His heart sank as he saw a fjord full of icebergs, a sight that confirmed his worst fears. He stood there, on the precipice, taking in the view of the land that seemed covered in ice, a vast snow land stretching as far as the eye could see. The land seemed to him to be a realm of ice.
He returned, weary and heartbroken, with a bitter taste of what this newfound land offered. Despite the verdant summers, the ferocity of the winter had marked the land in his perception. He decided to call it ‘Ísland’ or ‘Iceland,’ a name that immortalized his cold reception and the inhospitable winter he had endured.
The legacy of Flóki’s journey, encapsulated in the name ‘Iceland,’ became emblematic of the struggle between man and nature, a reminder of the challenging conditions our ancestors braved in their pursuit of exploration and survival.Geographic Justification for Iceland’s Name
Iceland’s Ice-Scape: More Than Meets the Eye
Iceland’s moniker is not entirely misleading. Approximately 11% of its landmass is covered in ice, with formidable glaciers like Vatnajökull and Langjökull symbolizing the country’s wintry grandeur. These vast ice expanses, coupled with a vision of a snow land from a mountain top, influenced Flóki’s decision to call their country ‘Iceland.’
The Paradox of Fire and Ice
Iceland is a remarkable juxtaposition of ice-coated landscapes and geothermal hotspots, housing about 130 volcanoes. Despite its frosty name, the milder climate due to the Gulf Stream results in an environment that is not as icy as one might imagine.
Cultural Perspective on Iceland’s Name
The Significance of Names in Norse Culture
Names in the Old Norse culture were imbued with symbolic significance and often conveyed characteristics of a place or person. Iceland was initially called Garðarshólmur, ‘Garðar’s Isle,’ named after Garðar Svavarsson, a Swede who was among the first settlers. However, the harsh experiences of Flóki Vilgerðarson, reflected in the Icelandic Sagas, led to the land being renamed ‘Iceland.’
The Impact of Iceland’s Name on Its Global Image
Interestingly, Erik th Red, exiled due to a feud, found a land mostly green due to a warm period and decided to call it ‘Greenland.’ He hoped the appealing name would attract more settlers. Conversely, Iceland’s icy name presents an image of an enigmatic and adventurous destination, attracting tourists worldwide.
Contrasting Icelandic and Greenlandic Names
The Greenlanders call their country ‘Kalaallit Nunaat,’ meaning ‘Land of the People.’ The contrasting names of ‘Greenland’ and ‘Iceland’ have sparked curiosity for centuries. Ironically, Greenland is more ice-covered, while Iceland is significantly greener.
Why is Iceland called Iceland?
From the tales of the Icelandic Sagas to the frosty vistas and rich cultural symbolism, the naming of ‘Iceland’ offers a captivating study. It illustrates how the interplay of history, geography, and human perception shapes a country’s identity. The intriguing story behind Iceland’s name, further amplified by the comparison with Greenland, serves as a reminder of the narratives etched in a name.