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How did Iceland get its name?

Ask IR

How did Iceland get its name?

Q: I have often wondered how exactly Iceland got its name. Of course the answer is superficially obvious but I’m wondering why the ‘ice’ was advertised out front like that when there were many possible alternatives.

For instance, considering the island’s volcanic origin, mightn’t it just as easily have been given the name ‘Fireland’ (now I’m picturing a completely ahistorical country-naming debate in the old Alþingi: the Fire Party are producing their best fiery rhetoric but the larger Ice Party remain solidly unthawed in their determination to name their new country Iceland!).

The naming intention was perhaps to discourage new settlers because the settlement was felt to be large enough already... or maybe, as might be the case with many countries, like a snowball aimed at a barn door, the name ‘Iceland’ was simply thrown at the newly-found island and just happened to stick?

Sean, Northern Ireland

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A: As stated in the answer to an earlier question on the subject, Iceland is said to have been named by a Norwegian Viking called Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson.

According to Landnáma (‘The Book of Settlements’), Hrafna-Flóki sailed to Iceland from Norway with his family and livestock and planned to settle in the new country he had heard so much about.

He was called Hrafna-Flóki, or Raven-Flóki, because he brought three ravens with him on his journey to Iceland to help him find his way.

Hrafna-Flóki is believed to have sailed ashore in Vatnsfjörður fjord on Barðaströnd, the southern shore of the West Fjords peninsula, in about 865 AD.

Ancient remnants of the house which Hrafna-Flóki is said to have built, Flókatóftir, are located near the pier in Brjánslækur.

Vatnsfjörður was rich in fish and the settlers were so preoccupied with fishing that they forgot to make hay for their livestock and other necessary preparations for the winter. Hrafna-Flóki’s animals died as a result and in spring the settlers decided to leave the country.

Before leaving, Hrafna-Flóki hiked up to the mountains and saw that Vatnsfjörður was filled with pack ice (other sources say he was looking at Ísafjarðardjúp). He therefore named the country Ísland (‘Iceland’) and it has been known as such ever since. Hrafna-Flóki later returned and became one of Iceland’s permanent settlers.

Before Hrafna-Flóki gave the country a name that stuck, two other Norse seafarers had named it too.

The first Norseman to discover the country was Naddoddur Ástvaldsson from Norway. Upon his departure, snow fell on the mountains and so he named the country Snæland (‘Snowland’).

He was followed by Swedish Viking Garðar Svavarsson. After one winter in North Iceland, he humbly named the country Garðarshólmur (‘Isle of Garðar’)—after himself.

Another ancient name that has been associated with Iceland is Thule, first mentioned in the writings of Greek explorer Pytheas in On the Ocean of a region in the far north. However, Thule may also apply to Greenland, Norway, Orkney, Shetland or Scandinavia.

I’ve heard your theory that Iceland was named Iceland to repel other settlers while Greenland’s name was intended to lure other settlers to the country before. It’s interesting but I don’t know if there’s much truth in it.

There may not be much truth in the official story either, challenged by artist and academic Ægir Geirdal in an article in Morgunblaðið in 2000.

According to some written sources, Irish monks lived in the country before the Norse settlers came and chased them all away.

They were called papar and are referenced in some place names in Iceland, including the island Papey off Southeast Iceland, although there is no archaeological evidence for their stay there.

Irish monastic saint Brendan ‘the navigator’ is said to have visited the country in the 6th century, long before the Norse settlers arrived, where he met the anchorite Póll (or Paul), who had lived in the country for 60 years, or so the story goes.

Ægir wrote that St. Brendan was so touched by meeting Póll on Easter Sunday and hearing his stories of the beautiful country that he dropped to his knees, declared the country to be holy and named it after his lord and savior Jesus, or Ís(s)u in old Gaelic.

To support this theory, Ægir explains that in many other languages, like French and German, the name for Iceland doesn’t have anything to do with ice and cold but is called Islande and Island (as opposed to Pays de Glace and Eisland).

This is because Irish monks were the main academics and teachers at the courts of kings on the European mainland in the first centuries after Iceland was settled by Norsemen, Ægir reasons.

As an input to the naming debate, last year Promote Iceland launched a competition to rename Iceland as part of the latest Inspired by Iceland tourism marketing campaign.

Contrary to a widespread misunderstanding in the foreign media, the competition is just for a bit of fun and won’t result in the country actually being renamed.

Rather, the competition is intended to encourage tourists summarize their impressions of the country in one word or sentence and post their suggestions for names on the Inspired by Iceland website along with the stories behind them.

Suggestions have poured in, including Wonder Land, Endless Night Land, Best Country to Grow a Beard Land and Awesome Jumper Land and I believe that I’ve seen your suggestion Fireland there too. But no one has suggested Jesus-land, as far as I know.

ESA