The Saga of the Icelanders: The First Thousand Years

By Hannibalsson, Jon Baldwin | Scandinavian Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Saga of the Icelanders: The First Thousand Years


Hannibalsson, Jon Baldwin, Scandinavian Review


The following are excerpts from a speech given by Ambassador Hannibalsson at The Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, in January 1999.

The raison d'etre of the Icelanders

If a reasonably knowledgeable Icelander-on his Day of Judgementwere to plead his case before his creator-stating what the Iceland ers, in their millennium of national existence, have contributed to the common heritage of mankind, he would probably (and with due modesty) suggest three things:

First, that in their time our ancestors were instrumental in expanding the boundaries of the known world, by the discovery and settlement of new lands in the west: Iceland, Greenland and America. And, that in doing so, they performed feats of trans-oceanic navigation, not equaled by others until almost half a millennium later.

Second, that at a time when other European tribes were being subjugated in feudalistic autocracies, the Icelandic settlers created a society of free men, based on the rule of Law, upheld by the oldest known national parliament in the world-the Althing-founded in the year 930. This historically unique society lasted for 330 years, when it finally succumbed to a foreign power, the Norwegian King, in 1262.

Third, that this society of free men created a body of literature, that has withstood the test of time to become part of classical European literature; one of the three peaks of ancient and medieval European Culture, comparable in that field to the "Glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome." This body of literature is the inspiration of what we can call the Nordic literary and cultural tradition. It is written in a language that was originally the common language of the Vikings. This language, which today we call Icelandic, was for centuries spoken over a large part of Europe. And from it, I am told by knowledgeable linguists, about a third of the vocabulary of English-the new lingua franca of the Information Age-is derived.

The Viking Age

Iceland was first settled in the 9th century, during the great expansionary Viking Age. By that time the Vikings had set up vassal states all over Europe. Across the Baltic into what are now Belarus and the Ukraine, the Vikings had founded a State with its seat of Government in Kiev (Kanugardur). From there they reached the Black Sea and all the way to the Bosporus, where Constantinople was for a while a Viking stronghold. To the west they had founded Viking cities and vassal states in England, Scotland, the Scottish Isles and Ireland, where the city of Dublin was founded by Vikings in the 9th C. and remained under their control until 1170. To the south they entered the Mediterranean (Sicily) and founded a state in Normandy, France, with its capital city in Rouen. From there they mounted the last successful invasion of England in 1066, thus adding to and prolonging the Nordic hegemony over England, which a few centuries later extended its reach to America.

The Viking Age lasted a few centuries and left its mark all over Europe, in terms of language, legislation and culture. The Vikings were originally a collection of seafaring, warrior tribes who soon succumbed to more amenable and peaceful endeavors as merchants and farmers. When Norway became unified under a monarchy in the 9th century, and tried to project its power across the sea to the British Isles, individual chieftains and tribal leaders, who refused to submit to central authority, sought new lands to preserve their freedom. According to the Book of settlement (1130) the first settlers in Iceland came from SW-Norway, the Scottish Isles, Scotland and Ireland in the late 9th C. They were therefore of mixed Nordic-Gaelic origin, which may explain a lot of the national character and culture which gradually emerged in the new land: The seafaring and organizing traditions of the Nordic people and the story-telling and literary imagination of the Celts, fused into a new society and culture with its own distinctive characteristics. …

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