Floki of the Ravens and the Colonization of Iceland
“Floki, the son of Vilgerd, was the name of a man, a great Viking,” the Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) reads.1 We do not know any of Floki’s back-story, but when we meet him he is leading a single ship crewed with men looking for Garðarshólm. Garðarshólm means Gardar’s Island, a name given by the Norse explorer who claimed to have circumnavigated it. This Gardar had only heard of it from a man named Naddod, who had reached it entirely by accident and named the uninhabited place Snæland (Snow-land).1 So Floki and his few followers were looking for a place that was only a rumor. They knew that there was no wealth to be taken and no people to fight. They did not know where the land was, exactly, but they would have known that it was hundreds of miles of iceberg-infested waters from the nearest friendly land mass (the Faroe Islands). They were betting a lot on this journey – for they were bringing their animals, and at least some were bringing their families.1 It is not unreasonable to believe that men and women who would take such a risky journey with the intent to stay were running from the world they had known.
In the latter part of the ninth century, when Floki undertook his voyage into the unknown, there was a lot to run from. At that time, the Vikings had awakened an endless war in Ireland and laid siege to Paris; they had invaded England as a great army, and had forced the mightiest kingdoms in Europe to cede them silver and land.2 A man who had lived through that, as our great Viking had, would have experienced much victory, but also much suffering. We also know that Floki’s daughter, Geirhild, had recently drowned in the Shetland Islands.1 So whatever Floki’s role in the tempestuous, violent events of his time had been, he had found no home there. He sailed away looking for what he had been unable to find anywhere else.
But how do you find something that no one had ever found before except by luck? Gardar’s Island was far away, and though the Vikings were consummate sailors, they had no real instruments by which to navigate. They used the sun by day and the stars by night; and they used visual cues (like water color) and followed the flight patterns of birds. They learned to use a crystal to see where the sun was in cloudy, northern skies; along with shadow sticks and cleverly-designed discs (like the Uunartoq disc found in Greenland) to offer directional clues; but they had no compass, sextant, or anything else to offer certainty.3
So Floki did something unusual. He brought three ravens with him.1 Ravens are Odin’s birds, and Odin is both the far-seeing god and a god known for wandering the earth.4 He is also the Allfather to the Vikings, and so we can perhaps see in Floki’s choice of birds an appeal for divine help. The first raven simply flew back to the Faroes. The second flew in the air and then returned to the ship. The third raven flew away, though, and Floki headed after it.1 From the story, we do not know if Floki released his birds all at once – presumably it was sequentially, for a raven cannot fly 400-500 miles without landing. But whatever the particulars might have been, Floki’s third ravens did not let him down. In time (perhaps about two weeks), he saw land in the distance. From that point on, Floki was called Hrafna-Floki – Floki of the Ravens.
Floki and his followers came ashore on a wide land of startling, austere beauty. It was not only a land of mountains and rivers, but of glaciers and many active volcanoes. When we consider that the Norse believed the world was created from a place where fire and ice met, the sight of their new home must have left them in awe.5
They made their fledgling settlement on a bay that was so teaming with fish that all summer and autumn they were never hungry.1 But it was there that their luck changed for the worse. Hinting to their background as better warriors than farmers, Floki and his followers were so preoccupied with fishing that they neglected to cut and store hay for the animals that they had brought. Winter soon came – cold and dark and brutal – and the animals starved. Slowly beaten down by cold and hunger, the settlers decided to turn back. But turning back was not so easy, and the next summer was almost over before they had managed all the repairs and the preparations for their return voyage. At one point, their long ship broke away from its mooring with only one man (named Herjolf) on it, and he drifted until the boat came to rest. Weeks passed before Floki and the others could find him. By that time it was winter again, and they could not leave. They spent another long, dark season watching the mountains cough out black ash over the glaciers. Finally, summer came and Hrafna-Floki and his fellow survivors departed from the place they had renamed Iceland.1
When Hrafna-Floki returned to the land of men, he had little good to say of his ordeal in Iceland; but Herjolf was eager to spread the word of the land’s potential.1 This news could not have come at a better time. Up until then, Norway (like so much of Europe) had been a land of petty kings and jarls (earls).6 But a king by the name of Haraldr had been struck with great ambition. As the story goes, Haraldr requested the hand of a Swedish princess named Gyda.6 Gyda shamed Haraldr, saying that she would not marry a minor king of Norway when Sweden and Denmark were each dominated by singular, strong kings. Haraldr vowed to not comb or cut his hair until he was king of all Norway.6 It took him 10-12 years (during which time he became known as Haraldr Shock-head), but Haraldr succeeded, was shorn, and was afterwards known as Haraldr Fairhair.6 Amusing as this story may be to us, it was not amusing for the jarls of Norway who had to contend with the meteoric rise of a tyrant. Those who found themselves on the wrong side of Haraldr Fairhair were looking for a place to continue their lives (and their rule) in peace.1,7 This fierce, beautiful, empty place called Iceland seemed like a better option than the suddenly-ordered kingdoms of Scandinavia, the precarious Danelaw of England, or the sword-lands of Ireland.
Iceland drew Vikings from other areas besides Norway and the Faroes. DNA research shows that up to half of the women and a quarter of the men comprising the founding population of Iceland were Gaelic.8 Many of these were likely slaves, though the high numbers (especially in terms of the men) suggest that these settlers may have come by way of Ireland and Scotland. Given the events there at the time of settlement (between 870 and 930) this makes sense. The Vikings had achieved great success in Ireland, but around that time things were not as easy for them as it used to be, and Vikings need room.9
So from many locations, and in increasing numbers the Viking settlers came to Iceland. The Book of Settlements and The Book of the Icelanders tell of many different colonies and the challenges that they faced. As it turns out, Iceland was not completely empty – a small number of Irish priests had formed a religious community there.7,8 When they saw the Vikings, the poor men (who probably had some experience) fled so fast they left some of their books, bells, and staffs behind.7 Iceland was also not completely treeless, either, but had a fair amount of forests which the Vikings quickly used to build their settlements (to this day, the land is bald from their clearing).8,10
One of these early settlers was Hrafna-Floki, who eventually returned to Iceland along with a wife, a son, and another daughter. He and some friends settled by a river; and both the river and the town that developed there bore his name.1 Floki and his family would spend the rest of their days in Iceland.
By 930, the land was said to be fully settled. The population at that time is estimated to have been around 25,000.8 That same year, the jarls of Iceland met for the Althing – an ancient Norse meeting of self-government. They appointed a Lawspeaker to give law from the Law Stone, and the commonwealth of Iceland was truly born.1,11 Iceland was to become one of the most important Viking countries – not because of size or power, but because Iceland became the vessel of so much Norse culture. It is through Iceland that most of the sagas, beliefs, and lore we know have come to us.5 For that, we are all lucky that Hrafna-Floki followed his raven.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including Sons of Vikings: A Legendary History of the Viking Age (Vikings book Ragnar and many other famous Vikings) and The Songs of Slaves: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
- Ellwood, T. The Settlement of Iceland: Ari Frodi (Landnámabók). 1898. Accessed December 23, 2017. https://ia801406.us.archive.org/29/items/booksettlementi00ellwgoog/booksettlementi00ellwgoog.pdf
- Brownworth, L. The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings.Crux Publishing, Ltd. United Kingdom. 2014.
- Poppick, L. Forget GPS: Medieval Compass Guided Vikings After Sunset. Live Science, March 25, 2014. Accessed December 23, 2017. https://www.livescience.com/44366-vikings-sun-compass-after-sunset.html
- McCoy, D. Odin. Norse Mythology for Smart People. Accessed December 23, 2017. https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/the-aesir-gods-and-goddesses/odin/
- McCoy, D. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. Columbia. 2016
- Finley, A. & Faulkes, A. The Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson (Haralds saga ins hárfagra). Viking Society for Northern Research. London. 2011. Accessed December 23, 2017. http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Heimskringla%20I.pdf
- Finley, A. & Faulkes, A. The Book of the Icelanders (ÍSLENDINGABÓK). Viking Society for Northern Research. London, 2006. Accessed December 23, 2017. http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Text%20Series/IslKr.pdf
- Short, W. The Settlement of Iceland in the Viking Age. Hurstwic. Published 2014. Accessed December 23, 2017. http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/society/text/settlement_of_iceland.htm
- Johnston, W. Travel Through the Ireland Story: The Vikings. N.D. Accessed December 23, 2017. http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/past/pre_norman_history/vikings.html
- Fountain, H. Vikings Razed the Forests; Can Iceland Regrow Them? The New York Times. Published October 20, 2017. Accessed December 23, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/20/climate/iceland-trees-reforestation.html
- Althing: Icelandic Government. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed December 23, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Althing
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