Straight from the Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements): “Floki, the son of Vilgerd, was the name of a man, a great Viking.”
The very first tale of Floki tells us that he is leading a single ship looking for Garðarshólm, also known as Gardar’s Island, modern day Iceland. This place was mostly a rumor, as the man who named the island, Gardar had only heard of its existence from a man named Naddod, who had reached it entirely by accident and named the uninhabited place Snæland (Snow-land). Floki was searching for a rumor, heard from a man that heard it from another man. Yet somehow he managed to gather enough followers to sail and went on after the mythical island.
In the expedition they all 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. 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 began 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. 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. 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.
The great question was: how to 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 sunstone (calcite 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.
Uunartoq disc found in Greenland
So Floki did something unusual. He brought three ravens with him. Ravens are Odin’s birds, and Odin is both the far-seeing god and a god known for wandering the earth. 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. As the voyage went on, Floki released the birds, one by one. 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, for he knew that a raven cannot fly indefinitely without landing.
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, a place that reminded them of the creation eddas, of when Odin forged the world out in place where fire and ice met.
They made their fledgling settlement on a bay that was so teaming with fish that all summer and autumn they were never hungry. They were, however, much better warriors than farmers, and they neglected to cut and store enough 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.
When Hrafna-Floki returned to the land of men, he had little good to say of his ordeal in Iceland; but Herjolf, the same man that was stranded alone when their longship broke the mooring, was eager to spread the word of the land’s potential. 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. That changed with a king by the name of Haraldr, the Fairhair managed to unify Norway under his rule (learn more about Haraldr Fairhair here).
The ascension of Haraldr left many of jarls of Norway worried and looking for a place to continue their lives (and their rule) in peace. Herjolf’s tales about Iceland gave them just that. 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.
Who wouldn't want to go to Iceland?
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. 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.
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. 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.
Iceland had its fair share of trees back then, which the Vikings quickly used to build their settlements and improve over the previously abandoned ones.
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. Floki and his family would spend the rest of their days in Iceland.
Floki statue 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 people. 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. 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. For that, we are all lucky - and thankful - that Hrafna-Floki followed his raven.