The recorded history of Iceland began with the settlement by Viking explorers and their slaves from the east, particularly Norway and the British Isles, in the late ninth century. Iceland was still uninhabited long after the rest of Western Europe had been settled. Recorded settlement has conventionally been dated back to 874, although archaeological evidence indicates Gaelic monks from Ireland had settled Iceland before that date.
The land was settled quickly, mainly by Norwegians who may have been fleeing conflict or seeking new land to farm. By 930, the chieftains had established a form of governance, the Althing, making it one of the world's oldest parliaments. Towards the end of the tenth century, Christianity came to Iceland through the influence of the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason. During this time Iceland remained independent, a period known as the Old Commonwealth, and Icelandic historians began to document the nation's history in books referred to as sagas of Icelanders.
The Landnámabók mentions the presence of Irish monks (the Papar) prior to Norse settlement and states that the monks left behind Irish books, bells and crosiers, among other things. According to the same account, the Irish monks abandoned the country when the Norse arrived, or had left prior to their arrival.
Another source mentioning the Papar is Íslendingabók, dating from between 1122 and 1133. According to this account, the previous inhabitants, a few Irish monks, known as the Papar, left the island since they did not want to live with pagan Norsemen. One theory suggests that those monks were members of a Hiberno-Scottish mission, Irish and Scottish monks who spread Christianity during the Middle Ages. They may also have been hermits.
Recent archaeological excavations have revealed the ruins of a cabin in Hafnir on the Reykjanes peninsula (close to Keflavík International Airport). Carbon dating reveals that the cabin was abandoned somewhere between 770 and 880, suggesting that Iceland was populated well before 874. This archaeological find may also indicate that the monks left Iceland before the Norse arrived.
According to the Landnámabók, Iceland was discovered by Naddodd, one of the first settlers in the Faroe Islands, who was sailing from Norway to the Faroes but lost his way and drifted to the east coast of Iceland. Naddodd called the country Snæland "Snowland". Swedish sailor Garðar Svavarsson also accidentally drifted to the coast of Iceland. He discovered that the country was an island and called it Garðarshólmi "Garðar's Islet" and stayed for the winter at Húsavík.
The first Norseman who deliberately sailed to Garðarshólmi was Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson. Flóki settled for one winter at Barðaströnd. After the incredibly cold winter passed, the summer came and the whole island became green, which stunned Flóki. Realizing that this place was in fact habitable, despite the horribly cold winter, and full of useful resources, Flóki restocked his boat. He then returned east to Norway with resources and knowledge.
The first permanent settler in Iceland is usually considered to have been a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfr Arnarson and his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir. According to the Landnámabók, he threw two carved pillars overboard as he neared land, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed along the coast until the pillars were found in the southwestern peninsula, now known as Reykjanesskagi. There he settled with his family around 874, in a place he named Reykjarvík "Smoke Cove", probably from the geothermal steam rising from the earth.
This place eventually became the capital and the largest city of modern Iceland. It is recognized, however, that Ingólfr Arnarson may not have been the first one to settle permanently in Iceland — that may have been Náttfari, one of Garðar Svavarsson's men who stayed behind when Garðar returned to Scandinavia.
Much of the above information comes from the Landnámabók, written some three centuries after the settlement. Archeological findings in Reykjavík are consistent with the date given there: there was a settlement in Reykjavík around 870.
According to Landnámabók, Ingólfr was followed by many more Norse chieftains, their families and slaves who settled all the habitable areas of the island in the next decades. Archeological evidence strongly suggests that the timing is roughly accurate; "that the whole country was occupied within a couple of decades towards the end of the 9th century.These people were primarily of Norwegian, Irish and Shetland/Scottish origin. Some of the Irish and Shetland/Scots were slaves and servants of the Norse chiefs, according to the sagas of Icelanders, the Landnámabók, and other documents. Some settlers coming from the British Isles were "Hiberno-Norse," with cultural and family connections both to the coastal and island areas of Ireland and/or Scotland and to Norway.
The traditional explanation for the exodus from Norway is that people were fleeing the harsh rule of the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair, whom medieval literary sources credit with the unification of some parts of modern Norway during this period. It is also believed that the western fjords of Norway were simply overcrowded in this period.
The settlement of Iceland is thoroughly recorded in the aforementioned Landnámabók, although the book was compiled in the early 12th century when at least 200 years had passed from the age of settlement. Ari Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók is generally considered more reliable as a source and is probably somewhat older, but it is far less thorough. It does say that Iceland was fully settled within 60 years, which likely means that all arable land had been claimed by various settlers.
Landnámabók (“Book of Settlements”), often shortened to Landnáma, is a medieval Icelandic written work which describes in considerable detail the settlement (landnám) of Iceland by the Norse in the 9th and 10th centuries CE.
Heimskringla is the best known of the Old Norse kings' sagas. It was written in Old Norse in Iceland by the poet and historian Snorri Sturluson (1178/79–1241) ca. 1230. The name Heimskringla was first used in the 17th century, derived from the first two words of one of the manuscripts (kringla heimsins, "the circle of the world").
The Sagas of Icelanders (Icelandic: Íslendingasögur), also known as family sagas, are prose narratives mostly based on historical events that mostly took place in Iceland in the 9th, 10th, and early 11th centuries, during the so-called Saga Age. They are the best-known specimens of Icelandic literature.