A Green and Icy Land

It’s a pretty common cliché by now that Greenland is actually very icy, and Iceland is… well, not green all the time, but certainly is some of the time in some areas, and definitely isn’t always icy!

So why the apparently contradictory names then?

Iceland was a place that was rumoured to exist for hundreds of years by other Europeans. There’s some evidence that the ancient Greeks suspected it was floating around in the far north and named it Thule, and that Irish monks lived there before any Norse settlement. The country actually went through a few names before Iceland stuck. Many Nordic explorers went on expeditions there or wound up there by accident, before a Viking named Flóki Vilgerðarson left Norway to find it in the late 9th century. He apparently arrived in the middle of a very harsh winter, and assumed that the place was always extremely cold and icy, therefore naming it Ísland (ice land). Even though, as more and more people went to live there, it became obvious that it wasn’t a particularly icy place, the name stuck.

And Greenland? Eiríkr “the Red” Þorvaldsson was a Norwegian Viking whose family were exiled to Iceland in the late 10th century when his father was convicted of manslaughter. As a man, Eiríkr himself was also outlawed, for murder, and sailed west where he came across a large, icy island with a few hospitable areas. He wished to establish a settlement in these areas, so when he returned to Iceland when his exile was ended, he deliberately tried to make the new land sound more attractive than Iceland, so decided to name it Greenland. The trick worked, a lot of people followed him, and they established two successful colonies.

So while the country names can seem like sacrosanct things which really capture the essence of a nation, sometimes they simply come from basic human misconception or deception.

And finally, yes, there is also a whale in the featured image for this post. That’s actually entirely a coincidence, and I only noticed the connection with yesterday’s after I’d chosen it!

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