The oldest Icelandic record of the papar can be found in Íslendingabók written by Ari Þorgilsson, better known as Ari fróði or Ari ‘the Learned’, in the period 1122-33 AD. In that work he writes that “there were Christian men here, whom the Norsemen called papar, but they left because they did not want to share the land with heathens. They left behind them Irish books as well as crooks and bells from which it is possible to determine their origin.” This is the only mention by Ari the Learned of the Christian inhabitants of Iceland, but it ought to be pointed out that he was writing some 250 years after Iceland was settled by the Norsemen and therefore had little more than word-of-mouth reports and Dicuíl’s account to support his claims. Nevertheless, this short passage from Ari the Learned provided the basis for the belief in later times that the papar were the first settlers of Iceland.
The word papar means “fathers..” These fathers appear to have been hermit monks dedicated to a simple and frugal existence. They sailed to the Hebrides and other small islands off the British coast in small hide-covered craft called currachs in search of new uninhabited places where they might settle and devote themselves to their faith, undisturbed by any intruders. Even though no actual remains have been found in Iceland there are a number of place names that appear to suggest their presence. These place names are mostly found in the East Fjords of Iceland. Examples include Papey (Papar Island), Papýli (Papa farm) and Papafjörður (Papa fjord) in Lón.
If the first Vikings who came to Iceland did meet some Irish monks here, it is unlikely that they would have treated them any better than any other Christians they encountered. It is thus no surprise that Ari the Learned should have been ashamed of the way in which his heathen ancestors generally behaved towards Christians and perhaps explains why he said so little about the presence of the papar in Iceland. This kind of reticence is well known among ancient chroniclers. If, on the other hand, Ari did want to play down the presence of these monks in Iceland, one must ask why he mentioned them at all.
According to The Book of Settlement, Irish monks or papar were living at Kirkjubær at Síða before the first Norse settlers arrived in the ninth century, and it is said that is why heathens could not settle there. A Viking known as Ketill the Fool took possession of the land at Síða, but he was “well Christianised” by then, his nickname being a dig at his adopted faith. After Ketill died, a man called Hildir Eysteinsson intended to move his farmstead to Kirkjubær but met with sudden death before he could carry out his designs, apparently because he was a heathen.
As a result of the journeys of these two men, their contemporaries learned that there was a large, uninhabited island lying northwest of the Faroes. One man, Flóki Vilgerðarson, had his ship loaded up with his belongings, including what livestock he could get aboard and made his way to Iceland. Navigational technology was primitive in those days for example there were no compasses and the Vikings kept directions by the position of moon and stars. They also knew a good deal about the flight paths of birds and for that reason they mainly sailed during the migration seasons of spring and autumn. Flóki went one step further than this and took three ravens aboard with him for which he asked the blessings of the gods. En route he released the ravens in the hope that they would help him find the way to Iceland. The first raven flew towards the Faroe Islands, the second flew up into the air and then back down to the ship but the third flew forwards and thereby led Flóki to the coast of Iceland. From that time on he was therefore known as Hrafna-Flóki or Raven-Flóki.
Hrafna-Flóki settled in Vatnsfjörður on Barðaströnd. But things did not go well for him. Instead of storing fodder for his livestock, he neglected the farm and spent the entire summer fishing and hunting. The following winter was especially harsh and all the livestock that he brought with him perished. Flóki left Iceland for good the following summer and it is to him that we owe its present name after he claimed he had seen a fjord completely covered over with ice floes in the middle of spring. When he returned to Norway, he spoke badly of the country although many other travelers reported that it was good and had much to offer.
From the details of Hrafna-Flóki’s journey, it is clear that the Vikings had little in the way of navigational instruments. There has been some difference of opinion as to whether they used some kind of lodestone, but it is almost certain that they did not have proper sextants or compasses. This lack of navigational technology often made it difficult to locate Iceland in bad weather but presented much less trouble to those making the return journey to Norway. On the way out they had to locate an island in the mid-North Atlantic, while on the way home it would have been difficult not to find some point along the extensive coastline of Norway.