10 Things You Should Know About Iceland
1. The British invaded Iceland during World War II. After Germany invaded Denmark in 1940, the Allies feared the Nazis would next occupy the neutral Danish territory of Iceland and use it as a strategically important North Atlantic supply post. In a pre-emptive strike codenamed ...read more
Intriguing Facts About Iceland
1. There Aren&rsquot Many People
If you&rsquore like me, you love traveling to places that aren&rsquot overly crowded. Iceland can be good for this, compared to other parts of Europe, as long as you steer clear of the Reykjavik area. The population of Iceland is only 339,462, with more than a third of those people living in the capital city. Iceland is almost the size of Kentucky, which has 4.4 million residents. While tourism has boomed over the last 10 years, there are still plenty of places to explore where you&rsquoll be mostly alone.
2. Iceland Is An Eco-Friendly Country
I was very impressed to learn that the vast majority of Iceland&rsquos power supply comes from geothermal and hydro energy. In other words, this is a country that has clean power and a small carbon footprint. Iceland&rsquos scientists are currently working on a way to harness more geothermal energy as part of a plan that could change the entire world.
Tiny Elf Houses in Iceland
3. Icelanders Believe In Elves
Surveys indicate that 54.4 percent of the nation believes in the existence of huldufólk, invisible elves & trolls living in the countryside, with many others being at least open to the possibility. You can even see evidence of this belief during your trip to Iceland in the small wooden álfhól &ldquoelf houses&rdquo that some people build for the elves to live in. Iceland even has an official Elf School where you can learn about Icelandic elf history.
4. McDonald&rsquos Doesn&rsquot Exist In Iceland
Once upon a time, you could dine at one of Iceland&rsquos few McDonald&rsquos restaurants. This changed in 2009, and the Golden Arches don&rsquot appear set to make a return at any point in the near future. I was pleased by this fact, but don&rsquot worry there are several other fast food chains in Iceland. Hotdogs are particularly popular there!
5. Iceland Is One Of The Safest Countries
Coming from the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised by how rare violent crimes are in Iceland. How rare, you ask? The country was completely rocked by an unprecedented number of murders in 2017: four. In a typical year, there&rsquos an average of 1.6 murders and a very low instance of other violent or drug-related crimes.
Not Many Trees Left in Iceland Now&hellip
6. It Was Once Covered In Trees
This interesting fact is also one of the few things about Iceland that&rsquos not very idyllic. Before the Vikings plundered Iceland, 40 percent of the nation was covered in trees. However, they needed all the trees to build homes, boats, and to clear land for farming. Now, that number is only 2 percent, although reforestation efforts are underway.
7. Iceland Is Mosquito-Free!
Mosquitoes can make life miserable at times in the U.S., so I was thrilled to find out that Iceland is one of the world&rsquos few mosquito-free environments. No matter what time of year you visit, you won&rsquot have to worry about these pests. It&rsquos surprising that the population of Iceland isn&rsquot higher for this one reason alone.
8. They Eat Some Nasty Stuff
Iceland has some pretty disgusting food available to eat. Now, don&rsquot get me wrong. They&rsquore also known for some really good seafood and lamb. But their traditional dishes might produce a gag-reflex! The most famous has to be Hakarl, or fermented shark. This stuff is buried underground for 6-12 weeks, then hung out to dry in the sun. It tastes like ammonia (urine?) and is eaten with shots of unsweetened schnapps. Yum! Oh, and they sometimes enjoy a little smoked sheep&rsquos head too (Svið).
9. There Are No Traditional Last Names
When a child is born in Iceland, they don&rsquot get the same last name as either of their parents. Instead, their last name is derived from their father or mother&rsquos first name. Musician Björk provides us with a good example. Her father&rsquos first name is Guðmundur. Björk&rsquos full name is Björk Guðmundsdottir, which means the daughter of Guðmundur.
Iceland is a Fascinating Place!
10. Iceland Had A Peaceful Revolution
It wasn&rsquot reported on much in the international press, but Iceland had a successful (and peaceful) revolution. In 2008, the country&rsquos banking system collapsed, unemployment skyrocketed, and citizens were worried supermarkets would run out of food. Iceland&rsquos people took to the streets peacefully protesting with pots & pans, completely blocking all traffic around the capital. Eventually, the Prime Minister and former government were forced to resign, and the people wrote themselves a new constitution.
11. Iceland Is An Egalitarian Society
Iceland takes the idea of equality very seriously. It&rsquos considered to be the most feminist country in the world and also has a long history of being very accepting of the LGBTQ community. Additionally, only 3 percent of the country falls outside the middle class.
12. Temperatures Are Usually Mild
Iceland is a perfect choice for summertime travel as the average high temperature is only 57 degrees Fahrenheit. The overnight average summer low is 44 degrees, so it never gets too cold, either. But, the winters in Iceland can get pretty wild with freezing winds and heavy snowstorms.
13. Babies Nap Outside Alone
You probably won&rsquot have to worry about listening to a baby cry inside restaurants in Iceland. It shocks many people, but it&rsquos a common practice to leave babies outside in their strollers. You&rsquoll see this all over the country, including when the temperature drops as low as 20-30 degrees F (-5C).
14. People Swim In The Winter
One thing that&rsquos really useful about having geothermal volcanicly-heated water is that you can go swimming no matter how cold it is outside. There are countless hot-springs and many iceland hotels feature heated pools that can maintain a temperature of at least 86 degrees Fahrenheit at all times.
The 2014 Holuhraun Volcanic Eruption
15. There Are 30 Active Volcanoes
I&rsquom fascinated by volcanoes and was excited to see some of them during my trip to Iceland. Including flying over an active eruption of the Holuhraun lava field in 2014. It was so cool! There are approximately 130 total volcanoes, and 30 of them are active. None are currently erupting (but that can change). Scientists have gotten so good at predicting volcanic eruptions that the risk to residents and tourists is minimal.
16. You Can Visit A Very Weird Museum
Before I went to Iceland, I&rsquod never imagined that there would be an entire museum dedicated to penises. Even odder, the collection of 200 penises on display at the Phallological Museum supposedly includes specimens from mythological creatures such as trolls.
17. Iceland Elected The First Female President
As previously mentioned, Iceland leads the world in feminism. Unsurprisingly, the country was also the first to elect a female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who served from 1980 to 1996. Icelanders also elected an openly gay woman as their prime minister in 2009.
18. Homemade Ice Cream Is Everywhere
Iceland&rsquos unofficial national sweet treat is definitely ice cream. People wait in long lines for it daily, regardless of weather conditions. After trying some of their homemade ice cream, I can see why it&rsquos delicious!
19. Iceland Once Hunted Male Witches
Iceland may seem idyllic in many ways, but the country does have a dark history. Just like the U.S. and many parts of Europe, Iceland went through a period of witch hunts from 1654 to 1690. Only one woman was prosecuted as a witch during this time though because men were the primary targets.
Iceland has the Coolest 4X4s&hellip
20. Super Jeeps Are A Thing
Iceland is full of remote and rugged landscapes, and to reach some of them, especially in the winter, some locals use &ldquosuper jeeps&rdquo. A super jeep is a highly modified truck with a lifted suspension and oversized tires that allow it to cross deep rivers or drive through deep snow and ice. Most of Iceland&rsquos roads are paved, but for the off-road trails that go into the central highlands, these jeeps make it possible to travel in the winter.
21. Iceland Is Young
In terms of landform, Iceland is the world&rsquos youngest country. Going along with this fact, Iceland was also the last European nation to be settled. However, don&rsquot be fooled by Iceland&rsquos youthfulness as it&rsquos still approximately 25 million years old.
22. Most Of The Country Is Uninhabited
Due to Iceland&rsquos unique topography, only 20 percent of it is actually inhabited by humans. Many of the remote, uninhabited areas can be visited, but I highly recommend registering your plans with ICE-SAR first using the 112 Iceland App. This is the best way to get help if something goes wrong in the middle of nowhere&hellip
23. Iceland Has No Military
Iceland doesn&rsquot have a military and has only fought in one conflict. The Cod Wars were a power struggle with Great Britain for exclusive fishing rights to the water within 200 miles of Iceland&rsquos shoreline. Iceland won after attacking their enemy&rsquos fishing nets with scissors.
24. Icelandic Students Learn Three Languages
Icelandic students are taught their native language, along with English and Danish. It&rsquos estimated that at least 80 percent of young students can understand basic English, and some people claim that as many as 98 percent of adults are fluent in multiple languages. I had no problems communicating with everyone I encountered in Iceland.
25. There&rsquos An App To Prevent Dating Your Cousin
Because Iceland&rsquos population is so small, there&rsquos a slight issue with everyone being related. This can be a problem in the local dating scene. So there&rsquos a smartphone app called Íslendinga-App that lets Icelanders check if they are related or not. The company&rsquos slogan is &ldquoBump the app before you bump in bed.&rdquo LOL!
Iceland is a very special travel destination. The stargazing is breathtaking, the local cuisine is unusual and locals are often happy to share one of the area&rsquos entertaining legends and myths. ★
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READ MORE ICELAND TRAVEL TIPS
I hope you enjoyed my list of interesting Iceland facts! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:
- Check out my ultimate Iceland Ring Road itinerary to learn about all the top highlights along the way.
- Planning a trip to Iceland, but not sure when to go? Here&rsquos the best time to visit Iceland organized by seasons.
- If you only have a few days, a better option is to drive Iceland&rsquos Golden Circle as a day trip instead.
- Learn how to properly photograph the amazing Northern Lights during your adventure.
- Organizing an Iceland road trip, but afraid of driving? Here&rsquos everything you should know about driving in Iceland.
- Save some money and learn about the best places to stay in Reykjavikwhen you visit the city.
- Want to improve your photos? Read my best travel photography tipsand guide to picking a travel camera.
What do you think about these Iceland facts? Are you planning a trip there? Drop me a message in the comments below!
Floki and the Viking Discovery of Iceland
The Vikings’ next step out into the Atlantic – the discovery and settlement of Iceland – is one of the best documented events of the Viking Age. Medieval Icelanders were fascinated by genealogy, not only because, as emigrants, they wanted to know where their families came from, but because such knowledge was essential when it came to establishing property rights. To begin with, family traditions about the settlement period were passed down orally from one generation to the next, but in the early twelfth century they were committed to writing in the two earliest works of Icelandic history, Landnámabók and Íslendingabók, both of which were written in the Old Norse language. Íslendingabók (‘The Book of the Icelanders’), a short chronicle of Icelandic history from the discovery of Iceland to 1118, was written between 1122 and 1132 by Ari Thorgilsson, a priest from Snæfellsness.
A page from a skin manuscript of Landnámabók, a primary source on the settlement of Iceland. ( Public Domain )
Ari relied on oral traditions and, for more recent events, on eyewitnesses, but he took care to establish the reliability of his informants, naming many of them, and avoiding Christian prejudice and supernatural explanations of events. Though not proven, it is generally thought that Ari was also the author of Landnámabók (‘The Book of the Settlements’), which gives details of the names, genealogies and land claims of hundreds of Iceland’s original Norse settlers.
Tapestry embroidery featuring Viking Floki Vilgerdarsson and crew. ( Public Domain )
The first Viking to visit Iceland was Gardar the Swede, who in c . 860 set out on a voyage from Denmark, where he had made his home, to the Hebrides, to claim some land his wife had inherited. While passing through the Pentland Firth, the straits that separate the Orkney Islands from the Scottish mainland, Gardar’s ship was caught in a storm and blown far out into the Atlantic. Gardar eventually sighted the mountainous coast of an unknown land.
Modern-day portrait of Garðar Svavarsson, or Gardar the Swede. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
What Gardar saw was not at all inviting, it was the rugged Eastern Horn on Iceland’s forbidding south-east coast, guarded by high cliffs and huge scree slopes tumbling into the sea. Undeterred, Gardar began to follow the coastline westwards, eventually circumnavigating Iceland and establishing that it was an island. Gardar spent nearly a year exploring his new-found land, wintering at Husavik on Iceland’s north coast. When he set sail in the spring, Gardar was forced to abandon a man called Nattfari, together with a male slave and a bondswoman, when the small boat they were in went adrift. These three survived, inadvertently becoming Iceland’s first permanent inhabitants. Naming his discovery Gardarsholm (Gardar’s island) after himself, Gardar sailed east to Norway, where he began to sing its praises.
Another accidental visitor to Iceland around this time was Naddod the Viking. He was sailing from Norway to the Faeroe Islands when he was blown off course and made landfall in Iceland’s Eastern Fjords.
Naddod climbed a mountain to look for signs of habitation and, seeing none, left in the middle of a heavy snowstorm. Naddod too gave favourable reports of the island, which he decided to call Snæland (Snowland). Shortly after Naddod’s return, the Norwegian Floki Vilgerdarson set out from Rogaland with the intention of settling in Naddod’s Snæland. Floki had a reputation as a great Viking warrior but he was a hopeless settler. Floki spent his summer hunting seals at Vatnesfjörður on Breiðarfjörður in north-west Iceland but he neglected to make any hay, with the result that all the livestock he had brought with him starved to death over the winter. This doomed his attempt at settlement but pack ice in the fjord prevented him sailing for home. By the time the pack ice finally broke up it was too late in the year to risk trying to return to Norway, so Floki was forced to stay another winter, this time at Borgarfjörður further to the south. Thoroughly disillusioned by his experiences, Floki decided to rename Snæland ‘Iceland’. Floki’s name was the one that stuck even though his men gave more favourable reports of the island: the most enthusiastic of them, Thorolf, swore that butter dripped from every blade of grass. For this reason he was known ever afterwards as Thorolf Butter.
Thorolf must have been a born optimist. Iceland is a large volcanic island lying exactly on the mid-Atlantic ridge, where magma welling up from the mantle is gradually pushing Europe and America apart. Despite lying only just south of the Arctic Circle, the influence of the warm Gulf Stream current keeps the climate mild for the latitude. Glaciers and ice sheets on the mountains cover about 14 per cent of Iceland but the rest of the island is free of permafrost.
The beautiful but unforgiving landscape of Iceland ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Iceland’s combination of ice and fire must have reminded the settlers of the Viking creation myth, in which the world emerges in the void between the fire realm of Muspel and the frozen realm of Niflheim.
Icland landscapes remind of the frozen realm of Niflheim. (Olivier Toussaint/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Today, less than a quarter of Iceland is vegetated, the remainder of the unglaciated area being mainly barren lava fields and ash deserts. However, when it was discovered by the Vikings, around 40 per cent of Iceland was covered with low, scrubby, birch and willow woodland, so it would have looked considerably less bleak than it does today. Even so, Iceland turned out to be a distinctly marginal environment for European settlement and the settlers were very vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather and volcanic eruptions.
Hearing the reports circulating about Iceland, two Norwegian foster-brothers, Ingolf and Hjorleif, made a reconnaissance trip to the Eastern Fjords in the late 860’s to assess the prospects for settlements. The foster-brothers had lost their estates paying compensation to jarl Atli of Gaular for killing his sons and they urgently needed a safe refuge. Liking what they saw the foster-brothers made preparations to emigrate. Ingolf had the resources to fund his expedition, but Hjorleif did not, so he set out on a víking trip to Ireland. Even the Viking settle-ment of an uninhabited land involved violence. In Ireland, Hjorleif plundered a hoard of treasure from a souterrain and captured ten Irish slaves to take with him to Iceland.
According to the Lándnámabók, Ingolf and Hjorleif set out for Iceland again in 874. Study of layers of volcanic ash called tephra confirm the date. One of these layers, known as the landnám layer, which is found over almost all of the island, has been dated to 871–872. Evidence of human impact on the environment is found above the layer but not below it. Ingolf sacrificed to the gods and gained favourable auguries. Hjorleif did not bother: he never sacrificed. The two sailed in company until they sighted land and then split up. Hjorleif settled at once on the south coast at Hjörleifshöfði (‘Horleif ’s Head’). Ingolf, seeking the guidance of the gods, cast the carved pillars of his high-seat overboard, vowing to settle wherever they were washed ashore. Finding the pillars would take Ingolf all of three years.
After spending the first winter at Hjörleifshöfði, Hjorleif wanted to sow crops. He had only brought one ox, so he made his slaves drag the plough. It wasn’t long before the slaves had had enough of this: they murdered Hjorleif and the other men in his party, and sailed off with his possessions and the women, to a group of islands off Iceland’s south-west coast. These became known after them as the Vestmannaeyjar (‘isles of the Irish’). Shortly after this, two of Ingolf ’s slaves, who were following the coast looking for his high-seat pillars, came to Hjörleifshöfði and found Hjorleif ’s body. Ingolf was saddened by the killing, ‘but so it goes,’ he said, ‘with those who are not prepared to offer up sacrifice.’ Ingolf guessed that the Irish had fled to the Vestmannaeyjar and went after them. Surprising the Irish while they were eating a meal, Ingolf slew some of them. The others died leaping off a cliff in their panic to escape.
After spending a third winter in Iceland, Ingolf finally found his high-seat pillars. Ingolf named the place Reykjavik, the ‘bay of smoke’, after the many steaming hot springs in the area. It is now Iceland’s capital.
Ingolf commands his high seat pillars to be erected. ( Public Domain )
Ingolf took into possession the whole of the Reykjanes peninsula west of the River Öxará as his estate and settled his followers and slaves on it as his dependents. More settlers soon followed. The Landnámabók gives us the names of 400 leading settlers, and over 3,000 other (mainly male) settlers, who migrated to Iceland in the settlement period. As the named settlers brought wives, children, dependents and slaves with them, it is possible that around 20,000 people had migrated to Iceland by around 900. By the eleventh century the population had probably reached about 60,000, though there was little fresh immigration after c . 930, by which time all the best grazing land had been claimed.
Most of the named settlers came from western Norway but there were also a few Swedes and Danes, as well as a significant number who came from the Norse colonies in the Hebrides. Many of this last group were second-generation emigrants and several of them, such as the powerful matriarch Aud the Deep-Minded, were already Christian, while others, like Helgi the Lean, who worshipped both Christ and Thor, were partly so. However, the religion did not take root in Iceland and it died out with the first generation of settlers. Even Aud was given a pagan ship burial by her followers. Some of this group were the product of mixed Norse-Celtic marriages and two of the leading settlers, Dufthakr and Helgi the Lean, claimed descent from the Irish king Cerball mac Dúnlainge (r. 842–88). Many settlers, like Hjorleif, also took with them significant numbers of British and Irish slaves.
Recent analysis of the DNA of modern Icelanders has revealed just how significant the British and Irish contribution to the settlement of Iceland was. Analysis of the Y chromosomes of Icelandic men indicate that 75 per cent have Scandinavian origins, while 25 per cent have British or Irish origins. Strikingly, analysis of mitochondrial DNA of Icelandic women shows that the majority – 65 per cent – have British or Irish origins, with only 35 per cent having Scandinavian origins. The sexual imbalance suggests that, as in the Hebrides and the Faeroes, a majority of the Viking settlers were single men of relatively low social rank, who perhaps had been unable to marry at home because they had no access to land. Although only a bare majority of the settlers were Scandinavian, their social, political and cultural dominance was total. This is most clearly seen in the Icelandic language which, apart from some personal names, shows only insignificant Celtic influences. As a result of Iceland’s isolation and cultural conservatism, modern Icelandic remains close to the dönsk tunga (‘Danish Tongue’), the common Old Norse language spoken by all Scandinavians in the Viking Age.
King Haraldr hárfagri receives the kingdom out of his father's hands. From the 14th century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbók. ( Public Domain )
Excerpted with permission fromNorthmen: The Viking Saga 793-1241 AD by John Haywood, published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. Copyright 2016.
Top Image: Deriv Statue of the Viking Ingólfr Arnarson in Rivedal, Norway ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ) and Viking ship ( CC BY-NC 2.0 )
Iceland — History and Culture
Iceland’s history is bound up with its harsh environment, its Viking heritage and its language, little changed from its roots in Old Norse. Although many visitors may expect a more remote version of the Scandinavian countries, they’ll be surprised to find the culture here is totally individual to Iceland itself, with little except its first Norse settlers linking it to Norway, Denmark, or Sweden.
Iceland’s history as a settled island is as iconic as its natural beauty, and began well before the arrival of the Norsemen in 874 AD. Archaeological excavations have revealed the ancient ruins of cabins in the Reykjanes Peninsula, believed to have been the homes of the Papar, the Celtic Christian monks who arrived several hundred years earlier as missionaries from Scotland. The settlements were abandoned when the Norsemen arrived.
The first settler, Ingolfr Arnarson, homesteaded in Reykjavik and was quickly joined by more Norsemen and their Irish and Scottish indentured serfs. By 50 years later, the world’s first parliament was established and most arable land had been claimed. The settlers adopted Christianity by 1000 AD although paganism quietly continued in remote areas.
Civil war on the island resulted in Iceland being taken over by the Norwegian crown in 1262, with the united Denmark-Norway Kalmar Union alliance taking over in 1380. Subsequently, volcanic eruptions, poor soil, and the harsh climate brought agricultural Iceland to its knees, and two outbreaks of the Black Death plague over the following 100 years reduced its population by more than half.
Religious conflict in Denmark in the 16th century resulted in the Reformation and the adoption of Lutheranism in Iceland, formerly a Catholic country. By the 17th and 18th centuries, Denmark’s harsh trading restrictions were again breaking down the country’s economic stability and the 18th century epidemic of smallpox decimated the community and was followed almost immediately by the eruption of the Laki Volcano in 1783.
The Mist Hardships caused by the fallout from the eruption killed more than 50 percent of the country’s livestock, and a devastating famine decimated the population yet again. During the 19th century, the climate inexplicably worsened, forcing around 15,000 of the island’s 70,000 population to emigrate, mostly to Canada. In spite of the ongoing disasters, a new independence movement took root in the 1850s, spurred on by romantic nationalism in Europe.
By 1874, Denmark had capitulated and granted Iceland limited home rule and a constitution and, in 1918, an agreement was signed between the two countries, recognizing Iceland as a sovereign state for 25 years under a personal union with the Danish king. After Germany’s WWII invasion of Denmark, the Icelandic government took over the duties of the Danish king. Four short weeks later, Iceland was invaded and occupied by the British Armed Forces, who were replaced by the Americans in 1941.
In 1943, the 25 years of the Danish-Icelandic Act of Union expired and 97 percent of Icelanders voted for an independent republic, finally established a year later. In 1946, the Americans departed and the unpopular decision to join NATO was ratified in 1949. Three years later, as part of their Cold War strategy, American forces returned to the island as the Iceland Defense Force, staying until 2006.
Economically, Iceland had profited during WWII and during the 1950s, it enjoyed strong growth, boosted by its industrialized fishing industry and aided by the Marshall Plan. Liberalization and diversification of the economy resulted after 1994 due to the country’s signing up to the European Economic Area. Its burgeoning role in international politics focused on peacekeeping and humanitarian issues, and included expertise and aid to Bosnian, Kosovan, and Iraqi NATO-led interventions.
By 2007, following the privatization of Icelandic banks in 2003 the country’s economy was focused on financial services and became hugely successful. However, the boom went spectacularly bust in 2008, fuelled by the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US. All three Icelandic commercial banks failed, causing a run on deposits and the biggest banking collapse in world history. By 2009, 5,000 Icelanders had emigrated as a result of the economic chaos. The economy has since stabilized and is expected to be in growth again by 2013.
Along with the Icelandic language, Iceland’s culture is strongly rooted in Norse traditions, expressed in the still-popular Sagas and ancient literature. The sheer isolation of the country from its European neighbors has protected its culture from outside influences and preserved its language as a direct descendent of Old Norse. Many Icelanders still remember the names of their long-ago ancestors’ farms and it’s assumed that it’s not necessary to put place names on maps as most people know them.
Iceland’s varied and rich cultural streams stem from the country’s early literary heritage and embrace traditional crafts such as silver smithing, weaving, and wood carving, as well as folk songs and traditional dance. The Viking heritage is a source of great pride, with Viking traditions, mores, and beliefs inextricably woven into modern culture.
Legends and folk tales abound here, with many Icelanders admitting a strong belief in the ‘hidden people’, strange, elf-like creatures with a Reykjavik museum dedicated to their lore. Belief in the huldufolk is an ancient tradition, respected by all Icelanders, many of whom claim to have seen the little creatures. Skepticism about their existence is not appreciated! Trolls feature strongly in local folklore, with the legends bound up with local geographic landmarks, and ghost sightings are accepted as normal.
Even the Christmas celebrations in this Christian country involve dark folk traditions far removed from the West’s jolly Santa Claus, a late arrival here. Children have a good reason to behave perfectly during Advent, as the Yuletide Lads, the sons of a fearful child-eating hag named Griga and her troll husband, are on the prowl. One arrives from its mountain home every day during the run-up to Christmas. It’s a perfect example of the binding of ancient and modern ways into a unique culture suited to the land.
Art, music, and the iconic literature of the country and its peoples are a binding cultural force here, and traditional music still flourishes, often based on religious links. The epic Norse rhyming ballads trace back to Skaldic poetry and, with their form revitalized in the early 20th century, are still much-loved today. Landscape poetry depicts the unique beauty of Iceland’s topography and many of the most-loved poems date back almost unaltered to the ancient Icelandic sagas.
Self-sufficiency, the work ethic, and independence are strongly valued here, and the brusque manners of Icelanders hide a friendly, helpful nature reflected in a dedication to the immediate community. Iceland’s long history of harsh conditions has resulted in a high rate of social cohesion backed up by regular contact with neighbors and friends. The country has a classless society based on a love of nature and a respect for its cultural heritage in a manner unknown in the modern-day Western world.
Whaling here dates back to Viking times and is a traditional aspect of Iceland, still playing a part in the country’s present-day economy. However you may feel about the practice, it’s best not to bring it into any conversation with Icelanders. Another conversational no-no is the country’s recent economic crash, an embarrassment to its peoples and best left undisturbed.
Other genders in Iceland
The gender equality in Iceland isn't limited to simply females and males. Iceland is also on the forefront of equality when it comes to the LGBTQIA community, so that individuals that identify as non-binary gender are as much a part of the society as anyone else.
Above you can see Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir give a talk about non-binary gender and the obstacles they still face in society today, at a TEDx talk in Reykjavík.
Ugla is the former chairperson of Trans Iceland, a part of the '78 Association, Iceland's LGBTQIA rights group. As a transgender rights activist who prefers non-gendered pronouns, they write about genderqueer rights for Huffington Post, help to spread information about non-binary people, and aid genderqueer rights around the world.
While there is still progression to be made in terms of the recognition of trans and genderqueer individuals, Iceland allows platforms for these people to represent themselves freely. Discrimination on the basis of perceived or actual gender identity is illegal, and those who transition can change their names and genders on all legal documents without issue. This has been the case since the passing of sweeping progressive legislation in 2012, protecting the rights of those outside the binary.
While not perfect, Iceland is a much more welcoming place today to discuss alternative gender issues than it was when the first transgender person came out. In 1989, Anna Kristjánsdottir was forced to move to Sweden to receive any support at all. Since her return, she has become recognised as a pioneer for transpeople, and celebrated for her bravery.
A Brief History of the Viking in Iceland
The history of the Viking in Iceland is vast. Find out more below!
The Early Days of Iceland
The residents of Iceland came from ancient Vikings. The Irish monks had been the inhabitants of Iceland before the Vikings broke in and forcefully took charge of the country, leaving the Irish monks empty and greatly distanced them. This caused them to give up on the country, so they had to leave it for the Vikings to continue to occupy.
Following the entrance of the Vikings, so many names were put into consideration to give to the great land of fire and ice. The land was almost called Snaeland or Thule, but none were a good fit for the land.
While these thoughts were put into place, Hrafna-Flóki visited and inhabited the land during the winter. He had gone up to one of the mountains close to Flókalundurone. There he stood looking at the fjords that were filled with ice, and he had the realization and called it The Iceland. And that was how the country started, and the name Hrafna-Flóki became one of the most known Viking in Iceland.
The Term ‘Viking’
Many have different perceptions of the term “Vikings,” who they were and what they represent. In the real sense, it’s quite difficult to tell in clear terms. In some languages, it’s used to describe a person who sails often. For some other persons, it’s some sort of occupation or profession. According to history, Vikings is a term used to describe one who is violent, judging from the fact that they attacked, kidnapped, and forcefully robbed several villages towns amongst several other atrocities as they journeyed across the sea to Iceland. A lot of the male inhabitants are from Nordic countries from Norway, while a lot of the females are from the British isles.
Fast forward to the later days of Iceland, Ingólfur Arnarsson was recognized as the first man to settle in Iceland, because he settled there permanently together with his brother and his followers.
Facts about the Viking in Iceland
1. A lot of people believed that the Vikings in Iceland wore hats with horns fixed on them, but that’s on the contrary because they didn’t. Instead, the helmets they wore were made of metals, having the same features as that of those work in northern Europe.
2. Vikings didn’t hold anything against divorce, so their women freely divorced their husbands, and they were able to inherit their husband’s properties at the time. Unlike now.
3. The Vikings had hobbies such as racing, chess, wrestling, drinking competitions, horse riding, amongst many others.
3. When the Vikings newly came to the land, they built their houses with turf materials.
4. Viking women of Iceland then wore pieces of jewelry to show wealth.
5. The Irish monks were the first to settle down in Iceland, but the entrance of the Vikings made them leave.
During the first years of settlement, Iceland was covered with trees. It is actually estimated that about 40% of the land was covered with forest when the Viking started to arrive but with the harsh climate and temperatures around zero the trees were quickly cut down and used to built houses, ships, farmstead and make fire to stay warm. Within a century Iceland had no trees left and is still to this day working hard to try to grow back what was lost.
Now that the trees had nearly all gone there wasn’t much to build the houses from, but like before Icelanders found another solution. The lack of trees and therefore timber was met by the building of Turf houses (sod houses). These types of houses are built by cutting up sod and piling them into the home’s interior walls. This gives good isolation and helps keep the house warm. These houses were often built into a hillside or a mountain and had to have big fires in the center. The houses were sensitive to wind and rain and had to have a lot of repairments made and often.
At this time people had not learned how to use the force of the land as they know today and trading was very important. Icelanders meanly traded with Europe and the neighboring Scandinavia and Greenland. With this contact with the outside world came great influence and right about the same time were big changes having to do with religion taking place in Europe.
Icelanders had until this time held their Viking Pagan religion of the Norse gods but Olaf Tryggvason who had now become the King of Norway had other plans. As you may remember many of Iceland’s settlers had been people fleeing the power of the Norwegian throne and the people of Iceland would not be easily persuaded. In 995 AD Olaf sent the first flock of missioners to Iceland but with little success, in 999 AD he tried again but when his second attempt was again not successful he decided to take matters into his own hands and force Icelanders to take on Christianity . This he did through closing the trading routes to Iceland and refusing all entry to the Norwegian ports.
Now the people of Iceland were at a crossroad, should they fight for their Pagan religion or should they follow the Norwegian King and turn to Christianity?
Almost half a century earlier the Icelandic parliament had been founded and as things were heading towards a civil war the nation turned to the parliament to seek a solution. One man, Thorgeir Ljósvetningargoði who was at this time leader of the parliament, was chosen to make this decision for the whole nation. He had a reputation of being a responsible and fair man and his decision would change the course of the nation. He took away from the crowd and lay down under fur and skins for almost a day making up his mind.
Fun Fact: Icelanders, still today, have this saying “to lay under fur” when someone is making a big decision.
His final decision was that Iceland was to become Christian but he made a special deal to keep three Pagan things in the culture. These three things were the Icelanders could still eat horse meat, still carry out children and still host Blót, very pagan party traditions but those were to be held in secret.
Thorgeir Ljósvetningargoði decided to make his decision final with the very dramatic act of tossing his pagan totems statues into the most beautiful waterfall in his region. This waterfall has ever since been called the waterfall of the gods or Goðafoss .
From avant-garde nightlife to sustainable geothermal energy systems, Iceland has never been short on innovation. Artists and designers find inspiration and innovation in Iceland ’s outstanding surroundings which is evident in unique works of visual art from paintings to sculptures to jewelry and glass work.
The visual arts are highly valued in Icelandic culture as witnessed by the vibrant art scene displayed on walls everywhere from clothing boutiques and cafes to hotels and office spaces. Reykjavik has always been the hotbed of Iceland ’s subversive creativity renowned for its vibrant, energetic character. A walk around the capital reveals dozens of cool galleries, as well as the pensive architecture of Gudjon Samuelsson, the color-drenched paintings of Johannes Kjarval and the bold sculptures of Einar Jonsson.
Iceland is home to a wide variety of private and public galleries, many of which can be found in small towns and villages throughout the countryside. The capital is where the largest museums and galleries are located and among the most visited are the Culture House , Einar Jonsson Museum , and the National Gallery . Some museums are architectural delights in their own design, others galleries are intimate and cozy while some of double as cafes or event venues.
Design in Iceland is a field that has been growing rapidly from its craft-based roots into a thriving industry. A trait typical of contemporary Icelandic design is its pioneering spirit using sustainable products with a playful unique style. Using the country’s few natural resources as materials for products results in a range of designs unique to Iceland . Pottery made from volcanic lava, lights from dried fish sit alongside aluminum stools and belts created from salmon skin leather. The best time to soak up Iceland ’s emerging and established design talent is during the Design Festival in Reykjavik held in March.
Artist such as Ólafur Elíason and Ragnar Kjartansson have found international fame with their innovative art.
Iceland became an important base for the Allied Forces during World War II. Many find it hard to belive that Iceland suffered relatively higher casualties during the war than the United States, particularly due to attacks on vessels at sea. Yet, the war proved to be a boom for the Icelandic economy. Fishing was excellent and demand was high.
Driven by the wartime bonanza in fisheries, an ambitious programme was launched for the renovation of the motorized fishing fleet. As a result Iceland had one of the most modern fishing fleets in the world at the dawn of the 1950s.
The trawlers acquired after the war were sidewinders 500-600 GT in size. Initially operated from fishing towns around the country, by 1960 the trawlers were almost entirely confined to the larger ports of Reykjavík, Hafnarfjördur and Akureyri. The sidewinders lasted until 1978 when the last of them was permanently docked. These were replaced by a generation of larger and more powerful stern-trawlers icing all the catch. Long fishing trips had evidently put the shelf live of the iced fish to the test, fish that then had to be processed in land based factories. However, by the new Millennium most Icelandic trawlers had become large factory vessels, processing and freezing the catch on-board, with products ready for export at premium prices due to the extra freshness.
With rising fuel prices and high labour costs for processing on board (fishermen´s share system) as well as improved handling systems and shorter fishing trips by the ice fish vessels price premiums for “processed at sea” declined. As a result, much of the processing was taken back to land based plants where cheaper hydro-electric power was available and salaries were lower. Improvements in handling and processing allowed the land based plants to develop high value specialized products that could increasingly be transported fresh to the markets both by aeroplanes as well as using highly interlinked surface transportation.
While tourism in Iceland has grown exponentially over the last decade, there may have been "tourists" visiting Iceland thousands of years ago. It is believed that one of the first to set foot on the Land of Fire and Ice was the Greek explorer Pytheas, who in around 330 BC wrote of an island that was six days north of the British Isles by boat. Could this have been Iceland?
Archaeological evidence suggests that a group of Gaelic monks, fleeing from Viking-occupied Ireland, settled on Iceland, but they didn't last there long. The first written records of settlement date from the 9th century and show the Vikings themselves reaching the island and making it their own.