It’s difficult to remain unmoved by the amazing diversity of the Icelandic landscape. Prepare to explore everything from lunar-like terrain of ornate lava flows and towering volcanoes with misty ice caps to steep-sided glistening fjords, lush emerald-green hills, glacier-carved valleys, bubbling mudpots and vast, desert-like expanses. It is this rich mix of extraordinary scenery and the possibility of experiencing such extremes, so close together, that attracts and then dazzles visitors.
Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a massive 18,000km-long rift between two of the Earth’s major tectonic plates, Iceland is a shifting, steaming lesson in schoolroom geology. Suddenly you’ll be racking your brains to remember long-forgotten homework on how volcanoes work, what a solfatara is (spoiler: it's a volcanic vent emitting hot gases), and why lava and magma aren’t quite the same thing.
Iceland is one of the youngest landmasses on the planet, formed by underwater volcanic eruptions along the joint of the North American and Eurasian plates around 20 million years ago. The Earth’s crust in Iceland is only a third of its normal thickness, and magma (molten rock) continues to rise from deep within, forcing the two plates apart. The result is clearly visible at Þingvellir, where the great rift Almannagjá broadens by between 1mm and 18mm per year, and at Námafjall (near Mývatn), where a series of steaming vents mark the ridge.
Thin crust and grating plates are responsible for a host of exciting volcanic situations in Iceland. The country’s volcanoes are many and varied – some are active, some extinct, and some are dormant and dreaming, no doubt, of future destruction. Fissure eruptions and their associated craters are probably the most common type of eruption in Iceland. The still-volatile Lakagígar crater row around Laki mountain is the country’s most extreme example. It produced the largest lava flow in human history in the 18th century, covering an area of 565 sq km to a depth of 12m.
Several of Iceland’s liveliest volcanoes are found beneath glaciers, which makes for dramatic eruptions as molten lava and ice interact. The main 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption was of this type: it caused a jökulhlaup (flooding caused by volcanic eruption beneath an ice cap) that damaged part of the Ring Road, before throwing up the famous ash plume that grounded Europe’s aeroplanes. Iceland’s most active volcano, Grímsvötn, which lies beneath the Vatnajökull ice cap, behaved in a similar fashion in 2011.
Iceland not only has subglacial eruptions, but also submarine ones. In 1963 the island of Surtsey exploded from the sea, giving scientists the opportunity to study how smouldering chunks of newly created land are colonised by plants and animals. Surtsey is off-limits to visitors, but you can climb many classical-looking cones such as Hekla, once thought to be the gateway to Hell; Eldfell, which did its best to bury the town of Heimaey in 1974; and Snæfellsjökull on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Recent eruptions in Iceland have tended to be fairly harmless – they’re often called ‘tourist eruptions’ because their fountains of magma, electric storms and dramatic ash clouds make perfect photos but cause relatively little damage. This is partly due to the sparsely populated land, and partly because devastating features such as fast-flowing lava, lahars (mudslides) and pyroclastic surges (like the ones that obliterated Pompeii and Herculaneum) are usually absent in this part of the world.
The main danger lies in the gases that are released: suffocating carbon dioxide, highly acidic sulphur-based gases, and the deadly fluorine that poisoned people and livestock during the Laki eruptions of 1783. The Icelandic Met Office (Veðurstofa Íslands; www.vedur.is) keeps track of eruptions and the earthquakes that tend to precede them, plus the emissions that follow. Its work during 2014–15 Bárðarbunga seismic events and volcanic activity included daily factsheets. As of 2018, the volcanoes to watch are Katla, Hekla and Öræfajökull, all well overdue for eruption.
Geysers, Springs & Fumaroles
Iceland’s Great Geysir gave its name to the world’s spouting hot springs (it comes from the Icelandic for 'to gush'). It was once very active, frequently blowing water to a height of 80m, but earthquakes have altered the pressures inside its plumbing system and today it is far quieter. Its neighbour, Strokkur, now demonstrates the effect admirably, blasting a steaming column into the air every five to 10 minutes.
Geysers are reasonably rare phenomena, with around a thousand existing on Earth. However, in Iceland, water that has percolated down through the rock and been superheated by magma can emerge on the surface in various other exciting ways. Some of it boils into hot springs, pools and rivers – you’ll find naturally hot water sources all around Iceland, including the springs at Landmannalaugar, the river at Hveragerði and the warm blue-white pool in the bottom of Víti crater at Askja. Icelanders have long harnessed these soothing gifts of nature, turning them into geothermal swimming pools and spas. The country's smartest spas are Mývatn Nature Baths and the Blue Lagoon, but note that they are not natural hot springs – they are human-made lagoons fed by the water output of the nearby geothermal power plants.
Fumaroles are places where superheated water reaches the surface as steam – the weirdest Icelandic examples are at Hverir, where gases literally scream their way from sulphurous vents in the earth. Lazier, messier bloops and bubblings take place at mudpots, for example, at Seltún (Krýsuvík) on the Reykjanes Peninsula, where heated water mixes with mud and clay. The colourful splatterings around some of the mudpots are caused by various minerals (sulphurous yellow, iron red), and also by the extremophile bacteria and algae that somehow thrive in this boiling-acid environment.
Ice & Snow
Glaciers and ice caps cover around 11% of Iceland; many are remnants of a cool period that began 2500 years ago. Ice caps are formed as snow piles over millennia in an area where it’s never warm enough to melt. The weight of the snow causes it to slowly compress into ice, eventually crushing the land beneath the ice cap.
Iceland’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull in the southeast, covers about 8% of the country and is the largest in the world outside the poles. This immense glittering weight of ice may seem immovable, but around its edges, slow-moving rivers of ice – glaciers – flow imperceptibly down the mountainsides. Like rivers, glaciers carry pieces of stony sediment, which they dump in cindery-looking moraines at the foot of the mountain, or on vast gravelly outwash plains such as the Skeiðarársandur in Southeast Iceland. This can occur very quickly if volcanoes under the ice erupt and cause a jökulhlaup (flood): the jökulhlaup from the 1996 Grímsvötn eruption destroyed Iceland’s longest bridge and swept jeep-sized boulders down onto the plain.
Several of Iceland’s glaciers have lakes at their tips. Jökulsárlón is a stunning place to admire icebergs that have calved from Breiðamerkurjökull. Luminous-blue pieces tend to indicate a greater age of ice, as centuries of compression squeeze out the air bubbles that give ice its usual silvery-white appearance. Icebergs may also appear blue due to light refraction.
Glaciers have carved out much of the Icelandic landscape since its creation, forming the glacial valleys and fjords that make those picture-postcard photos of today. The ice advances and retreats with the millennia, and also with the seasons, but there are worrying signs that Iceland’s major ice caps – Vatnajökull, Mýrdalsjökull in the southwest, and Langjökull and Hofsjökull in the highlands – have been melting at an unprecedented rate since 2000. Glaciologists believe the ice cap Snæfellsjökull in the west (with an average ice thickness of only 30m), as well as some of the outlet glaciers of the larger ice caps, could disappear completely within a few decades. Others have lost their glacier status due to melting, such as West Iceland's Ok (formerly Okjökull) in 2014.
Feature: Fire & Ice
'Land of fire and ice' might be an overused marketing slogan, but it's not hyperbole. Serene, majestic scenery belies Iceland's fiery heart – there are some 30 active volcanoes, and many of them lie under thick ice. When their fire-breathing fury is unleashed, the world often has no choice but to take notice (remember Eyjafjallajökull?).
The island’s ice queen is Europe’s largest ice cap and the namesake for its largest national park. Don’t miss the chance to explore this endless kingdom of white aboard a snowmobile.
You've heard the name (or at least heard people try to pronounce the name) of the treacherous eruption that spewed impenetrable tufts of ash over Europe in 2010, causing the cancellation of thousands of flights.
Hekla & Katla
Like wicked stepsisters from some Icelandic fairy tale, Hekla and Katla are volatile beasts that dominate many of the southern vistas, threatening to belch forth steam, smoke and oozing lava that melts the nearby glaciers and floods the southern plains.
Jules Verne’s famous journey to the centre of the earth starts here – the Snæfellsnes Peninsula’s prominent glacial fist that can be easily glimpsed from Reykjavík on clear days.
Magni & Móði
Iceland’s newest mountains were formed during the eruptions of 2010. Bring a pack of pýlsur (hot dogs) with you as you mount Magni – the still-steaming earth will cook them in no time flat.
Mammals & Marine Life
Apart from birds, sheep and horses, you’ll be lucky to have any casual sightings of animals in Iceland. The only indigenous land mammal is the elusive Arctic fox, best spotted in remote Hornstrandir in the Westfjords – wildlife enthusiasts can apply in advance to monitor these creatures while volunteering at the Arctic Fox Center (www.arcticfoxcenter.com). In East Iceland, herds of reindeer can sometimes be spotted from the road. Reindeer were introduced from Norway in the 18th century and now roam the mountains in the east. Polar bears very occasionally drift across from Greenland on ice floes, but armed farmers make sure they don’t last long.
In contrast, Iceland has a rich marine life, particularly whales. On whale-watching tours from Húsavík in North Iceland, you’ll have an excellent chance of seeing cetaceans, particularly dolphins, porpoises, minke whales and humpback whales. Sperm, fin, sei, pilot, orca and blue whales also swim in Icelandic waters and have been seen by visitors. Seals can be seen in the Eastfjords, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula in northwest Iceland, in the Mýrar region on the southeast coast (including at Jökulsárlón), in Breiðafjörður in the west, and in the Westfjords.
Bird life is prolific, at least from May to August. On coastal cliffs and islands around the country you can see a mind-boggling array of seabirds, often in massive colonies. Most impressive for their sheer numbers are gannets, guillemots, gulls, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars and puffins. Less numerous birds include wood sandpipers, Arctic terns, skuas, Manx shearwaters, golden plovers, storm petrels and Leach’s petrels. In the southern Westfjords you can occasionally spot endangered white-tailed eagles. In addition, there are many species of ducks, ptarmigans, whooping swans, redwings, divers and gyrfalcons, and two species of owls.
Flowers & Fungi
Although Iceland was largely deforested long ago, its vegetation is surprisingly varied – you just need to get close to see it. Most vegetation is low-growing, spreading as much as possible to get a better grip on the easily eroded soil. Wind erosion and damage from off-road drivers are big conservation issues. Even the trees, where there are any, are stunted. As the old joke goes, if you’re lost in an Icelandic forest, just stand up.
If you’re visiting in summer, you’ll be treated to incredible displays of wildflowers blooming right across the country. Most of Iceland’s 450 flowering plants are introduced species – especially the ubiquitous purple lupin, once an environmental help, now a hindrance. A nationwide poll held in 2004 voted for the mountain avens (Dryas octopetala), known as holtasóley (heath buttercup) in Icelandic, as the national flower. Look out for it on gravel stretches and rocky outcrops – its flowers are about 3cm in diameter, each with eight delicate white petals and an exploding yellow-sun centre.
Coastal areas are generally characterised by low grasses, bogs and marshlands, while at higher elevations hard or soft tundra covers the ground.
Another common sight when walking almost anywhere in Iceland is fungi. There are about 2000 types growing here, and you’ll see everything from pale white mushrooms to bright orange flat caps as you walk along trails, by roadsides or through fields.
In southern and eastern Iceland new lava flows are first colonised by mosses, which create a velvety green cloak across the rough rocks. Older lava flows in the east and those at higher elevations are generally first colonised by lichens. Confusingly, Icelandic moss (Cetraria islandica), the grey-green or pale brown frilly growth that you’ll see absolutely everywhere, is actually lichen.
National Parks & Reserves
Iceland has three national parks and more than 100 nature reserves, natural monuments and country parks, with a protected area of 18,806 sq km (about 18% of the entire country). A proposed Highland National Park (www.halendid.is) would protect a vast section of Iceland's interior (40,000 sq km), comprising a full 40% of the country.
Umhverfisstofnun (Environment Agency of Iceland; www.ust.is) is responsible for protecting many of these sites. Its website contains information on its work to promote the protection as well as sustainable use of Iceland’s natural resources, including ways travellers can tread lightly. The agency also recruits summer volunteers each year, to work in conservation projects within the parks.
Þingvellir National Park, Iceland’s oldest national park, protects a scenic 84-sq-km lake, the geologically significant Almannagjá rift, and is the site of the original Alþingi (National Assembly). The park is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Snæfellsjökull National Park in West Iceland was established in June 2001. The park protects the Snæfellsjökull glacier (made famous by author Jules Verne), the surrounding lava fields and coast.
Vatnajökull National Park is the largest national park in Europe and covers roughly 13% of Iceland. It was founded in 2008 by uniting two previously established national parks: Skaftafell in Southeast Iceland, and Jökulsárgljúfur further north. The park protects the entirety of the Vatnajökull ice cap, the mighty Dettifoss waterfall and a great variety of geological anomalies.
Iceland’s small population, pristine wilderness, lack of heavy industry and high use of geothermal and hydroelectric power (81.2% of their energy use came from renewable sources in 2017) give it an enviable environmental reputation. Its use of geothermal power is one of the most creative in the world, and the country’s energy experts are now advising Asian and African industries on possible ways to harness geothermal sources.
However, power supplies provided free by bountiful nature are not just of interest to Icelanders. Foreign industrialists in search of cheap energy also have their eye on the country’s glacial rivers and geothermal hot spots. Alcoa, an American aluminium-smelting company, was responsible for one of Iceland’s most controversial schemes: the Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric station in East Iceland, completed in 2009, was the biggest construction project in Iceland’s history. It created a network of dams and tunnels, a vast reservoir, a power station and miles of power lines to supply electricity to a fjord-side smelter 80km away in Reyðarfjörður.
Alcoa makes much of its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint including the fact that the aluminium it manufactures in Iceland uses cheap, green energy from renewable sources (this was the whole point of closing two US smelters and setting up here). Environmentalists, however, raised serious objections to the project on a number of grounds, not least that the mega-dam built specifically to power the Alcoa plant has devastated the landscape. Locals though were less vocal – many were grateful for work opportunities coming to the area.
The Power of Power
The Kárahnjúkar dam and aluminium smelter are dramatic illustrations of the dilemma Iceland faces.
To ensure economic prosperity, Iceland is seeking to shore up its position as a green-energy superpower. Thanks to its rich geothermal and hydroelectric energy sources, and new wind turbines (read more at www.nea.is), Iceland generates more electricity per capita than any other country in the world – and twice as much as second-placed Norway. Interestingly, Iceland also uses more energy per capita than any other nation. Eighty per cent of Iceland's electricity is sold to a handful of international companies based in Iceland, such as aluminium smelters, but exporting electricity would bring in new revenue.
Iceland and the UK have moved through the initial feasibility studies of exporting clean hydroelectric energy via a 1500km subsea power cable running from Iceland to the UK (read more at www.atlanticsuperconnection.com). Iceland is also continuing to expand its power-intensive industries, including becoming a global data-centre hub, home to servers housing digitised information.
But if such initiatives go ahead, the power must still be harnessed, and power plants and power lines must be built for such a purpose. Where will these be located? What tracts of Iceland's highland wilderness may be threatened by industrial megaprojects? NGO organisation Landvernd (www.landvernd.is), the Icelandic Environment Association, has proposed that the central highlands be protected with the establishment of a national park. Economic profit versus the preservation of nature – it's an age-old battle. Watch this space.
The Impact of Tourism on Nature
More than 2.2 million visitors per year head to Iceland for their dream holiday in a vast natural playground. And guess what? This boom in numbers is threatening the very thing everyone is travelling to see: Iceland's unspoilt nature.
Icelanders are voicing a valid concern that the population of 350,000 and its existing infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle the demands and behaviour of visitors. Media consistently reports instances of tourists disrespecting nature or taking dangerous risks: hiking in poor weather without proper equipment, getting vehicles stuck in rivers, driving cars onto glaciers, falling off cliffs or being swept off beaches. In 2016, 2017 and again in 2018, for example, tourists have been caught hopping across the ice in Jökulsárlón. Footage and social media showing cavalier, risky behaviour like this (see also Justin Bieber rolling in fragile moss in his 2015 'I'll Show You' video) further encourages a disregard for rules, signs and common sense.
The people on the hook for rescues are the extraordinarily competent and well-respected Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR; www.icesar.com). It is an all-volunteer operation funded by donations. A good article on the organisation, 'Life Is Rescues', appeared in The New Yorker in November 2015. ICE-SAR puts a huge emphasis on accident prevention and education with its informative website (www.safetravel.is) and '112 Iceland' app that allows travellers to register hikes and trips.
Icelanders have responded by erecting more signs – despite the fact locals tend to abhor them (they mar the landscape); ropes along some walkways – which some visitors continue to flout; and an educational campaign (www.inspiredbyiceland.com/icelandacademy). The government has also instituted camping rules requiring campervans to spend the night in organised campgrounds rather than on roadsides or in car parks, in part to address the problem of people using the roadside as their toilet. Laws are slightly more relaxed for hikers and cyclists, but they are bound by rules regarding obtaining landowner permission, being an acceptable distance from official campgrounds, ensuring they don't set up more than the allowed number of tents, and ensuring they're not camping on cultivated land.
Ultimately the protection of Iceland's environment will be a joint project between Icelanders and visitors. Icelanders must build on their infrastructure and rules, and foster an attitude of environmental protection, and visitors must heed local advice and respect the country they are visiting.
Proposed Visitor Fees & Caps
A continuously debated proposal involves the introduction of fees to ensure travellers contribute to the protection and maintenance of natural sites, as well as to possibly control visitor numbers to specific sights.
Suggestions include a one-off fee, perhaps an arrival tax payable at the airport, or a nature pass purchased according to the length of your stay. There's also the idea of charging for day-use or parking (already beginning to occur). It doesn't seem like an unreasonable request – especially when one looks at it in the context of Iceland's tiny population, now hosting hordes of trekkers and buses full of holidaymakers all requiring car parks, toilet blocks, picnic tables, litter bins, improved signage, not to mention rangers providing information and safety advice.
There is also occasional talk of lotteries or limits on visitor numbers in certain regions or on certain trails (such as the Laugavegurinn hike), but so far no new policies or legislation have been set down.
Feature: Geologically Speaking
Everywhere you go in Iceland you’ll be bombarded with geological jargon to describe the landscape. These terms will let you one-up geological neophytes.
Basalt The most common type of solidified lava. This hard, dark, dense volcanic rock often solidifies into hexagonal columns.
Igneous A rock formed by solidifying magma or lava.
Moraine A ridge of boulders, clay and sand carried and deposited by a glacier.
Obsidian Black, glassy rock formed by the rapid solidification of lava without crystallisation.
Rhyolite Light-coloured, fine-grained volcanic rock similar to granite in composition.
Scoria Porous volcanic gravel that has cooled rapidly while moving, creating a glassy surface with iron-rich crystals that give it a glittery appearance.
Tephra Solid matter ejected into the air by an erupting volcano.
Feature: Whaling in Iceland
In the late 19th century, whale hunting became a lucrative commercial prospect with the arrival of steam-powered ships and explosive harpoons. Norwegian hunters built 13 large-scale whaling stations in Iceland, and hunted until stocks practically disappeared in 1913. Icelanders established their own whaling industry in 1935, until whale numbers again became dangerously low and commercial hunting was banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986. Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006, to the consternation of environmentalists worldwide. The question of why Iceland is whaling today is not a simple one to answer.
Iceland's authorities stress that the country's position has always been that whale stocks should be utilised in a sustainable manner like any other living marine resource. Its catch limits for common minke whales and fin whales follow the advice given by the Marine Research Institute of Iceland regarding sustainability – the quota for 2018-2025 is set at an annual maximum catch of 217 minke whales and 209 fin whales.
Those numbers stir passions, especially given that fin whales are classified as endangered globally on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. In 2016 and 2017 fin whaling was halted due to trade difficulties with Japan (though minke whaling continued), and amid much international outcry fin whaling began again in 2018. Due to the extension of the marine reserve in the eastern part of Faxaflói Bay, near Reykjavík, which is the main place minkes had been caught, minke whaling was halted for the 2018 season after only six animals were killed. A new reserve was also created in North Iceland in Eyjafjörður and Skjálfandi Bay.
Members of Iceland’s tourism board are strong objectors to whaling, stating that Iceland’s whaling industry will have a detrimental effect on whale watching (although this is disputed by the Ministry of Industries and Innovation). With the boom in tourist numbers, the idea is that a whale is worth more alive (for watching) than dead (for eating). Ironically, estimates are that from 40% to 60% of Icelandic whale-meat consumption is by curious tourists, with only 1% of Icelanders eating whale meat regularly; much is exported to Japan, though demand has declined there, too. In 2012 the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW; www.ifaw.is) and IceWhale (Icelandic Whale Watching Association; www.icewhale.is) launched a high-profile ‘Meet Us Don’t Eat Us’ campaign to encourage visitors to go whale watching rather than whale tasting, and their 2016 petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures. Their website lists whale-friendly restaurants in Iceland.
Icelandic whaling has attracted other international condemnation – in 2014, a formal diplomatic protest (known as a démarche) against whaling was delivered to the Icelandic government from 35 nations, including the US, Australia and members of the EU. And, in 2018, the catching of a rare blue whale/fin whale hybrid received much press coverage, and the company was sued by an environmental group.
A US-based campaign, 'Don't Buy from Icelandic Whalers' (www.dontbuyfromicelandicwhalers.com), encourages the public not to buy fish from suppliers and retailers who source from Icelandic companies linked to whaling. But, for the moment, whaling continues.
Feature: Little Northern Brothers
Cute, clumsy and endearingly comic, the puffin (Fratercula arctica, or lundi as they’re called in Icelandic) is one of Iceland’s best-loved birds. Although known for its frantic fluttering and crash landings, the bird is surprisingly graceful underwater and was once thought to be a bird-fish hybrid.
The puffin is a member of the auk family and spends most of its year at sea. For four or five months it comes to land to breed, generally keeping the same mate and burrow (a multiroom apartment!) from year to year.
Until very recently, 60% of the world’s puffins bred in Iceland, and you could see them in huge numbers around the island from late May to August. However, over the last decade, the puffin stock has gone into a sudden, sharp decline in the south of Iceland. They still visit the south – Vestmannaeyjar Islands’ puffins are the largest puffin colony in the world – but in smaller numbers and with considerably less breeding success. The reason is uncertain, but it’s thought that warming ocean temperatures have caused their main food source – sand eels – to decline. It’s also possible that hunting and egg collection have had an effect. In 2018, BirdLife International reported that puffins are threatened with extinction globally.
The good news for twitchers is that puffins in the north and west seem less affected (for now). The photogenic birds continue to flitter around the cliffs of Grímsey and Drangey, as well as in Borgarfjörður Eystri, the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes.
For background information about the country’s diverse geology, check out the revised 2nd edition, 2014 publication of Iceland – Classic Geology in Europe, by Þór Þórdarson and Armann Hoskuldsson.
Sidebar: New Discoveries
In 2002 scientists discovered the world’s second-smallest creature at 0.4 micrometers, Nanoarchaeum equitans, living in near-boiling water in a hydrothermal vent off the north coast of Iceland. The name means 'riding the fire sphere'.
Iceland isn’t truly an Arctic country – the mainland falls short of the Arctic Circle by a few kilometres. To cross that boundary, you’ll need to travel to the island of Grímsey, Iceland’s only real piece of Arctic territory.
Imported by the Vikings, the pure-bred Icelandic horse (Equus scandinavicus) is a small, tough breed perfectly suited to the country’s rough conditions. Icelandic horses have five gaits, including the unusual tölt – a running walk so smooth that riders can drink a glass of beer without spilling a drop.
A Guide to the Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland, by Hörður Kristinsson, is the best all-round field guide to Icelandic flowers.
At 103,000 sq km, Iceland is roughly the size of Portugal, or the US state of Kentucky. Within its borders are some 30 active volcanoes. Its landscape is comprised of 3% lakes, 11% ice caps and glaciers, 23% vegetation, and 63% lava and other raw terrain.
Garden angelica (Angelica archangelica) grows wild in many parts of Iceland. It's been valued as a medicinal herb since Viking times, and these days is appearing in more and more recipes. Kaldi beer even has a brew (known as Stinnings Kaldi) with angelica as an ingredient.
The Forlagið (Mál og Menning) series of maps now includes some fun themed ones: Fuglakort (Birdwatcher's Map), Höggunarkort (Tectonic Map), Jarðfræðikort (Geological Map) and Plöntukort (Botanical Map). The text is in Icelandic, English and German.
Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation by Andri Snær Magnason critically examines the government's decisions over Kárahnjúkar dam. The powerful documentary based on the book, Dreamland (2009), won critical acclaim.
Icelandic Culture: Sagas to Sigur Rós
Iceland blows away concerns such as isolation, never-ending winter nights and its small population with a glowing passion for all things cultural. The country’s unique literary heritage begins with high-action medieval sagas and stretches to today’s Nordic Noir bestsellers. Every Icelander seems to play in a band, and the country produces a disproportionate number of world-class musicians. The way of life and grand landscapes inspire visual artists who use film, art and design to capture their unique Icelandic perspectives.
Bloody, mystical and nuanced, the late 12th- and 13th-century sagas are some of Iceland’s greatest cultural achievements. Reverend Hallgrímur Pétursson's 1659 Passíusálmar (Passion Hymns) were an Icelandic staple, sung or read at Lent. Nobel Prize–winning author Halldór Laxness put Iceland on the 20th-century literary map. But Icelanders aren’t resting on their laurels: today the country produces the most writers and literary translations per capita of any country in the world.
Iceland’s medieval prose sagas are some of the most imaginative and enduring works of early literature – epic, brutal tales that flower repeatedly with wisdom, magic, elegiac poetry and love.
Written down during the 12th to early 14th centuries, these sagas look back on the disputes, families, doomed romances and larger-than-life characters (from warrior and poet to outlaw) who lived during the Settlement Era. Most were written anonymously, though Egil’s Saga has been attributed to Snorri Sturluson. Some are sources for historical understanding, such as the Saga of the Greenlanders and Saga of Erik the Red, which describe the travels of Erik and his family, including his son Leif (a settler in North America).
The sagas, written over the long, desperate centuries of Norwegian and Danish subjugation, provided a strong sense of cultural heritage at a time when Icelanders had little else. On winter nights, people would gather for the kvöldvaka (evening vigil). While the men twisted horsehair ropes and women spun wool or knitted, a family member would read the sagas and recite rímur (verse reworkings of the sagas).
The sagas are very much alive today. Icelanders of all ages can (and do) read them in Old Norse, the language in which they were written 800 years ago. Most people can quote chunks from them, know the farms where the characters lived and died, and flock to cinemas to see the latest film versions of these eternal tales. Check out the Icelandic Saga Database (www.sagadb.org) for more.
Eddic & Skaldic Poetry
The first settlers brought their oral poetic tradition with them from other parts of Scandinavia, and the poems were committed to parchment in the 12th century.
Eddic poems were composed in free, variable meters with a structure very similar to that of early Germanic poetry. Probably the most well known is the gnomic Hávamál, which extols the virtues of the common life – its wise proverbs on how to be a good guest are still quoted today.
Skaldic poems were composed by skalds (Norwegian court poets) and are mainly praise-poems of Scandinavian kings, with lots of description packed into tightly structured lines. As well as having fiercely rigid alliteration, syllable counts and stresses, Skaldic poetry is made more complex by kennings, a kind of compact word-riddle. Blood, for instance, is ‘wound dew’, while an arm might be described as a ‘hawk’s perch’.
The most renowned skald was saga anti-hero Egil Skallagrímsson. In 948, after being captured and sentenced to death, Egil composed the ode Höfuðlausn (Head Ransom) for his captor Eirík Blood-Axe. Flattered, the monarch released Egil unharmed.
Nobel Prize–winner Halldór Laxness is Iceland’s modern literary genius. Also well known is the early-20th-century children’s writer Reverend Jón Sveinsson (nicknamed Nonni), whose old-fashioned tales of derring-do have a rich Icelandic flavour and were once translated into 40 languages; At Skipalón is the only one readily available in English, or you can read his 1894 memoir, A Journey Across Iceland: The Ministry of Rev. Jon Sveinsson S.J. Sveinsson's house in Akureyri is now an interesting museum. Two other masters of Icelandic literature are Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889–1975; look for The Sworn Brothers, a Tale of the Early Days of Iceland, 2012) and Þórbergur Þórðarson (1888–1974; look for The Stones Speak, 2012).
For more contemporary fare, try Einar Kárason’s outstanding Devil’s Island, the first of a trilogy about Reykjavík life in the 1950s; unfortunately, the other two parts haven’t yet been translated into English. Hallgrímur Helgason’s 101 Reykjavík is the book on which the cult film was based. It’s a dark comedy following the torpid life and fertile imagination of out-of-work Hlynur, who lives in downtown Reykjavík with his mother. Even blacker is Angels of the Universe, by Einar Már Gudmundsson, which is about a schizophrenic man’s spells in a psychiatric hospital. Svava Jakobsdóttir's Gunnlöth's Tale blends contemporary life with Nordic mythology.
Surfing the Nordic Noir tidal wave is Arnaldur Indriðason, whose Reykjavík-based crime fiction permanently tops the bestseller lists. Many of his novels are available in English, including Voices, the award-winning Silence of the Grave, The Draining Lake and, possibly the best, Tainted Blood (also published as Jar City, and the inspiration for a film of the same name). Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s thrillers have also been widely translated – her latest are The Absolution and The Hole. Dip into Ragnar Jónasson's Dark Iceland series with the first, Snowblind, set in remote Siglufjörður. Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson's The Flatey Enigma has been made into a TV series.
Also look for Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir's The Creator, a dark psychological novel. Former Sugarcube collaborator Sjón's The Blue Fox is a fantasy-adventure tale set in the 19th century; or try his most recent: Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was.
Pop, Rock & Electronica
Iceland punches above its weight in the pop- and rock-music worlds. Internationally famous Icelandic musicians include (of course) Björk and her former band, the Sugarcubes. From her platinum album Debut (1993) to her most recent, Utopia (2017), Björk continues to be a force.
Sigur Rós, stars on the international stage, garnered rave reviews with albums such as Ágætis Byrjun (1999) and Takk (2005). Their most recent, Route One (2017), was assembled from music created while they drove the entire Ring Road in midsummer 2016. The band's concert movie Heima (2007) is a must-see. Lead singer Jónsi had success with his joyful solo album Go (2010).
Indie-folk Of Monsters and Men stormed the US charts in 2011 with their debut album, My Head is an Animal. The track 'Little Talks' from that album reached number one on the Billboard US Alternative Songs chart in 2012. Their latest album, Beneath the Skin (2015), debuted at number three on the US Billboard 200.
Ásgeir Trausti, who records simply as Ásgeir, had a breakout hit with In the Silence (2014) and sells out concerts internationally. His latest is Afterglow (2017).
Reykjavík has a flourishing music scene with a constantly changing line-up of new bands and sounds – see www.icelandmusic.is for an idea of the variety.
Seabear, an indie-folk band, have spawned several top music-makers such as Sin Fang (try Flowers from 2013 or Spaceland from 2016) and Sóley (We Sink from 2012, Ask the Deep from 2015 and Endless Summer from 2017). Árstíðir record minimalist indie-folk, and had a 2013 YouTube hit when they sang a 13th-century Icelandic hymn a cappella in a train station in Germany. Their album, Nivalis, was released in 2018. Kiasmos is a duo mixing moody, minimalist electronica; check out their album also called Kiasmos (2014) or the several EPs they've released since.
GusGus, a local pop-electronica act, have 10 studio albums to their credit and opened for Justin Timberlake at his sold-out 2014 concert in Reykjavík. In September 2016, Sturla Atlas, the Icelandic hip hop/R&B phenomenon opened for the other Justin (Bieber); Bieber's video I’ll Show You was shot in Iceland. Another well-known Icelandic rapper is Gisli Pálmi.
Kaleo, a popular blues-folk-rock band from Mosfellsbær, has hit the international stage with a splash – the song 'No Good' from their 2016 debut studio album A/B garnered a Grammy award nomination.
Vestmannaeyjar Islands–born Júníus Meyvant's 2016 debut, Floating Harmonies, is a creative blend of beautifully orchestrated folk, funk and soul.
FM Belfast, an electronica band, set up their own recording label to release their first album, How to Make Friends (2008); their latest is Island Broadcast (2017). Múm makes experimental electronica mixed with traditional instruments (their latest is Smilewound; 2013).
Prins Póló, named after a candy bar, records lyric-heavy dance-pop. Also check out Hafdís Huld, whose latest pop album is called Dare to Dream Small, and ebullient garage-rockers Benny Crespo’s Gang. Just Another Snake Cult heads towards the psychedelic with Cupid Makes a Fool of Me (2013). Or check out Singapore Sling for straight-up rock and roll.
The list goes on. And on. Similarly, Reykjavík’s live-music venues are ever-changing – the best thing to do is to check the free publication Reykjavík Grapevine (www.grapevine.is) or its app (called Appening Today) for current news and listings. Increasingly, live local music can be found all over Iceland. If your trip coincides with one of the country's many music festivals, go! The fabulous Iceland Airwaves festival (held in Reykjavík in November) showcases Iceland’s talent along with international acts, as does Secret Solstice in June. Þjóðhátíð, aka National Festival, in Vestmannaeyjar, attracts up to 16,000 people for four days of music and debauchery in late July or early August.
Until rock and roll arrived in the 20th century, Iceland was a land practically devoid of musical instruments. The Vikings brought the fiðla and the langspil with them from Scandinavia – both a kind of two-stringed box rested on the player’s knee and played with a bow. They were never solo instruments but merely served to accompany singers.
Instruments were generally an unheard-of luxury and singing was the sole form of music. The most famous song styles are rímur (poetry or stories from the sagas performed in a low, eerie chant; Sigur Rós have dabbled with the form), and fimmundasöngur (sung by two people in harmony). Cut off from other influences, the Icelandic singing style barely changed from the 14th century to the 20th century; it also managed to retain harmonies that were banned by the church across the rest of Europe on the basis of being the work of the devil.
You'll find choirs around Iceland performing traditional music, and various compilation albums, such as Inspired by Harpa – The Traditional Songs of Iceland (2013), give a sampling of Icelandic folk songs or rímur.
Cinema & Television
Iceland’s film industry is young and strong – regular production started around the early 1980s – and it creates distinctive work. Both short-form and feature-length Icelandic films receive international awards and prestige, and they often feature thought-provoking material and superb cinematography, using Iceland’s powerful landscape as a backdrop.
In 1992 the film world first took notice of Iceland when Children of Nature was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. In it, an elderly couple forced into a retirement home in Reykjavík make a break for the countryside. The director, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, is something of a legend in Icelandic cinema circles. Cold Fever (1994), Angels of the Universe (2000) and The Sunshine Boy (2009) are well worth watching, and he also produces many films.
Another film to put Reykjavík on the cinematic map was 101 Reykjavík (2000), directed by Baltasar Kormákur and based on the novel by Hallgrímur Helgason. This dark comedy explores sex, drugs and the life of a loafer in downtown Reykjavík. Kormákur’s Jar City (2006) stars the ever-watchable Ingvar E Sigurðsson as Iceland’s favourite detective, Inspector Erlendur, from the novels by Arnaldur Indriðason. Kormákur's 2012 film, The Deep, based on a true story of a man who saved himself from a shipwreck in the Vestmannaeyjar Islands, was a hit, and in 2013 he launched into Hollywood with 2 Guns, starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. Everest (2015) starred Keira Knightley, Robin Wright and Jake Gyllenhaal. Kormákur has established RVK Studios, which also produces the hit TV series Ófærð (Trapped; 2015), an excellent, moody crime drama set in Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland (though filmed in Siglufjörður in the north). His latest includes thriller The Oath (Eiðurinn; 2016) and Adrift (2018), starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin.
Director Dagur Kári achieved international success with films including Nói Albinói (2003), the story of a restless adolescent in a snowed-in northern fjord town, and the English-language The Good Heart (2009). Another RVK Studios production, Kári's Virgin Mountain (Fúsi; 2015), is a touching portrait of a gentle, isolated man, which played in art houses around the world.
Also look out for Hilmar Oddsson’s Cold Light (Kaldaljós; 2004), a slow-moving, poignant film about life in an isolated fjord town, with a stunning performance from the little boy on whom it centres. And, the quirky 2012 documentary The Final Member details the bizarre quest for a Homo sapiens penis for the Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavík.
Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson's first feature film Either Way (2011), about two road workers painting stripes on the highway, was remade in the US by David Gordon Green as Prince Avalanche (2013). Sigurðsson's Paris of the North (2014), a father-son comedy-drama set in remote East Iceland, was a hit at film festivals, and his latest is Under the Tree (2017).
Benedikt Erlingsson's 2013 Of Horses and Men was an indie sensation for its surreal portrait of the intertwining lives of men and horses, from the horses' perspective. It was nominated as Iceland's entry to the Academy Awards. Erlingsson is also an actor, and had a role in Rúnar Rúnarsson's Volcano (Eldfjall; 2011), about an ageing couple who evacuate the Vestmannaeyjar islands during the eruption of Eldfjall, and how they reconcile illness with family. Sparrows (Þrestir), Rúnarsson's disturbing portrait of the growing pains of a young man who moves from Reykjavík to a remote town in the Westfjords (much was filmed in Flatey), saw success in 2015.
Rams (Hrútar; 2015), directed by Grímur Hákonarson, is an engrossing comedy-drama about two estranged brothers and their sheep. It was a break-out hit internationally, winning the prize Un Certain Regard at Cannes and becoming the Icelandic entry at the 2016 Academy Awards.
Ása Hjörleifsdóttir's The Swan (Svanurinn; 2018), a story about a young girl sent to live in the northern countryside and what she discovers, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.
For lighter fare, watch Þórhildur Þorleifsdóttir's Stella on Holiday (Stella í Orlofi; 1986) full of mistaken-identity hijinks, or The Homecoming (Blóðberg; 2015), a sly modern comedy-drama where a 'perfect' family's life goes topsy-turvy. Or find 2015's Albatross, where city boy Tommi shores up for the summer at the Bolungarvík golf club with a nutty cast of characters.
There are countless other titles that haven't been widely distributed or translated; take a look at www.icelandiccinema.com.
Painting & Sculpture
Many of Iceland’s most successful artists have studied abroad before returning home to wrestle with Iceland’s enigmatic soul. The result is a European-influenced style, but with Icelandic landscapes and Saga-related scenes as key subjects. Refreshingly, you'll find museums stocked with wonderful works by men and women alike.
The first great Icelandic landscape painter was the prolific Ásgrímur Jónsson (1876–1958), who produced a startling number of Impressionistic oils and watercolours depicting Icelandic landscapes and folk tales. You can see his work at the National Gallery in Reykjavík.
One of Ásgrímur’s students was Johannes Kjarval (1885–1972), Iceland’s most enduringly popular artist, who grew up in the remote East Iceland village of Borgarfjörður Eystri. His first commissioned works were, rather poignantly, drawings of farms for people who were emigrating, but he’s most famous for his early charcoal sketches of people from the village and for his surreal landscapes. A whole beautiful building of the Reykjavík Museum of Art (Kjarvalsstaðir) is named for him.
Sculpture is also very well represented in Iceland, with works dotting parks, gardens and galleries across the country. The most famous Icelandic sculptors all have museums dedicated to them in Reykjavík. Notable exponents include Einar Jónsson (1874–1954), whose mystical works dwell on death and resurrection, and Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982), whose wide-ranging, captivating kinetic works celebrate Iceland, its stories and its people. Don't miss Reykjavík Art Museum's Ásmundarsafn, the artist's peaceful former studio that is filled with inspiring sculptures. Sigurjón Ólafsson (1908–92) specialised in busts but also dabbled in abstract forms. Gerður Helgadóttir (1928–75) made beautiful stained glass and sculpture, and has a museum dedicated to her in Kópavogur. You'll also find her work in Reykjavík's Hljómskálagarður Park, along with pieces by Gunnfríður Jónsdóttir (1889–1968), Nína Sæmundson (1892–1962), Þorbjörg Pálsdóttir (1919–2009) and Ólöf Pálsdóttir (1920–).
Iceland’s most famous contemporary painter is probably pop-art icon Erró (Guðmundur Guðmundsson, 1932–), who has donated his entire collection to Reykjavík Art Museum’s Hafnarhús. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson (1967–) creates powerful installations and also designed the facade of Reykjavík’s dazzling concert hall, Harpa. Páll Guðmundsson (1959–) is a working artist in Húsafell who makes evocative sculptures and paintings, and unusual stone and rhubarb steinharpa (similar to a xylophone), which he has played with the band Sigur Rós.
Architecture & Design
Iceland’s Viking longhouses have succumbed to the ravages of time, but traditional turf-and-wood techniques were used right up until the 19th century. There is a good example at Glaumbær in North Iceland.
Guðjón Samúelsson (1887–1950), perhaps one of Iceland's most famous 20th-century architects, worked to create a distinctive Icelandic style, and you will find his minimalist buildings all over the country, from Hallgrímskirkja and the nearby swimming pool, Sundhöllin, in Reykjavík, to Þingvallabær (farmhouse at Þingvellir) and Héraðsskólinn, formerly a school in Laugarvatn. A Guide to Icelandic Architecture (Association of Icelandic Architects) looks at 250 Icelandic buildings and designs.
Iceland’s coterie of unique designers, artists and architects tend to be Reykjavík-based, though that trend is changing with the tourism boom. Many practitioners form collectives and open shops and galleries, which are full of handmade, beautiful works: everything from striking bowls made out of radishes to cool couture. Reykjavík's Iceland Design Centre has loads more information, and its DesignMarch annual event opens hundreds of exhibitions and workshops to the public.
Feature: Top Icelandic Sagas
Egil’s Saga Revolves around the complex, devious but sensitive Egil Skallagrímsson, and much of it is set near modern-day Borgarnes. A renowned poet or skald, triumphant warrior and skilled negotiator, Egil is also the grandson of a werewolf/shapeshifter, and unlike most Saga protagonists, lived to a ripe old age.
Laxdæla Saga A tragic saga set in Northwest Iceland around Breiðafjörður and the Dalir: bitter marriages, thwarted love and murder abound.
Njál’s Saga Two of Iceland’s greatest heroes, Njál and Gunnar, are drawn into a fatal, 50-year family feud.
Gisli Sursson's Saga The quintessential outlaw story, Gisli's tale involves revenge, fratricide and banishment.
Völsungasaga (Saga of the Völsungs) Parts of this saga may seem familiar – Richard Wagner (Der Ring des Nibelungen) and JRR Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) both swiped episodes.
Eyrbyggja Saga A minor saga set around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, worth reading for its offbeat, supernatural tone; definitely the only medieval Icelandic work where ghosts are taken to court over their hauntings.
Feature: Halldór Laxness
Over his long lifetime, Nobel Prize–winner Halldór Laxness (1902–98) succeeded in reshaping the world of Icelandic literature, and reviving the saga-scale story. Today he is Iceland’s most celebrated 20th-century author.
Laxness was born as Halldór Guðjónsson, but he took the name of his family’s farm Laxnes (with an extra ‘s’) as his nom de plume. Ambitious and inquisitive, Laxness had his first work published at the age of 14, and began his restless wanderings at 17. He wrote his first novel, Undir Helgahnúk (Under the Holy Mountain), from a monastery during a period of fervent Catholicism. Laxness then left for Italy, where his disaffection with the Church and increasingly leftist leanings led to the writing of Vefarinn Mikli frá Kasmír (The Great Weaver from Kashmir). In the 1930s he moved to America to try his luck in the fledgling Hollywood film industry, before becoming enthralled with communism and travelling widely in the Soviet Bloc. In 1962 the author settled at Laxnes, near Þingvellir, for good; his home is now a museum. It was here that he wrote Skáldatími (Poets' Time), a poignant recantation of everything he’d ever written in praise of the Communist Party.
In 1955 Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature and became – in true Icelandic style – a hero of the people. His works are masterpieces of irony, and his characters, however misguided, are drawn with sympathy. Unfortunately, only a portion of his 51 novels and countless short stories, articles, plays and poems are currently available in translation, the most famous of which is Independent People (1934–35). This bleak tragi-comedy is told in lush, evocative language and deals with the harsh conditions of early-20th-century Icelandic life. It focuses on the bloody-minded farmer Bjartur of Summerhouses and his toiling family, and creates a detailed depiction of traditional farmstead life. Also fascinating is Iceland’s Bell, a saga-like portrait of extreme poverty and skewed justice, set in an Iceland subjugated by Danish rule. Other translated works are World Light, The Fish Can Sing, Paradise Reclaimed, The Atom Station and Under the Glacier.
Feature: Ready for Its Close Up
Iceland has become a Hollywood darling for location shooting. Its immense, alien beauty and the government’s 20% production rebate for filmmakers have encouraged Hollywood directors to make movies here. Try to spot the Icelandic scenery in blockbusters such as Tomb Raider (2001), Die Another Day (2002), Batman Begins (2005), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Stardust (2007), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (2008), Prometheus (2012), Oblivion (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013), Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), Noah (2014), Captain America (2016), Justice League (2017) and the HBO series Game of Thrones (locations from Mývatn to Gjáin). Christopher Nolan–hit Interstellar (2014) and recent Star Wars instalments The Force Awakens (2015) and Rogue One (2016) were shot here too. The TV series Fortitude is an English production filmed in Reyðarfjörður in East Iceland (though set in Norway). And then there are films such as Land Ho! (2014), both set and shot in Iceland.
Film and TV directors aren't the only ones who ditch the CGI and get the real thing in Iceland. Musicians shoot videos here, too, including Icelandic talents Björk, Of Monsters and Men and Sigur Rós. Don't miss Sigur Rós' inspiring concert film Heima (2007), starring the Icelandic people and their roaring falls and towering mountains. Bon Iver's 2011 video 'Holocene' is six minutes that the Icelandic Tourist Board should co-opt for its ad campaigns. And Justin Bieber's 2015 'I'll Show You' is an advertisement in what not to do (moss destruction and glacial lagoon bathing).
Some tour companies offer tours tailored to film locations; also check out the app Iceland Film Locations (www.filmlocations.is).
Many Icelandic painters and musicians are serious creative artists in multiple disciplines. Some are making a splash overseas, such as Ragnar Kjartansson, who represents a new breed of Icelandic artist: part painter, part actor, director and musician. Reykjavík Art Museum's Hafnarhús and Reykjavík galleries do a great job showcasing such artists.
Sidebar: Biggest Publisher
Iceland publishes the greatest number of books per capita in the world, and the literacy rate is a perfect 100%.
Sidebar: Better Barefoot than Bookless
An old Icelandic saying is Betra er berfættum en bókarlausum að vera (‘It’s better to be barefoot than bookless’). Icelanders remain passionate about the written word, so it’s fitting that Reykjavík is a Unesco City of Literature, with tours and programs to match.
Sidebar: Latest Films
For the latest on Icelandic feature films, documentaries and animation, visit the website www.icelandicfilmcenter.is.
Reykjavík's cutting-edge Harpa concert hall, with its facade of glimmering hexagons, has four state-of-the art stages and amazing acoustics. It's a great place to catch a show.
Sidebar: Reykjavík Arts Festival
Reykjavík Arts Festival (late May/early June) is the perfect chance to see the intersection of Icelandic visual, literary, musical and performing arts.
Sidebar: Museum Of Design and Applied Art
The tiny Museum of Design and Applied Art (www.honnunarsafn.is) in Garðabær, just south of Reykjavík, showcases the local design scene from the early 20th century to today and has a small Kraum design outlet.
Centuries of isolation and hardship have instilled particular character traits in the small, homogenous Icelandic population. Their connection to their homeland, history and countrypeople is deeply felt, even if the land reciprocates that love with some cruelty (volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, for a start). The nation’s 350,000 souls tend to respond to life’s challenges with a compelling mix of courage, candour and creativity, edged with a dark, dry humour.
'Þetta Reddast' & the National Psyche
Icelanders have a reputation as tough, hardy, elemental types, and rural communities are still deeply involved in the fishing and/or farming industries. Geographically speaking, 'rural' could be said to define most of the country outside the capital region, which is home to only 36% of Iceland's total population.
Naturally enough for people living on a remote island in a harsh environment, Icelanders are self-reliant individualists who don’t like being told what to do. But these steadfast exteriors often hide a more dreamy interior world. Iceland has a rich cultural heritage and an incredibly high literacy rate, and its people have a passion for all things artistic. This enthusiasm is true of the whole country, but it’s particularly noticeable in downtown Reykjavík, where seemingly everyone plays in a band, dabbles in art or design, makes films or writes poetry or prose – they’re positively bursting with creative impulses.
This buoyant, have-a-go attitude was hit hard during the 2008 financial meltdown. Soup kitchens sprang up in the city and thousands of younger people left Iceland to try their luck in Norway. But Icelanders are resilient – within just a few years, emigration rates fell, and confidence started springing up around the country, mushrooming along with new businesses catering to the tourist boom. The country maintains its belief in the old saying ‘Þetta reddast’ (roughly translated, ‘It will all work out ok'). The phrase is so frequently used it has been described as the country’s motto.
Icelanders are happily patriotic. Witness their Euro 2016 football (soccer) victories, with their Viking thunderclap, and the fact that approximately 10% of the country went to France for the tournament. The men's team participated in the World Cup for the first time in 2018, bringing more high spirits. Citizens who achieve international success are quietly feted: celebrities such as musicians Björk and Sigur Rós reflect prestige onto their entire homeland.
Town layouts, the former US military base, and the prevalence of hot dogs and Coca-Cola point to a heavy US influence, but Icelanders consider their relationship with the rest of Scandinavia to be more important. Although they may seem to conform to the cool-and-quiet Nordic stereotype, Icelanders are curious about visitors and eager to know what outsiders think: ‘How do you like Iceland?’ is invariably an early question. And an incredible transformation takes place on Friday and Saturday nights, when inhibitions fall away and conversations flow as fast as the alcohol.
Work Hard, Play Hard
In the last century the Icelandic lifestyle has shifted from isolated family communities living on scattered farms and in coastal villages to a more urban-based society, with the majority of people living in the southwestern corner around Reykjavík. Despite this change, family connections are still very strong. Though young people growing up in rural Iceland are likely to move to Reykjavík to study and work, localised tourism is bringing entrepreneurial and job options to the hinterlands once again.
Icelanders work hard (and long – the retirement age is 67 and soon to be 70), often at a number of jobs, especially in summer's peak when there is money to be made feeding, accommodating, driving and guiding thousands of tourists. The locals have enjoyed a very high standard of living in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – but keeping up with the Jónssons and Jónsdóttirs came at a price. For decades, Icelanders straight out of university borrowed money to buy houses or 4WDs and spent the rest of their days living on credit and paying off loans. Then, in 2008, the financial crash occurred, and huge amounts of debt suddenly had to be paid back. People wondered how Iceland would ever work itself out of its economic black hole. And yet, with characteristic grit, resilience, adaptability and imagination, Icelanders have hauled their country back from economic disaster.
The Icelandic commitment to hard work is counterbalanced by deep relaxation. The bingeing in Reykjavík on Friday and Saturday nights is an example of R&R gone wild. But, also keep your eye out for the hundreds of summer houses you’ll see when you’re driving in the country, and the exceptional number of swimming pools, which form the social hub of Icelandic life.
Women in Iceland
In 2017 Iceland held the top spot (for the ninth consecutive year) in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index. The index ranked 136 countries on gender equality by measuring the relative gap between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economics and politics. Iceland continues to be the country with the narrowest gender gap in the world – this means Icelandic women have greater access to health and education, and are more politically and economically empowered than women in other countries. In 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to enact a law requiring that men and women be paid equally for the same job.
The Viking settlement of Iceland clearly demanded toughness of character, and the sagas are full of feisty women (eg Hallgerður Höskuldsdóttir, who declines to save her husband’s life due to a slap that he gave her years earlier). For centuries Icelandic women had to take care of farms and families while their male partners headed off to sea.
Though women and men struggled equally through Iceland’s long, dark history, modern concepts of gender equality are a pretty recent phenomenon. Women gained full voting rights in 1920, but it wasn’t until the 1970s protest movements reached Iceland that attitudes really began to change. Particularly powerful was the ‘women’s day off’ on 24 October 1975: the country ceased to function when 90% of Icelandic women stayed away from work and stay-at-home mums left children with their menfolk for the day.
In 1980 Iceland became the first democracy to elect a female president, the much-loved Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. In 2009 the world’s first openly gay prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, came to power. Iceland has among the highest rate of women's participation in the labour market among OECD countries, at 77%.
The social-care system is so good that women have few worries about the financial implications of raising a child alone: maternity-leave provisions are excellent; childcare is affordable; there is no sense that motherhood precludes work or study; and there’s no stigma attached to unmarried mothers. The country isn’t perfect – sexual harassment and violence are still issues – but Icelandic women are well educated and independent, with the same opportunities as Icelandic men.
At the time of the Settlement Era, Iceland’s religion was Ásatrú, which means ‘faith in the Aesir’ (the old Norse gods). Óðinn (Odin), Þór (Thor) and Freyr (Frey) were the major trinity worshipped across Scandinavia. Óðinn, their chief, is the god of war and poetry, a brooding and intimidating presence. In Iceland most people were devoted to Þór (Icelandic names such as Þórir, Þórdís and Þóra are still very popular). This burly, red-haired god of the common people controlled thunder, wind, storm and natural disaster, and was a vital deity for farmers and fishers to have on their side. Freyr and his twin sister Freyja (Freya) represent fertility and sexuality. Freyr brought springtime, with its romantic implications, to both the human and the animal world, and was in charge of the perpetuation of all species.
Icelanders peacefully converted to Christianity more than a thousand years ago, but the old gods linger on. The Ásatrú religion re-emerged in the 1970s, almost simultaneously in Iceland, the US and the UK. Whereas membership of other religions in Iceland has remained fairly constant, Ásatrúarfélagið (Ásatrú Association) is growing. It is now Iceland’s largest non-Christian religious organisation, with approximately 4126 members in 2018 (an increase of 54% from 2015).
Traditionally, the date of the decree that officially converted Iceland to Christianity is given as 1000, but research has determined that it probably occurred in 999. What is known is that the changeover of religions was a political decision. In the Icelandic Alþingi (National Assembly), Christians and pagans had been polarising into two radically opposite factions, threatening to divide the country. Þorgeir, the lögsögumaður (law speaker), appealed for moderation on both sides, and eventually it was agreed that Christianity would officially become the new religion, although pagans were still allowed to practise in private.
Today, as in mainland Scandinavia, most Icelanders (around 71%) belong to the Protestant Lutheran Church – but many are nonpractising. Church attendance is very low.
Feature: What’s in a Name?
Icelanders’ names are constructed from a combination of their first name and their father’s (or, more rarely, mother’s) first name. Girls add the suffix -dóttir (daughter) to the patronymic and boys add -son. Therefore, Jón, the son of Einar, would be Jón Einarsson. Guðrun, the daughter of Einar, would be Guðrun Einarsdóttir.
Because Icelandic surnames only usually tell people what a person's father is called, Icelanders don’t bother with ‘Mr Einarsson’ or ‘Mrs Einarsdóttir’. Instead they use first names, even when addressing strangers. It makes for a wonderfully democratic society when you’re expected to address your president or top police commissioner by their first name. And yes, trivia buffs, the telephone directory is alphabetised by first name.
About 10% of Icelanders have family names (most dating back to early Settlement times), but they’re rarely used. In an attempt to homogenise the system, government legislation forbids anyone to take on a new family name or adopt the family name of their spouse.
There’s also an official list of names that Icelanders are permitted to call their children, and any additions to this list have to be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee. For the 5000 or so children born in Iceland each year, the committee reportedly receives about 100 applications and rejects about half. Among its requirements are that given names 'must be adaptable to the structure of the Icelandic language and spelling conventions', according to the government website portal.
Feature: Icelandic Ancestry & Genetic Research
Biotech research is big in Iceland – thanks, in part, to the 12th-century historian Ari the Learned. Ari’s Landnámabók and Íslendingabók mean that Icelanders can trace their family trees right back to the 9th century.
In 1996, neuroscience expert Dr Kári Stefánsson recognised that this genealogical material could be combined with Iceland’s unusually homogenous population to produce something unique – a country-sized genetic laboratory. In 1998 the Icelandic government controversially voted to allow the creation of a single database, by presumed consent, containing all Icelanders’ genealogical, genetic and medical records. Even more controversially, the government allowed Kári’s biotech startup company deCODE Genetics to create this database, and access it for its biomedical research, using the database to trace inheritable diseases and pinpoint the genes that cause them.
The decision sparked public outrage in Iceland and arguments across the globe about its implications for human rights and medical ethics. Should a government be able to sell off its citizens’ medical records? And is it acceptable for a private corporation to use such records for profit?
While the arguments raged (and investors flocked), the company set to work. The database was declared unconstitutional in 2003, deCODE was declared bankrupt in 2010, and sold to US biotech giant Amgen in 2012. By that time, deCODE had built a research database using DNA and clinical data from more than 100,000 volunteers (one-third of the population), and had done work in isolating gene mutations linked to heart attacks, strokes and Alzheimer's disease.
deCODE continues to unravel the mysteries of the human genome and has had 160,000 Icelanders volunteer their data to date. With its completed research, it has also been able to 'impute' the genetic make-up of Icelanders who have not participated at all – leading to ethical questions: should they inform carriers of dangerous gene mutations even if those people have not agreed to participate? In 2018, after much debate, deCODE created a website for informing women who've given samples whether they carry the harmful BRCA2 gene.
Feature: Supernatural Iceland: Ghosts, Trolls & Hidden People
Once you’ve seen some of the lava fields, eerie natural formations and isolated farms that characterise much of the Icelandic landscape, it will come as no surprise that many Icelanders believe their country is populated by huldufólk (hidden people) and ghosts.
In the lava live jarðvergar (gnomes), álfar (elves), ljósálfar (fairies), dvergar (dwarves), ljúflingar (lovelings), tívar (mountain spirits) and englar (angels). Stories about them have been handed down through generations, and many modern Icelanders claim to have seen them…or at least to know someone who has.
There are stories about projects going wrong when workers try to build roads through huldufólk homes: the weather turns bad; machinery breaks down; labourers fall ill. In mid-2014 Iceland's 'whimsy factor' made international news when a road project to link the Álftanes peninsula to the Reykjavík suburb of Garðabær was halted after campaigners warned it would disturb elf habitat.
As for Icelandic ghosts, they’re substantial beings – not the wafting shadows found elsewhere in Europe. Írafell-Móri (móri and skotta are used for male and female ghosts, respectively) is said to need to eat supper every night, and one of the country’s most famous spooks, Sel-Móri, gets seasick when stowing away in a boat. Stranger still, two ghosts haunting the same area often join forces to double their trouble.
Rock stacks and weird lava formations around the country are often said to be trolls, caught out at sunrise and turned to stone. But living trolls are seldom seen today – they’re more the stuff of children’s stories.
Surveys suggest that more than half of Icelanders believe in, or at least entertain the possibility of, the existence of huldufólk. But a word of warning: many Icelanders tire of visitors asking them whether they believe in supernatural beings. Their pride bristles at the ‘Those cute Icelanders! They all believe in pixies!’ attitude…and even if they don’t entirely disbelieve, they’re unlikely to admit it to a stranger.
If you want to know more, and ask all the questions you can, join a tour in Hafnarfjörður, 10km south of Reykjavík, or sign up for a course at the Icelandic Elf School (Álfaskólinn; www.elfmuseum.com) in Reykjavík. Yes, there really is such a place, and it runs four-hour introductory classes most Fridays.
Sidebar: Most Peaceful Country
Iceland is the world's most peaceful country according to the Global Peace Index, which has ranked the country top of the pops every year since 2008. The GPI bases its findings on factors such as levels of violent crime, political instability and the percentage of a country’s population in prison.
Sidebar: TV Channels
Iceland had just one TV channel until 1988 – and even that went off air on Thursdays so that citizens could do something more productive instead. It’s said that most children born before 1988 were conceived on a Thursday…
Sidebar: Life Expectancy
Iceland has one of the world’s highest life expectancies – 80.7 years for men and 83.7 years for women.
Even though Icelanders speak the nearest thing to Viking in existence, Iceland is the least purely Scandinavian of all the Nordic countries. DNA studies have shown that much of Icelanders’ genetic make-up is Celtic, suggesting that many Viking settlers had children with their British and Irish slaves.
Sidebar: The Almost Nearly Perfect People
In his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People (2014), author Michael Booth seeks to explore 'the truth about the Nordic miracle'. He presents some great stats and entertaining insights on Icelanders, from financial-crash culprits to huldufólk (hidden folk) superstitions.
Sidebar: The Little Book
The Little Book of the Icelanders, by Alda Sigmundsdóttir, is a wonderful collection of 50 miniature essays on the 'quirks and foibles' of the Icelandic people, written by an insightful Icelander who returned to live in the country after 22 years abroad.
Sidebar: Genealogical Research
Those interested in exploring their Icelandic heritage should consult the East Iceland Emigration Center (www.hofsos.is), at Hofsós, and the Snorri Program (www.snorri.is).
Sidebar: Norse Myth
For vibrant retellings of Norse myths try the similarly named:
- Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
- Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green
- Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland