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Iceland 101: History and Culture

Iceland 101: History and Culture

Published: 16. March 2020
By: Erin Skahan

If you're planning a trip to Iceland, it's well worth your time to pack up some cultural knowledge alongside those hiking boots, so you have an introductory idea of what makes this Northern wonderland such an interesting place to visit! Here are a few topics to get you started. And obviously, repeating these morsels of Icelandic history will make you look really smart in front of your travel mates. Ready to connect with your inner cultural scholar? Let's put that faux academic English accent (you know you have one) to the test!

Geography

In 874, a group of sailors from nearby Scandinavia came to Iceland, led by Ingólfur Arnason. Not much was recorded about them, but later in the 12th century, a journal recorded the experiences of 400 early settlers. According to the diary, a Norse Viking by the name of Flóki became so distracted by the abundant fishing and hunting that he forgot to make arrangements to care for his horses. It is believed that he was the first to call the land "Iceland". Now, repeat that in your fancy accent and, voila, you're basically an expert!

Sometimes grouped within the collection of countries referred to as Scandinavia (which includes Denmark, Norway, and Sweden), Iceland is actually not a Scandinavian country. It's part of the broader outlying region referred to as The Nordic Countries. This encapsulates Finland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Åland Islands, Svalbard, and, you guessed it...Iceland! If you had to size it up, think if you combined Kentucky and Virginia in the US. Yep, all of the glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, and stunning coastline would actually fit within these two states. It's also the youngest and least populated country in Europe.

Language

You've probably already figured out that in Iceland, they speak Icelandic. Icelandic is a North Germanic language, somewhat influenced by Norweigan, and is said to remain relatively unaltered since medieval times. The Icelandic alphabet will look familiar to you English speakers, with a few exceptions.

This guide will help you sort out those unfamiliar characters, and then you can move on to this video where you can practice your pronunciations, and learn some helpful basic greetings and phrases. For those of you reading this thinking, "Oh, I didn't know I had to learn another language for this trip…" keep packing your bags! Most of the people in Iceland also speak English, as well as Danish.

A fun fact, if you're really trying to impress your friends, the phone directory in Iceland is organized by first names rather than last names. Why? Because family names in Iceland are patronymic, meaning they are literally based on the first name of the father. That name is followed by either the word son or dóttir (daughter). For example, the son of Helga gets the surname Helgason, and his daughter becomes Helgadóttir. So go ahead, play the game! What's your Icelandic surname?

Religion & Mythology

Culture is a tapestry comprised of many influences, with one of the most historically important being religion. When you visit Iceland and rev up that fancy camera you've been dying to use, you'll notice that some of the most picturesque scenes might include a humble, yet striking church. Breathtaking scenery can be found driving along the vast, quiet countryside, where a number of brightly colored, or even the tiny odd black dot of a chapel, rests alone on a hill of stark white winter snow.

The most famous of these painted black churches is rather hard to find chapel in Búðakirkja, a lava field located on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Are you up for the challenge? If you circled yes, check out this link from Atlas Obscura for details and a map. Strangely, no one has offered any reason for the handful of churches draped in black paint, which just lends to their mystery.

The architectural pinnacle of them all will be hard to miss. Located in Reykjavik, the Hallgrímskirkja church looms high in the sky and is the most noticeable structure in the city. Since these pictures will inevitably be some of your best, it's probably helpful to know a bit about those little buildings and who put them there.

Something that makes Iceland unique is the Lutheran Christian roots of civilization dating back to the 1500s. While most of Western Europe was still heavily influenced by Catholicism, Iceland was converting to a Lutheran belief system during what's known as the Icelandic Reformation. During this period, Catholicism was banned as the country shifted towards a new doctrine based on the teachings of Martin Luther. Today, Lutheran Christianity remains the official state religion. However, the Freedom of Religion Act was passed in the late 1800s and paved the way for other religions to take hold. In fact, Iceland has become a place where religious and spiritual freedom has thrived.

While the majority of the country is still registered under the state religion, which is often done by default at birth, there are many alternative enclaves that have formed across the country, offering religious space for everyone. There has been a bit of growth in the resurgence of the Catholic faith, mostly due to the immigration of people from Catholic countries. However, one of the most interesting cultural beliefs within Iceland, particularly in the more rural and isolated regions of the country, is that of the Huldufólk. These are the unseen people, believed to be living in between worlds, who are only visible when they choose to be. They can appear in the form of elves or fairies and seem to have a general desire for environmental harmony.

You can even find signposts in villages or along walking trails, letting you know you're in their territory, so keep your eyes open and your camera ready! If you want to delve deeper, you can even attend a class at the Elf School in Reykjavik. Classes run about four hours long, with a break for tea and snacks in between. Whether you believe in elves or not, this definitely qualifies as a one of a kind experience! Maybe it'll even spark your elvish senses throughout your travels, and you might see something that you couldn't see before.

Magic and folklore have long been important to the people of Iceland. Understanding the cultural safeguarding of these characters, often recognizable from Norse mythology, is an important part of understanding some of the recent spiritual trends taking hold in the country. Along with the huldufólk, residing within this mythological world are also several gods and goddesses representing nature. So it's not entirely surprising that a surge of neo-paganism has swept the nation. This is in part in the form of spiritual practice, and also as a means of reconnecting to a pagan history dating back over 1,000 years.

The fastest-growing religion today in Iceland is called Ásatrúarfélagið, and they have a hof, or hall, currently being built in Reykjavik. The beliefs are based on many mythological gods, including the most well known, Thor and Freyja. These revolve around respect for the environment, each other, and life lessons gained from mythological stories. The practice is open to all, and yes, that includes visitors! They hold weekly dinners called blots around the country that anyone can attend, and visitors are also welcome to participate in ceremonies. If you're a fan of mythological stories and want an insider's perspective on Icelandic mythology, this could definitely be up your alley.

Food

Throughout Iceland, fish is king. The clean, cold waters surrounding the island nation have sustained generations and provided an abundant economic resource. It's a true seafood lover's paradise, and those folks (myself included!) will find all sorts of new and interesting dishes to devour, and perhaps a few might even elicit cartoon-like question marks in your eyes.

Let's start with the traditional foods you're likely to come across (and check out this post on where to find them). One that is historically important, though not so much in the average dietary regimen today, is dried stockfish. This is literally fish that's been hung to dry in the salt-saturated winds, eventually resulting in a crunchy, protein-packed snack. Think about beef jerky, but made of fish. Dried stockfish is usually made from freshly caught cod or haddock. Whether you like it personally or not, it's always a fun souvenir to bring back home. You can find it easily in grocery stores under the name harðfiskur. Culturally, this is important because grain for bread had to be imported and has always been expensive. With modern agriculture, that's changed a bit, but this is why harðfiskur was such an important product, as it satisfied that craving for crunch at mealtime.

Fresh fish is ubiquitous across Iceland, naturally. It remains popular for any meal, and sometimes that includes breakfast. Nothing wrong with some locally smoked salmon on rye bread with cream cheese now is there? That's my personal "breakfast of champions," and Iceland is absolutely one of the best places to enjoy it. Another staple you'll come across frequently is fish stew. Known as plokkfiskur, it's either tomato or cream-based. This can be an expensive dish, but from personal experience, it's well worth it, and the added bonus is that it can keep you full for a while. If you see humar on the menu, get ready to splurge a little. This is Icelandic langoustine, which is similar to lobster. If you're already a fan of lobster, I don't have to tell you that you need to try this. If you aren't, humar will make a fan out of you for sure.

One traditional item that the foodie's among you might want to seek out is a bread called hverabrauð. It translates to hot spring bread, and yes, it's actually made by being buried in a hot spring. If your curiosity has been sparked, this video shows you exactly how it's done. The bread is cooked by the geothermal heat, and traditionally served alongside fish stew, or topped with pickled herring, pate or butter.

There are a few traditional items that will seem exotic, perhaps even controversial, to visitors. Among these are minke whale, puffin, horse, and reindeer. These won't appear on every menu, but you may come across them. Icelanders, like many island nations, have had to survive by the natural resources available, making these protein sources culturally important.

A Night Cap

And now for the fun stuff! What's the best, most Icelandic, way to wash down these foods? For a long time, the only options were wine and spirits. Then finally, in 1989, beer re-entered the picture. Prior to this, beer was banned. You read that right; beer was illegal in Iceland. The general consensus was that it encouraged teenage drinking.

Additionally, it had to be imported from Denmark, and deep in the throes of a battle for independence, Iceland decided to stick to other forms of alcohol, so they weren't dependent on trade. If your holiday in Iceland falls on March 1st, you can be there to celebrate the legalization of beer on Beer Day with the locals!

Whether you're in Iceland on Beer Day or not, go ahead and crack open that tall, cold can of Viking and yell out a hearty "skál"! Now you know a lot more than you did before about the history and cultural traditions of Iceland, you've shown your friends how smart you are, and you've definitely enriched your Icelandic experience..

Erin Skahan
Erin Skahan travels, cooks and writes her way around seemingly random places. You can usually find her in rainy countries exploring moss covered forest trails, or in pubs with fireplaces. She's addicted to podcasts, vintage clothing and almond butter. Read more of her musings at www.therouxx.com

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