Iceland - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Republic of Iceland
Formation 1944 / 1944
Population 300,000 / 8 people per sq mile (3 people per sq km)
Total area 39,768 sq. miles (103,000 sq. km)
Religions Evangelical Lutheran 84%, Other (mostly Christian) 10%, Nonreligious 3%, Roman Catholic 3%
Ethnic mix Icelandic 94%, Other 5%, Danish 1%
Government Parliamentary system
Currency Icelandic króna = 100 aurar
Literacy rate 99%
Calorie consumption 3330 kilocalories
The first inhabitants of Iceland were Irish monks who stayed on the island during the late ninth century C.E. About 30 years after they left, Norwegian Vikings arrived and became the first permanent settlers in Iceland. There are vivid descriptions of these Viking adventurers, who came from Norway in longboats, in the Landnбmabуk (Book of Settlements), an Icelandic genealogical record from the 13th century. The period between 870 and 930 is known as the Age of Settlement, when conflict in Scandinavia forced many people to seek refuge in Iceland. It is thought that the Vikings were escaping from their tyrannical King Harald Haarfagri (Harald Fairhair, Harald I; (c. 848–c. 931) who wanted their lands in southern Norway.
The settlers decided to adopt a parliamentary form of government because they had experienced the drawbacks to monarchy in their native country. A district assembly and a state assembly, or Althing, were created in 930, and a code of law was drawn up. The Althing is considered to be the oldest functioning legislative body in the world. Iceland was declared a Christian country in 999, and this helped to unite the country.
Over the course of the next century, Iceland developed an agrarian economy.
Iceland enjoyed 300 years of independence until the first half of the 13th century when a period of great turmoil and political wrangling called the Sturlung Age began. A Norwegian king named Hбkon Hбkonarson (Hбkon IV or Hбkon the Old; 1204–63), invaded the country and ruthlessly plundered it. At the same time, Mt. Hekla (4,890 feet), Iceland’s most active volcano, erupted in 1300, 1341, and 1389; many lives were lost and property destroyed. On top of the invasion and volcanic eruptions, epidemics, including the Black Death (bubonic plague), raged through the country between 1348 and 1350.
Danish rule was imposed on Iceland at the end of the 14th century. Religious conflict between church and state in Europe culminated in the Protestant Reformation of 1550 when the Lutheran faith became Denmark’s official doctrine.
Iceland had endured many centuries of domination by foreign powers. It continued to suffer from exploitation by the Danes on the one hand and natural catastrophes on the other.
Pirates were another source of trouble. Icelanders began to feel the need to assert their right to selfrule.
In the early half of the 19th century, the independence movement gained momentum with a nationalist named Jon Sigurdsson (1811–79) as its leader. He took the demands of the Icelanders to Denmark and pressured the Danish government to give partial independence to Iceland. In 1874, Denmark allowed Iceland to draw up its own constitution.
Iceland was permitted to decide its domestic issues and, in 1918, was given partial freedom, with the status of an independent state within the Danish kingdom. But Denmark still controlled Iceland’s defense and foreign affairs.
During World War II Germany invaded and occupied Denmark in 1940. Even though Iceland had previously maintained a position of neutrality, British forces invaded and took control of the region on May 10, 1940.
Iceland quickly responded by agreeing to fight alongside the occupying forces.
In 1941 responsibility for the defense of Iceland passed to the United States, which took control of the region from British forces. During the U.S. occupation a plebiscite was held in Iceland in which the people voted unanimously in favor of independence from Denmark. Iceland declared its independence on June 17, 1944.
In 1949 Iceland became a charter member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) under the stipulation that it would not participate in any kind of offensive action against another nation.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Geologically a relatively young country, the main island of Iceland is made up of desert plateaus, sandy deltas, volcanoes, lava fields, and glacial landscapes.
About half of the country is above 1,312 feet and the highest point, Hvannadalshnъkur, is about 6,952 feet.
Less than 1 percent of Iceland is fit for agriculture, and this area is located in the southwest between the capital of Reykjavik and the town of Vik. Due to frequent volcanic activity and earthquakes, there are practically no trees, but the island has grasslands, bogs, and barren deserts in addition to a number of hot springs and geysers.
In Iceland summers are mild, and winters rather cold. The southern and western coasts receive a lot of rainfall, and July and August are the warmest months. The northern and eastern parts of the country have better weather. The deserts in the interiors are prone to blizzards and sandstorms. The climate is very changeable in Iceland and during the course of a single day one can experience rain, sunshine, drizzle, and snow. The air is clean and relatively free of pollution.
Iceland can be divided into the following regions: Reykjavнk and the capital area, west Iceland, Westfjords, north Iceland, east Iceland, the central highlands, and south Iceland, each having its own charm and unique terrain. In west Iceland the glaciers and waterfalls are spectacular. The Westfjords has a sparse human population but plenty of wildlife in the form of seabirds and Arctic foxes. There are small, scattered fishing villages that still make their living from the sea. In north Iceland, which is part of the Arctic Circle, most people live close to the coast in communities that are sheltered from the elements.
East Iceland is made up of mountains, plains, highlands, and glaciers. In south Iceland there are moss-covered lava fields that are a couple of centuries old. There is a lot of geothermal activity that produces several hot springs, which are very popular with visitors. In the central highlands, the landscape is barren, with glaciers and deserts of black sand, springs, and active and spent volcanoes. There is also the occasional outcrop of vegetation that has managed to survive despite its inhospitable sub-Arctic surroundings.
Iceland’s capitalist economy is supplemented by a well-developed welfare system. Unemployment rates are low, and there is little disparity in income.
The main source of revenue is the fishing industry, which employs almost 12 percent of the population.
Due to the almost constant darkness, business slows down in winter. Although Iceland has good reserves of hydrothermal and geothermal power, it is dependent on fishing for 70 percent of its export income. Its other chief exports are aluminum and ferrosilicon.
The government plans to boost the economy by privatizing state-owned industries and diversifying the economy. It is not eager to join the European Union (EU) because it does not want to lose control over its fishing industry. Many new areas of development are being explored, such as software production, biotechnology, and financial services. The tourism sector has also grown, and ecotourism and whale-watching have become popular.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Warriors and farmers are the ancestors of present-day Icelanders. They had to build a new home for themselves in harsh conditions, and the traits that this required have forged a nation of people who are tough and independent. Icelanders have a rich literary heritage with their famous sagas recounting historic struggles, battles, and heroic exploits. Icelandic sagas are considered among the most noteworthy of all medieval writing. Iceland has also produced modern writers such as Halldуr Kiljan Laxness (1902–98), who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955.
Traditional Icelandic music is deeply rooted in religion. Most of the songs are Protestant hymns and are sung during religious celebrations. Besides the traditional lullabies, Iceland is also known for cowboy songs, brought into the country by the American soldiers who have been posted in the region since World War II. However, the most recognizable face of Icelandic music today is that of former Sugarcubes lead singer, Bjцrk (b. 1965).
Icelandic, the official language, has hardly changed since the Vikings settled Iceland in the ninth and 10th centuries. It has rejected foreign words, preferring instead to form its own new words derived from ancient Viking words. Thus, the word for computer becomes holva, made up of the ancient words for number and prophetess. English and Danish are also widely spoken in Iceland.
Icelandic women retain their names after marriage because Icelanders use patronyms or matronyms instead of surnames. The society and culture are “woman friendly,” and women enjoy positions of leadership in both government and business. Homosexuals are also accepted and treated equally. In July 1992 all discriminatory criminal laws were done away with and in 1996 an antidiscrimination law was passed that prohibits discrimination in the provision of merchandise or services as well as actions intended to humiliate, degrade, or defame lesbians and gay men. Although there is no right to adopt, a Registered Partnership Law was also passed that allows lesbians and gays to confirm partnership in a civil ceremony.
Though small, there is a gay scene in Reykjavik, and on the first weekend of August, lesbians and gay men hold a two-day Gay Pride celebration that culminates in a parade through the capital city.
Traditional Icelandic cuisine tends toward the “exotic.” One such preparation is hбkarl, shark meat that has been buried for six months in the ground to allow it to decompose sufficiently. Rъtspungur is ram’s testicles that have been pickled in whey and shaped into a cake; svie is charred sheep’s head, with the eyes intact, which is cut in half and then boiled and eaten, either fresh or pickled. Another dish is slatur, a mixture of sheep leftovers tied up in the stomach and cooked.
Fish is a mainstay of the Icelandic diet; chicken, duck, turkey, and lamb are also common.
Other traditional dishes include har fiskur (haddock), bleikja (char), lundi (puffin), whale blubber, whale steaks, seal meat, and skyr, a yogurtlike preparation made of skimmed milk and a bacteria culture. Thorramatur are salted, pickled, or dried meats and fish commonly consumed during the winter months.
Coffee is a favorite beverage, while beer, wine, and spirits are available but expensive. A traditional Icelandic brew is brennivнn, made from potatoes and flavored with caraway.
In Iceland in ancient times, a newborn child was accepted in the family only after the performance of certain rituals. The mother would show her acceptance of the child by breast-feeding. The father performed a ritual called vatni ausinn, which involved taking the child on his knee and sprinkling water on him or her. Only after the performance of these rituals did the child earn the right of inheritance and other special rights within the family under Norse law. An infant that did not gain acceptance, usually due to some kind of deformity and the economic hardships of the family, was condemned to death by exposure to the elements.
Norse tradition allowed well-to-do families to entrust the upbringing of their children to families of lower social status. The less well-off families were paid a certain amount in exchange for their services.
This tradition helped develop social bonds between the upper- and lower-class families.
In modern Iceland couples are encouraged to have long engagements in order to develop trust and to bond before finally getting married. In ancient Iceland, on the other hand, it was traditional for weddings to take place within a few days of the engagement.
In contemporary Iceland weddings are very much patterned on U.S. and European weddings with bridal showers, bachelor parties, tossing rice at the couple for good luck after the ceremony, and a reception following the church ceremony.
The ancient Norse believed that, with the exception a few privileged people, most of the dead remained in their graves and did not move into the afterlife.
Depending on the status and geographic location of the deceased, they were buried with either the daily necessities they might need should they reach the afterlife or with a model of a ship, suggesting they would continue their journey even in the afterlife.
Poor people were generally buried with very few things, while the extremely rich were buried along with horses, servants, and material goods.
Cremation was the preferred funeral rite, and warriors were cremated with their broken shields and bent swords as a mark of respect.