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16 Fascinating Facts About Icelandic History

Abraham Ortelius' map of Iceland, ca. 1590
16 Fascinating Facts About Icelandic History

You thought you'd done your research on Iceland? Well, guess again. Here's a list of fascinating facts that you may have missed along the way:

1. Iceland was originally covered in forests as far as the eye could see. 
According to accepted history, a seafarer named Garðarr Svávarsson sailed around the entire island in the later 9th century and proclaimed that it was "wooded from the mountains down to the sea." 

Currently, about 2% of Iceland is forested. The Forestry Service of Iceland concurrs that at the time of settlement as much as 40% of Iceland was covered in trees. They were destroyed by both natural (volcanic) and human causes.

2. The Norwegian who arrived in Iceland around 870 AD were not the first inhabitants. 
There is written evidence that Irish hermits, or papar, had settled the island at least a century earlier, sailing over in their small currachs. The story goes that the hermits "chose" to leave Iceland with the arrival of their noisy new neighbors, leaving a number of monkish artifacts behind

In addition, genetic research has clearly shown that over 60% of Icelandic women are descended from Celtic/British Isles stock, and not Scandinavian, though when and how these women came to Iceland is still up for debate. 

3. Via one Irish princess named Melkorka it's possible for many Icelanders to trace their lineage to...

Springtime in Reykjavik, with Pretty Blooms and Hints of Blue Skies

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I'm reposting a retro Iceland Eyes photo from 2009. 

I really enjoy this shot, and felt lucky to have gotten it when the daffodils were just beginning to wilt after their early spring bloom. That meant that they didn't look so tall and wonderful anymore from a distance but instead drooped from their box at the top of a flight of stairs, seeming to smile a last bit sunshine down towards me as I got up close.  

I'm also glad I got a shot of this iconic large old wood and corrugated-iron house, probably built

It's Like We've Always Known Winter This Way

Out at Seltjarnarnes on a lovely crisp winter's day 
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I've taken quite a few Iceland Eyes photos out at Seltjarnarnes over the past twelve years, including shots of midnight golf and walks along its beach, that it feels a bit like cheating to share another one.   It's such a photogenic spot, though, and so close to the Reykjavik city center where we live. 

This isn't the greatest picture in the world, but I chose it for a few reasons. For starters, it shows

New Snow and Madia, My Other Name

Our backyard in the heart of Reykjavik, all prettied with fresh snow

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In the States I spelled my name Madia instead of Maria. It was a phonetic thing that my dad says he suggested to me when I was going into 8th grade. I'd been kind of a book geek up until that summer of '80 and was socially hung up on the fact that Maria was not a common name, and that my real name was pronounced with the Icelandic rolling R which no one in Cupertino, California seemed to be able to master.

 Even though the US boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games, the name of Romanian

A Pretty Snow Scene, Just for Thor

I feel like I'm expecting that call any day now, the one where my father Thor clears his throat then firmly instructs me that it's time to post a new photo on Iceland Eyes, the last one's getting old. He had that authoritative way about him, but couched in a kind of absolute certainty that what he liked, what he appreciated in this world deserved his full attention and support. So when he felt that

From Dark Days to Shiny Times, Iceland's Seen It All

A quiet moment at the rink, which is usually filled with wobbles and happy laughter

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This year's skate rink down at Ingólfstorg is a far cry from the one I posted a photo of a decade ago. It may be a bit smaller, but it's definitely got more atmo, with all the shiny lights and music filling the Advent-season air. Back in the 2006 post, I mentioned that a storm has come in, a proper wind-and-snow number that walloped the island, Arctic-winter style. This skating rink ice may

Norway Demands to Own an Icelandic Child - in the 21st Century

Leifur Eiríksson standing guard
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A classic shot, and a memorable view for anyone who has traveled here to Reykjavík. This statue of adventurer Leifur Eiriksson ('Leif Eriksson') gifted to Iceland by the US in memory of his travels back in the day, stands brave and tall, silhouetted against an early winter twilight. Son of the famous Eiríkur Rauði, or Erik the Red, who settled Greenland in 986 A.D., and an ancestor of mine 27 generations back, he was also the

A September Evening in Reykjavik

The intersection of Laugavegur and Klapparstígur

I took this photo back in September 2011 when I was out for a late evening walk in my neighborhood on Skólavörðurholt.

This intersection doesn't look too much different today. The greenish house there center frame, which is always called the Hljómalind House) has transitioned from the popular but totally grotty coffee house/pub it was in the photo (fire hazard, terrible plumbing) to the much more upscale but still charming Kaffibrennslan bistro (which btw I used to work at when it was down by Hótel Borg where, incidentally, my father worked as a porter when he was only 13:)

The art deco facade of Hótel Borg, from Austurvellir town square
Today the old timber and corrugated iron building in that first photo has been revamped inside, a far cry from when it used to be the Hljómalind record shop downstairs run by Kiddi Kanína in the 90's. He was the first manager of Sigur Rós, and the story goes that their song Hjlómalind, is named after the shop. Later it was a very convenient after-party house for when the hard-core bars Sirkús (the little blue house next door in the photo, now torn down) and Bar 22, (kitty-corner, now Bravó and Kíkí) shut down their thumping music for the night.

After that some acquaintances of mine opened the hippie-organic Kaffi Hljómalind, that was later booted out under grumbly circumstances. They re-opened a few houses up the street and did their best to keep things going, even holding yoga and meditation sessions in their new basement, but they got chucked out there too, to be replaced by a candy store, of all things. Today that location houses the everything Apple Macland store where a friend as well as a former student hold court.

The reason the hippie café was tossed out of the house in the photo is because property developers had swooped in and bought the block, and had intentions of tearing down pretty much everything on it and building something shiny, new and horrible. They were stalled by local protestation against redevelopment at the expense of historic Reykjavík. While waiting for things to move forward, the Heart Park mysteriously appeared, as if overnight, on the open lot behind this house:

The old Heart Park, or Hjartagarðinn
It was much-loved for the few years it existed, but eventually it was ripped up and redevelopment marched on:

Looking north from Laugavegur over towards Smiðjustígur and Hverfisgata 
This photo was taken from a little wooden observation deck set up so that the curious could see what was going on behind the walls of the construction site. I took quite a few photos while it was ongoing, which I'm glad about, because these are scenes of Reykjavik that'll never been seen again now that the new Hilton Canopy hotel, restaurants and shops are getting their finishing touches on this same lot. 

That said, I'm actually impressed with what's been done to preserve the look and feel of the local architectural style while totally renovating what was, in many cases, very degraded and dangerous old structures, underfunded and poorly built in the first place. 

 For a closing photo, here's a shot of the mountain-top mural that you can see at the top of one of the buildings in that first pic. That building still stands, but the mural is gone. Once again, I'm glad I took a photo when I did...

Lovely Wildflowers at Seljalandsfoss

Everyone who was visiting the falls at the same time seemed very happy and friendly. Fun and easy road trip!

The Magical Land of Þórsmörk and Volcano Huts

The little bowed bridge at Húsadalur. Photo by the fólk at Volcano Huts.

GUEST PHOTOGRAPHER: The Volcano Huts at Húsadalur

This is such a quaint scene, taken out at Þórsmörk (Thorsmörk) by the people behind the Volcano Huts at Húsadalur. They posted it on their Facebook page, and gave me permission to share it here as well. 

Þórsmörk is one of the most lovely areas of Iceland, tucked away beyond a glacial river that needs to be forded with expert care. This isn't a location you get to by rental car! The Krossá river rages fast and icy-cold in summer as winter snow melt from the highlands and glaciers fill its wide, flat basin. Every year the river carves new paths along the

Nights and Evenings Down by the Sun Voyager

Has everyone had enough of politics for the time being? I have, so here's a pretty shot taken a few weeks ago down by the bay. The sky turned red right around 10 pm, so I bundled Óðinn into the car and zipped the few blocks down the hill to the Sólfarið (Sun Voyager) sculpture to try to catch the light. I didn't get quite the dramatics I was hoping for, but this is still lovely.

Back in the 90's I had the strangest experience at this very spot. I wrote about it a few years back, and in the interest of getting as far away as possible from current affairs, I'm going to share it here now. I hope you enjoy the read:

it’s decades ago, i’m a jaded baby, and i’ve been drinking. summer night

Iceland at a Crossroads: Elections, Elves and Old vs New

That's literally 10kg of plastic waste in a net tacked to the wall. There's even a white toy pony in there.

A couple of days ago this temporary wall was covered in street art and today it's got this great infographic instead.

Street art rocks (and we've got some masterful spray artists here) but I like that someone thought of utilizing this space to get a message across. Plastic is such a huge issue and plenty of cities across the globe have banned lightweight plastic shopping bags and even, in the case of San Francisco, plastic-bottled water being sold in public places.  Here in Iceland we've had to pay 15 - 20 króna for plastic bags since forever, though it's just in the past few years that shoppers seem to be really getting into bringing their own bags when going out for groceries. Change takes time, and

Meditating Under a Volcano: at Snæfellsjökull

Óðinn under Snæfellsjökull a few years ago

It's obvious from my past few posts that I'm not exactly non-political. But at the rate that things are changing here, I'm pretty glad I haven't written up anything since our first lady, Dorrit Moussaieff, was revealed to have links to Mossack Fonseca in the Panama Papers leak. 

If I'd have jumped on the news that her husband, our president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson decided to run again for office, edging out the frontrunners with his older conservative constituency, or that our former PM Davíð Oddsson, a man deemed responsible for the 2008 crash, then said he was running, upsetting the polls even more, the public seeming to now have to choose between

A Nice View, and Me Trying to Avoid Delving Deeper Into Our First Lady's Affairs

A view from Hallgrímskirkja 

Find the clump of trees in the lower left corner of this photo, and that's where I took the last post's cat pic. It's a shady corner of the the garden behind the Einar Jónsson Museum, a favorite spot for locals to ponder and chill, adults, kids and cats alike. As a matter of fact, the cat in the previous photo is one of four who live across the street, in the building with the red roof and all-glass corner 'penthouse.' They come across the street with their human, who enjoys

Who is Iceland Actually in Bed With, or Here's a Picture of a Local Feline Because Cats and Internet

A Reykjavik feline in its native habitat, totally not connected to the article 

I got some interesting feedback on my last post, including an enlightening conversation with a friend who's employed as a diplomatic correspondent between a certain extremely high-level European country and Iceland, via their embassy here. He hadn't read my piece when we sat down to talk, but I gave him the general rundown, including some details that had yet to occur at the time of writing, including that Iceland finally (almost unanimously)

Iceland's MunnyKids, Russian Loans, Offshore Laundries, Contrailed Skies, Ancient Cults and Maybe a Sheik or Two

Sailing from sunshine into shadows...somehow symbolic

When I found this street art in an alley by my house I was bummed that the bow was shadowed, and that the branches added a stormy sense of unease to the otherwise adventurous image. But then it occurred to me how perfect the symbolism was for the bit I'm about to share, written to day, and posted sans links on my Facebook wall

What follows has been years in the considering, but this week's ridiculousness and sense of just-controlled panicky chaos from the 'ruling' parties here in Iceland brought it all home for me in a nicely wrapped bundle, ready to be typed and published and shared with the world at large. It's not the writing style most of my frequent visitors are used to, but it's as much me as anything else I've shared here on Iceland Eyes.

Iceland 2008: Our MunnyBoys (and girls too?) are still gambling at the Big Kids table, betting long and hard and fast and we're proud of them!* And even though respected rags like The Guardian had begun asking exactly where some of that cash being tossed about came from (could it perhapsies be Russian mafia dough?) no one really cares! They're on a winning streak, until they're not. In early days October,

The Panama Papers and Iceland's Once Again in the Global Headlines

Two boys traipsing the rim of the volcanic crater Grábrók 

The path of progress is never a straight line.

We Icelanders are once again facing some very dire times in lieu of the Panama Papers scandal that's splayed our increasingly intolerable PM (who's just declared that he's NOT going to resign, thank you very much) across the global headlines, side by side with some highly illustrious characters (which he, unfortunately seems to be reveling in!?)

I'll write more tomorrow after this evening's massive protest. Bless í bili! 

What Do I Know About Blogging, Really?

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This scene might bring back memories for those of you who've been here before. It's the road into Þingvellir, with the lake appearing as a thin sliver of blue just under the distant mountains on the right side of the photo. It was a very picturesque day! 

A few days after this photo was taken, I found myself at Súfistinn café in the Mál og Menning bookstore being interviewed by a Finnish university student for her thesis on travel blog culture. She found me via Bloglovin' which I'd kind of forgotten about, but which seems to have kept up with the times with a clean new look and streamlined interface. Annika asked

Things We Find in Our Garden on Easter Sunday

Gleðileg páska! / Happy Easter!

Peace and Love to everyone, everywhere around our beautiful Mother Earth.

May the seeds you plant bear fruit, and may your life be full of joy and prosperity *.*

Let's Go on an Historical Journey Into Iceland's Viking Past

The Black Church at Kjalarnes, which sits on land wrought with history.

I first shared this photo in March, 2008. When I mentally time-travel back to that season of my life I get this strange kind of psychic itch, like a sense that someday, eight years into the future, I'd be writing from a completely different perspective. 

That month I was on the very verge of making a huge, crucial decision that would change my and my childrens' lives forever. I was gathering courage and lining up my ducks to be able to break with the living situation I was in and to start moving us into a calmer, happier life. A few months after this photo was shared I bought our freedom from a broken relationship, took over full ownership of/responsibility for the mortgage on our home, and started over again. Later that same year the financial crash happened, and plenty of people across the globe would end up being forced to do the same thing: rethink entire lives.

So here we are, then, nearly a decade later, in the ultra-modern year of 2016. But we're still battling archaic social structures and oppressive patriarchal regimes, just I had to do in 2008, and (here comes the segue into the Viking stuff ; ) like the first settlers to Iceland did eleven and a half centuries ago when they left the comforts of Norway. Things really haven't changed so much at all: everyone still just wants the chance to stretch their wings and grow and fly or, as was the case way back in the 9th century AD, to sail away in fancy dragon-headed row boats for foreign shores unknown.  

We're told by Icelandic writers in their world renowned Sagas that that's exactly what happened in 871 (plus or minus a year or two): intrepid explorers set off, nobly escaping an oppressive monarchical regime with their womenfólk, horses, sheep, cattle, dogs, goats, chickens, and a few stowaway mice and rats (but no cats that we know of) to settle on this strange and brand-new, just discovered island, almost totally empty except for a godly cave-dwelling Irish monk or two, who in their spare time enjoyed carving crosses into the lava walls of their shelters. Seeing the mighty Norsemen and their strong braided-haired women, the weakly monks leap into their currachs, trusting Jesus and the currents to take them right back to Ireland. End of saga, part one.

But is that how it happened, really? If you read my post 16 Fascinating Facts About Iceland, you'd know, for example, that
"The famed Icelandic sagas were written from 200 to 300 years after settlement era that they describe. Interestingly enough, this was the same period when heavy internal fighting was taking place in the weakening Icelandic Commonwealth. 
There is evidence to show that the writers tried to give the sagas a realistic feel by, for example, dressing the main characters in period clothing as they assumed it was worn centuries earlier. This could be likened to a modern costume drama depicting the first British settlers to what was to become the USA."
Propaganda is nothing new, as texts dating as far back as the Sumerian Standard of Ur from 4,500 years ago can attest. Were the Sagas written as a way to whitewash a different history altogether?

Recently, with new archeological findings in the south of Iceland, this subject has popped up again. I'm a firm believer in an alt history to the one we've been being fed for at least the last century, if only because so many of the 'facts' about history, timelines, and even the science of dating archeological finds have been proven to be either incomplete or just plain untrue. For more on this, check out Graham Hancock's work, starting maybe with this super-interesting presentation (video) on his latest book, Magicians of the Gods. 

It seems that the more we learn via modern day info-sharing and technological advancements, including ease of travel to remote sites and such, the more we discover what we don't know about our human history. And I suspect that Iceland was occupied, even revered as a mystical home of the Old Gods and Spirits, long, long before the 9th century Norse arrived.

This is a theme I'm constantly looking in to and gathering data for. To begin with though, and to keep things grounded in prior research, I'm going to suggest reading this paper by Gísli Sigurðsson, Gælic Influence in Iceland (pdf) published by the University of Iceland Press in 2000. This article from the History Ireland website is also a very interesting starting point.

To dig deeper, check out the totally fascinating Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80 - 1000, by Alfred P. Smyth, 1989.*

In my opinion, though, the older the heimild, or source, the more unwhitewashed it'll be. If you agree, read The Gæls in Iceland (pdf) by W. A. Craigie, 1899.  And bringing us back around to the photo above, there's a fascinating travelogue from 1873 entitled, On Some Ruins at Ellida Vatn and Kjalarnes in Iceland (pdf) which describes the historic settlement of the ridiculously windy Kjalarnes peninsula, where today the town is a hotbed of controversy involving asylum seekers housed there, but way back when was the seat of the first recorded onslaught of "modern" (i.e. invasive) Christianity in Iceland, which the locals found highly amusing:
"Stanley recalls the story of Stefnir Þorgilsson, sent by King Ólafr Tryggvason to Christianise Iceland in 996. Received icily by the heathens, he responded by destroying their temples. Bad weather forced him to shelter off Kjalarnes, which provoked heathen mockery in a poem, quoted by Stanley in Icelandic, alongside his own translation: 
Vindr sleit band á landi / Geysar á með ísi / Allríckr freyr slíkom    
          "the Winds freed from their Chains on land / gushed forth with Ice / like the all powerful
            Goddess Freyja"  

That quote is from the super interesting The Vikings and the Victorians, by Andrew Wawn, 2002, in which he digs into Sir John Thomas Stanley's impulsive, Romanticism-fueled adventure to Iceland in 1789.

You can also read the original  Kjalnesingasaga, or The Saga of the People of Kjalarnes online in English, translated by Ben Waggoner (btw, well done, Ben!) When you're here in Iceland you can go see an original 15th century vellum manuscript of that saga at the very cool Settlement Exhibition at Aðalstræti 16 in the city center, which was built over a settlement-era homestead discovered during construction of a new hotel (let's not get int the construction of new hotels here right now: / )

This church then, which is itself only 150 years old, sits on a chunk of land that changed the course of Icelandic history forever, being the seat of power from which the Old Gods and their groves and temples were destroyed by a ravenous New God from the south. Did this newcomer at some even earlier time share our island in a different context altogether many centuries earlier, when the original Gnostic Christians were forced to leave the Levant with their precious knowledge and treasures**? It could very well be...

So, this post is a bit deeper than the last, with more to chew on. But along with the future of our island, its hidden past is my pet fascination. That, and how we change over time and how today, me finding an old box of treasured photos from the first three decades of my life is like an archeological find all in itself - I've only got about thirty really good pics of myself with friends and family, and then a hundred or so less-perfectly framed and blurry ones on top of that to remind me of all the people I've met and places I've been, all the stories I've gathered, all the wrong hairdo's I sported while discovering who I felt I really was...

In closing, I'm very very glad to have Iceland Eyes, with its 700+ posts and photos spanning twelve years of my life, to remind me of how far I've come and of who I am today. And I'm going to leave you with a photo I took of the side of our looming Mount Esja across the bay. These are the faces of some of the Old Gods who still watch over us, who show each winter after snowfall. Just at their feet, at the root of the mountain, is Kjalarnes. And as the10th century inhabitants knew, these gods and goddesses, Freyja in her cat form included, don't take well to their sacred spaces being destroyed...

Old Gods and Goddesses on Mount Esja

*Almost all of the books I'm sharing are available in whole or part online via Google Books, but if you find yourself intrigued by any of them and reading more than just a few pages, you might want to support the authors or publishing houses and buy an e- or hard copy to own.  

** There was once a link here, taking you to the first 40 pages of my MA thesis, based on The White Goddess, by Robert Graves to back up this statement, but alas, the link is dead:(