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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...
...Irish kings as far back as at least 100 BC. 
Wikipedia (referencing the Chronicles of Ireland, among other sources) makes it possible to click back thousands of years through Melkorka's recorded ancestry to the time of near-mythical royalty of ancient yore. 

Thought to be mute, Melkorka (born around 910 AD) was bought from a Rus trader as a concubine by Höskuldur, one of the original settlers, and bore him a son, Ólafr. When Höskuldur's wife heard her singing to her son, she was confronted and confessed to being the daughter of Muirchertach, an Irish king, who later accepted Ólafr as his grandson. 

4. The famed Icelandic sagas were written from 300 to 400 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 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, for example, the first British settlers to what was to become the USA.

5. Widows had rights and power in Icelandic society. 
Though women were ruled by men, and could by law be given to other men by their fathers, brothers and sons who were over 16 years of age, strong laws protected them. The Grágas book of laws from the early 12th century details punishments for offenses against women, and it was considered totally dishonorable for a man to violate a woman's rights or body in any way. 

More importantly, when a husband was away, or if a woman had been widowed, she gained rule over the homestead. The Sagas describe women who held behind the scenes power over the men in their lives, though they were not legally allowed get involved in politics or leadership. There are also stories of quite a few women with very active love lives and multiple lovers.

6. Icelandic pagans cut a deal when they finally accepted Christianity. 
When it was (reluctantly) accepted in 1000AD, three concessions to the pagan way of life were allowed to remain: the exposure of infants (they were left outside to die), the eating of horse meat, and the private worship of the old gods. These were all later rescinded, but last two are in effect again.

7. In-fighting amongst powerful chieftains, or goðar, broke up the original Icelandic Commonwealth allowing Norway to take over. 
Both greed amongst the ruling clans and bribery by Norwegian King Hákon caused blood feuds and power plays throughout the Sturlung Era in the13th century. Thousands of men died in battle, resulting in instability that left the island open for takeover by the king. 

So though the original settlers left Norway to create a more democratic society based on rule of law and vote, it fell apart within 300 years, bringing the Icelandic people right back to where they started: owned by a Norwegian king.

8. Two separate, devastating plagues killed half to two-thirds of the population of Iceland in the 1400s. 
Some estimates say that between 20 to 30 thousand people died in that century. First came the Black Plague in 1402, which in the course of two years decimated whole communities at a time. A second, unknown plague arrived in the later century killing off many of the survivors. 

Some records say that people died while carrying people to their graves, and were simply buried along with. Along with the fact that their new ruler, Denmark, (who took over from Norway) had little need for their fish and wool, Iceland was fast-tracking to becoming Europe's poorest country.

9. For centuries, England and Iceland traded beer for sulfur (among other things.) 
Despite the lack of attention from their Danish rulers, during the "English Era" of the 15th century (and actually well beyond it) English merchant ships sailed to Iceland for goods, mainly stockfish (unsalted, air-dried fish, most often cod) but also wool, saltpeter and sulfur. In exchange they brought items like beer, honey, grains, sugar and fabrics, to name a few. 

In 1509, when Henry VIII gained the throne, his first act as king opened up free voyages to Iceland, 'considering that Fysshe and other Commodities of that Cuntre be muche behovefull and necessarie towarde the comen Weale of this Realme.' This trade most surely kept Iceland going during its harshest times. Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, 'was not unmindful of the value of Iceland trade,' and it's said that during her reign the native Icelandic sheepdog was popular in court.

10. Almost all clergy and most powerful men in Iceland had multiple wives and many children.
Though absolutely forbidden by Rome, it was common practice for priests and clan leaders to "keep" women and have as many children as possible up to at least the Middle Ages. Their daughters were given to friends as goodwill offerings and as payment in business deals, and according to new research, girls often chose to join cloisters rather than be parceled out as gifts to much older men. 

A recent archaological find in Skríðaklaustur (article in Icelandic) in the east of Iceland found a priest buried with multiple women and children in his grave.

11. After bouncing back from the plague years, again a quarter of the population of Iceland died during the Laki eruption of 1783-84. 
Poisoned gasses and a thick constant ash cloud from the volcanic fissure destroyed nearly all vegetation and killed half of the livestock population (80% of sheep!). As a result, a quarter of the human population (estimated to be at that time around 50,000) died from poisoning and famime in the years that followed. The imapct of the eruption was felt as far away as Egypt and India.

12. In the 1800's a third of the population gave up on Iceland and moved west. 
By now a bleak, deforested, windswept island, Iceland had little to offer its people except more volcanic activity (including the Katla and Hekla eruptions, both located in the populated southern region) and sheep die-offs in the 19th century. 

A massive emigration to Canada and the northern US regions took place, and whole Icelandic communities were created which still exist today. Though nowhere near an easy life, these Vestur Íslendingar understood the harsh winters of the northern praries and were able to make the best out of their new country.

13. The Icelandic language was mapped out for the first time by a Danish man in the mid-19th century. 
Rasmus Rusk was a linguistic genius, having mastered at least 25 languages in his lifetime and written lengthy treatises on many of them, including Icelandic. He based his grammatics on a mysterious book, the First Grammatical Treatise, by an anonymous author of the early 1100's. 

This renewed interest in Icelandic as a unique language helped revive the literary heritage of the people, which had been lost after the era of Saga writing. It also built up interest in Icelandic translation services abroad. During the 400 years after the Black Plague era, basic survival had been the most important thing, but Rusk's work helped to shine light back onto the amazing literary and cultural history of Iceland and its people.

14. Romanticism influenced the Independence movement in Iceland. 
The literary Romantic movement in Europe jump-started social change throughout the continent. Industrialization was creating a new middle class who were learning to read and write and to have an influence on the world around them, and poets and painters of the time encouraged a kind of returning to roots and to the land, for average people to retake ownership of what God has given them: their country. 

Young Icelandic men who went to Denmark to study were coming home with ideas of independence, and a returning of the land to the Icelandic people who were then to care of it. A quiet but constant revolution took place during the mid-1800's, and by 1874 Denmark granted Iceland home rule. 44 years later, full sovereignty was given, and in 1944 Iceland severed all economic and political ties with Denmark and declared itself a Republic.

15. All of the trees in Reykjavik today were planted in the past 130 years. 
Old photos of midtown Reykjavik, including the area around the town lake, are almost completely devoid of flora. Reykjavik itself didn't start to really grow until the late 19th century, so it wasn't until that time that the city planners began to consider planting trees and gardens. A Horticulture Society was established in 1885, and since then has been instrumental in turning the capitol from a barren series of rocky hills into the green and blooming city seen today.

16. The vast majority of products and goods seen in stores today only became available in the last 25 years. 
Until the 90's it was hard to find more than just three kinds of cereal here (Cheerios, Corn Flakes and Cocoa Puffs.) The only kinds of pasta were macaroni, spaghetti and, rarely, lasagne. There were only two flavors of skyr: plain and blueberry, and only whole milk and undarenna, or whey. The only candy available was local Icelandic kinds and one type of chocolate from Poland: Prince Polo. Small shops were sprinkled all around, and in the neighborhood around Baldursgata, for example, were five shops, a bakery and a fishmonger until the late nineties. 

The past 25 years have seen a shocking explosion in both imports and local commodities on offer which some people have likened to the consumerization of Eastern Europe around the same time. There are stories of older folk who, until recently, had no clue what a cucumber was, or why a kiwi even existed. The move from a fairly insular welfare state to an international consumer society, as well as the late shift from rural to urban living, has changed the face of the country dramatically. Though hard to believe nowadays, until very recently Iceland was an extremely isolated, and in many ways innocent, culture with a very simple way of life.

A view of Stapafell mountain from the town of Arnastapi, with Snæfellsjökull glacier in the background.


Jono said...

That is a nice summary! My own Icelandic ancestry shows Irish back around 600-700 A.D. Fascinating stuff!

Fran Ayllón said...

Thank you, Maria! Icelandic history is one of my passions (why, I do not know: was I an Icelander in a previous life…?), so, I kind of knew most of these things, but I love reading them again and again!
But in this case your post inspired me to comment on the very last part of your history: a country that was utterly poor only 30 or 40 years ago and has changed so much so fast... It really moves me deep down. I can relate, because I lived in South Korea for one year, and, albeit for different reasons (the horrendous Korean war back in the... sixties…?... not sure now), it is another country that has experienced such a sudden resurgence from total desperate poverty. I recall looking around me in Korea and getting really emotional to see old men and women having a peaceful walk in a park, and thinking that not so many years ago they could not even dream of having somewhere to spend the night or having food easily available on a daily basis.
I guess that today in Iceland there must be lots of people in similar situation, people that in their jouth lived in the hardest, poorest imaginable conditions, and now, at last, they can enjoy and rejoice a normal, decent life...

Congratulations to all of you there!