Geologically and physically, Iceland is split between North America and Europe, although it is culturally more closely tied to Scandinavia. It is made up of the island of Iceland itself as well as nearby smaller islands. Iceland is one of the newest land masses on the planet, with most of it having emerged around 20-30 million years ago. But the age of Icelandic landmasses can vary from a couple million years old (the West Fjords) to having emerged just a few decades ago (Surtsey). This contributes to its unique landscape and wildlife.
Iceland demonstrates plate tectonics to perfection. It is situated across the mid-Atlantic ridge and is consequently very geologically active. There are several volcanoes which have, among other things, created Surtsey, possibly the world's youngest island.
The term geyser comes from the Icelandic "Geysir" in the Haukadalur valley.
A most weird society
Iceland has a population of around 325,000 (tendency: growing). It has the world's highest literacy rate and was, for many years, ranked as the most developed nation on Earth. Icelanders speak Icelandic, a language that has changed little since the days of the Vikings. As a consequence, Icelandic is one of the richest languages still spoken today, as it has preserved lots of very fine distinctions, which make it especially hard to learn as a second language[note 1]. However, learning English is mandatory for Icelandic children in compulsory schools, so that almost everyone understands it very well.
It is often said that such and such a nation is too small to be independent. For instance, this has been argued in the case of Scotland. At the end of the year 1918, there were 91,633 Icelanders. On the 1st of December of that year, Iceland became a sovereign state, maintaining a personal union with Denmark. This is actually a more important date than the 17th of June 1944, when the republic was proclaimed. The inhabitants then numbered about 127,000. Iceland has been doing well since — given the occasional ups and downs — and so provides a hint that the minimum population for a feasible state is lower than most seem to think.
In every year since 2008, Iceland has ranked first on the annual Global Peace Index, an attempt to measure the peacefulness of societies.
Over the last years, the total number of intentional homicides has always been between zero and three killings per year, resulting in a rate of 0 to 1 homicides per year and per 100,000 citizens, which is contested only by a hand-full of other (not ultra-small) countries. In contrast, Iceland has about 0.3 firearms per capita, making it rank 15th worldwide. Other crime rates in Iceland are equally low; in fact, ordinary police on patrol carry no guns in Iceland, the only regularly armed forces being a small elite unit called Viking Squad and the coast guard. 2013 was the first time ever that the police shot dead a person, and this not until making numerous attempts to end his attack more gently.
Possibly along with other factors, this remarkable absence of crime results in a perceived security so strong that parents leave their babies outside on the street unattended, and in car drivers asking utter strangers whether they would like a lift. Icelanders perceive their society as very equal in terms of social class: 97% consider themselves upper-middle class, lower-middle class, or working class; only 1.1% called themselves upper-class and 1.5% lower-class.
Iceland was originally settled in the 9th century CE chiefly by
Viking tax-evaders Norwegians fleeing political turmoil in that country. For the first three centuries of existence it followed a sort of anarcho-capitalistic system of government, with the law reached by consensus and arbitration and enforced by chieftains; people could buy or sell their chieftaincies at will.
The Icelandic parliament, the Althing, is the longest-sitting national parliament in the world, being a continuation of the old arbitration courts set up in 930 CE (which however had been discontinued at some time).
Iceland's military is so small as to be essentially nonexistent; there is a very small uniformed counter-terrorism force and a few lightly armed boats for protecting fishing grounds. It historically relied on its extreme isolation and lack of strategic value[note 2] for defense, although there was a large contingent of NATO troops stationed on the island during the Cold War due to its usefulness as an air base.
Iceland currently exists as a social democracy, but since the 1990s initiated a crapload of neoliberal reforms to spur the economy. Everything went all fine and dandy until this happened. The culture of greed and incompetence became so bad that in fall 2008 the three largest Icelandic banks defaulted (and later had to be nationalized), nearly bankrupting the entire country. It's also possibly the first time the Golden Arches has disappeared from a Western nation, as it closed all three of its restaurants during the mess. No more fast food!
The resigning Prime Minister barely escaped from being convicted of mass fraud, and Iceland's constitution was nearly rewritten in the process. Let's just say if anything similar were to occur somewhere else we wouldn't be calling the 1930s the Great Depression anymore.
Despite being one of the hardest-hit countries by the banking crisis, Iceland has since made almost a full recovery, thanks chiefly to it not listening to calls for austerity programs and state-funded bailouts. The Icelandic program, instead of laying the costs of the bailout on taxpayers, forced the creditors themselves to pay the bill and refused to protect them from their mistakes, allowing it to preserve its welfare state. It also restricted the flow of currency out of the nation, preventing currency speculators from playing games with the Icelandic krona. How did it work? Well, unemployment stood at 3.8% as of August 2015, so there's that.
The Cod Wars
The virtually military-less Iceland is famous for winning three naval wars against the British from 1958-1976.
In short, Iceland widened their exclusive fishing grounds three times (expanding the zone from four to now up to 200 miles), which especially the British did not like (less fish for fish and chips). The story was roughly the same every three times: When the latter continued to fish there, the Icelandic coast guard severed the fishing nets of their cutters, even when these were protected by warships. Whilst no bullets were shot, several rammings took place.
All three crises were solved by negotiations, mostly affirming Iceland's demands. At least in the second crisis, political pressure from the US against the British played a major role in this, because Iceland's partnership in the NATO is of great strategic importance to them. (Just take a look at the map, would any patriotic American want evil Soviets to have a military base there?)
Press freedom and Whistleblower protection
Over many years, Iceland has ranked first in the Press Freedom Index and still reaches top positions. Iceland especially has remarkably strong protections of whistleblowers and investigative journalism. These were substantially worked out and pushed forward by Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic Pirate Party, and other activists from around WikiLeaks, including Julian Assange himself.
“”According to a new poll, less than half of Icelanders identify as religious. (...) And the younger generation in Iceland is the least likely to identify as religious, with more than 40% of young people claiming to be atheists. (...) And 93.9% of those under 25 believe the big bang created the universe and 0.0% believe it was created by God. Zero percent! Not a single young person they asked said that God created the universe—not a single one. (Ken Ham quoted by PZ Myers) [note 3]
Iceland was very lightly Christianized; the country only adopted Christianity under heavy pressure from the King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason.
Although Iceland today has a state church (the Lutheran Church of Iceland), it is fairly tolerant and liberal, their last prime minister (Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir) having been the first openly gay head of government in modern times.
It is also the country of origin for most forms of Norse neopaganism (Asatru) that are not thoroughly tangled up with neo-Nazi bullshit, and is one of the few countries in the world where Asatru has official status and entitlement to a cut of tax money. A guy and a girl, who had just met in a bar, once thought it would be funny to have a wedding after leaving the pub in the wee hours after drinking, since they saw the late Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, then chief of the Ásatrúar congregation on the street. He married them. To their surprise, they woke up, probably hung over — and legally married.
Icelanders and fairies
The Icelandic Tourist Board claim that 80% of Icelanders are prepared to believe in fairies or elves, or at least not dismiss their existence. Furthermore polls find that 54% express a positive belief and 25% even claim to have seen them. Certainly a high proportion of Icelanders take these beliefs seriously.
Roads in Iceland have been diverted in order to avoid their homes, the chief of which is a rock formation known as "Alfborg". Furthermore, and it is quite common for experts from an "Elf Medium" to be called in to construction sites and cable laying in order to negotiate with the elves and buildings and cables are often moved as a result. This will usually happen after problems with workers being taken mysteriously ill or equipment failures.
There is even a college, run by Magnus Skarphedinsson, called "Álfaskólinn" which awards certificates for their study. The fairies are claimed to wear traditional clothes while the elves favor pointy hats and shoes.
According to the Álfaskól there are 13 sub-types of elves, 3 types of fairies 2 types of troll and 4 types of gnome plus 4 hidden peoples (including the Blue People). It is not known if the trolls are fed, or what variety of creature Björk is.
Before Americans start to laugh at the Icelanders, however, we need to remember that, while only 4% of Americans believe in fairies, between 40 and 50 percent believe the earth was created 10,000 years ago. There are many more Americans than Icelanders by about a factor of one thousand.
The Icelandic belief in elves tends to be exaggerated by foreigners. For example, it was widely reported by foreign press that roads in connection with an Alcoa aluminum plant were delayed or prevented because of the elf-protection lobby, however Benedikt Jóhannesson of the Icelandic Review claimed that the road issue was primarily environmental and that there was only one elf believer present at the demonstrations. Besides, everyone knows that elves and fairies are harmed by iron, not aluminum.
Traditionally, there were no last names (surnames) among the Norse populations, with all people having just a given name and a patronymic. This custom persisted in Norway into the 20th century, when it was outlawed. Iceland is now the only country where last names are not used; in fact, it is now illegal to adopt a last name in Iceland. It is also illegal to take a first name that has not been approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee[note 4].
Since last names are not typically used, telephone books are listed by first name.
Icelandic patronymics take the father's first name,[note 5] convert it to its possessive form, then suffix it with "son" or "dóttir", depending on the person's gender. For example: A boy whose father is named "Björn" would have the last name "Björnsson," while a girl whose father's name is "Björn" would have the last name "Björnsdóttir." All of this means that you (and particularly YOU) have to be especially astute if you're into genealogy.
Women do not adopt their husband's name since they are not becoming that person's father's son. This means that a family consisting of a wife, husband, daughter and son will all have different last names.
Icelandic (the language) has retained the letters eth (Ð, ð) and thorn (Þ, þ), usually transliterated as "d" and "th" in English, which used them during its early days but has since abandoned them in favor of the "th" digraph.
The national anthem
The Icelandic national anthem is sometimes the subject of debate. It's not like the cheery Marseillaise calling for the blood of France's enemies nor the dreary German anthem, calling for unity, justice and freedom, but is simply a lutheran psalm to a tune that very few individuals can cope with — the singer has to be both a bass and soprano and everything in between, and hence it is usually sung by choirs.
There are no snakes in Iceland
The section heading is the entire text of a chapter in a book written about Iceland in the 18. century. The chapter was, very appropriately called Snakes in Iceland. This was true at the time, almost certainly a spillover effect of St. Patrick's miracles, although snakes are now sometimes kept as pets. Notes on refrigerator doors in those households are usually something like: „Milk, cheese, mice, …“.
The President of Iceland is usually just a figurehead. As the office has evolved, it has more or less become an electoral monarchy, since every president since 1944 has been reelected as long as he or she wished[note 6]. There have occasionally been candidates opposing a sitting president, but so far no candidacy has been successful. Usually the incumbent, if the year is an election year, announces his decision not to run in the new year's address. There are some vestiges of power left in that office, most notably that the president has to sign laws. If the president refuses to do so, the legislative branch has the option of withdrawing the bill or put it to a referendum. This hadn't really been tested until the current presidency.
Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, president since 1996, announced on the first of January 2016, that he did not intend to run again this year. As is often the case with clear cut declarations in Iceland, the president's namesake, Ólafur K. Harðarson, an oft quoted and consulted political scientist, was asked, what he could divine from Ólafur Ragnar's statement that he would not run. Ólafur K. thought for a while, and then interpreted the intention of Ólafur R. not to run to mean that Ólafur R. in fact did not in fact intend to run. Sometimes just saying so isn't enough. As it is, nobody has any idea who will eventually stand for election, following a tradition of suggesting long lists of names, mostly of people who are not interested. Of course, there's a number of people who have announced their intention of running for president, but those known so far are likely to get at most 1% or so each including one perennial candidate.
- If foreigners have ever heard of the language at all, it is usually legends like this. Icelandic is no "richer" than your average language and the phonology has changed greatly. The morphology is mostly unchanged, however, and that in combination with a very conservative spelling is the reason all stages of language can be read now. The same conservatism also means that very little has been "thrown out", so to speak, and the literature doesn't have any drastic breaks. For a general idea of the grammar, it can be stated that Icelandic and German grammar are very much alike. Learning Icelandic is hard, but that can be said about all languages.
- Though it was considered strategically valuable enough during World War II that it's official neutrality caused a successive occupation of Allied troupes: British, then Canadian, then US.
- Sections where Ken Ham claims imagines atheism is a religion are left out as that is not specifically relevant to Iceland.
- It must be mentioned, however, that nobody has yet figured out which criteria the committee uses to allow or prohibit a name. The lists of allowed and rejected names look equally weird to the native eye. There is also a mysterious third list containing names banned as first names but allowed as middle names. Go figure.
- Or, in more recent times, your mother's, or your grandfather's, or both at once.
- Sveinn Björnsson, the first one, died in office. It is what you might call ‘common knowledge’ that Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was persuaded to stay one term longer than she really wanted to so that a certain politician would not have a shot at the presidency.
- Iceland’s Geogreenhouse to Export Tomatoes Iceland Review
- http://www.visindavefur.is/svar.php?id=479 Vísindavefurinn: Hvað bjuggu margir á Íslandi árin 1918 og 1944 (Icelandic).
- For First Time In Memory, Icelandic Police Shoot And Kill, NPR
- Why violent crime is so rare in Iceland, BBC
- But also including slaves from the British Isles.
- Waking up to reality in Iceland, BBC
- McDonald's, gone from Iceland, The Guardian
- Ex-Iceland PM Geir Haarde to escape punishment despite guilty verdict over banking collapse, The Daily Telegraph
- We, All of the People, Slate
- IMF Says Bailouts Iceland-Style Hold Lessons in Crisis Times, Bloomberg Businessweek
- | Hagstofa Íslands - Fréttir
- Reporters Without Borders 2014 list
- Iceland, you have disappointed Ken Ham
- Icelanders flocking to the Zuist religion (Tue 1 Dec 2015, 13.00 GMT) Iceland Monitor.
- Elves in Iceland — Icelanders Still Believe in Elves
- Icelandic Roads Rerouted Due To Elves Tradition
- US belief in Creationism
- Iceland's 'Elf Lobby' Isn't Real, According to Icelanders
- The Wyrm in Lagarfljót
- Pure. Natural. Unspoiled. Iceland: 2009. Icelandic Tourism Board publication.