Iceland is one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in 2017, on the fourth place on the World Tourism Barometer released by the United Nations World Tourism Organization. In 2016, Iceland received 1.79 million visitors (that’s over 5 times its population!) and in the first four months of 2017, tourist numbers were up 34.9% in Iceland. It’s getting a tad crowded!
Official name: Republic of Iceland
Official language: Icelandic
The people of Iceland have a unique dialect of Old Norse that has adapted to life at the edge of the Arctic. Hundslappadrifa means “heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind”. Solarfri means “when staff members get an unexpected afternoon off to enjoy good weather”. Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur, at 64 letters it is considered the longest Icelandic word, means something like “a keychain ring containing the key to a storage shed used by road workers in a place called Vaðlaheiði”.
There are 32 letters in the Icelandic alphabet. It’s the English alphabet plus the letters á, æ, ð, é, í, ó, ö, þ, ú, and ý, and minus the letters c, q, w, and z.
Although Icelandic has been the national language of Iceland throughout the country’s history, it only became the “official language” by virtue of Act No 61/2011, which was adopted by the country’s parliament in 2011.
The first American movie to be dubbed into Icelandic was Aladdin, in 1992.
The Icelandic language, spoken by fewer than 400,000 people in an increasingly globalized world, is being undermined by the widespread use of English, both in the tourism industry and in the voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue.
If you want to change the default language on your iPhone, you have many options to choose from, such as Turkish, Dutch, Catalan and both the Brazilian and Portuguese dialects of Portuguese. If you speak Icelandic, though, you’re out of luck.
The same is true on many computers, particularly voice-activated devices such as televisions, virtual assistants and electronics. Some people believe this — along with the world’s increasing globalization and widespread usage of English — could lessen the use of the Icelandic language, which is spoken by less than half a million people.
“Many of the world’s 6,000 languages will not survive in a globalized digital information society,” the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance said in a report stating Icelandic is one of the most endangered languages in the digital age. “It is estimated that at least 2,000 languages are doomed to extinction in the decades ahead.”
“The status of a language depends … on the presence of the language in the digital information space and software applications,” the report said.
Of course, the Icelandic language has done just fine for centuries without digital devices. The language was originally brought to what is Iceland in the 9th and 10th entries by settlers from western Norway. Given the island country’s remoteness, it “has remained relatively unchanged since the 12th century, and so old Icelandic manuscripts can still be read by today’s Icelanders,” National Geographic reported.
The language is unique, but it also isn’t spoken by many people — the country’s population is only about 339,000. It isn’t used much outside the country, either.
And there isn’t a particularly compelling reason for companies, particularly those based in Silicon Valley, to include the language in their devices.
Former Iceland president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir recently said unless this trend changes, “Icelandic will end up in the Latin bin.” Let’s hope not.
Reykjavik is the northernmost national capital in the world. Home to 120,000 people, the city is Iceland’s cultural, social and artistic heart and considered one of the cleanest, greenest and safest cities in the world. A beautiful city in its own right, Reykjavik also provides an excellent base from which you can explore Iceland’s dramatic landscapes, such as Buri Cave and Gulfoss.
Currency: Icelandic króna (ISK)
Population: 339,747 (July 2017 est.).
Iceland is almost entirely urban with half of the population located in and around the capital of Reykjavik; smaller clusters are primarily found along the coast in the north and west.
In Iceland the use of surnames is forbidden by a law, which passed in 1925. There are a few exceptions: If a family had a surname before 1925, they have been allowed to keep using it. About 10 percent of Icelanders have a hereditary surname, while most Icelanders usually use primary patronymics according to the Old Norse tradition. Each child takes on the first name of their father or mother as a second name and adds “sson” if they are a boy or “dottir” if they are a girl. This means it is perfectly normal for a family of four to each have a different surname! The Icelandic telephone directory is arranged by first names and then by profession to minimise confusion.
There’s a joke in Iceland that you can look up the president in the phone book and call directly. It’s not just a good joke, though. It’s true.
Settled by Norwegian and Celtic (Scottish and Irish) immigrants during the late 9th and 10th centuries A.D., Iceland boasts the world’s oldest functioning legislative assembly, the Althingi, established in 930. Independent for over 300 years, Iceland was subsequently ruled by Norway and Denmark. Fallout from the Askja volcano of 1875 devastated the Icelandic economy and caused widespread famine. Over the next quarter century, 20% of the island’s population emigrated, mostly to Canada and the US. Denmark granted limited home rule in 1874 and complete independence in 1944. The second half of the 20th century saw substantial economic growth driven primarily by the fishing industry. The economy diversified greatly after the country joined the European Economic Area in 1994, but Iceland was especially hard hit by the global financial crisis in the years following 2008. The economy is now on an upward trajectory, fuelled primarily by a tourism and construction boom. Literacy, longevity, and social cohesion are first rate by world standards.
Iceland, situated on top of a hotspot, experiences severe volcanic activity. Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, sending ash high into the atmosphere and seriously disrupting European air traffic. A subglacial stratovolcano, Eyjafjallajökull’s modest-sized eruption caused unusual and disproportionate havoc. Over six days, from April 14 to April 20, about 20 countries closed their airspace to commercial jet traffic and it affected about 10 million travellers, including us. We got stuck in Turkey. Scientists continue to monitor Katla (Iceland’s most dangerous volcano), which last erupted in 1918 and has a high probability of eruption in the very near future (hopefully not the immediate future), potentially disrupting air traffic; Grímsvötn (the most volatile volcanic system) and Hekla (aka The Gateway to Hell), Iceland’s most active volcanoes; Askja, Bárðarbunga (which has been rumbling since February 2015, starting right after its last eruption!), Brennisteinsfjöll, Esjufjöll, Hengill, Krafla, Krisuvik, Kverkfjöll, Öræfajökull, Reykjanes, Torfajökull and Vestmannaeyjar. Iceland sits on top of two tectonic plates and has 30 active volcanic systems running through the island.
Iceland is a bigger land mass than most people realise. At 101,010 square kilometres it is the same size as Cuba, 25 per cent bigger than Ireland and 50 per cent bigger than Sri Lanka. With a population of just under 340,000, this makes Iceland the most sparsely populated country in Europe. It also means that, per head of population, Icelanders read more books, eat more sugar, keep more shotguns, drive more four-wheel drives, produce more poets and have more Nobel Prize winners (just the one) than any other nation. In 2007, Iceland was ranked the most developed country in the world by the United Nations.
Thirty-two astronauts received geology field training on the island in the late 1960s in what NASA called planetary analogue campaigns. For the Apollo missions, NASA subjected astronauts to geology field training at planetary analogues in Mexico, Alaska, and much of the American west. NASA made two trips to Iceland, in 1965 and 1967, where astronauts spent several days collecting geologic samples.
National day: 17 June ((Anniversary of the establishment of the Republic in 1944)
Iceland joined the United Nations in 1946.
Iceland was one of the 12 founding members of NATO in 1949.
Iceland is in both the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA), but is not a member of the European Union yet. Iceland began EU accession talks in 2010, while the country was still reeling from the 2008 financial crash. The talks were later shelved, however, amid much Euroscepticism in the Arctic island nation. Iceland is already deeply integrated with the EU – it is a member of the Schengen passport-free zone and is in the single market, though its agriculture and fisheries are excluded.
Iceland has 1 cultural and 1 natural site on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Selected international rankings
Good Country Index: Rank 30
Global Competitiveness Index (2017): Rank 28
Inclusive Development Index (2017): Rank 4 (advanced economies)
Global Innovation Index (2017): Rank 13
Human Development Index (2017): Rank 16
Global Peace Index (2017): Rank 1
Corruption Perception Index (2016): Rank 14
Global Gender Gap Index (2016): Rank 1
Women’s suffrage (right to vote) was granted in 1915, but the right was, however, marred by the fact that only women over 40 years of age got the vote. This age limit to women was lifted in 1920.
World Happiness Index (2017): Rank 3
Iceland took the top spot for the eighth consecutive year on the Global Gender Gap Index, closing more than 87% of its overall gender gap. It remains the top performer on Political Empowerment and in the top ten on Economic Participation and Opportunity. Since 2009, Iceland has fully closed its gender gap on Educational Attainment. It’s still working on closing the income gender gap. On March 8 this year, Thorsteinn Viglundsson, Iceland’s equality and social affairs minister, said the government will introduce legislation that requires all employers with more than 25 employees to get certified to prove that they pay people equally if they are doing equal work. Most companies just talk about whether they pay men and women equally. In Iceland, they may soon have to prove it.
Iceland was the first country in the world to have a political party formed and led entirely by women. Known as the Women’s List or Women’s Alliance (Kvennalistinn), it was founded in 1983 to advance the political, economic, and social needs of women. After participating in its first parliamentary elections, the Women’s List helped increase the proportion of female parliamentarians by 15%. Although it disbanded in 1999, merging with the Social Democratic Alliance, it left a lasting influence on Iceland’s politics: every major party has a 40% quota for women, and in 2009 nearly a third of members of parliament were female, compared to the global average of 16%. Following the 2016 elections, 48% of members of parliament are female.
In 2016 Iceland was ranked 2nd in the strength of its democratic institutions and 13th in government transparency. The country has a high level of civic participation, with 81.4% voter turnout during the most recent elections, compared to an OECD average of 72%. However, only 50% of Icelanders say they trust their political institutions, slightly less than the OECD average of 56% (and most probably a consequence of the political scandals in the wake of the Icelandic financial crisis).
In 1980, Iceland elected Vigdís Finnbogadóttir as president, making her both Iceland’s and Europe’s first female president. She was far outside the cookie-cutter mould of convention, as a divorcee and single mother with an eclectic professional past, including television presenting, being a guide for the Icelandic Tourist Bureau and a member of an experimental theatre group. An extremely popular politician, Finnbogadóttir was re-elected three more times until she finally retired in 1996.
In 2009, Iceland elected the world’s first openly gay head of government and their first female Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir. She also had an unorthodox path, starting as a flight attendant and union official before migrating to politics. She was already in a civil partnership with her wife, Jonina Leosdóttir, (Iceland was also one of the first countries to legalize gay civil unions in 1996) and Sigurdardóttir married Leosdóttir the following year, in 2010, after the PM helped pioneer marriage equality.
Iceland formally became a republic on 17 June 1944, with Sveinn Björnsson as its first president. The President of Iceland is the country´s head of state and the only representative chosen by the entire electorate in a direct election. The office of President was established in the Constitution of the Republic of Iceland which took effect on 17 June 1944. The current president is Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, who is now in his first term as president, elected in 2016. One of the first official acts of Guðni after inauguration was to participate in the 2016 Reykjavík Gay Pride, becoming the first president anywhere in the world to participate in Gay Pride festivities.
Famous dessert: Skyr
Skyr has been a part of Icelandic cuisine for thousands of years. The yogurt-like dessert is served chilled with milk and sugar and sometimes fruit as well.
Icelandic Nobel Prize Winners: 1
Halldór Kiljan Laxness won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955, “for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland”.
EU Mies van der Rohe Award for contemporary architecture: 1
Harpa by Henning Larsen Architects, 2013
Summer Olympics – 4 medals (2 silver and 2 bronze)
Winter Olympics – 0
On 9 October this year, Iceland qualified for their first ever World Cup. Iceland won winning their qualification group, beating Croatia, Finland, Ukraine, Kosovo and Turkey to a place in Russia 2018.
Björk Guðmundsdóttir, singer and actor
The queen of quirk is probably the most famous Icelander. People’s knowledge of Iceland is more often than not limited to the fact that it’s Björk’s birthplace. The musician is perhaps best known for her unique singing-voice as well as the infamous “swan dress” she wore to the Academy Awards in 2001.
Vigdís Finnbogadottir, former President of Iceland
Of all of Iceland’s unique statistics, one stands out. Back in 1980, the island country elevated the world’s first democratically-elected female head of state. It was an emergent time for female leaders. England’s Margaret Thatcher and Israel’s Golda Meir had risen to be prime ministers. But Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the first to become a top leader through a popular vote.
She was president at the time of the meeting on the 11-12 October 1986 that afterwards was hailed as an enormous breakthrough in ending the Cold War. The Summit was held in Höfði, a historical house by the seaside in Reykjavik.
This was the second time Gorbachev and Reagan met. The Reykjavik Summit nearly concluded a radical agreement on dismantling U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons. Talks, however, broke down at the last minute. Despite no signing of any formal agreement, the two sides noted considerable progress in disarmament talks, with both Ronald Reagan and Michael Gorbachev gaining a clearer idea of how far the other side was willing to go and to compromise. The Reykjavik Summit was later written into history as the start of the end of the Cold War. Three years later the Berlin Wall came down.
Before becoming president, Finnbogadóttir was a theatre director. After a popular uprising of women in the 70s, which included a national day of striking over low wages and few opportunities for female workers, people urged her to run for office. Finnbogadóttir uses some of the same one-liners as Margaret Thatcher, the no-b.s. British leader who navigated being a woman in a traditional boys’ club, like “Never try to be a man if you’re a woman.”
Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982), sculptor
Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982) was one of the pioneers of Icelandic sculpture. In his early days his pieces invariably met with opposition and fierce criticism but over the years they have established themselves as one of the manifestations of the Icelandic narrative tradition, society and nature in the 20th century. Ásmundur studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm under the guidance of sculptor Carl Milles. In the late 1920s he lived in Paris for three years and travelled around Italy and Greece. That time had no less effect on him than his student years in Stockholm. Ásmundur remained faithful all his life to the principle that art was relevant to the people and belonged with the masses. He was called the “folk poet” of visual art, and without a doubt that ideal arose from his philosophy no less than from the tradition of sculpture. Many of his pieces were conceived as a part of public space, an integral part of the surroundings, or were developed as design and craft works.
Ásmundur bequeathed his works and his home/studio to the City of Reykjavík at his death, and the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum in Sigtún was formally opened in the spring of 1983. The collection spans his entire artistic career and shows how his work evolved and changed over his long life. A large number of Ásmundur’s works can also been seen in public spaces in Reykjavík.
In the garden of the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum there are regular exhibitions of Ásmundur’s works and those of other artists. A number of the artist’s works are on display in the Sculpture Garden, either enlarged, or specifically conceived as outdoor pieces.
Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, artist
Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, also known as Shoplifter, is an Icelandic artist based in New York. For the past 15 years Arnardóttir has explored extensively the use and symbolic nature of hair and its visual and artistic potential. Her art addresses the history of our obsession with hair and how it is an ongoing manifestation of creativity in contemporary culture, tackling notions that border on obsession or fetish. Arnardóttir´s body of work largely consists of sculptures, site-specific installations and wall murals, that take on themes of vanity, self-image, fashion, beauty and popular myth. Her work is anchored in her fascination with pop culture and mass production as well as folk art, naivism and handcraft, which continue to strongly influence her creative process.
Humor plays a large yet subtle role in Arnardóttir’s work, it manifests itself in her use of vast amounts of multi coloured synthetic clown-like hair extensions she twists and braids in her exploration of the beautiful versus the grotesque and the conflict between mass production and preciousness. One of her most recent works include a large installation series called Nervescape. Nervescape V was exhibited at The Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia in 2016.
Halldór Laxness (1902-1998), writer
In the English-speaking world, many people’s acquaintance with Halldór Laxness is limited to his 1955 Nobel prize win and just one of his 60 books – the 1935 epic Independent People, a magnificent fusion of Icelandic saga and post-Lawrentian psychological novel. It still pops up on critics’ and authors’ lists of all-time favourites, and no wonder: it is as if an ancient saga-writer were reincarnated in the 20th century, sampled a few modern novels to get up to speed, and resumed work.
Halldór Laxness was born in 1902 in Reykjavik, then a tiny fishing port “where people still wore the same kind of home-made moccasins which peasants in Europe used to wear a thousand years ago when towns did not exist and therefore not cobblers either.” From this backwater, he launched a determined journey into modernity. He came to the United States in the 1920s and tried to make it in Hollywood, befriending Upton Sinclair, one of his literary idols. Suspected of being a socialist, not a good idea in America at the time, Laxness faced deportation in 1929 until Sinclair and Stephen Crane’s daughter, Helen, intervened.
Back in Iceland, Laxness translated Hemingway and Sinclair. The Thirties were for him a sort of decennium mirabile, during which he completed three epic novels, Salka Valka, Independent People and World Light. As another war loomed in Europe, his books were banned by the Nazis. Meanwhile, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tried to stop Laxness from getting his U.S. royalties, which were considerable once Independent People became a Book of the Month Club selection and sold 450,000 hardcover copies. Hoover feared that those greenbacks would fall into red Icelandic hands. In 1948, Laxness wrote his polemical novel, The Atom Station, revolving around the U.S. military’s presence in Iceland and its plans to build a nuclear base. The following year, he won the Stalin Peace Prize. He denounced Stalin and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955.
Halldór was in Sweden October 27, 1955, when the academy’s decision was announced. A few days later, he left Sweden on board the ship Gullfoss. When the ship reached harbor in Reykjavik, thousands of his fellow countrymen were there to greet him.
He addressed the crowd: Once more I will use a little quote I have sometimes had a chance to use before, about a poet who has sent his lover a poem – a series of poems. When she thanks him, he says these words in verse: ‘Don’t you thank me for these poems; it was you who gave them all to me before.’
Following the Nobel ceremony, the author received a number of telegrams congratulating him. In a 1969 interview, he was asked what was the greatest honour an author could receive. He responded that the congratulations he received from drainage workers in Sundsvall, Sweden, had been especially heart warming:
What vitalizes the heart as much as knowing you are the reason the men who stoop over drains deep in the ground, trying to get the water to flow right, suddenly straighten up and step out of the drain in the middle of the laziness of winter darkness in Sundsvall to shout hurray for literature? The only thank-you telegram Halldór sent that night was to the Drainage Company in Sundvall.
Arnaldur Indriðason, writer
Indridason’s first book, Sons of Dust (1997), received a predictably tepid critical and commercial response. He says: One of the things they had against it was that the names were too Icelandic. A detective should be called Morse, or Taggart, or Rebus. Erlendur, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg sounded wrong to them. Book two was the same. But then came ‘Tainted Blood’ and it all turned around. Suddenly all the Icelandic aspects of the books were praised.
Indridason’s books mostly feature the protagonist Detective Erlendur who he brought to life in 1997. His first book, Sons of Dust (Synir duftsins) which came out in 1997 is not available in English. Same case applies to his subsequent novel Dauðarósir (1998). But the author got his break in the U.S. in 2005 when Minotaur Books published his third novel titled Jar City (published in Iceland as Mýrin in 2000).
Jar City was turned into a movie in 2006 by director Baltasar Kormákur. This faithful adaptation of the Indridason novel also presents a gloomy, cold and virtually lifeless image of Iceland.
The fourth book in the Detective Erlendur series, Silence of the Grave (Grafarþögn, 2001), won the prestigious CWA Gold Dagger Award in 2005. Just a few days after winning the dagger he was paid what could be seen as a back-handed compliment when it was announced that in future, books in translation – three had won in the previous five years – would no longer be eligible. The decision led to the organisers being accused of both Little Englandism and insulting the abilities of British writers. The upshot has been the creation of a new prize – although one less valuable than the main award – specifically for books in translation.
Arnaldur Indriðason’s books have now been published in more than 30 countries. All the books are set in Iceland and all deal with social and political issues that, while not exclusive to Iceland, are shaped by a specific local resonance: a national DNA data base for this genetically homogenous population, domestic violence, the legacy of war and colonisation, migration from the country to the city. Indridason’s incorporation of aspects of the Icelandic literary tradition of saga, such as the sometimes bloodthirsty repercussions of actions down the generations, further root the stories deep in this most idiosyncratic culture and landscape.
Valdimar Ásmundsson (1852-1902), publisher and writer
Valdimar Ásmundsson, the founder, owner and editor of newspaper Fjallkonan decided in 1900 to serialise Dracula, and that he’d handle the translation himself. But Ásmundsson took more than a few liberties, and created a distant cousin of the book he was charged with rendering into Icelandic. His “translation”, Makt Myrkranna (Powers of Darkness), is so tonally different that you wonder if any translator before has had the gumption to go this far in reinventing an original text.
While Stoker’s novel has a lot of dialogue, Ásmundsson replaced the talk with a lot of walk; barrelhouse action, really. Jonathan Harker’s trip to Transylvania is two-thirds longer in Makt Myrkranna; the rest of the novel, conversely, has been massively reduced. The epistolary format of the original is replaced by an omniscient narrator. Adding an Icelandic twist, Ásmundsson has plonked in numerous references to Norse literature. There are fewer bromantic moments between Van Helsing and his vampire-chasing mates – and larger doses of lasciviousness.
To this day, the book remains a mystery of motives — Ásmundsson’s, and, more interestingly still, Stoker’s own. For more than a hundred years, Makt Myrkranna has not been known outside of Iceland, except for the preface apparently authored by Bram Stoker himself. In a preface to Makt Myrkranna, Stoker wrote: “I had to do no more than to remove some minor events that do not matter to the story, and so let the people involved report their experiences in the same plain manner in which these pages were originally written … otherwise I leave the manuscript unchanged.” Ásmundsson certainly did not leave the manuscript unchanged, but it is possible that he wasn’t working with Stoker’s final, much loved text. Was Ásmundsson actually using one of Stoker’s early drafts or notes, reanimating the story for a foreign market?
Dutch writer and art historian Hans de Roos decided to translate the book, which is considerably different to Stoker’s Dracula, into English and theorised that Stoker had collaborated on the story with Ásmundsson. The translation was published in February this year.
Now a Swedish literary scholar, Rickard Berghorn has unearthed an earlier adaptation of Dracula, serialized in the Swedish newspapers Dagen and Aftonbladet in 1899. According to Icelandic literary scholar Guðni Elísson, Icelandic scholars studying Makt Myrkranna had always believed it likely that it was one of the first adaptations of Stokers work and possibly adapted from a previous Scandinavian source.
In Sweden, nobody paid any attention to the Swedish version of Dracula until Rickard Berghorn read the English translation of Makt Myrkranna and realized that this – still older – Swedish version bore an identical title. Mörkrets makter, as is the title of the Swedish serialization, means exactly the same as Makt Myrkranna: Powers of Darkness. That is how he made the link between the Swedish and the Icelandic version. First he assumed that Makt Myrkranna would be a straight translation of the Swedish publication, but then he found out that the Swedish text is more complete and contains scenes neither described in Dracula nor in Makt Myrkranna.
Looks like Count Dracula has a few Scandinavian doppelgängers!
Anita Briem, actress
Anita Briem is known for her role as Jane Seymour on The Tudors and her role as Hannah Ásgeirsdottir in Journey to the Center of the Earth.
In Jules Verne’s book, German professor Otto Lidenbrock, who believes there are volcanic tubes going toward the centre of the Earth, descends into the Icelandic volcano Snæfellsjökull, on Snaefells Peninsula, with his nephew Axel and their guide Hans. They encounter many adventures, including prehistoric animals and natural hazards, before eventually coming to the surface again in southern Italy, at the Stromboli volcano.