In the era of fake news, What’s On brings you the facts – the facts about Iceland. Iceland is a lot of things. An island. A republic. An independent nation as of 1944. But there are many islands and many republics and many young nations. What sets Iceland apart are those facts that could be deemed extraordinary.

Below, we have listed ten unusual facts for your reading pleasure.

#1 – Icelanders consistently rank among the world’s most enthusiastic consumers of coffee

Extraordinary Facts about Iceland : We love coffee

According to an article on the website World Atlas published in 2018, Icelanders consume 9 kg of coffee per capita (which roughly translates to just over three cups a day) – only the Finns and the Norwegians consume the beverage in greater quantities.

In an article in the New Yorker from 2015, writer Adam Gopnik captures the Icelandic obsession with coffee rather perfectly in his description of his wife Martha (who traces her ancestry to Iceland):

“She has a fetishistic relationship to coffee, which she drinks in an impossibly thick brew from early morning until shortly before she goes off to a sound sleep at midnight. After dinner, she timidly asks if anyone wants coffee, real coffee – and, despite the hysterical rejections in this age of frazzled nerves and pervasive decaf, makes a pot, from which she drains a cup or two. In this, she is exactly like her mother, the only person I have ever met who would order a cup of coffee before dinner at a good restaurant, just to get in the mood.”

#2 – As of February 2020, the genealogical database Íslendingabók contains “information on 904,000 individuals, an estimated half of the total population of Iceland since the settlement of the island in the 9th century.”

Facts about Iceland
Kári Stefánsson, CEO of deCODE (photo by Páll Stefánsson)

The Icelandic word for a family reunion is Ættarmót, which has a special meaning within Icelandic society, namely to acquaint an Icelander with the individual members of his extended family – so as to prevent him from committing accidental incest (kidding, mostly). Much has been written on the Icelanders’ use of the website and app Íslendingabók (The Book of the Icelanders), which, in the digital age, functions in much the same way that family reunions once did: to help prevent Icelanders “copulate with their cousins,” or, at least, refrain from embarking on a long-term relationship with a close relative (kidding, again, mostly).

#3 – The Icelandic police has only shot and killed a single person

Facts about Iceland

Gun ownership in Iceland is relatively widespread, even though there is virtually no gun crime. The Icelandic police do not carry firearms, although in emergencies they dispatch the “the Viking Squad” (armed special forces). In 2013, a Reykjavík resident in his fifties – who had long struggled with mental illness – became the first Icelander to be fatally wounded in a police shootout. The tragedy started when the man began firing from his apartment window. He later exchanged shots with the police when they tried to enter his apartment.

Interesting Side Note: There are approximately 65,000 firearms in Iceland, and it is rare for an applicant to be denied a gun permit. Only 60 gun permits have been revoked since 2000, primarily due to sentences for possession of controlled substances.

#4 – Iceland was the last European country to be settled

10 Extraordinary Facts about Iceland

Although archaeological evidence suggests that Iceland was settled in the 8th century, the Book of Settlements maintains that the island was first settled permanently by Ingólfur Arnarson in 874 AD. If you were to pinpoint the beginning of the human race to 200,000 years ago – you could say that it took humankind 199,126 years of continuous and conscientious reproduction to produce a single human being foolish enough to settle there permanently.

Some have speculated that, upon his arrival to Iceland, Ingólfur recognised that he had made a huge mistake, but, being allergic to any outward display of doubtfulness – relegated his blunder to some obscure corner of his psychology and proceeded to settle. Many believe that Ingólfur’s stubborn reluctance to admit that he was wrong is a character trait that has since propagated itself through generations and remains peculiar to the nation still to this day.

In 1924, the Icelandic people commemorated the character of that intractable fool by erecting a statue of him atop Arnarhóll. Everything about his posture proclaims him a vain and reckless ass – and yet one cannot help but to earnestly salute him in the spirit of dumb nationalism.

#5 – Beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989

Facts about Iceland : Beer

Prohibition went into effect in Iceland in 1915. It lasted, at least partially, for 74 years – or until March 1, 1989 (the ban originally banned all alcohol, but wine was legalised in 1922 and other alcoholic beverages, excluding beer, were permitted in 1935). As noted in a recent article in Iceland Review, the Icelanders became increasingly sceptical of the beer ban as the years passed:

“Towards the end of the beer ban, it had become a ban in name only and seemed less reasonable with every passing day. Icelanders travelled abroad where beer was readily available, and these societies didn’t seem on the brink of destruction. Why should Iceland be any different? Politician Ellert B. Schram commented that Iceland was, ‘the only nation in the world to live in a society where everything is allowed but beer.’”

Today, Beer Day is celebrated in Iceland every year on March 1.

#6 – If Iceland ever adopted an official motto, it would be Þetta reddast

10 Extraordinary Facts about Iceland

Like all other countries, the Icelanders have many idiomatic sayings, most famous of which Þetta reddast. The phrase has no literal English equivalent, but means something along the lines of It’ll work itself out. Over time, the phrase has developed into something of a state mantra.

Þetta reddast is commonly considered Iceland’s national slogan, encapsulating the characteristically Icelandic observation that there is an inherent time limit to all problems and that by allowing said limit to elapse, the Icelanders’ problems are resolved automatically, without their intervention.

#7 – Iceland was the first nation to elect a female president democratically

10 Extraordinary Facts about Iceland
(Photo by Páll Stefánsson)

Born on April 15, 1930, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became the world’s first democratically elected head of state on August 1, 1980 – when she took office as the President of Iceland. She held the position for sixteen years, serving four terms.

Besides being a single mother, Vigdís was also a cancer survivor who had one of her breasts removed during her treatment. When campaigning for president, the question was raised whether Vigdís could effectively lead the nation with only a single breast (times have certainly changed). She later retorted: “I’m not going to breastfeed the nation – I’m going to lead it!” Vigdís’ motto was, “Never let the women down,” and she used her platform as president to promote girls’ education.

Interesting Side Note: Despite being elected president, Vigdís continued to patronise the Vesturbæjarlaug swimming pool in West Reykjavík, eventually becoming an honorary member of the so-called Müller’s exercise group.

#8 – One in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime (or so they say)

10 Extraordinary Facts about Iceland

The Icelanders have always considered themselves something of a literary people, with Icelandic literature – the sagas, the Eddic poetry, and the skaldic poetry – constituting most of Old Norse literature. Iceland also ranks fifth in most Nobel Laureates per capita (admittedly, a rather meaningless fact), with writer Halldór Laxness having won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. Nonetheless, a common statistic often quoted in the foreign media (which may be rather difficult to verify, but that seems to originate with an article in the BBC), is that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. The Icelandic phrase Að ganga með bók í maganum (to carry a book in one’s stomach) is revealing.

Scandinavian noir is all the rage these days. Every year, Icelandic writers conspire to invent new and gruesome ways to butcher their fictional characters (what profound commentary on the strangeness of this our modern world that a handful of human beings can make their living by slaughtering, in print, a cast of imagined personae – in an unforeseeable manner).

As far as Scandinavian noir goes, Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir are the king and queen of Icelandic murder-fiction.

#9 – Sun Guilt is a thing in Iceland

10 Extraordinary Facts about Iceland

In light of the scant sunlight in winter, along with the prevalence of clouds and the long working hours, most Icelanders feel obligated to relish the sunshine during cloudless summer days – so much so that many natives experience a strong sense of guilt whenever they find themselves inside on a sunny day. If you were to indulge in a little bit of poetic thinking, you could perhaps describe it like this:

“It’s like a dear old friend visiting, without warning, from some faraway, foreign land, calling you on the phone, entreating you to come meet, explaining that they are leaving tomorrow and would very much like to see you before they go. And because maybe one has work to do and errands to run, there is a pang of inescapable and ever-present guilt that begins to churn in one’s stomach – every minute that one does not dedicate the entirety of one’s being to an unalloyed enjoyment of their presence. Every Icelander knows the feeling of squandering the scarce rays of the sun one day and waking up to regret it the next, for these are the kind of things that will drive an Icelander mad from missed opportunity: hearing the rain pattering on the windows, the wind blowing through the trees, and feeling the chill of shade and shadow nipping at the fringes of one’s soul – knowing that a perfectly pleasant day has gone and passed without one’s basking in it (now that one is once again inundated by the flagrant wretchedness of the weather).”

#10 – In 2018, Iceland’s men’s football squad became the team from the least-populous nation to qualify for the World Cup

10 Extraordinary Facts about Iceland

In early October 2017, Iceland became the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup with a 2-0 win over Kosovo (breaking the record set by Trinidad and Tobago). A year earlier, the team had qualified for the 2016 Euro, knocking out England in the round of 16 (2-1). The team did not fare particularly well at the 2018 World Cup. Iceland did, however, secure a tie against Argentina in its opening match, with goalkeeper Hannes Halldórsson denying Lionel Messi a chance from the penalty spot.

Interesting Side Note: Iceland’s Women’s National Football Team ranks higher than the men’s team (currently ranked as the 18th best team in the world).

A Few More Facts about Iceland

  • Iceland elected the first openly gay Prime Minister
  • Icelandic infants commonly nap outside in their strollers (even in winter)
  • Reykjavík is the northernmost capital in the world
  • There are no McDonald’s restaurants in Iceland
  • Iceland has no military
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