This post is the second one in our new series in four parts, covering customs and traditions in Iceland. Here we cover literature, music and language but the other parts focus on festivals and holidays, sports, religion, clothing and food and drink.
- An Introduction to Iceland’s Customs and Traditions (Part I) – Festivals and Holidays
- An Introduction to Iceland’s Customs and Traditions (Part III) – Sports, Religion and Clothing
Icelandic Literature, Music and Language
Literature, music and language are a big part of the culture of any country and Iceland is no exception. Native speakers of the language are between three and four hundred thousand, meaning it is one of the least spoken languages of the world. The language is also key to reading the sagas, even though it has evolved and developed significantly from those days. In terms of writing books and music, Iceland is very productive when taking the small population into account.
The Icelandic Sagas are our heritage in terms of literature, presenting themes of strong family ties, supernatural signs, violence and vengeance.
Sjálfstætt fólk (e. Independent People) is probably the single most famous Icelandic novel that has been written. Halldór Laxness received the Nobel Prize in literature for it in 1955. It provides an insight into the lives of Icelanders during the first part of the century. The main character is a stubborn farmer fighting with the authorities, his family and himself.
Crime novels have been the most popular genre of fiction in Iceland for the past 20 years or so, a trend that started with Arnaldur Indriðason’s fourth novel in 2000, called Mýrin (e. Jar City). This novel was also turned into an acclaimed movie of the same name. Since then, he has released a new crime novel almost every year. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is an engineer by trade but better known publicly as a crime story writer. Her first crime story, Þriðja táknið (e. Last Rituals), came out in Iceland in 2005. Since then, she has published a new book every year. Two films have been made based on her books, the second one, called Cold, just came out in Iceland, in the fall of 2023. Ragnar Jónasson is younger than the other two and his stories seem to resonate with an even wider audience. He made the news when three of his books were on the top 10 Spiegel bestseller list in Germany at the same time. His latest book, Reykjavík, he wrote together with the current prime minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. It got mixed reviews but has just been published in the UK.
Jólabókaflóðið (e. The Christmas Book Flood) refers to the stream of new books published before Christmas every year. Giving books as Christmas presents has been common for decades and remains popular to this day.
In recent decades, Icelandic music has made a big splash abroad, with names like the Sugarcubes, Sigur Rós and Kaleo and solo artists such as Björk, Ásgeir Trausti and Emiliana Torrini. But going further back, we have a tradition for rhymes and poems.
Rhyme battles (predecessors of rap battles) were a common pastime activity in the old days in Iceland and for men considered a feature of manliness. In fact, in the Icelandic sagas, poetry contests were a legally-sanctioned way to resolve some disputes, in addition to armed combat! As an example, the collection of Icelandic folk tales from Jón Árnason describe when Kolbeinn Jöklaskáld (e. “Kolbeinn the Glacier Poet”) had a rhyme battle with the devil (as people do). Kolbeinn won the battle allegedly, because the devil didn’t find any word rhyming with “tungl” (e. moon).
In terms of Christmas songs in Iceland, we have this curious case about various old Italian pop songs somehow becoming popular Christmas songs in Iceland after getting lyrics in Icelandic associated with them. How this trend started, no one knows, and your guess is as good as mine. My theory is that it has something to do with the jolly nature of the Italian pop songs and people wishing to bring that jolliness to the Icelandic Christmas songs. The Grinch stole Christmas but Icelandic musicians stole Italian pop songs and turned them into Christmas, it could become a topic for a crime story. Here are a few examples:
Gente di Mare became famous when it won Eurovision for Italy in 1987. The title translates to “People of the Sea”. But the Icelandic version is called Komdu um jólin (e. Come at Christmas), any reference to the dear people of the sea completely wiped out. Dopo la tempesta (e. After the Storm) became Ég hlakka svo til (e. I am so looking forward). Chi voglio sei tu (e. Who I Want Is You) became in Icelandic Þú komst með jólin til mín (e. You Brought Christmas To Me). On Spotify, you can find a playlist devoted to this extreme makeover of Italian pop songs, with the original versions from Italy alongside their Icelandic Christmas counterparts. So far, there are no reports of Icelandic pop songs or Eurovision songs becoming Italian Christmas songs. But maybe one day, the 2017 Eurovision song Hate Will Prevail from Icelandic rock band Hatari will become a touching Italian Christmas song.
The Language and Sayings
Icelandic is a Germanic language most related to other Nordic languages, namely Danish, Faroese, Norwegian and Swedish. The most similar language to Icelandic is Faroese, which for Icelanders sounds midway between Icelandic and Danish, similar to the geographical position of the countries.
The geography has also influenced the language in terms of e.g. idioms referring to the ocean and fishing. These are examples of that:
- Sjaldan er ein báran stök (e. There is seldomly only one wave). The meaning is that usually, there is a chain of events when something (usually negative) happens, more of that tends to follow.
- Árinni kennir illur ræðari (e. a bad rower blames the oar). In English, an equivalent phrase would be a bad workman blames his tools. The context is that we should own up to our mistakes or own faults instead of blaming others or circumstances.
- Að leggja árar í bát (e. to put the oars into the boat) means to give up
- Að renna blint í sjóinn með <þetta> (e. to blindly sail out to sea) means to go into uncertainty.
- Að vera fær í flestan sjó (e. To be ready for most kinds of sea) means to be ready for anything that comes your way.
We have previously covered a few curiosities about the language, including these:
- 7 Ominous Sounding Icelandic Phrases (With Surprisingly Innocent Meaning)
- 5 Icelandic Words You Can’t Translate
- An Ode to 10 of the Most Colourful Icelandic Idioms
- 6 Innocent Sounding Icelandic Phrases (With Surprisingly Violent Meaning)
Naming customs in Iceland are unique, as traditionally people’s last names derive from their father’s first names. If my father’s first name was Jón, my last name would be Jónsson (meaning son of Jón). My sister’s last name would be Jónsdóttir (daughter of Jón). There are exceptions to this and we have the occasional family names and people that choose to take their last names from their mother’s first names or from both parents. People identifying as gender neutral may also choose different last names based on that.
*The cover photo shows Júníus Meyvant playing at Iceland Airwaves in 2014. Iceland Review interviewed him (for subscribers) earlier this year and one of the Deep North podcast episodes is based on the interview.