Icelanders tend to think that the world revolves around their tiny island, north of almost everything, and get perplexed when people from larger, more heavily populated countries seem to have little to no knowledge of what goes on here. (What do you mean, you’ve never heard of a lopapeysa? How dare you insult the majestic Icelandic horse by calling it a pony!) Luckily, I’m here to help and explain to you the whats, whys, and hows of Icelandic culture. If you’re just joining us, click here for part I.
Take your seats, class, and welcome to Introduction to Iceland, part II!
The Icelandic Horse
What is so special about it? The Icelandic horse might not look like much, with its short and squat build and shaggy fur, but it’s actually incredibly sturdy, extremely versatile and has unbelievable endurance. It’s also the only breed of horse in the world that has five gaits, most only have four.
Why is that? Like the Icelandic sheep and its sheep ancestors, the Icelandic horse is the descendant of horses brought to Iceland by the settlers. It has had about 1000 years to adapt to the Icelandic landscape and can now handle almost anything the Icelandic weather and nature can throw at them. The fifth gait is apparently very convenient when traversing rocky, uneven ground. To preserve the breed, it’s actually illegal to bring horses to Iceland. Even Icelandic horses that have been sent to other countries, for competitions or horse shows, can’t be brought back again, they have to be sold.
How can I go riding? There are plenty of companies in Iceland offering riding tours, for novice riders as well as more experienced ones. Just make sure you don’t call them ponies, they’re horses!
What is it? It’s a glacier in the south of Iceland. Like many other glaciers in Iceland, it sits on top of an active volcanoe.
Why have I heard this before? Did you by any chance book a vacation in spring 2010? The infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption spewed a huge amount of volcanic ash into the air, disrupting air traffic across Europe. Despite being the most famous volcanic eruption in recent years, it’s actually not even the biggest one. The Bárðarbunga eruption in 2014 produced enough lava to cover the island of Manhattan but since it didn’t produce as much ash, it wasn’t as disruptive.
How do you even pronounce that? Ay-ah-fyah-t-lah-yergh-cootl is as close as I can get you. The name is actually fantastically uninspired (as is the case with many, if not most, Icelandic place names), meaning the Glacier of the Island Mountains. The Island Mountains get their equally uninspired name from being close to some islands.
The Yule Lads
What are they? You know how many western countries have the myth of Santa Claus, a benevolent father figure with a white beard and a belly full of laughs? Well, Iceland had a similar idea, except in our version, there are thirteen of them and instead of a friendly old man, they’re an unruly bunch of trolls, prone to pranks and petty crime and the sons of a child-eating menace formerly used to scare children into behaving.
Why on earth do you have such grim tales about Christmas? The Icelandic Yule Lads don’t have the Christian background of St. Nick. They’re a product of the Icelandic folktales, and those definitely tend to skew more towards nasty than nice. Icelandic winters are dark and cold and very likely to breed fear of what lurks in the shadows. The stories of elves and hidden people might be the most popular with the tourists, but Icelandic folktales actually are more often about ghosts, trolls, outlaws and sea monsters. Even the elves themselves aren’t the flower fairies you might be picturing, but a proud and cruel race that did reward loyalty and help but had cruel revenge for people that displeased them. They didn’t even hesitate to kidnap children if the mood struck them.
How do I get presents? Right, back to the Yule lads. Good news, you don’t need a fireplace or a chimney, just a window sill and a shoe. Place a shoe in the window (doesn’t matter what shoe, but I suppose nicer ones will be appreciated by the lads). That’s all there is to it, really. Just be sure you’ve been behaving, otherwise, it’s nothing but a potato for you, my friend.
The Golden Circle
What is it? A circular route that takes you by some of Iceland’s most amazing natural and historical landmarks in only a few hours. The first stop on the Golden Circle is Þingvellir, the historical seat of the Icelandic parliament since Viking times and the spot where the tectonic plates split. From Þingvellir, you continue on to Gullfoss, a thundering double waterfall, before stopping at the Geysir geothermal area, where erupting hot springs abound.
Why should I go there? Hello, is this thing on? Did you see what I just said about the erupting hot springs, thundering waterfalls and a split between tectonic plates? If that’s not enough for you, it’s also a very convenient distance from Reykjavík, doesn’t take up more than half a day and there’s a lot of tour companies willing to take you there.
How do geysers work? They’re a fairly rare phenomenon and need just the right conditions to form. They’re usually near active volcanic areas and water seeps down into the ground, comes in contact with magma, heats up to the point of boiling which causes pressure, ultimately resulting in a burst of water and steam erupting to the surface. The term geyser, as you might have guessed, actually comes from the famous Geysir, which first erupted in the 14th century. Today, he mostly lies low while his colleague, Strokkur, puts on a show every 5-8 minutes.
The Hidden People
What are they? The hidden people, or the elves, are a part of Icelandic folklore. According to superstition, they live in the rocks and hills around us and keep to themselves, for the most part. They are a proud race who will repay kindness and help thousandfold, but will also seek revenge if they are wronged, or even merely displeased. There are several stories of Icelandic women being brought into elf halls to help elf women in childbirth as well as stories of people incurring the wrath of the elves if they disturbed the rocks they called home. The elves are also prone to kidnapping and making people insane.
Why does everyone believe in them? I’m sorry to break it to you but not everyone believes in elves in Iceland. It’s part of our folklore and most people know some of the stories, but that’s not the same as believing that elves live in every rock and hill. The misunderstanding arises in part from a survey conducted by the university of Iceland and different interpretations of the results. The fact is that according to that survey, 8% of Icelanders were sure of the existence of elves, but a large part of the population was not willing to rule out the possibility of their existence.
How can I learn more? The best source is the Icelandic folk tales and fairy tales, which make up the legends. There are plenty of translations of the most popular stories available. If you’re going to start reading the folktales, I recommend not limiting yourself to the stories of the hidden people; the Icelandic folktales also contain ghosts, trolls, outlaws, sea monsters, regular monsters, and magicians.
What does he do? He currently works at a major media company as editor of Icelandic programming. He also recently published his fourth autobiographical novel.
Why is he famous? He’s been a popular comedian in Iceland since the nineties and has worked in radio, tv, movies, and standup as well as releasing several comedy albums. His non-comedic work includes working at an advertising agency and, surprisingly, giving serious lectures on religion. For a while, his biggest claim to international fame was as a writer and actor on the shift television series (Night Shift, Day Shift, Prison Shift) that were aired by foreign broadcasters such as the BBC. That all changed in 2009 when he decided to form a political party and run for mayor of Reykjavík. He did and he won, which is probably why you’ve heard of him.
How did he become mayor of Iceland’s capital? To be honest, nobody’s really quite sure. Jón had always been a controversial comedian; some of his sketches include him impersonating Hitler and prank-calling the White House. His political party was called The Best Party and their promises during the campaign included participating openly in corruption, bringing a polar bear to the Reykjavík petting zoo, giving free towels to all swimming pool guests, securing a drug-free parliament by the year 2020 and finally; breaking all their election promises, just like a real political party. They won the elections by a landslide.
If you want to know more, he actually published a book called How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World.
The Midnight Sun
What is it? It’s just the regular sun, but it’s up during the night.
Why? Iceland is just underneath the Arctic Circle, meaning that there’s a big difference between winter and summer when it comes to hours of sunlight because of the axial tilt. At the height of summer, the sun doesn’t really set at all and wearing sunglasses at midnight is par for the course. The downside is that the winters get pretty dark. Still, that just means that there’s more time to look for the Northern Lights, which only come out at night.
How do you sleep at night? With the curtains drawn. No, seriously, most Icelanders are used to this and it doesn’t bother them. Foreigners who spend time in Iceland sometimes struggle with sleep during the summer, so if it bothers you, you can always get a sleep mask.
What about it? It’s good and we like it! Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in Iceland. That wouldn’t really be surprising, except for the fact that for a large part of the 20th century, it was illegal to make or sell beer in Iceland!
Why on earth did you ban delicious beer? Actually, we started out by banning all alcohol like many countries were doing in the early 20th century. It just didn’t last very long, mainly because we were exporting a lot of fish to Spain and they didn’t like it when we stopped buying wine of them in return. When wine and spirits were legalised, for some reason, beer was left behind and remained illegal until the year 1989. The arguments against the legalisation are quite funny in retrospect, people thought everyone would start drinking beer at all hours of the day and everyone would be drunk at work. One member of parliament even claimed she was against the legalization of beer since it would mean that beer would replace coffee as the nation’s adult beverage of choice. Needless to say, that hasn’t happened yet.
How is Icelandic beer, then? It’s good! There’s been an explosion in craft beer production and microbreweries are popping up all over the place.