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Iceland Explained: Part I

Iceland Explained - Whales

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.

Take your seats, class, and welcome to Introduction to Iceland, part I! (and don’t forget to check out part II and part III)

Iceland Explained - Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon

What is it? The blue lagoon is many things: A luxurious spa with waters that reportedly have healing benefits, Iceland’s most visited tourist attraction and, perhaps surprisingly, an opportunistic use of an environmental disaster.

Why should I go there? The water, which is pumped from 2000 metres underneath the surface, is naturally rich in silica, algae and minerals and should make your skin feel baby-smooth. The lagoon’s environment, with the black lava rock sharply contrasting the turquoise blue of the water, is stunningly beautiful and soaking in the 38°C water is a sumptuous experience. Plus, coming to Iceland and not going to the Blue Lagoon is like going to Paris and not stopping by the Eiffel tower.

How was it made? The Blue Lagoon’s origins were actually a happy accident. The Svartsengi power plant started producing energy from geothermal heat by pumping extremely hot groundwater from the earth in 1971. The surplus water formed a lagoon which just happened to have the perfect temperature for bathing. As an added bonus, the naturally occurring chemicals in the water also happened to be very good for the skin.

Iceland Explained - Halldór Laxness

Halldór Laxness

What did he do? He’s the best-known Icelandic writer of the 20th century, the author of such books as Independent People, Iceland’s Bell and World Light. He is best known for his social realism novels and was controversial in Iceland when he was a young author, not only because of his incendiary writings and his refusal to follow normal rules of spelling but also because of his left-leaning politics.

Why is he important? According to the Nobel prize committee of 1955, “his vivid epic power renewed the great narrative art of Iceland”. Halldór is the only Icelander in history to receive the Nobel prize (although Gunnar Gunnarsson reportedly also came close). Awards aside, his work has influenced Icelandic culture in a fundamental way and many of his characters are household names in Iceland.

How can I read his work? Most of his novels are available in translations. His most famous novel is Independent people, the saga of a woefully proud Icelandic farmer and his family, although for beginners, I recommend The Fish Can Sing, a coming-of-age story set in early 20th century Reykjavík. If you want to know more about the author, the house he lived in for most of his life, Gljúfrasteinn, was turned into a museum after his death. You can visit the house with the art and furniture just as it was when he lived there.

Iceland Explained - Alþingi

Alþingi

What is it? It’s Iceland’s parliament. It has 63 members, who are elected from (currently) six political parties every four years. They do most of their work in the Parliament building in the centre of Reykjavík.

Why is it any more interesting than any other body of government? It’s the oldest extant parliamentary institution in the world, founded in the year 930, very shortly after Iceland’s settlement. It has met regularly, even when Iceland was under the rule of Norway and later Denmark, with only a brief (45 year) break from 1799-1844.

How did it all begin? When the settlers arrived in Iceland, mostly from Norway, many of them were leaving Norway to protest a king uniting formerly autonomous regions. These regions usually each had their own Þing (pronounced thing) where the free men of the region gathered to make the laws and sentence the people who broke it. In Iceland, they kept the old system of the þing instead of having a king. The first laws of Iceland weren’t written down because the Norse people hadn’t started using letters yet. Instead, a Lawspeaker had to memorise the laws and recite them at each annual þing.

Iceland Explained - Whales

Whales

What about them? Whales are magnificent mammals, some of the biggest creatures that live on this planet and many of them just happen to inhabit the waters around Iceland. They’re majestic creatures and seeing them splashing about is an unforgettable sight.

Why on earth do you hunt whales? We don’t anymore! You’ll be glad to know capitalism won out in the end, there was no international market for the meat so the whaling has stopped. Still, just to reiterate, Icelanders weren’t hunting endangered whales. You can still try whale meat at many Reykjavík restaurants if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

How can I see them? You can go on whale-watching cruises from Reykjavík and several other towns in Iceland. If you get seasick, don’t worry, you can still see some whales on dry land. The Whales of Iceland exhibition down by the old harbour in Reykjavík allows you to experience the gigantic size of these creatures and learn all about the different species living in the waters around Iceland without leaving the harbour.

Iceland Explained - Icelandic Sagas

The Sagas of the Icelanders

What are they? The sagas are the Classics of Iceland. Written in the 12th-14th century and telling the stories of the early settlers of Iceland, the sagas are of great historical, cultural and literary value. They paint a picture of a world gone by that’s far removed from modern society and yet still the same in so many ways.

Why should I read centuries old stories? If the historical value doesn’t impress you, you might still be swayed by the entertainment value of the sagas. They tell the stories of the lives, loves and adventures of the early Icelandic Vikings. It may take a while to get into the impersonal storytelling and the different culture of the Norse people, but you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. There’s the story of Egill Skallagrímsson who fought and drank his way through most of Northern Europe, writing poetry that tended to get him into as much trouble as it saved him from, the story of the beautiful Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir and the men in her life, and the dramatic tragedy of Gunnar of Hlíðarendi and his best friend Njáll, who tried but failed to escape their destiny. I know, right? Sounds pretty good to me too.

How do I even start? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We’ve compiled a beginner’s guide to reading the sagas, including which one you might like to start with, depending on your preferences.

Iceland Explained - Iceland Airwaves
Photo by Alexander Matukhno

Iceland Airwaves

What is it? It’s a music festival in Iceland! Wait, let me rephrase that. It’s THE music festival in Iceland. Every year in November, musicians and audiences gather in Reykjavík for five days of music, partying and more music! First taking place in 1999, Iceland Airwaves has become an established music festival and a fixture in any self-respecting Reykjavíkian’s calendar.

Why should I go there? Not only do you get to hear the crème de la crème of the Icelandic music scene (members of which ooze coolness instead of sweating), but you also get to hear some of the most exciting international musicians working today. There are no big names 20 years past their prime on a well-rehearsed cash-grab tour, instead, you get to hear the biggest names of tomorrow.

How do I get a ticket? You go to their website and get one right now because tickets sell out every year. You can also get package deals for the festival, flight and hotels with the festival’s founding sponsor, Icelandair.

Iceland Explained - Northern Lights

Northern Lights

What are they? Ribbons of lights that stream across the night sky near the north pole. They’re most often in shades of green, but sometimes purple and pink as well.

Why does it happen? I won’t get into too much detail about the (very complicated) science behind it but the Northern Lights are caused by particles released from the sun’s atmosphere hitting our atmosphere. They are only visible around the magnetic poles of the earth. Around the world, different peoples had different superstitions concerning the Northern Lights, everything from them being a message from the creator to them being the dancing souls of hunting animals, fish, or even the ancestors. Unfortunately, Icelandic superstitions are much less poetic, only claiming the northern lights could predict the weather.

How do I see them then? You come to Iceland, find a spot somewhere outside the city lights (if you have difficulties getting there yourself, there are plenty of tours willing to take you) with no cloud cover and wait. The Northern Lights are a temperamental beast, sometimes there’s just a single green ribbon that fades quickly, sometimes it’s like the skies exploded with colours and dancing lights and sometimes there’s nothing at all to see. Check out the Northern Lights forecast before you go out, it often helps.

Iceland Explained - Björk

Björk

What does she do? Björk is an international music icon! She’s been singing professionally in Iceland since the 70’s, won international fame in the 80’s as the frontwoman of alternative rock band The Sugarcubes and embarked on an impressively successful solo career in the 90’s. Since then she’s been consistently blowing our minds with new music and creative thinking.

Why does everyone love her so much? It’s hard to say, really. Björk’s been swimming against the stream all her career. From her appearance in alternative music-scene documentary Rokk í Reykjavík to her infamous Oscars swan dress and just recently, her turn as a mask-clad environmental activist, her sincere otherness has managed to charm audiences the world over. She epitomises the romantic ideal of Icelanders as quirky, otherworldly creatures and people love her for it.

How can I meet her? There are no promises, but try hanging around Kaffibarinn or other hip bars in downtown Reykjavík. You never know who might walk in.

If you want to know more about Iceland, check out part II and part III