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October in Icelandic History

Besides Halloween, which Icelanders have recently adopted as an excuse to get obscenely inebriated, and Leif Erikson Day (October 9th), which honours the “Norse explorer from Iceland” – which I doubt anyone in Iceland observers – October in Iceland isn’t exactly the most interesting of months. The routine drudgery has become, well, routine, and many have already begun counting down to Christmas. Historically speaking, too, October hasn’t been noticeably eventful; besides, every famous Icelander seems to have been born in April (Halldór Laxness, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, etc.) Considering that October will soon come to an end, What’s On looked back over the grand sweep of history and managed to cull five historically significant events that occurred in October.

The Flugumýri Arson (October 22nd, 1253)

Flugumýrarbrenna, or the Flugumýri Arson, was a quickfire (a kind of medieval Scandinavian arson employed in blood feuds and political conflicts for the purpose of assassinating someone) that took place on October 22nd, 1253. Having returned from Norway with the Norwegian king’s favour, Gissur Þorvaldsson settled in Flugumýri in Skagafjörður. Although trying to settle his quarrel with the Sturlungar clan, Þorvaldsson soon “discovered” that not everyone was prepared to forgive and forget. On October 22nd, Eyjólfur Ofsi Þorsteinsson sought revenge for his expulsion from Skagafjörður, and for the death of his father-in-law, Sturla Sighvatsson – whom Þorvaldsson killed during the battle of Örlygsstaðir – by clashing with Þorvaldsson and his men. The quarrel eventually ended with Þorsteinsson putting Flugumýri to the torch. 25 people died in the battle and the ensuing fire, including Þorvaldsson‘s wife Gróa and their sons. Þorvaldsson himself escaped death by hiding in a barrel of sour whey.

Women’s Day Off (October 24th, 1975)

In order to protest wage discrepancy and unfair employment practices, the women of Iceland went on strike on October 24th, 1975. The purpose of the strike was to demonstrate the “indispensable work of women for Iceland’s economy and society.” Participants, led by woman’s organisations, did not show up to their jobs and refrained from all housework or child-rearing for the entirety of the day. A whopping 90% of Iceland’s female population participated in the strike, which led parliament to pass a law of equal pay the following year. The strike paved the way for the election of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who, in 1980, became the first women in history to be democratically elected head of state.

(The 2016 Black Monday in Poland was modelled on the 1975 Icelandic strike, and so was the International Women’s Strike in 2017 and 2018.)

Women's Day Off in Iceland 1975

Financial Crisis (October 2008)

If you read any article on the Icelandic Financial Crisis, let it be Michael Lewis’ Wall Street on the Tundra. In the article, Lewis relates the facts (along with some choice anecdotes) of Iceland’s economy, post-crash, after October 6th (“when Iceland effectively went bust”): “Iceland instantly became the only nation on earth that Americans could point to and say, ‘Well, at least we didn’t do that,’ Lewis writes. “In the end, Icelanders amassed debts amounting to 850% of their G.D.P. (the debt-drowned United States has reached just 350%.)” The financial crisis in Iceland involved the default of all three of the country’s major privately-owned banks in late 2008. Relative to the size of the economy, Iceland’s systemic banking collapse was the largest experienced by any country in economic history. 

The Reykjavik Summit (October 11th to 12th, 1986)

On two days in October (the 11th and the 12th) in 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev met in Höfði in Reykjavík to discuss arms control. Despite almost reaching an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons, the meeting adjourned without a settlement. All was not lost, however, for after the summit both sides discovered how far each party was willing to go to reach a consensus. Most agree that the Reykjavík Summit was a significant breakthrough that helped facilitate the 1987 INF Treaty signed in Washington.

Jóhannes Kjarval Is Born (October 15th, 1885)

Jóhannes Kjarval ranks among Iceland’s most beloved artists. Although born on the south coast of Iceland ( on October 15th, 1885), Kjarval was raised on the east coast at Geitavík in Börgarfjörður Eystri. He departed for Reykjavík in 1902, two years before Iceland‘s first exhibition of paintings by Þórarinn B. Þorláksson. Kjarval took lessons from Þorláksson and painter Ásgrímur Jónsson. In 1911, Kjarval travelled to London and later Denmark where he began his formal studies. He graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1917 and moved back to Iceland five years later. Kjarval‘s connection to, and interpretation of, Icelandic nature is believed to have taught Icelanders to appreciate it anew. He was also a profoundly prolific painter, leaving thousands of drawings and paintings after a lengthy life.

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