Well-Known Facts About Iceland that are Untrue

Ah, Iceland. The untainted island in the far north where they have 6 months of sunlight followed by six months of total darkness. Where the people live off an all-fish diet and the igloo is the most popular form of architecture. Where everyone is related to each other, and Björk is actually the sister of all the guys in Sigur Rós!

Also, where none of the above statements is true. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions floating around when it comes to Iceland, most of which are actually championed by the Icelanders themselves.

I’ve gathered some of the most popular and well-known facts about Iceland that are untrue, in order to clear up some common misunderstandings.

Icelanders are Vikings

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© Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir

Actually, I try to limit all my raiding and pillaging to the weekends.

In Icelandic, or perhaps more accurately, old Norse, “viking” was more something you ‘did’ than something you ‘were.’ Icelanders were farmers and fishers, and then sometimes, when times were tough or the fancy took you, you would go and “viking” in England or somewhere. I mean, I see where you guys get confused, cause the only time you ever met Icelanders is when they were “viking-ing.”

Frankly, that was a very long time ago, everyone was doing it at the time anyway, and we really wish you would just let it go already.

Icelanders believe in elves, trolls and other mystical beings. Even science says so, there was that one survey that showed more than half of Icelanders do!

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© Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir

Ok, listen, let’s clear this up once and for all. I read that survey and the way they got that number was basically asking “Do you completely and totally deny the possibility that elves could theoretically exist?” to which half the population would answer “no.” That’s not the same as actively believing in them. I mean, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I don’t want to find out I’m wrong, either! It’s not like the average person leaves out milk and kleinur at night for the elves.

Long story short: When it comes to elves, most Icelanders are, at best, agnostic.

Iceland is a Scandinavian country

Ah, I’m glad you asked. Broadly speaking, it is. Technically (and geographically) speaking, it’s absolutely not. Scandinavia, strictly speaking, refers to the Scandinavian peninsula, on which Sweden, Norway and Denmark reside. Culturally, “Scandinavia” has come to encompass Iceland, Finland and the Faroese Islands as well. Although these countries are commonly known as the Scandinavian ones, a better term, and one more commonly used by the “Scandinavians” themselves, is the Nordic countries.

If we’re going to get technical about it, we might as well add that since Iceland gets about 50% of its gene pool from Ireland, it’s as Celtic as it is Scandinavian.

Iceland is green, Greenland is ice. “Back in the day, the Icelanders who discovered Greenland, wanted Iceland to themselves, so they called Greenland Greenland to trick people into moving there instead.”

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© Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir

There’s definitely some truth to this. The sagas say Eric the Red named it Greenland because he wanted to encourage people to move there. This clever marketing trick wasn’t all lies, Greenland gets plenty green in the summer. When it comes to Iceland, however, were sorry to say that the stories hyping its greenness have been greatly exaggerated. Iceland is an apt name, with Vatnajökull being the largest glacier in Europe and highest summer temperatures peaking just above 20° C.

If you don’t believe me, let me tell you, Iceland isn’t the only cold-inspired name this island has received by unimpressed settlers. Before Ingólfur’s moodiness made Norway uninhabitable for him, a traveller named Naddoddur had landed on these shores and taken a look around. He named the island Snowland, before quickly sailing back to the sunny Faroe Islands…

“Icelanders are all tall and blond, like the elves in Lord of the Rings.”

No, that’s the Norwegians, silly.

Seriously though, Icelanders are relatively tall, but, due to a generous helping of Celtic blood, and centuries of shipwrecked French sailors, there are a lot of redheads and brunettes. The most common hair colour in Iceland? A lovely shade of dirty brownish grey affectionately known as dishwater coloured or even mousy grey. And all those blondes: BLEACHED, my dear.

P.S. Lots of Icelandic kids are blond before they grow into their real hair colour. But then, while blond, they’re not very tall.

Another common myth (well, common in Iceland at least) says that the Icelandic Vikings stole all the most beautiful women from Britain, which is why Icelandic women are so attractive. We won’t presume to judge as to the truth of this, but do feel free to keep perpetuating it, we find it very flattering.

Icelandic is the same now as 1000 years ago, in fact, Icelanders can still read the Viking Sagas without difficulty.

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© Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir

Like most of these “facts”, while it should be taken with a grain of salt, this one still has a grain of truth. It is true that Icelandic is BY FAR the closest to the original old Norse of the Scandinavian languages. The others were influenced by the European languages around them while Iceland was so isolated and insignificant nobody really bothered to colonise us much, or even, evidently, to talk to us much. It is also true that we have jealously guarded our language, opting to make up new words for everything from computer (“tölva”) to telephone (“sími”), rather than taking up foreign words.

We still have some influences, though. Words like pizza, email and “meikar sens” (makes sense) are in common usage, for example. Also, even if isolated, a thousand years is still a pretty long time for a language to remain completely unaffected. In that time, writing has also changed quite a bit, so while most Icelanders can probably pick a few words out of an old manuscript, especially if they knew what words they were looking for, they couldn’t read them easily without a generous helping of medieval studies under their belts.

On top of all that, spoken language has changed a lot since the 9th century
so we would probably not understand a time-travelling Viking today, even if he did stop murdering us long enough to have a civil conversation.

Can you think of other common (untrue) myths about Iceland? Leave them in the comments below, or send a message to [email protected]!

All the illustrations are by Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir.

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