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 HISTORY and CULTURE
History     Culture

History
 

Iceland's first inhabitants were Irish monks, who regarded the island as a sort of hermitage until the early 9th century. They were followed by Iceland's first permanent settlers who came from Norway. This was the Age of Settlement, traditionally defined as the period between 870 and 930, when political strife on the Scandinavian mainland caused many to flee.

After escaping political strife in Scandinavia, Iceland's settlers were in no mood for a monarchy and opted instead for a parliamentary system of government. A district assembly and

Iceland then became a launching pad for explorations of the North Atlantic: Eric the Red, who grew up in Iceland as the son of a Norwegian exile, colonised Greenland in 982; and Eric's Icelandic son, Leif Eriksson, is popularly held to be the first European to explore the coast of North America - which he named Vinland the Good. One of the more reliable Icelandic sagas, however, suggests that Leif Eriksson learned of Vinland from another Icelander, Bjarni Herjolfsson, who had sighted it some 14 years earlier. Whatever the truth is, these voyages of exploration became the source material of one of Europe's great literary flowerings.

The first literary tradition to emerge was poetry, which tended to be heroic in theme. Poetry was displaced during the Saga Age of the late 12th to late 13th centuries, when epic and dramatic tales of early settlement, romance, dispute and the development of Iceland were recorded. These provided both a sense of cultural heritage for Icelandic commoners and entertaining yarns on bitterly cold winter nights.

By the early 13th century, the enlightened period of peace that had lasted 200 years came to an end. The country entered the infamous Sturlung Age, a turbulent era of political treachery and violence. The opportunistic Norwegian King Hákon Hákonarson promptly stepped in, and Iceland became a Norwegian province to be plundered mercilessly. To add insult to injury, the volcano Mt Hekla erupted in 1300, 1341 and 1389, causing widespread death and destruction. Recurring epidemics also plagued the country, and the Black Death that struck Norway in 1349 effectively cut off trade and supplies.

At the end of the 14th century, Iceland was brought under Danish rule. Disputes between church and state resulted in the Reformation of 1550, and the imposing of Lutheranism as the country's religious doctrine. Throughout the next two centuries, Iceland was crippled by rampant Danish profiteering, beset by international pirates and subject to an increasing number of natural disasters.

Denmark's grip on Iceland was broken in 1874 when Iceland drafted a constitution and was permitted to handle its own domestic matters. Iceland was released from Danish rule in 1918, making it an independent state within the Kingdom of Denmark, with Copenhagen retaining responsibility for defence and foreign affairs. However, in 1940, Denmark was occupied by Germany. Iceland realised that the Kingdom was in no position to continue overseeing its affairs and, a year later, requested independence. It was granted on 17 June 1944.

After the occupation of Denmark and Iceland's declaration of sovereignty, the island's vulnerability became a matter of concern for the Allied powers. In response, British and US troops were moved in. The Americans still remain, much to the chagrin of a growing number of Icelanders who want them out. The Brits incurred Icelandic wrath when they refused to recognise Iceland's expanded territorial fishing rights in the 1970s. For a few years, stoushes between Icelandic gunships and British warships during the so-called Cod Wars became a regular feature of the fishing season.

In recent years, Iceland's economy has looked shaky: fishing quotas have been cut back, unemployment has risen and the króna devalued. Clashes between environmental organisations and the Icelandic whaling industry, which split from the International Whaling Commission in 1992, also haven't helped matters. In 2000, hoping to reverse the economic downturn, the government approved an unprecedented deal with the corporation deCODE Genetics, allowing it to database detailed genetic information and eventually the DNA coding of all 280,000 Icelanders. This relatively homogenous gene pool of blue-eyed, blonde descendants of a few Viking colonists promises to provide insight into genetic diseases as well as a steady income for the country; hundreds of millions of US dollars are already rolling in.




Culture
 

Superimposed on Iceland's rugged terrain is a resilient and independent culture, fashioned over the years by the descendants of the farmers and warriors who fled the tyranny of medieval Scandinavia. Their flight to a new and empty country resulted in the building of sturdy settlements and farms, and the beginning of a rich literary tradition dominated by the sagas - fact-based accounts of struggles, battles, heroics, religion and occupations - which are considered the finest of all Western medieval works. The country has also thrown up some significant contributors to modern literature, with Halldór Laxness, Iceland's best known writer, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. Traditional music - usually cowboy songs and tear-jerking lullabies - remains popular, while giddy international success has greeted the Sugarcubes' former lead singer, Björk.

Although Iceland is officially Christian, the ancient Norse religion known as Ásatrú is gaining popularity, not only as a novelty but as an officially recognised sect. A sheep farmer revived Ásatrú in the 1970s; it focuses on the natural forces and the harmony of nature represented by the ancient gods.

Traditional Icelandic food is not as bad as it sounds: in fact several dishes are actually edible. The one glaring exception is hákarl, putrefied shark meat that has been buried for up to six months to ensure sufficient decomposition. Slightly more palatable is hrútspungur, ram's testicles pickled in whey and pressed into a cake, and svie, singed sheep head (complete with eyes) sawn in two, boiled and eaten either fresh or pickled. You could also try slátur, a mish-mash of sheep leftovers tied up in the stomach and cooked. Less bizarre foods include: harðfiskur (haddock); bleikja (char); lundi (puffin); and, if you haven't any objections to eating them, whale blubber, whale steaks and seal meat. The unique Icelandic treat is skyr, a yoghurt-like concoction made of pasteurised skim milk and bacteria culture. Coffee is a national institution, while beer, wine and spirits are available, though expensive. The traditional Icelandic brew is brennivín, a sort of schnapps made from potatoes and flavoured with caraway.


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