16 Fascinating Facts About Icelandic History

Abraham Ortelius' map of Iceland, ca. 1590

I wrote the following commissioned piece for Come to Iceland, a new tour-booking and information website started up by my friend Stefán Gunnbjörnsson. 

He asked me to write content that had a slightly more interesting edge, so I did my best to add historical and/or little-known details to the articles included in the Nature section of the site. This piece on Iceland's history hasn't been published there yet as the company's still growing, so I thought I'd post it here and encourage you all to visit Come to Iceland and follow their Facebook page, and of course book through them for your next visit to our amazing island.

16 Fascinating Facts About Icelandic History

You thought you'd done you research on Iceland? Well, guess again. Here's a list of fascinating facts that you may have missed along the way:

1. Iceland was originally covered in forests as far as the eye could see. 
According to accepted history, a seafarer named Garðarr Svávarsson sailed around the entire island in the later 9th century and proclaimed that it was "wooded from the mountains down to the sea." 

Currently, about 2% of Iceland is forested. The Forestry Service of Iceland concurrs that at the time of settlement as much as 40% of Iceland was covered in trees. They were destroyed by both natural (volcanic) and human causes.

2. The Norwegian who arrived in Iceland around 870 AD were not first inhabitants. 
There is written evidence that Irish hermits, or papar, had settled the island at least a century earlier, sailing over in their smalll currachs. The story goes that the hermits chose to leave Iceland with the arrival of their noisy new neighbors, leving a number of monkish artifacts behind.

In addition, genetic research has clearly shown that over 60% of Icelandic women are descended from Celtic/British Isles stock, and not Scandinavian, though when and how these women came to Iceland is still up for debate. 

3. Via one Irish princess named Melkorka, it's possible for many Icelanders to trace their lineage to Irish kings as far back as at least 100 BC. 
Via Wikipedia (referencing the Chronicles of Ireland, among other sources) it's possible to click back through her ancestry thousands of years.

Thought to be mute, Melkorka (born around 910 AD) was bought from a Rus trader as a concubine by Höskuldur, one of the original settlers, and bore him a son, Ólafr. When Höskuldur's wife heard her singing to her son, she was confronted and confessed to being the daughter of Muirchertach, an Irish king, who later accepted Ólafr as his grandson.

4. The famed Icelandic sagas were written from 200 to 300 years after settlement era that they describe. 
Interestingly enough, this was the same period when the heavy internal fighting was taking place in the weakening Icelandic Commonwealth. 

There is evidence to show that the writers tried to give the sagas a realistic feel by, for example, dressing the main characters in period clothing as they assumed it was worn centuries earlier. This could be likened to a modern costume drama depicting, for example, the first British settlers to what was to become the USA.

5. Widows had rights and power in Icelandic society. 
Though women were ruled by men, and could by law be given to other men by their fathers, brothers and sons over 16 years of age, strong laws protected them. The Grágas book of laws from the early 12th century details punishments for offenses against women, and it was considered totally dishonorable for a man to violate a woman's rights or body in any way. 

More importantly, when a husband was away, or if a woman had been widowed, she gained rule over the homestead. The Sagas describe women who held behind the scenes power over the men in their lives, though they were not legally allowed get involved in politics or leadership. There are also stories of quite a few women with very active love lives and multiple lovers.

6. Icelandic pagans cut a deal when they finally accepted Christianity. 
When it was (reluctantly) accepted in 1000AD, three concessions to the pagan way of life were allowed to remain: the exposure of infants (they were left outside to die), the eating of horse meat, and the private worship of the old gods. These were all later rescinded, but last two are in effect again.

7. In-fighting amongst powerful chieftains, or goðar, broke up the original Icelandic Commonwealth allowing Norway to take over. 
Both greed amongst the ruling clans and bribery by Norwegian King Hákon caused blood fueds and power plays throughout the Sturlung Era in the13th century. Thousands of men died in battle, resulting in instability that left the island open for takeover by the king. 

So though the original settlers left Norway to create a more democratic society based on rule of law and the vote, it fell apart within 300 years bringing the Icelandic people right back to where they started: owned by a Norwegian king.

8. Two separate, devastating plagues killed half to two-thirds of the population of Iceland in the 1400s. 
Some estimates say that between 20 to 30 thousand people died in that century. First came the Black Plague in 1402, which in the course of two years decimated whole communities at a time. A second, unknown plague arrived in the later century killing off many of the survivors. 

Some records say that people died while carrying people to their graves, and were simply buried along with. Along with the fact that their new ruler, Denmark, (who took over from the Norway) had little need for their fish and wool, Iceland was fast-tracking to becoming Europe's poorest country.

9. For centuries, England and Iceland traded beer for sulfur (among other things.) 
Despite the lack of attention from their Danish rulers, during the "English Era" of the 15th century (and actually well beyond it) English merchant ships sailed to Iceland for goods, mainly stockfish (unsalted, air-dried fish, most often cod) but also wool, saltpeter and sulfur. In exchange they brought items like beer, honey, grains, sugar and fabrics, to name a few. 

In 1509, when Henry VIII gained the throne, his first act as king opened up free voyages to Iceland, 'considering that Fysshe and other Commodities of that Cuntre be muche behovefull and necessarie towarde the comen Weale of this Realme.' This trade most surely kept Iceland going during its harshest times. Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, 'was not unmindful of the value of Iceland trade,' and it's said that during her reign the native Icelandic sheepdog was popular in court.

10. Almost all clergy and most powerful men in Iceland had multiple wives and many children.
Though absolutely forbidden by Rome, it was common practice for priests and clan leaders to "keep" women and have as many children as possible up to at least the Middle Ages. Their daughters were given to friends as goodwill offerings and as payment in business deals, and according to new research, girls often chose to join cloisters rather than be parceled out as gifts to much older men. 

A recent archaological find in Skríðaklaustur (article in Icelandic) in the east of Iceland found a priest buried with multiple women and children in his grave.

11. After bouncing back from the plague years, a quarter of the population of Iceland died again during the Laki eruption of 1783-84. 
Poisoned gasses and a thick constant ash cloud from the volcanic fissure destroyed nearly all vegetation and killed half of the livestock population (80% of sheep!). As a result, a quarter of the human population (estimated to be at that time around 50,000) died from poisoning and famime in the years that followed. The imapct of the eruption was felt as far away as Egypt and India.

12. In the 1800's a third of the population gave up on Iceland and moved west. 
By now a bleak, deforested, windwept island, Iceland had little to offer its people except more volcanic activity (including the Katla and Hekla eruptions, both located in the populated southern region) and sheep die-offs in the 19th century. 

A massive emigration to Canada and the northern US regions took place, and whole Icelandic communities were created which still exist today. Though nowhere near an easy life, these Vestur Íslendingar understood the harsh winters of the northern praries and were able to make the best out of their new country.

13. The Icelandic language was mapped out for the first time by a Danish man in the mid-19th century. 
Rasmus Rusk was a linguistic genius, having mastered at least 25 languages in his lifetime and written lengthy treatises on many of them, including Icelandic. He based his grammatics on a mysterious book, the First Grammatical Treatise, by an anonymous author of the early 1100's. 

This renewed interest in Icelandic as a unique language helped revive the literary heritage of the people, which had been lost after the era of Saga writing. After the plague, and for the next 400 years, basic survival was the most important thing. Rusk helped to shine light back onto the amazing literary history of Iceland.

14. Romanticism influenced the Independence movement in Iceland. 
The literary Romantic movement in Europe jump-started social change throughout the continent. Industrialization was creating a new middle class who were learning to read and write and to have an influence on the world around them, and poets and painters of the time encouraged a kind of returning to roots and to the land, for average people to retake ownerhsip of what God has given them: their country. 

Young Icelandic men who went to Denmark to study were ccoming home with ideas of independence, and a returning of the land to the Icelandic people who were then to care for it. A quiet but constant revolution took place during the mid-1800's, and by 1874 Denmark granted Iceland home rule. 44 years later, full sovereignty was given.

15. All of the trees in Reykjavik today were planted in the past 130 years. 
Old photos of midtown Reykjavik, including the area around the town lake, are almost completely devoid of flora. Reykjavik itself didn't start to really grow until the late 19th century, so it wasn't until that time that the city planners began to consider planting trees and gardens. A Horticulture Society was established in 1885, and since then has been instrumental in turning the capitol from a barren series of rocky hills into the green and blooming city seen today.

16. The vast majority of products and goods seen in stores today only became available in the last 25 years. 
Until the 90's it was hard to find more than just three kinds of cereal here (Cheerios, Corn Flakes and Coco Puffs.) The only kinds of pasta were macaroni, spaghetti and, rarely, lasagne. There were only two flavors of skyr: plain and blueberry, and only whole milk and undarenna, or whey. The only candy available was local Icelandic kinds and one type of chocolate from Poland: Prince Polo. Small shops were sprinkled all around, and in the neighborhood around Baldursgata, for example, were five shops, a bakery and a fish store until the late nineties. 

The past 25 years have seen a shocking explosion in both imports and local commodities on offer which some people have likened to the consumerization of Eastern Europe around the same time. There are stories of older folk who, until recently, had no clue what a cucumber was, or why a kiwi even existed. The move from a fairly insular welfare state to an international consumer society, as well as the late shift from rural to urban living, has changed the face of the country dramatically. Though hard to believe nowadays, until very recently Iceland was an extremely isolated, and in many ways innocent, culture with a very simple way of life.

Be sure to visit Come to Iceland, and like their facebook page!

A view of Stapafell mountain from the town of Arnastapi, with Snæfellsjökull glacier in the background.


Lupin love to pose : )

This photo doesn't really need explanation, does it? 

If you've been visiting Iceland Eyes for a while, you'll know that I love taking intimate, macro photos of plants and flowers, and getting up close and personal with this lupin bloom paid off well.

Óðinn and I drove Hvalfjörður on our way back into town from our awesome trip to Arnarstapi and Snæfellsnes last weekend, something I don't do often enough. On the north side of the fjord we stopped at an abandoned liparite quarry and poked around  (liparít as it's known in Icelandic is actually rhyolite, the kind of rock that makes the landscape at Landmannalaugar famously colorful. For the curious, there's also a cool ghost town of the same name in the Nevada part of Death Valley.) 

The abandoned rhyolite quarry. You can see the helpful gull at the top.

Stopping at the quarry was of course my idea. 9 year old Óðinn had his nose in a Donald Duck comic, and was ready to just stay in the car until we got back into town. But I made him get out, and as soon as he realized what was on offer, he was stoked. There were two rusty yellow Caterpillars, a digger and a bulldozer, just sitting there.

A big yellow machine! 

He immediately climbed onto the bulldozer, tried its doors, and whooped when one opened. In he went, jiggling all the gears and testing out every possible lever or button to see if they worked. I had one of those glorious moments where I knew everything was totally fine: the place was totally empty (so no one was there to judge me for Bad Parenting for letting my son do what any boy and most girls would want - no, need - to do!), the Cat machines weren't going anywhere, and the worst that could happen was maybe a bite from an irritated spider or a scratch if he wasn't careful with his movements. But my son is so agile (like my daughter has always been) and has had it drummed into him to be a reasonable, intelligent and responsible Adventurer, so I felt happy that he was getting a chance to explore this huge machine like he wanted to. (I just knocked on wood, adding the Icelandic sjö, níu, þrettán, or seven, nine, thirteen while knocking, just so that I don't jinx him with that last sentence!)

The tractor we were warned away from by the gull.

When we went over to the other Cat, some kind of gull-ish flying creature came zooming in to the quarry, literally yelling at us almost hysterically. Of course my first thought was that she had a nest there, but there was something about her voice, and how totally urgent it sounded that made me know that she was warning us to move away from that unit, and that inner edge of the site. We had Kría, or Arctic Terns, dive-bombing and screeching at us at Arnarstapi, but I've rarely heard gulls make such a fuss, and in such a weird location, otherwise totally devoid of birdlife. She perched on a cliff shoulder about fifteen feet away, and kept on squawking in this strange, almost human voice. So I called calmly up to her that we weren't any danger, wouldn't be doing any harm. She responded with another loud cry. Then I thanked her for what I considered was a warning for us, and told her we'd heed it, takk, takk. She squawked one more light squawk, stayed for a few more moments, then flew away. 

Óðinn rock collecting at river by the quarry.

At the western end of the quarry is a river, so we had to go there and rock hunt. We've now got a fine collection of rhyolite in our kitchen, to one day be added to the rockery we're going to create (Óðinn actually wants to get me a house with an entire room just for rocks : ) I also got a few macro shots of flora from the rocky riverbank, as well as one of a nice spider who was just in the process of wrapping up her bug meal when we found her. 

Spider wrapping her dinner.

It was a great hour we spent. I love being able to give my kids the chance to explore the world the way my father let my sister and I explore - it was fully instilled in to us that we had to play smart, and use our wits, and to never assume that nothing's going to happen, to Be Prepared, but to take some exciting risks anyway. That's harder to do now, and nearly impossible in the States, where helicopter/over-parenting is epidemic (I guess I'm doing what's now termed Free Range parenting!) I'm glad I listened to the gull, though, because of course any abandoned site, with rusty metal and potentially loose rock and such, could get scary all too quickly...

After leaving the quarry, we rounded the bottom of the fjord (absolutely gorgeous region, btw) and, on the southern side, stopped at a cute little waterfall at Fossá (here's a pic of my Valentina standing under it  from 2008) with a 700,000-tree forest planted by the Forestry Association of Kópavogur, part of the larger national association. There's also a bunch of lupin, hence the top photo.

Fossá by the forest. You can see an ancient stacked-stone sheep-herding pen at center right. 

We played around there, got our feet wet and climbed to the top of the falls, then, happy, called our adventure a day, and headed back into big city life once more...



Kirkjufell on a sunny Sunday : )

I mentioned recently on my facebook page that I don't have a fancy camera, just a 14mp pink compact Lumix and my iPhone 5.

Well, the iPhone, which I'd been using more often for conveniences'-sake, has been absconded by house-elves (in Icelandic búálfar - like in that movie The Borrowers) so on our recent trip to Snæfellsnes I only had my Lumix.

I have to say, though, that after all the HDR and ultra-saturation, all the sharpen and define and added contrast available via basic photo apps these


Enjoying the scenery at the Reykjavík harbor lighthouse.

I love the colors in this photo, taken at one of the little lighthouses that guide boats into the Reykjavík harbor. The bicycler in blue is photographing the gorgeous tall ship Krusenshtern, a four-masted barque, that sits just out of frame (but is pictured below.) 

I'll let RT tell you about how it accidentally rammed two coastguard ships while leaving this very port. I'd posted a pic of it on the Iceland Eyes facebook page the day it arrived, looking all tall and grand. In the post-crash photo below, though, it looks a bit forlorn and sorry.  

The town is filling up with visitors, and all the social media/tourism machines are in full swing,  including a brand-new information and tour-booking portal, Come to Iceland, which a friend of mine commissioned me to write content for. I wrote all of the articles except the stuff under the individual tours. I tried to see if I could add some new angles and details to locations things that have been written about so many times before, like Þingvallavatn lake or Snæfellsjökull glacier. Go visit Come to Iceland and read the articles in the Nature page to see if I was at all successful (then book yourself a tour or two! : )

Back to the Kruzenshtern. Here she is looking grand upon its arrival in Reykjavik (above). Look how small the people are in the bottom left corner! She's one of the largest sailing vessels in the world:

The beautiful Kruzenshtern in Reykjavík harbor.

And here she is, possibly a bit peeved, but certainly put-out and lonely at anchor a few days later while damages and such were assessed. Her owners say fault lay with some "overly enthusiastic tugs" (as RT put it) helping her maneuver out of the tiny port. And here's an interesting angle from that same article: "Although the tugging operation that reportedly led to the accident was performed by local tugs, Iceland’s naval command insists the Russian side should pay for the damage to the Coast Guard vessels." Hmmm...
The barque in Faxaflói Bay looking small post-collision, with Mount Esja in the background.


While we are having some rough times here, with wage and labor disputes, strikes, protests, issues of the constitutionality of some government decisions, including the management and ownership of our nation's resources (Iceland Review is always a good site for current affairs news in English) there's always time to stop and enjoy a good view.

This was from atop Arnarhóll on Friday evening, at around 10:30pm. It was a day


Scroll down to the bottom of the page for archives with over 700 more photos!

There are some spots in Reykjavik that have a sort of pull, and not always a good one. I suspect anyone versed in feng shui would know that it's a chi thing, energy that's stuck or abused in some manner, and can't flow as is its nature to do. This is one of those places, the part of Vallarstræti which has become basically an alley between Ingólfstorg and Austurvellir, with the well-known Nasa music venue there on the left. It's of course


Öskjuhlíð Forest in Reykjavik

Click on the header to go to the main Iceland Eyes page, and be sure to visit the recommended pages below each post or use the archives feature down at the bottom as well. I reference my older posts quite a bit and try to find the most relevant and unique external info sources, so let the links in my articles take you even further into the adventure that is Iceland : )

Saturday was a perfect day for outdoor adventures here in Reykjavik. I started thinking of all the cool places we could go in the surrounding area for a nice walk or hike, including Heiðmörk, Esja (also take a look at the MountEsja.org webcam), Straumsvík, the Hengill area between Hveragerði and Þingvellir, or even just having Óðinn pick a trail out of the book I translated, Walking Trails of the Greater Reykjavik Area: 25 Beautiful Walks (...and lo and behold!


The heated foot bath at Seltjarnarnes 

As if someone turned on the lights, or as if the tide of seasons has turned, life in our city is bustling again. We can't honestly say winter is over, but most of us who live in cold climates will admit that we're willing to handle cold. It's dreary, murky darkness of the post holiday season and its slicing winds that do our souls in. We hunker down deeper into our parkas and wait for the sun to return.

 Make no mistake, it's still hovering around the frost mark here on our island, and some regions, like at the east coast fjords, haven't even seen beneath the past winter's snows yet (here's a link to live cameras over in the Reyðarfjörður area where


The bridge leading from Iðnó to the Ráðhús (Reykjavík City Hall)

Visiting lovers photographing each other on a misty rainbowy bridge. What more is there to say? : )

For some more sweet shots of love, there's this photo of a tourist girlfriend being coaxed onto our frozen town lake for the first time by her boyfriend, this one of a local penguin declaring his faith, and this one of a couple enjoying the view at Þingvellir National Park.

(Click on the header to go to the main Iceland Eyes page. If you're a new visitor, be sure to visit the recommended pages below, or you can use the archives feature down at the bottom as well. I've just started collapsing older posts, so for full articles, hit the 'Read more' links . In addition, I reference my older posts quite a bit, and try to find the most relevant and unique external info sources, so let the links in my articles take you even further into the adventure that is Iceland.)


Njálsgata, midtown Reykjavík
( Note: this is my 703rd post, so if you're a new visitor, be sure to follow the 'Older Posts' link at the bottom right side of this page. Or you can use the archives feature down at the bottom as well. I've just started collapsing older posts, so for full articles, hit the 'Read more' links . In addition, I reference my older posts quite a bit, and try to find the most relevant and unique external info sources, so let the links in my articles take you even further into the adventure that is Iceland : )

Well well, best laid plans, etc...

We haven't yet made it to lands east, as per my last post. Take a good look at this slightly awkward photo and you'll see that a portion of our house is bound to our tree, and that the roof and gutter are in bad shape. Gale-force winds in mid-March happened to be blowing at exactly the right angle to pry their surreptitious fingers under the corrugated iron and literally make red metal wings out of it, seeming to flap in some desperate take-off attempt, held down only by decades-old nails set in the much older wood frame. Luckily,


The road in to Hveragerði

I wish I could say I'm heading into my future on the road less traveled, but to be honest, pretty much anyone who's visited Iceland, and everyone who lives here, has covered this particular swath of pavement. It's just at the top of the steep and winding section of the ring road, Highway 1, that leads into past Hveragerði before continuing east into Selfoss and adventures beyond.

It's not, then, a hidden path or even a particularly inaccessible one, this road, although in winter time the heath that needs to be crossed before starting the descent into the lands to the east can be treacherous...


Beautiful murals just off of Bergstaðastræti in the heart of Reykjavik, 

I've tried to quit this blog quite a few times in the past decade, but have always felt compelled to post just one more photo, just one more entry. Historically I've announced my decision with explanations and justifications and excuses, which have been hard to backtrack on when the urge to share has overtaken me. This time around I took a quite pause from posting because it just seemed to make sense to. It was a part of an overall readjustment for me, a realignment with my inner self that lasted all of last Fall.


Sunset from Ægissíða in the west side of Reykjavík

Sunsets and sunrises have been extraordinarily lovely here due, unfortunately, to the poisonous sulfur dioxide cloud that's being emitted by our latest volcano and gently wafted over the southwest of the island by a calm breeze. Savor the irony of that for a moment, then consider whether that's not an exact metaphor for life in general...


The harpoon on Hvalur 9 at dock in Hvalfjörður, with retired whaling ships in the background

It's been a while since I posted last, and in that time I've been considering what to write to accompany this photo of a whaling harpoon, taken aboard Hvalur 9, a beautiful ship owned by Kristján Loftsson and the company his father started back in 1948, Hvalur hf. If you've been here and seen the four whaling ships that are usually docked at the Reykjavik harbor, (or seen this post from 2005) just imagine something a big larger but in the same style. Hvalur 9 and its crew, you see, hunt fin whales. 


Sómastaðir, in Reyðarfjörður

You might recognize this house if you've been reading Iceland Eyes for a while. It's the one my great-grandfather, Hans Beck, built, and where my grandmother (one of his 23 children) was born (click on the link to read more about its history).