By Terri Barnes
As a historian I’m always interested in whether and how the past continues to speak to us. As a medievalist it is sometimes a difficult task and I’m all too familiar with the refrain, “Why does something that happened 1,000 years ago matter?” This question is particularly fraught for an American, where there is no recorded “medieval” history and where the history of its indigenous peoples is well known as one of violence, betrayal, and marginalization to the point where Native American culture has essentially no affect on what it means to be “American” today. But as someone who studies and teaches about the Viking Age, I have found Iceland to be an interesting place to investigate this question.
Why Iceland? Because it was founded in the late-9th century by Vikings, and when they arrived the island was uninhabited except for possibly a handful of monks who did not stay. This means it has been populated almost entirely by its original Norse inhabitants and their descendants. Iceland’s President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson acknowledged to me that this set up the conditions for the creation of a unique society because, compared to a country like the U.S., Iceland has had the benefit of developing free from the guilt of having displaced native inhabitants to do so. As a result, almost 100% of Icelanders today can trace their genes to their Viking founders. This is unusual in the western world and has given Iceland the distinction of having one of the most homogenous gene pools in the world.
But that is the science of their heritage. What about their culture? Is there also an “unbroken lineage” so to speak regarding what it means to be Icelandic? Is there still a Viking spirit that resonates in Icelanders all these centuries later? I spent several weeks this summer speaking with ordinary Icelanders and some not-so-ordinary like HafÞór Júliús Björnsson, Iceland’s famous strong man and actor, and his excellency President Guðni to find out: Does Iceland’s medieval past still inform its present?
The first question that might come to mind is why anyone would want a Viking culture, which by most popular conceptions is one of sword-wielding violence and opportunistic raiding, to influence modern Iceland? Even some of the Icelanders I spoke with referred to their founders as “criminals” or “probably a bit crazy” to want to come to the island to try and survive in the Middle Ages. But for historians who study the Viking Age, we know there was much more to Norse culture than that. It’s not as if I was looking to see if Icelanders still brandish swords on the streets of Reykjavík or set sail in replica Viking ships (answers: no and yes, respectively). And to be sure, a trip to any tourist shop told me that at the very least Vikings sell, so Icelanders embrace their past for economic reasons, particularly in this post-recession, COVID-affected time.
But the past I was looking for was the more subtle kind, where certain values and ways of being in the world come from long ago and may not even be perceived by Icelanders themselves because they are so ingrained as part of their cultural inheritance. As I spoke to people and observed their daily lives, a few themes did indeed begin to emerge that seemed to connect them to their Viking past.
First and foremost, as with all human societies, their geography plays an important role in shaping their culture. When Iceland was founded it was a tough place to survive, and those who came had to be a hardy stock to endure the rugged terrain, cold climate, and darkness that envelopes the place each winter. Why they didn’t just turn around and go back to Scandinavia after the first winter is a testament to a stubborn practicality and work ethic still notable in modern Icelanders and recognized by outsiders. It also speaks to another characteristic several Icelanders admitted to: opportunism. Then as now, in both big and small ways the desire to look for occasions to seize the day is part of being Icelandic, whether that’s through settling in a new place during the Viking Age or hurrying out to get in a hike before the weather breaks today.
Iceland has always required a mental and physical toughness that its people still take pride in today. The Old Norse and Icelandic word for it is Þrek, which means “strength” in the mental sense of endurance and perseverance. According to HafÞór Júliús Björnsson, Þrek is necessary for getting through life’s challenges and is characteristically Icelandic. As a former World’s Strongest Man – and one of several Iceland has produced – HafÞór likewise embodies the appreciation for physical strength and well-being exhibited by most Icelanders. Their love of swimming and hot pools and of being active in nature are reflections of a consensus that, like their Viking forbears, mental and physical health are important for surviving on a small island in the North Atlantic Sea.
While the geography of Iceland has always affected the people, the people in turn have also played an important role in shaping their geography from the beginning. A continual thread of Iceland’s medieval history is unmistakably evident in the place names that exist unchanged for over 1,000 years. Many of them were established at the very beginning during the settlement period (c. 874-930) and were recorded in the Landnámabók, which documents Iceland’s founding, in the 12th century. Rev. T. Ellwood, the translator of an 1898 edition, notes the Norsemen who settled Iceland considered assigning of place names to be a solemn act and that “the names were very carefully and very methodically given. . . each marks some characteristic description, some distinguished chieftain, or some notable event in the early history of the settlement.”
Several places appear in the sagas as well such as Mosfell and Tjaldanes – which I drove by every day – in Egil’s Saga Skallagrimsson, Eiríksstaðir in the Saga of Eirík the Red, and Breiðafjörð and Laxárdalur the setting for the Laxdæla Saga, among many others. Even the president’s official residence Bessastaðir is a farm that was once owned by the renowned 13th century Icelandic chieftain and poet Snorri Sturluson. Therefore, the spirit of those events and people is still very much alive and recognizable to modern Icelanders in the farms and geographical features for which they had been named so long ago.
Another aspect of Viking Age Icelandic society that has been well documented is the importance of hospitality and generosity. Chieftains needed to provide feasts, gifts, and opportunities for their men to gain their respect, loyalty, and support. While the motive in modern Iceland isn’t so overtly political anymore, being welcoming and generous is certainly an attribute among Icelanders I experienced firsthand, not only from my friends on whose farm I live and who openly and kindly share their lives and traditions with me, but notably when I was graciously allowed entrance to a closed museum to see a Viking ship replica and when I was invited to have coffee with Guðni, Iceland’s much-loved president. These were extraordinary experiences to me, but for Iceland they were simply examples of their unassuming kindness and hospitable nature, traits that seem deeply ingrained and are known to have been very much part of Viking Age culture here. In short, Icelanders care about each other and extend that to outsiders. It is what makes the quality of life possible and comes from centuries of creating social cohesion to survive.
That care is also evident in how their society is structured. Like many countries in Europe, they take for granted that taxes should pay for programs that benefit everyone. Several people told me very matter-of-factly that being charitable toward others was “just common sense,” and they seemed perplexed by the idea that others wouldn’t feel the same. In the Grágás, an extant body of Viking Age Icelandic laws, it is clear that one of the worst penalties society could impose on someone was outlawry – essentially banishment from the community. To not be included and cared for as a respected member of society was tantamount to a death sentence (sometimes it was literally a death sentence). It was the many and not the one that mattered. When I compare this with the individualism so prized in my country from its founding, the contrast is stark indeed and seems to support the assertion that the values and characteristics each of us embody are in many ways established from our culture’s very beginnings.
Similarly, Viking Age Iceland is also known to have been very clan oriented. Small communities based on family farms worked together to ensure survival, even though they sometimes feuded with one another. Modern Iceland is still very much this way. Part of it is to do with its relatively slow growth into modernity. Due to their size and isolation, progress in the modern sense came late to Iceland, so the distant past was very much their present for a very long time. Traditional ways continued almost unchanged for centuries, and Icelanders in the 1950s were still living much like Americans did in the 1850s. The small farming communities – many of them established during the Viking Age – still exist, sometimes run by families that are direct descendants of the original inhabitants.
Siggi Jökulsson is one such farmer who notes in a documentary aired on BBC that he doesn’t imagine things have changed so much from Iceland’s saga age. He is still doing the same thing as all of his ancestors, such as bringing the sheep down from the highlands every year, and he knows all the other farmers who are doing the same. I myself was able to witness this when a neighbor in Mosfellsdalur invited me to observe the annual medieval ritual of bringing down the sheep on their farm. It was an amazing and wild spectacle with sheep, horses, dogs, kids, neighbors, friends, and family. There are fewer such farms in operation today, but they seemed proud to still be part of the tradition and to share with me an experience they regard as quintessentially, historically Icelandic.
That farm experience highlighted for me another pervasive sense about Iceland, namely that everyone knows everyone and is part of an extended kin group. It is evident everywhere from the posters at the local swimming pool with a picture of a cute swimming infant which read, “Ertu að passa mig?” (Are you taking care of me?) – the message being that looking after the kids is everyone’s responsibility – to what Hildur Kjærnested told me about how they feel about their politicians and government officials: “We trust the people in our government because we know them. They are our friends and our family members.” While this is easy to imagine in a country that has such a small population, it also feels intentional as though the wider community is familiar and matters. Contrast this with the U.S. where obviously there are many more people, but where it is common for people not only to distrust government but to not know their next-door neighbors at all, and it feels like our cultures are worlds apart.
There are three final aspects of Iceland’s Viking past I found which still resonate today. First, in the 10th century Icelanders developed what they like to call “the world’s oldest parliament” when they established the AlÞingi in what is now Þingvellir National Park. The annual gathering convened each June and attracted chieftains and their retinues from all over Iceland to socialize, but more importantly to review laws and dispense justice among peers. By all accounts it is an extraordinary accomplishment that rugged Vikings prone to feuding and violence sought to create a quasi-democratic system for resolving disputes. They were smart enough to know what would happen if they did not, for in the words of their Law Speaker in the year 1,000, “If we tear apart the law, we will also tear apart the peace.” Today, Iceland’s parliamentary body is still called the AlÞingi, and the country maintains its Viking Age tradition as a progressive democracy. It even has the distinction of electing the world’s first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, in 1980 – a fact many Icelanders told me with pride.
Second are the Icelandic sagas – an original body of medieval literature that provides the world with most of our knowledge of the Viking Age. The Icelandic word for “history” is sögu, a derivative of the word saga, so the stories are synonymous with Iceland’s past. Through the sagas, a collective memory was constructed by the people from the beginning and not by a central power. That history, therefore, lives in the people and continues to be transmitted and upheld by them, not by the state. As sources for the past, the sagas are of course tinged with the bias of the authors, most of whom were Christian and outsiders looking in. But the consistency in the types of stories being told and the moral lessons contained within speak to an early Icelandic “essence.” They are stories with an undeniable human element to them in the most practical and real (Icelandic!) sense, for not everyone lets the good guy win or has a happy ending.
According to Einar Kárason, one of Iceland’s most successful authors, it is through the sagas that Icelanders remember their courageous past, particularly in times when they were being taken over and ruled by others. It was founded as a free state and maintained that status for over three hundred years but was taken over first by the Norwegian and then the Danish crown – a condition that would not end until independence was regained in 1944. So, in many ways to reclaim their identity as free people Icelanders took inspiration from the sagas and based their hopes for the future on them. Kárason suggests Iceland’s ultimate survival into the modern age happened, in part, because they struggled to maintain their cultural identity over the centuries – an identity that is firmly rooted in Viking Age stories. The sagas have always been reminders of who they are and where they came from. Today they are still taught to Icelandic school children helping to inform them of their past and inspire a new future.
Last, is the Icelandic language itself. It is based on the Old Norse spoken during the Viking Age, just as Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are. But those Scandinavian languages branched off after the Viking Age and morphed into their modern forms, whereas Icelandic has changed little since medieval times. As a result, Icelanders can still read the sagas in their original form and understand them. And they work very hard to protect that linguistic heritage in the modern era. According to Kolbeinn Sigurjónsson, even modern inventions such as the cell phone have intentionally been given names that have their roots in the older Icelandic language.
To an outsider there may be no more curious reflection of their efforts to maintain ties to their linguistic heritage than the Icelandic Naming Committee, which since 1991 has been regulating the given names that are allowed by Icelandic law. There is an officially approved register of names, and if someone is considering naming their child something not on the register they must apply to the Committee for permission. The stated goal of the process is to allow names compatible with traditional Icelandic grammar and alphabet and that do not cause the bearer embarrassment. To be clear, this Committee is not without controversy in a modern Iceland that prides itself on being a free and inclusive society. But a simple internet search results in nearly annual headlines declaring the Committee is on its way to being legislated out of existence and yet as of this writing in late 2020 it still exists, suggesting the link to their medieval heritage and desire to preserve it through the spoken and written word is still important for what it means to be Icelandic today.
In the end what I found in Iceland is the story of a modern country that also continues to embrace its medieval roots. On the one hand, they are acutely aware – and proud – of how unique and progressive they are. Many I spoke with pointed, for instance, to their stance on gay pride and the electing of a woman president. On the other hand, the attributes influenced by their 1,100-year history, such as the generosity, strength, practicality, and opportunism I witnessed, are so deeply rooted they often don’t recognize it. Their past is simply part of them and the underlying glue which binds the place together.
They are also very mindful that their Viking Age past serves to legitimize Iceland on a national level, making it distinct from other European countries, particularly other Scandinavian countries. Icelanders know who they are and where they come from; they don’t need to manufacture a mythology that tells them. As Kolbeinn Sigurjónsson told me emphatically with a smile, “Icelanders are the real Vikings.”
Terri Barnes is History faculty and Social Science Department Chair at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek Campus in Portland, Oregon. She can be found on academia.edu. She wishes to thank the many Icelanders who graciously shared their experiences and in particular, President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, Kolbeinn Sigurjónsson, Hildur Kjærnested, Guðlaug Kjærnested, and Hafþór Júliús Björnsson for their time and thoughts.
Top Image: Monument to Bárður Snæfellsás. Photo by Theo Crazzolara / Flickr