The following passage is adapted from an article titled “The Culture of Iceland.”
The culture of Iceland is rich and varied as well as being known for its literary heritage which began in the 12th century. Icelandic traditional arts include weaving, silversmithing, and wood carving. The Reykjavík area has several professional theaters, a symphony orchestra, an opera and many art galleries, bookstores, cinemas and museums. There are four active folk dance ensembles in Iceland. Iceland’s literacy rate is among the highest in the world, and a love of literature, art, chess, and other intellectual pursuits is widespread.
Icelanders generally have a traditional liberal Nordic outlook, similar to other Nordic countries such as Norway and Sweden. Yet, an important key to understanding Icelanders and their culture (which differentiates them from the majority of their contemporary Nordic peoples) is the high importance they place on the traits of independence and self-sufficiency. In the June 2005 European Commission Eurobarometer public opinion analysis, over 85% of Icelanders found independence to be “very important” contrasted with the EU25 average of 53%, 47% for the Norwegians, and 49% for the Danish.
Icelanders are proud of their Viking heritage and Icelandic language and take great care to preserve their traditions. Modern Icelandic remains close to the Old Norse spoken in the Viking Age. Until the Christianization of Iceland, many traditional Viking beliefs were strongly held, remnants of which remain today. According to a 2005 article in The New York Times, the majority of Icelanders either believe in elves or are unwilling to rule out their existence. There are a number of accounts of roads that have been re-routed and building plans redesigned or abandoned to avoid disturbing rocks where elves are said to live.
Icelandic society and culture has a high degree of gender equality, with many women in leadership positions in government and business. Iceland has a highly progressive gay rights legislation, with couples having been able to register civil unions since 1996, adopt since 2006, and marry since 2010. Women retain their names after marriage, since Icelanders generally do not use surnames but patronyms or (in certain cases) matronyms.
The 2003 Children’s Act outlawed spanking, verbal and emotional abuse, and makes child protection a priority. Physical or mental violence is punishable by imprisonment and/or fine. In 2006, Iceland was ranked as the fourth happiest nation in the world. Local and national festivals include the annual National Day, celebrating the country’s independence in 1944, Sumardagurinn fyrsti which celebrates the first day of summer, and Sjómannadagurinn which is held every June to pay tribute to the country’s seafaring past.
Iceland offers wide varieties of traditional cuisine. Þorramatur (food of the þorri) is the Icelandic national food. Nowadays þorramatur is mostly eaten during the ancient Nordic month of þorri, in January and February, as a tribute to old culture. Þorramatur consists of many different types of food. These are mostly offal dishes like hrútspungar (pickled ram’s testicles), putrefied shark, singed sheep heads, singed sheep head jam, black pudding, liver sausage (similar to Scottish haggis) and dried fish (often cod or haddock).
Much of the cuisine centres on Iceland’s fishing industry. Traditional dishes include gravlax (salmon marinated in salt and dill), hangikjöt (smoked lamb), and slátur (sausages made from sheep entrails). A popular food is skyr made of cultured skim milk, in the summer time it may be served with bilberries as a dessert. Brennivin is an Icelandic liquor made from potatoes and caraway. Coffee is favored as a beverage and may be served at afternoon break called kaffi in Icelandic.
Famous early Icelanders were Erik the Red, who discovered and colonized Greenland in 982, and his son Leif Erikson, who introduced Christianity to Greenland and discovered the North American continent (c. 1000). Two famous patriots and statesmen were Bishop Jón Arason, who led the fight for liberty against the power of the Danish king, and Jón Sigurðsson, who led the fight for independence. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir served four consecutive terms as president from 1980 to 1996, becoming the first female elected to the presidency of any republic.
Eric the Red (Eiríkur rauði). Woodcut frontispiece from the 1688 Icelandic publication of Arngrímur Jónsson’s Gronlandia (Greenland). Fiske Icelandic Collection.
Retrieved from: http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/exhibits/sagas/eric.html
Prominent writers were Ari Þorgilsson, father of Icelandic historical writing; Snorri Sturluson, author of the famous Prose Edda, a collection of Norse myths; and Hallgrímur Pétursson, author of Iceland’s beloved Passion Hymns. Leading poets include Bjarni Thorarensen and Jónas Hallgrímsson, pioneers of the Romantic movement in Iceland; Matthías Jochumsson, author of Iceland’s national anthem; Þorsteinn Erlingsson, lyricist; Einar Hjörleifsson Kvaran, a pioneer of realism in Icelandic literature and an outstanding short-story writer; Einar Benediktsson, ranked as one of the greatest modern Icelandic poets; Jóhann Sigurjónsson, who lived much of his life in Denmark and wrote many plays based on Icelandic history and legend, as well as poetry; and the novelist Halldór Laxness, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955.
Stefán Stefánsson was the pioneer Icelandic botanist. Helgi Pjeturss, geologist and philosopher, was an authority on the Ice Age and the geology of Iceland. Iceland’s greatest sculptor is represented in European and American museums. The former world chess champion Bobby Fischer became an Icelandic citizen in 2005. Russian pianist and composer Vladimir Ashkenazy has been a citizen since 1972.
Though changing in the past years, Icelanders remain a very healthy nation. Children and teenagers participate in various types of leisure activities. Popular sports today are mainly soccer, athletics, handball and basketball. Sports such as tennis, swimming, chess and horseback riding on an Icelandic horse are also popular.
Chess is a popular type of recreation favored by the Icelanders Viking ancestors. The country’s chess clubs have created many chess grandmasters including Friðrik Ólafsson, Jóhann Hjartarson, Margeir Pétursson, and Jón Loftur Árnason. Glíma is a form of wrestling that is still played in Iceland, thought to have originated with the Vikings. Golf is common; around 1 in 8 Icelanders play the sport. Handball is often referred to as a national sport, Iceland’s team is one of the top ranked teams in the world, and Icelandic women are surprisingly good at soccer compared to the size of the country, the national team ranked the 18th best by FIFA.
Ice climbing and rock climbing are favorites among many Icelanders, for example to climb the top of the 4,167-foot (1,270 metre) Þumall peak in Skaftafell is a challenge for many adventurous climbers, but mountain climbing is considered to be more suitable for the general public and is a very common type of leisure activity. Hvítá, among many other of the Icelandic glacial rivers, attracts kayakers and river rafterers worldwide.