What’s the situation on the Reykjanes peninsula? Is there going to be another eruption?

Reykjanes Svartsengi power plant

Update: An eruption began on the Reykjanes peninsula on December 18, 2023 at 10:17 PM and ended around December 21. The eruption site is near Sýlingafell, some 3km [1.9mi] away from Grindavík. More information on the December 2023 eruption. The article below describes the lead-up to that eruption.

 

It has been a time of upheaval for the Southwest Iceland town of Grindavík (pop. 3,600), which was evacuated on November 10 amid powerful seismic activity. Earthquakes and the formation of a magma dike under the town have opened crevasses and damaged roads, homes, and infrastructure in and around Grindavík.

As of early December, it appears that magma has stopped flowing into the dike and experts say an eruption is considered less likely. However, they warn that the seismic events could repeat over the coming months, with magma flowing into the dike once more and threatening Grindavík. While the town’s evacuation order remains in effect, Grindavík residents are permitted to enter the town to retrieve belongings and maintain their homes and properties. Some businesses in the town have also restarted operations.

As always, volcanic activity is difficult to predict. As the last eruptions on the Reykjanes peninsula have shown, Iceland has some of the best-monitored volcanoes in the world, but despite this, when, where, and if an eruption will occur can be difficult to say with precision, even for experts. With that warning out of the way, here’s what we know so far about the latest phase of seismic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula.

Earthquakes and uplift on Reykjanes

An earthquake swarm began on the Reykjanes peninsula on the night of October 24, 2023 just north of the town of Grindavík. On October 27, the land in the area began to rise, indicating a magma intrusion in the earth below. The intrusion was later confirmed by experts, some 4-5 kilometres [2.5-3.1 miles] below the surface of the peninsula, not far from where three eruptions have occurred over the last three years.

The magma intrusion has since grown and lengthened to stretch below the town of Grindavík and out to sea. In late November, some experts suggested that most of the magma in the intrusion had solidified, though fresh magma was still believed to be streaming in. So far, no volcanic unrest has been detected. This is the fifth time that deformation has been measured at this location since 2020. None of the previous instances resulted in an eruption.

Threat posed to Svartsengi power plant

Current data and measurements indicate that another eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula is still a possibility. Given the possible location of an eruption, there is a real danger posed to operations at Svartsengi, which is the main supplier of electricity and water to the Reykjanes peninsula. Iceland’s Parliament passed a bill on November 13 to enable the building of lava barriers around the power plant and the Blue Lagoon and construction has begun and is ahead of schedule.

Town of Grindavík

In the path of an eruption for the fourth time now, Grindavík was evacuated on the evening of November 10 according to existing evacuation plans. Residents have since been permitted to enter the town temporarily to retrieve belongings, valuables, and pets that may have been left behind. The town has experienced significant damage due to the ongoing seismic activity, including cracks in roads and buildings, damage to water and electrical infrastructure, and crevasses that have opened up throughout the town. Experts have stated that an eruption would be preceded by shallow earthquakes and volcanic unrest, which would give at least 30 minutes warning before magma broke through above ground.

Tourism affected

The Blue Lagoon was closed on November 9, initially only until November 16. The company came under some criticism for not closing operations earlier, especially after tour operator and transit company Reykjavík Excursions ceased trips to the lagoon on November 7, citing concerns for staff and customer safety. The closure was extended several times before the lagoon officially reopened on December 17, 2023. While the lagoon itself as well as its on-site restaurant are open to visitors, the hotel remains closed for the time being in line with the continued overnight evacuation of Grinavík.

Resources

In addition to following our news coverage, readers may find the following resources useful:

The Icelandic Met Office

SafeTravel, for travel warnings and tips for staying safe.

The Icelandic Road Administration and its live map of road closures throughout Iceland.

The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

Iceland Review magazine published a photo series on the evacuation of Grindavík.

This article will be updated regularly.

 

The Night Before Admittance

ármann jakobsson short fiction

Ármann Jakobsson is an Icelandic author and academic who has written about paranormal activity, class distinction, the brutality of romantic longing, miscellaneous fears, and the generation gap, mainly in the Middle Ages. When he was ten, Mum read him the Moomin books, even though he was more than capable of reading them himself. But he […]

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What’s happening with animals in Grindavík?

reykjanes grindavík animal

When the residents of Grindavík were evacuated on the night of November 10, they were instructed to only bring the bare essentials and to leave as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, many animals were left behind, including domestic pets such as cats and dogs and livestock such as horses and sheep.

Given the potential risk, the decision was taken to expedite the evacuation, and the Suðurnes Chief of Police stated at the time that it would not be possible to save livestock and farm animals from the defined danger, but arrangements would be made at a later time.

Over the following days, Grindavík residents were allowed back into the town to gather belongings and rescue any animals left behind. Households were instructed to only go if necessary, and only one person per household was allowed back into town for a limited time. Many Grindavík residents used the opportunity to rescue their household pets, in addition to any horses and sheep they own. 

Animal welfare organisations in Iceland assisted with searching for lost pets in the area, and as of November 15, most pets and animals that were left behind during the initial evacuation have been retrieved. One cat- and dog hotel offered to put up Grindavík pets free of charge.

Dýrfinna, a search and rescue group for animals, stated on November 13 that there were only 12 animals still unaccounted for.

From the Archive: Grazing Free at the Ocean’s Expense

aquaculture fish farming iceland

From the archive: This article was published in Iceland Review magazine in 1983. Archival content is presented in unaltered form and may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

Aquaculture has been at the forefront of public discourse lately. In addition to our feature article on the state of the country’s open-pen aquaculture, Iceland Review also dug into the archives, revisiting the beginnings of this industry in Iceland.

In the early 1980s, the salmon farming industry in Iceland was relatively young. Its primary focus was enhancing wild salmon populations through hatchery programmes, notably at the state-operated Kollafjörður hatchery. It was there that Icelandic salmon were hatched and reared for release into rivers, with the aim of bolstering natural stocks. Scientific experiments at Kollafjörður demonstrated promising return rates of 5-15% for these released salmon, a significant achievement compared to other countries.

At this time, efforts were made to implement Norwegian methods of open-pen salmon farming in Iceland, but this faced distinct challenges. The Icelandic coastline lacked the protective reefs (skerry gardens) found off the Norwegian coast, which in Norway helped shield salmon in open pens from harsh ocean conditions. Icelandic fjords, exposed to rolling seas and significant tidal variations, were less suitable for this method. Additionally, the extreme cold of Icelandic coastal waters during winter posed a survival challenge for salmon in open pens.

To address these challenges, Iceland experimented with alternative methods. One such method involved using geothermally-heated sea water in experimental open-pen farms, particularly along the coast of the southwest peninsula. This innovation allowed for the maintenance of optimal water temperatures, accelerating salmon growth and reducing the loss of salmon smolts. Despite these efforts, the high costs of such methods and the necessity of a high market price for salmon remained significant considerations for the industry.

At the time, these new aquaculture techniques represented something of a breakthrough, both for conservation and industry. Now, as so often is the case, the initial excitement of progress has given way to a more complicated picture.

The future of salmon farming in Iceland awaits the success of a new development which may be realized next summer. Approximately 400,000 young salmon, after having been reared in hatcheries to 25-gram size (salmon smolts), were released last summer at twelve selected locations around Iceland. Only 8% of these fish need to return from the sea after one year’s time, each then weighing about six pounds, to enable a new farming technique called salmon-ranching to become a profitable business. Even if the recovery figure is essentially less, perhaps as low as 3%, the release method could prove worthwhile—if the high price for salmon remains stable and a sufficient overseas market can be obtained.

Until quite recently, salmon were hatched and reared only for release into about 80 salmon rivers in Iceland, and it has primarily been the owners and lessees of such rivers who have enjoyed the benefits of salmon cultivation. Angling for salmon is very popular with both Icelandic and foreign sportsmen who pay a high price for daily permits. During the years 1971 through 1980, they hooked approximately 40,000 salmon per year weighing on the average 7 to 8 pounds. Netted salmon during the same period totaled about 25,000 annually. It is not anglers only the quantity of fish in Iceland’s rivers that anglers have sought, but also the salmon’s admirable qualities as a sportfish combined with the peaceful and unspoiled surroundings in which the fish is found. Some of the best fishing places are far away from populated areas and the noise of traffic, while others are within inhabited areas, such as Elliðaár, the river which flows through Reykjavik. At this location, where the surrounding environs have been protected, anglers quietly exercise their skills by hauling 1200 to 1300 salmon out of the river each year.

fish farming iceland

The steps leading up to the expansion of salmon ranching in Iceland—the release of salmon smolts to the sea—had their beginning at the state-operated hatchery in Kollafjordur shortly after it opened in 1961, when scientific experiments were conducted. These experiments revealed that return rates ranging from 5 to 15 percent could be realized in any given year. Additionally, the average weight of returning salmon would be between 5 and 8 pounds after one year of ocean feeding. This proved to be a superior yield compared to that achieved in other countries engaged in salmon releases, where only a small fraction of the returning salmon manage to elude fishermen and reach spawning grounds, while the remainder are caught in the sea by individuals who do not contribute to the expense of hatching, rearing, and release.

The obvious reason for the better yield in Iceland is the country’s protective law, which bans all salmon fishing along the coasts. The first prohibitive legislation was enacted by the Althing fifty years ago. Originally, there were some exceptions to the ban, arising from historical precedent with certain landowners, but these were few and relatively unimportant. Subsequent changes to the law made the prohibition uniform for everyone, and violations were severely punished. It is safe to assert that nowhere in the world today is there such an effective government ban on salmon fishing as that along the coasts of Iceland and within its 200-mile jurisdiction.

Notwithstanding the scientific results obtained at Kollafjordur, when man’s interest in salmon harvesting for food production had been fully awakened in Iceland, experiments were first conducted with various methods of farming. It has since become apparent that the conditions on Iceland’s coast are in many ways different from those of neighbouring countries. In Norway, for example, salmon are commonly fed and maintained to adult size in sea-pens within calm fjords, where outlying reefs (skerry gardens) off the coast afford protection from heavy seas. This method of ocean farming is not practiced in Iceland because such protective reefs are generally not to be found. Thus, not only do the rolling seas penetrate the shallow fjords, but also there is a correspondingly greater difference between low and high tides which disturbs sea-pens or similar enclosures. In addition, the ocean temperature becomes extremely cold during winter, such that salmon cannot survive.

There is, however, an experimental sea-pen salmon farm presently in operation on Iceland’s southwest peninsula, where geothermally-heated sea water obtained by drilling is pumped into coastal ponds. By maintaining an optimum temperature between 10 and 15 degrees, the growth of salmon is accelerated. The greatest advantage to this method of farming, barring unforeseen circumstances, is the relatively small loss of salmon smolts chosen for rearing, which thus offers some assurance that the investment of time and money is well expended. However, the necessity for continuous pumping of warm water, because of Iceland’s cool climate, and feed costs imply that the salmon produced must bring a high price at the market. A variation of this farming method is now being practiced by ISNO in northwest Iceland. Here the salmon are kept in sea-pens in a large lagoon, where the water is not very salty and the warmth is provided by underground geothermal springs. Some of the salmon smolts are also released for ranching.

Future experiments are planned to combine the two enclosure operations — that is, maintain the young salmon in ponds on land up to 300 grams and then transfer them to sea-pens for the last few months before slaughter. Considerable expense for power would be eliminated by this two-step method.

A further extension of the salmon ranching method practiced at the government hatchery at Kollafjordur is to release salmon smolts into rivers or release areas not previously frequented by salmon, but where salmon release and recapture facilities can be built. Salmon smolts are in this case transported up to 100 kilometers from their native stream and fed for one month in a pen at the site of release. Immediately seeking the sea after release, the salmon roam for approximately one year, during which time sexual maturity is achieved, and then return to the river of release — a homing instinct for which the Atlantic salmon is noted and which rarely fails. Upon their return for the purpose of spawning, they are taken in a trap and slaughtered. This method has been practiced very successfully at Láros on the Snaefellsnes peninsula where recovery rates exceeding 10% have been realized.

salmon fishing in iceland

By allowing salmon to mature in the ocean, a huge expenditure for power is saved, as well as the cost of feeding and maintenance. However, this factor is offset by the small recovery figure. Two conditions are clearly requisite if the release method is to be profitable: (1) that the percentage of return does not drop below a certain level, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, and (2) that the expenses incurred in maintaining the young salmon up to release size be reasonable.

The rearing period is expensive, as special conditions are needed. Since natural water is always too cold for optimum results, warm water must be added. There is much geothermal heat in Iceland, but it is not always present at locations which are most favourable for the growing and release of salmon. Obviously, coexistence of hatchery and release sites would be ideal, since transportation and manpower costs would be minimised. It is also believed that the yield of returning salmon would be higher if they were released close to the river of origin or at least in the same part of the country.

Warm water for smolt rearing has been obtained in a novel way at one location. A large aluminium plant has been in operation for some time at Straumsvík, and at the same site is the largest hatchery in Iceland which is privately-owned. Excess coolant water from the aluminium reduction facility, which is unpolluted but had no prior application, is now used to warm the water where salmon are maintained. Last summer, 130,000 young fish were released into the sea from this new farm. If the prediction of a 5% recovery of six-pound mature salmon is realised next summer, over twenty tons of fish would be produced at just one farming location.

A total of 400,000 salmon smolts were released throughout Iceland last summer, of which 285,000 were set free in the southwest and west. In these areas, the sea is warmer than the northwestern and northern fjords, where the remainder were released. When the sea is colder, the salmon’s growth is slower and maturity may take an additional year. However, recovery stations in the north and northwest may then benefit by the salmon’s considerably larger size.

The future outlook for this new method of salmon farming, which combines one year of rearing with oceanic feeding for a year or two, looks very promising, and many investors have appeared and are already planning new projects. Among these are several foreign investors, such as the well-known Norwegian firm Mowi, which is already affiliated with the Icelandic salmon growing company ISNO in pen-rearing and salmon ranching operations on the northern coast. Some Icelanders have expressed concern about foreign participation in their country’s salmon farming, particularly since it may seem to be a circumvention of Iceland’s fishing jurisdiction which is meant to protect salmon-growing waters. Others, however, point out that the industry has benefitted from foreign knowledge and experience where pen-rearing of salmon is concerned, plus the fact that investment capital for future expansion is not easily obtainable in Iceland, especially with the continual spiralling inflation which acts as a detriment to potential Icelandic investors. In view of this, foreign participation will probably be accepted without too much opposition, as long as it is kept within reasonable limits.

escaped farmed fish iceland

Balancing the Scales

Protest On Saturday, October 7, a tractor trundled through the streets of downtown Reykjavík with hundreds of protestors in tow. The procession was headed to Austurvöllur Square in front of Iceland’s Parliament for a demonstration. Several organisations – including Landvernd (the Icelandic Environment Association) and the Icelandic Wildlife Fund – had organised the event to […]

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From the Archive: The Awful Icelandic Language

icelandic language icelandic flag

From the archive: This article was published in Iceland Review magazine in 1973. Archival content is presented in unaltered form and may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

People set out to learn Icelandic for various reasons, most of them highly dubious. Some people, not content with their own back gardens, come to Iceland for the sake of adventure, and fall to learning the language for no better reason than an idle curiosity to know what other people are saying. Others will tell you that they wish to read the famous Icelandic sagas in the original, which is hard to believe, since anybody who knows anything can tell you that they are quite sufficiently incomprehensible in translation. Some people of course are not satisfied with being mystified in their own language.

Many other people who attempt to learn Icelandic do so because, as they will proudly tell you, it is “related” to their own tongue; it belongs, they claim, to the same language family. All I can say to this is that in every family there are some very suspicious characters, and the less said about them the better. At heart I suspect all learners of Icelandic of being no better than a sort of literary mountaineers. They are interested in it only because it is there.

Cod-fish is masculine

Icelandic is a “Germanic” language. This fact alone should serve as sufficient warning for most people, but not so. Icelandic grammar is so complicated as to make it more Germanic than German itself. Consider, for instance, the question of grammatical gender. In Icelandic, a man is masculine and a woman is feminine. So far so good. But after this, common sense disappears. A pork chop is male, while a Mars bar is neuter. A barber is masculine but his shop is feminine. A cat is masculine, a catalog feminine, and a child neuter. A Coca-Cola, presumably because of the shape of the bottle, is feminine. A bus is masculine, and presumably you understand by now why I often feel like leaping on him and letting him take me as far away as possible from where the Icelandic language is spoken.

Last week I visited the main post office in Reykjavik. My errand was a very simple one, and I spoke entirely in Icelandic. The conversation went as follows: “I would like to post a dainty little parcel to my Aunt Caramelia.” “I see. Where is he, and where is he going to?” A long pause ensued at this point, while I looked vacantly around the office. At last I gave up: “Who?” “The little parcel, about whom you have spoken.” Another pause, and finally understanding dawns. “Oh, him! Why, here he is!” I almost forgot to collect my change (masculine plural).

But to continue: an aerodrome is masculine, while an aeroplane is feminine. Coffins — and oil — are feminine, but a cod-fish is masculine. A leg, if unspecified, is masculine, but a leg of mutton is neuter. Shoe-laces are feminine, as are vacuum-cleaners, but shoes and vacuum-flasks are masculine, and trousers are feminine plural.

Consider, then, the difficulties that face you as you sit down to order your Icelandic breakfast. Though a chicken is masculine, and a hen feminine, an egg — of either fowl – is neuter. Now, while both coffee and bread are, by a totally unexpected stroke of grammatical logic, completely sexless, a cup of coffee is masculine, and a slice of bread is feminine. Furthermore, after the best Icelandic traditions, all these items are of course grammatically declined. Now I have no intention of lowering the tone of this article by an unnecessary discussion of Icelandic grammatical declensions, but I will say this, that in a friendly land, I consider it an unpardonable breach of hospitality that anyone should be asked to decline a cup of coffee, or even an egg — regardless of its gender — before 2 p.m. at least in the afternoon. It is enough to give one indigestion before even beginning one’s meal.

Six or sex?

But there is an even more hair-raising problem involved in the superficially simple act of ordering breakfast in Iceland. As if it were not enough to have to decline every adjective, noun, pronoun, personal name and place name, every man, woman and child, every single piece of toast, every pork-chop, and every bowl of skyr; the devilish inventor of the Icelandic language has ordained that for good measure, the numbers from one to four, inclusive, shall also be declined. Nobody who has never tried to speak Icelandic can conceive of the traumas for which this playful little rule is responsible. Picture yourself sitting at the hotel table. You have carefully learned the Icelandic words for toast and coffee, and the simple discovery that the word for an egg is “egg” has renewed interest in comparative linguistics, and put you at peace with the world. Along comes the waiter: “Egg,” you say firmly, taking care to follow your book by putting the stress on the first syllable. “How many?” says he.

You are trapped. How were you to know that “egg” can mean more than one egg? So if all you want is one, is it “einn,” “ein,” or “eitt” egg? Two cups of coffee — do you ask for “tveir,” “tvaer,” or “tvo”? “Thrir,” “thrjar” or “thrju” slices of toast? Well, which is it? You don’t know? Of course you don’t. I don’t know either. In fact, at this stage I don’t even care. I assume the appearance of a deaf mute, and I use my fingers for counting, as sensible people did before the invention of outrageous languages like Icelandic.

If, however, you possess a little more nerve than does the ordinary individual, there is another method of crashing the barrier of Icelandic declension of numerals. This consists of avoiding completely the numbers from one to four, and simply asking for five of everything. The Icelandic word for five is “fimm,” and apart from being easy to pronounce, its great advantage is that it never changes at all.

“Cup of coffee, sir?” “Yes, five,” you answer, firmly. If this exchange is followed by a short pause, and the waiter then repeats his question, a little more slowly, then you merely repeat your answer, a little more firmly.

“Plate of toast, sir?” “Yes, five.”

Admittedly, when you are eventually confronted by five cups of coffee, five plates of toast, five glasses of orange juice, and five boiled eggs, you may get the feeling that people are looking your way. You may even be right. But take no notice. Console yourself with the knowledge that had you attempted to grammatically decline any of the items in front of you, you would doubtless have suffered the fate already referred to, namely that of indigestion before even beginning to eat; now, however, you can tackle your meal with relish, and worry about indigestion later on.

A point of honour

While not practicable everywhere, this method of ordering is a singularly effective one in Icelandic hotel bars. I have noticed that even in the most crowded establishments, a space is quickly cleared for the individual who orders his drink in the manner outlined above. If nothing else, the five-fold order in Iceland at least engenders respect.

Icelandic is no language for the fastidious. A friend of mine, who has been studying the language for close on ten years, has informed me privately that it contains more common nouns and irregular verbs than he would care to mention. I myself heard used, in the presence of ladies, some highly irregular verbs, and some of the commonest nouns imaginable. I have now made it a point of honor with myself, when in mixed company, to leave the room immediately on the utterance of any of these words, and to return only when some semblance of respect for female company has been restored. (In small gatherings my frequent exits and re-entrances scarcely cause any disturbance at all, but at larger affairs, where I have to be formally announced, or rather re-announced up to twenty or twenty-five times, I regret to say that I have occasionally noticed a certain weariness of expression on the face of the butler to whom this duty falls).

Icelandic presents another problem of an even more delicate nature. Now I do not consider myself a prudish person, nor do I easily flinch; but though the Icelandic word for six is a very simple one, and indeclinable, I have never yet been able to bring myself to ask in Icelandic for six of anything. If it is essential that I have, for example, six blood puddings, I ask for five, and then, as casually as possible, I ask for another. I do not attempt to explain this behaviour.

Suffice it to say that where I come from, six has one meaning, and sex another meaning altogether.

Just say "fimm"

Lest anyone think at this point that Icelandic possesses no virtues at all, let me hasten to show that this is not true. In the first place, the Icelandic language displays, as English does not, a healthy contempt for euphemism. For example, when an Englishman speaks of the “denudation” of the countryside, the process referred to sounds no more objectionable than the process of undressing for bed; but when an Icelander speaks of “uppblastur” we are not only given a mental picture of the process but also a hint of how the man feels about it. Again, if you didn’t know what “diabetes” was, you could never discover its meaning from the word itself without knowing Greek; but “sykursyki” is “sugar-sickness,” and no Icelander could mistake it for anything else. Anyone might be forgiven for thinking the English term “casuist” to be a complimentary one, but a breakdown of the corresponding term in Icelandic shows that an “ordaflaekjumadur” is precisely that — “a word-ravelling man.”

Some Icelandic words and phrases contain a great deal more meaning than their length would suggest. Such a word is “ha,” which translates loosely to English as “I beg your pardon. I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch what you just said, and would you mind repeating it?” Clearly, this is a very handy word to have at one’s disposal, and has the advantage of being easy to learn. I myself mastered it within a week. Equally useful is the phrase “thad er nefnilega thad.” Literally, this means no more than “that is namely that,” but in conversational style, it is used to signify complete agreement with what the other person is saying, usually when what the other person is saying is of no consequence whatsoever. Armed with this phrase and the word “ha,” the learner of Icelandic is adequately prepared for any conversational emergency that may arise.

Icelanders speak very fast. In fact, in this respect they are as bad as the French, and everybody knows what they are like. For the person who is unprepared, the speed at which Icelandic is spoken can occasionally lead to highly embarrassing situations. Only last week, for example, a friend of mine was sitting in a Reykjavik restaurant studying the menu when a particularly attractive Icelandic waitress approached, smiled, and said “Kata.” At least, that was what it sounded like to him. In fact, of course, as anyone who had studied the language for only a couple of years or so could easily have told him, the waitress said “hvað var það?,” meaning “what was that?,” meaning “may I be of some assistance?” But how could my friend have known all this? Under the circumstances, he reacted only as a gentleman could do: without a moment’s hesitation he leaped up, proffered his hand to the young lady, and shouted “Harry.”

The Icelandic language displays a highly ambiguous attitude towards the human body. Whereas, for example, in most languages the parts of the human body are accorded the dignity of being governed by Possessive Pronouns, in Icelandic they are governed by that most ignominious of all grammatical terms, the Preposition. Again, Icelandic nouns are differentiated not only on the basis of gender, but also – with just as little discrimination on the basis of whether they are “strong” or “weak”, so that no matter how healthy you are, the Icelandic doctor inspecting your tongue will always see it exactly as he sees his grandmother — Feminine and Weak. And if nothing else will teach you humility, consider the following: in Icelandic, your eyes, ears, lungs, and kidneys are lumped together into the tiny class of nouns derisively referred to as Weak Neuters, where to my knowledge they have for company only “hnodu” and “bjugu”, or balls of yarn, and sausages.

Icelandic grammar affords more consolation to the afflicted than to the healthy. Though a man be in the final stages of some devastating disease, let him come to Iceland and take heart (no joke intended): his knees, his liver, and his legs remain Strong.

Oh, dear Lord

Oh, but see the clock! She lacks only ten minutes to eight, and I must fly! My dinner waits, he grows cold, quickly must I eat him. Then comes my friend, together shall we see the film — she must be good! Homewards intend I then, to read the Icelandic book, hardly indeed can I wait. So entertaining she is, my Icelandic grammar, so full of funny things, of outrageous constructions like these for example, and nothing thinks she at all of appropriating a sex to an inanimate log of wood or a sheepskin or a carrot. Oh, I must study her more, must practice myself, as she so engagingly puts it. And so finally will come the day, or so she promises, when the Icelandic language I shall speak like a native, though a native of what country she declines to specify; when I shall speak it so well and so fast that Icelanders will understand me perfectly, and I shan’t know at all what I am saying myself; when at last— oh happy day — I shall have completely mastered the Icelandic language; but oh dear me, oh, my poor nerves, oh dear Lord — oh Christ — at what cost, at what cost?

Brendan Glacken is an Irish student at the University of Iceland.

In Focus: Bjarni Benediktsson

bjarni benediktsson

A snap press conference On Monday, October 10, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson called a snap press conference. The call came on the heels of an opinion authored by the Parliamentary Ombudsman that concluded that the Minister of Finance’s role in the ongoing privatisation process of the Íslandsbanki bank – which had been nationalised following the 2008 […]

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From the Archive: Women Look to the Future

women's day off iceland

On October 24, 1975, women across Iceland went on strike to demonstrate the importance of their labour, both professional and domestic. Known as kvennafrídagurinn, or Women’s Day Off, some 90% of Icelandic women participated in the labour action. Shortly after, in 1976, Iceland passed its first legislation on gender pay equality, and though little was fixed overnight, it was a step in the right direction. Since the initial 1975 strike, Women’s Day Off has been held several times, with women symbolically leaving work early to demonstrate the still-extant pay gap. As of 2022, the unadjusted gender pay gap in Iceland was 9.1%.

Given the importance of this day, the editorial staff of Iceland Review was surprised to find no coverage of the original 1975 strike in our archives. It was only in 1985, after another 10-year anniversary strike, that the magazine’s editorial team covered the burgeoning women’s rights movement.

If progressive legislation on gender pay equality is still relatively young in Iceland (trailing the US Equal Pay Act of 1963 by more than a decade, for instance), many mindsets and attitudes have likewise only changed in the surprisingly recent past. Norms can change quickly, and although Iceland is often hailed as a beacon of social progress, this history is in many ways still a young one. And while our coverage (or lack thereof) of Women’s Day Off shows that change does sometimes happen overnight, social progress is not something that plays out automatically in history. History is moved when people come together and act, like so many Icelandic women did in 1975.

NB: This archival content first appeared in Iceland Review in 1986. As such, it may not reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

The meeting was the most unforgettable I have ever taken part in. It convinced me that though a huge meeting of men of the same mind might influence the authorities when women achieve such conviction, the foundations of society creak,” commented Adalheidur Bjarnfredsdottir, union leader and one of three speakers on Iceland’s famous Women’s Day in 1975. On 24th October, Icelandic women staged a one-day stoppage both at home and in the workplace, marking the beginning of the United Nations Decade for Women. Women drew attention to the importance of their work with the largest open-air meeting ever held in Iceland, attended by 25,000 people at Laekjartorg in central Reykjavik.

The clearest single indication of the achievements of the Decade for Women, which has just come to an end, is the election of a woman, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, to the presidency in 1980. Not simply a symbol of national unity and a splendid representative of her country on her travels abroad. President Vigdis presents living proof that women’s campaign for equal rights involves deeds as well as words. Many of her backers during the run-up to the election were men, and she was elected by voters of both sexes – proof that great strides have been taken towards real equality. The individual is no longer judged by sex but for his or her own character.

Marking the end of the Decade for Women, new surveys on the status of women in Iceland have confirmed various established facts, while also revealing that men and women in Iceland have enjoyed equal educational rights since the passing of legislation in 1911. But in spite of eight decades of nominal equality, the roles of men and women still differ greatly, both in education and at work.

Over 90% of student teachers and nurses are women, while only a handful of female students can be found at the Technical College, agricultural colleges, and the Marine College. The last decade has, however, seen women make a strong bid for education, and since 1980 over 40% of graduates from the University of Iceland have been women, as against only 20% in 1975-6. The majority are still graduating with a BA degree in the humanities or with a BSc in nursing, while men dominate the Faculty of Engineering and Science.

women's day off iceland

According to statistics from 1983, women made up 43.5% of the workforce, while their wages were only 29.3% of total income. Married women, 24.8% of the workforce, earned only 16.7% of the total. Although women in unskilled occupations now suffer little pay discrimination, among the university-educated, the gap between men’s and women’s salaries has, if anything, widened, but this factor reflects women’s choice of subject at university level. Women earn only 65% of the national average wage per man-year, which has hardly changed since 1980; this indicates that women predominate in the lowest-paid categories.

In “Women, What Next?,” a book which reviews women’s achievements over the past decade, Marge Thome puts forward the interesting theory that low pay is one of the factors which influences Icelandic women to bear more children (2-3) than the average western European. The wife’s wages make such a relatively insignificant contribution to the household that she feels able to stay at home with her children for several years. In many cases, she has no choice, as only 8.9% of children aged 2 to 5 are provided with full-time day nursery care, and the majority of places are allotted to priority groups such as single parents and students. About 35% of children aged 2 to 5 can attend playschool for half the working day. Childminders are in great demand, as about 80% of Icelandic women go out to work either full- or part-time.

Although President Vigdi’s Finnbogadottir has set a spectacular precedent, Icelandic women in general have a difficult time reaching positions of leadership. In the Althing (parliament), women only hold nine of the sixty seats, and in the seventy years since female suffrage became a reality, only 17 women have been elected to Althing. Two women have held ministerial portfolios, and five have been ministerial under-secretaries.

Women have done better in local politics, and in three districts women hold 40% of council seats; but on the other hand, 50% of local councils include no woman at all, mostly in rural areas. In the past decade, the number of women in managerial positions in the civil service has risen by 7%, and women have become increasingly active in the trade union movement.

Compared with women in general around the world, Icelandic women have a good many advantages. They live to an average age of 80 years – and generally the Icelanders and Japanese lead the world in longevity. This indicates the high standard of health care, which is almost unparalleled, especially with regard to maternity and child health. In the 1960s, preventive health care for women was spotlighted by a mass campaign against cervical cancer, the second most common form of the disease in Icelandic women. The campaign has produced tangible results in the form of a dramatic drop in the incidence of cervical cancer and greatly improved chances of cure. A similar mass screening service is now being introduced for breast cancer.

It was never claimed that women would achieve full equality by the end of the Decade for Women, but surveys show women gaining ground in every field, especially in the arts. The number of women in the Writers’ Association, for instance, has doubled in the past ten years, and women are clearly not resting on their laurels, even though their decade may be over.

From the Archive: The Ancient Art of Glíma

glíma wrestling iceland

From the archive: In this 1999 article from Iceland Review, Jón Ívarson delves into the history of Icelandic wrestling. Note that this archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

The one truly Icelandic national sport is a type of wrestling known as glíma. After decades of neglect, glíma has been enjoying a major revival in popularity during recent years, especially among young people.

Wrestling has been practiced in Iceland ever since the country was settled, and there are early references to a form based on tricks performed with the legs and feet. The name “glíma” is first mentioned in the 12th century, and it is thought probable that the word means “the game of gladness.”

The most likely explanation of the origin of glíma seems to be that two types of wrestling, that of the “Eastmen” (Norwegians) which did not employ foot tricks, and that of the “Westmen” (Irish) which did, merged in Iceland to produce a new sport – glíma. Wrestling based on so-called “trouser-grips” was practiced for hundreds of years in Iceland and continued almost unchanged right up to this century. At the same time, however, other forms of wrestling were also in use: the so-called “loose-grips,” in which it was permitted to grip the opponent’s body more or less anywhere, and “back-spanning,” both of which often amounted to a mere trial of strength. It is worth noting that glíma-trained men would sometimes incorporate tricks from “back-spanning” if they could get away with them.

glíma wrestling iceland

More or less everything in Iceland was originally imported - our language, industry, occupations, sports - everything, that is, except glíma, which is wholly Icelandic. It seems quite miraculous that here in Iceland we should develop a form of wrestling which is based more on technique and artistry than on energy, weight and strength as is the case with most other types of wrestling in the world. Glíma is one of 112 recognised types of national wrestling throughout the world.

Glíma wrestlers keep a firm grasp on a harness which is fastened around each contestant’s waist and thighs. No other grips are permitted. Tricks are then applied with the feet, and the body is employed with bends, jerks and swings to upset the opponent’s balance and knock him to the ground, a fall marking the end of the contest.

A picturesque sport

Foreigners who watch glíma wrestling are without exception struck by its lightness, and many people find it a picturesque sport. Our neighbors, the Norwegians and Danes, once had their own traditional wrestling sports, but these disappeared long ago, and in Sweden, the only remnant survives on the island of Gotland. These countries greatly envy the Icelanders their glíma. The English, Scots, and Bretons, on the other hand, have their own national wrestling styles that are enthusiastically maintained.

Right up until this century, glíma was a form of wrestling in which the contestants took a grip on each other’s clothes using so-called “trouser-grips.” The trousers of glíma heroes had to suffer a great deal of wear and tear before people came up with the idea of gripping-straps, which subsequently developed into a special harness used in Iceland since the first decade of this century.

In glíma the contestants must stand upright. In all other forms of wrestling contestants bend over as far as they can, their stance resembling a 90° angle, but bending is banned in glíma where it is considered a major fault.

During the last few centuries, glíma was practiced in schools, at fishing camps, and as a recreation on festive occasions, such as wedding feasts. People also used to enjoy a match or two after church. The usual practice was for contestants to be divided into two groups for team-wrestling (lit. “farmers’ wrestling”), a form which was especially common in temporary fishing camps where two crews would compete to defend the honor of their boats.

iceland glima wrestling

Symbol of nationalism

Shortly after the turn of the century, there was a great upsurge of national feeling among Iceland’s young people. Although still ruled by Denmark, the nation was beginning to find its feet again and was no longer content with its lack of freedom. One sign of this was the formation of youth societies in every district. These were highly nationalist in their sympathies and came to see glíma as a symbol of national revival and the struggle for independence.

Glíma is characterised by treading or stepping. Contestants take a special sequence of steps between bouts which cause them to move in a circle, keeping constantly in motion. An airy, circular movement which resembles the steps of a dancer, stepping serves the purpose of maintaining the sport’s lightness and creating openings for attack and defence. Competent stepping is an essential feature of good glíma.

Glíma has probably never been practiced as widely as it was during this period. In 1907, a wrestling competition was held on Thingvellir, the Parliament Plains, which was without doubt the most famous sporting event ever held in Iceland. It was known as the King’s glíma of 1907, as in that year Iceland was visited by the King of Denmark for only the second time in history. Glíma was the natural choice as representing the best, most nationalist display the Icelanders could put on for such an important head of state. Johannes Josefsson, the great champion from Akureyri in the north of Iceland, swore an please clean up this text by fixing the spacing and spelling:  oath to uphold the honour of the Northerners by remaining undefeated in the King’s glíma on Thingvellir plains, or never hold up his head again. The Icelandic nation went wild at this bold claim and glíma champions from the south of Iceland began to train for all they were worth to take the swaggering Northerner down a peg or two. For months no one talked of anything in Iceland but who would triumph in the King’s glíma. No national games or sporting event today has attracted anything like as much attention. In the event, Josefsson came third, and the story of the competition is related in many books, not least in Josefsson’s own highly entertaining biography Johannes of Borg. Josefsson later went abroad and became a famous circus-performer in America. Using glíma as the basis for his self-defence method, he took on everyone from boxers to knife-fighters and was victorious every time. Josefsson came home in 1927, so rich as a result of his shows that he was able to build Hotel Borg in Reykjavik largely out of his own pocket.

Glíma becomes a competitive sport

During these years, glíma changed from being a popular pastime, practised in a haphazard fashion according to the occasion, into being a competitive sport with strict regulations and official tournaments. People stopped ripping each other’s trousers and began instead to use the glíma harness. In 1906 the first Icelandic glíma championship was held. This tournament celebrated its 90th anniversary last year and is thus the oldest sports competition in the country. The “Grettir” Belt (named after one of the most famous wrestlers and saga heroes of ancient times) is the most magnificent and historically renowned prize in Icelandic sporting history and the title of “glíma king” has a special ring to it. Two other historic glíma competitions are Skjaldarglíma Armanns, named in honour of Reykjavik’s greatest wrestling champion, which has been going since 1908, and Skjaldarglíma Skarphedins which has been held in the south of Iceland since 1910.

glima wrestling in iceland

During the Second World War years, glíma was abandoned in many districts as a large number of people moved away from the countryside. Many went to Reykjavik, however, where wrestling continued to be practised vigorously. The greatest glíma champion in the country at that time was Gudmundur Agustsson, who some consider the best wrestler of the century. Agustsson was a glamorous figure and fine wrestler and there is no doubt that the attendance at glíma matches increased greatly when he took part, the increase being largely accounted for by female admirers.

On the rise

The rules of glíma were amended in 1966 to make the sport lighter and nimbler and to reduce the abuses or fouls which had always tended to blight the game. As part of this process the wrestlers’ canvas shoes were replaced with leather ones and adjustments were made to their harnesses.

It is not permitted to commit a foul in glíma. The attacker must keep his balance once the trick has been executed and must not fall on top of his opponent on the ground, as this would be considered a foul. The concept of a foul hardly exists in foreign forms of wrestling. In the opinion of the Glíma Association, these three factors combine to make glíma a particularly attractive spectator sport and it is therefore vital that we continue to honour them.

During the last decade, the age of glíma contestants has been lowered and women have at last been permitted to enter the arena. Teenagers are now allowed to wrestle but must do so on mattresses to avoid injury, and this has given good results. The main problem facing glíma is that few practise the sport and there are barely enough trainers to go round. The Glíma Association has reacted to this state of affairs with an energetic campaign to introduce the sport to elementary schools all over the country. This has proved successful and glíma is now practised in places where it had not been seen for decades, and the number of contestants in wrestling competitions, particularly in the younger categories, has dramatically increased. For example, in 1983 there were only 9 contestants for the Icelandic glíma championship in all age and weight categories while, in contrast, at the last Championship in 1997 there were 120 participants. This has led to increased optimism that glíma is on the way to enjoying a new heyday at the end of the century, reminiscent of its popularity in the early days of the youth society movement.