From the Archive: The First Day of Summer

bee flower summer spring

From the archive: In this 1972 article from Iceland Review magazine, Folklorist Árni Björnsson delves into the superstitions surrounding the First Day of Summer, a holiday unique to Iceland. Note that this archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

Since olden times the First Day of Summer has been a day of celebration in Iceland – and it is not surprising that Summer should be warmly welcomed in the far north, for a good summer and national prosperity often go together. Formerly, when the Icelanders lived mainly by farming, their well-being was directly dependent on a good summer. But although the national economy nowadays is not greatly dependent on the number of hours of sunshine as before, a fine summer is very important to everyone – young and old alike. Although winter is often good, exhilarating and beautiful – and people enjoy it in their own ways – the Icelanders long for the summer (at any rate in their subconscious) during the whole of the dark period of winter. Today the First Day of Summer is primarily a holiday for the children, yet the adults are no less joyful when the grass begins to turn green and the summer birds make their voices heard. Nowadays, it is mainly the awakening of nature, the light and the fine weather that appeal to people. But the echo of bygone days still contains something of the customs and superstitions that were associated with this turning-point in the year. Most of this has vanished from the modern world; it is retained in the childhood memories of the generation now leaving us and in books, for the future. The following article describes some of the things formerly connected with the First Day of Summer in Iceland.

tjörnin pond reykjavík

Old Icelandic time reckoning is, in some respects, unusual. The year was divided into two half-years, summer and winter. Normally the weeks were counted, not the months. Thus winter was usually 25 weeks and 5 days, and summer 26 weeks and 2 days. This made only 364 days, and after an interval of some years a week had to be added to summer for correction. These rules were established already in the 10th and rectified in the 12th century.

Among the common people, especially in the country, this method existed side by side with the official Christian time reckoning, and is still practised by old farmers. The months, January, February, etc., were no part of time reckoning among the ordinary people in Iceland until the 18th century.

In old time reckoning summer begins on the first Thurs­day after April 18th; in the Julian calendar, which was valid in Iceland till the year 1700, it began on the first Thursday after April 8th. There is no proof that this system was used elsewhere in the world, but we must suppose that at least certain elements of it were in use in Northern Europe before the introduction of Christianity and the settlement of Iceland. The term ’’First Day of Summer” appears in Norwegian documents from the 14th century. In Iceland we see this expression in the law manuscripts from the middle and the second half of the 13th century onwards. It is also used in all printed calendars from the 16th till the 20th century. However, in the older sources there are no signs of any festivity in this connexion, and this was also not to be expected, but in a well-known description of Iceland from the middle of the 18th century it is said to be the duty of each house-master to give his people the best food available on this day. In folk tales and memoirs from the 19th century the day always appears as a traditional popular feast, usually next in importance to Christmas. Actually this day is the Ice­ landic counterpart to European Spring Festivals.

Here follow some results of a research, which was under­ taken in 1969 to find out how the First Day of Summer was celebrated throughout the country. Taken as a whole, the outcome ought to give a fairly good survey of the cus­toms around and just after 1900. The purpose was, among other things, to find out, whether there were any major differences between the various regions in this field. A priori this was not particularly likely, since isolated areas are really very few. People also used to move not a little from one place to another, for instance for seasonal work such as fishing, etc.

reykjavík botanical garden

Dreams

Most people did not pay any great attention to the dreams they had on the first summer night, and the few who consider this night remarkable in this respect are almost all from the eastern part of the country. Many more people took notice of the dreams they had in the last weeks of winter. They were thought to be meaningful as to the weather in the coming summer. For instance, red animals meant heat or rain, white ones snow or even pack ice.

Forebodings

The first migratory birds were given close attention. Most people believed that winter’s hardships were over when the song of the whimbrel was heard. With the snipe it was important in which direction it was first heard. From east and south it promised good, from west and north the opposite. The attitude towards the golden plover varies greatly. In the south and west of the country it was considered a bad omen if it arrived early, but in the north and east it is a welcome guest, no matter how early it arrives. It was considered undesirable if grassfields showed signs of becoming green early, for instance as early as March. Such early growth was not expected to be long-lived.

Summer presents

The custom to give presents on theFirst Day of Summer seems to have been more common than the custom of Christmas presents. Most summer presents were home-made things. On the south-west coast fishermen used to give their wives all the fish they caught on that day, for their private use.

Spring storms

Generally people expected bad weather near or just before the beginning of summer. Snowstorms at this time had different names. One was called the Ravenstorm, 9 days before First Summer Day, because by this time the raven was thought to have laid its eggs. Some people believed that if they could see that the raven had eaten its own eggs, extremely bad weather was to be expected. If Easter was late, i.e. near or after First Summer Day, it was feared that the Easter storm might unite with the Summer Day storm. Most people hoped for better weather when such a storm was over, except in the north-east, where they seem to have been more pessi­mistic in this respect.

Summer moon

People observed the ’’summer moon” in the following way: The first time you saw the new moon after the First Day of Summer, you should keep your mouth shut until somebody addressed you. What then was said to you, was a sort of an oracle. An engaged girl had seen the summer moon. She went indoors and sat down on a chair. Somebody said to her: ’’Beware, he (the chair) is shaky”. The boy betrayed the girl that very summer. This was called ”to get an answer in the summer moon”.

reykjavík botanical garden

Food and drink

House-wives tried their best to mark the day with something special in food and drink, but too often there was not much left of the winter supply. In the northernmost part of the north-west people used to put aside some delicacies in the autumn and keep them in a closed barrel till the First Day of Summer. These were smoked lamb and other sheep products which had either been smoked or conserved in sour milk. Fresh meat was rare, except veal now and then. Choice parts of halibut were also coveted. Also coffee and sweet cakes, when such luxuries were available. Summer Day cakes made of rye were a speciality in the north-west of the country. They were up to 30 cm in diameter and 1-2 cm thick. Each person on the farm got such a cake, and on the top of it meat, butter and other things. People used to eat a small part of it every day while it lasted. Strong drinks seem to have been most usual in the central regions of the north and east. On the south and west coast the skipper used to give a party for his crew, including alcoholic refreshments.

First summer night

Almost everywhere people observed whether the temperature fell below zero on the first summer night, i.e. whether summer and winter ’’froze together”. This was considered a good omen, most commonly because the sheep milk then would be rich and fat during the summer. Since thermometers were rare, people used to put out a plate or some other container with water in it, and then made their observations early in the morning. Another method, mentioned in folk tales, was to walk bare-footed around the farm houses in order to find out if the grass was frozen. This was not confirmed by any of the informants.

Dedication

In most parts of the country the day was dedicated to young people, but it varies from area to area whether it belongs to boys or girls. In the west and north­west it belongs to young men, but in other parts of the country it is dedicated to young girls. Those, to whom the day belonged, were to help prepare the feast and, in the boys’ districts, they were to be the first to get out of bed in the morning and the first to go out and welcome summer. But it was considered wise for everyone to get up early that morning. This predicted the same habit for the rest of the summer.

Leave from work

In most parts of the country the day was a holiday, apart from feeding and milking animals. Fishermen used to go out fishing, but not as far as usual. At noon people usually put on their best clothes. Many people in various regions preferred to start some work, even if merely symbolically. Quite often they started fertilizing the home field. On many farms it was customary that the housewife visited the sheep cot on this day and inspected the sheep. This is explained by the fact that in olden times the sheep were milked and the farmer’s wife was responsible for the dairy work.

Entertainment

 It was usual for the children on neigh­bouring farms to come together and play. Also grown-up people used the day for visits. Dances or other organized forms of entertainment were rare until after 1890, but after 1900 the newly founded Young People’s League made this day a sort of festival for whole districts with speeches, poetry-reading, singing, theatrical performances, sport and dancing. Today it is actually Children’s Day.

Religious observance

Clergymen used to preach in many churches on the First Day of Summer until the first half of the 18th century, at least in the north of Iceland. This was forbidden by the Danish king in 1744. But in practically every home people used to gather and listen to reading from the Bible or some sermon. Hymns were also sung.

This research is not comprehensive enough to allow us to attempt any division of Iceland into ’’cultural areas” in former times. It seems clear, however, that people’s customs were not so uniform as might possibly be ex­pected, taking into account, for instance, the practical absence of dialects. On the whole, the difference between south and north is not so marked as between east and west.

From the Archive: The Changing Face of Iceland

historical map of iceland

From the archive: In this 1971 article from Iceland Review, Haraldur Sigurðsson delves into the history of Icelandic cartography. Note that this archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

Those who know something about the country find the shape of Iceland on maps fairly familiar. Although there are Icelanders who are not particularly knowledgeable about topography, the main features of the coastline, fjords, bays, and promontories are so familiar to them that there can be no question of confusion with other countries. Nevertheless, this picture of Iceland is hardly 150 years old. People who were alive in the early part of the 19th century and before held rather different ideas about the country, though these were at last not so far from what is now considered accurate. The history of Icelandic cartography can be traced far back into the obscure past when only the main outlines were known, and the rest was shrouded in mystery. A comparison of the maps of Iceland from different periods reveals to us part of Man’s striving to explore his environment and to grope his way forward from absurd conceptions to growing realism and a more reliable viewpoint.

historical map of iceland
The Anglo-Saxon map

Iceland first appears on the so-called Anglo-Saxon map of the world in the British Museum. This is estimated to have been around the time when the Christian faith was adopted in Iceland, or about the year 1000 A.D., i.e., just over a hundred years after the country is said to have been first settled. In the sea northeast of Britain and a peninsula, which is probably Jutland though it is named Norway, there is a largish country with its greatest extent running from east to west. It is broadest in the east, but narrows towards the west, where it ends in a point or ness. At the extreme east of this country, there is the name Iceland, which is not known to have appeared before in older sources. At the western extremity is the name Scridefinnas (the Skridfinnar or Lapps), who appear there like a deus ex machina.

The ideas of cartographers about lands and peoples in the North have been very unreliable at various periods, and there are even examples from more recent times. In the Middle Ages, ecclesiastics made a fair number of maps, probably inheriting the tradition from the days of the Roman Empire, for most of the more interesting ones can presumably be traced to Roman maps. Many of these have been preserved to this day. The Bible and ancient classical literature were the main sources, which were supplemented by various materials from medieval authors, folklore motifs, and migratory legends. Finally, there were various types of contemporary educative material, though this was for a long time not very conspicuous. The map was more of a pictorial story than a map in our way of thinking. Some of the biggest maps formed altar-pieces, and their purpose was rather to confirm churchgoers in their belief in minor religious doctrines than to give them any practical idea of foreign countries and peoples, such knowledge being seldom available. Iceland appears on some of the major medieval maps, and in some cases, it lies northeast of the British Isles but south of Norway. This applies particularly to maps that may be considered of English origin, although they may not all have been made in England. On other maps, Iceland is placed somewhere at the northwestern edge of the globe, or else it is confused with Thule, an island said to have been visited by Greek seafarers in the 4th century B.C.

historical map of iceland
Fixlandia type

English, Portugese, and French Sailors

In the 15th century, two new types of Iceland maps appeared on the scene. One may be traced to the interest aroused by the Ptolemy maps when the latter arrived in Western Europe from Constantinople in the first years of the century. These formed, for a long time, the basis of all attempts at scientific cartography. It was a Dane, Claudius Clavus, who took the initiative and made two separate versions of maps on Scandinavia, with which Iceland was included. The older version fell into oblivion until the 19th century. The younger version, probably dating from the years 1425-1439, became for nearly a hundred years the prototype for most, if not all, printed maps of Iceland. Nevertheless, Clavus’s knowledge of the country was extremely scanty. He knew roughly where Iceland was situated and he knew of the bishoprics there, but that was about all. The place-names are quite numerous, but they are the names of the Runic alphabet and were probably intended as a bluff to cover up a lack of knowledge. The country is elliptical in shape, its main direction lying from south to north. It is largely the location of Iceland and Greenland that gives the Clavus maps some stamp of accuracy.

At about the same time, or perhaps a little later, a new version of Iceland appeared on marine charts of the Mediterranean peoples. The country is actually called Fixlanda (written in different ways), but there is little doubt that Iceland is meant, whatever may be the reason for the name, the origin of which is quite vague and a matter for much conjecture. The shape of Iceland is incredibly accurate and much more so than on the Clavus maps. The main features of the south and west coasts are almost correct and clearly indicate the Reykjanes peninsula, the Snaefellsnes peninsula, and the Northwest Fjords, though the proportions are a little faulty. Even the islands of the Breidafjordur Bay are included, and although they are placed west of Snaefellsnes, this is by no means a worse error than was usual on contemporary maps of that period in connection with places near well-known sea routes. There are quite a lot of place-names, but many of these cannot be pinpointed, and some seem to refer to features rather than to settlements. There are various indications that these Iceland charts originated with English seafarers who began sailing there in the early part of the 15th century, and some of whom at the same time traded with the countries of the Mediterranean. For a while, they dominated the ideas of the Iceland cartographers, and they did not finally disappear until about 1600. But long before, or soon after 1500, they seem to have become the basis for a new Iceland chart in the hands of Portuguese and French sailors. The Fixlanda name is replaced by the correct appellation of the country. These maps are often attributed to the port of Dieppe in France, where several of them were actually made, but they seem to have largely originated in Portugal. They were for some years extremely accurate and the best made before the map of Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson.

historical map of iceland
Sigurður Stefánsson, Map of the North, c. 1590

In 1532, a new description of Scandinavia was published, written by Jacob Ziegler, a traveling scholar. The book is usually referred to as Schondia, but its full name was much longer, as was customary in those days. It was accompanied by a new map of Scandinavia, on which the south-north direction of the peninsula first appeared. Until then, the main direction had most often been shown from east to west. The map thus marks an important contribution to the cartography of Norway and Sweden. However, the same cannot be said about Iceland, which is portrayed as a long and narrow island from north to south. This shows that there was an extremely limited acquaintance with Iceland. Places marked on Iceland include both the bishopric and the Hekla peninsula, where the famous volcano appears for the first time on a map, though it seems to have been confused with the Snaefellsjokull glacier. Other place-names were taken from Clavus’s Runic names. Ziegler’s map received little distribution but was included in some Ptolemy editions, as well as a few other maps and globe-gores.

What put an end to the Ziegler map was that seven years later, a new map of Scandinavia, much more detailed, was made by Olaus Magnus. This was printed in Venice in 1539. The author was a Swedish Church dignitary who fled at the time of the Reformation and lived for the rest of his life in Germany and Italy, where he received the title of Archbishop. The map is in many ways a remarkable achievement and is an inexhaustible source of information on the beliefs, culture, and economy of the Scandinavian peoples, as well as on the nature of the Scandinavian countries. This applies principally to Sweden, though there are also many details about the other Nordic lands. Olaus Magnus later wrote a large and informative book about the Nordic countries, which was a sort of explanatory text to the map.

Iceland is shown more or less in an oblong shape, with its main direction being from southwest to northeast. A few place-names indicate increased knowledge, though certain other markings undoubtedly betray limited and dubious sources, probably found by the author in the seaports of North Germany and the Netherlands, from where ships frequently sailed to Iceland for trade and fishing. These sources are largely unidentified, though their existence seems to be confirmed by the fact that Gerhard Mercator appears to have used them independently when he made his globe in 1541. On the other hand, some people claim that Mercator was basing himself on a map by Olaus Magnus. In his later maps, the map of Europe of 1554 and the map of the world of 1569, Mercator adopted a large part of the extra material that Olaus had about Iceland. This and other things could indicate that he had not known Olaus’s map when he made his globe, this being only two years older.

historical map of iceland
Olaus Magnus, 1539

No Geographical Calculations

The Iceland maps of Olaus and Mercator set the example for most printed maps during the next fifty years, particularly because Abraham Ortelius included them in his famous collection, Theatrum orbis terrarum, of which there were published between 30 and 40 editions in the period 1570-1612. Ortelius was, in fact, the first person to publish the new Iceland map of Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson, but as was the custom in those days, he allowed the former map to be shown side by side with the new one. On sea-charts, which were seldom printed, the old Fixlanda version was still prevalent, though often in the revised Portuguese or French editions. Nobody knows for certain when the Iceland map of Bishop Gudbrandur (1541-1627) was made, for it is seldom mentioned in Icelandic sources. It was first published in Additamentum IV. Theatri orbis terrarum, 1590, as an additional volume to his map collection, but an inscription on the map itself states that it was engraved in copper in 1585, so it must be somewhat older. The map is not attributed to the Bishop himself, but to a Danish scholar who probably obtained it from the Bishop and sent it to Ortelius. Five years later, it was published in a somewhat amended form in the original edition of the Mercator map collection (1595).

It is not known how the Bishop made his map or what his sources were for the small details. As an Icelander, he was, of course, much better acquainted with Iceland than the foreigners who had earlier tried to make maps of the country based on scant and dubious material. However, it seems obvious that when he traced the coastline, he relied most heavily on the list of fjords, which had been available for the whole coast from ancient times and is still preserved. There are also indications that the Bishop used old church lists, though this is not certain, as he, as a church leader, was fully conversant with ecclesiastical affairs. There is nothing to show, on the other hand, that any measurements or geographical calculations were made. However, it is known that the Bishop worked out the geographical position of the Holar bishopric at least, though this is different on the map and probably of a later date. Statements made by the scholar Arngrimur Jonsson (1568-1648) indicate that the Bishop and Arngrimur (who were related) were not impressed by the final version of the Ortelius and Mercator map. Yet despite all the shortcomings, this map is the oldest to give some sort of realistic picture of Iceland.

historical map of iceland
Bishop Gudbrandur’s Map of Iceland from Ortelius Additamentum Theatri orbis terranum, 1590

However, neither of these maps enjoyed a long life. That was to be the good fortune of those by another man, Joris Carolus, a Dutch seafarer who at one time sailed far and wide on the northern seas. He stayed for a period in Iceland, where he met the scholar Jon Gudmundsson (1574-1658), who reproduces in his writings some highly dubious information about the Gunnbjorn Islands obtained from the former. The basis for Joris Carolus’s map is the Iceland map of Bishop Gudbrandur in the Mercator version; his deviations from the latter are no great improvement, and his knowledge of Iceland seems to have been poor. The original print of this Iceland map was to be found in the incomplete map collection of Jodocus Hondius, the Younger, dating from 1615-1629.

Then it passed into the collections of Blaeus and Jansonius, both of which were issued in many editions in several languages for a long period. In addition, the map became a prototype of Iceland maps in French and Italian collections. For more than a century after that, the Joris Carolus map was the basis of all Iceland maps, although minor alterations were made to the Icelandic coastline on Dutch sea charts of the 17th and 18th centuries. Sea charts at that time were almost exclusively drawn by the Dutch.

Bishop Thordur Thorlaksson (1637-1697) made a new map of Iceland about 1670. It exists in three rather different versions, but it is based on the map of Bishop Gudbrandur, his great-grandfather. These maps have various shortcomings, though they do show some improvement on older ones, but they were not published until this century and therefore were of little or no use.

historical map of iceland
Hieronymus Gourmontius, 1548

The Danish trade monopoly merchants deplored the lack of reasonably good sea charts of the Icelandic coasts, especially in the vicinity of harbours and trading stations. Dutch charts hardly met their navigational requirements, for the Dutch and other nations except the Danes were forbidden to sail to Icelandic ports. To remedy this situation, the Danish government decided in 1651 to send Bagge Wandel to Iceland, in particular, to survey the harbours. It is not known whether anything came of this project, or whether Bagge Wandel ever came to Iceland. During the following 70 years, nothing more was done in this matter, and all projects were suspended. Finally, in 1721, the Danish government sent an Icelander named Magnus Arason (1683-1728) to Iceland, who had for a time been an engineer’s officer in the Danish Army. He was asked to survey Iceland and to make land maps and sea charts for the “pleasure of his Majesty.” Magnus immediately set to work and worked on his maps for the next seven years until he was drowned in Breidafjordur in 1728. His funds were limited, and he had no assistants, so the task took some time. However, he managed to complete maps of the greater part of West Iceland, from the Reykjanes peninsula to the southern part of the Northwest Fjords.

The Interior Was Empty

After Magnus’s death, some Norwegian surveyors were sent to Iceland under the leadership of T. H. H. Knopf. They finished their task in a few years, for they received much more money, and their conditions of employment were greatly improved. There was no hurry to publish the results, however, for publication was not effected until 1944, and the work was treated almost as a military and state secret. Maps based on the Knopf map were, nevertheless, published in 1752 to accompany Niels Horrebow’s travel book on Iceland, Tilforladelige Efterretninger om Island (English edition: The Natural History of Iceland, London 1758). An improved reproduction appeared in Nuremberg in 1761 under the auspices of the well-known map publisher Homann: Insvlae Islandia Delineatio. These maps became for a long time the prototype for most Iceland maps, though various minor alterations were made to them, especially under the guidance of Jon Eriksson (1728-1787).

Though the Knopf map was a considerable advance on the map of Bishop Gudbrandur, it was far from being perfect. For example, the Arctic Circle runs through Arnarfjordur, so that much of the Northwest Fjords appears too far north, but Melrakkasletta (Northeast Iceland) is nearly in the right place. Furthermore, the larger and more exact maps of specific parts of Iceland lay buried and forgotten under piles of Danish government documents, and the printed maps were little more than inadequate extracts from them. The authorities thus felt the necessity for a new survey of Iceland, and as before, sea charts were considered of prime importance. In 1776, a Danish surveyor, Hans Erik Minor, was sent out for hydrographic work: after being engaged in this for two years, he and an assistant were drowned in the summer of 1778. He had finished mapping the coasts of Faxa Bay and Breidafjordur, and his maps were published in 1788. After Minor’s death, there was an interval until 1800 when work was commenced anew, mainly under the direction of Norwegian officers, not being completed until 1819. These maps were then published in 1818-1822 under the supervision of Poul Lovenorn, who at that time was Head of the Danish Sea Chart Department (Det danske Sokortarkiv) and made some detailed explanatory notes about them.

historical map of iceland
South-western quadrant of Gunnlaugsson's 1844 map of Iceland.

Then, in 1826, a general map of the whole coastline of Iceland was issued: Voxende Kaart over Island og Faeroeme. There, for the first time, the country was drawn more or less accurately. The map shows only the coastline and its immediate hinterland, together with those mountains visible from the sea that could be used by sailors for orientation purposes. The interior of the country was quite empty. This gap was filled by Bjorn Gunnlaugsson (1788-1876). He began a survey in 1831 and continued his work most summers until 1843. He used the coast maps as a basis as far as he could and did his survey with their assistance. He was particularly interested in mapping the inhabited areas, though in this task he had often to rely on oral descriptions and sketches by people with local knowledge. The uninhabited and desert areas had largely to be neglected. Although Bjorn traveled extensively, large tracts were drawn solely according to statements by other people. The survey was only done during summer, while each winter Bjorn made proper drawings from the sketches he drew the previous summer. He then sent them to Copenhagen, where they were processed again, joined together or reduced, largely under the direction of O.N. Olsen, to whom the map is sometimes attributed. The general map was printed in four sheets, the first being issued in 1844 under the name Uppdrattur Islands, and the map is always dated to that year, even though the last sheet was not published until 1848. This was the first time that a really satisfactory map of Iceland was drawn, the main features of which form the picture held by all those who are at all familiar with the country. In the circumstances, Bjorn’s drawing was excellent and represents one of the greatest achievements in the field of Icelandic geography and natural history. Nevertheless, the map has some shortcomings, but Bjorn was a realistic man who realized that in the conditions in which he had to work, he would never finish his task if everything had to be based on his own survey and according to the strictest mathematical rules.

Since those days, much survey work and cartography has been done in better conditions and with more modern equipment, so that Iceland has now been fully explored and reconnoitered.

From the Archive: President Vigdís

vigdís finnbogadóttir president of iceland

From the archive: This article was published in Iceland Review magazine in 1982. Archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir got to know her countrymen intimately during the presidential campaign in early 1980 — the first such campaign in Iceland where the candidates actively electioneered. It pleased her immensely to find out how much people in general knew about their country and its history. She came to the conclusion that common people in Iceland talk together much more than is usual in other countries — rather a novel discovery. She maintains that her experience in the theatre has been very useful in her present job. She is a firm believer in the future of small nations, provided they learn to stick together and utilize their potentials in a rational manner.

I was expected to do one better than the men.

Informality is a hallmark of Icelandic society, so there were no uniformed guards standing inside or out, as I walked into the office of the President, located in an old one-story building facing the central square of Reykjavik. The building, one of the very oldest in town, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, was at one time a Danish prison. President Vigdi’s is a tall, handsome, vital and quick-witted woman in her early fifties. Prior to her elections, she was for eight years manager of the Reykjavik Theatre Company. She is single and has one adopted child, and claims it would be difficult for a man of her generation to be the President’s husband. The pace she set during the campaign, when she travelled throughout the country speaking and meeting people, has continued. She has also made official visits to three of the Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway and Sweden, as well as to Great Britain.

Warm and friendly

“Surely you did not envision some two years ago that you would be sitting here today,” I said to President Vigdís after we sat down in her modest office. What made you run for president?

“As soon as it became known that President Kristjan Eldjarn would decline renomination, some of my friends and a number of strangers started coaxing me, pressing me to step forward. Out of the blue, they started enumerating various qualities which would stand me in good stead in this high office. I was supposed to know my country and its people well through my previous occupations. They said I was eloquent in Icelandic as well as in some foreign languages. When the campaign got underway, I was said to be quick to get out of a tight spot and to make a good impression, to be warm and friendly. Not so few also maintained that I never made distinctions among people. This was not only said by my friends, but also by people who did not know me personally. Now as then, I am always equally surprised when people tell me how they see me.”

vigdís finnbogadóttir president of iceland
President Vigdís with Crown Prince Harald and King Olav V of Norway.

I am always equally surprised when people tell me how they see me.

“I think that my teaching in secondary-school and on television has a lot to do with it. I am essentially modest and never believe I can do things as well as they ought to be done, but my upbringing made me ambitious to do my very best in any job. Actually, the idea that I should run for President first came to my attention more than three years ago. I had given a speech to a gathering of intellectuals, and later I was told that, after I left, the idea that I would make a good candidate was aired. At the time I thought the idea was preposterous.”

But you changed your mind?

“Well, when the first candidate came forward, the idea was revived. After Dr. Eldjarn had officially announced his intention of retiring from public life, there was not a moment’s respite. At first I did not really take it seriously, pushed the idea aside, wanted the closing date for announcing candidacies to pass. The other candidates stepped forward, but I hedged despite telegrams and delegations. I even stayed away from the Theatre. Then one night at the home of my friend and colleague, Tomas Zoega, who was the business manager of the Theatre, I decided to run. Several of my friends were present, and their main argument was that it was fitting, in view of the great success of Women’s Day in Reykjavik in 1975, that a woman should stand for election to the highest office of the land. As soon as I had made up my mind, my friends said, We all stand behind you! It never entered my mind that I would get elected, but I also felt sure that my candidacy would not be a total fiasco. I merely wanted to prove that a woman could take part in a presidential campaign on an equal footing with men.”

Obviously a gain for the liberation movement

Did you look upon your candidacy as somehow part of the women’s liberation movement? Or were other considerations more important?

“Not as part of the women’s liberation movement, no. But to me it seemed natural that some woman should run—that she should seek the office as an equal. At the time I happened to be at a crossroads in my life. I had just resigned from my job at the Theatre. I had no ties. I knew I would be exposed to a good deal of criticism during the campaign. But my mother and other close relatives were so old that they would not be told what might be said about me, and my little girl was too young to understand. This appraisal proved correct. I am quite convinced that I would not have run, had I been married.

I now appear so often at meetings all over the country that I could not expect a husband my age to be ready to follow me wherever I go on official business—and people would find it strange for me to be travelling alone most of the time. We live in an era when women still more or less live their lives through their husbands, not the other way around. Women my age very often see their surroundings through the eyes of their husbands, which of course can be excellent binoculars to look through at the world.”

Do you nevertheless look upon your election as a gain for the women’s liberation movement?

“The election was obviously a gain for the liberation movement. But I was not elected as a result of that struggle. If women had joined forces I should have won at least 50 percent of the votes. A very considerable proportion of my votes came from men, particularly old and young ones. The older generation really wanted to elect a woman. It is in truth hard to believe how many of the older generation supported me—especially elderly men. I suppose they were thinking of the future—the future of their daughters. I think men become women’s liberation champions for their daughters, not for their mothers or wives.”

Did you feel that you benefited or suffered for being a woman during the campaign?

The King of Sweden and President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

“Mostly I was treated with respect, even though political fanaticism sometimes raised its ugly head. I have never belonged to a political party, but I have had and still have strong opinions, especially regarding the struggle for the national and cultural independence of our people. This seems to have confused some people. I was supposed to be a communist sympathizer and to be opposed to church and religion. A strange conclusion indeed! This loose use of political labels is not only irritating but downright dangerous. I suppose we are all idealists and sympathize with the ideal of equality. Does that make one a communist? For one thing, how can an Icelandic nationalist possibly accept the subjugation of other nations or condone what has happened and is happening in various parts of the world? I stand for equality, cultural growth, national independence, world peace, and the hope that humanity may avoid a third and final holocaust.”

What was most surprising to you during the presidential campaign?

“My greatest pleasure was meeting this nation of ours. I had never imagined what fun it would be to travel around the country, visit farms and factories, talk to people from all walks of life and discover that they were articulate in a way that is becoming rarer in the big urban centres — to meet people who know their country and its history inside out. It was a revelation. I had mostly seen the country Irom a car window, driving along the highways, but not come into direct contact with the people themselves. It was a great experience, particularly in the sparsely populated areas. I had never expected the impressive qualities of those people. They were so wide awake and well informed. I think the common people in this country talk together much more than is usual in other countries I know.”

Wider powers not the goal

Then, on 1 August 1980, you took office. Was it hard to assume the new role? Were you nervous? Were you apprehensive about replacing your predecessor? Have your experiences in teaching and the theatre been of use to you?

“That’s a big bunch of questions. No, I was not nervous. I don’t think I am the nervous type. I had no idea of what I was in for. Nobody knows beforehand what he or she is in for. My predecessor guided and helped me in every way possible. We were in the peculiar situation of having no trade union to help us. My predecessor performed his duties with such excellence—for years, I had admired his performance—that I felt apprehensive about not being able to do equally well. I have tried my best. But obviously, each of us does the job in accordance with his or her character. It is impossible to imitate others. Each of us creates a different image of the office. But at the same time, we try to preserve established traditions. I don’t want this office to gain wider powers; it should not aim at monarchy. My experience in the theatre has been valuable. Whoever deals with drama gets to know human nature in the most diverse circumstances. I entered this office with the experience that nothing in human nature or conduct is entirely unexpected. Of course, you never know how much you actually do know, but I have learned so much about human beings in the theatre so I don’t judge harshly. I have learned to be tolerant of everything except prejudice.”

president of iceland vigdís

Do you find it hard to be your own real self when you appear in public? Can you say what is on your mind and do what you like in a world where for instance flirting lends a certain colour to life?

“It is hard to change a 51-year-old person even if every opinion should be changed whenever valid reasons suggest that. I don’t find it difficult to appear in public. I always enjoy being with other people and think I am my old self all the time. I hope I’ll never lose the joy of life nor the human touch. Whether you flirt with a child or a man, mutual understanding is always a pleasure, and the moment’s delight from one day to another is what actually counts.”

During your official visit to Denmark last year, the Danes found you more open and outspoken than is common for heads of state. Do you think they were right? If so, do you consider this an asset?

The President should be as close to the people as possible.

“There is no doubt that as a popularly elected, non-political head of state I can allow myself to say more than royalty can. It is obvious that those brought up in a certain manner to fulfill prescribed duties have a different attitude. I never make a political statement and take no stand on political questions – unless we agree that the whole of life is in a certain sense politics. I am very discreet and try not to change that strand in my nature. I would never dream of revealing secrets, and find myself to be one of the most reticent Icelanders now alive — like a doctor who has taken his Hippocratic oath. That’s why I could follow my intuition and say what I wanted to have in the headlines of next day’s papers in Denmark.”

Nationality and culture

How do you look at the role of the President beyond the traditional one?

“The traditional role is trying to be alert to everything concerning Icelandic nationality and culture. The President should engender, among the people at large, a feeling of genuine mutual friendship. I try to talk personally to everybody when I meet groups. The President should be as close to the people as possible, for the office is first and foremost a symbol of national unity.”

What is it in Icelandic culture that, in your opinion, should be especially cultivated and stressed?

Vigdís Alongside Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

“The preservation of our language and a steady stimulation of all creative efforts. In many ways we are unique in our creativity. If we look after our culture as well as our children, we consciously strive for what all humanity yearns for: peace. Nobody can believe in the future without working for peace. Wishful thinking is not enough. We have to follow closely what is happening in the world and state categorically: This we want but that we do not want. We have to demand that all the money now squandered on armaments and international power politics should be channelled to make use of the marvellous scientific discoveries of modern times in the service of the hungry and the needy. We have found the means to halt the population explosion. I refuse to believe that we cannot find the means to halt the greed for power. I am an idealist on behalf of children. Those jockeying for power around the world have only ten or twenty years to go. They must not leave the coming generations with a world threatened by annihilation.”

The small nations of the world have a future.

“Youth should protest instead of losing hope and taking refuge in drugs to dull the senses. Only a lack of will to live can make a person try to dull the senses in order to survive.” Do you think the small nations of the world have a future, considering the so-called brain drain, which deprives them of their ablest minds and best-educated citizens?

“I feel convinced that the small nations of the world have a future once they realize that by sticking together they are a major power. It may not be possible to stop brain drain entirely, but it can be diminished if the small nations co-operate and exchange talents for certain tasks, just as farmers share tractors. Nordic co-operation is a case in point. The Nordic countries are a cultural superpower, no doubt about it. They have produced a culture which reaches the masses, and publish newspapers and weeklies which enhance sensibilities and rational thinking.”

You have been asked to open the Scandinavia Today exposition in Washington D.C. next September on behalf of the Nordic heads of state?

“Yes, I am proud to have been asked to do that and am very much looking forward to the occasion. This is a dream I have long known would come true. I am proud of being a spokeswoman for all the Nordic countries on that occasion, and it is a great compliment to us that they have this confidence in me, underlining the fact that Icelanders were the first Europeans to write in the vernacular, nearly 900 years ago.”

From the Archives: The 1972 World Chess Championship in Iceland

fischer spassky iceland 1972

On July 11, 1972, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky met in Reykjavík for the 1972 World Chess Championship. The match, lasting 6 weeks, took place in Laugardalshöll and was one of the first major chess tournaments to be televised.

It was much more than just a chess match, however. Fischer’s victory over Spassky ended a decades-long monopoly the Soviet Union held over the international chess scene. At a time when the tensions of the Cold War seemed to be lessening, the match represented a reescalation of East v. West chess diplomacy. Fischer was especially notorious for his flamboyant character and personal excesses, even at one point refusing to play because the prize money wasn’t enough. Where the Soviet chess school emphasized their dominance as a victory of their system, Fischer represented Western greed and egotism, but also genius and creativity.

During its close to 60 years of publishing history, Iceland Review has covered major milestones in Icelandic history. Here, we revisit our original coverage of this historic match, written by Gísli Sigurðsson that thrust Iceland onto the world stage. 

“Now began the intermezzo, the real war of nerves. Bobby Fischer failed to arrive in Iceland, and the days slipped by. He had been seen in New York, and it became known that Kissinger himself, Nixon’s righthand man, had been called in to induce Bobby to come to Iceland for the good of the country.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
The match took place in Laugardalshöll

“Fischer was like a man who does not dare to take the plunge. So somebody had to give him a push. A wealthy chess fan in Britain quite unexpectedly stepped into the breach. He offered to double the prize money, and Fischer could himself decide whether the victor was to receive all of it or to share it. ‘A magnanimous gesture,’ said Fischer, adding that now he had no option but to go to Iceland.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Spassky mounts his attack

“When the challenger failed to appear in the afternoon, a press conference was held. Dr. Max Euwe, President of the International Chess Federation, was very depressed. ‘I have two alternatives’, he said, ‘One is to cancel this match here and now. The other is to postpone it for two days’. Dr. Euwe chose the second alternative, to a great extent out of sympathy for the Icelandic Chess Federation, which had been put to much expense and trouble. The atmosphere was dismal; people were convinced that the whole thing was off.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Arranging the match proved quite dramatic

“But Fischer arrived at the eleventh hour, or maybe a little later. He hurried out of the plane into the car, rather like a hijacker expecting a hail of police bullets. The war of nerves was at its height, and Fischer seemed to be a bundle of nerves. He had come to fulfil an old promise — to beat the Russians. Now they had the next move: No match unless Fischer makes a formal apology. Much to everyone’s surprise this was soon forthcoming: ‘Dear Boris. Please accept my heartfelt apologies for my indecent behaviour by not attending the inaugural ceremony.'”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Fischer deep in thought

“The air was full of tension in the hall on Tuesday, 11th July. The world champion appeared exactly on the minute and played his first move. The clock ran for seven minutes. Then at last Fischer stalked onto the stage. People relaxed. And immediately in this game the challenger’s aggressiveness was revealed; people expected a very complicated position to develop with such chessmasters. But Fischer took all the pieces it was possible to take. However, in the 29th move he bit off more than he could chew. This was Fischer’s most serious slip in the whole match. That move cost him the first game.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Spassky preparing his attack

“The world champion maintained his dignity and sat down punctually to the second game. Time passed, and people became restless. The challenger did not appear. Then it became known that he did not intend to do so, and Fridrik Olafsson, Icelandic Grandmaster, tried to save the situation by talking to him in his hotel room, but he was not to be moved. People once more became pessimistic. The match appeared to have reached an impasse, and Fischer had even booked a flight back to America. The arbiters awarded a win to Boris Spassky in the second game.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
The opponents shake hands

“The difference in the behaviour of the contestants was obvious. Spassky brought to mind an Olympian champion athlete when he walked in; he sat perfectly straight in his seat, always calm, looking relaxed, and he considered the situation from a certain distance. Fischer, on the other hand, shambled onto the stage in great strides; his gait was uneven, and his clothes always seemed to be crumpled.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Fischer out on the town after the match

“But the dramatic moment when the world champion laid down his King for the last time never arrived. Instead, Boris Spassky telephoned to the arbiter. He seemed to be very tired. He would surrender the 21 st game, he said.”

fischer spassky iceland 1972
Fischer and Spassky review the match

“Robert James Fischer received this news quietly. While the audience applauded as never before, he signed something for the arbiter, then strode out into the rain where his bodyguard was awaiting the new world champion who had finally beaten the Russians. It was a smiling Bobby Fischer who took a dip in one of Reykjavik’s swimming pools that night with the World Press on his heels. ‘Iceland is a great country, I like it here.'”

Record Number of Icelandic Books Published in 2019

A record number of works of fiction are set to be published this year in Iceland, RÚV reports. A surge of publications in children’s literature, poetry, and other genres suggest this year’s Christmas Book Flood will be the biggest yet. Bryndís Loftsdóttir of the Icelandic Publishers Association says there are many reasons for the increase.

“This looks like it’s going to be an absolute record year in terms of publication in many genres and thus also perhaps possible to say that there is an incredible amount of growth and an unbelievable amount of new, young writers stepping forward,” Bryndís stated.

Children’s literature publications have increased by 47% from last year, and young adult books by 39%. Icelandic works of fiction are 21% more numerous than last year, while 51% more poetry books and plays will be published this year than in 2018.

Bryndís says that there is no one aspect that explains the increase, but that publishers’ optimism, as well as passion in the industry play a part. “Then there’s the country’s enjoyment of reading.”

Another aspect is a new system established by the government this summer which allows publishers to apply for partial reimbursement of costs related to publication of books in Icelandic. The committee has received 157 applications since the system was launched this summer, 99 of which have already been approved.

Bryndís says Icelanders will have plenty of books to choose this Christmas. “You want to tell readers, of course read your favourite author but also give yourself time to get to know all of these new names that are coming up and their work.”

Fans of Icelandic literature who don’t speak the language will also be glad to hear that translations of Icelandic literature into foreign languages have tripled over the past decade. Around 40 titles have recently been translated into English, or will soon be published in English, in the US and UK, according to the Icelandic Literature Centre.