Deep North Episode 52: The Awful Icelandic Language

icelandic flag

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for this different and fun archival piece for the annual Icelandic Language Day. In this 1973 article, an Irish student at the University of Iceland laments the difficulties of learning Icelandic. We dust off this article and see what’s changed, and what hasn’t, about learning Icelandic.

Read the original archival article here.

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.

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.”

Working Group Established to Assess Future of Digital Archives

esperanto iceland

Following the decision to closure Reykjavík’s Municipal Archive, the Icelandic Society of Historians has called upon university professors, history teachers, and all others with an interest in the preservation of historical documents to speak out against the budget saving measure.

Read More: Reykjavík Municipal Archives to Be Closed Down

Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson’s proposal was approved by the Reykjavík City Council last week, March 2, with a four-member majority. The measure was proposed in a report by accounting firm KPMG, which outlined future possibilities for the archive, and their respective costs to the city. Under the mayor’s proposal, operations of the Reykjavík Municipal Archive would be combined with the National Archives, with a focus on digital preservation. While the Reykjavík Municipal Archive would cease to be an independent entity, the documents contained there would be digitised under the plan.

The Society of Historians likewise urged the Reykjavík City Council to postpone all decisions on the future of the archive until relevant experts can be consulted.

The Society of Historians stated: “It is not intended to cast doubt on the  ability of the National Museum to take care of this project […] However, it would be a step backwards if the nation’s largest municipality was the first to close down its archives. It is also harmful that this is being done without consultation or cooperation of the archive or other experts. It is important, especially in the age of  disinformation and fake news to not reduce our ability to preserve and communicate history.”

The society has also raised questions of the future of other cultural and historical institutions given this precedent.

Working Group Appointed

In response to some of these criticisms, Minister of Culture and Trade Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir has appointed a working group to assess the future organisation of archives, and to create a strategy for the digitisation and long-term storage of archival documents.

According to Lilja, “There have been major changes in the activities of archives both in Iceland and abroad, and their administrative role has increased at the expense of their cultural and research role. It is imperative that a comprehensive review be made of how the future arrangement of archives will be arranged, how to accelerate the adoption of digital solutions, to use economies of scale and to explore possibilities for further cooperation.”

The working group is to deliver a report on their finding no later than September 10, 2023.

 

Mayor Proposes Closing Reykjavík Municipal Archive for Budgetary Reasons

Reykjavík Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson has proposed that the Reykjavík Municipal Archive be shut down for budgetary reasons, RÚV reports. Per the proposal, the archive’s primary functions would be assumed by the National Archive and the dissemination of, and educational outreach related to the archive’s holdings would become the responsibility of the Reykjavík City Museum. If the proposal is approved by the city council, Reykjavík would be the first municipality in the country to close a district archive, and perhaps the only European capital not to maintain its own archive.

The Reykjavík Municipal Archive was founded in 1954. It stores over 10,500 shelf metres of documents and has also increased its digital holdings and services in recent years.

Under Icelandic law, municipalities are permitted, but not required, to operate a district archive. Iceland’s National Archives already oversees archival duties for municipalities that do not maintain their own archives. The mayor’s proposal suggests that the capital simply follow suit, as costs of effectively maintaining an archive are only expected to increase in order to keep pace with the demands of record keeping in the digital era.

In 2022, it cost the City of Reykjavík over ISK 170 million [$1.18 million; €1.10 million] to operate its Municipal Archive. It is expected to cost an additional ISK 10 million [$69,587; €64,910] to operate the archive in 2023. According to archivist Svanhildur Bogadóttir, however, the actual cost to run the archive is relatively low; a third of their budget goes towards the rent they pay the City of Reykjavík.

Reykjavík Archive does not have resources to fulfil its mandate, says private audit

The mayor’s proposal comes in the wake of an assessment conducted by auditing and accounting firm KPMG, which states that based on current funding, the Reykjavík Municipal Archive does not have the resources to fulfil its mandate. KPMG’s assessment suggests that beyond the basic savings associated with greater cooperation between the Municipal and National Archives, this arrangement would also lend itself to a number of additional benefits: better facilities, better use of staff expertise, and improved services.

Although they were aware that KPMG was conducting an assessment related to “strategic planning” for the Municipal Archive, none of the employees had any idea that there was talk of closing their place of work all together before the mayor submitted his proposal. One plan that had been on the table was for the Municipal and National Archives to be relocated to the same building, but in that scenario, they were intended to remain separate entities.

The mayor’s proposal does not outline will happen to the Municipal Archive’s staff—nine full-time and two temporary employees—in the event that the archive is closed.

How was Christmas celebrated throughout history in Iceland?

christmas traditions iceland

In response to a reader request, we present this article from the archives.

Feasting Traditions at Christmastime

Árni Björnsson (1980)

The section on Christian law in the Gragas law code (13th century) has a chapter about the celebration of Christmas and what kind of work may be performed during the holidays. This proves to be almost nothing but the most urgent necessities, such as feeding the livestock, milking, and occasionally cleaning the stables. The rule is valid not only for the holidays proper but also for the days between. It is interesting to note that among the most urgent necessities are brewing and slaughtering: “Slaughtering the stock needed during Christmas and brewing ale are also among the chores to be done on the days between [the holidays proper] of Christmas.’’ This shows that during the commonwealth (930—1262) fresh meat and ale were considered indispensable for the festivities, a fact underscored by numerous instances in the sagas. It was also a fact, that at no other time of the year did people eat and drink more for days on end, and it has been the practice ever since that all the best food available be served at this time. The folktales make this evident, too.

While households were populous, as often was the case in commonwealth times, it was necessary to slaughter stock not only before Christmas but also, as Gragas indicates, between Christmas and New Year, or the Octave and Twelfth Night. When households grew smaller and the nation’s means decreased, especially after 1600, people in most places made do with slaughtering the Christmas ewe just before the holiday. Folktales also indicate this, and the custom was actually adhered to in many parts of the country; it was not entirely abandoned until freezing facilities became common. Hangikjöt (smoked lamb) was long the chief holiday dish, but it was not commonly eaten until Christmas Day. Some other tasty delicacies were those which now are known as traditional Icelandic food: flanks, intestinal sausages, briskets, hard fish, halibut fins, etc. In areas that were far from the sea, it was sometimes felt to be more of a change to eat fish rather than meat.

Other favorite dishes were, of course, dependent upon fashion and supply, such as the inevitable Christmas porridge, which could be meat porridge (actually a stew), barley porridge with syrup and milk, or a thick rice porridge with raisins.

Bread was hard to come by in Iceland most of the time because of erratic imports of grain flour. For that reason it was somewhat of a holiday treat, even if it was only flatbread or potted bread. Lace bread is mentioned in the oldest cookbook published in Iceland (1800), entitled A Simple Pocket Cook Hook for Ladies of Quality. It states: “Lace bread, or cakes made of flour dough, moistened with good sugared milk or cream, variously cut out and fried in melted butter, are so common that they need no further mentioning.” A well-known biography mentions a banquet in the year 1772 at which lace bread was also considered common native Icelandic food. After the mid-19th century, however, lace bread seems to have been particularly connected with the North and Northeast, and such has been the case ever since, until very recently when people in various parts of the country have resumed making it for their pleasure.

While there are decorated breads in other countries, an exact parallel to the lace bread is nowhere known. It is noteworthy how gossamer thin the bread is supposed to be, which prompts the guess that this was the result of the scarcity of flour. The decorative carving could also make the bread less filling. On the other hand, it was a beautiful and tasty bit of food which was fun to eat, even though each individual may not have been served more than one.

After the turn of this century and even more around 1920, people’s tastes in Christmas food changed considerably, especially in the countryside. By that time, stoves with baking ovens had become common, and imports of flour, sugar, and other baking materials were more abundant. This made it a good deal easier to bake all kinds of pastry. It then became fashionable, and alomst a status symbol, to store a profusion of cookies and stately cakes. Such production was the most elaborate around Christmas. Various kinds of sweet soups also came into vogue. All this, of course, greatly reduced the prominence of traditional Icelandic Christmas food. Moreover, for a long time afterward little ingenuity was expended on utilizing new technology for novel and tasty preparation of meat and fish. Icelandic cookery has hardly yet recovered from the invasion.

It is not clear what people drank in former centuries if they did not have ale, but most probably it was milk and whey. Coffee and tea were not imported until close to the middle of the 18th century, and for a long time after that were served only for a change on holidays, such as Christmas. Liquor was used in many places at Christmas, but not everybody had it on hand.

Christmas Banquets

The previous section dealt with food and beverage in ordinary homes, but in medieval times and even later it was clearly not uncommon that chieftains and other prominent people give great banquets at Christmas. There are many contemporary examples of Christian banquets in Sturlunga Saga. About Snorri Sturluson it says, in 1226: “That winter Snorri made Christmas toasts according to Nordic tradition. Numerous people attended.”

About Gissur Thorvaldsson, in 1241: “Gissur remained at Tunga that winter. He made a populous Christmas banquet, inviting his friends to stay until the Octave. On that occasion mead was mixed and ale brewed. A popular toast was held on the Octave, though one of short duration. Nearly 80 warriors took part.”

About Thordur Kakali, in 1242: “He then remained at home during the winter up until Christmas. At that time, he invited all the best people of the Western Fjords, making a great banquet ar Myrar . . . And as they departed, he gave gifts to many people, all of whom then became closer friends with him
than before.”

Thorgils Skardi was at Miklibaer (in Skagafjord) in the winter of 1257: “He remained at home until Christmas and was a lavish host, making a great Christmas banquet. At that time, he invited numerous wealthy farmers and gave them expensive gifts. It was a memorable occasion for the sake of hospitality, number of people, and good housing.”

(All the above chieftains were contestants in the struggle for power that finally led to the loss of Icelandic independence in 1262). The bishops of Holar also gave many parties at Christmas. The Norwegian Heinrekur Karsson invited Thorgils Skardi in 1252: “On Christmas Day the bishop arranged the seating. He put Thorgils on the dais next to himself, along with as many of his men as the dais would hold. The bishop invited Thorgils and all his retainers to stay for the duration of Christmas. The feast proceeded until the Twelfth Day with great mirth and good times. There was no shortage of good beverages and other provisions. On Twelfth Night the banquet reached a climax and the toasts came fast. Thorgils’ men became very drunk.”

Nor did Bishop Laurentius Kalfsson in the 14th century abandon the custom. His saga describes it as follows: “He always made a creditable Christmas banquet for all his clergy, pensioners, butler, and house matron, as well as all his other household staff, and everybody would be well feted.” It is also said that Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson used to have a banquet every year at New Years and invite to it all the most prominent people in the surrounding districts. But after his time there are few reports of great feasts at the bishop’s seat or anywhere else. It is strange that no stories seem to have survived of such banquets at Skalholt, though that must really be a coincidence. But from the Skalholt diocese there is an entry in a chronicle reporting the death in 1670 of the Rev. Thordur Jonsson of Hitardal (in the West): “The couple, Thordur and Helga, were very generous, easy with their money, and hospitable. They held a great banquet once each winter at Christmastide, to which all the most prominent people in the vicinity would be invited. It would last for a week.”

Christmas Presents

While Christmas presents were known in antiquity among kings and chieftains, especially on the continent, they have been common among ordinary people in Iceland only in the past 100 years at the most. It is true that people generally received some new piece of clothing and a new pair of sheepskin shoe’s, called Christmas shoes, from their masters, but these were not really personal presents and could just as well be regarded as a kind of Christmas bonus. In the* early 10th century, however, it had become a fairly general custom to give all the children, and even all members of the household, candles at Christmas. In those days, this was not at all a poor gift, because candlelight was incomparably brighter than that of the oil lamp. The candles were made of tallow, and molding them was one of the tasks that had to be done before Christmas. Then, when each person lit a candle by his bed, it is easy to imagine the holiday atmosphere created. By the late 19th century Christmas presents were rapidly spreading, and part of the reason may be that many more shops had been opened. Gifts then began to include such things as playing cards, soap, handkerchiefs, apron material, caps, scarves, and the like, and even books for the children. For example, Stefan from Hvitadal, who later became a well-known poet, was given the story of Snow White for Christmas in 1896. He was nine at the time.

Apropos of playing cards, it should be mentioned that by far the most common pastime at Christmas was playing cards. The most popular games were cribbage, matrimony, whist, and ombre. The general rule was that playing would not begin until the second day of Christmas, but then it was done far into the night. Among older people, the rule against playing on Christmas Eve and even on Christmas Day survived for a long time, and it still may.

It was not until World War II, or after 1940, that the prevalence and extravagance of Christmas presents increased to the degree that has since been common; at least, this was the case outside Reykjavik. That was not surprising. Christmas presents were not an old, ingrained tradition, and people were very poor during the first decades of the century; nor did the Depression years, 1930—40, help much. It may be said that the present plague of Christmas gifts followed the vaunted revolution of living standards among the working classes around 1942, from which the sellers of Christmas articles have certainly reaped a windfall.

Globetrotter

anna moldnúpur

Already suffering from nausea in anticipation of a long voyage at sea, a middle-aged, red-headed Icelandic country woman with a modest suitcase nervously climbed a narrow gangplank in Reykjavik harbour to board the Brúarfoss, an Icelandic passenger and cargo ship. It was a bright, calm evening in mid-July 1946 and Anna – a weaver by […]

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