The Cod Wars in Iceland

The Icelandic Coast Guard defended Iceland during the Cod Wars

How did the Cod Wars in Iceland begin? Who were the main belligerents, and who came out on top of the conflict? Read on to find out more about the Cod Wars. 

Iceland is one of the few nations on earth not to have its own military. Given the minuscule size of its population, the prospect of ever forming one has long seemed farcical and unnecessary. 

Even so, the country does possess a Coast Guard. Its steel grey vessels can often be seen sailing by Reykjavík’s Faxaflói Bay. For a nation surrounded by water, it is the Coast Guard who are called in terms of crisis. This might include a marine emergency or to apprehend suspicious seafarers. 

Without a military of its own, Iceland’s protection rests on a bilateral defence agreement between the United States and Iceland. Among local people, the pact has been controversial since it was first signed in 1951. This is on account that it allowed for the USA to form a permanent military presence in the country.

A map showing Iceland and the UK
Photo: Groubani. Wikimedia. CC

Has Iceland taken part in a war?


If one thing can be said about Icelanders, it is that they value peace, both at home and abroad. The notion of partaking in combat is foreign, unappealing, and something better left to more powerful, and, crucially,
distant neighbours. 

But even with this distaste for war, Iceland has still managed to stray into global conflict in the past. More surprising than their participation is the fact they have come out victorious each and every time.  

We talk, of course, about the Cod Wars

The Cod Wars were a historic series of clashes with the United Kingdom over fishing rights. 

Locally, Icelanders refer to this period of dispute as Þorskastríðin, “the cod strife,” or Landhelgisstríðin, “the wars for the territorial waters.” 

The events occurred in various chapters: 1958–1961, 1972–73 and 1975–76. 

What were the reasons behind the Cod Wars? 

Boats docked in a harbour in Iceland.
Golli. The Cod Wars involved Icelandic fishing rights.

The major cause of the Cod Wars was a dispute over fishing rights in the North Atlantic. It would remain the sole point of contention between the two island nations for decades to come. It is generally acknowledged that the first confrontation followed Iceland’s decision to expand its coastal territory. 

The small nation expanded from 3 to 4 nautical miles (7 km) in 1952 on the behest of the International Court of Justice. Many believe this was the first spark to ignite the conflict. 

Historical roots of the Cod Wars

iceland districts
Photo: Wikimedia. CC.

But actually, these resentments can be traced back further. As early as the 14th century, British fishing boats sailed around Iceland in search of a larger catch. 

For a country with a growing sense of identity and independence, this created tension within Iceland. After all, its people relied on fishing to survive. More importantly, it caused friction between the United Kingdom and Denmark, who ruled Iceland at the time. 

In 1414, King Eric of Denmark even went so far as to ban all trade with England. He also complained to King Henry V directly, citing the importance of Icelandic fish stock to the local population. Even so, the United Kingdom did little to curb its fishing efforts. Not even when the Icelandic government allowed British ships to fish there on seven-year licences. 

Pressures of a changing world


With the advent of steam technology, tension between Denmark and the UK only increased. In 1893, Denmark claimed that Iceland’s coastal waters were 50 nmi (93 km). The British refused to recognise it, and continued to fish wherever they desired. 

Boats in a museum
Photo: Golli. Museums are a great way to explore Icelandic history

More capable ships allowed for quicker journeys to farther-away destinations. The large-hauls from Iceland’s waters were too much of a temptation to resist. 

Soon enough, Danish gunships were routinely penalising British ships discovered skulking too close. These hefty fines became a point of contention in themselves. The British public soon found themselves asking the government; why not use the full might of the Royal Navy to intimidate the Danes? 

Militaristic scare tactics made sense from Britain’s perspective. At the end of the 19th century, Britain’s naval prowess was to be admired and feared in equal measure. After all, it was the reason why the United Kingdom ruled a global empire. 

And so, in a perfect display of gunboat diplomacy, Britain’s ships put on a show of force in both 1896 and 1897. The terrifying sight of Britain’s mighty warships was a clear warning to the Danes not to push their luck. 

The case of the Caspian 

 

 

Only two years later, a battle took place between Danish warships and the steam trawler, Caspian, which was illegally fishing in Iceland’s water. After firing on it with live ammunition, the Caspian was damaged enough to ensure its skipper, Charles Henry Johnson, was arrested. However, in one of the conflict’s stranger moments, a shipmate of Johnson’s managed to regain control of the Caspian and flee. As the Danes were unable to catch up, the Caspian returned to Grimsby harbour in a state of disrepair, its crew grateful to be free and alive.

As much can not be said for Charles Henry Johnson. Lashed to the mast, he was taken against his will to Torshavn, the capital of the then Denmark-ruled Faroe Islands. Once there, he was tried for illegal fishing and assault, then jailed for a full month. All in all, the sentencing was light, but it would not be the end of the conflict. 

In fact, it was only just beginning… 

When competition becomes conflict 

Former UK prime ministers (1945)
Photo: Levan Ramishvili. Flickr. CC. Public Domain – The UK Government in 1945.

After Iceland expanded its coastal waters in 1952, Britain retaliated by banning all Icelandic ships from docking at local ports. As always, the United Kingdom believed they had a right to fish closer to Iceland than they were being allowed to, and they were unwilling to simply roll over.

Circumstances further soured after a United Nations conference in 1958. The purpose of the meeting was to determine whether countries should be allowed to extend their territorial waters to 12 nautical miles (22 km). After much deliberation, no agreement was reached. Regardless of the deadlock, Iceland went ahead and expanded its waters to the maximum level, placing further pressure on the UK’s fishing industry.

The British saw it as a step too far. What we in modern parlance call a red line crossed. Conflict soon ensued. 

The First Cod War (1958–1961)

Photo: Golli. Small boat fishermen crowd the Arnarstapi harbour each summer for the coastal fishing season

The first chapter of the Cod Wars conflict began at midnight 1 September 1958. It coincided exactly with Iceland’s expansion from 4 to 12 nautical miles coming into effect. It is worth noting that all members of NATO but Iceland were against this unilateral extension. The British simply refused to recognise it. 

In fact, the United Kingdom would go to great expense to make sure fishing continued. Under the protection of four warships, twenty trawlers continued to fish off the Westfjords and the south east of Iceland. Infuriated with Britain’s reluctance to accept new territorial boundaries, many Icelanders came out in protest. 

Britain enflames the Cod Wars conflict

 

These protests were met with mockery. From the British Embassy in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, the ambassador, Andrew Gilchrist, serenaded them by playing the bagpipes and blasting military music over his gramophone. 

While it might seem unprofessional today, the ambassador’s confidence was not unfounded. With merely seven patrolling vessels and only one PBY-6A Catalina flying boat under their jurisdiction, there was very little Iceland could do to resist the British from behaving as they wanted. 

Sun Voyager
Photo: Golli. The Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavik

In fact, one of Iceland’s ships was a whaling boat modified to be combat-ready. As the historian, Guðni Th Jóhannesson, wrote; “only the flagship Þór (Thor) could effectively arrest and, if necessary, tow a trawler to harbour.”

Still, this did not stop other Icelandic ships from attempting to do so. One of the most famous incidents in the first Cod War was when the ICGV Ægir attempted to apprehend a British trawler, only to be stopped by HMS Russell. Later, the V/s María Júlía shot at another trawler called the Kingston Emerald, forcing it to flee. Only a month later, V/s Þór chased down a ship called Hackness, but once again, HMS Russell came to its aid, forcing the Icelanders to retreat.

Iceland faces a superpower


Almost immediately, it was clear that Britain’s military might would be a difficult obstacle for the Icelandic nation to overcome. And so, they turned to diplomacy. First, Iceland threatened to leave NATO should its claim over its waters not be respected. Next, politicians promised to expel any US forces stationed in Iceland. There was no other choice but to use threats to achieve their aims. 

The United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea between 1960 and 1961 brought about a settlement that was befitting for both parties. Iceland would be allowed to maintain its territorial waters, so long as Britain was permitted to fish in certain parts, during certain seasons. The agreement also stipulated that any further conflict between Iceland and the United Kingdom regarding fishing rights would be handled by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For a time, there was peace between the islands. But it would not last. 

The Second Cod War (1972–73)

HMS Scylla and Óðinn collide
Photo: Issac Newton. Wikimedia. CC.

The second chapter in this conflict over fishing rights began September 1972. Once again, Iceland made a decision to extend their territorial waters, this time to 50 nmi. In doing so, they aimed to protect their fish stocks, and increase their share in any catches made around Iceland. 

Unsurprisingly, Britain had objections once again, as did members of the Warsaw Pact and all other Western European states. Actually, it was only the African nations who sided with Iceland’s expansion, claiming it was an effective means of negating Western imperialism. 

During the Second Cod War, Iceland changed its tactics. Instead of attempting to tow British trawlers, they opted to cut their fishing lines. Using net cutters – otherwise known as trawlwire cutters –  this strategy initially worked with great success. One example might be when the ICGV Ægir encountered an unmarked trawler off the coast of Hornbanki. The Icelanders asked for details of the trawler’s origins, but their request for information was met only by Rule Britannia being played over the radio. 

In response, the ICGV Ægir cut the trawlers lines, resulting in a heated exchange between both crews. Not only did the British sailors throw various objects aboard the 

The Third Cod War (1975–76)

HMS Mermaid collides with the Coast Guard ship, Thor
Photo: A.Davey. Flickr. CC.

Britain and Iceland would compete for a final time, this time beginning in 1975. It would prove to be the conflict’s most dramatic chapter given the violent collisions between opposing ships.

It is important to note that British fishing was already in decline by the mid-seventies. Because of this, this particular dispute with Iceland felt considerably more desperate than before.

In 1973, most countries within the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea agreed on a 100 nm limit on fishing. However, Iceland was unsatisfied, settling on a limit double that which had been stipulated. Once again, Britain refused to recognise Iceland’s decision.

The Cod Wars’ violent finale

 

One of the biggest events of the conflict took place in December 1975. The Icelandic Coast Guard vessel, V/s Þór, discovered three British trawlers sheltering from a fierce storm. When ordered to leave, the trawlers looked to comply. But after only a few miles, the ships began to deliberately veer into the Icelandic ship. The Icelanders responded by firing blanks, then live ammunition. Even so, the V/s Þór was forced to divert to Loðmundarfjörður for repairs. After this violent bout, the ship was dangerously close to sinking.

As to who was in the wrong depends on which opposing side one listens to. In response, the Royal Navy deployed 22 frigates and seven supply ships. But even in the face of such adversity, the Icelanders continued to fight. By the end of the war, a total of 55 ramming incidents were recorded.

In February 1976, Iceland made the decision to end diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. Iceland’s government also heavily implied that it would withdraw from NATO should it fail to meet its aims. Ultimately, this threat would decide the outcome of the war. As the Americans put pressure on the British to end the conflict, it would be Iceland who, once again, came out victorious.

What were the consequences of the Cod Wars?

An Icelandic Coast Guard vessel
Guðmundur St. Valdimarsson, Icelandic Coast Guard/Facebook. New patrol ship Freyja

The Cod Wars had a great number of consequences for both Iceland and the United Kingdom.

Some of the larger northern fishing ports in England were heavily affected by Britain’s defeat. Once thriving harbours like those in Fleetwood, Hull, and Grimsby saw thousands of skilled fishermen out of work, and it is estimated that it cost over £1 million to repair damages to naval frigates.

In 2012, the UK government offered £1,000 compensation to 2,500 fishermen who lost their livelihood during the conflict. This deal was heavily criticised at the time for not only being far too late, but financially insulting.

Here in Iceland, their victories over Britain are considered a point of pride. Proof that even the world’s smallest nations can make a great impact on the global stage. Especially when bullied into a corner.

Today, the Cod Wars are still sometimes covered in the media, especially when Iceland and Britain find themselves opponents. For example, during the ICESAVE financial crisis in 2008, and in the lead up to the England – Iceland football match during the 2016 Euro tournament.

Conclusion 

cod wars Coast Guard Vessel Óðinn
Coast Guard Vessel Óðinn was a vital part of Iceland’s defences during the Cod Wars. Today, it’s docked by the Reykjavík Maritime Museum as part of its exhibition.

Today, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Iceland remain close allies. Given their close proximity, many Icelanders choose to live and study in the UK. In turn, thousands of British tourists choose to explore Iceland each and every year. Some of them even call the country home. 

In 2017, the Icelandic ship ICGV Óðinn and the trawler, Arctic Corsair, exchanged bells as a sign of friendship between the town of Hull and the city of Reykjavík.

You can learn more about the Cod Wars at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum. Not only will you find plenty of informative display boards, but also countless artefacts from this fascinating chapter in Iceland’s history.

Searching for Grettir

fagraskógarfjall william morris

On July 17, 1871, the English poet and artisan William Morris set out from Reykjavík on horseback with three companions, two guides, and fourteen ponies on the first leg of a six-week journey through the heart of western Iceland. In the age of steamships, locomotives, and the telegraph, this mode of travel was medieval by […]

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Deep North Episode 66: Skeletons in the Closet

björn sveinsson

Saturday, May 18, 1946 was a pleasant spring morning in Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen. The war, with all its horror, had ended a year previously and western Europe was gradually moving toward a civil society based on human rights, justice, and democracy while simultaneously rebuilding and ridding itself of the last vestiges of Nazi occupation. At Vestre Fængsel prison, a 36-year-old Icelandic detainee sat alone in his cell, reading an English novel his younger brother had brought for him. When he had been taken into custody, he had been certain that the arrest order was built on an unfortunate misunderstanding and that he would surely be released once the post-war situation had calmed. A long, boring, and lonely year later he was still awaiting trial, having been indicted on a number of onerous charges. His hope was flagging and none of this boded well for his future.

Many might know the story of how Iceland was affected by the Second World War, but the story of many Icelandic ex-Nazis remains untold. We take a look at the life of Björn Sv. Björnsson – an Icelander and member of the Waffen SS.

Correction: In the discussion after the article, Björn Sv. Björnsson is mistakenly referred to as Sveinn Björn Sveinsson.

Read the story here.

Museums in Reykjavík | Your Guide

Perlan at sunset

Which museums can be visited in Reykjavík, and what kind of exhibitions do they display? What are the opening hours, and how much are the admission fees? These questions will be answered ahead, so read on to learn more about visiting museums in Iceland’s vibrant capital city. 

Iceland has a rich, varied history, starting with Norse settlers who arrived in the 9th century.

To become the modern democratic republic we know and love today, a long series of events have shaped this island’s geology, and culture, including disruptive volcanic eruptions, military occupations, and artistic movements.

Walking through Photo: Golli. Árbær Open Air Museum
Photo: Golli. Guests at the Árbær Open Air Museum

There is no better way of learning more about Iceland’s history than by visiting the different kinds of museums in Reykjavík, the capital city.

Not only does it offer a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity, but it helps to break up the seemingly endless sightseeing in Iceland’s nature. 

Perlan Museum and Observation Deck

A rainbow over Perlan, one of the museums in Reykjavík
Photo: Golli. A rainbow over Perlan Museum and Observation Deck

Those who have spent any time exploring Reykjavík will have noticed a forested hillside outside of the downtown area. This area is named Öskjuhlíð; from its treeline, a distinctive dome peeks out. It is as much a part of the city skyline as Hallgrimskirja or Harpa Concert Hall, but not everyone is aware of its true purpose, nor what lies in wait there for those who take the time to visit.  

What was once the city’s water treatment centre has since been converted to the beloved visitors attraction, Perlan Museum and Observation Deck. This fun and interactive exhibition space is a great location for adults and children alike to learn more about Iceland’s amazing nature in a simulated and entertaining way. 

 

Inside are many recreated scenes from around Iceland, including an ice tunnel and a huge model of the Látrabjarg bird-cliffs. There are also cinematic shows focused on the Northern Lights and the Geldingadalir volcanic eruption. Plus, there is an informative exhibition about the importance of water in Iceland, complete with a virtual aquarium.

On top of the four huge water tanks that surround Perlan’s dome sits a beautiful observation deck, allowing for 360° views of Reykjavík and its bordering nature. When you’ve finished appreciating the views, you can stop by the various amenities on offer, including a restaurant and bar, a gift shop, and even an ice cream parlour. 

Address: Öskjuhlíð, 105 Reykjavík

Contact: 566 9000

National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands)

World War II soldiers in Iceland
Photo: National Museum of Iceland. WW2 soldiers in Iceland.

The National Museum of Iceland is the best place in the city to boost your knowledge about the history of this island. Established February 24 1863, the museum was founded as the Antiquarian Collection, taking on a wide array of historical objects that had, until then, been stored in Denmark. 

Its name was changed in 1911, long before the country gained its independence in 1944. Until then, the museum’s collection was stored in various attics across the city, and it was only when Iceland became a nation in its own right that a dedicated building was offered by the government. Today, the museum has been completely refurbished to meet modern standards.  

Their permanent exhibition traces Iceland’s timeline from the Viking era, all the way up to the modern day, allowing guests to journey through the centuries with a mix of informative display boards, photographs, and intriguing artefacts. There are around 2000 objects to look at and appreciate, some dating back to the Settlement Era

Address: Suðurgata 41, 102 Reykjavík

Contact: 530 2200

The Reykjavík Art Museum (Listasafn Reykjavíkur)

Hafnarhús art museum
Photo: Golli. Hafnarhús is one of the museums in Reykjavík

The Reykjavík Art Museum is housed in three separate buildings – Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, and Ásmundarsafn, the former home of the Icelandic sculptor, Ásmundur Sveinsson.

Hafnarhús is located in downtown Reykjavík, near the scenic Old Harbour. Actually, this one of the museum’s buildings is a refurbished warehouse that was once used as part of Iceland’s fishing industry. 

The main draw here is that it is permanent home to the work of visual artist, Erró, who made great strides in the pop-art movement. Those arriving from Keflavik Airport will have already seen his work as a comic-style mosaic within the terminal. 

Aside from Erró’s work, Hafnarhús’ revolving exhibitions offers the chance to see pieces by other upcoming artists from Iceland, as well as purchase sophisticated souvenir pieces to brighten up your home.  

What other buildings make up the Reykjavík Art Museum

The second of the museum’s buildings, Kjarvalsstaðir, can be found in Klambratún Park. Klambratún is a lovely green space often occupied by dog walkers and frisbee-golfers. This was the first building in Iceland designed specifically to display artworks. In fact, it is built in the style of Nordic Modernism. 

Host to modern art and sculpture, Kjarvalsstaðir is named after Jóhannes S. Kjarval, one of Iceland’s most influential and eccentric artists. Born in poverty, he rised to great heights in Icelandic society as a painter of many broad styles, including the likes of Expressionism, Impressionism, and Cubism. In fact, he was so revered in his time that he was awarded Iceland’s highest honour – the Order of the Falcon – but as a true outsider, he declined to accept it. Today, he is memorialised on the 2000 krona note.    

With its dome structure and slanting white walls, the final building belonging to the Reykjavík Art Museum, Ásmundarsafn, is visually striking at first glance. This is no shock given that it is the former home of the prized Icelandic sculptor, Ásmundur Sveinsson, whose sometimes controversial impact on the world of sculpture can be seen in every detail of this fascinating place. 

The garden surrounding this futuristic, almost Mediterranean-style building is dotted with Sveinsson’s abstract creations. The inside displays more of his work alongside other contemporary artists who took inspiration from this great artist. Ásmundarsafn makes for a great stop while visiting other nearby attractions like Reykjavík botanical gardens and Reykjavík zoo.  

Address: Tryggvagata 17, 101 Reykjavík

Contact: 411 6400

The Saga Museum (Saga minjasafn)

Reykjavík statue
Photo: Golli. A statue in Reykjavík

The mediaeval sagas tell legends from the early Settlement Period in Iceland, but even English translations of these historic works can be challenging to understand. One way to make these stories more accessible is by visiting the Saga Museum, which helps history come to life. 

Here, they convey some of the greatest Icelandic characters and stories through the use of life-sized models, complete with traditional clothing and authentically replicated weapons and props. 

There are seventeen exhibitions on display, informing guests of events like the reformation and the black death, as well as allowing you to up close and personal with some of the most influential Icelanders who ever lived, such as the great writer Snorri Sturluson and the Viking explorer, Leif Erikson. 

Address: Grandagarður 2, 101 Reykjavík

Contact: 511 1517

Reykjavík City Museum (Reykjavíkurborgarsafn)

Dressing up at Árbær Open Air Museum
Photo: Golli. Árbær Open Air Museum

The Reykjavík City Museum hosts five separate exhibitions across Iceland’s capital, allowing you to hop from one to the other while taking in the picturesque urban sights along the way.

Outside of downtown is Arbaer Open-Air Museum, where many historical buildings have been either moved, or lovingly recreated, to show what life in Iceland was like in prior times. Then there is the Settlement Exhibition, which offers deep insights into how Reykjavík and its surrounding areas were first developed by the Norse settlers. 

The Reykjavík Maritime Museum is the go-to place to learn more about how Icelanders have lived by, and been defined by, their surrounding coastal waters. Here you will learn about the nation’s fishing industry, its coast guard, and the various species that live around this island. 

Reykjavík Old Harbour
Photo: Golli. Outside of Reykjavík Maritime Museum

Speaking of islands, The Reykjavík City Museum also owns the small but scenic Videy. This speck of land which can be seen from the shores of the city. There are many nature trails for you to enjoy on Videy, as well as Yoko Ono’s art exhibition, The Peace Tower. This installation is dedicated to the late-beatle, John Lennon. Ferries travel between Reykjavík and Videy every day, so long as the weather permits it. 

Finally, there is the Museum of Photography, documenting the history of this city, and this nation. Its collection exceeds approximately 6-million fascinating images. Some of its oldest photographs date back to 1860, offering a intriguing look at how Reykjavík looked in the past. 

Address: Aðalstræti 10, 101 Reykjavík

Contact: 411 6370

The Icelandic Phallological Museum (Hið Íslenska Reðasafn)

Animal organs on display at the Penis Museum
Photo: Penis Museum

Colloquially known as ‘The Penis Museum’, the Icelandic Phallological Museum is one of the only establishments in the world dedicated to the male genitalia. Whether you consider that a good thing or not is entirely down to personal preference.

Regardless of snickering, the fascination the male member draws from the public cannot be denied. Some might call the penis proud, others fearsome, but typically, amusing is the most common descriptor. Given the key rings, t-shirts, and phallic pasta noodles in the gift shop, one knows the museum is all too aware of this. 

Being good-humoured is one thing, but that’s the least of what’s on offer. For one, it is not just human-derived specimens the museum focuses on, but also those that once belonged to the many animal species found across Iceland. 

There is nothing obscene about the museum (except, perhaps, the gift shop.) Those scientifically inclined – and capable of keeping a straight face – will discover plenty to love in its exhibitions and displays. 

Address: Kalkofnsvegur 2, 101 Reykjavík, Ísland, 101 Reykjavík

Contact: 561 6663

The Northern Lights Center (Norðurljósasafnið)

Auroras above the trees
Photo: Golli. The auroras lighting up the trees!

One of the greatest allures during winter in Iceland is seeing the Northern Lights, sometimes known as the Aurora Borealis. As with any natural phenomena, there is no guarantee they will appear during your time here. Their visibility is highly dependent on cloud cover, solar activity, and light pollution in the area. 

If your chances of seeing them look slim, visit Aurora Reykjavík: the Northern Lights Centre in the Grandi neighbourhood. An interactive exhibition details the mythology and science behind the auroras. And a 7 m wide cinema displays awe-inspiring footage of the lights in action. 


But that’s not all. There are also entertaining, informative workshops dedicated to teaching you how best to photograph this wonder of nature. Finally, a photo-booth simulates the Northern Lights should they remain elusive during your stay. 

The gift shop allows you to purchase any number of aurora-inspired souvenirs, including high-quality prints, clothing, and ornaments. 

Address: Grandagarður 2, 101 Reykjavík

Contact: 780 4500

In Summary

What museums in Reykjavík can you visit?
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík at dusk.

With so much to see and do in Iceland, it is unlikely you will visit all the museums in Reykjavík.

In fact, unless your trip is purely orientated towards Iceland’s history, no one would advise it. There are a wealth of other activities and attractions on offer.

Still, exploring the capital’s museums will provide a greater insight into the culture and history of this enchanting country.  

Norse Mythology – The Gods of the Ancient Icelanders

An eruption in Iceland

Who were the main Gods in Norse mythology, and why are they still important today? When did the Icelanders shift their belief from paganism to Christianity, and do any people still believe in the Old Gods? Read on to discover the fascinating, and often strange, myths that shaped Iceland. 

In an article such as this, one could not hope to cover the full breadth and complexity that makes up the body of myths once worshipped by North-Germanic people. Norse mythology is a subject that has been studied, picked apart, and appreciated since its inception; to gain an understanding of every character, every story, every theme and piece of imparted wisdom, would take a lifetime to acquire. 

Saying that, some aspects of the Norse legends have left such a vivid impression on modern culture that covering the fundamentals is more approachable. With that said, this article hopes to briefly describe some of the main characters, as well as notable events, creatures, and locations. 

You’ll likely know some of this information already considering that the mythology of the Norse gods continue to inspire today. Literature, art, cinema, music, comics – all owe a debt to this most intriguing of human origin stories. Marvel movies like Thor are direct, albeit action-packed interpretations of the legends, while video games like God of War, Valheim, and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla have twisted them into unique stories of their own. 

The History of Norse Mythology in Iceland 

The wreck of a longship
Photo. Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, Facebook

A belief in the norse deities began in North Germania. It travelled with migrants to the region of Scandinavia between 2300 – 1200 BC. Whereas these stories were traditionally passed down by word of mouth, they were finally written in the Old Norse dialect in the 13th Century. The majority of these writings are encompassed within mediaeval sagas first scribed in Iceland. 

As a whole, the ancient Icelanders did not worship the Norse Gods for long. In fact, the Christianisation of Iceland was one of the most significant cultural events in this young nation’s history. However, one of the caveats of Icelanders accepting the Christian doctrine was that pagan worship was still permitted so long as it was done so in secret.

Decreed by the recently converted Norwegian king that Iceland, then a vassal state, the notion that Iceland would switch its spiritual allegiances was a point of enormous contention back in 1000 AD, but ultimately, the Norse Gods were abandoned in favour of a newer, more fashionable religious belief. 

Still, a deeply ingrained veneration of the heathen traditions is not easily dismissed, so much so that, even today, Icelanders continue to name their children, towns, companies, and landmarks after the Norse pantheon. 

Who are the main characters in the Norse myths? 

People around a campfire.
Photo: Golli. Campfire near Reykjavík

The pantheon of Norse Gods can be split into two distinct factions – the Æsir and the Vanir. Both tribes consist of celestial deities, though each has its own culture and function within the mythos. For example, the Æsir are associated with strength, war, and the sky, while the Vanir are more inclined towards nature, agriculture, and the ocean. 

Given their differences, the Æsir-Vanir War is a central subject in Norse mythology, ending with their merging into one distinct pantheon. This blend of Æsir and Vanir is said to signify the many different aspects of the eternal divine. Interconnectedness is a major theme throughout the various sagas and myths, so the distinction between these two clans is not always strict, with various deities from each playing a part in one another’s stories.

Odin, the Allfather 

 

Known by many names, the one-eyed deity, Odin, is considered to be the enthroned ruler of the Gods, central to the pantheon through his authority and wisdom. He is largely associated with poetry, war, and magic, and has been regularly depicted as a bearded fellow in a large conical crown hat, draped in a dark shawl. His empty eye socket is a result of his relentless pursuit of knowledge, for he sacrificed it at the Well of Mimir to learn its secrets. 

Another way he seeks out information is through his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who seek answers wherever they may find them, only to return to Odin with their findings. Today, many people are aware that the name of the midweek, Wednesday, is derived from ‘Woden’s Day,’ a variation of his name in Old English.

Frigg

 

The Queen of the Æsir, and the wife of Odin, was Frigg – for centuries, her name was synonymous with the divine feminine, meaning marriage and motherhood. Like Odin, she was known for her great wisdom, as well as her ability to foresee future events. 

Lightning strike
Photo: Thennicke, CC 4.0

Thor 

 

Known for his courage and strength, Odin’s son, Thor, has always been associated with thunder and lightning. Today, in our pop-culture obsessed age, many will know him as a central character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in ancient Iceland, the awe he inspired was far less entertaining, but entirely reverential. 

With his prominent red beard and giant warhammer, Mjölnir, Thor is considered to be the principal defender of Asgard, the realm of the Gods. In fact, it is the striking of Mjölnir that is said to cause lightning to appear. As such, his adventurous qualities define the spirit-warrior archetype, which is why his legacy remains so prevalent in Western culture to this day. 

Loki 

 

Loki, often known as the trickster god, is a difficult character to pin down. Born to a giant and a goddess, he is sometimes an ally to the Æsir; other times, an endless source of mischief and malice. With an ability to shape-shift, it is little wonder this God is known for his deceit, 

Loki is the father of the vicious wolf, Fenrir, and Jörmungandr, the world serpent. Only enforcing the idea of how complex and odd Norse stories can be, Loki also gave birth to the eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, while in the form of a mare. 

Baldr 

 

As the son of Odin and Frigg, Baldr could very much be described as the Prince Charming of Norse mythology. Blonde, fair-skinned, and good-hearted by nature, Baldr has been widely associated with gentleness and kindness. His place among the Gods is a rare example of how some deities can be pure in their intentions. 

Green northern lights above a lake in Iceland
Photo: Golli. The auroras can appear in many forms and colours

Heimdall

Heimdall is another of the Norse God’s defenders. He stands guard of the rainbow bridge, Bifrost, that connects the realm of Gods with that of men. Heimdall is known for his great sense of hearing, as well as his Golden Armour and his “hollering horn”, Gjallarhorn. The sound of Gjallarhorn is said to bring about the end of the world, Ragnarök. 

Freyr

 

Freyr is another significant God, this time connected to sunshine and prosperity. According to the myths, his magical sword, Gullinbursti, can fight off its own accord. And his great longship, Skíðblaðnir, has the ability to sway the ocean winds to its advantage.

Freyr’s ending is a tragic one, though it does demonstrate the cyclical nature of life and death. During Ragnarök, he courageously faces off against the fire-giant, Surtr, despite already knowing that destiny tells he will fall in battle.  

Dimmuborgir lava field by Mývatn.
Photo: Golli. Dimmuborgir lava field by Mývatn.

Freyja

 

Known as the Goddess of love, and leader of the warrior-maiden Valkyries, Freyja is the sister of Freyr. Originally a member of the Vanir, she switched sides upon the end of the Æsir-Vanir war. 

To the ancient Norse, her name would have gone hand-in-hand with the coming of spring, the blooming of wildflowers, and the birth of new life. Given these links to nature and animals, Freyja is capable of shapeshifting thanks to the cloak in her possession, allowing her to transform at will into a falcon. 

Regardless of this avian form, it is her connection to cats that, perhaps, left the biggest impression on Icelanders, who are known for their deep affection for furry friends. According to the legends, Freyja rode a chariot that was pulled by gigantic felines, all the while adorned in her magical necklace, Brísingamen. 

Sif

 

Sif is the wife of the thunder-God Thor, often illustrated as a woman of great beauty with long golden hair. In fact, her hair plays a large part in one of the Norse stories. Ever the prankster, Loki cuts it in jest, angering Thor, who demands that he rectify the situation at once. Seeking the help of the dwarves, Loki crafts her new hair that shines more brightly than the old ever did. It is this regrowth that symbolises why Sif is the goddess of fertility. 

What are the major locations in Norse Mythology? 

Þingvellir
Photo: Golli. Þingvellir National Park

The worlds and realms of the Norse Gods can be described as many things; apocryphal, dramatic, ethereal. After all, these locations are cosmic, home to the deities, and thus break many of the earthly rules we here in Midgard understand. There are many notable settings in which these Nordic legends take place. Let’s take a look at some of the most important: 

Yggdrasil

 

The World Tree, Yggdrasil, is among the most iconic symbols when imagining the mysterious world the Norse Gods inhabited. Its vast branches and roots encompass all the nine realms of the cosmos. It is said that Odin would travel across the ash tree on his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir. 

Valhalla

 

Decorated with an arsenal of mythic weapons and armour sets, the grand hall of Valhalla! Here is where the Æsir enjoy a never ending feast. This bountiful realm is where chosen warriors, known as the Einherjar, are rewarded for their bravery after death. But it’s not all celebrations. The Einherjar train in Valhalla, preparing themselves to fight Odin’s enemies at Ragnarök, an apocalyptic end of the world sometimes known as the twilight of the Gods

The Nine Realms 

 

As we’ve learnt, there are nine realms contained with the luscious body of Yggdrasil. These realms are as follows: 

  • Asgard – the primary realm of the Æsir Gods.
  • Álfheim – Literally translating to “World of the Elves.”
  • Niðavellir – Fields of the Dwarves
  • Midgard – Our realm, that of human beings
  • Jötunheim – World of the Giants
  • Vanaheim – Headquarters to the Vanir tribe of Gods
  • Niflheim – A realm ravaged by glaciers and blizzards
  • Muspelheim – A hellish realm of infernos 
  • Helheim – The Norse interpretation of the underworld, or hell

What other creatures are found in Norse Mythology?

An arctic fox on a beach in Hornstrandir, Westfjords.
Photo: Golli. An arctic fox on a beach in Hornstrandir, Westfjords.

Aside from the wide roster of celestial figures in the Norse pantheon, there are also countless animals and creatures. 

The Jötnar (Giants)

 

The Jötnar, or Giants, play a large part in many stories. Sometimes in alliance with the Gods, and sometimes in conflict. As a subspecies distinct from the Gods, they are primal, fierce, strong, and linked with the elements. For example, Sutr is a Fire Giant, while Ymir is a Frost Giant. Loki is sometimes considered a Jötunn given that he was born of a Giant mother named Laufey. During Ragnarök, it is the Jötnar who lead the charge against the Gods. In doing so, they bring about the end of the known cosmos. 

Fenrir

 

Fenrir is a huge and vicious wolf that was born to the trickster God, Loki, and the giantess, Angrboða. Though small as a pup, Fenrir’s stature became so monstrous that the Gods were forced to bind him in magical ribbons. These were constructed of mountain roots, the paw steps of a cat, and a beard shaved from a lady. 

Unsurprisingly, given the construction materials involved, these chains were easily broken by Fenrir. His escape marked the beginning of Ragnarök. During this event, he would eventually end with his killing of the Allfather, Odin. The ancient Norse considered Fenrir’s name as synonymous with the unrelenting force of nature. The underlying chaos of the world. 

Sleipnir

An icelandic horse at sunset
Photo: Dagmar Trodler. An Icelandic horse at dusk

Another child of Loki’s, Sleipnir is an eight-legged horse. He is ridden by Odin across the nine-realms comprising the World Tree, Yggdrasil. These extra legs allow for the horse to gain unimaginable speeds. They also symbolise the eight different directions on a compass. 

Sleipnir’s parentage might be considered troubling, even in progressive society. While transformed into a mare, Loki became impregnated by a stallion named Svaðilfari. He soon after gave birth to a foal. He did this to distract the Gods from building a defensive wall around Asgard. But the foal was lovingly adopted by Odin, and thus was made to help the Gods rather than hinder them.  

In North Iceland, a beautiful, horse-shoe shaped canyon called Ásbyrgi is said to have been formed by Sleipnir’s hoofprint. With its high rock walls and dense forest basin, Ásbyrgi is often cited as one of the most beautiful spots in Iceland’s northern region.

Jörmungandr

 

The enormous World Serpent – sometimes referred to as the Midgard Serpent – Jörmungandr, is another of Loki’s beastly children. Grown in the ocean to truly gigantic stature, Jörmungandr is able to coil its entire body around the world. This brings with it a heavy implication of impending doom. Fearing this, Odin banished Jörmungandr to the seas around Midgard, the human realm, where he fought the thunder-God, Thor, on numerous occasions. 

What is Ragnarök – The Destiny of the Gods? 

Jökulsárlón glacier lake in South Iceland
Photo: Golli. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.

Described in terrifying detail in Völuspá, part of the Poetic Edda collection of poems, the Doom of the Gods is the most dramatic event that occurs in the Norse myths. Vicious battles between the Gods, and cataclysmic natural events, bring about the apocalypse, ending the existence of the Gods, and all living things within the Nine Realms. 

Ragnarök begins with Loki’s betrayal of the Gods, an act that seals the fate of many of the most important names in the pantheon. Odin the Allfather is slain by the great wolf, Fenrir, while his son Thor falls to the World Serpent, Jormungandr. 

With such powerful deities destroyed, the earth is sunk in a tempestuous ocean, the cosmos itself is set alight, and the universe reaches its untimely end. Despite all this chaos, two humans were said to survive the events of Ragnarök – it is they who the Norse considered descendents of modern civilisation. Not only that, but Baldr also is resurrected, enforcing the notion that the world, and the Gods, are destined to return time and time again. 

Do Icelanders still believe in Norse Mythology?

Turf mounds in Iceland
Photo: Golli. An Icelandic heritage site.

To this day, Iceland remains a Christian country. The abundance of quaint country churches, plus the prominence of Hallgrímskirkja over the Reykjavik skyline, proves as much. Still, Iceland is forever becoming a more diverse society, with many of its citizens belonging to other religious groups, or adhering to no religious doctrine at all. 

With that in mind, it might surprise you that a small contingent of the population has returned to revering more heathen traditions. Named Ásatrúarfélagið, or the Ásatrú Fellowship, this new religious organisation was founded on the first day of summer in 1972 by the farmer and poet, Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson.  

What museums in Reykjavík can you visit?
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík at dusk.

While it does not follow the Norse pantheon, nor any dogma, its shift towards pagan spiritualism shares much with the religion of old. The former high priest, Jörmundur Ingi Hansen, once said in an interview; 

“The world is split into two in its nature, divided into constructive forces, the Æsir, and the destructive forces which we call jötnar. The gods shape the dwelling places of people, the earth and the solar system out of the material that already exists. To that extent we can look on the forces of nature as the gods themselves and to a large extent that is what people did in antiquity.”

According to their website, the Ásatrú believe the following. “In the Icelandic/Nordic folklore, the spirits and entities the folklore represents, in addition to gods and other beings from the Nordic pantheism.” As of 2018, there are around 600 members.    

Where can you learn more Norse Mythology in Iceland? 

Auroras over a mountain in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Northern Lights above a mountain peak

There are many places you can learn more about the Norse myths during your stay in Iceland. For example, the National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands) displays many artefacts and displays boards related to the history of this island, many of which are related to the Icelanders’ heathen beliefs. 

Of course, another great option is to stop by Iceland’s bookshops and libraries. Within their shelves, you will find many books about local folklore, as well as translations of the Icelandic sagas. 

The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies also contains copies of the sagas, making this establishment of particular interest to travelling scholars. On that note, inquisitive visitors should also stop by Snorrastofa Medieval Center near Reykholt. Here, they can learn more about the sagas’ primary writer, Snorri Sturluson. 

While Viking World Museum (Víkingaheimar) in Njarðvík does not have an exhibition about Norse mythology specifically, it is a great place to discover how Icelanders in the Settlement Era lived, providing some insight into the cultural environment and challenges that nurtured a belief in pagan mysticism. As much is true for many other museums across the country. This includes the Saga Museum (Saga minjasafn), which contains many replica models of famous Icelanders throughout history.  

Viking helmet and gloves
Photo: Golli. A Viking helmet.

Deep North Episode 59: Turf and Rescue

turf house farm iceland

Hannes Lárusson grew up in a cluster of turf houses on the farmstead Austur-Meðalholt in Southwest Iceland.

His ancestors moved there around 1850. The houses they constructed were made with the remnants of the land’s pre-existing houses, which slouched near the marshes when they arrived. The history of the farmstead stretches nearly as far back as the settlement.

In 1965, when he was ten years old, Hannes moved to Reykjavík. He studied visual art and philosophy in Iceland and abroad prior to redirecting his attention to his childhood home in the mid-80s.

By that time, the turf houses of Austur-Meðalholt were abandoned and on the verge of ruin. Although he had observed those houses being mended as a boy, he lacked the know-how to rebuild them himself; and so Hannes and his family enlisted the aid of Jóhannes Arason, a turf master who grew up in the Westfjords’ Gufudalssveit area, and who stayed with them for parts of the summer between 1987 and 1993.

Read the story here.

Deep North Episode 58: Disaster on Dark Seas

ES goðafoss

On the morning of November 20, 1944, a single U-boat cruised silently at periscope depth beneath the rough waves of the North Atlantic, lurking just a few kilometres off the Northwest coast of Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula. The lone periscope was virtually invisible in the turbulent grey ocean waters. The German submarine, type VIIC/41, designated U-300, was commanded by 24-year-old Lieutenant Fritz Hein with a crew of 50 men barely out of their teens. Their mission was simple: To attack and destroy Allied vessels off the southwestern tip of Iceland as they approached the Icelandic mainland from North America. The bigger the ship they could sink, the better.

Read the story here.

Artist on the Run

Sölvi helgason

October 1843. Staðarsveit farmstead in Snæfellsnes, West Iceland. It was early evening, and an odd yet highly entertaining young visitor had just finished regaling the appreciative farmhands with his witty remarks and amusing anecdotes. He clearly enjoyed telling them his tall tales as well as sharing his vivid descriptions of Iceland’s natural wonders and deadly […]

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Deep North Episode 55: Christmas Craftsman

laufabrauð christmas iceland

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, families and friends in Iceland come together to make the traditional fried and decorated wafer known as laufabrauð (leaf bread). Rolled out thin, decorated, and fried, the preparation of these treats is an event that brings together families, often with multiple generations taking part. But you won’t find Laufabrauðsdagur (Leaf Bread Day) on any official calendar, as each family chooses their own date. Still, for Icelanders, it’s as much a part of the holiday season as Christmas itself.

But unknown even to many Icelanders, much of this tradition now rests in the hands of one craftsman, the last craftsman in Iceland to make the distinctive roller that so many use to make laufabrauð. A stone’s throw from Reykjavík, in the shadow of Esja mountain, his small workshop is keeping a beloved tradition alive.

Read the story here.