Common Misconceptions About Iceland Skip to content
Two people walking in the rain
Photo: Photo: Golli. Two people walking in the rain..

Common Misconceptions About Iceland

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Iceland is a bucket-list destination for travellers given its spectacular natural scenery, historic culture, and exciting activities. Still, some believe ideas about this country that are utterly untrue. So, what are the most widely-spread misconceptions about Iceland?

Most people think about Iceland in the same way as they think about, say, Westeros, or Middle-Earth. A wild, fantastical setting akin to another planet, where Vikings live alongside hidden dimensional beings and wild bears; a sprawling land defined by its erupting volcanoes and never-ending storms, all under the watchful eye of a sun that never sets, or auroras that dance all-year-round. 

Northern lights by a waterfall in Þingvellir, Iceland
Golli. Northern Lights in Þingvellir

While real – we promise you – Iceland truly is a place so mythical, so otherworldly, that it has become synonymous with wanderlust fantasy. Oftentimes, this is how the Icelanders want you to view their country, if only to keep the wheels of its lucrative tourism industry spinning happily along. 

No surprise then that countless false impressions have been made about this nation and its people. Many are entirely innocent; some are merely down to a hiccup in communication, but to save feeling disappointed upon your arrival, let’s clear up a few issues that might have become muddled in the public’s awareness of this isolated Atlantic island. 

Polar Bears and Penguins live in Iceland 

puffins iceland
Photo: Golli. Puffins in Borgarfjörður Eystri

Despite the fact that one of Reykjavik’s most popular souvenir shops permeates this myth with two stuffed polar bears hanging outside its entrance, polar bears have no place within Iceland’s wildlife. Ultimately, this is a good thing – hikers have nothing to fear in Iceland, for the largest predator they’re likely to stumble across is the Arctic Fox, the island’s only native mammal.  

Penguins also do not live in Iceland, or the northern hemisphere in general, but instead make their home far on the opposite side of the globe. The closest one can find to a penguin in Iceland is the Atlantic Puffin, which shares many similarities in terms of their colour and swimming ability, but differ in terms of their appearance and ability to take flight. 

Still, this does not stop tourists from asking their guides as to where they can see these waddling flightless birds during their trip. The answer is always the same; approximately 13,950 km south.

To clarify, there have been rare occasions when polar bears have drifted to Icelandic shores atop a runaway ice-float from Greenland. However, their stay on the island is a short-lived, and rather tragic one. By the time they arrive, they find themselves not only starving, but in an environment entirely foreign to them. As such, they pose an immediate danger and are quickly removed by local hunters. 

The Icelandic Government Can Do No Wrong! 

Alþingishúsið
Photo: Golli. Alþingishúsið

For the sake of political unity, let’s avoid too many details for this entry – but the idea that Iceland’s government has somehow managed to create an immeasurable utopia on this isolated Nordic island is absurd.

Talking examples, the elephant in the room would likely be the 2008 – 2011 financial crisis. To the surprise of few, this enormously influential economic disaster originated from the greed of Icelandic bankers, and naturally, their collusion with inept government officials. The collapse of Iceland’s banks had devastating effects abroad, with many other countries having invested hundreds-of-millions of their respective currencies into Iceland’s financial institutions. 

Bjarni Benediktsson icelandic politics
Photo: Golli. Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson

In fact, things got so bad that, for a short while, the United Kingdom froze payments to Iceland using 2001 Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act legislation. This meant Britain officially viewed the Icelandic nation as a terrorist outfit. In the years since, matters have improved somewhat, but Iceland still ranks highly for corruption when compared to many other nations, in large part due to the nepotism that comes with having a small population. 

Still, if having been called terrorists is not a demonstration that something has gone badly wrong within your system of governance, we’re not sure what is! But if there’s one thing that can be said for power, it’s that power corrupts – unfortunately, Iceland is no different in this respect. 

Icelandic people are impolite 

Landmannalaugar hiking trail in the Icelandic highland.
Photo: Berglind. Landmannalaugar hiking trail in the Icelandic highland.

Fair enough – the Icelanders can be a tad cold when meeting strangers. But as much should be expected for a people that have had to endure one thousand years of dark winter and inhospitable living. 

Not just that; there is no word in Icelandic for ‘please.’ This makes it understandable that they would forget to include this polite gesture when asking something of you in their second language.  

In general, once you get to know the Icelandic people, they are warm, considerate, and happy to learn more about you. 

Iceland is frozen all-year round 

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

In the winter, sure, Iceland is a place defined by snow, ice, and endless nights. And while it professes many appealing qualities – including seeing the Northern Lights – it can, after a while, be somewhat oppressive to those who call this country home. 

But – and this may surprise some of you – Icelandic summer is an absolute delight. It is why, quite frankly, so many of its residents opt to remain living here rather than fly off to warmer climates. 

Icelanders will readily attest to this fact. The metamorphic magic of Icelandic summer is almost indescribable – its landscapes transform from white-and-black to thriving green fields, open blue skies, and a glowing Midnight Sun that refuses to set.

Iceland is a part of Scandinavia 

Playing dress-up as Vikings
Photo: Golli. Festival-goers dressed as Vikings.

Geographically, this could not be more incorrect. Scandinavia is actually a part of Northern Europe, and incorporates Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. More precisely, Iceland is a Nordic country, though the term Scandinavian is sometimes, and wrongly, used synonymously in English speaking country. 

That means that the Icelandic people share many cultural similarities with their Scandinavian countries. After all, Iceland was settled by Norwegians during the Viking Age; an era when the Scandinavians were truly leaving their mark on the world with violent coastal raids, epic journeys of exploration, and the settling of permanent farmsteads on distant shores. 

Icelandic people are blonde and blue-eyed 

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

Actually, this statement is probably more true of Swedish and Norwegian people than it is the Icelanders. Still, they do appear fourth on global ranking. Approximately 75% of the population has blonde hair. 90% having blue eyes. They are by no means entirely homogeneous. 

Icelanders share their genetics with Irish people on account of an unfortunate fact. Many Irish were taken as slaves by marauding Norsemen. Given the great number of celtic slaves during Iceland’s Settlement Period, it was common practice that the Norse and Irish intermingled. It was, in fact, one of the main ways that Irish families managed to break the bonds of slavery. Becoming part of the family. 

Visitors will quickly realise that many Icelandic people have hair better described as mousy-brown. That mousy-brown is testament to the unique genetic make-up of its people. 

Every Icelander believes in Elves and Trolls 

Turf mounds in Iceland
Photo: Golli. The remains of turf houses in Iceland.

Iceland is a wealthy, modern democratic republic. Known for their adeptness in the fields of technology, medicine, and literature. As such, the notion that Icelanders believe they share their home with magical beings is better likened to a joke. Not a fully-held conviction. 

Of course, the majority – the vast majority – of Icelanders do not truly believe in the existence of mythical creatures. Not even those that once dominated local folklore. Still, there is a real appreciation of their historic and cultural value. It might account for the Icelanders’ reluctance to say out loud that these creatures do not exist. 

Five children dressed up as elves on Þrettándinn.
Photo: Golli. Five children dressed up as elves on Þrettándinn.

The most well-known of these beings are the Huldufólk, or Hidden Folk. Its claimed they live in a parallel dimension to our own. That they can disappear and reappear at will. Of course, there are also trolls. Ogres, and many sea monsters. Apparitions and ghosts, said to haunt certain parts of the island. There are many strangle tales here. 

There are many ways to learn more about Icelandic folklore. Perusing the many bookshops you’ll find within towns and villages across the country is a good start. Or, take a guided tour specifically aimed towards teaching you about the supernatural. Another option is to attend a class at the Icelandic Elf School, which offers courses on the species said to live here. 

In Summary 

Fireworks on New Year's Eve.
Photo: Golli. Fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

We hope that this article has cleared up, at least, some confusion. When it comes to commonly spouted misapprehensions about Iceland, it can be challenging to know what’s true and what isn’t. 

If you want to brush up your knowledge, read up on the many travel and news articles on Iceland Review. And, when you have time, visit a museum or take a guided cultural tour. 

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