Culture of Iceland

Culture of Iceland
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Life in Iceland

• Art


The culture of Iceland is rich and varied as well as being known for its literary heritage which stems from authors from the 12th to 14th centuries. Other Icelandic traditional arts include weaving, silversmithing, and wood carving. The Reykjavík area has several professional theatres, a symphony orchestra, an opera, and a large amount of art galleries, bookstores, cinemas, and museums. There are also four active folk dance ensembles in Iceland. Iceland's literacy rate is among the highest in the world, and a love of literature, art, chess, and other intellectual pursuits is widespread.


Attitudes and customs

Icelanders generally have a traditional liberal Nordic outlook, similar to other Nordic countries such as Norway and Sweden. Yet, an important key to understanding Icelanders and their culture (and which differentiates them from the majority of their contemporary Nordic peoples) is the high importance they place on the traits of independence and self-sufficiency.

In the June 2005 European Commission Eurobarometer public opinion analysis, over 85% of Icelanders found independence to be "very important" contrasted with the EU25 average of 53%, and 47% for the Norwegians, and 49% for the Danes.[1]

Icelanders are proud of their Viking heritage and Icelandic language and take great care to preserve their traditions and language. Modern Icelandic remains close to the Old Norse spoken in the Viking Age. For example, the word for computer (an introduced object) is tölva which combines the ancient terms for number and seer.

Until the Christianisation of Iceland, many traditional Viking beliefs were strongly held, remnants of which remain today. According to a 2005 New York Times article, the majority of Icelanders either believe in elves or are unwilling to rule out their existence.[2] There are a number of accounts of roads that have been re-routed and building plans redesigned or abandoned to avoid disturbing rocks where elves are said to live.[3]

Icelandic society and culture has a high degree of gender equality, with many women in leadership positions in government and business. Iceland also has a highly progressive gay rights legislation, with couples having been able to register civil unions since 1996, adopt since 2006 and marry since 2010. Women retain their names after marriage, since Icelanders generally do not use surnames but patronyms or (in certain cases) matronyms. See Icelandic name for further discussion.

Iceland also has the most extensive and progressive child protection law. The new Children's Act, passed in March 2003, and effective as of November 1, 2003, not only places Iceland on the list of twenty-five nations that have outlawed spanking, the act also outlaws verbal and emotional abuse and makes child protection a priority. Physical or mental violence is punishable by imprisonment and/or fine, and there is no legal defense.

In 2006, Iceland was ranked as the fourth happiest nation in the world by an independent scientific study.[4]

Local and national festivals include the annual National Day, celebrating the country's independence in 1944, Sumardagurinn fyrsti which celebrates the first day of summer, and Sjómannadagurinn which is held every June to pay tribute to the country's seafaring past.


Religion in Iceland was initially the Viking religion that believed in Norse mythology. Later the nation became half-Christian and then more fully Christian. This increasing Christianisation culminated in the Pietism period when non-Christian entertainments were discouraged. At present the population is overwhelmingly, if nominally, Lutheran. However there are also Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims and others. There are also folk beliefs concerning elves that do not rise to the level of religion, but have gained some note.[5]


Iceland offers wide varieties of traditional cuisine. Þorramatur (food of the þorri) is the Icelandic national food. Nowadays þorramatur is mostly eaten during the ancient Nordic month of þorri, in January and February, as a tribute to old culture. Þorramatur consists of many different types of food. These are mostly offal dishes like pickled ram's testicles, putrefied shark, singed sheep heads, singed sheep head jam, blood pudding, liver sausage (similar to Scottish haggis) and dried fish (often cod or haddock) with or without butter.

Much of the cuisine centres around Iceland's fishing industry. Traditional dishes include Hákarl (putrefied shark), graflax (salmon marinated in salt and dill), hangikjöt (smoked lamb), hrútspungar (pickled ram's testicles), and slátur (sausages made from sheep entrails). A popular food is skyr made of cultured skim milk, in the summer time it may be served with bilberries as a dessert. Brennivin is an Icelandic liquor made from potatoes and caraway.


Iceland is home to Nick Jr's LazyTown (Latibær), created by Magnús Scheving. It has become a huge phenomenon with children and adults and is shown in over 98 countries, including the US, Canada, Sweden and Latin America. The LazyTown Studios are located in Garðabær. Iceland is also the home of the reasonably successful 80s and 90s band The Sugarcubes from which very successful singer Björk hailed from. Also another popular musical group from Iceland is Sigur Rós.


Iceland is one of the world's most technologically advanced and digitally-connected countries. It has the highest number of broadband Internet connections per capita among OECD countries.[6]


Icelandic music is related to Nordic music forms, and includes vibrant folk and pop traditions, including medieval music group Voces Thules. The only folk band whose recordings are available abroad is Islandica.

The national anthem of Iceland is "Lofsöngur", written by Matthías Jochumsson, with music by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson.[7] The song was written in 1874, when Iceland celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of settlement on the island. It was in the form of a hymn, first published under the title A Hymn in Commemoration of Iceland's Thousand Years.


An Icelandic horse in winter.

Though changing in the past years, Icelanders remain a very healthy nation. Children and teenagers participate in various types of leisure activities. Popular sports today are mainly soccer, athletics, handball and basketball. Sports such as golf, tennis, swimming, chess and horseback riding on Icelandic horses are also popular.

Chess is a popular type of recreation favored by the Icelanders’ Viking ancestors. The country's chess clubs have created many chess grandmasters including Friðrik Ólafsson, Jóhann Hjartarson, Margeir Pétursson, and Jón Loftur Árnason. Glíma is a form of wrestling that is still played in Iceland, thought to have originated with the Vikings. Swimming and horseback riding are popular as well as leisure activities without competition. Golf is especially common; around 1 in 8 Icelanders play the sport.[8] Team handball is often referred to as a national sport, Iceland's team is one of the top ranked teams in the world, and Icelandic women are surprisingly good at football compared to the size of the country, the national team ranked the eighteenth best by FIFA.

Ice and rock climbing are a favorite among many Icelanders, for example to climb the top of the 4,167-foot (1,270 metre) Þumall peak in Skaftafell National Park is a challenge for many adventurous climbers, but mountain climbing is considered to be more suitable for the general public and is a very common type of leisure activity. Hvítá, among many other of the Icelandic glacial rivers, attracts kayakers and river rafterers worldwide.


The principal language of Iceland is Icelandic, a highly inflected North Germanic language. Danish and English are also taught in schools. Linguistic purism is strongly supported in Iceland in an attempt to prevent loanwords from entering the language. Instead, neologisms are coined from Icelandic roots, creating compound words to describe new concepts. It is often the case that old words which are no longer used are recycled with a new meaning. It should be noted, however, that some loanwords persist in Icelandic, and many more, the majority anglicisms, are used in everyday speech.


The system of education in Iceland is based upon the American system, and there are four levels: pre-school, compulsory, upper secondary and higher. Education is mandatory for children aged six to sixteen. Most institutions are funded by the state, there are very few private schools in the country. The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture has the jurisdiction of educational responsibility. Over the years, the educational system has been decentralised and responsibility for primary and lower secondary schools lies with the local authorities. The state runs upper secondary schools and higher education institutions.


File:Einar Jónsson27.jpg
Svefn, a sculpture by Einar Jónsson.

The people of Iceland are famous for their prose and poetry; in particular the sagas and eddas.


The writer Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson,1984.

Iceland has produced many great authors including Halldór Laxness, Guðmundur Kamban, Tómas Guðmundsson, Davíð Stefánsson, Jón Thoroddsen, Steinn Steinarr, Guðmundur G. Hagalín, Þórbergur Þórðarson and Jóhannes úr Kötlum.

Iceland's best-known classical works of literature are the Icelanders' sagas, prose epics set in Iceland's age of settlement. The most famous of these include Njáls saga, about an epic blood feud, and Grænlendinga saga and Eiríks saga, describing the discovery and settlement of Greenland and Vinland (modern Newfoundland). Egils saga, Laxdæla saga, Grettis saga, Gísla saga and Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu are also notable and popular Icelanders' sagas.

W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice wrote Letters From Iceland (1937) to describe their travels through that country.

Painting and sculpture

The first professional secular painters appeared in Iceland in the 19th century. This group of artists included Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval who was famous for his paintings portraying village life in Iceland. Ásmundur Sveinsson, a 20th century sculptor, was also from Iceland. Silver working and its old traditions have been preserved. Einar Hákonarson is an expressionistic and figurative painter who brought the figure back into Icelandic painting in 1968. He is a pioneer in the Icelandic art scene and art education. He has been called “The crusader of the painting”,[9] due to his involvement in those conflicts many Icelandic painters had with the public fine art centers. He was a driving force in founding The Icelandic Printmaking Association and its first president.[10]


Traditional turf-roof houses, now the Museum of Skógar.

Icelandic architecture draws from Scandinavian influences and, traditionally, was influenced by the lack of native trees on the island. As a result, grass- and turf-covered houses were developed. The original grasshouses constructed by the original settlers of Iceland were based on Viking longhouses.


There are no railways in Iceland. The country has an extensive road network, and a ring road follows the coast, making it theoretically possible to traverse the entire island. Sea and air transport are both popular to connect larger population centers.


One of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland is visiting the geothermal spas and pools that can be found all around the country, such as Bláa Lónið (The Blue Lagoon) on the Reykjanes Peninsula near the Keflavík International Airport.

A panorama of Selfoss


See also

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