Iceland, the small island with a big story: starting with Alþing, the world’s first parliament — begun in 930 CE, meeting until 1798 at Þingvellir, today a national park. Perhaps as a direct result, Iceland is one of the world’s most progressive societies today, with an extremely high political participation rate. Settled by Vikings and later by Irish monks, the island is Europe’s most northern country at the arctic circle, and this isolation is a factor of its culture. With a hardscrabble existence for much of its history and periods of mass emigration, Iceland has fostered a Nordic-influenced but entirely unique culture of independence and self-sufficiency.
Long after the Nordic region of Europe was settled, Vikings finally reached Iceland. This remains a strong element of the Icelandic culture today: bold, courageous, at times fierce, hardy, self-motivated, and adventurous, which no doubt is reflected in their progressive ideals. Icelanders also maintain a strong awareness of the greater world and their place in it, as an explorer might; this is at odds with the insular nature typically associated with islands, especially one so isolated. Seen here, in Reykjavik: Sólfarið, The Sun Voyager, by artist Jón Gunnar Árnason (1931–1989).
Iceland’s national cathedral, Hallgrímskirkja, elevated above Reykjavik in its modern design akin to a rocket — statie of Leif Eriksson adjacent. Though Iceland is a secular nation by constitution, 80% identify as Lutheran — and nearly 5% align with Asatru, based on the ancient Norse mythology. The government recognises the high priest of Asatru as being of equal status with leaders of other religions — including the Lutheran Bishop of Iceland.
Beneath their professed religious ideologies, a majority of Icelanders also claim a belief in the huldufolk — the hidden ones, mystical beings often equated with elves, who live in nature — or in a world parallel to our own. When pressed, most people of Iceland say they’re not sure whether they believe — but better to be safe. The government’s highway department has been known to alter road plans when citizens protest on the basis of huldufolk dwelling sites. These turf houses are a garden feature in Reykjavik — and a reminder of the ‘small folk’ living among the humans.
Nature plays a major role in the culture of Iceland. Formed by volcano, with dramatic landscape, geothermal energy sources, and active eruptions — as well as numerous glaciers, Iceland is a land of fire and ice; nature is impossible to ignore. The Huldufolk, mystical ‘hidden ones’, are strongly associated with the landscape. Icelanders’ livelihoods have always been tied to the land and sea. As a result, Icelanders are also extremely environmentally conscious, and lead the wirld2in eco-friendly policies and practices.
[Be sure to see also, Iceland (II).]