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Xenophobe's Guide to the Icelanders

Xenophobe's Guide to the Icelanders

by Richard Sale

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A guide to understanding the Icelanders which takes an insightful, humorous look at their character and values.


A guide to understanding the Icelanders which takes an insightful, humorous look at their character and values.

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"The Xenophobe's Guides raise a smile and give you an understanding of the beliefs and foibles of nationalities.  —Glasgow Evening Times

"Xenophobe's Guides aim to help us understand our differences."  —Daily Express

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Oval Books
Publication date:
Xenophobe's Guide , #18
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Xenophobe's Guide to the Icelanders

By Richard Sale

Xenophobe's Guides

Copyright © 2011 Oval Projects
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908120-51-9


Nationalism & Identity


The Icelanders are Europeans, but only up to a point, the point lying about 200 miles offshore. They are members of the European Economic Area and of EFTA, and sometimes think they would like to join the European Union feeling that they have a huge contribution to make. And the global credit crunch made the idea of being in the Eurozone look even more attractive. But there are problems. It is difficult for Icelanders to accept that they would not have the same voting power as, say, the British and the Germans. When it is pointed out that there are very few of them in comparison, they do not understand. One country, one vote, surely?

But the Icelanders' real concern is fishing. Cod is the basis of their economy and they are nervous of foreign trawlers ruining their livelihood. One of the reasons they like the British is because they lost the last Cod War. It was a friendly war and the Icelanders like losers, as long as they lose to Iceland that is.

Icelanders are proud of the fact that their country is unique. Nowhere else are there lava deserts, active volcanoes and icecaps. At the same time they recognise that as a nation they are tiny and of limited standing in the world. The insecurity this creates makes the Icelanders, a very close-knit nation with a developed sense of community, behave as though they were indeed the centre of the universe. It seems absolutely right to them that when Jules Verne sent his travellers to the centre of the earth, it was down through an Icelandic volcano.

In the winter of 1002/1003 Snorri Thorfinnsson was born in Vinland (nowadays believed to be either Newfoundland or Nova Scotia) of Icelandic parents, the first non-Indian American. It is only a matter of time before the Icelanders file a lawsuit claiming North America on behalf of Snorri's surviving relatives.

How they see themselves

The Icelanders suffered a shock when a study of blood-types suggested that they might be of Gaelic, rather than Viking, stock. To have the same roots as the Americans (who are basically Irish and therefore quite beyond the pale), and even to share characteristics with the English (who are amiable enough but arrogant), was almost more than could be borne. As it was known (but kept very quiet) that when the Vikings arrived there were already Irish monks in Iceland, some historians suggested that there had actually been an Irish settlement and that the Vikings had either killed all the settlers or, much worse, interbred with them. It is now thought that the few monks who got there first left in disgust at having to share their sanctuary with heathens, and that the blood results could be explained away by natural causes or, better still, by the suggestion that the Vikings kidnapped a few Gaelic women from the Shetlands or Orkneys on the way. The national psyche has been restored to health.

Icelanders hold themselves in the very highest esteem. They are the sons of Vikings, the greatest of all ancient races, renowned for their strength, fortitude, good looks and masculine values. The fact that these same ancestors are also famous for pillage is discreetly ignored, as is their somewhat dubious attitude towards women. Icelanders are also reluctant to talk about Ingólfur, the first Viking to land on Iceland. As a mark of respect they have named the spot where he landed Ingólfshöfði, but they put it in small print on their maps so that as few people as possible notice that it is merely a knob of rock some three miles out to sea.

As proof of their innate superiority Icelanders point out that Iceland is the navel of the world. If you doubt the veracity of this claim you need only consult the Viking Sagas, the greatest of all literary achievements, where this view is expressed countless times during the course of long meandering tales of murder and revenge.

They point out that they have the biggest and best of many things. They have Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, with an area almost as large as Cyprus, which makes France's Mer de Glace look like an ice cube by comparison. Their waterfalls are higher, more powerful and more beautiful than any others in Europe. And even if Strokkur, their only surviving geyser, is smaller than the one in America's Yellowstone National Park, they are able to remind you that it can be found at Geysir, the Icelandic name now used to describe all such natural gushing phenomena. They also have the most westerly point in Europe, a place guaranteed to annoy the Irish who have erected numerous signs in Dingle claiming the same thing. Even the Icelandic pony gets in on the act, having five gaits rather than the four favoured by the rest of the world's horses.

Icelanders see themselves as cultured and sophisticated, with an enviable literary heritage and independence of spirit. These points are always included in speeches by their presidents, who are seen as the embodiment of the nation and whose comments are quoted as gospel and prefaced with a friendly "As the president says ...". In fact, so often is this phrase used that it has become a kind of valediction.

How they see others

It might be imagined that the Icelanders, sharing a mutual heritage with the Scandinavian nations, would see them as brothers. Not so. Their isolation has meant that they still speak the language of the Vikings while the rest of the Scandinavians speak an inferior tongue comprising low German and a mishmash of other bits and pieces.

The Norwegians are laughed at for their enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits which is looked on as proof of what the Icelanders thought anyway, that the Norwegians are slow-witted and dull. Ask the Icelanders about the paintings of Munch, the music of Grieg and the books of Hamsun and they will tell you it is likely these individuals were descended from Icelandic Vikings who went home for the weekend and were stranded by a recalcitrant tide or wind. The discovery of North Sea oil and the fact that it has made the Norwegians very rich has led to a change of view. Now the Norwegians are seen as slow-witted, dull, and quite disgustingly lucky.

The Swedes are considered to be self-centred, sex-mad and too frequently given to bouts of pleasure seeking – indulgences rather too close to their own not to resent them for it.

Norwegians and Swedes are also disapproved of for being Arctic nations. With its name and its wild landscape Iceland might be expected to lie within the Arctic Circle, but only the island of Grimsey off the northern coast manages to do so, and then only by a few yards. As a consequence, Icelanders deride the Circle and say that only one man in Iceland can be bothered to cross it. He is the vicar of Grimsey and he only does so because the Circle runs through the centre of his bed.

The English are looked on as laughable and lovable eccentrics, much given to coming second. The Icelanders find this latter characteristic hilarious and strangely reassuring. Almost the whole population speaks English due to the one-time presence of an American air-force base in Iceland which meant that the nation was flooded with American television programmes. Local stations have replaced the direct American broadcasts, but as they mostly show American programmes it is difficult to notice a difference.

While the upstart Columbus gets the kudos for discovering the New World, the Icelanders revel in the knowledge that it was one of their own, Leifur Eríksson, who did so several centuries before. Some now wish he hadn't: as Churchill is reputed to have said, 'The Icelanders had the good sense to forget they had discovered America'. Icelanders like American dollars, but rather resented the servicemen who spent them. To get their own back, they banished the Americans to an inhospitable, lonely corner of the island on the pretext that Iceland's only international airport (Keflavík) is there. Oddly, if you ask, they will claim that Keflavík lies in this wilderness because it was built close to where the Americans were.

Special relationships

The Icelanders have a special relationship with the Danes but this has nothing to do with their common Viking origin. Until the early 20th century Denmark ruled Iceland which is why the Icelanders see the Danes as having exploited their country, keeping it poor and uneducated, primitive and isolated. The older generation have a saying: 'Danes make good rulers for Danes', which is a roundabout way of saying that they should stay at home with their LEGO (though exceptions are made for Danes who are internationally famous, about whom older Icelanders can feel proprietorial).

Younger Icelanders are inclined to a different view of history. Danish is still taught in Icelandic schools (it was only replaced in 1998 by English as the primary foreign language), so youngsters develop an affinity with the Danes. They see them as cousins and can be wildly enthusiastic about them – as long as there are no Danes present.

The only other nations with whom the Icelanders have any rapport are Luxembourgers, Canadians and Russians. Luxembourg has the largest community of Icelandic ex-patriots in Europe because the European headquarters of Icelandair used to be situated there. Icelanders share with the Luxembourgers an inferiority complex born of being so few in number. The Icelanders and the Luxembourgers do not often score high points in the Eurovision Song Contest and regularly lose at football (though individual Icelanders are making an impact in European leagues).

The Canadian connection is a family one. As many as 10,000 Icelanders emigrated to Canada in the 1880s, and ties have been maintained. When an Icelander meets a Canadian, the Canadian is expected to know the Canadian relatives of the Icelander he is speaking to.

The Russians are special for different reasons. Russian trawlers used to dock regularly and disgorge men of seemingly overwhelming stupidity who could be persuaded to exchange much-prized bottles of fierce vodka for clapped-out Ladas and other vehicles. Those who tasted the vodka had no doubt about who had the better deal. The Russians come less often now, but the love of fierce vodka remains.

How they would like others to see them

They wish to be seen as they see themselves, as a highly cultured race. As proof of their sophistication, Icelanders are able to point to the publication of a monthly English-language newspaper. How many other countries produce a paper in a language other than their own?

It is equally impressive that, in this land of freezing temperatures, among the many traditional Icelandic maxims there is one that states: 'It is better to go barefoot than without books.'



Strength and intelligence

The Vikings who settled Iceland in 870 were folk who could not tolerate the order imposed on their Scandinavian homelands by the king who had unified the countries. That independent disposition is still an Icelandic characteristic: the Icelander is an individualist and an adventurer.

The country also imposed itself on the national character. Those early settlers had a hard time. Then the climate eased and by the mid 12th century there was spare time to devote to fighting. Three groups of islanders fought on and off for nearly a century, a time now known as the 'Age of Sturlungar' from Sturla, a farmer from north of Reykjavík who was the father of Snorri Sturluson, one of Iceland's greatest poets, the author of Egil's saga. (It is said that Snorri maintained a herd of 120 cattle solely to produce the calves on whose skins he wrote his stories.)

After the Age of Sturlungar the climate worsened which made fighting impossible: everyone's energy was consumed by staying alive. But the harsh, dark winters meant that the farmers had little to do but read and relate the sagas. This created a literate, artistically-minded people.

Their history gives rise to the dual personality of the Icelander. He values both his artistic heritage and his hardiness. The nation has survived appalling natural catastrophes; in 1783-5 the largest volcanic eruption the world has ever seen occurred killing a quarter of the population when the 'Haze of Hunger' (dust from the eruption) blocked out the sun. But the inhabitants shrugged it off. Today's Icelander draws comfort from this. He wants an Icelandic man to be the world's strongest, yet also wishes to be seen as a highly cultured person divorced from menial daily tasks. When Jón Páll Sigmarsson won the title of the world's strongest man he delighted all Icelanders during one part of the competition when he was required to lift a vast and improbable load above his head. As he raised it he said "Ekkert mál fyrir Jón Pál". This translates as "No problem for John Paul", but in Icelandic it rhymes. The Icelanders were euphoric – Jón Páll had reinforced the national idea that the Icelander is a strong poet.

Not only has an Icelander held the title of World's Strongest Man, but there have been several Icelandic Miss Worlds. There have also been a surprising number of Icelandic chess grandmasters, and the nation as more writers and artists per capita than any other country on earth. These facts reinforce the Icelanders' belief that they are a nation of strong, beautiful and intelligent people.

Self-sufficient and social

The Icelandic male may be individualistic, but he is also an 'associated man', addicted to clubs and groups. Most go to one or two gatherings each week – such as those of the Club for Humorous Pranks, or the Club for Wine Tasters Provided That Inebriation Does Not Lead to Divorce. Their enthusiasm for clubs does not extend as far as the joining of trades unions. They find such organizations altogether too earnest.

The life of the solitary farmer or fisherman may have made the Icelander appear withdrawn and silent, even shy, but this is now changing, travel having broadened him into a more sociable individual.

The Icelander is a hard worker, but erratic. He is self-reliant, flexible and long-suffering, but self-conscious, immodest and impatient. He is generous with regard to his friends, but also self-centred. He has little enthusiasm for the achievements of others, no matter how tremendous, but is upset when his own achievements, however modest, are not greeted as earth shattering.

Icelandic women are strong-willed and self-sufficient, both qualities dating from the fishing tradition, when the women organised the home and farm and managed everything while waiting for their men to return; often the men did not. Fishing communities have always had a high number of single mothers because of the shorter life expectancy of fathers. (There is still no social stigma attached to being a lone mother, married or otherwise. In fact, there are more single mothers than ever today and, along with Britain, Iceland has the highest illegitimate birthrate in Europe.)

Since they've maintained their strength and independence, feminism is seen as a backward step, for why accept equality when you have superiority? It is somewhat surprising that the modern Icelandic woman marries the modern Icelandic man. The only battleground of the sexes is politics where strong-minded women feel they have suffered at the hands of weak-minded men for years.

The farmer's mentality

Iceland came very quickly into the 20th century. Having been an isolated, insular race until 1940, the Icelanders suddenly found themselves the centre of attention. Invaded (for their own good, or so they were told) by the British and Americans, they discovered that they were rich beyond their wildest dreams. New markets for their fish made them for many years the wealthiest nation in Europe. This happened to a simple country people, and rustic attitudes remained. It is said that in 1946 the Icelanders had the highest number of bath tubs per capita of any European country, but that more often than not their main use was for keeping fish fresh.

The average farmer is considered well able to solve most of life's problems given 20 minutes, a hammer and a piece of string. This belief was reinforced by the country's early road builders who were book-trained engineers and proved to be quite useless. Even when they got it right, the bridges they built to connect outlying parts of the country to the main roads became an object of scorn: once the folk they were built to serve had used them to migrate to the towns, the bridges fell into disrepair and disuse behind them.

Being new to the concept of town-dwelling, the Icelanders still find its rules difficult. If you have been used to riding into the nearest village and hitching your horse to a rail outside the shop you want to visit, you expect to be able to do the same with your car. As a consequence, the underground car park in Reykjavík remained empty while the streets were full of cars whose drivers studiously ignored the parking meters. To combat this, the city authorities introduced an army of formidable parking wardens. So good have they been at their job that no-one now parks in the city centre at all and several shops in Laugavegur (the main street) have been forced to close down. There is now a (perhaps only temporary) respite, the wardens having been dispatched to Laugardalur (Hot Spring Valley) where the new 'World Class' gym has attracted a clientele so unfit they are unable to walk the 200 metres from the car park and routinely park, illegally, outside the front entrance.


Excerpted from Xenophobe's Guide to the Icelanders by Richard Sale. Copyright © 2011 Oval Projects. Excerpted by permission of Xenophobe's Guides.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Richard Sale is the author of AAA Essential Switzerland and Climbing the World's 14 Highest Mountains.

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