The Romans Were Here

Early one evening in the summer of 1923 a young man was strolling round the valley of Hvaldalur on the southeast coast of Iceland. The valley is known to be one of the most severe and inhospitable areas in Iceland, harsh weather with heavy rain and storms presenting great danger to visitors even today; cars are being blown off the road by violent wind blows, windows of cars and caravans braking from stones and other debris carried off and swirling through the air as it whizzes down the mountains on its way towards the open sea. Vegetation in the valley is extremely sparse, sand and stones making up the ground surface. It is in this place the young man is walking when he sees something lying on the ground glittering in the afternoon sun. He picks up the tiny object and looks at it. It is a coin. Probing the soil around the find spot with his fingers to make sure there are no other coins hidden under the rocky surface, he makes no further discoveries and quickly carries on with his stroll.

This is the fictionalised account of how a British geologist came upon a Roman coin on Icelandic soil. Prior to this rather astounding discovery, only one Roman coins had been found in Iceland. An additional four coins from the Roman era were later to be discovered, contributing to the mystery, which still puzzles archaeologists and numismatists: How did six coins stamped with the portrait of Roman emperors end up on Iceland and when did this happen? Read more here

 

Jan Janszoon, The Dutchman Who Enslaved The Icelanders

Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, commonly known as Murat Reis the younger (circa 1570 - post 1641) was the first President and Grand Admiral of the Corsair Republic of Salé, Governor of Oualidia, and a Dutch pirate, one of the most notorious of the Barbary pirates from the 17th century; the most famous of the "Salé Rovers".

In 1627, Janszoon used a Danish "slave" (most likely a crew member captured on a Danish ship taken as a pirate prize) to pilot him and his men to Iceland. There they raided the fishing village of Grindavík. Their takings were meagre, only some salted fish and a few hides, but they also captured twelve Icelanders and three Danes who happened to be in the village. When they were leaving Grindavík they managed to trick and capture a Danish merchant ship that was passing by means of flying a false flag.

The ships then sailed to Bessastaðir, seat of the Danish governor of Iceland, to raid there but were unable to make a landing - it is said they were thwarted by cannon fire from the local fortifications (Bessastaðaskans) and a quickly mustered group of lancers from the Suðurnes. and decided to turn away and sail home to Salé, where their captives were sold as slaves.

Two corsair ships from Algiers, possibly connected to Janszoons raid, came to Iceland on July 4 and plundered there. Then they sailed to Vestmannaeyjar off the southern coast and raided there for three days. Those events are collectively known in Iceland as Tyrkjaránið (the Turkish abductions), as the Barbary states were nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire. Read more here and here

"You're one of us, you must never be seen doing work suitable for servants."

While J.R.R. Tolkien was writing the Hobbit, he employed serval Icelandic girls to work in his home. Here is an interview with one of them. The interview appeared in Morgunbladid 1999 and the lady in question, named Arndis. Read more here

Surtsey - The Birth of a New Island

At 07:15 UTC on 14 November 1963, the cook of Ísleifur II, a trawler sailing off the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago south of Iceland, spotted something southwest of the boat, which turned out to be a rising column of dark smoke. The vessel went to investigate the smoke. The captain thought it might have been a boat on fire, but instead they encountered explosive eruptions giving off black columns of ash, indicating that a volcanic eruption had begun beneath the sea. Read more here

So, After All it Was Not Leifur Eríksson Who First Discoverd America

Bjarni Herjólfsson (fl. 10th century) was a Norse explorer who is the first known European discoverer of the mainland of the Americas, which he sighted in 985.  The Grœnlendinga saga ('Greenlanders Saga') tells that one year he sailed to Iceland to visit his parents as usual, only to find that his father had gone with Erik the Red to Greenland. So he took his crew and set off to find him. But in that summer of 986, Bjarni, who had no map or compass, was blown off course by a storm. He saw a piece of land that was not Greenland. It was covered with trees and mountains and although his crew begged him to, he refused to stop and look around. Since no one in his crew had been to Greenland before, they had to search for it.Although he managed to regain his course, he reported seeing low-lying hills covered with forests some distance farther to the west. The land looked hospitable, but Bjarni was eager to reach Greenland to see his parents and did not land and explore the new lands. Read more here

King Arthur - The Matter of Iceland

The first narrative account of Arthur's life is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin work Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain).This work, completed c. 1138, is an imaginative and fanciful account of British kings from the legendary Trojan exile Brutus to the 7th-century Welsh king Cadwallader. Geoffrey places Arthur in the same post-Roman period as do Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae. He incorporates Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, his magician advisor Merlin, and the story of Arthur's conception, in which Uther, disguised as his enemy Gorlois by Merlin's magic, sleeps with Gorlois's wife Igerna at Tintagel, and she conceives Arthur. On Uther's death, the fifteen-year-old Arthur succeeds him as King of Britain and fights a series of battles, similar to those in the Historia Brittonum, culminating in the Battle of Bath. He then defeats the Picts and Scots before creating an Arthurian empire through his conquests of Ireland, Iceland and the Orkney Islands. Read more here

 

A Whale of a Story

Iceland was one of the first countries in the world to take a conservationist approach to whaling. As signs of overexploitation of whales by other nations emerged early in the last century, Iceland declared a ban on whaling for large whales around Iceland in 1915. Whaling was not resumed until 1948, except for limited catches 1935-1939. Read more here

007 Of Icelandic Descent

You’ve seen him in the movies. Most famously, he has been played by Sean Connery, Roger Moore and lately Daniel Craig. There he appears as Bond, James Bond. He appears under his own name in A Man Called Intrepid, played by David Niven. He also appears in the Ian Fleming biopic Goldeneye (not to be confused with the Bond film of the same title). There, William Stephenson is portrayed as the real M to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. There is much to suggest, however, that Stephenson is not only the model for M, but also for Bond himself. 

His mother was from Iceland, and his father was from the Orkney Islands. He was adopted early by an Icelandic family after his parents could no longer care for him, and given his foster parents' name, Stephenson. Read more here

He Saw Further Than Most

The Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) are among the most spectacular phenomena on earth – and Iceland is the perfect place to see them. Thousands of people come to Iceland every winter to enjoy them. Icelanders still tell the story of the man who first sold the northern light. They think it is humorous.

Icelandic poet and entrepreneur, Einar Benediktsson (1864 -1940)  became a fervent nationalist, coming to believe that only massive inward investment could bring prosperity to his native country. He spent many years of his life travelling round Europe in unsuccessful attempts to bring this about. Legends have formed around his vivid personality: he is supposed to have sold the Northern Lights to an Italian businessman. Read more here

Snorri Sturluson, The Lord Of The Rings

Snorri Sturluson(1179 – 23 September 1241) was an Icelandic historian, poet, and politician. He was twice elected lawspeaker at the Icelandic parliament, the Althing. He was the author of the Prose Edda or Younger Edda, which consists of Gylfaginning ("the fooling of Gylfi"), a narrative of Norse mythology, the Skáldskaparmál, a book of poetic language, and the Háttatal, a list of verse forms. He was also the author of the Heimskringla, a history of the Norwegian kings that begins with legendary material in Ynglinga saga and moves through to early medieval Scandinavian history.  Read more here

In ancient Germanic mythology, the world of Men is known by several names, such as Midgard, Middenheim, Manaheim, and Middengeard. The Old English word middangeard descends from an earlier Germanic word and so has cognates in languages related to Old English such as the Old Norse word Miðgarðr from Norse mythology, transliterated to modern English as Midgard. Read more here

The term "Middle-earth"; also commonly referred to as "middle-world," was therefore not invented by Tolkien. It occurs in Early Modern English as a development of the Middle English word middel-erde (cf. modern German Mittelerde), which developed in turn, through a process of folk etymology, from middanÄ¡eard (the g being soft, i.e. pronounced like y in its modern descendant "yard"). By the time of the Middle English period, middangeard was being written as middellærd, midden-erde, or middel-erde, indicating that the second element had been reinterpreted, based on its similarity to the word for "earth".The shift in meaning was not great, however: middangeard properly meant "middle enclosure" instead of "middle-earth";Nevertheless middangeard has been commonly translated as "middle-earth" and Tolkien followed this course. Read more here and here

Blame it on The Bloody Icelandic Volcano

Located in Iceland, Eyjafjallajokull volcano has gained momentous contemporary fame due to its recent 2010 eruption. It´s  ash cloud wreaked havoc in international travel and caused major disruptions in aviation schedules. Many countries in the region experienced flight cancellations, and delays and the chaos continued uninterrupted for 6 days. The eruption is believed to have triggered the biggest ever financial loss in air travel history. Losses have been reported to exceed well over a billion USD

Just over 200 years ago an Icelandic volcano erupted with catastrophic consequences for weather, agriculture and transport across the northern hemisphere – and helped trigger the French revolution.

The Laki volcanic fissure in southern Iceland erupted over an eight-month period from 8 June 1783 to February 1784, spewing lava and poisonous gases that devastated the island's agriculture, killing much of the livestock. It is estimated that perhapsa quarter of Iceland's population died through the ensuing famine. Read more here and here

Bobby Fischer "The greatest chess player who ever lived" died in Iceland

Seeking ways to evade deportation to the United States, Fischer wrote a letter to the government of Iceland in early January 2005 and asked for Icelandic citizenship. Sympathetic to Fischer's plight, but reluctant to grant him the full benefits of citizenship, Icelandic authorities granted him an alien's passport. When this proved insufficient for the Japanese authorities, the Althing agreed unanimously to grant Fischer full citizenship in late March for humanitarian reasons, as they felt he was being unjustly treated by the U.S. and Japanese governments,and also in recognition of his 1972 match, which had "put Iceland on the map".

On January 17, 2008, Fischer died from degenerative renal failure at the Reykjavík hospital. Read more here.

American Indians Amongst The Vikings

Five hundred years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, a Native American woman may have voyaged to Europe with Vikings, according to a provocative recent DNA study.

 

Analyzing a type of DNA passed only from mother to child, scientists found more than 80 living Icelanders with a genetic variation similar to one found mostly in Native Americans. Read more here and here

 

"Pish for thee, Iceland Dog! thoug prick-ear'd cur of Iceland!" (Shakespeare's Henry V)

In the 1960s there were fewer than 35 Icelandic Sheepdogs left in Iceland, the result of lack of interest in the ancient breed and several catastrophic population crashes caused by distemper epidemics brought into Iceland by newer breeds of dogs. Mark Watson, a British man with a love for Iceland, aroused interest in the breed and started efforts to save them. At one time he moved to Nicosia in northern California and established a kennel to breed Icelandics. Things did not go well and he eventually returned to his native England with some of his dogs to continue his work. His gene pool was too small and the lack of diversity contributed to the failure of his breedings. Apparently none any of the descendants of his dogs in Great Britain have survived there today. Read more here.

 

Glíma "It's your own damn fault if you get hurt!"

Glima translates literally as "The Game of Joy", and is an art roughly 1100 years old.  It was brought to Iceland by Viking settlers, and has been practiced as a folk art ever since.  It is mentioned in writing in the "Jonsbok" law-book in 1325, "Whosoever participates in a contest of friendly wrestling or hide-tugging does so on his own responsibility".  In other words, "It's your own damn fault if you get hurt!"  The term used in the book to refer to wrestling is "Leikfang".  This is an older name for wrestling.  The root word "Fang" meaning "Catching" in the sense of gaining control of a person or object.  The term can also be used to refer to holding someone in their arms, the space between the arms, or wrestling in general, though in the old sagas when they talked of Leikfang it sounds more like back-hold wrestling than what we see in Glima today with the low grip.  Some of the Leikfang contests described end with spines being broken from a man being bent backwards. Read more here and here

The Beginning of the End of The Cold War

The Reykjavík Summit was a summit meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party  of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, held in Höfði in Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland, on October 11–12, 1986. The talks collapsed at the last minute, but the progress that had been achieved eventually resulted in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. Read more here.

Eva Braun invited to Iceland by Hitler

Eva Braun visited Iceland in 1939 and there is both film footage and photos, which Eva Braun did. It was mistakenly believed that the fil footage was from Norway but now it has been positively identified as the town Isafjordur in Iceland. Eva Braun travelled on the luxury liner, Milwaukee and was accompanied with her mother and sister and 560 other Germans She made some films of Isafjordur and her travelling companions also took many photographs of Iceland.

Video here

Snow White was an Icelandic Girl

Kristín Sölvadóttir was engaged to Charlie Thorsson, an illustrator and designer for Walt Disney Studios. While the marriage never came to be, Charlie allegedly told Kristín he would immortalise her, and supposedly did so by basing the design for Snow White on her. Read more here

The First Settler of Iceland was "Nightwalker"

The Swedish explorer Garðar Svavarsson was the first man to discover that Iceland is an island. He wintered in Húsavík four years before the settlement of Ingólfur Arnarson. Left behind upon Garðar’s departure was Náttfari (Nightwalker) whom many consider the first permanent settler of Iceland. Read more here.

The Last "Pinguin of the North"

The last colony of Great Auks lived on Geirfuglasker (the "Great Auk Rock") off Iceland. This islet was a volcanic rock surrounded by cliffs which made it inaccessible to humans, but in 1830 the islet submerged after a volcanic eruption, and the birds moved to the nearby island of Eldey, which was accessible from a single side. When the colony was initially discovered in 1835, nearly fifty birds were present. Museums, desiring the skins of the auk for preservation and display, quickly began collecting birds from the colony.The last pair, found incubating an egg, was killed there on 3 July 1844, on request from a merchant who wanted specimens, with Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangling the adults and Ketill Ketilsson smashing the egg with his boot. Read more here.

Lopapeysa, not so Traditional

Icelandic sweater is an Icelandic style of sweater originating around the 1950s, at a time when imports had displaced older and more traditional Icelandic clothing and people began to search for new ways to utilize the plentiful native wool. It is believed that the sweaters are patterned on Greenlandic women's costume, or even inspired by South American, Turkish or Swedish textile patterns. Read more here.