The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

The Icelanders: Independent minds

The harshness of life in Iceland for much of its history has resulted, too, in a national fortitude that is difficult to overestimate and which has enabled the Icelanders to endure Nature's excesses and finally to prosper on one of the world's most unpredictable and inhospitable land masses. This sterling quality was exhibited to its best advantage during the massive eruption on the island of Heimaey in January 1974. The community fought for over five months to save their town, part of which was engulfed by pumice, the rest threatened by a lava flow that was pushing a ridge of clinker 40m high in front of it, and exuding dense poisonous gases.

High-pressure pumps were employed to try to cool the advancing edge of the lava with millions of litres of sea water and thus divert the lava stream behind it. It was a truly herculean task, but finally, after many days and nights of hard and dangerous labour, it was achieved and when the eruption ceased five months later man had, for the first time in history, successfully fought the destructive power of a volcano.

Over three hundred houses had been engulfed, and nearly a million kilograms of ash and pumice had to be removed, but the people returned in July to rebuild their shattered settlement and today, although it still bears the scars of the catastrophe, Heimaey has recovered from the eruption that — but for the determination of its inhabitants — would undoubtedly have obliterated it.

Calamities such as that at Heimaey have befallen the Icelanders throughout their history and it is not surprising that their geographical position should have forged a people of marked independence and individuality. Up until a hundred years ago the average Icelander lived in very isolated circumstances with little communication with other settlements; he had to be self–reliant. The long history of poverty on the island, and its essentially agricultural base, prevented the emergence of an aristocracy, and class distinctions are less obvious than in other European countries. The almost obsessional interest which an Icelander expresses in his genealogy is not the result of class competitiveness, but of a keen sense of history, and the traditional importance of family and forebears to an individual.

The country lacks sharp intellectual divisions as well: the artists and intellectuals have not become an élite, remote from the average Icelander, as they have in perhaps every other European nation. Icelanders are voracious readers, and farmers and seamen are often remarkably knowledgeable about current developments in literature and poetry. But in Iceland the poet or dreamer and the man of action have never become divorced.

Almost without exception, the greatest figures in Icelandic history distinguished themselves in the artistic or intellectual sphere as well as the political. Men such as Snorri Sturluson, who was a major poet, historian and Saga–writer as well as a warrior and chieftain in the Viking mould, amassing wealth and influence before dying a violent death; Jón Arason, who was an accomplished poet as well as a warlike bishop and Jón Sigurðsson, the greatest Icelandic political figure in the nineteenth century, was a noted philologist and historian.

The present lack of intellectual and artistic isolationism is thus firmly grounded in historical precedent. The Icelanders respect their poets as much as their leaders, probably more so, but they take to their hearts a man who is both.

What`s in the website ?


The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy