The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

The Icelanders: Superstition, morality and the media

Superstition played an important part in Icelandic literature: only Ireland in Western Europe can claim a folklore of comparable richness and fecundity, occurring at the margin where Christianity meets the old religion. The modern Icelanders remain true to their tradition and taken as a whole they are an extremely superstitious nation. A survey in 1975 indicated that 64% of the population had had a supernatural experience of some sort. Dreams are held to have great significance and there is widespread belief in the "hidden folk" (huldufólk) and in "enchanted spots", areas of particular significance to the "hidden folk" which must consequently be left well alone by humans. It is not unknown for a new road to be diverted due to public demand to avoid interference with an "enchanted spot".

As might be expected from such a superstitious nation, there is a great prevalence of mediums and séances and spiritualism is widely practised (the Norwegian psychologist, Harald Schjelderup, has said that the three countries in which spiritualism is most widely practised are Brazil, Puerto Rico and Iceland). Great store is set by communication with the dead (often in dreams) and ghost stories are too numerous to mention. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Icelanders, isolated in their small communities, beset by natural disasters and possessed of a strong pagan tradition, should have discerned the activities of supernatural beings all around them.

The Icelanders show the extreme tolerance in moral matters that is generally held to be characteristic of Scandinavian countries. Birth out of wedlock is a common occurrence (although often later legitimised), and there is none of the (frequently hypocritical) stigma attached to illegitimacy found in many other European countries. This liberal attitude is probably reinforced by their equally relaxed approach toward institutionalised religion; the Lutheran Church may fairly be said to play little part in national life.

There is little crime in Iceland (although it has increased in recent years), a phenomenon that can perhaps be attributed to the combined influence of the Icelanders' strong sense of personal honour, their independence and their tolerance (one consequence of which is that prisoners' sentences are almost invariably very lenient; on special occasions many of the prisoners are let out!). Despite their Viking forebears, they are a gentle and affectionate people, although their insatiable appetite for discussions and argument can raise passions — particularly if the subject is politics. Icelanders generally consume alcohol in moderation (prohibition existed 1915–22), but their drinking sprees (at New Year, perhaps) can be prodigious.

The population of Iceland is so small that many of its institutions retain a very parochial air. Iceland's national newspapers have much of the air of provincial publications, with a lot of emphasis on minor local news and features. Icelanders are great newspaper readers: in Reykjavík alone there are no less than five daily papers. It is interesting to note that these are all politically orientated and more overtly partisan than their Western European counterparts.

Besides reading, chess is probably the next most popular national pastime; both are legacies of the long winter nights when there was little choice other than to sit at home and entertain yourself. Reykjavík was put on the international map as a Mecca for chess by Fischer and Spassky's extraordinary series of matches for the world title in the 1970s.

Television and radio nowadays provide less–testing forms of entertainment, and indeed threaten to erode the old way of life entirely. The introduction of television in the mid–sixties rekindled the controversy over the "foreign invasion" of the national culture. Since 1961 the NATO base at Keflavík has had its own internal TV service (not surprisingly dominated by American programmes) and quite a number of people in the capital bought TV sets to pick up the station. This "importation of culture" was fiercely debated and led to a wide–ranging argument over the programme content of the planned Icelandic service. Today the Keflavík service is limited to the base.

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