In no particular order, here are some fun facts we learned during our week in Iceland. Isolation and constant freezing lead to some interesting cultural adaptations…
- Dating Challenges: Iceland was first settled in the 800’s. Given the remoteness of the island there has historically been very little migration. As a result of 1300 years of isolation most of the 330,000 people who live here are related in some way. Needless to say, that creates some awkward possibilities when selecting a possible life partner.
Leave it to the cell phone to find a solution – The Iceland incest prevention app. Users bump their phones together and the app tells them just how related they are. It’s up to the user to decide if shagging their 3rd cousin twice removed is acceptable or not.
- Names: Icelandic is not an easy language to understand. Think Elvish from Lord of the Rings. Complicating matters is that Icelanders don’t follow the normal rules when naming their children. Rather than passing down a surname from generation to generation, instead the surname is either the Mother or Father’s first name, followed with “son” or “dottir”. For example, the singer Bjork, probably Iceland’s most famous musician, is named “Bjork Guimandsdottir” because her Mother’s first name is Guimand. Just to complicate things further, the phone book lists people by their first name,
- Icelanders believe in Elves and Trolls: Oh, they will deny it if asked, but they are unlikely to do anything to anger the hidden creatures. On the way back from one of our excursions the road inexplicably made a small bend around a rock outcropping. It turns out that this rock formation is an Elf Church. The road crews were going to demolish this outcropping, but equipment kept breaking down and workers were routinely getting injured. Eventually they decided to appease the Elves and bend the road around this 10 meter section of rock.
- No Santa Claus: Icelandic children don’t hear stories about Santa Claus. Instead, they hear about the Yule Lads. The 13 Yule Lads are basically mischievous little assholes who torment bad children in small ways. A new one comes out each day starting on December 12, and hangs around for two weeks. Each one has a particular fetish. For instance, Stufur likes to steal pans so he can eat the crust from them. Huroaskellir slams doors in the middle of the night. Kertasnikir steals candles from children. Oh the stories we tell our kids to make them behave…
- Par-boiling the dead: The town of Selfoss, about 30 minutes from Reykjavik, has no cemeteries. Geothermal activity is everywhere in Iceland, and this town has a particularly high water table. Buried corpses were essentially being cooked in their graves. A private church was built on a hilltop outside of town just so townspeople would have a place to bury the dead.
- Viking form of government: The original Viking settlers were looking to escape the control of the King. They decided that there would be no ruler and invented a really unique form of government. Over their 1300 year history Iceland has never had a Monarch. Here’s what they did.
Once a year they held a gathering of clan elders. A giant party ensued in what became essentially the world’s first parliament. People would come to the council with grievances. Let’s say two neighboring clans had a dispute. Things escalated, and a blood feud was about to erupt. The leaders of the two clans would state their cases and the elders would make a decision.
Neither side was obligated to abide by the results. There was no national police force or army, so that meant there was no enforcement mechanism. So what compelled people to abide by the decisions? If a clan decided not to accept the decision that was their right. However, for the next seven years they were forbidden from bringing another case to the elders. For seven years all other tribes could act with impunity against this tribe. Being outside of the protective umbrella for seven years was incentive enough for most tribes to comply.
- Reykjavik is a small city: About 250,000 people live here (out of the total population of 330,000). The city wasn’t designed with tour buses in mind so the city has rules about where they can go. There are designated bus stops all over the place. Google “Reykjavik bus stops” for a map. Ours is at the church two blocks away. When you book a tour or transport to/from the airport you will likely be dropped off at one of these spots. Be aware, Icelanders are PROMPT. If your excursion starts at 9:00 then you will be picked up between 8:30 and 9:00 at the bus stop. If you’re not there on time then it’s your loss.