A Study of Icelandic Culture & Custom - by Maya-Catherine Popa

I. A Place Apart: A Brief History and Introduction: In his poem entitled Journey to Iceland, W.H Auden says “Islands are places apart where Europe is absent/Are they? The world still is, the present, the lie” . Are we ever apart? Certainly, that is the paradox of travel: the more we personally discover of our earth, the longer we are away from our proper home. And yet, the islands, continents, and coasts all comprise this world we call home. The effect of being in a foreign place is often overwhelming. Our environment shapes our understanding of who we are: we live in context of what is familiar around us. But as Danish-born anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup advises, we must approach the foreign as a practiced place, to be experienced rather than seen. Language, here, is of the utmost importance: to experience rather than to see a place assumes that a number of external forces are actively at work. Foreign places should gratify all of our senses, not just our sight. Indeed, our understanding of where we are in the world is shaped by many factors that warrant discussion. The difference between home and abroad is a sizeable one. It is as though the unfamiliar happens to us: the land, language, and people are all elements of our exchange. We interact with new places in a profoundly different way than we approach our hometowns. Whenever we travel, we are protagonists in a story of displacement and must act accordingly, experiencing in first person, not as the narrator. Perhaps our objective should be to unlock some secret, to mend the rift that sets us apart from the natives. This ambition is necessary when discussing Iceland, a country so unique in landscape, language, and custom that assuming the role of spectator and not a player in the performance would mean to miss the show entirely. Hastrup claims to take the standpoint of “marginal observer, suspended between the private and public worlds” in her study of Iceland entitled A Place Apart. Though she refers to the private and public as two separate worlds, there is one unique world for Icelandic identity. While Iceland may appear impenetrable to foreigners, Icelanders actively reconcile the dual nature of their existence, embracing a catalogue of distinctive traditions while increasingly becoming a trendy destination and host to modern ideas and events. However, as any anthropologist will stress, it is difficult, and often unwise, to make generalizations about a society and its history. Harstrup notes “the stories told by anthropologists are reflections within reality, not outside or ‘upon’ it.” One objective is to reveal something essential about the people and culture in question through illustration rather than fact. Insights are achieved through a model of occurrence and recurrence. What should be sought, then, is a blueprint of experience that echoes basic truths about the place in question. What form could reflect our understanding of culture? It appears that culture is a term at once stable and rushing ahead of us. We may speak of it in varyingly definite terms, of elements that suggest the expansiveness of society and place. Anthropologist Anthony Cohen suggests “culture is more like the performance of a symphony, in which members of the orchestra contribute varyingly, and possibly even have completely different opinions about the music they are playing” . It is ultimately beyond the limits of language. To the listeners, the visitors of a country like Iceland, the effect is that of “a unified score”. The variations are perceptible, though not fully identifiable to those outside the cultural ring. Culture is not as concrete as it is suggestive, a medley of factors that create our understanding of a place to be experienced. Cohen’s analogy to music is one of the finer parallels to our position as cultural outsiders, a stance we each adopt at some point in our travels, or when addressing a foreign place in conceptual, detailed terms. This is particularly relevant to Iceland, a country riddled with elements worthy of examination. However, it is impossible to substantially discuss the country without a considered dose of contexture. As Harstrup concludes, writing culture “is neither canonical representation, nor creative fiction; it is a mode of orchestrating real experiences which brings contexture to life.”

I decided to visit Iceland in summer 2007, for a drastic change from New York’s summer scenery. I knew that by my visit in late August, the Midnight Sun, a natural phenomenon causing daylight to last 24 hours in Iceland, (as well in various other countries with north latitudes near the Arctic Circle), would have set. I was, instead, excited at the prospect of witnessing the Northern Lights (aurora borealis), the colorful curtains that cover the night sky in the world’s northernmost countries. After a short five-hour flight, the pilot announced our decent into Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. As I looked out the window, however, I couldn’t help but ask myself if there had been some mistake. The view in no way suggested an inhabited country. In fact, what could be seen resembled images of the surface of Mars, volcanic and desolate. The sky was eerily white and the ground had a texture I had only seen in science textbooks. Soon enough, the runway came into view, and the lack of visible habitation was still startling. I soon remembered that Iceland is no bigger than the state of Kentucky and has a population of 300,000 (compared to Kentucky’s 4.2 million )—why would those people live close to the airport? Indeed, two thirds of the population lives in Reykjavik and its surrounding suburbs. No wonder it looked as though we’d taken a wrong turn and landed in uncharted territory. Once in Reykjavik, I was staying with Rutur Finbogosson, an old friend whose parents are both Icelandic-born diplomats. Though Rutur had traveled the world over, living in half-a-dozen countries before the age of twenty, he had decided to return to Reykjavik for the summer to work in a factory that produces tar and asphalt for roadwork. Though Icelanders have always relied heavily on farming and fishing, a job in a factory, I learned, was common for young men regardless of their socioeconomic background. It is customary for Iceland’s youths to work as soon as they are of age, and as the construction industry is currently booming in Iceland (over 55% of Iceland’s buildings date post 1970) , many find jobs in factories. I was skeptical of this seemingly unfitting job for Rutur who is an indisputable intellectual, but learned he was being handsomely rewarded for his time there (particularly in light of the weakness of the US dollar). Iceland, situated in the North Atlantic, was first visited by Irish monks in the eighth century. It was largely uninhabited until the ninth century, at the start of the Norse settlements. The first constitution was written in 930, establishing Iceland as a self-governing, democratic state. The alþingi (people’s assembly) were to meet once a year to confirm laws and judge cases brought before the court. In the year 1000, by a communal decision passed by the assembly, Iceland became Christian. The church eventually gained power, overwriting many of Iceland’s traditional laws. Nonetheless, it flourished as an autonomous society with an impressive political structure and refined tradition of writing. As Christianity’s principles slowly (and predictably) affected the country, Iceland increasingly welcomed the idea of a kingdom based on divine power, a structure to which it had once been opposed. In the thirteenth century, Iceland swore allegiance to the Norwegian kingdom, and in 1380, when Norway united with Denmark, Iceland became a part of the Danish realm. Iceland stayed under Danish rule until its independence in 1918. The Republic of Iceland was declared in 1944, successfully ridding the country of its last bindings to the Danish kingdom. I could not have asked for a host with a richer Icelandic history: Rutur’s aunt is Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former president of Iceland, and the first woman in the world to be chosen as head of state in an open election. She held office from 1980-1996, for four terms, which is not uncommon in Iceland. The president can serve for as many terms as he/she chooses, and is elected. The president, however, is not the head of government—that role is still reserved to the prime minister. Iceland has not had it easy throughout the centuries, passing from the hands of one empire to another, only recently achieving its independence. Famines were widespread during Iceland’s “dark age”, 1400-1800s. Iceland was not modernized until after the Second World War, at which time it made remarkable progress, innovating quickly. Rutur often expressed pride in Iceland’s forward-thinking approach to politics and issues of gender, as well as admiration for his aunt and her much appreciated work as the country’s leader. Iceland is renowned for an egalitarian system, something I was unaware of prior to my visit to the country. And if my brief week in Reykjavik convinced me of anything, it is that the old and the new can be meshed in wonderful and unexpected ways. Traditions can be upheld in the face of innovation, resulting in a hybrid as culturally varied and rich as the landscape itself.

II. Icelandic Identity and the Foreigner’s Dilemma

I was surprised to find that every Icelander I came in contact with would, after a brief introduction, ask if I had read the sagas. I was familiar with the concept of saga—a lengthy chronicling of heroic events—but the frequent questioning lead me to suspect that my interrogators had something specific in mind. The Icelandic sagas, it appeared, were not on par with my rather limited understanding of this body of literature. I left Iceland with napkins full of scribbled names, Njáls, Herald’s, Laxdaela’s; Rutur’s friends even argued over recommendations. It seemed as though every Icelander had these references under belt the way we, in America, might know the Disney classics, or pick up on references to Mark Twain’s disobedient boys. However, my analogy overlooks a key difference by omitting the important component all sagas share: the chronicling of events that are, by Icelanders, considered historical. Whereas Americans appreciate their literature to varying degree, Icelanders look to the sagas as their written past. It is not purely the writing, but the story itself that excites them in a way that is foreign to our understanding of history or fiction proper. Iceland is a land of customs, of shared traditions and linguistic purism. In her study of Iceland, Hastrup tells us that when the Enlightenment occurred, foreign observers took note of how Icelanders retained more Nordic practices and beliefs than anywhere else. This is attributed largely to Iceland’s low external contact to the rest of the world, as well as its large peasant population. Naturally, this poses a difficulty to historians, not to mention any foreigner trying to develop an understanding of the country. But, as Hastrup rightfully expresses, the distinction between myth and history is “a distinction which is one of modes of representation rather than kinds of reality. The content of the two modes is reality itself, and in so far as we may separate them as distinct genres, they have always been blurred in Iceland” . It is not historical fiction that abounds in the Icelandic sagas, nor is it a conscious or deliberate attempt to sensationalize and/or manipulate fact. Rather, the sagas are an example of a longstanding oral tradition. Storytelling has been practiced virtually everywhere in Iceland since the country’s incipience. It is embedded in the culture to an outstanding degree, and has not simply been a pastime. The Icelanders have constructed their self-understanding around this tradition, and infused it into all domains of society.

III. The Role of Myth:

Former president Vigdís Finnbógadottir says “There is also a parallel world in Iceland, an otherworld which has held the imagination since the beginning of time” This parallel world is one abundant in hidden creatures, curses, and invisible forces that share the land. When we consider Iceland, a land rich in craters and crags, mountains and hillsides that look entirely untouched by human contact, these beliefs do not seem so implausible. Indeed, as Rutur told me, it is not too uncommon for construction to be limited in certain areas still believed inhabited by elves. This deference for the concealed is unfathomable in America. Trolls (tröll), hidden people (huldufólk), and ghosts (draugar) are all said to call Iceland home. Kirsten Hastrup shares a fascinating, if not amusing, anecdote from her months spent in the Icelandic countryside. She recounts conversations with locals who explained that trolls had effectively become extinct some two hundred years ago, but that petrified ones could still be found in the landscape. The huldufólk, elves, or so-called “hidden people”, Hastrup believes represent “a category of metaphorical humans, closely associated with particular features of the landscape.” Around the farm, she explained, there were specific places in which huldufólk were known to live, generally rock areas or gullies. When Hastrup asked about the current status of the elves, the locals shrugged. They had to turn to personal memory, reflecting on moments they had last been seen. Eventually, the group decided a group of huldufólk had last been seen standing by the farmhouse ten years ago. Their infrequent appearance may be linked to the farm’s installing electricity, also a decade earlier. Though Icelanders in the countryside rarely encounter huldufólk, they are still very much a part of their world. More or less jokingly, people still blame missing items on their existence and their mischievous stealing. Hastrup recounts “The elderly wise woman of the farm told me that whatever was missing it would be no good searching for it. It would be a waste of time, since inevitably the items would reappear, once the hidden people had finished with it.” It is not a matter of whether the huldufólk really exist or not, though as an outsider, I would be very curious to know. The present of Icelandic tradition is a continuation of past beliefs, linking old generations to the new. Hastrup makes a point of saying that this traditional belief is not reserved to the countryside: a map of Reykjavik had recently been printed showing the supposed dwellings of secret creatures. America acknowledges ghosts: they are the subjects of endless movies, including recent shows that investigate supposedly haunted locations. However, whether Americans believe in ghosts depends largely on what town you find yourself visiting Some are convinced of their existence, while others refute it entirely. In Iceland, draugars are revenants linked to fishing villages where drowned fisherman come back to roam. Though harmless, they are spooky and uncomfortable to come across. Hastrup says it is uncommon for women in the countryside to walk around late at night when the draugars are out and about, making her particularly brave, if not reckless, for being active nonetheless. Every person Hastrup spoke to made reference to the past, which gives us a fascinating cultural insight. Though huldufólk and draugars are both spoken of in the past tense, they are no less relevant to the present in Iceland. Furthermore, certain misunderstandings arise from this conventional approach to explaining the present via the past. Hastrup explains that the “fear of the local women was partly due to the fact that in the village context, the category of draugar was inhabited by real, living people.” As with the huldufólk, the word was still used metaphorically. What we would understand as creepy night-wanderers, or else lost drunks, are still referred to as ghosts in Iceland. This is an intriguing distinction, if not a cultural rift that landed Hastrup in an unpleasant position when she stumbled on a middle-aged, unusual-looking man. So that is what the women mean by draugar. The question remains, do the Icelanders recognize they are talking about real people when they warn foreigners? Or do they really believe they’re seeing ghosts at night? Are ghosts spotted half the time, and living people the other half? Again, this is another example of a place where foreigners are lost in translation in the Icelandic world. And this is no small point, particularly because it is dark nearly all of winter. Where does this tradition of myth and local creatures originate? Hastrup suggests that the history of Icelandic settlements indirectly created a myth of source, which in turn shaped their future growth and understanding. Iceland has long had an insistence on freedom, preferring an autonomous political structure settled upon by a general assembly. There has been a sense of commonality through a strong notion of equality of law. “Icelandic society emerged as an alternative to the centralist and feudal kingdoms of Europe” says Hastrup who confirms that this society made from scratch established itself both physically and conceptually apart from Europe. Icelanders are adamant about their island’s distinctiveness. At once deeply concerned with mythology, Iceland actively mythologizes itself. The country itself adopts a haze, a fog that makes it a dreamland in the middle of nowhere. One wonders what Iceland might have looked like centuries ago if, upon my visit, the country in its modern age was a startling vista. “Iceland is not a myth; it is a solid portion of the earth’s surface” said Auden—is there any doubt America exists? Most of the time, countries work to forget our presence in the world. There is a key cultural distinction. Icelanders prefer their isolation and their status as under-the-radar. They demand little of surrounding countries, and persist in traditions, the myths we live by .

IV. Saga: Story and History

The term saga (plural sögur) in Icelandic literally translates to both story and history. It designates what has been said and spoken about the past, carried through the present and into the future. No distinction is made between the veracity of history and that of story, which is a startling, if not unsettling, concept. It is not that the truth and lies are reconciled, rather that both are regarded as coming from a place of reality. As Hastrup notes, in Icelandic, “knowledge (fræoi) is neutral in relation to the distinction between truth and lie: one’s learning may be somewhat wanting or wrong, but no lie” Lying is a conscious attack against knowledge. Icelanders partake in an exchange of what has been said, be it accurate or otherwise. It is not to stray from truth, rather to achieve it. Both sagt er and munnmoelin segja are frequently used to foreword Icelandic storytelling, the former translating to “it is said”, and the latter to “legend says”. Story presupposes a history, a context vital for events to take place. These expressions are used as a preface, introducing records of a past still relevant to the present. As many anthropologists argue, there is no “legitimate” history, no purely factual reality. The history that seeks to work purely through official texts is caught in the “myth of realism” . Hastrup dismisses this myth in her study of Iceland. How could this world, experienced subjectively, yield an objective history? Memory is of the utmost importance in Iceland: “the said, as story and history, is constantly recirculated, and in the process it both surrounds and constitutes the contexture of the Icelandic world.” Icelandic pride is deeply routed in storytelling, in commonality of origin. Just how important are the age-old themes of the sagas, these recollections? Iceland would not be the same without them. In 1944, when Iceland received its independence, a chief matter was regaining old manuscripts from the Danish crown, thereby physically reclaiming their history. This goal was eventually met, much to Iceland’s relief. More so than any other country I have visited, Iceland lends itself beautifully to both story and history, alive and restless in the consciousness of the people who have a thorough knowledge of the land in which they have been raised. Historically, Icelandic culture has been relatively bare in material possessions (this changed post-World War II), which means their focus has been on craft, particularly literature, rather than amassing goods. Icelandic understanding of historical events shapes their approach to the present, implicitly framing their understanding of a new, modernizing country. It is ground for their existence, roots in the soil. Iceland suggests history is born from a collection of personal narratives, which, in turn, grasp at a larger whole. It is “the sense of ‘we’ is the subtext of communication” We cannot detach the reality of human experience from a chronology of events, no more than we can communicate wordlessly. The so-called saga-age provides anthropologists with the richest understanding of Icelandic life, households, families, and struggles dating back to the thirteenth century. Their success as a category of literature is due in part to the countless battles described, the action and narratives. Though many references are lost to foreigners, it is still an accessible body of literature that has stood the test of time. Many of the stories still shared come from Old Norse, the primary source being Snorri’s Edda from the early thirteenth century. In the introduction of the Elder Edda, Patricia Terry states “The Edda poems, considered as a whole, seem not so much a book as a panorama” , suggesting that the Edda poems be considered as much for their literary value as for the insights offered on Nordic culture. “Norse mythology provided the Icelanders with a concentric model of the world, which has influenced Icelandic cosmology ever since ” says Hastrup, once again suggesting that this literature is resiliently tied to the Icelandic cultural view. As will later be discussed, the sagas were at the center of the Icelandic nationalist movements in the nineteenth century, reinventing an idealized version of the Icelandic language. This is tremendously interesting, as alongside a purification of Icelandic via ancient manuscript came a rebirth of ambitions proposed by the stories. As Harstrup says “past goals were proposed as virtues for the future” . The themes of the sagas- violence, heroism, family, travel, gods, conquering- are all refurbished for a more modern time. What we come to understand about the sagas is that they are not merely entertaining, battle-filled journeys that chronicle families. However, as Stefan Einarsson most beautifully explains it, “{…} not only the Eddas and the sagas had intrinsic value, but this old literature had become, so to speak, the very bread on which the people as a whole had survived during long centuries of famine and depression” This is a testament of the inspirational quality a document can have, particularly when it is tied to nationalist values. Of course, history has seen this power abused, though in the case of the sagas, it is a glorious written history that is revered, empowering its people through times of hardships. Despite the acclaim the sagas receive as Iceland’s big literary contribution, it would be wrong to think that they are not argued about amongst historians and scholars. Whereas I may be less bothered as to whether or not Gunnar or Njal actually existed, historians itch to find historical evidence for each of the figures. However, if we keep in mind previous examples of Icelandic understanding, particularly Hastrup’s anecdotes with the draugars (ghosts), it is difficult to say what is true and what is only partially true. What Hastrup refers to as “a set of internal images of Icelandicness” is an unyielding tradition that has guaranteed Iceland a continued record, despite the foreign powers that have settled in its land. This is no small point: Iceland’s history, though marked by intrusions and changes in political climate, has remained remarkably unique. What we may understand from this is that Iceland has developed an innate nationalism, fundamentally tied to its literary accomplishments, and therefore not instructed in the classic sense. It is as though, in Iceland’s isolation, Icelanders have retained a sense of cultural relevance in a way that has been distorted elsewhere in the world V. Icelandic Purism—Conservatism?

Essential in my study of Iceland was my examination of the Icelandic language. Iceland is said to have received its name from one of its first settlers, Floki VilgerOarson, or vikingr mikill, a great Viking . He is thought to have (appropriately) named the land Iceland for its drift-ice in the fjords. Floki, however, found the land too difficult to live in, and left. Norwegian settlers soon inhabited Iceland, though Swedes and Danes were also amongst the pioneers. The Celtic connection with Icelandic is unclear: Celts were slaves of Norsemen and may have been interweaved culturally as a result of the move. While Icelandic appears markedly Norse, there are traces of subtle Celtic influence, particularly in some of the names. Approximately 300,000 people speak Icelandic, mostly natives of Iceland (though nearly 6000 people speak Icelandic in the USA ). Icelandic is an Indo-European language belonging to the subcategory of North Germanic languages alongside Norwegian and Faroese. What makes the language particularly fascinating, and challenging, is that unlike most modern languages that have reduced the degree of inflections, Icelandic grammar is still heavily inflectional. It can easily be compared to the language Old Norse from which it is a descendant. The centuries have altered it surprisingly little, due in part to Iceland’s isolation in the North Atlantic. Apart from the accented vowels and ö, p, æ, ð, Icelandic has no symbols that do not appear in English. Like in English, Icelandic nouns show three genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter. There are two numbers, singular and plural, also like English. However, unlike English, Icelandic has four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. The dative case, from Latin casus dativus, meaning "the case appropriate to giving", is used to designate the noun to whom something is given. The dative case was widespread in early Indo-European languages, thus if we consider the spectacularly little change Icelandic has undergone, we find it unsurprising that it is still used. Furthermore, as Hastrup notes in a chapter devoted to tradition and ideology, “archaism in language is here linked with literary achievement” Icelanders actively work to maintain the language of the sagas, as the “true” Icelandic. Another interesting feature of Icelandic is its use of mostly grammatical gender that depends on the inflectional endings of words. Where as English employs “natural-gender”—inanimate things are neuter, live things are masculine or feminine, noun declensions in Icelandic are broken up into two categories: strong and weak. The difference, again, is found in the endings. The endings of singular strong declensions in the genitive case are always consonants, while the endings of singular weak declensions, in all cases, are vowels. Naturally, both categories further divide into subclasses based on gender and case. The English word world is derived from the Old Norse notion of veröld, a word that is made up of two terms, verr and öld, meaning the age of man . This is in keeping with Icelandic perspective: it is man who encounters the earth, who firsthand practices time. The concept of “Icelandicness” relies on the language: it is at the basis for maintaining a transmission of the oral tradition. Icelanders are extremely protective of this tradition. They are right to be protective, particularly in light of the aforementioned political struggles the country has faced. Since the Icelandic economy relies heavily on fishing, it has had substantial moments of weakness, during which time outsiders have exploited it. For centuries, foreigners were not allowed to winter in Iceland, but had to leave by September at the latest. Perhaps this contributes to what Hastrup says about Iceland “there is an outspoken difference between ‘we the Icelanders’ and the rest of the world” a distinction that is actively upheld in the language. Iceland is a country of linguistic purists. Angrimur Jonsson wrote Crymogoea in 1609, a Latin text about the history of Iceland. In it, he suggested that the Icelanders “consciously cultivate the ancient pure language as found in the manuscripts, and do not let foreigners, notably Danes, destroy it” Since the nineteenth and twentieth century, Iceland has undergone a process of purification tied to Icelandic nationalist movement. Literature was at the source of the rebirth of Icelandic pride. Icelandic of the sagas is revered as a pure form of Icelandic, untouched by what is known as pagufallssyki, or the dative disease (so called because dative case is often in lieu of accusative or nominative). This is just one of the linguistic diseases attributed to modern-day Icelandic which, despite having undergone remarkably little change, is still scrutinized by Icelandic scholars. Baldur Jónsson, a member of the Icelandic language committee (founded in 1965), says “Language cultivation is similar to the conservation of nature, the protection of plants and the soil. It is an equally noble act of purifying…Frankly speaking, the Icelanders are somewhat sloppy in their pronunciations” Let us hope Jónsson never has to listen to Americans speak English in the United States.

My first experience of Icelandic, while visiting Reykjavik, was a jarring one. It seemed as though Icelanders spoke very quickly, unleashing a series of sounds marked by consonants, the syllables not discrete, nor recognizable. I asked Rutur to speak to me slowly, but it still sounded like he was articulating from the back of his throat, in a way my mouse was entirely unfamiliar with. Icelandic sounded nothing like the French and Romanian I speak at home. Rutur, who also speaks French, English, and Danish, explained that in Iceland, it is customary to still learn Danish in school alongside English. My uncle is Danish, thus Danish sounds are less startling to me, though no less intelligible. Later that evening, after a few drinks, Rutur and his friend, Gummi, spoke to each in Danish explaining that “the sloppy sounds are easier to pronounce when drunk”. Clearly, Iceland and Denmark still have some cultural animosity. I spent my first semester reading up on Iceland, as well as trying to decipher the language. I can say I understand how the language functions, though, admittedly, my Icelandic is shabby. It is impossibly difficult to learn, this we know from studies. David Tammet, for example, the famous high-functioning autistic savant, had his brain put to the test when he was challenged to learn Icelandic in just a week. Icelandic was chosen for its difficulty, his trainer explaining to the public that it is nearly impossible for foreigners to learn. Remarkably, Icelandic is now one of the eleven languages he speaks, but it needn’t be stated how rare this is. Part of the challenge of learning Icelandic, like with any language, is learning a hefty dose of endings. Since Icelandic is inflectional, this means learning rules for nouns as well as verbs and adjectives. Then, of course, there’s the issue of finding someone who speaks Icelandic to practice with you. None of this is impossible, and in my semester of studying the language, I have gained respect and admiration of it. I like to think it doesn’t look as foreign to me anymore, and that with some luck, the next time I find myself in Reykjavik, I will feel a little closer to the people.

VI. Gender Roles: Home As A Microcosm & Views On Women

Every woman I came across in Iceland was taller than me—but this was no achievement. What did surprise me, however, was something I could not readily express. Icelandic women, tall and beautiful as they were, portrayed little of the inhibitions I knew true of girls in America. This could be a European trait, certainly: Parisian girls, too, are different from American ones. But Icelandic girls seemed fearless, exuding what I could only have described at the time as a masculine energy. What a strange, and misplaced, choice of adjective. But it was not simply their behavior that seemed different; rather, it was the way they were treated by men in public, at restaurants and bars, that startled me. They drank unashamed and in great doses, liberated of female stereotypes, getting up to walk to and from the bar and never patronized or bothered by surrounding sturdy men. I asked Rutur if I was misinterpreting things, if I had made a hasty judgment thinking these young women different from the ones back home. No, he said, women here are treated just like men.

Over lunch, Rutur explained that marriage customs in Iceland were vastly different from those in the States. Having children prior to marriage is not at all uncommon. Similarly, moving back into the home of your parents is not unusual—in fact, it is encouraged. It is thought to allow the family to save money before they buy their own home. It also provides a source of free childcare as both men and women typically have jobs in Iceland. Iceland was late to modernize, relying on a subsistence economy longer than its other Nordic and European counterparts. As such, each Icelandic household became a distinct element of production and consumption. The domestic life and work life were no different from one another: each member was responsible for the survival of the group. At the turn of the century, 75% of the population still lived on farms, compared to the 10% or less that do now . It is no wonder that the sagas are so interested in families and lineage, as they played such a vital role in the survival of the culture. A ban on marriages was passed between Icelandic non-landowners as they were seen unfit to sustain a household. The connection between matrimony and founding households undoubtedly shaped Icelandic views of marriage, perhaps explaining Rutur’s experience of marriage in Iceland. In 1703, when the first complete census of Iceland was taken (a total of 50,358 Icelanders), the marriage ratio was drastically reduced compared to other European countries, most notably in women ages 15-49 of whom only 27.8 per cent were married . It appears, then, that the instinct to marry has always been secondary in Icelandic culture, acting as a technicality rather than a necessary procedure. Iceland passed an ordinance on domestic discipline in 1746, saying it was the “responsibility of the household head to see to his children and servant’s education ” while the local priests routinely tested said progress. By the eighteenth century, the degree of literacy in Iceland was high, once again showing the importance and influence of a tight family sphere. Since the Middle Ages in Iceland, women have been a part of the social sphere, if only for their indispensable role as the base of the household. While men typically went hunting and fishing, women independently ran the home, often for long periods of time. The sagas propagate this image of gender dynamic, the men always portrayed as rugged, partial outlaw figures, while the women are strong and self-sufficient. Patricia Terry notes in her preface to the Edda that “the wives of Vikings were in fact more “bear-hearted” than it is usual for women to be now” but even this is relative to Iceland. What we see time and time again in Norse mythology are powerful women, be it in the sagas or in the deity figures of the valkyries, the women of Odin who carry the slain to Valhalla. As Hastrup suggests in her chapter entitled Muted Characters, Icelandic women have never had a problem voicing their opinions and asserting their rights, which makes the significance of the women’s movement somewhat paradoxical. One of the most famous examples of assertion came in 1975, when all the women in Iceland went on strike for one day, crippling the small country. Humorously, ten years later, the strike happened again. That time around, even Rutur’s aunt was in on it: Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former president of Iceland, refused to sign bills for a day . The social authority women possess in Iceland may be seen as matching that of the men, however, what the women are fighting for is a theoretical boundary rather than a physical one. Despite being the “bear-hearted” women of the sagas, women have symbolized the stable, unwavering aspect of life on the farm. They have been respected for this role, certainly. But what they now seek is liberty to pursue the riotous wild—that is, the returning side of the saga. Skaptadottir explains: “There is a clear division of labor between men and women and Icelandic fishing communities. This division has become more clearly defined with industrialization…One can almost say that there are men’s workplaces and women’s workplaces. Going to sea is a man’s job, except for a few women who go as cooks” The women are on land, while the men are out to sea, they are at home while the men are riding in the mountains. But women in Iceland are fearless and want the option of enduring the same trials as men. Ultimately, they will take equality in position.

VII. Concluding Thoughts

What is it that makes Iceland so extraordinary, so unique that W.H Auden, the entirety of the English language available to him, simply called it A Place Apart? Certainly it is no one thing, rather an amalgamation of principles, customs, and unique ideologies that create this vast landscape of tradition that is so mysterious and appealing to foreigners. Perhaps it has to do with Vigdís Finnbogadóttir understanding of her home country when she suggests that Iceland is understood both physically and intellectually, returning to Hastrup’s definition of a practiced place. Finnbógadottir says “the wonders of Iceland lie in its endless diversity and contrast: the whole spectrum is here, from profound tranquility to nature’s wildest forces, from intense solitude to companionable closeness. It is a unique world in character and appearance {…} the land is so much a part of the people—just as much as the people are a part of the land” This is unquestionably true, but Iceland also seems to mimic our behavior as humans: at once restless and tranquil, a part of a whole and yet alone. Iceland encompasses all of our paradoxes. I know that I have only scraped the surface in my study, only uncovered part of a treasure that is still buried, somewhere, in a crater, by a ghost, in an inflectional ending. I have had the luxury of using Kirsten Hastrup’s account, which more so than any text I have ever read, takes a poetic approach to issues of culture and tradition. That is its greatest virtue, I believe, as part of the struggle in understanding a place is the limits imposed by language. An associative approach is often the closest thing to truth. I have routinely been traveling since I was born and still struggle to express the ineffability of displacement, at once excitement and utter overwhelm at finding that people live differently in the world, speak tongues that are noisy and chaotic to my ears, run by a mechanism that’s incomparable to back home. And yet, some things do overlap. Everywhere you go, people are starting families while others are rebelling, and everywhere, people are creating art. Perhaps the sagas, in their duality that so frustrates historians, while at once engrossing readers all over the world, are the perfect art. What I have learned this past year is that understanding Iceland requires study—it is a land to be experienced intellectually as well as physically. Traditions are prominent and relevant in every aspect of society in ways a foreigner may only intermittently pick up on. Iceland is a fascinating example of a country that has managed to reconcile the old with the new, the archaic principles of language and tradition with social progress and a modern outlook. Its culture dazzles in its literary achievements, its high standards for the people who call Iceland home. Icelanders seem to know intuitively that their past, rich in story, echoes to their present. They do not forfeit this awareness, rather grow and are strengthened by it. In the end, Iceland is an island in corporeally and metaphorically speaking, requiring nothing more than itself, and perhaps the help of mother nature, to thrive. It is, as Finnbogadóttir concludes, “a world apart, but very much of this world” .

Chavisa WoodsTribes