Finding Your Inner Viking

An Introduction to Iceland's Quirky Customs
By Hannah Holmes
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I started wondering about the Icelandic temperament when Einar Gustavsson advised me to eat trout smoked in burning horse manure. As a tourism official whose job is to convince Americans to visit Iceland, he did not tell me about the rotten duck eggs, or "hard-fish." But he couldn't restrain himself on the subject of the smoked fish.

"This is so good, you wouldn't believe how natural and wonderful it is," he told me on the phone.
"Horse shit," I said, to be sure.

"Some horse manure, some wood," he said appeasingly. "Mostly wood."

At the time, I had no knowledge of the rotten eggs, the nose-pinching, the strange places Icelanders take automobiles, nor many of the other quaint and, frankly, weird passions of the Icelandic people, and I just thought Einar was a bit odd. At the time, I didn't realize eccentricity was a national characteristic. Nor that it was contagious.

The realization started to gel as photographer Mike Moore and I drove toward Reykjavik from the airport, and the taxi driver said the word elves with a straight face. I was certain he'd said a nearby road was built with an intentional kink in it, to avoid destroying prime elf habitat.

Such was my introduction to Iceland, a Pennsylvania-sized island formed by a giant attack of planetary dyspepsia, and inhabited by the boisterous-yet-bookish descendants of the Vikings. Amazingly, it would be only a matter of days before we, ourselves, were doing battle with blond-headed nose-pinchers in the glow of the midnight sun, and otherwise dispensing mayhem—in other words, we would soon discover that the Viking lurks just beneath the skin of us all.

Finding Your Inner Viking

Downtown Reykjavik was startlingly cute, and almost empty: There were a few European tourists wandering around, but Icelanders all seem to work endless hours at multiple jobs. The handful who were about dressed either with a chic, European accent, or in big Icelandic sweaters.

It's tempting for the knee-jerk anthropologist to trace the boisterous Icelandic personality back to the Vikings, who sailed here from Norway in the 9th century. Iceland's sagas, a collection of embellished histories that date to the 13th century, relate without a tremor the widespread practice of skewering, axing, or torching anyone who irritated you. Early Icelandic law seems to have held the stern view that most homicides were justifiable.

But if many Viking characteristics endure in modern Iceland, rampant head-cleaving does not. In fact, modern Iceland is a picture of social, political, and economic orderliness. Icelanders live longer than everyone but the Japanese, and have the lowest rate of infant mortality in the world. They boast a literacy rate of 100 percent, and one in 10 citizens can be expected to publish a book at some point. Despite an average workweek of 46 hours, Health magazine reports that Icelanders' satisfaction with life is the highest in the world.

And Icelandic women hold a greater percentage of seats in the Althing, or parliament, than American women do in Congress, although they trail their Scandinavian sisters. One of democracy's first elected female presidents, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, recently bowed out of office after a happy, 16-year reign.

Christianity came hard to Icelanders, who perhaps had enough first-hand experience with fire and brimstone to know that, while it could be hard on the livestock, it wasn't the end of the world. And the Christian deity probably seemed a bit of a pansy next to Thor, the Icelanders' workaholic god of natural disaster.

Published: 15 Mar 2001 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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