Iceland is Scandinavian … yes, it bloody well is!
“Oh, wow!” is almost without fail the exact response when I tell people I am from Iceland. I am not really sure why being from Iceland evokes this response but it is probably because my home country is considered an exotic one and because there are so few us that meeting one is rare. Half the time, “Oh, wow!” is followed by “I have never met anyone from Iceland before”, to which I have the stock response of “Well, there aren’t that many of us to go around.”
As a German fellow-traveller pointed out to me once, meeting an Icelander is the equivalent of meeting 229 Germans. Fancy that.
Having spent most of the past four years abroad, I have come pretty adept at answering the usual questions people ask about Iceland: The northern lights, dark winters, glaciers, elves, whaling, incest, volcanic eruptions, Björk, gender equality, and the national football team. I got it more or less covered. A question which crops up once in a while is whether or not Iceland belongs to Scandinavia. Usually this is framed more or less as an assertion: “You’re not in Scandinavia, right?”
As it turns out, that’s a tricky one.
That I found out the hard way. Someone asked and I said “yes we are,” and then they gloatingly thrust the Wikipedia entry on Scandinavia in my face. As do other definitions, it states that Scandinavia “in local usage covers the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.” It turns out that the definition usually excludes Iceland. Take for example the Encyclopædia Britannica entry:
Scandinavia, historically Scandia, part of northern Europe, generally held to consist of the two countries of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Norway and Sweden, with the addition of Denmark. […]
Granted, both of these definitions and others go on to say that Scandinavia sometimes is also sometimes used to refer to the broader Nordic region, encompassing Iceland and the Faroe Islands, based on the linguistic ties, and even Finland.
But why, oh why, would you want to exclude Iceland in the first place?
Assuming that we are defining Scandinavia not based solely on geography and distances between countries, but as an ethno-cultural region with a shared history and linguistic ties, then leaving Iceland out makes little sense. The same could be said for the Faroe Islands, mutatis mutandis.
“Hang on, guv’nor,” you might say, “aren’t you confusing Scandinavia with the Nordics?” To which I might respond “not really”. The Nordics is a much broader term, rooted more in geography and politics than history, culture and language. It definitely encompasses Greenland and Finland, which do not share historical, cultural and linguistic ties to the same extent as do the Scandinavian countries.
While separated by a bit of Atlantic Ocean, Iceland and the other Scandinavian countries absolutely share historical, cultural and linguistic ties. Therefore, Iceland should be considered Scandinavian.
History — vikings and stuff
The first Scandinavians to set foot on Iceland are believed to have been led by Norse Viking Naddoddur Ásvaldsson whose ship was blown off course on his way from the Faroe Islands to Norway in 861. While there are indications that Celtic monks may have established settlements in Iceland before Norsemen arrived and settled there, these were abandoned either before the Scandinavians arrived or soon thereafter.
Over the course of 70 years after Naddoddur’s accidental visit, Scandinavian settlers with their Gaelic thralls sailed to the island and carved themselves slice of arable land to live on.[3,4] People from Scotland and Ireland also settled in Iceland but research indicates that the mean Norse ancestry of the settlement population was 56,6%. For contemporary Icelanders, this is estimated at 70,4%. One can therefore argue that based on our ancestry, Icelanders are “genetically Scandinavian”. However, this is primarily to show the historical connection; like other Scandinavians, Icelanders are by and large descended from Norse Vikings.
Following the settlement, the Icelandic Þjóðveldi, or Commonwealth, was established in 930. For the next three-and-a-third centuries, this Icelandic free state governed itself but in 1262 it pledged fealty to Norway with Gamli sáttmáli, the Old Covenant. This annexation was part of a larger plan to bring all lands predominantly inhabited by descendants of Norse Viking settlers under the Norwegian crown.[6, pp. 83–88]
With the establishment of the Kalmar Union in 1397, Iceland, through Norway, was united with the Kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden (then encompassing most of Finland), along with all the associated overseas dependencies, under a single monarch. After the final dissolution of the Kalmar Union in 1523, when Sweden rebelled and claimed its independence, Denmark and Norway, and by extension Iceland, remained a real union. In 1814, Iceland officially came under Danish rule when Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden through the Treaty of Kiel. However, Denmark had gained effective control of the country in the mid-16th century. [9,10, p. 53] It had also retained a trade monopoly in Iceland which was formalized in 1602 [11, pp. 53–56, 176–177]
In 1904 Iceland was granted limited home rule and in 1918 it was recognised as a sovereign and independent state in a personal union with Denmark. This latter entailed that while the two countries shared a king, they remained separate entities in most respects and Iceland was afforded near full sovereignty. Final severance came in 1944, when the Republic of Iceland was established.
Since World War II, the Scandinavian countries, including Iceland, have followed a similar path of progressive, liberal democracies — although Denmark, Norway and Sweden all technically remain monarchies. While Iceland and Norway remain outside the European Union, all four states are members of the European Economic Area and active participants in European cooperation. Three are members of NATO, the exception being Sweden which nonetheless has a close working relationship with the organisation. Along with Finland, the countries engage in extensive nordisk samarbejde, Nordic cooperation, in a variety of fields, ranging from the political and economic to education and art.
Based on this, I feel confident saying that the history of Iceland is, for all intents and purposes, a chapter in the history of Scandinavia.
Culture — liberalism and fish
While, of course, each of the Scandinavian nations have their own culture, there is no denying that these are cut from the same cloth. With their shared origins and intertwined roots, it is simply inevitable that they share elements and traits. And again Iceland is inseparable from the three across the pond.
Social norms and customs across Scandinavia are more or less the same. We shake hands, male friends and relatives generally hug rather than kiss on the cheek, we avoid small talk with strangers, tend to be reserved but casual and sincere, give ample personal space, don’t kill each other unless we have a really, really good reason, try to be modest, frown on flaunting wealth, value punctuality, etc. Yes, Icelanders are less punctual than the Swedes, the Danish are more outgoing, and some Icelanders have an inflated ego born of an inferiority complex particular to inhabitants of micro-states. But these are slight variations; on the whole we fit the Scandinavian mold. And we get along famously.
Cuisine. Think fish. Often cured, pickled, or smoked. Sometimes just weird. Usually pretty darn tasty. Sometimes not. Smørrebrød open sandwiches (an obvious oxymoron) are a thing across all four countries, as are sausages, rye bread, lots of boiled potatoes, akvavit, and buckets of coffee. Long story short, it’s all quite similar with each country adding its own touch and flare.
In terms of religion, Scandinavia is historically Christian and remains so culturally, having previously adhered to Norse Paganism. The countries of the region were Christianised between the 8th and 12th century, with Iceland converting in or around the year 1000. All four turned to Lutheran Protestantism in the 16th century.
In modern times, traditional Christianity has steadily lost ground in Scandinavia and the Nordics although most people still identify as Christian — even while rejecting many of the faiths’s core tenets.[13,14,15] Surprisingly, for this author at least, a 2017 Gallup survey revealed a considerably higher religiosity in Iceland compared to its more secular neighbors. There are however indications of similar trends away from religion: The percentage of people not affiliated with a religious organisation and members of non-religious “life stance” organisations has quadrupled in the past two decades, going from 2,05% in 1998 to 8,21% in 2019.[16, you’ll have to extract the data yourself …and learn Icelandic]
Now, then — politics. Iceland is a parliamentary republic while, as mentioned earlier, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are monarchies. They are, however, parliamentary democratic constitutional monarchies (isn’t that another oxymoron?) which are all rated as “full democracies” in the Economist’s 2019 Democracy Index, ranking first, second, third and seventh in the world. The Kingdom of Norway topping the list seems a bit ironic.
On the whole, we are a pretty liberal and progressive bunch. To give an idea of pan-Scandinavian values, we tend to be into egalitarianism, women’s rights, social progress, and not taking issue with people’s sexual orientation. Even our conservatives seem pretty liberal to outsiders. Alarmingly, however, right-wing populism has gained some ground in recent years, much like the rest of the world.
Without getting into the boring details, all four states adhere to The Nordic Model in terms of economic policy. Reflecting the values already mentioned, all provide free education, universal healthcare, and a strong social safety net — paid for by hard-earned tax-kronas, naturally. Do not be fooled, however, socialists we are not. While The Nordic Model incorporates elements which can be considered socialist, it is a capitalist, market economy system which values free enterprise and competition.[18,19]
My intention was to further the case for Iceland being Scandinavian by touching on literature, the arts and folklore. I found this to be a tall order. Going into the arts and literature of Scandinavia in a meaningful way would require much more than a paragraph or two in this little article.
Suffice it to say that with the close historical, cultural and linguistic ties, it is easy to spot common themes, similarities and trace influences in literature, film, theatre, folklore, etc. A well-known and recent example would be the genre of Scandi or Nordic Noir which has blossomed in recent decades. This genre has also made its way into television in a big way, with the likes of Forbrydelsen (e. The Killing), Bron/Broen (e. The Bridge), and Ófærð (e. Trapped).
Also, Scandos have a knack for heavy metal. Must be the long winters and all the darkness. If you are keen on such racket, check out Mercyful Fate, Volbeat, Sabaton, Dimmu Borgir, Sólstafir, and, my personal favourite, Skálmöld.
Language — it’s all Icelandic
As alluded to before, it is argued by some that Iceland should be included in Scandinavia because the Icelandic language is related to Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. Yes, let’s go ahead and call that the understatement of the year: Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish, along with Faroese, are all descended from the Old Norse or Old Scandinavian language which was the common tongue across the region in Viking times.[20,21]
The different languages across Scandinavia are nothing less than full-blood siblings.
Old Norse is indeed so similar to Icelandic that modern Icelanders can read ancient texts with relative ease if they are transliterated to the Latin alphabet. Therefore, one might say, in a fit of megalomania, that the other modern Scandinavian languages are naught but variations on Icelandic. While there is nothing close to complete mutual intelligibility, the similarities and shared roots are obvious — much as is the case with French, Italian, and Spanish.
Iceland’s linguistic connection to the rest of Scandinavia is solid, sound, and beyond reproach. Language is what neatly puts all the pieces in their place, threading together the historical and cultural strands, closing the deal. Signed, sealed and delivered. With a pretty little bow.
So there you have it. Why Iceland bloody well is Scandinavian.
Of course, all this hinges on defining Scandinavia as an ethno-cultural region with a shared history and linguistic ties. If you narrow it down to only geography, the map and the distances will lead you to a different conclusion. Going by geography alone, you might have to consider excluding Denmark as it is not located on the Scandinavian Peninsula from which the region takes its name. Just sayin’.
To recap: Settled by Scandinavians. Descended from Scandinavians. Ruled by fellow Scandinavians for most of history. Cozying up to Scandinavia until the present day. Christian roots. Shared values and customs. An affinity for fish and equal rights. Speak a Scandinavian language.
If it quacks like a duck…