Iceland – once in a thousand years


Two things of great importance to Icelandic history happened in the year 1000; Leif Ericson got lost and Torgeir Ljosvetningagodi Torkelsson lay thinking under a bear skin for day and night.

Leif, son of Eric the Red, a Norwegian and an Icelandic exile who settled Greenland in 985, was sailing from Iceland to his father’s new home when he was blown off course (though some say he was following in the footsteps of an earlier blowee) and sighted land he subsequently named Vineland and briefly colonised. Leif was the first European (certainly the first we know of by name) to set foot in the North America. In 1477, a young Genoese sailor (and the son of a lost Polish king), Christopher Columbus, wintered overnight in Iceland. We do not know but it is possible that he was told the stories of Eric and his relatives who settled the land in the west, which might have inspired Columbus to sail across the Atlantic in search of what he thought would be Asia and not an entirely new continent.

By the turn of the first millennium AD, Iceland was in the throes of an often violent (this was Iceland, after all) competition for the hearts and minds – and souls – of Icelanders, waged between the worshippers of the old Norse gods and of the newly arrived religion of Jesus Christ. Poised on the brink of an all-out war, the two religious factions drew back and asked a respected leader Torgeir Torkelsson to adjudicate instead. Torkelsson spent a day and a night contemplating under a bear skin before emerging with his decision: Iceland would accept Christianity, but the gods of the Northmen could still be worshipped in private. It was a democratic compromise worthy of the island where some seventy years earlier a general assembly was created, called Alting, which still operates today under the name of the Icelandic Parliament; the longest continuing representative institution in the world.

And then nothing much was heard of Iceland for the next thousand years.

Hekla, and the other Icelandic volcanos, have cycles ranging from a dozen plus to a few score of years between eruptions. These are averages only, of course; volcanos are not the alarm clocks. Nevertheless, the Icelanders keep the watch and keep the count. So, it seems, it is with the island herself, except instead of years, we are talking about an eruption once every millennium.

Now is the time.

Iceland was dragged into the modernity by war. To deny the island to the Nazi Germany, the Allies occupied Iceland and used it as a half-way base between the North America and Great Britain. With the advent of the Cold War, Iceland became a part of NATO, the only member state without an army, again acting as an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the middle of the north Atlantic, with Keflvik becoming one of the largest of the Western alliance’s air bases (it is now the country’s international airport). With the American military and fishing its largest industries throughout the post-war decades, towards the end of the second millennium Iceland has also became a surprising cultural powerhouse, producing a Nobel for Literature (Halldor Laxness) and two of the best Nordic crime writers (Arnaldur Indridasson and Yrsa Sigurdardottir) as well as a string of internationally acclaimed musical acts (Sugar Cubes, Bjork, Sigur Ros, Of Monsters and Men, Asgeir). Not bad for a country with a population of Wollongong or Pittsburgh (the capital Reykjavik is only some 130,000, though the greater Reykjavik hits two hundred thousand people).

After a brief detour of irrational overexuberance when Iceland thought it would become the Wall Street on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – ending in tears in 2008 and very nearly in a national bankruptcy – Iceland is back to life and back in business, this time as a new tourist mecca. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of visitors has increased by 400 per cent, with almost 1.8 million tourists coming to Iceland last year. This number is expected to reach 2.5 million soon. Iceland might still not have the sufficient infrastructure to handle this flood, but it’s doing its best and there is no stopping the foreign invaders who come to rape and pillage touristically.

And who can blame them? I have always been fascinated by Iceland – the combination of remoteness, wild natural beauty, colourful folklore, and the population’s unusual creativity. In my short two days here, Iceland has charmed the pants off me (not literally; Tinder has been pretty disappointing). Who would have thought that this largely barren island with its tiny population could become one of the international capitals of cool? And yet. Iceland is beautiful, but it is also interesting and fun. It punches way above its weight in culture and entertainment stakes. Yes, it’s pricey, but like a beautiful woman, entirely worth it.

(Cover photo: Hekla, overdue for another eruption. Copyright Arthur Chrenkoff)