Iceland is one of the weirdest places on earth. In fact, it may be the weirdest, at least that is what many Icelanders will tell you. Some of their weirdness is made up for the tourists, but some of it is made up for their own entertainment. The belief in elves and “hidden people” seems to be mostly for local amusement. The Icelandic Phallological Museum, on the other hand, is harder, so to speak, to explain. But, when you live on a volcanic rock in the North Atlantic, indulging in weirdness is probably to be expected.

The little island republic came to world attention back in the financial collapse when they went bankrupt. Iceland had managed to become a hedge fund with a fishing village attached to it. Michael Lewis wrote a fascinating and humorous piece on them back in 2009. When I was over there last summer, I mentioned this to locals a few times and they had never heard of it. When I mentioned some of the colorful anecdotes from it, they laughed at me like I was an idiot, so Lewis may have been liberal with the truth.

In addition to the Dungeons & Dragons vibe to the place, Iceland is interesting for biological reasons. It is a small and extremely homogeneous population located on an isolated island. That means it makes for a good place to tease out things about the human genome. The genetics company deCode is located in Reykjavik and has been doing a lot of interesting work for decades. The willingness of the population to participate in this research makes it a great laboratory for this type of work.

Another topic of interest is how the people have organized themselves over the last 1,000 years since settlement. Unlike most places on earth, human settlement on the island is very recent and it has been written down. We can only guess about the waves of humans that settled in the Ruhr Valley or along the Thames, but we have written records about who settled Iceland and how they developed their society. It is, in this regard, an interesting anthropological study.

A Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson is usually considered to have been the first permanent settler in Iceland. His legend says he threw two carved pillars overboard as he neared the island, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed along the coast until the pillars were found. There he settled with his family around 874 and named the place Reykjavík, which means “Bay of Smokes” due to the geothermal steam rising from the earth. As is always the case, historians are not sure if this entirely true.

Eventually, Ingólfur was followed by other Norse chieftains, who brought their families and slaves, settling all the inhabitable areas of the island in the next decades. The Chieftains were Norwegian, while their slaves were Irish and Scottish, according to the Icelandic sagas and Landnámabók, which is a written history of the settlement. This tracks with the findings of modern genetics. That’s what makes Iceland so useful, We have written records and archaeological findings, that are validated by genetic data.

There are two theories for why the Norse fled Norway and settled on a volcanic rock in the middle of the North Atlantic. Legend says it was due to people fleeing the harsh rule of the Norwegian king Harald the Fair-haired. Norway was undergoing a consolidation of power under one powerful family and the losers were heading off for new lands. It is also possible that the western fjords of Norway were simply overcrowded in this period. The general theory for the rise of the Vikings is simple over population.

Once there was enough people to farm the land and create an economy, they set about organizing themselves. In 930, the ruling chiefs established an assembly called the Alþingi that convened each summer. The representative chieftains made laws, settled disputes and appointed juries to judge lawsuits. Because writing down laws could lead to the use of force to interfere with an individual or individual’s property, the laws were instead memorized by an elected Lawspeaker until the next assembly.

Since there was no central executive power, it meant the laws were enforced by the people on an ad hoc basis. A land dispute, for example, would require hiring some third party to act as the judge. Violence against people or property would require the people temporarily banding together to address the problem. This is the sort of arrangement that results in blood-feuds. Consequently,  the writers of the Icelanders´ sagas had plenty of material. Trial by combat was a real thing when it came to disputes.

Iceland did pretty well into the 13th century when the growing power of a few families led to a break down in the system. Rather than adjudicate disputes the old fashioned way, for example, it was easier to go to the head of one of the powerful families for relief. Inevitably, the ruling families began to resolved things, like land disputes, in a way that benefited them over other rival families. This led to other powerful families doing the same in order to check the power of their rivals and soon Iceland was dominated by a few chieftains.

The start of the 13th century known by the very cool name Sturlungaöld, which means “The Age of the Sturlungs.” Sturla Þórðarson and his sons were one of two clans waging war for domination of the the island. This clan eventually won the support of the king of Norway who was looking to exploit the conflict. Sturla Sighvatsson became a vassal of Haakon IV of Norway in 1235, thus allowing the Norwegian king to exercise authority over the island, by backing the Sturlungs against their rivals.

In 1262 Iceland signed the Old Covenant establishing a union with the Norwegian monarchy. It was a nice run as a transactional society, but they ran into the problem of how to deal with inequality once their society was able to amass excess wealth. The rich were not satisfied with being rich, they also wanted power, which means authority over others. It is the natural human impulse and the ad hoc system of governance was unable to respond to this internal challenge. The result was domination by a few.

Of course, they also had the problem of how to deal with powerful neighbors looking to dominate the island. Norway could use a combination of force and political meddling to create the sort of conditions they could exploit. An iron law of the human condition, and of nature, is that the strong come to dominate the weak. In the case of Iceland, Norway was the strong neighbor determined to dominate the island. They were not going to be talked out of it so Iceland eventually fell under her dominion.

56 thoughts on “Iceland

  1. Zman…
    Before the credit crisis, around 2007, Max Keiser went to Iceland and did some interviews. Along with many others, he had been identifying and warning about the coming credit collapse. Iceland was point tank for the collapse. They had establish some loose banking which duped a lot of depositors, especially British citizens, out of all of their savings.
    Keiser interviewed some young Icelanders. They were astonishingly materialistic and uninformed. They said they were about to graduate from school, they would go into finance, make a lot of money right away and buy Hummers first thing. When Keiser expressed incredulity, they explained that Icelanders can teach the world about finance, that Icelanders are superior and special, and would naturally succeed in finance. They said it would be so, because of their isolation. Yes,, try to make sense of that.
    At the time, Iceland had a president who wrote a book that posited the same thing, that Iceland was destined to rule the world through high finance.
    I’d bet that no one on Iceland remembers that episode, either.

    • In NoVa around 2005 or so, I was talking with someone and this was how it went.

      Them: Where are they getting the names for these developments?

      Me: They name them after whatever it was they knocked down to build the development.

      Them: Funny. Where the people coming from?

      Me: The bank.

      • That NoVa town of Reston is named for the developer, Robert E. Simon(his initials). He owned thousands of acres, saw the unchecked growth of government, built RESton.

  2. I’ve never been to Iceland, but I suspect Independent People is pretty representative of their character ( Used to be friends with an ex-Marine that was sent to Reykjavík for being uppity to the wrong officer.

  3. Iceland has precious little resources aside from fish and geothermal energy, yet they have a very high standard of living and education.
    Their must be dozens of nations (say in Africa, Latin America, Asia or even Southern Europe) that have far more resources and (theoretically) capability to bring in needed revenue, yet whose standard of living is in the toilet (e.g., Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, most of Africa, etc.).

    Goes to show that culture is everything.

    Iceland does lead the developed world, per capita, in STDs; apparently in Iceland, females will readily pair off with a guy to check out their sexual compatibility before they decide to get serious. The thinking is that if they are lousy in the sack, there is no point pursuing any serious relationship.

    • Mating culture in Iceland is as weird as the people. For while, casual polyamory will be the trend and then it will switch to strict monogamy and marriage. An Icelandic woman tried explaining it to me but could not understand her through the gag.

      • It was a $400 fine if any serviceman so much as touched an Icelandic woman in public. $1600 the second time, and a courtmarshal and jail the 3rd time. The men would hit the women while drunk, and there must have been more than a few rapes those festival days in the far, far north.

        • Things have changed. I don’t think the old base is back up yet, but it is supposed to be re-opened. The locals think having some USAF people and assets on the island is going to be good for business. Iceland is pretty much a tourist trap now. They get ~3 million visitors a year.

          As far as winter festivals, Quebec has one that is pretty much just a drunken riot. Maybe it has changed, but 25 years ago it was pretty much what you described, but in bad French.

      • Lol but that’s a Norwegian trait, at least, and maybe even wider Scandi. A Norwegian friend told me that young women especially will have casual sex quite… casually, and the line in the sand was having serious conversations – whoa whoa WHOA let’s not get carried away here.

        Same thing with the belief, pretended or otherwise, in elves. It’s part of nature worship in Norway and proclaiming belief in elves and the like is a thing.

    • I can tell you from personal experience that the dating culture in Sweden and Norway is the same. Lots of trying out guys for sexual compatibility, then focusing on the guy who has meets the mark in that respect and brings other things to the negotiating table.

  4. Norway more or less invented the concept of “slow tv”. The one i “watched” (had on is more like it) was a seven hour train trip from the coast to Oslo. It is all in real time, with lots of interludes (showing historical film clips) while the train is going through a tunnel. I am trying to find the 134 hour cruise down the coast, that had half of Norway tuning in each day.

    • I personally love their Knit Offs. I even watch the ones without English subtitles.

    • There’s a slow TV version of the cruise on Netflix, which is also where I watched the one with the train. But the train version I saw didn’t have any interludes, which was cool with me, just the train ride with conductor announcements thrown in. Very soothing.

  5. June 6, 1944

    (I post this every year on this date, even if it is O/T…)

    Here’s what *really* happened to the first wave at Omaha Beach. You’ll
    never hear about this. They were slaughtered wading into a Pit of Hell. No Saving Private Ryan scenario here.

    As bad or worse as anything that happened at the Canal, Iwo, Peleleu or Okinawa.

    Read this ^^^ and weep.

    The really sad thing: This all could have been prevented if we hadn’t gone whole-hog with “Uncle Joe”. We should have told him to go fuck himself and gone in from the South. The traitors in the gubment, including Frank the Cripple, Harry Hopkins, Ike and Marshall sold out all our forces in the ETO.

    All those men butchered for the sake of Communism when we could have stopped it in it’s track.

    Patton was fucking on the money. We killed the wrong armies and destroyed the wrong nation.

  6. The glaciation of parts of Iceland provide great natural storage for hydropower. Three quarters of their electric generation is hydraulic and the remainder is geothermal. The blue lagoon is the effluent of a geothermal power and heat plant near Keflavik. If weren’t for relatively cheap and abundant electricity, I don’y know how their economy could be sustainable. Other than tourism, retail, some farming, and an aluminum smelter, I didn’t see much else going on there.

    • while I was there in ’78-79, they built a fish fertilizer factory outside the gate of the Navy base. That way the smell of the ground-up fish heads would drift over the base day and night. It was appalling, and I mean it. The stench was tremendous, and the only smell I can remember being that bad was when I watched a whale being chopped up. Incredible. Terrible.

      • Heh. Such a coincidence.
        Your post on Akureyri nights sounded like 1970s Nevada.
        I said to myself, “Now I’ve got to live there!”

        Juneteenth without all the equality.
        Also, I heard Bjork singing skagas- Icelandic sagas- in her native toungue.

        Scandi language is beautiful, like music, like water over stones. I trailed after a Norwegian family at the tourists’ viewing area at the top of World Trade Center, just so I could hear them talking.

    • The title to an article on volcano drilling- geothermal power- was, “That’s What I’m Talkin’ About, Baby!”

      Energy poor Iceland had been the poorest country in Europe. Volcano drilling made them rich enough to throw out the banksters in 2009, even jail a few.

      Of course, the socialists began scheming to get back into power.
      Then the volcano blew up.
      It was, obviously, one of those horrid, nasty libertarians.

  7. Anyone observant who’s been to western Norway can grasp why folks might have left there for new lands. The only thing that the little soil they have there can easily grow is rocks.

    • The Scandinavian countries were always the best argument in favor of socialism. In the 1980’s, so-called conservative would politely excuse themselves from the room whenever someone mentioned Sweden of Denmark, within the context of an economic debate. Even the Left did not push it too hard because the underlying reason why Scandinavian socialism worked was biology. At least a few thousand years of a sharing culture brought on by necessity boiled off the sort of social indifference we politely call individualism.

      It’s also why people who moan about Star Trek socialism can be ignored.

      • A good way to see inside the progressive utopian mind. Just watch Star Trek from the Next Generation on.
        Hell , I hear you don’t need good SAT scores to get into Star fleet academy

      • Z Man;
        Ya gotta slow down. Each one of your essays is a jewel, but who, without a job or even other responsibilities, even if retired, can keep up or comment (if that matters).

        On topic: When challenged by leftists in the ’60’s re the theory that economics as being purely the bases of crime, the then great Milton Friedman used the Scandi’s in MN’s being, despite great differences in income, at the same criminality rate as the Scandi’s in Europe as a refutation. IOW, it was the culture, not the income levels.

        But the MN Scandi’s have’d fixed this now by importing and priviledging Somalia jihaqdi’s so that they can have all the vibrancy of Little Mogadishu on the Mississippi. But the kabob shops are totally worth it.

  8. “The rich were not satisfied with being rich, they also wanted power, which means authority over others.” Heh. Human nature wins again. People are not economic units. Power, prestige, acclaim — money is a means to those ends. Hell, look at Lenin, Che, Ho Chi Minh — famously incorruptible. Those old Bolsheviks made it a point of pride to live as crappy a material life as possible; power kept them warm at night. No amount of culture, even under ideal lab conditions, will ever change that.

    • This post is one put in reserve for the next time a libertarian tried to lecture me about the NAP or some other well-worn idea from their cult.

      • Nice. I wonder who reads less, Liberals or Libertarians? I don’t blame people for not knowing about Iceland, but most people have at least heard of Hobbes. Dude lays it all out — the first law of nature is “seek peace;” free individuals make a contract; the State’s only job is to enforce the contract; and you end up with the most absolute monarch ever conceived. The social contract is not a suicide pact, kids.

        • Libertrianism is attractive for the same reason communism was attractive to moderately bright middle-class people 100 years ago. Chatting with other believers, it all seems to make perfect sense. They simply have to assume people like me don’t exist.

          Years ago, I was sent off to a re-education camp. It was intended to helps us abandon our heretical notions of self and commit to the team. I was with a handful of other deviationists and one woman from HR, who was a plant to keep an eye on us. The first exercise the instructor gave us was to come up with a way to get off an island and reach the mainland. We were supposed to assume it was too far to swim. We were given rope, one oar, a flashlight, plastic and some other things I no longer recall.

          My plan was to use the oar to knockout the HR woman, who was a bit portly. I would then wrap her in the plastic and rope, making her into a raft we could use to help us cross over to the mainland.

          The instructor was horrified.

          • “They simply have to assume people like me don’t exist.” Which takes a LOT of effort, as I found out in grad school. I remember sitting around a seminar table, listening to everyone agree with everyone else about what was “really” happening. Oh, so they were *really* just advancing the racist, racist Empire, were they? Religion, culture, glory, concern for their fellow man, simple laziness… none of these played any part, it was a racist imperialist conspiracy, stem to stern, whatever “it” was this week. I made a point of inquiring about my fellow students’ life experience for an entire semester, and it was as you’d expect — prep school, private college, grad school. Not a job in the bunch, even a summer job as a teenager, and trust funds all around. You need a much higher net worth than mine to be a true Friend of the People, of whatever flavor. (I’ve been to my share of corporate reeducation camps, too, back in my other life, but you just can’t beat academia for the learning experience).

    • What you find when you are the rich guy in any small informal organization is that whenever something requiring money or knowledge as to how best use it comes up nobody says anything to you, they just look at you funny like something’s supposed to happen, or they pretend you aren’t in the room and keep proposing shit that they know won’t be effective, hoping to get you to offer up something. They like their little squabbling inneffective jibber jabbering and they don’t want to break the illusion that they are just as good as you are, despite the fact that they have lived lives sans accomplishments.The alternatives are to play along, seek power, or ignore them and go on with life. What I tend to do is engage in power grabs when I see a direct benefit to doing so, but for the most part I just sit back and watch impotence in action.
      I fully understand why aristocrats in past ages killed these kinds of fuckers and took over shit. It can be very frustrating. Some people have the knowledge and resources to get things done and some don’t. Those that don’t spend a lot of time and resources trying to convince themselves and everyone else that this is not the case. Then either nothing gets done, or what does get done is a poor facsimile of what could have been.
      Once in a blue moon you hear a good idea, but in many cases it is years after the time when it would have been of good use.

  9. “…they ran into the problem of how to deal with inequality once their society was able to amass excess wealth. The rich were not satisfied with being rich, they also wanted power, which means authority over others.”

    This is the eternal human struggle, and makes me grateful for my mortality. Unsolvable existential problems borne of human faults wear down those who want to be left alone.

    On different note, I wish I could see the alternate history if the little ice age had not occurred, and the Norse had continued to prosper on Greenland, and continued settling westward – permanently in Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. (Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland/Nova Scotia).

    • Iceland during the Commonwealth era was pretty much the perfect proving ground for libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism. All the theories they work on endlessly were tested in the ideal laboratory. Even better, they have a couple hundred years to develop a culture around these ideas before they were tested against the reality of human nature. Once the Icelanders reached the point of having a fully functioning society with a functioning economy, they immediately began to abandon the consensual arrangements that worked during settlement.

      • You speak as if the 300 years of the Old Commonwealth were but a decade or two. No. This was a fully functional society that lasted longer than the USA has thus far (especially when you consider that our government changed its constitution fundamentally in 1861 and 1933.) Nor was it so dirt-poor: “Iceland enjoyed a mostly uninterrupted period of growth in its commonwealth years.”

        Nor was the Commonwealth “immediately” abandoned; its institutions lived on for centuries. The Althing shared legislative power with the king for another 400 years.

        What seems clear to me about Iceland with respect to anarchocapitalism is that (a) it can work and be stable if it somehow gets started, which is incredibly rare, but (b) it is very vulnerable to the manipulation of outside power, including both state power and ideological influence (the Church). So no, not really compatible with human nature in the long run, at least not with medieval levels of technology and social organization. Even so, I find the Iceland experiment fascinating.

        • Not really. For most of that period it was a lightly populated settlement. Once they got to the point of being a fully modern (for the age) society, mother nature took over and within a few generations, they were moving toward a normal social model. The reason is the libertarian model came with things like blood-feuds, trial by combat and wehrgelds. Unsurprisingly, few people choose to live this way. As soon as they can escape it, they do.

          Again, it is the defect of libertarians is they only look at once side of the ledger.

    • They could have benefited from a kind of Solonic reform as in ancient Greece. It would have protected the lower and middle classes while giving a political outlet for the aristocrats. Z never says what happened to the slaves. Did they die out or did they become a lower class? Were they simply incorporated into the families in which they worked and lived? Manumitted?
      All of this primitive living and government reminds me of an anecdote from Albert Speer. Goebbels had gotten interested in the anthropology and archaeology of early Germany and Hitler said how silly it was for him to get so excited about the remains of mud huts when hundreds of years earlier the Greeks were living in marble and stone edifices with written records of what they were doing, and that what he was doing was merely reminding everyone of how backward the early Germans actually were. In private conversation, of course. Gibbon made the same observations only much funnier.

        • The women tend to chant about diversity and multiculturalism, particularly the middle aged women. Same problem the world around, which is why women should never be permitted to vote.

          • There’s never been a time when I thought universal suffrage was a good idea. I could be persuaded to support the franchise only for married men and married mothers. I could support the franchise for males over 35 with no criminal record. I’m also a fan of splitting the franchise. Males over 35 vote in Federal elections. Married adults vote in state elections. All adults over 35 vote in municipal elections.

            Universal suffrage is suicide.

      • The Scots were eaten during a hard winter, while the Irish were set adrift on an ice flow.

    • “…they ran into the problem of how to deal with inequality once their society was able to amass excess wealth. The rich were not satisfied with being rich, they also wanted power, which means authority over others.”

      Fear of Pitchforks.

  10. Been there 3 times-have traveled all over the island-I like the people in the outback but in Reykjavik, for the most part, they were assholes-heavy drinkers too. Winter is depressing, dark until about 10 in the morning and dark again about 3. The taller buildings in Reykjavik have high fences on their roofs.

    • During the year I was posted, I had the opportunity to travel for a few days to Akureyri, a small city very far north. Unfortunately there was a fishing festival going on at the time. The nights were actually terrifying. Men running through the streets, fights all over, glass being shattered and screaming and laughing far into the night. I watched several big brawls from my window. The folks who owned the small hotel advised me not to go out at all. One morning I woke quite early and went outside to view the wreckage. I was amazed to see dozens of school age children sweeping the glass and garbage off the streets. They were being guided and directed by a few adults. Within a brief timeframe, the streets were swept clean, the children drifted away and the streets were quiet and clean, LIKE NOTHING EVER HAPPENED. I honestly felt like I was in a Twilight Zone episode. On the plane ride from Keflavik, practically everyone onboard had a bottle of booze and they drank the entire way there. Very creepy.

      • Iceland has one of the lower alcohol consumption rates in the West. Beer was banned up until the 80’s. There is, however, a binge drinking culture in northern climes. The Fins and somewhat famous for being incredibly shy, until they get hammered for a weekend.

        • I’ve read a few times, and seen one documentary on the subject, that make the case for Icelanders being remarkably sober five days a week for a people who are notoriously drunk on weekends.

  11. Zman, I know you mention some good titles to read in your “Theory of Everything” posts and I’ve gotten some good recommendations through them, so apropos of this post, allow me to return the favor. Assuming you’re not already familiar with Sigred Undset, the Nobel Laureate who emigrated from Denmark to Norway, she wrote some great fiction about Scandinavia in the Middle Ages. The “Kristin Lavransdatter” trilogy is not “Game of Thrones” (and is probably better for it), but for something written about a hundred years ago, its depiction of Norway in the Middle Ages has held up quite well to all subsequent ethnological and historical scrutiny. Check it out if you have some time.

  12. Imagine living in an country the size of Kentucky with the population of Allen County (Fort Wayne), Indiana. That is your entire world. You can’t easily go anywhere else. That’s more than enough to make you weird.

  13. I dunno, been to Iceland a couple of times and actually enjoyed the place. Could be completely different being stationed there representing the American government.

    Picked up some of the local pleasantries and the Icelanders appreciated that.

  14. In other news did you know that South Dakota has more total shoreline than California?

  15. I was stationed there with an Air Force unit onan American naval base. The locals hated us and made it very clear. The men were drunkards, fishermen and Viking in attitude. Tremendous racists too. Tourists don’t know the real truth of that place, or it’s people.

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