Crash course in Icelandic history

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You are on your way to Iceland and haven’t gotten around to reading the litterature; the Sagas, about
the process of Iceland becoming an independent nation and how Icelanders went from farmers to
an extremely high-tech nation in a short period of time. That’s why we’d like to provide you with a
short crash course in Icelandic history – so you’ll appreciate your trip to Iceland even more and be
a star in the dinner parties you might attend with the locals.

Short pieces of Icelandic history

The Age of the Sturlungs - the 13th century

♦ – ‘Sturlungaröldin’ or The Age of the Sturlungs in the 13th century is considered to be the bloodiest era in the Icelandic history, apart from the Viking Era. The Age of Sturlungs is a part of the Icelandic Common Wealth Era, and is named after the most powerful family clan in Iceland at the time; Sturlungar from Dalir. Other family clans were: Haukdælir in Árnesþing, Oddaverjar in Rangárþing, Ásbirningar in Skagafjörður, Vatnsfirðingar in Ísafjörður and Svínfellingar in Eastfjords.
♦ – During this period, Hákon the King of Norway was trying to influence Iceland causing many of the Chieftains to bribe him to gain their influences in Iceland. The Age of Sturlungs is believed to begin in 1220, when Snorri Sturluson became vassal for King of Norway. 15 years later, Snorri’s nephew, Sturla Sighvatsson, also became the Kings vessel which started a war within the Sturlunga family.
♦ – The end of Sturlungaöld, the Icelandic Commonwealth ceased to exist and Iceland went under the rule of Norway, by the signing of the Gamli Sáttmáli or the Old Covenant agreement in 1264.
♦ – This era is documented in Sturlungasaga.

Chieftains in the Common Wealth Era

♦ – During the Common Wealth Era, Iceland was divided into quarters and each quarter had nine Goðar or Chieftains, apart from North Iceland, which had three further Chieftains. All in all Iceland had 39 Chieftains.
♦ – The Chieftains protected their people and met up in Alþingi during each summer to settle disputes, and exact compensations. This era is marked by the battles of chieftains or Icelandic Goðar, which ruled Iceland during its early stages from the Viking Era.

A tragic period in the Icelandic history

The 16th and the 17th century was a tragic period in the Icelandic history. The climate was extreme, icebergs surrounded the shores, the fishing territories were limited with fish and volcanic eruption occurred, destroying people and livestocks.

Iceland's first limited constitution

In 1847 Denmark granted Iceland its first limited constitution, but up until then Alþingi only served as an advisory body for the Dansih crown.

An agreement between Iceland and the King of Norway

With the settlement of the old conviction or “Gamli Sáttmáli”, Icelanders signed, after the Common Wealth Era, an agreement to pay tax to the King of Norway in return for his promise to remain peace and regular connections to Iceland. A new law was constructed in the country and finally Jónsbók law book was made and some of the law is still in use in Iceland today. Things changed after Iceland went under the rule of the King of Norway, peace remained but the old Chieftains lost their powers, instead of them, sheriffs took power.

What happened in 1874?

In 1874, a thousand years after the settlement, Denmark granted Iceland home rule.

Few notes on the Sagas

♦ – Most Icelandic sagas tell from events which took place from the settlement, the year 874, until 1030. These were exciting times, as the settlers were forming the constitution and the law system in their new country.
♦ – The West of Iceland is often referred to as the Saga land due to the fact that many of the Icelandic sagas took place in that area of the country.
♦ – Few of the most significant Icelandic sagas are from the West, such as Egils saga, Gunnlaugs saga Ormstungu and Laxdæla.
♦ – Other famous Sagas are Njáls saga, about blood feud and Eiríkssaga, which tells about the discovery and settlement of Greenland and Vinland, Grettissaga and last but not least, Gísla saga Súrssonar
♦ – You can discover the Viking Era in the West by visiting the Icelandic Settlement Centre in Borgarnes, which reveals the Egils saga in a unique way.
♦ – Many of the settlers in Iceland, spent a lot of time abroad, sailed to Norway to meet up with the King, shopping or went for Viking to Britain, where they took part in battles and robberies. Therefore, many of the sagas partly take place abroad.
♦ – While Iceland was ruled by Denmark, many of Iceland´s great sagas were stored in Copenhagen, but Iceland boasts of a rich literary heritage, beginning with the skin manuscripts of Landnámsbók-or “the book of settlement”- and the Viking Sagas to the modern literature in which Icelandic history has been recorded throughout the centuries. In 1728, one of the most significant fires spread through Copenhagen, which destroyed about 28% of the city overnight. Many of the Icelandic sagas, were destroyed in the fire, especially in the library of Árni Magnússon, historian and book collector, however most of the Icelandic skin manuscripts were saved.

Who is one of Iceland´s most remarkable Viking?

♦ – Egill Skallagrímsson is one of Iceland´s most remarkable Vikings and Heroes portrayed in the Icelandic saga, Egilssaga. He wrote his first poem at the age of 3 years old and later became one of Iceland´s first and most famous poets. His poet Sonatorrek, which he wrote over the loss of his son, has been called „the birth of Nordic personal lyric poetry“ and is Egill also considered by many historians to have written one of the finest ancient Nordic poetry.
♦ – Egill Skallagrímsson, killed the first man at the age of 7, when he was cheated in a game by another boy, so Egill split the boys skull by an axe. Egill Skallagrímsson, later killed many more such as Rögnvaldur, the son of the Norse King Eirik and Queen Gunnhildur. Eiríkur Bloodaxe, the Norse King, sentenced Egill Skallagrímsson as outlaw and Egill cursed them, with the ultimate curse in the Viking age, of setting a horse’s head on a Níðinga (cursing) pole. The Queen Gunnhildur returned the favor and set a curse on Egill, which made him feel restless until they met again.
♦ – Egill died in his eighties and was buried with his silver. But before dying, he had to commit the last act of violence, as he murdered the servant who helped him bury his treasures.
♦ – The name Egill Skallagrímsson still lives thousand years later in the Icelandic society, as Egill among other things has brewery named after him, Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson, which brews many quality beers, makes the Icelandic malt and appelsín. Mixing malt and appelsín (a non-alcoholic blend of orange soda and malt extract) is an essential part of every Icelanders Christmas holiday. Actually, many people drink this drink all year around.

Sagas and the modern culture

You can find the Icelandic sagas in almost every home in Iceland and the Icelandic people can still read the ancient Icelandic in the original edition of the sagas. However if the Icelanders would hear their ancestors speak they probably wouldn’t understand them.

Icelanders were banned to trade with other countries than Denmark

In 1602, Denmark banned Icelanders to trade with other countries than Denmark, and this trade monopoly remained in effect until 1854. In 1874, after a long struggle for recognition and independence, Iceland finally received home rule, leading to Iceland´s independence from Denmark in 1944.

The Saga of Gísli Súrsson - a real viking 'soap opera'

Gísli Súrsson saga tells the story about a hero who needs to kill one brother-in-law to avenge for another. Gísli was later outlawed for 13 years, before being hunted down and killed. The Saga has been translated into English and a film called Útlaginn or The Outlaw has been made from the saga.
TIP – If you’ll go to Bíldudalur, you can go on a boat tour to the trails of Gísla Súrssonar saga. Afterwards, Warm up in the sauna in Bíldudalur swimming pool.

 

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