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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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ICELAND (Dan. Island ), an island in the North Atlantic Ocean, belonging to Denmark. Its extreme northerly point is touched by the Arctic Circle; it lies between 13° 22' and 24° 35' W., and between 63° 12' and 66° 33' N., and has an area of 4 0 ,437 sq. m. Its length is 298 m. and its breadth 194 m., the shape being a rough oval, broken at the north-west, where a peninsula, diversified by a great number of fjords, projects from the main portion of the island. The total length of the coast-line is about 3730 m., of which approximately one-third belongs to the north-western peninsula. Iceland is a plateau or tableland, built up of volcanic rocks of older and younger formation, and pierced on all sides by fjords and valleys. Compared with the tableland, the lowlands have a relatively small area, namely, one-fourteenth of the whole; but these lowlands are almost the only parts of the island which are inhabited. In consequence of the rigour of its climate, the central tableland is absolutely uninhabitable. At the outside, not more than onefourth of the area of Iceland is inhabited; the rest consists of elevated deserts, lava streams and glaciers. The north-west peninsula is separated from the main mass of the island by the bays Hunafloi and Bre151fjor6r, so that there are really two tablelands, a larger and a smaller. The isthmus which connects the two is only m. across, but has an altitude of 748 ft. The mean elevation of the north-west peninsula is 2000 ft. The fjords and glens which cut into it are shut in by precipitous walls of basalt, which plainly shows that they have been formed by erosion through the mass of the plateau. The surface of this tableland is also bare and desolate, being covered with gravel and fragments of rock. Here and there are large straggling snowfields, the largest being Glamu and Drangajokull,' on the culminating points of the plateau. The only inhabited districts are the shores of the fjords, where grass grows capable of supporting sheep; but a large proportion of the population gain their livelihood by fishing. The other and larger tableland, which constitutes the substantial part of Iceland, reaches its culminating point in the south-east, in the gigantic snowfield of Vatnajokull, which covers 3300 sq. m. The axis of highest elevation of Iceland stretches from north-west to south-east, from the head of HvammsfjoriSr to Hornafjor5r, and from this water-parting the rivers descend on both sides. The crest of the water-parting is crowned by a chain of snow-capped mountains, separated by broad patches of lower ground. They are really a chain of minor plateaus which rise 4500 to 6250 ft. above sea-level and 2000 to 3000 ft. above the tableland itself. In the extreme east is Vatnajokull, which is separated from Tungnafellsjokull by Vonarskard (3300 ft.). Between Tungnafellsjokull and Hofsjokull lies the broad depression of Sprengisandr (2130 ft.). Continuing north-west, between Hofsjokull and the next snow-capped mountain, Langjokull, lies Kjolur (2000 ft.); and between Langjokull and Eiriksjokull, Flosaskard (2630 ft.). To the north of the j oklar last mentioned there are a number of lakes, all well stocked with fish. Numerous valleys or glens penetrate into the tableland, especially on the north and east, and between them long mountain spurs, sections of the tableland which have resisted the action of erosion, thrust themselves towards the sea. Of these the most considerable is the mass crowned by Myrdalsjokull, which stretches towards the south. The interior of the tableland consists for the most part of barren, grassless deserts, the surface being covered by gravel, loose fragments of rock, lava, driftsand, ashes and glacial detritus.

Save the lower parts of the larger glens, there are no lowlands on the north and east. The south coast is flat next the sea; but immediately underneath Vatnajokull there is a strip of gravel and sand, brought down and deposited by the glacial streams. The largest low-lying plain of Iceland, lying between Myrdalsjokull and Reykjanes, has an area of about 1550 sq. m. In its lowest parts this plain barely keeps above sea-level, but it rises gradually towards the interior, terminating in a ramification of valleys. Its maximum altitude is attained at 381 ft. near Geysir. On the west of Mount Hekla this plain connects by a regular slope directly with the tableland, to the great injury of its inhabited districts, which are thus exposed to the clouds of pumice dust and driftsand that cover large areas of the interior. Nevertheless the greater part of this lowland plain produces good grass, and is relatively well inhabited. The plain is drained by three rivers - Markarfljot, Thjorsa and Oelfusa - all of large volume, and numerous smaller streams. Towards the west there exist a number of warm springs. There is another lowland plain around the head of Faxafl61, nearly 400 sq. m. in extent. As a rule the surface of this second plain is very marshy. Several dales or glens penetrate the central tableland; the eastern part of this lowland is called BorgarfjorNr, the western part Myrar.

The great bays on the west of the island (Faxafloi and Bre161fjor6r), 2 as well as the many bays on the north, which are 1 Jtikull, plural jtiklar, Icel. snowfield, glacier.

2 Floi, bay; fjtiro'r, fjord.

separated from one another by rocky promontories, appear to owe their origin to subsidences of the surface; whereas the fjords of the north-west peninsula, which make excellent harbours, and those of the east coast seem to be the result chiefly of erosion.

1 Glaciers

2 Volcanoes

3 Geology

4 Flora

5 Fauna

6 Population and Towns

7 Industries

8 Commerce

9 Communications

10 Religion

11 Health

12 Government

13 Education

14 Authorities

15 History

16 Ancient Literature

16.1 Poetry

16.2 Sagas

16.3 History

16.4 Biographies

16.5 Annals

16.6 Literature of foreign origin

17 Post-classical Literature


An area of 5170 sq. m. is covered with snowfields and glaciers. This extraordinary development of ice and snow is due to the raw, moist climate, the large rainfall and the low summer temperature. The snow-line varies greatly in different parts of the island, its range being from 1300 to 4250 ft. It is highest on the tableland, on the north side of Vatnajokull, and lowest on the north-west peninsula, to the south of North Cape. Without exception the great neves of Iceland belong to the interior tableland. They consist of slightly rounded domes or billowy snowfields of vast thickness. In external appearance they bear a closer resemblance to the glaciers of the Polar regions than to those of the Alps. The largest snowfields are Vatnajokull (3280 sq. m.), Hofsjiikull (520) Langjokull (500) and Myrdals jokull (390). The glaciers which stream off from these snowfields are often of vast extent, e.g. the largest glacier of Vatnajokull has an area of 150 to 200 sq. m., but the greater number are small. Altogether, more than 120 glaciers are known in Iceland. It is on the south side of Vatnajokull that they descend lowest; the lower end of Breidamerkurjokull was in the year 1894 only 30 ft. above sea-level. The glaciers of the north-west peninsula also descend nearly to sea-level. The great number of streams of large volume is due to the moist climate and the abundance of glaciers, and the milky white or yellowish-brown colour of their waters (whence the common name Hvita, white) is due to the glacial clays. The majority of them change their courses very often, and vary greatly in volume; frequently they are impetuous torrents, forming numerous waterfalls. Iceland also possesses a great number of lakes, the largest being Thingvallavatn 3 and Thorisvatn, each about 27 sq. m. in area. Myvatn, in the north, is well known from the natural beauty of its surroundings. Above its surface tower a great number of volcanoes and several craters, and its waters are alive with water-fowl, a multitude of ducks of various species breeding on its islands. The lakes of Iceland owe their origin to different causes, some being due to glacial erosion, others to volcanic subsidence. Myvatn fills a depression between lava streams, and has a depth of not more than 84 ft. The group of lakes called Fiskiviitn (or Veidivotn), which lie in a desolate region to the west of Vatnajokull, consist for the most part of crater lakes. The groups of lakes which lie north-west from Langjokull occupy basins formed between ridges of glacial gravel; and in Vatn, lake.

volcanic the valleys numerous lakes are found at the backs of the old moraines.


Iceland is one of the most volcanic regions of the earth; volcanic activity has gone on continuously from the formation of the island in the Tertiary period down to the present time. So far as is known, there have in historic times been eruptions from twenty-five volcanic vents. Altogether 107 volcanoes are known to exist in Iceland, with thousands of craters, great and small. The lava-streams which have flowed from them since the Glacial epoch now cover an area of 4650 sq. m. They are grouped in dense masses round the volcanoes from which they have flowed, the bulk of the lava dating from outbreaks which occurred in prehistoric times. The largest volume of lava which has issued at one outflow within historic times is the stream which came from the craters of Laki at Skapta. This belongs to the year 1783, and covers an area of 218 sq. m., and amounts to a volume represented by a cube each of whose sides measures 72 m. The largest unbroken lava-field in Iceland is Oda6ahraun (Lava of Evil Deeds), upon the tableland north from Vatnajokull (2000 to 4000 ft. above sea-level). It is the accretion of countless eruptions from over twenty volcanoes, and covers an area of 1300 sq.m. (or, including all its ramifications and minor detached streams, 1700 sq. m.), and its volume would fill a cube measuring 13.4 m. in every direction. As regards their superficies, the lava-streams differ greatly. Sometimes they are very uneven and jagged (apalhraun ), consisting of blocks of lava loosely flung together in the utmost confusion. The great lava-fields, however, are composed of vast sheets of lava, ruptured and riven in divers ways (helluhraun). The smooth surface of the viscous billowy lava is further diversified by long twisted " ropes," curving backwards and forwards up and down the undulations. Moreover, there are gigantic fissures, running for several miles, caused by subsidences of the underlying sections. The best-known fissure of this character is Almannagjá at Thingvellir. On the occasion of outbreaks the fine ashes are scattered over a large portion of the island, and sometimes carried far across the Atlantic. After the eruption of Katla in 1625 the ashes were blown as far as Bergen in Norway, and when Askja was in eruption in 1875 a rain of ashes fell on the west coast of Norway II hours 40 minutes, and at Stockholm 15 hours, afterwards. The volcanic ash frequently proves extremely harmful, destroying the pastures so that the sheep and cattle die of hunger and disease. The outbreak of Laki in 1783 occasioned the loss of 11,500 cattle, 28,000 horses and 190,500 sheep - that is to say, 53% of the cattle in the island, 77% of the horses and 82% of the sheep. After that the island was visited by a famine, which destroyed 95 00 people, or one-fifth of the total population.

The Icelandic volcanoes may be divided into three classes: (I) cone-shaped, like Vesuvius, built up of alternate layers of ashes, scoriae and lava; (2) cupola-shaped, with an easy slope and a vast crater opening at the top - these shield-shaped cupolas are composed entirely of layers of lava, and their inclination is seldom steeper than 7°-8°; (3) chains of craters running close alongside a fissure in the ground. For the most part the individual craters are low, generally not exceeding 300 to Soo ft. These crater chains are both very common and often very long. The chain of Laki, which was formed in 1783, extends 20 m., and embraces about one hundred separate craters. Sometimes, however, the lava-streams are vomited straight out of gigantic fissures in the earth without any crater being formed. Many of the Icelandic volcanoes during their periods of quiescence are covered with snow and ice. Then when an outbreak occurs the snow and ice melt, and in that way they sometimes give rise to serious catastrophes (jokulhlaup ), through large areas being suddenly inundated by great floods of water, which bear masses of ice floating on their surface. Katla caused very serious destruction in this way by converting several cultivated districts into barren wastes. In the same way in the year 1362 Oeraefajdkull, the loftiest mountain in Iceland (6424 ft.), swept forty farms, together with their inhabitants and live stock, bodily into the ocean. The best-known volcano is Hekla (5108 ft.), which was in eruption eighteen times within the historic period down to 1845. Katla during the same period was active thirteen times down to 1860. The largest volcano is Askja, situated in the middle of the lava-field of Odaoahraun. Its crater measures 34 sq. m. in area. At Myvatn there are several volcanoes, which were particularly active in the years 1724-1730. On several occasions there have been volcanic outbreaks under the sea outside the peninsula of Reykjanes, islands appearing and afterwards disappearing again. The crater chain of Laki has only been in eruption once in historic times, namely, the violent and disastrous outbreak of 1783. Iceland, however, possesses no constantly active volcano. There are often long intervals between the successive outbreaks, and many of the volcanoes (and this is especially true of the chains of craters) have only vented themselves in a solitary outburst.

Earthquakes are frequent, especially in the districts which are peculiarly volcanic. Historical evidence goes to show that they are closely associated with three naturally defined regions: (I) the region between Skjalfandi and Axarfjdrllr in the north, where violent earth tremblings are extremely common; (2) at Faxafloi, where minor vibrations are frequent; (3) the southern lowlands, between Reykjanes and Myrdalsj6kull, have frequently been devastated by violent earthquake shocks, with great loss of property and life, e.g. on the 14th16th of August 1784, when 92 farmsteads were totally destroyed, and 372 farmsteads and II churches were seriously damaged; and again in August and September 1896, when another terrible earthquake destroyed 161 farmsteads and damaged 155 others. Hot springs are found in every part of Iceland, both singly and in groups; they are particularly numerous in the western portion of the southern lowlands, where amongst others is the famous Geyser. Sulphur springs and boiling mud lakes are also general in the volcanic districts; and in places there are carbonic acid springs, these more especially on the peninsula of Snaefellsnes, north of Faxafloi.


Iceland is built up almost entirely of volcanic rocks, none of them older, however, than the middle of the Tertiary period. The earlier flows were probably contemporaneous with those of Greenland, the Faeroes, the western islands of Scotland and the north-east of Ireland. The principal varieties are basalt and palagonitic breccias, the former covering two-thirds of the entire area, the latter the remaining one-third. Compared with these two systems, all other formations have an insignificant development. The palagonitic breccias, which stretch in an irregular belt across the island, are younger than the basalt. In the north-west, north and east the coasts are formed of basalt, and rise in steep, gloomy walls of rock to altitudes of 3000 ft. and more above sea-level. Deposits of clay, with remains of plants of the Tertiary period, lignite and tree-trunks pressed flat, which the Icelanders call surtarbrandur, occur in places in the heart of the basalt formation. These fossiliferous strata are developed in greatest thickness in the north-west peninsula. Indeed, in some few places well-marked impressions of leaves and fruit have been discovered, proving that in Tertiary times Iceland possessed extensive forests, and its annual mean temperature must have been at least 48° Fahr., whereas the present mean is 35.6°. The palagonitic breccias, which attain their greatest development in the south of the island and on the tableland, consist of reddish, brown or yellowish rocks, tuffs and breccias, belonging to several different groups or divisions, the youngest of which seems to be of a date subsequent to the Glacial epoch. All over Iceland, in both the basalt and breccia formations, there occur small intrusive beds and dikes of liparite, and as this rock is of a lighter colour than the basalt, it is visible from a distance. In the south-east of the island, in the parish of Lon, there exist a few mountains of gabbro, a rock which does not occur in any other part of Iceland. Near Husavik in the north there have been found marine deposits containing a number of marine shells; they belong to the Red Crag division of the Pliocene. In the middle of Iceland, where the geological foundation is tuff and breccias, large areas are buried under ancient outflows of lava, which bear evidences of glacial scratching. These lava streams, which are of a doleritic character, flowed before the Glacial age, or during its continuance, out of lava cones with gigantic crater openings, such as may be seen at the present day. During the Glacial epoch the whole of Iceland was covered by a vast sheet of inland ice, except for a few small isolated peaks rising along its outer margins. This ice-cap had on the tableland a thickness of 2300 to 2600 ft. Rocks scored by glacial ice and showing plain indications of striation, together with thousands of erratic blocks, are found scattered all over Iceland. Signs of elevation subsequent to the Glacial epoch are common all round the island, especially on the north-west peninsula. There are found strikingly developed marine terraces of gravel, shore lines and surf beaches marked on the solid rock. In several places there are traces of shells; and sometimes skeletal remains of whales and walruses, as well as ancient driftwood, have been discovered at tolerable distances from the present coast. The ancient shore-lines occur at two different altitudes. Along the higher, 230 to 260 ft. above the existing sea-level, shells have been found which are characteristic of high Arctic latitudes and no longer exist in Iceland; whereas on the lower shore-line, Too to 130 ft., the shells belong to species which occur amongst the coast fauna of the present day.

The geysers and other hot springs are due to the same causes as the active volcanoes, and the earthquakes are probably manifestations of the same forces. A feature of special interest to geologists in the present conditions of the island is the great power of the wind both as a transporting and denuding agent. The rock sculpture is often very similar to that of a tropical desert.' Climate. - Considering its high latitude and situation, Iceland has a relatively mild climate. The meteorological conditions vary greatly, however, in different parts of the island. In the south and east the weather is generally changeable, stormy and moist; whilst on the north the rainfall is less. The climate of the interior tableland approximates to the continental type and is often extremely cold. The mean annual temperature is 37.2 ° F. in Stykkisholmr on Bre151fjdr6r, 38.3° at Eyrarbakki in the south of Iceland, 41° at Vestmannayjar, 36° at Akureyri in the north, 36.7° on Berufjor6r in the east, and 30.6° at Mddrudalr on the central tableland. The range is great not only from year to year, but also from month to month. For instance, at Stykkisholmr the highest annual mean for March was 39.7°, and the lowest 8°, during a period of thirty-eight years. Iceland lies contiguous to that part of the north Atlantic in which the shifting areas of low pressure prevail, so that storms are frequent and the barometer is seldom firm. The barometric pressure at sea-level in the south-west of Iceland during the period 1878-1900 varied between 30.8 and 27.1 in. The climate of the coasts is relatively mild in summer, but tolerably cold in winter. The winter means of the north and east coasts average 31.7° and 31.3° F. respectively; the summer means, 42.8° and 44.6°; and the means of the year, 33 I° and 35-6°. The winter means of the south and west coasts average 32° and 31.7° respectively; the summer means, 48.2° and so'; the annual means, 37-4° and 39.2 °. The rainfall on the south and east coasts is considerable, e.g. at Vestmannayjar, 49.4 in. in the year; at Berufjdre'S.r, 43.6 in. On the west coast it is less, e.g. 24.3 in. at Stykkisholmr; but least of all on the north coast, being only 14.6 in. on the island of Grimsey, which lies off that coast. Mist is commonly prevalent on the east coast; at Berufjdr5r there is mist on no fewer than 212 days in the year. The south and west coasts are washed by the Gulf Stream, and the north coast by an Arctic current, which frequently brings with it a quantity of drift-ice, and thus exercises a considerable effect upon the climate of the island; sometimes it blocks the north coast in the summer months. On the whole, during the 19th century, the north coast was free from ice on an average of one year in every four or five. The clearness of the atmosphere has been frequently remarked. Thunderstorms occur mostly in winter.


The vegetation presents the characteristics of an Arctic European type, and is tolerably uniform throughout the island, the differences even on the tableland being slight. At present 435 species of phanerogams and vascular cryptogams are known; the lower orders have been little investigated. The grasses are of the greatest importance to the inhabitants, for upon them they are dependent for the keep of their live stock. Heather covers large tracts, and also affords pasture for sheep. The development of forest trees is insignificant. Birch woods exist in a good many places, especially in the warmer valleys; but the trees are very short, scarcely attaining more than 3 to 10 ft. in height. In a few places, however, they reach 13 to 20 ft. and occasionally more. A few mountain ash or rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia ) are found singly here and there, and attain to 30 ft. in height. Willows are also pretty general, the highest in growth being Salix phyllicifolia, 7 to to ft. The wild flora of Iceland is small and delicate, with bright bloom, the heaths being especially admired. Wild crowberries and bilberries are the only fruit found in the island.


The Icelandic fauna is of a sub-Arctic type. But while the species are few, the individuals are often numerous. The land 1 See Th. Thoroddsen, " Explorations in Iceland during the years 1881-1898," Geographical Journal, vol. xiii. (1899), PP. 251-274, 480-513, with map.

mammals are very poorly represented; and it is doubtful whether any species is indigenous. The polar bear is an occasional visitant, being brought to the coast by the Greenland drift-ice. Foxes are common, both the white and the blue occurring; mice and the brown rat have been introduced, though one variety of mouse is possibly indigenous. Reindeer were introduced in 1770. The marine mammalia are numerous. The walrus is now seldom seen, although in prehistoric times it was common. There are numerous species of seals; and the seas abound in whales. Of birds there are over loo species, more than one-half being aquatic. In the interior the whistling swan is common, and numerous varieties of ducks are found in the lakes. The eider duck, which breeds on the islands of Breit51fjor6r, is a source of livelihood to the inhabitants, as are also the many kinds of sea-fowl which breed on the sea-cliffs. Iceland possesses neither reptiles nor batrachians. The fish fauna is abundant in individuals, some sixty-eight species being found off the coasts. The cod fisheries are amongst the most important in the world. Large quantities of herring, plaice and halibut are also taken. Many of the rivers abound in salmon, and trout are plentiful in the lakes and streams.

Population and Towns

The census of 1890 gave a total population of 70,927, and this number had increased by 1901 to 78,489. The increase during the 19th century was 27,000, while at least 15,600 Icelanders emigrated to America, chiefly to Manitoba, from 1872 to the close of the century. The largest town is Reykjavik on Faxafloi, with 6700 inhabitants, the capital of the island, and the place of residence of the governorgeneral and the bishop. Here the Althing meets; and here, further, are the principal public institutions of the island (library, schools, &c.). The town possesses a statue to Thorvaldsen, the famous sculptor, who was of Icelandic descent. The remaining towns include Isafjoror (pop. r000) on the north-west peninsula, Akureyri (r000) on the north and Seydisfjor6r (800) in the east.


The principal occupation of the Icelanders is cattle-breeding, and more particularly sheep-breeding, although the fishing industries have come rapidly to the front in modern times. In 1850, 82% of the population were dependent upon cattle-breeding and 7% upon fishing; in 1890 the numbers were 64% and 18% respectively. The culture of grain is not practised in Iceland; all bread-stuffs are imported. In ancient times barley was grown in some places, but it never paid for the cost of cultivation. Cattle-breeding has declined in importance, while the number of sheep has increased. Formerly gardening was of no importance, but considerable progress has been made in this branch in modern times, as also in the cultivation of potatoes and turnips. Fruit-trees will not thrive; but black and red currants and rhubarb are grown, the last-named doing excellently. Iceland possesses four agricultural schools, one agricultural society, and small agricultural associations in nearly every district. The fisheries give employment to about 12,000 people. For the most part the fishing is carried on from open boats, notwithstanding the dangers of so stormy a coast. But larger decked vessels have come into increasing use. In summer the waters are visited by a great number of foreign fishermen, inclusive of about 300 fishing-boats from French ports, as well as by fishing-boats from the Faeroes and Norway, and steam trawlers from England. Excellent profit is made in certain parts of the island from the herring fishery; this is especially the case on the east coast. There are marine insurance societies and a school of navigation at Reykjavik. The export of fish and fish products has greatly increased. In 1849 to 1855 the annual average exported was 1480 tons; whereas at the close of the century (in 1899) it amounted to 11,339 tons and 68,079 barrels of oil, valued at L276,596.


From the first colonization of the island down to the 14th century the trade was in the hands of native Icelanders and Norsemen; in the 15th century it was chiefly in the hands of the English, in the 16th of Germans from the Hanse towns. From 1602 to 1786 commerce was a monopoly of the Danish government; in the latter year it was declared free to all Danish subjects and in 1854 free to all nations. Since 1874, when Iceland obtained her own administration, commerce has increased considerably. Thus the total value of the imports and exports together in 1849 did not exceed £170,000; while in1891-1895the imports averaged £356,000 and the exports £340,000. In 1902 imports were valued at £J96,193 and exports at £511,083. Trade is almost entirely with Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Norway and Sweden, in this order according to value. The principal native products exported are live sheep, horses, salt meat, wool and hides, to which must be added the fish products - cod, train-oil, herring and salmon - eiderdown and woollen wares. The spinning, weaving and knitting of wool is a widespread industry, and the native tweed (va Smal ) is the principal material for the clothing of the inhabitants. The imports consist principally of cereals and flour, coffee, sugar, ale, wines and spirits, tobacco, manufactured wares, iron and metal wares, timber, salt, coal, &c. The money, weights and measures in use are the same as in Denmark. The Islands Bank in Reykjavik (1904) is authorized to issue bank-notes up to £133,900 in total value.


All land journeys are made on horseback, and in the remoter parts all goods have to be transported by the same means. Throughout the greater part of the island there exist no proper roads even in the inhabited districts, but only bridle-paths, and in the uninhabited districts not even these. Nevertheless much has been done to improve such paths as there are, and several miles of driving roads have been made, more particularly in the south. Since 1888 many bridges have been built; previous to that year there was none. The larger rivers have been spanned by iron swing-bridges, and the Blanda is crossed by a fixed iron bridge. Postal connexion is maintained with Denmark by steamers, which sail from Copenhagen and call at Leith. Besides, steamers go round the island, touching at nearly every port.


The Icelanders are Lutherans. For ecclesiastical purposes the island is divided into 20 deaneries and 142 parishes, and the affairs of each ecclesiastical parish are administered by a parish council, and in each deanery by a district (hjera6) council. When a living falls vacant, the governor-general of the island, after consultation with the bishop, selects three candidates, and from these the congregation chooses one, the election being subsequently confirmed by the governor-general. In the case of certain livings, however, the election requires confirmation by the crown. In 1847 a theological seminary was founded at Reykjavik, and there the majority of the Icelandic ministry are educated; some, however, are graduates of the university of Copenhagen.


The public health has greatly improved in modern times; the death-rate of young children has especially diminished. This improvement is due to greater cleanliness, better dwellings, better nourishment, and the increase in the number of doctors. There are now doctors in all parts of the country, whereas formerly there were hardly any in the island. There is a modern asylum for leprosy at Laugarnes near Reykjavik, and a medical school at Reykjavik, opened in 1876. The general sanitary affairs of the island are under the control of a chief surgeon (national physician) who lives in Reykjavik, and has superintendence over the doctors and the medical school.


According to the constitution granted to Iceland in 1874, the king of Denmark shares the legislative power with the Althing, an assembly of 36 members, 30 of whom are elected by household suffrage, and 6 nominated by the king. The Althing meets every second year, and sits in two divisions, the upper and the lower. The upper, division consists of the 6 members nominated by the king and 6 elected by the representatives of the people out of their own body. The lower division consists of the remaining 24 representative members. The minister for Iceland, who resided in Copenhagen until 1903, when his office was transferred to Reykjavik, is responsible to the king and the Althing for the maintenance of the constitution, and he submits to the king for confirmation the legislative measures proposed by the Althing. The king appoints a governor-general (landshofoingi ) who is resident in the island and carries on the government on the responsibility of the minister. Formerly Iceland was divided into four quarters, the east, the south, the west and north. Now the north and 'the east are united under. one governor, and the south and the west under another. The island is further divided into 18 syslur (counties), and these again into 169 hreppur (rapes) or poor-law districts. Responsible to the governors are the sheriffs ( syslumenn ), who act as tax gatherers, notaries public and judges of first instance; the sheriff has in every hreppur an assistant, called hreppstjOri. In every hreppur there is also a representative committee, who administer the poor laws, and look after the general concerns of the hreppur. These committees are controlled by the committees of the syslur (county boards), and these again are under the control of the amtsra5 (quarter board), consisting of three members. From the sheriff courts appeals lie to the superior court at Reykjavik, consisting of three judges. Appeals may be taken in all criminal cases and most civil cases to the supreme court at Copenhagen.

Iceland has her own budget, the Althing having, by the constitution of 1874, the right to vote its own supplies. As the Althing only meets every other year, the budget is passed for two years at once. The total income and expenditure are each about £ 70,000 per financial period. There is a national reserve fund of about £60,000, but no public debt; nor is there any contribution for either military or naval purposes. Iceland has her own customs service, but the only import duties levied are upon spirits, tobacco, coffee and sugar, and in each case the duties are fairly low.


Education is pretty widespread amongst the people. In the towns and fishing villages there are a few elementary schools, but often the children are instructed at home; in some places by peripatetic teachers. It is incumbent upon the clergy to see that all children are taught reading, writing and arithmetic. The people are great readers; considering the number of the inhabitants, books and periodicals have a very extensive circulation. Eighteen newspapers are issued (once and twice a week), besides several journals, and Iceland has always been distinguished for her native literature. At Reykjavik there are a Latin school, a medical school and a theological school; at Modruvellir and Hafnarfjdror, modern high schools (Realschulen); and in addition to these there are four agricultural schools, a school of navigation, and three girls' schools. The national library at Reykjavik contains some 40,000 volumes and 3000 MSS. At the same place there is also a valuable archaeological collection. Amongst the learned societies are the Icelandic Literary Society ( Bokmentafjelag ), the society of the Friends of the People, and the Archaeological Society of Reykjavik.

I. The Commonwealth. eoo years.

870- 930

Poetry of Western Islands.

Settlement of colonists from Western Isles and Norway.

Heroic Age.

930- 980

Early Icelandic poets, chiefly abroad.

Constitution worked out - Events of earlier sages take place.

980 -1030

Icelandic poets abroad.

Christianity comes in - Events of later sagas take place.

Saga Telling.


First era of phonetic change.

Peace - Ecclesiastical organization.


and his school - THoxonn - Vernacular writing begins.

The Literary


SAGA- WRITERS - Second generation of historians.

First civil wars-1208-22 - Rise of Sturlungs.



and his school - Biographers.

Second civil wars, 1226-58 - Fall of Great Houses.


STIIRLA - Second era of phonetic change.

Change of law, 1271 - Submission to Norwegian kings.

II. Medievalism. 250 years.



Collecting and editing - Foreign romances.

Foreign influence through Norway.



Annalists - Copyists - New Medieval poetry begins.

Great eruptions, 1362 and 1389 - Epidemics - Danish rule, 1380.

chiefly Norse.


Death of old traditions, &c.

Epidemics - Norse trade - Close of intercourse with Norwa y.

Dark Age.


Only Medieval poetry flourishes.

Isolation from Continent - English trade.

III. Reformation - Absole to Rule - Decay. 320 years.



Onn - Printing - Third era of phonetic change.

Religious struggle - New organization - Hance trade.




First antiquarians.

HAI.I.GRIns - Paper copies taken.

Danish monopoly - Pirates' ravages.


JoN VIDALIN - Arni Magnusson - MSS. taken abroad.

Smallpox kills one-third population, 1707.






Eggert Olafsson.

Finn Jonsson - Icelandic scholars abroad.

Rationalistic movement - European influences first felt.

? >,


Great famine, Io,000 die, 1759 - Sheep plague, 1762 - Eruption,


Great eruption, 1783.

Beginnings of recovery - Travellers make known island to Europe

- Free constitution in Denmark, 1848.

IV. Modern Iceland.

Recovery of


Modern thought and learning - Icelandic scholars abroad.

Increasing wealth and population - Free trade, 18J4 - Jon Sigurdsson and


home rule struggle.


Home rule granted.


- Among numerous works of Dr Thorvald Thoroddsen, see Geschichte der Islands Geographie (Leipzig, 1898); and the following articles in Geografisk Tidskrift (Copenhagen): " Om Islands geografiske og geologiske Undersogelse " (1893); " Islandske Fjorde og Bugter " (1901); " Geog. og geol. Unders. ved den sydlige Del of Faxafloi paa Island " (1903); " Lavaorkener og Vulkaner paa Islands Hojland " (1905). See also C. S. Forbes, Iceland (London, 1860); S. Baring-Gould, Iceland, its Scenes and Sagas (London, 1863); Sir R. F. Burton, Ultima Thule (Edinburgh, 1875); W. T. McCormick, A Ride across Iceland (London, 1892); J. Coles, Summer Travelling in Iceland (London, 1882); H. J. Johnston Lavis, " Notes on the Geography, Geology, Agriculture and Economics of Iceland," Scott. Geog. Mag. xi. (1895); W. Bisiker, Across Iceland (London, 1902); J. Hann, " Die Anomalien der Witterung auf Island in dem Zeitraume 1851-1900, &c.," Sitzungsberichte, Vienna Acad. Sci. (1904); P. Hermann, Island in Vergangenheit and Gegenwart (Leipzig, 1907). Also Geografisk Tidskrift, and the Geographical Journal (London), passim. (TH. T.)


Shortly after the discovery of Iceland by the Scandinavians, c. 850 (it had long been inhabited by a small colony of Irish Culdees), a stream of immigration set in towards it, which lasted for sixty years, and resulted in the establishment of some 4000 homesteads. In this immigration three distinct streams can be traced. (I) About 870-890 four great noblemen from Norway, Ingolf, Ketil Hang, Skalla-Grim and Thorolf, settled with their dependants in the south-west of the new found land. (2) In 890-900 there came from the western Islands Queen Aud, widow of Olaf the White, king of Dublin, preceded and followed by a number of her kinsmen and relations (many like herself being Table of Icelandic Literature and History. Christians), Helgi Biolan, Biorn the Eastern, Helgi the Lean, Ketil the Foolish, &c., who settled the best land in the island (west, north-west and north), and founded families who long swayed its destinies. There also came from the Western Islands'a fellowship of vikings seeking a free home in the north. They had colonized the west in the viking times; they had " fought at Hafursfirth," helping their stay-at-home kinsmen against the centralization of the great head-king, who, when he had crushed opposition in Norway, followed up his victory by compelling them to flee or bow to his rule. Such were Ingimund the Old, Geirmund Hellskin, Thord Beardie (who had wed St Edmund's granddaughter,) Audun Shackle, Bryniulf the Old, Uni, to whom Harold promised the earldom of the new land if he could make the settlers acknowledge him as king (a hopeless project), and others by whom the north-west, north and east were almost completely " claimed." (3) In goo-930 a few more incomers direct from Norway completed the settlement of the south, north-east and south-east. Among them were Earl Hrollaug (half-brother of Hrolf Ganger and of the first earl of Orkney), Hialti, Hrafnkell Frey's priest, and the sons of Asbiorn. Fully three-quarters of the land was settled from the west, and among these immigrants there was no small proportion of Irish blood. In 110o there were 4500 franklins, i.e. about 50,000 souls.

The unit of Icelandic politics was the homestead with its franklin-owner (buendi ) its primal organization the hundredmoot (thing ), its tie the gooorc5(godar) or chieftainship. The chief who had led a band of kinsmen and dependants to the new land, taken a " claim " there, and parcelled it out among them, naturally became their leader, presiding as priest at the temple feasts and sacrifices of heathen times, acting as speaker of their moot, and as their representative towards the neighbouring chiefs. He was not a feudal lord nor a local sheriff, for any franklin could change his g060r5 when he would, and the rights of "judgment by peers" were in full use; moreover, the office could be bequeathed, sold, divided or pledged by the possessor; still the goc51 had considerable power as long as the commonwealth lasted.

Disputes between neighbouring chiefs and their clients, and uncertainty as to the law, brought about the Constitution of Ulfliot (c. 930), which appointed a central moot for the whole island, the Althing, and a speaker to speak a single " law " (principally that followed by the Gula-moot in Norway); the Reforms of Thord Gellir (964), settling a fixed number of moots and chieftaincies, dividing the island into four quarters (thus characterized by Ari: north, thickest settled, most famous; east, first completely settled; south, best land and greatest chiefs; west, remarkable for noble families), to each of which a head-court, the " quarter-court," was assigned; and the Innovations of Skapti (ascribed in the saga to Nial) the Law- Speaker (d. 1030), who set up a "fifth court " as the ultimate tribunal in criminal matters, and strengthened the community against the chiefs. But here constitutional growth ceased: the law-making body made few and unimportant modifications of custom; the courts were too weak for the chiefs who misused and defied them; the speaker's power was not sufficiently supported; even the ecclesiastical innovations, while they secured peace for a time, provoked in the end the struggles which put an end to the commonwealth.

Christianity was introduced c. 1000 from Norway. Tithes were established in 1096, and an ecclesiastical code made c. 1125. The first disputes about the jurisdiction of the clergy were moved by Gudmund in the 13th century, bringing on a civil war, while the questions of patronage and rights over glebe and mortmainland occupied Bishop Arni and his adversaries fifty years afterwards, when the land was under Norwegian viceroys and Norwegian law. For the civil wars broke down the great houses who had monopolized the chieftaincies; and after violent struggles (in which the Sturlungs of the first generation perished at Orlygstad, 1238, and Reykiaholt, 1241, while of the second generation Thord Kakali was called away by the king in 1250, and Thorgils Skardi slain in 1258) the submission of the island to Norway quarter after quarter took place in 1262-1264, under Gizur's auspices, and the old Common Law was replaced by the New Norse Code " Ironside " in 1271.

The political life and law of the old days is abundantly illustrated in the sagas (especially Eyrbyggia, Hensa-Thori, Reykdaela, Hrafnkell and Niala), the two collections of law-scrolls (Codex Regius, c. 1235, and Stadarhol's Book, c. 1271), the Libellus, the Liberfragments, and the Landnamabok of Ari, and the Diplomatarium. K. Maurer has made the subject his own in his Beitrdge, Island, Gragas, &c.

The medieval Icelandic church had two bishoprics, Skalholt (S., W. and E.) 1056, and Holar (N.) 1106, and about 175 parishes (two-thirds of which belonged to the southern bishopric). They belonged to the metropolitan see of Bremen, then to Lund, lastly to Nidaros, 1237. There were several religious foundations: Thingore (founded 1133), Thwera (1155), Hitardale (c. 1166), Kirkby Nunnery (1184), Stad Nunnery (1296) and Saurby ( c. 1200) were Benedictine, while Ver (1168), Flatey after Holyfell (1172), Videy (1226), Madderfield Priory (1296) and Skrid Priory (14th century) were Augustinian. The bishops, elected by the people at the Althing till 1237, enjoyed considerable power; two, Thorlak of Skalholt and John of Holar, were publicly voted saints at the Althing, and one, Gudmund, received the title of " Good " by decree of the bishop and chapter. Full details as to ecclesiastical history will be found in the Biskupasogur (edited by Dr. Vigfusson).

Iceland was not agricultural but pastoral, depending upon flocks and herds for subsistence, for, though rye and other grain would grow in favoured localities, the hay, self-sown, was the only regular crop. In some districts the fisheries and fowling Mode of were of importance, but nine-tenths of the population M i lved by their sheep and cattle. Life on each home stead was regularly portioned out: out door occupations - fishing, shepherding, fowling, and the hay-making and fuel-gathering - occupying the summer; while in door business - weaving, tool-making, &c. - filled up the long winter. The year was broken by the spring feasts and moots, the great Althing meeting at midsummer, the marriage and arval gatherings after the summer, and the long yule feasts at midwinter. There were but two degrees of men, free and unfree, though only the franklins had any political power; and, from the nature of the life, social intercourse was unrestrained and unfettered; gon and thrall lived the same lives, ate the same food, spoke the same tongue, and differed little in clothing or habits. The thrall had a house of his own and was rather villein or serf than slave, having rights and a legal price by law. During the heathen days many great chiefs passed part of their lives in Norway at the king's court, but after the establishment of Christianity in Iceland they kept more at home, visiting the continent, however, for purposes of state, suits with clergy, &c. Trade was from the first almost entirely in foreign (Norse) hands.

The introduction of a church system brought little change. The great families put their members into orders, and so continued to enjoy the profits of the land which they had given to the church; the priests married and otherwise behaved like the franklins around them in everyday matters, farming, trading, going to law like laymen.

Life in the commonwealth was turbulent and anarchic, but free and varied; it produced men of mark, and fostered bravery, adventure and progress. But on the union with Norway all this ceased, and there was left but a low dead level of poor peasant proprietors careless of all save how to live by as little labour as possible, and pay as few taxes as they could to their foreign rulers. The island received a foreign governor (Earl, Hirdstjori or Stiptamtsmadr as he was successively called), and was parcelled out into counties ( syslur ), administered by sheriffs (s-jislumadr ) appointed by the king. A royal court took the place of the Althing courts; the local business of the local things was carried out by the (hreppstjori ) bailiff, a subordinate of the sheriff; and the g050r5, things, quarter-courts, trial by jury, &c., were swept away by these innovations. The power of the crown was increased by the confiscation of the great Sturlung estates, which were underleased to farmers, while the early falling off of the Norse trade threatened to deprive the island of the means of existence; for the great epidemics and eruptions of the 1.4th century had gravely attacked its pastoral wealth and ruined much of its pasture and fishery.

The union of the Three Crowns transferred the practical rule of Iceland to Denmark in 1280, and the old Treaty of Union, by which the island had reserved its essential rights, was disregarded by the absolute Danish monarchs; but, though new taxation was imposed, it was rather their careless neglect than their too active interference that damaged Iceland's interests. But for an English trade, which sprang up out of the halfsmuggling, half-buccaneering enterprise of the Bristol merchants, the island would have fared badly, for during the whole of the 15th century their trade with England, exporting sulphur, eiderdown (of which the English taught them the value), wool, and salt stock-fish, and importing as before wood, iron, honey, wine, grain and flax goods, was their only link with the outer world. This period of Iceland's existence is eventless: she had got peace but with few of its blessings; all spirit seemed to have died with the commonwealth; even shepherding and such agriculture as there had been sank to a lower stage; wagons, ploughs and carts went out of use and knowledge; architecture in timber became a lost art, and the fine carved and painted halls of the heathen days were replaced by turfwalled barns half sunk in the earth; the large decked luggers of the old days gave way to small undecked fishing-boats.

The Reformation in Iceland wakened men's minds, but it left their circumstances little changed. Though the fires of martyrdom were never lighted in Iceland, the story of the easily accepted Reformation is not altogether Y P g a pleasant one. When it was accomplished, the little knot of able men who came to the front did much in preserving the records of the past, while Odd and Hallgrim exhibit the noblest impulses of their time. While there was this revolution in religion a social and political revolution never came to Iceland. The Hanse trade replaced the English for the worse; and the Danish monopoly which succeeded it when the Danish kings began to act again with vigour was still less profitable. The glebes and hospital lands were a fresh power in the hands of the crown, and the subservient Lutheran clergy became the most powerful class in the island, while the system of under-leasing at rackrent and short lease with unsecured tenant right extended over at least a quarter of the better land.

A new plague, that of the English, Gascon and Algerine pirates, marked the close of the 16th century and opening of the 17th, causing widespread panic and some devasta tion in 1579,1613-1616and 1627. Nothing points more to the helplessness of the natives' condition than their powerlessness against these foes. But the 18th century is the most gloomy in Iceland's annals. Smallpox, famine, sheep disease, and the eruptions of 1765 and 1783 follow each other in terrible succession. Against such visitations, which reduced the population by about a fourth, little could be done. The few literary men, whose work was done and whose books were published abroad, were only concerned with the past, and Jon Vidalin is the one man of mark, beside Eggert Olafsson, who worked and wrote for his own generation.' Gradually the ideas which were agitating Europe spread through Scandinavia into Iceland, and its claims were more respectfully listened to. The continental system, which, by its leading to the blockade of Denmark, threatened to starve Iceland,was neutralized by special action of the British government. Trade and fishery grew a little brisker, and at length the turn came.

The rationalistic movement, headed by Magnus Stephenson, a patriotic, narrow-minded lawyer, did little good as far as church reform went, but was accompanied by a more successful effort to educate the people. A Useful Knowledge Society was formed and did some honest work. Newspapers and periodicals were published, and the very stir which the ecclesiastical disputes encouraged did good. When free trade came, and when the free constitution of Denmark had produced its legitimate effects, the endeavours of a few patriots such as Jon Sigurdsson were able to push on the next generation a step further. Questions of a modern political complexion arose; the cattle export controversy and the great home rule struggle began. After thirty years' agitation home rule was conceded in 1874 (see above, Government ). For the periods succeeding the union, Danish state papers and the History of Finn Jonsson are the best authority.

(F. Y. P.)

Ancient Literature


Iceland has always borne a high renown for song, but has never produced a poet of the highest order, the qualities which in other lands were most sought for and admired in poetry being in Iceland lavished on the saga, a prose epic, while Icelandic poetry is to be rated very high for the one quality which its authors have ever aimed at - melody of sound. To these generalizations there are few exceptions, though Icelandic literature includes a group of poems which possess qualities of high imagination, deep pathos, fresh love of nature, passionate dramatic power, and noble simplicity of language which Icelandic poetry lacks. The solution is that these poems do not belong to Iceland at all. They are the poetry of the " Western Islands." It was among the Scandinavian colonists of the British coasts that in the first generations after the colonization of Iceland therefrom a magnificent school of poetry arose, to which we owe works that for power and beauty can be paralleled in no Teutonic language till centuries after their date. To this school, which is totally distinct from the Icelandic, ran its own course apart and perished before the 13th century, the following works belong (of their authors we have scarcely a name or two; their dates can be rarely exactly fixed, but they lie between the beginning of the 9th and the end of the 10th centuries), classified into groups:

(a) The Helgi trilogy (last third lost save a few verses, but preserved in prose in Hromund Gripsson's Saga ), the Raising of Anganty and Death of Ilialmar (in Hervarar Saga ), the fragments of a Volsung Lay (Volsungakiraoa ) (part interpolated in earlier poems, part underlying the prose in Volsunga Saga ), all by one poet, to whom Dr Vigfusson would also ascribe Voluspd, Vegtamskv15a, prymskvit'a, Grotta Song and Volundarkvioa.

(b) The Dramatic Poems : - Flyting of Loki, the For Skirnis, the Harbareslioo and several fragments, all one man's work, to whose school belong, probably, the Lay underlying the story of Ivar's death in Skioldunga Saga.

(c) The Didactic Poetry : - Grimnismdl, Vaf pruonismdl, Alvissmal, &c.

(d) The Genealogical and Mythological Poems : - HyndluljO, written for one of the Haurda-Kari family, so famous in the Orkneys; Ynglingatal and Haustlong, by Thiodolf of Hvin; Rig's Thul, &c.

(e) The Dirges and Battle Songs - such as that on Hafur-firth Battle Hrafnsmal, by Thiodolf of Hvin orThorbjorn Hornklofi, shortly after 870; Eirik's Dirge ( Eiriksmdl ) between 950 and 969; the DartLay on Clontarf Battle (1014); Biarka-mal (fragments of which we have, and paraphrase of more is found in Hrolf Kraki's Saga and in Saxo).

There are also fragments of poems in Half's Saga, Asmund KappaBana's Saga, in the Latin verses of Saxo, and the Shield Lays ( Ragnarsdrapa ) by Bragi, &c., of this school, which closes with the Sun-Song, a powerful Christian Dantesque poem, recalling some of the early compositions of the Irish Church, and with the 12th-century Lay of Ragnar, Lay of Starkad, The Proverb Song (Havamal ) and Krakumal, to which we may add those singular Gloss-poems, the Pulur, which also belong to the Western Isles.

To Greenland, Iceland's farthest colony, founded in the 10th century, we owe the two Lays of Atli, and probably HymiskviOa, which, though of a weirder, harsher cast, yet belong to the Western Isles school and not to Iceland.

In form all these poems belong to two or three classes: - kvioa , an epic " cantilena "; tal, a genealogical poem; drapa, songs of praise, &c., written in modifications of the old Teutonic metre which we know in Beowulf; galdr and lokkr, spell and charm songs in a more lyric measure; and mal , a dialogue poem, and liod, a lay, in elegiac measure suited to the subject.

The characteristics of this Western school are no doubt the result of the contact of Scandinavian colonists of the Viking-tide, living lives of the wildest adventure, with an imaginative and civilized race, that exercised upon them a very strong and lasting influence (the effects of which were also felt in Iceland, but in a different way). The frequent intermarriages which mingled the best families of either race are sufficient proof of the close communion of Northmen and Celts in the 9th and 10th centuries, while there are in the poems themselves traces of Celtic mythology, language and manners.1 When one turns to the early poetry of the Scandinavian continent, preserved in the rune-staves on the memorial stones of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, in the didactic Havamal, the Great Volsung Lay ( i.e. Sigurd II., Fafnis's Lay, Sigrdrifa's Lay) and Hamdismal, all continental, and all entirely consonant to the remains of Old English poetry in metre, feeling and treatment, one can see that it is with this school that the Icelandic " makers " are in sympathy, and that from it their verse naturally descends. While shrewdness, plain straightforwardness, and a certain stern way of looking at life are common to both, the Icelandic school adds a complexity of structure and ornament, an elaborate mythological and enigmatical phraseology, and a regularity of rhyme, assonance, luxuriance, quantity and syllabification, which it caught from the Latin and Celtic poets, and adapted with exquisite ingenuity to its own main object, that of securing the greatest possible beauty of sound.

1 Many of these poems were Englished in prose by the translator of Mallet, by B. Thorpe in his Scemund's Edda, and two or three by Messrs Morris and Magnussen, as appendices to their translation of Volsunga Saga. Earlier translations in verse are those in Dryden's Miscellany (vol. vi), A. Cottle's Edda, Mathias's Translations, and W. Herbert's Old Icelandic Poetry. Gray's versions of Darradar-liod and Vegtamskvioa are well known.


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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Iceland'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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