History & Background
Iceland, one of the world's first independent, democratic nations, is the second largest island in Europe (39,769 square miles). Located 180 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland's nearest neighbor is Greenland to the west (180 miles), followed by Scotland to the south east (495 miles), and Norway to the east (590 miles). Iceland is largely a classless society composed of the descendents of farmers and warriors who fled the tyranny of Scandinavia many centuries ago. The strength of the people, mirrored by the powerful landscape, is evident in the thriving independent culture. Visitors to Iceland typically find the people to be courteous and friendly, are surprised by the cold yet temperate climate (mild winters and cool summers), and are struck by the breathtaking natural beauty of the country. Despite physical isolation, Iceland has maintained its place in European civilization.
Iceland has a rich literary tradition and unusually high standards of education, with 15 percent of the national budget devoted to education. Illiteracy is unknown in the small island country. Icelanders are generally very open to new ideas and trends, and they have rapidly developed, implemented, and embraced new technology throughout their society. Approximately 82 percent of Icelanders between the ages of 17 and 75 have access to the Internet at home, school, or work. With artists frequently deriving inspiration from the extraordinary terrain and the ancestral culture, the arts are flourishing in Iceland. Painting in particular has thrived since the end of the nineteenth century. Nearly every district has its own museum reflecting the local cultural history, while magnificent galleries and museums grace the capitol. Literature has always played a prominent role in Icelandic culture. Manuscript illumination, woodcarving, and folk music have been associated with periods of heightened interest. There are numerous theater companies in Iceland, and Reykjavik is home to a symphony orchestra, an opera house, and a ballet company. The National Theater of Iceland celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in the year 2000. Icelandic nightlife is famous for its vibrancy, with night clubs, cafes, and cinemas in all major towns.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church is the official state church, but freedom of religion exists for all other congregations. Although the state provides financial support to the church, it extends considerable freedom. The bishop is elected by pastors and members of the theological faculty at the University of Iceland; and the one diocese is divided into districts, which are further subdivided into parishes. An elected church congress serves as an advisory board to the church. Roughly 90-94 percent of Icelanders are Protestants (73 percent Evangelical Lutheran) and 1 percent are Catholic.
With an excellent health care system available to all citizens at no cost, the life expectancy in Iceland is among the highest in the world (76.5 years for males and 81.5 years for females) and infant mortality is among the lowest in the world (5.5 per 1,000 live births). The health-care system receives 40.5 percent of the national budget and the nation operates one of the most expensive health-care systems in the world. Welfare services include unemployment insurance, old age and disability pensions, family and childbearing allowances, and sickness benefits. The medical and welfare systems are jointly financed through taxation by the national and local government.
Geologically, Iceland is a very young country and the process of its formation is still in progress. Iceland's interior consists mostly of uninhabited mountains and high plateaus. Much of the uninhabited regions, encompassing more than 80 percent of the island, are covered with permanent snow and ice (glaciers) or volcanic surface, preventing many agricultural activities. The settlements are limited to a narrow coastal belt, valleys, and lowland plains in the south and southwest. With a population of approximately 272,000 people, Iceland is one of the smaller nations in the world, yet it is the least densely populated of all European nations. More than 60 percent of the country's population resides in or near the capital city of Reykjavik ("Bay of Smokes" named for the geo-thermal stream), situated in the southwestern region of the island. Since WWII Iceland has maintained a high standard of living that is comparable to other Nordic countries. The strong Icelandic economy is based on the use of renewable natural resources and a highly educated and skilled labor force. Unemployment is nearly non-existent in contemporary Iceland. Over the course of the twentieth century, Iceland, which is situated on major shipping and air lanes of the North Atlantic Ocean, has effectively transformed itself from a subsistence economy to an exchange economy. The cost of living is very high because so many purchases from cars to paper are imported. Households require two or more incomes, with most women working outside the home and many men holding two jobs.
The principal employers are fishing, industry, agriculture, and health services. Icelanders as a group are very committed to their work regardless of the specific form. Whether employment involves intellectually challenging desk work, farming, or fishing, for the Icelander there seems to be an intrinsic association between one's work life and both one's personal contentment and the meaning ultimately attached to one's life. A common belief in Icelandic society is that an individual who is not very busy and actively involved in his or her work is not living life fully. Casual conversations over a meal frequently involve discussions about work. All Icelandic youth are expected to work as soon as possible, particularly during the summer months when school is out of session.
Although Irish monks were the first people to inhabit Iceland in the eighth century, it was not until the period extending from 870 to 930 A.D. that Iceland was systematically settled by both Norsemen from Scandanavia and Celts from the British Isles. The monks are believed to have left shortly after the arrival of the pagan Norsemen. Because the ruling class was Nordic, both the language and the culture have been predominantly Scandinavian from the beginning. There are, however, traces of Celtic influence in the literature and in the names of people and places. Immigration from other parts of the world has been minimal since the time of the first settlement.
Iceland's present day parliament, Althing, is the oldest existing national assembly in the world. When established in 930 A.D., the power of the Althing was distributed among four local courts and a supreme court. In 1000 A.D., Christianity was peacefully adopted at the Althing, which met for two weeks each summer and attracted a significant portion of the population. The first bishopric, or center for learning, was established at Skal-holt in south Iceland in 1056, and a second was developed at Holar in the north in 1106. These first schools were devoted primarily to educating men for the priesthood, but many others who were prominent in secular affairs were taught as well.
During the late twelfth and the early thirteenth century, dramatic Icelandic tales of early settlement, the colonization of Greenland, romance, disputes, and the development of Iceland were translated into a rich literary tradition dominated by Sagas. These fact-based works, which provided the early settlers with a source of entertainment as well as cultural heritage, represent some of the classics of world medieval literature and continue to be widely read and treasured by Icelanders. A common custom on farms was for families to sit with handiwork (weaving, tool making, carving, spinning, or knitting) while participating in shared reading, storytelling, and verse making. A study by Weingand conducted in 1989 revealed that 86 percent of well-educated Icelanders, 71 percent of the general population, and 53 percent of students reported recalling oral reading of sagas and folk-tales in the home during childhood.
The enlightened period of peace, or the "Golden Age," lasted 200 years until internal feuds resulting in civil war led to submission to the king of Norway and a new monarchical code in 1271. The infamous Sturlung Age, which followed the era of peace, was marked by political treachery and violence. During this time, the eruption of Mt. Hekla brought physical destruction, widespread epidemics, and death. At the end of the fourteenth century, Iceland was brought under Danish rule and conflicts between church and state culminated in the Reformation of 1550 with Lutheranism declared the country's official religion. The next three centuries were troubled by Danish profiteering, international pirates, a series of natural disasters, and famines.
Denmark's hold on Iceland was significantly reduced in 1874 when a constitution was drafted granting Iceland permission to handle domestic affairs. In 1918 Iceland became an independent state under the Danish king. After the occupation of Denmark and Iceland's declaration of sovereignty, the island's vulnerability was responded to by British and U.S. troops. On June 17, 1944, the Republic of Iceland was formally declared at Thing-vellir.
Iceland joined the United Nations in 1946 and it is a charter member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In the post WWII era, Iceland has based its foreign policy on peaceful international cooperation and has participated in Western defense efforts. Iceland does not maintain armed forces. However, the United States, which has assumed responsibility for Iceland's defense, maintains a naval air station at the Keflavik International Airport.
Icelandic, the national language, has changed very little from the original tongue of the Norse settlers. A strong movement for linguistic purism gained strength in the nineteenth century and has persisted unabated. English, Danish, and German are also widely spoken and understood. A governmental agency, the Icelandic Language Committee, was established in 1965 and officiates over all language issues. New Icelandic terms are introduced in each discipline and foreign influence on the vocabulary is actively resisted.
Literacy has been universal in Iceland since the end of the eighteenth century. In 1700, less than half of the population of Iceland could read. However, literacy was accomplished in the eighteenth century as children were taught to read by their families or clergy in their homes. This practice of family members frequently teaching children to read continues in present day Iceland.
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