Published September 8, 2016
Writing in ‘A Defence of Iceland’ in 1593, Arngrímur the Learned argued that “we are seriously to consider, what things, and how true, writers have reported of Iceland.” Made up of nearly thirty chapters, the document attempts to dispel foreign myths about Iceland by essentially shit-talking European countries and bigging the island up in order to convince foreigners of Iceland’s physical and cultural proximity with the so-called “civilised” world.
Today, this inferiority complex endures, a hangover of 1,000 years of colonial rule by the Norwegians and later, the Danes, the British, and the Americans. While the Danes could hardly be said to have been oppressors, the fact that the Kingdom of Denmark “inherited” de facto rule over Iceland after the death of Olav IV in 1380, and later, stripped Iceland of its political and economic autonomy in 1660 under Frederick III, was pivotal in stimulating the independence movement. Ask many Icelanders back home about what they think of the Danes, and you’ll be lucky if they don’t spit at you. Danish is, after all, still taught as a second language in Icelandic schools.
The idea of a distinctive Icelandic national “community” is much older, however—as Arngrímur’s text attests. Like many other nationalisms, it was from the beginning linked to a mythologised concept of an enduring, distinct Icelandic population. Arngrímur the Learned, then, fired the first shot in the centuries-long PR campaign to put Iceland on the map as a cultured, Western civilisation—and the likes of Inspired By Iceland and the tourism board owe him much more today than they might think.
Icelanders on display
When burgeoning independence movements began to spring up—with mixed success—across Europe and the so-called New World in the late 19th century, this idea of a distinct Icelandic identity was supercharged by the ideas of home rule and popular sovereignty. Much of the literature of the time attempts—with some success—to enhance popular perception of Iceland.
Like the Irish, the Greeks, or the French, Icelanders of the independence movement believed their people had enough golden ages, foreign oppressors, and unique heritage to justify being seen as their own nation. Icelanders at the time—but in particular the academics, polemicists, and artists living in Denmark—went to great lengths to demonstrate that they were civilized Europeans deserving of a unique nation-state among those of mainland Europe.
It’s tempting to view this fight for a national identity in purely political terms—but, of course, no 19th century nationalism was complete without its corresponding ethnic component.
Strøget, Copenhagen’s tourist-packed central shopping street, is dissimilar from Reykjavík’s Laugavegur perhaps only in scale and price. Icelanders frequently fly to Copenhagen just to shop here—with cheap flights and better retail offers ensuring that a 2135km journey remains a more enticing option than driving to Kringlan.
Walk far enough down Strøget, and you will eventually arrive at Tivoli Gardens: Denmark’s most popular tourist attraction and the second oldest amusement park in the world—and one with a particularly sinister connection to the history of Icelandic nationalism.
In the late 19th century, “colonial exhibitions” were very popular among the Danish public, and in 1905, Tivoli was to play host to one of these exhibitions of colonised people and artefacts—with “live exhibits” of people from Greenland, Iceland, and the West Indies. At the time, the announcement of the event was met with ferocious opposition from Icelandic intellectuals, leading to large protests across Copenhagen.
The protests were not aimed at the colonial exhibition as such, nor the humiliation faced by the people being “exhibited” in cages for the pleasure of the jeering Danish crowds. Far from it. In fact, the protestors were most upset about the fact that Icelanders would be exhibited with those they saw as “savages” (in their own words). These protests spoke to a deep anxiety about Iceland being classified alongside non-European, racialised Others.
The years have been kind to Denmark in the eyes of the Icelanders living there, but some Danish stereotypes still persist—and not without justification. In many ways, it is still characterised by that stereotypical pigheadedness Danes are so famous for.
Across the street from Tivoli Gardens is Rådhudspladsen, Copenhagen City Hall. Every year during Kulturnatten (the Danish equivalent of Menningárnótt, Reykjavík’s culture night), the building is opened up to the public, who are invited to explore its connection with Denmark’s proud (almost a little too proud) colonial history. On the wall of the city council’s meeting room, and despite the fact that Iceland became completely independent from Denmark in the mid-1940s, there still stands today the four shields of The Kingdom—Grønland, Færøerne, Danmark, and Island.
Up until a few years ago, many Danes would not even have known that Icelanders had their own language, let alone that Iceland has been a completely independent country for nearly a century. Danes, upon arriving in Iceland, will still often open interactions i Dansk. Characterised by communal beer, hygge and beer pong, a Danish party is also markedly more twee than the individualistic, shitfaced all-night soirees you find in Reykjavík. Danes, of course, really love being Danish.
Becoming more connected with the rest of the world may have resulted in many modern Icelanders outgrowing the old ways of nationalism; but as the multitude of red and white Dannebroger in every arrivals terminal and on every rooftop show, not everyone has moved on from past myths quite so quickly. Likewise, Iceland’s success at the Euros reminds us that it does not take much for people to swiftly relapse into blind, flag-waving patriotism. Some Icelanders still feel too ashamed to wear their lopapeysur in public in Copenhagen, while others swiftly return home after a couple of years to complain (lightheartedly) about the boring Danish landscape and the rudeness of the Danes—Iceland is best í heimi, after all.
On the whole, though, things are different today. Copenhagen not only has its own Icelandic bar, but it also has its own franchises of Tommi’s Burger Joint—another Icelandic chain—as well as a wide variety of Icelandic artists, musicians, and businesspeople. Icelanders move there to raise their children, gain access to better social security, marry Danes, and, well, live their lives in a place where things are just that bit more easy. Likewise, Den Dansk Kro and Joe and the Juice ensure—some might say sadly—that the Danish legacy at home has not quite faded just yet.
With many thanks to Kristín Loftsdóttir Ph.D (Professor of Anthropology) and Ólafur Rastrick Ph.D (Assistant Professor in Folklore and Ethnology) of Háskóli Íslands for their invaluable research and help with this piece.