ICELAND, THE MAID OF THE NORTH
Several thousand years ago a mighty
conflict occurred between the sea and the subterranean
forces in the north Atlantic five hundred miles northwest
of Scotland. A violent earthquake rent the rocks
of the ocean bed, and through the broken floor there
issued tremendous floods of molten lava. The
great conflict manifested itself in explosions of
steam, gigantic streams of red-hot lava, frothy pumice,
and volcanic ashes. For miles around the water
of the sea was seething and boiling.
After awhile the turbulence of the
fiery mass was subdued and it stood congealed in the
varied forms of rugged peaks, contorted ridges, and
deep valleys, subsequently to be seamed and further
distorted by earthquakes and piled higher by further
volcanic outbursts. A new island had been born.
Ages rolled on; vegetation appeared
as the volcanic rock disintegrated; crystal lakes
were formed and rivers, fed by frequent rains and melting
snows, flowed to the sea. This comparatively new
island is Iceland. The book of nature here is
open; the print is clear; and the language is so plain
that he who can read may learn the story.
The internal fires of the earth seem
to have taken their final great stand in this far-off
northern land and have waged a titanic battle to the
death, as may be seen in many places. In the northern
part of the island one may find acres of burning sulphur
beds, small geysers, and mud caldrons, all of which
attest to the slowly dying volcanic forces beneath.
Although a comparative calm now exists, an exciting
cause may at any time awaken the slumbering volcanoes
and again renew the work of destruction.
Fossilized forests are found, but
of trees different from those now existing. Climate
and vegetation materially changed as century succeeded
The written history of Iceland begins
about the year 860, when a viking living on the
Faroe Islands who was on his way home from Norway,
being driven far northward of his course, came to
an unknown coast. Climbing a high rock and looking
around, he beheld no signs of life; before he could
return to his ship, however, a sudden storm came on,
covering the ground with a mantle of snow. From
the latter circumstance he named the country Snowland.
Four years after a Swedish master-mariner
was driven by stress of storm to this same land, and,
building a house, spent the winter there. During
the following summer he sailed around the land, demonstrating
that it was an island, and called it after his own
name, Gardar’s Island. On his return home
he gave such a favorable account of the island that
a famous Norwegian viking named Floki determined
to seek it and to take possession. Having gathered
his family and followers, and taking on board some
live stock, he set sail for the unknown land by way
of the Faroe Islands.
The compass had not then been invented,
but knowing that ravens by instinct seek the nearest
land when freed on the ocean, he provided himself
with three of these birds to serve as guides.
He remained awhile at the Faroe Islands
and then boldly sailed northward. When he was
several days out he uncaged one of the ravens, which
immediately took its flight back to the Faroe Islands.
Later, he set free a second bird. This one, after
hovering high in the air for some time, seemed bewildered
and returned to the ship. Still later, the third
raven was set free, which at once flew northward.
By pursuing the course taken by the last bird, Floki
soon reached the desired land.
The winter that followed was very
severe. Deep snows covered hill, rock, and valley,
and ice blockaded the fiord. Floki had neglected
to harvest the wild grass, and as a result his cattle
died. Disheartened by his losses, he returned
to his native land, naming the island which he abandoned
A few years later another Norse rover,
who had slain an enemy and was threatened with vengeance
by the relatives of the victim, took refuge on the
island where he spent a year. He liked the country
so well that he returned home and induced his retainers
to accompany him back to his safe retreat. Approaching
the land, he threw into the sea the sacred columns
which his vessel bore, so that he might learn the will
of the gods where to land and found a colony.
A violent storm arising, the pillars drifted out of
sight, so he sought the nearest harbor and there he
established a temporary camp.
Three years afterward the pillars
were found on the desolate shore of a lava stream
on the west side of the island. Near by was a
rivulet from whose bed a spring gushed forth emitting
clouds of steam. Thither the colony removed and
the present capital, Reykjavik, was founded. The
name Reykjavik means “smoking bay.”
Other vikings followed and selected such parts
of the island as they considered best.
Harold, the king of Norway at this
time, determined to curb the rebellious spirit of
the chiefs under him. So, many of the sturdy
Norsemen, chafing under his arbitrary rule, collected
such of their property as they could carry and, putting
it on board their stanch vessels, sailed away to the
land of refuge.
At this period of history nearly all
nations considered that might made right; but no class
of plunderers excelled the Norsemen, who were wont
to make periodical raids on the various seaport cities
and towns of Europe. They swooped upon them,
pillaging and killing the inhabitants, and then fled
in their swift vessels with booty and captives before
they could be intercepted. The audacity of the
Norse vikings knew no bounds. They pillaged
Paris, Bordeaux, Orleans, and nearly every other city
of France accessible by water. Their hands fell
heavily on the coasts of Spain and the British Isles.
At one time a band of these fearless
sea-robbers made their lairs in the Shetland and Orkney
Islands and even plundered the coast of Norway, the
abode of their kinsmen. Their conduct so exasperated
Harold that he determined to destroy the freebooters
of the Orkneys root and branch. Gathering a large
fleet, he relentlessly pursued the raiders up every
bay and inlet. Leaving the ships, he chased them
among the rocky islands and the sinuous fiords.
When they were overtaken the pursuers showed them
no mercy. A few escaped, and, stealing away under
the cover of darkness, the hunted sea-robbers fled
in their ships to Iceland.
All the while the tide of immigration
was augmented by the migrations of disaffected nobles
from Norway. This naked volcanic island had more
attraction for them than their own country where freedom
was denied them.
Sixty years after the first settlement
fifty thousand people had made their homes in Iceland.
The inhabited parts were along the coast, in the river
valleys, and in the vicinity of the fiords, rarely
extending farther than fifty miles inland.
In order to better maintain rights
and settle disputes, in 930 the chiefs or nobles established
an aristocratic republic and adopted a constitution.
The republic existed four hundred years. Many
just laws were enacted, some of which England was
glad to borrow. The legislative meetings were
held in Thingvalla, a picturesque valley thirty-five
miles east of Reykjavik. This valley was formed
by the sinking of a lava area of fifty square miles.
In the middle of the valley, flanked by two huge jagged
walls of lava, is a triangular floor of lava like a
large flatiron having separating chasms meeting at
the apex. Here the Althing, or general assembly,
met annually to make laws and settle disputes.
Toward the south the valley slopes gently to Thingvalla
Vatn, a beautiful sheet of water of crystal clearness
ten miles long and five miles wide, having in some
places a depth of a thousand feet. The scenery
here is one of rugged beauty and surpassing grandeur.
Hard by, a river comes tumbling over its rocky bed,
then calmly pours its icy water into the placid lake.
No spot is better suited to inspire freedom of thought
and lofty imagination than this primitive meeting-place
of a legislative assembly.
Eventually, Iceland became subject
to Norway and afterward a colony of Denmark, which
it remains to-day. Self-government and the re-establishment
of the old Parliament at Reykjavik was granted by
Denmark in 1874.
Iceland is not only out of debt but
has the snug sum of one million crowns in its exchequer.
It is an ideal place for the woman’s rights
advocates, since women here have the right to vote
and do not change their names when they marry.
Although the island contains forty
thousand square miles, five-sixths of it is uninhabitable.
The present population is eight thousand.
It may with truth be called naked
because it is only partly clothed with vegetation;
moreover, such vegetation as exists is scanty and confined
chiefly to the river valleys and their slopes.
In the interior are large desert areas covered with
lava and shifting sand. This desolate expanse
is frequently diversified by extensive jokulls, or
elevated ice-fields, one of which occupies four thousand
Strange as it may seem, the winters
in the inhabited sections are not so severe as those
of New England, owing to the modifying influence of
the warm southwesterly wind and the mild temperature
of the surrounding waters. The summers are cool,
owing to the nearness of the arctic ice-fields.
In the interior on the table-land one is apt to encounter
snowstorms even in August.
The only wild animal is the fox, of
which there are two varieties, the white and the blue.
These animals probably drifted on the ice from Greenland.
They are hunted not only for their skins but also because
they attack the sheep.
The domestic animals are horses, cattle,
sheep, dogs, and cats. The horses and cattle
are small. The ewes, instead of the cows, are
milked. Iceland ponies are famous for their hardiness
and are sure-footed. Large numbers of them are
exported to England for service in the coal-mines.
There they are condemned to hard labor for life in
the dark galleries.
Iceland ranks second among the geyser
regions of the world, Yellowstone Park being first.
The boiling springs and geysers are not confined to
one locality but are scattered widely over the island.
The most prominent are east of Reykjavik.
According to its area probably no
other part of the world except the island of Java
has so many volcanoes. More than one hundred craters
and cinder cones have been counted, many of which
have been active within the historical period of the
island. The most destructive volcanic eruption
took place in June, 1783. The spring had opened
auspiciously; the cattle, sheep, and horses were cropping
the juicy young grass; and the air was balmier than
usual. In the latter part of May a bluish smoke
accompanied by earthquakes began to spread over the
land. As time passed the earthquake shocks increased
in violence. The surface of the earth heaved
like the ground swell of the ocean after a storm; the
atmosphere became filled with choking vapors and blinding
smoke; the sun was darkened and the low rumbling sounds
became heavy peals of thunder. Presently two
mighty streams of lava, one of which was fifteen miles
wide and one hundred feet deep, came pouring down the
sides of Skaptar Jokull. The lava floods filled
up the valleys, quenched rivers, and spread destruction
over the adjacent country. The intense heat blasted
the vegetation far and wide. Nine thousand people
and fifty thousand head of live stock were the result
of the death harvest.
Iceland is well watered, having many
streams, all of which are rapid, for the greater part
flowing over beds of lava and quicksand. In some
of the wider fords stakes have been set so that the
traveller may not get lost in crossing them on horseback
during a dense fog. In the summer the frequent
rains make travelling very unpleasant unless one is
suitably equipped with water-proof garments.
In the Hvita, or White River, is the celebrated Gullfoss literally,
“goldfall” a fall that rivals
Niagara in the height of its two cataracts.
A few garden vegetables excepted,
little or no agriculture is attempted; the chief dependence
of the people is the rearing of sheep, cattle, and
horses, fishing, and the collecting of eider-down.
The streams are filled with excellent fish, including
the salmon; off the coast are codfishing grounds equal
to, if not surpassing, those of Newfoundland.
The most valuable mineral is sulphur,
the supply of which appears to be inexhaustible.
The chief exports are wool, oil, fish, horses, eider-down,
knit goods, sulphur, and Iceland moss.
Transparent calcite, a mineral commonly
called “Iceland spar,” is found, one mine
of which furnishes an excellent quality. It is
highly prized by mineralogists on account of its double
refractive qualities. If a piece of this mineral
be placed over a word, the letters forming it will
appear double. Iceland spar is used chiefly in
the optical instrument known as the polariscope.
Eider-down consists of the soft, fine
feathers growing on the breast of the eider-duck,
great numbers of which frequent the coast and lakes
of Iceland. This duck is wild except at the nesting
season; then it is as tame as the domestic fowl and
makes its nest not only around and on top of the buildings
but frequently inside them. A heavy fine is imposed
on any one killing a duck at this season.
When about to lay, the duck carefully
lines her nest with down plucked from her breast.
Then people remove it from the nest and the duck pulls
more down from her breast to replace that taken.
This process is repeated several times. When
the duck has stripped her own breast the drake comes
to the rescue and furnishes down from his. A certain
number of the eggs are also taken. These, though
inferior to those of the swan, are esteemed a great
delicacy. Swans also are killed on many of the
Iceland is the resort of the fishing
fleets of several nations; the value of the annual
catch averages about ten million dollars. Much
of the catch consists of food fish, but many are caught
for the oil.
The only trees found growing on the
island are birch and ash, and they seldom exceed ten
feet in height. A few juniper bushes and willows
are found here and there.
In the remote and isolated sections
most of the dwellings are built of blocks of lava
laid one upon another, making a wall six feet thick.
Upon these are placed rafters made from ribs of whales,
drift-wood, or anything else that will answer the
purpose. The roof is then covered with grass
and turf. In the hamlets many of the houses are
constructed of imported lumber, there being no trees
of sufficient size on the island for building purposes.
The inhabitants are very hospitable
and every house is open to the traveller. They
live in a simple manner, drink sour whey and milk,
eat rancid butter, fish, mutton, and occasionally
the lichens called Iceland moss. When well cooked,
the last named is quite palatable. It is also
a sovereign remedy for bronchial ailments.
Notwithstanding their many privations,
the people are loyal to their country and lovingly
call it “The Maid of the North.” They
lead pastoral lives and their customs are much like
those of the Homeric age. Story-telling is much
appreciated by all classes. There are wandering
minstrels who gain their livelihood by going from house
to house to recite the stories in prose and poetry
which they have learned by heart. Spindle and
distaff are used in spinning the wool into yarn, which
is then knit or woven into cloth on a hand loom.
Education is universal, and no child
of twelve years can be found who is unable to read
or write. The families are so isolated that there
are few schools outside of the capital; but the parents
diligently teach their children whatever they themselves
During the long winter evenings one
member of the family reads aloud while the others
are busily at work, the men making nets and ropes,
or removing the wool from the sheepskins, the women
embroidering, sewing, or using spindle and distaff.
In no other country of Europe are
so many books and papers published in proportion to
the population as in Iceland. On the average one
hundred books are issued annually from Icelandic presses.
Several excellent newspapers and periodicals are also
Every Icelander to-day knows perfectly
the sagas, the legendary stories that commemorate
heroes and heroic deeds and which are so dear to his
heart. It is not uncommon to find an Icelander
who is well versed in the ancient classics or one
who can speak several languages. They are well
acquainted with the writings of Milton and Shakespeare,
which have been translated into their own language.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Iceland
produced a literature equal to that of any other nation
in Europe within the same period.