Iceland Mag

5 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag


Icelandic Meat Soup: Jón Gnarr on the rise of nationalism in Iceland and myths about the Viking heritage

  • Jón Gnarr "It is often maintained that our ancestors were all great Vikings. That’s not quite true."

Comedian, writer and former mayor of Reykjavík JÓN GNARR, writes a weekly column for the weekend issue of Fréttablaðið, Iceland's most read newspaper. Here he tackles nationalism in Iceland and myths about Iceland's Viking heritage.

Nationalism seems to be on the rise in Iceland today. People talk much about the so-called national culture, and cite history. This is especially prominent in political debate. Strangely, the debate is rarely about what I find the most Icelandic of all: the gift of poetry itself and artistic expression. It is not tangible enough. The Icelandic national culture seems, for the most part, to evolve around corpulent men who once said something, about processed meat, and some peculiar type of arrogance.

Everything natural is turned upside down, and it isn’t the water that hollows the stone, it is the stone that hollows the water with a loud splash. Tenderness is gutlessness and poets are slouches who should stop writing their worthless nonsense and get a job, preferably in meat processing. Importunity and aggression are considered a virtue. Gentleness and politeness are not necessary. Why stand and wait in a line like a moron when you can so easily jump the queue?


It is often maintained that our ancestors were all great Vikings. That’s not quite true. A few Vikings came here, but it was young farmers, slaves and losers who formed the bulk of the settlers of Iceland. It was not considered prestigious to live in or come from Iceland. The Icelandic sagas, especially the Book of Settlements, are our main source of information about the settlement. The Icelandic Sagas, however, are not quite trustworthy records. The scribes wrote them down after older oral sources. The sagas are marked by poetic inspiration and exaggerations. Even though they pretend to relate true events, there seems to be a lot there for other reasons than to reflect the truth. No-one really knows why these stories were written. To some extent it was done for political reasons.

The first Icelanders were accused of being the descendants of slaves and villains. That’s what they were called in ancient times, but today they would probably be called quitters and losers. People wanted to refute this by writing long genealogies that made them the descendants of Norwegian chieftains. It was also important to secure legal ownership of land. There are few records about peasants and slaves. The sagas are written about a small upper class, and with their needs in mind. Much of it is even a complete lie. For example, I seriously doubt that Ingólfur Arnarson ever existed. I think he was made up, like many others, for the purpose of propaganda.

No dogs no Irish!

In the Icelandic Sagas it is usually maintained that we are all descended from Norway. Examinations of our genome, however, show more Irish blood than was previously presumed. Research indicates that almost a third of the settlers came from the British Isles. And most of them seem to have been women. It could be argued that a majority of our foremothers were British. But our Gaelic heritage has died for the most part and succumbed to our ardor to make us Norwegian. That was considered respectable while everything Irish was shameful. The Irish influence has been disregarded, even obliterated. I think the prejudice against red-haired people has been, and even still is, part of this. We redheads are living proof of our ancestry.

Perhaps the Gaelic heritage lost because it was so connected to women. The soft and artistic, feminine nerve could not compete with the Norwegian artless and practical importunity. It is also the habit of barbarians to treat artists like losers.

I am inclined to think that our ancestors were, for the most part, peaceful and thoughtful people who were running away from the macho madness and bullying of the Vikings. People came here looking for peace and security. I think many of these people were poets. Creative people are rarely brawlers. Therefore, Iceland was an ideal place for all kinds of dreamers. Our nation has one of the highest percentages of ADHD. We are an artistic people. Not everyone succeeds. Creative people often lean towards insobriety. Most criminals suffer from attention-deficiency and a large majority of prisoners committed their crime under the influence.

Many criminals are misunderstood artists. And now, when Icelandic politicians are yet again rewriting the history of Iceland for their own advantage, I want to say that I am proud of being an Icelander and the descendant of Irish slaves and losers. I think it is about time that this neglected part of our history gets more attention. It deserves it, and I think it would be very good for us as a nation. In fact, nothing is all-Icelandic, except the language. This is the Icelandic national culture. And it is the Icelandic wretches and losers who have preserved it because they are so often the kind of people who like to prattle and tell stories until someone yells: “Shut up, you loser, and go to work!”

Wishing you a good weekend and all kinds of everything for losers!

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