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Iceland - The Land of Fire and Ice

Icelandic landscape

A landscape hard to even imagine in wildest of dream - welcome to Iceland

Before the advent of Instagram and internet in general, the word ‘Iceland’ conjured up images of a place sleeping under a blanket of snow, cold winds blowing through vast open spaces, and people wrapped warm in animal fur, squinty eyes set deep on their rugged faces and lots of other whacky ideas!

This image also created the idea of the place being hard to get to, and therefore more desirable! And as travel opened up, and the ‘web’ made it easy to swing across the world in no time, Iceland was sure to creep up on people’s dream destination! More so, a geologist’s dream destination! A truly extraordinary country, though extraordinarily expensive, but worth every penny! From imposing serene white glaziers to red hot fiery calderas of raging volcanoes, welcome to Iceland - the Land of Fire and Ice! It also looks like the moon! May even be one reason why NASA used the Askja caldera (a part of central highlands of Iceland) as a training center for Lunar Expedition about 50 years ago.

black beach, Icelandic volcanic activity

Iceland is home is some of the spectacular bank sand beaches in the world

In reality though, Iceland is a place to be felt! Pictures can capture the magnificence of the place, words can describe what the eyes see, but there is something more about Iceland that needs to be felt. It is hard to put your finger on what it is, but there is something that connects you with the universe and if you pay attention and tune in, you get a mystical experience! How profound depends on how in sync you are with your inner self and the outer universe, how often you listen to your heart and stop and a place that pulls you, and linger in longer, much longer than you planned to. There is a magic and benefit in being spontaneous as well as in a reflective mode when you travel to Iceland. You will see the usual sights that so many people come to see, marvel at nature’s beauty, and take wonderful pictures, but in between those ‘tangible’ experiences, lies an endless possibility to experience something you will never forget. Amidst the mossy lava fields, dancing waterfalls, imposing mountains, rocky and black beaches, sparkling rainbows, spectacular fjords, turquoise glacial lagoons, blooming lupins, you will discover there are more feelings than you have experienced before, connecting to the universe is somehow easier and faster from nature’s ‘hotspot’!

Icelandic summer, wild Lupin blooming

In early summer wild lupin grows in abundance mainly in the south part of the Iceland

So, take the pictures, make those reels, but find the traveller and the seeker within you and let it guide you through your journey of Wonderland (the better name) Iceland!

A bit about geology

There is no escaping the geological drama than unfolds at every turn in Iceland! It is an extremely dynamic place which is continuing to change its shape and form every day. Geologically, it is a young island – about 25 million years old. Located in the North Atlantic Ocean, Iceland sits on the constantly active geologic border – the mid-Atlantic ridge (ridge being the boundary between two tectonic plates) – North American plate and Eurasian plate. So, Iceland literally sits between two continents. Being in the middle of a ridge means it is the centre of geological activity. The tectonic plates shift and collide and move away apparently at the rate of 2.5cm per year. When the tectonic plates move apart, the oldest rocks get pushed to the sides, and new rock gets formed in the middle. Eventually, these plates will end up splitting the whole island in two – right through its middle part. So, one day, Iceland will no longer be a single piece of land!

The fissure can be seen today at the Thingvellir National Park – you can see both sides of the plates and literally walk between two continents, or dive if you wish, between America and Europe. 

Icelandic horses

Iceland's breathtaking landscape was generated from volcanic eruption

Iceland's position means that it is a ‘hotspot’ for geologic activity, which means frequent volcanic eruptions and geysers (which provide Iceland with abundant geothermal energy). And by some strange co-incidence the more known ‘hotspot’ – the internet type is amazingly strong as well! Best we have ever experienced in any country – and incredibly amazing considering the ‘raw-ness’ of nature around and endless expanses of nothingness!

Well coming back to the geology ‘hotspot’ – this island nation has more than 200 volcanoes. This volcanic activity created Iceland 60-70 million years ago when masses of hot lava rose to the surface of the ocean, cooled and gradually piled up in enough quantities to make land. Evolution continues with volcanoes erupting and new fissures appearing along their slopes. Iceland today has its own baby island – the island of Surtsey, which rose above the ocean in a series of eruptions in the 1960s. 

Iceland is also one of the northernmost inhabited places on the planet! However, despite its closeness to the Arctic Circle (and the name!), Iceland has a surprisingly ‘mild’ climate, of course in ‘northern’ context, due to the Gulf Stream which bring warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to the Northern Atlantic. Without the Gulf Stream the climate in Iceland would be like Greenland. Only about a quarter of the island is habitable, mostly along the south and eastern coasts. The northern parts of the island are dominated by widespread lava fields, cold deserts, and the tundra. With a population of over 300,000 people, Iceland is one of the least populated European countries, though it is the second largest Island in Europe. Most of the population of Iceland lives in the capital city – Reykjavik which is also the largest city in Iceland.

A bit of history

Iceland was settled by Vikings from Norway who came directly from Norway or via the British Isles about a thousand years ago. It is said that the island was largely uninhabited, with the exception of some Papars (monks from Ireland) who fled with the arrival of Vikings. It is believed that during the first years of settlement, 40% of Iceland was covered with trees. The Vikings quickly cut down the trees and used to build houses, ships, farmsteads and fire to stay warm in the harsh temperatures. Within a century, the trees were gone and Icelanders to this day are working hard to get their lost greenery.

A great of historical understanding of Iceland comes from a single book which describes in considerable detail the settlements of Iceland in the 9th and 10th centuries. The Landnamabok or "Book of Settlements", often shortened to Landnama, or ‘Icelander's sagas’ or ‘family sagas’, lists over 3000 individuals and 1400 settlements – believed to be passed on orally and then transcribed during the 12th and 14th centuries. It has been a subject of constant debate as to who created the sagas and for what purpose. Nonetheless, it is a central pillar of Icelandic literature and holds special value for Icelanders. The fact that the language has changed so little during the last centuries allows people to understand this even today – not something that can be said of many other languages. This and the oldest Icelandic history book, Ari Frooi's ‘Islendingabok’ from about 12th century indicate that the Iceland has one of the world's oldest democracy – Icelanders founded the world’s first parliament in 930 – Althingi or Althing originally in Pingvellir National Park (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Park for this fact, found on the Golden Circle). It started off when around 30 clans of settlers decided they would rather talk out their issues than fight over them as Vikings! The assembly was open to everyone, and a large crowd usually attended them. There was no king or central executive power, the actual legislative and judicial power lay with the chieftains. The current Althingi holds at downtown Reykjavík, next to the city’s cathedral (not the much larger Hallgrímskirkja church). The system is now made up of 63 parliamentarians elected by proportional representation.

Icelandic church

Christianity took over old paganism during 10th century in Iceland

Around the 10th century, King Hakon Haraldsson of Norway introduced Christianity to Icelanders, but the new religion was not widely adopted. Icelanders by and large worshiped the old pagan gods of their ancestors. His successor King Olafur Tryggvason forcefully reintroduced the new religion to the Icelandic chieftains (gooar) which slowly started forming a Christian and a pagan state. As a comprise it was agreed that all Icelanders should be baptized and be Christian. Pagan sacrifice and worship could continue secretly, if desired, but would be penalised if witnesses came forward. So the compromise was being Christians outdoors and whatever they felt like indoors! This is a cool example of the length Icelanders would go to preserve law and order! In practice not much changed – the Chieftains retained their power but rather than being intermediaries to their old religion, became the intermediaries to the new church. They tore down their temples and built churches, sent their sons overseas to become priests and, ultimately, bishops of the church, though pagan ways of life like eating horse meat and other traditions continued. 

In the 13th century, following some major internal disputes among the most influential families in Iceland, it submits to the Norwegian crown. The old rule of chiefs was abolished, and part of the Icelandic upper class take its place. 

In the 14th century, Denmark and Norway were united under one king, which brings Iceland under Danish monarchy. Absolute monarchy was introduced in Denmark-Norway in the 17th century and followed in Iceland. In the coming centuries, Iceland was administered directly from Copenhagen as a fiefdom. The Althing, however, maintained a measure of authority independent of the Danish government, partly because of Iceland's remote location. In 18th century, the Althing was abolished due to the introduction of the Danish legal system, and instead a High Court in Reykjavík was established. The 18th century witnessed the loss of one-fifth of the island’s population due to famine caused by a volcanic eruption and subsequent years of cold weather. This fueled massive emigration to North America mainly to Canada. Icelanders continued to demand that executive power be transferred to Iceland. In 1901 rule by parliamentary majority was introduced in Denmark and the Liberals came into power. They were more aligned with the needs of the Icelanders and in 1904 Iceland got home rule, and the first Icelandic minister opened his office in Reykjavík. At the same time, rule by parliamentary majority was introduced. This kick started the transformation in Iceland, with the opening of more schools, establishment of university, freedom to move to fishing villages, which was previously restricted, and general industrialization and development. Iceland traversed its path through the Great Depression, and the impact of Spanish Civil War, World War II and finally Iceland was able to break free of all constitutional ties with Denmark and establish a republic!

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