Due to its geographical location, Iceland remained uninhabited for longer than the rest of Europe; it was settled by the Norse people in the 9th century. The Norse people were a North German ethnic group who lived in Scandinavia in the early Middle Ages. At the end of the 8th century, they embarked on a large-scale expansion toward present-day Britain, Iceland, Greenland and Russia. Since then, the Norse people have been known as Vikings. Their explorations had three purposes: trading, raiding and settling down. They are also considered to be the first Europeans to discover North America around 1000 AD.
Icelandic settlers were mostly farmers and maintained Viking customs. They spoke the ancient Norse language, which has been preserved remarkably intact to this day. The island was governed as an independent commonwealth by the Alþingi [National Parliament of Iceland], one of the oldest functioning legislative assemblies in the world. The Icelanders were mostly pagans who worshiped the old Norse gods, like Odin and Thor, but there were also Christians among them. Around 1000 AD, under pressure from the Norwegian king, a decision was made by the Alþingi to adopt Christianity through an act of law.
In October 1986, Reykjavík was the site of the famous summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, which is considered to be the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Standing guard over Reykjavík, Hallgrimskirkja is a massive white-concrete Lutheran church built in 1986. It is named after the Icelandic clergyman and poet Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674), who wrote Iceland’s most popular hymnbook, the Passíusálmar [Passion Hymns]. Reminiscent of the island’s huge volcanic basalt columns, the size and radical design of the church has caused much controversy, and its architect, Guðjón Samúelsson (1887–1950), could not see its completion. In front of the church, proudly gazing into the distance, is a statue of Leif Erikson (970-1020). He was an Icelandic Norse explorer who was the first known European to discover the mainland of North America about 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The statue was a present from the USA in 1930 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Alþingi. In contrast to the high drama outside, the interior of the church is quite plain.
The permanent exhibition ‘Making of a Nation – Heritage and History in Iceland’ of the Þjóðminjasafn Íslands [National Museum of Iceland] can provide an insight into the history of the Icelandic nation from the time of Settlement to the present day. The exhibition is designed as a journey through time: it begins with a ship in which the medieval Norse settlers crossed the ocean to reach their new home and ends at a modern airport, which is the gateway to the world for Icelanders. The most intriguing artifact of the collection is a small human figure made of bronze. Based on its style, it was dated to about 1000 AD. It is believed to depict Thor, one of the major Norse gods, but may also represent Christ enthroned in glory. The figure holds an object that is thought to be Thor’s hammer, but is also similar in shape to the Christian cross. At the nearby Settlement Exhibition, built around an excavated 10th-century Viking longhouse, visitors can get a glimpse into early Icelandic life. The museum’s Settlement-Era finds from central Reykjavík are complemented with high-tech displays. While the Saga Museum recreates the key moments of early Icelandic history using dioramas featuring life-like silicon figures. Interestingly, the molds of the figures were taken from the inhabitants of Reykjavík. Visitors can also try on some of the museum’s Viking costumes.
Sjóminjasafnið í Reykjavík [Reykjavík Maritime Museum] is located next to the old harbor, in a former fish-freezing plant. From the earliest days, Icelanders have depended on brave fisherman willing to fight the waves of the North Atlantic. Since the 19th century, the fishing industry has been the basis of prosperity in Iceland. The museum explores the island’s dramatic relationship with the sea and features historic ships and exhibits on the local fishing industry. More specifically, the Whales of Iceland exhibition presents 23 life-size models of the various whale species found in Icelandic waters. Each whale was modeled after an actual whale and features their personal characteristics. The experience is enhanced by underwater ambient lighting and soothing whale sounds.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum is probably the only museum in the world to exhibit a huge collection of penises. The collection represents almost all the terrestrial and marine mammals that can be found in Iceland. Highlights include the contributions from a tiny mouse through a rouge polar bear to a huge sperm whale as well as silver castings from each member of the Icelandic handball team. The collection contains a single human sample – from a deceased mountaineer, Páll Arason – but other donors-in-waiting have already promised to bequeath their manhood to the museum according to the signed contracts on display. After this, the two old underground public toilets on Reykjavík’s main street, which now function as museums, does not sound so quirky at all. One is home to the Pönksafn Íslands [The Icelandic Punk Museum] while the other houses the Freddi Arcade and Toy Museum.