Is Iceland a part of Scandinavia? What you need to know about the strange relationship between Iceland and Scandinavia
The rocky, volcanic nation of Iceland has long held a great fascination for travelers, and with good reason. Situated as it is between mainland Europe and Greenland—and beyond that of course the continent of North America—for thousands of years, Iceland has been a stopping-off point for explorers and fishermen from all over the world as they made their way across the North Atlantic.
But beyond its mere utility as a place to drop anchor and stock up on supplies in the middle of a long journey, Iceland has also beckoned travelers across the centuries with her stunning natural beauty. From mist rising above the water of her blue-ice glacier lagoons, to fiery volcanoes belching lava and gas, to the spectral and spectacular Northern Lights shimmering in the night sky, to steaming geysers and rocky lava outcroppings punctuated with abundant grassy fields, its no wonder Iceland has long been thought of as a magical land.
But as more and more people in this modern age of easy and cheap travel learn about the region and consider expanding their travel horizons with a trip to these northern shores, many are wondering exactly how Iceland fits in with the other nations in the area. Is Iceland in Scandinavia? Do Icelanders consider themselves Scandinavian?
More importantly, if you call someone from Iceland a Scandinavian, will you get punched in the face?
Well, it depends — not the part about getting punched. We can be reasonably certain you won’t get smacked around just for asking about Scandinavia and Iceland; most Icelanders are very nice people. At most you might get a polite lecture and a history lesson.
But when it comes to the relationship distant Iceland has with the rest of Europe, and specifically the question of is Iceland Scandinavian, then things get a little more dicey.
Iceland: Won’t you be my neighbor?
When looking into the question of is Iceland part of Scandinavia, we should start by figuring out where exactly Iceland is located in relation to the rest of the world, and especially the rest of the Scandinavian world. The island nation sits at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, just south of the Arctic Circle at a latitude between 63 and 68º north, roughly the same as Stockholm, Sweden or Helsinki, Finland. While the country is closer to mainland Europe than mainland North America, Iceland is actually closest to Greenland, which is located just 180 miles away to the west, and is of course considered to be part of North America.
However, Iceland is generally considered part of Europe, due to historical, linguistic, cultural and political factors, despite being some 460 miles from the nearest European mainland in Scotland. Oddly, Iceland is actually closer to Scotland than its closest Scandinavian neighbor Norway, the latter of which is some 600 miles away.
So perhaps the question shouldn’t be, is Iceland part of Scandinavia, but rather, is Iceland part of Scotland!
Actually, of course, as we will see, Iceland’s historical ties with Norway and other Scandinavian countries are rather stronger than the links they have with their closer neighbor Scotland — you’re more likely to find lutefisk and whale steaks than haggis when you visit Iceland.
Certainly at first glance, we can say that Iceland has much in common with the other countries in the general neighborhood — Scotland excluded. (Sorry lads!) Like its closest neighbors in terms of its northerly latitude, the trio of countries that is generally thought of as the heart of Scandinavia—Norway, Sweden, and Denmark—Iceland too has a strong seafaring history, a thousand year-old connection to early Viking explorers, and tons of social and cultural similarities in common with the people from those nations.
The wild land of Iceland
We can also talk about similarities of a more geographical nature—fjords, cold winters, snowy northern climes, and glaciers—as well as cultural identifiers like language similarities, a reputation for the most beautiful of fair-haired, blue-eyed people, and a culture centered around the sea.
In Iceland you can also see volcanoes, geysers, hidden hot springs, glaciers and even lava fields as well as other magnificent natural wonders. The sheer rugged beauty of the land all taken together goes a long way toward explaining why many people there continue to believe to this day that magical creatures like elves, fairies and trolls still exist in hidden pockets of the island.
And of course we can’t forget that both Iceland and Scandinavia—or at least the three traditionally-designated Scandinavian countries—are all renowned for sharing a love of heavy metal music.
(Did you know that Iceland is home to the World Air Guitar Championships? Every year one of the happiest countries in the world hosts thousands of rock enthusiasts eager to show off their skills at playing imaginary instruments, a must-see for any rocker, real or imaginary!)
These days tourists flock year-round to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, to enjoy world-class music of all kinds, Michelin-starred restaurants, a world-renowned night life, and an advanced, green, ecological, vibrant city life in the most sparsely populated nation in Europe.
But if you spend any time there as well as in places like the capital cities of Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo, you can’t help but notice some similarities between Iceland and Scandinavia. Reykjavik, like the Scandinavian capital cities also boasts a clean and efficient layout, pristine streets and a comprehensive public transportation system.
Also, it’s not so strange to wonder is Iceland a Scandinavian country when you see that all of them inevitably wind up in the top ten of the U.N.’s annual World Happiness rankings, based on quality of life issues and responses from citizens.
All of these nations are renowned the world over for taking care of their citizens, offering incredible health care that is the envy of the world, granting generous extended maternity leave for both mother and father, strong social support in general, a high GDP, low corruption, high levels of personal freedom and remaining in the top tier for life expectancy year after year.
So…with all those similarities, is Iceland a part of Scandinavia then?
It’s actually much trickier to answer this than you might think at first, when you start asking about Iceland and Scandinavia. The question touches on politics, history, geography, language, and a host of other issues both man-made and part of the physical world that are complicated to unpack.
It’s impossible to talk about the history of Iceland without touching on her Viking past, a history that some would say strongly makes the case for answering the question is Iceland a Scandinavian country in the affirmative. As a matter of fact, according to an early Icelandic medieval manuscript, the Landnámabók, the first settlements on Iceland were built by Norwegians.
Although sailors from Norway, Sweden and Denmark had long known about Iceland through their travels in the region, it wasn’t until 874 A.D. when a Norwegian chieftain rolled in and set up shop on the island that the first settlement was built there. In subsequent centuries, many more Norwegians and to a lesser extent, people from Sweden and Denmark joined them.
But the historical connection to what is traditionally called Scandinavia gets a little muddier when you consider that along with the Norwegians came their slaves, who were called “thralls,” mostly people of Gaelic origin that were captured in Ireland and Scotland. (The history books are unclear as to whether the Gaelic thralls brought recipes for haggis to Iceland with them…)
Iceland was ruled as an independent commonwealth early on, and indeed formed one of the world’s oldest legislative assemblies. But by the 13th century, civil unrest led to a deal being brokered with Norway, and Iceland agreed to submit to rule by the Norwegian king.
As if this weren’t enough to make a strong case for settling once and for all the question of is Iceland in Scandinavia, in 1397 Norway, Sweden and Denmark formed the Kalmar Union, which of course also meant that Iceland was to join, being a vassal state of Norway.
And while you might think that this bit of ancient history should seal the deal as to whether Iceland is part of Scandinavia, it actually gets more complicated than that almost immediately.
So close, yet so far away
For one thing, the sheer distance between Iceland and the rest of Scandinavia of necessity meant that the leaders of the Kalmar Union regime couldn’t exactly keep a tight rein on their islander vassals. In 1523 Sweden seceded from the union, leaving Denmark in charge. By 1550 the Danish crown imposed Lutheranism on its people, including Icelanders.
However, Danish institutions and control over the day to day life of Iceland’s people was pretty much just as lax as that of Norway previously, and Iceland developed in its own unique path forward, further muddying the question of is Iceland part of Scandinavia. The country finally declared itself independent in 1918, and became a republic in 1944.
But politics and geography are just two of the ingredients in the mystery soup of is Iceland a Scandinavian country. We also have to look at language if we’re going to fully examine this confusing subject. Why not start with the word “Scandinavia” itself?
Words, words, words
The word Scandinavia has its roots in the word “Scania,” which is a region of Sweden located at the very southern tip of the country. It’s still a province there today, known as Skåne in Swedish, and home to Sweden’s third-largest city Malmö. Funnily enough, the term Scania didn’t come from Scandinavian people — it was named by Italians, or at least people who were part of the Roman Empire.
The area was given that name by early Roman explorers who thought that the region was an island. The word itself is thought to be derived from the Germanic root Skaðin-awjã which means “danger” or “damage.” It is also related to the English word “scathing.”
It’s unclear what those early Romans had against the land there, or why they found it to be so scathing or damaging, apart from a reef and a sandbank located near what is now the harbor of the town of Skanör.
As another geographical point to add to the mess we have here, in figuring out is Iceland in Scandinavia: The name cartographers have given to the peninsula on which Sweden and Norway sit is, naturally enough, the Scandinavian peninsula.
Fair enough, you might say. But then you have to remember that Denmark, located across the sea from Sweden and not at all on the same peninsula, is also considered a part of Scandinavia. Also, the peninsula includes parts of the very western edge of Russia, as well as the more northern regions of Finland — a country that is perpetually embroiled in its own confusion about whether or not it’s a Scandinavian country. So there’s that…
The politics of Scandification
At any rate, over time the term Scandinavia developed, and by the 1800s people were using it to describe the broader region of not only Sweden, but Norway and Denmark as well. Younger people from these three nations began using the term as an expression of solidarity and unity, a sense of a common heritage and history. Students took the lead in introducing the term into the larger discourse in hopes of inspiring a new “pan-Scandinavianism,” in other words, a new union among the three nations.
Even Danish author Hans Christian Andersen got on board. The writer behind “The Little Mermaid” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” also wrote a poem called “I Am a Scandinavian” in 1839. He later described his motivation for writing it following a trip to Sweden, telling a friend, “All at once I understood how related the Swedes, the Danes and the Norwegians are, and with this feeling I wrote the poem immediately after my return: ‘We are one people, we are called Scandinavians!’”
But here’s where it gets tricky again as we try to decipher why isn’t Iceland part of Scandinavia, and that’s because of Finland. The case of Finland is also pretty solid evidence that the whole question of is Iceland in Scandinavia is a political and cultural construct, and not really based on anything concrete. There certainly doesn’t appear to be any consistent through-line of logic involved.
For one thing, we’ve already established that at least part of Finland is actually located on the Scandinavian Peninsula. Secondly, Finland has a significant segment of its population who are descended from long-ago Swedish colonists, and who speak Swedish as their native tongue. Swedish is even an official language there!
So if people living in Finland who speak Swedish, are descended from Swedes, and actually live on the Scandinavian peninsula aren’t considered Scandinavians, then what hope is there for our intrepid heroes in Iceland, living hundreds of miles away?
Nordic versus Scandinavian
Now, while all of that may seem like it should provide a fairly straightforward answer as to why isn’t Iceland a part of Scandinavia, it’s time we introduce yet another term, the meaning of which often depends on the person using it. You see, while “Scandinavia” is a common enough word used by people from Denmark, Sweden and Norway to refer to their region, the natives of those nations don’t generally include Finland or Iceland when they talk about Scandinavia.
“Nordic” on the other hand is a term used by the natives of the area to refer to all five of these countries, as well as Denmark’s territories of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, as well as the Åland Islands and Svalbard archipelagos which are claimed by Finland and Norway respectively. This word is a lot easier to parse, as the root of it is “Norden,” or the North.
So, is Iceland Nordic? Yes, clearly. Even the most cursory glance at a map will show you that indeed all five of these countries and their associated territories are roughly grouped together in the geographic north.
There are also plenty of social and cultural cross-pollination and connections among them, looser ties than the strictest definition of “Scandinavian” perhaps, but nonetheless valid connections. As we have seen, the earliest settlements on Iceland were built by people from Norway, so there is no question that they have a strong connection to the Scandinavian mainland, distant though it may be.
When it comes to deciding is Iceland a Nordic country, or a Scandinavian one, and indeed who else qualifies for those distinctions, cultural connections would seem to override geography in some respects. For instance, in taking a strict view of the map, you have to admit that parts of the northern Scottish isles fall into the same region as what is considered the home of Nordic countries, yet not many people would consider Scotland to be a “Nordic” country.
Not only that, there were centuries of Viking raids and settlements in England and the rest of the U.K. resulting in plenty of cross-pollination in terms of both people and culture. One recent DNA survey of residents of the Orkney Islands in the furthest northern reaches of Scotland showed that the native islanders owe some 25 percent of their DNA to Viking forebears.
If you visit York in England you’ll see Viking museums, tours, and souvenir shops celebrating that city’s strong ties to the long-ago people from Norway, Sweden and Denmark who raided and pillaged their town all those years ago.
Yet no one in their right mind would call the U.K. a Nordic country, much less a Scandinavian one.
Say my name
So when it comes to finally settling on a solid answer as to is Iceland in Scandinavia, perhaps the most important test is this: What do people from Iceland think? The most respectful—and therefore the most correct—term to be used to address anyone is the term they choose for themselves, after all.
So do Icelanders consider themselves Scandinavian? Generally speaking, you’ll probably find that the best answer as to why isn’t Iceland in Scandinavia is simply because Icelanders don’t think it is.
For starters, Iceland has its own distinct language, whereas the trio of traditionally designated Scandinavian countries share such similarities that they are all basically interchangeable. While there are differences between Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, they are so slight that a native speaker of Norwegian can comfortably speak with a Swede or a Dane in their own language instead.
On the other hand, while Icelandic also stems from the Old Norse branch of the Northern Germanic languages, and bears similarities to western Norwegian and the language of Faroe Islanders, it is nonetheless its own unique thing.
Secondly, despite Iceland’s common heritage with the other Scandinavian countries and its Norwegian forebears who first colonized and settled the island, their distance from the rest of their would-be neighbors has resulted in a distinct set of legends, a separate—though in some ways, related—mythology, and other cultural touchstones that are unique to the island.
One way to think about the question of is Iceland part of Scandinavia is to turn to the U.S. In much the same way that English settlers first came to North America and colonized what would later be called the country of the United States, so too did Norwegians and other Scandinavian people build settlements and start what would later become Iceland.
Yet you wouldn’t catch many people referring to Americans as “British,” would you?
So in conclusion, while referring to an Icelander as Scandinavian might not be the most offensive thing you could say, nor the most outlandish, it’s also safe to conclude that it probably isn’t super correct either. When you visit Iceland—and you definitely should—play it safe and remember that while Iceland is a Nordic country, you now know why the answer to is Iceland part of Scandinavia is a pretty solid “no.”
Scandification. Discovering Scandinavia.
Scandification explores and celebrates the magic of Scandinavia. Stay tuned and we’ll bring the essence of Scandinavia to you.