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Photo courtesy of the kind people at Global Grasshopper:  www.globalgrasshopper.com


Photo courtesy Zhenya


     Iceland was the first democratic country in the world.


What can we learn from the country that is called the most peaceful on earth?  What things are needed to make peace and keep peace?  


ICELAND is sometimes called the Land of Fire and Ice. More than 10%  [percent] of Iceland is always covered with ice. But there are also more than 200 volcanoes [mountains filled with hot, burning rock].  Here is something we can learn from Iceland: Instead of fearing the volcanoes, the people have found a way to use the energy from the volcanoes. They heat almost 85% of all their buildings from the energy of the volcanoes. In this way they turned a big problem into a really big energy solution.

     Maybe you will be surprised to learn that Iceland is the world’s oldest democracy. Every country that is democratic—and every country that dreams of being democratic—has Iceland to thank for being the first to understand the importance of democracy. In Iceland, the person elected president serves a four year term, but can be reelected as many times as the people want. Iceland has had women presidents too.  In fact, Iceland was the first country in the world to elect a woman president.

    Q. What do you really think democracy is?  

     School is free to all children through college. More people read books and more people write books in Iceland than in any other country. The official language is Icelandic, but every child is taught to speak both Danish and English in school.

     Q. Why is education important to democracy?  Think! 

     It is said that Iceland is one of the happiest countries in the world as well as being the most peaceful country. The life expectancy in Iceland [how long people live] is one of the highest. They have one of the best records of equal rights and civil rights. They have no army. Their water is some of the cleanest in the world. And in the winter they can watch the Northern Lights!



Herbert Ortner

Photo courtesy Herbert Ortner

1.) The land formed [made] by people, not rulers— 

From early times until today, most people in Iceland live near the coast [live near the ocean and not in the middle of Iceland]. During the winter, you cannot get to large parts of the center of the country by car or truck.  Also, winter ice makes it very hard to sail [travel on the water] and so for much of the year, Iceland has no contact with the outside world. The first people who lived there liked this. They were looking for freedom and peace. They did not care about trading with other countries.  



  900 — The first people arrive on Iceland looking for freedom.
  930 — The people begin to govern themselves by an all people’s parliament.  
  999 — Christianity is chosen as the main religion.
1262 — The people ask a Norse King [a king in Europe] to rule over them.
1940 — Iceland becomes free and is no longer ruled by another country.

Q. What did you learn from the timeline? 

2.) All people equal—

    One of the things the timeline tells us is that the people of Iceland were able to live peacefully for 30 years without any formal government. Iceland was a rural [farming] society. People owned their own land.  They were “self-sufficient”. That means, they did not look to a government to care for them, but they cared for themselves. Owning their own land and being able to take care of themselves made people feel equal. This feeling of equality is one of the most important things in a country becoming democratic. More than 1000 years ago, Icelanders proved that common people could govern themselves. And from the start, women had a strong voice in society.  

     The other thing that made people feel equal is that everyone, men and women, girls and boys, could read. Even women were respected writers. This was very rare in most cultures at that time. One of their most loved woman heroes was called, “Um, the deep minded”. Even today, the most important influence and part of the Icelandic culture is literature [books].   

     Q. How will a country where everyone can read and write be different from a country where few people read or write?  

The Althing => Iceland’s parliament

     When Iceland was self-governed it was called The Free State.  It did not have a president, king, police or army! It had 2 groups of people that made up the government. The people in these groups were chosen from all the regions. One group wrote the country’s laws. The other group made clear what the laws meant. The two groups were called the “parliament”. The power of leaders did not depend on their wealth [how much they had]. It depended on their integrity [how honest and fair they were]. It also depended on the consent [agreement] of the people. 

      Parliament had regular meetings. Most of the meetings were during the spring and summer when the weather was good and travel easy. There could be as many as 12 meetings that met in different places around the country. The meetings were not only for official people.  They were also like holidays! People would come from all over Iceland: peddlers [people selling things], ale [beer] makers, traders, performers, and young people looking for a husband or wife!

3.) Power and revenge change the people—

      For many, many years, the rights of the people were decided by the people themselves.     

     But slowly, two big changes happened. Many local officials trained their sons or daughters to take their place in office when they could no longer serve as a local ruler. Slowly, the people did not have a choice of officials. If your father was an official, you would become the next official by birth instead of by election. This, of course, was not democracy. The local officials began to give themselves more and more power. And so, in the year 1262, the people of Iceland asked Norway’s King Hakon to rule over them to stop the unfair power of the local rulers. Power to govern Iceland was given to the king of Norway.  In the late 1300s, Norway and Iceland came under the control of the king of Denmark. Then, when Denmark was taken over by Germany in 1940, during World War Two, Iceland declared itself independent again. 

     Because of the corruption of power, Iceland lost its democracy for almost 700 years.

     Also, for hundreds of years, there was a very strong culture of “revenge” [harming someone who harmed you] in Iceland. The acceptance of revenge began to destroy society. It wasn’t until 999, when Christianity was brought to Iceland, that society changed. It brought an end to the culture of revenge. Even today boxing as a professional sport is prohibited [not allowed].

     Q. What role does revenge play in problems in the world today? 


Acknowledgements: Many of the helpful facts from this page came from information compiled in a 2009 Leiden University paper by Evert Mouw, “The roots of Icelandic democracy”.


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