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  • ÞingvellirAn Icelandic "Lieu de Mémoire"
  • Guđmundur Hálfdanarson

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View of Þingvellir, Iceland (photo: Pétur H. Ármannsson)

On 17 June 1994 around 60,000 people, or a quarter of the Icelandic population, assembled at Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvedlir, Parliamentary Plains in literal translation) to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Icelandic Republic. This was the fourth time in the twentieth century that these rocky grounds, situated about fifty kilometers to the north-east of the capital of Iceland, Reykjavík, had been the scene of a major celebration of this sort: the millennium of the Alþingi (the ancient high court and assembly of Iceland, which is also the name of Iceland's Parliament today) had been celebrated in 1930, the foundation of the Republic of Iceland-in 1944, and the eleventh centenary of the settlement of Iceland-in 1974.1 The commemoration of 1994 demonstrated once more the symbolic value of this "sacred place," where "the heart of the [Icelandic] nation beats," to quote the Icelandic prime minister, Davíð Oddsson.2 Indeed, Þingvellir-the meeting place of the Alþingi for almost nine centuries, from the early tenth century to the end of the eighteenth-is a national symbol for Icelanders, utilized to celebrate what the nation deems it has in common, while at the same time demarcating Icelanders' difference from other groups; that is, Þingvellir defines what sets Icelanders apart from "others," us from them.

The words of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former president of Iceland, describe well this dual role that Þingvellir plays in the Icelandic nationalistic mythology: [End Page 5]

Þingvellir is an enchanting place. Everyone who pays it a visit is bound to experience a strong sensation. It charms foreign travelers with its magnificent nature, but in the heart of an Icelander, all of its nature is interwoven with an eventful history, and the mind wanders to encounter the people who once inhabited the country, struggling century after century toward an uncertain future. This people never gave up, never forgot their language, their stories, their memories.3

In other words, according to Finnbogadóttir, while Þingvellir's natural beauty, majestic and challenging at the same time, is evident to everyone who pays it a visit, its spiritual beauty is only accessible to Icelanders. Through its rich historical associations, Þingvellir is the perfect embodiment of the experience that has shaped the Icelandic nation. Icelanders who visit Þingvellir perceive instinctively the invisible bond between the struggles of their ancestors and the nature of the place; it is engraved in their hearts, and has thus become a part of their own character.

Memory and history play an important part in all national constructions, which are generally based on the idea that the modern nation is the final outcome of a long historical process.4 "A nation can therefore be defined as a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories," writes the British sociologist Anthony D. Smith, placing common myths and memories at the center of his definition of the modern nation.5 In nationalist ideology, the cohesion of modern society is shaped by the experiences of past generations, and these experiences are therefore crucial for understanding what unites a nation in the present and divides it from its closest neighbors. However, memory and national construction always live in an ambiguous alliance. First, it is difficult to sustain historical memories in times of rapid social and economic change. Nations are not self-contained entities, but are fluid and under constant influences from outside. Thus, immigrants, often coming from distant parts of the world, bring new sets of myths, memories and beliefs into every national community. Moreover, the most pervasive myths of modern society are not based on legends or memories of each particular nation but originate in universal (or, to a large extent, Anglo-Saxon) popular culture. Second, memories are a source not only of cohesion but also of internal strife. [End Page 6] Although nationalists tend to interpret the history of their group as a united fight against foreign intrusion, historical evidence reveals discord and unequal opportunities in the struggles for life among...


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