Cultural Arts in Iceland

The cultural arts in Iceland reflect the values its people hold close, such as community, tradition, and the preservation of Iceland’s history.

Icelandic sheep.
Icelanders knit with lopi yarn, which contains both hairs and fleece of Icelandic sheep. Photo © Maurizio/Flickr, CC-BY-Sa.


Music plays a large role in Icelandic society. There’s still an emphasis on children learning to play instruments, and there are music schools around the country. It seems that everyone in Iceland is in at least one band. The earliest Icelandic music is called rímur, which is a sort of chanting style of singing that could include lyrics ranging from religious to descriptions of nature. Choirs are also very common in Iceland, and there are frequent performances in schools and churches that are usually well attended by the community.

As for modern music, Iceland boasts quite a few acts that have gained a following abroad. Of course, there’s Björk, who put Iceland on the musical map back in the 1980s with her band, The Sugarcubes, and later her solo career. Icelanders tend to be quite proud of Björk, as an artist and an environmentalist. Sigur Rós became an indie favorite, and the band has been recording since 1994. Of Monsters and Men, Ólafur Arnalds, Amiina, Samaris, and GusGus are taking the world by storm. Reykjavík has cool venues to check out local bands and DJs and some great record shops to pick up the newest and latest Icelandic releases.


Iceland has a rich literary history. The sagas, considered the best-known specimens of Icelandic literature, are stories in prose describing events that took place in Iceland in the 10th and 11th centuries, during the so-called Saga Age. Focused on history, especially genealogical and family history, the sagas reflect the conflicts that arose within the societies of the second and third generations of Icelandic settlers. The authors of the sagas are unknown; Egil’s Saga is believed to have been written by Snorri Sturluson, a 13th-century descendant of the saga’s hero, but this remains uncertain. Widely read in school, the sagas are celebrated as an important part of Iceland’s history.

Icelanders are voracious readers and prolific writers of prose and poetry. The nation’s most celebrated author is Halldór Laxness, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951 for his cherished novel Independent People. His tales have been translated into several languages and center on themes near and dear to Icelanders—nature, love, travel, and adventure. Other authors who have been translated into English (and other languages) include Sjón, Arnaldur Indriðason, and Einar Már Guðmundsson, among scores of others.

Traditional wool sweaters for sale in Reykjavík.
Traditional wool sweaters for sale in Reykjavík. Photo © sunchild123/Flickr, CC-BY.


Icelanders have been knitting for centuries, and it remains a common hobby today. Icelandic sheep have been the source of wool that’s been keeping Icelanders warm for generations, and a traditional, modern sweater design emerged in the 1950s or so in the form of the lopapeysa. A lopapeysa has a distinctive yoke design around the neck opening, and they come in a variety of colors, with the most common colors being brown, gray, black, and off-white. Icelanders knit with lopi yarn, which contains both hairs and fleece of Icelandic sheep. The yarn is not spun, making it more difficult to work with than spun yarn, but the texture and insulation are unmistakable.

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