Here’s a question for all you pub quizzers and fans of television game shows: how many famous people from Iceland can you name? If the answer, honestly, is not many, then read on – here are some famous Icelanders you may have heard of and quite possibly a few you haven’t.
Iceland Soccer Players
Let’s start with the world of sport. Iceland’s national football team won the hearts of fans of the game across the globe with their impressive performance at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. After repeated attempts to secure a place in the coveted competition, they became the smallest nation to qualify. Forward Alfreð Finnbogason, who plays for FC Augsburg in Germany, secured his place in the history books by becoming the first Icelandic footballer to score in a World Cup. His goal, in Iceland’s first match of the tournament, drew the Nordic nation level with mighty Argentina.
Another famous Icelandic football player is Gylfi Sigurðsson. He scored the other Icelandic goal of that halcyon summer in Russia. This professional footballer plays for Everton in the UK Premier League and has been a regular on the Icelandic national team since 2010, notching up something in the region of 70 caps. His penalty drew Iceland level with Croatia, though they went on to win the match.
Also on the national team is Kolbeinn Sigþórsson. During his career, he has played for a number of international clubs, among them Dutch side Ajax, Nantes, Galatasary and most recently Swedish side AIK.
While Iceland would be the first to admit they aren’t the world’s strongest football team, they have produced one of the best handball players in the world in the shape of Ólafur Stefánsson. He captained the Icelandic national side until announcing his retirement after the London 2012 Olympics. Stefánsson and the rest of the team topped Group A but were knocked out in the quarter-finals, narrowly missing out to Hungary.
Icelandic singers and bands
Thanks to the popularity of the Eurovision Song Contest, you might do better when it comes to naming an Icelandic singer or rock band? But if you were expecting a sweet ballad or folk tune, you might have been shocked to learn the Icelandic entry into the 2019 competition was called Hatrið mun sigra, “Hate will prevail”. Performed by Hatari, this BDSM anti-capitalist band certainly shocked audiences but finished up a respectable tenth in the finals held in Tel Aviv.
In most people’s opinion, the most famous rock band in the country must surely be Sigur Rós. Spend your holidays in Iceland and name drop this supergroup who actually invented their own language, Vonlenska (in English, Hopelandic), which features in many of their songs. You’ll recognize their song Hoppípolla, which has been used to trail countless movies and TV shows including Slumdog Millionaire and Planet Earth. Njósnavélin (The Nothing Song) was used in the film Vanilla Sky and also features in the hit Canadian show, Orphan Black. Game of Thrones not only used one of their songs, The Rains of Castamere, it also scored the band a cameo appearance as minstrels at the wedding of Joffrey Baratheon.
Hot on the heels of Sigur Rós are Of Monsters and Men. This band has also achieved international recognition, topping the charts in countries as far-flung as Australia and Ireland. You’ll have heard their music if you’re a fan of Grey’s Anatomy or The Walking Dead and also on the soundtrack of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Of Monsters and Men have also performed at Coachella.
Another Icelandic artist equally famous for her bizarre costumes is Björk. Who can forget the red carpet moment at the 2001 Oscars in Los Angeles when she not only turned up wearing a swan dress but then proceeded to lay six giant ostrich eggs. It wouldn’t be the only crazy costume she’d pull off – a multicolored pom pom headdress was equally outlandish. But we don’t only remember Björk Guðmundsdóttir for what she wore. Her biggest international hit “It’s all so quiet”, a cover of the 1951 Betty Hutton song, reached number 4 in the UK singles chart in 1995. If you know it, and we’re sure you will, you’ll probably be singing “Shh shh” right about now.
Iceland government - Famous Politicians
Famous Icelandic artists are one thing, but can you name a politician too? How about Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Iceland’s fourth President? She became the world’s first democratically elected president in 1980 and served until 1996. (Juan Peron’s wife Isabel succeeded her late husband to take up the Argentinian presidency in 1974 but wasn’t directly voted in.) In the 21st century, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was the country’s first female Prime Minister, serving from 2009 to 2013. Iceland’s current Prime Minister is another woman, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who’s been in post since 2017. Her attendance at the ceremony to mourn the loss of Okjökull drew international media attention.
For writers, the Nobel Prize for Literature is one of the highest honors. In 1955 Icelander Halldór Laxness won the Nobel prize for his body of work. Among the most important is Salka Valka, recounting the plight of working people in an Icelandic fishing village, Sjálfstætt Folk, the tale of a poor farmer and his fight to remain financially independent, and Heimsljós, a story about a peasant who’s a poet. All three works were controversial, criticizing Icelandic society from a staunch Socialist perspective. However, later on, Laxness drew more on the traditions of the country’s medieval sagas and it was this that drew the attention of the Swedish Academy and prompted them to gift their highly sought after accolade.
Laxness revived the style of the great master of the sagas Snorri Sturluson, another famous Icelandic writer and the first to be formally identified by name. Born in 1178 and assassinated in 1241, he was one of the most influential men of his age. Any comprehensive guide to Iceland and its history should include a mention of the writer and his contribution to Nordic identity. He reworked Norse legends in an engaging way in his book Prose Edda and also authored Heimskringla, the most famous of the Old Norse kings’ sagas.
In modern times, Arnaldur Indriðason is one of Iceland’s most popular writers and his crime fiction regularly tops the bestseller lists. His protagonist, Detective Erlendur, features in more than a dozen books, one of which was made into a film, and which have been translated into 24 languages. It’s not only Icelandic fans that have ensured the continued success of this former journalist; the books are sold in 26 countries.
Famous Icelanders you may have heard of
So there you have it, a brief guide to Iceland’s most famous people. In a nation whose population totaled just 360,390 people in 2019, that’s quite some line-up. How many did you recognize?