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Conversation with Professor Terry Adrian Gunnell on God, War, Lore, Armies, and National Motto: Professor, Folkloristics, University of Iceland (3)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/04/01


Terry Gunnell is Professor of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland. He is author of The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia (1995); editor of Masks and Mumming in the Nordic Area (2007) and Legends and Landscape (2008); and joint editor of The Nordic Apocalypse: Approaches to V†luspá and Nordic Days of Judgement (with Annette Lassen, 2013); and Málarinn og menningarsköpun: Sigurður Guðmundsson og Kvöldfélagið (with Karl Aspelund), which received a nomination for the Icelandic Literature Prize (Íslensku bókmenntaverðlaunin) for 2017. He has also written a wide range of articles on Old Norse religion, Nordic folk belief and legend, folk drama and performance, and is behind the creation of the on-line Sagnagrunnur database of Icelandic folk legends in print (; the national survey into Folk Belief in Iceland (2006-2007); and (with Karl Aspelund) the on-line database dealing with the Icelandic artist Sigurður Guðmundsson and the creation of national culture in Iceland in the mid-19th century ( E-mail address: He discusses: the conception of God within Iceland; reactions to catastrophes; and the national motto.

Keywords: þetta reddast, armies, Christianity, God, Iceland, Terry Adrian Gunnell, War, World War Two.

Conversation with Professor Terry Adrian Gunnell on God, War, Lore, Armies, and National Motto: Professor, Folkloristics, University of Iceland (3)

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*Interview conducted May 23, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The one thing that stands out is God.

Professor Terry Adrian Gunnell[1],[2]: Yes.

Jacobsen: Even in a Christian context, Christians will mean different things.

Gunnell: Oh, yes.

Jacobsen: The mentioning of World War Two is important because countries that tend to go to war a lot or have war imposed on them a lot. They tend to have populations looking to something to rally around or to find some kind of comfort or consolation, or some unifying image they can build a community around in a life of chaos and destruction.

So, if you look at the developed nations, the most religious country is the United States. It is off the spectrum. It is a very war-like country. It is still embroiled in two major wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, which has claimed upwards of 500,000 to 1,000,000, or more, lives depending on the estimates.

There are many estimates. The fact that Iceland does not have army. I want to take this in two directions. On the one hand, a country without too much chaos can maintain and sustain general culture. This includes the beliefs.

The people’s ideas about Fylgjas, a Christian God, about having a sense that the land is alive, etc., will be consistent. On the other hand, things will, more or less, be the same in terms of the trajectories we’re seeing with more comfortable lives with healthcare, pharmacare, education for all or most at least.

We see a decline in formal traditional religions. Those religions with practices and beliefs connected to some kind of transcendent object of worship. So, how does not having an army affect Iceland?

When Icelanders think of “God” in a Christian context or otherwise, how are they conceiving this being?

Gunnell: [Laughing] What is particularly clear, Iceland has been living on the periphery for such a long time. First World War, Second World War, all of the European wars hardly touched Iceland at all.

Jacobsen: That’s amazing.

Gunnell: These are things that Iceland hears about, until the Second World War forces itself onto them and Britain invades Iceland. I’m still not really sure about the word “Invade” there. Yes, it was an invasion, but it wasn’t an invasion that had much affect on people except bringing a lot of money.

It was a flood of cash into the country, which had been up until that time poor. In that sense, war was a good thing for them. So, this is very deep within the Icelandic culture of not having an army. You haven’t got soldiers around all the time.

It is not part of the way that they view history. The soldier, the army, isn’t part of the way they look at the world compared to the way I do or you do. British history is war all the way through from the beginning to the end: French is; German is; American is. Canada is drawn into it wherever Britain goes.

We carry the blood of so many people with us. Iceland just doesn’t have this. It is non-existence. In a sense, to other cultures outside, they don’t really understand in the same way that I do from Britain.

People of a different colour are new. Icelanders will go abroad and stare and walk into lamp posts and say, “Look!” They are intrigued by this. Same way by Judaism and Islam. They are foreign. Nothing against it, but they find it strange.

There is this still island character, much more so than Britain. A periphery culture all the way through. So, armies, in Icelandic history, very recent with the arrival of first the Brits, and then the Americans and the American base, which forced itself onto Icelandic mentalities.

You couldn’t go abroad without going through the American base and get accepted every time you went out there. The influence on Icelandic culture of English-speaking soldiers who were coming into town and going to dances and whatever.

The Icelanders keeping black soldiers out of the base. There’s a fear. This fear of losing the pure Icelandic-ness, which is still floating around in terms of language. So, in a sense, war and armies are never part of Icelanders themselves in spite of the Sages with fighting and battles there.

You fight. You fight for your farm. You have arguments with other farmers, but you don’t have really armies. They know from the Sagas, the contemporary Sagas of the 13th centuries of the civil wars in Icelandic discourse caused trouble.

They haven’t got time for space or war. It’s about daily survival for a long time. It’s simply armies are not the way Icelanders look at things. They’re very different to the way you or I will, as Brits and Canadians. A very strong left movement against NATO, against the American base, and so on.

The right will be more open to it, but not in terms of sending your sons off to join. It brings cash with it. “Okay, come on America, we like you if you bring some money with you.” In terms of God, I think if you asked any Icelander, “Are you Christian?” They would look at you as if you were nuts.

It is a lower level somewhere. This sense about superstition of the cross and a power out there. I would expect them to answer with a power in nature. They believe strongly in a sense of fate. What came out of this, it was a Christian God, which has somehow been brought in on the side.

But the two are very separate. To being Icelandic, that causes problems at the same time. In the sense, it has caused, to a large extent, the banking crash. Icelanders were brought up with the Sagas and their poems from the early 19th century.

The Sagas will tell them when you go to another country; the first person you meet is the King of Norway. Why? You’re an Icelander. It’s quite natural. You’re a poet. You go to Norway. That’ll do nicely. Thank you!

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Gunnell: It’s the equivalent of the American Express card. You have people in the 19th century. The romantic poets saying, ‘Iceland, what has happened to your fame of the past, the golden years…,’ and whatever.

What happened with the crash, they started fulfilling the dream that they’d been presented with for a long time. You have to go out buy a football team, buy a private jet, hang out with the royalty, everybody wants you.

It was a fulfillment of the idea that Icelanders are different than others. You could watch the news and people saying, ‘How could an Icelander in a country like this could buy a football team, could buy half of the main strip of Oxford St.? Because he’s an Icelander. They are different.’

The President says, ‘It is because they are Icelandic. They take risks better more than anybody else.’ It didn’t really bring out the risks that it would have on the economy. The Star Trek idea of going where no one else goes before.

“This is an Icelander. We’re better.” It is the ‘How do like Iceland?’ thing. When I’m teaching courses on Icelandic culture, again, these two sided elements of it. It expresses, on one side, a hope that the person is going to say, “Wonderful, perfect, better than anywhere else.”

“Why is it us?” Because there is an inferiority complex behind it. That you might not be. Then the rest is saved for the football clap. Suddenly, everybody wants Iceland again. Suddenly, I am being asked by bloody English journalists, ‘Does Iceland do so well in football because of their elves?’

Come on! [Laughing] Get over it.

Jacobsen: Who asked you this?

Gunnell: This was when Iceland was winning football games and it was an English newspaper wanting to know if it was their belief in elves. Basically, they know each other. They have grown up together. It is a stronger sense of a team.

Iceland has done some amazing things in terms of the strongest man in the world and the most beautiful. But only if they aren’t putting that in front of your face all the time, being the best. It is part of the, again, island culture: ‘We’re different.’ There’s something about the DNA of Icelanders.

The crash was a matter of shame, which they never had to deal with before. Of going to different places, like islands off Greece, the first question, ‘How are you doing financially? Poor Iceland.’ They went from being the worst in the world to not being the worst in the world.

The first to get over COVID. It is to be the first or the best. But there is a very strong sense of being Icelandic. That we are a little nation that has done so much. Different to the Brits, we’re just hobbits. Icelanders aren’t really hobbits. There’s much more dwarfishness about Icelanders.

Jacobsen: At the end of the 1700s, there was the catastrophe that took out 1/5th of the population. What does this do to people’s faith in lore? Does this look as if it’s, as you’re noting, just simply a matter of fate or the fates playing out?

Gunnell: No, the sense of fate is seen in people interpreting dreams for example. That there is something laid down. You can tap into it. There is a sense that your life is mapped out, a plan behind it, a higher power.

It’s not the Christian God. There’s a higher power that’s laid down. It goes back to the Sagas very much. You die and even know your fate/meet your fate.

Jacobsen: They sound like Spinoza.

Gunnell: Yes, there’s elements of this. It is very much a Scandinavian element. You go down bravely in spite of it. Things go badly. Okay, they go badly. We’ll survive. This wonderful Icelandic motto: þetta reddast. It’ll work out. [Ed. Literal: “It’ll all work out okay.”] Things go badly.

Okay, things go badly. We’ll survive. þetta reddast, people have begun accepting it as the national motto. It’ll all work out. It is both good and bad.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Professor, Folkloristics, University of Iceland.

[2] Individual Publication Date: April 1, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2021:


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