In the last two decades, three unique movements have emerged in Iceland, shaping the island nation’s culture. They captured the interest of a Franklin & Marshall College first-year student who traveled to the capital of Reykjavik over winter break to investigate.
“The research itself was more focused on the interplay between politics and religion,” says William Kay, a Nissley grant recipient. “I discovered a lot of new things along the way, but the focus of the paper ended up being, ‘What allows these three groups to coexist and rise to relevant promise at the same time?’”
The groups in question are the Pirates, a political party; the Zuists, a religious group that is also engaged politically; and the Asatruists, a religion rooted in old Norse mythology whose faithful gather for feasts in the country’s verdant valleys.
The Pirate Party, which first appeared in Europe a little more than a decade ago, seeks government transparency and direct democracy. As left-leaning organizations, the Pirates and Zuists share some views such as their opposition to state-funded religions.
“The Zuists are something in between a religious organization and a political organization,” Kay says. “On paper, they are a religious organization recognized by the state of Iceland.”
Having earned that recognition in 2015, the Zuists, a pagan movement based on the Sumerian religion, promises to return to their followers whatever money they get from the government.
“A lot of parliamentarians say they should not have recognition as a faith group,” Kay says. “It’s a very strange dynamic.”
The Asatruists, founded in 1972 and recognized by the state a year later, have seen a resurgence in growth within the last decade. As a group, they are right-leaning and advocate for a return to traditional Icelandic culture that dates back a millennium.
Kay spent a week in Reykjavik, where he interviewed people on the street, visited City Hall and the 63-seat parliament (more than half of the seats are held by women), and spoke to government officials to learn how people viewed these three groups. He also perused the country’s newspapers.
“There’s a pull to maintain the culture, that desire to remain close to their ancestry, which is where the Asatruists are coming from, but there’s also that need to move into the future, where these leftist groups, Pirates and Zuists, are coming from,” Kays says.
He says the groups coexist “because Iceland has this fixation with knowledge. There’s just this willingness to learn and allow this diversity of ideas to exist.”