Iceland Independence Day: We Worship Our God (Mammon) And Die

Iceland's national anthem is pretty much unsingable, just like the American one, as Michael Kinsley recently pointed out in the Washington Post. Unless you have had a few years worth of voice lessons, it really is impossible to sing, not even after alcoholic fortification.

The Icelandic anthem, "Ó Guð vors land" (Our Country's God), is actually a hymn (Iceland has a state church) and requires a vocal range of a minor fourteenth. Many Icelanders want to change the anthem to this song, "Ísland er land þitt," (Iceland is your land, sung here by studmeister Egill Ólafsson), a beautiful and popular song and much easier to sing. The choral version of the anthem is hauntingly beautiful though, and never fails to make me cry, but usually in a good way, as I listen to it at Christmas or New Years.

Today however, on Iceland's Independence Day, the anthem has been a real tear jerker for me, evoking in me a sadness and heartache that my brain usually reserves for funerals. As my father drove me to the international airport in Keflavik last week, the rugged coast stretching out before me out the car window, I felt much the same way. Iceland is such a beautiful country, and I've always been proud when foreigners tell me how much they admire its magnificent nature, but it is only in recent years that I've really begun to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of my home country. I suppose it is a part of getting older, but living abroad for long periods of time has also made me realize what a truly unique natural and geographical jewel Iceland is.

2009-06-18-ARNFR.DANNY.JPG In Iceland, nature is always just around the corner. My niece, Arnfríður Helgadóttir and son, Daníel Gunnar Lee, strolling around Vífilsstaðavatn, right outside of Reykjavík on a beautiful fall day. The lake is a popular (and clean) place to fish for delicious char and brown trout. Photo: ÍE

I rarely missed Iceland in the past; I missed my family and friends, but now away from home, I truly yearn for the scent of birch and song of the plover in the spring, the wild blueberries in August, the steely blue and cold ocean waves on rainy fall evenings, and nights of insane winter storms that for hours shake the house off its foundation.

As I watched the coast stretch out before me, I was filled with a sense of doom and loss. And I was angry. I thought of how much we have lost, how much we have frittered away through greed and stupidity and shortsightedness. I thought of Iceland's riches, its enormous natural resources and what a good life everyone in Iceland could have had, had that wealth been allowed to benefit the whole nation. Instead, through political machinations, it has ended up in the hands of a few families and been squandered away by hedonistic windbags.

I thought of my parents, who have worked so hard all their lives - my mother who gave birth to seven children and suffered the loss of two, and worked outside the home as soon as the older kids were able to help at home, my father who worked three jobs to support his young family - now just recently retired, their pension funds raided, their golden years tarnished.

We've lost our country, I thought. Nothing will ever be the same. I don't know what to do with this anger; it makes me want to fight, but for what? Every country has the government it deserves, and this is apparently what we deserved, at least what we wanted, what Icelanders have voted over themselves year after year, decade after decade. And apparently many of us are eager for more; last April, six months after Iceland collapsed, almost 40% of Icelanders gave their votes to the political parties that were the chief architects of the country's devastation.

The writer, poet, and reverend Matthías Jochumsson, who wrote the words to the anthem in 1874 for the millenary anniversary of Iceland's settlement by Norwegian Vikings, was in many ways different from his fellow Icelandic writers and philosophers of the time. He worried about their scorn of religion and focus on materialism. Life had a sense of magic, he said, and there had to be a God. Pure materialism, he said, is sad, harmful, and unwise.

The last three lines of the anthem's first verse make me wonder whether Matthías had a foreboding of the tribulations that were to befall Iceland's future generations:

Iceland thousand years, :/: Eternity's blossom, with trembling tears That worships its God... and dies.

That it wouldn't be Christ the nation worshiped, but that we'd squander our independence on the altar of Mammon.