Article | Iceland

A Political History of the World’s Oldest Democracy

Welcome to egalitarian Iceland, where equality is rooted in the landscape and people and nature run free. Learn more about modern Icelandic politics and the history of the Althing—what some call one of the world’s earliest democracies.
Seydisfjordur Iceland

© Michelle Valberg

A half-hour drive northeast of Reykjavík, a shallow, black-rock canyon cleaves a plain of spongy tundra. It’s a rift in the Earth’s crust where the continental plates of Europe and North America are tearing apart. And yet this place is legendary not for division, but for unity. Called Thingvellir, Old Norse for “assembly fields,” it’s where Iceland—and possibly democracy—was born.

The Althing

It happened in the summer of 930. Just a few generations earlier, Irish monks and Norse farmers had begun settling this remote island of volcanoes, glaciers, and pastures perfect for sheep herding. As the settlers multiplied, arable land became scarce, and now conflict was all too common. Order was needed. But unlike back home, they had no king here to exert authority. So a call went out to prominent chieftains all across Iceland. They were summoned to a gathering at the canyon—an ideal spot, with ample firewood and camping space, within convenient riding distance of the farthest corners of the land. There, they would try to find a way to get along.

Sheep farm iceland

© Michelle Valberg

What the chieftains devised was unprecedented: a representative governmental body, the Althing, which convened annually at Thingvellir to pass laws, try criminals, and resolve disputes. Sure, it wasn’t perfect—the chieftains were the most powerful members, and women and “thralls” (slaves) were completely disenfranchised. But any free man could at least show up and plead his case to the assembly members. In this manner, Iceland became an independent commonwealth, and the first European state where authority flowed not from the top down but, more or less, from the bottom up.

Like all good things, democracy in Iceland had its rough patches. The Sagas—so full of killings—attest to this. Following a period of particularly grisly civil strife, Icelanders in 1262 submitted to the authority of the Norwegian throne. The Althing remained intact, but it shared power with the king, its decisions now requiring royal ascent. Two centuries later, when Iceland came under Danish rule, the Althing ceded even more power, becoming little more than a court of law. In 1800, the Danish king disbanded the Althing entirely.

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon iceland

© Michelle Valberg

Later in that century, in continental Europe, democracy suddenly came into vogue for the first time. Icelanders realized they’d been onto something all along. They clawed back control. In 1844 the Althing was restored, no longer meeting outdoors in the boggy chasm, but in a regular parliament house in Reykjavík. In 1904, Iceland came to enjoy Home Rule, and in 1918 it was proclaimed independent, though the Danish king was still the titular head. By this time, all Icelanders—not just the landed elite—could vote. When Nazi Germany occupied Denmark in the Second World War, the island became fully sovereign.

Icelandic Democracy Today

Today, Iceland is among the world’s most highly-ranked polities—a Nordic welfare state where residents enjoy substantial wealth, equality, and cradle-to-grave public protections. It was the ninth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage and the country is famous for gender equality, with half the members of the Althing being women, including the prime minister at the time of this writing, Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

Moreover, though Iceland is sometimes criticized for its fishing and whaling practices, it is generally considered extremely green, with all of its electrical power derived from geothermal sources. And unlike back in Saga times, there are almost no killings; the country enjoys a very low homicide and violent crime rate. That historic meeting site, the Thingvellir, has become a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The world’s oldest democracy still thrives.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.