Heraldry in Iceland

By Magnus Arni Magnusson


 


The First Arms

The oldest heraldic design in Iceland is the picture of a raven on a shield, used as a seal or a signet by Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, a chieftain of the family of Seldælir in the Vest fjords. He was killed in 1213. 

Later, when the country came under the control of the king of Norway after 1262, Icelandic nobles were granted coats of arms . In 1258 the king granted arms to Gissur Þorvaldsson of the family of Haukdælir, and made him an earl. Gissur was the leading figure in making Iceland a part of Norway, but it had been a republic since 930 AD.

In 1280 foreign sources claim that the arms of Iceland are a red lion on a three-coloured shield, holding an axe (see fig. 1, run the pointer over the figures to see their numbers).

Figure 1


 


The Middle Ages
Around the year 1300 a falcon is used in the arms of Haukur Erlendsson, knight, and it is probably the oldest known family coats of arms in Iceland.

Around 1400 Loftur the rich Guttormsson was knighted. He chose as his coat of arms Azure, a Falcon Argent, and his descendants used those arms in their seals. 

From the 15th century, there exist today three letters of a granting of knighthood and a coat of arms, that of Torfi Arason from 1450 (Azure, a Bear Argent, with a Demi-bear Argent on the crest), of Björn Þorleifsson from 1457 (Azure a Bear Argent, with a Bear Argent on the crest), and also that of Eggert Eggertsson from 1488, which actually was Norwegian, but whose descendants moved to Iceland and became its governors for a while (Azure, a Demi-unicorn Argent, with a Demi-unicorn Argent on the crest. See fig. 2).

Figure 2.


 


The Stockfish

For many centuries a fish represents Iceland on its arms. This fish is either a flattened or an unflattened cod, and it becomes a part of the Danish royal arms.

It is first seen in a book in 1360, and later in several different designs. 

In 1592 a special envoy was sent to the Danish court to get an official seal for Iceland, and came back with a seal which was a headless, unflattened cod with a crown above it, 1593 besides it and in a curve around it was written Sigillum Insulae Islandiae.

In the 17th century, another design is used as the arms of Iceland, Gules, a headless flattened cod (or stockfish) Argent crowned with an open crown Or, (see fig. 3). This is incorporated into the arms of the Danish state, early in the 17th century, in the rule of Christian IV (d. 1648).
 


Figure 3.


 


The Falcon

In the latter half of the 19th century, people started considering these arms as not so good for the country, and a little bit insulting even. Thus the old falcon reappears, and the artist Sigurður Guðmundsson makes a coat of arms that become very popular, Azure, a Falcon Displayed Argent.

When Iceland gained home rule in 1904, the king of Denmark declared that the arms of Iceland should be Azure, a Falcon Argent, (see fig. 4) and thus the old cod-fish finally went away (it lived on though in the arms of the king of Greece, which was of the Danish ruling house, see fig. 5, bottom left corner). 

Figure 4.Figure 5.

Some people were dissatisfied that the falcon did not have his wings displayed, as on the original arms designed by Sigurður Guðmundsson. That is now the symbol of Iceland's largest political party, the Independence party, which is a conservative Christian Democratic party, (see fig. 6).
 


Figure 6.


 


Independence

In 1918 Iceland became more or less independent, although the Danish king was still the head of state and Denmark took care of its foreign relations. The country adopted a new coat of arms. Now it was a shield with the new flag of Iceland, held up be four creatures, the so-called "landvættir" from Heimskringla, an ancient Icelandic scripture. These creatures are a dragon, a vulture, an ox and a giant. On top of this was the Danish crown (see fig. 7). In 1944, Iceland became a fully independent republic, so by a declaration of the president, the Danish crown was removed from the coat of arms (see fig. 8) and it remains the same today.

.Figure 7.Figure 8.


 


Municipal Arms

The heraldic tradition has never been strong in Iceland. Nobility was abolished in 1660, and no-one in Iceland has officially any rightful ancient coats of arms. Since Iceland is a republic, heraldry is not regulated at all, and any means of registering arms or symbols is through the trade-mark authorities, and then only one design, not coats of arms as such. 

The municipalities all have their own arms, some of which do not respect any heraldic rules. They are usually designed by some advertising agencies, and in some cases the outcome is less than beautiful, (see figs. 9, 10 and 11). 
 


Figure 9Figure 10.Figure 11.

Other municipalities, especially the older ones, do have some tolerable arms, and some are even quite nice, Here are the arms of Siglufjörður (fig. 12), Akureyri (fig. 13), Hafnarfjörður (fig.14), Seyðisfjörður (fig. 15), Borgarnes (fig. 16) and Reykjavík (fig 17).
 


Figure 12, Siglufjörður.Figure 13, Akureyri.Figure 14, Hafnarfjörður.Figure 15, Seyðisfjörður.Figure 16, Borgarnes.Figure 17, Reykjavík.

Suggestions or comments? Feel free to send email to iceherald@email.com



Primary source:

Laxness, Einar, Íslandssaga A-Ö, Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs og Þjóðvinafélagssins, Reykjavík 1977

Other sources:

Júlíusson, Árni Daníel, Jón Ólafur Ísberg, Helgi Skúli Kjartansson (ed.), Íslenskur söguatlas, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík 1989

Kannik, Preben, Alverdens Flag i Farver, Politikens Forlag, Köbenhavn, 1956


 

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