Polar bears, puffins and vikings, oh my: On authenticity

It is an interesting fact, that each time I discuss the modern appropriation of Viking heritage, someone asks, “Yes, but did it really happen?”. In my last post, for example, I discussed the Miss Universe’s national costume competition and the Icelandic competitor’s ‘Viking’ outfit equipped with a battery powered lit-up axe. Following the blog post, I received the question whether Icelanders really had been Vikings. Writing an exhibition review on the Icelandic Punk Museum, I was asked if I was not being dismissive of the idea of the Icelandic setters being ‘punk’ rebels, when they moved to Iceland. When writing about horned helmets and other kitsch tourist memorabilia I am asked why someone would want such a historically inaccurate memento of a trip to Iceland.

Were Icelanders really Vikings? Were they rebels, who refused to submit to Norwegian rule and taxes? Those are core questions, relating to the search for authenticity and historical accuracy. Yet, neither question concerns my research directly. I am less occupied with searching for the ‘truth (authenticity) behind the myth’, as I am with exploring the uses of the myth and whether it has its own authenticity, removed from its historical origins. The costume worn at the Miss Universe contest was a mash of three different ideologies: Firstly, elements traditionally Icelandic (faux fish leather and what seems to be a sheep’s skull); secondly traditional pop culture Viking elements (the horned part of the headdress, the axe and barbaric overall look) and thirdly, glamour, associated with Las Vegas, Miss Universe and the world of trash/kitsch culture (the glitter and the sex appeal). It has an authenticity which is not related to archaeology or history but rather a representation of cultural appropriation.

Let us look at another form this cultural appropriation in Icelandic tourist marketing. The polar bear. It is an odd truth, that in recent years the polar bear has emerged as a major symbol of Icelandic culture and heritage. Knick-knacks for sale include a Santa-Clause puffin, being driven on a sled, led by polar bears

puffin christmas polar bear

                                                  “Puffin Santa riding a polar bear drawn sled”

Polar bears only appear in Iceland in two ways. Accidentally or stuffed. In either case they do not stay alive for long on Iceland’s mossy grounds.

I have not researched the origin of the polar bear heritage particularly, yet my initial thoughts would be to trace its popularity to two polar bear thefts in 2009 and 2010 respectively  In 2009, a large polar bear doll outside The Viking, tourist shop on Laugarvegur was reported stolen. In an interview with the shop owner, Sigurður Guðmundsson, a reward was offered for the finder of the polar bear. “Half of the kids in Reykjavík are crying, not being able to see it” he said. Already at this point, the polar bear was viewed as an important enough landmark for the younger generations to mourn its disappearance. It was later returned to the store and local children could cease their mourning. Incidentally, (what I assume was) the same polar bear had escaped its bonds a few months earlier, being part of an elaborate hoax, planned by Sigurður, where it was strategically placed outside, north of Hofsós (north-west of Iceland). The police where then called about a stray polar bear. The truth only came out when the police and marksmen had surrounded the unmoved and non-moving beast.

In 2010 a polar bear again disappeared in front a store, this time ‘Ísbjörninn’, the ‘polar bear’ shop. It was later found at Húsdýragarðurinn, a Reykjavík park and zoo attraction, housing Icelandic farm animals, wildlife, amphibians and more. It was a well organised joke, reminiscent of animal liberation societies, except in this case the polar bear traveled from one captivity to the other. Incidentally, this was also a campaign promise of the Best Party, a political satire campaign, which emerged as the largest winners of the Reykjavík election in 2010.

It seems to me that after these incidents, polar bears spread out in the center of Reykjavík. If someone has a different theory, I would be very interested to hear it and am happy to be proven wrong. However, perhaps it is a fitting origin, as the polar bear was moved to the local zoo, housing mostly Icelandic domestic and wildlife animals. It was part of the city landscape, the political sphere and nature debates. In any case, the bell was rung, the polar bear was an official part of the troupe.

Where is the authenticity in this case? Polar bears are certainly not natural to Icelandic wildlife. As soon as they drift on icebergs from Greenland to the shores of Iceland they are shot, stuffed and displayed. They are starving after their voyage and so provide a danger to residents and livestock. The mug is lying. The tourist shops are misrepresenting Icelandic natural history and wildlife. Jón Gunnar Ottóson, CEO of the Institute of Natural History has rejected the idea that other options are viable, “these are dangerous animals, not some cute teddy bears” he said in an interview with MBL in 2016. Yet cute and cuddly is exactly what they have become.

This process I described above is one of the core elements of cultural heritage in relation to tourism marketing. Locals shake their heads at the sight of polar bear memorabilia, filling the shelves of tourist shops, yet, simultaneously we unabashedly market it to foreign visitors. We cringe at the thought of horned helmet Viking tat, yet, as soon as we rally behind out football team, we embrace it, as a nation, on a mass scale.

ísland england staðan

England – Iceland, the score is 1:0

The authenticity is not of historical (or nature) origins, but one existing within the realm of its creation. It is an easily recognized, international symbol.

viking toilet

Instantly understood symbolism: I don’t think this image needs a caption

The Viking stuff places us within the Scandinavian region, within a specific historical and cultural setting. It also gives others a sense of what national character we wish to portray. Fierce, resourceful and proud. I’ll be honest. I’m not entirely sure what the polar bear symbolizes. Perhaps it is part of the ‘dangerous yet adorable’ marketing strategy popular in Iceland. As in: We have dangerous nature but an adorable small-town (yet modern and metropolitan) city atmosphere.


                    From inspiredbyiceland.com – they are not wrong, you really should take precautions.


                        From inspiredbyiceland.com – at least we have a small capital with a big heart.

In the realm of kitschy tourism marketing, authenticity is fictitious. It is kitschy in that we over-emphasize and embellish certain aspects of who we are and where we came from. We display what we consider to be the most interesting social and historical and cultural elements we can offer. We enhance it and simplify it and serve it on a global scale. We may not have polar bears natural to Iceland, but at least the drift ashore here. We may or may not have been Vikings, but they have left a permanent and important mark on Icelandic society. The 2018 World Cup in Russia is just around the corner, so all together now, let’s sing ‘Ég er kominn heim” (originally from a Hungarian opera) and do the Viking war chant (originally from Motherwell, Scotland), HÚH!

húh puffin

                                      A viking puffin gets ready for a new sport related adventure…

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