Icelandic Language Blog

No dogs, TV, beer or Spaniards allowed. Posted by on May 28, 2015 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history

Danger zone by Bjarki Sigursveinsson at

Icelanders of the Westfjords area are no longer allowed to kill Basque people on sight. The law was revoked just last month and very, very quietly too – you’d almost think someone didn’t want anyone to notice anything. In any case it’s now a fact, Basque people are no longer outlawed by default!

It may sound like one of those hilarious old laws that arose from a single occasion and were ignored ever afterwards, which is true. However, the occasion behind this one was a rather gruesome and horrible one. Spánverjavíg, literally translated as “The killing of the Spaniards”, happened in 1615 when Spanish whaling ships had finally reached Iceland and made a mutually profitable agreement with the locals to be allowed to whale. The plan was to return home in September but alas, both ships sunk and the 80 men that survived split in two groups: one, about 50 men strong, sailed south while another of about 30 stayed.

The smaller group split further into two groups, one of which came across a house they took to be abandoned and took the dry fish that was stored inside. This being early autumn such provisions for oncoming winter were vital for the locals, who soon banded together, killed the Spanish sailors as they slept and sunk the bodies in the sea. The law that allowed to kill every single Basque on sight came to existence after this, and sadly the next target was the other group who were killed almost to the last man.

Museo_marítimo_Ósvör,_Bolungarvík,_Vestfirðir… by Diego Delso at

The matter was controversial even in the time it happened and there were voices speaking against the attackers, most notably Jón Guðmundsson lærði, Jón the learned Guðmundsson, whose opinion was that the Spanish sailors were innocent victims of a cold blooded massacre and that the way their bodies were treated was a disgrace as well. He criticized the matter openly and – for some reason – had to soon move far, far away from the Westfjords…

The law itself stayed. Most likely it was simply not needed, as the few sailors that managed to escape the slaughtering probably never wanted to see Iceland again and made sure to tell the people at home why. Still, for 400 years the law existed though it was never used afterwards, at first probably for lack of Spanish people to kill and then forgotten, little by little. So no worries if you’re from Spain and would like to visit the Westfjords, Icelanders haven’t killed your countrymen since 1615 (and now it’s illegal anyway).

Other unusual laws in Iceland

Hundur by Jóhann Gulin at

Dogs were banned in Reykjavík.

…and it’s still not easy to be allowed one in the urban areas. Those who wish to own a dog have to apply for a permit, and if they live in a house shared by other tenants they need the written approval of two thirds of them. All dogs have to be in a leash at all times when out of the house and the owners are responsible for cleaning up after them, failures can lead to losing your permit.

But why dogs? And why were cats always just fine? The ban came to be in 1924 and was a measure to fight echinococcosis, a severe, possibly deadly illness caused by a parasite that’s since been entirely wiped out from this country. Dogs were the main carriers of it and also the main source where it moved to humans.

Einn kaldur by Rögnvaldur Jónsson at

There was prohibition from 1915 to 1989

…but alcohol itself was not banned, only beer.

A complete prohibition lasted only a few years before the Spanish came and ruined it. Maybe the Spanish revenge finally hit Iceland! Threatening to stop buying Icelandic exports Spain managed to return wine back on the list of allowed beverages in 1921, which was soon followed by spirits in 1935. But still, not beer. Icelanders even came up with a beverage called bjórlíki (= beer-alike) which was non-alcoholic beer with a vodka shot. If you ever happen to be here on the 1st of March, that’s when we celebrate the legalization of beer (by drinking lots of it)!

Blank Stare by Orin Zebest at

No television for you

…in July.

The RÚV started to broadcast in 1966 and it was the only channel there was. They didn’t send out anything during Thursdays and for the whole month of July, it took until the year 1983 that RÚV lost its monopoly and another channel, Stöð 2, ended the dark Thursdays and Julys. While people suspect this was simply due to lack of things to broadcast the official reason was “to promote human interaction”, which apparently worked, you wouldn’t believe how much that seems to have increased the amount of childbirths for April…

Did your home country ever have crazy laws like these? Do you know the reasons behind them? If you do, please share in the comments!

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!


  1. Tom Lowe:

    Mommy Hulda,

    That was a really neat article and I learned a lot. Iceland always has something interesting to find out about!

    Please tell us how the ponies got to Iceland and why they are so cute. We want a good bedtime story! Yaay!!



    • hulda:

      @Tom Lowe Hello Tom!

      That’s a really cute idea for a blog post – stay tuned! 🙂