Happy First of Summer!

Posted on 23. Apr, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

Hveragerði, very, very early in the morning. The summer half is light all day and night long!

Summer is finally here! I mean it did snow a few times today and the night before was freezing, but that’s just good luck according to old beliefs, it’s said that if winter and summer freeze together the summer will be good. Sumardagurinn fyrsti, The First of Summer, divides the year into its warmer half just like the first winter day in the autumn dips Iceland into cold season.

In the old Norse calendar there were only two seasons, and it might make a lot of sense if you think that one half was for growing and gathering food for the other. Of these the first day of summer was greeted with celebration because it heralded the gentle weathers and an end to the gloomy one, and people could count one more year to their lives. At this time your age was defined by how many winters you had survived and no wonder, in Iceland in particular life was tough in the winter.

The weather could kill you and if it didn’t you still wouldn’t have it easy. The houses may have been warm but the air inside was horrible because it didn’t change (there was a ventilation system of sorts, but it was basically just a hole through the wall and had to be plugged for the majority of the time so that the house stayed warm), people went around with shoes made of skin that wet through quickly, food was scarce and not necessarily that appetizing and one stomach virus could be all that was needed to send someone to an early grave. The darkness took its toll as well in a time when no outdoor lights were available and sun barely came up for months. It’s maybe no surprise that Icelanders really looked forward to the warm season.

To this day you can occasionally find old postcards with strange summer-greetings on them. They may even have a Christmas-themed picture on them but the text behind joyfully wishes the recipient a happy summer instead. In old days Sumardagurinn fyrsti was indeed a celebration on the same level as Christmas is now, if not even more important, and Icelanders did not care that much whether the religious images fit the festival. To make another interesting comparison the First of Summer used to be the time when people gave each other gifts, much like Christmas is now!

Somewhere by Road 1 on the south side of Iceland.

When is it?

All traditional Icelandic holidays from the old calendar change place each year, so Sumardagurinn fyrsti cannot be exactly pinpointed to one particular day. It’s the first day of the first summer month Harpa and takes place between 19th and 25th April, the first Thursday after April 18th. It’s a national holiday which means that very few shops and services will be open, so keep this in mind if you’re traveling in Iceland at the end of April! For the following three years the dates will be:

2016: 21st April

2017: 20th April

2018: 19th April

What happens on this day?

First and foremost – barbecuing. Icelanders love grilled food and some would cook like this all year round, but this day in particular is celebrated by digging out the grill and throwing in some lamb. You can literally smell The First of Summer by taking a walk outside!

Other activities vary greatly but it’s not unusual to do something outdoors (as long as the weather allows). My FB feed suggests people liked to take long walks, go bicycling, attend the Ásatrú celebrations (link), take lots of photos (of course), and I think one person mentioned plans for going for a dip in the sea, which must have been absolutely freezing. There was also a fight downtown that was advertised in advance and you could book a place in it, but don’t worry, the whole battle was arranged by a local clothing company that sells outdoor wear and the weapon was… water (link). Whichever team could empty their storage of water on the other team first won! When asked about their reasons behind the idea the answer was simply:

“Okkur langaði eftir svona langan vetur að fagna sumrinu.”

(= After such a long winter we wanted to embrace summer.)

Who could fault them for thinking this way, after all the winter was one of the exceptionally harsh ones, so bad that it’ll most likely get a name. Icelanders only do this is the winter was near or downright catastrophic so that should give some idea of how it was like… personally I say good riddance to the coldness! Happy summer to all of you, dear blog readers!

One of the things I’m really looking forward to – the camping season! Photo taken at Hamrar camping site in Akureyri.

 Gleðilegt sumar!

Cod Wars.

Posted on 16. Apr, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

HMS Scylla and Odinn collision. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Did you hear about that time when Iceland, a country with no military, beat the British Royal Navy three times in a row with 7 small coast guard vessels? If you ever visit Iceland you probably will hear of it – the Cod Wars, as they’re called, are a source of national pride.

Like the name suggests it all began with the right of fishing near Iceland. The original source behind the wars was actually not Icelanders but the Danes, at a time when the invention of the steam engine made longer fishing trips a possibility and Denmark began to worry about the British fishing very close to Iceland. Denmark therefore declared a fishing limit of 50 nautical miles around Iceland and enforced this with their own navy, arresting and fining British fishing ships that entered the area. The UK never acknowledged this rule, but as the whole world soon plunged into the First World War matters were left to lie… for the time being.


The sailors’ magazine Víkingur with a bit of war propaganda. The men pictured are “Iceland’s guardians against British violence”, according to the text.

Fast forward to the year 1958. Both World Wars now over, Iceland was an independent nation and fishing was still one of the major industries. The first Cod War started by Iceland declaring they were expanding their fishing waters from 4 to 12 nautical miles, to which the UK responded by sending 4 war ships to protect the British trawlers. Iceland sent their Coast Guard into action, all 7 vessels, and things heated up quickly with ships firing at and ramming each other until two months later the countries finally came to an agreement.


Memories of the cod wars by anne beaumont on Flickr.com. A net cutter.

Peace lasted until 1972 when Iceland again declared a new expansion to its area, now 50 nautical miles wide. History repeated itself: the British ships attempted to continue fishing with the help of the Royal Navy, but this time Icelanders did not stop at simply trying to shoo the British trawlers away – they employed net cutters with which they cut the nets off of the ships. A particularly amusing anecdote regards ICGV Ægir meeting a ship that, instead of giving their name, played Rule, Britannia! at them via the radio. One net cutting round later the ship finally identified itself as Peter Scott, besides some foul language and a fire axe thrown at Ægir.

Many collisions later this Cod War, too, came to an end in 1973, the reason behind the ending much the same as with the first one: it was simply too expensive for the UK to keep thousands of men and several large warships constantly in the Icelandic waters. Meanwhile Iceland faced no such expenses, having only a handful of small vessels and a couple of hundred men whose job was patrolling the coastal areas anyway.


Cod wars by Luc Van Braekel at Flick.com. A net cutter in action.

The third Cod War followed at the heels of the second one, beginning in 1975 when Iceland decided to expand their fishing area to 200 nautical miles… and understandably the UK, once again, did not feel comfortable with the decision. The third Cod War proved the fiercest of all three, with more net cutting and more collisions and fights breaking out between ships. A particularly severe battle happened between V/s Þór and three British tugboats Lloydsman, Star Aquarius and Star Polaris, but to this day the accounts of who rammed whom and who did it first differ greatly: it’s certain though that the V/s Þór suffered damage and almost sunk, and that it fired a live round at Star Aquarius.


The museum ship Óðinn holds lots of interesting stories…

After this and another, similar occasion, the British side ordered its ships to a more careful approach, not least because fixing the ships after collisions was proving expensive – it would seem that the British ships actually suffered worse damage than the Icelandic ones. Things would probably have gone thus for longer had Iceland not threatened to close the NATO base at Keflavík, at which a deal was again reached and the British ships agreed to stay out of the Icelandic area.

Despite everything all three of the Cod Wars ended in total only two casualties. One Icelandic engineer died while making hull repairs during the second one and one British sailor was injured when his trawler’s nets were cut off and he was hit by a hawser during the third. Some would add though that among the real casualties of these wars were actually the British fishermen who lost their livelihoods and the north fishing industry that suffered heavy damage as a direct result of the wars.


Today all that remains is V/s Óðinn, a former coast guard ship turned museum, parked next to the Marine Museum at Grandagarður, Reykjavík. It’s quite an experience to visit and well worth the price of the ticket in my opinion, and it has specialties such as a presidential suite to look at. I warmly recommend it if you ever happen by, and should you be here during the annual fishermen’s day you’ll get in for free!


It might be a bit crowded on Sjómannadagurinn though! :D

Vatnsenda-Rósa: a legendary poet.

Posted on 09. Apr, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

An evening with a traditional Icelandic zither langspil and singing.

The most famous love poem of Iceland is written by a woman. Though little is actually known of her the amount of legends that circle around Rósa Guðmundsdóttir, also known as Skáld-Rósa (= Rósa the poet) or Vatnsenda-Rósa (= Rósa of Vatnsendi), would suggest she was a striking and noteworthy person in her time just the same. Today she may be considered among the most famous of Icelandic poets of all times but at the time she lived and wrote she probably didn’t even expect to see her work printed.

Who was this remarkable lady after all? Born 1795 to a family living in Hörgárdal area, Rósa was taught not only how to read but also how to write, a rarity for the Icelandic women of the past. Wait, what was that? To know how to read but not how to write? Yes, that’s exactly what woman’s education used to be like and there’s a possible explanation for why, in a country known for its long tradition of both sexes composing poetry on a spot, most of the published poets were male.

Rósa’s mother died as she was but 12 years old and soon after she left home to work as a servant in Möðruvellir. This is where one of the most known legends of her began, that she met and fell in love with Páll Melsted, and the legend also states her most famous love poem Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósu was written with him in mind. Páll moved to Copenhagen to study when Rósa was around 15-17 years old and was already engaged at the time to another lady. Upon his return Rósa was hired at their service and eventually Páll was the spokesman at her first marriage – yet the first child of Rósa was named Pálína, a name that’s essentially the female form of Páll.

This is how Möðruvellir looked like back in Rósa’s day.

The marriage of Rósa and her husband Ólafur Ásmundason was not an easy one. Rósa had an affair with a man called Natan Ketilsson, a known ladies’ man, and some of her children were rumoured to be his instead of Ólafur’s… one, Súsanna, definitely got Natansdóttir as her official patronymic. Rósa admitted to the affair in a trial in 1827 but Ólafur forgave her so that their marriage could continue. Eventually the couple divorced in 1837.

What about Natan then? He left Rósa in 1826, got involved with other people and was murdered in 1828, a case that is now known as the last murder in Iceland where the murderers were executed for their crime.

Rósa became a midwife, known for her skills, just as her own mother and grandmother had been. Later on she went to study midwifery and graduated, settling down with Gísli Gíslason, a man 20 years younger than her. Though this relationship seemed to have a warm start it was also said that Gísli drank heavily and abused his wife when drunk. The marriage however lasted until the year 1855 when she got ill and died at age 60.

A typical Icelandic couple with children in the mid 1800’s.

Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósa is actually much longer and has changed in both grammar, spelling and even order of verses over the years, but the three most famous ones usually go:

Augun mín og augun þín, (My eyes and your eyes)
ó, þá fögru steina (oh, those beautiful jewels)
mitt er þitt og þitt er mitt, (mine is yours and yours is mine/what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine)
þú veizt, hvað eg meina. (you know what I mean)

Langt er síðan sá eg hann, (It’s been long since I last saw him)
sannlega fríður var hann, (truly he was beautiful)
allt, sem prýða mátti einn mann, (everything that is good in a man)
mest af lýðum bar hann. (most of it he had)

Þig eg trega manna mest (I miss you more than anyone)
mædd af tára flóði, (tired of the flood of tears)
ó, að við hefðum aldrei sést, (oh, if only we had never net)
elsku vinurinn góði. (my dear beloved friend)

(Original form of the poem can be found here. You can listen to this song here, it’s Ragnheiður Gröndal’s version.)

As a curious coincidence this lady, usually only called “Icelandic girl”, is here named Sigríður Ólafsdóttir. She comes from the same general area as Rósa, but what makes her interesting is that she’s a full namesake to Rósa’s third daughter, and by the time when the picture was made Rósa’s Sigríður would indeed have been around this age!

And then for last week’s quiz! Fyrir in each word will mean “before”, “over” or “above”.

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