Four kinds of dreaming.

Posted on 26. May, 2016 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


Sleeping on Ring Road, IS by Funky Tee at Flickr.

In Icelandic fairy tale tradition dreams are given an especially important part in how they affect and shape people’s lives. In old stories and legends gods and elves visit people in the dreaming, explaining dreams has been a valued skill all the way from the settlement era and people have for a long time believed that sometimes the future can be seen in a dream… and that there are people to whom these dreams come easier than others. Perhaps it’s not surprising considering that Iceland spends half of each year almost without sunlight, so let’s look at some interesting Icelandic legends around the topic!


Rune for Good dreams, Viking museum by Brian Gratwicke at Flickr.

Draumur (= dream)
Að sofa (= to sleep)
Að sofna (= to fall asleep)

The first dreamer comes from Laxdæla saga: Guðrún Ósvifsdóttir, one of the main characters, saw four dreams, each in which she lost something important. In the first dream she was wearing an ill-fitting headdress and eventually threw it away, in the second a silver arm ring fell from her arm into water and disappeared. In the third one a golden ring she thought to keep longer than the silver one broke against rock and bled, which made her think it had been faulty to begin with but that had she taken better care of it it would still be whole. Fourth dream had her wearing a golden helmet set with gemstones, and though it was lovely it was also heavy for her to wear, so it too fell from her head and rolled into a fjord, disappearing.

Her dreams were explained to show her four future husbands. The first one suited her badly and she would divorce him. The second one she would love but would lose, the dream interpreter thought it likeliest he’d drown. Third husband would follow the second, but there was something ill about that match which she’d see after his (violent) death. The fourth would be better than any of the three first ones, but he too would drown.

All came to be exactly as explained. The first marriage of Guðrún was unhappy and ended in divorce, the second and fourth ended with the husband’s death by drowning. Third husband killed a man at Guðrún’s request and was then killed in retaliation. The man he killed, however, was Kjartan, the man rumoured to be the greatest love of Guðrún…


A Color of the Sky by Helgi Halldórsson at Flickr.

Dagdraumur (= daydream)

Iceland’s rich elf lore naturally has a foothold in the dreaming as well – or perhaps especially there, considering that fairytales of elves often concentrate on how much better everything seems to be for them than for humans. Elves are wealthier, more beautiful, happier… but in one thing they may need a human’s help.

Someone, usually a woman but in some rare cases a man, is visited in the dreaming by an elf. Sometimes this happens during one night, sometimes the person stays asleep for days; in their dream they’re given a gift of sight so they can see the hidden and are then taken to a secret location where they find a very tired elf woman trying to give birth and having much trouble with it. The human either assists in the delivery or simply puts their hands on the pregnant elf woman’s belly, and thanks to their help both the woman and her child survive. The helper is then richly rewarded, the second sight is removed and they’re taken back home.

However, occasionally the helper somehow keeps the ability to see the hidden people that they were given in the dreaming. They often try to keep it a secret, because failing to do so will result in very angry elves and angry elves are the last creatures you want to meet on this island!


Smooth dreamer by Brian Suda at Flickr.

Martröð (= nightmare)
Vondur draumur (= a bad dream)

The Icelandic word for a nightmare is made out of words mara and tröð (= to trample), giving a hint of the origin of nightmares. Mara was a monster that typically sat heavily on a person while they slept, but there were levels to their harmfulness: while some would do nothing more than to give the sleeper some uncomfortable moments the worst of them literally stomped their victim to death.

In Ynglinga saga king Vanlandi got attacked by mara with horrifying results. He had married and then abandoned a princess called Drífa who waited for him ten years and then asked a seiðkona (= witch woman, a magic-knowing woman) to either bring him back or to kill him. Vanlandi resisted the initial urge to return to Drífa, after which a mara attacked him while he slept and killed him in front of the whole horrified court that had gathered around to try to help the sleeping king.


Kitchen floor at night by glasseyes view at Flickr.

Skyggn (= clairvoyant, a person with capability of seeing hidden things in the dreaming)
Skyggni (= clairvoyance, second sight)

One dream skill is to find hidden things, lost people or sheep, stolen goods and so forth. This is considered different from seeing the future in the dreaming in that anyone can see glimpses of future and that those glimpses rarely come when you wish for them. A skyggn person was capable of seeing things they’re looking for deliberately and often did just that, either looking for things they themselves had lost or working at someone else’s request.

There still are people who believe they have this special sight, people who insist someone of their family can find things in the dreaming and countless stories of things found in the dreaming so who knows… maybe there’s something to it! 😀

Icelandic national dress.

Posted on 19. May, 2016 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


Icelandic national dress, þjóðbúningur, has a long, long history and each of them is a work of art. Made of wool, richly embroidered and decorated with a great amount of jewellery the dresses are often family treasures, given to the next generation or borrowed for a relative for important occasions such as graduation or the Independence Day in 17th June when you’ll see a wide variety of them paraded around downtown Reykjavík. The men’s options are narrower but women have roughly speaking five styles to select from, three of them being actually based on women’s clothes in the past and two designed in the 19th century.


Lady on the left side is wearing faldbúningur. Next to her are peysuföt and upphlutur.


Oldest of the women’s dresses, faldbúningur dates back to the 17th-18th century. The older variant is often more colourful and comes with a headdress called krókfaldur, which is taller and larger than the later, flat and spoon-like spaðafaldur. The later variants are entirely black, which is a very customary colour for women’s national dress in general. Any faldbúningur can also be worn with a tailcap instead of a headdress and since those are easier to wear women often opt for them instead. In my personal opinion krókfaldur is the most beautiful of them all.


Málfridur (Frida) Sveinsdóttir, Wikimedia commons.

Faldbúningur is the only national dress that comes with a strange, round collar, often heavily decorated. It used to have an actual function even further back in time when it supported a huge neck ruff (link), but by the time this dress dates from those were already old news.


Íslenski faldbúningurinn at Wikimedia commons. A great comparison photo of faldbúningur on the left and upphlutur on the right!


Much simpler than the faldbúningur and entirely different in appearance, upphlutur is still closely related to it! Upphlutur used to be an underdress to faldbúningur but evolved into a dress style of its own by ditching the jacket and adding an apron.


Upphlutur times three, easy to recognize by the metal clasps on the bodice.

Upphlutur also has era variation in style, with older styles using more colourful fabrics, newer styles using plain black but also more jewellery. Upphlutur is worn with the tail cap and the fabric of the apron is often up to the wearer to decide upon. It’s by far the most popular choice especially among young women so it’s likely the one you’ll see most often, but even so the variation between the dresses makes it seem like you never see two alike.



Learning to Read by Sigurður Guðmundsson, Wikimedia commons.


Simplest of the historical dresses is peysuföt: the dress is typically black, although oldest versions could be dark blue as well. The cut is simple and the front of the dress is designed to be buttoned both at the neck and under the breasts so that the undershirt shows in the gap, creating the most familiar look of an Icelandic national dress.

There’s an older and newer variation of peysuföt too, but the differences aren’t as obvious as in the other two. The newer ones have wider sleeves and often a larger neck tie. Both types are worn with tailcaps and the apron styles are just as relaxed as with the upphlutur, if the wearer wants to wear an apron made of machine-made lace decorated with gold threads that’s what she’ll do!


Briet og Laufey, Wikimedia commons. Skautbúningur on the left, kyrtill on the right.

Kyrtill and Skautbúningur

These are the newer types, both designed by the same man Sigurður Gudmundsson. He took the faldbúningur and added (what he thought were) viking-era touches to it and creating an entirely new kind of a headdress that also used something old in it – namely the flat, spoon-like part of spaðafaldur. He added a wide, often heavily decorated gold band around the base and a white veil over the whole thing, and whenever you see pictures of Iceland’s personification you’ll most likely see her dressed in either one of these two dresses. The kyrtill is either bright blue or white, whereas skautbúningur is typically black and has the peysuföt-type opening at the breast.


Icelandic men’s national costume by Kjallakr at Wikimedia commons.

Men’s national costumes

You might say there were four types of men’s costume, but alas two have disappeared from use and one of the types currently in use is a modernized version. That leaves only one type of costume that actually has historical basis that’s still in use. It has a long-sleeved shirt and a wide vest with two rows of buttons, a wool coat with more buttons and knee-length wool trousers, with even more buttons! The modernized look has long trousers instead but I’ve always found the knee length + long socks suit the look better. Men wear a tailcap, although a different, less showy style than the one women wear. Men’s costume comes with wider colour variation but tends towards dark, muted colours. Examples of the men’s costume are harder to come by than women’s, but you can find some online f.ex. here.


Some Real Deal Icelandic men’s wear, although sadly this style is not a national costume.

The historical version is simply called Þjóðbúningur karla (= men’s national costume) while the newer is called Hátíðarbúningur. The disappeared styles were Fornmannaklæði (link) which took influence on viking era clothes and an unnamed style, a simplified version of the national costume.

Children’s costumes

Children’s costumes are the same as adults’, only in smaller size. Boys don’t usually wear a wool coat far as I’ve seen, and girls’ dresses are shorter. Both girls and boys often wear simplified versions and rarely, if ever, jewellery.

Are you maybe planning on visiting Iceland in mid-June? Wait until the 17th June and see how many different kinds of dresses you find going around downtown!




Detail of the front and the headdress.


Amazing embroidery details.

Many colours of Icelandic horse.

Posted on 12. May, 2016 by in Icelandic culture


Icelandic horses by Jennifer Boyer at Flickr.

Nothing says summer like an Icelandic horse that no longer looks like a shaggy plush toy! Icelandic horses are a hardy breed and can survive outdoors through the year because they grow long winter fur, which they then shed when the days grow longer and the weather gets warmer. The Icelandic horses come in hundreds of colours, colour combinations and different markings, and though listing them all would be impossible for the sheer amount of them I thought it would be fun to look at at least the basics. When you travel in the Icelandic countryside during the summer the horses you may come across can be, for example:

Svartur.  Coal black.

Brúnn. Brown horses come in many shades and the darkest may be easy to confuse with a black one, but as a difference a brown horse will turn a shade lighter if it spends time in sunlight. A black horse will always stay completely black.

Grár. Gray, comes in different shades as well. Ljósgrár (= light gray) is light like the name suggests, steingrár (= stone gray) is dark gray with ring-like or round pattern.

Jarpur. This horse will be either red or brown but will have a black mane and a tail. Rauðjarpur refers to a clearly reddish tone in the hair, dökkjarpur and korgjarpur are brown.

Leirljós. Very light colour horse with mane and tail either the same colour or even lighter.


Icelandic horses along Reyðarfjörður in the East Fjords by Jennifer Boyer at Flickr.

Litföróttur. This refers to a horse that has its hair turn grayer depending on the season. This has to do with Icelandic horses having longer winter fur and shorter “underfur”.

Moldóttur. Yellow-brown with black mane and tail. The English equivalent may be buckskin, if I’m not totally mistaken.

Móálóttur. Silver-gray with black points.

Rauður. This means simply red, the fur, tail and mane are all red and come in many shades.

Skjóttur. A horse with large patches of different colour or colours, the English equivalent might be called pinto.


717 Nanna frá Halldórsstöðum by Dagur Brynjólfsson at Flickr

There are of course countless more colours and colour combinations when it comes to Icelandic horses. They’re often bred for racing so those horses’ most important features that breeders look out for is temper (having a bit of a fiery temper is a plus) and how many gaits the horse can do. Not all Icelandic horses can do every gait – walk, trot and canter/gallop are the basics they all have, tölt and skeið (= pace) are extras. Best horses can of course do all five of them.

Icelandic horses are bred for looks too, though, some breeders even concentrating on the colour. Most typically they’re bred for high shoulders and a long neck, and as a result the breed has actually grown taller in the recent years. One horse in particular, Skaði, was so tall he made the news with his impressive 153cm height (measured from the withers)(link).


Horse by Ingunn Nielsen at Flickr.

If you’re traveling the countryside you’ll no doubt meet these horses sooner or later, and occasionally they may decide to meet you instead. On one camping trip some years ago we woke up early in the morning to a sound we couldn’t quite figure out, and after a while of wondering I crawled out of the tent to find out the source of it. There, right behind our tent, stood four little horses with what I can only describe as a hopeful look, waiting to see if I had any treats for them. As none were forthcoming they quickly got bored with me and continued their way to the next tent, where they stomped around a bit until the tent’s owner appeared just like I had, and then the same thing happened all over again at the next tent. Clever ones! 😀


Icelandic horses by Audrey at Flickr.