Apples in the oak tree.

Posted on 24. Apr, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic grammar, Icelandic history

Happy Sumardagurinn fyrsti, First of Summer, everyone! Easter is almost over now, the lamb’s eaten, Easter beer gone, the chocolate eggs opened and now the only thing left to do is to try to understand the proverbs that the eggs gave you. One of you, dear readers, asked me about a particularly difficult proverb which prompted me to write this whole entry as a reply because there’s is simply no short and easy way of explain what the proverb in question means and why it’s written in such a difficult form.

Icelanders take their Easter eggs seriously, and by this I mostly mean the sizes that range from large to diabetes ahoy. They’re filled with all kinds of yummy surprises but among them is one thing that people like to fish out first before they even begin to eat the candy: the Easter proverb. Families have somewhat different routines with these but f.ex. in ours the ritual begins with selecting your own egg, choosing your own fate blindly so to speak.

Reading the proverb out aloud and trying to figure out what it means is a favourite pastime around the Easter celebrations. If no one can tell what they think it means the thesauruses come out and after that the last call for help goes on social media sites. But wait, aren’t we talking about Icelandic proverbs here, as in they’re written in Icelandic and should therefore be understandable, at least on some point, to everyone?


Icelanders have such a long literary history that yields content to these eggs that some of the proverbs have turned… mysterious. They may include words that are so archaic that no one has used them for a long time, and some have already been left out of even the thesauruses. They may also be deliberately confusing, or are written in a manner where poetic form is favoured over accuracy.


Allar elkur hafa einhverja rót” that my friend received is a brilliant example of the archaic language problem. The word “elkur” can no longer be found in dictionaries or thesauruses and since it’s the key of the whole proverb – “every _____ has some root” – you won’t understand it without first translating the word. We threw around some wild guesses for a while until someone who owned an old Icelandic thesaurus found out that the word means “hindrance/obstacle”. The meaning of this proverb would be “all obstacles have their cause”, every trouble in life has its roots, or grew to be because of something that brought them into life. Many Icelandic proverbs subtly direct your gaze to your own self and the results of your own actions rather than blaming the outside forces alone, in this case the obstacle.

Mine also included an old Icelandic word: “Ástsæll er ólatur maður“. Ástsæll, although not as obscure a word as elkur, is no longer in use outside of books. It could possibly be translated as “love-blessed” although its correct, modern translation is “popular”. Therefore the proverb itself translates as “Popular is the hard-working person”. I will do my best, Easter proverb!

Of the deliberately confusing ones the following one might be the best known: “Sjaldan fellur eplið langt frá eikinni” (= the apple rarely falls far from the oak tree). My first reaction upon hearing this one was wonder. How does an apple end up in an oak tree? Why would it fall from there, was it not properly secured? How is it so certain that it doesn’t fall far away, there could be wind, or swallows mistaking it for a coconut*?

The answer is that this proverb is not Icelandic of origin, rather a translated one: “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. The tree turned into an oak for no better reason than the fact that according to old Icelandic metre in poetry oak tree rhymes with apple. They both begin with the same sound and coincide on stressed syllables, it just wouldn’t sound as good otherwise - logic be damned, oak tree it is.


However, in difficulty of the proverb that was sent to me via the blog comments stands out on a level of its own.

Sá er drengur sem við gengur.

If you were to translate this with the help of a dictionary you’d most likely come to the conclusion that it means something like “a real man walks beside you” which, alas, is not even close to correct.

“Drengur” here does not actually mean a man by gender but a human in general, just like the word “man” does in English. If the word stands alone that’s all it means, but what we aren’t told here is that in this proverb it’s actually shortened from “góður drengur“, a phrase that loosely translates as “a decent human being”. The lack of the adjective is just poetic licence and the proverb assumes you already know the phrase and can therefore add the missing part yourself, which alas does not happen before you have a really good grasp and almost full fluency in not only the language but the culture and literary history as well. You’re by no means alone in this, language learners, I discussed this proverb with several Icelanders and only two could tell me what it means**.

Another trap in the proverb is the use of the verb “ganga“, because here it doesn’t mean walking at all. Again something important has been omitted for the sake of proper rhyme – the latter part is actually “að gangast við einhverju“, to admit and accept one’s own responsibility in matters. What this proverb actually means is “a decent human being accepts their own responsibilities”.

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Here are even more proverbs of the same type, the kind that has some form of inbuilt rhyme. Can you spot them all? Hint: remember that alliteration is the key in Icelandic poetry (although other forms of rhyming do exist as well, sometimes even in the same poem) and that all words that begin with a vowel rhyme with each other.

Did you receive an Easter egg proverb you couldn’t translate? send me the text in the comments section and perhaps I can help out with it. :)


* If you get the reference I will automatically count you as my friend.

** Many thanks to Mr. E and Mr. H!

Photos used in this entry: oak tree by Franco Folini, apple by idpams, “beyond the wall” by Giuseppe Bognanni, “whoops” by Bill Mill.


hulda078Hulda recommends music

Today’s recommendation is Hera Hjartardóttir, a woman of amazing voice. Despite living a large part of her life in New Zealand she has strong ties to Iceland and has written and performed music for f.ex. the movie Hafið. She began her career at age 16 with a home recorded album called Homemade.

It feels so good (link)
Stúlkan sem starir á hafið (link)(song originally by Bubbi Morthens)
Feathers in a Bag (link)

Staving off a disaster; magical tattoos.

Posted on 16. Apr, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


I’ve noticed a growing trend of people having Icelandic magical staves tattooed on them lately. Some of the choices, alas, range from weird to unintentionally funny and inappropriate.

On its own having such a stave tattooed is not a bad thing at all. Icelanders themselves often get them as tattoos and it’s not considered insulting if a foreigner does the same, but there are dangers there that you’re well to be aware of. The most important one might be that just because a culture is Western does not make adapting its symbols any safer than getting a tattoo in f.ex. hanzi/kanji. To avoid embarrassing mistakes you’ll have to do your research first, and for the love of everything do not trust any chart that you see at a tattooist or floating around online, especially if they describe the meaning of the stave in only one or two words!

One such example can be found here, a picture that’s been going around Tumblr for a while now and unfortunately seems popular. The irony behind is that the person who put the chart together did it precisely to warn people against getting the wrong kind of a tattoo (source), and many of the staves on that picture are examples of that. Some won’t work alone, such as Gapaldur and Ginfaxi. They have to be present at the same time to have any effect at all but that’s not enough, they also have a specified location. Gapaldur has to be placed under the heel of the right foot, and Ginfaxi goes under the toes of the left one. Worn in this manner they will ensure their bearer victory in battle!

That’s if you’re a pro wrestler. Gapaldur and Ginfaxi are not generic battle runes, they only help in the ancient Icelandic wrestling, Glíma.

glimaWell, you could argue that at its origin Glíma used to be a duel to death…

I’d also like to point out that although good, this person’s list of rune explanations is not exact. The Svefnþorn (= sleep thorn) for example, that’s stated to give restful sleep, which according to the book Huld (= hidden/secret) is indeed accurate. The book then adds that if the staves are not removed there’s a chance that the sleeper will never wake up again, so perhaps it’s a good idea to list these ones as “do not self-medicate”.

Another interesting fact about Icelandic magical staves is that they’re not entirely Icelandic, nor entirely for Ásatrú. A part of them definitely are Icelandic in origin but many come from the continental Europe, which may mean that the meaning behind some of them may differ in the place of the stave’s origin – be aware of that when making permanent choices. Some of them (such as all the swastika variants and some of the other sun wheels) may even be illegal and/or offensive in some countries. As for the latter point, Christians in Iceland have also used these staves and have done so for centuries. There’s nothing in the generic idea of using them that Icelanders have seen as immoral or heathen as such, and to create some you’ll have to include a very Christian prayer! Here’s a good example of that:

The above one’s translated name “End Strife” is accurate, its Icelandic name is similarly “að stilla alla reiði” (= to calm all anger). First of all, it’s place-specific, meant to be drawn on your forehead and no other place. Secondly it has a very detailed way in which it has to be made: you draw it with the first finger of your left hand (instructions don’t state that it has to be visible, so perhaps just tracing the symbol will do). Then you recite: “Ægishjálm ég ber milli augna mér. Reiðin renni, stríð stemmi. Verði mér svo hver maður feginn sem María varð fegin sínum signuðum syni þá hún fann hann á sigurhellunni. Í nafni föður og sonar og anda heilags.” (= I bear Ægishjálmur [another magical stave] between my eyes. Anger to drain, fighting to reconcile. May I with others be as glad as Mary became when she found her son victorious in the cave. In the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.)

…and it’s not yet done. You still have to do a small incantation in the end and for those in Ásatrú, note that this incantation may be thought of as being insulting to Óðinn.


What about something that sounds really epic, such as the Óttastafur (= fear stave) that’s supposed to strike fear in your enemies? Well… there’s a few reasons why it might be a bad idea. First of all most rune workers agree getting a negative stave such as this one tattooed on you, or even using one, is not smart. What if you draw it wrong? Icelandic staves have a direction to which they have to go or you’ll risk turning the effect of the stave against yourself, meaning that instead of striking fear in your enemies the stave may perhaps make you deadly ill, or paranoid for life, neither of which is probably the warrior-like quality you were after. Besides it may have a different effect on other people than you wished for: in the sagas the use of attack runes tends to mean that the user is a weakling who would not inspire fear in anyone, thus the need for magic.

Besides that creating Óttastafur, like all Icelandic magical staves, is a serious business ritual and not just a fancy scribble. It’s not only place-specific but also material- and usage-specific: to make it work in your favour you’d have to carve it to a shield made of oak and then manage to throw it at your enemy’s feet.

sta4These ones protect you from magic. Magically.

The staves were drawn for many reasons from preventing barrels to leak, creating the famous necropants (link)(link is safe for work), helping you become a great rower, or to assist you in mowing hay. Yet no matter how strange they now seem to us they were once made for a reason, and for example the mowing hay -stave was seen so important that to make it work it had to be carved to the scythe and then coloured in blood from the main artery of one’s left hand.

It’s important to bear in mind that the descriptions on how the staves were to be created were written down by Christian authors, which means that especially the dark magic ones may have some added flair to the creation just to underline how evil they are and/or confuse a reader who would want to try making one, thus ensuring they’ll make a mistake in creating the stave. However, since many staves were considered perfectly acceptable the authors have had no particular motive to colour their making further. It’s also good to remember the time in which they were created, and that certain things such as oaken shields were perhaps a little more common then than today. Some things like strengthening a stave with blood will also seem a lot more dramatic to us than to the people back then: Egill Skalla-Grímsson himself drew runes on the side of a drink he suspected poisonous and filled them with his blood, and all this in the middle of a party.


But does any of the above really matter if you’d just like a stave for decoration and don’t particularly believe in Icelandic magic? Tattoos are taken for one’s own self first and foremost after all, some may even be in places you would rarely show to another human being. The answer to this is maybe and maybe not, it entirely depends on why you’re getting that tattoo. If you’re following any religion you may want to see that they don’t go against it. If you believe in magic be doubly careful. If your motive is that you like to study the staves or runes you might also want to wait for a few months and read up on your choices, maybe ask a specialist before getting inked, because getting the wrong kind of a stave or a misspelled piece of runic text tattooed on you will be your eternal reminder of getting that tattoo before you had earned it. Still, there are some staves that are positive in their effect and therefore safe choices so why not pick one of those?


The Vegvísir (= route shower) for example will help you find your way to your destination no matter what. It’s a popular protective tattoo; Björk, for example, has a vegvísir tattooed on her. Ægishjálmur (= helm of awe/terror) is also considered void of negative effects to the bearer despite its name. I’ve come across translations such as “making you irresistible” and while correct, it only grants you one kind irresistibility – it’s worn to inspire awe and fear in people who oppose you and simultaneously keep you safe from your own higher-ups using their position to abuse you. The difference between ægishjálmur and óttastafur is in their basic use: while óttastafur is meant to be used as a weapon, ægishjálmur, like its name suggests, is meant for defense and protection.

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Names of various magical staves and short descriptions on their usage. :)

If you’re interested in the subject there are some original Icelandic books on magical staves available on the net such as Huld (here) and Galdrakver (here). I also found a really interesting article about ægishjálmur here.

Source of the images used in this entry here, the rest of the images belong to me.


hulda078Hulda recommends music

If you don’t already know of Svavar Knútur, now’s definitely the time to find out! He’s often described as a troubadour, which I’m full ready to agree with, and has one of the loveliest voices I’ve ever heard. Also check his band Hraun – in fact since their song Ástarsaga úr fjöllunum  (= love story from the mountains) is somewhat popular it’s possible you’ve already have. :D

Ástarsaga úr fjöllunum (link). Lyrics here, English translation available.
Ölduslóð (link). You can find the lyrics to this and the next song here. English translations available.
Yfir hóla og yfir hæðir. (link)

With with, with or with?

Posted on 11. Apr, 2014 by in Icelandic grammar

withMig langar að tala við þig, hjá þér, og þá langar mig að tala með þér upp á sviði.” Put this sentence in an online translator and you get “I want to talk to with you and allow me to speak with you on stage” as a translation. Icelandic prepositions are endlessly confusing and here are some of the worst perpetrators – við, með and hjá.

I have to admit that the example sentence is written in a confusing manner and sounds clumsy. Still, I wanted to show you a technically correct sentence with as many prepositions that can be translated exactly the same way – as “with” – while also having a different meaning in the context, and this is the best I could come up with. By the way, “og” can occasionally also be translated as “with” although it’s not a preposition at all! Translating the example sentence as “I’d like to talk with you with you with then I’d like to talk with you on stage” makes even less sense than the translator’s attempt, so let’s look at what’s actually going on here.


Easiest one to pull apart from the confusion is, of course, og. It means “and” and works like the English “with” does when it’s used instead of “and”. This means that in the grand majority of times when you see og it’s almost always translatable only as “and”, therefore just thinking of it as an “and” is your easy shortcut to understanding what type of a “with” it is. As mentioned it’s not a preposition, I’m only adding it here for curiousity value. ;)

with2Haraldur er hjá Hálfdani.


Moving towards the more difficult ones, hjá comes next. Hjá demands that the next word is in þágufall (= dative) and most commonly it translates as “at”, although “with” is also a possibility f.ex. in “að sofa hjá” (= to sleep with, to have sex with). To define it means “at” as being next to/beside something that’s not a living thing: ég er núna hjá Hörpu (= right now I’m beside the concert hall Harpa).

There are even more translation possibilities and not all of them deal with inanimate objects, for example “miðar eru seldir hjá kórfélögum” means “tickets are sold by choir members” and “(að vera) hjá Hulda/Valdísi/Gunnlaugi” means being at these people’s apartments, not just hanging out with them or even being in their presence  (they don’t necessarily even have to be with you). “Hvað er númerið hjá neyðarlínunni?” (= What’s the number for emergency line?), Hann býr hjá henni (= He lives at her place, as in right there with her and not f.ex. next door to her). Hjá is also used as a forskeyti (= prefix) in words such as hjáleið (= detour) and hjákona (= mistress).

Well, now we have narrowed the example sentence down to “I’d like to talk with you at your place and then I’d like to talk with you.” Still a bit confusing but at least it’s beginning to make sense now, so let’s see the difference between við and með.

with1Haraldur talar við Hálfdan.


First of all, if you already know a Scandinavian language now’s a good time to forget everything you know of similar sounding prepositions in that language. Icelandic is that one special snowflake in the Germanic language family that does things differently and this has caused me much confusion along the way.

Við tends more towards þolfall (= accusative) but þágufall happens f.ex. with the verb að taka (= to take), if the meaning in context is “to receive” -”Ég talaði ekki við hana en ég tók við peningum af henni” (= I didn’t talk with her but I accepted/took the (offered) money from her, notice the first við governs þolfall and the second þágufall). Þágufall is also used if you’re talking about a reaction to something, f.ex. “Hvernig brást hann við því?” (= How did he react to that?)

As its most common usage við is another way of saying “at” such as in “við hliðina á (right next to sth/at the side of place X). It can also mean “by” – ég ætla að biða við bílinn (= I’m planning to wait by the car).  If you see a við next to a verb, pay special attention because it sometimes changes the meaning of the verb: “að gera við” actually means “to fix”, “að líka við” means to like – líka here is a borrowed word from English, actually.  If you see a combination “leitast við” it does not mean “search at” but “to try” in formal speech. “Eiga við” can mean “to tamper/fiddle with” and so forth.

Here’s the super bad news for you: there is no rule to using við, you have to learn each situation that it appears in by heart. This will be your life-long battle if Icelandic is not your mother tongue, but on the upside this is what makes studying languages so interesting that if you’re already here reading this blog and wanting to learn Icelandic you’re probably both aware of it and are ok with it. The pay for the work is in the work itself for those who have a passion for languages. :)

with3Haraldur talar með Hálfdani upp á sviði.


Með, on the other hand, really does tend to translate as “with” in most of the cases although it, too has nuances depending on the situation. If you’re hanging out with someone the correct preposition to use indeed is með, and it tends to apply to all living things that you might be with. However, it’s also a crucial part of some verbs – “að vera með” (= to have, in the meaning that you’re carrying something with or on yourself) comes to mind as the most obvious example! This verb is important to get right by the way, I’ve written about it and the other two ways of saying “to have” here.

Með is one of those prepositions that doesn’t strictly govern any case, although þágufall is more common. There’s one important difference though – if you’re using it to describe with what item you did what, such as “með hamri” (= with a hammer) you’re likelier to use þágufall, but if you use it in the að vera með form you should use þolfall.

So what’s the deal with the example sentence?

In many cases the prepositions simply have a defined meaning depending on the verb they appear with, and that is the case of tala við vs. tala með. “Að tala við einhvern/einhverja” means that you’re having a discussion with someone, as in you are talking with them and (hopefully) listening to their input creating a dialogue. If you were to use “að tala með einhverjum/einhverri“… well, it’s almost entirely incorrect in Icelandic. It doesn’t make sense on its own without some addition to it that explains the weird choice of preposition, such as “upp á sviði” that I’ve used here. The nuance meaning within tala með is that although you’re talking with them your talking partner is not your audience. You two may bey talking together but you’re not talking to each other.

Confusing enough? :D If we now look at the original example sentence again the meaning should come easily through: “I’d like to have a discussion with you, at your place, and then I’d like to deliver a talk with you on stage.”


hulda078Hulda recommends music

Today I’m going to recommend one song instead of a band, because it fits the theme of today’s post so well and is an excellent study piece for how the prepositions work in practice: Sálin Hans Jóns Míns is the band and song is called Hjá þér (link).

The images used in this blog post are originally from Flateyjarbók. Sources: 1, 2.