Witchcraft in Iceland.

Posted on 17. Oct, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


Sheep bones that were used to predict the future.

As October is halfway done what better time to write a little about witches? Icelandic ones that is, so alas the pretty ladies riding brooms won’t come into picture. The grand majority of Icelandic witches were male and though female ones did exist and were even punished for witchcraft, fact is that of all of the 21 witches that were executed by burning 20 were male.

Note the wording though, because more than that were executed by other means all depending on the severity of the crime. A more typical way of execution for men was hanging and for women drowning, a punishment that was also used for women who became pregnant out of wedlock. If you visit Þingvellir you’ll see the drowning pool used for this purpose, and far as I’m aware most executions by burning also happened nearby. On the other hand people were often given milder punishments, especially if their suspected crimes had not been successfully proven, had had little effect on the planned victim or were otherwise correctable.

A tilberi, photo by Ben Sisto on Flickr.com.

What was then severe enough a reason to merit execution? For women the main thing would have been creating a milk-stealing tilberi, an unusual act of magic in that only women were capable of it. For men the matters were more varied. Causing someone’s death by magic was of course one, although nowadays many such cases seem to boil down to a witch causing a drunken row, being thrown out of the bar, cursing the bar owner who then falls off his horse and breaks his neck. Magic or an unfortunate coincidence in times when an untimely death was a far more common occurrence than now, who knows?

Another crime, even worse, was to create an afturganga of the uppvakningur -type (= a woken-up) and send it to destroy someone. Afturgöngur were ghosts that would follow their target until they had successfully killed them, or in some cases destroyed their sanity. To create one a witch would start by either finding a fresh corpse no one had noticed, or selecting a victim, killing them in some manner that often suggests making the victim aware they were being killed such as drowning them, bringing their body back to un-life and start giving it orders. The big risk in creating an afturganga was that if it ran out of people its maker had pointed out for it to destroy it would return to its master and kill him instead.


One of Iceland’s most famous afturganga, Djákninn á Myrká – although he most likely woke up all on his own!

Witches did not necessarily kill their victims every time someone angered them, not immediately at least. More typical was to simply make the target ill, possibly in a humiliating manner such as was the case with Jón Jónsson the younger who was said to have drawn fart runes against a woman. This was seen not only as public humiliation but also a sneaky attempt at her life, seeing how easily stomach problems could lead to death in the time.

Harming someone’s farm animals was definitely on the list of the worst offenses. Especially milk-giving animals, which is quite understandable considering what life was like in Iceland back in the day. Running out of food in the middle of the winter was one of the worst things that could have happened so although it doesn’t seem quite worth a death sentence now, your ordinary 1600’s Icelander would strongly agree with the punishment.

A magical stave, photo by Ben Sisto on Flickr.com.

Simply learning magic could on occasion be punishable by death, but let’s not forget that one of Iceland’s most-loved, legendary heroes was Sæmundur fróði Sigfússon, Sæmundur the Wise, a priest who had apparently learned his skills from none other than the devil himself! And though the records of criminals may include accusations of f.ex. rune-writing, the act itself was not punishable. Carving runes or magical staves was only considered evil if they were used to harm someone.

Did people ever file false accusations against each other? Oh yes they did. In fact Icelanders seem to have treated each witch accusation with suspect. An example can be made of Jón Jónsson and his father, also Jón Jónsson, who were both executed by burning. The accuser, pastor Jón Magnússon, was awarded their earthly belongings after the execution. He continued by suing the daughter of Jón Jónsson elder but this time the accused was found innocent and she eventually counter-sued, and was awarded the pastor’s belongings as compensation.

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Let me introduce you an archetype of and Icelandic witch, Galdra-Loftur or Loftur the Magician, a man who thoroughly sums up how Icelanders saw witches to be like. Ruthless, power-hungry and stopping at nothing to further his means, Galdra-Loftur is one of the most famous examples – but we’ll return to his story next week in full detail!


Meanwhile why not read more creepy stuff about Iceland?

Draugasetrið, the haunted ghost museum. A museum that reputedly has ghosts; you’re allowed to try sleeping one night in a haunted area but so far no one’s lasted through a night.

The moon is shining, the dead man’s riding. The story of the horseman whose photo you saw in this post, a man who couldn’t let go of his love.

The heartbroken girl who became a legend. A similar, although scarier story of a woman who couldn’t let go of hers… and she was a real person, not just a ghost story.

Sunny with a hint of poisonous gas.

Posted on 09. Oct, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

Volcanic eruption in Holuhraun – Iceland, by Sparkle Motion on Flickr.com.

The whole capital city region has been engulfed in a sulfur dioxide cloud since Monday, and it seems to go on for at least until the wind changes direction. Yes, the volcanic eruption is still going on. The world may have forgotten it by now but a volcano does not care about whether it’s being watched or not, it has quietly scaled itself on VEI5 level and is now comparable to the eruption of St. Helens (link).

Indeed, these last few days the volcano has been much in the news. An eruption below Vatnajökull is still discussed as a possibility due to the continuing seismic activity and the top of the ice having sunk noticeably, although everyone of course hopes that won’t happen. Last time an eruption occurred below the glacier at Grímsvatn large clouds of ash polluted the drinking water in all of the nearby areas – and an eruption of this scale is not a laughing matter. You can see the area that would be hit the worst here.

As for the sulfur dioxide there’s nothing much that needs to be done while it stays below hazardous levels. People who are in any of the risk groups – elderly, ill or with lung-related problems – are advised to stay indoors as much as possible but for the majority of people life just goes on as normal (link). We’re following the moves of the sulfur dioxide cloud here.

But not all’s bad news about the volcano – Eric Cheng managed to get an amazing view at it! You can see the resulting film and Eric himself explaining some things behind the scenes here. Besides, the sunsets and dawns, though always beautiful, have turned rather unusually so in the last few days (link)(link).

Holuhraun by Sparkle Motion on Flickr.com.

Holuhraun by Sparkle Motion on Flickr.com.

Big horses, big fish, an unkindness of ravens

Another theme for the most recent news have been animals and the weather in general. Icelandic horses, for example, have grown taller. This article mentions that the average height of an Icelandic horse has grown for about 12cm is the last 20 years. Watch out world, they’re catching up in size! :D

Meanwhile Eysteinn Örn Garðarsson has had some serious fishing luck by catching a cod weighing 50kg! The Atlantic cod can grow to over 90kg at best but this is still one huge fish. Eysteinn himself says that in all his 16 years fishing this is by far the largest that he’s seen. You can have a look at his catch here and compare its size to the man who caught it.

Ravens, though usually well-liked, do have some well-earned enemies: the sheep farmers. The story of how the ravens killed a lamb is a little gory so you may or may not want to read more about it, but what makes this news truly Icelandic is the farmers first reaction when he saw what they had done… he composed a poem about them.

Hrafn á að hengja og skjóta,
höggva, stinga og brjóta.
Það er ekkert rugl,
þetta er andstyggðarfugl,
með söguna svarta og ljóta.

Raven should be hung and shot,
beaten, pierced and broken.
This is not nonsense,
it’s an abominable bird,
with history black and ugly.


And now – the weather

We also had snow (link). People were of course very excited and social media sites were flooded with photos of this strange phenomena, although in all honesty it’s typical for Iceland that you see some snow in early October. It usually won’t last long, but although it happens almost every year it still manages to surprise everyone. :D

In fact the winter used to fall in much earlier just a few years ago, and the real anomaly has been the general warmth of the most recent ones. As a Finn I’m not going to judge people too harshly though – in my home country people get surprised by the fact that ice is slippery each winter, causing accidents left and right…

But back to Iceland, I’ve been saving the even more typical autumn weather phenomena until last. Have you ever seen a waterfall fall sideways? We do, on what Icelanders describe as slightly breezy days such as this one (there’s also a video of a sideways waterfall in the link). Autumns in Iceland are dark, rainy and windy, storm warnings are the norm and when Icelanders warn about a storm it means business. A storm here can mean winds so strong they strip asphalt off the roads, tear off roofs and topple cars. If, for some reason, you’d like to travel in Iceland during the autumn, keep an eye on weather forecasts. Búist er við stormi (= a storm is expected) in particular is the sentence you want to look out for, especially if it’s followed with ekkert ferðaveður (= no traveling weather/not a good weather for driving around). Even if it goes against your plans, do not drive out of towns and into the countryside on those days. Trust me, it’s a bad, bad idea.

This has been one interesting week in the news in Iceland, let’s hope the nature will settle down a bit by Halloween!

The reliable rhubarb.

Posted on 30. Sep, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history

Rhubarb stalks by kahvikisu at Flickr.com.

Last week’s Recipe for Marital Bliss reminded me again of something very Icelandic – rabarbari or tröllasúra (= trolls’ sour), rhubarb. While it does not originate in Iceland and in fact arrived here comparatively late (from Denmark and at the end of the 1800’s) Icelanders really took a liking to it. And why not – it’s one of the rare few garden plants that actually thrives in Icelandic climate with ease, requires almost no attention at all and yields several crops per summer; rhubarb became quite a multipurpose plant over here. Besides the obvious uses in bakery products, jellies and syrups, rhubarb has also been used as a dye and a mild poison for fighting insects.

Its quickly spread popularity did not mean it was a highly valued food item though, quite the opposite. It reminds me of the popularity of apples in Finland: though nearly every house has an apple tree and they’re a steady part of the cuisine they’re not actually considered special at all, simply because they’re everywhere!

Icelanders of old preferred meat to vegetables any day, and rhubarb was something people ate because, well, meat was expensive, few plants could grow here but you still have to eat something at least. This occasionally lead to sad misunderstandings because people who got more vitamins from their food tended to be healthier than those who didn’t, and one of our professors told us a story of a woman being accused of stealing sheep based on this. She was a widow and much too poor to actually buy meat, or own sheep of her own, yet her children were considered “suspiciously beautiful”. This coupled with a sheep or two going missing lead people to suspect her of theft… but what did she have to say as her defense?

She had not fed them meat at all, only basic food and a lot of rhubarb.

Young rhubarb by Miika Silfverberg at Flickr.com.

Our professor didn’t know how the story ended, alas, but fact is that sometimes sheep can die during the summer and because they roam free during that time it can go unnoticed for a while. Another fact is that rhubarb really did grow everywhere. Icelanders grow many types of rhubarb – the botanical garden alone has 16 types to display – and on occasion they can even be found growing wild.

Nowadays rhubarb is mostly a sweet treat rather than a staple of diet. It plays an important role in many cakes and pies such as randalín (here) and the last week’s hjónabandssæla, and though many recipes give another option for filling rhubarb is still the “right” one, the flavour that the whole cake or pie is designed for. Prune jam randalín tastes slightly too sweet and hjónabandssæla with strawberry jam instead of rhubarb is too sour. Icelandic rhubarb is quite sweet, especially when the stalks are small, so sweet in fact that children eat them raw, dipped in sugar (link). There’s even types of candy that imitate rhubarb in both taste and looks.

Rhubarb from my garden by Kari Sullivan at Flickr.com.

Let’s not forget the other uses either while we honour this sturdy, generous and reliable plant. The leaves are poisonous but you don’t have to throw them away – you can use them to f.ex. dye natural fibres! You only need to cut them small, put into a pot of water, bring to boil and let simmer under a lid for an hour. Let cool and remove the leaves. Wet your fabric, place into dye and heat slowly, simmer under a lid for 30-50 min. Remove from dye bath and rinse well. The resulting colour is a shade of golden yellow to green, depending on the acidity of the mixture. You don’t need to fix the dye either since the acid in rhubarb itself does that already.

Or you can use it as a pesticide. For that you need 10-12 leaves of rhubarb, 4 tbsp organic soap and 5 litres of water. Put water and rhubarb into a pot, bring to boil and simmer under a lid for 3h. Remove leaves, add the soap while its still hot and mix well. Let cool and sprinkle on plants you want to protect against insects. This pesticide has even been used on trees, but you may need to sprinkle them twice.

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Did you know that actually the name “tröllasúra” is, at least technically speaking, more correct than “rabarbara” because the latter is a loan word? Yet no one really uses tröllasúra when they speak of rhubarb. There are a few more loan words like that in daily use that have a real Icelandic version as well – the video introduces some of them.


PS For those of you who have already studied Icelandic for some time I recommend Aðalheiður Marta Steindórsdóttir’s thesis called Tröllasúran trygga; rabarbari í íslenskri matargerð, the reliable rhubarb; rhubarb in Icelandic cuisine (link).