Icelandic horses for courses and… courses.

Posted on 17. Jul, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history


Question and answer time! During the last month you’ve asked the Icelandic blog, via both the e-mail and the comments section, a couple of interesting questions that I’ll try to answer today.

First a question was about horses: what are all the different words that mean horse in Icelandic?

The most obvious one is hestur of course, but that’s only the most generic term and it’s not used f.ex. to describe horse meat (comparable to how English uses beef and pork instead of cow and pig).

Hross is another word that can either mean a horse or horse meat. Then there are words that specify something about the animal you’re talking about. Foli is a stud, hryssa and meri both mean a mare. If speaking of a mare it’s a bit more common to use meri than hestur, though both words do work for the same animal. Folald is a foal, hestfolald is a male foal, and a bit confusingly a folaldsmeri is not a female foal but a mare with a foal. Since horses are commonly eaten in Iceland you may well profit from knowing these extra words, all depending on whether or not you personally are willing to eat them. If not, say neigh to hrossakjöt and folaldakjöt!

…I am so sorry about how bad that pun was.

Icelanders and their horses go back such a long time that you’ll find them in the strangest situations. Kinnhestur (lit. transl. cheek horse) means a slap in the face for example, and if you come across sævar hestur (= horse of the sea) in old texts you’re actually reading about a ship.



Second question was about the usage of það as a pro-form.

1. An example of the pro-form usage of það where it substitutes a whole sentence could be f.ex.

Arna segir að þú hittir Guðrúnu í gær og kallaðir hestinn hennar ljótan.” (= Arna says you met Guðrún yesterday and called her horse ugly.)

Segir hún það? Í alvöru? Ég sagði ekkert slíkt.” (= She says that? Really? I said nothing of the sort.)

Já, en hún segir að þú hafir sagt það.” (=Yes, but she says that you have said that.)

As you can see it’s very similar to English and the point is to avoid repeating a whole sentence. Funnily though the Icelandic way of using pro-forms is a bit illogical at times if we take a pro-form to mean substituting something – it can occasionally be simply added to a sentence without it actually standing in for something else.


2. Example of a pro-form used to tandem a subject:

Það er folaldakjöt í ísskapnum. (= There’s foal meat in the fridge, lit. transl. That is foal meat in the fridge.)

Note though that if the word order is reversed það falls out: í ísskápnum er folaldakjöt.

3. Occasionally það also pretends to be a subject though it’s not. This mainly happens when talking about the weather.

Það verður sólskin í dag. (= It’s going to be sunny today.)

Það var rok og rigning allan daginn. (= It was windy and rainy all day long.)

Likewise, if changing the word order you’ll drop the það: allan daginn var rok og rigning.

These are the three most typical examples of the usage of það as a pro-form, there are more cases that are similar but bleed into demonstrative/are demonstrative instead. They might need a whole blog post of their own.


Facts about the Icelandic horse

- Though Icelandic horse is said to have five gaits it’s more correct to say that they have 4-6 depending on the horse. This is because in Iceland canter and gallop are considered to be the same thing, so the first three gaits – fet (= walk), brokk (= trot) and stökk (= canter/gallop) are actually four, and the latter two, tölt (= tölt) and skeið (= pace), don’t appear in every horse. Those that can do all gaits are valued highly, those that cannot… are valued highly too, on the dinner table.

- When Icelanders took Christianity as the main religion it was on condition that they’d still be allowed to eat horse meat.

- In fact there’s even a joke that goes “Hestur, hinn ljúffengi fararskjótur“: Horse, what a delicious vehicle.

- It’s a mystery why only Icelandic horses can tölt, but one theory is that tölting was deliberately bred out of horses in general because it’s not a suitable gait for pulling carts. Iceland, lacking proper roads for most of its existence, had no use for cart-pulling on the same scale to f.ex. Europe, but it did have many uses for sure-footed horses that had a pleasant and fast gait option.

- Icelandic horses have 40 base colours and hundreds of names for colour combinations. The most common base colours are red and brown. Some colours are favoured whereas others are unwanted, and some breeders even concentrate on breeding their horses to favourable colours.

- No horses are allowed to enter Iceland. If an Icelandic horse is taken out of the country it cannot be brought back.

- Many breeders concentrate on fiery temperament because competitions are serious business over here. As a result the companies that offer tourists riding tours are trying hard to get their hands on the calmer ones because nothing is a worse combination than a feisty Icelandic horse carrying an inexperienced rider on a mountain side!

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How to pronounce horse in all its forms.

Reykjavík calling: we’re on fire (again).

Posted on 11. Jul, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs


Hi all, it’s been quite an insanely busy and action-packed week, not to mention a small injury in the family has momentarily made a nurse out of me (although hopefully if you ever need a nurse it will be someone with better handling skills). We’re doing fine at the moment despite all my best efforts at taking care of the patient, so let’s get to the hot topic of the week.

Indeed, fire. The first one in the news was a dry cleaner’s place that, alas, burned down to the ground and is now called one of the worst fires in the history of Iceland (link). It’s quite near from where we live in fact and actually the first I knew of the fire was someone who lives in the same area complaining about the smell of smoke on FB.



Yup… quite near our place.

I immediately went outside to investigate and when I saw the cloud there could be no mistaking the conical shape of it, touching the ground in Skeifan shopping area like a very stationary tornado: something was burning and it wasn’t a small affair either.

There was plenty of luck involved in that only one building burned down. From the aerial videos you can tell the nearby buildings’ roofs were in danger and what’s worse, there were plenty of people in the area with the poisonous fumes and possibility of explosions making everything just a little bit more serious. Before you ask, no, those people didn’t just chance to be there. The moment Icelanders realized something unusual was going on they packed the whole family in the car and drove over to have a good look at it. Police pleading that everyone stay out of the way of the firefighters had little effect, in fact people were even trying to sneak behind the yellow police lines to get “the selfie of a lifetime” (link to the general mayhem).

But hey, at least the local hot dog stand made unusually good business that night (link)!

Links to more articles concerning the fire:

Fire in Reykjavík: Millions in Damage And Not the First Time (link)(article in English, lots of videos included)

Magnaðar myndir: gífurlegt tjón er Skeifan 11 brann (link)(= Great photos: untold damage when Skeifan 11 burned, in Icelandic but with lots of photos just like the title says)

Skeifan daginn eftir (link)(= Skeifan the next day, a video in Icelandic)

Frábær tækifæri til uppbyggingar í Skeifunni (link)(= Wonderful opportunity for re-building Skeifan, article in Icelandic)



Driving in a volcanic ash cloud during the Grímsfjall eruption.


Another burning topic of the day is Katla, the overdue volcano that’s been shaking for quite a while now. Don’t worry though, there’s not necessarily an eruption going to happen any time soon, but what has recently happened is another jökulhlaup, a glacier flood. Tourists and locals alike are being asked to stay far away from the flood water as it can carry along poisonous gas, not to mention the flood itself is of course dangerous on its own due to its unpredictable nature.

Has this stopped anyone? Hah, NO. If anything it has only drawn more people to the area, especially tourists.

Links to articles concerning the situation at Katla:

Experts: Katla Not Erupting But Stay Away (link)(article in English)

Seriously, Stay Away from Katla (link)(article in English)

Fara að Sólheimajökli þrátt fyrir viðvörun (link)(= Going to Sólheimajökull despite the warning, article in Icelandic)

Viðvaranir gera Kötlu bara meira spennandi (link)(= Warnings just make Katla more exciting, article in Icelandic)


Fire vocabulary:

Eldur = fire. However, a fire that has a known location is brenna, a burning. Brenna also translates as bonfire/pyre as in áramótabrenna (= New Year’s bonfire) and bókabrenna (= book burning).

This is a massively useful word to know because once you know it it’ll be easy to broaden your vocabulary with all the related- and compound words it’s in. Að elda mat = to cook food, eldhús = kitchen (because once upon a time the room with the fire literally was used for making food), eldfjall = volcano and eldfljótur = very fast, lit. transl. quick as fire. It’s also used as a way of stressing certain adjectives such as eldgamall = very old and eldforn = ancient.

Að brenna = to burn, to be on fire. Although it’s usually used similarly to its English counterpart the difference is that it’s somewhat harder to use it to say something burned you – it’s always you who burn yourself on something when it comes to Icelandic. Therefore whenever you get burned, be it by fire, stove or sun, you have to include “ég brennti mig í…” (= I burned myself by/with/in…) Another good reason to avoid trusting online translation too much – “það brennur” does not actually mean “it burns/it’s very hot”, it means “it’s on fire”.

Brenna is another great word because when you see it you know it’s got something to do with burning of some kind: brennihár = nettle hairs (can also mean other stinging plants), brennigler = magnifying lens you can use to light a fire, brennivín = Icelandic vodka, lit. transl. “burning wine” and so forth.

Bruni =fire/burning. Not to be confused with brunnur (= well, fountain).

Eldsvoði = lit. transl. fire danger: a big fire, a house on fire. Cannot be used for any small fire or fire that’s under control.

Að kveikja = to start a fire, to turn on the light. Another word from the era where the only source of light was fire.

Að loga =to lighten surroundings, to burn. Lampinn logar = the lamp is lit/spreading light. Logandi can also be used to stress adjectives’ meaning in a similar way to eld-: logandi falleg = extremely beautiful. You can also find it in fari það í logandi = that can go to hell, lit. transl. may that burn.


Hiding in plain sight: Snæfellsnes.

Posted on 30. Jun, 2014 by in Icelandic culture

snpanorama2On a clear day you can see Snæfellsnes all the way to Reykjavík. This is not because the clean Icelandic air or the brightness of the midnight sun allowing you to see forever, it’s just really close to the capital city!

I’m not even joking here, one day is all you need to drive to Snæfellsnes, go all around the peninsula, visit all the possible sights you can find and return to Reykjavík in the evening. Granted you should probably leave early in the morning because there’s so much to see, and if you’re not in a hurry you might consider staying a night just to be sure you haven’t missed anything on the way. We took the latter option and made our stay there a weekend long.

sn038The peninsula is not that hard to find either. You’ll be greeted by Snæfellsjökull (= snow mountain glacier) well in advance and especially on sunny days it’s clear why it’s called the most beautiful glacier of all Iceland. It really is a breathtaking sight! It’s possible to go up the side of the mountain to the glacier itself, but preferably be on a jeep because the road’s condition can vary (it’s a dirt road).

Driving directions from Reykjavík to Snæfellsnes: take road 1 north and turn left to road 54 right after Borgarnes. Drive on until there!

sn033One of the first sights you’ll come across is the Ölkelda (= beer spring). Despite the promising name you won’t actually get beer from it, rather sparkling water. That’s right, a natural carbonated water spring! The water has some notable health benefits if you don’t mind the iron taste… there’s a reason why the ground all around it is stained a dramatic shade of rust red.

sn049Rauðfeldsgjá (= the gorge of Rauðfeldur) is a must-see. It’s possible to climb up the mountain through this huge crack in it. I’ve never made it all the way to the top but I’ve gone a little way inside where a small stream flows through the bottom of the gorge.

sn056The view from the top. It’s a small trek uphill before you get to the place, don’t forget to set a rock on a varða on the way!

Rauðfeldsgjá takes its name from a local legend of a part-troll, part-giant, mostly-human Bárdur Snæfellsás (= Bárður snow mountain’s god) who’s said to inhabit the area. He’s described as a tall man wearing all gray with a rope around his waist, helpful to humans who are lost, and the protector of Snæfellsnes.

Alas, he’s also temperamental. Rauðfeldur was the son of Bárður’s brother: one day Rauðfeldur and his brother were playing with Helga, Bárður’s daughter, and playfully pushed her on an iceberg that floated away. Bárður became so enraged he killed both of his brothers sons, throwing Rauðfeldur down this gorge – and that’s where the name comes from.

sn063Here’s a statue depicting Bárður. According to the legend he easily bested Þór himself when his friend was in danger of being killed by him. On the other hand Bárður had his dark side all his life, his saga ends with him poking his own son’s eyes out as a punishment for converting to Christianity and then disappearing to the glacier where he’s said to live in a cave to this very day.

sn067You’ll find both the statue and this view in Arnarstapi. If you decide to stay the night this is one good option: lots of local legends, a whole library of Snæfellsnes -related stories, the beach at Hraunlandahrif (there are several walking routes) and what my hot dog loving friend describes as “the best hot dogs in the world, gold star”.

sn080A little bit further you’ll arrive at Akrar and a small but massively popular cafe called Fjöruhúsið (= tide house). On sunny days it will be so full it’s hard to find a seat but personally I’d be prepared to sit on their staircase just to get to eat their homebaked bread.

sn089Next stop: more trolls! Lóndrangar formations are a stone’s throw away from the cafe. A famous site for trolls and a poet who bested the devil.

sn110Prepare your heart in advance, Snæfellsnes is so full of beauty it’s hard to decide where to stop and where not.

sn122A lazy cloud entering a valley.

After this we ended our sightseeing for the day and drove around the peninsula to Stykkishólmur. Even there you’ll find plenty of things to see, for example the volcanic museum, and definitely don’t miss the restaurants. It’s a fishing town so the food tends to be the freshest catch of the day and the portions are huge.

I recommend the camping site as well. It’s well equipped and within walking distance to Stykkishólmur with the only minus being that the ground is really hard and pitching a tent takes some time, foul language and ape-rage.

sn124The next day we retreated our steps backwards. This is the view at Búlandshöfði (= farmland’s head) with Snæfellsjökull peeking over the morning clouds.

sn126I could literally have climbed into a cloud myself here!

sn111The new road of Búlandshöfði opened 26. November 1999.

The road at Búlandshöfði was for ages one of the most ill-famed roads of Iceland. It was most dangerous here at Þrælaskríða where the road lay at 111 m height. Below the road is a 80 m tall vertical drop (standberg = vertical stone wall) to the beach.

There’s a story of an incident that happened here a long time ago. Kristín was the name of a servant woman in Eyrarsveit who was sent to drive sheep over the Höfði in the early spring. The sun had began to thaw the snow (= sólbráð) and the road was very slippery with ice (= mikil hálka). Suddenly one of the sheep began to fall. Kristín managed to grab the sheep and they both slid down the side of the road and couldn’t stop until the very edge of the cliff. Kristín held onto the sheep with all her might and could not move at all, because she didn’t want to lose what had been trusted to her. Long time after a man called Samson happened by. He heard Kristína’s pitiful voice and saw what had happened. He managed to lower himself to them with a rope and saved them both. It was at the last moment because Kristín was by then almost out of strength (= að þrotum komin).

May such loyalty, kindness and helpfulness as was described in this story be a sign of the friendliness and cooperation of the people who live in Snæfellsnes.

sn129Our next stop was at the farthest end of the peninsula: crossing over Neshraun we visited two famous lighthouses. The road is good at first but turns into a hell of potholes in the end, large rocks and soft, sandy edges so reconsider if you’re going on a small car – we made one stop on the way to help push some tourists back on the road.

sn140The ruins of a house. This was the windiest place I’ve ever been to, gloomy and barren aside of this one spot of wet grass land… not an ideal place to live.

sn219We also stopped at Skarðsvík (= gap ness)! For the medieval history buffs this place is probably already old news, it’s a home to several rich grave finds that date to the viking era. Definitely worth a visit, the road is in excellent condition all the way here (the moon land begins a bit further along the road) and the beach…

sn209…with the turquoise ocean, the red-white sand and the black lava cliffs and stone formations is something you shouldn’t miss.

sn218Black sand vs. red-white sand.

sn239We wanted to drive over the mountain range that lies in the middle of the peninsula so we went back past Ólafsvík and turned right to the road 54. I can totally recommend this route – the scenery is amazing!

sn244We also found this house sitting there on top of the mountain all alone. The SO suspected it would be a place where hikers can stay a night while they’re crossing over the mountain.

sn250He was right! The shelves on both sides of the table are meant for sleeping and there was a place where you can cook your food near the door.

sn256Vinsamlega gangið snyrtilega um húsið” = Please be tidy while using this house.

Continuing we drove the remainder of the road south, turned our backs to the glacier and began our way back home. Snæfellsnes is one of my favourite places in all Iceland and it was sad to leave, but at least I can console myself with the thought that it’s so near I can come back any time.

sn072Bye bye Bárður, we had a great time!

Previous posts in this series:

Seltjarnarnes lighthouse * secrets of the Hallgrímskirkja neighbourhood * Hvalfjörður and Glymur *