Despite commonly using the Gregorian calendar just like everybody else, Icelanders still note certain parts of the year according to their old one, Norræna tímatalið, often called Germanic calendar in English. It divides the year into winter and summer, both of which have six months, and many of the most traditional Icelandic celebrations follow and get their names from this calendar.
The month we’re currently living is the seventh month of the year and it’s called Harpa. It begins always on the next Thursday after April 18th. The first day of Harpa is always a national holiday so be prepared in case you’re travelling in Iceland during April, many shops may be closed and busses run on Sunday schedules.
No one knows for certain where the name Harpa comes from. Suggestions have so far included a goddess so old she’s forgotten, the allegorical harp of spring or even simply the word herpingur (retraction). I don’t quite buy the goddess theory, namely because it’s not the first name people used of the first summer month. In Snorra-Edda (Prose Edda/Snorri’s Edda) it was called Gaukmánuður instead and by the time Snorra-Edda was written Iceland was already officially a Christian country. There’s also a legend that Harpa is the daughter of Þorri and Góa but this one dates to the 19th century.
Interesting fact about Sumardagurinn fyrsti is that it used to be the annual gift giving season. Long before Christmas took its place Icelanders gave each other sumargjafir, summer presents!
Skerpla follows Harpa and begins on Saturday on the fifth week of summer. The origin of its name is also unclear but it’s believed to refer to growth, maybe after the word skerpa that can be translated as “vigour” and ” to increase”. There’s another goddess theory linked to Skerpla but I don’t quite buy that one either – in Snorra-Edda we find that another, older name for this month was actually either Eggtíð (egg time) or Stekktíð.
Sólmánuður, the next summer month, always begins on a Monday on the ninth week of summer. Its name is rather easy to explain – it’s the summer month. In Snorra-Edda this month was called Selmánuður (seal month) instead.
Heyannir marks the midsummer and always begins on a Sunday after aukanætur, “additional nights”, that are four nights in the 13th week of summer and always begin on Wednesday. Heyannir refers to hay season but in fact it may also have been called Miðsumar once upon a time, literally midsummer.
Tvímánuður begins on a Tuesday on the 18th week of summer. The name likely means that there are now only two more months of summer left.
Gormánuður is the first month of both winter and the year as well and it always begins on Saturday between the 21.-27. October nowadays. It’s name refers to the time when animals were slaughtered and prepared for the long, harsh winter. The word gor means half-digested hay.
Ýlir begins on the fifth week of winter and on a Monday. It’s name is again one of those that are unclear in origin, but it has been suggested it refers to jól, Yule.
Mörsugur, the third month, begins on a Wednesday on the ninth week of winter. This month has also been called jólmánuður (Yule month) and hrútmánuður (ram month). Origin of the name unclear, Gísli Jónsson nevertheless suggests it’s referring to the word mörinn, a layer of fat under an animal’s skin.
Þorri is probably one of the most known of the Icelandic months since it’s celebrated with huge feasts of traditional Icelandic cuisine to this day. The name has been suggested to mean several things but one popular theory is that it’s been a celebration of the god Þorri (not to be confused with Ása-Þór, Thor), a god of frost.
If you’re lucky you may be invited over to a Þorrablót, a feast held during this month, but since most of them are private you would need to know some locals to be able to partake. Some restaurants, however, have a Þorri menu nowadays. Just be warned that it’s going to mean lots of food that’s – er – to put it politely, acquired taste due to the process of lactose curing that was widely used to preserve meat in the old days. Dishes include for example hákarl (cured/rotten shark), hrútspungar (pressed ram testicles) and hvalspík (pickled whale blubber). However, there will be some very tasty foods as well and plenty of Svarti Dauði brennivín (Black Death vodka).
Góa begins on a Sunday on the 18th week of winter. Góa, like Þorri, was a figure of winter, either a goddess or an allegory or perhaps first one and later the other. She was first considered the daughter of Þorri but later on the legend changed and she became his wife instead.
Einmánuður is the last month of winter as the name suggests. It begins on a Tuesday on the 22nd week of winter.
Have a great summer, everyone! If an old Icelandic belief that winter and summer blending together* is a good sign is to be believed this ought to become a wonderful year.
*This means cold temperatures, even frost, during the night right before Sumardagurinn fyrsti. In old times people even set a bowl of water outside for the night to see “how thick a layer of cream there would be on milk the following year”.