The coat of arms of Iceland – monsters ahoy!

Posted on 05. Mar, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

Coat of Arms of Iceland at Wikimedia Commons.

In Medieval times Icelandic noblemen had their own coat of arms assigned to them by the ruler of the time, King of Norway, but today no Icelander is allowed to carry a personal heraldic symbol. No, not even if they can prove a family connection to the early nobles of Iceland (which, considering how small the gene pool of Iceland is, would probably make nobles out of a surprisingly large part of population anyway). There is however the national coat of arms which is considered an official symbol of Iceland.

The rules, they are so few

The reason behind the lack of coat of arms is that nobility was actually abolished in Iceland in 1660 and no office for the heraldic symbols exists here today. The national symbol of Iceland is therefore not exactly the same as coat of arms of countries usually are, it’s more like akin to a graphic design. The only rules about the appearance are:

1) The actual coat of arms is the shield in the centre filled entirely by the Icelandic flag and has to have correct proportions and colours. The cross symbolizes Christianity and the three colours are taken from the nature of Iceland: red for lava, white for glaciers and blue for the distant mountains (not sky or sea as occasionally claimed).

2) If bearers are added the shield must stand on a base of columnal basalt.

3) The bearers are the four main landvættir (= land spirits) of Iceland : Griðungur (a huge, monstrous bull), Gammur (a predatory bird, occasionally also called a griffin or a vulture), Dreki (a poison-breathing dragon – Nordic dragons don’t breathe fire) and Bergrisi (a colossal troll or a giant, the very name means mountain-giant).


Coat of Arms of Iceland (13th Century) at Wikimedia Commons.

How did Iceland get its coat-of-arms?

Iceland started out as a commonwealth which may or may not have had a coat of arms to itself. There is one suggestion that it would have been 12 stripes of silver and blue, but this is indeed only a suggestion based on the stripy background of another coat of arms which appeared during Norway’s reign over Iceland. When Iceland became Denmark’s colony the old symbol bearing Norway’s lion was naturally scrapped and in its stead came the Þorskmerki, cod sign.


Iceland Stockfish coa at Wikimedia Commons.

At the beginning of the independence battle Icelanders found the Þorskmerki among the worst offenders and wanted to be rid of it. During the Danish reign Iceland was banned from trading with any other country which kept the island very, extremely poor, and dried cod was one major trade product sold to Denmark. That symbol of servitude under the crown had to go.


Coat of Arms Iceland (1904) at Wikimedia Commons.

The gyrfalcon came next. As a symbol of Iceland gyrfalcon dates back for centuries, because for a long time some of the best hunting falcons came from Iceland! They were even called “king’s treasure” hinting at their importance and value as a gift fit for a king. The falcon lasted for about ten years but was eventually replaced by a new one.

Skjaldarmerkivætta at Wikimedia Commons.

Now we’re getting close. On this coat of arms the landvættir made their appearance, though still under a crown. Once Iceland became fully independent the crown was removed and the coat of arms re-designed to better fit the new republic that had left its previous status as a colony under monarchy. As a curious fact there’s only one place where the Danish crown was not removed – from on top of Alþingishúsið (= parliament)! It’s still there because the house was considered a gift from the king and therefore leaving the crown was deemed acceptable.

Bárður the half-giant watching over his homestead.

The landvættir

There were actually way more land spirits than just these four, at least going by old Icelandic texts. For example it’s written in Úlfljótur’s Law that approaching one’s home shores with “grimacing heads” at the ship front was banned by law for fear of frightening the good land spirits away. Another well-known land spirit is Bárður of Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss.

As for these four… the story starts with king Harald Gormsson of Denmark and his witch, who was sent to scout Iceland’s strength in the form of a whale. However, whenever he tried to come on land he was immediately attacked by horrifying beasts. In Vopnafjörður at northeast a dragon breathed poison on him (Dreki), on the northwest shore in Eyjafjörður he met a giant bird, or a griffin (Gammur), southwest in Breiðafjörður he saw a huge bull (Griðungur) and southeast at Vikarsskeið a giant, bearing a huge staff of iron, attacked him. Each of these monsters were flanked by numerous other spirits and so, disheartened, the witch returned to the king with bad news: Iceland was protected too well.

hulda078Hulda recommends

Skálmöld has recently released a new album called Með Vættum (= with land spirits) that builds on the original lore of the big four. Like previously the album tells a story of one person, this time of the warrior Þórunn and of her dealings with the spirits. (link) Wholeheartedly recommended!

Non-binary pronouns in Icelandic.

Posted on 26. Feb, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic grammar

Icelandic grammar offers a gender neutral option for personal pronouns. Does that therefore mean that referring to non-binary people is easy and straight-forward?

Alas, no. Icelandic gender structure is very strict and merciless and the local non-binary folk have had to give this matter a great deal of thought. When the whole world of Icelandic language seems split into hann (M), hún (F) and það (N) it’s understandable if you’d think the neuter would work where the other two don’t, but that’s really not the case.

Who is non-binary?

Being non-binary simply means you don’t fall under male or female gender exactly. A non-binary person may be intersex with no strong preference to either one gender, agender, genderfluid or one of many other possibilities (link). Non-binary people are rare but they do exist up here as well so on an occasion you may have to use some other pronoun than hann or hún.


The existing neuter pronoun is very deceiving because you see it sometimes used for humans. Neuter words such as barn, -ið (= child) and fólk, -ið (= people) would have a foreigner think that the use of það would be much more flexible than the it-pronoun of English. It’s partially true – certainly calling any person an “it” rings badly in English while Icelanders ok it for those aforementioned cases – but when it comes to individuals the pronoun það should only be used if the person requests it of you. Never, ever assume that it’s a safe pronoun because it’s actually everything but.

Referring to a singular person as það will definitely raise eyebrows. The meaning that you’re getting across by using it is that you’re diminishing the person in question into some kind of a lifeless object, an absolute non-person, quite on par with calling someone an “it”. Það only works with the few already neuter human-referring words. If it helps you can think of the word fólk referring to a group/a people (even though the group is obviously made of human beings).

The rule of using barn is very blurry. The general guideline is that much like fólk, börn, -in (= children) is often used for a group of them. Barn, -ið is typically used when you know a child is involved in some topic but you don’t actually know the child in question very well. When your friend has a baby you’d use barn at least until name-giving. When you’re talking of an associate’s child you’ll be using barn as well. When you know the child in question or have some kind of connection with said child you’re far more likely to use their name rather than barn. It’s never wrong to use the word barn, however, so the rule is more of a guideline than an actual rule.

Outside of the grammatical use of það one should never, ever treat it as if it were a safe non-gender noun. The plural forms þau / þau / þeim / þeirra are totally fine though.

What to use instead?

With the lack of a suitable pronoun Icelanders had to come up with suggestions for a new one. The most popular ones are hán, and hín and they decline thus:

Hán / hán / háni / háns
Hé / hé / hé / hés
Hín / hín / híni / híns

However, for Icelanders this is only the start of their troubles. When the grand majority of the language declines in genders, how will you ever add an adjective to a non-gender pronoun? The answer is not as simple as just using neuter forms because like mentioned, they may bring along the idea of a lifeless object, so the topic is still under discussion.

All languages change with time and the decisions regarding non-gender pronouns and how the language should work with them is best left for those that it touches the most. Meanwhile we just have to wait and see how this will affect Icelandic and follow the newest developments. For a language learner all you need to know is that if someone asks you to use a non-gender pronoun it’s within the most basic rules of politeness to do so. As for the rest of the language, try your best but don’t panic: any mistakes with adjectives are very likely forgiven on the spot. Icelandic learners confuse gender declension all the time anyway so unless you’re really making a point of being rude no offense is taken.

More about the topic in Icelandic

Hán – nýtt persónunafn? (link)
Passar ekki inn í hefðbundnar kynjaskilgreiningar. (link)
Minningardagur intersexfólks. (link)
Hin þráláta kynjaskipting. (link)

Buns, explosions and ash.

Posted on 18. Feb, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

The SO’s mother makes some of the best bolla in town!

There are three days in February that are far more important than Valentine’s Day, at least if Icelanders are asked: the Bun Day, the Explosion Day and the Ash Day (also known as Ash Wednesday but with some Iceland-specific traditions and nowadays almost no religious meaning). Originally they were the days right before the Lent and although Icelanders have long since left out the fasting part, the habit of eating certain foods on these days in celebration of them remains.

Sandholt is a close second. They sometimes make smaller bolla just so you can try many different fillings!

Bolludagur , the Bun Day

The first one of the three is named after a seasonal treat that’s typically only available for a few days before and of course on the day itself: the vatndeigsbolla, filled buns. They can be filled with cream, fruit, berries, jam etc. and have a chocolate topping – or maybe caramel or royal icing, if that’s what you prefer.

Children prepare for the day by making colourful bolluvendir, decorated paper sticks, with which they’ll try to beat their parents – you read that right – while chanting “Bolla! Bolla!” If you manage to do this your parents are required to give you a bolla, or one for each hit you successfully land on them. In the past children tried to sneak upon their parents early in the morning while they were still asleep and defenseless, thus guaranteeing victory.

Soups of all kinds were a staple food in days of old, especially since ingredients such as salted meat and dry peas could be stored for a long time. This soup is from the Viking Festival though – alas, I devoured mine so fast this year I forgot to take a photo!

Sprengidagur, the Explosion Day

Although the name would have you believe it, no fireworks or other kind of actual explosions happen on this day. Instead you’re supposed to eat until you explode! The treat of the day is saltkjöt og baunir, yellow pea soup with salted meat. It can take hours to make which is why people nowadays rarely cook it on other times than the Sprengidagur. In the past however yellow pea soup with salted meat was quite an everyday dish.

The recipe for the pea soup may vary a little from family to family, but besides the peas and salted meat, potatoes, rutabaga and carrots are often added to the soup. Many other countries have similar types of soup for this day but whereas the typical pea soup has pork in it Icelanders use lamb instead. By the way, the Icelandic version of “Shave and a haircut, two bits” goes “Saltkjöt og baunir, túkall” (= salted meat and peas/beans, a two kronur coin).


On a candy hunt at the shopping centre Mjódd. Sometimes parents tag along and may even help drive the children from place to place.

Öskudagur, Ash Day

The most showy of all the days is the Icelandic Ash Wednesday. In the past people made small, decorated pouches for ash and tried to pin them onto each other’s coats but nowadays I haven’t seen anyone actually do it. Children still make the pouches though, you can see a few examples here.

Besides the ash pouches, Ash Day is a day for children to dress up in costumes! It’s a bit like Halloween, only the Icelandic version of it. Children will dress up and go from store to store singing songs and receiving candy from the shop owners. If you’re walking downtown or even in the suburbs you won’t miss the groups of children. The Icelandic flavour in this is that they indeed don’t make house calls – it’s businesses that they’re after.

It’s always a joyous occasion so naturally it makes the news. Here‘s a collection of the best costumes people have sent to Visir and here are the two daughters of Helgi Hjörvar, a politician, one dressed as Tauriel and the other one as Helgi himself. :D


Looking at me? by Hafsteinn Robertsson at

And now – the weather

This picture probably says it all, Iceland is dangerously windy in February. The jeep belongs to Björgunarsveitinn, the Icelandic voluntary rescue unit. Luckily no one was injured in the accident.

“Voru þeir í óveðursútkalli þegar jeppinn bókstaflega fauk út af veginum en mikið hvassviðri var á þessum slóðum í gærkvöldi.”

Lit. transl.:     [were     they     on     bad weather call     when     the jeep     literally     blew     out     of     the road     because     big     wind weather     was     at     this     area     in     last evening]

“They were called out on a matter caused by bad weather when the jeep literally blew off the road because of the strong winds that were around this area in the previous evening.”

I like using this sentence as a quick, bite-size Icelandic lecture on the word en: it usually translates as “but” but it can also be used in this way to link two sentences together, and is then usually translated as “because”.