Réttir, the annual sheep roundup.

Posted on 10. Sep, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs


Lamb heart by stu_spivack at Flickr

Food is my favourite way of following how the seasons change. Earlier this week as I was grocery shopping I realized the early autumn was here, summer was now entirely over though some sunny days might still be in store for us, and that it was time to go get the warm clothes out and pack summer wear for storage. Fresh lamb hearts gave me the hint.

For the whole summer Icelandic sheep have been grazing in the wild, left to their own devices on mountains and meadows. Some sadly end up as road kill because Icelandic sheep bear an unfortunate combination of agility, speed and stupidity; if you see a sheep by the side of the road slow down. Do not expect that a sheep running away from the road won’t, at the last minute, do a quick 180° turn and leap majestically under your tires, killing themselves in process. Likewise if there’s a ewe on one side and lamb on the other you can bank on the lamb to dart across the road just as you’re almost passing them.

The sheep crashes are soon over though now that they’re all being brought in for the autumn. People already in Iceland, mark the oncoming weekends as a no-drive time, because especially on the countryside some roads will be entirely taken up by sheep and people on horses that are rounding them up and bringing them home. These groups can be surprisingly large as the main idea is that you bring everyone’s sheep in in one go, as many as you happen to find, the sorting happens later on.


Réttir by karawho at Flickr

Sheep sorting, or réttir, is a popular autumn “sport” and foreigners are warmly welcomed to partake! You’ll have to contact a farm first and ask them about it, but usually they’re only happy to have a few pairs of extra hands volunteering for help – food is normally provided for all workers and a party afterwards, but the actual work is no-pay. It’s also heavy work, you’ll get very tired, dirty and sweaty at it, so it’s good to choose your clothes with that in mind.

Here’s some schedules for this years réttir:

The whole country’s réttir according to the area here. (Icelandic)
South-Iceland réttir here. (English)

Réttir starts by bringing all the sheep to a round fence that’s also called a réttir. It has a round space in the middle and sections around it, each belonging to one farmer. The people working in the réttir catch sheep in the middle, check the ears for marks on whose sheep it is and then try to convince the sheep to walk to its own section, which they rarely are willing to do. A typical way is to throw one leg over the sheep’s back, grab it by the horns and try to steer it to a correct direction… well, that’s after you first catch it. 😀


Réttir by karawho at Flickr

Want to see a réttir in action? Here’s a few great videos!

Göngur og réttir í Helgafellssveit 2014 (roundup and sheep-sorting in Helgafellssveit 2014)(link).
Göngur og réttir í Vesturfjöllum (roundup and sheep-sorting in Vesturfjall)(link)
Gaman í réttunum. (fun at the sheep-sorting)(link)
Icelandic sheep roundup. (link)

Some sheep are already brought back, which means that now there’s fresh, cheap meat at grocery stores, especially the kind that you won’t see as much for the rest of the year like the aforementioned hearts. Sheep hearts are tender and have a mild flavour, fast to cook and don’t cost much. They’re also fast and easy to prepare: clean them first by removing extra fat and the big veins on top, cut open and wash thoroughly under cold water.


In fact, as an autumn theme I thought it’d be fun to share Icelandic recipes with you, dear readers! I’ll attach one to the end of each post, and although the first one may not be everyone’s favourite I’m sure there’ll be find something for everyone. The only situation where Icelandic recipes fail is vegan diet (Iceland is badly suited for agriculture, thus traditional diet relied on animal protein) but if it’s at all possible to create a recipe without using animal protein I’ll include those instructions as well. :)

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Lambahjörtu/ Lamb Hearts

2 msk olía (= 2 tbsp oil)
2 beikonsneiðar (= 2 slices of bacon)
1 laukur (= 1 onion)
3-4 lambahjörtu (= 3-4 lamb hearts)
3 msk hveiti (= 3 tbsp wheat flour)
salt eftir smekk  (salt according to taste)
nýmalaður pipar (= ground pepper)
1 dl tómatsósa (= 1 dl crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce)
1 dl rjómi (= 1 dl cream)

Skerið beikon, lauk og lambahjörtu í sneiðar. Hitið olíu á stórri pönnu og steikið beikon í 2 mín. Bætið þá við lauk og steikið í 2 mín.

(= Cut bacon, onion and lamb heart to pieces. Heat oil in a pan and fry bacon for 2 min. Add onion and fry for 2 min.)

Veltið hjörtum upp úr hveiti, saltið og kryddið með pipar. Bætið hjörtum á pönnuna og steikið í 2 mín. Bætið tómatsósu og rjóma á pönnuna og látið sjóða í 2 mín.

(= Roll the hearts in wheat flour, top with salt and pepper. Add hearts to pan and fry 2 min. Add tomato sauce and cream and let boil for 2 min.)

Sleep, you pig – scary Icelandic lullabies.

Posted on 03. Sep, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history


Let sleeping pigs lie by Peter Shanks at Flickr.com

Sofðu nú svínið þitt
svartur í augum
Farðu í fúlan pytt
fullan af draugum.

(= Sleep now you black-eyed pig, fall in a deep pit of ghosts.)

Lately this little lullaby has been popular on quite a few social media sites, gathering people’s attention simply by being a really horrible-sounding thing to sing to the little ones. Alas, it’s not real; it’s actually from the book Salka Valka by Halldór Laxness. Very few people have questioned the origin of the song though, not even Icelandic people. What’s going on?

Laxness was a clever satirist, and the scary poem does not in fact fall far from the style of traditional Icelandic lullabies! No one’s challenging his lullaby because it sounds so much like Icelandic lullabies in general do, probably exactly how he meant it to. Let’s look at some real ones next!


Photo taken at Árbæjarsafn, a museum of traditional Icelandic houses.

Bí, bí og blaka álftirnar kvaka. Ég læt sem ég sofi en samt mun ég vaka.

Bíum, bíum, bamba, börnin litlu ramba fram á fjallakamba ad leita sér lamba.

(= Bi, bi and blaka the swans sing. I pretend to sleep but I’m still awake.

Bium, bium, bamba, little children wander on the mountain cliffs in search of sheep.)

Starting with a softer one we have Bí, bí og blaka. It only starts to sound a little upsetting if you think the lyrics a bit further and wonder why children would be in such a perilous situation at night hours, and why does the singer state that although they seem as if they were asleep they’re actually awake?


Barnafoss by Ingeborg Breitfeld at Wikimedia Commons. This is where the next song was first sung at.

Continuing on the theme of children in peril we have Sofðu unga ástin mín.

Sofðu, unga ástin mín,
– úti regnið grætur.
Mamma geymir gullin þín,
gamla leggi og völuskrín.
Við skulum ekki vaka um dimmar nætur.

(= Sleep my little love – outside the rain is crying. Mother hides your treasures, old leg bone and box of playthings. We shall not stay awake when night is dark.)

Það er margt sem myrkrið veit,
– minn er hugur þungur.
Oft ég svarta sandinn leit
svíða grænan engireit.
Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur.

(= There’s much that darkness knows, my thoughts are heavy. Often I watched the black sand burning green meadows. On the glacier cry deadly-deep ice-cracks.)

Sofðu lengi, sofðu rótt,
seint mun bezt að vakna.
Mæðan kenna mun þér fljótt,
meðan hallar degi skjótt,
að mennirnir elska, missa, gráta og sakna.

(= Sleep long, sleep peacefully, it’s best to awaken late. Hardship teaches you fast, while day turns to night, that people love, lose, cry and mourn.)

A longer one but I felt the lyrics were all crucial to the story of this song that was originally written for the play Fjalla-Eyvindur. It’s a popular lullaby and very beautiful, but the unnerving part is in the backstory: in Fjalla-Eyvindur the person singing this song is his wife Halla, who lulls their child to sleep before drowning it in Barnafoss waterfall…


Árbæjarsafn example of a traditional Icelandic barn – it’s attached to the house with a long, dark turf corridor.

Móðir mín í kví, kví, kvíddú ekki því, því
Ég skal ljá þér duluna mína, duluna mína að dansa í.

(= My mother in the sheep pen, don’t fret, I shall lend you my rags, my rags to dance in.)

Of course I couldn’t leave out this one when talking about creepy lullabies! Móðir mín í kví kví belongs to a folk legend of a woman who got pregnant out of wedlock and, since pregnancy out of wedlock was a crime worth death penalty, gave birth in secret, wrapped the baby in rags and abandoned it to die.

Later on as she and another servant woman were milking sheep she mentioned that she had no proper clothes to wear in the oncoming dances, at which a child’s voice sang the song from under the sheep pen. The woman lost her sanity out of shock.

Unlike Laxness’ lullaby, this one and the story behind it are very well-known throughout the land, but according to quite a few online discussions people still sing it to their children as a lullaby! Still, when it comes to the strongest trauma-causing material Móðir mín í kví kví takes only silver. The unchallenged winner is Bíum bíum bambaló.


Grýla by kim&amy at Flickr.com

Bíum bíum bambaló, bambaló og dillidillidó
Vini mínum vagga ég í ró
En úti biður andlit á glugga.

(= Bium bium bambalo, bambalo and dillidillido, My friend I lull to sleep, but outside waits a face at the window.)

Not very sleepy now are you? There are many theories to what the face might refer to, going from the father of the child to a friend of the person singing or even the full moon, but who cares when the song is just so scary. If we want to compare this to folk tales there’s one creature in particular that likes to lurk at windows: a troll looking for the next meal.

Whatever the reason, Icelanders do seem to have a strange preference for unsettling lullabies! Perhaps the point is that even if they don’t help anyone to sleep, scaring the children quiet is faster and easier anyway? Or in the words of yet another one –

Við skulum ekki hafa hátt
Hér er margt að ugga.
Eg hef heyrt í alla nátt
Andardrátt á glugga

(= We should not be loud, many are sneaking around here. All night I have heard breathing at the window.)

Do you know any scary lullabies from your home country? I’d love to hear of them in the comments!



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…all of these lullabies of course!

Bí, bí og blaka (link)
Sofðu unga ástin mín (link)
Móðir mín í kví kví (link)
Bíum bíum bambaló (link)

Reciting Icelandic poetry.

Posted on 27. Aug, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic grammar


Poetic graffiti by Börkur Sigurbjörnsson at Flickr.com

If I had to describe Icelandic as a language, one word would come to mind immediately: poetic. For most of their existence Icelanders have always valued poets highly, so highly in fact that an important person was practically assumed to be a skilled poet and even the poorest farmer could (and often would) show off if they had even a little bit of talent to rhyming. All thanks to the surprisingly high literacy rates we have plenty of proof of that!

Still, when a language learner looks at Icelandic poetry and tries to read it out loud the end result sounds awkward at best. It’s like the syllable count doesn’t work or the stress doesn’t seem to fall on the right parts of words. Good news and bad news – it really does work, except not if you simply read the text as it is. Let’s look at Kyssti mig sól by Guðmundur Böðvarsson as an example:

Kyssti mig sól og sagði:
Sérðu ekki hvað ég skín?
Gleymdu nú vetrargaddinum sára,
gleymdu honum, ástin mín.
Nú er ég átján ára.

(“The sun kissed me and said:/Don’t you see how I shine?/Forget now your sad winter frost,/forget that, my love. /Now I’m eighteen years old.”)


Photo by Axel Kristinsson at Flickr.com

The second and fourth lines in particular don’t seem to work at a first glance, but here’s where the trick happens. Icelandic has a strong tendency to drop vowels that end a word and also the letter H that beings a word, especially so if they’re present as a combo: one word ends with a vowel, the next begins with an H / one word ends with a vowel and the next one begins with one. Another important point: if a word ends with a single vowel + G, the G often gets unvoiced, such as in words ég and og.

Sérðu + ekki = sérðekki: these two words run into one, dropping that extra syllable. The E at beginning of ekki cannot be dropped, because that would create a very difficult to pronounce triple consonant.

Gleymdu + honum = gleymdonum: here, however, both the vowel and the H have to go.

So let’s try to read it again but with the corrections in place:

Kyssti mig sól og sagði:
Sérð’ ekki hvað ég skín?
Gleymdu nú vetrargaddinum sára,
gleymd’ ‘onum, ástin mín.
Nú er ég átján ára.


Let’s have another example of how vowels and H get dropped, two stanzas from a popular folk song Tíminn líður (= time passes by):


Það á að strýkja strákaling,
stinga honum ofan í kolabing,
loka hann úti í landsynning,
láta hann hlaupa allt um kring.

(“The boy must be strengthened / he should be stuck into a pile of coal / locked outside to south-east wind / let him run around the place.”)

The first line has eight syllables, the second ten, third nine and the last one eight again. Something has to be dropped.

Stinga + honum = stingonum.

O(fa)n: sometimes the middle part gets unvoiced, but this may depend on how the song is sung. I’ve definitely heard it voiced as well.

Loka + hann = lokann, úti + í = útí.

Láta + hann = látann.

Aw, poor lad. Sounds like he’s in for some bad times, all for his own good of course so that he’ll grow up strong… but what will happen to the girls?


Það á að strýkja stelpuna,
stinga henni ofan í mykjuna,
loka hana úti og lemja hana
og láta hann bola éta hana.

(“The girl must be strengthened / she should be stuck in manure / locked outside and beaten / and let a bull bite her.”)

Ouch. Seems like traditional life was not easy on anyone… but to make this part work poetry-wise it needs cropping as well.

Stinga + henni = stingenni.

Loka + hana + úti = lokanúti. Yup, three words can be strung together just as easily as two. 😀

Láta + hann = látann, just like above, éta + hana = étana.


Lastly, remember Winnipeg Icelander by Guttormur Guttormsson? A brilliant, hilarious poem that shows what happens when Icelandic and English get on a crash course and neither agrees to budge!

Við tókum til Winnipeg trainið-a fly,
Nick treataði always so kindly.
Hann lofði mér rjúpuna’ að bera’ upp í bæ
Ég borgaði fyrir það, mind ye.
Svo dressaði Nick hana’ í dinnerin sinni
Og duglega upp ‘ana stoppti,
Bauð Dana McMillan í dinnerinn sinn,
„Ég drepti ‘ana,“ „sagði’ ann, „á lofti.“

Alas, this poem is untranslatable; it works only as long as you understand enough of both languages. There are plenty of unvoicing examples in this stanza alone so I picked only two of them to use as examples.

Here we see that the Hs have already been helpfully removed, and even better, each unvoicing is written into the text with apostrophes.

Hann lofði mér rjúpuna’ að bera’ upp í bæ – Hann lofði mér rjúpun-að ber-upp í bæ.

„Ég drepti ‘ana,“ „sagði‘ ann, „á lofti.“ – “Ég drept-ana,” sagd-ann, “á lofti.”

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Here’s Winnipeg Icelander once more. See if you can catch all the moments where something gets dropped off!