Where the wild vikings are.

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

card069Icelandic sagas are an unusual feature in Medieval literature for several reasons. The most obvious one is that they mostly take part in Iceland and tell of ordinary people who, although heads of the society of their time, still are little more than rich farmers. There’s an amusing way people describe sagas here in Iceland - bændur að berjast (= farmers fighting) – which literally is what happens in all of them, although the farmers in question do part-time as warriors and when they get angry limbs go missing left and right.

Another reason that makes them unusual is the sheer volume of them that still exist to this day. Icelandic manuscripts can thank one man for their survival – Árni Magnússon – whose groundbreaking attitude in saga collecting of the 1700′s meant that every piece, no matter how small, was kept and stored. The collection is now split in half with one part in Denmark and another in Iceland, divided roughly by the place where the sagas take place so that Iceland hosts the collection of most Icelandic sagas.

The third thing that sets the Icelandic manuscripts apart from the rest is the language. In Europe most manuscripts were written in Latin, but not so in Iceland where the language used was what we now call Old Norse. Such manuscripts exist elsewhere in North Europe as well but nowhere near in the same quantity (we’re talking dozens against thousands here).


Skarphéðinn and his axe, Ogress of War, doing a little slide-and-chop over the icy Markarfljót.

In short, Icelandic sagas are historical texts that describe the lives of people in Iceland in the Medieval era. They can be used as history books for the island to an extent, although some of the more fantastical parts of them like playing whack-a-mole with a ghost seal rising through the floor, or a warrior spearing enemies one by one, lifting them up on his spear and chucking them into a nearby lake singing all the while should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. Still, thanks to them we know f.ex. how Christianity arrived to Iceland, criticism on king Haraldur Fairhair, many counts of Old Nordic poetry that was already becoming an extinct form of art during the sagas’ time, only being known and practiced in Iceland… we also know many things about marriages, moral code, diet,  mythology, clothing and how it was made, weapons, armour, power struggles (some of which can be backed with archaeological proof)  and in general life in Iceland in the early years.

With such a lot of information readily available and translated onto countless other languages, wouldn’t you expect people to know quite a lot about the ancient Norse? Yet the main idea seems to be vikings, bloody raids, rape and murder. For many cultures the misrepresentations stem from lack of knowledge, but how’s that even possible when you have all those texts sitting under your nose that tell you otherwise? They’d tell you that vikings were not an ethnicity, the word means a specific type of a sailor and was attributed to only a small handful of people. They did go on raids but the generic idea of what those raids were like seems largely blown out of proportion. Let’s not even get to the horned helmets!


Famous heroes entering a scene: Snorri was a lawyer and so fierce at it that he managed to get rid of an entire horde of zombies by suing them until they ran away.

Perhaps it’s because the reality is far more complicated than that. As the sagas can tell most people were land owners and the fights between them were far more significant to them than viking raids. Even heroes such as Egill Skalla-Grímsson get far more pages written of their homeland activities than their heroics at war, or their viking raids, because that’s what really mattered to the people of their time: not what they supposedly did somewhere over the ocean but how they handled disagreements back home.

The causes of these disputes are many and varied. Feuds lasting for several generations could be started by an argument over which woman sat on the most important chair at a feast*, defecating on a holy ground**, being a perfect servant to a weak-minded king***, an argument over who cuts a shirt for which man****, not showing up to one’s own wedding and then, when the scorned bride is wed to another man, beginning a relentless fight over the lady (who herself at this point had sworn off her first suitor and kept her head to the end)***** and so forth. Of course the real reason behind were the families pitting their strength against each other, each side vying for the place of the most important family of the area, a feat that could only be brought about by skillful battles and equally well-arranged marriages.


Gunnar of Hlíðarend spearing his enemies one by one, lifting them up on the spear, throwing them into the river next to him… and composing little songs while at it. Then again Gunnar was such a fierce performer he zombied up after his death just to sing some more (when inspiration hits it’s time to sing, death is but a small hindrance).

In fact two themes do stand out over all of the others when it comes to Icelandic sagas, or family sagas as they’re also known as: family feuds and love. The most well loved of all the sagas are often the more romantic kinds such as Gunnlaugs saga Ormstunga, Laxdæla or Kormáks saga. Even the best known ones, Egill’s saga, Njála and Gísla saga put a lot of emphasis on the softer feelings of these “viking warriors” – Egill sends his own brother to certain death because he’s in love with his wife, Njáll’s saga describes several acts that are spurred on by love, such as the unfortunate marriage of Gunnar and Hallgerður that ends in disaster or Bergþóra who chooses to be willingly burned alive so she can share her husband’s fate. Gísla saga Súrssonar features a somewhat more radical type of wife, Auður, who physically fights off people trying to attack her husband. Viking raids? Those pale in comparison to what the sagas actually speak of!

In Iceland the sagas are still a staple, a part of the daily life that people know even if they haven’t actually read them. Everyone knows the heroics of Egill, Grettir, Gunnlaugur Snake-tongue, Gunnar, Snorri Góði and many more. Many can even recite the poetry these men created in their time and the most important works live on in songs. For example the love poem from Víglundar saga, Stóðum tvö í tuni (= We two stood on a meadow), performed here by the Medieval era re-enactors during the museum night.

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Stóðum tvö í túni, tók Hlín um mig sínum
höndum, haukligt kvendi, hárfögr og grét sáran.

We stood two on a meadow, the goddess Hlín took me
Into her arms, the beautiful lady, fair-haired and cried bitterly.

(Hlín is a name of Frigg, the goddess of wifely love. This name, according to Eddic poetry, hints at her quality of defending people who are in danger and is often used as a kenning for a praise-worthy wife or betrothed.)

Titt flugu tár af tróðu, til segir harmr um vilja,
Strauk drifhvítum dúki drós um hvarminn ljósa.

Tears running from her eyes, told me of her will and pain,
wiped a snow-white cloth on her pale coloured cheeks.


*Brennu-Njáls saga: when two women cannot settle a seating order things escalate pretty quickly!
** Eyrbyggja saga: one family wants to poop on holy grounds while another family would rather that they didn’t.
*** Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar: Egill’s uncle Þórólfur serves  his king really well, but mistreats a lady that’s actually his family member via a forced marriage, so her sons turn the king against him. The king, Haraldur Fairhair, seems to have been easily swayed by his own paranoia and believes every conspiracy theory against himself, no matter how strange or far-fetched.
**** Gísla saga Súrssonar: or how you should check that the husband is not eavesdropping before you accuse his wife of sleeping with your brother. Failing that you may lose brothers.
***** Kormáks saga: the main character forgets his own wedding and dedicates his life to stalking the bride.


hulda078Hulda recommends music

Today we’re heading out of Iceland and onto another, smaller island that speaks a tongue closely related to Icelandic – the Faroe Islands. I hope you excuse the leap outside of Iceland’s borders for the sake of Týr and some pretty awesome folk metal!

Regin Smiður (here). Lyrics, complete with an English translation, can be found here.
Ormurin Langi (here). I found lyrics here, but so far I have not found a translated version.
Ólafur Riddararós (here), lyrics + English translation here. The legend of Ólafur exists in Iceland as well, where he’s called Liljurós, Lily-rose, and the two stories differ but little. The Faroese Ólafur angers an elf lady by dumping her to get married to a human lady, whereas the Icelandic Ólafur simply turns down the elf lady’s advances. What both of the legends do have in common though is that the elf lady kills him, luring him in first by asking to kiss him.

Hiding in plain sight.

Posted on 07. Mar, 2014 by in Uncategorized

nes030Traveling to Iceland but not enough time to go see the sights outside of the Capital City area? No need to worry – there are some amazing ones within your reach anyway! This entry will start a small series of Hulda’s tips on what to see in Reykjavík on locations that are accessible by biking or walking. We’ll start with something that you would be seeing every day without necessarily knowing that it’s there are all: the lighthouse island and nature reserve Grótta.

To find it on a map of Reykjavík you’ll have to first look for the narrow peninsula on the left side called Seltjarnarnes. On top of it is a strange-looking small island with a long tail, although the tail exists only 50% of the time, being submerged by the tide for the other half. This tail part used to be much wider according to the maps drawn in the 1500′s but the landscape has changed a lot since then, and was eventually nearly cut off by a ravaging storm that also tore off turf, demolished houses entirely and collapsed two churches. There are no longer humans living on the island although it has once upon a time been inhabited, both before the storm when it was much larger, and after it. Now the only buildings on the island are a small house and the lighthouse Gróttuviti.

nes003The Gróttuviti from a small distance and the electric line that goes there.

But is the little house abandoned? Far from it! It was originally built by the lighthouse keeper and after him owned by his son. The son drowned while rowing out at sea, after which the lighthouse keeper’s house was indeed empty for a long time until the Rotary Club of Seltjarnarnes bought it  and had it repaired.

nes020A closer look at both the lighthouse keeper’s house and the Gróttuviti itself. The tide was up so alas we could not go over to the island, I only have my camera’s awesome zoom to thank for this image.

The area is easily accessible on foot, but nature has put some restrictions on when you can enter Grótta. Always check the tide schedule (you’ll find one near the pathway to the island) before going over, getting stuck there will mean several hours of waiting for the next tide. It’ll likely be made worse by the sea wind which is really strong in this area, so if you plan on going there wear warm clothes even if it’s summer. Another limitation is the sea birds’ nesting season from May to July, which is good to keep in mind. The kría (= Arctic Tern) in particular are merciless and won’t ever tire of trying to peck your head in if you as much as look toward the general direction of their nests!*

nes012The picture is dark but it doesn’t lie about the colour of the beach. Due to the volcanic nature of Iceland almost every beach here is made of black sand with the exception of a few naturally white/red beaches and some artificially created ones.

Grótta is by no means the only thing to see in Seltjarnarnes. The whole peninsula is an experience to walk around with breathtaking views at the sea, lots of jogging options to those who like running (in my personal opinion definitely the most beautiful jogging route of Reykjavík if we exclude Esjan**). There are works of art as well, but sometimes you’ll only notice them if you look at the right direction, which can even be at your feet…

nes015A short description of the area and its wildlife and, most importantly, the red text that includes the rules of this area.

1. It’s banned to enter the island between 1st of May and 1st of July (nesting season) except in presence of the island’s caretaker.

2. Please note that dogs are not allowed on the island for any reason.

3. All inappropriate behaviour and entering the island with a horse is banned***.

4. Everyone are to behave well and be tidy on the nature reserve. (“Velog” seems to be a typo, it should probably read “vel og” instead.)

nes016A quick look at the wildlife found in the area. 


How to get there:

You can take the sea-side walking route, but beware the joggers and bicyclists on the way because they brake for no one.  It will take a while though, so for saving time and your feet you can opt for the bus 11 and get off the bus at  Lindarbraut. From there it’s about 15min walk to Grótta. You can also drive there if you have access to a car, there’s a large parking lot right next to the walkway to Grótta. Don’t forget to check the tide before entering the island, it comes in surprisingly fast when it does!

*I have some first hand experience on this from Flatey, a small island in Breiðafjörður, that we once visited around the end of nesting season. A large part of the island was off limits but even walking on the other side didn’t keep me safe, and I once ended up running for dear life with my purse on top of my head. Those birds mean business.

** Esjan is a mountain so let’s just leave it at that, not every jogger wants to go the whole vertical 600m. Some do though – few things are as aggravating as resting at Steininn near the top and seeing someone blithely run up and down the mountain side.

*** The route is so difficult for horses anyway that no horse lover would even consider it, and the only type of horse that could ever make it there without breaking its legs is the Icelandic horse. Which, coincidentally, is the only type of horse we have here.


hulda078Hulda recommends music

Today seems perfect for Múm. Múm was originally formed in 1997 but has since changed its form quite a lot. They’ve published so far seven albums in total. Their sound is described as experimental, in the best possible meaning of the word. Ethereal, beautiful and strange.

Green Grass of Tunnel (link)
Candlestick (link)
Sing Along (link)

Gray cats and other ones too.

Posted on 27. Feb, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

011Icelanders love cats. A generalization, I know, but I have to say I haven’t seen many places with as many of them, clearly well-kept and tame, roaming around everywhere. When you walk downtown on a sunny day and see them lying around here and there it’s easy to see that they’re not wild cats, the Icelandic idea of cat ownership just often includes letting them walk outside as they wish.

This does not mean tragedies wouldn’t strike every now and then. Losing a cat under a car is sadly typical and my FB wall constantly bears “Cat gone missing, please share!” notices which usually spread around like wildfire. Notices on dogs are far less common for a few reasons: first of all dogs are much, much rarer as pets than cats are, especially in the Capital City area. Dogs were in fact banned from entering cities once upon a time and to a large extent are still regarded as farm animals, although nowadays they’re taking a larger spot as a pet, but cats… cats have always been pets. Going back in time everyone used to need them for vermin control and as a friend, with a surprising amount of stress put on the friend-part which has continued to this day although mice are no longer a problem. It’s not uncommon to see a local person stop at a cat for a short scratching moment, and there’s no difference in gender, sex or social status when it comes to having a chat with cats here. :D


The second reason is that dogs are simply not let wander around – who would do that? Cats, on another hand, have often near perfect freedom limited only by the borders of their own territories. Our house seems to be on one such border because we get frequent visits from at least three cats and see two others shyly crossing the yard every now and then. By visits I mean suddenly finding one near or on the windowsill, out- or inside the house depending on whether the window’s open or not.

The very word for “cat”, köttur (M), is important to learn by heart. Not only because cats are such a common theme here but because it’s a word that’s highly irregular in declension.


Other words that mean cat are kisi (M) and kisa (F), both of which would probably best translate as “kitty”. Their declension is regular so if you cannot remember the right declension form for köttur, use either of these. ;)

Cats naturally feature a lot in málhættir, proverbs. Here’s some of my own favourites:

Að fara í kringum eitthvað eins og köttur í kringum heitan graut” (= to go around something like a cat circling hot porridge): to show keen interest in something without mentioning the core of the issue, rather circling around it, in English “to beat around a bush” would have the same meaning. In use you’d have to change the proverb a little according to who’s doing what, f.ex. “Hún fer í kringum það eins og köttur í kringum heitan graut” (= she’s circling that like a cat with hot porridge).

kissapeijakas003Þessi kisan er eins og grár köttur hjá okkur.

Að vera eins og grár köttur einhvers staðar” (= to be like a gray cat at a certain place): to be always hovering near or at a certain place, comes with a nuance that adds “without any seemingly obvious reason”. “Ég var eins og grár köttur hjá þeim” (= I was constantly hanging out/loitering at their place).

Að fara í hund og kött” (= to go dog and cat): to go absolutely haywire. :DÞað fór allt í hund og kött” (= Everything fell apart/went haywire). This one is actually a newer version of an older proverb, “að fara í hund og hrafn“, where raven has the place that cat took over later on.

Að kaupa köttinn í sekknum” (= to buy a cat in a sack): exactly as it sounds like, to buy a cat in a bag/to buy something without seeing it first or without knowing the true (and lesser) value of the item.

Að fara í jólaköttinn” (= to go/end up at the Christmas cat): quite a sad one, means that you didn’t get a single thing for Christmas. This can also apply to not getting any items of clothing for Christmas but it’s more commonly used for being given nothing at all.

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Proverbs read out loud here – as usual there are English captions you can turn on. :)

There are also idioms featuring cats, such as kattaþvottur (= cat’s washing, a totally lazy/haphazard way of cleaning up something)(alternatively this one can also mean licking your finger to pick up crumbs etc.), kattliðugur (= cat-nimble, a very nimble person) and, interestingly, kattþrifinn (= cat-cleaned, very thoroughly cleaned up).

If you’re planning on moving here be prepared that the cats are a thing and that they’re not going away. They’ll be in your way everywhere, some minding their own business and some yours. It’s best to just get used to them right away, like I eventually did but would have done sooner had I known that trying to battle the visits of the neighbours’ cats was doomed to fail from the start (although if that red one keeps using our potato patch as her personal sandbox I’m going to buy a vuvuzela)…


hulda078Hulda recommends music

Retro Stefson, a band from my hometown Reykjavík will get a turn today. They started in 2006 and have published three albums so far. The music of course is amazing, but there are also some interesting Reykjavík street scenes in Glow (here) and Kimba (here). A third one on the list of recommendation is Qween (here).