Icelandic Language Blog

Come all you sailors (and others as well)! Posted by on Jun 6, 2014 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history, Uncategorized

It gives life, it takes life, the Icelandic attitude towards the sea is divided in two. On one hand the local artists will adore it in their works and declare it the height of all things mysterious and wonderful, on another are the people who put their lives at risk on it.

The difference is more obvious if you, like me, come from a country that holds a romanticized idea of going to sea. Finns thought sailors as the epitomes of personal freedom, men who went as they pleased and saw many an interesting sight – but in Iceland being a sailor was thought of in down-to-earth terms. An Icelandic sailor knew that each one of his trips might be his last but also that he had to go lest the family go hungry.

Sjómannadagurinn (= The Sailors’ Day) is an annual celebration held in memory of the men who have perished at sea and it coincides with the two-day celebration Hátið Hafsins (= The Sea Festival). It’s a celebration packed with information, free entry to museums in the area, many kinds of activities for children, foods (of the fish variety of course), live music shows and my favourite, strange fish that the fishermen catch on the side of what they really went for. The assortment varies from year to year depending on what sort of monsters have found their way in the nets, and it’s quite popular with children who get to see and touch, if they’re brave enough, all kinds of sea monsters from deep sea fish to starfish and sharks.

Let’s have a look at the fest!


sd085Like so often during this celebration it rained: Iceland has very unstable weather at best and the beginning of summer is often wet. It does not hinder Icelanders at all though, not if they know that a party is happening somewhere! One of the day’s favourite performers were the Pollapönk who represented Iceland in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest and as you can see, barely any umbrellas though it definitely was pouring down, lots of people, the lady at the bottom left is even eating an ice cream.

sd088Pollapönk was naturally dressed up to suit the theme of the day. 😀

sd058Meet Óðinn, a coast guard ship turned museum. Usually you’d have to buy a ticket to enter but during the Sea Festival entrance to Óðinn as well as the Maritime Museum is free. On the downside though children absolutely loved a visit to the ship and walking around was at times a bit difficult with mini humans running around, squeezing past in narrow staircases and watching everything but where they were going…

sd113A slightly smaller Icelandic vessel, a fishing boat exhibited at the museum. As you can see they were tiny and gave very little cover against the weather.

sd116A fisherman’s clothes had to be absolutely wind- and waterproof. They were out at sea for hours at a time and the weather, as mentioned, can change rapidly. The trousers were made so stiff that even in their working day they would have done most of the standing up for their wearer and the mittens were felted so thick they’d probably make a clanging noise if they fell.

sd124It’s important to remember that there’s a good reason to why the Sjómannadagurinn began as a memorial day. Pictured above are all the disasters that happened around Reykjavík between the years 1927-1938… oh and only the ones that happened to ships larger than 12 tons. Smaller vessels are not included.

sdHere’s a somber reminder at how dangerous the sea is. This is a memorial wall of all the sailors and travelers who died at sea between the years 1900-1999 – altogether 3445 names.

20140531_160849There was a lighter side to the life of a sailor though, and the museum provides a very thorough look to everything related to life at sea.

(Just so you know I’m definitely winning here!)

sd035The area that I like to call “the fish petting zoo” was right outside of the museum, hosting huge crates full of ice, fish, guides in colourful overalls and of course children. Icelandic children definitely learn their fish early, well, at least the scariest, ugliest looking ones, those seemed to always have the largest crowd around them. 😀

Above is a skötuselur, angler fish.

sd043Sharks! They were scratchy to touch, like they were covered in sandpaper (ahem some adults also like to poke the fish).

sd2050Steinbítur (= Catfish, lit. transl. “rock biter”), grows at max 120cm.

Lives at 10-300m depth. Steinbítur can be found all around Iceland though it’s most common in the Vestfjörður and south-east areas. Lives everywhere in the north Atlantic, both east and west. Grows to about 80cm long but can grow to even 120cm. Steinbítur has strong teeth in both sides of its mouth which is uses to catch and break the shells of shellfish and crabs. It loses these teeth during mating time in Oct-Nov and fasts until the new teeth grow. 

It feeds first and foremost on everything that lives on the bottom of the sea such as shellfish, sea snails, brittle star and sea urchins. Large steinbítur also eat fish.  

sd049A good example of a fish that can take off your finger if given the chance! It’s also delicious so you’ll always have the option of at least biting it right back.

sd093Not all the fish presented are dead, however, there’s also an aquarium side. I have no idea what type of a fish this is, it looks almost tropical, though a little bit displeased.

sd098Another one had all kinds of sea bottom creatures from tiny grabs to shellfish to starfish to… I didn’t even recognize them all.

sd061And of course a festival will always have foods you can try. I loved these booths although as a word of warning, if you see anything pale yellowish and cube-shaped it may be a good idea to stay away from it. It may be almost any type of a sea creature in sour form, rotten shark and sour whale blubber being the most common options, and for a first timer trying them without at least a shot of vodka nearby may prove traumatizing.  Keep to the pickled herring! 😀

To end with here’s some more photos from the festival itself and short snippets of the live music that was being constantly played there throughout the festival. Maybe you’d like to visit it sometime (consider bringing an umbrella though)?

Disclaimer: All photos used in this post are taken by me.

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!