Fun facts about Iceland
Throughout our trip, we realized how proud Icelanders were of their heritage and traditions, which they strive to preserve.
The different topics:
- Names in Iceland
- Icelandic language
- The turf farmhouses
- Their horses
- The Icelandic sagas
- Religion in Iceland – Huldufólk
- The phallological Museum
- The Museum of Witchcraft
Names in Iceland
Iceland has a unique way of giving children their names. It is not the surname that is transmitted, but the father’s first name to which they add a suffix — “son” for sons and “dottir” for daughters. For example, suppose John TOMSON is James and Mary’s parents. In that case, the children are called James JOHNSON and Mary JOHNDOTTIR, as in the days of the Vikings for whom the surname did not matter. And the girl will keep their name even when they get married.
But that’s not all. If parents wish to give their child a foreign name, they must apply to the Icelandic Names Committee. To be accepted, this name must integrate into the Icelandic language — it must contain only letters found in the Icelandic alphabet and be grammatically declined. For this reason, Icelanders always have traditional names, often their great-grandparents’ first name.
Icelandic language – Íslensk tunga
The language spoken today is the same language that the Vikings used 1,000 years ago. Thus, a child who has just learned to read is fairly able to decipher ancient texts. The main reason for this is the island’s isolation, which has preserved it from all kinds of invasions and the mixture of languages and cultures.
The turf farmhouses
When traveling across Iceland, one does not see old buildings. The historic buildings still standing all date from the 19th Century, when new construction techniques appeared. There are no ruins of castles or old mansions, which is unusual for a country discovered around the year 861. The only remains from the past are a few turf farmhouses scattered on the island.
The first Icelandic turf farmhouses
At that time, there were few building materials and the people were poor; to survive in this harsh climate, they had to be inventive. They then created these semi-buried dwellings, easy to build and above all free. All the necessary equipment was in nature at hand.
The foundations were erected with flat stones, and the door and window frames were made of birch or driftwood. As for the roof, they staked several layers of grass, reputed to be a perfect insulator. A hole drilled in its ridge, which could be covered with a shutter made of animal guts, then acted as ventilation.
Despite it, the interior was so damp that food rotted there quickly. It was constantly smoky, very dark, and crowded. In addition to the entire family, workers, seasonal workers, and sometimes vagrants all ate, lived, and slept in the same room.
The smell was then, as one can imagine, horrible.
These houses also required constant maintenance due to the use of natural materials. Neglecting it could easily lead to their collapse. In those cases, their inhabitants often abandoned them for a new one built a little distance away.
The initial architecture, however, evolved mainly due to the Little Ice Age in the 13th Century.
The classic Viking longhouses became shorter and connected by underground tunnels.
By the 18th Century, wooden walls were added at each end, which allowed the introduction of gable gates.
One can understand why there are very few left today. Those still visible are the ones recovered by the government to preserve their heritage.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, they were all closed so we couldn’t visit one, which is a great shame.
If you have the chance to enter one of them, don’t hesitate to do so. They represent Iceland as well as the magnificent landscapes that surround them.
Horses are an integral part of the life and history of the Icelandic people. There are nearly 80,000 on the island. The Icelanders call the race Hestur.
This breed was imported in the 9th and 10th Centuries by the Vikings. One of the oldest in the world, it’s perfectly adapted to the Icelandic climate.
Moreover, during the winter, the horses adorn themselves with a very thick second coat, which protects them from the cold and the snow. It is often a different color than the horse’s original coat.
These horses are raised outdoors and spend their first years in the mountains in semi-freedom, making them strong and robust. In winter, they descend to the farms where they are fed. This allows for them to have first contact with a human being. However, only after the 4th or 5th year do the breeders collect them to domesticate them. They will be used for company, horseback riding, but also breeding and export. This breed of horse is popular around the world.
It is possible to go on horseback rides of varying lengths all over the country. The most picturesque is a group horseback ride lasting several days, during which equestrians lead a herd of horses through the countryside. For the sake of feeling like a cowboy!
To preserve this breed, strict measures have been put in place. An Icelandic horse that leaves the country for a competition or any other reason will no longer be allowed to return. Prior to leaving, it will have to be vaccinated because in Iceland there’s no need for it. In the same vein, the importation of horses is prohibited.This is to avoid bringing in diseases but also to avoid crossbreeding.
The 5th gear of the Icelandic horse.
All breeds of horses have three natural gaits: walk, trot, and gallop. The Icelandic horse is renowned for five natural and unique gaits: walk, trot, canter, tölt, and pace of flight. The most characteristic is the tölt. It is the motion of galloping fast and so comfortable and steady that the rider can carry a drink without spilling a drop.
I tried it, but my limited experience of riding barely allowed me to stay on the horse during the tölt.
The Icelandic sagas
Sagas are an integral part of Iceland. These stories, also known as Sagas of the Icelanders, took place between the 9th and 11th Centuries. Based on historical facts, they speak of Viking journeys, migrations through Iceland, family or neighborhood feuds. Since they reflect village life, there are no sagas relating to wars between kings or great battles.
First transmitted orally, they began to be written from the 13th Century until the 15th Century.
I love these sagas because no matter where we went, we always found one that originated from the place. One could almost imagine visiting Iceland to look for the places described in these stories.
Religion in Iceland
There is no separation between Church and State. The Church of Iceland, or Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Iceland, is named in the Constitution.
That said, freedom of religion has been granted to Icelanders since 1874. All registered religions receive the support of a church tax (sóknargjald). Although most of the population is Lutheran, since the end of the 20th Century, religious life in Iceland has diversified with a decline in Christianity, the rise of unaffiliated persons, and an emergence of new religions.
These new religions are as follow:
- Ásatrúarfélagið or paganism, which is a modern pagan religion
- Humanism gives man a central place, affirming that man is no longer a sinner humbled before God and fallen by original sin.
- Zuism which is an Icelandic group created in the 2010s. It is a new modern pagan religious movement based on the Sumerian religion.
Another somewhat surprising belief, Huldufólk, is the belief that there are hidden people like fairies, elves, and other mythical creatures. These supernatural beings live in nature, look and behave like humans, but live in a parallel world. Presumably, they can make themselves visible at will.
There is even a school dedicated to the Huldufólk. The school director said of them: “There are about 15 types of elves in Iceland. The smallest are the Flower Elves, no taller than an inch, while the Hidden People can be up to three feet. I have met over 900 Icelanders and 500 people from 40 other countries who claim to have seen elves and other nature spirits. And the only thing these people have in common is that they have a sixth sense.”
A weird museum, the Phallological Museum
This museum exhibits a collection of phallic specimens belonging to the different types of mammals found in Iceland: whales, polar bears, seals, walruses, and land mammals. There is even a human specimen on display since 2011! The place presents nearly 215 penises and penile parts.
The history of phallology
This ancient science caught the attention of a few researchers in recent years. Phallology has been integrated into some history, art, or literature studies but not really as a science in its own right. The museum’s collector and director aims to provide a complete resource on the subject.
The museum was closed when we went to Reykjavik, so, unfortunately, I can’t give you any information and my thoughts about this special place.
The Museum of Witchcraft in Hólmavík
Iceland has a long history of witchcraft. The practises are initially attributed to the early settlers. For centuries, they have used magic to improve their daily lives or punish a malevolent neighbor, or whomever they wished to harm. There was also a cure for almost any request, with sometimes curious recipes, at least for us today.
“Seiður” was the Icelandic word used to refer to magic rituals in Viking times. The women who organized these ceremonies were called “vísendakona,” the women of science, while the men were “seið-menn,” the men of the magic ritual.
The “witch hunt” in Iceland
In the 17th Century, the witch hunt spread from Europe. Noble Icelandic leaders, who mainly studied in Denmark and Northern Germany, brought back the idea. Wealthy landowners appointed judges for trials, as well as clergy to write treaties against magic.
Contrary to what was happening in Europe, the witch hunt was not only directed against women. There were even more arrests of men than women.
Most of the accused were from the lower classes, although some judges and clergy were also charged.
The main punishment was the whip. In general, as many blows as the body could bear staying alive.
The total number of death sentences was low. Twenty-one pyres were lit, 20 for men and one for women. With the context that Iceland’s total population at that time was about 50,000, we can better understand their reluctance toward the death penalty.
A few small recipes and rituals that can be useful
The coat of arms of the Strandir region is the magic sign Aegisjalmur, the Helmet of Aegir.
To ensure victory over your enemies and save you from trouble with the authorities, “Sculpt the Helmet of Aegir on a piece of lead and press it on your forehead between the eyebrows.”
Man has always coveted the power of invisibility. The solution is to carve the Helmet of Aegir on a lignite slab, a kind of coal.
But be aware that to obtain a result, you have to follow a particular ritual!
“Take three drops of blood from the index finger of your left hand, three from the earpiece of your right hand, two drops from your right nipple, and one from the left nipple. Mix with six drops of blood from a crow’s heart drawn while it’s alive and incorporate into raven’s brains and pieces of human stomach. Sculpt the Helmet of Aegir on the piece of lignite using a piece of steel dipped three times in the mixture.”
It’s no easy feat!
In those days, poor people couldn’t get rich unless they use the following magic formula.
“Draw the Hringhjalmur sign on the skin of a black cat with the menstrual blood of a virgin. Catch a live bat in a woven net with the virgin’s hair. Wrap the animal in the rest of the hair and put in a wooden box. The Hringhjalmur must be placed on the lid of the box to prevent the bat from fleeing. All that’s left to do is to place a stolen coin on the top of the whole thing. The bat will attract money from the ocean. On the other hand, beware, if by accident it escapes, it will plunge into the ocean and cause a disastrous storm that will cause the death of many people.”
Another way to get rich requires a specific talent, a lot of insight, and I would also say, a great dose of courage.
“To begin with, make a pact with a living being and get his consent to dig up his corpse upon death and skin him from the waist down to the feet. The skin should be intact, without a hole or scratch. When the time comes, put on the skin that will immediately blend with yours. While wearing the ‘pants,’ steal a coin from a poor widow at Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. Place it in the scrotum, the pocket of skin that surrounds and protects the testicles.
The coin will then attract the money of others which will fill the scrotum. However, your spiritual health will be threatened. You will therefore have to get rid of them and pass it on to a benevolent successor before you die. Otherwise, your corpse will be infected with lice. Your successor will have to put on the right leg before you remove the left one. In this way, the ‘pants’ will be able to continue their purpose.”
Uppvakningur or zombie
If you need help with your chores, I have a solution for you.
Let’s say you’re a wizard!
“Engrave the Uppvakningur sign on an oak board and paint it with blood extracted from your right big toe and left thumb. Lay the wooden piece on the tomb concerned. Then go around the church three times clockwise, then three times in the opposite direction. Three shovellings of earth will then spring from the ground. Stand ready to welcome the dead. Grasp him by the neck and squeeze until he asks for mercy. Only then will the Zombie be able to perform the tasks assigned to him. However, if the chores are numerous and strenuous, better preparation is required, and the presence of several sorcerers may be necessary.”
The tilberi was a two-headed creature used by women to steal milk from cows and sheep. So if you’re a female thief, you need a tilberi. How?
“Steal a human rib into a cemetery in the early hours of Pentecost, wrap it in grey wool, and keep it between your breasts. During the next three communions, spit sacramental wine on it. The third sip of wine will breathe life into the tilberi. When it’s grown and you can’t hide it anymore between your breasts, cut a piece of skin off the inside of your thigh and make it into a nipple. The ‘creature’ will cling to it to feed on your body fluids.
When the tilberi is ready, order it to steal. It will then jump on the backs of cows or sheep, go down along their flanks, one head on each side, to suckle from the udders. When it’s full, it’ll come back to you and shout, ‘Full belly, Mommy!’ or ‘Open the lid, Mommy!’ Just open the butter churn in which the worm will vomit the collected milk.”
Jon Lærdi Gudmundsson
Jon Lærdi Gudmundsson was a self-taught Icelandic poet whose works give an insight into contemporary Icelandic folklore. He was presumed a grandmaster of magic in the 17th Century. He was tried for witchcraft several times in the 1630s but managed to avoid the death penalty every time.
When I learned of the existence of the Reykjavik Phallological Museum, my curiosity was piqued. That’s why I was disappointed that I couldn’t visit and explore it.
The Museum of Witchcraft, on the other hand, was incredible. It’s hard to realize that these beliefs were ingrained in people’s minds. The rituals are all more fanciful than the next, and I wonder if some have tried them — it seems impossible! Ladies, can you imagine yourself with a nipple on your thigh with a worm hooked to feed on your bodily fluids?
Of course, I also learned things during my trip in Iceland that explain the more serious side of its culture.