Factoids about the Icelanders 3

by alda on May 1, 2015

Ísland til fornaBack in the old days, everyone in Iceland HAD to have a place to live, meaning they had to be a part of a household on a farm. It was the law. This meant that workers were obliged to find a position, and while there, they were under the complete and utter authority of the farmer whose farm they were on. They were not even allowed to leave the farm without his permission. Their contracts lasted one year, and when that year was up they were allowed to relocate to another farm, if they had found another position. Those days were always in May and were called “fardagar” – travel days. [I also recently saw them called “flitting days” in English in the excellent novel Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.] On such days there would be “traffic” in the Icelandic countryside, with people lugging their belongings from one farm to another.

Photo from the National Land Survey of Iceland. Found here

Dramatic clouds over Reykjavík

by alda on April 29, 2015

In line with my new experimentation in keeping this blog updated, I’ve decided to post a picture once a week, with a wee bit of commentary. Something from the archives, but which tells a story. We start with this:

Clouds over Reykjavik Iceland

I would like to tell you that I sat and waited hours for this picture, posed with my camera and tripod on the west side of Tjörnin pond, until the clouds parted over Hallgrímskirkja church JUST SO. But no: this pic was a complete fluke. I happened to come out of a house on Tjarnargata, saw the cloud formations, pulled my iPhone out of my pocket, and took the shot. It wasn’t until I looked at it later that evening that I saw what a remarkable formation those clouds actually made.

This photograph is actually the most-liked thing ever on the IWR Facebook page, with just over 1,000 likes, and another 500+ likes the second time I posted it [as my cover page].

Factoids about the Icelanders 2

by alda on April 27, 2015

Strict schoolmasterIn 18th century Iceland the church passed a decree that children HAD to know how to read and write. [Likely so they could more easily incorporate the teachings of the church.] The local minister regularly made the rounds and tested the children, and if he found their education lacking, he could [and would] remove them from their parents and place them somewhere where their education was more attentively seen to. Not surprisingly, children DREADED those visits from the minister – and who can blame them? After all, I very much doubt that allowances were made for learning disorders such as dyslexia … and kids could always expect to be removed from their homes and sent somewhere else.

[NB painting is by Jan Havicksz. Steen and has nothing to do with Iceland, but I thought it fitting nonetheless.]

Facts about the Icelanders 1

by alda on April 24, 2015

Those readers who [closely] follow our Iceland Weather Report Facebook page will undoubtedly have noticed that recently I have been posting little tidbits of information about the Icelanders under the heading “trivia”.

Happily, people really seem to like those little bits of info, and a number of people have urged me to keep posting them – which I am happy to do.

On reflection, however, I have decided that it is better served up on this blog than on Facebook. So, I’m going to experiment with posting factoids about the Icelanders here on a regular basis. I’ll keep it simple – for instance I’m not going to spend hours looking for the right image to include, which is one of the main things that has discouraged me from posting on this site in the past, simply because it is too time consuming.

So without further ado I give you:


On the whole, the Icelandic populace appears to have been reasonably welcoming to foreign visitors throughout the centuries. After all, they were a hospitable people and dreaded being labelled uncongenial. But alas, such was not always the case. Just ask the poor Basque sailors who wound up on the West Fjords after their ship was wrecked in a storm. Obviously they were not able to return home by the same means as they came, and so found themselves trapped in a hostile landscape with no way to fend for themselves. They went and knocked on doors and in some cases people took pity on them and put them up for a couple of nights. But that, obviously, was not a long-term solution, and eventually they came to find closed doors everywhere. With no way to fend for themselves they resorted to desperate measures: breaking into places and stealing food and other necessities, as well as a large ship on which they tried [unsuccessfully] to escape. When the district magistrate, the infamous Ari í Ögri, was informed of this, he sent out a posse of his best men to search for them, ordering that they should all be executed. Which almost half of them duly were. This dark event in Iceland’s history has since been dubbed the Spánverjavígin, or “Spanish killings”.

Not the Icelanders’ finest hour, to be sure.


Two days ago, on 22 April 2015, a plaque was unveiled next to the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík to commemorate the fact that 400 years have passed since the Spanish killings took place.

I also read [on Facebook] that, on the same day, the district magistrate of the West Fjords officially withdrew the order that all Basques should be killed on sight. [NB I have not been able to officially confirm this.]

And so, people of Basque heritage who want to visit the West Fjords can now do so in relative safety, or at least without the fear of being executed on sight. Which I am sure will be a huge relief to many people.

The blurb about the Spanish killings above is adapted from The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days.

If there is one thing about the Icelanders that the foreign media LOVES to chew on it is the fact that we all supposedly believe in elves. And if there is one thing that irks just as many of us here, is the way that elf belief is misrepresented to serve as click bait. These endless articles have become so tiresome and annoying that many of us, myself included, cannot be bothered any more to even try to correct some of the misinformation when it appears in our news feeds.

The thing that I personally find most annoying about this sensationalism of the elf belief is the way it turns something that is really quite profound into something trite and superficial. Because, yes, most Icelanders of old did believe in elves and hidden people [terms that are used interchangeably in Icelandic folklore and mean the same thing], and there were reasons for those beliefs. Those reasons had everything to do with their desperate efforts to survive in circumstances that were often heartbreakingly difficult, and nothing to do with the innate “kookiness” of the Icelanders.

Consider: you live a life of abject poverty with absolutely no luxury. You are hopelessly oppressed by arbitrary laws and regulations that among other things prevent you from marrying because you don’t have enough money, and probably never will. The house in which you live is filled with bugs, and you have open lesions on your skin from the lice in your bed. By the end of the winter there is hardly enough food to feed everyone, so you go to bed hungry every night, even as you have to expend tons of energy during the day. The Danish overlords have set a trade monopoly so you’re only allowed to do business with their merchants and buy their wares of dubious quality, at whatever price they set. At any moment nature could erupt and wreak havoc on the land. In short, it’s a tough, tough existence, and there is no hope of any of that changing during your lifetime.

So what do you do in such circumstances, to keep yourself from marching off the nearest cliff? Answer: you escape into fantasies of a world that exists parallel to your own. In that world there are people who are tall, regal, poised; who live in homes that are luxurious by your standards, with objects made from precious metals, and plush tapestries that you can only dream of. These are the hidden people, who live inside cliffs and hillocks very close to your own abode. Everything about their world is better than yours. Their clothes are more beautiful, their sheep are fatter and give off more wool. They even have supernatural powers. They are pretty much everything you are not.

Or consider this: your life consists of back-breaking work, day-in-and-day-out. Perhaps you have small children, but because you have to work so hard you cannot possibly watch them all the time. Perhaps your child disappears one day. It may have wandered off – fallen into a river, or a crevice, or got lost in a sudden fog that blew in. The loss is just too unbearable, and grieving openly is not a possibility when your living quarters are a tiny room that you share with perhaps six or seven other people. So, you construct a story. Your child is not dead – it has been abducted by the hidden people. It is living with elves, and being raised by them in circumstances that are vastly better than those you could have provided.

The Hidden_COVER_p1All this and more is the subject of my new book: The Little Book of the Hidden People. I wanted to present the REAL picture of Icelanders and their elf beliefs – not some bastardized version presented by a foreign media that has no context, no depth, no insight into what those beliefs were really all about.

The book consists of twenty translated stories of elves and hidden people from Icelandic folklore, and notes on their meaning. In addition, there is a comprehensive introduction that portrays the milieu from which the stories sprung, providing insight into the soul of a nation that used stories as an anti-depressant, as a way to survive psychologically.

The Little Book of the Hidden People is currently available as a paperback and as an Kindle ebook, both sold through Amazon. It can also be purchased as an ePub ebook here. Near the end of May it will also be available as a hardcover book in shops throughout Iceland.

Incidentally, if you are interested in learning more of living conditions in the Iceland of old, you may want to check out The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days.

I hope you like it.

Icelandic authorities to get leaked HSBC data

February 15, 2015

Recently there has been much discussion in Icelandic society as to whether or not authorities should purchase a list of people who have money in foreign tax havens. The list is similar to the one that German authorities (and others) have already bought (if not the same), which led to them recovering millions of euros […]

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In which I exhaust the well of my indignation and launch a newsletter

January 29, 2015

Dear everyone! With 2015 upon us, I have been taking stock of various things, including myself and my [changing] interests, and how those are reflected in my online and social media activities. As many of you will know, this blog started out as a general forum for my personal expressions [and occasional rants] and morphed into kind […]

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2014: My Year in Review

December 31, 2014

Dear everyone: it’s the end of the year and so time for a quick look back. This blog, as you likely know, has traditionally been devoted to Icelandic politics and society … and quite frankly I can’t really bring myself to review the past year with that particular focus. However, I have done a quick […]

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November 10, 2014

As I have written about in this space before, the current government was elected pretty much on one promise: that they would relieve the debt burden of households whose mortgages had skyrocketed as a result of the economic meltdown. They have been dragging their feet with this debt write-off [while wasting no time with removing […]

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The list goes on

November 3, 2014

In a post I wrote last week I alluded to the growing anger in Icelandic society over the actions or non-actions of our current government. I also wondered whether the subservient mentality left over from our colonial days was causing Icelanders to simply take all the insults and injuries handed to them and shuffle on, serf-like, pretending nothing had happened. Well, […]

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