One of the best-known folk songs in Iceland is Á Sprengisandi [On Sprengisandur] – a song that every man, woman and child in Iceland learns virtually in the womb. The lyrics tell of a man who is crossing Sprengisandur sands in the central highlands on a horse [in the old days, obviously] and who cannot wait to get across. The lyrics are filled with strong imagery, superstition, apprehension and fear of the unknown: among other things the narrator describes the sun setting behind a particular mountain, thinks he hears a shout in the distance and wonders if it is a dreaded outlaw stealing a herd of sheep, and speculates that the queen of the elves – whom he absolutely does not wish to meet – is putting the bridle on her horse and is about to set off across the sands. The song ends with him declaring that he would willingly give his best horse to be in Kiðagil right now – where the route ends.
When I was a kid, those lyrics fired my imagination. I thought about them at length and the mood and atmosphere of the sands – as described in the song – totally got under my skin. What I found most eerie and chilling was the name of the sands: Sprengisandur. The literal translation of sprengja is ‘explode’ or ‘burst’ and when a horse was sprengdur it meant that it actually died from exertion, i.e. its lungs burst. In other words, Sprengisandur derives its name from the fact that horses could die from exertion when crossing the sands, simply because their owners drove them so hard in order to get across.
I found this absolutely horrifying. I remember having conversations about it with the adults around me … I had a lot of unanswered questions, such as: if the horse died on the sands, didn’t that mean that the rider was stranded, which sort of defeated the purpose?
Anyway, those sands have existed in my mind’s eye since I was little, and I have always wanted to see them. That finally came to pass this week, when EPI and I and EPI’s father drove across Sprengisandur in my father-in-law’s SUV. In the brilliant light of mid-summer it was far from the ominous and sinister place I’d imagined as a child. In fact they were incredibly impressive. As someone remarked to me today, being there is a very special experience, one that can’t really be envisioned, nor adequately described.
Meanwhile, it was not difficult to imagine what it would have been like to cross them in a bygone era on horseback, in varying conditions – it would have been frightening, not least because of the sheer size of the area and how long it would have taken to get across on horseback. To say nothing of if the weather changed – for much of the distance there is not so much as a rock behind which one can take shelter. Or if a fog suddenly descended – you’d lose your way in an instant.
There seem to be no such worries today, however. Possibly what surprised me the most about the sands was the number of cyclists and hikers we saw en route, and especially how many people were going it solo. We saw far more people on foot and on bikes than we saw cars, for example. EPI mentioned that he once met a bartender in Amsterdam who spent his days in a smoke-filled bar, save for one month a year when he went to Iceland to hike out in the wilderness – and always alone. Perhaps that was him we saw, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Who knows!
IT SEEMS LIKE IT’S BEEN SUNNY FOR WEEKS
Until today, when it finally rained. Buckets. It was windy, too, and suddenly it feels like fall is on its way. The summer is so short in this country, blink and you’ll miss it. Right now it’s 13°C [55F] here in the capital, the sun comes up at 3.33 am and will set at 11.31 pm.
[This post is filed under MY ICELAND.]
UPDATE! Professor Batty has left a link to YouTube versions of the song Á Sprengisandi in the comments below. The one he links to has both the Icelandic lyrics and a rough translation in English under ‘more info’ next to the video. There’s also a version that has the Icelandic lyrics pop up as the song plays.