Lest you think that feeding your man putrid shark on Bóndadagur is just another capricious whim dreamed up by weird Icelanders, think again! In fact, there is a perfectly logical reason: that day marks the start of the traditional midwinter festival known as Þorrablót, where people get together and imbibe rotten food and drink lots of heinous Black Death.
AND NOW FOR A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON.
Before Iceland adopted Christianity in 1000 AD it was a pagan society that worshipped the Norse gods. A ‘blót’ was a celebration held in honour of the gods and ‘Þorrablót’ was held in the month of ‘Þorri’, which began in the 13th week of winter. Originally it was a sacrificial feast dedicated to the god Þór – Thor to you foreign lot.
As many of you will know, Iceland had the first democratic parliamentary assembly in the world, which started in 930 AD and was held at Þingvellir. In the year 1000 there was a crisis when a brewing feud between pagans and the increasing number of Christians in the country threatened to erupt. The two sides each had their own law speaker and refused to acknowledge the legislation set by the other. Under the threat of imminent chaos, a decision was made to ask the pagan law speaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði – who was widely regarded as a wise and honourable man – to make a decision on behalf of the fledgling nation, as to which direction should be taken.
Þorgeir went off and lagðist undir feld – literally ‘laid down beneath a skin’ [i.e. the skin of an animal] – in order to meditate on his decision. [This expression is still very much a part of the Icelandic language – when anyone needs to make a major decision, it is said that they need to ‘leggjast undir feld’.] He stayed there for ‘a night and a day’, and then returned to declare that he felt it was most wise for Icelanders to adopt Christianity, although the pagans could still hold their celebratory feasts, as long as they did so discreetly, i.e. in secret. This decision marked a major turning point for the Icelandic nation and from that point on, Christianity was adopted, without fighting or bloodshed.
SO WHAT’S THE DEAL TODAY?
The Þorrablót feasts went underground for a few centuries, but began to be practiced openly about 200 years ago [I think]. It wasn’t until this century, however, that they became as widespread as they are today. In the past, during the festival, people would eat the foods that had been preserved at the beginning of the winter. It goes without saying that the food-preservation techniques of the day were rather rudimentary, hence the often-disgusting menus offered at the Þorrablóts to this day: cured [read: putrefied] shark, blood pudding and liver pudding [bound into and cooked in the stomachs of the sheep], pickled ram’s testicles, pickled whale blubber, etc.
Today the Þorrablót are held all over the country around this time. Very often they are organized by communities, particularly in rural areas, and they’re usually major drinkfests. In fact, a cursory Google search on the term turned up this page, which I though was pretty hilarious. Highlights:
“Two farms came on snow-scooters and changed clothes on the toilet, as there is much snow now. The food is prepared in a 3 feet long wooden trough. Each farm brings their trough to the house where we meet in advance, in the afternoon. That is easiest, as the food is cold anyway.”
“I as usual am a sucker for the shark and the lambs-heads. Everyone in the house has bad breath after dinner, the shark has a rather strong odour. Many young people are in the house, alcohol is not sold in the house, even though you can take it with you, and 16 year old kids come to the Thorrablot here as the first dance with the grown-ups.
The house is filled with relatives and the kids have to behave and not drink too much, so it is a good celebration for them to “learn the rules”.”
I’ll say no more.
EXCEPT… A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE WEATHER
We’re not in the throes of the same sort of frost as the rest of Europe, thankfully. It’s a balmy –1°C right now, a veritable heatwave compared to the sub-zero temps they’re having in, say, Russia. Very Serious, from what I understand. In any case, a lot of our snow melted this weekend, but there’s still plenty left, what with the hefty supplies we were presented with last week, plus the slight sprinkling we’ve had this morning. Sunrise was at 10.34 and sunset due for 16.46 – amazing, a full hour more of daylight than just a month ago!