Category Archive 'Iceland'
16 Jun 2023

A Cynical Modern Reads Njals’ Saga

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From Njáls saga: Gunnar fights his ambushers at Rangá.

Scott Alexander, it seems to me, misses the poetry and the sense of awe one ought to feel simply from coming into contact with this remote far more heroic age so distantly removed in the mists of Time from ourselves, but his review of the Saga of Burnt Njal is nonetheless witty and analytically intelligent.

There are only about 40,000 people in medieval Iceland. The book focuses on the Southwest Quarter, so let’s say 10,000 there. Each of our characters is a large landowning farmer with many children, servants, tenants, etc; if he is patriarch of a 20 person household, then there must be about 500 such patriarchs. Each of these 500 relevant Icelanders is profiled in loving depth. And if there are 500 characters in Njal’s Saga, and n people can have n(n-1)/2 possible two-person feuds, that’s 124,750 possible feuds. Of these, about 124,749 actually take place over the course of the saga (Njal and his friend Gunnar are best buds, and refuse to feud for any reason).

A typical feud goes like this:

Someone with a name like Hrapp the Ugly, who is ill-famed throughout the land, becomes jealous of his betters. Maybe one particular better irks him, someone with a name like Eirik The Beloved-By-All.

Hrapp insinuates himself with you, flattering you until you believe he is your best friend. Then, once you trust him completely, he says “Eirik The Beloved-By-All is saying behind your back that you’re weak and effeminate; also maybe he’s plotting to kill you.”

You gather your kinsmen and say “Eirik The Beloved-By-All is slandering and plotting against me, we need to stop him.” Your friends and kinsmen object “Eirik is the kindest of all men! Surely this is only the poison of Hrapp the Ugly, whispering lies into your ear.”

You say “I have sworn to do this thing, and I call upon you as my kin to support me. If you do not, let it be known to all that you refused to help a kinsman in his time of need!”

Your kinsmen grudgingly agree to help you. You all form a raiding party and catch Eirik The Beloved-By-All when he is out hunting with his family. He kills three of your kin, but you kill five of his; he himself escapes.

You and your kin ride to all the neighboring houses, saying “We have slain five kinsmen of Eirik The-Beloved-By-All! Stand witness to our slaying!” This part is non-negotiable. If you don’t announce your killings to the victims’ neighbors immediately, the lawyers will destroy you in court later on.

Months pass. You and your kin go to the Althing. Eirik and his kin are there too, and announce that they are suing you.

You go around to all the leading men at the Althing, asking them to “support” you. The exact implications of “support” are vague, but it seems to involve standing around menacingly holding their axes while the trial is happening, in case the other side tries anything funny.

Eirik offers to drop the suit for a weregild of 300 silver pieces per person. But you refuse to pay more than 100 silver pieces. The trial is on!

You realize you will need a good lawyer. You call in a favor from your wife’s cousin’s husband’s uncle, an old man with a name like Hurgolf The Wise. He agrees to serve as your lawyer. He asks whether you complied with about a dozen insane technicalities, starting with “You did remember to tell your victims’ neighbors that you killed them, right?” and moving on to obscure details of the exact wording you used when presenting the suit. If you got any of these wrong, you will at best lose the suit and at worst be condemned to death.

Hurgolf the Wise and the other side’s lawyer fight it out at the Althing! This trial is almost never a whodunit – you, not being a monster, reported the slaying to the victim’s neighbors immediately. More often, you accuse the other side of not observing all the insane technicalities. You and Eirik almost come to blows in the courthouse. Both lawyers suggest there’s a possibility that either or both sides could be condemned to death for failing to observe the technicalities. Sometimes the lawyers get condemned to death for failing to observe technicalities.

Finally Njal (it is always Njal) offers to arbitrate. You agree. You trust Njal. Everyone trusts Njal. He is the wisest of men, and the greatest lawyer in Iceland.

Njal considers the facts of the case. He decides on a weregild of 200 silver pieces per person. You killed five of Eirik’s kin, but he killed three of your kin, so on net you killed two of Eirik’s kin, so you owe him 400 silver pieces. But he will add an extra 100 because of one of the people you killed was an especially good guy – but then take away seventy-five because one time Eirik’s cousin’s son punched your wife’s brother. So you owe a total of 425 silver pieces.

You pay Eirik’s kin 425 silver pieces. You embrace Eirik, and declare that you are now the closest of friends, and will defend him to the death from then on. He says the same, and gives you rich gifts, and invites you to stay at his farm the next time you’re in his part of southwest Iceland. Possibly he is so swept up in the excitement of mutual reconciliation that he waives the 425 silver piece fee entirely. You declare him the best and most munificent of men.

All of Eirik’s kin join in this display except Eirik’s young niece, who seethes with humiliation. She tells her husband, Ragnar Of The Bloody Axe, that he must kill you, or else she will never sleep with him again.

Ragnar Of The Bloody Axe gathers some of his kin and goes to kill you, but ends up killing five of your kin instead.

Repeat Steps 6-13. Njal offers to arbitrate, and Eirik pays you the weregilds this time. You embrace Eirik, saying you knew all along he was an honorable and noble person and this latest weregild only further proves his excellent nature. You consider offering his son your daughter’s hand in marriage, or vice versa.

Repeat until everyone in both your families is dead.

If you want to read about various Icelanders going through this process 124,749 times, Njal’s Saga is the book for you.


25 Oct 2022

Iceland’s Elves Are Both a Tourist Attraction and a Constant Obstacle to Construction Projects

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Lithhub has an extensive excerpt from Nancy Marie Brown‘s recent book Looking For the Hidden Folk.

“Practically every summer,” wrote Icelandic ethnologist Valdimar Hafstein in the Journal of Folktale Studies in 2000, “a new legend is disseminated through newspapers, television, and radio, as well as word of mouth, about yet another construction project gone awry due to elven interference.” Unlike most urban legends, these are based on “the experience of real people involved in the events.”

That the news reports “are often mildly tongue-in-cheek” does not, in his opinion, “detract from the widespread concern they represent.” In August 2016, for example, an Icelandic newspaper printed the story “Elf Rock Restored after Its Removal Wreaks Havoc on Icelandic Town.” The previous summer a mudslide fell on a road in the town of Siglufjordur. While clearing the blockage, the road crew dumped four hundred cubic feet of dirt on top of a large rock known as the Elf Lady’s Stone.

The Elf Lady (illustrated on the paper’s English-language website as Cate Blanchett in the role of the elf queen Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings) was not happy, and a series of mishaps ensued. A road worker was hurt. A TV newscaster “sank into a pit of mud, right up to his waist and had to be rescued.” The river flooded the road, and the constant rain caused further mudslides. A bulldozer operator reported: “I had just gotten into the vehicle when I see a mudslide coming toward me, like a gigantic ball. When it hit the river flood it exploded and water and rocks went everywhere. We fled.” Then the bulldozer broke down. The Siglufjordur town council officially asked the Icelandic Road Administration to unearth the Elf Lady’s Stone. They complied. They also power hosed it clean.

Icelandic elf stories light up the internet: I found this one in the New York Times, Travel and Leisure, the Daily Telegraph, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the CBC,, and as far afield as the Philippine Daily Inquirer, among others. Many media outlets justify their interest by citing a series of surveys proving that, in Valdimar’s words, “elves are alive and frisky in modern day Iceland.”

In 1974, Icelandic psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson conducted a fifty-four-question survey on spiritual matters. Of those who responded, 15 percent considered elves likely to exist, 7 percent were certain they existed, and 5 percent had seen an elf. “A third of the sample,” Valdimar points out, “entertained the possibility of their existence (33 percent), neither affirming nor denying it.” A church historian in 1995 sought out people “with an interest in mysticism”: 70 percent of this sample thought elves existed, while only 43 percent believed that space aliens visited Earth. An Icelandic newspaper polled its readers on politics and government in 1998, slipping in the sly yes-or-no question, “Do you believe in elves?” Nine out of ten respondents answered the question. Of them, 54.4 percent replied yes.

In 2006 and 2007 the University of Iceland’s Department of Folkloristics entered the debate, with technical help from the university’s Social Science Institute. Their fifty questions were based on those of Erlendur in 1974, adapted for “a modern society that had been in contact with New Age thought,” according to folklore professor Terry Gunnell.

Again, 5 percent of the one thousand respondents said they had seen an elf, while more than 50 percent “entertained the possibility of their existence.” …

For Gunnell, the most striking result of the Icelandic surveys is that “in spite of the radical changes in Icelandic society” between 1974 and 2006, the Icelanders’ traditional beliefs about elves had “remained near static.” They were, he concluded, “deeply rooted.”


15 Jun 2022

45° Brutalist House

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The Mind Circle:

Since the foundation of LYX Arkitekter company it became a pioneer in the architectural field doing awesome projects in various concepts starting from the lofty designs, passing with the Islamic styles in decoration combining it with the modern design making outstanding artistic whole.

Today the new concept is estimated from the brutalism concept created by the genius engineer le Corbusier in 1952.

The new project is designed in Iceland on the form of flipped container but the sides of it replaced with a panoramic glass guaranteeing 360 degrees view on the beach in the ground floors. Moreover, the total space of the project is 750 sq.m [8073 sq. ft.] with two floors.

The ground floor contains living, and dining room attached with a bathroom and a kitchen. The creativity of design is manifested in the terrace where you can see the whole view in front of you while you are enjoying your coffee in the first hours of morning. Last but not least, the third floor that contains the fascinating master bedroom and a separate door for jumping into the spectacular panoramic pool at hot summer days making it invaluable place to stay at in the vacations all of that is ensured and taken into consideration from the moment it was designed by the company experts.


This is the sort of house an elite university like Yale might build. It looks very chic right now, brand new and nearly empty, but Brutalist-designed buildings are notorious functionally impractical and incredibly expensive to maintain.

I bet it cost many multiples of the conventional per-square-meter price to build. It is clearly intended for human mannequins to pose in elegantly. We see no room for books or other media, and no closets.

01 Aug 2021

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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Ht: Vanderleun.

01 Jul 2021

I’d Fly a Drone into an Erupting Volcano. Wouldn’t You?

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(Full Screen on.)

HT: Vanderleun.

19 Jan 2020

US Troops Drank Old Reykjavik Dry

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Fox News:

Thousands of U.S. soldiers depleted all of the beer in Iceland’s capital over the weekend.

More than 6,000 soldiers were in Reykjavik for four days participating in the Trident Juncture 18 – a NATO-led military exercise. After their drills, the troops reportedly visited the city’s downtown bars, where they finished off the entire beer supply.

According to Icelandinc magazine Visir, the brewery Ölgerð Egils Skallagrímssonar had to send emergency beer cases to the bars.


This kind of thing wouldn’t happen in England!

06 Dec 2017

Lost Icelandic Translation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”

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Smithsonian reports that the Icelandic translation of Dracula amounts to a different book, possibly better and more sexy.

The Icelandic version of Dracula is called Powers of Darkness, and it’s actually a different—some say better—version of the classic Bram Stoker tale.

Makt Myrkranna (the book’s name in Icelandic) was “translated” from the English only a few years after Dracula was published on May 26, 1897, skyrocketing to almost-instant fame. Next Friday is still celebrated as World Dracula Day by fans of the book, which has been continuously in print since its first publication, according to Dutch author and historian Hans Corneel de Roos for Lithub. …

The book’s Icelandic text was unknown to English-speaking aficionados of the Dark Prince until recently, de Roos writes, as no one had bothered to re-translate it back into English. Although Dracula scholars knew about the existence of Powers of Darkness as far back as 1986, they didn’t know it was actually a different story. Then, he writes, “literary researcher Richard Dalby reported on the 1901 Icelandic edition and on its preface, apparently written specifically for it by Stoker himself.”

The preface was what got English-language scholars interested in the Icelandic book, but still, nobody thought to compare the actual text of Makt Myrkranna to the original Stoker novel, assuming, as Dalby wrote, that it was “merely an abridged translation of Dracula,” de Roos writes. Finally in 2014, de Roos writes that he went back to the original text of Powers of Darkness to verify something, and discovered that the Icelandic story diverged from the English original.

As de Roos worked on the translation, patterns emerged: many of the characters had different names, the text was shorter and had a different structure, and it was markedly sexier than the English version, he writes. It’s also, he writes, better: “Although Dracula received positive reviews in most newspapers of the day…the original novel can be tedious and meandering….Powers of Darkness, by contrast, is written in a concise, punchy style; each scene adds to the progress of the plot.”

“The nature of the changes has led de Roos to argue that they could not have been the work of Valdimar alone,” according to Iceland Magazine. “Instead he has speculated that Valdimar and Stoker must have collaborated in some way. Stoker could, for example, have sent Valdimar an older version of his story.”


10 Aug 2016

Eric Clapton, Salmon Fisherman

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Guitarist Eric Clapton (who knew?) is evidently a salmon fisherman, and caught this year the biggest fish, 28 lbs. (12.7 kilo.) 42.5″ (108 cm.), taken in Iceland’s Vatnsdalsá River on August 5th.

“Clapton had to run a good kilometre down river with the salmon before he was finally able to draw it ashore, the salmon was hooked and after an exciting hunt came ashore just over an half hour later.”

Comments indicate that Clapton is partial to Marc Aroner’s fly rods.

Nice fish, even if it has been in the river quite a while and is getting very close to “wearing the Brodie tartan.” Look at the kype on him! If I were Clapton, I’d smoke this one.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

08 Jul 2015

Studying Viking DNA

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Adam Piore, in Nautilus, tells the fascinating story of Decode, the company founded in 1996 to collect and study Icelandic DNA, using the genetics of that island nations’s small and closely-related population to find genetic links to common diseases.

In the ninth century there was a Norwegian Viking named Kveldulf, so big and strong that no man could defeat him. He sailed the seas in a long-ship and raided and plundered towns and homesteads of distant lands for many years. He settled down to farm, a very wealthy man.

Kveldulf had two sons who grew up to become mighty warriors. One joined the service of King Harald Tangle Hair. But in time the King grew fearful of the son’s growing power and had him murdered. Kveldulf vowed revenge. With his surviving son and allies, Kveldulf caught up with the killers, and wielding a double-bladed ax, slew 50 men. He sent the paltriest survivors back to the king to recount his deed and fled toward the newly settled realm of Iceland. Kveldulf died on the journey. But his remaining son Skallagrim landed on Iceland’s west coast, prospered, and had children.

Skallagrim’s children had children. Those children had children. And the blood and genes of Kveldulf the Viking and Skallagrim his son were passed down the ages. Then, in 1949, in the capital of Reykjavik, a descendent named Kari Stefansson was born.

Like Kveldulf, Stefansson would grow to be a giant, 6’5”, with piercing eyes and a beard. As a young man, he set out for the distant lands of the universities of Chicago and Harvard in search of intellectual bounty. But at the dawn of modern genetics in the 1990s, Stefansson, a neurologist, was lured back to his homeland by an unlikely enticement—the very genes that he and his 300,000-plus countrymen had inherited from Kveldulf and the tiny band of settlers who gave birth to Iceland.

Stefansson had a bold vision. He would create a library of DNA from every single living descendent of his nation’s early inhabitants. This library, coupled with Iceland’s rich trove of genealogical data and meticulous medical records, would constitute an unparalleled resource that could reveal the causes—and point to cures—for human diseases.

Read the whole thing.

12 Feb 2015

Icelandic Beer Made From Smoked Whale Testicles

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Draft Magazine interviews Dagbjartur Arilíusson, owner of the Steðji microbrewery in Iceland.

You … brew beer made from fin whale testicles…

We started last year with our first whale beer, Hvalur 1. The health department didn’t want us to produce it at first, but we were allowed to. The beer used whale meal as an ingredient, and it was something new for Iceland. It sold out almost immediately. This year, for Hvalur 2, we wanted to keep the concept, but use a different whale ingredient. We decided to use fin whale [Balaenoptera physalus -JDZ] testicles.

How, exactly, do you brew with whale testicles?
We get the testicles frozen from the whaling company, and we have a licensed butcher chop it up for us to use. The testicles are cured according to an old Icelandic tradition. The testicles are salted, and then smoked with sheep dung. A whole testicle is used in every brewing cycle, and then the beer is filtered and pasteurized. We put a lot of effort into this, and it’s a long process.

What’s the beer’s connection to Iceland’s annual food festival, Thorrablot?
We wanted to create a true Thorrablot atmosphere that celebrates traditional Icelandic food. Every winter, Icelanders gather to eat traditional food that sustained our ancestors for generations. This is very popular here in the countryside, and we wanted the beer to be released at the same time of the festival. The dishes we eat include boiled sheep heads, liver sausage, ram testicles, fermented shark, wind-dried fish, smoked lamb meat, and blood pudding. We thought that Hvalur 2 would fit in well with Thorrablot by using an ingredient that is a little different.

Does the criticism from whale conservationists bother you?
It actually brings more attention to the beer, which is a positive thing. Most of the protests come from people outside of Iceland. People have to remember that the fin whale is not endangered in the North Atlantic, and Iceland is known for sustainable fishing and setting quotas for our whale hunt. There’s actually a lot of demand for our beer to be exported, but there are laws that limit which countries can import it because of anti-whaling laws. The beer will sell out in Iceland, and people from other countries want a taste.

Whole thing.

20 Oct 2014

Icelandic Panel Confirms Authenticity of 2012 Lake Monster Video

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A 13-member truth committee appointed by the municipality of Fljótsdalsherad, Iceland recently voted seven to six that a video (see below) taken by Hjortur Kjerulf at a river near his farm in February of 2012 was a real image of the Lagarfljótsormur, an Icelandic equivalent of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster first described in the Icelandic Annals of 1345.

As the result of the vote, Hjortur Kjerulf received a 500,000 Icelandic kroner (equivalent to $4163.20 at today’s exchange rate) prize established in 1997 as a reward for any real film or image of the wyrm.

The good faith of the panel’s decision was questioned by people contending that their decision was influenced by prospects of profits from cryptid tourism, and Finnish skeptic Miisa McKeown dismissed the video, contending that it was really an image of a stationary ice-covered fishing net undulating in the current.

12 Sep 2013

Nordic Cuisine

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Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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