From Simple Attire to Pungent Potions and Feasts Fit for Vikings

Iceland’s enduring interest in how the world sees it is more than a mere curiosity. It’s a key part of its national essence. This blog post invites you on an engaging trip back in time. Focusing on 19th century travelogues, with a brief detour to the 18th and an intriguing glimpse into the 16th. We’ll explore the often humorous and sometimes odd perceptions that early travellers held of Iceland.

Aðalstræti in downtown Reykjavik around 1900. Photo: Frederick W. W. Howell, Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

Picture this: a time when bold explorers and inquisitive visitors first encountered Iceland’s dramatic landscapes. Their writings are like the original travel reviews, brimming with a blend of astonishment, confusion, and a hint of humour. It’s like flipping through the pages of an old travelogue, offering a glimpse of Iceland through fresh eyes.

Prepare for a delightful and slightly irreverent romp through Iceland’s past, guided by the observations of these early adventurers. From their initial awe at our majestic geysers to their endearing comments on Icelandic peculiarities, these accounts offer a good mix of the extraordinary and the eccentric.

So, let’s dive into this nostalgic exploration and rediscover what these travellers really thought about our little island. Expect a few chuckles, some eyebrow-raising anecdotes, and a unique angle on Iceland’s rich history.

Party at Count Trampe’s

The Government building around 1900. Photo: Sigfús Eymundsson

Lord Dufferin was born in Florence, Italy, on June 21, 1826. He studied at Eton and then Oxford. At 24, he was accepted into the ranks of the English nobility. He held many positions of trust for the British Empire. Among other things, he was the Governor of Canada for a while and later the Viceroy of India. He travelled north by sea in the summer of 1856 and then came to Iceland and travelled around the country. About this trip, he wrote the book “Letters from High Latitudes.” He went to a party at the Governor’s Count Trampe. He should not be confused with the Count Trampe, who was Iceland’s Governor when Jørgen Jørgensen declared Iceland an independent country some 50 years earlier.

Yesterday—no—the day before—in fact, I forget the date of the day—I don’t believe it had one—all I know is, I have not been in bed since—we dined at the Governor’s— though dinner is too modest a term to apply to the entertainment.

The invitation was for four o’clock, and at half-past three, we pulled ashore at the gig; I, innocent that I was, in a well-fitting white waistcoat.

Like all the others, the Government House is built of wood* on the top of a hillock; the only accession of dignity it can boast is a little bit of shabby kitchen garden that hangs down in front to the road, like a soiled apron. There was no lock, handle, bell, or knocker to the door. Still, immediately on our approach, a servant presented himself and ushered us into the room where Count Trampe was waiting to welcome us. After being introduced to his wife, we shook hands with the other guests, most of whom I already knew. I was glad to find that, at all events in Iceland, people do not consider it necessary to pass the ten minutes preceding the dinner announcement as if they had assembled to assist at the opening of their entertainer’s will instead of his oysters. The company consisted of the chief dignitaries of the island, including the Bishop, the Chief Justice, etc., some of them in uniform, and all with holiday faces. As soon as the door was opened, Count Trampe tucked me under his arm—two other gentlemen did the same to my two companions—and we streamed into the dining room. The table was very prettily arranged with flowers, plates, and a forest of glasses. Fitzgerald and I were placed on either side of our host and the other guests in due order and beyond. On my left sat the Rector, and opposite, next to Fitz, the chief physician of the island. Then began a series of transactions I have no distinct recollection of; in fact, the events of the next five hours recur to me in as great disarray as reappear the vestiges of a country disfigured by some deluge. If I give you anything like a connected account of what passed, you must thank Sigurdr’s more solid temperament, for the Doctor looked quite foolish when I asked him—tried to feel my pulse—could not find it—and then wrote the following prescription, which I believe to be nothing more than an invoice of the number of bottles he himself disposed of.

  • White wine 3 bottles
  • Champagne 4 bottles
  • Sherry ½ bottle
  • Rhine wine 2 bottles
  • Aqua vitae 8 glasses

From the evidence, both internal and otherwise, I deduce the dinner was splendid, and we were served generously. Engrossed in conversation with my neighbours before finishing the soup, I can’t recall the menu in detail.

Well-versed in Scandinavian skoal-drinking, I was adept at handling a wine glass and, abhorring unfinished drinks, was ready to meet my host’s toasting challenges. I wish you’d seen his approval as I clinked, drained, and inverted my first glass. However, the evening quickly escalated beyond my expectations. Knowing refusing a toast was taboo, I had resolved to fully embrace my host’s hospitality. This led to a naughty idea: outdrinking the Governor, a feat befitting my ancestry.

After several rounds with my neighbours, I stealthily withdrew from the toasting. Yet, their expectant looks forced me back into the fray. Inspired by family legends of legendary drinking, I rallied, matching the Governor and Rector drink for drink. Despite the discomfort, I persevered, determined not to concede. My resolve was tested further when the Doctor initiated a new barrage of toasts, leading me to face each guest bravely, one after another.

Following this, the public toasts commenced, and though I had maintained some clarity of mind until then, the remainder of the evening took on a dreamlike quality. I vividly recall the array of glasses before me, constantly refilled, making me feel somewhat removed from my actions. The voices around me seemed distant, and my own speeches, though unclear to me, were met with cheers that sounded like echoes from afar.

Reportedly, the toasts were multilingual – the Governor in French, the Rector in English, and even speeches in Icelandic. When the Bishop delivered a lengthy Latin oration, I, at my wit’s end, daringly responded in kind. My impromptu Latin address, though a scramble of phrases, apparently resonated with the audience.

The evening progressed with more speeches, a lively exchange of toasts, and a round-the-table dance, culminating in a heartfelt embrace from the Governor. The night concluded with us emerging into the fresh daylight air, the banquet hall’s merriment giving way to the calm streets outside.

A Reykjavik landscape at 1am in June
Midnight sun in June

After the dinner, the idea of sleep was unthinkable. It was eleven o’clock, yet as bright as midday. Fitz, humorously suggesting it was twenty-two o’clock, was clearly seeing double. We found ourselves in Reykjavik, energized and ready for more adventures. Remembering an invitation from the apothecary’s wife, we headed to her gathering. The atmosphere quickly turned festive amidst French officers and a piano. A dance was proposed, and despite our varied knowledge of dancing styles – a reel, a Highland fling, and a jig – we managed to create a lively scene, especially once “Annie Laurie” was played, transforming the room into a whirl of laughter.

The party wound down around one in the morning, leading us to a spontaneous decision to sail to nearby islands. The tranquil boat ride under the surreal Arctic light was unforgettable. The landscape was dreamy, with headlands bathed in ethereal light and Snoefell’s distant peaks gleaming. This serene moment was a stark contrast to the evening’s earlier liveliness.

Landing on the island, I was immediately immersed in its rabbit-warren-like terrain. The place was teeming with burrows, causing frequent stumbles. To my surprise, we encountered a group of peculiar rabbits, stark white with no ears and bright scarlet noses. These creatures, as I soon discovered, were no ordinary rabbits. Just as I thought I had caught one, it sprouted wings and flew away, astonishingly in pairs! These flying, red-nosed rabbits were a sight I’d never imagined, let alone seen.

Intrigued, I attempted to capture them, only to find they were more elusive and feistier than they appeared, biting, and scratching fiercely. Upon closer examination, these ‘rabbits’ revealed themselves to be birds, remarkably resembling puffins. This comical misunderstanding only added to the surreal experience of the island, leaving me with a bemused appreciation for these unique avian creatures.

*The house in question is most decidedly made from stone.

Sir Joseph Banks Travels to Iceland

The famous naturalist Sir Joseph Banks came to Iceland in 1772 and travelled the country. Like almost everyone else who travelled to the country, he wrote a book about it. His accounts are more academic than many others, as his expeditions were more in the business section rather than pleasure.

Physically, Icelanders are of average height and well-built, though not particularly robust, and the women are generally not considered attractive. Long gone is the tradition of men wearing beards, a portrayal inaccurately depicted in Eggert Olafsen’s travels. Despite their simplicity and credulity, they are less prone to vices than in more affluent societies. Theft and incontinence are rare, though not unheard of.

Poverty hasn’t diminished their ancestral hospitality; they share what little they have with genuine joy. Affection is often shown through kisses, even among non-relatives. Their loyalty to the government, fervent religious zeal, and some superstition mark their character. An intense love for their homeland means few settle abroad, even under favorable conditions.

In terms of work ethic, Icelanders stick to traditional methods, lacking innovation possibly due to government oversight. Social gatherings often involve storytelling or reciting verses, with some tales known by heart or kept in written form.

Icelanders have largely maintained their traditional dress, favoring simplicity, neatness, and climate suitability over ornamental elegance. Men typically wear linen shirts, short jackets, and wide breeches of coarse black cloth, known as vaðmál. For travel, they add a short overcoat (hempa). Distinctively, Arnarfiord’s north side residents wear white. Headgear includes large three-cornered hats, complemented by worsted stockings and homemade Icelandic shoes. These shoes, often crafted from sheep’s leather or ox hide, are fashioned from a square leather piece, sewn at the toes and heel, and secured with leather thongs.

Women’s attire mirrors this simplicity and functionality. They wear black vaðmál bodices over shifts, topped with laced jackets with narrow sleeves adorned with silver-buttoned side openings, often engraved with names as romantic tokens. A three-inch black collar (strútur) of velvet or silk, sometimes gold-trimmed, adorns the jacket. Vaðmál petticoats with metal-girdled tops and aprons, and a wider-bottomed hempa complete the ensemble. Their jewelry includes gold, silver, or brass rings. A distinct head-dress, wrapped high and tied with a handkerchief, is reserved for marriageable girls, prioritizing warmth over style.

Wedding attire is particularly ornate. Brides wear gilded silver crowns, multiple neck chains, and a heart-shaped perfume container. Dress quality varies with social status: the less affluent wear coarser vaðmál with brass ornaments, while the wealthier opt for finer cloth and gilded silver. An example is a bailiff’s wife’s outfit, valued at three hundred dollars.

Richard F Burton’s Ultima Thule

The most renowned explorer of the late 19th century to set foot in Iceland is undoubtedly the British adventurer Sir Richard F. Burton. His journey to Iceland in 1872 culminated in the creation of one of the most famous 19th-century travelogues titled “Ultima Thule,” a comprehensive account published across two volumes.

Downtown Reykjavik 1881

The sacred pillars of Ingolf’s Hall (öndveginssúlur) unduly translated “door-posts,” or “wooden door,” probably chose Reykjavik because it is the largest anchorage-ground in this ” Canaan of the North,” and his thralls were justified in reproaching their lord for preferring so rugged and barren a corner to the more fertile regions farther east. The harbour is dangerous only when the wind blows off the Esja massif, forcing ships to run out seawards, and the tides of late years have not flooded the town. The picturesque background will be described when we can see it. The site is on the northern side and near the point of the Seltjarnanes, a peninsula, whose lowlands are digitated by the prevalent winds and driving seas.

Henderson very poorly describes the town as “situate between two eminences that are partially covered with grass”, it is built on both gently sloping sides of a dwarf river- valley draining the Pond, a lakelet to the south, about 800 yards long by 400 broad. The ditch which has evidently been much larger, and which some propose to deepen into a port, is crossed by some half-a dozen bridges, one with iron rails painted vermilion; it is in the foulest condition; but here cleanliness is not next to godliness. Throughout Reykjavik a smell of decayed fish prevails, making strangers wonder how it escapes pestilence and plague; and the basaltic dust raised by the least breath of wind causes hands and face to be grimy as at Manchester or Pittsburgh.

The mass of the settlement lies in the dwarf hollow of the streamlet, somewhat protected from the blasts, and straggles up both slopes of the rivulet-valley. But for this it would be unpleasantly windy; and, as is said of Landudno, between two waters is nearly as bad as between two fires. The neighbourhood is a lean neck of flat and barren ground, with the sea to the north and south, whilst, in the former direction, the great Hvalfjörður inlet sharply cutting the Esja and the Akranes blocks, and backed by the snowy Skarðsheiði, acts as a windsail. The same reason makes the rains exceptionally heavy. The shape is long-narrow for sea-frontage rather than deep, and the orientation is puzzling as that of Hebron. I shall call the right flank of the valley east and the left west, although the correspondence is by no means exact. Along the shore runs Harbour Street (Hafnarstræti), with the north side open to the bay: here are the chief stores and shops, the warehouses and coal-depots, the Club and the Post-office.

At right angles, and to the west, a High Street (Aðalstræti) stretches some four hundred yards to the tarn: it begins from the head of the chief pierlet, passing under the archway of the Bryggjuhúsið(bridge- or pier-house), a place of customs, whose occupation long gone is now returning to it. Broad enough to dwarf the houses, macadamized and straight, like all the best thoroughfares which cross one another at right angles, it sounds hollow to the tread, as if walking upon a boiler — the “Rimbombo,” as Italians call it, not uncommon in newly made ground, which propagates sound. It is traversed here and there by impure gutters, which are unwisely covered with iron-cramped boardings: I rejoice to hear that they were cleaned out for the royal visit. High Street abuts upon a square and whitewashed wooden building, labelled Hospital in white letters on a blue ground: here is the chief pump which works a well 12 feet deep, and revetted with dry stone. The first aspect of the gabled tout ensemble strongly suggests Aldershot.

Reykjavik in the 1860s

Turning to the left we reach the Austurvöllur or Eastern Square, a kind of Parsons Green, with three built sides, the fourth being still open towards the Pond (*where late the Parliament building would stand). It is the regular camping ground for inland travellers who pitch their dwarf tents and peg their ponies where a handful of grass can be nibbled. Here is the “Cathedral,” whose adjoining cemetery has now disappeared. The houses are built with the scant regularity of a Brazilian village; they face in every direction towards the sea, or towards the rivulet-valley, and rarely southwards as they should do for the benefit of sun.

With rare exceptions, they are all wooden frameworks of joists, filled as in Germany with basaltic slabs, and mortar blue with dark sand; the walls are boarded over, as without the stone they would be insupportably cold and hot. They are short-lived like the ” skips,” requiring frequent repairs, and rarely lasting beyond thirty or forty years: their endurance depends greatly upon the quality of the wood ; the maximum of age would be nearly a century, but only when the timber is not mixed with turf and peat, which, crumbling under sun and frost, causes early decay. There is far more open ground than building, each “plant-a-cruive” being girt with planks or rails, useful for drying clothes, and showing no want of wood.

The most characteristic part of Reykjavik are the suburbs of the Tómthúsmenn or empty-house men, mostly fishermen who have no farms, and consequently no cattle. We will visit the west (not West) end built between a swamp abutting upon the sea, and the normal knobbed meadow-land, where a few cows fight against starvation. It is cut by a bit of made road, and another runs east to the Laxa or Salmon Eiver — these are the only Macadams in the island. The by-streets of our suburb become mere lanes, and the impasse is far more common than the thoroughfare. The few good houses of wood are raised upon foundations of basalt or brick laid edgeways, which keep out the damp like the piles of Fernando Po. They are entered by dwarf ladders, instead of the usual sandstone flags imported from abroad. These ” magalia” will float off to sea unharmed, like Gulliver’s cage, and not break up for a long time.

The baker’s mill in Bankastræti and turfhouses in Ingólfsstræti. Photo: Tempest Anderson, 1890.

The empty house men, who far outnumber all the other classes, adhere to what represents the Irish shanty, the cabin of the Far West, and the Eskimo’s earth-covered hut. The primitive fashion, preserved even in the capital, is an oblong parallelogram of basaltic blocks, alternating with peats by way of mortar — cespite pro cæmento adhibito — where tons of mussels and shell-fish cumber the shore. The houses look as if shoving shoulders together against the wind, rain, and snow. The walls are sunk in the surface to the extent of a few feet, beyond which the ground is never frozen; they are raised three or four feet high, with the same thickness as at the base, and battering a little inwards. One of the short ends is left open for a doorway; sometimes additional defense against wind is secured by a side-adit, a small, wooden, pent-roofed sentinel, like the office of an East Indian tent.

This shell supports an acute angled or equilateral triangle of wood: formerly birch boughs were used, now pine planks are largely imported from Denmark, as we see by the stacks scattered over the settlement. The steeply-pitched slopes, revetted with peat sods a foot square, yield a superior crop of grass — a hint of what may be done by ” scalping ” and draining. The gable generally shows the wood well daubed with blistering tar, which soon turns red and rusty; here are mostly two single-paned, white-framed windows, the larger one lighting the gun deck or lower floor, and the smaller the upper deck, loft, or garret. The old chimney was a tub; now there is an iron tube or a square pipe of bricks: a cowl like a ” fly-cray,” two bits of flat wood attached to a perpendicular, and moving with the wind, cures smoking; and where there is a weathercock, it is the bird that warned Peter of his fall. Some of the larger establishments will have four or five of these pointed gables; and the smaller are often so small that we admire how human beings can get into them.

George Mackenzie’s Feast in Viðey

A few months and a bit ago, we told you about the great feast of food Sir William Hooker and Jörgen Jörgensen (The Dog Day King) were a part of in Viðey Island in 1809. A year later, the Scottish geologist Sir George Mackenzie, along with Henry Holland, Richard Bright and an Icelandic interpreter, arrived for a visit. The Prefect Ólafur Stephensen, though getting on in years, was still in good form and invited them to a similar feast. Like all good travellers, a travelogue was published in 1811 written by both Mackenzie and Holland called “Travels in the Island of Iceland during the Summer of the Year 1809“:

Viewed from the sea, the capital of Iceland has a very mean appearance. It is built on a narrow flat, between two low hills, having the sea on the northeast and a small lake on the south-west side. We landed for a short time in the evening, and had we not previously seen the fishermen, we should have been a good deal surprised at the odd figures that flocked about us. The Danish inhabitants, who seldom stir without tobacco pipes in their mouths, were easily distinguished. The beach slopes rapidly but is extremely convenient for boats at all times of the tide. It is composed entirely of comminuted lava. There were two large wooden platforms, made to be occasionally pushed into the water for the purpose of loading and unloading the larger boats. The anchorage is good, and the bay is defended from heavy seas by several small islands, which render it a very safe harbour…

We thought it our duty to pay our respects to Mr Olaf Stephenson, who has the title of Geheime Etatsraad, and was formerly governor of the island; and having been informed that he would be glad to see us, we went to his house, which is on the island of Viðey, about three miles from the town. It is built of stone and bears evident marks of decay on the outside. The situation, between two green hills, the ground in front sloping towards the sea, is very agreeable. On the west side is a neat chapel, where the minister of Reykjavik performs divine service once in three weeks. Before the chapel is a small garden, enclosed by a turf wall. Behind the house are cottages for the accommodation of servants; and farther off, are the cow and sheep houses.

The old gentleman, dressed in the uniform of a Danish colonel of the guards, received us at the door with great politeness, and seemed to be exceedingly gratified by our visit. He ushered us into a large room, furnished with the remains of ancient finery, some prints, portraits, and a number of profile shades, which afforded little relief to the eye while wandering over the damp, decaying walls. The house altogether appeared as if it would not long survive its venerable inhabitant. The next room we entered was our host’s bedchamber, which was very comfortable, and well warmed by a stove placed in a corner. After a little conversation on indifferent subjects, the old gentleman talked of his health, and seemed quite delighted to find that we could give him some medicines as well as advice. We had the pleasure of being told, after the lapse of a few weeks, that Mr Holland’s prescriptions had been attended with the best effects.

We had no intention of remaining here to dinner; but, on proposing to take leave, we soon perceived that it would give great offence, to withdraw without partaking of his hospitality. Mr Stephenson spoke affectionately of Sir Joseph Banks, who is much and deservedly esteemed in Iceland; and he showed us, with much apparent satisfaction, some diplomas which he had received from different societies.

In due time, the repast which had been prepared, was announced by a good-looking girl, dressed in the complete Icelandic costume. The dress of the women is not calculated to show the person to advantage. The long waist, bunchy petticoats, and the fashion of flattening the bosom as much as possible, together with the extraordinary head-dress, excited rather ludicrous emotions at the first view; but there is a richness in the whole that is pleasing…

On entering the room into which we had at first been introduced, we found a table neatly covered, and a bottle of wine set down for each person. This alarmed us a little, as we feared that the old gentleman intended, according to the ancient custom of Denmark, to ‘keep wassel.’ The only dish on the table was one of sago soup, to which we were helped very liberally.

The appearance of a piece of roasted, or rather baked, beef, relieved us considerably; and we submitted, as well as we were able, to receive an unusual supply of a food to which we were accustomed.

Viðey House and Viðey Church in 1899-1900. Photo: Frederick W. W. Howell, Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

We had drunk a few glasses of wine, when a curious silver cup, large enough to contain half a bottle, was put upon the table. Our host filled it to the brim and put on the cover. He then held it towards the person who sat next to him, and desired him to take off the cover, and look into the cup; a ceremony intended to secure fair play in filling it; after which he drank our healths, expressing his happiness at seeing us in his house, and his hopes that we would honor him with our company as often as we could.

He desired to be excused from emptying the cup, on account of the indifferent state of his health; but we were informed at the same time, that if any one of us should neglect any part of the ceremony, or fail to invert the cup, placing the edge on one of the thumbs, as a proof that we had swallowed every drop, the defaulter would be obliged by the laws of drinking to fill the cup again, and drink it off a second time. He then gave the cup to his neighbor, who, having drank it off, put on the cover, and handed it to the person opposite to him. Being filled, the cup was examined by the person whose turn it was to drink next, and thus it went round. Despite their utmost exertions, the penalty of a second draught was incurred by two of the company.

While we were dreading the consequences of having swallowed so much wine, and in terror lest the cup should be sent round again, a dish of cold pancakes, of an oblong form, and covered with sugar, was produced; and after them sago puddings floating in rich cream. It was in vain that we pleaded the incapacity of our stomachs to contain any more; we were obliged to submit to an additional load; when a summons to coffee in an adjoining room, brought us a most welcome relief.

Our sufferings, however, were not yet at an end. On first entering the house, we had noticed a very large China tureen on the top of a press; and as it had not been used at dinner, we concluded that it was a mere ornament. We had scarcely flattered ourselves that coffee was to finish the entertainment, when the young woman who had waited at table came in with this tureen and set it before us. It was accompanied by some large glasses, each of the size of an ordinary tumbler. We looked at each other with dismay, on observing this huge vessel full of smoking punch; and as there was no prospect of being able to escape, we endeavored to look cheerful, and accomplish the task required of us. Having at length taken leave, our hospitable friend insisted on attending us to the beach.

One extra fun story one for the road

In 1607, a book was published in the Netherlands called Islandia sive poulorum et mirabilium quae in ea insula reperiuntur accuratior descriptio. The author, Dithmar Blefken, retells the story of his travels to Iceland some 40 years earlier. Nothing is known about the author other than what is written in the book. But in the preface, he recounts what has befallen his days after the eventful visit to Iceland. For example, he said he once fell into the hands of robbers who took all his luggage from him, including the manuscript of the book, stripped him of his clothes and wounded him 23 times. Six years later, however, the book manuscript was found again. However, nineteen years still passed before the author was able to publish his book.

Blefken’s travelogue is undoubtedly the most infamous book ever written about Iceland, and Arngrímur, “the learned” Jónsson, felt so strongly about Blefken’s deception that he decided to write a book against it. It is called Anatome Blefkeniana and was published in Hólum in 1612. Arngrímur dissects Blefken’s stories to the core with great learning and insight for his time, albeit with bitter scorn, rebuts the book point by point and tears it apart. But Blefken’s book was no fluke. For 150 years, it was the mainstay of all foreign people’s knowledge of Iceland. It didn’t stop there until Horrebow’s, and Eggert and Bjarni’s travel books were published.

In this country, societal stratification is stark, with only three classes deemed worthy of esteem, as the populace is deeply ingrained with a servile mindset towards the affluent. The first echelon comprises the lawmakers, essentially the judges. These individuals preside over the legal system, with a select group of twelve administering justice each year, their decisions universally adhered to.

Next in the social hierarchy are the farmers, who operate under the patronage of the nobility. Power in this realm is directly proportional to one’s holdings; the more ships and livestock one possesses, the greater the number of fishermen and underlings at their command.

The third tier includes the religious figures, specifically bishops and clergy, who are widespread and influential across the land.

The Icelanders, known for their pride and vanity, particularly regarding their physical attributes, display an impressive strength. For instance, I witnessed an Icelander effortlessly lift and consume an entire Hamburg-barrel of beer, treating it as inconsequential as a trifling matter.

Sartorially, there is little to differentiate between the genders in Iceland, as men and women don similar attire. The island lacks flax, relying on imports, and while the women are noted for their beauty, they seldom adorn themselves with jewellery.

Superstition is deeply entrenched in Icelandic culture, with widespread belief in the supernatural, including demons and spirits. This extends to their fishing practices, where it’s believed that only those aided by the devil achieve substantial catches.

Gospel preachers have endeavored tirelessly to convert the islanders from their perceived godlessness. However, it seems that these deep-rooted beliefs are firmly entrenched in their psyche. They are portrayed as being so ensnared and influenced by malevolent forces that they resist any form of wholesome teaching or rational persuasion. According to local lore, their allegiance to these dark forces is so profound that they are believed to possess the power to halt ships with spells, even under favorable winds, a testament to the mystical influence attributed to them.

These islanders, it is said, possess a peculiar method for dealing with stalled ships, involving a bizarre concoction made from untainted virgin excrement. This substance, applied to the bow and specific parts of the ship, is believed to repel malevolent spirits due to its odor.

Beyond these mystical beliefs, the everyday life of Icelanders is characterized by a strong emphasis on literacy and law. From childhood, parents inculcate the value of reading in their children, resulting in a society where illiteracy is rare among men and not uncommon among women. They utilize our alphabet in addition to unique letters and words specific to their language, which are seldom represented in our alphabet.

The islanders are accustomed to a life of hardship and are skilled in fishing from an early age. Given the lack of arable land, fishing is not just a livelihood but a necessity, leading to a diet predominantly composed of fish, bland smjör (a type of butter), milk, and cheese. In place of bread, they consume fish that has been tenderized with stones, and their primary beverages are water and whey. Remarkably, despite the absence of modern medicine or healthcare, many Icelanders are said to enjoy extraordinary longevity, with some living up to 150 years, and others even claiming to be 200 years old. Olaus Magnus, in his twentieth volume, even suggests that Icelanders might live to be 300 years old.

Bread is a rarity in Iceland; so much so that when it is available, it is mixed with milk, preserved, and treated as a delicacy.

Hafnarfjörður around 1900. Photo: Frederick W. W. Howell, Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

In Iceland, German merchants have established a trading post at Hafnarfjörður, a natural harbor. Here, they erect tents and vend various items including shoes, clothing, glassware, knives, and other goods of modest value. The Icelanders, in turn, offer products such as fish oil—extracted from fish entrails and essential to tanners and shoemakers—along with fish, sulfur, white fox skins, butter, and more. These goods are bartered for the items brought by the Germans. Notably, transactions are initiated only after the Icelanders have enjoyed German meat, wine, or beer, a custom extended to their accompanying families regardless of number.

A striking aspect of the marketplace is the presence of Icelanders who bring their eligible daughters. Inquiring whether the merchants have spouses back home, they sometimes offer their daughters’ company for a night in exchange for bread, biscuits, or other minor items. Occasionally, parents allow this without any exchange, for durations ranging from a night to as long as the traders remain in the country. If a girl becomes pregnant from such encounters, she is often more cherished by her parents. Any resulting child is raised for a few years in case the father returns, or may later be included as part of a dowry. These liaisons, particularly with Germans, enhance a girl’s reputation and desirability for future marriage, reflecting a time when adultery, except in cases of incest, was not viewed with disdain. Despite clerical opposition to adultery and severe punishment for the accused, such practices seem to have been met with indifference by the local populace.

Icelanders have a unique tradition when it comes to the consumption of imported wine and beer. Rather than storing these beverages, they engage in a communal practice of visiting each other’s farms, sharing and enjoying the drinks freely without any expectation of payment. During these gatherings, they celebrate by singing about the heroic deeds of their ancestors. These songs are not bound by any formal melody or rhythm; instead, each person sings in their own distinct manner.

Intriguingly, it is considered impolite to leave the drinking table for restroom breaks. Instead, a housewife or another woman present keeps watch. If someone signals the need, she discreetly passes a shared cup under the table. To mask any sounds during this exchange, the rest of the group makes loud noises, similar to pig squeals. After use, the cup is cleansed and then offered to the next person in need. Resisting this custom is viewed as foolish behavior.

Welcoming visitors with a kiss is a customary greeting in Iceland. Another notable aspect is their approach to dealing with lice, which are more prevalent due to the absence of linen clothing. When lice are spotted on garments, they are picked off individually, followed by an exchange of thanks and a tip of the hat among the Icelanders.

Nighttime rituals in Icelandic households involve the entire family, including the master, his wife, and children, sleeping together in one room. They share similar beds without straw or hay for bedding, all covered by woolen blankets. A communal chamber pot is used by everyone, and in the morning, they use its contents for washing their faces, mouths, teeth, and hands. This practice is believed to have numerous benefits, such as enhancing facial appearance, maintaining physical strength, fortifying hand tendons, and preventing tooth decay.

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