new translation: Uppruni Íslenskra húsdýra/Origin of Icelandic Domestic Animals, by Stefán Aðalsteinsson

new translation: Uppruni Íslenskra húsdýra/Origin of Icelandic Domestic Animals, by Stefán Aðalsteinsson

This is a project that started because I wanted to find definitive proof that Icelandic Sheepdogs have existed in pretty much the same form since the Viking era.  I’m still working on THAT particular part of it, but that has since spawned a number of offshoot projects, including research on other animals, as well as learning to speak/read/write Icelandic.  (The latter was sparked by coming into a number of interesting pieces of research written in Icelandic at the same time).  This article was referenced by this page on the ISAA website, and I went in search of it.  I was unable to find a copy via inter-library loan within Canada, and in the end, I resorted to using the online help application on the website for the University of Iceland’s Library, and an extremely nice and helpful gentleman named Jóhann who works there scanned the article and sent it to me via email in PDF form.  I then set about translating it using my weird little method, and then my friend Sara proofed my translation and made a few small edits to make the translation clearer.  So here I present to you, my translation of Uppruni Íslenskra Húsdýra by Stefán Aðalsteinsson.  If you would like to see the original text, with all of the references to his source material, I have that as well, and you can download it here: Uppruni Íslenskra húsdýra final.  The spacing in this document is somewhat funny, as I have done it as a side by side comparison of the Icelandic and English, and I have tried to keep the paragraphs of each language next to each other. In some places, I have added translator’s notes for further clarification, and in these instances the English paragraph is much longer than the Iceland.  I suspect some future projects will be obtaining some of his sources and translating those.

Origin of Icelandic domestic animals, by Stefán Aðalsteinsson


The origin of Icelandic domestic animals can give some indications as to where the people came from who built Iceland in the past. From the lay of the land and the weather, it is believed that the first settlers sought to build their livelihood to a significant extent on livestock and brought it to their country from their homeland.

It is possible to discover the origin of domestic animals by various methods.  First we should consider the bones that have been found from the years the first settlers came in, both in Iceland and in the countries that the animals could be from.

Historical sources can indicate where our domestic animals might have come from. However, it should be noted that all stories from the settlement in Iceland and the early years of the country were written long after the settlement, and their direct validity is limited for this reason. However, descriptions of livestock from the time stories were first put down in writing can provide some information on how livestock came here, for example due to the relatively short amount of time from landing.

A comparison of the livestock foundations in modern Iceland and neighboring countries can also give evidence of the origin of Icelandic domestic animals. However, such a comparison must be done with caution because changes might have happened in livestock farms in Iceland and neighboring countries in the past eleven centuries.

In the neighboring countries, the breeding policy in the 18th and 19th centuries that grew up in a group of livestock communities, was to produce a uniform breed. This was called for to achieve a solid breed. For this reason, it is highly doubtful to use the external characteristics of livestock in modern times to judge the outer appearance of different livestock models because related livestock may have changed to different degrees of such a selection, and the distant related kinds have gotten similar in look and structure because of selective breeding in the same direction.

Icelandic farm animals may also have changed in the past decades and centuries from the way they were at the time of settlement. There are many attempts to import sheep and cattle to the country. It is also known that sheep, horses and cattle fell untouched in hard times in the early centuries. Likewise, it is known that in recent decades there have been major changes in sheep, cattle and horses in the past decades, as a result of targeted breeding.

The main way to avoid the effects of various types of comparison between livestock breeds is to choose for heritable traits that can not be judged by external appearance. Blood from the tract is often taken into account, and hereditary genes are found, such as blood type, egg whites and tissue groups.

The points outlined above need to be considered when attempting to draw a picture of the origins of Icelandic domestic animals.


Extensive research has been conducted on the origins of Icelandic cattle. Information on cattle from ancient journals that may be helpful in tracing their origins is very scarce. However, referring to the colors of the bull Brandkrossa in Brandkrossa Þattur (this is the name of one of the Sagas – ed.) he drank milk in both winter and summer, but he was a pale pink color. The key is that the grip has a red base and dark cross sections in the areas that are reddish. Crossbones are called cattle that have a white color in the front that extends to the eyes and ears. When the white color returns to the eyes and back or over the ears, it is said that the grip is helmetlike (other color on the head than the rest of the body) or húfótt is another word for white colour on the head, helmet like.

Horned cattle were most common in the past, as the horns made cattle valuable. Hornless cattle have been in Iceland since ancient times. Pieces of skull from hornless cattle were found in a bone collection, which came from the excavation of a house at Aðalbóli in Hrafnkelsdalur valley. Skulls of hornless cattle were also found in the skeletal remains excavated in Stóraborg under Eyjafjöll. (Translator’s note: Stóruborg was an old manor town near the volcano Eyjafjöll in southwestern Iceland. It existed there from approximately the year 1000 until 1840, when it was moved 640m to protect it from the sea. Ref: Sunnlenskar byggðir IV).  Also, skulls of hornless cattle have also been discovered by excavation in the settlements of the ancient Greenlanders. Both indicate that hornless cattle were taken to Iceland during the settlement. In the 16th century, beautiful horned Icelandic cattle. However, there were a few hornless bulls in Iceland. At the beginning of the 19th century, cows in Iceland were mostly hornless, but there were many horned cows. This suggests that men had begun to choose intentionally for hornless calves beyond the 16th century. In the early 20th century, cattle in Iceland were very diverse in color and exterior appearance.

A few attempts were made to import Danish cattle to Iceland in the 19th century, but it was said that they had a minor effect on the Icelandic cow.

Two studies have been conducted on blood groups and egg white models in Icelandic cattle. In the previous study it became apparent that Icelandic cattle were closely related to old Norwegian landraces, ie. Þelamerkur, Dala and Þrændakúm. In this study, it was further noted that Icelandic cows completely lacked blood type genes that characterize Jersey cows. The speculation that Icelandic cows are to some extent derived from Jersey cattle is unsubstanstiated.

The latter study found that Icelandic cattle were closer to  Guernsey cattle, when compared to other European types, than the Norwegian ones. However, the genetic distance of Icelandic cow from Guernsey cattle was more than twice as much as the distance from Norwegian cows to Guernsey cattle.

Kinship with Guernsey cattle has not been observed in all studies. In the previous study of blood counts of Icelandic cattle, Icelandic cows were less related to Jersey cattle and Guernsey cattle than the other coworkers compared to those studies.

A scholarly assessment of Icelandic cattle’s relation to cattle in other countries stated that the relationship with the old Norwegian cattle was very close. If it were assumed that Icelandic cows were randomized samples from Norwegian cows during the settlements, the difference between a thorough assessment of Icelandic cattle’s relations with cattle from other countries was that the relationship with the old Norwegian cow was very close. If it were assumed that Icelandic cows were randomized samples from Norwegian cows during the settlements, the difference in modernity was no greater than that which could only be caused by settlement until 20th century.


Icelandic horses are different from other horses, as is best seen by how much attention Icelandic horses have attracted overseas in this century.

Ancient stories tell you about famous horses. A female horse named Fluga, who came with a ship that landed at Kolbeinsárós (translator: a trading post at the mouth of the rivers Kolka and Hjaltadalsá), was the fastest of all horses. Hauknefur in Gotland gave Gull-Þóri Kinnskæ, a dark red horse who was a gauskur (Swedish) runner and was fed in winter and summer on grain. Freyfaxi Hrafnkels Freysgoða was pinkish in color according to the most widely used script of Hrafnkel’s story. In older versions, he was said to be brown. He was the cause of great events.

Studies on Icelandic horse bones from pagan graves indicate that Icelandic horses are very similar to Norwegian horses as they were before Iceland’s settlement. They also resemble horses from 6 to 8th century in Beckum in Germany. However, Icelandic horses have been smaller at the time of settlements than the German and Norwegian horses that they were compared to. Horse bones have also been found in Greenland that are very similar to ancient bones from Icelandic horses.

Icelandic horses have been known for a long time for their light-footed gait. It has been mentioned that horses that could both tölt and skeið (Translator: the tölt and skeið are both gaits that the Icelandic horse has – the Icelandic horse has 5 gaits, instead of the 4 that most horses have) have been eradicated in mainland Europe by using horses for wagons to a greater extent than before. Trotting worked better.

The Nordland horse from Norway is considered the forefather of the Icelandic horse. Is then judged by external appearance, facial appearance and character. Blood group research, however, indicates that the Icelandic horse is more related to the Shetland horse, than the Nordland horse and the Fjord horse in Norway. It is not surprising because Hjaltland (Shetland) was a Norwegian territory for hundreds of years, so it was unlikely that men had taken horses from Norway when Norwegians started settling there. It is surprising, however, that Icelandic horses are not very  related to the Norwegian Fjord horse. The most reasonable explanation for this is that the Fjord horse has changed significantly since the settlement.

Horses were cars on land in the past. As transportation on land grew easier, the movement of horses between countries grew ever greater. Horses, however, have barely been transported between countries during the peace period. Horse exchange and horse buying were an easier solution and must have been known as now. In the wars horses played a different role. Vikings who attacked England from mainland in 892 had horses aboard their ships. Ólafur Tryggvason and Sveinn Tjúguskegg attacked London in September 994, but were driven out and suffered great losses. Then their army returned on horseback and went far into the land and did a lot of damage (bál og brand is a saying in Iceland, meaning a lot of damage)

There has been no reason to import horses from other countries to Hjaltland and Iceland later in the settlement era and horses had become commonplace.


Sheep have been in Iceland since the settlement, but no sources are available regarding where they came from. The Icelandic sheep is from Northern European short-tailed sheep. They are in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Shetland and Orkney, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The sheep of this kind have a short tail or “dindil” (the word we use for a short tail on the sheep) and the wool of this sheep is usually found in two forms, the rough tog and fine thel. In Finland, Sweden and Norway, it is common for both sexes to be unhorned, but also for both sexes to be horned. Four horned sheep occur in Sweden and are considered to occur in Norway but is very rare. In the Faroe Islands, Hjaltland and Orkney, rams are usually horned and females hornless. It occurs in free range sheeps on the island of Soay (Sauðey) in Scotland and in the UK’s long tailed breed, and more in sheep breeds in southern part of the continent, such as merino in Spain.

In Icelandic sheep, both sexes can be horned or the female can be hornless (kollóttar) or hnýflóttar (a horn that stands straight up like a finger and is usually short on females), and the males can be hornless (kollóttir),  örðóttir (a horn that can be felt under the skin but has not broken through, or has broken through but is very short), hnýflóttir (a horn that stands straight up like a finger and is usually short) or sívalhyrndir (when the horns are round, like the typical ram pictures).

It is not common that the rams are horned and the ewes are hornless.  This alone is in fact sufficient proof that Icelandic sheep come from the Nordic region. When color is taken into account, it is still possible to narrow the area. The colors of Golsótt and Botnótt are found in the Norwegian short tailed sheep and on Icelandic sheep. (Translator’s note: Golsótt is when the underfleece is white and the longer hair is black/grey, but the stomach is usually white or black, and Botnótt is when the stomach to the butt is white and rest of the body is a darker colour, are the names for special fleece colours in Icelandic sheep). In both genders, the Icelandic model is of gray and in both genders there is a black and dark red color. Norway has more solidarity with Icelandic sheep in colours and types of horns than any other sheep breed in the Nordic region. In addition, there is a good match between these sheep breeds in hereditary hemoglobin and blood potassium. Accordingly, Icelandic sheep come from Norway.

Goats, pigs and dogs

Goats came here during settlement. They are mentioned in ancient stories, and many place names are associated with goats. (örnefni can be nickname for places, and also nickname for people, but in this instance they are referring to place names). Nothing can be said concretely about the origin of Icelandic goats but going by the colors and horns they resemble Norwegian goats.

Pigs were brought to Iceland during settlement. They are mentioned in stories and many place names are associated  with them. Pigs still existed in Iceland in the latter part of the 16th century, but died out in the 17th century.

Two types of dogs seem to have been brought to the country during settlement. One of them is of an average size, but the other is much larger. Bones of the larger species have been discovered in Greenland, and have been similar to Irish Wolfhounds. It is tempting to associate that finding with the story of Sámi that Olaf was given in Ireland, and later he should have given Gunnari on Hlíðarenda.

Hunting dogs that were much larger than other dogs were in Iceland in the 16th and 18th centuries but appear to have died out late in the 18th century. They may have all been put down in the Mist Hardship. (Translator’s Note: a famine which occurred after the eruption of the volcano Laki in 1783/84 which lasted for 8 months and killed many people and animals)

Blood tests that have been carried out on the Icelandic Sheepdog, which have been bred here in recent decades, indicate that they originate from the Nordic countries.

Cats and mice

Cats have been brought to Iceland in the early centuries, ie. during settlement. The cat belly was a commodity of ancient times, and the belly of a male cat was worth the equivalent of three autumn lambskins. Studies on the color genes in cats in Iceland and neighboring countries show that the Icelandic cat is closely related to cats in Sweden and in the Shetland Islands, but distant related  to cats in Ireland and in South England.

Mice in Iceland are field mice. They enter houses during the winter, but move into the pasture during the summer. Characteristics of mouse skulls indicate that field mice had been brought to Iceland from Norway, from which mice would also have been sent to Shetland and the South Tyrol. Blood type studies did not give a clear answer to where the Icelandic mice had come from.

Studies on parasites on the Icelandic mouse have revealed that they are a species of flea that is found only in continental Europe. Mice in the British Isles have another type of this flea. The differences show that the Icelandic field mouse does not come from the British Isles, and the skull leads strongly to the mice coming from Norway.

A further article has been drawn up for the origin of Icelandic domestic animals in other areas and is referred to.


Fyrir Hundana

Fyrir Hundana

This post is a slightly edited version of the most recent post on my language learning blog.

I’ve posted about my dogs before, and just in case it wasn’t evident, I am a big dog geek.  If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ve already met Ása, who is a 1 year old Norwegian Elkhound.  Then not even a month ago, we were joined by Þórný the Icelandic Sheepdog puppy, and now you know that yes, I am that much of a nerd that I even got dogs that would be appropriate for my persona.  It doesn’t hurt that both breeds fall right in line with the type of dog my husband and I like. Before these two, we had an Akita, and all three of these breeds are in the spitz/northern category.  We likes our pointy ears, curly tails and double coats, that’s for sure.

Anyways, there’s definitely some information out there about the dogs in Iceland during the Viking period, and I’m working on some documentation on that.  I can tell you that Icelandic sheepdogs were absolutely around during the Viking period in Iceland, and they were very likely veeeeery similar in appearance to how they are today, but I don’t have the documentation to prove it… yet.  That is absolutely coming in the future.  There’s many references to dogs in the Sagas, though, and there’s actually also a reference to an “Iceland dog” in one of Shakespeare’s plays!  It may actually be Macbeth, but I can’t quite remember.  I’ll have to look that up again. Of course, having studied a few of Shakespeare’s plays in school, he may be using that as a euphemism for something else.  And Shakespeare is way past the Viking era… but it’s still very period for the SCA in general.

Despite knowing that there WERE dogs in Iceland during the Viking period, I have serious doubts that I’d be able to find any info on whether they were trained, how they were trained, etc. I’ve heard that there’s been evidence of leather strips being used to collar and leash them, but need to dig up that info for myself still.  But I decided that regardless of what evidence is out there, I’m going to train MY dogs in both English AND Icelandic just for fun and geekery.  So with that in mind, I set about researching the right words for the Icelandic commands.  I’ve been studying the Icelandic language for almost two months now, and I know enough to know that very little is an exact translation of the English version of something, because Icelandic grammar is quite different, I didn’t want to just use Google Translate to help me with the commands.  I first posted on the Icelandic Sheepdog group on Facebook, since there’s plenty of Icelandic folks on there, and got a bit of advice, but I also got the suggestion to reach out to Galleri Voff – Hundaskóli (I haven’t translated that last word, but how much do you want to bet that it means “dog school”? ) so I went over to their Facebook page and sent Ásta a message.  She was super fast with responding and super helpful.  Major thanks to her for her help!

Anyhow, on to the language lesson!  First off, the word for dog is “hund”. If you want to say THE dog, it’s “hundurinn”.  Dogs plural is “hundar”.  Puppy is “hvolpur”, the puppy is “hvolpurinn”, and puppies is “hvolpar”.  Icelandic Sheepdog is “Íslenskur Fjarhundur”, and Norwegian Elkhound, well… in Norwegian, it’s “norsk elghund”, and I suspect it’s probably the same in Icelandic.  It might be Norsku Elghund… I need to check with my friends and I’ll update this when I do.

Here’s what I’m going to be using in terms of Icelandic commands.  The pronunciations are in the parentheses after the word.

Come – koma (pronounced like the english Coma)
Sit – sestu (sesstu)
Stay – bíddu (beethu)  (this is literally “wait”, so it’ll be the same command for both)
Lie down – leggstu niður (leg-stew neethur)
Up – upp (the U is pronounced like a German ü.  I don’t know how to represent this in text other than maybe “eupp”)
No – nei (nay)
In the car – inn í bíl (In ee beel)

A few others that Auður, the breeder that Þórný came from, helped me with (since she is Icelandic herself):

Leave it – ekki snerta (literally “do not touch”)
Drop it – sleppa

There will eventually be a part 2 to this entry, as Thorny’s education progresses, but for the time being, as she’s only just under 12 weeks old, this is a good start!

dúnkennd hvit ský af ull (fluffy white clouds of wool)

dúnkennd hvit ský af ull (fluffy white clouds of wool)

Yesterday I spent my whole lunch break out on the back lawn of my workplace, working on sorting and separating the drawstring bag full of fleece I have washed up.  I took advantage of the natural light to take some pictures while I was working, as well, so I can show you better the difference between the tog and the þel.

This picture here shows the fleece before separating – but it happens to be a section of it that doesn’t have very much tog in it.  I’ll get a picture of some that has more tog in it fairly soon, hopefully, and also some pictures of what it looks like before washing.  There’s a bit of tog in this one though – middle of the picture vertically, a little right of centre.  The bits that are more curly and a bit darker are the tog.

This next picture shows all the locks of tog I’ve separated out.  There may be a bit too much þel attached to them, judging from the abundance of fluffy white stuff on the left side though.  I can further pull more of the þel out if need be though.

Here I wanted to see how long one lock of tog was, to compare with a picture that my friend Marianne had sent me to demonstrate how long it could be on a good fleece.  I didn’t have a measuring tape with me, but I did have my keychain with its piano lanyard on it, so I took a picture compared to that so I could measure it later.  The lanyard itself is 16 inches long when folded in half, which is about 40cm.  It turned out that this tog is just as long as the tog from Marianne’s picture!  These really are some darned nice fleeces I’m working with.

And finally, a picture of the three piles together.  On the left top, the unseparated fleece.  On the top right, the þel after the tog is pulled out, and in the middle bottom is the pile of just tog.  I’m going to save the tog for another project in the future – it might be suitable for spinning up a little thicker and then naalbinding into mittens, since the tog will make for very sturdy items, and a bit more waterproof too.  We’ll see how much of it I have after I finish separating all 3 fleeces that I have.

I’m already starting to think that I might need to reserve a couple more fleeces from next year’s shearing… coloured ones this time.  Icelandic sheep come in all sorts of different colours – white, black, grey (which is actually a white þel coat and a coloured tog coat – it can be either black or brown), brown… and then there’s all sorts of stuff about the different patterning that Icelandic sheep can have (spotting, Badgerface, mouflon, etc.) and I haven’t even begun to understand how all that works so I’m just not even going to talk about that yet.  Maybe I can talk one of my Icelandic friends who know lots about sheep into writing a guest post for me. 🙂

smá uppfærsla

smá uppfærsla

Just a little update, since I have a number of projects on the go but nothing really major to report about any of them at the moment.

On the Skyr front, my culture was indeed too old and had died.  I’ve ordered another one, and will be putting that one on to grow the minute it arrives in the mail.  I got the notification that it had been mailed today, so hopefully it won’t take too long.  I also recently talked with one of my Icelandic friends who mentioned that Skotidakis (the Greek Yogurt brand) is now making Skyr too, though it seems to only be available at Costco right now.  I did get to Costco on Saturday, though, and picked up a case.  Sadly it only comes flavoured, not in plain, otherwise I’d try using that as a culture and start a batch from that. Apparently the Skotidakis brand comes a lot closer to actual Icelandic Skyr than the President’s Choice brand does.

I’m close to being able to post another project I’ve been working on for a while, which is a translation of a 7 page article from an Icelandic journal on the origins of various domestic animals in Iceland.  The article itself is modern, and isn’t geared towards people focusing on the Viking era, as it talks about changes since then, but since Iceland as a country basically started during the Viking period, talking about where the various Icelandic breeds of animals came from is relevant to my interests here.  Getting this article in the first place originated from my work towards showing documentation that Icelandic Sheepdogs have been around in much the same form as they are in now since the Viking era.  I still have to go further in this research on the dogs, but the other information in this article is interesting as well.

Speaking of the Icelandic Sheepdog, this past weekend was Þórný’s first event, at Vinfest in Grande Prairie.  We were only there for a few hours for various reasons, but she got lots of attention and good socialization time, and I had my first experience helping to run the lists for a fighter tournament!  Here’s Thorny and I – she’s passed out on me from all the excitement, just like that picture of Ása passed out on me from Vinfest 2017.  We brought Ása as well, and she gets lots of attention to as she’s a sweet, friendly girl, but she was more interested in digging holes on Saturday.  Þórný’s more likely to become my eventing companion, because she likes car rides whereas Ása isn’t fond of them.

Finally, I am currently working on separating a big pile of fleece into two smaller piles.  As I mentioned in this entry (Íslenska Sauðkindin), Icelandic Sheep fleece has two different layers, the tog and the þel (thel).  The tog is a long, straighter part of the sheep’s fleece, and is more coarse.  The þel is the under-layer of their fleece, and is much softer.  For the purposes of my project, I pretty much want to use only þel, so I am separating the tog out and saving it for another project.  Once this process is done I will then be able to pretty much spin straight from the handfuls of þel I have, I won’t even really need to do any further preparing before spinning.  The portion of the fleece (it’s maybe 20-25% of one fleece, at the most) I’m working with has been washed, so it’s clean and has only a small amount of lanolin left in it. Once I pull the tog out (I’m just doing this by hand – no tools necessary), the þel pretty much comes away as a fluffy white cloud.  I’ve been doing some research on how the thread for weaving with was spun during the Viking era in Iceland, so there will be a post about that soon too.

Another upcoming sub-project for the sheep to dress project is going to be making my own drop spindles.  I managed to find my larger pieces of soapstone this past Friday while I was looking for something else, so I can finally get started on carving some spindle whorls.  Then I’ll just need to take Ása and Þórný for a walk in the woods to look for some appropriately sized and shaped spindle shafts, since if I’m putting the time and effort into carving the whorls myself, I am certainly not going to use a commercial dowel for the shaft.  I’ve been also making some spindles out of commercial dowels, toy wheels, and cup hooks lately, but that’s not exactly appropriate for period.




The Northern Women Arts Collective is a treasure trove of fascinating, valuable and useful information, and a few of the folks over there have done a project very similar to the apron dress project I’m (very slowly) working on.  This is the Lady in Blue project – they researched and reproduced the apron dress from a grave find near Ketilsstaðir in Iceland.  I’m doing something similar, with the main differences being that I’m not necessarily basing mine on that exact find – though that’s likely the one with the most information available about it, and the parameters I had planned out in my head basically match that one anyways, theirs was a group project, and they used pre-prepared rovings and modern tools to do their spinning and weaving.  I’m planning to do my entire project solo, and I’m also making replica tools and using them for the fibre processing, spinning and weaving, so don’t be surprised if it’s the early 2020s before the dress is wearable.

Yesterday I received a comment on an earlier post where I talked about Icelandic sheep from Marled Mader, one of the ladies involved in the recreation of the Lady in Blue dress.  She is from Germany, but keeps a flock of Icelandic sheep, and she offered me the use of some pictures of her flock. (correction: these aren’t her flock, they’re pictures she took while she was in Iceland).  I had previously been using photos I’d found by searching Flickr (though I am using them legitimately, as I’ve only chosen ones listed as being available under a Creative Commons license), and have plans in the future to get some of my own photos – some when I visit Iceland next year, but I’ve also met a few people recently that live relatively close to me who keep Icelandic sheep – but to have these photos to use in the meantime is wonderful.  So I thought I would show you some of the photos (and I’ve kept back some to use in future blog posts as well).  If historical textiles are your thing, you should also go visit Marled’s blog at Archaeotechnics – Textile Flache – I’ve only had a chance to skim a few posts, but it looks like she’s got lots of great info there and I will definitely be back in the future to read in more depth, as I suspect there will be useful info there for me when I’m working out more specific parts of my apron dress project.

So without further adieu, here are some great photos of some beautiful Icelandic sheep that Marled took in Iceland!



Today I’m going to take a little break from the textile stuff, and talk about something that almost everyone has some sort of interest in… food! More specifically, a food that is quintessentially Icelandic: Skyr.

Skyr is a dairy product that is very similar to yogurt, but is not quite the same. In fact, it’s technically cheese, because it contains rennet, which is a set of enzymes. Traditionally it was obtained from the stomachs of ruminant animals, but in modern times there are also non-animal forms of rennet available, which is good for vegetarians who do eat dairy products.

Skyr has been around since the Viking era, and in that time period, it was extremely useful as it was a method of preserving dairy products in a high-protein form for long periods of time –
up to 6 to 9 months, even. In a time period with no refrigeration, that was extremely useful. The byproduct of the skyr-making process, whey, could also be used to preserve meats, and
apparently could even be fermented into an alcoholic drink.

Skyr is mentioned in a number of the Sagas, showing us that it has been around since the Viking times.

In Grettirssaga, which is about Grettir Ásmundarson, Grettir trips an old friend which causes him to fall on the bag of skyr he was carrying, breaking it open. Auðunn, the friend, then throws the Skyr at Grettir, which covers him, and causes him to start a fight with Auðunn. This scene is is apparently the start of why it is considered a great offense to throw Skyr at someone – even in modern times. In the 2008 financial crisis in Iceland, protestors threw Skyr at members of parliament, instead of things like tomatoes or eggs like you might see elsewhere.

In Egilssaga, Egil Skallagrimsson, who lived between 910 and 990, was traveling on business for his king, and upon stopping at a farmhouse for the night, was served “only” Skyr for dinner, which was apparently cause for great offense. Skyr was an everyday food, and not something to be served to honoured guests.

In Ljósvetningasaga, skyr is mentioned in the context of a man named Gissur surviving when his home was invaded, his family all murdered and most of the house burned down, but he survived
because he hid in a barrel of Skyr in the storage room.

Unfortunately there are no descriptions of skyr detailed enough to know if what is eaten today is at all similar to what was eaten during the Viking period, but I would hazard a guess that
it’s quite similar.

Making Skyr is actually a fairly easy process, similar to making your own yogurt today. In the Viking period, the cream would have been skimmed off of the milk from either a cow or a sheep, so that it could be made into butter, which was also an excellent form of preserving high-calorie content food (which would be necessary in the Viking period). You take a pot of milk that has been warmed slightly. A small portion of the previous batch of Skyr would then be stirred in, and the mixture left to sit in a draft-free place at room temperature or very slightly warmer, for however long is needed to coagulate the proteins. Typically overnight, or about 12 hours. Once the proteins have coagulated, you will be able to see the curds that have separated from the whey – the difference will be really obvious. You then spoon the curds into a cloth-lined colander and suspend it over a vessel and put it in the fridge, where the rest of the whey will drain out. It will be VERY thick and much sourer than Western-style yogurt, if that’s what you’re used to eating.

There are a number of commercial dairy manufacturers that are selling Skyr in the stores these days – here in Canada, the only one I’ve seen is President’s Choice, which is sold in Loblaws stores (No Frills, Superstore, there may be stores with other names out east), and Siggi’s Skyr in the US is probably the most well known one. I’ve tasted the President’s Choice Skyr, and while it was  yummy, it was also the texture of greek yogurt, so I get the feeling it’s not quite the real thing.

Next up… I’m going to actually make my own Skyr. Rather than starting with a container of PC Skyr, I’ve actually obtained a dried culture that supposedly originated in Iceland.  It’s sitting in a jar containing 2 cups of whole cow’s milk, covered loosely in a cloth and then placed in my oven, since it’s draft-free and will keep the temperature even.  By tomorrow morning, I should know if the culture is still viable (if it’s not, I can get a replacement) and if it’s viable, I will continue to let it sit for up to 48 hours until it becomes a solid mass.  At that point I’ll be able to use this starter to make a batch of Skyr in the method I described above, and put the rest of it in the fridge for the next batch… though I could also use the remains of the batch I make to start the next one, just like a modern yogurt culture.  If all goes well, I plan to do a taste test against PC Skyr to see how it compares.  Of course, again, who knows if it will be anything like what was made in the Viking era, but we can pretend, since this is as close as it’s going to get.  I’ve also found a potential source of obtaining some sheep’s milk from Icelandic sheep next spring, once the ewes have been bred and had their lambs, so I’m hoping to be able to keep this going long enough to try a batch with sheep’s milk as well.

Photograph of Skyr with blackberries and granola is ©Alyson Hurt, used with permission under a Creative Commons license and was obtained here on Flickr.

My translation process

My translation process

Here’s how I go about it translating a text that is in Icelandic, if you’re curious.

The first step is to type out the text from whatever it is I want to translate.  I know some people use either a scanner with OCR (optical character recognition) or an app on their smartphone that can take a picture and apply OCR to it, but I type about 110 words per minute on regular English text, and while the extra characters in Icelandic do slow me down a little bit because of the extra keystrokes they take to type, it still doesn’t take me THAT long to type a smaller piece out.  Speaking of those extra characters, I wrote an entry on my language learning blog at all those interesting letters and that helps speed things up, at least over the extra time it would take for the extra characters if I were using ALT codes.

The next step is that I set up a Word document with a table made of 3 columns – the one in the middle is as narrow as possible, just to have some space between the two columns of text – and the other two roughly equal in width.  I cut and paste the Icelandic text into the left-hand column.

Then I cut and paste the Icelandic text a sentence or two at a time into Google Translate.  And when I do that, I typically get a mess like this:

The Icelandic text I started with:

“Eins og ég hef gert grein fyrir í öðru riti, er efnið í þessum snúðum útlent, sennilega norskt, og verður seinna vikið að þvi í þætti um katla.”

Google’s translation:

“As I have explained in another verse, the material in these springs is foreign, probably Norwegian, and later it will be a part of the boiler.”

Excuse me, what now?  Most of this is utter gibberish.  Sure, it’s English, but the sentences make no sense whatsoever.  Here’s where things get fun.  Now, this sentence I’m using as an example is not from the start of the section of the book, so it’s lacking in context.  I picked it because the second half of the sentence is the one remaining part of this text that I’m struggling to translate.  It was just the easiest thing to go to for an example. So for a little bit of context, the previous paragraph and the rest of the paragraph that came before this sentence (it’s the last sentence in the paragraph) talk about the spindle whorls that have been found in grave digs in Iceland, what they were made of, how big they were, etc. The process up to now has had me going through the whole process I’m laying out here, so I’ve already picked up a few of the odder words that Google Translate has had difficulty with.  The example I’m using here is from the 3 paragraph excerpt in Kuml og Haugfé that I posted yesterday.

So once I’ve put a whole sentence in, came up with something nonsensical, and decided the translation needs tweaking, then I start putting anywhere from one to three words at a time into Google Translate.  The way GT is set up, it can actually take the entire context of the sentence into account and if you start typing a whole sentence into it and have Instant Translation turned on, it will translate as you type, and it will adjust the translation as you add more words. This was actually part of what helped me develop this method of translation.  Now, I’ve been studying the Icelandic language for about 5-6 weeks now, and I’ve picked up a lot of the basics – and, the, or, but, etc. and then some of the words that are less common in everyday usage, but are really common in the types of things I’m reading. For example, Snældusnúdar, which was the heading for this section of the book.  I tried translating that.  Ekkert. (That’s Icelandic for nothing, by the way.) But I’ve learned both through trial and error and from a couple of my Icelandic friends that Icelanders LOVE their compound words.  So then I looked at the word and tried to figure out a logical place where it could be split.  I tried Snældus.  Nothing. I took the s off the end and bingo. Google Translate gave me “cassette”.  Probably not quite right, given the topic I’m working on, but gives me a place to start.

That’s when I head over to That’s a free online dictionary for almost every language in existence, and I’ve found it to be quite accurate and to have a pretty big database. It can also sometimes handle conjugations and modifications of words, for example how Icelandic goes from “fisk” for fish, to “fiskurinn” for the fish.  It also has this handy feature where, when you search on a word, a frame on the left will display 15 words that come before and after it in the dictionary.  Sometimes this can be a really big help.  Glosbe didn’t like Snældusnúdar, for Snældu it gave me cassette, BUT I looked at the word list and noticed it had an entry for Snælda. Jackpot.  The second entry in the definitions was “Spindle”, and even had the helpful description of “spike used for spinning fibers into yarn”.  Now I’ve been spinning for years and already knew that, but there are other things called spindles as well, and this helped to confirm that I was looking at the right thing.

So then from there, I took the context of the fact that I was looking at a picture of 3 things that looked like spindle whorls right next to the text in the book, plus the fact that the book happens to have a condensed English index in the back of it that actually used the term spindle-whorls, I can therefore conclude that the rest of the word meant something like whorl.  In fact, Glosbe didn’t like snúdar, but the word list showed a “Snúður”, which means “head”.  And yes, sometimes Icelanders do seem to be that literal.  In the case of a top-whorl spindle (and I’m starting to get the feeling that those were most common), the whorl would indeed look like a head on top of a stick.

Anyhow, back to that bizarre sentence.  The first half was quite easy to deal with.  “As I have explained in another” makes sense.  Verse… well, not so much, but I got the feeling it might mean paragraph here, which would make sense.  So I made a guess that the first 6 words of the sentence were what translated to the “as I have explained in another”, and started with the seventh word.  Fyrir.  This one I know – it means “for”.  It can also mean “already”.  So I backed up.  I know “og ég hef” is “and I have”. I checked “eins”. It means “like”, in the sense of “as” in “as I have said before”.  I went on to gert grein, which came up with “made an article”. Gert on its own is “done”.  Grein is “article”. Out of all of this, I put together “As I have noted in another article already”. There’s the first part of the sentence.

Continuing on, we have í – in. Ödru – other. Riti – writing. Seems a bit redundant, but Icelandic can be a bit quirky I’ve found.  (And I mean quirky in the most loving way possible… heck, I’m pretty quirky myself.  I like quirky.  It’s interesting.) Er efnið – “is the content”.  “Í þessum” – in these.  Adding “snúðum útlent” to “í þessum” gave me “in these foreign spikes”, which is nonsensical.  So I removed the í þessum, which gave me “spinning foreign”. Snúðum on its own gave me “turn”. Hmm.  So over to Glosbe I went… in fact the window was still open from when I looked up snúður, and hey, those look awfully similar!  In fact, they’re probably variations of the same word.  So let’s pop spindle into the sentence. In other writing is the content in these spinning foreign.  Now here’s the part where having my weird, ADHD-addled brain comes in handy, since it allows me to think outside the box (as obnoxious as that phrase is), and just think about how that sentence could be rearranged to make sense given the context.  This is how I figured out “As I have noted in another article, the material in these whorls is foreign.”  Sennilega norskt is easy – probably Norse – and I already knew that soapstone was imported from Norway as it doesn’t occur naturally in Iceland.

And here’s where I had to stop the translation, because no matter what I did, I just couldn’t make heads nor tails out of the rest of the sentence.  “og verður seinna vikið að þvi í þætti um katla.” I know that og is and, seinna is later, and um is about. But even with using Google Translate AND Glosbe, I couldn’t make sense of the rest.  However, katla translates as “boiler”, but… a Google search on the word katla shows that there’s a volcano in Iceland named Katla.  And later, I did some searches on an Icelandic website where I found at least one spindle whorl that looks like it’s carved out of volcanic rock.  So it wouldn’t surprise me if it turns out to be something like that.

So now that I’m at this point, the last step I use is… consulting with one of my Icelandic friends.  Sometimes I’ll go to one of them in particular, depending on what the subject matter is, since a couple of them have knowledge of particular areas that I also am interested in (like fibre arts, or animals).   Sometimes it’s for a particular word, but I’ve also said “here’s what I got out of this – how close am I?”  I’ve really lucked out with running into people on Facebook groups that I’m in who are Icelandic (of course, their naming system often makes it easy to identify someone who is Icelandic at a glance), and making friends with them.  Not specifically to have someone who speaks the language to ask for help – but just because I like making new online friends from other countries who I have things in common with, and since my husband and I are intending to travel to Iceland next year, I thought it would be fun to know some people there before we go.  And then I ended up getting my Icelandic Sheepdog puppy from someone who immigrated from Iceland to Canada.  And they are all super nice people – though I don’t think I’ve met ANYONE from Iceland so far who wasn’t nice – and seem happy to help out.  So I am SUPER thankful to have them as friends, and they may all just might be getting thank you gifts from me at some point in the not too distant future.


spindle whorls from Viking-age Iceland

spindle whorls from Viking-age Iceland

I picked up my copy of Kuml og haugfé úr heiðnum sið á Íslandi, by Kristján Eldjárn this morning with the intent of flipping through it looking for a spindle whorl to replicate. It’s now 8pm and I’m just now poking my head back out of the rabbit hole I fell down on this topic (with some breaks during the day to run errands and take the dogs out to play).  What started as just looking for one spindle whorl turned into me translating a small portion of the book, and then doing a search on for all of the spindle whorls in their database and making a summary of them with sizes, material, when they’re dated to, and any other interesting or unique things about them, like the few that have decorative markings on them.  I then went on a Google search, and the result of all this is that there’s definitely some sort of paper or something in the works about this.  That will take longer than I have available to me today, and I wanted to get an entry posted, so the spindle whorl project will definitely be a multi-post thing.  Today I’m going to share with you the text of the 2 or 3 paragraphs I translated from Kuml og Haugfé.

This is not a literal word for word translation, because Icelandic grammar and sentence structure is very different than English grammar and sentence structure. I’ve developed a process for translating things like this that results in a much more readable text than just cutting and pasting into Google Translate. I started to explain how I go about it, but quickly realized that it would make a great topic for another entire entry, so you’ll have to wait on that one.  I will mention, though, that the final step in the process is consulting one of my friends from Iceland on any words I’m completely stumped on, and sometimes to make sure my interpretation is correct.

And so, I am going to share with you my translation, and for the curious, I will include the original Icelandic text afterward.  Also, for the record, the spindle I choose to replicate will definitely NOT be one of the lead ones.  I neither have the facilities to melt lead, nor do I want them, and I want lead poisoning even less.

Spindle Whorls

Spindle Whorls have been found in four graves: Austarahóli, Hrísum, Daðastöðum and Ketilsstödum (Kt. 82, 83, 126, 142, 330. mynd). (Translator’s note: I’ve left the Icelandic abbreviation Kt. in there as I need to check with one of my Icelandic friends on what it means.) The spindle whorls from Austarahóli are made of lead, round, with a flat bottom and domed top, 2.7cm in diameter and 8mm in thickness.  The Hŕisum spindle whorl is also made of lead, semi-spherical, 2.5 cm in diameter, and 1.6cm thick. Lead spindle whorls were rare in ancient times, but nowhere near unknown.  In Norway, at least 6 have been found, and two other lead whorls here in Iceland.  Artifacts 3348 (photo 330), were found on bare ground in Skjögrastöðum in Thjórsárdal.  Most of the time, spindle whorls were made of any type of stone, such as the ones found in the other digs. In the Daðastaður grave finds, two whorls made from clay, the second 2 cm in diameter, flatter above and below, but with rounded sides, 1.7cm in height, and the other was was broken but was about 3.2cm in diameter, 2.1cm in height, and convex.

At Ketilsstaðir, made out of clay, a spindle whorl was found with a flat bottom and rounded top, 4 cm in size, and 2 cm high (thickness), completely unlike most undecorated and ancient spindle whorls. These are the most common spindle whorls from the ancient and middle ages, but billions of such whorls have been found everywhere in the Nordic countries all from the Roman Iron Age.  In more recent centuries, spindle whorls have not been common here in Iceland, but in the middle ages, they have been used frequently and are often found anywhere humans have lived. They are made from various types of local stone and have not been counted together, but 27 locations have been found with whorls made of clay like the Ketilsstaðir ones, and more than one on some support. (Editor’s note: it means that the whorl was found still on the spindle). As I have noted in another article, the material in these whorls is foreign, probably Norwegian, and it will be important to note as it will discussed later in the section regarding Katla.

Spindle whorls were often found in Viking era graves overseas.

And the accompanying picture:

The original text in Icelandic:


Snældusnúdar hafa fundist í fjórum kumlum: á Austarahóli, Hrísum, Daðastöðum og Ketilsstödum (Kt. 82, 83, 126, 142, 330. Mynd). Snældusnúðurinn frá Austarahóli er úr blýi, laglega kringlóttur, flatur að neðan og hvelfdur ofan, 2,7 sm í þvm. og 8 mm á þykkt.

Snældusnúðurinn frá Hrísum er einnig úr blýi, hálfkúlulagaður, 2,5 sm í þvm, 1.6 sm á  þykkt. Snældusnúðar úr blýi voru sjaldgæfir í fornöld en þó hvergi nærri óþekktir.  Í Noregi þekkjast a.m.k. 6, og hér á landi hafa fundist tveir aðrir blýsnúðar, þjms. 3348 (330. mynd), fannst á berum mel á Skjögrastöðum í Vallahreppi, S-Múl., og þjms. 4159, frá Sámsstöðum í Þjórsárdal. Langoftast voru snældusnúðar úr einhverri steintegund eins og hinir kumlfundnu snúðarnir. Í Daðastaðakumlinu voru tveir snúðar úr klébergi, annar 2 sm í þvm., flatur ofan og neðan, en kúptur umhverfis, hæð 1,7 sm, hinn var í brotum en hefur verið um 3,2 sm í þvm., 2.1 sm á hæð, kúptur.

Á Ketilsstöðum fannst snældusnúður úr gráu klébergi, flatur að neðan, kúptur að ofan, 4 sm í þvm., 2 sm á háeð (þykkt), alveg óskreyttur eins og flestir fornir snældusnúðar. Thetta e rog hið algengasta lag snældusnúða frá fornóld og miðóldum, en ógrynni slikra snúða hafa fundist hvarvetna um Norðurlond allt frá rómverskri járnöld. Á seinni öldum hafa steinsnúðar ekki tiðkast hér á landi, en  á miðóldum hljóta  þeir að hafa verið notaðir mikið til einvörðungu og finnast þvi mjög oft þar sem mannabyggð hefur verið. Þeir eru úr ýmsum innlendum steintegundum og hafa ekki verið taldir saman, en á 27 stöðum hafa fundist snúðar ú klébergi eins og Ketilsstaðasnúðurinn og fleiri en einn á sumum stöðunum.   Eins og ég hef gert grein fyrir í öðru riti, er efnið í þessum snúðum útlent, sennilega norskt, og verður seinna vikið að þvi í þætti um katla.

Snældusnúðar finnast mjög oft í vikingaaldarkumlum erlendis.

From pages 399-400 of Kuml og haugfé úr heiðnum sið á Íslandi, by Kristján Eldjárn, 3rd edition.
Posted in accordance, I believe, with the fair dealing exception to the Canadian Copyright Law, section 29 which allows for use for private research and study. I’m a historical re-enactor with almost no money and this book had to be ordered all the way from Iceland. I’ve posted 2 paragraphs plus a sentence out of a many-hundred page book. Anyone who is interested in reading this is likely to be a broke history geek too. Don’t sue me – you can’t get water out of a stone.

New project: Icelandic Language Blog

New project: Icelandic Language Blog

I’ve started a new project that’s somewhat of an offshoot of my persona development, and decided it deserved a separate blog of its own: I’m learning the Icelandic language!

I’ll probably post the occasional entry over here when something significant happens, but if you’re interested in following my progress to speaking, reading and understanding spoken Icelandic, head on over to this separate blog: Íslensk Tungumál – the journey to speaking Icelandic.

Velkomin Þórný! Íslenskur Fjarhundur

Velkomin Þórný! Íslenskur Fjarhundur

I don’t have a cute story for you this time, but it is definitely time for me to introduce to you the newest member of my family, and piece of my persona development puzzle. Please welcome Audurs Sumarsól (Audurs is the kennel name, Sumarsól is Icelandic for Summer Sun), known around here as Þórný.  Her name, just like Ása’s, is a documentable female name from the Viking era in Iceland.  The anglicization and pronunciation of that is “Thorny”.  That character at the start of her name is the Icelandic Thorn, which makes a hard Th sound, like in Thor, Thorn, and Thunder.  She came to us from Biggs Ranch, a farm in central Alberta that raises not only Icelandic Sheepdogs, but also Icelandic Sheep, Icelandic Horses and Icelandic Chickens.  (And Angus cattle, but those aren’t Icelandic.)  As you might guess, one of the owners of the ranch is Icelandic.  They’re both lovely people who raise amazing dogs.

Icelandic Sheepdogs are another northern/Spitz breed, just like the Norwegian Elkhound.  This means they will have pointy ears, a curly tail, and a double coat.  They’re also smart as a whip, and have a bit of attitude, though Icies are supposed to be a bit more eager to please than Elkhounds are. They’re known for being very happy, smiley dogs, and that’s definitely Thorny.   As you may guess from the name of the breed, they were bred to herd sheep in Iceland – and they have been in Iceland since it was settled in the 800s. Most of the Icies (a nickname for the breed, just like Elkhounds are nicknamed Elkies) you will see have a long-haired coat, but Thorny is going to be a short coat – though it’s still not super short like you would see in a smooth coated breed like a Boxer or Bulldog.  She’s still got plenty of snuggly fluff.  She’s what is called a “black tri” – they’re born looking black and white but a third colour starts coming in pretty quickly, and in Thorny’s case, that third colour is tan.  It’s hard to see in the pictures I’ve taken so far, but she has tan eyebrows and patches on her cheeks, and on her hind legs.  She’s got one double dewclaw on a hind foot – double dewclaws are a thing that is common on Icies – and desirable.  There’s even a name for a dog with a double dewclaw on all four feet – alspori.  These are pretty rare though.  Icelandic sheepdogs aren’t the only breed that can have double dewclaws, but in the case of this breed, it’s actually right in the breed standard that they have them, and they shouldn’t be removed.  Iceland is a very rocky, mountainous island and I’m sure the extra digit came in handy when the dogs were climbing hills to go after sheep, or walking on snow.  I’ve read that the extra toe can even help the dogs walk on snow better, acting somewhat like a snowshoe.


No pictures of her with me in my Viking-era clothing yet, but her first event is coming up next weekend, so hopefully I’ll get some then!