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Iceland: The Land of Fire and Ice and Jolabokaflod, the Christmas Book Flood

After having spent a few layovers in the Reykjavik, Iceland, international airport, on our way to and from Europe, I finally took the opportunity to visit Iceland for its own sake. Sadly, it did take Covid-19 and the fact that this past July it was one of the easiest locations for Americans to visit with the least amount of restrictions. Since my return, I ask myself over and over, what took me so long? Besides the beautiful and varied scenery, Iceland has a rich and varied history which few people know about beyond the Vikings. Iceland also has one of the best Christmas traditions ever - Jolabokaflod, or the Christmas Book Flood. On Christmas Eve in Iceland, people exchange gifts of books. Then, they all read the evening away with primarily a cup of hot chocolate. I like hot chocolate, but I am sure tea would work just as well.

“Blind is a man without a book.” - Icelandic Proverb

Nonfiction: Unlike any of the other New World territories, the Vikings were the first people to settle in Iceland; there were no other indigenous people. As a result, Iceland maintained many of the old Viking traditions and language. At several cultural spots and museums, it was readily apparent how proud the Icelandic people are of their language, which is the closest modern language to Old Norse. We can also thank Iceland for the preservation of many of the Viking sagas and Norse mythology as without them there probably would not have been any of Wagner’s operas, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, or our current Thor and Loki obsessions thanks to the popular Marvel movies. One of the oldest sources for this mythology is the Poetic Edda, attributed to Snorri Sturlson of Iceland who wrote them down in the 13th century. The edition I have read is from Dover Thrift Publications, which republished a 1923 edition by Henry Adams Bellows. I personally like the in depth introduction and the many footnotes with added information throughout the text. My favorite story in the Poetic Edda is “Thrymskvitha” in which Thor dresses up as Freya to get his hammer back from Thrym, king of the frost giants. It is quite the hilarious adventure.

If you are looking for a more modern interpretation of many of these tales, along with background information regarding their sources, look no further than Martyn Whittock and Hannah Whittock’s book Tales of Valhalla. The story of Baldr continues to be one of the most tragic, and I cannot say Odin comes off well in many of these stories.

Fiction: The airbnb where I stayed in Iceland had a lovely and inviting bookshelf. In the evenings after spending the day out and about, I began reading one of the novels I found there. The Blue Tower by Thorarinn Eldjarn is a work of historical fiction about Gudmundur Andresson, who composed/compiled an Icelandic dictionary while in exile in Copenhagen, Denmark. Born in 1615, Andresson’s story is set in a time period of Iceland’s history I knew little to nothing about. The Church had a strong control over society, and there were strict morality laws. Andresson came from a poor farm family in the northwest of Iceland who through his own talents and sponsorship became highly educated with the goal of rising through the Church. However, he was thwarted in all of his ambitions because of his sarcastic wit which offended powerful people, and his low social class. When he wrote an argument against the morality laws he went one step too far. One of the most interesting and philosophical sections of the book spans page 99-104, in which Andresson laments the condition of society in Iceland at that time.

"The first error of man in Paradise was to steal from the tree of knowledge. , man did not know lies from the truth. The same error has prevailed ever since and will be the last for the children of the world, both in learning and living, for Satan gilds much that is dark underneath and does so in his own way on each occasion, but the trick is the same, to pollute the truth with lies and make a changeling of a legitimate child, that is hypocrisy from holiness.” (103)

Children’s Book: I picked up this book at a library sale, put it on a shelf and forgot about it until I rediscovered it about a month or two ago. As explained in the introduction, many of the folktales from Iceland are heavily influenced by their environment. Flumbra: An Icelandic Folktale, a new story by Gudrun Helgadottir represents the present relationship the people of Iceland have with its unique surroundings. Flumbra was a giantess who fell in love with an ugly giant from the next mountain over. In order to prepare to visit him, she lit the fire on her hearth (volcanic activity). Then she ran over to see him, and they enjoyed an evening of carousing (earthquake), after which she gave birth to eight sons. Unfortunately, bringing the children to see their father was a challenge as giants cannot be out in the open during the day time. Just a warning note, the Icelandic people are not under any of the morality laws mentioned above, and one or two of the illustrations in the book might surprise a parent who picked this up to read to their child. Another interesting note is that at the time this book was written (1981, English edition 1986), the author was a member of Iceland’s Parliament.

Tea: Iceland has many coffee shops and tea establishments to meet a variety of tastes. I sampled just a few, but all were good. In a previous blog, I already mentioned the Earl Grey variety from Te og Kaffi that includes wild thyme in its blend. The beautiful botanical gardens in Reykjavik has a lovely tea garden. I wish I knew the company that produced the fruit tisane blend that I enjoyed.

I brought home an original blend from the company, Islensk Hollusta, called Old Viking Tea. The company is located in Selfloss, Iceland at a factory that employs the disabled. It is an herbal blend consisting of birch, angelica, meadowsweet, Icelandic Moss, wild thyme and barley. It brewed to a bright green color, and had a very herbaceous aroma. I would recommend adding a bit of honey.


Artwork credited to Aurora Draws - contact for more details

All photographs by the author

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