Friday, July 29, 2011

Museum Reviews....Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn

Another museum that is Iceland is famous for is Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn. But you might know it as the Icelandic Phallological Museum, or "The Penis Museum". Or maybe you've never heard of it at all and you're wondering "why the heck is there a penis museum? I don't want to hear about this!" Well too bad.

Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn is located in the northeastern part of Iceland in a harbor town called Húsavík, which is also well-known for being a big whale-watching area. If you ever come to Iceland, you will see big, glossy yellow pamphlets advertising whale watching. Those come from Húsavík. Oddly enough, however, the town is not known for it's whale museum. But given a choice between a room full of bones and a room full of boners, I think you know what most people pick.
Húsavík is actually pretty large by Icelandic standards. Over 2,000 people live there. They have all of the usual fare for large-ish towns, including a grocery store, several restaurants, a bakery, and a tourist information center. There is also a very charming café called Skuld, which is a good place to stop for a coffee and a snack (Coffee is buy one, get one free refill).

Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn opens at noon, which is pretty late, even by Icelandic standards, but it stays open until 18:00. It's closed entirely from September to May. The good news about all of this is that it appears to be slated for new management and a big move to Reykjavík sometime next year. I also expect that the admission fee will increase with the move. It's already a slightly pricey 800 ISK (most comparable museums cost 500 ISK) and they only take cash, so make sure you have some kronur before you visit.

The museum is owned by Sigurður Hjartarson, who seems like he would be a pretty jovial guy, considering what he does for a living. However, he seemed to be in a pretty gruff mood on the day we visited. I suppose there are only so many times you can greet giddy tourists before getting a little sour. On the day we visited, we arrived a little early, and we milled around with the handful of other tourists who were also waiting out front taking photos of the building. I've never seen people wait so eagerly outside of a museum before. And especially not in Iceland, where there are such thrilling attractions as The Sea Ice Exhibition Center and the Herring Museum. I'm not sure what level of entertainment can be expected from the Phallologcal Museum beyond lumpy masses floating in yellowed formaldehyde, but there we were.
The owner of the museum is more interesting than the actual museum, and probably more of a treasure. You can read about him on a print-out (offered in several different languages) found on a center table in the main display room. He is highly educated, holds a degree in history and has written and translated several books, including some written in Spanish and Latin. So how did this guy end up surrounded by penes (yes, that is the plural of penis)? As a child, Siggi was given a whip called a "pizzle" which is made from a dried bull penis. You can see it, along with a few others, in the museum. Apparently this knowledge leaked to some of his friends as an adult and he received a good amount of ribbing for it. The teasing culminated with some of his fishermen friends severing the penis from a caught whale and presenting it to him as a gift. This unnerving trend continued for about ten years until he had a sizable collection and put them on display in this little building.

After paying 800 kronur, you are given a rather confusing booklet in the language of your choice and let loose in the building. It's a fairly small room completely lined with stuffed, mounted, pickled, and otherwise preserved penes, plus a fair smattering of art mixed in, most of it humorous. The booklet is meant to be followed by number, but I found it difficult to locate the numbers on specimens, because not every specimen has a number, and they seem to be slightly out of order. But it doesn't matter. The information is a little hard to decipher, and it's pretty boring anyway. It's easy enough to glean information by intuition.

You can see the largest item in the collection, a blue whale penis which is fun to stand next to for photo comparison, and the smallest, which belonged to a hamster. That one is a little more difficult to see.
Here's the thing about penes, and it's true for both humans and animals. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. There's surprisingly little variety in the penis world, and most of them are slightly terrifying, vaguely corkscrew shaped spears. The penis of a whale looks remarkably like the penis of a polar bear and all the rest of them look the same, too. At least when 276 of them are floating in jars, it's hard to tell.

The museum is also famous for having a human specimen, but it's nowhere to be found. There is a cast of one in the front room, and a couple of papers signed by men who have agreed to donate theirs upon death. A 98 year old man died and donated his last year, but the removal wasn't entirely successful and the penis turned brown and shriveled up, making it unsuitable for display. Siggi commented, "it doesn't really matter. He was an old guy and I will get a younger and bigger and better one later", which is possibly the most hilariously blasé quote I've ever read. Again, it's a mystery to me why this would be the main attraction for the collection. A human penis is the easiest type of penis to find. I could go outside right now, and in ten minutes of asking around, I bet I could find one to look at. Not to be crude, but hey, I'm reviewing a penis museum here, so cut me some slack.

The most interesting part of the Icelandic Phallological museum, to me, was the anthropological and artistic contributions. A glass case to one side is full of knick-knacks and charms from around the world, ranging from tasteless to captivating. Elsewhere, there's an aerial photo of the Smáralind mall in Reykjavík, which looks exactly like an erect penis (Google it), newspaper clippings, and charming drawings by the owner's young daughter. There are actually a lot of things to look at in this small space, but somehow interest is lost rather quickly (is that a metaphor or what?). And perhaps it's my American prudishness, but I felt a little uncomfortable oggling all of that meat. I did get it together enough to pose for one photo next to an African elephant penis...
The intention was the compare the size between that and my tattoo, which is a .22 bullet but holds a very close resemblance to....well, you guessed it. It's such a close representation that I offered it to the owner for inspection. He looked at it, looked up at me, and asked me if that's where I like to keep it. "Yeah I like to have it handy", I replied, and he sort of shook his head at me and went back to what he was doing. So that was my big contribution to the Icelandic Phallological Museum, and as for me, I can safely say that it was the only time in my life where I will ever pay money to look at male organs.

So is it worth a visit?
Yes. Absolutely. Not because it's particularly interesting, but just because you can say you were there. I really think this is the reason that most people go. And many do! Attendance exceeds 11,000 each year, and it's interesting to note that 60% of visitors are women. This might just be because there are more women on earth than men and that's bound to happen almost anywhere, but maybe men are simply a little more sympathetic.
One more highlight from your visit here would be the postcards. They are cheaply printed and little pixelated, but from where else can you send your friend a photo of a human micropenis, a woman balancing upside down on a man's erection, or a child's drawing of things that they probably shouldn't be drawing?
Only at the Icelandic Phallogical Museum, that's where.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft- Review in New Series!

Welcome the start of another series here on BulletPun about Icelandic museums. This is something I hope to continue in the future, because I love visiting museums and I always take a ton of photos that, for the most part, never see the light of day.

During my time here, here are the few that I visited and will be reviewing.

Icelandic Phalalogical Museum
Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft
Þjóðminjasafn (National Museum in Reykjavík)
Bjarnarhöfn Shark Farm
Reykjavík Bird Museum
Eyjafjallajökull Film
Petra's Stone Collection
Gestastofa in Hellnar

Some of these places are very small, and won't take up much of my time here and I will combine more than one review in one post. Most museums in Iceland are confined to one or two small rooms with minimal explanation for the artifacts, so it's not too difficult to blow through them in a few minutes.

I'll start with a very popular destination in the West Fjörds...Galdrasýning á Ströndum, or The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.

Located in one of the West Fjörd's many charming oceanside villages, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is a must-see in many guidebooks. Perhaps this is because, despite it's charm, Hólmavík has little else to offer. But this area of Iceland is rugged and isolated, so with a population of 400, it's definitely the biggest thing around for a long time.
From the outside, the place looks sort of promising. There are large bones and rock formations arranged around a pathway to the entrance. When we were there, there were some large, crude signs up saying something like "please go to the other door". Inside there is a small cafe, which consists of a couple of chairs and a press pot of coffee, plus some cookies in a glass jar. There is also a Sorcerer's Cottage somewhere around, but we couldn't find it, and we were unclear as to whether is was part of the museum and it's admission fee or not, so we didn't bother trying to find it. This review will obviously not cover that part of the museum.
Admission fee to the collection is 500ISK, and includes a plastic binder stuffed full of information pages. Each page is extremely text-heavy. It's like reading from a textbook, and not a very interesting one. You must follow the numbered display cases through three different rooms, and the most engaging one is first.
Probably the main reason people come to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is to gaze upon the famously creepy "necropants".

I don't believe that anyone actually ever performed this magical deed, but the story is that, with permission from a widow, you can skin the bottom half of a dead man and then wear the skin pants around for the rest of your life. The advantage of this? Well, if you keep a coin in the scrotum with a magic stave, the scrotum will never be empty of money. Again, I can't imagine that anyone actually did this. What kind of shopkeeper accepts coins that some guy just fished out of his second scrotum? The other problem with wearing necropants (besides the obvious chafing issue) is that you can never take them off. Ever. The split-second before you die, you must take one leg out of them, while your heir steps in, and in this way you can transfer them over without breaking the spell. It's sort of a tricky balancing act that you need absolute perfect timing for. Personally, I can think of better ways to make money. But perhaps this was some kind of weird motivation back then.

Here's the disappointing part about all of this: The necropants aren't real. Nothing is. There is not one single authentic artifact in the entire museum (except one, which I will mention later). The necropants are made of rubber or plastic, with hair sloppily glued down in all the wrong places. There aren't even any old books to look at. The closest you can get are some grainy photocopies of a few pages arranged in a case upstairs, where some of the props have gone missing. With all of the reading you have to do, they might as well just put the photocopies in with your textbook instead of making you go upstairs and trying to decipher detailed time-lines completely in Icelandic.

I suppose the history aspect of the museum is pretty interesting. I had no idea that so many Icelanders were burned at the stake for witchcraft (most of them in the West Fjörds, and for seemingly petty reasons like stealing a piece of driftwood.) However, I could just as easily not paid 500 kronur and read about it on Wikipedia.

Same goes for the Tilberi, which, admittedly, was a pretty disturbing display, despite it's cheesiness. A Tilberi is a little monster that only a woman can make from a human rib bone. It suckles between her breasts until it gets too big, then migrates to a nipple on the upper inner thigh. The creature can be sent out to steal milk from sheep. It gets large enough that it can suck the milk from two teats at once, and when it's full of milk, it dutifully returns home and vomits the milk into the butter churn. Then, when you're tired of it sucking on your thigh, you send it out into the countryside to gather up sheep dung, which is does with such a fervor that it explodes and dies. I have no idea how anyone was able to come up with this story, but it's one of the grossest and weirdest things I've ever heard of. I was actually a little tempted to buy one of the little Tilberar that are sold in the gift shop. It looks like the most tortured worm in the world, with a howling face, shaped like a comma, and wrapped in grey wool.
Oh, here, I found a photo for you. Aren't they cute? You can thank me in your nightmares later.

Besides some interesting fabricated "artifacts", the museum does have one real object you can look at. It's so special that it has it's own velvet-cloaked room and is kept behind a curtain in complete darkness save for a dim spotlight. An audio track of some male chanting plays softly in the background. Of course, you have to do a ton of reading before you enter the room to prepare yourself.
Should I spoil the incredible surprise for you?
Yeah, what the heck....
It's a stone.
Yep. a stone. A very special stone that was found in a nearby farm. It was carved out into a little bowl shape and may have been used for ritual sacrifice. When you start reading the impossibly long series of posters in front of the room, you get the impression that this was for human sacrifice. Then I think the writers figured most people would stop reading and just go look at the darn thing. Turns out, they did a lot of testing on it, under different types of lighting and with that spray they use to find blood on crime scenes, and they didn't really find anything. It was also probably used for animal sacrifice anyway. There's no evidence of human sacrifice in Icelandic culture. So what you get is a little carved rock on a velvet pillow that maybe was used for animal sacrifice, but probably not because no blood was found except for a few specks of something that are probably just known geological contaminants. But if you don't read all of that, then it's pretty creepy.

Two things I did find more interesting than the displays were submitted by guests. While waiting for my friend to finish reading her encyclopedia, I sifted through the books in the little sitting room and found an envelope with a letter from the United States. It was several pages long, and I didn't read it all, but the gist of it was that this person was a Pagan or something, and found out about the Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum in Iceland and was so happy that their religion was being spread, that they sent a check for $40. The check was absent, of course, but I'm not sure how easy it was to cash an American check in Iceland. I guess they figured it out.
The other thing that was interesting was this.

Another letter. Well, two letters, actually. That's a little carved pendant necklace under the glass. The letter explains that the necklace was purchased in the gift shop as a good luck charm. However, immediately following the purchase of the necklace, the writer was overwhelmed by misfortune. They sent back the necklace and asked for a replacement, and the second letter is a thank you note saying that they have been lucky ever since sending back the evil charm and getting a good one instead.
So I thought that was sort of funny. One other good thing about visiting this museum is that you can buy postcards of the necropants. It's just an image of what looks like a hairy guys' crotch and legs with no explanation, and they are perfect to send to your friends with a completely nonchalant message on the back. That might actually be worth stopping in for.

My synopsis of the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is that it's not worth your time. You can get the same information and look at the necropants on the internet while you're spending your 500 kronur on an overpriced cup of coffee at one of the nearby restaurants.
There only thing magical about this place is how it has managed to remain such a popular tourist destination.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

170 Days in 2011

As of August 8, 2011, I will have been alive 9,819 days. 207 of which were spent in Iceland. That's 2% of my life. A very small amount that made a huge difference. 
Here, I made a pie chart:

You can save that to your hard drive in case you need to reference it later.

I'm leaving Vík in two weeks. Fourteen days. 336 hours. It's really starting to hit me that I won't be living here anymore. This place has really become my home. It's a little scary to think about leaving, and not seeing the ocean and the peaks of Reynisdrangur every day. No more skyr or slátur or mountain moss tea. No waking up and wondering if a volcano erupted because the sky is so oddly dark. No more Arctic terns or puking fulmars or little puffins. No more Æsa, Þráinn, and Addý.

This may be the first time in my life that I've been officially homeless. That's one way of looking at it, of course. I could also say that I'm completely free. I don't have much of a plan right now for what to do next. But I've never been very good at making solid plans, because I've learned that they always change in ways that are completely unpredictable. For example, I just re-booked my flight to avoid Oslo. Of all the places in the world to be hit by such a tragedy, Oslo was definitely pretty far down on the list. I don't think anyone saw that coming. What an incredible shame.
To avoid trouble in Norway, I'm now flying into Warsaw and spending a few days in Poland before meeting my friend and heading to Slovakia. I've been planning this trip for over a month and I'm really excited, but it's also starting to get stressful. Any change is stressful. That's the definition of stress. Everything always works out for the best, so I'm not worried about anything...just unsure of what to expect. And that's ok. It's what makes traveling so much fun. 
Unfortunately, the way I deal with stress is to completely freak out for about twenty minutes and run through at least a dozen completely different options like a bird flying at all corners of it's cage. I get so overwhelmed at all of the choices that it seems impossible to chose one. I always moan about how I wish there was someone in my life that could just tell me what to do every time there was a decision to be made. It wouldn't matter if it was right or wrong, she would just have to tell what to do so I wouldn't have to deal with it. 
Then after twenty minutes of overreacting, I make a painful choice and immediately feel great. There's sort of an emotional rush associated with it that I'm a little addicted to. 
Again, it's unfortunate that this process works so well for me, because it tends to irritate those around me (at the very least) when I talk and talk about every single option in the world that is available. It must sound completely insane. 
But no matter. I made a choice and I'm happy with it. I've wanted to visit Poland for about ten years, and this way I get to spend more time there before heading to Slovakia with Michal. I'll have to come back and visit Scandinavia some other time. 
I'm still waiting on that memory card so I can use my camera again, but hopefully it will arrive sooner rather than later, that way I will be able to take photos of the trip and continue updating these blog posts. As much as I'm going to miss calling Iceland my home, this should be a very interesting journey and I can hardly wait to get started!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of...Part 5. Vikings

Well, here I am again, ready to crush the very last stereotype that I care to tackle on this little blog. Grab your battle axes and join me in cutting down the mighty Icelandic Viking!
This was by far my most research-intense post of the last five "episodes" of EYHAIIWSO, because even though I knew a few things about helmets and the daily lives of Vikings, I was pretty ignorant on the history aspect of it all. I've always been terrible at history, which is another stereotype about women. Maybe because history is predominantly a bunch of stories about the dumb things that men do.
Once in community college, I was taking a pretty interesting history course where the teacher did a great job of making it as broad and entertaining as possible. During one class, we focused on Artemisia Gentileschi, who was a female Renaissance painter. Her story is always prefaced with an incident in which she was raped, and that this somehow influenced her to be a great painter. I've often been that kid in college classes who makes a significant pain in the ass of myself, and maybe the endless stories of men's conquests were getting to me, and I blurted out something like "What the hell! We finally focus on something a woman did, and we can't even give her credit for it because somehow it's the result of being raped! Maybe she was just a good artist on her own. Why can't we focus on that? Why do we need to give credit to some guy who raped her!"
The class stared at me and the teacher said something like "good point", and I think I ended up writing a semi-lengthy rant on the subject on the test later.
My point is, history is boring and frustrating for me, so I never really paid much attention. But this post was really fun to write and I took a lot of time sorting through dozens and dozens of different articles to get the most accurate information on three different points that I'm going to make. I apologize for any errors, however, because historical information still isn't the easiest thing for me to retain. Ok....onward!

Picture a Viking, will you? Just close your eyes and think about everything you know about Vikings and mash that information up into one single image. I'll wait.

Does it look something like this?

Or this?

How about this?

Not seeing a lot of variation here, are we? These are all drawings done by guests at Norður-Vík in the guestbook. Just one guestbook.

You may have noticed that each of the drawings above have three things in common; 
1. They have horned helmets
2. They have weapons
3. They are men

Of course you know what I'm going to say next... It's (mostly) all wrong.
But don't worry, it's not your fault. None of this is. It's August Malmström's fault. I had to do a surprising amount of digging to find the original image that the modern Viking stereotype comes from. That's because it's generally attributed to Richard Wagner and Arthur Rackham's illustrations for epic opera, The Ring of Nibelung. But that's odd, because The Ring of Nibelung isn't about Vikings at all. It's a fantasy piece about Germanic gods and heroes. It's possible that people referenced the illustrations from "The Ring" to gather ideas about Viking costumes, because they are incredibly captivating. Here are a few examples of imagined costume by Rackham, not because they have much to do with the subject here, but because they are so darn beautiful.

You can see how it would get mixed up, but it's irrelevant.
August Malmström illustrated a Victorian adaptation of a 14th Century Icelandic poem called Frithiof's Saga.
It wasn't a particularly good saga, which might be the reason why it was so difficult to locate any of the full illustrations. This was the best I could do:

There is scant evidence that any group of people have ever used horned helmets in battle. Winged and horned helmets were used by Celts and Germanics, but most likely for ceremonial purposes only. And get ready for this- there is very little evidence that Vikings wore helmets at all. Headgear was most likely made of leather, and the few metal helmets that have been found from the Viking age were simple and dome-shaped and probably were reserved for the extremely wealthy. Remember that life in Iceland in the 800s was not a particularly fruitful or prosperous time.

The idea of barbarians wearing horned helmets wasn't introduced into popular culture until the 1800s. And even then, it took a while to take hold, because the Celtic winged helmets remained more popular. The image of these aggressive pieces of headgear plays directly into the idea that Vikings spent most of their time fighting and pillaging.

In my experience, Icelanders love to brag about which brave, poetic Viking they are descendant from and reference the appropriate saga. I have one friend who pointed out the hill on his farm where one famous settler lived. "He killed his first man at six years old and wrote his first poem a year later", he told me. And he was a direct descendant, easily traced back thanks to good old fashioned Icelandic record-keeping.
Although people admit to the stories being exaggerated, they are indeed based in fact. But it's no surprise that any Icelander can claim bloodlines with anyone they please. After 1,000 years, there are one trillion branches in a family tree, assuming that each couple only has two children. (Keep that in mind when someone tells you they are related to Shakespeare or King Charlemagne, because you can quite honestly reply that you are, too.)
Icelanders are pretty good record keepers. Every person in born in Iceland is documented in the National Registry, along with marriages, deaths, and land exchanges. There is even a National Horse Registry if you want to trace your horse back to it's settler days. Amazingly, 80% of all Icelanders who have ever lived can be traced on family trees. This is partially due to the small population (approaching 300,000). I was just having breakfast with my friend Denní (Æsa's father) and asked him who was his most distant relative from the Sagas. He immediately replied that it is Egill-Skallagrímsson, who lived in the year A.D. 910. His father was a Norwegian, and Egill was born in Iceland. Egill's story is a popular one, because not only was he a gifted poet (he was three years old when he wrote his first poem), he was also completely insane.
It might come as a surprise to some people that (at least in Iceland) Vikings are more revered for their poetry than for their violence. It should not be a surprise, however, that Vikings did a lot more than go out on raids and kill each other.

The Icelandic Viking Age started in A.D. 793, and they were craftsmen, writers, traders, explorers, artists, and farmers. For a long time, the original settlers lived without rulers, laws, or government, but eventually they became the founders of Alþingi in 930, which remains the world's oldest functioning parliament.
The original settlers definitely engaged in a fair amount of bloodshed. The Sagas are chock full of revenge killings, and they did sail to Scandinavia on pirate-type excursions, but for the most part, they were average farmers with a complex culture.
Shortly after the establishment of Alþingi, they were converted to Christianity and their culture disappeared. I asked another Icelandic friend of mine, Þráinn, what he thought happened to the Vikings and why they vanished in the year 1000 because of Christianity. He said "Have you ever met an Icelander who was Christian?" I answered no.

For the most part, the Vikings never left. The word "Viking" wasn't introduced as a label for a culture until the 1800s (remember when that horned barbarian image became popular?) although it was used as a verb in the old Norse language. In the early 1000s, it was introduced into the English language as a synonym for a pirate, and Scandinavians still tend to use it to refer to the specific people who went out on expeditions.

This implies that Icelanders are purebred Viking stock, but a lot of genetic study has been conducted in the last few years that introduces some surprising (and not so surprising) ethnicities. The not so surprising one you might recall from my earlier post about Icelandic women. The original Icelanders kept Irish and Scottish slaves (Westmen, where the name for the island of Westmannaeyjar comes from) and apparently had no problem with keeping some of them as family. Icelanders with family trees that go back 1000 years have predominantly Viking grandfathers and Irish or Scottish grandmothers, but interestingly, they are less-closely related to their grandmothers than they are to their grandfathers. That's simply because some families were bigger than others. There has also been a discovery of Native American mitochondrial DNA from a single woman in Icelanders, but it's a mystery how this woman made it all the way to Iceland.
If you're thinking that Iceland looks pretty inbred at this point, you're not that far off from the truth.
I've heard stories of people who start dating and check the National Registry to see if they are too closely related. But this might be another tall tale.

Maybe I'll address is again in another posting, but for now, this is the end of Part 5. I hope that next time you think of the Icelandic Viking, you don't immediately picture a Victorian stereotype, and give a little credit to the artisans and poets who toughed out the tortured landscape of Iceland over 1000 years ago. Somehow people have managed to live here despite frigid winters, famine, disease, poisonous volcanic gas, floods, and any number of other horrible events that would have made most people high-tail it for Spain.

This officially marks the end of EYHAIIWSO. It was nice of you to join me in an annoyance-based series of short essays that I sincerely hope were at least more accurate than the original myths they were trying to dispel. Thanks.

(If you're interested in some of the websites I used to gather the information for this post, they are listed after the cut)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of...Part 4. Elves and Fairies

Brace yourself because I'm about to buzzkill all over your face.
The Icelandic stereotype that bothers me the absolute most is the one about how most Icelanders believe in fairies and elves.
It bothers me because there are two things majorly wrong with it.
1. Icelanders have never believed in "fairies" or "elves". They are called Huldufólk, which means "Hidden People", but for some reason was lazily translated into "elves", which people associated with fairies.
2. Most Icelanders do not believe in anything supernatural at all.

The stereotype most commonly thrown around to sum up the entire population of Iceland is this one, and it's probably the one that is furthest from the truth. Oh, how cute they all are, leaving out plates of food for elves and building them little villages. They must be such a simple and sweet people, they just don't know any better!

First, I will clear up the definition of Huldufólk. Since these stories are very old, there's a lot of discrepancy about where they came from, how many kinds there are, and what they look like. The most common and widely distributed tale comes from the story of Adam and Eve. You see, one day, God wanted to pay a visit to Adam and Eve and their many children (yes, in this version, Adam and Eve had tons of kids in the Garden of Eden, which makes sense...) but Eve simply did not have time to gather them all up and give them proper baths. So some of them remained dirty. To avoid the shame of having God see her filthy little ragamuffins, she simply hid them somewhere so he wouldn't think she was a neglectful mother. Apparently she didn't do a background check on her visitor, because she would have figured out that he was All-Knowing. Maybe it just slipped her mind. At any rate, God showed up and asked Eve to line up her children so he could have a look. She brought out the clean kids, and when God asked her if there were more, she lied. As punishment for lying, God forever banished the dirty children to a place between Heaven and Hell, where they could only be seen to humans if they wished to be. And they were called the Hidden People. They were exactly like humans in appearance, only mostly invisible.
Huldufólk can be roughly translated as "elf" in English, and there is more confusion when you take in account that Álfar is a synonym that started being used in 19th century stories. My theory as to why tourists have never heard of Hidden People, but are anxious to see fairy stones is that Westerners think that fairies are girls, and elves are boys. It's difficult to sort through the whole taxonomic mess because the tourism industry seems to encourage the notion that Icelanders really do believe in fantasy creatures because it makes them seem quaint and non-threatening. It also seems to do a good job selling wool sweaters and lava rock jewelry.

Iceland also has many folk tales about trolls, which are more consistent. Trolls are large, rude, stupid, and turn to stone when they are caught in daylight. Hence all of the oddly-shaped rocks that scatter the country. These stories most likely originate from old Scandinavian myths that explain interesting rock formations.
For example, the hauntingly beautiful formations, Reynisdrangur, in Vík í Mýrdal are said to be two trolls who were bringing in their ship, but were too slow and turned to stone when the sun came up.
Real, live trolls
As Þráinn so nicely summed it up, "people were pretty bored in the old days".

So that's why there are no fairies or gnomes, or tiny elves in Iceland.
However, I won't completely ruin your fun. Here's a freebie:
Iceland enjoys (or suffers, depending on how you look at it) the longest Christmas celebration in the world, starting on December 12 and officially ending on January 6. In this time, thirteen Yule Lads (pronounce it like Yoo-Lee) come out of the countryside and cause mayhem. The Yule Lads are an endearing, if not terrifying bunch of creatures. They are said to be the sons of Grýla, who is a mountain ogress with a big black cat who eats children who do not receive clothes for Christmas (is that clever, or what?) With the introduction of Santa Claus, the Yule Lads have become more modernized, often adopting red and white cloaks and softening their demeanor, but Christmas time is still a dangerous time.
The Yule Lads commit crimes ranging from slamming doors to harassing sheep, but most of them just steal food. For example, you might be surprised to find your skyr missing thanks to Skyrgámur (Skyr Gobbler), or Gluggagægir might startle you as he peeps in your window, casing the joint. His name means Window-Peeper. Ketkrókur (Meat Hook) will sneak around and use his hook hands and steal meat.
Of course, these are all stories made up for children, and it's comparable to how adults tell their children stories about Santa Claus, but none in their right mind would ever believe such a story. It's probably accurate that adults are the ones stealing leftovers and blaming it on poor Pottasleikir in the same way that American parents nibble on cookies and milk on Christmas Eve.

During Christmas time, images of the Yule Lads are everywhere. Their popularity remains strong, but they are gradually being replaced by the Jolly St. Nick as time goes by.
So now that we've cleared up some misinformation about exactly what supernatural beings reside in Iceland, let's look into the actual Icelanders.

It's most likely that when these stories first originated, they were just stories, and no one believed them. But there was a surge in their popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries because Iceland was suffering particularly bad times and probably found some comfort in fantasy as a form of escapism.
Here's a quote from a 2006 survey done by a folklorist named Terry Gunnell:

"According to the preliminary results of this survey, 8.0% of 650 persons who answered this question were certain about the existence of huldufólk and álfar, 16.5% thought it was likely they existed, 31.0% assumed it was possible, 21.5% thought it was unlikely, 13.5% thought it was impossible and 8.5% did not have an opinion on this."

I don't know how the survey was conducted. If it was random or not is unknown. But the numbers conclude that the majority of people do not believe in fantasy creatures. The large number of people who answered that they didn't believe, but also would not deny their existence is probably due to nationalistic and nostalgic feelings.
The interesting thing about these numbers, to me, is that I've talked about this to a lot of Icelanders, and not even once has one of them told me that they believe these stories. Most of them are just as cynical and jaded as the rest of the world, and think it's a load of garbage.
This is particularly telling to me because it's common fact that Icelanders are not a religious people. Although church and state is not separated in the country, only 10% of Icelanders attend church once a month or more. Of the religious people, less believe in God than in a "spiritual force". It may be unfair (or unwise) to link the belief of one supernatural to another, but it seems unlikely to me that it wouldn't be so divided.

The truth is, Icelanders are a modern people, and 75% of them live in a modern city. The idea that most of them build shrines to tiny people in the mountains is a bit demeaning for a country that is surpassing many other developed countries in modernization.

As for the famous adage about the re-routing of the main road to avoid sacred elf homes, or because of the mischievous interference of the Hidden People, I offer you this letter from the Chief of Publishing of the Icelandic Road Administration. It starts...

Dear mr. Harkin 
Stories on road construction and elves in Iceland 
are exaggerated and not worth your time. 
Attached is a Word file with an essay on the matter. 
Foxes and reindeer have not been an issue in road planning in Iceland. 
All the best from Reykjavik 
Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson 
Chief of Publishing Unit

 (Full letter after the break)
I believe that this letter will properly reinforce the points I've made here that these stories are greatly exaggerated for the benefit of tourism.

Join me next time for the very last "Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of..." where I tackle the mighty Viking and ruin one more thing for everybody.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of...Part 3. Whaling

So guess what? The memory card for my Nikon got corrupted or reformatted or joined a cult and drank and Kool-Aid. I don't know. I'm not tech-savvy at all. It's a miracle I can use the internet. I still have my small point and shoot, but it only works about half of the time, and when the weather is absolutely perfect with no humidity, heat, or cold. (Just want to shout out to Sony for a second. I've had this DSC-W7 since 2005 and it has been a real trooper. It's been abused it for six years at the bottom of every purse/backpack I carry, attached to a hip bag that I wore riding trains and rolling around on the ground, taken out in all weather, and tossed around like a Nerf ball. And it still takes beautiful photos. Even though it's been protesting it's unfair treatment for the last couple of years, it has never failed me enough to warrant replacing it. So good job, Sony, for making an extremely durable and tolerant little camera. I'm impressed.)
I bring this up because this blog has always been pretty photo-heavy, but I'm gonna have to start pulling from the archives until I get a replacement. My friend, Graham, is sending me one out of the continued kindness of his heart, but it won't get here for another couple of weeks. So until then...

OK, on to business. Part 3: Whaling.

There are two kinds of whale meat available in Iceland as of the commercial whaling moratorium lift in 2006. One comes from the minke whale, and the other from the the fin whale. Minke whales are a type of baleen whale, and they are more commonly hunted. The quota is 30 whales per year out of a population of about 174,000. Fin whales suffer an annual population decline of nine members out of their estimated 30,000. They are the second largest animal on the planet and are a threatened species.

The myth about whaling is that it an ancient practice and a traditional Icelandic food. This is completely untrue. Whaling in Iceland only began in the mid-1800s, and less than 5% of Icelanders regularly eat whale meat.
The whaling industry in this country was founded by a single man who started a single company called Hvalur (that means Whale). A lot of the meat is exported to Japan, but these days, sales are declining.
If you walk through downtown Reykjavík, you can see signs on many restaurants advertising "whale menus", and a "must" for every tourist is a visit to Sægreifinn, or The Sea Baron, where you can dine on rich lobster soup and various fish and whale kebabs. If you are a tourist passing through Iceland, you would definitely get the impression that whale is commonly consumed here and might have no problem trying it just for the cultural experience.

I want to take a moment to explain that I don't have any particular moral objections to eating whale meat. I think that if you are a meat-eater, you have no right to decide which meats are immoral and which meats are ok. An animal is an animal, and no animal is more special than any other. The way that a chicken or a cow is slaughtered and consumed is fundamentally identical to the way that a whale or a dog or a pony is processed.
Most tourists who eat whale say that they would never eat it if it wasn't for cultural reasons. Otherwise, they find it immoral. The other problem with tourists eating whale is that they often do so directly after stepping off of a whale watching tour boat. I'm not even joking about this. As a matter of fact, whale menus can be found in the harbor right next to where the boat lands, and once people shed their yellow slickers and shake off their sea legs, they make a bee-line for the table and chow down while comparing photographs, completely without irony.
It's a sad truth that this cultural experience was only recently invented. Much like the famous Icelandic sweater, it is a recent introduction and in no way deeply rooted in society. But this is not widely advertised. Certainly not by the one man who is getting pretty rich off of the venture.

For more information about the myths of Icelandic whaling, and what people are doing about it, you can read this great article from the Reykjavík Grapevine here.

Two more Icelandic mythbusting posts coming atcha in the next few days, addressing the pressing issues of Vikings and fairies and elves. Wow, I can hardly wait.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of...Part 2. Women

This subject isn't nearly as controversial as it first appears. I make no attempts to judge beauty, because it comes in infinite forms.
Here is the stereotype: "Iceland has the most beautiful women in the world. That's because the Vikings went over to Ireland and stole their most beautiful women and brought them here". The joke often continues to explain that that is why Ireland's women are so ugly, because the Vikings didn't bother with them. It's really funny if you like racist jokes about rape.
It got more air time a few years ago, when an Icelandic woman won Miss World in 2005. It was Iceland's third win for the pageant, with other wins in 1985 and again in 1988.

It's true that most of the people here are blonde and pale, which for some reason seems to automatically denote beauty. Perhaps it's just exotic to come to a country where the people are sometimes blonde to such an excess that their hair is actually white. Personally, I think it's great, but I'm a sucker for blondes.
But if you're not into the Barbie combination, you can choose from the other group of pale, but raven-haired Icelanders. There's another racist origin joke about this one, too. I heard it told by a tour guide at a local folk museum. Apparently, you can blame (or thank) shipwrecked sailors from Spain for any dark hair you see in Iceland.

But here's where this topic gets sticky. Of course there are beautiful people in every place on the planet. There are also different ideas of beauty in every country on the planet. When Iceland boats of it's "beautiful women", they are asking you to envision this:

 I mean, yeah. It's true. That woman in Icelandic. But like most places, you shouldn't expect to hit up the clubs and be surrounded by girls like that.

Iceland was pretty isolated from the rest of the world before the World Wars. People lived in simple long houses and ate simple foods like potatoes and boiled fish. During the 1940s, the American military set up a base in Keflavík (which is why that airport is so damn far away). Americans brought with them the usual American fare. Television (which is a major reason why Icelanders can speak English today), rock music, and junk food. If you live in America, you might not realize that American candy is pretty special. Despite being of sub-par quality, people love it and they eat a lot of it. (unless it has peanut butter in it. Only Americans seem to like that. It's impossible to find Reese's in Europe unless you go to a specialty shop, and I've never seen it in Iceland)

Many Icelanders still stick to traditional jobs, such as fishing and farming, both of which are physically demanding. Even now, for these people, breakfast is usually just a cup of coffee. Some toast with jam and cheese if you are feeling peckish. Lunch is also not too big of a deal. Some leftovers from breakfast, or something equally light. That leaves dinner as the main meal of the day. As an American, I will probably never be able to shake the idea that breakfast is the most important, lunch involves a sandwich, and dinner should come with a second helping and dessert. This notion is catching on in Iceland. Especially in Reykjavík, where everyone can speak decent English and is heavily influenced by the trendiest cities in the world. You can see some of the most amazing hipsters on Earth walking down Laugavegur, sporting outfits that would make kids from Williamsburg burst into jealous flames. Lamb hots dogs called pylsur are viciously famous (and addictive). Junk food and candies are available in bulk bins in every single grocery, quick stop, and petrol station. And Icelanders drink more Coca-Cola per person than any other country in the world. Yes, including America. I heard something like 25L per person per year on average.
Everyone knows that Americans are fat. Somehow I've managed to avoid that fate thus far, but many Icelanders are suffering as a result of the adopted lifestyle. Iceland now ranks number 17 on the list of most obese countries in the world (USA is number one), with an obesity rate of 12%.

Overweight does not equal unattractive. Not by a long shot. But it's a far cry from the lithe, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, wool-sporting wilderness beauty so often portrayed. But it's no surprise. If you only looked at American advertisements, you would think we all looked like Megan Fox.
My purpose with addressing this Icelandic stereotype was to draw attention the rise of health problems associated with an American lifestyle. It's still somewhat of a new introduction in Iceland, and even though the average lifespan is still very high (82.9 years for women), heart disease is now the top killer in the country and will continue to be a problem without drastic changes to public health awareness.

Am I saying that fat women are automatically ugly? No.
Am I saying that thin women are automatically beautiful? No.
Am I implying that white people are somehow more attractive than non-white people? No, of course not.
Am I saying that America is the cause of all of the world's problems? Yes. Yes I am.

Join me next time for another episode of Me Telling You Things About A Country That I'm Not Even From.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of...Part 1. Hákarl

Every country is plagued by it's own stereotypes, some of which the citizens might not even be aware of. I heard recently that America has no trains. America would hardly exist if it weren't for trains, but I suppose that in the eyes of some Europeans, Americans rode around on horses or surf boards, and unless a train is a high speed bullet, it's not really a train. But I digress.
When you stay in a country for a short time, as a tourist, it's difficult to sort through the mess of stereotypes and I think that's how many of them get perpetuated. The Reykjavik Grapevine wrote an article recently talking about a similar phenomenon attributed to "lay-over journalists" (writers who stop in Iceland on their way somewhere else and end up using that experience to sum up the entire country), and NPR followed up with an article written by an admitted lay-over journalist. But even that article, despite being self-conscious of it's position, managed to slip in another mistake on Icelandic culture and cuisine. So here's my top five list of the most common misconceptions about Iceland in no particular order, starting with a particularly stinky one....

1. Hakárl
More commonly referred to as "disgusting rotten shark". I think by now, everyone has heard of this purely Icelandic delicacy. Some famous chefs have vomited upon trying this, and claimed it as the most putrid, horrible food available on planet Earth. It's been described as  tasting like a combination of mouldy cheese and ammonia. The summation of the hákarl process is that a shark is buried underground for a few months, then dug up and hung to rot for a few more months, cut into chunks, and then happily scarfed down by natives. Visitors love to tell stories of their encounters with hákarl, and they most likely sampled a small cube from the Reykjavík flea market which opens every weekend. Vendors there sell tiny cups with a few bits in for tourists to taste, although few actually end up trying it once they open the container and get a whiff. Part of the story involved telling the story of how it´s made, which is where the inaccuracies begin. Of course, the worse it sounds, the better the story seems, and the braver the taster is, so I´m not surprised that things get a little mixed up.
This might be a bit nit-picky of me, because while everything about making hákarl is relatively true, it's exaggerated a bit, and I want to clear up a few things.
I visited (with a friend of mine) a hákarl production facility in the northwest recently and we got to see the entire process from start to finish.

Hákarl is made from the flesh of the Greenland shark. This shark swims in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean and is one of the largest sharks in the world. It never stops growing in it´s entire life, and can grow over 6 meters in length. Not too surprising when you take into account it´s lifespan: 200 years!
When we visited the farm, there was a freshly caught shark in a trailer that we could have a look at.
This shark was too heavy for the scales, but it was estimated to be 700kg. And based on it's length, our host told us that it was probably between 70 and 90 years old. But don´t be sad. Fishermen don't go out hunting for these creatures. They occasionally get caught up in other fishing nets, and rather than throwing their bodies back out to sea, they are sold either to this place, or the other farm that makes hákarl.
That´s Christian peeling back the tarp. Our super-awesome host for the hákarl tour.
There's not much to do to prepare the shark for the first step. It is placed inside a plastic box for about four weeks, in which is has ample time to ferment in it's own urine. Christian, our very charming host, explained that hákarl has likely never been made by burying it underground. It´s possible, he says, that this was done a very long time ago when people were still experimenting with the process, but now it´s much more efficient and sanitary to just throw it in a plastic box.
At this point, you may be wondering why anyone would go through all of this trouble just to make a smelly bite of shark meat. The flesh of the Greenland shark is very poisonous, and cannot be consumed unless it's been given plenty of time to leech itself of toxins. Apparently, some Greenlandic people still repeatedly boil the meat (throwing out the water each time) to make it edible, but the fermentation method is tried and true.
After the shark has been left in the box for a month, it is cut into hefty chunks, each about 5kg, and hung in a drying house. The pieces hang for about four months, depending on the weather. When the outside of the meat turns a crispy brown color, it's ready to take down. The brown crust is cut off to expose the white meat inside, and this is then cut into small cubes which are then ready to eat.
The hákarl shown here was very fresh. Well...ok...if you can call five months old "fresh". I've had hákarl a few times before and it always did have a fairly sharp sting to it. Not the worst thing I've ever tasted, but it certainly didn't leave me asking for more. This, however, was amazing. My friend and I both asked for seconds and thirds. There was no ammonia taste, but I still though it was a little cheesy. When I asked Christian about it, he explained that it does "go bad" if it's left out too long (which would explain the putridness of the flea market samples).
So there you go. Hope that clears up some things about how this traditional snack is made, and I hope it proves that it's nothing to be afraid of, no matter what Gordon Ramsey says. If you want to try real Icelandic hákarl that you don't need to hold your nose for, visit Christian and his family at their farm in Bíldudalur and don't be afraid to ask for seconds!

Stay tuned for four more exciting updates on how everyone is wrong about everything, except for me. Including whatfor's on;

2. Iceland and it's beautiful women
3. Whaling
4. Vikings
5. Fairies and elves

Saturday, July 2, 2011


   Have you seen the Icelandic movie "Cold Fever"? It makes fun of cultural stereotypes, and the scene with the Icelandic taxi driver is my favorite part. He is driving the Japanese passenger from the Keflavik airport and starts chatting about how everything Icelandic is "the best in the world". It's funny because the conversation is nearly identical to real conversations you might have with an Icelander who is excited to show someone new around. "We have the most beautiful women in the world. We have the best lamb in the world, etc etc". 
   So it's no big surprise that Iceland also likes to take credit for the French Revolution. It's not nearly as much of a stretch as you might think. Yesterday my mom and I took a tour of the Laki crater area, which is about 75km east of Vík. In 1793, the ground split open and a 27km long chain of craters (135 of them) spewed fire lava into the air for the next 8 months. The lava flowed in giant rivers, covering a large portion of the southeast, and the poisonous fluorine-sulfuric ash drifted into Europe, turning the sky blood red and killing about six million people. Surely a terrifying time to be alive. The ash so sufficiently blotted out the sun that it changed the climate and led to massive crop failure and famine. Famine that (you guessed it) spurred the French peasants to revolt. 
   But even though the Laki area is very much active, it seems to be sleeping, and doesn't mind tourists crawling all over it's belly as it naps. A 4x4 is necessary to drive on the roads, and a few rivers must be crossed.

Hopefully this .gif works. You might have to click on it to see it in action. This is the first animation I've ever made.
Unfortunately, we didn't get outside too much on account of the rain and wind, but once you've seen one giant lava field, you've seen them all.
  Sorry for the skimpy updates. I will try to rectify that in the future. :-)