Europe Iceland Stories

Re-weaving the Old Stories: Tracing Lived Traditions in an Icelandic village (Part 2)

August 27, 2018

by Marian Reid

Read Part 1, on Skagaströnd’s Fishing Culture here

While the harbour in Skagaströnd is dominated by relics of the past, this entire region is built on much more than the story of the fish. And it’s these stories that will resurface in the space left by fishing’s decline. Not everyone outside Iceland realises, but the fishing industry came late to Iceland. This tiny nation was built on farming and wool. Everyone had sheep. The main export was weaving, and from the 17th century onwards, knitting.

“It was a huge identity for Iceland,” says Ragnheiður Þórsdóttir (Ragga), a weaver and teacher at the Icelandic Textile Centre in the town of Blönduós, 20 minutes south of Skagaströnd. There are not so many weavers left now. Yet the weaving tradition holds many of the narratives of Iceland’s past. “Everything in weaving is connected to stories. The patterns always have some meaning,” says Ragga. “You would weave your life. What you wove is how you would spend your life.”

We are sitting among old wooden looms in the attic workshop of the textile centre. These are the very looms Ragga herself played under when she was a small child and her grandmother was a teacher at the centre, which was then a women’s school. The way weaving and stories were intertwined can also be found in some old Icelandic poems, that were actually instructions for weaving.“We used to teach the children through songs, and they could learn weaving through dancing because then people didn’t write things down. Icelandic rhymes are full of textiles.”

Today, weaving in Iceland is hardly practised – something Ragga thinks is damaging for future generations. But she also sees how people are becoming more nostalgic about the old times and interested in rediscovering old techniques: “People have an idea that weaving is calming – that the act of weaving is your heartbeat heard in the ‘click click click’ of the loom.” Although weaving is something of a lost tradition, the act of creating with wool is far from lost in Iceland. It’s been transferred, in a way, to the simple act of knitting, which is more portable and not expensive – even the smallest supermarkets sell wool because so many people knit.

“You would weave your life. What you wove is how you would spend your life.”

The stories told through weaving are still alive, though, because Icelanders are great storytellers. The Sagas – stories about Iceland’s founding families – and folkloric tales are embedded in the national psyche. One of the popular beliefs lies in the existence of ‘hidden people’ or elves that live among the local people. Most will tell you they only half believe in them, but there is a reluctance by many to completely discount the possibility.

In Skagaströnd, there is an uncanny link between the home of the hidden people and the decline of the herring fisheries on which this town had invested so much. In 1946, when they were building the new harbour, engineers blasted some rocks from the cliffs where it was said the ‘hidden people’ lived. Not long after, all the herring swam away from the local waters and never returned. It’s a story I heard many times from different residents of Skagaströnd. “Everyone knows this story,” says Óli. “I don’t even know where I heard it. Some people still say they can see the elves and the little people. I don’t know. But I am not sure so I don’t do anything wrong by them.”

Steindor Haroldsson, an elder in the town, spent his childhood playing among the hidden people in the cliffs of Skagaströnd. The cliffs are a grassy area leading down to the ocean – a peaceful place away from the main town that I visited almost daily to think. One grey afternoon, Steindor agrees to take me on a tour of the hidden people’s city, a wander that weaves through windswept grassy mounds to the icy edges of the Greenland Sea. “There are a lot of hidden people. I don’t see them but I feel it,” says Steiner, between puffs on his pipe. “I was here as a child, running all over this. My grandma always said: ‘It’s OK, he is playing with the hidden kids.’” He pauses for a few seconds, then continues. “When people didn’t have any light, something was happening in the dark. The belief in something you don’t understand was very strong. Many things happened you couldn’t explain.”

Steindor shows me the streets where the hidden people live. Wide avenues made of soft rocks that have been moulded by the ocean and wind. Carved shapes that serve as homes and churches and a town hall for the elves. He reveals a narrow inlet where the wail of an infant could be heard on certain nights. In Iceland, it was usual to leave unwanted babies exposed to the elements. Here, Steindor tells me, is where a poor servant once left her child, wrapped in rags. It’s a sad but common story in the Icelandic Sagas.

“Some people still say they can see the elves and the little people. I don’t know. But I am not sure so I don’t do anything wrong by them.”

Skagaströnd has its very own Saga, too, about a powerful fortune-teller called Þórdís, who founded the town and who is said to have buried treasure on Spákonufell. Local storyteller Dagný Sigmarsdóttir has built a museum in the town to honour Þórdís and her story, in which lies a prophecy about finding the treasure. “Only a woman can find the gold chest. She cannot be connected to Christianity. And she cannot have a name that is connected to God or Christ,” says Dagný. “This person should only have milk to drink from a horse her entire life. If we find someone who can fill these skills, she just has to walk up the mountain. Two ravens will appear, one will show her the way to the treasure, and other will show her the key.”

The museum tells the story of Þórdís by oral tradition – Dagný takes her visitors on a journey through the ages to a time of magic, spells and runes, for which Þórdís became famous. She was also the only woman who played a central role in the Sagas, which was significant for Dagný when she was growing up. “In Icelandic Sagas, people had the vision of Þórdís like she was a witch and not a good person. But I never found this in the stories,” she says. “Maybe it was because she was a very strong person and she wanted women and men to be equal. At that time there was always a man in charge, so when there is a woman in charge, of course people try to minimise her.”

“At that time there was always a man in charge, so when there is a woman in charge, of course, people try to minimise her.”

Learning about fish, weaving, folklore and prophecy in the short time I am in Skagaströnd leaves me wanting to know more about what other surviving traditions lie beneath the surface in this little town, and how they’ve been adapted to modern times. But I only have time to trace one more. On one of the last days in Iceland, I take the dirt road that leads north out of Skagaströnd along the cliffs to the very tip of the Skagi Peninsula. This is where the most remote farms are. Many have been abandoned but some are still working.

I’ve come to see sheep, but the farm I visit looks out to a spattering of tiny islands on which live a colony of Eider ducks. She’s not expecting us but in the true Icelandic way, Helga Hofnum – a robust and delightful woman who owns the farm – invites us for coffee in her kitchen. I learn these Eider ducks are the source of cosy eider duck feathers that were used to keep early Icelanders warm. Of course, they still do – but these days eider duck feathers are more likely to be exported to Europe and Japan to be made into expensive duvets and down jackets. From binoculars in Helga’s kitchen, I watch the lovely ducks nesting in little red houses Helga has built on their island to protect them and their valuable down from the elements. It looks like a tiny Icelandic village, replicated in miniature and set against a wide expanse of sea and sky – much like Skagaströnd looks really.

Marian Reid is a Melbourne-based writer dedicated to telling important and unusual stories from around the world. She recently spent two months in Iceland with NES Artist Residency.

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