1772: Those Kissing Icelanders

black and white farm

When Dorothy was caught up by a tornado, she was carried to Oz. You, however, after having drunk a tumbler or two of brennavin were transported from Islendingadagurinn in Gimli to Iceland in 1772. As you staggered along a mountain path, grateful only that there is no horizontal rain this day, you have found a turf and lava farmhouse with a front made from driftwood.

The farmer and his wife, not quite sure what to make of this odd looking stranger have found a place for you to sleep after the eldest daughter, bewitching lass that she is with her long blonde hair and her pale blue eyes, has helped you off with your clothes. She’ll hang them up in the hope that, in the morning, if they’re not actually dry, they won’t be dripping wet. They’ll smell a bit smoky because the most likely place for them to be hung is in the cooking area along with the meat and fish that is also hung there.

There is, given the way these things work, tornadoes and brennevin that is, a good chance that someone in that house where you are going to sleep jam packed with ten other people, is one of your ancestors. So, just in case it’s the beautiful blonde wench who helped you off with your clothes, and she’s going to be your lang lang lang lang lang lang amma, keep your licentious thoughts to yourself.

In any case, what are these people like?

According to von Troil, the Viking age is long gone.

Instead of war, plundering, burning, destroying on their way to Valhalla, they’re now content to take care of their sheep and cows. The Icelanders defended themselves against their powerful neighbours, not by arms but by historical knowledge. They put great effort into knowing their own laws.

Current Icelanders prefer fishing and agriculture to war.

So, there you have it, from a man who is there, on the spot, you aren’t going to find any Vikings. You are going to find farmers and fishermen.

He says the Icelanders are middle-sized and well built but not very strong. The women are “ill-featured”. That’s surprising but given their diet, the constant diseases, particularly of the skin, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. He says that where he is, the men no longer have beards but if you are in the northern part of the island, your host and the other men living in the house are likely to have beards.

Our host and the other farmers in the area have fewer vices than van Troil has seen among the wealthy in Europe. Theft is seldom heard of. Nor are the Icelanders inclined to get drunk. But there have been fines and other punishments meted out for drunkenness. In spite of what von Troil says, if you have some brennevin left in that bottle in your pocket, no one would turn down a drink. Particularly as what most Icelanders get to drink, if they get to drink, is cheap Danish brandy.

The Vikings were noted for their generosity. However, in 1772, most people are not well off, yet they are generous. Von Troil says “they cheerfully give away the little they have to spare, and express the utmost joy and satisfaction if you are pleased with their gift.”

Now, here’s the tricky part, that beautiful blonde daughter of your host, the sixteen year old with the long blonde hair and the startlingly blue eyes and the smile that makes your heart go thud, thud thud, but who just might be your lang amma, is going to kiss you on the mouth. The Icelanders are always kissing each other on the mouth. Icelanders are the most kissing kissers the world has ever seen. You’ll be expected to kiss the husband, the wife, the children, the other sisters, grandma, even if she’s got a mouthful of chewing tobacco.

Von Troil says that Icelanders are faithful to their government and very religious. They are also obliging and faithful.

They are superstitious, so don’t do any magic tricks. It wouldn’t do to be identified as an agent of the devil.

They are so attached to their own country that is not understandable. Even those who have a chance for a much better life in Copenhagen usually return to Iceland.

In spite of all these wonderful qualities, they are not ambitious. They just repeat what they have always done even though their lives could be made better with some obvious improvements in the way they fish or farm.

They aren’t cheerful by nature so, if your host seems phlegmatic and taciturn, don’t take it personally. If you are lucky enough to speak Icelandic, you can join in and listen while they take turns reading or telling stories or sing. However, he says, the singing is dreadful.

If you are lucky, during your brief stay in 1772 in Iceland, you might hear someone play the langspil or the fidla. The fidla will have two strings made of horsehair. You might see them play games or do a ring dance which he called ringbrud or you might see horse racing.

If you play chess, you’ll be a welcome guest. The Icelanders are already famous for playing chess.

When you leave, walking down that mountain path more steadily to whatever portal will bring you back to Gimli and Islendingadagurinn, you’ll be grieved by the farm people because you will be the only non-Icelander these people will see in their lifetime, unless they are fortunate enough to be among those who go to the harbour when the Danish trading ships come in. Most will never see a foreigner. I hope you memorized the name of the farmer and the farm. Then you can do some genealogy and track your ancestors back and see if that pretty blonde really was your lang amma and, if not, wish you had spent some time kissing her behind the sheep pen.