|Vor Siður – newsletter of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”|
|The X on the map shows where Agnar was born in 1940|
First, here is my translation of the article. Agnar discusses two customs he remembers from his youth on an Icelandic farm – customs that he thinks reflect elements of ancient heathen belief that survived long after Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. One relates to the prohibition of rune-like ice carvings and the other to leaving a hay-offering for elves or gods at harvest time.
Doodles and Elf-Rakes
Original article by Agnar J. Levy appeared in Vor Siður 17, no. 4 (2008)
Translated by Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried for The Norse Mythology Blog
Special thanks to Jóhannes A. Levy and Kári Pálsson for translation advice
Read the original article (in Icelandic) here
Original text © Ásatrúarfélagið
I was born in 1940, and I will now tell of two of the most memorable items from my childhood.
Now, much later, when I begin thinking about this in more detail, I think that this could be the remains of the ancient belief in runes. In those days and until recent times, it was considered certain that, if the runes were wrongly carved, they could cause illness or other disaster. I remember examples from stories in the Saga of Egill Skallagrímsson and other sagas. Since it was not easy to stop our idle and futile scribbling, the old devil was mixed up in the matter to make us behave better – and this often worked well.
I think it is obvious that this practice originated in an ancient fertility cult and survived up to the present time, depsite the change of religion. Nobody does such things anymore – or do they? With modern technology and expedited hay harvesting, you will often notice bits of hay accidentally left uncut out in the fields or in the corners. It can therefore be said that the gods still receive their fill, although the farmers give it unintentionally.
Second, here is what Jóhannes was kind enough to write about his father’s childhood and mid-century Icelandic country life. To those of us who live in urban areas today but have parents who were born in rural areas before the mid-point of the last century, this way of life seems both long ago (historically) and very recent (emotionally).
Farm Life in Iceland
He was born on a farm in northwest Iceland near Húnaflói. His aunt was a midwife in the area, and when she went to help with his birth, she nearly drowned when her horse went down on the ice on the river. She then had to ride seven kilometers [4.3 miles] in winter temperatures.
Electricity came in 1968, but not at first to every farm in the countryside; some waited six more years. Before that, my grandfather owned a wind-power plant which was widely used to charge the batteries which were used by radios at that time. People came very far in the country to get them charged.
This list above is only to describe the circumstances of my father’s childhood. I am so lucky to know the remains of the old time which was quickly fading away.
Third, Jóhannes was kind enough to translate this information about a unique photograph of a mid-century elf-rake from the National Museum of Iceland website. Taken nearly twenty years after Agnar’s birth, the photo documents the moment when one of the last survivals of the old practice of leaving a hay-offering to the Powers finally came to an end.
More on Elf-Rakes
In mid-September 1958, a young man takes a picture when an old tradition is followed for the last time on the banks of the Eyjafjarðará, opposite the farm Hrafnagil. There lies a meadow owned by his father, Jóns Júlíussonar the farmer from Munkaþverá, who lives on the part of the farm that housed a monastery for about 400 years.
This is truly the last haystack on the banks of the river, as his parents quit farming the year after and move to Akureyri. It was a tradition in Munkaþverá to leave the last stack on the banks and burn it, or at least from the time that the family of Jóns began to farm shortly after 1880. This custom was known on several farms in Eyjafjörður. With the new techniques and methods of hay-gathering, this ancient custom died out, probably around 1960.
Engjafang (“meadow portion”) was also called dreifarfang (“scattered portion”), englarök (“angel-rake”) and álfkonufang (“elf-lady-rake”).
Jóhannes adds that “Icelandic folk tales and fairy tales collected by Jón Árnason say that people should avoid gathering the last hay bundle, or else the hay will not last the winter and grass growth will be less the following year.” As Agnar wrote in his article, these ideas seem to be remnants of an old belief in the importance of offering a portion of the harvest to elves or gods.
Finally, Jóhannes made some comments on krumsprang, the word his father used for the etchings he and his friends made on the ice as children.
Alles klar! On the advice of Jóhannes, that’s the word I use in the translation.
And in the end...
|Banks of the Danube in Wolfingen, where my dad played as a kid|
|The Seigfried family home in Wolfingen|
Kári has also told me about the wonderful stories he has heard from his grandparents about the old rural ways of living. All three of us realize the great gift we have been given by being lucky enough to have had a personal connection to those who lived in a time that now seems so long ago and far away from modern urban life.
|Agnar J. Levy in 2008, around the time he wrote the article|
If you have people in your own family with stories to tell, take time now to listen. If you don’t learn the family traditions and pass them on to your own children, this beautiful heritage of oral tradition will be lost forever.