Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Witch's Bridle: An Icelandic Folktale

This time of year in Iceland, the nights are getting long, clouds and rain and fog keep the days generally dark, and if you find yourself walking through a lava field in the half light and hear a fox bark, it's easy to believe in ghosts and trolls and witches.

Or, if not to "believe," at least to scare the wits out of yourself remembering the old stories. My favorites in this genre of Icelandic folktales are the ones about the Witch's Bridle.

In one story, a young farmhand, nearly asleep, feels his mistress place in his mouth the bit of a bridle. Immediately he is compelled to follow her outside, where she mounts him like a horse. She rides him "over hill and dale, over rocks and rubble. To him it seems as if he is wading through sea foam." They stop at the edge of a crater, "which yawns, like a great well, down into the earth," and she ties her "horse" to a stone and disappears into the pit.

As in all of these tales of travel to the Otherworld, the witch-ridden boy manages to pull off the magic bridle and follow her to spy on her doings. In some stories, like this one, her destination is a grand palace in Alfheim (Elfland), where she is greeted like an honored guest. In other tales, she is riding for the Black School in Heim-Utspell (Land of Fire), where she will receive magical training at the hands of Old Nick himself. (Alternatively, Satan's Black School is in Paris!)

The Witch's Bridle transforms not only people, but individual bones into serviceable horses. Often these are bones of horses--shoulder-bone, jawbone, legbone--but occasionally they are human bones. The famous churchman Sira Halfdan of Fell once bridled the hip-bone of a man, turning it into "a willing horse that could go as well over the sea as on land." It is also said that the Witch's Bridle is the only way to fully tame a nykur or nennir, the magical white horses that come out of the sea.

To make a Witch's Bridle, one story says, cut three narrow strips of skin off the spine of a newly dead corpse and twist each one while pulling it through a hole in a skull--usually the ear hole. (The witch would use an already prepared skull, rather than that of the fresh corpse; of course she'd have one at hand.) Braid the strips into reins. Next, flay off the dead man's scalp and fashion it into the head-piece of the bridle, with the hair left on. The bones at the root of the tongue (the hyoid bones) are used for the bit, while the hip bones make the cheek pieces--the Witch's Bridle follows the form of the classic Icelandic bridle, with its large cheek pieces.

When properly pieced together, the bridle can be fastened onto "any man or beast, stock or stone, and it will go quicker than lightning wherever one wants to go." In practice, however, the bridle must have been programmed by magic words to go to one particular destination, for in no instance in the tales does the witch-ridden bone, beast, or man deviate from course--even when the rider is not the witch, as in the tale above, in which the farmhand turns the tables on his mistress and bridles her for the ride back home from Elfland. Perhaps the spell was recited while the skin for the reins was being pulled through the ear hole, thus allowing the skin to "hear" the instructions.

Interestingly, although many magical objects have been retrieved from graves in Iceland, no artifacts resembling the collection of skin and bones of a Witch’s Bridle have been found--yet.

For more shakes and shivers (and a few love spells), read last year's Halloween post about the Icelandic Witchcraft Museum:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gerri Griswold's "Iceland Affair"

Even her friends call her "peculiar." Her Facebook pages (yes, she maintains several) are littered with selfies taken in the crapper at Logan Airport or the big bathtub in her back yard (censored by soap bubbles). She drivels on and on about her juicing diet and her real job (one of them) as a radio station traffic reporter. She has a pet pig. She's passionate about bats and porcupines, which she rehabilitates for the White Memorial Conservation Center.

Where am I going with this? To Iceland, of course, for Gerri Griswold is passionate, too, about the land of Fire and Ice, which is how our paths crossed. Gerri's is the spirit behind Iceland Affair--and that's what makes this quirky all-day, all-Iceland festival in Connecticut so much fun.You just never know who you might meet and what you might learn.

According to a press release for Iceland Affair, which Gerri has almost single-handedly put together near her home in Connecticut each year for the last five, Gerri Griswold fell "hopelessly in love with Iceland on her first trip in May 2002 and has since traveled there 34 times."

Reading that made me seriously jealous. I fell in love with Iceland in 1986 and I've only racked up 18 return trips. How does she do it?

One answer is, she doesn't sleep. I learned that the hard way, sharing a room with her for a June night in Iceland in 2013, where she was up until at least 3 a.m. editing photos to post on Facebook. She once was a professional chef, Gerri told me. "I'm used to having five burners going at once."

To fund (or fuel) her Iceland habit, Gerri established a travel agency, which I wrote about in a previous blog post. [Read it here:] I toured with her group for about 24 hours, during which time I hiked along the rim of a volcanic crater at midnight, swam in a natural hotspring, visited sulfur pots and lava formations, learned about lichens, found the ram with the biggest horns in Iceland, and listened to the stirring voices of a men's choir in the elegant surroundings of a bird museum while munching on Icelandic cheese. I think that was more than five burners going at once.

And it was fun. Gerri's company pairs an elegant logo of a raven with a name that, while it does mean "raven," is pronounced by every American as "crummy": Krummi Travel. The company logo is No crybabies, cranks, or pantywaists allowed. What's a pantywaist? I spent that whole day touring with them and didn't have the nerve to ask.

Still don't know--and don't tell me, because I'm taking part in another of Gerri's productions this weekend: the Fifth Annual Iceland Affair in Winchester Center, CT.

Inside the Winchester Center Grange on Saturday, October 18, from 10 to 5, will be a full slate of lectures and presentations. At noon, I'll be speaking on my book A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse. There will be talks on Iceland's geology and its currently active volcano, Barðarbunga. The breeder of Icelandic goats whose farm we all saved from the dragons (bankers) with the Indiegogo campaign will be there, as will experts on Icelandic gyrfalcons and Icelandic pop music. [Read more about the goats here:]

Downstairs at the Grange will be free food-tastings all day: Icelandic hot dogs, dried fish, chocolate, skyr, and more. Vendors will be selling Icelandic sweaters and vinaterta and books (mine, of course).

Outside on the Winchester Center Green will be a veritable Icelandic petting zoo: Icelandic horses, Icelandic sheep, Icelandic sheepdogs, Icelandic chickens--yes, there really are Icelandic chickens.

"Anything worth doing is worth overdoing," Gerri stresses.

Finally, at 8 pm, there's a concert (which is not free; Gerri's got to pay for this event somehow). The Fire and Ice Music Festival at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, CT will feature Icelandic musicians Lay Low, Svavar Knutur, Myrra Ros, Agnes Erna, Snorri Helgason, Bjorn Thorodssen, and Kristjana Stefansdottir, playing everything from pop to folk to jazz. [You can read bios of the artists (and buy tickets, if there are any left) here:]

"Surprises are in store for every guest attending--and for the artists," Gerri concludes.

I'm not surprised. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Not Leif Eiriksson Day, but Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day

Tomorrow, October 9, is Leif Eiriksson Day, when people of Scandinavian heritage and Viking enthusiasts like me celebrate the fact that the Vikings explored North America 500 years before Columbus.

While I whole-heartedly support the celebrations, I wonder, Why does Leif get all the credit? As I wrote on this blog before--in 2012 and 2013--I think we should celebrate "Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day," instead. Leif spent a winter in the Viking's Vinland and never went back. His sister-in-law, Gudrid, lived there three years and bore a child in the New World.

Gudrid is mentioned in both of the medieval Icelandic sagas about the Vikings' adventures in Vinland, or Wine Land, around the year 1000. Experts believe the stories in The Saga of the Greenlanders were first collected by Gudrid's great-great-grandson, Bishop Brand, in the 1100s. The Saga of Eirik the Red was commissioned about a hundred years later by another of Gudrid's many descendants, Abbess Hallbera, who oversaw a convent in northern Iceland.

The two sagas don't agree on the particulars of Gudrid's life, and they don't tell us very much about her. She was "of striking appearance," intelligent, adventurous, and friendly. She could sing and she was Christian. She was born in Iceland, married in Greenland, explored Wine Land, returned to Iceland and raised two sons, took a pilgrimage to Rome, and became one of Iceland's first nuns. Many Icelanders today trace their ancestry from her.

Over the last 50 years, archaeologists have proved more and more of her story true. In Greenland, they uncovered Eirik the Red's Brattahlid and the church built there by his wife, Thjodhild. They uncovered the house at Sand Ness where Gudrid's husband died.

On the far northwestern tip of Newfoundland, near a fishing village called L'Anse aux Meadows, they found three Viking houses. This small settlement is now thought to be the gateway from which the Vikings explored North America. Among the Viking artifacts found there was a spindle whorl, proving a Viking woman had been on the expedition.
Three white walnuts, or butternuts, found at L'Anse aux Meadows prove the Vikings sailed well south, to where butternut trees—and the wild grapes for which Wine Land was named—then grew. The most likely spots seem to be near the mouth of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, where there was a large Native American settlement at the time.
In 2001 a team of archaeologists began working in Skagafjord, the valley in northern Iceland where Karlsefni came from. I volunteered on the project one summer as we uncovered a Viking Age house on the farm called Glaumbaer, where the sagas say Gudrid finally made her home. The floorplan of the house looked like no other found in Iceland. It most closely resembled a house at L'Anse aux Meadows.
I told the story of my summer working on the archaeological team in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, which was published by Harcourt in 2007. I thought then that I had written all I could about Gudrid the Far-Traveler. Her spirit disagreed. As soon as that book came out, I began writing a new one.

My young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, will be published in Spring 2015 by namelos. I look forward to sharing the process with you.

To read my earlier posts about Leif Eiriksson Day, see: and

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Icelandic Toys

In the old days, when Icelanders lived in turf houses like this one, how did the children play?

The English traveler Alice Selby visited Iceland in 1931. During the week she spent on a farm in a narrow northern valley, she writes, "the weather grew steadily worse. At first it was bright but cold. Then it grew cloudy, and then the rain began. After that it grew still colder, the rain turned to snow and sleet, and the bitterest wind blew unceasingly. My first impression of the Icelandic countryside was one of complete gloom."

Then one day, out on a walk, she met a local man who shared with her a secret: "When we drew near the farm where he lived, he led me out of the way to a sheltered hollow and showed me a little village of toy houses made by children from the farm. The tiny mud houses were roofed with turf and fenced with sheep's horns. There were flowers, daisies and little pink arenaria planted in the gardens, and there was even a cemetery with crosses made from match sticks. I felt unaccountably cheered."

Selby doesn't mention the animals at the children's farm, but I came across this extensive farm-animal set one year when I visited the Skogar Folk Museum in southern Iceland. Before Legos there were bones. According to Jónas Jónasson frá Hrafnagili, in his book on Icelandic folkways, the knucklebones of sheep were sheep, the knucklebones of cows were cows, while the legbones of sheep were horses, though jawbones were sometimes horses too, like this well-laden packhorse:

In the airline magazine, on the way home from that trip, I read about a new toy set designed by Róshildur Jónsdóttir, "Something Fishy." According to the magazine, it's "a model-making kit including cleaned bones from fish heads and paint … The kit doesn't contain any instructions; it's up to the creative mind of each user what they want to create: spaceships, angels, or elves--anything is possible. A great alternative to virtual games and plastic toys." Here's an example:

Róshildur was inspired, the magazine says, by "the old days," when children's favorite toys were bones. You can read more about "Something Fishy" here: