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Bjarni Harðarson, bookseller
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Ólöf’s Portents

In the Fróðá river valley in the upland pastures of the Biskupstungur district of South Iceland, horses are found with vestigial horns or scurs. The scurs or horns are only about an inch in length, and thin. They project from the horse’s head just north of the ears, when the wind blows from the east and snow drifts down off the glacier. But few people now alive have seen these fantastical creatures, and even fewer have heard of them, for no stories are told of them – except for the tales told by men and women when the Kjölur road across the uninhabited highlands was built by Þorvaldur Thoroddsen in 1888, and are now forgotten. Stories which lived once, but offended against the modern superstition that there is a divide between stories and reality. A superstition invented by those who, like St. Thomas the Apostle, believe nothing unless they can touch it with their bare hand. Such people leave their grubby fingerprints on the world.

Last year a cow gave birth to a two-headed calf. A ewe bore a lamb with six legs in West Iceland, and in Tjörnes up north a brown lamb was born a cyclops: it gazed triumphantly out of its one eye at the world, and died. A male lamb with one horn was found in a sheepshed in the north, and vanished shortly afterwards.  In the sea, fishermen caught herring covered with sores, and in upland lakes swam misshapen fish with backwards fins.

Nature had spoken, but no-one was listening. And had anyone heard the message, they would probably have retorted that the ancient guardian spirits of the island were simply envious of the modern Icelanders’ prosperity. In olden days, an infirm but wise old woman might lie in a farmhouse, seeking to interpret the significance of a lamb being born with the beak of a raven, or reading hardship and destruction from the phases of the moon. We no longer understand the symbolism of nature’s messages.

The animals seen here are reality, in the same way that we are. They are casts of the year’s omens. Many more such creatures have been stuffed and are arranged on shelves of natural history collections in Iceland. Others are preserved in tales, which are quite as tangible as all the financial indices which have simply evaporated, leaving no trace behind.

 

A flying sheep I saw,
And a troll with a book of psalms,
Horses sailing the sea,
And ships galloping on the mountains.

(Bjarni the Poet, d. 1625)

Written in connection with Ólöf Nordal´s exhibition Three Lambs and a Calf at Gallery Start Art, Reykjavik, 2009
© Bjarni Harðarson

Translation: Anna Yates