How can I practice as a doctor in Iceland?

healthcare jobs iceland

Iceland is a great place to live and work. And unfortunately for those in the medical field in Iceland, but fortunately for those in the field eyeing Iceland as a new home, there is a healthcare shortage in Iceland.

If you are looking for a healthcare job in Iceland, then you’re in luck, because it’s a very in-demand field.

For the most part, the process is just like any other profession. You will still need to comply to all the relevant regulations regarding work visas for individuals outside of EU/EEA nations (see “General Information” below).

What’s most important for medical professionals looking for employment in Iceland will be recognition of your degree and any other specific professional qualifications you have. You can read about these in detail at “Regulation on the Recognition of Professional Qualifications” below.

For a general practitioner, it should be enough to hold an MD or equivalent degree from an accredited institution. But for more specialized fields, you will want to begin your job hunt long before relocating to Iceland. Here you can view all of the current vacancies at the National University Hospital. For more specific questions on qualifications and employment in Iceland’s medical field, you will also want to contact the clinic or hospital you intend to work at directly. Especially for in-demand roles, they will also be able to help you navigate the process of having your medical qualifications recognized in Iceland.

Admission to medical school in Iceland requires a Bachelor’s degree. In order to obtain a medical license, candidates must complete a course of 180 ECTS credits over three years, in addition to a 12-month residency program. Medical candidates in Iceland will then take the NBME Clinical Sciences Comprehensive Examination.

Another common question we receive about practising as a medical professional in Iceland is whether there is an equivalent of a Physician’s Associate in Iceland. The short answer is no, but nurses do have a slightly wider range of responsibilities in Iceland. For example, nurses in Iceland are able to prescribe contraception. However, according to the National Hospital, laws governing prescriptions are currently under review, and this may change in the future.

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Cream of the Crop

 Row after row of steep but flat-topped mountains, interspersed with deep fjords. There’s barely enough land in between to make up a coastline, let alone farmland. But on the green patches between the cliffs and the waves, there are still more than a handful of farms dotting the landscape. The Westfjords have always been isolated, but after World War II, when the rest of Iceland experienced a period of sped-up industrialisation, the Westfjords were left behind. Once-thriving communities were slowly drained of life when the young people moved south, and a series of economic setbacks made life difficult for the ones that remained. and new generations still find ways of making it work. 

CREAM OF THE CROP
CREAM OF THE CROP

“I could drive
this road with my eyes closed,
I know it so well.”

6.40 am 

Rauðsdalur 

Mikkjall Agnar Þórsson Davidssen’s alarm goes off. It’s not light yet in the Westfjords but for farmers, this isn’t unusual. Mikki isn’t getting up to milk the cows or feed the sheep but to get his stepdaughter ready for school. At precisely 7.15, the school bus arrives. Rauðsdalur farm is its first stop on the way to bring the preschool and elementary school-aged kids to get their education in Patreksfjörður, the town on the other side of the mountains. 

Íris celebrated her tenth birthday the day before. She’s still waiting on her present, set to arrive any day now by mail from Reykjavík. The post arrives twice a week but the present is yet to turn up. Mikki and Íris are up but her mother Svanhildur is still sleeping, and so is six-month-old Ástey Kolbrún. An online sleep specialist whose aid her parents had requested insists that Ástey be woken up. With bated breath, her parents comply and Ástey rewards them with a smile. They have a whole day to brace themselves for the bedtime-inspired screaming set to happen later. 

Svanhildur and Mikki met in 2019 in Reykjavík. Mikki had lived in Norway for a few years before that, in the same region as the first Norse settler to intentionally sail to Iceland, Raven Flóki. Unlike Flóki, however, he’d never even been to the Westfjords. A couple of years later and he’s building himself a house there. 

The couple bought a prefab house and were hoping to have it ready last summer. Enter Ástey. Svanhildur got pregnant, delaying their plans for a while. They did manage to get the walls up, so all that remains is indoor work. While Mikki is new to the area, Svanhildur is born and bred. She grew up in Rauðsdalur with her parents and two brothers, moving away, like so many of the local youth to go to school, not planning on moving back. “We’d still visit every chance we got,” Mikki notes. “Summer or winter. I could drive this road with my eyes closed, I know it so well.” 

Mikki’s father-in-law drives the milk tanker. He’s been doing it for decades. He’s happy to have some help. Mikki’s taking half the shifts lately. Completely unrelated, his father-in-law is now spending a couple of weeks in the Canary Islands. Alongside the milk truck gig, Svanhildur’s parents run the farm, taking care of their cattle and sheep. They also dabble in tourism, running a guesthouse and campsite. Someone on the next farm over used to take half the shifts on the milk tanker. When he quit, there was an opening for Mikki. “We spent a lot of time here but I needed something more to do than just helping out at the farm.” Mikki and Svanhildur moved west in the spring of 2021, during the lambing season. Despite being raised in a rural area, Mikki says it takes a few years to get to know the ins and outs of dairy farming in the Westfjords. He’s from the south. 

 

Lambavatn

Just before nine, Mikki starts the truck. Twice a week, he collects the milk from the farms along the coast of Breiðafjörður and takes them all the way up to Ísafjörður. He starts at the most remote farm in his area, Lambavatn. To get there, he drives two mountain roads, first over Kleifaheiði heath, under the careful watch of Kleifabúinn, a primitive-looking statue created from excess stone by road workers in the 1940s. In the winter, the Kleifaheiði road can be treacherous, even though it’s cleared once a day to  make sure traffic can flow to and from Patreksfjörður. 

The second road takes you to the remote farming community of Rauðasandur, and it’s more than treacherous. It’s a long and winding gravel road, steep and rough, zigzagging up and down sharp cliffs. In summer, the view over the russet sand that gives the region its name is breathtaking. In winter, with strong winds and ice on the road, it can also take your breath away for all the wrong reasons. The road to Rauðasandur is among the most challenging in the region but there are others that can still be plenty bad when winter sets in. The roads have been slowly improving for the past couple of decades. There are fewer gravel roads. More bridges and shorter routes between towns. But progress is slow. Roads are how kids get to school and how food gets to farms. How products get from factories and tourists get to guesthouses. And how sick people, pregnant people, and people who’ve had accidents get to hospitals. 

It’s still dark when Mikki takes off and there aren’t many other cars on the road. A tiny sliver of light comes from the east. It’s mid-November but it’s still 8°C out and not a snowflake in sight, unusual for this time of year. 

On the road across Dynjandisheiði (try saying that five times fast while trying to keep a truck on an icy road), Mikki regales me with stories of thick layers of ice on the road making it hopeless to brake, and how they could sometimes drive on the edge of the road to keep safe. He also tells me of piles of snow higher than the top of the truck, and how he once had to put chains on the wheels of the truck four times in one day to pass safely over mountain roads. Putting the chains on takes half an hour out in the cold and he has to get them off again as soon as he gets down. He mentions tourists scared shitless who either won’t budge to make room for the truck on the road or give so much way that they almost drive off the road. He’s seen it all. Despite all his adventures crossing the iconic Westfjord mountains, his least favourite stretch of road is driving through the long tunnel connecting the southern and the northern Westfjords. Driving through the calm dark of the tunnels can make you drowsy.

The local milk truck drving across the winding roads of the Westfjords

10.00 am

It takes us less than an hour to get to Rauðasandur but in that time, Mikki’s told me who’s who in every farm along the way and who will greet us when we arrive. As promised, Þorsteinn á Lambavatni meets us in the milkhouse. As Mikki tests the quality of the milk before transferring it to the tank, Þorsteinn explains the watercolour drawing of the milking equipment with directions in English. They have foreign workers at the farm and one of them left the work of art to explain things to the next arrivals. As I admire the picture, Þorsteinn drags me into the cowshed where two further paintings adorn the steel doors keeping the cows away from the winter hay in the barn. Lambavatn may be isolated, at the end of the road, nothing ahead but the north Atlantic, but there’s always people attracted to exactly that. We don’t dawdle too long at Lambavatn. It’s the only dairy farm left in the area so it’s already out of the way. The milk tanker is its lifeline, the biweekly visit from Mikki or his father-in-law a prerequisite for people living there. 

In Barðaströnd, the farms are closer. The next stop is Breiðalækur, where Elín and Kristján are outside working on the greenhouse. Kristján is the third generations of farmers at Breiðalækur, a relatively young farm built in the mid-20th century. Despite only being a few decades old, the farm consists of several buildings and Kristján, a carpenter by trade, has done his part adding to it. There’s the old farmhouse, the new farmhouse sporting a two-year-old annex adding a new apartment for Elín and him. Then there’s the new dairy barn and the old dairy barn, currently in the process of being converted into a greenhouse. “The roof needed fixing,” Elín told me. “So we removed it to make a new one that lets the sun in.” Then there’s the workshop, which Elín has used to tan sheepskin, a garage for the farm equipment and their boat in the winter, and the latest addition under construction – a building to house their new ice-cream-making machinery. 

Their youngest isn’t old enough for school but their six-year-old takes the bus to Patreksfjörður in the morning to go to school. When Elín moved to the farm ten years ago, there was only one school-aged kid left in the region so they closed the local elementary school. Now, there are 14 children below the age of 16 but the school is yet to reopen.

Hagi

Hagi is the next farm over and just like Mikki predicted, there’s no one to greet us in the milkhouse. According to Mikki, “the farmers have decided to stop dairy production when they turn 60 but continue to live on the farm. The milk in the tank is just half of what it once was. They’re gradually downsizing.”

 

Hvammur

Hvammur is next, the largest dairy farm in the area, and Mikki pumps as much milk in his tanker as he did in the first three combined. There’s no one there to greet us. 

 

12.30 pm

Rauðsdalur

We drive up to Rauðsdalur again. Mikki’s family and the in-laws produce dairy, gather it from the surrounding farms, transport it to the dairy in Ísafjörður and drive the finished product back to the area. The dogs greet us with a cheerful bark and Mikki enquires about his daughter’s sleep schedule. All is according to plan. 

There are three dogs in total. The largest one is an Australian sheepdog who moves like an octogenarian after he broke his leg last fall. It takes a while to get used to but we go by the same name: this is Golíat, aka Golli. Pjakkur is a gregarious mutt, constantly seeking attention and willing to place his head in the lap of a perfect stranger in the hope of a scratch behind the ears. The third is more cautious, the namesake of Sveinn Skotti, the son of Iceland’s most famous serial killer, Axlar-Björn. Sveinn took after his father and was finally hanged in the cliffs jutting out into the sea below the farm. This was centuries ago, but I’m still keeping my eye on the dog. 

A quick cup of coffee and we’re off again. This time, we’re taking the milk to Ísafjörður. In Vatnsfjörður, the next town over, we stop and Mikki picks up a Styrofoam box that’s waiting for his arrival. It’s arctic char from the fish farm in Vatnsfjörður to be delivered to the fishmonger in Ísafjörður. Out here, everyone does their part. The tanker carries 5,950 litres of milk on its way to Arna creamery in Bolungarvík. Another milk tanker covers the northern part of the Westfjords bringing in a similar amount twice a week. That’s still not enough and Arna has to buy milk from other parts of the country as well. 

CREAM OF THE CROP

“Roads are how kids get to school and how food gets to farms. How products get from factories and tourists get to guesthouses. And how sick people, pregnant people, and people who’ve had accidents get to hospitals.”

CREAM OF THE CROP

A quick cup of
coffee and we’re
off again.

3.00 pm

Ísafjörður

We arrive in Ísafjörður. There is ongoing roadwork in Dynjandisheiði, the road has already gotten a lot better but there’s more to come. The tunnel by Dýrafjörður has shortened the drive by a lot and on an unusually warm fall day without snow, we don’t run into any issues. “By now, it’s even better to take this road in snow during the winter rather than on a sunny day in the summer. Ever since the tunnel opened the tourist traffic has increased a lot and there are a lot of people on the road that don’t have any experience driving Icelandic country roads.” Mikki’s working so he can’t pick up hitch hikers. There aren’t that many any way. But last year, he took pity on a cyclist on their way up Dynjandisheiði during a storm and drove them to safety. Everyone does their part. 

MS Iceland Dairies has an outpost in Ísafjörður and Mikki stops there for a quality control check on the milk. Everything is as it should be, so we continue out to Bolungarvík where the milk is pumped into Arna’s tankards to become butter, cream, skyr, or cheese. On the way back, we drop the Styrofoam box of char to the fishmonger and Mikki gets a bag of dried fish as a thank you. “I love the stuff, but I can’t eat it at home as the wife has a fish allergy.”

The day is not done yet. The milk tanker has to be thoroughly cleaned in an hour-long process. We get dinner. Mikki is pretty set in his ways but he’s willing to try a kebab in the recently opened kebab shop in an Ísafjörður shopping complex. Before we take off, another truck drives up to the tanker, a delivery from Reykjavík. Pallet after pallet of milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt, skyr and other dairy products is transferred to Mikki’s car for the people back home. He’ll deliver the goods tomorrow. We stop by the grocery. 

On the way back, it’s dark again. The floodlights on the top of the car come in handy. I even see a field mouse crossing the road. I didn’t ask why.

 

Rauðsdalur

It’s half past eight when we get back to Rauðsdalur. We go straight to the barn where Svanhvít is feeding the cows. Ástey is sleeping. 

CREAM OF THE CROP

Wet and Cold: Children Rescued from Elliðavatn Lake

elliðavatn reykjavík

Three boys between ages 10 and 11 were rescued by the capital area fire department yesterday when they fell through the ice on Elliðavatn, a popular lake near Reykjavík.

The boys had walked out onto the ice, which then broke under them. However, the fire department was able to respond in time, and the boys made it back onto dry land safely, albeit rather cold and wet.

The incident was reported to the fire department around 17:00 this last Monday. By the time the fire department had arrived, the boys had managed to make it to a small island in the lake, from which they were then rescued by the responders.

Sveinbjörn Berentsson, station officer at the capital area fire department, stressed in a statement to Vísir that going out on the ice is always dangerous, and simply staying off the ice is the safest thing to do.

It has also been a warm winter until a recent drop in temperature, meaning that the lake ice had only a short time to form.

The local school the boys attend has also sent advisory notices to parents, warning them of the danger. Teachers are also reported as having discussed the dangerous with their students following the incident.

 

 

New Crime Bill Includes Upwards of 1 Billion ISK in Funding, Increased Police Powers

Dómsmálaráðherra Ríkisstjórn Alþingi Jón Gunarsson

Following Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson’s declaration of a “war on organised crime” after the recent knife attacks in a Reykjavík nightclub, Icelandic police are set to receive ISK 500 million (3.5 million USD, 3.3 million EUR) in funding for the establishment of special investigation teams.

See also: New Police Bill Approved by Cabinet

In an interview with RÚV, the minister stated: “It is absolutely necessary to take drastic measures to stop the development that is taking place in Icelandic society when it comes to organised crime.”

Included in the new crime bill is the ability for Icelandic police to now monitor individuals, not under concrete suspicion of having committed a crime, but merely for connections to known criminals. The police will now also be able to monitor places known to be associated with organised crime, in addition to writing “preventative search warrants.”

Such warrants will lower the standard for probable cause, allowing Icelandic police to issue search warrants on suspicion of criminal activity.

According to the budget proposals for the new crime legislation which was submitted to parliament this week, ISK 500 million are expected to go to Icelandic police to strengthen their response to organised crime. Much of the new funding is expected to go to the establishment of special investigation teams against organised crime.

See also: Minister of Justice to Declare War on Organised Crime

The budget committee has also proposed an additional ISK 750 million (5,3 million USD, 5 million EUR) to address “weaknesses in police operations” throughout the country. Of these new funds, ISK 650 million are to be allocated to general operations and training, with another ISK 50 million each going to equipment and investigations.

The budget committee stated that the new funds aim to “improve the quality of investigations, shortening case turnover, improving operations in rural areas, and improving equipment in the fields of digital and technical investigations.”

 

Material World

When Canadian media theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the medium is the message,” he did not mean that the content of all emails is somehow the same, given their common encoding as emails. Rather, he meant to critique the idea that communication is like a parcel service: we pack down messages into their containers, send them off, and they are received by their recipients in just the same state as when we sent them. Just as all language is not the same: a short “hey” can, depending on the situation, mood, interlocutors, volume, and so on be a greeting, a warning, a verbal touch on the shoulder.

The medium is not a neutral space through which a message passes, untouched. Rather, the medium plays a constituting role in the creative process, and when we interpret the artwork, we must pay just as much attention to the technologies, processes, and materials that made the work of art as the ideas and forms that shaped them.

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Pagan Poetry

paganism iceland

Ásatrú Society, how may I help you?”

This was neither the voice of a gruff metalhead nor the voice of a wizened mystic, interrupted in his esoteric ponderings by the phone. To be frank, I was surprised. 

Over the next few weeks, missed phone calls, travel, and unread emails all began to pile up, turning what I thought was a simple interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, the allsherjagoði (chief priest) of the Ásatrú Society into something rather more involved. Perhaps this organisation was more shadowy than I thought. Was this the wariness of a hermetic society, or just a series of misunderstandings?

Finally, a call came through, and I was off to meet the chief priest of Icelandic paganism.

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THE PATH

My GPS led me to the graveyard by Öskjuhlíð, the hillside underneath Perlan. As I went to turn behind the graveyard, a gate barred the way. This was turning out to be more involved than I had anticipated.

“One of the first laws established in the Ásatrú Society was against proselytising,” Hilmar later told me. “The Ásatrú Society does not seek people out, does not convert, does not convince. The community consists only of those with the interest and desire to join.” Accepting the weight of my spiritual task, I parked my car and continued on foot past the gate. 

The temple first announced itself as a construction site ringed with wire fences, just metres from the familiar path I so often take with my wife, but never noticed. Pressing through the brush and trees, I stood above a circular area ringed with concrete, wooden pallets, and plastic caution tape. It occurred to me that I may even be trespassing. At every stage of this small journey, I encountered resistance somehow. In a kind of initiation, I push past it.

There was no Viking longhouse with smouldering peat hearth. Instead, I was confronted by a piece of modernist architecture, with stark concrete slabs arranged in geometrical forms. The temple is both primitive and futuristic, in the way that the Standing Stones of Stenness appear simultaneously as neolithic constructs and alien monoliths. 

“Rituals in Ásatrú are a celebration of life–we are more joyous than others.”

THE PRIEST

As I sip my coffee, waiting on Hilmar, I peruse the shelves of the Ásatrú Society’s library. Far from a single-minded interest in the Germanic and Wagnerian, the books here are cosmopolitan and academic, belonging perhaps to a 19th-century gentleman with an esoteric bent. Among the many titles I see are books on Coptic Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, Jewish mysticism, Islamic feminism, and a smattering of New Age classics like Carlos Castaneda. “It’s my personal library,” Hilmar tells me when he arrives. “don’t read too much into it.”

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is the fourth allsherjagoði of the Ásatrú Society. Its founder, Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, lived nearly all his life on his farm in Borgarfjörður, but Hilmar has had a rather more adventurous and international life, being part of the UK experimental industrial group Psychic TV for much of the 1980s. It was around bands like Psychic TV and adjacent acts Throbbing Gristle and Coil that the first wave of UK industrial music formed. In an irony of history, it was out of this scene, whose screeching and aggressively experimental style stood at odds with traditional notions of folk music, that the neofolk music scene emerged. Neofolk, with Hilmar at its periphery as well, took the dark and experimental attitude of first-wave industrial and married it to the countercultural spirituality of the ’60s. Since Hilmar’s time in the industrial and neofolk scenes, he has been active in Icelandic music as well, both as an independent artist and as a frequent collaborator with the likes of Björk, Sígur Rós, and others.

His musical career captures something important about the religious organisation he represents, a split between the native and foreign influences. On the one hand, it is undeniable that Ásatrú has a claim to be the original religion of the Icelanders. Rejecting the notion that the old gods ever went away, Hilmar tells me a story of how when Iceland gained its new constitution under Denmark in 1874, one of the first ways this was celebrated was a pagan ceremony in North Iceland. I imagine dark figures whooping around fires in forgotten heaths, but as I later witness, the way the modern Ásatrú Society celebrates is rather more reserved. Likewise, Icelandic students in Copenhagen, on the basis of a tentative connection between bjór and Þór, spontaneously rediscovered their pagan past in celebration. According to Hilmar, this tradition has always been alive, if maybe in hiding. But on the other hand, the Ásatrú Society arose just as much out of an international, countercultural background, beginning all the way back in the 19th century with German romantics like Herder, Wagner, and the brothers Grimm, and more recent influences in experimental music, theosophy, occultism, hippie culture, environmentalism, and so on. 

But the man I sit down to talk to, both a pioneering experimental musician and chief priest of Icelandic heathenry, is a soft-spoken figure, wearing what I assume is a homemade lopapeysa.

“People want to make sense of their existence, and they also don’t want their existence to be too sombre.”

ETERNAL RECURRENCE

“The biggest difference between us and the Christians,” Hilmar tells me, “is that the monotheistic religions are revealed religions. There is one God, there is one truth, and that truth is eternal and unchanging.” It may come as a surprise to those from monotheistic traditions, but paganism does not, for example, have one canonical text; there is no “Bible” of Norse heathenry. There are of course poems and literary sources that are important in reconstructing the belief system, but the idea that truth comes from one source, and can be contained in one definitive volume, is a rather modern idea, specific to monotheism. As Hilmar puts it, monotheistic faiths provide “one truth for many,” whereas Ásatrú offers “many truths for the individual.”

Another key difference in worldview is the notion of time. Monotheistic religions, like Christianity, have a progressive and linear notion of time, Hilmar says. The world was created at some point, humanity fell out of paradise, and we await the coming of another messianic moment: the end of history. Such theological ideas combined in recent times with Enlightenment rationality to create a worldview that things are always improving, and importantly, moving towards something. What was important for modern Christians and secular rationalists alike was the idea that history had an overarching narrative, whether it be comedic or tragic in nature.

“Such a notion of history would have been foreign to the heathen mind,” Hilmar says. The pre-Christian religions, not just Norse paganism, all share a notion of cyclical history: “It means that things are always moving in a cycle. We see that in the 24 hours of the day, we see it in the seasons of the year. We are born, we mature, we decline, and then we perish. And then it starts again. And you find this in the ideas of the afterlife and the world described in the cosmological poems like Völuspá.”

It is useful to compare the sense of the English word religion with the Icelandic word siður, which can be rendered alternatively as religion, custom, habit, or tradition. Religion, in the sense that those raised in a monotheistic or secular society would understand it, has something to do with the relationship between an individual and a creator god. But the word siður in Icelandic has less to do with the beliefs of an individual, and more to do with the accreted way of life of a community. Custom, after all, is inherently about other people. It is simply “what one does.” If you had asked an Icelandic settler whether they “believed” in Þór, I do not expect they would have understood the question.

PAGAN POETRY

But Ásatrú, a form of siður, and not religion, has a different relationship to historical and cultural identity than other belief systems. In reviving Ásatrú, its practitioners have needed to reconstruct aspects both of the worldview more generally, and also of the practical aspects of rituals and worship. 

The problem with the sagas, Iceland’s most prominent medieval literature, is that they depict events that occurred centuries before their writing. Though the general historicity of the sagas is (mostly) undisputed, the medieval mind had a rather flexible conception of truth, leaving many historical details to be desired. A further dimension is added to the question of the historical authenticity of the Icelandic sagas when the religious conversion is taken into account. Although The Poetic Edda is an invaluable source for pre-Christian mythology, it is, like all medieval Icelandic literature, a post-Christian text about a pre-Christian world. How does the Ásatrú Society grapple with these problems?

“This is a big argument,” Hilmar says. “Some scholars think there’s nothing of value in the sagas in regards to belief. But then you have people like Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson who had the opposite theory.” Hilmar here refers to his former professor and mentor, who was one of the first Icelanders to take folkloristics seriously as an academic discipline. “You have oral traditions stretching back for hundreds of years,” Hilmar explains. “In the Balkans, scholars found oral poems and epics that have been transmitted throughout generations practically unchanged. In some of these poems, the rhyme and metre are so complicated that the language doesn’t evolve at all, it stays frozen through centuries. We have gotten used to the idea that writing is the most trustworthy form of transmission, but that isn’t always the case.”

Some Icelandic sagas, for example, contain excerpts of skaldic poetry that can pre-date the written manuscript by centuries. We know this because of the systematic way in which language changes. Given the rigid, complex nature of skaldic poetry, individual words cannot change without breaking the structure of the poem. This allows both scholars and Ásatrú practitioners to identify some of the oldest passages in the sagas. 

“One of the things we had to learn in the beginning of Ásatrú was how to find which passages were the oldest ones in the sources,” Hilmar explains. “There are some passages that scream out that they were part of a ritual, like the opening of Sigrdrífumál,” a poem fragment found in the Codex Regius, by far the most important manuscript for Eddic material. The poem relates events found in the mythic Völsunga saga, describing the meeting of the hero Sigurður and the valkyrie Brynhildur. The poem, according to Hilmar, “has this wonderful blessing in the beginning which is quite obviously related to the cardinal directions. We see this in other cultures’ religious rituals, where they begin by blessing the things to our left, to our right, behind and in front of us, above and below us.”

Another source that has proved especially interesting to scholars, and useful to the Ásatrú Society, is Eyrbyggja saga, an Icelandic saga concerning the settlement of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Where many of the Icelandic sagas prove scarce on details of the pre-Christian religion, Eyrbyggja saga gives the only account of the construction of a pagan temple, though it still leaves much to the imagination. According to the saga, one of Iceland’s settlers brings with him the dirt from underneath the altar of his temple. He deconstructs his temple to Þór plank by plank and brings it with him to Iceland. Features of the temple mentioned in the saga include an altar of sorts and an iron ring, traditionally the symbol of the power of the goði, both a chieftain and priest. 

These days, the Ásatrú Society are also in the midst of building their temple. The temple, complete with a community area for reading groups and arts and crafts circles, is still very much a construction site. Originally granted a plot of land by the City of Reykjavík in 2008, the banking collapse in Iceland hurt the society’s finances. Construction finally began in 2015, but technical problems and other delays have left the temple incomplete to this day. 

Aspects of sacred geometry and the golden ratio can be seen, and other special numbers have also been integrated into the design, such as 9 and 432,000, a number derived from the 540 doors of Valhalla and 800 einherjar (fallen warriors) mentioned in the poem Grímnismál. This number, Hilmar mentions, is also sacred in the Hindu tradition. Instead of shipping their timber from Norway, this time, the Ásatrú Society is using local Icelandic material. It is only in the last few years, the first time in Icelandic history since the deforestation that accompanied settlement, that trees suitable for construction grow in Iceland, with timber now being sourced from Hallormstaður in East Iceland.

NEW WAYS

Some rituals are totally absent from the saga material, such as coming-of-age ceremonies. “We did have to improvise some things,” Hilmar tells me. “But we know there had to be one. We do it in a very historical context. The children go through Hávamál (“The Sayings of the High One,” an Eddic poem and a central text for Ásatrú) and learn about the ethics it contains. But there’s no commitment, no expectation that they make this the rest of their life.” Funnily, he tells me that in the early days of the Ásatrú Society that there were no funerals. The community was still young and new enough that it was only after the passing of Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, the first allsherjagoði, that the Ásatrú Society had to devise their funeral rites.

Ásatrú ceremonies are humble affairs. “A wedding, for example, is a simple thing,” the goði explains. “The idea is that the couple, as individuals, are marrying themselves. My role, the role of the priest, is to sanctify time and space.” There is no set liturgy within the Ásatrú Society, and Hilmar tells me that Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson would compose each ceremony from scratch, just like a poem, incorporating the occasion, individuals, and landscape.

While rooted in history, with more than a whiff of historical reenactment, the modern-day goðar aren’t afraid to admit that in some cases, they’re making it up as they go along. The changes aren’t considered a threat, but an integral part of the experience.

 

LIVING TRADITION

Despite the changing forms of Ásatrú, when they consult the sources, they are nevertheless interested in the oldest sources. Presumably this is because they perceive them as more authentic. So how does the Ásatrú Society balance their more historical approach, with, for lack of a better term, making it up as they go? 

“Oh, but it does change, and it always has,” Hilmar tells me. “We know through archaeology and history that the practice has always changed, the location has always changed. A poem like Völuspá could not have been written in Denmark; it’s flat, there are no mountains or volcanoes.”

Hilmar is referencing one of the most important mythic poems, Völuspá (The Prophecy of the Seeress), preserved in Eddukvæði. It deals with the beginning and end of the world and tells of fimbulvetur, the terrible winter that precedes ragnarök, the end of the world cycle in Norse mythology. The poem describes clouds blotting out the sun, which scholars have widely interpreted as an influence from the Icelandic environment: a volcano. In fact, Hilmar says, many of the most essential features of what we call Norse mythology were likely absent before the settlement of Iceland. What we take as the canonical version, in other words, would have appeared as an innovation to, say, an 8th-century Dane.

For Hilmar, keeping Ásatrú alive is not a matter of mindlessly reiterating the past. Just as Icelandic settlers adapted a cosmology and ethical system to their new environment, so too must modern heathens find ways of preserving the essence of this tradition, while letting its forms evolve.

Hilmar goes so far as to say there are some who feel too strongly the need to practice the original form of the religion. People are drawn to everything that’s old, and the archaic often presents itself as somehow more real than the modern, he says. Many may feel, for instance, that the runic alphabet known as the “Elder Futhark” is somehow more authentic than that which is known as the “Younger Futhark.” But the fact is that very few runic inscriptions from Elder Futhark survive, and when we think of the Age of the Vikings, these inscriptions are all in Younger Futhark and its regional dialects.

It is much the same with Ásatrú, and Hilmar points especially to some North American Ásatrú practitioners as taking the wrong stance towards the relationship between tradition and evolution. “These people,” he says, “they want to hit you over the head with the Eddas. They quote the poetry like scripture.”

These people, those who want to worship a frozen past, are also generally those on the political fringes. Hilmar does not have much to say about them except that “they run around and speak pidgin Icelandic. This idea, that it has to be in your bloodstream, that it’s ethnic or genetic, it’s ridiculous.”

ÁSATRÚ AT A GLANCE

Völuspá, or the Prophecy of the Seeress, is an eddic poem in which a seeress narrates to the god Óðinn the beginning and end of the world. 

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The name Ásatrú might simply be rendered as “belief in the gods,” a combination of trú, (faith), and ás, (god). Many may recognise the plural form of this word, Æsir, the dominant clan of gods in Norse mythology.

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The Ásatrú Society also benefits from Iceland’s church tax, with increasing numbers of citizens preferring their contribution go to the Ásatrú Society than the Church of Iceland.

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Norse paganism, or Ásatrú, is one of the fastest-growing religious groups in Iceland.

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Hávamál, or Sayings of the High One, is another eddic poem. It can be described as wisdom literature, with Óðinn giving advice on such topics as friendship, being a good host, love, and drinking in moderation.

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Eddukvæði, or the Poetic Edda, is a body mythological poems best preserved in the manuscript known as Codex Regius.

The Ásatrú Society was founded in 1972 by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, a farmer and master 

of the traditional poetic form of rímur.

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Ásatrú is a legally recognized religion in Iceland, meaning that it can perform legal ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals.

Mad World

“Exceptionally rudimentary software” On Friday, November 11, I attended an appointment with a psychologist in Reykjavík. For weeks leading up to the appointment, my wife had encouraged me to “see someone,” for my moods were vacillating, my fuse was growing increasingly shorter, and I was prone to habitual crashes. I didn’t, she observed, seem “all that […]

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Pornographic Film Created in Ambulance Under Investigation

iceland ambulance

A pornographic film is under investigation for having been recorded in an Icelandic ambulance, reports Fréttablaðið.

Authorities state they are taking the matter seriously and that an investigation into the matter has begun.

According to Fréttablaðið, the capital region fire department was alerted to the existence of the video via a confidential tip.

The incident is significant as the sale and production of pornography are illegal in Iceland. The incident also raises concerns over security, and how the individuals responsible for the pornographic film were able to gain access to the ambulance in question.

The film in question features a woman posing as a patient and a man as an emergency medical technician.

Sources report that after an internal investigation, it was concluded that although the ambulance in question is indeed Icelandic, it was not operated by the capital area fire department.

Authorities have concluded that the ambulance is either from another municipality, or else an older vehicle that has been sold to a private individual.

The incident was an occasion for some moral outrage, with some condemning the use of a vehicle used to treat the sick and dying for such purposes.

Despite the outrage, however, there is no indication that the ambulance is currently in service.

Spokesperson for the capital area fire department, Ásdís Gíslason, stated: “The issue is being taken very seriously, and we regret having been involved in this matter.”

Update: Video Likely Filmed at Skógarhlið in Reykjavík

According to the latest information, the ambulance in question was located in the fire department facility in Skógarhlið.

Since the matter has been reported in the media, authorities have received numerous tips. Now, they state that several clues from the video indicate that it was indeed recorded at a fire department building in Reykjavík.

Birgir Finnsson, assistant fire chief in the capital area, stated that there are no security cameras at Skógarhlið, as it had not previously been considered necessary.

When asked if other individuals had access to the facility, he stated that although “the building is of course just for use by the fire department, there is something going on that we’re looking into.”