Category Archives: Architecture

Of Elves and Sheep in Iceland


Ever wondered if there are elves who herd sheep? No point asking the elves. They’re not talking.

Elves at Home in Helissandur

Should we ask the sheep? This guy’s at Hraunhafnartangi.

Does he look like elves are moving him from field to field? No. No point asking the trolls, who do herd sheep. Their languages are too slow.

And horses, that appear mysteriously wherever you stop, and, surely, are hanging around with elves, being out there day and night and all, and elfishly mysterious, should we ask them?

Maybe not. The horses at Eiðar below are grazing on an elf city, of all things, and what are they doing? Sneaking grass from the ditch.

I mean, the elves are definitely herding grass and purslane, such as at ValÞjofsstaðir below.

And the moss that covers the lava fields radiates elfishness.

But the elves? Such as this bunch at ? Are they herding sheep?

Oh. Yeah. They are.

But, of course, the question is, really, do they heard living sheep? That humans have to romp after to collect? Well, kind of. Even the trolls, such as this dark and light pair at Klausturhamrar, send sheep on their way to left and right.

And the elf city at Álfaborg…

… leads sheep, and people both, in quite specific ways.

Do sheep see elves and take commands from them, though? Why not. Humans do.

It’s just that these commands are not the same as walking across the grass to pasture. Elves aren’t safe like that.  They lead you out of your own mind.

They can keep you on the path or lead you off it, such as at Fagurhóll, in the images above and below.

What do the sheep follow?

We might as well call it elves.


Property Ownership Rules in Iceland


It’s not about fences, see.

That was a fun idea, very modern, very worldly, but, you know, weird. Better to let sleeping fences lie and go out on the sheep trails.

Everything is a sheep trail. That’s because sheep own Iceland.

Right, as for fences. The same goes for gates. Best to leave weird foreign stuff like that open, so that what wants to go through can go through.

You never know.

Oh, wait, yes you do.

1,000 Icelandic Boys Having Boyish Fun

It could easily be more, but think of it: a glacial erratic perched at the top of one of the major canyons in the country, in the middle of productive farmland in the most fertile fjord in the East? 


Any boy within miles, for 1,000 years, was going to mess around by this thing. A boy takes his measure by giants. The worn stone around the monolith shows that people still do, and ravens. They are drawn to it as well and keep the rocks squeaky clean. I watched one clean up here for a half hour. And sheep. Perhaps you can see the sheep trails skittering past?  That’s how I got here, by following sheep. Those other boys the same way, perhaps. We all have our guides.

Iceland’s Stones of History

It is the horizon that marks the way across Iceland. It is there, where soft rock broken apart by fast-moving glaciers shows itself against the low, high-latitude snow, that one sees the difference between the impossible jumble of the near and the impossible formlessness of the distant.

It is the most basic cultural act to set up a human marker in that spot, in the most recognizable shape: a human guide. The jumble and the white-out become intimately more human, as a deep, psychological break between darkness and light. It clears the mind …

… and you find the way, exactly at the point, the ridges, where the wind blows the snow away. For most of Iceland’s history, these cairns were the difference between life and death as one travelled across country. Here at Litlafoss, it guides herdsmen out of the canyon pastures and away from the cliff where the raven nests and waits for you to slip and break your head. You can see some of these cairns on the left of the image below, although the one above was on the right and out of the image.

For Icelanders, these cairns are some of the deepest history in the land, and one of the historical markers of the creation of Icelandic culture.

They are to be approached with the reverence with which one approaches the caves at Lascaux or the Sphinx, and so are the glacial rubble fields that inspired them. Walk lightly in Iceland. Nature here is historical space.

You pass through history to get to the falls.


To find the falls, you must go deep into the earth.

Iceland’s Economy: a View from the Rustbelt

Shocking. Discarded iron in Iceland. This stuff is usually stacked up at the side of a driveway, waiting to be banged into something new, but this is the Rett at Kirkjubær, so maybe it was some relatives from the big city, come out to the countryside to help with the winter roundup at the sheepfold, and there was, like snow or something, and when the shovel broke, well, nuts, and they drove away.

Of course, it could also be that the shovel was cheap, because it’s not always the best stuff that gets imported to Iceland, because it’s frightfully expensive when you have to pay for it in Kronur with codfish on them, and each of those coins is worth less than a penny in a real currency. At that rate, even the cheapest shovel costs you, like, a few thousand dollars, or something.

Whew! And what do the sheep think of that, pray tell? (I mean, given the mangled state of that shovel, I think we can guess at just what the human take on it is, but the sheep?)

Ah, they’re leaving the shovels to the humans. Just one of those mysteries. Makes sense. But why was this perfectly good chain left behind? Because of the snow? In Canada, let’s say, this would have been liberated long ago, but in Iceland, it seems, a man’s craziness is his own business, and if the chain has to rust before he comes to his senses, it’s respectful to give him the time and space he needs.

OK, that’s my guess. Either that or laziness is as much an Icelandic trait as it is anywhere else in the world and does as much to shape a country than industriousness.

Someone has to pile the rocks up before someone else can let them fall down. But without this, the crazy beauty of the place would be dampened.

After 1100 years, humans are starting to get the knack of the place.

When you arrive here, the rest of the world loses value — not all at once, but with time.