The Icelandic Kvöldvaka: Cultural Phenomenon in the Twilight Hours

The Icelandic Kvöldvaka: Cultural Phenomenon in the Twilight Hours

(Read the article on one page)

Iceland’s strong love of literature is a source of amazement to many people. In an era of declining book sales around the world, this small North Atlantic island continues to publish and sell more books per capita than any other nation. A tradition exists in Iceland that every person gets at least one book for Christmas, so Icelandic publishers release the majority of their titles in the few weeks leading up to the festive holiday. This deluge of new books onto the market is colloquially known in Iceland as “the Christmas book flood”.

But why this strong literary tradition and love of books? Where does it come from? I am routinely asked that question, and my answer is always the same: the love of books and stories was bred into the Icelandic nation over centuries, through a cultural phenomenon known as the kvöldvaka.

Long Winter Evenings

Literally translated, the word kvöldvaka means “evening wake” – not in the funeral sense, but in the “staying awake” sense. It was essentially a time in the evenings during the long, dark winters, when all the members of a household sat together in the communal living quarters of their turf farmhouses, a single room known as the baðstofa. In this room they lived, slept, worked, and effectively lived out their entire lives. During those winter evenings when it was impossible to labor outside, they worked the wool, sewed garments, made tools, or preserved food. The kvöldvaka was their way of entertaining themselves and each other while they worked, by telling stories, reciting poetry, playing games and so on, as well as reading from the scriptures at the end of the evening.

A baðstofa, or communal room. National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik.

A baðstofa, or communal room. National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik. ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Not only did the kvöldvaka provide escape from the daily grind by providing entertainment, it was also an important component in the education of children. They were taught to read and write, and learned a great deal about Iceland’s history and mythology, as well as the world in general, through the stories that were told and read.

Twilight Hour

A typical evening on an Icelandic turf farm began with the so-called rökkurstund, literally “twilight hour”. This was a time when it was too dark to work without light, and before the lamp was formally lit in the baðstofa and the kvöldvaka began. It was used for rest, reverie, or quiet conversation. It usually lasted for about an hour, and when it was over, the lamp was formally lit.

Meyjarhof (refuge) in Fljótshlíð, a reconstruction in stone and peat. These were the first temporary premises for settlers, and where the women lived, while the actual turf farm was built.

Meyjarhof (refuge) in Fljótshlíð, a reconstruction in stone and peat. These were the first temporary premises for settlers, and where the women lived, while the actual turf farm was built. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 DE )

Front side of old farmhouse at Tyrfingsstaðir, Skagafjörður, Northern Iceland.

Front side of old farmhouse at Tyrfingsstaðir, Skagafjörður, Northern Iceland. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Most farms only had a single lamp in the baðstofa, at least initially, though in later centuries two or three lamps might have been available. The lighting of the lamp was ceremonious, given the preciousness of the fuel, usually fish oil, used for burning. Interestingly, it was almost always the mistress of the house who lit the lamp, or one of the female farmhands to whom she allocated the task. The lamp was lit only during the darkest time of the year, and then only from approximately six to ten pm, which was the usual duration of the kvöldvaka. It was placed so as to allow as many people as possible the benefit of the light. If someone was reading from a book, that person would sit next to the lamp.

Every member of the household had some task to perform during the kvöldvaka. Both men and women were involved in the wool work, with men more frequently carding and weaving, and women spinning and knitting. Farmhands were permitted to work on their own tasks during the kvöldvaka on Sundays, and also in the week leading up to Christmas. Otherwise they were required to do work to benefit the farm and their employers.

Hay being bound in bales at Arnarvatn, 1907.

Hay being bound in bales at Arnarvatn, 1907. ( Public Domain )

Storytellers and Sagas

The activities or entertainment practiced during the kvöldvaka varied, but most often they involved the telling of stories, reciting of epic poetry in a sort of singsong fashion (called að ríma in Icelandic), playing word games, telling riddles, singing, or making up verses in a sort of competition, where each verse had to begin with the last letter of the previous one.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

King Leonidas by David Baldo
Mythologically descended from the hero Herakles, the Agiad dynasty of ancient Sparta reigned alongside the Eurypontids almost since the beginning of the city-state. When war was on the borders of their land, and that of their neighboring city-states, it was to the current Heraklean descendent that those city-states turned.

Human Origins

Silhouettes (Public Domain) in front of blood cells (Public Domain) and a gene.
Most people who have the Rh blood type are Rh-positive. There are also instances, however, where people are Rh-Negative. Health problems may occur for the unborn child of a mother with Rh-Negative blood when the baby is Rh-Positive.

Ancient Technology

Mammoth in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria (Canada). The display is from 1979, and the fur is musk ox hair.
In Sivershchina, close to the village of Mizyn in Ukraine is one of the oldest and most unique settlements of humans – and it was discovered in a parking lot. The now well-known archaeological site, known plainly as the Mizyn parking lot, dates back 18-20 thousand years.

Ancient Places

The highly-decorated tomb is built in a distinctive ‘L’ shape
A mysterious ancient tomb with “unusual and rare” wall paintings has been discovered in Egypt. Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Enany told BBC reporters the discovery of a 4,400-year-old tomb found during excavation work in Giza’s western cemetery “likely belonged to Hetpet, a priestess to Hathor, the goddess of fertility, who assisted women in childbirth.”

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article