The Icelandic Kvöldvaka: Cultural Phenomenon in the Twilight Hours
The stories told were usually the Icelandic sagas or other national stories involving stellar acts of heroism, not to mention the ubiquitous folk tales featuring hidden people, trolls, outlaws, or ghosts.
Sigurd and Fafnir ( Public Domain ). In legend, Fáfnir was a son of the dwarf king Hreidmar. After being affected by a curse, Fafnir became a dragon and was slain by Sigurd.
Sometimes the storytellers would also wax lyrical about their own exploits. If there were guests or vagrants staying at the farm, they were generally encouraged to tell stories of themselves or others. Indeed, many vagrants who went from farm to farm were welcomed for their ability to tell a good story.
In almost all cases, the kvöldvaka ended with the húslestur, literally the “house reading”, which consisted of someone – usually the master of the house – reading from the scriptures. This was a reverential time and everyone stopped what they were doing, or at least continued only with activities that could be performed quietly, such as knitting. The húslestur generally began and ended with a hymn in which everyone joined in, and when the reading was finished, the members of the household thanked the reader by saying “thank you for the reading.” In most households, the reader made no particular response, but in some cases he responded with either Guð blessi þig (God bless you) or góðar stundir (literally: “[may you have] good hours”).
The Museum in Reykjavik contains figures like these which tell the history of early Iceland - the saga age. ( CC BY 2.0 )
The kvöldvaka and particularly the húslestur appear to have been a significant component in the religious worship of the Icelanders throughout the centuries. The húslestur was practiced on the vast majority – if not all – farms in Iceland. In almost all cases it was more formal and/or longer on Sundays and other holy days, particularly at Easter.
Seasons and Sheepskins
The duration of the kvöldvaka in the evening was primarily determined by the length of time that could be spent working outdoors, which in turn was determined by the amount of light available. Consequently, the duration of the kvöldvaka varied with the seasons. When it began in the autumn, the kvöldvaka was often measured by how long it took to comb a sheepskin. In early autumn, the kvöldvaka was “one sheepskin” long, as the days grew shorter it became “two sheepskins” long, and during the darkest hours it was “three sheepskins” long. On the occasional farm the kvöldvaka was also held during the summer, though it was generally of very short duration.
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The kvöldvaka as an institution continued well into the 20th century. Gradually, however, radio broadcasts began to take over as the primary provider of entertainment. With this, the nature of the kvöldvaka became fundamentally changed, and gradually it was abolished altogether. Yet its legacy lives on in the profound love of stories and storytelling among the Icelandic people.
Top Image: Painting of kvöldvaka by August Schiøtt (1823 - 1895) ( Image Source )