I was just strolling through downtown Reykjavík, it being one of my quiet days off (no twitter, no social networks, limited email), munching on a hot dog, as I spotted a couple of ravens.
One thing that people often forget is that Iceland has a rich mythology beyond that of the nordic mythologies.
Of course, without us, nobody would remember much about the nordic gods, since Iceland is the only place that properly documented and preserved those myths, but Iceland’s myths continued to evolve and grow after we turned to Christianity.
Those later myths are odd to most foreigners. The Virgin Mary isn’t the gentle figure we see in the Christian doctrine of most countries but is titled ‘Queen of Heavens’ and behaves much like Frigg, Odin’s wife would have in the nordic myths.
Our myths also don’t feature reindeer or wolves much, since we don’t have any of those here, but focus on the various bird species native to Iceland.
The hidden people (fairies, fay, etc.), mermen, sea-cows and such also feature quite extensively, but the one fable that crossed my mind as I walked back, hot dog in hand, was the story of when Mary put the birds of the world through a trial of fire.
Two other mainstay birds in Iceland, besides the raven, are the falcon and the rjúpa. The rjúpa is a small grouse, called ‘rock ptarmigan’ in english. It is considered by some a delicacy and is regularly hunted into near-extinction since it’s only defence mechanism is to freeze and stand still, clinging to the faint hope that you are just going to go away. One of its distinctive visual features is that its legs are covered in feathers. It’s a classic arctic ground bird in that way.
The myth goes as follows (roughly retold and translated from this version):
Once upon a time, Virgin Mary summoned all of the birds to meet her. Waiting for them, when they arrived, was a shallow pit of fire. Mary ordered them to wade the fire to prove their loyalty to her. The birds knew that Mary was the queen of heaven and commanded great power. They dared not disobey her orders and instructions and so, one by one, they jumped into the flames and waded through the fire.
Everybody except the rjúpa.
Every other bird came through the fire with all of the feathers on their legs scorched off and the skin seared, which is how they have been ever since, all because of the Virgin Mary’s pit of fire.
The rjúpa’s fate was decided that day, since she was the only bird to defy the command to wade the fire. Mary was furious at the rjúpa and cursed her to be the most defenceless and harmless of all of bird-kind, and that she would be relentlessly stalked, harassed, and chased from here on, except during Whitsun. The falcon, the rjúpa’s loving brother, was now to hunt and kill her and feed on her flesh.
Mary had some mercy for the rjúpa and made it so that the rjúpa would change colours depending on the seasons, white in the winter, mossy-grey in the summer, so that she could hide from the falcon.
Since then, the falcon has hunted, killed, and eaten his sister, and his enchanted fury doesn’t waver or wane except for that one moment when he has torn through the rjúpa’s breast.
Upon seeing her torn open, her heart bare to the world, he realises that she is his sister – that he has eaten her to her heart – and is overtaken with such sorrow that his shrieks fill the sky for days afterwards.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, and again over the past few days, it’s that humanity is similarly cursed.
We descend upon those who disobey and defy, those who stand up against unjust commands, and we tear them apart.
The only difference is that we don’t have the falcon’s decency to feel guilt and shame afterwards, but hop to the next victim, hands and teeth marked with blood, hearts filled with glee, and stomachs filled with the flesh of our brothers and sisters.