Our columnist in Iceland explains a rather peculiar new year tradition
As people in other parts of the world make their New Year’s resolutions, drink champagne toasts, and watch the ball drop, Icelanders have their own set of traditions for ringing in the coming year. Some of these traditions are reasonably well-known outside of Iceland — our fireworks are legendary — but I wager that there are still relatively few people who know about another popular tradition: that of the annual völvuspár, or ‘oracle prophecies,’ that are not only published in a number of respected Icelandic publications in late December, but also are themselves the subject of many a detailed analysis by local news outlets.
You might find yourself wondering: just what, or who, is a völva? The short answer is that she (and yes, actually, a völva is always a ‘she’) is a prophetess, much like a Greek sibyl. And although völvas have generally been thought to be magically gifted as well as prophetic, they aren’t witches, per se. (According to the academic Q & A website managed by the University of Iceland, “[t]he main difference between witches and völvas is that witches are thought to shape men’s fates, while völvas only make predictions about men’s fates.” An important distinction.) These mystical ladies make appearances in a number of foundational Norse texts, such as the Eddic poems “Völuspá” and “The Dreams of Baldur,” as well as popping up in some of the Norse sagas, such as the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the People of Vatnsdalur.
Back to the present, though. These yearly völvuspár are immensely popular, but depending on who you ask, they’re not taken seriously. Rather, some say that they’re just the product of “a bunch of journalists having fun.” From this, you might infer that in mid-December, Icelandic editorial teams get together, crack open a few bottles of wine, and set about foretelling the year to come. And maybe that’s true for some publications. But at least when it comes to the most prominent and longest running völvuspá, the predictions are obtained quite earnestly. According to the editor of Vikan, a glossy lifestyle magazine that has been publishing völvuspár since the 1970s, the publication “has always worked with real seers and the one the magazine currently works with has been with [Vikan] for the last 10 years.”
Despite her long-running gig with the magazine, however, the Vikan völva is never actually named or pictured. She’s always referred to in the third person, and is always represented on the cover by an attractive, mystic-looking model. This year, the völva is a light-haired, smoky-eyed beauty with gold chains woven artily through her hair and a septum piercing. Last year, she was an arch redhead, wrapped in a white coat with a fur collar and levitating a crystal ball between her palms. 2012’s cover model broke with tradition and was actually a bearded man with piercing blue eyes and a mink stole. (Perhaps a reference to the fact that historically speaking, in Iceland, witchcraft has generally been more a male domain: of the 21 people ever executed for practicing witchcraft in Iceland, only one was a woman.) 2011’s cover model is wearing a turban and cupping a heavy crystal; 2008’s is hooded in blue silk and fanning tarot cards at the camera.
It’s all very theatrical and definitely a bit tongue-in-cheek, but what surprised me most when scanning through last year’s predictions, is the sheer breadth of coverage. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill local gossip or trumped up horoscope. Rather, the völva makes claims about everything from volcanic eruptions and weather events (always a lot to choose from in Iceland) to union negotiations, labor strikes, forthcoming elections, and fish quotas. She predicts the success or failure of local business ventures, of the forthcoming books and exhibitions of popular authors and artists, of the country’s Eurovision submission. She then turns her gaze outwards, making predictions about famous people in countries abroad: the American president, the English royal family, Beyoncé.
But while the breadth of her predictions is rather extensive, one could argue that the völva doesn’t generally put herself too far outside of the realm of possibility, nor does she wed herself to overly specific claims. Reading through her predictions, you generally get the sense that this is simply a commonsensical woman who has kept up with local news, political sentiment, and trends over the last year, and also has a decent memory for historical precedent. This reading seems borne out by this year’s “What Came True?” roundup which looked back at the völva’s successful predictions from last New Year’s. These included that:
- The weather would be “wet and windy.” In Iceland? No kidding.
- President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson would continue to be “controversial.” This was a solid guess, as Ólafur Ragnar has pretty much been controversial since he took office almost 19 years ago. (There’s no presidential term limit in Iceland.) It has been particularly true, however, since he became the first Icelandic president to use the (largely symbolic) power of presidential veto, which he’s now done twice. True to the völva’s prediction, last year, Ólafur Ragnar received no small amount of criticism for pursuing closer ties with Vladamir Putin, just as other international heads of state were criticizing the Russian president for Human Rights violations and anti-gay legislation. So, yes, Ólafur Ragnar was probably going to continue to ruffle some feathers.
- Former Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr would continue to be “in the limelight” following his departure from municipal politics. Jón Gnarr was a pretty well-known comedian prior to his mayoral term, but since running for office has been the subject of an internationally distributed documentary and has made headlines around the world for his efforts to make Reykjavík the “peace capital of the world” and, of course, for dressing in drag for the annual Gay Pride parade. Punk rock mayors make for great copy.
- England’s royal couple would see an addition to their family. Royals do tend to multiply.
To be fair to the Vikan völva, she did also successfully predict not one, but two, volcanic eruptions in the course of 2014, which did in fact see an ‘under-glacier’ eruption at Báðarbunga on the 23rd of August, as well as the Holuhraun eruption which began three days later (and has yet to stop). Yes, you could say that volcanic eruptions are a safe bet in Iceland, but even we don’t necessarily get two in the same year.
So, what does the völva see in store for us in 2015? Here are five predictions of various levels of importance that she says we can look forward to:
- On the European Union: Iceland will join the EU, says the völva, “but not at the moment.” She says that currently, the EU is “too big and it will decline. I see much noise and commotion there. We’ll join later, after it has gone through great changes.”
- On Deaths: Icelanders can expect two high profile deaths this year, says the völva. One, an artist who is “already elderly,” the other someone in a prominent position in politics.
- On High Profile Icelandic Authors: “I think Arnaldur Indriðason [author of Jar City and dozens of other extremely popular crime novels and thrillers] is a bit tired now. He will go abroad to recharge his batteries, but he’s still writing. He needs to take care of himself.”
- On Iceland’s Eurovision Chances: “We will send a nice song to Eurovision, but it won’t be a winning song...It seems to me there’ll be one singer, along with backup vocals.”
- On Volcanic Eruptions: The Vikan völva predicts that the eruption at Holuhraun will come to an end before next summer, bringing a great deal of tourism to the eruption area. She foresees yet another eruption in 2015, though, this time somewhere in the Southern part of the country. Possibly “east of Hekla,” although she’s not sure exactly which volcano.
Only time will tell...
Larissa Kyzer is a writer and student of the Icelandic language at the University of Iceland. She currently lives in Reykjavík with her partner Mark and blogs about life and language-learning at ethandthorn.wordpress.com.