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Feature of the Week: The Hymns of Passion

Magazine

Feature of the Week: The Hymns of Passion

Every year the Passion Hymns by 17th-century poet and pastor Hallgrímur Pétursson are celebrated on Good Friday. Julia Duin writes about this extraordinary man who created a work of literature that is still very much alive with the Icelandic nation.

Published in the 2011 spring issue of Iceland Review – IR 49.01. By Julia Duin.

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“Arise my soul, my heart, my mind, and all that I within me find; Come help me, tongue, my Lord to own and make His wondrous passion known!”—opening verse from ‘Passion Hymns’.

There are two pinnacles of Icelandic literature through the ages: One is Njáll’s Saga and the other is the Passion Hymns of Hallgrímur Pétursson. I discovered the latter by accident one exceptionally gloomy and cold April afternoon in Reykjavík. As rain was pouring from the skies, I was understandably reluctant to accompany a friend on an expedition to see how Icelanders observe Good Friday.

He drove me to Grafarvogskirkja, a gorgeous Lutheran edifice with a huge stained glass window behind the altar. Umbrellas were stacked by the door and the place was packed. Everyone was listening to cantors read—not sing—hymns written by Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th-century pastor and poet who has produced one of the signature Christian literary works in the world. These ‘Hymns of the Passion’ are known as the Passíusálmar in Icelandic.

Iceland is not a religiously fervent nation. Most of the population is nominally Lutheran but church attendance, according to a 2004 Gallup poll, is about 10 percent. Leaders of evangelical and Pentecostal groups mourn the fact that Iceland has never had a Great Awakening like their compatriots in America. Yet, it is on Good Friday that many Icelanders return to their Lutheran roots and pay homage to Hallgrímur Pétursson by dropping in on a church service devoted to his art. The nation’s flags fly at halfmast that day in remembrance of Jesus’ death.

Very little is known of this man outside of Iceland. From 1656-1659, Pétursson wrote 50 hymns that meditatively trace Christ’s journey to the Garden of Gethsemane to His being laid in the tomb. Last in line is a separate hymn: ‘Death’s Uncertain Hour,’ which has become a staple at Icelandic funerals.

You can read the remainder of this article in the 2011 spring issue of Iceland Review – IR 49.01. Four times a year the print edition of Iceland Review brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefánsson's latest images of the country's majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe and here to browse through a selection of pages from the current issue.