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Scary Icelandic Lullabies

Ask IR

Scary Icelandic Lullabies

A screenshot of a sketch from Fóstbræður.
A screenshot from a sketch in comedy series Fóstbræður. Photo: Fóstbræður/YouTube.

​Q: These days, a famous line from an Icelandic lullaby has started making the rounds again on the internet:

Sefur þú svínið þitt,
svartur í augum.
Far þú í fúlan pytt
fullan af draugum.

Or, in an English translation:

Sleep, you black-eyed pig.
Fall into a deep pit of ghosts.

Which led me to your article. Firstly, this is supposed to be from an Auden translation, but I can’t figure out which Icelandic lullaby it is.

Are these lines in ‘Sofðu unga ástin mín’? If not, which lullaby is it? And is this the way it is sung?

Sagar Dubey, Mumbai, India

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A: Those lines are not from ‘Sofðu unga ástin mín’ (perhaps the most beloved Icelandic lullaby, although the lyrics are rather dark—see my column on the topic) and they’re not from an actual lullaby.

The ‘lullaby’ was sung by a character in Icelandic Nobel Prize laureate Halldór Laxness’ novel Salka Valka (1931-1932), as explained in this news story on ruv.is. It is considered likely that his intention was to poke fun at the creepy nature of Icelandic lullabies.

The verse is mentioned in the below chapter in Part II of Salka Valka, The Bird on the Beach, where an old woman, the mother of a character called Sveinbjörg, sings it to her grandchildren:

Salka Valka was always very helpful towards these people, for she knew what poverty was. She gladly brought them a can of milk, which she had bought and paid for, and she often sat for hours on end talking to the children’s mother, Sveinbjorg, who was an intelligent woman. The children stood with serious faces and stared at Salka Valka when she talked. Sveinbjorg’s mother, who had lived on black coffee on that shore for seventy-five years, sat with the youngest child on her knees singing over and over again a cradle song with which she had lulled numbers of children to sleep, living children and dying children. She could sing the same verse five hundred times on end, especially when she was well supplied with snuff, and thus chased all evil spirits away from the children.

The novel, or poem, seem to have made an impression on W.H. Auden because he mentions it (as spelled below) on page 145 in the original version of his 1937 travelogue Letters from Iceland, along with the comment: “It is a great pleasure to think that all the best nursery poetry shocks the Neo-Hygienic-child-lover. There’s an Icelandic lullaby for instance:”

Sofúr thu svind thitt
Svartur i áugum
Far i fulan pytt
fullan af dráugum

Scary Icelandic lullabies are a topic which frequently resurfaces; here in a sketch from Icelandic comedy series Fóstbræður (1997-2001).

The song you linked to on YouTube is ‘Sofðu unga ástin mín’ performed by Damien Rice and several other Icelandic and foreign musicians. This is the way it is sung, although Rice may not have the perfect Icelandic accent (respect, though).

ESA