I was having trouble falling asleep the other night so I started humming lullabies to myself, faint memories from my childhood.
Norwegian nursery rhymes came to me first, soothing tunes and sweet lyrics about Mister Sandman and loving relationships between mothers and daughters.
Then I started whispering the lyrics to some Icelandic lullabies I knew. I had never really thought about their meaning before, but now I began analyzing the words coming out of my mouth.
Suddenly my blood froze. I had been dozing off, but now I was wide awake. Could this be true? Could this sweet little nursery rhyme really be that creepy? Were Icelandic parents trying to scare their kids into falling asleep?
Bíum, bíum, bambaló, Bambaló og dillidillidó. Vini mínum vagga ég í ró, en úti bídur andlit á glugga.
“Beeum, beeum, bambalow, Bambalow and dillidillidow. I rock my friend to sleep, but outside there’s a face in the window.”
It’s not the only one that sounds a bit odd:
Bí, bí og blaka álftirnar kvaka. Ég læt sem ég sofi en samt mun ég vaka.
Bíum, bíum, bamba, börnin litlu ramba fram á fjallakamba ad leita sér lamba.
“Bee, bee and blaka, the swans are twittering. I pretend to be asleep but still I am awake.
Beeum, Beeum, bamba, the little children wander out to the edge of the mountains to look for lambs.”
The most beautiful Icelandic lullaby of all Sofdu unga ástin mín (“Sleep my young darling”) is perhaps also the most terrifying. Because in this song, sleeping refers to dying. It was written by Jóhann Sigurjónsson (1880-1919) for his play about the most famous Icelandic outlaws, Fjalla-Eyvindur and his wife Halla, who lived in Iceland’s highlands in the late 18th century. Halla sang this song to her baby before she threw it into a waterfall so she could follow her husband on his run from the authorities. The last verse goes like this:
Sofdu lengi, sofdu rótt, seint mun best ad vakna. Maedan kenna mun thér fljótt, medan hallar degi skjótt. Ad mennirnir elska, missa, gráta og sakna.
“Sleep long, sleep tight, it is best to wake up late. The hardship will teach you soon, while the day turns to night, that people feel love, loss, sadness and longing.”
Instead of trying to fall asleep, I started wondering why on earth people would sing such tragic and twisted lullabies to their children. Why didn’t they sing about something safe and comforting instead of making their little ones believe that danger was lurking around the corner?
But I guess these nursery rhymes merely reflect the Icelandic reality in which they were born.
People were certain blood-thirsty ghosts and other supernatural creatures were roaming around in the darkness. But it was safe inside, so even though there was a face in the window, children could fall asleep without worry.
In the second lullaby, the person singing could be saying that he or she will be watching over the children although it may seem as though he or she were asleep. Other children were not so fortunate that they could go to sleep that evening, because they had to work, looking for lambs in the mountains.
As for Halla and Fjalla-Eyvindur… killing their own newborn is horrifying, of course. But sometimes, in the harsh reality of Iceland’s past, parents had no other choice. There were already too many mouths to feed and every other child was dying of hunger or disease anyway. Or the mother was not married and would have to face horrible punishment if her guilt of pre-marital sex were brought to light (although the child’s father would be off the hook, naturally), and a fate worse than death could be awaiting the child. It would often be taken away from the mother and become a nidursetningur, a pauper, and be sent to a farm, often as some kind of slave. It would have to work harder than anyone else, survive off the scraps from the table and be subject to bullying and beating.
The practice of bera út, abandoning a child in nature to die of exposure, was so important to Icelanders that it was one of the three exceptions they were granted when the nation converted to Christianity in 1000 AD. The other two exceptions were eating horse meat (which you’ll still find in the grocer’s meat case) and ritual scarification carried out in secret.
So, even though Icelandic lullabies are creepy, they are also an important testimony to the past. And, as long as today’s children won’t be too scared to fall asleep, these rhymes should be used to lull them into slumber. If for no other reason than the relief that there is no face in the window, that young children are not made to look for lambs in the mountains and that they will never, ever be thrown into waterfalls.
ESA – [email protected]