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October 21, 2018

Picture this: You are a young child in Iceland. It’s the middle of winter and it’s close to bedtime. You’ve had your hot bath, maybe a glass of milk and you’re all set to jump into bed and be tucked in by your mum before she sings you a sweet little lullaby to send you off to Mr. Sandman. This all sounds lovely except for one thing: Icelandic lullabies are horrendously creepy.

We do have other examples of some gruesome lullabies (“Highland Fairy Lullaby” from Scotland does not have a particularly happy ending) but Icelandic lullabies are on a different level altogether. For example, Bíum bíum bambaló is a wellknown traditional lullaby, which was also recorded by Sigur Rós in 2001. It starts sweet enough:

Bíum bíum bambaló, bambaló and dillidillidó

but hold on...

I lull my friend soundly to sleep,
But outside a face awaits on the window.


Well that should make any child filled with ease and comfort, shouldn’t it? Another lovely tune to soundly put children to rest is called Sofðu nú svínið þitt (Sleep you pig), roughly translated as:

Sleep, you black eyed pig. May you fall into a dungy pit, full of ghosts.

Most of the lullabies are in key minor and have a very somber tone to it. A popular one is Sofðu unga ástin mín , a beautiful but sad song. It is however also popular amongst modern parents to only sing the first verse and leave out the following gruesome ones. The last verse kind of sums it all up in a very depressing way:

Sleep long, sleep tight, it’s best to wake up late. The hardship will soon teach you,
while the day soon turns into night,
that people love, miss, cry and long.

Alrighty then.

You might ask yourselves: Why so serious? The truth is that as morbid as they might sound, Icelandic lullabies echo the history of the nation and it’s incredibly harsh living conditions, which lasted well into the 20th century. In a place where darkness fills the vast majority of the year, this place was even darker still before the arrival of electricity. In order for the children not to wander off into mischief, the night and darkness became the home of danger and sinister creatures, some known and some unknown. Take that creepy face on the window for example.

So to Icelandic children, the message was clear: stay inside, do not wander off, do not misbehave. In a country where a substantial part of the population still believes in various national ghouls the songs we sing to rock our children to sleep are bound to entail their appearance in some shape or form. So make sure to fall asleep quickly and stay in bed all night. And whatever you do, don’t wander off into the dark.


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