28. The Beast! (Óhræsið!)

Color illustration of ptarmigans, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

Ptarmigans in winter plumage.

The Beast!


Flying frozen valleys
far from haunts of men,
scuttling over scree-slopes,
scrawny Ptarmigan,
weather-beaten, weary,
white with tufted feet,
not a nook of shelter,
not a shred to eat.

Hawk is up there hunting,
hungry wolf of birds:
pumps his eager pinions,
preys on flocks and herds,
watches, black and baleful,
browsing Lamb below
scratching food with frozen
forefeet from the snow.

Ptarmigan comes trembling
to taste what Lamb has found,
scurries toward the scanty
scraped-up patch of ground,
perches pale and weary,
pecks up scraps of food,
crumbs that Lamb uncovered,
clucks with gratitude.

Hawk alert with hunger
hangs there in the sky,
loops in lethal circles
like a bottle fly.
Hungry bird is heedless.
Hawk has sighted prey.
Wan and weary snowfowl —
will she get away?

Hawk intent on hunting
hurtles down the sky.
Ptarmigan in terror
tries at last to fly:
like a streak of lightning
leaves the heights of snow,
seeking sanctuary
somewhere down below.

God and gracious fortune
guide her as she flies
in an open window —
otherwise she dies.
Hawk is screaming harshly.
Hound leaps up to snap.
Ptarmigan sinks trustful,
tired in Housewife's lap.

Good and gracious Lady
grabs the little bird,
nods, then wrings its naked
neck without a word,
promptly plucks and guts it,
pops it in a pot
eyes alight and eager —
eats it on the spot.

recording available

Ein er upp til fjalla,
yli húsa fjær,
út um hamrahjalla,
hvít með loðnar tær,
brýst í bjargarleysi,
ber því hyggju gljúpa,
á sér ekkert hreysi
útibarin rjúpa.

Valur er á veiðum,
vargur í fuglahjörð,
veifar vængjum breiðum,
vofir yfir jörð;
otar augum skjótum
yfir hlíð, og lítur
kind, sem köldum fótum
krafsar snjó og bítur.

Rjúpa ræður að lyngi —
raun er létt um sinn —
skýst í skafrenningi
skjót í krafsturinn,
tínir, mjöllu mærri,
mola, sem af borði
hrjóta kind hjá kærri,
kvakar þakkarorði.

Valur í vígahuga
varpar sér á teig,
eins og fiskifluga
fyrst úr löngum sveig
hnitar hringa marga;
hnýfill er að bíta;
nú er bágt til bjarga
blessuð rjúpan hvíta!

Elting ill er hafin,
yfir skyggir él,
rjúpan vanda vafin
veit sér búið hel;
eins og álmur gjalli,
örskot veginn mæli,
fleygist hún úr fjalli
að fá sér eitthvert hæli.

Mædd á manna besta
miskunn loks hún flaug,
inn um gluggann gesta
guðs í nafni smaug, —
úti garmar geltu,
gólið hrein í valnum —
kastar hún sér í keltu
konunnar í dalnum.

Gæðakonan góða
grípur fegin við
dýri dauðamóða —
dregur háls úr lið;
plokkar, pils upp brýtur,
pott á hlóðir setur,
segir happ þeim hlýtur,
og horaða rjúpu étur.

Form:Seven stanzas of eight three-stress lines rhyming AbAbCDCD (the translation rhymes AbCbDeFe) and with the alliteration pattern 2222.
Manuscript:None surviving.
First published:1845 (8F22-3; image) under the title "Óhræsið!"
Sound recording:Anton Helgi Jónsson reads "Óhræsið!" recording available [2:38]

Commentary:        This poem was read to the Fjölnir Society on 26 October 1844 (33Eim185). Hannes Hafstein claimed in 1883 that it is based on a true story from the east of Iceland (B396). Recently published evidence suggests, however, that the incident underlying the poem occurred in the north of Iceland, at Láfsgerði in Reykjadalur (Suður-Þingeyjarsýsla), probably sometime in the early 1830s. It was witnessed by a young boy named Sigurjón Jónsson, whose memory of it was later transmitted via his son and grandson to the latter's wife, whose father committed it to print in 1977:1

The incident described by Sigurjón happened to him when he was a child living with his parents at Einarsstaðir. . . . Once in wintertime he was sent on an errand up to Láfsgerði, which is only a short distance away and which he had often visited before. Nothing unusual occurred on this trip until he came into the kitchen of the woman who lived there, whom he found sitting not far from an open window. Suddenly he saw a ptarmigan fly through the window and land in the woman's lap, while a hawk screamed outside. The woman was quick to seize the ptarmigan and "wring its naked neck."

"That's when I started crying," Sigurjón said.

Sigurjón is also quoted as saying that he related this incident to Jónas when the latter was travelling in this part of Iceland in July and August 1839. Sigurjón was about fourteen, then, and may have served as a guide for Jónas. It is evident that the only reason the story of the ptarmigan was remembered by Sigurjón's descendants was because of its supposed connection with Jónas's poem.2 (On all this, see the essay by Hannes Pétursson cited in the bibliographical note below.)

Jónas's feelings of tenderness and compassion toward animals are vividly on display in this winter's tale of a starving little ptarmigan who escapes a pursuing hawk, the "hungry wolf of birds," only to fall into the clutches of a hungry wolf of a different species — which is of course the key to the poem's outraged title.

The following piece of Icelandic folklore is relevant:

Once upon a time the Virgin Mary summoned all the birds into her presence. When they came she commanded them to walk through a fire. The birds knew she was Queen of Heaven and tremendously powerful, so they didn't dare disobey her orders. They all immediately leaped into the fire and waded through it — all except the ptarmigan. Afterward the feet of all the birds were featherless and scorched to the skin and have been that way ever since. That was the birds' reward for walking through fire for Mary.

But the ptarmigan, the only bird that had refused to walk the fire, didn't fare any better. Mary was angry and laid this curse on her: that she would be the most harmless and defenseless of all birds, yet would be so terribly persecuted that she would always live in fear, except at Whitsuntide; furthermore that the hawk — who in the beginning was supposed to be her brother — would constantly torment her, killing her and living off her flesh.

Mary granted the ptarmigan one mercy: she would be able to change colors with the seasons, turning completely white in winter and grey-brown in summer, so the hawk could less easily pick her out from the snow in winter or the heather in summer. That has never failed since; nor has it failed that the hawk persecutes her, killing and eating her and not recognizing — until he gnaws at her very heart — that she is his sister. This is why, every time he kills a ptarmigan and eats to its heart, he is so filled with remorse that he screams miserably for a long time afterward. (2Íþs27)

The attitude of Icelanders toward hunting ptarmigans is complex and ambiguous. Folk wisdom asserts: "There is always hunger and hardship in a home where many ptarmigans are hunted" (2Íþs525). And Jónas Jónasson writes: "Because the ptarmigan, a completely innocuous bird, is so widely persecuted, hunting her has long struck people as an unlucky thing and not at all commendable. They have felt that ptarmigan-hunting is always an ill-starred enterprise and it is not unlikely that traces of this belief still linger today. Even so, however, hunting ptarmigans in winter has been very widely practiced" (Íþh193-4).

Bibliography: Hannes Pétursson's chapter "Línur í Óhræsinu" ("Some Lines in 'The Beast!'"), in his book Kvæðafylgsni (Kf), addresses important points in the poem's background and interpretation.


1 Glúmur Hólmgeirsson, "Óhræsið," Árbók Þingeyinga 1977 (XX. Árg.), 27 f.

2 If all this should one day turn out to be nothing but unreliable family anecdote, we are left with Hannes Hafstein's statement that the incident underlying the poem occurred in the east of Iceland. Hannes is likely to have acquired his information about the poem's origins — whether true or not — from Páll Melsteð. And it is just possible that the story of the ptarmigan, if it really was from the east of Iceland, had been related to Jónas many years earlier by Páll himself, who had been brought up in the east and was full of anecdotes about the region.

Copyright © 1996-8 Dick Ringler. All rights reserved.

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