The old Icelandic calendar is lunisolar, where the lunar months were tied to the solar year, dividing the year into two seasons: summer and winter.
The year had a total of 52 weeks (364 days) which needed leap weeks every few years to keep the calendar working. Summer was 26 weeks and two days (or 27 weeks and two days when there was a leap year), and winter was 25 weeks and five days. The practice of dividing the year into weeks instead of months may seem strange to some, but it is still an ongoing practice in many countries, such as Denmark, where even school is organized in weeks.
In the subject of week days, most scholars claim that the concept of the week system comes from the Romans. The Norse and Germanic people adopted the Roman week system but used the Old Gods instead of the greco-roman ones for the name of the days. When Icelanders became christian, the church tried to change the names of the week, which succeeded for the most part, except for Sunday and Monday, which kept their names. Apart from Iceland, the pagan day names have kept their place in Germanic languages for the most part:
In the 12th century, the seasons were divided into months. Each month had 30 days, so the summer season had four days extra (sumarauki or summer extension week plus the leap week when it was a leap year). Sources indicate that most Icelanders did not count the year in months but rather in seasons and weeks until the late 18th century, when the current calendar was adopted (with January, February and so on).
Solstices and equinoxes play a big role in the calendar, since they are important natural markers in Iceland. The 12 months are divided into six nattleysi (nightless days), or summer months, and six skammdegi (short days), or winter months. In the middle of summer, an extra period is added, called sumarauki (additional summer) to make sure each month would start around the same time each year.
While not used anymore in a daily basis, the old calendar is still very much useful today, as the dates for major Icelandic holidays, like First Day of Summer and Þorrablót are still calculated using it.
The Old Months
The first winter month of the Old Icelandic Calendar. It starts on a Saturday between 21 and 28 October. It begins on the First Day of Winter.
The First Day of Winter was a special church day until 1744, and people read religious thought pieces at home on this day many years afterwards.
Etymology: This is the month when lambs and other animals were slaughtered for winter, but gor means half-digested food in animals’ innards, especially herbivores.
Ýlir, the second month of winter starts Monday between 20 and 27 November.
Etymology: The only known source of this name is from the 12th century; however, in Prose Edda, it is named frermánuður. The word ýlir may be connected to the word jól (yule), but this is disputed.
Mörsugur, the third winter month, starts Wednesday between 20 and 27 December.
Etymology: This is the month that sucks lamb suet, which is literally the name of the month (mör=suet, sugur=sucker). It is one of the darkest and coldest months of the year, but the name might also refer to the food eaten over Yuletide. A saying connected to this is “að mergsjúga eitthvað” – to suck the marrow out of something, which means suck the lifeblood out of somebody. The month has also been called jólamánuður (Yule month) and hrútmánuður (ram month, since sheep are in heat).
The fourth month of winter of the Old Icelandic Calendar starts on a Friday between 19 and 26 January. In the olden days, þorri began on the first new moon after the winter equinox. Þorri is one of a few month names mentioned in more than one manuscript. It is also the month when people hold a feast called þorrablót. The banquet was revived in the 19th century during Romanticism. People meet and eat traditional Icelandic food and drink Brennivín (Iceland's signature distilled beverage).
Etymology: The meaning of the word is unknown, but it has been suggested that it is related to the word “þurr” (dry), the verb “þverra” (dwindle), the noun “þorri” (majority) but it could also be related to Thor, the God of thunder.
Þorrablót and þorramatur – the Icelandic food feast!
The fifth winter month begins on a Sunday, between 18 and 25 February. The first day of góa is woman’s day/housewife’s day, and despite written sources to the contrary, no góublót is held during that month. It has, however, become a custom to give women flowers on the day. According to folktales, the summer would be good if góa started on a storm and lousy weather.
Etymology: The word’s origin is unknown, but some suggest it might mean thin snow, like the Nynorsk word gjø. The “góa” word form doesn’t seem to have been used until the 17th century. Before that, it was gói.
The sixth and last winter month begins on a Tuesday between 20 and 26 March. The oldest sources about the month are from the late 12th century and Prose Edda from the 13th. Einmánuður, gormánuður, þorri and góa are the only month names that are found in more than one source. The first day of einmánuður is dedicated to young boys. On that day, the girls of the household were supposed to wake up first, welcome the new month and give the boys gifts. People believed spring would be good if it rained on the first day of einmánuður.
Etymology: The name means “lone” or “single” month, and it is believed the month got its name because it was the last winter month.
The first summer month begins on a Thursday between 19 and 25 April. It is possible the harpa, which means harp, refers to the poetic harp of spring. However, the name is probably not older than the 17th century. The first day of harpa is the First Day of Summer and a national holiday. The first day of harpa is also the maiden’s day.
Etymology: The month has also been called hörpumánuður (harp month) and hörputungl (harp moon). In Snorra’s Edda it is called gaukmánuður and sáðtíð. Gaukur is a cuckoo bird, but it is possible the word meant something else. Sáðtíð (sow tide) says it is time for sowing.
It is also a great time for ice cream! Ice cream in Iceland is almost a religion onto itself.
Skerpla, the second summer month, starts on a Saturday between 19 and 25 May.
Etymology: The origin of the name is unknown, but it might be derived from the word skerpa, which like herpingur, means extreme hardships. In Snorri’s Edda, the month is called eggtíð (egg-tide) and stekktíð (stekkur is a sheepfold with a special room where lambs were kept there while the ewe was milked).
The third month of summer starts on a Monday between 18 and 24 June.
Etymology: Sólmánuður means Sun-month. It begins around the summer solstice and is the brightest time of the year. This was when people collected their medicinal herbs and farm animals were castrated for fattening. Another name for the month is selmánuður, referring to the time to move cattle to the mountain pastures.
The fourth summer month starts on a Sunday between 23 and 30 July.
Etymology: Heyannir means haymaking, the fourth of the summer months and the year’s tenth month. As the name suggests, it’s the best month to get the best hay. Another name is miðsumar (Midsummer).
The fifth summer month starts on a Tuesday between 22 and 29 August.
Etymology: The month is also called “kornskurðarmánuður”, or grain cutting month. Tvímánuður means “two” or “second month”. One guess as to why it is named tvímánuður is that einmánuður is so-called because it’s the second to last month of the summer.
The last summer month starts on a Thursday between 20 and 26 September. This was a time to come together and celebrate. There was plenty of food and drink after the summer. In the old Icelandic calendar, winter was thought to come before summer, so it is possible that vetrarnætur was a new year celebration. No period is mentioned as often in the Icelandic Sagas apart from Yule.
Etymology: Means Autumn month, the 12th and last month of the old Icelandic calendar.
After the Norse peoples became christian, the celebrations of Allhallows, on 1 November, overtook the veturnætur celebrations. Some of the Halloween customs used today may originate in autumn celebrations such as veturnætur and Samhain. It is also possible that veturnætur affected the Samhain festival since Norsemen ruled many places of the British Isles for centuries.
Simek, Rudolf. 2007 (1993). Translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-513-1
Orchard, Andy. 1997. Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-34520-2
Ólason, Vésteinn. Old Icelandic Calendar. ISBN: 978-9979928032