laugardagur, apríl 21, 2012


The Icelandic word for personal space is mannhelgi.

The element helgi has to do with sacrality: you see it simply meaning "the holy" in the names of saints, such as Ólafr inn helgi -- Olaf the Saint or Saint Olaf. It's an old word, though, stemming  from an old concept of marked-off space. Territorial rights extending beyond the national border proper are landhelgi. For Iceland, an island, this is in practice territorial waters, famously extended 5, then 20, then 100 miles from the rocky shores. This extent is not "holy" in a sense familiar to most people in the modern, vaguely Judeo-Christian West. It is more like whatever animates the idea of to helga sér land like the first settlers of the island when they circumnavigated their claims, shot flaming arrows over them, or performed other ritual actions that said this is inviolate, marked off for me, to me, made mine in a way more than simple property and grazing rights. How else would one understand them? They did not make fences, ditches, defensive works. What they did do must have been meaningful.

I like this idea of holiness, of sacred space. In the modern West, it feels almost like a secular sacrality. That's probably because we've forgotten this other, older notion of the sacred.

I kiss the dog on the nose and he moves his head away. I have violated his hundhelgi. I apologize to him.He does not understand my words, nor my intent, but I do it anyway. It is meaningful on a ritual level.

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