Réttir: When Sheep Are More Exciting Than Christmas

 In History & Culture, News & Events
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Photo by Páll Stefánsson

What is the most fun an Icelander can have during the month of September? We simply round up all our sheep and then dance together to celebrate it. It’s called “Réttir” and it’s among our oldest traditions.

September marks the beginning of the fall season, which means it’s time to go fetch our free roaming sheep from the lowlands and mountains, where they’ve spent their sizzling summer while the farmers use the meadows to grow hay for the winter.

First we fetch them

Réttir begin with farmers heading into Iceland’s mountainous wilderness, on horseback or even on foot, rounding up the sheep, effectively ending what must have been a delightful summer holiday.

During this process, the large group of farmers and their families and friends split up into different groups, each one usually with a leader called “Fjallkóngur” or Mountain King. Although kings are usually male, the female leaders get the same moniker. The Mountain King leads the group across mountains, valleys, and all sorts of landscapes to locate as many sheep as they can, before gently leading them back to the Réttir.

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Photo by Páll Stefánsson

This is where the fun begins

The second affair, the actual Réttir themselves, is arguably the most fun part of the whole process. You see, the farmers round up all the sheep they can find, without knowing exactly which sheep belongs to which farmer. When they get back, they need to sort this out so everybody goes home with the right sheep. The sheep are placed into one huge sheep pen, surrounded by a wagon-wheel like circle of smaller pens and for the rest of the day, the farmers, along with their family and friends, sort the sheep. All the sheep have been specifically marked on their ears by their farmers, meaning that every individual grabs a nearby sheep, checks their ears and brings them to their respective pens. The number of sheep sorted at these events varies, with the smallest Réttir amounting barely a thousand sheep while the larger ones have tens of thousands.

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Grabbing sheep, eating food and dancing with other farmers

It’s during Réttir when Icelandic farmers, their families, and helpers get together and help each other in this very old, local tradition that spans centuries. It really is the high point of farmers’ social calendars, an occasion that children and adults alike look more forward to than Christmas. Naturally, the activity is accompanied with some classic hot cocoa and Icelandic rye bread (and the occasional alcoholic beverage), ending with celebratory dancing at a so-called Réttarball.

Who knew rounding up sheep could be so fun?

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