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Iceland Part II…featuring a glorious introduction to Viking history and folklore

August 12, 2019

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Yes, we did many of things that Icelandic tourists (2 million a year vs 440,000 native Icelanders) do:

visited the waterfalls and geysers and hot springs…

crunched our way through the ice caves at Langjokull Glacier

swam in the Blue Lagoon….

But, for me, the most exciting sites were the historic ones:

the Settlement Centre in Borganes: a recreation of Iceland’s earliest history  and “Egil’s Saga”…

Reykholt: home of Snoori Sturluson: 13th century statesman and saga writer…

Eriksstadir: a recreation of the original longhouse of Erik the Red and birthplace of his son, Lief Eiriksson…

Thingvellir National Park: the site of the Althing, Europe’s first Parliament AND…

a wonderful session with an Icelandic farmer who – with deadpan manner and a droll wit – entertained both adults and kids with tales of trolls, dwarfs hermits, elves and all manner of “huldufolk”, the “hidden people” of Iceland.

The Settlement Centre was a great beginning. As I moved through the displays, I became immersed in Iceland’s medieval history. I “swayed” in a longboat as the earliest settlers from Norway did, passed grisly horse heads on poles evoking early pagan rituals, and watched those first settlers survive; carve a life out of this land. I had read “Egil’s Saga” before I came, but the exhibit fleshed out the story…with characters marvelously created of pieces of rough wood and bits of cloth. In the gift shop, I found a wonderful book of Icelandic folk and fairy tales – and dove in. I also had a really good discussion with Erika about mutual support of each other’s activities. She “got it” – and for the rest of the trip, we genuinely enjoyed each other’s passions – and were both enriched by the experience.

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At Reykholt, we had a fascinating lecture by pastor and scholar, Geir Waage, on Norse mythology and Snoori Sturluson. *The book I got there connected Snoori and the mythology to: the 19th Century English Gothic novel, the world’s first fantasy novel published in 1894, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their work as researchers and authors, Richard Wagner’s “The Ring” (and an unfortunate link with Nazism and even present day Neo-Nazi groups), and J.R.R Tolkien’s’ wonderful “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings”, and “Silmarillion”. Who knew????

Later, our trip leader, Kristin, told a moving story about the return of ancient manuscripts from Denmark. It took persistence, years of demands by Iceland, Denmark’s former colony; they wanted their manuscripts back. Kristin described the scene in 1974 when a Danish ship brought several manuscripts back. “The docks were black with people”, she said. Thousands more watched on the initial broadcast of Iceland’s first national television station.

 

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Eiriksstadir was fun for both kids and adults. A costumed guide led us inside (and out of the wind!).

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As we sat in the dimly lit interior, she showed us bone toys and tools, weapons (spears, shields, and broadswords that the kids were allowed to wave around…carefully), helmets and coats of mail they could try on (hilarious!) and the weaving room and the kitchen.

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The building was constructed (after vigorous research) of blocks of earth with a grass roof. Only the beams and doors were wooden (wood was precious) and the latter were held together with wooden pegs. There was a large iron hook over the “fire” for the lamb soup, a dish still prepared today for special occasions. In the kitchen was a barrel for meat preservation – in whey, because there was no salt in Iceland. The whole experience was a wonderful evocation of Viking domestic life.

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Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is where Iceland’s Parliament, the Althing, was founded in 930 AD. Looking down into the valley (above is a modern view) in 1856, visitor Lord Dufferin wrote, “The Geysirs are certainly wonderful marvels of nature, but more wonderful, more marvelous is Thingvellir….”

I agree. Standing on the site of a parliamentary meeting place over a thousand years old is a powerful experience.

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Looking up at the spot where the Lawspeaker read the laws, I pictured Snoori Sturluson pontificating while below, peddlers and sword sharpeners shouted prices, clowns performed tricks, and beggars pleaded for alms.

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I saw images of the “booths” (family tents) described in “Egil’s Saga” and pictured people milling about, making deals, sealing marriage contracts, and – everywhere – politicking.

I gazed glumly into a pool where women who bore illegitimate children were drowned – a horrific aftereffect of the introduction of Christianity around 1000 AD. I would love to be able to visit this site of one of the world’s oldest legislative assemblies in mid-winter – alone; would I then… somehow… be able to sense even more clearly the ghosts of the past?

And… the hidden people….

Before I left the US, an Icelander here on Whidbey told me about the continuing belief in “huldufolk” among her countrymen. Her own grandmother refused to move a large rock on her land because an elf lived there. A street crew building a modern road ran into so many problems removing a rocky area that they built the road around it – to placate the dwarfs that lived there.

From a poster card: “ Alfar (Elves) are similar in size to ten and twelve year children. They…are colorful, cheerful and friendly…”

The farmer/humorist who told us about the huldufolk said he was trying to move a rock in his field. But his tractor kept breaking down. Finally he abandoned the task. “Best not anger the elves,” he said with a grin.

JRR Tolkien first heard the Icelandic tale, “Sigurd and the Dragon Slayer” as a toddler. At 16, he picked up a copy of the “Volsung Saga” – in Icelandic – and started trying to translate it. By 1925, he was a professor at Oxford, having late night sessions with friend, C.S. Lewis, discussing Norse gods and goddesses, dragons, and whether myths were simply lies – or something bigger. Many of Tolkien’s characters were not invented, but adapted from Norse mythology and the works of Snoori Sturluson. Gandalf, the wizard, was the same old man with a hat and a staff that wandered the nine worlds in Snoori’s tales. His dwarfs were Snoori’s: living underground, creating fabulous weapons. Tolkien’s dragons, shape-shifters, trolls…and many other creatures came from Snoori’s work and other medieval Icelandic and Norse sources. But perhaps most surprising was Tolkien’s adaptation of the saga style: “…it’s ruthless violence, it’s tangle of laws and family trees, it’s emphasis on revealing character, not developing it….” It’s been a long time since I read, “ The Lord of the Rings”, but that is EXACTLY how I remember it.

And so… to our fearless leaders, KRISTIN who created and executed this rich, diverse program and MARK who can count to 29 and really knows adolescents. To the grandparents: JULIE who shared stories of work in developing countries and grandmother hopes, MAIDA and the beautiful Icelandic sweater she will knit, JOE, the only engineer I know who also knows hogs, KEN who swapped Peace Corps stories, SALLY, who has a sister I know, ARLETTE who taught me to see art in a whole new way… and all the others that I shared this adventure with – thank you. It truly was a grand one….

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(*The book I bought in Reykholt was “Song of the Vikings” by Nancy Marie Brown. I have quoted from and am indebted to this book. And yes, I HIGHLY recommend it!)

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