The first Icelandic Vikings live on in the Íslendingar (Icelanders) of today. Well, their good parts do: their self reliance, yet close knit community values, hard work, sportsmanship, intelligence, and love of written language. Unfortunately the image of Iceland and Icelandic population has been molded over the years by a variety of very popular TV series showing the original settlers of Iceland as a bunch of ruthless killers
filling all the other peoples with horror whenever they showed up on the horizon in their fast moving open boats. After binge watching Vikings and The Last Kingdom we then laughed through the lighthearted “Norsemen” series. The Viking women and men are portrayed as beautiful and strong, wielding axes and/or swords ferociously while their long blond mane is streaking behind them.
After half an hour glued to our iPad in the darkness of our bedroom, we feel like we have to get up and wash our sheets soaked in blood, before starting another episode.
If it were not for the entertainment industry we would have come to Iceland completely uninitiated. There were only a few rare Iceland related flashbacks from the past in my memory:
-in 1972 American wonder child/weirdo Bobby Fisher getting his Chess World title by
beating Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavík (appropriately so, when not plundering or ravaging the Vikings spent long winter evenings playing chess in lighthearted friendly competition),
-in 1986 President Reagan beating the Russians and beginning the end of the Cold War with Perestroyka man General Secretary Gorbachev during the Reykjavík summit (a peace-loving nation without a standing army providing a peaceful milieu for two Nuclear Superpowers?)
-in 2010 Eyjafjallajökull (Icelandic names are difficult to write and impossible to say)
volcano eruption beating and all together stopping the air traffic over North Atlantic and in Europe for days with 10 million tourists stranded. A devastating mayhem airport precursor to the COVID-19 impact in March 2020.
When we finally land in Keflavík International the first impressions upon arrival are rather confusing as no blood could be traced anywhere while walking from the gate to immigration. Smiling Icelanders guide us through the airport not to the bloodthirsty executioners as we might expect but to young attractive nurses taking us one by one into a private room and….no swords nor knives. Instead they stick long cotton swabs up our nostrils and down our throats to collect samples of our bodily fluids with pleasant smiles on their lips!
All of that in still gentle manner before we are allowed to pickup our Hertz rental and drive to our pre-booked Hilton
to wait there in the luxury otherwise unheard of in the Icelandic history of simple housing. There we are nervously awaiting the ruling on our fate. Positive or negative? Luckily, over the generous breakfast served by lovely Icelanfic waitresses the merciful verdict is handed over in the form of an anxiously anticipated text message:
Thank you, it’s very kind of you, runs through my mind as we embark on our ten day drive, hoping to figure out, amongst other things what kind of transformation converted this bloodthirsty Norsemen tribe to pleasant peace loving cultural society.
We did read that Norwegian Vikings were actually not the first to land here. A few lonely Celtic priests found their way there in 7th – 8th Century AD, but they left terribly disappointed by absolute lack of women on this empty island. About two centuries later in AD874 the history of Viking settlement started when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson
became the first permanent Norseman settler. He landed with his wife and brother on the southern coast. After surviving the first winter he founded Icelandic capital Reykjavík (translated as Bay of Smokes) and the rest is history. Other Norwegians and to some extent other Scandinavians followed, bringing with them slaves, mostly women of Gaelic origin. After about one third of Icelanders very cooperatively signed up for DNA analysis the results prove that indeed their roots are a healthy mix between Nordic Y chromosomes and X chromosomes from the British Isles. Some speculate that some British women might not even have been taken as slaves. They actually followed Norsemen voluntarily! Why? There is an interesting theory that women enjoyed enormously watching those raiders and traders bathing regularly and combing their shiny long hair, thus making themselves attractively clean, nicely smelling creatures, after using a practice unknown to their own men of that time!
In the initial period called The Settlement, Icelandic population ballooned in less than 60 years to above 30,000! Good reproduction activities combined with immigration can produce miracles. And even as Iceland population jumped more than twelve times, now standing at 364,000+ the country is still more or less empty. With total area of about 40,000 square miles it has barely 9 Icelanders per square miles. And with its shore line almost 3,100 miles long and Iceland maintaining a 200 nautical-miles exclusive economic area there can be plenty of space for enthusiastic fishermen and fisherwomen. Less than 120 Iceland residents can enjoying exquisite fishing per each mile of their precious coast.
It did not mean necessarily that the Norsemen would be happy sitting at home fishing and farming. “Go West, Young Man!” was a rallying “Call of the Wild” for them. The North Atlantic some thousand years ago was a much warmer place (the first Global Warming without Greenhouse Gases?) and they happily visited and even settled in a place they called Greenland.
They ventured even further to another dry piece of land they named Vinland which by sheer coincidence was re-discovered by Mr. Columbus some five hundred years later and renamed America.
Unfortunately when arriving in Vinland, some locals were already claiming the living space there. As Norsemen preferred to be Masters of their own Universe nasty conflicts evolved. After killing some, but not enough to change the equation, Norsemen packed, turned around and left for Iceland just content to be killing each other back home!
Life in “Splendid Isolation” was hard enough through harsh winters without having to constantly look over your shoulder anticipating the next raid from your neighbors. Living conditions were poor and much energy went into keeping the simple dwellings warm. The dwellings of modern day Icelanders are still quite simple,
but the innovation in clean geothermal energy for heating provides for significant improvement and enjoyment of indoor spaces.
The typical housing in the time of Leif Eiríksson,
a super-Star of Iceland history, the first known European discoverer of Americas, can be seen at the historical site called Eiríksstaðír.
It is a former homestead of Erik the Red, a person of almost mythical standing for Icelanders, and father of Leif Eirícksson.
When not sailing the vast waters of North Atlantic, contemplating the future of their nation, and occasionally spilling blood, they spent their days and long winter nights in this rather poor housing. This is supposed to be a place for a nobleman, something we would call high end of the real estate market of that time! A longhouse of about 550 sq.ft. area with turf walls five foot thick set on base of rocks. In spite of the walls’ thickness its thermal insulation was so poor, that a permanent fire had to be kept in the long central fire place
filling the interior and lungs of residents with well conserving 24/7 smoke. The original Icelandic forests paid the final price for such poor heating management. Those forests are long gone, and the by-product of their disappearance are enough pastures for those idyllically beautiful sheep and Icelandic horses! If you think the longhouse interior could be a little bit more attractive and comfy you better think thrice. Guiding us through this excellent specimen of architecture was extremely knowledgeable local woman, seen on the photo above in the background. She provided us with interesting details from the life of rich and famous of Norsemen High Society, insight to the treatment of slaves (always very cruel and bloody), the facts of sharing the very private elements of life with the whole family (not always cruel, but not very romantic either,
considering limited square footage available for the number of people and animals during the long winter nights close to the Arctic Circle!), and the ways of solving issues between neighbors (even more blood all over the place). Erik the Red, the original owner of this homestead, was a gentleman with temper running on a very short fuse, always embroiled in disputes. After yet another conflict with the neighbor who killed all his thralls (understand “slaves”) he slaughtered the neighbor in revenge, and was expelled from Iceland. He left for Orkney where he killed two more guys, and on and on and on. Good job, Erik, good job!
By now you would think: “Oh my, is there anything in those times indicating that Norsemen had started mellowing just a little bit?” Well, there were some hopeful signs. If you are browsing throughout the official history of human mankind you would get a strange impression that the other half of humans (with few sweet exceptions like Cleopatra, Mary Stuart, Jean d’Arc, etc ; you know how they ended, right?) were delegated to light physical disciplines such as working fields, collecting firewood and water, weaving warm blankets,
washing dishes, bearing children, treating injuries of their strongmen and after a full day’s of back breaking labor in the last resort of desperation whispering gently in their husband‘s ear:“Anything else I can do for you, honey?” Icelandic women were, I visualize, different. Actually physically quite strong, and remarkably independent they could own property (to the contrary in the rest of Europe women were the husband’s property; oh wow!) and could ask for divorce. To this day Icelandic women continue to build on those strong fundamentals and are considered to be in the position of the most equality in the world. Quite by coincidence we came across the statue of this remarkable strong woman explorer who undertook eight sea journeys!
Her name was Guðríður Þorbjarnadóttir, born AD980 and outlived three husbands. Read on how her special position in the history of Iceland and America is secured forever! Around the year AD1000 at twenty years old, already widowed twice, Gudrid organized an expedition with her third husband Þorfinnur to that piece of North America oothey called Vinland. They intended to settle there and she was the first white woman to bear a child, a son, the first born American of European descend! His name was Snorri, born in Vinland, and we all know the law: “Born in America, American for life automatically!” On the photo above, Snorri is carried on the shoulder of his mom in the memorial raised close to town of her birth on the southern shore of Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Guðríður’s life is a fascinating story intertwined with important figures of history of Iceland. Her second husband was the younger son of our hot headed friend Erik the Red. Gudrid was mentioned in historical sagas
Saga of Eric the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders. Guðríður converted from paganism of early Norsemen settlers to Christianity, and some of her descendants were either Bishops (males) or spouses of Bishops (females) in Iceland. Her son Snorri built a church at their farm in Glambaer.
Later in her life after the death of her third husband, she traveled to Rome to meet the pope – what an accomplishment for a woman, a single woman. There were not many like her, I remember just Eléonore of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and mother of Richard the Lionhearted. She made it to the Holy Land, a little bit further than Guðríður, but more than a century later. And Eléonore to her advantage was definitely a lady of higher means!
I, as a person with lack of religious belief, do have strong doubts that Christian religious fervor could have seriously contributed to the mellowing of the hard core Norsemen society. The human history teaches otherwise. Probably more effective must have been establishment of Alþingi (“Althing” in English transcript), the oldest surviving Parliament in the world, in the year AD930. Yes, long before Magna Carta, my friends! This body did not have just legislative arm. It functioned as the highest judicial arm of Icelandic self-government; wow! ALL free men could attend Althing, the longest running parliament in the world. Those sessions were usually the main social event of the year and they drew large crowds of farmers and their families, parties involved in legal (remember judicial function?) disputes, traders, craftsmen, storytellers and travelers. It managed to end the blood feuds and corporal punishments.
The center of the gathering was the Law Rock, a rocky outcrop on which the elected Lögsögumaður guy (Lawspeaker) took his seat as the presiding official of the assembly. For a country with such an early start in democracy and state institutions it is strange to know that it got independence from Denmark only in 1944, when Denmark was too busy being occupied by Germans. It probably helped that at the beginning of WWII British, Canadian and then US forces arrived in Iceland in large numbers. An interesting repeat of history then happened as recounted by our Erikstadir guide. Icelandic women very really really impressed with the spick and span clean shaven soldiers in lieu of their fish smelling compatriots. And you bet that didn’t go down well with the local guys.
If you want to see Althing, it is quite close to Reykjavík on the shore of large Lake Þingvellir (Thingvellir) lying on the impressive seismic fault line between
North American and Scandinavian tectonic plates. It was here that Althing was forced by Norwegian king Olaf to accept Christianity as the State religion early on in AD1000. There is a small historical church in this location which
is consistent with simplicity of all religious as well as secular buildings you can find in this country. Of course, with slight exception of Reykjavík and a nice contemporary chain of Foss Hotels we had the opportunity to enjoy a few times during our trip.
Move a half millennia forward to see how far the standard of living improved. The progress is quite visible in its front view.
The reduction of turf usage helps visually quite a bit, and where it was still heavily used, the window openings make
its interior space surprisingly lighter as well as the usage of stoves for heating much healthier. The complex has its own church and cemetery around it
always as simple as possible. We found a varied palette of colors for churches, like this beautiful sample in a rather innovative black in combination with white trimming:
Truly a daring design in pure shapes and simple lines on the backdrop of distant, snow sprinkled mountains with a sensitive complement of the sheep family arranged in front of the compound’s front gate every morning and evening by the staff of a nearby luxury hotel for photographic needs of the hotel guests.
Icelanding churches might be small and simple, but they do come in a variety of colors.
Icelandic builders must have faced lack of wood as the forests, mentioned before, were mercilessly decimated for heating. Driving around we came to a small village of Hólar, which was the Episcopal See for Northern Iceland. Hólar’s current church was built in the middle of the 18th century at the site of five other, older ones!
Wars, religious transformations, or fires do not treat wooden structures kindly, so parishioners decided: “Enough is enough! Let us use something more durable!” and erected the church front from the nearby mountain‘s red rock.
You can see in these two pictures taken a few minutes apart, how changeable the weather in Iceland can be. This can not be said of Icelanders, they are steadfastly pleasant and friendly. Here we were welcomed by another knowledgeable guide who knew practically everything about his church and answered kindly all the questions we bothered him with during our long visit. We could not believe our eyes seeing fantastic workmanship and art.
The special surprise were two very old bibles, one in the church itself
and one, a rare copy of Old Testament in Hebrew displayed in the replica of the bishop’s house from 14th century.
All those wonderfully simple and aesthetically pleasing churches of Iceland reminded me of the cultural shock I experienced during my teenage years when I first traveled to the Baltic Coast. After heavy dosage of Central European dark, overly dramatic, heavily gilded baroque churches I could hardly believe that church interior could be almost
unbearably light, pure, and simple, almost gay in its expression. What a feast for the eyes! Everything warmed up by the kindly guide/priest’s presence. His big fluffy dog was a pleasant addition.
We were taken by surprise at how few dogs we encountered in Iceland. Yes, there were some hard working Icelandic sheep dogs out in the pastures, descendants of dogs brought by Viking settlers, but few pets. It seems that Iceland is more of a cat country. It didn’t come by total surprise then to find a bizarre total ban of dogs in the capital. The dog ban was issued in 1924 at a time when the population was overwhelmingly rural (just opposite of today) and Reykjavík was still small, but rapidly growing and overcrowded fishing town. The ban was only lifted in 1984.
Talking about bans, a few years after the dog ban was lifted, in 1989 exactly the Beer Ban was lifted as well, and after 74 years of only drinking wine and spirits the Icelanders could say Skál again with beer.
It would not be fair to leave unattended the progress of regular Icelandic housing in the last 50-100 years. Driving around the country you cannot help observe local preferences not to overspend on major ticket items with focus instead on cost effective functionality and comfort. Indeed Icelanders did stop using turf as a cost-effective material and built the simple light comfortable houses (the initial idea for Tiny Houses?) which serve them and us, tourists, very well.
The money saved on the house is then invested in a swimming pool or at least a hot tub. Icelanders are crazy about their hot water baths, another relic of the Viking times.
You can hardly see many Ferraris on the mostly two lane local highways with uniform speed limit which is barely 55 miles per hour and frequent signs banning overtaking on long stretches of straight roads. Only a complete idiot would not figure out that Ferrari is for Icelandic traffic seriously over designed and a complete waste of money! But with no public buses plying the countryside (ok, we did see ONE in our ten days) people do buy lots of cars and there is probably no country in the world where there is such a mix of cars. Icelanders are a brave and hardy stock, and they are used to driving under driving rain and on sleek ice. (And camping on ice, too, brrr). They also love crossing deep rivers and driving on glaciers and not all are smart enough to use big monster trucks so Search and Rescue teams are assured life long secure employment.
We did also notice a certain modesty when it came to sculptures and public art.
This one was one of the more grandiose memorials which at first looked more like a decorative pile of rocks.
The Bárður Snæfellsás statue was created by local artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Who was that Bárður guy? He was a half-man, half-troll who lived here after fleeing Norway. Another violent individual involved in a severe family argument, he exiled himself to the Snæfellsnes Glacier. This hot headed guy fortunately did not kill anybody, at least not that I am aware of! For centuries, the locals believed he was their protector and called him the Guardian Spirit of Snæfell.
On the way to this memorial I was slightly misled by my co-traveler (it happens rarely and mostly not intentionally, but still it does and she knows how to get my attention!). I was convinced there was to be a memorial to my favorite writer Jules Verne who located one of his many fictional adventure novel to a volcano
crater here in Snæfellsnes Penninsula. We drove in circles around the Google maps dot proclaiming Jules Verne memorial, but could not find it.
Only partially disappointed by finding this other (for me) impressive piece of art l was happy to admire it for simple use of readily available material. As a matter of fact there is so much good quality rock lying all over Iceland that it would be quite easy to make a killing exporting their rocks all over the world.
The best in our view are the basalt columns (formed when magma cools slowly and cracks into columns) found in many places. On Reynisfjara’s Black Beach
are the most striking hexagonal basalt columns of the Halsanefshellir cave.
They are supposedly the inspiration behind the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík.
We saved this one for our last afternoon. Just as any other Icelandic place of worship we found it blessedly empty, confirming the population’s laidback attitude towards any religion. They prefer to worship the sun in the plentiful outdoor coffee shops.
Hallgrímskirkja Church belongs to (Lutheran) Church of Iceland, the largest denomination in the country. It was not planned for it to be the tallest religious building in Iceland but….the church leaders wanted its spire to be taller just to outshine Landakot’s Church, the cathedral of the Catholic Church of Iceland standing a few blocks away. And their ego beat the State architect’s Gudjon Samuelsson’s design! The church, which is quite recent, from the second half of the 20th century, did not impress on arrival. But it does grow on you, the longer you look at it.
After the stark exterior the interior is a wonderful surprise of luminous light.
Back outside the kids were happily playing around the statue of Leif Eriksson.
No wonder, their parents come up close to the top in worldwide happiness surveys.
They have lost their zeal for shedding blood, and live in harmony and equality.
With so many places closed and few people about due to COVID we had, to our chagrin, less opportunities to meet the locals. But those that we did, were just wonderful.
Here again is my horse guide Helga.
We had such an immediate warm connection that she offered me a summer job on the farm and I was sorely tempted.
Ad here is an artist in Reykjavik, who dropped what he was doing and told us all about his family of sculptors and potters and Icelanders’ affinity for skulls.
I promised in the last blog to tell you about the Shark Sign. We were desperately looking for a morning cup of coffee all over the Snaeffelsness peninsula and came to a farm that was also a big shark museum. Normally we would be really interested in shark exhibits but that afternoon the coffee craving took over. While the museum was opened, its coffee shop was closed. But when the owner Gudjón
saw our need, he opened it just for us and personally made us two cappuccinos and then recounted his family’s history of hard work. And then wouldn’t let us pay for the coffee!
It is fascinating to know that most Icelanders can trace their family roots all the way back to the .first settlers and that despite the fact that they don’t even have family names, but use a patronymic system. Their names are set up from their father’s (occasionally mother’s) name plus ending of son or dóttir. So Stefán Gunnarsson (son of Gunnar) would have a son named Y Stefánsson and a daughter called X Stéfansdóttir. Add to this the fact that you can only pick first names from a list of preapproved names by Icelandic Naming Committe and I don’t know how many people then end up having the exact same names.
Even the nameless brief encounters with fellow Icelandic travellers were lovely. As in willing cooperation of this young lady to model for our photoshoot her hand-made Icelandic sweater at the famous Kirkjufell waterfall.
The sweaters were attractive, but only appropriate for the hardy Icelandic stock of Viking descent, because the wool was way too itchy for us.
We were told that the best way to meet Icelanders is to jump into one of the many hot pots. With the sharp wind always rearing its cold head we were not tempted until the very last day. We spent a few hours awaiting our returning flight’s midnight departure at the man-made Blue Lagoon
disposing of the runoff water from the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power plant, conveniently located some 10 miles from Keflavík International Airport. At this COVID time the normally overcrowded ”spa” was nearly empty and we did not have a chance to encounter many locals, but in the best of Icelandic traditions we submerged in the pleasant water with a free drink in hand. Your choice: non-alcoholic or alcoholic. Guess which for us? No need to guess twice.
P.S. This is our 3rd and last post on Iceland. We are now home in California, enjoying the adventures with our newborn granddaughter.
We still have some posts in the works and would also be happy to hear your suggestions or questions. And yes, our Bucket List continues to grow longer!