Living on top of history

29 April 2013

 It’s the kind of place where history oozes from around the stones at your feet. Iceland is a a newish sort of country, both historically and geologically. It appeared as the undersea faultlines of the North Atlantic ridge spewed out enough molten rock for it to finally break the surface and grow, long after the formation of Europe or the Americas.

Then place was populated late as well. The official story is that Iceland was settled in the ninth century, five hundred years after the Romans had left Britain and with the Dark Ages well under way. History has a habit of being written by the winners, and the descendants of those disenchanted Norwegian chieftains who weren’t prepared to accept the new king’s rules and who left while the going was good were the ones who wrote the history.

Those Icelandic sagas make fascinating reading, not just for what they say, but for what’s left out. The authors’ names, for instance. We don’t know who wrote down the stories that had already been passed by word mouth for generations, although it’s accepted that Snorri Sturluson wrote the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, the history of the Norse Kings, as well as (probably) Egil’s Saga. Snorri himself was at the centre of political intrigue in his own Sturlunga era, murdered in 1241 at his home at Reykholt, probably on the orders of the Norwegian king.

Snorralaugur, Snorri’s hot-spring bath is still there. You can walk around the stones at the edge of it and dip your fingers into the water. It’s history in front of you; violent history. The settlers weren’t the most peaceful of people and in spite of having set up a society in which the rule of law supposedly took the place of a king, in reality influence, patronage, intrigue, money and feuding were the way things were done. Does that sound familiar? It should. The real difference between then and now is that the tradition of seeking blood vengeance has thankfully died out.

Disputes as often as not were settled by violence. Gunnar of Hlíðarend, one of the heroes of the saga age, was burned in his house. Apparently it was a pretty effective method. A homestead would be surrounded so the victims couldn’t escape and the place was set alight. Gunnar died in the flames of his house at Hlíðarend after his wife, Hallgerður, refused him a lock of her hair to re-string his bow, something that could have allowed him to keep his enemies at bay and could maybe have saved him to fight another day. The site of Gunnar’s homestead is still a working farm, as is Bergthórshvöllur a few miles away over the plain where Njáll and his family were also murdered by the same burners.

Gísli Súrsson, hero of Gísli’s Saga, was relentlessly hunted down and the site of his last stand with his back to the rocks is plainly visible in remote Geirthjófsfjörður. Gréttir the Strong was pursued and came to a grisly end on the island of Drangey, an end brought about by sorcery and betrayal.

 There has been a working farm at Melar in Hrútafjörður for more than a thousand years and here Gréttir the Strong grew up and would have taken part, unwillingly, with the harvest and the lambing on these same pastures

It’s all about intrigue, kinship, revenge, inevitable retribution and sharp, vicious killing. All the ingredients of the hardest-boiled mediaeval noir are there. These were violent times, but there was rarely any great mystery over who had killed whom. It’s more about why than who.
Also left out of the sagas are the tantalising glimpses of the Norsemen’s predecessors. The disgruntled Norse noblemen weren’t the first to arrive. Explorers in the Roman era had found ‘Thule’, a land where the sun never set. They must have been, sensibly, travelling in their fragile ships at the height of summer. It’s not known if the Thule they found and didn’t return to was Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland or even Greenland, but there was trade of some kind with Thule as the narwhal tusks that found their way southwards from the Arctic are the roots of the unicorn legends.

After them came settlers from… who knows? Shetland or Ireland, maybe? A settlement of christian monks in eastern Iceland didn’t last long after the arrival of the new settlers from Norway in search of the dark ages equivalent of lebensraum. All that remains of the monks is the name of the island where they supposedly lived; Papey, Pope’s Island. The same goes for other settlers who had made Iceland their home before 874, not to mention the slaves and concubines the Norsemen brought with them. The mentions they get are of when they go feral and are tracked down, caught and killed. The exception is Melkorka, who appears in Laxdæla Saga, supposedly the daughter of an Irish king who found herself enslaved and bought by a roving Icelander.

The pre-settlement settlers must have seen the arrival of the warlike new overlords with dread, and they can hardly have had a happy time of it. Virtually all traces of them have vanished and they undoubtedly became the underclass who did much of the hard work. All that’s left is some only relatively recently researched remains, some fleeting references in the tales that the Norsemen passed down until they were finally written on paper, and the genes of those downtrodden settlers subtly mingled into those of present-day Icelanders.

History jumps up out of the rocks and as I drive north through the lava fields and over the heath to the coastal village where I spend much of my time in Iceland, I pass the farm at Melar in Hrútafjörður. It’s a working farm and has been for more than a thousand years. This is where Gréttir the Strong was born and must have helped with the lambing and haymaking in those very same pastures. A little further along is the long spit of land at Borðeyri. The place is a shadow of what it once was, but this is where the traders and raiders hauled ashore their ships for the winter in the lee of the shingle bar. Another few miles and there are the lands where much of the saga events took place, including the lost homesteads such as Svölustaðir in Viðidalur mentioned in Bandamanna Saga, presumably abandoned in hard times, and Iceland’s hardest times were in the wake of the most cataclysmic volcanic eruption of the age at Lákagil in 1783. This killed a third of the population and half the livestock. The ash cloud circled the world and may have killed six million people as crops failed and a new age of revolution was ushered in.

This modest stone marks the spot where Iceland’s last execution took place when Agnes and Friðrik were beheaded by Guðmundur Ketilsson, their victim’s brother

Alongside the same road is Borgarvirki, a makeshift fortress dating back to Jörundur the Dog-Day King, a Danish adventurer who in 1810 tried unsuccessfully to free Iceland from the royal yoke and set up a liberal society in its place. A little further along are the mounds where the last execution in Iceland took place when Friðrik Sigurðsson and Agnes Magnúsdóttir were beheaded after the clumsy murder of a local farmer, their victim’s brother wielding the executioner’s axe.

Not far from Blönduós, and the end of my drive in the country, there’s the memorial to Thorvaldur Víðförli the Far-Travelled, a missionary who lived at Stóra-Giljá (another of those farms that go back a millennium) and went around the country preaching the new faith with a German bishop for whom he interpreted. The two of them and their activities weren’t popular back in 981AD and some people in the region made up scurrilous verses that spread through the countryside, the dark ages equivalent of Twitter, lampooning the bishop and his interpreter as a homosexual couple.

Thorvaldur took offence, so he found who was behind the verses and killed them. So much for Christian tolerance and turning the other cheek. But violence has never been that far away in this place where history snaps at your ankles.

The monument to Thorvaldur Víðförli the Far-Travelled, a priest who didn’t let his faith stop him from killing those who lampooned him in verse

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