By John Sundsmo.
As an American I never really investigated my Swedish/Norwegian/UK heritage. That all changed after a spur of the moment decision to fly to Iceland for a week. My pre-trip research told me that Iceland was colonized about 870 AD by Ingólfr Arnason, a Viking from Norway. Why I wondered, would a family uproot itself from a stable comfortable home and set out on a 900 mile voyage in an open boat to a land of ice and snow. As a child of the nuclear-holocaust-be-prepared-60s, I always wondered what tools it would take to survive in a hostile world. Seemingly nothing could have been a more inhospitable environment than Iceland with no food animals, so how did they survive? Was it lawless survival of the fittest in a hostile land, or did they help each other? Was there a community spirit, an Icelandic Viking democracy that fostered cooperation; if there was a community, then with such a vast land and scattered family settlements, how did they maintain a society? In essence, I wondered about the character of those early settlers and whether those same attributes could be found today – or whether they had died out with the machine age. Prior to flying I dropped by a local book store and chanced upon the book “A Dark History: Vikings” by Martin Dougherty. He explains how the oral history, culture and traditions of the Vikings were lost, (went ”dark”), and are now, thanks to archeology, being re-discovered.
A Land of Ice and Glaciers: Ice-land is the name given by the Vikings to this sub-polar island of ice and glaciers. Fleeing from subjugation, killing and enslavement by King Harald Finehair, (the raiding warrior who united Norway @ 872-930 AD), the Icelandic settlers took with them a democratic process developed throughout the Viking world in the 7th century. Why flee 900 miles to Iceland? Apparently because Harald and his son Eric Bloodaxe pursued and killed many in their Faroe Island settlements- North of Scotland – more than 400 miles from Norway. Understanding the fear experienced by those early Icelandic settlers allowed me a greater understanding of their resolve, i.e., they had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. I still didn’t understand how they survived. On arrival in Iceland, from my reading I had a number of questions brewing? I got some of my answers in the Reykjavik Maritime Museum and others while traveling the South Ring Road – Hwy-1.
Reykjavik Maritime Museum -A Brave People: Located on the wharf in the old harbor of Reykjavik next to the haul-out dry dock, the Maritime Museum is a treasure trove of wooden ships, models, photos and information about the maritime and fishing history of Iceland. An afternoon visit gave me a better idea what the early settlers faced as well as the abundant fish resources they could rely on for food.
In ancient Norse ‘Viking’ meant Vik (inlet)-dweller and was synonymous with voyager. Viking feats of navigation, courage and daring would be difficult to reproduce today, even with modern technology and navigation aids. As far back as the 8th century, Danish Vikings set up settlements on the French coast and conquered large parts of the UK. During the same time, Norwegian and Swedish Vikings sailed and rowed West to colonize the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Nova Scotia (Vineland). They also probably visited Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
As a sailor, I greatly appreciate the dangers inherent in those early Viking voyages: in small open hulled 30-50 foot clinker-built knarrs with no cabin or deck; no navigation instruments; no charts or maps and only a minimal knowledge of what lay beyond the horizon. When I flew from Denmark to Iceland and viewed the vast cold North Atlantic, I couldn’t imagine voyaging more than 900 miles with just oars and a little square sail. Even considering the strength of the 20-30 men, organizing and setting out on these voyages with families, livestock and supplies must have been a daunting and risky endeavor, especially in the 8th century – more than 500 years before Columbus. The resolute little band of Viking settlers in Iceland had to make life work in an inhospitable land – again I wondered, how did they do it?
The South Ring Road from Reykjavik to Selfoss (52km/32 miles/45 min): Driving from Reykjavik on Highway-1, the South Ring Road, took me to Selfoss, on the Southwest coast. This small town (6500 population) is a jumping off point for backpackers and hikers and is the last major town on the road until Vik (distance 129km/80miles; population 291). Located on the banks of the river Ӧlfusá, downstream from Selfoss, are the former vibrant fishing ports of Eyrarbakki and Stokkseyri. Now with their harbor destroyed in storms, they are mostly home to artists but still worth a visit for good seafood. Upstream from Selfoss were my next stops: Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall and Ϸingvellir.
Selfoss to Geysir (56km/35 miles): From Selfoss to Geysir on Hwy-30 or Hwy-35 should be only around an hour drive by car – that is, if you don’t stop for the views, or if you don’t make detours to look at Icelandic horses, or rivers, or search for farmers’ markets or local stores. But stopping is part of the journey and the valley and river views along the way are spectacular. I finally arrived at Geysir around lunch time and thankfully the restaurant at the Vistor’s Center offered a fine hearty, and enjoyable lamb stew. (The next restaurant was 20-30 miles away.)
At the Visitors Center in Geysir, I learned from the staff that Iceland is an important participant in the historical “Thing Project”, (summarized in a book edited by Olwyn Owen “Things in the Viking World”). Apparently Ϸings (Things) were gatherings that included Law Ϸings, where judges sat in court (“vellir”) and judged cases; Godi Ϸings, where chieftains sat to decide defense matters; and AlϷings (Althing), where citizens met, traded, conducted business and voted on new laws – i.e., a Viking democracy. The site of the Icelandic Althing was just over the hills in Ϸingvellir – my next stop after the Gulfoss waterfall.
Geysir to Gulfoss (9.8 km/6 miles): Just up the road from Geysir is the pride of Iceland, the Gulfoss waterfall. This majestic waterfall defies description as it showcases the awe inspiring grandness and power of nature. Fed by the Langjökull glacier, massive amounts of water move down the Hvitá river and over the falls into a deep rift gorge creating heavy mists and many beautiful rainbows. Walking along the path next to the gorge I felt certain it evoked the same sense of awe and wonder for Vikings in 900 AD as it does today for travelers from all over the world.
Ϸingvellir: Just over the hills from Geysir and Gullfoss, as the crow flies, lies Ϸingvellir. For me this involved either a dirt road or back-tracking on Hwy-35 to Hwy-36. Since my rental car didn’t allow any class-4 roads, I backtracked.
The historic Ϸingvellir site constitutes one of the best documented examples of man’s earliest democratic assemblies. Established in 930 AD by the Viking settlers as the site of their annual AlϷing meeting, it is Iceland’s claim to being the longest standing democracy in the world.
When I visited Ϸingvellir this Spring, then looked at the photograph in Dougherty’s Viking history book, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It looked exactly like it did more than a century ago. Getting back to my hotel room that night, cold, damp and weary, I viewed the sky in the Collingwood 1897 “Thingbrekka” painting and could well imagine that he experienced the same wind, cold and horizontal stinging rain that I did that day.
The significance of the Althing at Ϸingvellir became apparent to me. Fleeing King Harald, the early Iceland settlers favored their Viking democracy. Common laws, voted on by all, probably gave a unified common culture to the far flung settlements. That culture, in turn, encouraged trading between the settlers and most likely engendered the community spirit that helped them survive in the harsh Icelandic climate. Central to their unification was the annual “Althing” (AlϷing) – that huge Summer gathering at Ϸingvellir. The Althing event insured that no settlement, no matter how isolated, was forgotten or out of touch. Distant remote settlements were reunited in trade and culture; young people sought suitable marriage partners and courted; vendors sold everything from cook pots to needles; livestock was traded; and, of course, copious amounts of ale were consumed as friendships renewed. That in turn meant in times of trouble there was help – perhaps just a day away at a neighboring settlement.
I still wondered what community laws kept the society intact. Part of my answer came from the Geysir Visitor’s Information book edited by Olwyn Owen “Things in the Viking World”.
In Iceland, Godi (chieftans) selected a council of judges who also acted as the jury. Justice was swift and strong. Punishments included fines, loss of property and status, and when extreme, confiscation of property and banishment from the community to a “renegade/outlaw” status. As a banished renegade there was no help during the brutal Icelandic winter; no protection from the law – any man with a grudge could kill you. Perhaps that is why some, like Leif Ericson, left to explore further West – including Nova Scotia (Vineland) and the New England coast. On reflection, many of the Icelandic settlers common laws were very similar to our own, but the penalties seemed quite harsh.
So, in answer to my question: how did isolated little Iceland with its small bands of distant settlements survive and maintain a democracy for more than 11 centuries? Certainly the Althing was responsible. I pondered that perhaps when it’s man against nature and there is nowhere to go to for help, we are glad of an established culture engendered by an Althing. Loyalty and trust seem to have been keys in the Viking society and certainly the glue that, together with the judicial system, kept people in line. So for me, the answer to ‘how did they survive’ seemed to be one of cooperation, trade, friendship, loyalty and trust.
Although the elected Icelandic Parliament now convenes in Reykjavik, Ϸingvellir is still a great gathering place today for tourists from all over the world.
As to my question: does the early survival spirit still live on? Like the early settlers, Icelanders faced the 2008-2011 worldwide financial crises alone with a small population and few monetary resources. Letting their three biggest banks collapse, the present day settlers set to work and completely rebuilt their small island’s economy in just 5 short years, a feat referred to by some in the financial circles as “miraculous”.
Overall, the Icelandic experience completely satisfied my visual senses. The country is much more than a BIG SKY country. Its intense beauty provides a spiritual connection with unspoiled nature, a raw visceral connection with the landscape. I also came out of the visit with an intense appreciation for the strong independent proud people who live there – i.e., the Icelandic Viking democracy.
The ultimate tribute to the Viking heritage of Iceland stands as a sculpture at the entrance to Reykjavik harbor.
I wondered what Mr. Arnason, the first Viking settler in 870 AD, would think of his town and the stainless steel tribute to his settlers fortitude, endurance and their Viking Democracy. I’m betting he’d be very proud.
IF YOU GO:
If you drive: Be sure to plan ahead – 6-9 months in advance is not too early to be looking into accommodations. During tourist season (May-September) it can be difficult to find accommodations along the Ring Road (Hwy-1). Unlike other tourist destinations, you won’t find gas stations, restaurants and motels/hotels every half hour of your drive. The distances can be deceiving as it is difficult to drive at top speed down many of the winding two lane roads- so allow more time. Cell phone service is sketchy at best – you’re going to need paper maps. I found several good internet maps and printed paper copies with Wikipedia information.
There are a variety of accommodations available from high quality guest houses to hostels for backpackers and hikers; to campgrounds and simple (sometimes uncomfortable) cabins – so again, plan ahead.
Most of the restaurants offered wholesome, and sometimes excellent, fish, lamb and pork entrees as well as good soups and homemade breads. Salads and produce were more limited, but that might have been because my visit was in the Spring. Some of the dining experiences in the small villages, or by the tractor repair shed, were truly memorable opportunities to connect culturally while enjoying hearty food.
Restaurant recommendations: In Selfoss, the Tryggvaskáli restaurant, (just off the traffic circle on the East side of the river bridge), was good. In Eyrarbakki, on the coast a few miles from Selfoss, the Rauða Húsið (Red House) restaurant is worth a stop. In Vik, the Sudur-Vik Restaurant was a remarkable find in a village of just 291 people. The small café “Gamla fjósið” (old cowshed) on the road to Vik, (next to the tractor repair shed), serves good hot homemade soup and bread accompanied by a warm hearted staff.