|ICELAND: Land of Nature, the Sagas and Mystical Power Places by Christine Lynn Harvey
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Please Note: When dialing numbers listed below, please dial the international calling code from the US first (011). The Icelandic phone book system lists the first name of individuals first in alphabetical order in the region they live. There are two phone books; one for Reykjavík, the other for the rest of the country divided into five sections. Visit www.siminn.is for more info.
Iceland is a place of extremes. It’s only 16 million years old, the youngest member of planet earth, formed by what once geophysicists believed was a deep mantle plume. This theory is currently being challenged by scientists who now say the excessive melt production (lava activity) in Iceland is due to tectonic plate instability near the Caledonian suture, a rip in the earth’s crust that occurred when Europe, Scandinavia and Greenland all collided into each other millions of years ago. It’s also ironic how the “Viking” mission to Mars, has brought us full circle to Iceland, the land of the real Vikings, where subglacial volcanic activity is now shedding light on the way the surface of Mars may have been formed.
Everywhere you go in Iceland, you will find dramatic contrasts in the landscape, from volcanic hot spots and titanic waterfalls, to vibrant green valleys and highland deserts to black beaches pounded by the white surf of the North Atlantic sea. It is also one of the most unpolluted places on earth since Iceland relies on geothermal heat and hydropower for most of its energy needs. No fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones are used on livestock. Hot springs and healing pools blessed by Gudmundur the Good, Iceland’s patron saint, dot the landscape and claim to heal a variety of physical ailments. Iceland has many “power places” where you feel the life force energy from mother earth’s awesome chi.
Iceland is the ideal retreat for New Agers on a spiritual quest, or other nature-loving adventure-seekers, but it is also has a rich literary heritage providing refuge for storytellers, writers and others inspired by words. There are more poets, writers and playwrights published per capita in Iceland than any other nation in the world. It could be that Iceland’s wide open spaces permit the muses to reach that part of the brain that inspires the prolific crafting of words. It could be the sensual and earthy contrasts in the Icelandic language that make it so bewitchingly inviting to try to study on a deeper level.
The Icelandic language has not changed much from Old Norse, the language the original Viking settlers from Norway spoke over 1,100 years ago. Icelandic is the oldest living language in Europe and from it, we derive the Sagas, a rich legacy of dramatic storytelling.These stories are historical fictions written during the Medieval period about events that happened 200 or more years prior to their writing. The sagas read like a modern soap opera, filled with murder, lust, greed, cowardice, bravery, stoicism and above all, enormous pride. History lives in the landscape of Iceland as most places still retain the original names the Norse settlers gave them. You can drive up to the farm where the saga heroes Njáll, Grettir and Kjartan lived, and literally stand on the very spots they were born and died on. Icelanders will tell you their saga hero’s tale as if they are telling you a story about a distant cousin or uncle.
THE ICELANDIC SAGAS & VIKINGS
The first stop on on your tour in Iceland should be the Saga Museum (www.sagamuseum.is; 354-511-1517) at the Perlan, the famous structure of silver-domed hot water towers that overlook the capitol of Reykjavík.This museum is one of Iceland’s precious gems that is, unfortunately, the one most overlooked. Tour guides bring tourists to the Perlan to merely gape at the four-story indoor water fountain, or to eat at the rotating restaurant atop the tanks.
At the Saga Museum, special moments from the sagas and Iceland’s history have been frozen in time by the museum’s creator, Ernst Backman. After visiting a similar museum in Sweden, Backman decided his country should have one just like it, only better. He set to work putting in 18 hour days over two years to finish his dream. Backman, who owns an advertising agency and makes his living as a graphic designer, had to learn how to do everything himself including inserting real human hair, one by one, into the heads of the figures.
With help from his wife, Ágústa and their children, they overcame one obstacle after another, until the figures, their costumes, props and set design were complete. No detail was spared as Backman’s museum is a multisensory experience. The smell of smoke emanates from the exhibit of an smithy; the crackling sound of the fire is on an audio loop. Backman is improving this exhibit by adding flashing red lights where no one can see them.
The characters, all fashioned from silicone, look eeriely real and that’s because they almost are. Backman used his friends and family to pose for the characters. He and his wife are Ingólfur Arnarson & Hallveig Fródadóttir, the first Vikings who settled in Reykjavík in 877 AD. One of the Backman’s teenaged daughters is the model for the “mute” slave Melkorka from the Laxdæla Saga. The scene captures the moment when Höskuldur, Melkorkas’s master, overhears her talking to their son Òlafur pá in Irish and realizes she’s not mute. He also learns she’s an Irish princess!
Other dramatic moments brought to life by the Saga Museum include: Freydís Eiríksdóttir taking a stand against Native Americans in Vínland by putting a sword to her breast; Sister Katrín, being burned at the stake for witchcraft; Gudmundur the Good, the patron saint of Iceland (although never properly recognized by the Vatican), preaching to his flock. A guided tour on CD in several languages makes this a real treat to multinational tourists and there is a nice 4 color booklet for sale that goes into more historic detail of the exhibits featured. The museum also sells reproduction Viking jewelry, clothing and weaponry as well as miniature collectable sculptures made by Backman himself. The Saga Museum is an experience not to be missed!
Another equally fascinating place to visit in Reykjavík is the Culture House (National Centre for Cultural Heritage) (www.thjodmenning.is; 354-545-1406) where there is an on-going exhibit of select saga manuscripts under the auspices of the Árni Magnússon Institute (http://www.am.hi.is/english.htm; 354-525-4011). These calf-skin vellums are the main source for understanding the society, religion and beliefs of the pagan and early Christian Vikings of Northern Europe. There is even a “scriptorium” where you can see how the ancient manuscripts were made.
Since the Vikings took slaves when they raided Celtic lands and because there were Irish monks or “papar” living here before the Icelanders discovered their new home, there are Celtic overtones in the Icelandic sagas. The art of manuscript-making was perfected in Ireland and carried abroad by the Irish long before the art was seriously taken up in Iceland. Professor Gisli Sigurdsson of the Árni Magnússon Institute and curator of the exhibitions has a theory that the kennings which were metaphorical word puzzles found in Icelandic sagas and poems were a technique borrowed from the Irish who also used them in their storytelling art. They often were potent symbolic images; a “sea bull” is a ship, “serpent of blood” is a sword and “she-wolf of the gown” is a greedy woman. Sigurdsson is the author of “Gaelic Influence in Iceland (Rekjavík 2000) and is author of the about-to-be released book “The Medieval Icelandic Saga and the Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method” (Harvard University Press; 2004).
Ásatrú, the pagan spirituality of the Vikings, is preserved in the “Snorra-Edda.” “We do not know what Edda means. It could mean ‘poem’ according to one theory,” says Sigurdsson. “It could also mean ‘grandmother’ referring to the wisdom of elder women. It could also mean the Latin ‘edo.”” The Eddas are a collection of stories about the ancient Viking gods and are the inspiration for Tolkien’s immensely popular “Lord of the Rings” and Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” more so than his own German Nibelungenlied. The “Sagas of the Icelanders” and the “Book of Settlements” record the genealogy and history of the orginal Icelandic settlers. For more info on the myths of the ancient Icelanders, see www.europeoftales.net.
Jóhanna Bergmann is an educator and guide who previously studied at New York University, but now leads tours at the Culture House. When you walk into the exhibit, Bergmann explains the design on the floor, copied from a stone carving in Sweden, is based on the myth of Sigurdur the Dragon Slayer found in the “Saga of the Volsungar.” Runes on stones were often commissioned in memory of a deceased person, or by someone who wanted passer-bys to know exactly what his accomplishments were.
“All Nordic kings had a skáld, an Icelandic poet in their court, who composed poems about them,” Bergmann says, “and they would recite skaldic poetry which was very complex in structure and form.” Snorri Sturluson, who was a Christian and perhaps Iceland’s most famous skáld, saga writer and politician who lived during the Medieval ages, wrote ‘Snorri’s Edda’ as a way of perserving the skaldic art and pagan myths. “It was a textbook of instructions for young skalds,” she says.
Dr. Vésteinn Ólason, Professor of Icelandic Literature at Háskóli Íslands (University of Iceland) is author of “Dialogues with the Viking Age” and director of the Árni Magnússon Institute. “People in 13th century had some ideas about people who lived in the 10th century. The saga writers realized Viking society was doomed and at the same time, they admired it. Modern readers think these sagas are the reflection of pagan Viking society, but they must take into account the sagas were written by Christians. They tend to take the sagas too literally, directly looking for Viking values,” Dr. Ólason says.
An excellent saga source can be found in the new 5 volume set “The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders” (Leifur Eiríksson Publishing;email@example.com; 354-562-7950;http://notendur.centrum.is/~vinland/panta_ensk.htm). This set features 40 sagas and 49 Icelandic tales, many never translated into English before. Thirty translators and leading international scholars were carefully selected for the project in order to best preserve the original context of the sagas. Other translations water down the kennings or have footnotes that make looking up important information annoying. This set avoids all those distractions and makes reading the sagas a real pleasure.
“The Sagas of the Icelanders are not typical heroic literature, but rather stories of flesh and blood humans burdened with a heroic legacy. These were steely-minded men and domineering women in search of worldly wealth and power, fame and love. Typically, a feud would start with a minor slight to a man’s honor and escalate into a chain of revenge and counter-revenge, culminating in a major battle or the heroic death of a great champion,” says the publisher.
These volumes relate the Viking exploration to America, Viking travels to other places and the dramatic histories of the original settlers, complete with insights into Viking society and culture. The set is handsomely bound and comes in its own case. It also includes a cross-reference index to all the saga characters, illustrations, maps and a glossary. The volumes include the following categories: Warrior/Poets, Vinland, Outlaws, Epic, Champion and Rogues, Regional Feuds, Wealth and Power. “The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders” embody some of the greatest literature ever produced by the Nordic people and this set is a worthy addition to any literature lover’s library, equalling the works of Shakespeare and Homer!
Árni Magnússon (1663-1730), for which the institute is named, was an Icelander who collected a great number of Icelandic manuscripts from all periods in Icelandic literary history. He was a professor at the University of Copenhagen and in 1728, a fire in that city unfortunately destroyed many of the books and manuscripts he had collected. Upon his deathbed, he willed the remaining collection to the university where it remained in the Danish government’s care until 1971, when a substantial part of it was handed back to the people of Iceland along with other Icelandic manuscripts. That same year, the Árni Magnússon Institute was established to perserve and educate the public about these cultural treasures.
Thingvellir National Site (www.thingvellir.is; 354-482-3609) 49 km northeast of Reykjavík is where the ancient Icelandic Althing (assembly) was held each year from 930 to 1798. Thingvellir means “assemby plains” it was here where Icelanders from all around the country would convene two weeks of the year to discuss matters of law, politics, arrange marriages, trade with each other, hear and compose sagas and most likely either start or avoid blood feuds. The sagas are replete with characters meeting at Thingvellir and the foundations of their stone booths are a marked feature of the landscape.
Egill Skalla-Grímsson, hero of Egil’s Saga, planned on scattering his silver coins on the ground at the Althing. He was blind and wanted to amuse himself by hearing men fight over the coins, but when his plans were thwarted, he resorted to burying his coins in a chest somewhere on the grounds instead. His treasure has never been found and some wonder whether this event was more fictional rather than historical which the sagas are so ripe with.
The godi (chieftains), skalds and merchants who met here in times past must have sensed the energy of this “power spot,” where the Mid Atlantic Ridge runs its course right through it. The crevass, aptly named Almannagjá (Everyman’s Gorge), has spread 13 feet since Icelanders founded their government there, the first democratic parlimentary the world has ever known. The Löberg, or law rock, was where laws and sentences of outlawry were decreed by the “law speaker,” a prestigious rank held twice by Snori Sturluson, a relative of Skalla-Grímsson and author of Egils Saga. In 1000 AD, it was here that Iceland unanimously adopted Christianity as it’s offical religion in a remarkably peaceful manner.
Lake Thingvallavatn is unique in that nowhere else in the world are there four separate morphs of the same species of charr, unusual for it evolving this way in the same environment over a 10,000 year span. Also unique is that 80% of the lake’s water is from an underground spring.
The Sagas and Viking pantheon of gods and goddesses are a still a source of inspiration for some of Iceland’s renowned artists, most notably Haukur Halldorsson who has designed artwork for Reykjavík’s Hótel Borg, Cafe Paris, Cafe Reykjavík and the Fjörukráin Viking Village and Restaurant in Hafnarfjördur. Haldórsson follows the Icelandic Ásatrú path (www.asatru.is), the ancient Viking religion. He has devoted much time to studying ancient calendars and has also lived in the US with Navaho Native Americans. He is currently involved in building a stone circle in Northern Iceland. Halldorsson’s beautiful artwork, which blends fantasy with Nordic myth, is for sale at his website www.primrun.is.
Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is a film composer who won the Felix (the European Oscar) for composing the score to the Icelandic film “Children of Nature.” His mystical compositions are healing and relaxing and he says he gets much of his inspiration from the power of nature around him. He is “allsherjargodi,” or high priest with the Ásatrú organization in Iceland, the same one Haldorsson belongs to. When asked what Ásatrú is about, he is reluctant to speak since many followers around the world have developed ideas about Ásatrú mostly based on fantasy and not on the Eddas, a more reliable source for understanding the this spiritual tradition. “Most of them have never even read the Eddas, or even know what it is,” Hilmarsson says. He hopes to write a book on the subject and to create more public awareness which will help clear up misconceptions about what Ásatrú is. The Icelandic government has given Hilmarsson’s pagan group a grant to build a “höf” or temple on Öskjuhlíd, a sacred site by the Perlan. Hilmarsson is currently collaborating with rímur artist Steindór Andersen, a native of Hafnarfjördur, one of the many “power places” in Iceland reportedly to have the largest huldufólk population or “hidden people” (trolls, elves and dwarves).
The Icelanders’ belief in elves and trolls is a carry-over from their early Norse religion and relationship with their Celtic thralls (slaves) who also held the same beliefs. According to the Eddas, when Odin killed the frost giant Ymir, Midgard (the earth) and the oceans were formed from his dead body. From Ymir’s rotting corpse, all kinds of creatures emerged. The ones that were ugly and greedy became trolls and dwarves and were banished to live in Svartalfheim (dark elf home), a subterranean world deep in the earth. The gentler, kinder ones became “light beings” or elves and lived in Alfheim between heaven and earth. The trolls would turn into stone if they ever allowed sunlight to touch their skin; there are many strange formations in Iceland providing examples of trolls who didn’t heed this warning.
Andersen is a fisherman by trade but has kept the art of rimur, the ancient form of “sing-rhyming” alive. His CD, “Rímur: A Collection from Steindór Andersen” was released last year shortly before giving a performance in NYC’s Central Park. He has practiced this art since he was a young boy and has performed with Sigur Rós, Iceland’s most famous music group next to Björk. Much of the rímur compositions can be found in the old saga manuscripts. Andersen’s library is filled with books on rímur and explains that in many cases, the rímur artist begins with harsh self-criticism in the hopes you’ll forgive him for his short-comings. An opening rímur passage from theFlateyjarbók (The Flatey Book) written in 1390 AD, reads “Mín er ærid heimskan há” (My stupidity is on a high level). Andersen and Hilmarsson are working on a new CD, “Hrafnagaldur Odins” (Odin’s Raven Magic) which is inspired by a poem found in the Eddas.
Hafnarfjördur (www.lava.is) is most famous for its elf tours. Sigurbjörg Karlsdóttir (354-694-2785; firstname.lastname@example.org) who, with her sparkling green eyes and smile, looks a bit elfin herself. She specializes in sharing the many elf spots and stories associated with the town. There is a house that had many structural problems because it was built too close to an elf rock. In a red and white house, that looks like elves could occupy it, a woman lived who was able to communicate with the hidden people. Hellisgerdi Lava Park is where lots of hidden people live. A royal clan of elves lives in Hamarinn Cliffs overlooking the town. “Once God knocked on Adam and Eve’s door. All Eve’s children were dirty so, Eve tried to wash her children as fast as she could,” says Karlsdóttir. “She could only clean half of them before God arrived and hid the rest from his sight. When God asked her if she had any other children, she replied ‘no.’ Knowing the truth, God said ‘That which is hidden from me will be hidden from men,’ and that’s how we get the hidden people.”
When visiting Iceland, you will sometimes hear that road crews have serious problems with their equipment after trying to bulldoze an elf mound. In many places throughout Iceland, roads make sharp turns around large rocks. This is because Icelanders have a healthy respect for things yet to be scientifically unproven. When visiting Hafnarfjördur, ask for the “Hidden Worlds” map which includes a meditation at Elvn Pond which will help you connect with elves better and help you find their locations. Better yet, arrive on Midsummer’s Day when mysterious meetings between elves and humans are supposed to take place.
Hafnarfjördur is also famous for the Fjörukráin (www.fjorukrain.is; 354-565-1213), a Viking village and restaurant. Owner and general manager Jóhannes Vidar Bjarnason has created a unique experience unlike any other in Iceland, or the world for that fact. Fjörukráin has a Viking feast hall, complete with strolling minstrels and skalds dressed in Medieval garb. For the more adventurous, you can be “kidnapped” by Vikings into a cave behind the hotel where you will hear Viking stories and drink mead. There is also “handverk” or handiwork for sale from Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland.
One selection off the menu offers a delicious three course meal featuring an appetizer, a creamed fish soup, braised lamb shank with potatoes and vegetables for the entree and for dessert, skyr, a thick creamy Icelandic yogurt served with blueberries. The appetizer is a sample platter of a meal typically eaten at Thorrablot, an Icelandic holiday in February, consisting of some things you normally wouldn’t eat, but to make any trip to Iceland complete, you must be brave enough to try it in honor of the hardy Icelanders who invented it. Portions are small enough to give you just enough of a taste: síld (herring), hrúts pungar (pickled ram’s testicles), hvalur (whale meat), hákarl (fermented shark), slatur (pickled sheep’s stomach in mysa (fermented milk), hardfiskur (dried fish) and flatkaka (flat bread). Brennivin, an Icelandic schnapps that tastes like strong vodka flavored with caraway seeds, is served up in ram’s horns, Viking style.
A parrot perched on a stand behind the bar reminds you that Vikings kept them as pets, a token from their more exotic raiding trips around the globe. Every year in June, Bjarnason hosts an international Viking fair. Viking re-enactors dressed as warriors ply their weaponry, Viking crafts are demonstrated and Viking food, clothing and jewelery is for sale. Bjarnason commissioned artist Haukur Halldórsson to do all the artwork in his restaurant and hotel whose rooms are named after Viking chieftains and Nordic gods. Scenes from the Battle of Hastings and Viking tapestries adorn the restaurant walls. There is even a series of pictures depicting the “Saga of Jóhannes,” one for each of the 14 years it took to create his Viking restaurant: from its inception, to traveling around the world in promoting his Viking ideas to finally triumphing over the townspeople who considered his enterprise somehow “anti-Christian.” Fjörukráin appeals to those interested in getting closer to their Viking roots, or those simply interested in getting a taste of what Viking life might have been like. The fact that strange things happen there could be due to a rather large elf condominium next to the hotel, or because of a certain ghost.
Bjarnason says he had heard the second floor of Fjaran, the restaurant where he serves specialty dishes from Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland, was haunted by an elderly woman in a rocking chair. The story was never confirmed until an American journalist came to interview Bjarnason. As he led the journalist and cameraman to the second floor, the cameraman bolted back down the stairs. “I asked him what was wrong,” says Bjarnason. “They didn’t know about the ghost story. The cameraman said he was psychic, but he didn’t want to tell me what he saw, because he thought I didn’t want to know.” But Bjarnson wanted to know. The cameraman confirmed there was an elderly woman with gray hair pinned in a bun sitting in the corner in a rocking chair, knitting. “Sometimes, when I am working late, I hear the creaking of the rocking chair,” he says. The room where the ghost is sometimes gets unusually cold, a sign of paranormal activity. Fjörukráin not only offers nice accomodations and good food, but Vikings, elves and ghosts, to make your Icelandic experience complete!
Another good source for learning about elves is Magnús Skarphedinsson’s elf námshefti (studies) at his Álfaskólinn (Elf School) in Reykjavík (354-551-2014). He is also founder of the Sálarrannsóknarskóli Íslands, a school for psychics and he collects first-hand accounts of energy healing, ESP, ghosts, elves and other anomalous events that he publishes in the organization’s journal. Skarphedinsson has devoted over 20 years of his life documenting eye-witness reports of contact with the hidden world. He says there are different kinds of hidden folk including Álfar (elves), Ljósálfar (fairy-like creatures with wings), Dvergar (dwarves), Gnómar (gnomes), Tívar (nitidous beings who live in mountains) and huldufólk, who are tall and beautiful. Is belief in elves silly and superstitious? Not when you realize stories about elves contain important moral messages. Be kind to elves and help them when they need it and you will be rewarded with treasure beyond your wildest dreams; believe in them and they will help you find your lost sheep and save your life in a storm; always strive to be intelligent, cause once caught off your guard, they could play merciless tricks on you.
In the sagas, tales of the supernatural abound from encounters of supersized ghosts and powerful sorcerers to dreams that predict a character’s fate. This belief is still strong in Iceland today and one Icelander who has scientifically documented the supernatural experiences of people is Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson. In the 1970’s, Haraldsson conducted studies with the American Society for Psychical Research in New York City and is now a semi-retired psychology professor at Háskóli Íslands. He has studied Icelandic mediums and folk beliefs and has conducted research into how belief in ESP affects ESP performance. Dr. Haraldsson says the supernatural beliefs Icelanders hold are very similar to what we believe in the US. He has studied cases of reincarnation in India and most recently Lebanon, where children vividly remember their former lives in which the details are later proven true. The unique characteristics of the cases Haraldsson studies include the child presenting a birthmark in this current lifetime that is correlated with a fatal injury from the previous lifetime.
The Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur (http://www.islandia.is/~njala/sagacentre.htm) is a museum dedicated to the Viking period with a specific focus on Njál’s Saga since this is the region where Iceland’s most famous saga took place. Alma Gudmundsdóttir, the new and very dedicated director of the museum, is planning Saga open forums where experts from diverse fields and theories will debate the sagas. Gudmundsdóttir explains these forums will offer new insights on the sagas. “You can look at the surrounding landscape and see how things have changed over the centuries. We know where the tributaries of the nearby Markarfljót River branched out, so we know when Njála’s Saga was written, because the saga describes the way the river was,” she says. The museum has a“söguskalínn (saga hall) where fire-cooked meals are served by medieval-dressed Icelandic women and sagas are spun by Viking storytellers and singers. An interesting aspect of the museum is a whole room dedicated to the coop movement in Iceland. This system was in response to the oppressive state the Danish merchants created when they allowed Icelanders to borrow more than they were able to sell. Since Iceland was governed by Denmark, it could do no more than simply comply with the status quo until a bunch of enterprising Húsavíkians from the north started a social revolution. The coop society was based on a kind of barter system and operated quite efficiently until the last few years when the coops relocated to Reykjavík and Akureyri, leaving the interests of the smaller villages who came to rely on them, behind.
A new earthquake museum, the only of its kind in Iceland, will be constructed in Hella which is home to several earthquakes a day. It will be located in the Hellubío, a former movie theater, one of the few buildings left habitable after a big earthquake hit the town in 2000. Most of the daily earthquakes are imperceptible but a more omnious event looms on the horizon. Hekla, the most prolific volcanoe in Iceland, last erupted in 2000. Villagers may only get a 15 or 30 minute warning before an eruption occurs. Living under these conditions have shaped the Icelanders’ discernable practicality.
One person most famous in Iceland for preserving Icelandic history and culture is Thórdur Tómasson, who has been collecting artifacts since he was a teenager. Tómasson opened his Skógar Museum (http://www.skogasafn.is/) in 1949 but started his collection when he was a young boy. “Something told me to do it. It was a voice, a divine inspiration that told me this was important to do, to preserve the old Icelandic ways,” he says. To date, he has amassed over 6,000 items that are representive of the southeast region of Iceland. Some of the many items include fishing gear and clothes, a fishing boat, saga collectible items, agricultural tools and children’s figurines and games made from sheep bones. Pointing to a large, black shiny rock on a windowsill, Tómasson says, “That’s obsidian, volcanic glass picked up from around here. Icelanders used to put it in their windows for good luck.” Another feature of the museum are its turf houses and sod farms. In the farmhouse Skál, a pen for livestock on the lower level of the house was directly below the badstofa (living/sleeping room). “The space was very small and several cattle and sheep would be herded in here. The animals’ body heat kept the house warm.” There is also the reconstructed Skógar Church, which was built from other parts of churches dating from the 16th through the 18th centuries. Another interesting feature of the Skógar Museum is its Transport, Communication and Technology Museum. Since Iceland was virtually roadless and its inhabitants also very isolated until the end of the 1800’s, the exhibits include homages to travel and mail delivery by horse, the building of roads, electricity and communication lines. Exhibits show how the jeep, tractor and truck became important vehicles in Iceland allowing it to blossom from the poor subsistence farming nation it had been for over a thousand years, to a technologically advanced one in a short 50 year period.
Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss are two beautiful waterfalls in southern Iceland. The first settler at Skógar was Thrasi Thorolfsson who hid a chest of gold coins in a cave behind the waterfall. On sunny days, some people claim to see gold shining through the falls. Many have tried to find the chest and once a young man succeeded. He tied a rope to the chest’s ring and pulled. He only retrieved the ring, which was later used for the church door at Skógar. It is now one of the special items at the Skógar Museum. Seljalandsfoss is the only waterfall in Iceland that you can walk behind and is lit up at night, visible for miles around.
One very obvious “power place” in Iceland is Vík í Myrdal (http://www.vik.is/) where waves emanating from the Antarctic, with no land mass to block it, collide against the black ash shore here. Eymundur Gunnarsson, Director for Regional Tourism in the southern district of Iceland who handles tourism for the towns of Vík, Hella and Hvölsvollur, (354-487-5020) says, “There are many beautiful nature spots around Iceland, but this spot is one of those power places where you can actually feel the tremendous energy.”
“The whole area from the river Thjórsá in the west to Hjörleifshöfda in the east is known for it’s powerful and fascinating nature, both magnificent and beautiful. Plenty of outdoor activities make it hard to get bored in the south. There’s also a great variety of restaurants, guesthouses and hotels to make you feel welcome,” Gunnarsson says.
Near Gardar, there is Reynisdrangar, jagged stone spires jutting out of the water. Legend says they were formed when two trolls tried to drag a three-masted ship to shore. When daylight broke, they turned to stone. East of Gardar is Dyrhólaey (“Door Hill Island”), the southernmost point in Iceland. A flat-topped rectangular stone formation with a hole through it called ‘Toin’ gives Dyrhólaey its name. There is a local legend of an Icelandic man who passed by a cave and heard much singing and dancing. Outside, laid a bunch of sealskins. The man decided to take one home and the next day, he found a pretty, but stark naked woman seated outside the cave crying bitterly. The man gave her clothes and took her home in attempt to comfort her. After a while, they married and had children. One day, the woman found her seal skin and returned to the sea, but not before she said this verse: “Oh woe is me. I have 7 children on the land and 7 in the sea.” This legend is identical to the Irish legends of selkies, and could be a vestige of when Irish monks first settled the southern region of Iceland long before the Norse arrived.
An interesting museum to visit is Brydebud (http://brydebud.vik.is; 354-487-1395) which features maritime artifacts and the region’s natural history with a big part of the exhibit devoted to the sub glacial volcano Katla. A little known fact about volcanoes is that they create lightning bolts. This happens when hot ash rubs against the air and creates static electricity. Fireballs occur when the electrified ash ignites with gas particles emitted from the volcano. A restaurant next door to the museum called “Halldor’s Café” (354-487-1202) which serves pizza and other light fare, is named after the merchant who helped Vík become a commercial center.
For the environmentally conscious travelers, there is the Guesthouse Brenna (www.mmedia.is/toppbrenna; 354-864-5531) in Hella, operated by Ragnheidur (“Ranka”) Jónasdóttír, the daughter of famous Icelandic playwright Jónas Arnason. Her husband Erlingur leads tours to Hekla where you can roast hot dogs in the volcano’s pumice. Bring your own sleeping bag and cook your own food in the guesthouse’s kitchen if you are also budget conscious. The location is idyllically located on the river Rangá where you will see many different kinds of bird species. A sign “Lifrænn úrgangur” reminds guests to recycle their organic waste as the guesthouse itself is renovated from recycled materials. Jónasdottír even has a shop featuring Icelandic arts and crafts from recycled materials. “My wish is to teach children to grow up to be environmentalists,” she says. She plans on serving Icelandic specialty foods and offering tea made from Icelandic herbs gathered from the tours she leads through the countryside in season.
North of Borgarnes, heading towards the land of the Laxdæla Saga, you will see an elf community complete with painted doors on the rocks to your left. A little further north, also on your left is Grábrók fissure, just past the village of Bifröst. This mystical power spot consisting of three craters, was formed over 3,000 years ago and is the eastern most postglacial eruption site in the Ljósufjöll volcanic system. A kaleidoscope of colors permeate the landscape. When the locals named their community, the Eddas probably inspired them. Bifröst is the rainbow bridge that leads to Ásgard, a heaven-like dwelling place of the Æsir, the gods ruled by Odin. Your eye will be drawn to the mystical mountain of Baula, a grey pyramid formation composed of rhyolite. Rhyolite gemstone is reported to help you process the past, facilitate change, improve concentration and creativity and helps you fulfill spiritual quests. Baula is in the Nordura Valley, which offers some dramatic vistas and is gateway to Búdardalur, home of the Laxdæla saga. Baula is the only pure laccolith, a specific kind of igneous rock formation, the only kind like it in Iceland. According to legend, there is a pond on top of this mountain and one hallowed night a year, a wishing stone floats to the surface to be had by one lucky person.
Eiríksstadir, is where Eirík the Red and his son, Leifur Eiríksson, the first European to discover America lived. A reconstructed turf house sits about 30 feet south of the original foundation. Archeological excavations discovered a separate structure where women did their chores, which probably allowed for better lighting conditions. Turf houses from ancient Viking times are so abysmally dark you can barely see your hand in front of your face, unless a fire is lit. This region is also home to the most tragically romantic of all of Icelandic’s sagas, the Laxdæla Saga. It was at Laugar, in Sælingsdal at an inconspicuous hot pot, that a deadly love triangle between Gudrún Ósvífursdóttir, and the half-cousins Kjartan Olafsson (son of Ólaf pá whose mother was the “mute” Irish princess Melkorka) and Bolli Thorleiksson, developed.
Thrudur Kristjansdóttir, a special education teacher from Búdardalur, shows people the saga and folk legend sites of the area. “Búd” means booth and along Ægisbraut, a street in Búdardalur that faces the harbor, you can still see the remnants of these booths, where Vikings seeking fame and fortune around the world would leave their boats. Eiríksson left this spot when he sailed west, eventually landing himself in the New World. A museum featuring his life and the Viking exploration of America is currently being built here. Krosshólar is where Unn the Deep minded, one of the first settlers and matriarch of the area prayed. A cross stone sits upon the “holar” or promontory she prayed at over looking Hvammsfjördur. “Here, she could keep an eye on what everyone in the Laxárdalur (dalur means valley) was doing,” Kristjánsdóttir says, “The saga characters were all farmers and they picked places where they could keep an eye on each other and see when their enemy was approaching.” Pointing at a small dot on the landscape and drawing a line across the valley, Kristjánsdóttir says, “There is a passage in the saga that tells of Ólaf pá moving his livestock, in a single (2 mile) line from his old farm to his new one at Hjardarholt, so everyone could see how wealthy he was,” she says. A church, designed by Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, was later built on his farm and was the prototype for Húsavík Church. You can see the little gulley where Melkorka was caught talking to Ólaf pá at Höskuldsstadir (stadir means “place”) and where Hrapp lived before he became an annoying skotta (ghost) who had to be undug and reburied several times before his ghostly powers diminished.
As you head further north, you reach Vestfirdir or the West Fjörds where tales of sorcery and witchcraft abound. A very interesting place to visit in the Strandir region is the Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum (http://www.vestfirdir.is/galdrasyning/english.html; 354-451-3525) in Holmavik (www.holmavik.is/info) which is unlike any museum in Iceland. Here, you can learn how Icelanders used to protect themselves against the weather, demons and other unfriendly forces. The rituals involved in making magical staves, crafting spells and healing a variety of illnesses are preserved in “grimoires” or books. Special runes and symbols can be seen written or erased from pages in the saga manuscripts. The “ægishjálmur” which is the current official seal of Strandir, means “Helm of Awe” and is found in the Eddas. It is an old symbol used by the Vikings for protection, but the “Angurgapi” which is similar to the ægishjálmur, but features a human face inside a sun, is supposed to be even older and more powerful.
The museum is owned and operated by Strandagaldur, a private, non-profit institution whose main objective is to research the history of Strandir as the home of Iceland’s sorcerers, the period of witch-hunting in Iceland and the folklore connected to this subject. Strandagaldur recruited the best designers in Iceland to help them execute this concept which seeks to offer cultural entertainment while economically benefiting the people of Strandir.
Here, you can see exhibits and demonstrations on how Icelandic sorcerers claimed to raise the dead, control the weather, accumulate wealth and create bad luck for their enemies. One bizarre custom was the fashioning of “necropants” which claimed to make a person wealthy beyond their wildest imagination. The only way to acquire necropants was to get permission from a living person to dig up his body after being buried and peel off the skin from the waist down. The recipient was to wear the skin like a pair of trousers after putting a coin stolen from a widow on Christmas, Easter or Whitsunday into the scrotum. Another weird belief was the creation of a tilberi that looked like a large phallus with a face and vicious teeth on both ends of it. It was commanded by its owner to steal milk from people’s cows. The milk would be made into butter. If someone wanted to protect himself from eating tilberi butter, they would write a symbol of a star on it and it if the butter crumbled to pieces, they would know it was tilberi butter. Only a sorceress could create and destroy a tilberi.
Unfortunately, these spells did not work against the evil that was to come during the witch-hunts of the early 17th century. Iceland is unique in that more men were put to death as a result of being accused of witchcraft compared to populations elsewhere in the world. “Most people who were accused of witchcraft owned property that a single family wanted to get their hands on,” says co-creator and curator of the museum, Sigurdur (“Siggi”) Atlason. Magnús Rafnsson, a historical scholar developed a special exhibit of the museum linking the victims with their accusers. Magnús is also the author of “Angurgapi: The Witch Hunts in Iceland,” which was published by Strandagaldur and is for sale at the museum’s website.
Atlason offers a special treat to visitors when he dresses up as an Icelandic sorcerer complete with seal and reindeer skins and attempts to put a ghost back in his grave. A skotta would be raised from the dead by a sorcerer to inflict harm and injury on a specific person, but they would haunt that person’s family for 9 generations. Often, another sorcerer would be asked to remove the spell.
Jón Jónsson, co-creator of the witchcraft museum and owner Kirkjuból guestfarm (http://www.strandir.is/kirkjubol; 354-451-3474;email@example.com) says there was a similar curse put on his family long ago, but that the ghost is now losing its power. Over the generations, it sinks lower into the ground, appearing as if its legs are slowly dwindling away. A similar idea may be inherited from when the Vikings chopped the legs off their enemies to immediately disable them when they stormed an enemy’s home as people often slept in stalls with their legs hanging out. “A man who used to deliver groceries by truck was petrified every time he drove to Standir because he would see my family’s ghost at Broddanes, the farm that the ghost lived at before he became a ghost,” Jónsson says.
Further north at Klúka in Bjarnarfjördur, a natural heated swimming facility, there are healing pools of water, one blessed by Gudmundur the Good. Nearby, there is a turf house that will feature the second phase of the witchcraft museum. Close by, at Svanshóll, as Siggi tells the tale of Svanur the sorcerer from Njála’s Saga, a thick fog mysteriously appears over the ridge and envelops the area. In the saga, the sorcerer conjures up a fog that three times thwarts his enemies from killing a man he was asked to protect.
At Kirkjuból in 1656, a father and son, both coincidentally named Jón Jónsson, were burned on the spot for practicing witchcraft by a priest named Jón Magnússon. Apparently, one of the Jóns was guilty of casting an incessant farting spell on a certain girl. After they were executed, the Jónssons’ accuser received all their material holdings but was not happy and tried to accuse Jónsson’s daughter of witchcraft. The case was brought to Thingvellir where it was dismissed. There is now evidence suggesting ergot poisoning may have induced the witch-hunt craze in Europe and in Salem, MA. Ergot is a fungus that grows on wheat and causes hallucinations in small doses.
Today’s Jón Jónsson may seem like a sorcerer: doing several things at once with equal talent and energy, accomplishing great feats with little time to spare. Besides the witchcraft museum and Kirkjuból, his “rural tourism” company Söhusmidjan, which means “Storyworks” in Icelandic (www.strandir.is/sogusmidjan) helps communities tap into their folklore, history and natural beauty and turn these assets into tourism dollars. Next time you visit Iceland and experience something unique, he may be the wizard behind it all.
Perhaps the most important historical and holy site in Northern Iceland is the bishopric of Hólar (www.holar.is/hist2.htm) which was established some time in 1106. It had remained under the auspices of the Catholic Church until the mid 16th century when the Danish government gradually forced Lutheranism upon Iceland. Catholic bishops were to be replaced by Lutheran bishops and church land and revenues were to be turned over to Denmark. The Icelandic bishops of Skaholt and Holar rejected this idea because they saw it as an attempt to destroy the Icelandic autonomy. Eventually, Lutheran officials assassinated the Bishop of Hólar, Jón Arason and his two sons in 1550.
Legend has it that when their bodies were being brought to the Cathedral at Hólar, the bell called “Líkaböng” automatically started ringing on its own and that it rang so loudly, it split. In 1950, a tower with a chapel and chamber was built which houses the remains of Arason. The current church you see today was built between 1756-1763 and is built from stone, unique for its time. The stone came from Hólabyrda, the mountain that rises above Hólar. Another interesting feature is that it contains the grave of an infant inside the wall of the vestibule belonging to the German mason who built the church. “Before the Reformation, churches were much larger and built of wood. There is speculation that the perimeter of the largest church may have been where you see the stone wall today,” says Gudrún Helgadóttir, who lectures at the rural tourism program at Hólaskóli, the college at Hólar. “We know it wouldn’t have been anywhere but here up on this hill since this is where churches were built, to be the focal point of the community.” Hólar is currently one of the largest archeological digs in Iceland. Inside the college, in glass cases, are clay pipes, shoe buckles and glazed ceramic front pieces of a tiled stove from the 1600’s suggesting that at least some of the residents lived in affluence.
Some interesting features inside the church include an altarpiece made in Germany around 1500 and brought to Hólar by Arason depicting wood-carved figurines based on scenes from the Bible. The gold gilded panels were only opened on special occasions and commoners who beheld them must have thought they were getting a glimpse of heaven. Hólar remained a bishop’s seat and the center of higher learning and religion from 1106 to 1802 when it was sold.
Gudmundur the Good, Iceland’s patron saint, was bishop at Hólar from 1203-1237 and was said to perform many miracles throughout the land. There is a legend that says Gudmundur went to the Island of Drangey to bless it. A demon was throwing people who gathered seabird eggs off cliffs. Gudmundur blessed all the spots until he found the demon perched on the last vestige of unblessed space. “Even the darkness needs safe haven,” said the demon. Gudmundur had much compassion for the demon, so he left that spot unblessed and since then, the spot is called “Heathen Cliff” and eggs are never gathered there.
Hólar Agricultural College (www.holar.is; 354-455-6334;firstname.lastname@example.org) has been operating since 1882 and offers college degrees in rural tourism with an emphasis on Icelandic culture and nature, equine studies (Icelandic horse training, riding, and breeding) and aquaculture (fresh and seawater fish farming). Accommodations and meals for travelers can be found in the dormitory, an old schoolhouse built around the turn of the last century. Professors and students who board there say that room number 2 is very haunted and gets so inexplicitly cold they have to ask for another room. One staffer said she has seen figures moving through the hall and once she woke up to find the water faucet running full blast from her sink.
Helgadóttir also participates in Hólar’s Haunted Tours in which local legends are brought to life. She plays a ghost who comes back to give hints on how a previous murder may have been committed. Helgadóttir has never met a ghost personally, but people who are psychic have told her that they feel there are lots of ghosts around in Hólar. “Given that the place was one of the larger centers in the early days, it might be logical that many are still hanging around, especially as Hólar is a very nice place to be,” she says.
The Icelandic Emigration Center at Hofsós (www.hofsos.is; 354-453-7935) is a very interesting museum that depicts the history of emigration from Iceland. Twenty percent of Icelanders migrated west to the promised lands of America and Canada in the late 1800’s and early 20th century. A pioneer group of Icelanders who took up Mormonism left in 1855-56 and settled in Utah. A small group of Icelanders even left for Brazil, but the journey was difficult and few followed behind them. Climate and social conditions seem to have affected emigration trends. Whether spurned by personal tragedy, hopes for a better life, or the enticement of unsettled land and other perks, Icelanders were torn by having to leave their loved ones behind, many whom they never saw again. The most successful settlement of Icelandic emigrants was in Mantitoba, Canada where Icelanders were given their own state on the shores of Lake Winnipeg called “New Iceland.” They were allowed their own government whose capital was Gimli, named after the house the Norse gods lived in. In America, most Icelanders followed in the footsteps of other Scandinavians, building turf houses on the plains of Minnesota and the Dakotas. A significant percentage preferred the sophisticated surroundings of the metro New York City area. The museum helps Icelanders and those of Icelandic descent trace their ancestors in both Iceland and North America.
East and north of Akureyri, Iceland’s northern capital, lies Húsavík, the gateway to some of Iceland’s most varied and fascinating natural landscapes. From Lake Myvatn teeming with diverse bird life to Krafla, a volcanic hot spot area, to the mystical Jökulsárgljúfur National Park (http://english.ust.is/Jokulsarglufurnationalpark; 354-465-2359), you can have your pick of nature’s “power spots.”
Húsavík is also where Iceland’s true first settlers, a man named Náttfari along with a male and female slave, landed by accident. Reykjavík usually gets all the credit for the first settlers arriving in Iceland in 874, but a Swede named Gardar Svavarsson was sailing near Húsavík in 870 when a boat in tow, with these three people in it, broke away. The cast-aways settled on the other side of Skjálfandi Bay at a cove now called “Náttfaravík.”
Gunnar Jóhannesson is regional director for the area of Thingeyjarsysla, (www.atthing.is; 354-464-2070) which comprises a large area of north eastern Iceland including Húsavík. The region’s width starts east of Eyjafjördur and goes to the west of Langanes while the length starts north at Tjörnes and goes as far south as Dyngjujökull, the northern most tip of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. Jóhannesson’s job is to help communities within his region flourish economically, but this is a balancing act between helping businesses grow and preserving natural resources. The other hat he wears in the summer is driving superjeep tours for Highland Expeditions (www.fjallasyn.is; 354-464-3940) to Mt. Askja and other spots in the Highlands. He is ever so mindful of the impact his decisions can have on the natural beauty around him. Jóhannesson works hard into the early hours of the night at his job and attends many functions, but makes sure he experiences the wonders of the powerful nature around him. “I am a child of nature who needs to recharge his batteries every day.” He often talks about absorbing the good energy of the area around him by taking walks near Máná on the Tjörnes peninsula.
This place is not far from where he grew up at Hédinshöfdi, a farm where Einar Benediktsson, Iceland’s poet laureate, lived at for some time. He was considered a mystic who infused his poetry with the natural power places he visited around Húsavík. Benediktsson is one of Iceland’s most beloved icons whose progeny includes many Icelandic phrases and idioms. He, like so many Icelanders, was multitalented. He was an entrepreneur, proponent of foreign investment in Iceland and he was founder and editor of Iceland’s first daily newspaper, Dagskrá. Benediktsson wanted to tap the energy of Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, by building a power station there and he bought the land that would later become Jökulsárgljúfur National Park. He proposed public works projects as a remedy for unemployment in 1896.“He had a lot of ideas that we are still thinking about today,” says Jóhannesson.
Some lines from Benediktsson’s poetry reflects the character of Húsavík’s townspeople today: “Through deeds invent Will’s monument, For will is all it takes.” Today’s willful people include Ómar Gunnarsson, the only winemaker in Iceland, indeed the world, who makes wine without grapes to great success and Ásbjörn Björgvinsson, director of the Húsavík Whale Museum (www.icewhale.is; 354-464-2520 a whale conservationist who has dedicated his life to educating Icelanders that whaling, so tied to the nation’s sense of itself, is a thing of the past. There is also the spirited Thórunn Hardardóttir, a woman sailor who helps run her father’s whale watching boat company, Nordursigling(www.northsailing.is; 354-464-2350).
Besides running to a Kiwanis club meeting, or a meeting on how best to promote the new heilsubad, a hot pot that will hopefully bring more visitors to Húsavík, Jóhannesson also volunteers his time with Bjorgunarsveitin Gardar, a rescue crew started by Husavikian Vilhájlmur Pálsson. The rescue team serves a crucial function in sea rescues, medical emergencies and other natural disasters. Most often, they are called out to rescue tourists who get their 4W drive rentals stuck in a river.
Above Jóhannesson’s offices in Husavik, a special project is going on that will take two years to complete. That is to preserve the paperwork and record keeping history concerning the cooperative movement in Iceland which started here in the region. The cooperative was based on a barter system that enabled Icelanders to stick together and provide collective bargaining power against the oppressive Danish merchants. Salka restaurant is next to the building where the first coop in Iceland was established in 1882.
Everywhere you go history is preserved in the names of farms and unique geological formations. One man who felt preserving the names of whaling, seal hunting and fishing sites was important since a big part of Iceland’s history is tied to the sea, is Gudni Halldórsson, director of the Húsavík Museum (www.husmus.is; 354-464-2237). Jóhannesson is now helping Halldórsson acquire the proper mapmaking software to finish the project.
Árból House Gistiheimili (www.simnet.is/arbol/enska/main.htm; 354-464-2220; email@example.com) in Húsavík is a quaint accommodation that is affordable and friendly. Audur Gunnarsdóttir is châtelaine of the guesthouse and she puts out all stops to make your stay in Northern Iceland very memorable. She serves an Icelandic-style breakfast buffet consisting of hangikjöt (smoked lamb), cheese, herring, butter and jam, rye bread, granola and súrmjólk (a thick sour milk, like yogurt) cornflakes, cucumbers, tomatoes and hard boiled egg slices, tea, coffee and juice.
Árból Gistiheimili was built in 1903 by a couple who ran a bakery from the basement while operating the Hotel Húsavík, a gistihús and greidasölu (bed and breakfast) from above. Kristján Arnarson ran a södlasmídi (a saddleshop) with his wife. The bakers and saddlemaker divided the house in half with the east part belonging to the saddlemaker and the west part belonging to the bakers. The hotel was also rented out as a social hall where townspeople would come to meet and engage in “skemmtun” (entertainment).
Up to 100 people would meet here at a time, something inconceivable in today’s terms since the building is rather small. The structure was built entirely from Norwegian timber. A man named Benedikt Thórarinsson ran a general store from 1921 to 1924. From 1924-1956, it was a syslumannshúsid, or sheriff’s house owned by the syslumadur, a man by the name of Júlíus Havsteen. He and his wife, Thórunn had 8 children together. The syslumadur was a multitasker who acted as a sheriff, judge and governor, similar to the godi in ancient times. He was a wise and compassionate man. When people were poor, he took that into consideration and did not judge them harshly. A picture of him hangs in the breakfast area. One of his children later became the Prime Minister of Iceland. The Árból House has a peaceful, relaxing energy to it with guests commenting about its good aura and the fact that they sleep very well there.