On coincidence

The rain that prevented me from photographing Gudrid’s farm also delayed my arrival in Dalir. The wind picked up as we drove along the southern side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and around to the north. Even driving an SUV had become treacherous. My husband and I stopped for dinner and contemplated whether we should proceed to the Dales, where I was planning to photograph along the Laxá Valley.

A few days ago I had the intuition that I would be around here on this night but had failed to book accommodation. I had emailed a farm that advertised guest lodging but they had not responded. In the lovely restaurant by the brooding sea, I consulted the Internet on my iPhone, hoping to find a place to stay. It was then that I received a response from the guesthouse.

“We are waiting for you”.

When we pulled in the driveway an old gentleman came out to meet us. We couldn’t understand him over the wind, but he gestured us inside. The guest entrance was in the back of the farmhouse. The small foyer was cluttered with farm clothes and shoes, so I brought my luggage directly upstairs. The wooden stairs were as narrow as my suitcase and polished from years of traffic. The room was very basic: twin beds, white sheets, two nightstands, three bibles. As I came back down to talk with our host, I feared that I would fall down the crooked and slippery steps.

Kristinn was our host. I found him in the little kitchen boiling water for tea. He cut up a fruitcake and sat us down at the table. The silence was awkward as the wind and rain raged outside. Conversation started to build around the weather when Kristinn asked me what I had planned for the next day. When I told him we were headed to the Laxá Valley, he casually responded that we would be visiting his relatives.

He then pulled out a spiral bound book and opened to a page that listed his family tree on his father’s side. At the top of the record was one of the first settlers in Iceland, Höskuld. Below him were other familiar names, characters from the Laxdæla Saga, including Olaf Peacock and Kjartan.  Any Icelander today would be familiar with these Saga heroes.

Kristinn, so it seems, descended from the most famous illegitimate relationship in Iceland, that between Höskuld and his concubine Melkorka. Despite Melkorka’s apparent muteness, Höskuldur purchased her as a slave on an island near Sweden and brought her home to Iceland. A few years after Melkorka gave birth to Olaf, Höskuldur’s son, it was discovered that she could indeed talk but preferred to keep the secret that she was in fact an Irish Princess.

The next day, I visited  Höskuldsstadir in Laxá Valley, but not a single photograph I took matched this story.

This video was taken from a window at the farmhouse on the night of the storm.

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Of caves and mountain glaciers

The day that I was supposed to photograph the remains of Gudrid Thorbjornardottir’s homestead in Iceland, it rained torrentially. When I left Borg, the home of Saga characters Egil and his father Skallagrim, I was hoping the grey sky would remain a bright overcast, my favorite type of light.

Gudrid’s childhood home lies in the shadow of Snæfellsjökull (‘fellsjökull’ means mountain glacier.) In the tiny village of Hellnar, I asked the clerk in the coffee shop where I could find Gudrid’s farm. He sent me back to the main road, and told me to look out for an L-shaped wall of ruins and a statuette of a female explorer in a Viking ship.  The sky grew darker and darker as I approached the farm. Like most days, I was wearing a head-to-toe rain suit in anticipation of bad weather. Knowing that it would be too wet and windy for view camera photography, I attempted to photograph with a medium format rangefinder, ready to take off the lens cap just as I triggered the cable release. My husband stayed in the car; he claimed this mission was pointless. He was right. Before I even had a chance to set up the tripod everything was drenched.

Feeling defeated, I took refuge back in the car. Flipping through my Iceland guidebook to pass time, I read about a cave situated not far from where we were, and decided we were better off exploring rather than sulking in the car. We drove up the rugged F570, a single lane mountain road towards the heart of Snæfellsjökull.

The cave I was looking for is called Sönghellir, as is so named after the sound of the singing dwarfs that inhabit it. Suddenly my Viking obsession dissipated and I tuned into all the other creature mythologies surrounding me. We left Hellnar, which is not only Gudrid’s birthplace but also the home of Bárdur, a half-troll who became the guardian spirit of Snæfells. We drove past the homes of elves (painted on rock walls) and I remembered Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, another mythical tale set in and around the glacial volcano that defines this region.

Leaving the car at a gravel pullout, I brought with me a little point and shoot camera. After a three-minute walk I was in the pitch-dark cave, bellowing out fa-la-la-la for lack of a better tune. The sound echoed far more impressively than I expected. Feeling my way along the walls, I followed the contours of the rock to a little loft in the back of the cave. Curled up in a ball, I pointed the camera at the wall and pressed the shutter. The flash briefly lit the cave and a small image lingered on the screen. The picture showed traces of graffiti, the kind that says “so and so was here.”

I never managed to photograph Gudrid’s farm that day. The heavy rain persisted into the evening and I had to push on to other sites. Yet I value the serendipity of discovering a different place that was both historical and mythological. Some of the names that were carved into the cave wall were dated from the 18th century and I wondered what these travelers were up to when they stumbled upon Sönghellir.

On gendered landscape

Can landscape be gendered? Anthropologically speaking, women have long been linked with nature and men with culture. Moreover, this position affirms that culture (or men) presides over nature (women). But how does this premise extend onto the actual landscape?

As I explore the area near my current studio in Banff, Alberta, I have observed that many mountains are named after men (Mount Rundle, Mount Bourgeau, Mount Louis) and lakes after women (Lake Louise, Lake Annette, Helen Lake). While this is merely a trend and not a general rule, this trend may illustrate an imposed gender upon nature. However naming these landmarks is part of cultural construct. Nature becomes culture.

In Iceland, I found an example of culture’s power to shape or create gendered landscape, one that was defined by the limitations set upon women by law. At the ruins of a farm near Sandfell, I learned about a very peculiar statute that limited women’s ownership of land, and about a widow named Thorgerdur who was the first to claim this land as her own.

The site of Thorgerdur’s farm at Sandfell. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

“It was said that a woman was not to take a settlement larger than a two-year-old heifer could be led around between sunrise and sunset on a spring day, and so Thorgerdur led her heifer from Tóptafell, near Kvíá, southwards to Kidjaleit near Jökulfell in the west. Thorgerdur therefore took the land extending across the entire Ingólfshöfdi district between the rivers Kvíá and Jökulsá and built her house at Sandfell.”

– From Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) originally composed by historian Ari the Learned in the 12th Century.

The law that allowed Thorgerdur to take land, yet be limited by her and her heifer’s physical capabilities can be traced by a physical boundary on the land.

The absurdity of this law may have made you snicker, however it is sobering to think about how gender roles played out in the lives of Saga-age men and women. Not surprisingly, women were not supposed to take part in decision-making, an ultimately cultural practice. A woman’s father or brother would decide upon their marriage and they were not allowed to vote at the assemblies. Women’s roles were mostly linked to nature, childbearing and farming. But despite their lack of authority, Viking-age women were not passive individuals, illustrated by numerous dialogues from the Sagas and in this previous post.  And while the men were directly engaged in feuds and battles, most women outlived their male counterparts, often marrying three or four times.

The visible ruins at Sandfell are from more recent settlements, that were presumably built over the same site that Thorgerdur chose for her farmhouse. Scan from a 6x7cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

On outlaws and landscape

If you were exiled from your home, where would you go? Oversees to stay with a distant family member or to Mexico where you could start over on a beach? Or would you go into hiding in the wilderness, perhaps retreat to a cabin in the woods, a cave in the mountain or an island in the sea?

In Iceland during saga times, those convicted of major crimes were outlawed, meaning they were banished from their country for a determined period of time. Like many others, Iceland’s most famous outlaw Grettir the Strong, refused to leave his country.

Grettir’s Saga is not just the biography of a man who was banished for 20 years, but also a crafted tale of an unpredictable hero whose physical strength and perseverance is unhinged by his fear of the dark. And though Grettir never leaves Iceland, he wanders throughout the country in an attempt to wait out his sentence, and with his travels a wonderful portrayal of the Icelandic landscape is rendered. Today the landscape across parts of Iceland is marked with several boulders that Grettir is said to have lifted, but more notably Grettir’s lonliness and suffering is echoed throughout the country.

Drangey Island seen from land at Reykir in the north of Iceland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Grettir spent the last few years of his life living with his younger brother and a slave on Drangey Island, a plateau that provided him with plentiful resources and protection from his enemies. Today, a family-run operation brings tourists out to the island. Upon being ferried out and ushered up the 170 meter-high cliffs, Jón Eiríksson, grandson of the senior Jón who took the initiative to give these tours years ago, showed me the remains of Grettir’s lair, a tufted hole in the ground in the midst of a completely shelter-less environment. One would think that only sheep could live here and indeed they did until Grettir ate them, one by one.

Grettir’s lair. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

The saga tells of the day Grettir’s fire extinguished on Drangey, and he swam over 7 kilometers through Skagafjördur to fetch a new light. Upon arriving on land at Reykir, he soaked his tired bones in a hot spring now named Grettislaug. After my tour of Drangey I did the same.

Skagafjördur with Tindastoll in the background, the setting of many myths and folktales. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Eventually after 3 years on Drangey and shortly before his sentence would expire, Grettir was killed. The local famers were indeed exasperated that he had taken their island and their sheep hostage. While Grettir may have been a major annoyance to the farmers at his time, today some locals thrive on the legacy that he left behind.

Climbing up a series of steps and ladders to reach the top of Drangey island. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Saved by a volcano

Here one moment. Gone the next. Rediscovered hundreds of years later. It happened to Stöng, a Viking Age farm, twice. The first time it came to pass like Vesuvius over Pompeii. In 1104, in the South-West of Iceland, Mount Heckla erupted and destroyed among many other farms, the one known as Stöng. Perhaps Gaukur Trandilsson, who lived there previous to it being buried in ash didn’t realize that the massive snowcapped mountain was a volcano.

We know about Gaukar and about Stöng, because their tale was preserved in writing. As with the other sagas, the story of Gaukar was passed down orally and then recorded long after Stöng was abandoned. Then once again, Stöng met a second fate, the destruction or loss of the manuscript of Gauker’s Saga, and along with it details of life and events at this farm.

Stöng, in the Pjórsárdalur valley in Iceland. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

However, the ash of a volcano managed to preserve the legacy that failed to survive in literature. Rediscovered in 1939, archeologists excavated the site and subsequently built a shelter to protect it from further exposure.

Unlike Pompeii in Italy, Stöng is not one of the county’s major tourist attractions, and while there is a resolve to conserve it, I felt the freedom to explore the site without being under the watchful eye of security. Located along a very rough dirt road, you need a high clearance vehicle to visit Stöng, making it a more private destination. The door was unlocked when I visited, and I  made sure to close it behind me, and leave my spare change in the unassuming jar – a small contribution to the maintenance of the site.

The main archeological site at Stöng reveals the floorplan of a very large hall. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

A few steps away from the shelter, one can find some open-air ruins as well. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

If you don’t have an SUV, you can visit Pjódveldisbæinn, a reconstruction of the Stöng farm, situated a few kilometers away on a much better road. I arrived after 5pm when the interior of the turf hut was closed to visitors.

Pjódveldisbæinn, a replica of the Saga Age farm at Stöng. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

On landscape and law

Many of the Icelandic Sagas begin with the same historical reference, the unification of Norway under one king, Harald “Fair-hair”. The Sagas describe how some Norwegians, threatened by this consolidation of power fled to Iceland, where during the Settlement Age a commonwealth government was established.

During the Settlement and Saga Age there were no towns or villages in Iceland and even today, some towns are comprised of a mere petrol station. Settlement was dispersed throughout the fertile valleys and some people would have to travel over a day to visit friends and neighbors.

Despite this geographic dispersion, the Icelanders developed a cohesive set of laws, which were presided over by “elected” Chieftains that formed the Law Council at the local and national assemblies called things. In Norway, the practice of local open-air assemblies already existed, but in Iceland, the lack of a formal hierarchy controlled by a king allowed Icelanders to create their own national identity.

Meaning the “meeting plains”, Thingvellir is the site of the ancient national Parliament of Iceland. Established in 930 in the west where many settlements were concentrated, farmers from the east, such as Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, had to travel as long as 17 days arrive by horseback, as described in his saga.

The Lögberg at Thingvellir. Digital snapshot by Jessica Auer.

It is no wonder that this site was chosen as it is a very distinctive landmark. Geologically, this is also the where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates diverge. A Large rock outcrop known as the Lögberg (lawrock), provided a platform for the Law Speaker to recite the laws from memory. The cliffs formed a natural amphitheater projecting the voices of speakers to a large audience. The plains below offered an ideal location to camp for the duration of the annual meeting.

The Almannagjá rift at Thingvellir. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Though law may seem like a lackluster topic to some, Viking Age farmers certainly knew how to make it interesting. This society lacked an efficient way of enforcing a verdict, so when legal action failed, the assembly could break into total violent chaos. Just imagine some sword, spear and axe wielding warriors bounding among these rocks.

On process and interpretation

Though I put a lot of energy into researching Viking age history and reading saga literature, it is absolutely the field work that is most exciting. While part of the project involves documenting and recording information about places, I am rather hoping to share a sense of discovery and propose interesting questions. What led explorers and settlers to these remote places and what leads people there now? Hence one of my basic starting points is to study the relationship between architecture, its traces and the surrounding landscape.

While exploring these subtly inhabited spaces, I made a symbolic connection between the research process of an archeologist and that of a photographer. Though archeologists may be methodological in their approaches, a significant amount of interpretation makes up part of their research. They explore the landscape looking for visual clues, then literally digging deeper, they sift through information that leads them to confirm something about the world and our history. In the milieu of contemporary art, a photographer may take a similar approach. Often looking to the world for material, art photographers are searching for and ultimately hoping to reveal something significant. Both processes can take an excruciating amount of time, but perhaps it is the time spent exploring that provides the most meaning for artists and archeologists alike.

Reading the landscape at the remains of chieftain’s farmstead at Hofstadir near Lake Myvatn in Iceland. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

When I set out for a extended shooting trip, I am prepared with a plethora of lists, maps, notes and equipment but more importantly, and any good photographer will tell you this, you need to unlock all your senses and absorb the information that only first person experience can provide.

In his book Westward to Vinland, Helge Ingstad wrote of his discovery of the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows: “There was so much at L’anse aux Meadows that reminded me of what I had seen of the surroundings of the Norse farms in Greenland: the green fields, the rippling stream, the open country, the view of the sea, and perhaps something else that was not so easy to fathom. Here the people from the Arctic island would have felt at home.”

I had the same intuition when visiting Kvívík in the Faroe Islands. If I were a 10th century explorer, I may have chosen this site as place to settle.


Where the stream meets the sea at Kvívík, archeologists have excavated and preserved the floorplan of a Viking age farmstead. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

A sublime settlement, Kvívík from above. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.