Revisiting Snæfellsness

I arrived in Iceland almost a week ago, eager to revisit some of the sites at Snæfellsness, a location that was especially significant during saga times. The Eyrbyggja Saga takes place here. The story begins with the settlement of the first chieftain and chronicles events that take place around the Eyr over a few generations. Why I am particularly interested in this Saga is because it is centered on a place, and not a particular character like the more popular heroic sagas. When visiting Snæfellsness, one can engage with the landscape of sagas by walking up hallowed mountains, meandering through lava fields and visiting the farmsteads of the original settlers.

I had been here two years ago when the wind and rain were dreadful enough to make it impossible to photograph with a 4”x5” view camera. This time around the weather was fair so I made my way directly to Laugarbrekka, the birthplace of Gudrid Thorbjornardottir, the heroine of the Vinland Sagas discussed in an earlier post. Located in the shadow of Snæfellsjökull, a extraordinary volcanic glacier, Laugarbrekka is steeped in mythology. Gudrid is not the only hero from the area as she lived right next door to Bárdur, the half-man, half-troll guardian of Snæfells.


A monument of Gudrid and her son Snorri, who was born in Vinland, marks the farm at Laugarbrekka

Crossing over to the north side of the peninsula, I went to revisit the Beserkjahraun, the Berserker’s lava field also mentioned in an earlier post. Of course by the time it took to drive there, the weather had turned for the worse. Unable to photograph in the pouring rain, I explored the lava field looking for something I had missed last time, a path still visible from when saga character Killer-Styr had challenged the Berserkers to build a trail and stone fence to both link and divide the neighboring farm. After consulting with the locals and doing some scouting, I found the path and waited overnight with the hope of shooting the next day. The evening was a great opportunity to re-read the Eyrbyggja Saga on site.


A great find: the stone wall that divides Hraun (now abandoned)  from Bjorn’s Haven (a still vibrant farmstead)

Thankfully the downpour turned into a drizzle, and in the bright overcast light, the lava field took on a dramatic look. After photographing the Berserkjagata, I did the short hike up to the ruins of a chapel at Helgafell (holy mountain) perhaps the most predominant site of the Eyrbyggja Saga. It was at the assembly near Helgafell where Erik the Red was exiled and subsequently made his journey to settle in Greenland – the next destination on my itinerary.


Using a plastic bag to keep the rain off of the camera on Helgafell

On everyday life

There are many myths and exaggerations about the Viking culture. Many of these myths are actually perpetuated through imagery, others through our own distorted perception. My first introduction to the Viking world came from my father’s favorite newspaper cartoon, Hägar the Horrible, a red-bearded, horned-helmet wearing Norwegian who often goes on raids in England and France. For one, Vikings did not wear horned helmets, just regular iron helmets, and certainly not as everyday apparel. But the cartoon is brilliant in other ways, highlighting Hägar’s complex family life and relationship with his wife Helga. When Hägar is not off raiding, he spends time contemplating his own shortcomings and helping his wife with the daily chores.


Hagär the Horrible, created by American cartoonist Dik Browne, has appeared in print since 1973.

The very term viking is misleading and actually refers to an occupation. I use it mostly to position a time and place – the Viking Age in the North Atlantic for example. But not all people in the Viking Age were Vikings. To go a-viking refers to going on a voyage for the purpose of raiding or exploring. Very few people were actually Vikings, and if you were, you were probably also a farmer or a trader, the most common occupations of the time.

In winter, when the rivers and fjords were frozen and the sea was treacherous, it was the slowest time for Vikings. Winters in the North Atlantic were not only cold, but also dark. Time was spent simply surviving on the homestead, and thankfully for the Saga enthusiasts, storytelling around the fire.

Three months have gone by since the viking explorer posted on this site, which means that I was not off a-viking myself. So what does the viking explorer do when she is not exploring? I think that there is somewhat of a parallel between the myth of the Vikings and the myth of the artist/ photographer. Although my days are quite varied, I divide my time between teaching, working in the imaging lab, putting together exhibitions, volunteering at an art gallery, researching and planning upcoming projects, and writing numerous statements, proposals, and grant applications. And like Hägar, I also have a family (I’m married to a photographer and have a cat named Olafur) and household chores to do. Although the most exciting part of my occupation may be traveling and photographing, these experiences are far from every life. I am nevertheless very grateful for every chance I get to go exploring.

To see recent “exploration” work of my students at Concordia University, click here.

olafur suitcase

Olafur the Cat wants to go traveling too.

On the Kingdom of Saguenay

Québecois readers will know about Jacques Cartier, who traveled from France to explore the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534. But was he really the first European to describe and map the St. Lawrence and a great part of Québec? As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Norse Sagas, which describe a place called Vinland, could be the earliest written descriptions of North America. Historians and archeologists have been preoccupied with the location of Vinland for hundreds of years and its whereabouts still remain a mystery. Due to a Norse cloak pin that was unearthed at the L’Anse aux Meadows archeological site, we know that Viking explorers attempted a settlement in Newfoundland, but how much farther did they explore? Some believe that Vinland could be as far south as Cape Cod, or somewhere up the St. Lawrence River.

When Jacques Cartier discovered the Sauguenay Fjord, which flows into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he was presumably told by Iroquoian natives of a kingdom to the north, established and ruled by blond men.  Unable to find the legendary place, the Kingdom of Saguenay was dismissed as a local myth, yet the river and greater area still bear the name.

The mouth of Saguenay Fjord seen from the ferry crossing at Tadoussac on the St. Lawrence River. Photo by Jessica Auer

Last week, I traveled to the small town of Alma near Lac-St-Jean, the enormous lake that flows into the Saguenay river. I was an artist-in-residence at a digital arts production centre called Sagamie where I was printing large-scale images from my Vinland Sagas series. After a week of work I decided to explore the area for myself.  I asked some locals if they had heard stories of Viking-age settlements in the area. They were generally amused by my question but pointed me to the town of St. Rose du Nord, where a company called “Les Artisans du Fjord” builds Scandinavian-style homes and saunas.

St. Rose du Nord

St. Rose du Nord is also known as “the pearl of the fjord” for it’s picturesque setting.

Perle du Fjord

In summer, the quaint village becomes a major tourist attraction offering boat tours along the fjord. Photos by Jessica Auer.

Although I did not find any signs of ancient Viking settlements, the drive along the fjord reminded me of my travels throughout Scandinavia. The topography and climate would have made the Norse feel at home. Could it be possible that the saga descriptions of Vinland include parts of Québec? Then “Staumsfjord” described in Eirik the Red’s Saga may be the Saguenay.

Saguenay, Alma-Vinland inset

Comparison of the shape of Vinland from the notorious Vinland Map (inset) with the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Saguenay and Lac-St-Jean region.

Of groves and grave mounds

“Gotland was first discovered by a man called Thielvar. At this time Gotland was bewitched so that it sank by day and [only] surfaced at night. But that man brought fire to the land for the first time, and after that it never sank.” –  The Gotlandic Saga, 13th Century Gotland

Though Gotland is largely known for the extensive presence of medieval churches and cathedral ruins, the landscape is also peppered with the remains of pre-historic sites, presenting a complex layering of history. I came here looking for Viking-age sites, for which I thought I had developed a keen eye for, only to be deceived by these millennia-old stones, graves and hill forts.

Tjelvar’s grave is a ship-shaped stone setting found close the eastern coast of the island. I had seen stone settings like this in Denmark, which dated to the early Viking-age. Yet most of these ship-shaped graves in Gotland date back to the Bronze Age, over a thousand years before the Vikings. Despite the historic discrepancy, it is interesting how the Vikings resurrected the ancient practice, though it is certainly not aesthetically surprising.

Tjelvar’s Grave was probably not constructed in Tjelvar’s time, as it is said that he was the first man to set foot on Gotland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Furthermore, the practice of imitating the past continues today. On the west coast of the island, I found another ship-shaped stone setting, only to be told by archeologist Dan Carlsson that it is a replica, constructed by an amateur within the last few years. Dan was kind enough to take me around the island and we discussed among many other ideas, the process of archeology and of reading the landscape.

This replica stone setting is about 1km away from an authentic bronze age setting at Gnisvärd in Gotland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Besides the approximately 4-page Guta Saga (History of Gotland), there are no other sagas of Gotland, and since there are no Viking-age sagas to work from, archeologists can only look to the landscape to tell the story. Ironically, in Iceland where they have the sagas that point to specific sites, very few artifacts are found in the ground. In Gotland, the landscape contains a treasure-trove of artifacts. When archeologists dig in the right places, they are likely to find silver hoards and coins in addition to bones and housewares.

Some Viking-age coins in an exhibition case in the Bro Parish in Gotland. The coins were minted in Visby, Gotland and are stamped with the symbol W (for Wisby). Photo by Jessica Auer.

Of course, any amateur archeologists that dig for coins and other treasures in Gotland would be prosecuted. But I asked Dan if it was okay to walk over burial mounds and he said it was perfectly fine, even if I was to put my tripod on a grave. When Christianity arrived, the idea that walking over the dead became problematic, but before this there were traditions that involved walking over burial sites, especially those of your ancestors.

Archeologist Dan Carlsson and I ponder the form and contents of this bronze age cairn. Photo by Jessica Auer.

As a photographer, I cannot actually dig in the ground and search for truth, but the mere practice of reading the landscape allows me to create my own interpretation of this place.

On prose and poetry

Despite the simple writing style of the sagas, I am often astounded by the complexity of the characters portrayed. Saga authors tended to craft their tales on the stories of anti-heroes, protagonists who commit despicable deeds yet were admired for such qualities such as their strength, cleverness and courage. Surprisingly, one the most admirable traits a Viking could have is the ability to compose poetry.

Egil Skallgrimsson from Borg in Iceland is one such character. At the age of seven, he lost his temper during a ball game and drove an axe into the head of his opponent. His mother Bera took this act to mean that Egil had the makings of a true Viking. Indeed, he became a great warrior and a lucky one at that, for he lived to see old age. But it took more than ferocity to keep him alive. Egil’s poetic genius saved his skin on more than one occasion. Capable of composing complex poems in improvisational situations, Egil recited his way out being executed by the king of Norway. He even composed a poem on the incident:

The reference to Odin’s “bed-prize” is explained in the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturlusson’s adaptation of the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems. Poetry is so important to the Norse Gods that in this story, Odin embarks on a perilous mission to steal the “mead of poetry” from a greedy giant.

Apparently both Egil Skallagrimsson (910-990) and historian Snorri Sturlusson (1179-1241) had their share of poetic mead for Egil is a gifted skald and Snorri a notorious scholar. Coincidentally, Egil’s Saga is the only saga for which we may know its author: Snorri Sturlusson himself.

Egil’s Saga presents elaborate historical information on political rivalry in Scandinavia, which Snorri would have been able to compose, in addition to intricate descriptions of the region of Iceland where Egil’s Saga takes place. Snorri lived at Borg for some time, while he was married to an heir of the estate.

The farmstead at Borg in western Iceland. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

On my visit to Borg, I was impressed to see that a farmhouse and church still stands at the exact site of the farm Egil’s father had established as one of the first settlers in Iceland. Furthermore, I also went to Reykholt, the town where Snorri composed the Edda and other works. Snorri is still very present in Reykholt where he is commemorated with his own museum, Snorrastofa, and a small hot spring called Snorralaug “Snorri’s Pool”. It is believed that this is where Snorri came to bathe and undoubtedly reflect on history and politics.

A statue of Snorri Sturlusson outside of the medieval study centre in Reykholt, Iceland. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

The stones at the base of Snorralaug could be original from the Sturlung era. The tunnel passageway, through the wooden door seen behind the pool, led to the farmhouse where Snorri Sturlusson lived. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Of thunder and lightning

As I lay flat on my back, bundled in my down sleeping bag, I passed the time by counting the number of seconds between flashes of lightning and the pounding of thunder. One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand… the ground beneath me shook. This was last week while I was on a backpacking trip in Canada’s rocky mountains. I was on retreat from computers, art, and inevitably Vikings, yet nature found a way of putting Norse mythology back in my mind.

It was a gorgeous evening when we hiked into Og Lake. We were in the alpine zone, too high in altitude for tall trees and so the views were open in all directions. The surface of the lake shimmered like a jewel within the wilderness landscape. As I hiked down from the Valley of the Rocks with my husband, we had the intuition to make camp rather quickly; set up the tent, pump fresh water, cook up dinner. There was only one other couple there. Our new friends were optimistic that the dark but colourful clouds were moving away from our camp.

Thunderheads approach our camp at Og Lake near Mount Assiniboine. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Minutes later, hale descended from the heavens. We took shelter in our tent. A lightning storm ensued and I was uncomfortably aware that our tent was the tallest structure around. Though the hale passed, the lightning did not. The wind had completely died and the storm clouds remained trapped above the lake. I lay there with my eyes wide open for almost three hours; the darkness was completely black in between bursts of lightning. I honestly believed that this could be it — the end. Overwhelmed by helplessness, I called upon the deity I felt was the most appropriate at the time: Thor, ruler of the sky and of thunder and lightning.

In the Old Norse polytheistic belief system, the Vikings had of course, their own God of Thunder. Thor, who wields the magical hammer nicknamed Mjöllnir is generally responsible for the protection of mankind. In the Prose Edda, Thor is referred to as:

“…the son of Odin and Earth, the father of Magni, Modi and Thrud, the husband of Sif, the stepfather of Ull, the wielder or possessor of the hammer Mjöllnir, of the mighty girdle and of the hall Bilskirnir, the defender of Asgard and Midgard, the foe and killer of giants and troll women…”

And although the name Thor is derived from the word thunder, most stories and illustrations that feature Thor with lightning bolts are from popular culture, a further mythological-ized version of the god. The Prose Edda, complied by historian Snorri Sturlusson  (1179-1241), is the most renowned work of Scandinavian literature. The Edda recounts the Norse creation story among other great tales, in which Thor and the other gods are humanized.

Returning to that night at Og Lake, obviously my plea to Thor worked. I am still alive to tell the story. Despite my down-to-earth way of thinking, my own fear prompted a calling for divine assistance. After all, it was a Thursday (Thor’s Day.)

Torsburg (Thor’s fortress) in Gotland. Initially assumed to be predate the Viking age by hundreds of years, archeologists have recently dated the upper part of the wall to the 9th Century. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

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.