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.

Advertisements

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.

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 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 female heroines

Many people have heard of Erik the Red and his son Leif the Lucky. Although these two men have been credited for establishing the Norse settlements of Greenland and Vinland, Gudrid Thorbjornardottir, also known as Gudrid the Far-Traveller, is the leading hero of the Vinland Sagas.

Perhaps the first European to give birth to a child in the New World, Gudrid may have also been the instigator of several journeys to explore Vinland, one that left her and her second husband floating about at sea for several months. And although some of Gudrid’s accomplishments may be legend more than history, it is very likely that she travelled more widely than any other woman during the Viking Age, from Iceland to the New World and back, and then on a pilgrimage along the eastern route to Rome. The life of this resilient and elusive lady is extremely well researched in the book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown.

A statue of Gudrid Thorbjornardottir with her son Snorri at Glaumbaer in the North of Iceland. Gudrid settled down in Glaumbaer after travelling to Vinland with husband Thorfinn Karlsefni. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Turf hut replicas at the living museum in Glaumbaer. Author Nancy Marie Brown assisted in the excavation of a viking-age farmhouse just meters from the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum grounds. Image scanned from a 6x7cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

In this book, Brown attempts to comprehend the meaning of the term skörungur used to describe Gudrid in the Sagas. Brown, not wanting to go much further than defining a skörungur as a woman of strong character, alludes to several other qualities these Saga Age women may embody; intelligence, independence and bravery.

Two more significant skörungur appear in another Saga, The Laxdaela Saga, a story that covers several generations of characters from the Dalir region in Iceland.

Most of the Dales were originally claimed by Aud The Deep Minded, who after being widowed by an Irish King , sailed via Norway to establish a new life during the settlement of Iceland. Bear in mind that a desolate 10th Century Iceland would not have normally been a great attraction for a Queen. Aud then divided and gave parts of her land to family, friends and freed slaves.

The main protagonist of the Laxdaela Saga is Gudrun Ósvifsdóttir, who like many saga characters, commits deeds that are as heinous as they are fascinating. After causing the deaths of two men who vied for her affection, she confesses to her son, “To him I was worst whom I loved the most.” She lived out the rest of her days as a nun in Helgafell.

View from the top of Helgafell facing east. A common belief is that those who climb to the top of this modestly-sized mountain will be granted three wishes, as long as they follow three simple instructions (which I managed to mess up!). Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

A stone marks the grave of Gudrun Ósvifsdóttir in the churchyard at Helgafell, Iceland. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Although all of the Saga authors remain anonymous, historians speculate that the Laxdaela Saga was composed by a woman, due to its feminist perspective and cast of exceptional female characters. I have an affinity for these women who were leaders of their time. Even in the 21st Century, landscape photography remains a male-dominated occupation, so trodding the same ground as these characters has been very inspiring.

There are two other modern-day women worth mentioning in regards to these sagas. Let us not forget Stine Moe Ingstad, the Norwegian archeologist, who along with her husband discovered the remains of the site at L’Anse aux Meadows and subsequently carried out the initial excavation. Finally, there is Birgitta Wallace a Swedish-Canadian archeologist who led more recent excavations with Parks Canada. I had the pleasure of meeting Birgitta at the latest conference for the Association for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada.