On leaving Greenland

400 years after colonizing a new world, the Norse settlers of Greenland disappeared. Departed, killed or vanished, a more precise theory varies with whom you talk with. Some believe that the colony, which had been dwindling for hundreds of years, could have collapsed due to climate change causing famine and that the remaining few faced isolation and left or died. What we do know is that after 1450, there were no concrete traces of Norse people in Greenland.

Centuries later, the Kingdom of Denmark sent emissaries to Greenland to assert sovereignty over the great arctic island, only to discover an exclusively Inuit population, and well, that second Scandinavian colonization is… History. Today Greenland is still making history. Known nationally as Kalaallit Nunaat, the country is in the last stages of regaining its independence.

Most people don’t realize it, but Greenland is part of North America. Though certainly remote, it is at the crossroads of the Old World and the New World, of East and West. This unique society is what makes Greenland’s culture as fascinating as its nature. After spending 20 (mostly cold) days in Greenland, I was looking forward to a good latté but extremely thankful to have taken part in historical research, met locals and travelers alike, and experienced this incredibly unique place.

Qaqortoq

Picturesque and modern Qaqortoq (formerly Julianehåb) is the largest town in South Greenland

Group pic

From left to right, Georg, Jacob, Andreas, Viking Explorer, Henrik and Terryll. The artists and archeologists got along splendidly.

Christmas beer

We celebrated our arrival and departure from the Hvalsey site with “Christmas” beers

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Encountering Igaliku

Today’s Igaliku, which was once Norse Gardar on Einarsfjord, was the next location on our itinerary. I say “our” as my partner Andreas and I met up with cinematographer Terryll Loffler on the boat from Qassiarsuk to Igaliku, to begin shooting the restoration of some stone structures at Gardar. Gardar was a very affluent farm during the Norse occupation and the Episcopal centre of Greenland, the place where the Bishop lived.

The 4 km walk from Ittileq to Igaliku was full of anticipation. We were excited to meet Georg Nyegaard and his team and the stroll along and old tractor trail known as the ‘King’s road’ was very pleasant. As we came over the crest of the hill, our first view of Igaliku was astonishingly pastoral and idyllic.

Shortly after settling in the house that became our home for the next week, we began shooting Georg, Jacob and Henrik as they began their survey and cutting the long grass around the ruins. Besides the presence of our two teams, we understood that these ruins were a very lively place within the spirited community of Igaliku. Tourists and locals regularly wander in and out of the ruin site and the children use the large stones and lintels as their playground. Before long, the kids were swarming us, curious about our cameras and sound equipment so Andreas and Terryll allowed them to assist with the video until we realized the impossibility of keeping them silent while recording.

Location shot

Terryll takes video footage of Henrik working on the straightening of a potentially hazardous lintel.

camera with kids

The children took turns looking at the images projected on the ground glass of the view camera

We have been working here for five days and have had the opportunity to witness two weddings and experience a slice of daily life in Igaliku during the summertime, where the children play freely throughout the long days and visitors like us are made to feel welcome by the local community.

kids at ruins

Children gather in the ancient playground

Greenlandic wedding

The customary wedding attire for Greenlandic weddings is simply gorgeous

On Smiley’s Greenlanders

On my recent shooting trip to Sweden and Norway, I brought along Jane Smiley’s novel The Greenlanders, a work of fiction that traces the lives of a brother and sister, Gunnar and Margret, who were born and raised on a Norse farm in Greenland during the 14th Century.

Taking place generations after the time when Greenland was settled by outlaw Erik the Red, The Greenlanders retains the mood of an Icelandic saga. Smiley’s story is centered on recurrent themes such as the importance of social status and the struggle for order and survival, all of which characterized life during Viking times. Nevertheless, her characters do not possess the qualities that saga authors typically attributed to their ancestors. Gunnar and Margret are not beautiful, valiant nor affluent. In fact, we identify with them through their faults and weaknesses. It is through a strategy of borrowing the language of the sagas yet bringing the story down to earth, that Smiley has created a very contemporary historical epic.

Writers of historical fictions are tasked with endless research when it comes to understanding the time and place in which their novels are set. For Smiley, this must have been especially challenging. Historical accounts of Norse settlement in Greenland are vague. From the Vinland Sagas, we learn that Erik the Red discovered Greenland around 982 and colonized the country shortly afterward. At this time, two Norse Settlements were established along the island’s west coast, the northernmost one was called the Western Settlement, and the more southern called the Eastern Settlement. By the time the story of The Greenlanders opens, the Western Settlement has already been abandoned foreshadowing the eventual outcome of Norse occupation in this country. The reader is constantly made aware of the harsh and remote conditions of north, in which famine is capable of consuming the population and communication with the European world is close to non-existent. One is left to wonder if anyone from this era survived to tell his or her story.

Smiley is also a master storyteller, crafting stories within stories, and sometimes referring to Norse mythologies and earlier sagas with enough confidence and creativity to alter the original narratives. She reminds us that in difficult times, the sharing of tales is always accessible and can help to pass the long, cold winters, “for folk may not contemplate their fates all the time, and must play as well as work.”

I was turning the last pages of The Greenlanders on a flight home from Stockholm, as we flew over the southern tip of Greenland. Luckily the sky was relatively clear and we could see the landscape below. Photo by Jessica Auer.

On Gotland and cultural identity

I visited Gotland for the first time last year, when I ended my Scandinavian tour with an artist talk hosted by the Brucebo Foundation, the residency that sponsored my travel research. It was kind of them to welcome me again this year for another week of shooting throughout the island. My particular focus on Gotland may be strange considering my intention to follow the westward Viking routes. Sweden and more particularly, Gotland, are countries that face east and therefore have stronger links with Russia and even the Arabic world. But my story must begin somewhere, and Gotland has the highest concentration of pre-historic and Viking-age ruins throughout Scandinavia. Not to mention the world-renowned Gotlandic light, which has attracted artists to the island for centuries.

The Canadian cottage on the Brucebo estate in Gotland, Sweden (bathing in late-evening Gotlandic light). Photo by Jessica Auer.

Another aspect of Gotland that I find very attractive is its cultural identity and history of independence. Although Gotland is part of Sweden, the island was not subject to Sweden throughout the Viking age and earlier. Like Iceland, Gotland was not ruled by kings, but by the people themselves, whereby law and order was managed through Thing assemblies. This philosophy is still strong today. During a dinner meeting in Visby with a Norwegian writer, I asked him what it was like to be a Norwegian living in Sweden. He responded that Gotland is not really Sweden and that when Gotlanders travel to the mainland, they claim that they are going to Sweden.

Själsö fishing village on the west coast of Gotland. Gotland is located in the Baltic sea, just east of the rest of Sweden. Photo by Jessica Auer.

All the friends and contacts that I have made in Gotland are not native to the island. My archeologist friend Dan Carlsson has been living in Gotland for 30 years and has an extensive and intimate knowledge of the geography and history of the place yet acknowledges he is not a true Gotlander. This reminds me of Lucy Lippard’s book “The Lure of the Local”, where her focus on maritime New England proposes that some cultures are extremely protective of their identity. As an outsider ‘fitting in’ may seem impossible, yet I enjoy the exceptional parallel between the preservation of historical sites and of the island’s cultural identity.

A burial cairn found in the forest near Fjäle in Gotland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

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.

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.