Journey’s end

As I settle in on my Icelandair flight from Reykjavik on my final journey home, I am happily surprised to discover a new series on the in-flight entertainment system (watching tv while flying is peculiar pleasure for me.) It wouldn’t take much for a Saga enthusiast like me to get excited by the very notion of such a documentary series but the lively intro to Ferðalok (or Journey’s End in English) provides a compelling contrast to most other historical documentaries. The gripping musical score immediately transported me into a world of stunning Icelandic characters captured with hip cinematography, where sweeping views of the Saga landscapes provide the setting for reenactments of events we may have read and imagined but have never witnessed with such vividness.

Produced in Iceland, Ferðalok endeavors to compare the literal events of the Sagas with contemporary archeological research and interpretation. By exploring how the Sagas can be directly linked with a tangible environment, this new mini-series will undoubtedly reawaken an interest in these old heroic stories, which have defined the culture of a nation where almost all of the citizens can retrace their family lineage back to the first settlers.

Besides being fashionable and entertaining, Ferðalok is smart. Combining English and Icelandic narration, the program is written and hosted by the young and stylish lady archeologist Vala Gardarsdottir, who guides the spectator to various significant Saga sites and discusses the course of events and their analysis with other professionals in the field. The on site archeological explorations are assembled with reenactment scenes of the Sagas and studio interviews with even more experts who provide a vast spectrum of scientific, literary and sociological interpretation.

As of yet, six episodes have been released. Without going into too much detail about each one, I will disclose what is predicable: half of the episodes deal with the Islanders’ favourite – Njal’s Saga. Granted this story has been deemed to be the most sophisticated in terms of its narrative complexity and style of writing, I hope that a continuation of the series will move on to look at events from the less popular Sagas. I am however very pleased that episode 3 was dedicated to examining the persona of Auð the Deep Minded, the most prominent woman of the settlement age. Auð was not only the leader of one of the most successful settlement expeditions, but she is mostly known as a historical figure rather than a Saga character – her character positions the series smack in the middle of a world which oscillates between history and mythology, archeology and storytelling.

Although it is not necessary to read the sagas before viewing Ferðalok, I highly recommend it to feel like a participant in unraveling these stories.

View the trailer here but note that the musical score of the trailer is outdated and differs from that of the show, which was a change for the better.

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I photographed this Njal’s Saga site in 2011 – the infamous hillside of which Gunnar of Hlidarendi says “lovely is the hillside – never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave.” Episode 2 of Ferðalok features this consequential scene that leads to the demise of a beloved Saga hero.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Helgafell

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

On photographing saga sites

The idea of site can be powerful. It implies more than a place, which can simply exist without context. A site is more specific. It relates to something external that has acted on that location therefore adding to the meaning of a place.

Making meaning visible is part of what photographers seek to do. In 1996, photographer Joel Sternfeld released a collection of landscape photographs, which he made at various locations in the US where crimes had been committed. On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam explores the banality of the settings where these illicit events occurred, but it also shows how landscape imagery has the power to engage the viewer in an act of contemplation. In this case, the audience is given the opportunity to imagine what may have happened there. Sternfeld includes text with this project, offering details of such events and providing a certain amount of context for the photographs, yet it doesn’t compromise the artistic approach of his work. His series reminds me of what I am trying to point to and what other photographers have already done in regards to saga sites: storytelling through landscape.

On this blog, I have posted photos of Drangey Island, where outlaw Grettir the Strong made his last stand, and Thingvellir, Iceland’s national assembly site, where several court dramas transpire throughout the sagas. But personally, my favorite saga site so far is Berserkjahraun (Berserker’s lava field). In the Eyrbyggja Saga, two Swedish Berserkers, insanely violent characters that could psyche themselves up for battle, are set to an impossible task by a farmer: to clear a passage through a lava field in exchange for the farmer’s daughter’s hand. Once the Berserkers succeed, the farmer who never intended to give up his daughter, murders the Berserkers by trapping them in a scorching sauna and slays them as they try to escape.

Though I have no idea where the sauna scene actually took place, I can still imagine two crazed men, blazing a trail through this lava field. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

For the photographer, artist or researcher, the idea may not be just about recording images of these sites and re-telling stories, but the experience of visiting them personally. In the summer 1897, British artist W.G. Collingwood traveled throughout Iceland on horseback, making drawings, paintings and photographs, which he later published as an illustrated account of his expedition. Between 2007 and 2009, at the same time I was photographing at L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Icelandic photographer Einar Falur Ingólfsson produced his series Saga-Sites, for which he followed in Collingwood’s footsteps, documenting saga sites with a view camera. And in 2011, the same year I first visited saga sites in Iceland, a 33-year old PhD student named Emily Lethbridge set out on her own pilgrimage to read each saga on location.

Photograph by Einar Falur Ingolfsson. Saga-Steads In the Footsteps of W.G. Collingwood, a photographic project (2007 – 2010).

So why bother to explore a subject that has been covered by others who have done it so well? Because each of us presents different perspectives on the notions of ‘being there’. In a short documentary on Einar Falur Ingólfsson’s saga project, he claims that he is trying to capture reality in an objective way, saying that a photographer should be there to observe and not force himself into the plot. In the meantime, I will continue to question how my presence at these places adds to the history of the site.

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 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.

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.