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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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.

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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.

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Olafur the Cat wants to go traveling too.

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.