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Let's Go on an Historical Journey Into Iceland's Viking Past

The Black Church at Kjalarnes, which sits on land wrought with history.

I first shared this photo in March, 2008. When I mentally time-travel back to that season of my life I get this strange kind of psychic itch, like a sense that someday, eight years into the future, I'd be writing from a completely different perspective. 

That month I was on the very verge of making a huge, crucial decision that would change my and my childrens' lives forever. I was gathering courage and lining up my ducks to be able to break with the living situation I was in and to start moving us into a calmer, happier life. A few months after this photo was shared I bought our freedom from a broken relationship, took over full ownership of/responsibility for the mortgage on our home, and started over again. Later that same year the financial crash happened, and plenty of people across the globe would end up being forced to do the same thing: rethink entire lives.

So here we are, then, nearly a decade later, in the ultra-modern year of 2016. But we're still battling archaic social structures and oppressive patriarchal regimes, just I had to do in 2008, and (here comes the segue into the Viking stuff ; ) like the first settlers to Iceland did eleven and a half centuries ago when they left the comforts of Norway. Things really haven't changed so much at all: everyone still just wants the chance to stretch their wings and grow and fly or, as was the case way back in the 9th century AD, to sail away in fancy dragon-headed row boats for foreign shores unknown.  

We're told by Icelandic writers in their world renowned Sagas that that's exactly what happened in 871 (plus or minus a year or two): intrepid explorers set off, nobly escaping an oppressive monarchical regime with their womenfólk, horses, sheep, cattle, dogs, goats, chickens, and a few stowaway mice and rats (but no cats that we know of) to settle on this strange and brand-new, just discovered island, almost totally empty except for a godly cave-dwelling Irish monk or two, who in their spare time enjoyed carving crosses into the lava walls of their shelters. Seeing the mighty Norsemen and their strong braided-haired women, the weakly monks leap into their currachs, trusting Jesus and the currents to take them right back to Ireland. End of saga, part one.

But is that how it happened, really? If you read my post 16 Fascinating Facts About Iceland, you'd know, for example, that
"The famed Icelandic sagas were written from 200 to 300 years after settlement era that they describe. Interestingly enough, this was the same period when heavy internal fighting was taking place in the weakening Icelandic Commonwealth. 
There is evidence to show that the writers tried to give the sagas a realistic feel by, for example, dressing the main characters in period clothing as they assumed it was worn centuries earlier. This could be likened to a modern costume drama depicting the first British settlers to what was to become the USA."
Propaganda is nothing new, as texts dating as far back as the Sumerian Standard of Ur from 4,500 years ago can attest. Were the Sagas written as a way to whitewash a different history altogether?

Recently, with new archeological findings in the south of Iceland, this subject has popped up again. I'm a firm believer in an alt history to the one we've been being fed for at least the last century, if only because so many of the 'facts' about history, timelines, and even the science of dating archeological finds have been proven to be either incomplete or just plain untrue. For more on this, check out Graham Hancock's work, starting maybe with this super-interesting presentation (video) on his latest book, Magicians of the Gods. 

It seems that the more we learn via modern day info-sharing and technological advancements, including ease of travel to remote sites and such, the more we discover what we don't know about our human history. And I suspect that Iceland was occupied, even revered as a mystical home of the Old Gods and Spirits, long, long before the 9th century Norse arrived.

This is a theme I'm constantly looking in to and gathering data for. To begin with though, and to keep things grounded in prior research, I'm going to suggest reading this paper by Gísli Sigurðsson, Gælic Influence in Iceland (pdf) published by the University of Iceland Press in 2000. This article from the History Ireland website is also a very interesting starting point.

To dig deeper, check out the totally fascinating Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80 - 1000, by Alfred P. Smyth, 1989.*

In my opinion, though, the older the heimild, or source, the more unwhitewashed it'll be. If you agree, read The Gæls in Iceland (pdf) by W. A. Craigie, 1899.  And bringing us back around to the photo above, there's a fascinating travelogue from 1873 entitled, On Some Ruins at Ellida Vatn and Kjalarnes in Iceland (pdf) which describes the historic settlement of the ridiculously windy Kjalarnes peninsula, where today the town is a hotbed of controversy involving asylum seekers housed there, but way back when was the seat of the first recorded onslaught of "modern" (i.e. invasive) Christianity in Iceland, which the locals found highly amusing:
"Stanley recalls the story of Stefnir Þorgilsson, sent by King Ólafr Tryggvason to Christianise Iceland in 996. Received icily by the heathens, he responded by destroying their temples. Bad weather forced him to shelter off Kjalarnes, which provoked heathen mockery in a poem, quoted by Stanley in Icelandic, alongside his own translation: 
Vindr sleit band á landi / Geysar á með ísi / Allríckr freyr slíkom    
          "the Winds freed from their Chains on land / gushed forth with Ice / like the all powerful
            Goddess Freyja"  

That quote is from the super interesting The Vikings and the Victorians, by Andrew Wawn, 2002, in which he digs into Sir John Thomas Stanley's impulsive, Romanticism-fueled adventure to Iceland in 1789.

You can also read the original  Kjalnesingasaga, or The Saga of the People of Kjalarnes online in English, translated by Ben Waggoner (btw, well done, Ben!) When you're here in Iceland you can go see an original 15th century vellum manuscript of that saga at the very cool Settlement Exhibition at Aðalstræti 16 in the city center, which was built over a settlement-era homestead discovered during construction of a new hotel (let's not get int the construction of new hotels here right now: / )

This church then, which is itself only 150 years old, sits on a chunk of land that changed the course of Icelandic history forever, being the seat of power from which the Old Gods and their groves and temples were destroyed by a ravenous New God from the south. Did this newcomer at some even earlier time share our island in a different context altogether many centuries earlier, when the original Gnostic Christians were forced to leave the Levant with their precious knowledge and treasures**? It could very well be...

So, this post is a bit deeper than the last, with more to chew on. But along with the future of our island, its hidden past is my pet fascination. That, and how we change over time and how today, me finding an old box of treasured photos from the first three decades of my life is like an archeological find all in itself - I've only got about thirty really good pics of myself with friends and family, and then a hundred or so less-perfectly framed and blurry ones on top of that to remind me of all the people I've met and places I've been, all the stories I've gathered, all the wrong hairdo's I sported while discovering who I felt I really was...

In closing, I'm very very glad to have Iceland Eyes, with its 700+ posts and photos spanning twelve years of my life, to remind me of how far I've come and of who I am today. And I'm going to leave you with a photo I took of the side of our looming Mount Esja across the bay. These are the faces of some of the Old Gods who still watch over us, who show each winter after snowfall. Just at their feet, at the root of the mountain, is Kjalarnes. And as the10th century inhabitants knew, these gods and goddesses, Freyja in her cat form included, don't take well to their sacred spaces being destroyed...

Old Gods and Goddesses on Mount Esja

*Almost all of the books I'm sharing are available in whole or part online via Google Books, but if you find yourself intrigued by any of them and reading more than just a few pages, you might want to support the authors or publishing houses and buy an e- or hard copy to own.  

** This link takes you to the first 40 pages of my MA thesis, based on The White Goddess, by Robert Graves.


Lennart said...

Hi Maria, poignant and very well written. I noticed a few years ago that your daughter disappeared from your blog. And that you made a long pause in your blogging.

Now, if I understand you correctly, you write that you also have a second son. Something you want to tell your readers more about?

Great that you continue blogging. I found Icelandic Eyes by a fluke many years ago and have read it ever since. I had hoped that my three kids, who grew up no more than a couple of kilometers from where you grew up here in Silicon Valley, would also return to my native country Sweden. My daughter tried it but ended up choosing her mother's native country Taiwan.

Life in a multinational family isn't always simple.
Intressanta livsöden as we say in Swedish.

Iceland Eyes said...

Hello Lennart! Long time no comment : )

I had a nice long response written up, but I got pulled away from the keyboard and didn't go through all the motions to get it posted. It ended up disappearing, so here's a quick and short version instead:

My daughter Valentina is doing very well, 18 years old and in her third year of four in college (then comes university, the way the system works here.) I'm very proud of her and along with her brother she's definitely my best friend!

Speaking of her brother, I still only have one son, Óðinn, who just turned 10. He's younger than this blog. Imagine that! It's funny that their childhoods are part of this project/hobby of mine. I remember when I decided to quit Iceland Eyes a few years ago you actually encouraging me to keep posting for my family's sake - that this blog was a diary of sorts that they'd be able to look back on as they grow older. You were right, and I thank you for that!

You're right about the multinational looks as though my sister and I won't ever really live in the same country, for example. I came back here, and so did our parents, but she's still out in Cupertino and is probably there to stay.


I'm glad you're still reading my posts, and thank you for the compliment on this one. I enjoyed writing it and am going to keep digging into this pet theory of mine...

All the best to you!