Sunday, 20 March 2011

Borgarnes in the bitter cold

From the marshes of the south-west to the swamps (mýrar) of the north-west: after some happy and warm days in Reykavík, I set off north yesterday with the intention of spending the next two weeks around Mýrasýsla. It has snowed and snowed over the course of the past week but the time has come to resume work in the field despite the bitter cold (the water in my 5-litre plastic water cans froze overnight...). 

The young Egill
(exhibit at the Landnámssetrið)
Mýrasýsla is rich in saga-sites and home to one of the most famous of all of the Íslendingasögur, Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar. The protagonist of this saga, Egill Skalla-Grímsson, is one of the most colourful and ambivalent of all characters featured in the sagas. He is dark in appearance and unrelentingly difficult in temperament; he composes his first verse at the age of three; notches up his first killing at the age of six; and his long life is a series of violent encounters that take place in Iceland, Norway, England, and further afield.   

My first port-of-call in Mýrasýsla -- given the challenging conditions outside -- was the excellent Landnámssetrið (Settlement Centre) in Borgarnes which describes itself not so much as a museum as an 'installation'. The Centre houses two permanent exhibitions, both of which are navigated around with informative and entertaining audio-guides. The first exhibition covers the settlement of Iceland at the end of the 9th century and includes exhibits on Viking Age sea-faring and why and how the country was first settled, the flora and fauna that the new settlers found on the island, and how Iceland got its name (Landnámabók, 'The Book of Settlements' relates that it was initially called Snæland ('Snow-land') by Naddoddr, the 9th-century Norwegian who first sighted the island after being blown off-course on a voyage; it was then renamed Garðarshólmi ('Garðar's Island') by a Swede, Garðarr Svavarsson, who visited a few years later; and finally Ísland ('Ice-land') by the Norwegian Hrafn-Flóki Vilgerðarson). There are also a couple of fantastic 3-dimensional relief maps which show exactly where the first settlers established themselves around Iceland, and around the Borgarnes area.

A woodcut representation of Egill
(exhibit at the Landnámssetrið)
The second exhibition presents the principal episodes of Egils saga via audio-guide and various creative representations of scenes from the saga -- wooden sculptures, tableaux, woodcuts, a horse's head mounted gorily on a pole (Egill's níðstöng, or 'scorn-pole', which he sets up against the sorceress queen Gunnhildr and her husband, King Eiríkr blóðøx 'bloodaxe' of Norway). I enjoyed the exhibition's retelling of Egils saga very much, as did two German tourists who I had met the night before at an Ásatrú meeting (more on this in a future post...) and  for whom the exhibition was a first taste of the Icelandic sagas. 

The sun is at last breaking through the clouds...and tomorrow I head to Borg, Egill's farm, where I will meet the priest of the church there and begin my pilgrimage to the Egils saga sites in the area. W. G. Collingwood describes Mýrar as 'low and undulating, a wide stretch of swampy pasture-land ... beset with rocky holts which break the general level of the ground like waves in a stormy sea' (Pilgrimage, p. 54); I will hope for a safe passage and more on Egils saga will be posted shortly.   


  1. Enjoy the Ásatrúar....remind me to swap you stories of druids...

  2. There are many Asatruar following your travelogue, Emily. I for one am really looking forward to each installment!

  3. Thanks for the map - great idea.

  4. The sun is at last breaking through the clouds...and tomorrow I head to Borg, Egill's farm, where I will meet the priest of the church there and begin my pilgrimage to the Egils saga sites in the area.

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