Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Highland Horseback Excursus (and a Mention of Grettis saga)

Horses in a makeshift corral somewhere in the Icelandic Highlands

Time to break the silence that has reigned over this blog the past couple of weeks by posting a short update about my recent activities... I'm currently in town (Reykjavík, that is) and getting over the shock of being catapulted into urban life after an exhilarating 7 days on horseback, touring with Sigurður Björnsson's Riding Iceland outfit (Siggi also organised the highly-recommended Njáls saga horseback tour I participated in in June, see post of 6th July 2011). 

The trip was over the central Icelandic  Highlands, mostly following the centuries-old Sprengisandur route from the north-east to the south: a distance of around 300 kms. It's impossible to travel across the interior for most of the year -- and even in the summer the conditions can be difficult. The weather can be unpredictable and the logistics with regard to feeding the horses required for such a trip have to be worked out carefully...bags of hay planted in strategic places in advance, since there is almost nothing for the horses to graze on otherwise for long stretches.

Grettir Ásmundarson
(as depicted in a 17th-century
Icelandic manuscript)
We set off from Bárðardalur: a long, shallow valley in the north which is mentioned in the saga about the outlaw-hero Grettir Ásmundarson (Grettis saga), being the location of one of Grettir's several troll/monster combats. Grettir hears of the destruction being wreaked on farms in Bárðardalur and travels there to relieve the locals of their trollish troubles. One particular farm, at Sandhaugar, has suffered attacks by a mysterious troll-woman on two consecutive Christmases, with first the farmer and then a farmhand disappearing. Grettir arrives at Sandhaugar on Christmas Eve, carries the widowed wife and daughter from the farm together on his arm over the swollen river so they can attend the Christmas service in church, and waits back at Sandhaugar for the monster's annual. A huge wrestling match inside the house ensues; the fight spills out of the splintered house and continues all night, with Grettir finally managing to chop off the troll-woman's right arm on the edge of a great chasm. She plunges into the chasm and disappears behind a waterfall. After Christmas, Grettir decides to return to the place of the troll-woman's disappearance in order to see what is behind the waterfall and to prove the veracity of his account of the fight, which has been doubted by the local priest: the priest accompanies Grettir and agrees to watch the top of the rope Grettir uses to let himself down with.

Grettir dives through the waterfall and finds a great cave which is lit by a log fire and contains an enormous recumbent giant. Grettir seizes a pike and attacks the giant, spearing him in the stomach so that his guts spill out of the cave and into the river beyond the waterfall. The priest assumes the worst, abandons his position, and after finishing off the giant, Grettir is forced to haul himself back up the rope...taking with him the bones of two men he finds in a bag. He deposits the bones in the church, together with a stick on which he has carved two runic verses describing what had happened. Grettir is hidden by the people of Bárðardalur that winter, and heads out to the island of Drangey in Skagafjörður in the spring -- where he eventually loses his life...more on this to come in a future post.   

Trusty packhorse
And so back to the horsetrip...We stayed in isolated mountain huts and sheep-round-up shelters, sometimes travelling with minimal kit loaded onto a couple of packhorses, at other times with a well-provisioned car meeting us at pre-arranged locations. We were 8 riding, with a herd of nearly 50 horses: this many because it's necessary to change horses regularly (every two hours or 20 kms or so) on account of the terrain being so challenging. I will never cease to be amazed at the stamina,  strength, and willingness of the Icelandic horses -- and their physical beauty. There can be few sights more captivating than riding at the back of the herd (the horses follow those mounted up front, running loose, and are driven on and rounded up when necessary by the riders at the back): the long string of them, all imaginable shades of rich colours with thick tails and manes flowing free, trotting ahead into the far distance. Or, when the mist rolled in one afternoon, the sight of them disappearing into the enfolding greyness, so that from my position at the back, after a short time, it wasn´t possible to see more than 2 or 3 horses ahead.

Horses grazing at Eyvindarkofi
It was mesmerising as well to experience the Highland landscapes in this way and at this pace: to watch far-off mountains come into closer focus, appear and disappear as we rode over plains and up and down hills. Through monochrome valleys that were punctuated by shockingly vivid stripes of neon green moss fringing streams or rivers; over vast stretches of flat compacted rock inlaid with the tiniest growths of stubborn hardy-leafed plant; the central glacier Hofsjökull to our right in the west, and the great glacier Vatnajökull to our left in the east; the sudden appearance of lush meadows strewn with wild flowers where the ruins of a remote shelter built by the 18th-century outlaw Fjalla-Eyvindur can be seen;  the rainbow-tinted Kerlingarfjöll mountain range appearing to the south-west of Hofsjökull, with the peaks of the mountains Loðmundur and Snækollur highlighted by evening sun. And the round ringing clop of horses' hooves as striking dry rock after crossing a river or stream.

Tomorrow, back up north for a reunion with the Embulance (abandoned in Eyjafjörður while four wheels were exchanged for four legs); a bit of autumnal sheep-rounding up next weekend, and then back on the saga-steads trail...summer break now officially over here, so more sagas and saga-related reports here shortly.  
Two greys on a plain

Monday, 15 August 2011

A North Icelandic Antidote to Saga-Steads Romanticism: Reykdæla saga

Cairns and landscape somewhere between Egilsstaðir and Mývatn
Recently, I was musing on how more often than not in this blog I seem to stress the continuity and connections between the time-period that the sagas describe (roughly, from the latter decades of the 9th century to the mid-11th century) and the present-day landscapes of Iceland... Although one of the major premises of the project builds on the fact that there is continuity, it occurred to me that posting something of an antidote to this assumption might be a good and useful corrective to tendencies towards rose-tintedness. And conveniently, in accordance with the serendipitous way in which this project continues to unfold and grow, one saga, Reykdæla saga ok Víga-Skútu, presented itself as a perfect case study to this end.

Time, natural forces, and the activities of man, have of course brought about all kinds of change to the landscapes around Iceland. I have touched on some of these in previous posts: erosion of different kinds, rivers changing their courses, road-building and the modern building of reservoirs to harness hydro-electric power. The sagas themselves hint at how the landscape in the 13th century had, apparently, changed over the preceding three or four centuries following the settlement of the island -- as those who established themselves there had cleared land of trees, begun to cultivate it and built farmsteads, and introduced livestock. Over the past 1000 years, volcanic eruptions in different parts of the country have altered its physical appearance to differing degrees. And over the past century or so, major changes have been wrought on the landscape by the movement of people from individual farms scattered across the countryside to rapidly expanding urban centres. Urban demographics in Iceland are fascinating: in 1801, the population of the capital Reykjavík was around 600; by 1901 it had grown to over 6000; by 2001, to over 110,000 (this figure not including the Greater Reykjavík Area...add another 100,00 or so). The population of Siglufjörður, which was a tiny village in the north until the herring industry took off, exploded to over 3000 permanent residents (plus several thousand more annual summer workers) during the first half of the early 20th century when the place became the biggest herring-fishing boom-town in Iceland...and then shrunk again dramatically when the herring industry collapsed: the present population of the town is around 1300.

Bubbling mudpot at Hverir
The region around the great lake Mývatn ('Midge Lake') in the north of Iceland is one of the country's biggest natural attractions. It is situated on the boundary of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates and is a highly volcanic area. One can spend days exploring the betwitching and seemingly-bewitched pillar-like lava formations at Dimmuborgir,  tephra craters such as that at Hverfjall, boiling mudpools and bright sulphurous deposits at Hverir, and the Krafla caldera and geothermal area... Mývatn is also the region where much of the action of Reykdæla saga ok Víga-Skútu ('The Saga of the People of Reykjadalur and of Killer-Skúta') takes place. It's a saga which tells of petty acts of thievery, disputes over honour, acts of unscrupulous cunning in order gain political and social ascendancy -- and much though I hate to admit to this, it´s not a saga that I find the most interesting or engaging...When I arrived at Reykjahlíð, a village on the northern shore of the lake, my spirits sank.

Skútustaðir from Skútustaðagígar
I had visited Mývatn and stayed in Reykjahlíð a few years ago...in September, when it was relatively quiet; more recently, I drove through it in January. This time round with the tourist-season in mid-swing, it was hardly possible to cross the road without being mown down by a never-ending procession of shining white campavans; everywhere, sturdily booted and outdoor-gear-suited tourists clutched cameras and guidebooks. I had no idea where the Settlement-Age farm Reykjahlíð which is mentioned in the saga was located amongst the built-up environment (hotels, 2 campsites, cafes, supermarket, petrol station, bank, tourist information centre etc) of the place now... At Skútustaðir (at the southern end of Mývatn), where the character named in the saga's title, the chieftain Víga-Skúta, is said to have established his farm, there are several farms, some kind of community centre, two hotels, a petrol station, a cafe, and a large carpark for those exploring the psuedo-craters that border the lake (these are known as 'Skútustaðagígar'). I was delighted to see a short mention of Killer-Skúta on an information board...though I wondered whether the choice fact about him, that he owned 'the famous axe Fluga', might be rather puzzling to anyone who does not know the saga. I followed the trail around the pseudo-craters, stumbled over a small girl who was having a wee in a ditch, waved my camera around a bit and nodded at others diligently snapping away. I wondered what Víga-Skúta would have made of the place as it is today, and also thought about how the early settlers explained the odd geological formations in the area... 

The saga is in two parts, and the first part takes place to the north-west of Mývatn in the Reykjadalur valley and follows events in the life of Víga-Skúta's father, the chieftain Áskell goði. The highly-principled Áskell lived at a place called Hvammr by the river Laxá ('Salmon River' -- which runs from Mývatn along a north-western axis through Laxárdalur, and out into the sea), and the saga describes how, foreseeing his imminent death on account of a local feud, Áskell tells his followers precisely where he wished to be buried -- because he likes the lie of the land there. Ok nú fara þeir, þar til er þeir koma þar, sem heitir Leyningsbakki. Ok þá mælti Áskell, at þar vildi hann vera grafinn, þá er hann andaðisk, ok þótti þar vera gott landslag, ok sagði, at hann vildi ekki fé hafa með sér. Nú svara þeir frændr hans, at þess skyldi langt að bíða, at hann þyrfti niðr at grafa (Reykdæla saga ok Víga-Skútu, ed. Björn Sigfússon, Íslenzk fornrit 10, Reykjavík 1940, ch. 16 p. 198; 'And they travel on now until they come to a place which is called Leyningsbakki ('Hidden Bank/Slope'). And then Áskell said that he wanted to be buried there when he died, and he thought the landscape there was good, and said that he didn´t want any belongings buried with him. Now his kinsmen answer that it would be a long time before he needed to be buried').

Power station at Laxá on the site of Hvammr
 I drove to Reykjadalur, and knocked on the door of the farm at Presthvammur, where Áskell's farm Hvammr is thought to have been located. I learnt from the current farmer at Presthvammur that the farm had been moved at some point in the late middle ages...and that the grown-over foundations ('tóftir') of the earlier farm -- which editorial notes to the saga claimed were still visible -- were now somewhere under the Laxá hydro-electric power station that was built at some point in the 20th century besides the river. Ahh... The farmer knew of the place-name Leyningsbakki, however, and pointed me towards a place downstream from the site of the power-station, which is roughly where Leyningsbakki is thought to be...though the river has changed course and eaten away at the land. There is still a steep bank there, so I wasn´t hopelessly disappointed.          

Whale-watching tour boats, Húsavík
Back besides Mývatn, after a frustrating episode in which the Embulance carkeys were locked inside the cab (I took the driver-side door apart a few weeks ago to fix the window which had got stuck when rolled completely down...since then the door has taken to locking itself from the inside which can be inconvenient; thankfully on this occasion a local farmer with a coathanger came to my rescue) and just when I was feeling that this saga was a hopeless case, things turned around. One chapter in the saga amused me -- and included some potentially fruitful place-name material. Three Norwegian brothers arrive on a ship that puts in at Húsavík (now the whale-watching capital of Iceland...) and spend the winter with the troublesome Þorbergr although a man called Glúmr Geirason (who lived at another farm besides Mývatn called Geirastaðir), had invited them to stay with him. Each one of these three brothers owned a valuable and famous weapon from which their nicknames were derived: the first brother Vagn possessed a spear and was known as Vagn 'spjót'; the second, Nafarr, had a short sword and was called Nafarr 'sax'; the third, Skefill, had a sword and was called Skefill 'sverð'. Þorbergr stirs up conflict and in an attempt to frame Glúmr and his father Geiri, accuses the father and son of theft. The matter blows up into a pitched battle in which the three Norwegian brothers are killed and buried with their weapons -- which are subsequently dug out of the men´s graves and find their way into new hands. 

These weapons are in one sense the focus of this part of the narrative: and local place-names  around Geirastaðir which are not mentioned in the saga commemorate the men and their deaths. Local tradition says that Vagn died at Vagnabrekka ('Vagn's slope'); Nafarr died at Nafarssker ('Nafarr's skerry'); Skefill died at a place called Skefilshólar ('Skefill's hills'); and all three were buried in Kumlabrekka ('Burial-mound slope'). I knocked on the door of the farm at Geirastaðir -- and, goldmine! Finnbogi, in his 80s, who was born and grew up there, and had moved back to the place after some decades in Akureyri, took me on a guided tour of the area, showed me the sites of each of these four places, chatted about some of his theories regarding them, and passed on an astonishing amount of information about the names and explanatory anecdotes of almost every other rock/slope/natural feature in the vicinity. He was a remarkable source of knowledge and exactly the kind of character that is making this project so rewarding and enjoyable, and the sagas so much more than narratives that exist within the covers of printed editions. Even when things seem bleak, it´s only a matter of time before I chance upon someone like Finnbogi and all excitement is rekindled. In addition, a great deal of archaeological excavation has been going on recently around Mývatn (particularly at Skútustaðir, and at Hofstaðir: follow the links to read excavation reports) -- and this adds another dimension to my attempts to connect sagas with their landscapes. This was, then, in the end, an enlightening and encouraging journey of discovery -- to begin with, things were not quite what I expected or hoped but thanks to Finnbogi, Reykdæla saga redeemed itself and even if the events it describes still do not fully capture my imagination, certain parts of it and the local places associated with these parts have taken on a colour and life that they did not have for me before. So a happy ending! 

I´m off on Tuesday/Wednesday on an extended horseback trip across Sprengisandur, the north/south route over the central Icelandic highlands...blogging will resume at the end of August with a report about another northern saga, Svarfdæla saga, since I most likely won't manage to hook up en route... 

A monument where a hydro-electric dam
on the river Laxá was blown up in 1970 by local farmers

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Circles and Rounds-about Vápnfirðinga saga Country

Iceland's Coat of Arms
Vopnafjörður, in north-east Iceland, is famous on several counts, both medieval and modern. It is home to one of Iceland's four mythical guardian spirits or landvættir, the dragon (the other three are a great bird which resides in Eyjafjörður in the north, a bull based around Breiðafjörður in the west, and a mountain giant who roams around the south-west): all four creatures are pictured on Iceland's coat of arms, and on the obverse of Icelandic coins. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Vopnafjörður was the port from which the greatest numbers of Icelanders set sail for America and Canada after the terrible hardships of life in the east at that time became impossible to endure any longer. Most recently -- and at the opposite end of the financial spectrum -- Vopnafjörður, or the rivers in the area and the salmon in those rivers, have attracted figures such as Prince Charles and George Bush as well as numerous other high-profile tourists...

Looking north-east from Hof

The saga that is set around Vopnafjörður, Vápnfirðinga saga ('The saga of the people of Weapon-Fjord') was the last of the eastern sagas on my list to work through. I have written in recent posts about some of the connections -- genealogical, geographical, narrative -- between these eastern sagas and Vápnfirðinga saga is no exception here. One of the two key places in Vápnfirðinga saga, Krossavík, is where Grímr Droplaugarson of Droplaugarsonar saga hid out after murdering Helgi Ásbjarnarson (see post of 29th July). A local man who was born and grew up on the farm at Krossavík came with me for a spin about the countryside in the Embulance and pointed out the places associated with Grímr around Krossavík land, as well as passing on countless other anecdotes attached to local places.

(the land slopes down to the sea to the left of the photo) 

Vápnfirðinga saga is not a very long one and it deals for the most part with the close friendship, and subsequently deadly enmity, between two brothers-in-law: Brodd-Helgi Þorgilsson who lives at Hof, and Geitir Lýtingsson who lives at Krossavík. The rift between the two men comes after a Norwegian merchant is murdered: Brodd-Helgi and Geitir at first divide the Norwegian's possessions between them, but the goods are later taken from Brodd-Helgi and Geitir by another man who delivers the possessions to the dead Norwegian's family. It is unclear what becomes of two precious things (a gold arm-ring and a casket), however, and the friendship between Brodd-Helgi and Geitir is poisoned by mutual suspicion. Tension is compounded when Brodd-Helgi abandons his terminally-ill wife (Geitir's sister) and announces his betrothal to another woman. The two men take different sides in various local disputes and eventually, one thing leads to another, and Geitir kills Brodd-Helgi. The feud is passed down to the next generation and Brodd-Helgi's son Bjarni then kills Geitir (who was his foster-father) in order to avenge his father's death...then Geitir's son Þorkell tries to kill Bjarni in order to avenge his father´s death...

Hof (the white building to the right of the frame),
from Guðmundarstaðir, looking south-west across the valley
At a battle that takes place on a peninsula along the coast to the south of Vopnafjörður, both Bjarni and Þorkell sustain wounds -- but the battle is halted after women run out from a nearby farm and throw cloths over the weapons men are wielding. Bjarni offers a settlement package to Þorkell which he accepts, and so the saga ends, at least, with reconciliation...

I had the pleasure of being shown around other saga-sites in Vápnfirðinga saga by another local, Cathy -- who (together with her husband Sverrir) came to my rescue after somewhat alarmingly, the Embulance brakes seized up from chronic over-heating as I was descending the infamously steep and long Hellisheiði mountain pass into Vopnafjörður. A terrible smell of burning brakes culminated in a rather dramatic handbrake stop amidst clouds of dust...but all ended happily, thankfully, and the Embulance and I lived to tell the tale and continue to travel. It was an amazing road -- I took no pictures en route as all my energy was focused on staying on the road and negotiating the countless hairpin-bends -- I´d love to drive it again some time...but perhaps in a slightly lighter and more easily manouverable vehicle! Cathy is remarkable for many reasons, one of them being her history: her grandparents were amongst the many 'Western' Icelanders who emigrated from Vopnafjörður to the United States, which is where Cathy was born and lived...until she visited Iceland in order to explore her family past, and moved back east for good. A story of emigration come full circle...   

Surprised sheep at the abandoned Guðmundarstaðir,
another farm in Vápnafirðinga saga
Cathy is part of a local group which came together over the winter and, as part of a course on local tourism, read Vápnfirðinga saga and put together a very informative brochure about the saga. The brochure can be picked up in the tourist information and cultural centre (housed in an old merchant warehouse building called Kaupvangur) in Vopnafjörður, and it includes a map on which all of the farms mentioned in the saga are marked. Interestingly, it seems that the formation of this group has ignited a spark of local interest in the saga which wasn´t widely present before. On asking various people, it seemed that knowledge of, and interest in the saga hasn´t particularly been a part of life in Vopnafjörður for past generations... Now though, the saga is taught in the local school, and various Vápnafirðinga saga-related projects and activities are afoot. I spent a delightful hour leafing through a pile of pictures produced by school-children illustrating scenes and characters from the saga: one of my favourites was a brightly-coloured picture of a local farmhouse -- a farm which features in the saga, and on which the grandparents of the artist live today. The next post -- on Reykdæla saga ok Víga-Skútu -- will be something of an antidote to the all-too-often romantic temptations of seeing continuity between past and present in Iceland as far as the sagas and the places in them are concerned...but I left Vopnafjörður musing on how this saga, at least, seems to be one that has come full circle too, as far as its place in local consciousness is concerned.   

Cairns on Sandvíkurheiði, on the way north from Vopnafjörður

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Þorgeirr Hávarsson: A Headless Footnote

Fóstbræðra saga ('The Saga of the Sworn-Brothers'), which is set for the most part in the West Fjords and which I wrote about earlier this year in May when I was there (see post of 14th June), tells the story of two immensely strong and brave warriors and friends (Þórmóðr Kolbrúnarskáld Bersason and Þorgeirr Hávarsson) who swear to avenge each others' deaths...

One place I could not visit when I was exploring Fóstbræðra saga locations around the West Fjords was the site where Þorgeirr fought his last battle, died, and was buried...because this place is in north-east Iceland, on the peninsula called Melrakkaslétta ('Arctic fox plain'). Þorgeirr is attacked by his enemies there in the bay/harbour called Hraunhöfn, on board his ship: there is a violent battle and Þorgeirr kills 14 men before eventually being overcome. Once fallen, Þorgeirr's head is chopped from his trunk by a man called Þórarinn ofsi ('the overbearing').

Hraunhafnartangi, looking south
Þorgeirsdys is to the left of the lighthouse as pictured

The saga narrator tells us how further bodily mutilation is inflicted on Þorgeirr's corpse out of anatomical curiosity: 'Some men say that they cleaved him to the heart and wanted to see what it was like, him being the courageous man he was, and men say that his heart was rather small; and some men believe it to be true that the heart of a courageous man is smaller than that of a coward, because men say there is less blood in a small heart than a big one, and say that the amount of blood in a heart is concomitant with fear, and men say thus the heart of a man drops/throbs in the breast when the blood and heart is stirred up in a man' (Svá segja sumir menn, at þeir klyfði hann til hjarta ok vildu sjá, hvílíkt væri, svá hugprúðr sem hann var, en menn segja, at hjartat væri harla lítit, ok höfðu sumir menn þat fyrir satt, at minni sé hugprúðra manna hjörtu en huglaussa, því at menn kalla minna blóð í litlu hjarta en miklu, en kalla hjartablóði hræzlu fylgja, ok segja menn því detta hjarta manna í brjóstinu, at þá hræðisk hjartablóðit ok hjartat í manninum; Fóstbræðra saga, ed. Björn K. Þórólfsson and Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit 6, Reykjavík 1943, ch. 17 pp. 210-11). In the version of the saga found in the manuscript called Hauksbók, Þorgeirr's heart is said to be no bigger than a walnut, hard as a callous, and without any blood in it... 

After the battle, Þórarinn ofsi rides off to Eyjafjörður with Þorgeirr's head in a bag: Þórarinn and his men amuse themselves en route by taking the head out and mocking it...until they take fright at its horrible appearance (its eyes stare back at them, open-wide, and the tongue lolls out of the open mouth) and they bury it not far from a place called Naust. Back on Melrakkaslétta, local men clear up the aftermath of battle, burying the men who have fallen right there because the nearest church at that time was a long way away. 

Þorgeirsdys looking east
There is a lighthouse on Hraunhafnartangi ('Lava-harbour-point') now, and not far from it is a huge stone cairn, known as Þorgeirsdys ('Þorgeirr's cairn'). The peninsula is bleak and windswept, grey boulders piled up high along the shoreline and endless driftwood and tangles of old fishing-nets that have been washed ashore. I walked out to the cairn, after having read a small notice that explains why the cairn is so huge: it is a tradition to add a stone to the cairn, and then to walk clockwise around it, making a wish for others' happiness and good luck while doing so. My stone added, and my wishes sent up to the sky, I wandered back to the Embulance -- thinking about Þorgeirr and the distance between his head and body, and feeling somewhat vulnerable as far as my own head was concerned as angry arctic terns (kría in Icelandic) dive-bombed and screeched angrily at me for disturbing their otherwise completely uninhabited patch...

From the foot of Þorgeirsdys