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 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

1 comment:

  1. I tried to post a message before to say how much I enjoyed your blog, but it didn't seem to get through.

    I really appreciate it, and the level of detail is great for me, with an interest in the Icelandic sagas but no deep knowledge. Thank you for inspiring me to learn more!