Mountain Passages: Ruminations on Vikings
Vikings have gotten bad rap. It’s true that for about 300 years the boys did get in their longboats and pretty much terrorize every coastland in Europe, but I was just in Iceland and I came away with a different impression of who these people were.
The Vikings were like mountain people in that they were rough and tumble and in tune with their environment; they built extensive farms on just about every arable piece of Iceland; they had a very strong sense of independence and developed a kind of early democracy in Iceland, and through nascent democracy they settled internal conflicts, mostly without hacking each other to death.
I’m sitting on a beach in Iceland made up entirely of black smooth roundish rocks that clatter when the surf recedes. The air temperature is 50ish with a slight wind, the sky is overcast and there is a mist falling. I keep looking for the guy who comes around taking drink orders but I’m apparently a little ahead of the summer season here. In fact, other than Blue Eyes and two people a 100-yards down the beach, there is no one here.
The interpretive sign said that this spot is where fishermen landed their boats. It’s a calm day for Iceland with maybe three-foot surf that would make landing any boat somewhat tricky. I can’t imagine what it would be like to try to land a boat here in a storm. Most likely, they would have had to stand off until the weather improved, but we’re talking about open boats. And yes we’re talking about longboats, and Vikings. We’re talking about ruffians from what is now Norway who settled Iceland in the ninth century and built a country on fishing, farming, trading, and pillaging coastal towns throughout Europe. The Icelanders still fish, farm and trade but the pillaging stopped soon after their conversion to Christianity around 1,000 AD.
The Icelanders governed themselves with a combination of an elected parliament and judiciary called Althing that met in an open field about this time of year. The Althing is sort of analogous to Rendezvous in a social sense but much more legally oriented than Rendezvous. There was a social component to Althing. But more it was an elected legislative body from the four regions of Iceland that in turn elected a leader called a Law Speaker who memorized the law and commented, interpreted, and made decisions when necessary. Later on the Althing added what was essentially a supreme court to adjudicate civil disagreements.
Blue Eyes is looking at the rock cairns that folks have built out of the beach stones. Okay, I understand what cairns are for. If you look closely while driving, you can see cairns along the Ring Road that were built to mark some of the original trails here in Iceland. What I don’t understand is why people feel compelled to build cairns that don’t really mark anything. I suppose it to mark their passage through this place or exercise a creative urge. I tell her that the cairns have been built by very strong elves who are back in the parking lot pillaging our luggage while we wander the beach looking at their cairns. She smiles but ignores me.
There is a strong mystical vibe about Iceland. Partly it must come from the physical appearance of the place such as a huge white glacier sitting over a verdant green field littered with sheep. Or deep blue fjords with walls of mountains topped with snowfields. It’s a magical place. And because of their pagan religion that spoke of shape shifters (people who turn into bears and wolves) and beserkers (warriors who go out of control) the Vikings get tied into this mysticism. Elves and trolls? Them too. All you have to do is look.
I’m back watching the surf and thinking about religion. I was born a Christian but not particularly proud of the fact. First because I can’t stand the fanatical Christians who would have no doubt pissed off Jesus with their literalism and chauvinism. And second because I have come to believe more in rocks, trees, living creatures, and rivers than in the deities of organized religions. And if I speak to a god he or she is usually a specific god like the, “I’ll-never-do-this-again-if-you-let-me-live” Mountain God. In addition to mountain gods there are ocean gods and gods for whatever you love. Yup, even war gods like the Viking’s Odin.
The history of religious conversions is soaked in blood of those who would not convert to the religion then in power. This didn’t happen in Iceland. At one point there were a good number of Vikings who had been converted to Christianity and there remained a good number of Vikings who wanted to stick with their pagan religion. The questions was taken to the Althing and given to the Law Speaker to decide. Imagine if you will a thousand or so Christian Vikings and a thousand or so pagan Vikings who were about ready to fight over the issue of religion. The Law Speaker, who was a pagan, simply decided that for the good of all of Iceland there would be just one religion and that would be Christianity, but any pagan could continue in his pagan rituals in his own home. It worked. There was no blood shed over the conversion to Christianity in Iceland.
There was another interpretive sign along the path and four round rocks of various sizes below it. Best guess is that the smallest stone weighed 60-70 pounds and the largest stone maybe 250-300 pounds. I didn’t even try to move it. The sign said that to qualify for a spot on a fishing boat an Icelander had to be able to pickup the second heaviest rock that weighed more than 200 pounds. Let me see if I have this right—fishing off this coast is life-threatening even today, getting on and off the beach in an open boat required huge amounts of skill and certainly some luck, spending hours or even days in an open boat in the North Atlantic defines cold and uncomfortable—and you had to qualify for the work by being able to lift a 200 pound rock.
There is evidence that these folks got their boats as far as the eastern Mediterranean and to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Regardless of the Viking reputation, and who wouldn’t have their day ruined by a boatload of berserkers landing their longboat on their shoreline, these folks were intrepid sailors and as good as the Polynesians at navigating open water.
We have been on the Ring Road (Route 1) that generally follows the perimeter of the island for over 800 miles. We started at the airport outside Reykjavik four days ago in a rental car that feels like a closet on wheels. It’s true that if you really want to see the backcountry of Iceland, you’ll need to rent a four-wheel drive, like everything in Iceland, four-wheel drive rentals are pricy.
Even from what is essentially a road built for tourists, the landscape of Iceland is nothing short of magnificent with waterfalls just about everywhere. In a way it is like touring a huge national park with orderly looking farms along the way with white buildings and red roofs that are tucked into the hillsides surrounded by free- range sheep.
Several days ago, we came around a bend and there in the distance was a huge ice wall. We were on a sort of alluvial plain crisscrossed with rushing streams and there was the butt end of a glacier. We stopped and I couldn’t stop looking at it. Like most mountain folk, I may have been just thinking about a route up but that’s too obvious—we all do that. More I was just struck by how grand this huge blue piece of ice was that sort of hung there in the mountains. Some miles later there was a lake close to the road that was filled with icebergs. I felt like an ant peering over the lip of a margarita at all these clumps of ice floating to the sea.
Enough of this beach ruminating. It’s addictive, like sitting on a mountainside watching the weather. I could stay here all day but it’s time to head back to the car and cruise-on down the road to a couple days in Reykjavik, taking in the sights and sounds of a cosmopolitan European city and eating a good meal or two. And maybe we’ll sit on the dock and watch the midnight sun slip across the horizon if: (1) we can stay up that late and (2) if the sun can break through the clouds.
Alan Stark lives with a Blue Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge.