Iceland: Vikings! and Democracy

As an American I never really investigated my Swedish/Norwegian/UK heritage.That all changed after a spur of the moment decision to fly to Iceland for a week. My pre-trip research told me that Iceland was colonized about 870 AD by Ingólfr Arnason , a Viking from Norway. Why, I wondered, would a family uproot itself from a stable comfortable home and set out on a 900-mile voyage in an open boat to a land of ice and snow?

As a child of the nuclear-holocaust-be-prepared-60s, I always wondered what tools it would take to survive in a hostile world. Nothing could have been a more inhospitable environment than Iceland with no food animals, so how did they survive? Was it lawless survival of the fittest in a hostile land, or did they help each other? Was there a community spirit that fostered cooperation; and, if there was a community, then with such a vast land and scattered family settlements, how did they maintain a society? And, I wondered about the character of those early settlers and whether those same attributes could be found today – or whether they had died out with the machine age.

Prior to flying, I chanced upon the book A Dark History: Vikings by Martin Dougherty, who explains how the oral history, culture and traditions of the Vikings were lost (went ”dark”) and are now, thanks to archeology, being re-discovered.

A Land of Ice and Glaciers

Ice-land is the name given by the Vikings to this sub-polar island of ice and glaciers. Fleeing from subjugation, killing and enslavement by King Harald Finehair, (the raiding warrior who united Norway, 872-930 AD), the Icelandic settlers took with them a democratic process developed throughout the Viking world in the 7th century. Why flee 900 miles to Iceland? Apparently because Harald and his son Eric Bloodaxe pursued and killed many in their Faroe Island settlements–north of Scotland–more than 400 miles from Norway. Understanding the fear experienced by those early Icelandic settlers allowed me a greater understanding of their resolve; i.e., they had nowhere to go and no one to turn to.

On arrival in Iceland, I had a number of questions, and some of my answers came in the Reykjavik Maritime Museum and others while traveling the South Ring Road.

A traditional faering river boat, at the Reykjavik Maritime Museum. Photo by John Sundsmo.

Reykjavik Maritime Museum

On the wharf in the old harbor of Reykjavik next to the haul-out dry dock, the Maritime Museum is a treasure trove of  wooden ships, models, photos and information about the maritime and fishing history of Iceland. An afternoon visit gave me a better idea what the early settlers faced, as well as the abundant fish resources they could rely on for food. In ancient Norse, ‘Viking’ meant Vik (inlet)-dweller and was synonymous with voyager. Viking feats of navigation, courage and daring would be difficult to reproduce today, even with modern technology and navigation aids. As far back as the 8th century, Danish Vikings set up settlements on the French coast and conquered large parts of today’s UK. During the same period, Norwegian and Swedish Vikings sailed and rowed west to colonize the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Nova Scotia (Vineland). They also probably visited Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

As a sailor, I greatly appreciate the dangers inherent in those early Viking voyages: in small open-hulled, 30-50-foot, clinker-built knarrs with no cabin or deck; no navigation instruments, no charts or maps, and only minimal knowledge of what lay beyond the horizon. When I flew from Denmark to Iceland and viewed the vast cold North Atlantic, I couldn’t imagine voyaging more than 900 miles with just oars and a little square sail. Even considering the strength of the 20-30 men, organizing and setting out on these voyages with families, livestock and supplies must have been a daunting and risky endeavor, especially in the 8th century–more than 500 years before Columbus. Again I wondered, how did they do it?

The town of Eyrarbakki, a fishing port on the South Ring Road in Iceland. Photo by John Sundsmo

The South Ring Road from Reykjavik to Selfoss

(52km/32 miles/45 min)

Driving from Reykjavik on Highway-1, the South Ring Road, took me to Selfoss, on the southwest coast. This small town (6,500 population) is a jumping-off point for backpackers and hikers and is the last major town on the road until Vik (distance 129km/80miles; population 291). Located on the banks of the river Ӧlfusá, downstream from Selfoss, are the former vibrant fishing ports of Eyrarbakki and Stokkseyri. Now with their harbor destroyed in storms, they are mostly home to artists but still worth a visit for good seafood. Upstream from Selfoss were my next stops: Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall and Ϸingvellir.

Selfoss to Geysir (56km/35 miles):  From Selfoss to Geysir on Hwy-30 or Hwy-35 should be only around an hour drive by car  – that is, if you don’t stop for the views, or if you don’t make detours to look at Icelandic horses, or rivers, or search for farmers’ markets or local stores. But stopping is part of the journey and the valley and river views along the way are spectacular. I finally arrived at Geysir around lunchtime and the restaurant at the Vistor’s Center offered a fine lamb stew. (The next restaurant was 20-30 miles away.)

At the Visitors Center in Geysir, I learned that Iceland is an important participant in the historical “Thing Project,” (summarized in a book edited by Olwyn Owen Things in the Viking World).  Apparently Ϸings (things) were gatherings that included Law Ϸings, where judges sat in court (“vellir”) and judged cases; Godi Ϸings, where chieftains sat to decide defense matters; and AlϷings (Althing), where citizens met, traded, conducted business and voted on new laws; i.e., a Viking democracy. The site of the Icelandic Althing was just over the hills in Ϸingvellir, my next stop after the Gulfoss waterfall.

Erupting every few minutes, a spectacular geyser in Iceland. Photo by John Sundsmo.

Geysir to Gulfoss (9.8 km/6 miles)

Just up the road from Geysir is the pride of Iceland, the majestic Gulfoss waterfall, which defies description as it showcases the awe-inspiring grandness and power of nature. Fed by the Langjökull glacier, massive amounts of water move down the Hvitá river and over the falls into a deep rift gorge, creating heavy mists and beautiful rainbows.  Walking along the path next to the gorge, I felt certain it evoked the same sense of awe and wonder for Vikings in 900 AD as it does today for travelers from all over the world.

Ϸingvellir:  Just over the hills from Geysir and Gullfoss, as the crow flies, lies Ϸingvellir. For me this involved either a dirt road or back-tracking on Hwy-35 to Hwy-36, and since my rental car disallowed class-4 roads, I backtracked. The historic Ϸingvellir site is one of the best documented examples of man’s earliest democratic assemblies. Established in 930 AD by the Viking settlers as the site of their annual AlϷing meeting, it is Iceland’s claim to being the longest standing democracy in the world.

When I visited Ϸingvellir this Spring, then looked at the photograph in Dougherty’s Viking history book, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It looked exactly as it did more than a century ago. Getting back to my hotel room that night, cold, damp and weary, I viewed the sky in the Collingwood 1897 “Thingbrekka” painting and could well imagine that he experienced the same wind, cold and horizontal, stinging rain that I did that day.

Vast vistas from the the South Ring Road out of Reykjavik. Photo by John Sundsmo

The Althing at Ϸingvellir

Fleeing King Harald, the early Iceland settlers favored their Viking democracy. Common laws, voted on by all, probably gave a unified common culture to the far-flung settlements. That culture, in turn, encouraged trading between the settlers and most likely engendered the community spirit that helped them survive in the harsh Icelandic climate.  Central to their unification was the annual “Althing” (AlϷing) – that huge Summer gathering at Ϸingvellir that ensured that no settlement, no matter how isolated, was forgotten or out of touch. Remote settlements were reunited in trade and culture; young people sought suitable marriage partners and courted; vendors sold everything from cook pots to needles; livestock was traded, and, of course, copious amounts of ale were consumed as friendships renewed. That in turn meant that in times of trouble, there was help, perhaps just a day away at a neighboring settlement.

I still wondered what community laws kept the society intact, and part of my answer came from the Geysir Visitor’s Information book edited by Olwyn Owen, Things in the Viking World. In Iceland, Godi (chieftans) selected a council of judges who also acted as the jury. Justice was swift and strong, and punishments included fines, loss of property and status, and when extreme, confiscation of property and banishment from the community to a “renegade/outlaw” status. As a banished renegade, there was no help during the brutal Icelandic winter, and no protection from the law–any man with a grudge could kill you. Perhaps that is why some, like Leif Ericson, left to explore further west, including Nova Scotia (Vineland) and the New England coast. On reflection, many of the Icelandic settlers common laws were very similar to our own, but the penalties seemed quite harsh.

The ultimate tribute to the Viking heritage of Iceland, the Solar Sun Voyager stands at the entrance to the harbor at Reykjavik, in Iceland. Photo by Lee Daley.

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