I was travelling out along the peninsula of Snaefellsnes with a friendly Icelander who had picked me up, wet and dirty after my trek around Hítardalur, and particularly my second river crossing, which had soaked me to above the waist. After reassuring me cheerfully that the car belonged to his son, ‘an expert at cleaning cars’, Elías took care to point out and stop at many of the stunning natural features along our route. When he learned that I was planning to camp that night, he even invited me to stay with him in the holiday cottage he had booked from his worker’s union. I gratefully accepted, and with my night’s accomodation sorted settled down to enjoy the scenery.
As you travel west along the Snaefellsnes peninsula the landscape seems to become greener and undefinably richer and more vigorous in life. Perhaps the soil is better on this long arm of land that stretches out into the sea; perhaps the sea makes the climate slightly milder. The medieval Icelanders had their own tradition about Snaefellsnes that might explain the phenomenon. According to Bard’s saga, one of the settlers in that area was Bard, who was part human, part giant, and part troll. As he grew older he became increasingly retiring, and in the end Bard moved away from other men altogether, and went to live on the glacier on the summit of Snaefell. He became a guardian spirit of sorts, exerting his benign influence over the landscape, and appearing when his friends or relatives were in trouble.
We stopped to buy fresh mackerel from the fishing boats in the harbour at Arnarstapi, where Bard had his farm before he disappeared, and where he is celebrated in a larger than life stone statue:
We were staying in the next village, and as the next morning was a Saturday, and Elías was on holiday, he offered to help me explore the peninsula. We started just outside the village we had stayed in, Hellnar, where a small lake in a remarkable hidden crater is known to have been Bard’s bathing spot of choice. In fact the lake was once naturally heated, and though not hot, was warm, or at least lukewarm, so there is almost certainly some truth in the story of the lake’s historic use.
A short distance further along the road is the site of the farm Laugarbrekka where Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir was born in the tenth century, famed for being the most widely travelled Icelandic woman until the twentieth century. This extraordinary claim to fame was achieved partly due to her participation in one of the Vínland expeditions, when a group of intrepid Icelanders set up a settlement in North America. Her place in the history books was assured when in later life she made a pilgrimage to Rome.
It all sounds very egalitarian, and indeed, Viking society is often celebrated for its progressive attitude to women, who kept ownership of their property in a marriage, ruled for all practical purposes their household, and could even demand a divorce, provided the discontented wife had some male relatives to handle the legal and physical business of recovering her property. And there are only a couple of instances of physical violence towards women (except witches, naturally) in all the forty odd family sagas. But it is too easy, especially for a Viking enthusiast, to idealise this, and to forget that for women many of the practicalities and attitudes in daily life were, well… medieval.
Bard’s saga provides some excellent examples of this inequality, largely through the story of Bard’s daughter, Helga. When Helga was young, perhaps in her early teens, she was playing a competitive game with her sisters and cousins, and became stranded on an ice floe that blew out to sea. Miraculously it carried her to Greenland, where Eirik the Red had recently established a settlement. Her life was saved, but the extraordinary way in which she had arrived in Greenland and her unusual strength, equal to that of a man in everything, prevented her full acceptance into the community there. Some of the men called her ‘troll’ (and to be sure, according to her ancestry given in the saga she did have troll blood in her, but that is not the point!), and she longed to return to Snaefellsnes. But when she did finally return to Iceland her father took her away from the man she loved, and she was left to travel the country alone. Her experiences meant she had difficulty sleeping, hid her identity, and always distrusted men. At one farm a fellow traveller, a Norwegian, tried to take advantage of her, and was left with a broken arm and leg – but it was Helga who slipped away in embarrassment soon afterwards.
Bard himself was no angel in his treatment of women. On one of his returns to the human world he spent the winter with a family and seduced the fifteen-year-old daughter. Soon after he left the following summer she gave birth, and from then on the girl’s father more-or-less ignored her, as if he had not facilitated the whole situation. Not the egalitarian society we occasionally like to imagine! As always, we can rely on the sagas to combine fantasy with gritty reality and a truly human element in their accounts of medieval life. And to be fair to the Vikings, I’m not sure we’ve come so very much further in these matters than they did – except perhaps in Iceland itself.
Besides, nobody wants too much reality in stories, so it is not surprising that Bard is primarily remembered as a benevolent father figure who always appeared when needed, the guardian spirit of the Snaefell glacier. And even just passing by, one does sense some kind of supernatural power emanating from the almost always cloud-covered glacier peak of the mountain. Perhaps it is just the magic of the bleak but enchanting landscape that surrounds the mountain.