Eastern Iceland

For over one hundred kilometres along the main road between Mývatn and Jökuldalur in the east there is not a single house or farm to be seen. The landscape is desolate and moonlike; mile after mile of ancient lava, dust and rocks, and sand. Some of it has grown over with grass and moss, but the overall impression is of a bleakness to rival the washed-out sandflats of the southeast. In the middle of this emptiness, some way north of Route 1, is Dettifoss, the third largest waterfall by volume in Europe.

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

It is not beautiful, but the roaring mass of muddy grey water hurtling into the canyon below is overwhelming. It is one hundred metres wide and 44 metres high; the scale is hard to grasp in a photo, but those are people on the far side.

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

A short way upstream the same volume of water spills over an eleven-metre V-shaped ledge in a score of smaller falls. Selfoss is more aesthetically pleasing but difficult to appreciate fully after the awe-inspiring raw power of Dettifoss.

Selfoss

Selfoss

Not surprisingly, there are few stories about this part of Iceland; it is only when you come down again into the valleys to the east that names and places from the Viking Age reappear. The story of a merchant who grew up beside the glacial river Jökulsá Á Dal gives an insight into what the Vikings got up to when they weren’t feuding or raiding, and the perils that accompanied even peaceful pursuits. As Thorstein the Fair discovered, a simple trading voyage to Norway could lead to you contracting scurvy and becoming bedridden. Your partner and crew might turn against you and mock you in your helplessness, then abandon you with little money and no friends in a large city in a foreign country. To top it all off, your partner might then spread a rumour back in Iceland that you had died, and marry your intended himself. Fortunately, if you were as handy with a spear as Thorstein the Fair there would be a simple solution to all this dishonouring and treachery. Unfortunately, this would inevitably drag other innocent members of both families into conflict; but as long as you protect your honour the retaliatory murders of your brothers is just the price you have to pay.

Jökulsá á Dal

Jökulsá á Dal

At last the road comes down into a wide fertile valley near the town of Egilsstaðir. The 25 km long lake of Lagarfljót runs down the valley floor, and the eastern slopes of the valley are home to Iceland’s largest area of woodland. This was an important district during the Viking Age, and several short sagas are set along the lakeshore and in the valleys around. Of these the most famous is The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, most of which takes place in a valley to the west and south of the lake. It is among the most highly regarded of the sagas for its literary qualities, and unusually the moral, if there is one at all, seems to be that to live in dishonour is better than to die. Hrafnkel kills a servant for riding a horse he had dedicated to his patron god Frey, and some time later finds himself hanging upside down from his barn roof from a rope threaded around his Achilles tendons. His attacker, Sam, gives him a choice between death and disgrace, and choosing the latter Hrafnkel limps off to set up a new farm by Lagarfljót. After several years of managing his new farm wisely he is as powerful as ever, and is eventually able to offer Sam the same choice from the same uncomfortable position. Sam too chooses to live, and the saga ends ambiguously, with no clear villain, hero, or moral, and with success found in the balance between patience and opportunism. Sort of like real life.

Lagarfljót

Lagarfljót and Egilsstaðir

Further on again I came at last to the sea where it snakes its way through the mountains of eastern Iceland to form the Eastfjords. The Eastfjords have magical, promising names: Seyðisfjörður, Reyðarfjörður, Fáskrúðsfjörður, Stöðvarfjörður (remember ‘ð’ is pronounced ‘th’). And apart from the huge and controversial aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður they live up to the promise of their names.

Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður

Aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður

Aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður

The village of Seyðisfjörður, surrounded by thousand-metre peaks, is where the weekly ferry from Europe arrives, and I could wish I had travelled to Iceland by sea just for the pleasure of arriving into such a charming and unlikely little place; there can hardly be anywhere less like an international ferry terminus. The disadvantage of the place is that it is a very long way from anywhere else; but on the other hand, when you’re there you’re not sure you want to be anywhere else anyway. An unseasonably early display of northern lights brought the entire population of the youth hostel onto a small roof terrace and confirmed a shared sentiment that Seyðisfjörður was the place to be.

Northern Lights above Seyðisfjörður

Northern Lights above Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður on a rainy September morning.

Seyðisfjörður on a rainy September morning.

Want to or not, I had to continue my journey, and a cold rain (falling as snow on the peaks) made hill-walking, the main activity available in Seyðisfjörður, an unattractive prospect the next morning. Instead I hitched my way on down the Eastfjords, stopping at various towns and museums, including the incredible Steinasafn Petru, a small house and garden entirely filled with beautiful rocks and minerals collected over a lifetime in Iceland by the zealous Petra.

Steinasafn Petru - Petra's Stone and Mineral Collection

Steinasafn Petru – Petra’s Stone and Mineral Collection

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I arrived at last the following evening at Höfn, another magical harbour town on the southeastern tip of Iceland. Höfn is built on a peninsula in a lagoon protected by two narrow sandbanks; behind it rise mountains and the vast bulk of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier by volume in Europe. The summer sun sets over the glacier, and it is hard to imagine a more beautiful location for a town than this.

View to glacier from Höfn

View to glacier from Höfn

Sunset in Höfn

Sunset in Höfn

Grettir and the North

The afternoon of the same day I had toured Laxárdalur found me travelling eastwards across northern Iceland with the owner of the tour company IceAk. As you might expect, an experienced tour guide makes an excellent lift; once we had swapped stories of the Westfjords (he had also been to the magical Einhamar in Geirþjófsfjörður) he took care to point out other interesting places and saga sites.

Hot streams along Hrútafjörður

Hot streams along Hrútafjörður

Grettir the Strong, you may remember, lived for a time in a cave in Hítardalur under the protection of the poet and champion Bjorn. But long before Grettir became a fearsome outlaw, murdering his enemies, robbing travellers and stealing sheep, he was a fearsome little boy who grew up in a valley we now drove across. Grettir had a difficult relationship with his father, who Grettir punished for his lack of interest by playing the cruellest pranks. Ordered to look after the geese, he broke all their wings and snapped the necks of the goslings; told to watch the horses, he flayed the hide off the back of his father’s favourite mare; asked to rub his fathers back, he took a vicious wool comb and scored deep wounds into his flesh. Kids those days.

Bessaborg - where Grettir herded horses.

Bessaborg – where Grettir herded horses.

My driver pointed down the valley in the direction of the farm where all this happened, and then as we drove past a low hill he added:

“This is the hill where Grettir went to look after the horses, you know the story?” Unremarkable in every other way, the gentle slopes suddenly took on character and significance. I had to ask how he could know something like that; someone must have told him once? “I don’t know; I’ve always known it”, was the reply.

Turf built farm (now a museum) at Glaumbær, near Sauðárkrókur.

Turf built farm (now a museum) at Glaumbær, near Sauðárkrókur.

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Some time and several lifts later I arrived in the town of Sauðárkrókur, on the shores of the fjord where Grettir finally met his end. From a low but steep ridge behind the town I could see 20 km over the fjord to the natural fortress island of Drangey, seven kilometres from land and protected all around by hundred metre cliffs. Drangey had been shared by the farmers around the fjord as a place to graze sheep and collect eggs, until one autumn when they came to collect their sheep and found their rope ladder drawn up and Grettir at the top with two companions. Even from a distance I could appreciate the predicament of the farmers, faced by the double challenge of the perilous cliffs and Grettir waiting at the top. The island looked every bit as impregnable as the saga had led me to believe, and yet it was the place of Grettir’s downfall and death anyway.

Drangey

Drangey

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(Both taken with substantial zoom)

After Grettir had been some years on Drangey, a local chieftain won the support of a witch who cursed a twisted tree stump and sent it out to the island, where Grettir, his brother, and a good-for-nothing servant needed all the driftwood they could gather for their fire. Grettir was chopping wood in a hurry, and his axe glanced off the stump and into his leg; a flesh wound only, but it festered and rotted. The hero of dozens of fights and the strongest man in Iceland, Grettir was lying dying, delirious and weak with fever, when his enemies came for him. Grettir’s brother was nursing him and the servant had neglected to pull up the ladder; before they knew it a crowd of warriors were tearing apart their turf hut, and after a desperate and bloody fight Grettir was dead and his brother captured. When he warned them that if they let him live he would come back for them they beheaded him on the cliff top at dawn. The servant annoyed them so much with his whining on the journey back to the mainland that they finished him off too.

Lone rider in the morning light - outside Sauðárkrókur.

Lone rider between morning showers – outside Sauðárkrókur.

The next day I continued across the North to Akureyri, Iceland’s second city, and from there on towards the lake of Mývatn. Some way past Akureyri I stopped at Goðafoss, a waterfall distinguished not for its modest 12m height or its power, but for its beauty, and to a lesser extent, historical significance. The ‘Waterfall of the Gods’ is so named, according to the sagas, because the lawspeaker who declared Iceland a Christian country in the summer of the year 1000 came here afterwards and threw his old idols into the falls.

Goðafoss

Goðafoss

Some years later Grettir came to this area, and risked being swept over the falls himself. He was staying with a farmer’s wife a few kilometres upstream, because he had heard that a murderous spirit of some kind was plaguing the household and had killed the farmer. For all his wrongdoing, Grettir was a scourge to anything more monstrous than himself, and this was a challenge he could not resist. On Christmas Eve a sudden thaw prevented the farmer’s wife and daughter from travelling to mass at a neighbouring farm, but Grettir took them on his shoulder and waded out into a chest-high flow of freezing water to see them across. Huge lumps of ice hurtled downstream towards them, and any normal man would have been swept helplessly away downstream and, dead or alive, over Goðafoss. But Grettir fended off the ice with his free arm, managed the crossing both ways, and then fought all night with the trollwoman who had been terrorising the household.

Mývatn, when I got there, I found to be a particularly beautiful and wonderful place; lying on a faultline between continental plates, the lake is surrounded by extraordinary natural features, better shown than described:

Hverfell crater

Hverfell crater

Grjótagjá

Grjótagjá

Hot pools in cave at Grjótagjá.

Hot pools in cave at Grjótagjá.

Hverfell crater

Hverfell crater

Inside the crater.

Inside the crater.

Lava towers at Dimmuborgir

Lava towers at Dimmuborgir

Shadowy figures at DImmuborgir - the 'Dark Castle'.

Shadowy figures at Dimmuborgir – the ‘Dark Castle’.

Bubble bursting in mud pool at Námafjall, just east of Mývatn.

Bubble bursting in mud pool at Námafjall, just east of Mývatn.

Fumarole, Námafjall.

Fumarole, Námafjall.

Víti crater, Krafla.

Víti crater, Krafla.

Krafla geothermal power plant.

Krafla geothermal power plant.

Leirhnjúkur (not a typo), near Krafla.

Leirhnjúkur (not a typo), near Krafla.

Lava field at Leirhnjúkur - 30 years old and still steaming.

Lava field at Leirhnjúkur – 30 years old and still steaming.

Leirhnjúkur

Leirhnjúkur

Laxárdalur

The prosperous Dalir region to the south of the Westfjords is, as one might expect, the setting for a rather grander and nobler saga than those of the Westfjords. The Saga of the People of Laxardal tells the story of several generations of a family that settled in Laxárdalur in the tenth century. The saga has a bit of everything: beginning with the account of Unn’s arrival and settlement of the region described in my Breiðafjörður post, the story continues with the separate adventures abroad of two half-brothers and their subsequent feuding over their inheritance. A ghost story and a feud with a family of witches are thrown in for good measure, and then at last Laxdæla saga arrives at its tragic climax, a tumultuous Shakespearian epic of love, betrayal, and murder.

Laugar, home of Gudrun Osvifsdottir.

Laugar, home of Gudrun Osvifsdottir.

The struggle between the half-brothers Hoskuld and Hrut over their inheritance from their mother Thorgerd provides a nice exception to the way we usually imagine Vikings settling their differences, as well as some further detail about the position of women in Viking society. Although Thorgerd travelled to Norway and remarried after the early death of Hoskuld’s father, her property remained her own, most of it remaining under the supervision of Hoskuld on his farm Hoskuldsstaðir in Laxárdalur. In other words, she had more property rights in marriage than is standard even today; but Hoskuld’s legal defence for not handing over to Hrut his share shows that matters weren’t quite as egalitarian as they sound. Hoskuld argued that he was the legal guardian of his mother when she remarried without his permission or knowledge, and that therefore neither the marriage nor its progeny were legitimate. It was generally thought that Hoskuld was wrong about this and that Thorgerd had been in a position to choose for herself, but there was some disagreement, and as possession really was nine tenths of the law Hoskuld kept the property for himself.

Hoskuldsstaðir caught by the sun.  Lots of good hay fields.

Hoskuldsstaðir caught by the sun. Lots of good hay fields.

When Hrut came out to Iceland to claim his inheritance he settled nearby and for three years pressed Hoskuld to hand over his inheritance at every assembly, making a good case and never resorting to violence. When this failed he took advantage of Hoskuld’s absence one day to go to Hoskuldsstaðir and drive away half the cattle there. Some of Hoskuld’s farm hands pursued him and his men and a battle was fought in which Hoskuld’s men came off worse. Hoskuld himself was furious when he heard what had happened and rode home to gather all his supporters for revenge. Things looked bad until Hoskuld’s wife Jorunn intervened, pointing out that most people thought Hrut had justice on his side and had behaved honourably and patiently. Also pointing out that attacking him would be dangerous and difficult, she persuaded Hoskuld that making a settlement instead ‘would do honour to both’. This was accomplished, and I suspect that the majority of disputes in early medieval Iceland were settled in this same way. The sagas probably disproportionately favour disputes that end in murder because it makes for a better story, but even in the stories we often find disputes settled peacefully through the law courts or through the mediation of mutual friends.

Hrut's farm Hrutsstaðir just outside Laxárdalur.

Hrut’s farm Hrutsstaðir just outside Laxárdalur.

Meanwhile Hoskuld’s children were growing up, foremost among them the beautiful Hallgerd (more of her later), and Olaf (known as Olaf Peacock), Hoskuld’s son with an Irish slave woman purchased while travelling in Denmark. Although ever since her captivity this woman, Melkorka, had been thought to be unable to speak, one day Hoskuld overheard her talking with their son in Irish. He discovered that she was in fact the daughter of the Irish king Myrkjartan, and had been captured there aged fifteen. Although Olaf was technically still illegitimate this revelation massively changed his fortunes; an old and wealthy farmer offered to foster him, and people began to treat him with the respect his notable character and appearance demanded. In this story at least being Norse or Irish seems to make little difference; nobility is what counts. When he was old enough Melkorka sent Olaf off to Ireland to find her father.

 

Arriving in Ireland Olaf’s ship was attacked by hostile locals, but fortunately was anchored just far enough off shore to prevent them all being captured, as usually happened to Vikings in the sagas who came to Ireland accidentally. At that moment a group of well-armed horsemen arrived on the scene, among them the old King Myrkjartan, Olaf’s grandfather. Olaf’s family resemblance, fluent Irish, and possession of a golden ring given to his mother by Myrkjartan when she was a baby (miraculously preserved throughout her abduction and years of slavery!) convinced Myrkjartan that Olaf really was his grandson, and Olaf was welcomed into the court. Like any young Icelandic hero at a foreign court, Olaf soon showed that he was a cut above the rest, and was even asked by Myrkjartan to succeed him as king – which he sensibly declined on the grounds that Myrkjartan’s other relatives wouldn’t stand for it.

Returning to Iceland rich and successful, with his high social status confirmed, Olaf was able to marry none other than the daughter of that old ruffian Egil Skallagrimsson of Borg, and to set up his own farm Hjarðarholt, which like those of his father and uncle is still there and apparently prospering, with the striking district church just below the farmyard.

Church at Hjarðarholt

Church at Hjarðarholt

However, all these episodes are but a preamble to the central drama of Laxdæla saga, which follows the friendship and enmity between Olaf’s family and the household at Laugar in Sælingsdalur, where I arrived on the final Sunday afternoon of last August. The sun was shining for once, so I pegged out my inner and outer tents to dry out after several days of continual dampness, and then walked a short way up the valley. The central feature of Sælingsdalur is the ‘elf cathedral’ in the middle of the valley, where according to a folk tale (as opposed to a saga) two brothers fell foul of the elves when one of them interrupted a sacred service that the other had been invited to in the magical cathedral. The intruder was trampled to death by elf riders on the slope beyond the knoll, while the other brother lived several more decades, until one year when he was giving the Easter service a chance gust blew open the doors of both human and elf church opposite at the same moment. He looked straight out of the door and into the elf cathedral, met the eye of the elf bishop, and fell down dead on the spot. And he wasn’t even the one who’d disturbed the elves in the first place! Icelandic elves clearly require very respectful treatment…

Grazing land at Laugar (Tungustapi 'elf cathedral' to right)

Grazing land at Laugar (Tungustapi ‘elf cathedral’ to right)

Tungustapi, an Elf Cathedral

Tungustapi, one of Iceland’s elf cathedrals

However, I was more interested in the events of a few centuries earlier, when Gudrun Osvifsdottir, the same Gudrun whose grave I visited at Helgafell, lived at Laugar with her father and brothers. Just above a present day boarding-school/hotel a little stone pool that calls itself ‘Gudrun’s Pool’ is situated near the buried remains of the original Viking age hot pool which Gudrun famously liked to hang out in, chatting to visitors and travellers who stopped for a bath. The current pool was hot and I had travelled a long way from Bolungarvík that morning, so I changed and waded in in a cloud of swirling green algae. It settled gradually as I gently soaked and, looking over at the little copse where their house is supposed to have been, tried to imagine Gudrun and her family doing just what I was a little over a thousand years earlier.

'Gudrun's Pool'

‘Gudrun’s Pool’

(almost) Bath hot!

(Almost) bath temperature!

I summarised the tragic story of Gudrun, Kjartan (Olaf Peacock’s son, named for King Myrkjartan), and Bolli (Olaf’s nephew and Kjartan’s foster-brother) in the post ‘To Helgafell’, and, in any case, no summary can do justice to the masterful build up of tension and escalation of their feud in The Saga of the People of Laxardal; I can only heartily recommend it as reading material.

Site of Viking Age farm thought to be that of Gudrun's family.

Site of Viking Age farm thought to be that of Gudrun’s family.

But what about that Irish influence in these old families? Did that outlive Olaf and his children? In one way at least it certainly has. By a curious coincidence the names of the couple that gave me the lift to Laugar, where Kjartan Olafsson so often travelled to see Gudrun, were Ásta and… Kjartan!

Campsite at Laugar

Campsite at Laugar (Tungustapi in distance)