I set out in late July with my husband Eric for a lovely week of exploration in Iceland. We were on our way to Estonia where I was scheduled to give a paper at a European Social Anthropology conference in Tallinn. We had heard that Iceland was an amazing country geologically and so we rented a camper van and set out to explore the land, starting out towards the North after leaving the capital of Reykjavik where our plane landed.
But it wasn’t long before the Icelandic Sagas began to captivate my imagination. The sagas are this country’s national literary treasure house of early settler stories. These long, rich tales are full of heroic male exploits and also of and brave visionary women. Could I find something here in Iceland that might resemble The Legend of Ponnivala? After all, both folk traditions feature the adventures of very early heroes whose stories relate intimately to the awe-inspiring and untamed land they first encountered and then decided to try to farm. Magic, mystery, sorcery and fantasy tie these early people tightly to their specific locales, in both traditions. So we set out to follow these landscape related tales. One of our first discoveries was a monument to a Saga hero named Stula Sighvatsson, a stone pillar marking the place where he and his fatherd met and battled a powerful adversary. You can already see my enthusiasm. Rushing across a wet field on a cold damp day I tripped on a waterlogged clump of grass that seemed to be at least the size of a small mountain! Everything from my feet to my knees was not only soaked now but also impossibly muddied. This didn’t dent our enthusiasm however. A set of dry clothes stored in our camper soon set things straight.
The monument we found marks the site of a great battle fought in 1238. The Norwegian royal power had expansionist ambitions during this period, under the reign of Hakon the Old (1217-1263). Norway wanted to bring some of Iceland’s chieftains under their control. Sturla Sighvatsson was asked to bring a group of chieftains with him to Norway to meet the king where (he believed) they would be asked to cede control of their lands. Instead Stula and his father resisted the aggressive advances of Hakon’s allies. The heroic father and son together led a group of some 1200 defiant Icelanders living in the area but, alas, they lost the struggle. Many men, including both Stula and his father died for their efforts. The struggle lasted for months and took place in this very area. Stula’s family’s last stand was here at Orlygasstadir where there was a sheep shed defended by just one low wall. The fortifications were insufficient! Some archeological remains of this place are still visible, according to signage referencing the Director of the National Museum of Iceland. But the muddy, wet fields soon defeated our own efforts to find them! This was our first (literal) taste of land & saga wrapped into one. Of course I was reminded of the heroes of Ponnivala and how they fought (but in that case won) against the great Chola king of their time. Both stories cover roughly the same period, the 13th and 14th centuries as well as runner-up events that occur in (are most likely dated to) the 11th and 12th centuries.
The scenery was, indeed, amazing. I will describe that first and then move on to a deeper look at one Icelandic Saga, the Vatnsdala legend, and its similarities to The Legend of Ponnivala.
Iceland is blessed with the mysteries of a truly amazing landscape that is iced with permanent glaciers above ground while underneath rumble hot volcanoes whose presence is clearly revealed by steam vents, hot bubbling mud and plenty of ancient lava-encrusted landscapes. Indeed, on needs to go only a few steps beyond the country’s international airport riding the bus into town to experience see a vast moonscape-like terrain out the window. These old lava flows are now eerily overgrown with moss, covered in mist and pock-marked with watery, grassy depressions. To a Canadian this first introduction to the look of Iceland makes one think that some giant might have grabbed huge fistfuls from our own northern tundra landscapes, and mixed these with rocky lava fields taken from the moon.