Vikings, Witches, and Poetry
March 7, 2016
On the night before we drove to Borgarnes, our dinner took longer than expected and it was a very cold and windy night, so we decided to take a taxi back to our hotel from downtown Reykjavik. Our driver, like almost everyone we met during our trip, was extremely friendly and immediately struck up a conversation with us. He was trying to discern from our accent where we were from and he told us that he was keen on learning the variations in accents from within different countries. Somehow that led us to talking about German accents and from there we related a story about a time that we flew through Frankfurt. It was an overnight flight and they offered headsets to listen to a variety of radio stations, one of which was a German station that told lullaby stories. As soon as the words “German lullabies” came out of our mouths, our driver doubled over in laughter, tears streaming from his eyes as we all contagiously laughed together. Perhaps not as funny now as it was at the time, but the image of Grimm’s Fairy Tales being told to lull children to sleep in a language that is somewhat guttural certainly seemed to provoke a comical image in our driver’s mind. After our following day touring the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes, it seemed more than just a little hypocritical considering the violence of their own Icelandic tales.
We made the hour-long drive to Borgarnes, going through a five kilometer tunnel underneath one of the bays, and enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the restaurant of the Settlement Centre. We then took the tour through the museum, which consisted of two thirty-minute audio tours that covered the history of how the Vikings first came to populate Iceland as well as their turbulent history once they arrived. The early history of Iceland is told through Viking Sagas, one of which is the Eglis Saga. Egill Skalla-Grimsson was a famous Viking and poet whose story is used to provide an understanding of the first people to populate Iceland. It isn’t just a recanting of his poetry, but is the tale of his life, beliefs, fortunes, and misfortunes.
It is a bloody history filled with mythical tales of beasts, witches, and betrayal. Neither of us were particularly fond of history when we were in school, but that is because the way that they used to teach history was fundamentally flawed. We don’t know if they’ve changed, but when we were growing up, history was about memorizing dates and names without context to how all of the events were interrelated or how cultural and religious pressures and prejudices affected personal decisions of those who affected our history. History would be a lot more fascinating if told around a campfire by the village elders as it was in the past versus dry text books. Generally speaking, history is far more fascinating when you understand the motivations of the individuals involved. This is also true of the Viking Sagas, which the Settlement Centre does an excellent job of relating the relationship between Egill and his father, brothers, and mother and how that shaped his manhood.
We knew that the Vikings were great seamen and that they had conquered the oceans long before the rest of Europe had done so because of their invention of the keel. One interesting fact that we learned was that they didn’t use the stars to navigate, despite their ability to travel such long distances, eventually leading to the discovery of North America. The reason, once we learned it, was quite obvious. There are times of the year when there are no stars visible or not visible for very long due to the length of the days during the summer, so obviously they couldn’t rely on the stars. Instead, the Vikings learned to navigate by following the birds, the migration paths of the whales, and other patterns that allowed them to travel back and forth between Norway and Iceland with ease.
Borgarnes is definitely worth visiting and the restaurant at the Settlement Centre is one of the best on the island. It is a beautiful drive along the coast with stunning views, even as you drive across the bridge that leads you into town. Even if you’re driving the ring road that goes around the entire island, stopping at Borgarnes is something that is well worth the time. We hadn’t originally planned on going to Borgarnes, it was one of those last-minute whim decisions and we couldn’t have been happier with the unexpected surprise and the history that we learned while we were there.