Sunsets in the far north defy time. Or at least they seem to. In the summer, when the days stretch out into endless light, it can be awhile before the golden rays of the precious sun sink behind the horizon and tuck their pink and orange tendrils into bed. Of course, the flip side of this summer party of light, as families ride bikes, teenagers flip skateboards, and old friends soak in the local hot pot at the pool late into the night, is the dark, oppressive winter nights, when the sun morphs into a moody teenager, sleeping in until noon and then only rising for a couple hours.
I had a long time to contemplate this last night, as I sat on the rocky cliff over looking Stykkishólmur´s harbor and gazed west for the longest sunset vigil of my life. It took in total almost two hours, an imperceptible sinking into the horizon that was beautiful, but meant I was a frozen, stiff popsicle by the end!
Summer here is truly for playing. The sun rises before 5am and sinks around 10pm, with dusk lasting even longer, the bluish dying light allowing plenty of time for evening hikes and bike rides. I am settling into the slow, contemplative pace that is life in a small Icelandic fishing village. Sitting in the cafe sipping strong coffee and trying the hearty lamb stew to warm up. Reading on cliffs overlooking the fjord. Watching the fishing boats come into the harbour. It is just what I need.
This is the land of the Sagas, where much of the drama of many Saga events takes place. It’s important to understand what the Sagas are to Iceland. Not just one of the greatest collections of medieval literature, but a repository of Icelandic legend, mythology, history and even geneology. In a time before written language, the Norse told the history of their settlements of Iceland and Greenland, remembered their geneology, and entertained themselves by embellishing their history into stories during the long winter months shut up inside their turf houses. The stories (sagas in Icelandic) were passed on orally, until their written language developed two centuries later, when scholars began to write their tales down.
You cannot take the Sagas as literal fact, but at the same time you cannot regard them as purely fiction. Much of the geneology is accurate, so much so that many Icelanders today can trace their lineage back to the first settlers mentioned in the Sagas. Saga events often are embellished dramas of actual events, enlivened for entertainment or to impact a moral lesson. Much of the Norse ruins and landscapes of Iceland are the settings for the Sagas, and many of the characters actually lived. So to an Icelander, the Sagas are their heart and soul, who they are. That may explain why one of the largest crowds ever gathered in Iceland was for the return of the first two handritin (Icelandic manuscripts) from Denmark, which ruled Iceland from around 1500 until as recently as 1944. It wasn´t until the German occupation of Denmark in World War II that Iceland was able to once again establish independence. The return of their treasured manuscripts was a return of their heritage and massive flag-waving crowds met the Danish navy at the docks in Reykjavik to welcome their heritage home in 1971.
So today I decided to hike out to two important settings of the Sagas – Helgafell and Þarnes þingvellir. At Þarnes, by the fjord waters, the region’s men met set the laws and settled disputes. It was here that the local leading men outlawed Erik the Red for killing his neighbor, spurring him to leave and explore Greenland. Today it is a windswept landscape of rock and grass. Dominating the landscape is Helgafell, a round lump of rock that rises straight out of the flat rocky turf, an island in a sea of grass. Here Snorri the Goði, one of the leading men of Iceland during Saga times, first lived, at the base of this mountain that was considered holy. In the Laxdæla Saga, Snorri agrees to switch farms with Guðrun Ovífsdóttir to help her move further away from soured family relations after her husband kills her brother. Guðrun is one of a surprising number of strong, respected women who inhabit the Sagas. Her grave is still marked at the farm´s churchyard, a grassy mound more than a thousand years old. This farm has been in continuous use since her time, making me wonder if today´s family are direct descendants or if the farm has changed hands? I did not see anyone around to ask.
Tomorrow I take the ferry across the vast Breiðafjörd to the storied West Fjords, the northenmost section of Iceland, so remote, it is often though of as the Wild West of Iceland. Iceland just keeps getting better and better!