Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Day Two - Thursday - Golden Circle Tour

All in all, the Golden Circle tour was pretty tiring, just 'cos it ran for so long: eight hours of busing around, stopping at various points to see the sites and hear the history. There was a lot of material that I won't try to recount here, but I will try to cover the highlights.

For one, our tour guide, Bob, used to live in the States but was traveling so frequently to Iceland that he bit the bullet and emigrated about 18 years ago. He just loved the country and its history and geology, so he was an enthusiastic and sincere guide. He had his patter down and was knowledgeable on a variety of topics, very well versed in history and recent events. This picture of Bob shows him standing before a small cave wherein reputedly lives a troll. Being that trolls are supposed to be much larger than men, I find this a little difficult to accept.

First we went to Ðingvellir ("Thingvellir"), where we visited Snorrasbuð (Snorri's Booth) and the Alþing. When Iceland was first settled, every town and settlement wrote their own sagas, which were records of land ownership that evolved into pretty good chronicles of major events (and minor events, depending on how gossipy the recorder was). Snorri Sturluson traveled around the country and gathered all the sagas into two enormous tomes--imagine the insult when Denmark took them out of the country and stored them in Copenhagen, and imagine the joy and pride when Denmark returned them to Iceland in the 1960s. Snorrisbuð was named after him, though I don't recall whether it was just a site he enjoyed or if he actually gathered people there for a huge story-telling festival. What's interesting about Snorri is that while all the other Norse were running out and grabbing land for themselves and declaring themselves king, Snorri was content to travel with a retinue and ingratiate himself to each of them. Flattered, they granted him some pretty considerable privileges and influence.

The Alþing ("Althing," parliament) is a valley where the American and European continental plates meet, and here is the Lögberg, a large rock that served as a platform for the vikings who would meet there. They'd put up tents, get settled in, and start debating the laws they would put into practice. Very significant location. One story goes that when Christianity was infiltrating the nation, one high viking chief isolated himself to meditate on what to do, torn between preserving his culture or handing his people over to the Christians. The story has it that he staked a pelt to the ground, to serve as shelter, and lay beneath it for three days with orders that he must never be disturbed. He emerged and reputedly announced, "If the people are divided, the nation will be divided," and proclaimed that while everyone currently living could retain their traditional religion, all children born from that point onward would be baptized and raised Christian.

That's one version. Another guide, Jonas (you'll hear about him later), suggested very darkly over shots of Brennivin, "And history is written by the victors. I suspect the transition wasn't nearly so smooth and peaceful."

We also saw the Drowning Pool. Back when the clans were small and you couldn't let cabin fever or ill temper destroy your entire group, a crime like adultery was considered a capital offense. The Drowning Pool was where women were executed: they were cludged on the head with a rock, bundled up into a gunny sack weighted with stones, and tossed into the freezing water where death came quick. They were fished out of the water and given a proper burial. I believe it was some 17 women who were executed for the crime of adultery.

Bob paused at this point and waited for something; when nothing happened he said that usually someone asks him how many men were put to death for adultery in the Drowning Pool. The answer to that question is none--42 men were beheaded, burned at the stake, and hanged for this crime, but none were ever drowned.

More later...

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