Notes from Iceland


by Justin E. H. Smith

I am in Iceland for the first time in many years, for no better reason than that Icelandair offers extended stopovers on transatlantic flights at no additional cost. I cross the Atlantic as casually as one might take the subway from borough to borough, but now that I am here, again, in Reykjavik, it seems to me that, if we have to fly at all, stopovers in Iceland should not just be possible, but mandatory. They make it all make sense.

This basalt island, really only a side-effect of the volcanic eruptions of just one segment of the vast Mid-Atlantic Range (which also includes something called the ‘Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone’, where by contrast I hope never to find myself): this island, I say, is not all that far from the Faroes, which are in turn a short hop to the Hebrides, and from there another shorter one to mainland Scotland. In the other direction, there is really only a channel, and not open ocean, separating Iceland from Greenland, and again a smaller one separating Greenland from Baffin, and Baffin from Labrador.

A series of small hops then, brings one from Europe to North America, and even in the absence of archaeological evidence it is not hard to understand why, when Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence in the 1530s, local Iroquois ran out to greet the ship with furs in hand, ready, to all appearances, to resume a well established trade. The Basques and the Norse are the likely first-comers in those parts. Of the latter, an early-medieval settlement in Newfoundland is now considered a certainty, while their colony in southwestern Greenland, well documented both archaeologically and textually, is know to have endured for several generations.

The Norse were preceded in Greenland by Skrælingjar, which is to say Inuit, but only if we consider that massive island as a whole. When the Norse established their settlement in the 10th century, the Inuit were confined to the northern part of the island. Norse and Inuit coexisted in the same region from the 13th century, and by the 15th century the Norse had been entirely driven out. As far as we can tell, Scandinavians were also preceded in Iceland by an indigenous people, of sorts, even if they do not meet our ordinary criteria for counting as such: the so-called Papar are thought to have been Irish hermits, probably monks, who drifted up on rafts by mistake, and hunted and gathered for bare subsistence. (Their presence as well remains unconfirmed by archaeology, and is based entirely on textual sources, as well as on toponymy: in particular, the Vestmannaeyjar are islands off the south coast of Iceland, thought to have been settled by the ‘Westmen’, a Norse designation for the Irish.)

The Skrælings and the Papar together should cause us to reconsider our ordinary understanding of indigenousness: the Inuit came after the Vikings to southern Greenland, and drove the Vikings out thanks to their superior adaptation to the environmental demands of the region; the Irish came first to Iceland, were vastly more primitive than the Vikings who arrived after them, and were exterminated or assimilated. (I would argue, in fact, that there are many good reasons for seeing the Celtic nations of Europe as aboriginal within Europe proper, and not only on a distant satellite of Europe, but that’s another topic.) The matter gets even more counterintuitive when we consider that at the moment of first contact the indigenous hunter-gatherers were Christians, while the invading Europeans were pagans.

As is well known, this point of difference would not remain an issue for long, not only because the Celtic element would soon be entirely erased, but also because Iceland would be converted to Christianity, en masse, just before the dawn of the 2nd millennium. 999 CE is extremely early for such a distant extremity of the West. Lithuania and neighboring Baltic regions, by contrast, squarely on the mainland and practically absorbed into the Prussian sphere of influence by the high middle ages, would nonetheless hold out against conversion until the 15th and 16th centuries. Nonetheless, as might be expected in such a case of mass conversion, the majority of the converted likely had little idea –and some, out on their homesteads, under the glacier, at first surely had no idea– of what was going on. Even those who did know that they were now to call themselves ‘Christian’, we may assume, probably brought with this new name a universe of connotations that would have been quite foreign to the Romans who believed they had won a whole island, all at once, to the true faith.

To return to the ethnographic data from a neighboring island, we know from the early-20th-century explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen that Inuit conversion was in fact a movement within one and the same universe of signification. Rasmussen reports that Greenlandic Inuit shamans would take their ‘first communion’ by ceremonially devouring those organs of the walrus that had hitherto been prohibited to men of their status. The body of Christ as tabooed walrus meat: that is the essence of conversion. Should we suppose that the case of the pagan Icelanders was much different? They were ‘white’ and originally European, but so what? These categories didn’t mean anything at all at the time.

And so we find the well-known survival of pagan preoccupations well after 999. Unlike the case of Britain, where charlatan neopagans began in the 19th century to construct a wholly imaginary romantic past of high priests and priestesses, in Iceland the enduring power of animistic explanations for natural phenomena, complete with personified forces inhabiting every ditch and spring, is well attested by both indigenous and outside sources. The 16th-century Swedish author Olaus Magnus gives us a lengthy account in his Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus [History of the Northern Peoples] of the enduring folk-beliefs, including all the spells and incantations, of the Icelanders, and some decades later the German scientist and astrologer Johannes Kepler claims in his Somnium (at least if we take the protagonist as a stand-in for the author) that his own mother was Icelandic, that her name was Fiolxhilda, and that she was (therefore) a witch. (Kepler took Iceland to be the ideal spot from which to teletransport to the moon.)

So paganism lived on, and the conversion was an ambiguous affair. One of the pièces de résistance of the stunning, and stunningly empty, National Museum of Iceland is a small figurine, in bronze, dated to around the beginning of the 11th century, depicting either Thor or Jesus Christ. He is holding an object that is either a Valhallan war hammer, or a crucifix. Who knows? The people who have spent their lives studying the matter don’t. It’s possible no one ever did.

And yet, there is another sense in which Iceland has been at the vanguard of developments in the Christian West, and not at all on the periphery (in contrast with, e.g., the eastern front of the Christianization of the North, particularly the Finnic lands): and that is in its early embrace of literacy, and its consequent, immense contribution to world literature. In a sense its contribution can be seen as an early anticipation of the Renaissance explosion, on the mainland, of interest in secular themes, and in the importance of the individual. In this sense, it is literature that comes from a world still holding on to pre-Christian preoccupations with faeries and mountain spirits, and it is simultaneously a foreshadowing of the emergence, centuries later, of a post-Christian secular sphere.

But its individualism, immanentism, and dedication to the everyman does not at all come, as far as I can tell, from the cultural heritage of Norse paganism. It comes instead from an original, sub-literary function of writing, one that has parallels in the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian cases as well. Writing begins as tedious cataloguing, as a listing of who is where, who traded what with whom, and so on. In the Icelandic case, the most important thing to register was the correspondence between a given family name and a given plot of land. This project eventually issued in the famous Landnámabók or Book of Settlements, an early-11th-century text outlining the claims of the original settler families to their parcels of land.

But lists of names, at least potentially, are the tables-of-contents of stories about the people behind the names, and in the case of Iceland there seems to have been a sort of gradual evolution of these stories out of the original list: an inheritance feud among the descendants of Egill Skalagrímmson; Gunar Hámundarson attends the Alþing; etc. In a sense, Icelandic history continues to be perceived by Icelanders, or at least packaged by them for outsiders, as a sort of continual unfolding from these registries of settlements. The in-seat screens on Icelandair will tell you that every Icelander can trace his or her roots back to the original settlers. This claim is of course complicated by the fact that there is a single-digit but non-negligible population of immigrant minorities in Iceland, who are expected to become culturally Icelandic, even as they are, by definition, cut off from the possibility of being truly, essentially Icelandic in virtue of their recent arrival. Until the 1990s immigrants were required to take Icelandic names. The Catalonian painter Baltasar Samper responded to this demand with the ultimate act of subversion-through-overidentification: he asked to be called ‘Egill Skalagrímmson’, just like the hero of the Sagas. The authorities responded that they wanted him to be Icelandic, but that that was just a bit too Icelandic.

There are in effect three genres of writing in Iceland’s early history: the official sacred, which is to say translations of the Christian Bible and associated texts; the mundane-registerial-cum-literary, of which we’ve just spoken; and, finally, the practical-magical. It should not be surprising to find that these can only be disentangled from one another with difficulty. We know today that the runic alphabet is only a transformation of the Latin: we don’t know when or how exactly the Latin diffused to the pagan Norse, but we know that they started writing because of some sort of contact, direct or indirect, with the Latin world. This finding is a tremendous disappointment to romantic neopaganists, but the diffusionist explanation of runes does not deprive them of all possible magical utility.

In fact, when one considers the ordinary uses of runic inscription, one easily starts to wonder what exactly ought to count as magical, and what as merely ‘ordinary’ writing. A wooden spade from the 10th century, on display at the National Museum, is decorated with the following runic text: boalliatmik inkialtr kaerþi [Páll had me (made); Ingjaldur made (me)]. This is a plain statement of fact, but it also charges the tool with immaterial qualities it might otherwise not be noticed to have. Many runes were straightforward boasts, boiling down to something like: Know that I was here, and I was mighty. Many were also charms, inscriptions on artifacts that were intended to preserve good luck.

Both boasts and charms, I should not have to point out, have their echoes in the Christian and the post-Christian periods. A blog, in the end, is really not so different from an inscription on a bone: I was here, it declares to no one in particular. Don’t forget that.

I recall seeing Etruscan mummies with inscriptions on the gauze in which they were wrapped. But they had to be unwrapped in order for the text to be seen, as it had been written on the inside. Text intended for no particular audience, for some unknown, hypothesized audience on the other side, or out in the internets, might easily be seen by an outside observer as fulfilling a magical function. Someone pointed out to me recently that the British in 18th-century Polynesia were wrong to make fun of the natives who believed that, in their letters, the British had mastered a form of magic: when the Polynesians became literate, and themselves wrote letters back to London requesting things like sailing vessels, often, with some delay, the things appeared. Magic!

Iceland is interesting from the point of view of the history of literature, I think, to the extent that it combines three registers of writing –sacred, bureaucratic, and ‘magical’ (hell, the scare quotes should really be around all three of these)– and turns them into something we recognize, unambiguously, as literature. I also think, by the way, that Halldór Laxness well understood this, and that this is what makes his own modern literature so compelling, and so much a synthesis and culmination of the Icelandic literary tradition. And also, finally, this is what makes me happy to be his unworthy, but totemically ever so well positioned, namesake.


Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale

Alexander Barclay, 1837-1840

From the Mouth of the Whale,
by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb,
Telegram Books, 288 pp.

This novel is an important contribution to Icelandic literature. It channels the past millennium’s experience of nature and history in that peculiar place, but does not aspire to mere peculiarity. For this reason, it is a great shame that the book has been packaged for foreigners as a sort of offshoot of Björkian quirkiness.

Sjón has long been part of the creative circle that includes Iceland’s most marketable pop icon, as are many of the currently dominant generation of Iceland’s cultural, and even political, elite. I had thought, when I bought the novel on may way out of Reykjavik yesterday, that I would be mildly amused by the literary effort of a graduate of the ’80s punk scene. I also worried that it might not be worth my trouble at all, that this would be another case, comparable to Sven Regener’s forgettable novels, which he started writing when the physiognomy of middle age set in and he could no longer front the Berlin band Element of Crime with any dignity. But this is not one of those cases. Sjón is a writer of literature, who happens to have been present at some Sugarcubes shows (and, perhaps revealingly, joined them on stage to play, of all things, the air guitar).

The novel is called Rökkurbýsnir or ‘Marvels of Twilight’ in the original Icelandic, has for no apparent good reason (other than a disconnected if intriguing flourish in the final few paragraphs) been called The Mouth of the Whale in English. This too must have something to do with marketing. The perennial appeal of Moby-Dick maybe? Of course it is an admirable thing to produce even a faint echo of Melville, but that is not at all what Sjón aims to do. His is prose that frequently lapses into poetry as if by inward inclination. The mood of it is rapturous, at times almost reminiscent of Saint John the Divine’s coda to the New Testament.

It tells us the story of a certain Jónas Palmasson ‘the Learned’, an early-17th-century Icelandic natural philosopher, runic scholar, and healer. He is self-taught, and syncretistic in his commitment to Christian faith and to Icelandic folk-beliefs. He is a devout follower of Paracelsus, and is something like what the Swiss physician and occultist might have ended up being if he had been born, liks Jónas, into what was essentially an Iron Age society, with few books and only a fairly barren natural landscape from which to learn.

Part of the narrative (though this is not a very narrative novel) concerns Jónas’s voyage to Copenhagen, at the request of Ole Worm, the actually existing historical character who founded the Museum Wormianum, one of the largest cabinets of curiosities in early modern Europe. Worm has heard of Jónas’s learnedness, and hopes that he can help him to decipher runic writing, something Worm in fact attempted in his Runir, seu Danica literatura antiquissima [Runes, Or, the Most Ancient Danish Literature] of 1638. Jónas is hesitant to aid Worm, since he has been persecuted in his home country for sorcery, and is in Denmark in part to clear his name. But he is happy to clarify for Worm the true origin of a purported unicorn skull. It comes from a narwhal: Icelandic traders had for centuries been duping Europeans who were willing to pay enormous sums of money for remedies made from a powder of the marine mammal’s tusk, on the presumption that this came from the mythical terrestrial mammal. The build-up to the revelation of the skull’s true origin is somewhat tedious for those of us who have read the 1628 treatise De Unicornu by Caspar Bartholin (Worm’s brother-in-law), and it all starts to feel a bit too Eco-esque. Not surprisingly, this sequence is the one that is marketed most aggressively in the publisher’s packaging of the novel. (Unicorns appeal, I gather, in roughly the same way Björk does.)

When I say that this is an important contribution to Icelandic literature I mean in part that the author channels a tradition that stretches back to a time when literature was meant to do something other than what it has been doing since the 19th century or so. Jónas has few books to read, does not know Latin, but is loyal to the idea that nature can be read, and that books, ideally, are epitomes of nature. Nature in turn is Divine Creation, and learning is the project of mastering the order behind this creation. One of the most touching sequences concerns Jónas’s recollection of his first encounters with his future wife, Sigga:

Our courtship was one uninterrupted conversation about the origin of the stars, the nature of land and sea, the behaviour of beasts great and small, and although it was not conducted in Hebrew or in the angleic tongue as it was with Adam and Eve, it was nevertheless our hymn to Creation. We sat together into the early hours, investigating the delightful puzzles of light and shadow, such as what happens to the shadow of your hand when the shadow of mine falls upon it? Have they become one? Or has yours disappeared temporarily? And if so, where to?

In her youth Sigga correctly predicted an eclipse through astronomical calculation. Her kinfolk ran around like it was the end of the world, but she was calm. She and Jónas both embody an approach to learning that is ‘scientific’, in that it seeks to get things right, but also one step away from sorcery, in that it probes where one really isn’t supposed to go (as a boy Jónas specializes in laying his hands upon the bellies of old crones, and diagnosing their ‘female illnesses’). This shared disposition unites Jónas and Sigga erotically: science as a hymn to creation, as the basis of erotic love, and finally as a highly charged danger zone that borders on the magical. Sjón reconstructs with sympathy the world in which this all made sense.

Pieces crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website