Day Thirteen to Sixteen: Rain in the Ruins

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Day Thirteen to Sixteen: Tuesday 20th August to Friday 23rd August
Location: The University of the Westfjords in Isafjörður, Iceland

Photo: Jim Cathey

The famous Dynjandi waterfall. Photo: Jim Cathey

Following the various courses on Viking Age language, combat techniques and material culture, on Tuesday we, along with the other students, had the chance to attend a public screening of a rather unique movie. “Utlaginn” re-tells the story of Gisli Sursson, an Icelandic Viking living in the Westfjords and who ends up being outlawed (“ut” equals “out” and “laginn” means “law”) in reprisal for a revenge killing.

Poster for the film released in 1981.

Poster for the film released in 1981.

The movie was filmed in the early eighties in Iceland and has since then been praised for its faithful cinematic adaptation of Viking-Age Iceland. Despite being kinda weird at times (because, you know, Nordic cinema right?) it was rather entertaining and condensed the whole story of Gisli quite well, plus it gave those who never had the chance to read thebook, a good occasion to learn more about what the Westfjords were like a thousand years ago. (For those who don’t want to watch the whole movie, the answer is: dangerous, bloody and violent). See a clip from the film

The next day (that is to say, Wednesday) we had, instead of afternoon classes, the chance to actually go visit some of the places mentioned in the Saga. We were taken by bus to the valley of Haukadal where Gisli and his family lived. There, we got to experience a one man show by a local actor billed as “the only actor in the Westfjords” (is that a good or a bad thing?). The show was quite entertaining, dynamic, and strangely funny (because, you know, Nordic humor right?).

In Iceland it is known for raining side-ways, we experienced this during the excursion on Wednesday. Photo: Jim Cathey

Horizontal rain is common in Iceland, we experienced this during the excursion on Wednesday. Photo: Jim Cathey

Afterwards (for me at least, as Linnea was in the group that did things the other way around) we got the chance to visit the actual places mentioned in the saga. We stood by the river where Gisli’s family boat arrived, reached the remains of his turf house in Holt and passed by the site where he played a kind of ball game.

This would have been perfect if it hadn’t been for the incapacitating rainstorm that awaited us (because, you know, Nordic weather, right?). Still, it was quite interesting to visit those places, but I have to admit that my frozen limbs maybe enjoyed the stop we made a little bit later at the Thingeyri café a tiny tiny tad.

Two days later, on Friday, I was sent on yet another expedition, this time to Geirþjófsfjord (pronounced more or less like “Gay-Jos-Fjord”) where, together with the other students from the Gisla Saga course, we hiked for a couple of hours in order to reach Gisli’s famed hiding place.

I have to admit that I was a bit afraid that the weather would turn out as bad as on Wednesday and that we would end up drenched.

My fears were, thankfully, groundless and the trip we had was amazing.

We were led by a local guide/Viking re-enactor Þórir Örn and had the opportunity to enjoy an incredibly beautiful landscape. Basically, throughout this four hour hike, I felt like I was back in Norway, going down the Tromsdalstind. The landscape was in places so similar, that it almost felt odd at times.

Photo: Jim Cathey

An information board about the Gisla Saga and the areas we visited. Photo: Jim Cathey

Still there were differences, strong waterfalls being the biggest ones. We had no problem crossing the tiniest streams (sometimes with the help of rocks) but on two occasions we had no choice but to remove our shoes/boots/ballerinas/heels and walk through the river. The water was then, unsurprisingly cold and the current, surprisingly strong. Still, it felt good afterwards to run up a rocky hill barefoot and let one’s feet dry in the cold Icelandic wind.

Plus the waterfalls looked awesome.

In our trip, we visited three places, the house of Gisli’s wife Auður Vésteinsdóttir, where Gisli hid at times and from where he received most of his food, Gisli’s main hide-out; basically a hole in the ground in between three berry bushes; and Gisli’s second hide-out, not far from the waterfall. Sadly, we couldn’t reach Hammar, the rocky hilltop where he was gutted alive by his enemies’ spear before violently butchering seven of them.

Still, the trip was awesome, and Gisli’s first hide-out was ripe with an otherworldly amount of blueberries (quite practical when you’re on the run I guess).

Archeological dig in ... Photo: Jim Cathey

Archaeological dig of potential Viking wall. Photo: Jim Cathey

On the way back William pointed out some farms and other points of interest related to the Saga of Gisli and we also visited the Jon Sigurdsson museum, a museum dedicated to Icelandic Autonomy’s most prominent figure back when the island was still a Danish colony. There we also met a local Archaeologist Margrét Hrönn Hamundsdóttir who showed us new digs of what might potentially be a Viking or Medieval Age defensive wall and had a delicious warm meal at the Thingeyri café.

All in all, the Saga part of the program was simply excellent and I would totally recommend anyone interested in Viking-Age stuff to take part in their next course (in a year basically), the range of events they offer, coupled with an engaging way to get acquainted with Old Norse, make the whole thing a unique form of holiday. It’s also very decent price-wise and the people are nice. Go there I tell you!

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