Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gerri Griswold's "Iceland Affair"

Even her friends call her "peculiar." Her Facebook pages (yes, she maintains several) are littered with selfies taken in the crapper at Logan Airport or the big bathtub in her back yard (censored by soap bubbles). She drivels on and on about her juicing diet and her real job (one of them) as a radio station traffic reporter. She has a pet pig. She's passionate about bats and porcupines, which she rehabilitates for the White Memorial Conservation Center.

Where am I going with this? To Iceland, of course, for Gerri Griswold is passionate, too, about the land of Fire and Ice, which is how our paths crossed. Gerri's is the spirit behind Iceland Affair--and that's what makes this quirky all-day, all-Iceland festival in Connecticut so much fun.You just never know who you might meet and what you might learn.

According to a press release for Iceland Affair, which Gerri has almost single-handedly put together near her home in Connecticut each year for the last five, Gerri Griswold fell "hopelessly in love with Iceland on her first trip in May 2002 and has since traveled there 34 times."

Reading that made me seriously jealous. I fell in love with Iceland in 1986 and I've only racked up 18 return trips. How does she do it?

One answer is, she doesn't sleep. I learned that the hard way, sharing a room with her for a June night in Iceland in 2013, where she was up until at least 3 a.m. editing photos to post on Facebook. She once was a professional chef, Gerri told me. "I'm used to having five burners going at once."

To fund (or fuel) her Iceland habit, Gerri established a travel agency, which I wrote about in a previous blog post. [Read it here:] I toured with her group for about 24 hours, during which time I hiked along the rim of a volcanic crater at midnight, swam in a natural hotspring, visited sulfur pots and lava formations, learned about lichens, found the ram with the biggest horns in Iceland, and listened to the stirring voices of a men's choir in the elegant surroundings of a bird museum while munching on Icelandic cheese. I think that was more than five burners going at once.

And it was fun. Gerri's company pairs an elegant logo of a raven with a name that, while it does mean "raven," is pronounced by every American as "crummy": Krummi Travel. The company logo is No crybabies, cranks, or pantywaists allowed. What's a pantywaist? I spent that whole day touring with them and didn't have the nerve to ask.

Still don't know--and don't tell me, because I'm taking part in another of Gerri's productions this weekend: the Fifth Annual Iceland Affair in Winchester Center, CT.

Inside the Winchester Center Grange on Saturday, October 18, from 10 to 5, will be a full slate of lectures and presentations. At noon, I'll be speaking on my book A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse. There will be talks on Iceland's geology and its currently active volcano, Barðarbunga. The breeder of Icelandic goats whose farm we all saved from the dragons (bankers) with the Indiegogo campaign will be there, as will experts on Icelandic gyrfalcons and Icelandic pop music. [Read more about the goats here:]

Downstairs at the Grange will be free food-tastings all day: Icelandic hot dogs, dried fish, chocolate, skyr, and more. Vendors will be selling Icelandic sweaters and vinaterta and books (mine, of course).

Outside on the Winchester Center Green will be a veritable Icelandic petting zoo: Icelandic horses, Icelandic sheep, Icelandic sheepdogs, Icelandic chickens--yes, there really are Icelandic chickens.

"Anything worth doing is worth overdoing," Gerri stresses.

Finally, at 8 pm, there's a concert (which is not free; Gerri's got to pay for this event somehow). The Fire and Ice Music Festival at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, CT will feature Icelandic musicians Lay Low, Svavar Knutur, Myrra Ros, Agnes Erna, Snorri Helgason, Bjorn Thorodssen, and Kristjana Stefansdottir, playing everything from pop to folk to jazz. [You can read bios of the artists (and buy tickets, if there are any left) here:]

"Surprises are in store for every guest attending--and for the artists," Gerri concludes.

I'm not surprised. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Not Leif Eiriksson Day, but Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day

Tomorrow, October 9, is Leif Eiriksson Day, when people of Scandinavian heritage and Viking enthusiasts like me celebrate the fact that the Vikings explored North America 500 years before Columbus.

While I whole-heartedly support the celebrations, I wonder, Why does Leif get all the credit? As I wrote on this blog before--in 2012 and 2013--I think we should celebrate "Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day," instead. Leif spent a winter in the Viking's Vinland and never went back. His sister-in-law, Gudrid, lived there three years and bore a child in the New World.

Gudrid is mentioned in both of the medieval Icelandic sagas about the Vikings' adventures in Vinland, or Wine Land, around the year 1000. Experts believe the stories in The Saga of the Greenlanders were first collected by Gudrid's great-great-grandson, Bishop Brand, in the 1100s. The Saga of Eirik the Red was commissioned about a hundred years later by another of Gudrid's many descendants, Abbess Hallbera, who oversaw a convent in northern Iceland.

The two sagas don't agree on the particulars of Gudrid's life, and they don't tell us very much about her. She was "of striking appearance," intelligent, adventurous, and friendly. She could sing and she was Christian. She was born in Iceland, married in Greenland, explored Wine Land, returned to Iceland and raised two sons, took a pilgrimage to Rome, and became one of Iceland's first nuns. Many Icelanders today trace their ancestry from her.

Over the last 50 years, archaeologists have proved more and more of her story true. In Greenland, they uncovered Eirik the Red's Brattahlid and the church built there by his wife, Thjodhild. They uncovered the house at Sand Ness where Gudrid's husband died.

On the far northwestern tip of Newfoundland, near a fishing village called L'Anse aux Meadows, they found three Viking houses. This small settlement is now thought to be the gateway from which the Vikings explored North America. Among the Viking artifacts found there was a spindle whorl, proving a Viking woman had been on the expedition.
Three white walnuts, or butternuts, found at L'Anse aux Meadows prove the Vikings sailed well south, to where butternut trees—and the wild grapes for which Wine Land was named—then grew. The most likely spots seem to be near the mouth of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, where there was a large Native American settlement at the time.
In 2001 a team of archaeologists began working in Skagafjord, the valley in northern Iceland where Karlsefni came from. I volunteered on the project one summer as we uncovered a Viking Age house on the farm called Glaumbaer, where the sagas say Gudrid finally made her home. The floorplan of the house looked like no other found in Iceland. It most closely resembled a house at L'Anse aux Meadows.
I told the story of my summer working on the archaeological team in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, which was published by Harcourt in 2007. I thought then that I had written all I could about Gudrid the Far-Traveler. Her spirit disagreed. As soon as that book came out, I began writing a new one.

My young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, will be published in Spring 2015 by namelos. I look forward to sharing the process with you.

To read my earlier posts about Leif Eiriksson Day, see: and

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Icelandic Toys

In the old days, when Icelanders lived in turf houses like this one, how did the children play?

The English traveler Alice Selby visited Iceland in 1931. During the week she spent on a farm in a narrow northern valley, she writes, "the weather grew steadily worse. At first it was bright but cold. Then it grew cloudy, and then the rain began. After that it grew still colder, the rain turned to snow and sleet, and the bitterest wind blew unceasingly. My first impression of the Icelandic countryside was one of complete gloom."

Then one day, out on a walk, she met a local man who shared with her a secret: "When we drew near the farm where he lived, he led me out of the way to a sheltered hollow and showed me a little village of toy houses made by children from the farm. The tiny mud houses were roofed with turf and fenced with sheep's horns. There were flowers, daisies and little pink arenaria planted in the gardens, and there was even a cemetery with crosses made from match sticks. I felt unaccountably cheered."

Selby doesn't mention the animals at the children's farm, but I came across this extensive farm-animal set one year when I visited the Skogar Folk Museum in southern Iceland. Before Legos there were bones. According to Jónas Jónasson frá Hrafnagili, in his book on Icelandic folkways, the knucklebones of sheep were sheep, the knucklebones of cows were cows, while the legbones of sheep were horses, though jawbones were sometimes horses too, like this well-laden packhorse:

In the airline magazine, on the way home from that trip, I read about a new toy set designed by Róshildur Jónsdóttir, "Something Fishy." According to the magazine, it's "a model-making kit including cleaned bones from fish heads and paint … The kit doesn't contain any instructions; it's up to the creative mind of each user what they want to create: spaceships, angels, or elves--anything is possible. A great alternative to virtual games and plastic toys." Here's an example:

Róshildur was inspired, the magazine says, by "the old days," when children's favorite toys were bones. You can read more about "Something Fishy" here:

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Snorri and the Volcanoes

There’s a volcano erupting in Iceland again. They happen quite often—I saw one in 2010, when I took these photos, just before it shut down European airspace with clouds of ash.

Eruptions are a fact of life for Icelanders. A big one happened in 871 (plus or minus two years): The dark layer of ash it sprinkled over much of the country now helps archaeologists date the time of the first settlement of Iceland to just about that time, using a technique called tephrachronology. Another big eruption in 1104 laid down a layer of ash in a conveniently lighter color, which helps archaeologists bracket the Viking Age.

Geologists estimate ten volcanic eruptions per century took place between Iceland’s founding in the 870s and when the Icelandic sagas began to be written in the early 1200s. Then the frequency increased to about fifteen per century.

So why are eruptions essentially missing from the sagas?

Only once, in Kristnisaga, the Saga of Christianity, is an eruption a plot point. The chieftains were meeting in the year 1000 to debate whether Iceland should become Christian, as the king of Norway insisted. A rider broke into the proceedings to shout, “Earth fire! In Olfus!” A volcano had erupted on one of the chieftains’ farms.

“It is no wonder. The gods are angry at such talk,” people muttered.

“And what were the gods angry about,” said one chieftain, gesturing to the black, ropy lava all around, “when they burned the wasteland we’re standing on now?”

The great Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, subject of my book, Song of the Vikings, grew up in the shadow of a volcano. Hekla, the cloud-hooded mountain known in the Middle Ages as the Mouth of Hell, erupted twice during Snorri’s lifetime. Possibly three times, for the church annals record “darkness across the south” the year he turned five.

The annalist knew what caused that darkness. The Saga of Bishop Gudmund, written in the mid-1200s, contains this explanation (translated here by my friend Oren Falk of Cornell University):

“There are mountains in this land, which emit awful fire with the most violent hurling of stones, so that the crack and crash are heard throughout the country.… Such great darkness can follow downwind from this terror that, on midsummer at midday, one cannot make out one’s own hand.”

To the east of Snorri’s childhood home rose the ice cap of Eyjafjallajokull--from under which erupted the volcano I visited in 2010. Snorri would have seen only tier upon tier of vast blank whiteness, a glimmering dome mingling with the clouds so that on some days the horizon disappeared.

But Snorri’s contemporaries were aware that active volcanoes lurked beneath the ice. A thirteenth-century poet told how “glaciers blaze,” “coal-black crags burst,” “fire unleashes storms,” and “a marvelous mud begins to flow from the ground.” (Again, in Oren’s translation.)

Lava also spouted from the sea in Snorri’s lifetime, forming rugged black islands that rose above the waves only long enough for a few intrepid souls to row out and give them a name, the Fire Islands.

It is not surprising, then, that volcanoes also informed Snorri’s version of the creation of the world.

In the beginning, Snorri wrote in his Edda, there was nothing. No sand, no sea, no cooling wave. No earth, no heaven above. Nothing but the yawning empty gap, Ginnungagap. All was cold and grim.

Then came the giant Surt with a crashing noise, bright and burning. He bore a flaming sword. Rivers of fire flowed till they turned hard as slag from an iron-maker’s forge, then froze to ice.

The ice-rime grew, layer upon layer, till it bridged the mighty, magical gap.

Where the ice met sparks of flame and still-flowing lava from Surt’s home in the south, it thawed and dripped. Like an icicle it formed the first frost-giant, Ymir, and his cow.

Ymir drank the cow’s abundant milk. The cow licked the ice-rime, which was salty. It licked free a handsome man and his wife. They had three sons, one of whom was Odin, the ruler of heaven and earth, the greatest and most glorious of the gods: the All-father.

Odin and his brothers killed Ymir. From his giant body they fashioned the world: His flesh was the soil, his blood the sea. His bones and teeth became stones and scree. His hair were trees, his skull was the sky, his brain, clouds.

From his eyebrows they made Middle Earth, which they peopled with men, crafting the first man and woman from an ash tree and an elm they found on the seashore.

So Snorri explains the creation of the world in the beginning of his Edda. Partly he is quoting an older poem, the “Song of the Sibyl,” whose author he does not name. Partly he seems to be making it up—especially the bit about the world forming in a kind of volcanic eruption, and then freezing to ice.

This part of the myth cannot be ancient. The Scandinavian homelands--Norway, Sweden, and Denmark--are not volcanic. But there is nothing so characteristic of Iceland as the clash between fire and ice.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Save the Icelandic Goat

When the Vikings settled Iceland in the late 800s, they brought sheep, cows, horses, goats, pigs, hens, geese, dogs, cats, mice, lice, fleas, beetles … Archaeologists have found signs of all these in the detritus of a Viking Age house. 

Go to Iceland today and you can ride a Viking horse. You can buy a sweater made from Viking sheep's wool. You can eat cheese from the milk of Viking cows and--if you hurry--Viking goats. 

We could also talk about Viking dogs and Viking chickens, but it's the goats I'm worried about.

There's only one farm left in Iceland that specializes in raising Icelandic goats, and it's going on the auction block next month. Háafell in Borgarfjord--aka the Icelandic Goat Conservation Center, in foreclosure. Unless they can raise $90,000 in a month, their 400 goats will go to the slaughterhouse. That's about half the total population of Icelandic goats in the world.

If Háafell fails, we'll lose an important link to the Viking world.

Thor the Thunder god will not be happy. 

Goat is what Thor eats for dinner, according to Snorri's Edda. The two goats that pull Thor's chariot allow him to butcher and boil them every night. Provided that he saves every bone and wraps them up in the skins, unbroken, the goats will come back to life in the morning. 

The heroes in Valhalla will also not be happy. There, a magic goat produces endless vats of mead instead of milk for them to drink. 

And what, without goats, would make the goddess Skadi laugh? 

In one of Snorri's funniest tales, Loki was caught by a giant eagle who dragged him through treetops and bounced him on stony ground. "Stop!" cried Loki, "and I'll give you the goddess Idunn and her golden apples, source of the gods’ immortal youth." 

The gods began to grow old and gray. Forced to confess, Loki was ordered to retrieve Idunn. He borrowed Freyja’s falcon cloak and flew to Giantland. Learning the giant was out, Loki turned Idunn into a nut, clasped her in his talons, and took off for Asgard. When the giant came home to find his prize missing, he transformed into giant-eagle shape and went after Loki, "and he caused a storm-wind by his flying."

The gods stacked a great pile of wood in the yard of Asgard. As soon as Loki the falcon flew over the wall, they torched the stack. The giant eagle's feathers caught fire. He fell to earth, in giant form, and Thor killed him with one whack of his hammer. 

It's to compensate for this killing that the giant’s daughter Skadi was allowed to marry one of the gods. She also demanded they make her laugh; she considered it quite impossible. "Then Loki did as follows: he tied a cord round the beard of a certain nanny-goat and the other end round his own testicles, and they drew each other back and forth and both squealed loudly. Then Loki let himself drop in Skadi’s lap, and she laughed."

If that's not a reason to save the Icelandic goat from extinction, I don't know what is. Click here to go to the IndieGoGo site and get yourself a coffee mug:

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Names of the Week

Why did I write a biography of a 13th-century Icelandic chieftain who was murdered cowering in his cellar? Tonight I'm giving a talk to a book club in Burlington, Vermont, and I know that's one of the questions they'll ask me. Here’s one answer:

Have you ever wondered why Hump Day was named “Wednesday”? Or where the names Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday come from? These days of the week were named for the ancient gods Woden (or Odin), Tyr, and Thor, and the goddess Frigg or Freyja.

If it weren’t for that 13th-century Icelandic chieftain, Snorri Sturluson, we wouldn’t know much about these old gods. In about 1220, to impress a teenage Norwegian king—the same king who, 20 years later, ordered him killed—Snorri wrote a book of Norse myths called the Edda. Along with a collection of mythological poems (also confusingly called the Edda), Snorri’s book contains almost everything we know about the gods we still honor each week with the names Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

Tuesday is named for Tyr, the one-handed god of war. According to Snorri, Tyr stuck his hand in the mouth of a giant wolf. He was guaranteeing the gods wouldn’t double-cross the wolf when they bound him with a leash made from six things: “the noise a cat makes when it moves, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.” Of course, the gods were lying to the wolf. They had no intention of freeing him again. So he bit off Tyr’s hand. Tyr “is not called a peace-maker” now, says Snorri, in the translation by Jean Young.

Wednesday is named for Odin, "the highest and oldest of the gods," the one with the most names and the most stories. Odin owns the hall Valhalla. He directs the Valkyries, who chose the slain on the field of battle. He is the god of poets and storytellers, the god of beer and brewing. He has two ravens, Thought and Memory, that keep him apprised of the news. I've written about the God of Wednesday (obviously) a number of times on this blog.

See, for example, the story of Odin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, here:

Or the story of the mead of poetry, here:

As Snorri says, "It will be impossible for you to be called a well-informed person if you cannot relate some of these great events."

Thursday is named for Thor, strongest of the gods. Thor drives a chariot pulled by two goats. He has three magical objects: a belt of strength, a pair of iron gloves, and a hammer called Mjöllnir, or "Crusher." "The frost ogres and cliff giants know when it is raised aloft, and that is not surprising since he has cracked the skulls of many of their kith and kin."

Friday is named for Freyja (or maybe for Frigg, but Snorri doesn’t tell us much about Frigg). Freyja is "the most renowned of the goddesses." She drives a chariot drawn by two cats and enjoys love poems. She cries golden tears, wears expensive jewelry, and is not particularly faithful to her husband. "It is good to call on her for help in love affairs," Snorri says.

Why should we care about these old stories? In 1909, a translator called the two Eddas “the wellspring of Western culture.” That may be an exaggeration, but the Eddas are the source of much of our modern popular culture.

The Marvel comic character Thor—and the blockbuster movies about him—are obviously based on the Eddas.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were inspired by the Eddas—and so, of course, were Peter Jackson’s films, not to mention all the fantasy-themed movies, books, and games that feature wandering wizards, fair elves and werewolves, valkyrie-like women, magic swords and talismans, talking dragons and dwarf smiths, heroes that understand the speech of birds, or trolls that turn into stone.

The Gothic novel, too, has been traced back to the Eddas.

Their influence is even felt in “high” culture, stretching from Thomas Gray (better known for “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”) in the 1750s to our latest Nobel prizewinner, Alice Munro.

And, of course, the names of these gods are on our lips four days out of every week.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Uig Chessmen

In 1831, "a number of figures carved in ivory, apparently chessmen" appeared for sale in Edinburgh. Ten were quietly bought by an antiquarian and now reside in the National Museum of Scotland, along with an eleventh that surfaced a little later. The other 48 face pieces, some pawns and plain discs (possibly counters for a game like backgammon), and an ivory buckle were sold to the British Museum, where these "Lewis chessmen" are among the most popular objects on display.

Carved of walrus tusk, several of the Lewis chessmen look like Viking berserks, biting their shields. Based on such details of design and dress, the chessmen are thought to have been made in Scandinavia around the year 1200. In my book-in-progress, The Ivory Vikings (to be published in the U.S. and the U.K. in May 2015 by Palgrave MacMillan), I examine the controversial theory presented by Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson (here: that the chessmen were created in Iceland by a woman named Margret.

But where they were made is not the only controversy surrounding the chessmen. They're called the Lewis chessmen, for everyone agrees they were found on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. But when I went to Lewis two weeks ago, I heard several different stories of how--and where--they were discovered.

They were “buried fifteen feet under a bank of sand” on Uig Strand, somewhere near here:

They were found six to eight miles away at the “House of the Black Women,” thought to be an ancient nunnery, somewhere near here:

There was a shipwreck—and a murder. They were dug up by a cow, or a cow fell into a hole, or a wild storm scoured the dunes and exposed a strange underground room out of which a bevy of elf faces peered.

Once found, the chessmen were taken to the minister at Baile-na-Cille. He kept them here at the manse, before sending them on to Edinburgh to be sold:

In Ardroil, at the head of Uig Bay, the locals have erected a wooden chessman to mark the spot where the chessmen were found:

In Mealasta, site of the "House of the Black Women," archaeologists have dated a grain of barley to about the year 1200, when the chessmen were likely made:

The stories will never permit us to choose between Ardroil and Mealasta. All the accounts do, however, link the chessmen with Uig. The name--pronounced OO-ick--comes from the Old Norse word for bay, vík, from which we get our word Vikings.

"Uig" in the 1830s referred to the parish, not just to the bay, an area of over 200 square miles. Dave Roberts, a former schoolteacher who lives on a croft here, explained to me that adventurers who came no further than the Standing Stones at Callanish would say they’d been to Uig. And they had, indeed, crossed into the parish. But to reach Uig Strand took a fifteen-mile ferry ride down Loch Roag, then a four-mile walk along the boggy banks above Valtos Glen.

At low tide, the find spot at Ardroil would be a half-hour from there across the sands. The House of the Black Women would be a half-day’s hike over rather challenging terrain.

So where did the Lewis chessmen come from? We can all agree they came from Uig. Maybe we should start calling them the Uig chessmen.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Living Stones

Last year I wrote about a thin place, a place where the barrier between worlds--of ordinary and divine, of reality and story--are permeable. My place is Helgafell, a hill in Iceland. Its name means Holy Mountain.

I'm there now, wandering about in the fog and drizzle and occasional brief patches of brightness, and looking down more often than around at the mountains for the basic reason that I'm not wearing my Wellington boots and it takes a lot of concentration to hop through the marsh and mire and along the waterline without getting my feet wet.

So, of course, I came home with wet feet. But also with a hundred photos of what I saw while attempting to pay attention to my feet.

Here are a few of my favorites.