Iceland’s Althing, its governmental body 30 miles from its capital, was an innovation. At the time of its founding in the 10th century, other countries had kings and lots of peasants. The Althing was an imperfect experiment in Democracy with no executive branch of government. The grieved party who brought a suit before the legislature or judges was left to enforce it. David Roberts text for Iceland: Land of the Sagas book notes that Icelanders created sagas, mystical stories, to explain how things worked out, but in “520 instances of feud, only 10 percent ….were settled legally”. The result surely meant lots of unresolved situations. There were many unhappy people resulting but lots of sagas were written. The rest of Roberts’s book tells about some of them.
One of the more important sagas is about Egil. Roberts observes that Egil is a drunkard, and the author doesn’t ignore the fact that Iceland has a tradition of drinking to excess, and the sagas tend to celebrate this fact. I saw no evidence of this when I was there and was told that it’s largely a weekend phenomenon involving lots of teenagers who are learning their limits.
Over time, Iceland’s economy has shifted from farming to fishing. However, its most important fishing port was on the island of Heimaey. About the time Heimaey’s population reached 5,000, a volcano that had been silent for 5,000 years blew. This happened in 1973, and 1/3 of the island was covered with lava. At the time, many authorities advised that the island be abandoned, but locals used sea water to cool the molten flow and Heimaey’s excellent harbor actually improved. Icelanders are used to dealing with adversity because they live near the Arctic Circle in the most eruption prone landscape on the planet. I have seen videos of this volcanic eruption on Heimaey more than once, and it led to a tough time.
There are lots of churches in Iceland. Small white places of worship seem to be everywhere, and I wondered if they were well attended or mostly abandoned like small churches all over the world are. Cathedrals are major tourist attractions in Reykjavik and in Iceland’s vibrant second city Akureyri. Iceland: Land of the Sagas finally dealt with this too. Roberts told me that the 1st church in this country appeared at Thingvellir in 1018. The 16th century Reformation caused violence, and the country became mostly Lutheran after a bishop was beheaded. The author noted that 97% of the population belonged to the Lutheran church while few Icelanders actually claim to be religious. I was surprised to learn that there are 10,000 Catholics on this island. However, I learned this from a work of fiction called The Sacrament written by a former Icelander whose main character is a nun.
On my last trip to Iceland I was warned about the difficult weather and learned the hard way that half of the roads in Iceland are gravel. I still joke only half-in-jest that Ruth and I almost died only one time while there. One of the more interesting conversations I had while in Akureyri was with a local lady in a lovely motel. She worked the desk and wondered how Iceland will deal with tourists that used to number in the thousands but now are counted in the millions.
If you have a desire to see a totally unique culture in this world before big changes occur, go to Iceland as soon as you can. Like Ruth & me, you will probably consider it one of your best trips ever.