If you think the Hells Angels attitude is a modern phenomenon, delve a little into the history of Iceland, where the sons of anarchy from a thousand years ago are now national heroes. Writer Joe Yogerst shares his account on one of the more interesting aspects of his visit to Iceland.
Iceland was settled by the outcasts from mainstream Viking civilization in Norway and Denmark. Many of the pioneers were the baddest of the bad, the weirdest of the weird. Men like Erik the Red considered so radical, so violent, so off-the-wall, they were judged unfit for what was already a pretty bad ass society. Struggling against extreme weather and stark geography, they were forced to build a new society from scratch on the remote North Atlantic isle. Twelve hundred years later, that largely untamed society is now the modern nation of Iceland.
Renting a car in Reykjavík, I drove up the island’s west coast in search of remnants from that age. I’d heard you could visit the homestead that Erik founded after his family was kicked out of Norway for unruly behavior. But I wasn’t sure what I would find there – a pile of stones . . . a huge empty field. Who knew?
Asking for directions in a tiny coastal town called Budardalur, I was told to follow a road into the secluded Haukadalur Valley until I came across something that looked like an old sod-roofed house, perched on a hillside in the middle of nowhere. The place looked deserted, not a soul around as I pulled into a small gravel parking lot below the structure. My first inclination was to crawl back into the car and leave this creepy landscape behind. But I’d already come this far . . . why not take a peek inside.
Ducking inside the low front door, I thought I’d walked in on a room full of ghosts. Three women were seated around a smoldering hearth, two of them dressed like medieval peasants, the third like a Viking princess. Their hair was long and wild, their hands stained with grease and soot. They were poking at the fire, chatting in old Norse. A vision from 1,000 years ago, deep and dark in the Icelandic past.
No other people within sight or sound, I was alone with these eerie characters. Just as I was about to retreat from the house and back to the safety my rental car, they looked around, glaring at me through the dim light and swirling smoke. The princess beckoned with a lanky finger.
“Who, me?” I asked, thinking I was dog meat, or at best a toad.
“Of course you,” she responded in perfect English. “Don’t be afraid! Come in! Join us!”
Moments later, the mystery was solved. The “princess” was Alma Gudmundsdottir, director of the local tourist office; the “peasants” were a friend and her teenage daughter. All of them were actors in the living history performance that plays each day at Eiriksstadir – a reproduction of Erik the Red’s homestead on the exact spot where it stood a millennium ago. It’s also the place where his son, explorer extraordinaire Leif Erikson, was born.
“Erik was a bit of a troublemaker,” Alma explained as we stood in front of the house, looking out across the treeless, emerald-green landscape. “He was always arguing with his neighbors, probably over grazing rights. After one of these arguments, he murdered the farmer over there.”
She pointed to a farmhouse on the other side of the valley. “He was finally ‘outlawed’ after murdering two other people – meaning that anyone could kill him without punishment. Rather than wait around for certain death, he took his family and his livestock and sailed away to Greenland.”
Joe Yogerst has worked as a writer, editor and photographer on four continents including stints in South Africa, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and California.
Erik the Red is just one of the colourful characters you’ll come across on Goway’s Circumnavigation of Iceland on board the Ocean Diamond. The early bird booking offer has been extended until December 31st!