On the Way to Iceland

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Travelers on the way to Iceland usually stopped at the Faroes. The descriptions of the Faroese and their houses are similar to what is later described in Iceland but with some surprising differences. Symington, like travelers before him, gets off the boat at Thorshaven and keen observer that he is, has this to say about the town.

“Houses, stone for a few feet next the ground, then wood, tarred or painted black, and generally two stories in height; small windows, the sashes of which are painted white; green turf on the roofs. The interiors of the poorer sort of houses are very dark; an utter absence of voluntary ventilation; one fire, and that in the kitchen, the chimney often only a hole in the roof. Yet even in these hovels there is generally a guest-room, comfortably boarded and furnished. In such apartments we observed chairs, tales, chests of drawers, feather-beds, down coverlets, a few books, engravings on the walls, specimens of ingenious native handiwork, curiosities, etc. This juxtaposition under the same roof was new to us, and struck every one as something quite peculiar and contrary to all our previous experiences. The streets of Thorshavn are only narrow dirty irregular passages, often not more than two or three feet wide; one walks upon are rock or mud. These passages wind up steep places, and run in all manner of zigzag directions, so that the most direct line from one point to another generally leads “straight down crooked land and all round the square.” Observed a man on the top of a house cutting grass with a sickle. Here the approach of spring is first indicated by the turf roofs of the house becoming green. Being invited, we entered several fishermen’s houses; they seemed dark, smoky, and dirty; and, in all, the air was close and stifling. In one, observed a savoury pot of puffin broth, suspended from the ceiling and boiling on a turf fire built open like a smith’s forge, the smoke finding only a very partial egress by the hole overhead; on the wall hung a number of plucked puffins and guillemots; several hens seen through the smoke sitting contentedly perched on a spar evidently intended for their accommodation. In the corner of the apartment; a stone hand-mill for grinding barley, such as Sarah may have used, lay on the floor; reminding one of the East, from whence the Scandinavians came in the days of Odin.

Faroese boatman

Faroese boatman

In passing along the street we saw strips of whale-flesh, black and reddish-coloured, hanging outside the gable of almost every house to dry, just as we have seen herrings in fishing-villages on our own coasts. When a shoal of whales is driven ashore by the boatmen, there are great rejoicings among the islanders, whose faces, we were told, actually shine for weeks after this their season of feasting. What cannot be eaten at the time is dried for future use. Boiled or roasted it is nutritious, and not very unpalatable. The dried flesh which I tasted resembled tough beef, with a flavour of venison. Being “blood-meat,” I would not have known it to be from the sea; and have been told that, when fresh and properly cooked, tender steaks from a young whale can scarcely be distinguished for beef-steak.”

This description is one of the best I’ve read simply for its details. Symington sees a man on the roof of a house with a sickle cutting grass for his livestock. Spring is heralded by the roofs of the houses turning green. He actually gives us a description of cooking being done and of both plucked birds and live chickens in the house. He tries the whale meat and describes it as tough beef.

The Faroese are less well known than the Icelanders. That may be for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps, in part, it was their greater willingness to be part of the Danish empire, partly because it was the Icelanders who had the sagas, partly because Iceland excited a great deal of curiosity during the 19th C. because of its geology. However, the Faroes have always been a safe harbour, a stopping point on a dangerous journey, and Icelanders have, through the centuries, sought shelter in Faroese harbours. The climate is just enough different that grain can be grown. There has been enough prosperity that as Symington describes, there are a variety of crafts, often admirably done in spite of the dark, dank, unhealthy living conditions.

It is a shame that the visitors who came to Iceland were more interested in the geology than the people. Because they come from wealthy, often noble families, they have little or no interest in ordinary people and if they comment on the fishermen or the paupers, it is dismissively. Even Ebenezer Henderson, the minister who comes to distribute Bibles is a snob, interested only in associating with individuals he considers worthy of his attention. His Christ would have been quite comfortable in the temple of the money changers.

The scientific reports that came of all the expeditions to Iceland have long ago become irrelevant. The mechanisms of the geysers have been revealed, the rocks, classified. Quite by accident, the simple fact that there were no commercial inns or hotels, meant that the people where the travellers stayed were described. That, ironically, is what is valuable.

It is impossible to separate the Faroes and Iceland. Historically, they are joined. Politically they were joined. They are bound by custom and circumstance. Symington is quite right to call his book Faroe and Iceland.

It is by comparing the Faroese and the Icelanders that we can obtain a deeper understanding of our ancestors. Too often we talk and write of Iceland as if, somehow, it was separate from all the islands between it and Europe but nothing could be further from the truth. Ships and sailors seek shelter. They seek trade. They establish social and business relationships. It is in these other places where we can get a glimpse of what our ancestors were and were not like.

Iceland: War With England

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Have you heard of the Napoleonic wars? Did you know that because of them, England and Denmark were at war? Did you know that Danish ports were blockaded by the English and that the trade ships that were supposed to supply Iceland with food and trade goods and take Icelandic goods in return were not able to leave port?

Did you know that the people of Icelandic were brought to the brink of starvation? That friends of Iceland in high places in England intervened and obtained a declaration from the English king to lift the blockade on Iceland?

That’s okay. Neither did I. Not, that is, until I began this arcane, strange research into life in Iceland in the late 1700s and the 1800s. I mean, most of us don’t know Canadian history, never mind what was going on in Europe in the early 1800s.

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However, The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland has numerous references to the Napoleonic War and its consequences for Iceland. They are just tidbits, footnotes, brief mentions but by the time I’d finished re-reading Holland’s journal, I had a sense of Iceland being affected by something I’ve never heard anyone talk about.

In a footnote on page 114, Holland says” Bjarni (Sivertsen) may already have been engaged in negotiating the restoration (completed 1812) of funds pirated from Iceland during the 1808 Gilpin raid. Bjarni was no stranger to Britain. He was one of the Icelandic merchants whose ships were detained under war regulations at Leith 1807-1809; Sir Joseph Banks helped secure their release and offered financial support.”

Later, he says about the School House, “Behind the building which forms the present schoolhouse, a new range of buildings has been begun upon, with a view to an enlargement of the Institution. The war with Denmark, among its other consequent calamaties, has been the means of entirely suspending this scheme—from the want which it creates in Iceland of all the materials for building.”

Later in his trip he visits Mr. Jacobæus, whom, he says, “is one of the most considerable merchants in Iceland; and had much commercial connection with Denmark; though this trade has of course suffered greatly from the war between England and Denmark.”

He visits the Leira printing office, the only printing office in Iceland, and says, “It has latterly been much injured by the winter floods, & it is now in projection to construct a new building on the same spot – the execution of which is only delayed form the scarcity of timber in Iceland during the period of war.”

They visit a Mr. Gudmundson, a merchant, “who has commercial connections at Copenhagen, at Reikjaviik & at Havenefiord….We found from conversation with him that the war between England & Denmark had been greatly injurious to his trade—Three years have now elapsed since any vessel has come from Copenhagen to Buderstad; though previously to this time, it was usual for one or two vessels to enter the port annually – This privation of the accustomed inter course is severely felt by the inhabitants of the interior, who are greatly in want of corn, timber, iron &c. The warehouses at Buderstad, and other ports in this part of Iceland, are filled with the commodities of the country—fish oil, fox skins &c, which it is impossible at the present time profitably to dispose.“

When they visit Stappen, he says the merchant of the place is a Mr. Hialtalin. However, he is not there because “At the commencement of the war, he was taken prisoner, & carried into England –Thence he contrived to get into Norway, where he was about 1 1/2½ years ago. Since that time no intelligence what ever of him has reached Iceland. His wife, Madame Hialtalin, with a family of six children, continues to reside at Stappen, where she carries on the business as well as lies in her power.”

When he visits Mr. Clausen, another Danish trader, he discovers that “He collects for exportation, fish, oil, tallow, fox-skins, & the various woolen manufactures of the island–& sells to the inhabitants, both in a retail & wholesale way, different articles of foreign produce or manufacture, procured from the continent of Europe. The war between England & Denmark has been greatly detrimental to this trade. Beside the intercourse with Denmark much profit was formerly derived from the exportation of fish to France, Spain & the ports of the Mediterranean Sea; a branch of commerce which is now entirely suspended. The intercourse with England has not yet acquired a sufficiently settled footing to relieve these evils—Mr. Clausen’s warehouses are crowded with goods for which a market is wanting—He reckons that he has lying by him, (either under cover, or collected into large heaps upon the shore) many hundred thousand fish, salted or dried—Of the woollen goods, manufactured in Iceland, his stock is proportionally large. He has about 50,000 pair of mittens, or woolen gloves, and almost an equal quantity of stocking of different qualities of fineness.”

“Previously to the war, Stikkes-holm was a place of considerable trade, three or four vessels from Norway or Denmark generally coming to the port every year. The only vessel which arrived last year was one from Norway, & none has appeared here in the present summer.”

“Mr. H. had been present at the late unfortunate attack upon Copenhagen—his house & much of his property had been destroyed in the bombardment of the place. He shewed us an umbrella, broken by a shot whilst he was sleeping under it, in a tent.”

“Both Mr. Hialtalin (this is the brother of the missing Mr. Hialtalin) & Mr. Benedictsen spoke much of the distress produced in Iceland by the war between England & Denmark; & seemed to consider the English Order in Council as likely to afford only a very partial relief.”

Reykavik has an annual trade fair, “The Handel”, which Holland says is better this year, 1810, than the previous year “however, by no means equal to previous years.”

When they arrive at Hyindarmule, they attempt to buy some items of Iceland dress from the women. “We were unable, however, to effect any thing of this kind—Not that the people were unwilling to sell – they were all pleased but the impossibility, during the present period of war, of replacing any article with which they now parted.”

“We reached Eyarback at 5 in the afternoon…Previously to the war, three ships usually came there every year.”

“The merchant proprietor at Eyarback is a Mr. Lambasson—This gentleman being detained in Norway by the war, the business is conducted at present by his wife, & by an agent, Mr. Peterson. We were received by them with great hospitality, & remained at the house a few hours to refresh ourselves.”

It’s interesting that, time and again, where they stay is with Danish merchants. Their countries are at war. The English bombardment of Copenhagen resulted in 2,000 civilians being killed and 30% of the buildings being destroyed. Danish ports were effectively blockaded and the Danish navy neutralized.

However, except for one instance, Holland and his companions never felt any hostility or disapproval.

This was not a two way war between France and England but a complex web of alliances and re-alliances with Denmark having to not only fight England in order to avoid being invaded by France but by Sweden. Germany and Russia, at various times, were part of the mix.

When I get time, I’ll type up the letter of the English king who writes up the letter for the British Order in Council that is mentioned.

Icelanders To The Rescue

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In her talk at the INL conference, Trish Baer discussed the work she has done over the last five years on images from the Eddas.

Old Scandinavian history from the time of the Vikings was lost in Europe after Christianity took over. The lack of understanding of that earlier time can be seen in many of the illustrations about the various pagan gods. We’d still have no real idea what people believed if it wasn’t for the Icelanders.

The Icelander who rediscovered, for Europe, knowledge of pagan times was Arngrimur Jonsson. He was in Denmark and mentioned that there were manuscripts in Iceland that contained information about the early history of Scandinavia. These were the Poetic and Prose Eddas.

Trish chose to study images in the Eddas with the purpose of creating an international database for scholars and others. In her years of study, she increased her knowledge of Icelandic, of the sagas, of Icelandic history and digital editing. These images, with the names of their creators and the times they were created, reveal much about the misunderstanding of people with regard to the gods and goddesses of Viking times.

Many people celebrate their Icelandic heritage by wearing Viking helmets with horns, drinking an Icelandic beer and eating a piece of hakarl. Some do all three things at once. They’re all good. However, it is people like Trish who expand our knowledge of Icelandic history and myth. The work is painstaking. It requires the development of research skills. Its rewards are few. There aren’t a lot of companies out there offering jobs for Medievalists, never mind jobs that pay like those offered to bankers.

Trish started her talk by saying that the gods belonged to a dysfunctional family. I’d never thought of them like that. When someone who actually knows the Eddas and the Sagas talks about these characters and their relationships, that’s when I realize just how little I actually know about the pagan gods.

Trish’s work on the images of the Eddas is ground breaking. It is not just that she has set up a digital website so these images can be studied from a distance but that the images reflect the ways the gods were seen, how those images changed over the centuries.

She didn’t carry her topic forward into the present day but I hope she will or that someone else will take what she has done and show how those individuals that our ancestors once worshipped have become comic book and movie heroes who still stir the imagination.

What does it mean, actually, to be called Thor? How much history, how many events, how many images are embedded in that name?

And who, actually, created these images that underpin our ideas of the Vikings? Trish dealt with this by showing the dates and the creators of various images. How exactly did all this feed into the Icelandic bankers being called Vikings?

Imagery that helps relate the stories we all know rather vaguely has been neglected. Perhaps, if we look at them more carefully, we may understand ourselves better. Like how come, I wear that plastic Viking helmet from Tergesen’s, chomp on hakarl and wash it down with brennevin? What is it that I celebrate at August the Deuce and Islendingadagurinn? What is it that I want to emulate or invoke when I buy a grandkid a Viking helmet and plastic sword?

Most of us will stick to eating vinarterta to celebrate our Viking heritage and maybe add a bit of dried fish but the more scholars like Trish (soon to be Dr.Baer)explore, understand and share the details of our heritage, the more there will be for us to know about who we are and why we are that way.