Saga: A narrative or legend of heroic exploits.

5 09 2012

Yesterday I had the delight of flying to Reykjavik for Fulbright Orientation. In Iceland the weather is always changing and approximately 1/3 of the domestic flights are delayed or cancelled. So I got into town early and had plenty of time to sight-see. This week in class we are learning about the environment and natural resources of Iceland, so I went off in search of Icelandic history and tradition. And I found myself at the Culture House.

Many past heads of state in Iceland.

While the collection of art was excellent, I was most interested in original copies of Medieval Sagas. They are written on vellum, which is delicately treated calf skin. In fact many of the manuscripts are made from the skins of a few hundred calves! The inks are natural herbs and berries; often mixed in seashells. Tools of choice for writing were quills. The Icelandic word for pen, penni, is a loan word from the Latin penna, meaning “wing” or “feather”. Feathers from swans, geese, and eagles were prefered as were those plucked from the left wing which are considered easier on the hand.

Strengthened by molten sand, drained of marrow, and sharpened with a knife, quills were a time consuming art.

The old vellum manuscripts preserve the Northern classical heritage and capture the very beginning of Iceland. The settlement of Iceland was one step in the westward expansion of the Vikings. The adventures of Leif Ericsson in America are chronicled in 13th- and 14th-century Icelandic sagas, including the Groenlendinga saga (the Greenlanders’ Saga) and Eiriks saga. Icelanders, led by Eirik the Red, later settled in Greenland. It is true, he did give the place an optimistic name to attract potential settlers. At the turn of the millennium (1000), Eirik’s son Leif discovered the North American shores. He went in search of the land that Bjarni Herjulfsson had spotted some years earlier. After one in his group stumbled upon fermented grapes, Leif named the land Vinland. While many historians long took this account as a fable, ancient Nordic settlements were recently unearthed in Newfoundland. Indicating that Leif the Lucky may have been the first to discover the Americas. These unique Sagas, poems and narratives are often our sole written sources of information on the society, religion and world view of the people of Northern Europe from pagan times through the tumult of Viking Expansion, the settlement of the Atlantic Islands, and the period of Christianisation.

Like the Irish Book of Kells, this manuscript is painstakingly hand written and illustrated, making it an “illuminated saga”.

And Christianity did take hold in Iceland. The official state religion is Lutheran and nearly 80% of Icelanders identify as this religion. The most recognizable landmark in Reykjavik is Hallgrimskirkja Church and it has become my north star when I am in the city. While my flight home was delayed 4 times and took off in turbulent weather, my trip to the southern peninsula was no saga!

At 74.5m tall, the bell tower dominates the Reykjavik landscape.

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