The Settlement Exhibition (permanent) and Settlement Sagas (until November 1),
With otherworldly northern lights, volcanoes and hot springs, Iceland is famously a nation of natural wonders.
It also has an extraordinary human wonder in its tradition of sagas, written in Icelandic, when the scholarly world was dominated by Latin, and establishing a tiny nation, in terms of population, as great when measured by its literary contribution.
Reykjavik’s City Museum has since last year complemented its exhibition of artefacts from the early settlement of Iceland with a display of some of the vellum manuscripts that record the progress of Icelandic civilisation from its Viking beginnings through love, marriage, power struggles and to the development of law.
In a darkened room, we’re introduced to five texts, the earliest dating back to the 12th-century and telling of earlier times, which normally are kept away from public view in the illustrious Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies.
They are at once marvellously remote and curiously close to present-day Icelanders, who we are told speak a language more or less the same as the Old Norsk of the manuscripts and for whom their tradition of Icelandic sagas is central to their national identity.
The very word Icelander is believed to make its first written appearance in the Book of the Icelanders – or Íslendingabók — written by Icelandic priest Ari Thorgilsson (1067-1148 AD).
Also, early 12th-century, but anonymous, the Book of Settlements — Landnámabók – tells the story of the seafarers from Norway and the British Isles, who were the first settlers in around 874 – making Iceland the last country in Europe to be inhabited.
Some of the settlers made their way to Kjalrnes, now part of present-day Reijkavik and the setting for Kjalnesingasaga — The Saga of the People of Kjalarnes. It includes a female troll Esja who gives her name to a mountain that dominates Reijkavik.
In dry contrast to the fantasy world of trolls and magic, the Jónsbók — The Laws of Later Iceland – from 1281 established the laws of Iceland, another of the manuscripts on display.
One of the laws was that property transactions had to be written down, as in the Bill of Purchase for Reykjavik (1615), a text given weight by authenticating seals, and which marked an exchange between a widow, who was the seller, and the governor of Iceland on behalf of the King of Denmark, the colonial power until into the 20th-century.
The price was the equivalent of 60 cows.
That is fact. Much of the rest of the content of the manuscripts we see, and whose musical language we can be lulled by if we linger over the touch screen in the corner, is “internally consistent”, as the exhibition notes tell us, but we cannot know which parts are literally true.
It’s a question we ponder as we review the evidence of the first settlement of Iceland in the Settlement Exhibition.
It is centred around the remains of a 10th-century hall, preserved exactly where it was found and where the settlers might have sat around the central fire narrating sagas.
Together with the sound of seabirds and the metallic ring of an early Icelander hammering a nail on his anvil, we get a vivid sense of the atmosphere of life for the Viking settlers, peaceful when they weren’t out raiding.
Apart from the hall, artefacts include fragments of everyday life – pieces of shoes, nails, bones used for sewing, beads, soapstone imported from Norway and walrus tusk, perhaps exported by early Icelanders.
Today the invaders are tourists and the export products are Icelandic salt and knitted jumpers, but the sense of continuity is profound.
Barbara Lewis © 2016.