Category Archives: Christian Iceland

Maria of the Elves

Women were put to death for visiting elves here on Viðey in Reykjavik Old Harbour. Now there is a shrine to Maria made out of cut glass in their honour and in honour of birth and motherhood in general.

On the other side of the island is the John Lennon Peace Tower, which beams light up into the winter darkness.

Iceland. Giving Peace and Light a chance since 870.

Plus picnics.

Worlds Within Worlds

 

Light tells its own stories in Þingvellir. We are here to witness. It’s no surprise the Icelanders first called Christ “White Christ.” He was the north, that place from beyond the world. Who nonetheless came, physically, as this Earth, in a harsh and beautiful mercy.


Oxarárfoss

Playing with the Elves in Iceland

A few official Icelandic elvish sites for you. Here’s Álfaborg in Borgisfjörður Estri. After driving across the entire country to get here, I realized, duh, that I had passed hundreds of elf cities to see this one. They were everywhere, which made sense. Every fjord was isolated.

A lovely place, though!

I spent a lot of time trying to see how it would look when the elves appeared and it came alive. Perhaps you can see it?

What I wanted to know was what was it that identified a place as an elf city, when other lumps of rocks weren’t? I know now that this notion of identification is essential, that spirit in rocks is a form of respect, an admission of an emotional connection, but back then I drove up the fjord to the next elf hill and climbed up it in the rain and fog and looked out at the rain and fog.

And looked at every stone, pushing myself by force of will into a consciousness that preceded any understanding of them as rock. I got there, too.

Still, elf hills are not uncommon. Here’s a common shape:

Note that it looks a lot like a turf house, with a chimney. Small versions are created by birds, who perch on top of hillocks, Icelanders will quickly point out these days, shit what they have to, and fertilize the grass, which makes a little cap for the hill. Well, maybe. Still, rocks at old turf house sites are not uncommon.

Nor are they on the elf hills in Borgisfjörður Estri. In the fog, of course.

Believe me, I was drenched with rain. On the east side of the hill, there is an old sheep fold and the ruins of a house field. If I had known enough at the time, I would have found the ruins of the old turf house that accompanied them… right on the elf hill. I didn’t know enough to look. I was caught in the fog. Perhaps that was fitting.

You can see some bird handiwork here.

And, frankly, the Álfaborg is mysterious… but why this one? “Is it the cleft?” I wondered. 

Well, I know now it has to do with familiarity. After awhile, you become the rock. It becomes home. You haunt it. And figures appear out of another dimension of your life. At the time, though, I looked around, trying to see what and elf would see, as a clue to what a human would see that caused them to see elves.

Beautiful, isn’t it!

I tracked over every trail over the mountain, reading each turn of stone as a story read in sequence, as I had learned to do with stone landforms in Indigenous country in Canada. I learned that it doesn’t help if you don’t know the underlying story. I mean, you know you are walking through a story, but what story?

Ah, that’s the thing. It has lots of characters, though.

I learned in time that every churchyard has such elf stones.

Even when they become golf courses.

And here at the old monastery at Skriðuklaustur, right behind the building, this mysterious wall, carved by lichens but most likely not entirely by lichens. I spent many, many hours, over 4 weeks, trying to read these marks in all kinds of different light. I learned a lot about lichens and their ability to make human forms!

And traffic circles in Reykjavik, even ones decorated with pipes, are there to protect elf stones more than they are there to route traffic. If you dodge traffic, and peer through the pipe you can see what someone else imagined the elves could see. It’s nice to be reaffirmed like this.

Still, it’s mysterious. Here’s an island in Lake Myvatn, famous for being an ogre… on which live elves! Now, that’s really mixing it up.

You can see her on the right in snowmobile season below. Oh, those humans!

Dwarf stones are an entirely different matter:

After awhile, it became clear to me that many elf stones were of a kind of lava that attracted complex lichens: the elfish shapes were a result more of the lichens than the stones.

Most fun to watch the cows feeding belly deep in grass in Borgisfjörður Estir, though. Half in this world and half out of it! Splendid cows. I always suspected that of them!

At Mosfellsbær, though, it’s pretty obvious that elfishness isn’t just a matter of smallish rocks and lichens. There’s a sense of the power of landscape that is much larger than that. The land is a body, obviously, although not a human one, and it has points of focus, or life, that are very intense.

Don’t bother to tell the horses at Eiðar, though, who live on another official elf hill.

It’s hard to tell if their mystery is from close living with elves or just from being the horses of the gods themselves, but they enjoy it if you ask. Here’s an elf hill from the southern Icelandic shore, close to the Dyrhólaey Bird Sanctuary.

The same shape shows up in the hraun at Buðir.

But don’t get hooked on that shape. Some of the most officially elvish land in the country is here in the Norðurdalur:

You don’t have to go so far. Right in front of the Hallgrimskirkja in downtown Reykjavik, right under Lief Erickson’s statue, the elves are living happily ever after. Wander around. They’re in every schoolyard in town.  But isn’t that right? Shouldn’t kids be playing with elves? Someone should tell the kid below.

Most elves go unnoticed. Millions of people walk right past this one …

… at Goðafoss. They’re off to see the falls. Very nice falls, but isn’t it rude to walk past without showing one’s respect?

And we shouldn’t get too fixated on rocks. Here on the island of Viðey in Reykjavik Harbour, a Catholic shrine has been erected on top of a famous elf hill, which consists of grass and fog, and some holes you could turn an ankle in. Women wandered out there, it is said, and went mad. I suspect that Maria knows otherwise.

In short, elves are everywhere where the world makes you lose your way and then gives it back again in its own forms. This is called madness in civilized society. It is hardly that.

Schoolyard in Reykjavik

 

Splitting the Earth Wide Open

In his novel Sworn Brothers, Gunnar writes engagingly of opening the green skin of the earth, forming it into an arch, and swearing an oath beneath it, before the sod is closed again, taking the oath into deep memory and deep time. So was the voyage that led to the founding of Iceland undertaken, with a few nudges from Oðin, that clever wanderer. One can see signs of this story throughout Iceland today. Have a look. The cairns will guide you to the opening.

Here we are at Geirstaðakirkja. Romantic, huh. Sturdy Viking stuff, machine-planed and the works. Note how the earth is split around the church, in traditional Icelandic turf house style. It’s a thing.

Note as well, that it’s not as romantic as it looks. Whew.

Even a Viking-Christian God needs some water for his sheep and a spare battery for his truck, and where to put that stuff, why, in behind the altar. Naturally. Power is power. But I jest. Look more closely at the surroundings. Here is Gunnar’s split Earth again. This time, a boulder broken by frost, and frost in Iceland is a force from beyond the world and deadly to humans.

Ironically, it also opens the Earth for them, and who steps forth but Lazarus drawn forth by the hand of Christ. You can go into their shared grave in the Earth…

… and you can step out again as a different person, into a different world, one cleansed by the journey…

… and then you can feast.

And then? Why, cross the sea.


With grass breaking across your prow and the wind for a sail.

Beautiful Raufarhöfn

This graveyard in a part of Iceland rarely visited fills me with joy. The church, like so many, is an imported thing, steeped in nationalism, colonialism and paternity, but the graveyard, ah, that is 1100 years living all at once.

And in a way that has no words, at least not yet. To date, it exceeds the capacity of the literary writers of Reykjavik, far to the southwest, but I like to think that some kid, alone here just below the Arctic Circle, is living the moments right now that in a decade or two will give it voice. What a day to look forward to!

 

Beautiful Systrafoss

Back in the days before lava covered the best of Iceland and people had to move up onto the hills with their sheep…

… the priests of Kirkjubær …

The basalt column marks the old church.

… were famous for keeping a group of nuns, well, orphan girls for the most part, over at Kirkubærjarklaustur, for the pleasure that could be gained from that …

 

… in just the place the Irish monks (who were on Iceland before the Icelanders) were camping out in caves in the cliffs and living off bird eggs (and then abandoned because a bunch of noisy pagans and their Irish women [slaves aka wives] had moved into town), and I wonder, you know, if the priests didn’t choose the place because the falls are like a bridal veil.

Systrafoss

… that flows down the hill separately, splits around the rock (fine Christian symbolism there) and then unites as one — before flowing through the cloister. We’ll never know, but we do know that the young women were set to work embroidering cloth, and that Icelandic cloth was the best in the world. It would be a surprise if the amorous priests missed out on the symbolism, or didn’t point it out to the girls left in their charge. At any rate, the falls are beautiful, and richer for a history older than Iceland, even though the lava took all the best land away, some say to punish those lascivious priests.

Still, the land’s still good enough for zipping through on a tractor, so all is not lost.