Category Archives: Christian Iceland

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 they 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.

The Four-Directional Icelandic Cross

Following the Old Norse prototypes that long ago divided Iceland into the quadrants of a compass (Still used by the Icelandic Government’s tourism promotion board to label the country as West, North, East and, South Iceland [and don’t you dare travel around the country in the other direction; it only works poorly]), the Icelandic Cross is not divided into two axes, the vertical Heaven axis and the horizontal Earth axis, meeting at the heart, or Christ, but into four quadrants, blending the living and the dead with the action of the mind. It’s why Lazarus is so popular as a figure on Icelandic altars (Christ raised him from the dead, maggots and all), and why the Valþfjófstaðurkirkja looks like this, drawing its graveyard deep into thought.

The pre-Christian rowan trees of the graveyard are welcome as well.

What’s in a Church?

Saubæjarkirkja

Inside a church are people. Outside of a church are dark cliffs. The church is maintained by the government, because it is on this distinction, this between space, however narrow, that it draws its legitimacy, in a long history of living under colonization. Gunnar Gunnarsson turned it on its head, in his book Svartfugl, or “The Black Birds,” meaning dark-souled people (including but not limited to priests) stealing the light from others, under the influence of a bleak landscape. The English translation is The Black Cliffs — the human oppression, and its intimate relationship with the land, has been wiped clean for an American audience. That relationship, though, is vital, as it represents exactly what one sees in the church above: a portal into the self. The result was a complex book, perhaps the best book of 1932:

So, a self and a book, and a whole lot more.

 

The Secret of Skriðuklaustur

For four weeks, I studied this stone wall above the old monastery, trying to catch it in a light that revealed it. My gut told me that these rocks were culturally-altered, but nothing came clear that I could identify — nothing that couldn’t also be explained by geological processes of decaying, exposed basalt. The archaeological team came to the same conclusion, so used the rock as support for a viewing platform … while also protecting it from the weather. Clever.

So, what do you think?

I was pretty sure that there was a raven in this sculpted gouge, worn out by some peri-glacial river long ago.

And ravens are important in Norse mythology, and, if you’ll look below the raven’s wing, the raven’s companion, the god Oðin, was known, like Christ, to hang on a cross from time to time.

Was there a language here? It’s simply not possible to tell, although we do know that some of the patients at this hospital had come from Greenland — what kind of glyphing had they brought with them? Deep within the monastery, the rocks suggest some kind of talismanic scratching of simple crosses into the rock in the near-dark, but here, in the light?

Was the old practice of tracing natural forms in the rock to gain their power. One wouldn’t have to carve. One would receive the energy, without any intermediary art. It is the reverse of normal pictograph-making, where a pattern is worn by a finger dipped in fish grease and sand and run thousands of times over the same groove, to transfer power that can then be picked up by the sea, but here, where is no sea, and no humanly-created shapes? Might they be, nonetheless, humanly-imagined and traced? Here, look again, later in the afternoon…

There was a ritual in the Monastery of Maulbronn in Germany (far older than this one), of pouring wine into a crack in the stone, so the simple monks could catch it in their fingers… so good, they said, it was “eleven finger wine.” The spirit of God in the wine, in other words, united with the spirit in the rock, a fine Christian symbol, and came to life through the hands of monks lifted to their mouths. Might the same thing have been happening here? We’ll never know, but we’ll never know if it didn’t, either.