Hope is Born! May this eve of Christmas bring you safely to shore.
You are within some.
Others are the sky taking the island to sea.
These are the shores of life. Gunnar used them as a symbol of Christianity and the hard choices of ethics.
He refused to accept that they were in our control, as strongly as he knew we must cross them.
But that’s why you go to Iceland, right?
To learn your place?
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.
Back in the days before lava covered the best of Iceland and people had to move up onto the hills with their sheep…
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.
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
And probably the most political. Like all churches, it is a face of the state. If you want to know what political power looks like, look here. That most Icelanders don’t actually go to church is not the point. It’s not about “going to church.” It’s about the survival of an ancient balance between outward and inward lives, i.e., in modern terms, Iceland. In other words, this, too, is church:
And ravens. Mountain of ravens, too.
It is about holding on. So, when you come to a church in Iceland, don’t drive by. Stop.
That’s the old church in the foreground, in memory at least. But, a thousand years, what’s that? Nothing at all.