Sigurbjörg Thrastardóttir on the Icelandic Sagas

Photograph by Sigurbjörg Thrastardóttir

Before leaving South Germany after our sojourn of one year, my little group of Icelandic colleagues and I pondered what could be a suitable farewell gift for the helpful office staff of our magnificent residency. After brainstorming with the aid of numerous coffees, we decided on a group portrait with a twist. "I suggest you exaggerate the pose, make a little theatre," said a Brazilian friend of ours, a choreographer. "Don't you have something from your cultural history, like a Goya painting or something—a scene that everyone relates to?" No, we don't have anything like a Goya painting. The history of Icelandic visual arts has left no famous remnants or relics, neither from the Middle Ages nor the Romantic Era. It is too short and intangible, as is the history of our theatre, our architecture, and even our music. So we did what we always do when we need to show we do have some history up there on our remote little island—we turned to the old Viking sagas of honour, life and death. For some reason, those ancient scripts survived the harsh conditions that prevailed at sixty-six degrees North throughout the centuries, although the houses didn't—and inside these scripts we have all the expressive intensity other countries convey through drama, painting and sculpture. In short, we decided to re-enact the famous moments from Njal's Saga in which Gunnar from Hlídarendi, a fair farmer and a warrior, gets into fatal trouble despite his best efforts to the contrary. With kitchen pots and pans from the residency we paraded to a tiny photo studio downtown where we set up a grey backdrop for our little play. Each of us had a fixed part—I was Hallgerd, the wild and vengeful wife of Gunnar—mainly because I have long hair—and instead of real Viking weapons we had wooden spoons, scissors, cut boards and even a hair dryer. As our choreographer said: "Even a spoon can look like a lethal weapon if you hold it with enough conviction."

The resulting portrait was just as tacky, joyful and sincere as we had hoped, and it now proudly hangs in the offices of Villa Concordia in Bamberg, with an explanation that reads: "At a critical moment of his ultimate defence, hero Gunnar from Hlíðarendi asks his wife Hallgerd for a lock of hair to replace his torn bowstring. She refuses, thus paying him back for an old quarrel, as the enemies draw in. The Goddess of Destiny towers over the dramatic scene. The author, up front, transcribes the course of events (Staging of Chapter 77 from Njal's Saga)." 

Searching for the exact number of the chapter for the caption, I wistfully longed for my print edition, left on a shelf back home in Iceland. Anyhow, as I scrolled through the digital version, I found myself doing what I always do when looking something up in the sagas: reading on. And on, and on. I don't keep the sagas close to hand all the time, but when I do they just won't let me go. 

So my printed set of three thick books in a box—all the original 13th century sagas, which chronicle the dramatic lives of the 900-1100 A.C. settlers of Iceland—has been flipped through many a time since I won it in an essay competition at the age of 15. My entry in the competition was a piece about Hallgerd walking effortlessly into modernity. She shows up at a middle class family's summerhouse in the 80's, stays for dinner and surprises the family with her archaic syntax and heavy clothing. And of course, her super long hair. Writing it, I had to consult Njal's Saga at the library as a model for the ancient syntax, and I remember even then being too intrigued to put it down. 

What I didn't realize though was that my idea of having Hallgerd enter modernity was perhaps not as original as I (and the jury) thought. Now, everywhere I look, I see how the sagas permeate our daily lives, much like the Beatles in Liverpool or Elvis in Memphis. For example:

When you land in Iceland, you walk through the Leifur Eiríksson international airport. Leif "the lucky" Eriksson was the guy who found America (then "lost" it again), as told in the Saga of the Greenlanders. If you need a place to stay in Reykjavík you can try the guesthouse Eiríkur rauði. Erik the Red was Leif's father and has a whole saga all for himself, Erik the Red's Saga. (Once in bed, you might even amuse yourself by watching Monty Python's film Erik the Viking, where all the details are twisted around for comic effect; Leif the lucky, for example, falls overboard from the flying Viking vessel.)

The Leif Eriksson statue opposite Hotel Leifur Eiríksson

In the neighbourhood of the guesthouse, every other road is named after a saga character, so please don't get lost when wandering through the streets of heroes Bolli, Njáll, Skarphéðinn and Gunnar—the last being our good friend with the torn bowstring.

A street named after a Saga character

Before going out, though, you may have done some cleaning with Grettir the Strong, the brand of an especially robust soap. Grettir was the outlaw who famously swam out to Drangey island in the Saga of Grettir to escape the law and fought his fear of darkness till death. 

Grettir soap

For the road, I recommend you grab a bottle of Egils Appelsín, the classic orange soda that bears the name of Egill Skallagrímsson, one of the most beloved characters of the sagas. Egil's Saga is full of poetry, loss, sorrow, feasts and fighting so it is no wonder that the soda factory, which also produces beer, earned its hundred years of fame under the title 'The Egill Skallagrimsson Aleworks'. We can't know exactly what the Vikings drank back in the day, but we do know that Egill attended his first drinking party at the age of three and later went on to puke in people's faces and poke out their eyes. 

Egils Appelsín

Now, on we go through the city. Down by the harbour you will see big ships like Snorri Goði, named after a nobleman mentioned in Eyrbyggja Saga and other stories, or the trawler Gísli Súrsson GK-08. The latter takes its name from a hero from a saga of bitter envy, beauty, brotherhood and revenge. From Gisli Sursson's Saga they made an excellent film, The Outlaw, perhaps one of the first good films made in Iceland (and it was already 1981—again, we are behind with everything!)

In a bookshop nearby you can flip through the latest literature based on the sagas. Take Thórunn Valdimarsdóttir's original novel Kalt er annars blóð, which roughly translates the plot of The Saga of the People of Laxardalur into the current-day, or psychiatrist Óttar Gudmundsson's new study, Heros and Hysterics: Mental disorders in the Sagas. In that book Mr. Gudmundsson examines the Viking heroes' behaviour for signs of what would be recognized today as mental disturbances and personality disorders: psychopathy, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, narcisissm and so on. Prize winning author Einar Kárason, who has based his three most recent books on the Sturlunga saga, an account from the time of the saga writers, has along with Mr. Gudmundsson played the game of guessing what the saga characters would be doing were they around today. (Again, copied from my Hallgerd in the summerhouse?!) On the website hosting this game we learn for example that Njall has worked as a university rector, fighter Thorgeir Havarsson is in jail for drug dealing and thuggery, poet Thormodur Kolbrunarskald is "the Andy Gibb of Iceland," enjoying lasting popularity for his pop music performances, and that Guðrún Osvífursdottir, from The Saga of the People of Laxardal, "is the Bishop of Iceland, the first woman to be given the job, all the more remarkable because she did not arrive at theology until her middle years." The pieces were written by Mr. Kárason on the occasion of the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair—where Iceland was Guest of Honour—and six months later, in June 2012, Iceland actually saw its first woman consecrated as bishop. Such is the power of writing! 

From the bookshop you may well walk home under thundering fireworks, if you are visiting Reykjavík around New Year's Eve. You may or may not know that these explosives bear names such as Auður Djupudga (a female settler from The Saga of the People of Laxardal), Gunnar from Hlídarendi (our bow friend) or Gunnlaugur Ormstunga (ah, the love triangle of The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue.)

So it's everywhere. If we follow the example of The Beatles, it's possible that we point all this out on a daily basis, regardless of whether we like it or not. Earlier this year I visited Liverpool for the first time. I thought the "above us only sky" quotation at the airport was a sufficient allusion to The Beatles for one day, as I was in town for other reasons. But then my taxi driver started listing all sorts of insider Beatles info, pointing to where John and George had lived when they were boys, where John got married to Cynthia, and so forth. Then, out of the blue, he turned around in his seat and blurted out: "I never liked The Beatles. I thought they were rubbish." It was the highlight of my Liverpool visit.

With the Sagas, at least for me, it is somewhat different. In some cases, I wouldn't even say that the use of the heroic names was commercial; rather they spring out of respect and love for the legacy. We treat the ancient characters as if they were our next door neighbours, our aunts or our exes. And just as we are surprised that anybody else should take an interest in our closest family, we are of course chuffed when we see Ted Hughes' or Kurt Vonnegut's praise plastered on translated versions of the sagas, or when we learn that the giant German publisher, S. Fischer Verlag, has put out brand new German translations of the collected sagas. For as long as the sagas circulate, they will have readers under their spell. 
Now, here I have only mentioned examples that stick out from the city landscape. A whole new piece could easily be written about the countless quotations, the university studies, the coffee table debates, the various museums, the endless theatre pieces, the graphic novels, the christenings, the heathen rituals, the poems, the slogans and footnotes based on the ancient sagas, underlining the importance of writing in our heritage. But I just thought it would be more fun to quote a cleaning soap named after an outlaw on a deserted island. Or, isn't it brilliant to sell Chinese explosives with the first female settler's face on the box? Why blow her up? How do her features fit the features of a firecracker? Answer: This is as incomprehensible as the human heart itself. When you love someone, say when you are fourteen, you write their name everywhere, on a tree bark, on the pavement, in your notebook, or the police station wall. You inscribe it on the everyday, at once telling everyone and keeping the whole thing a secret. Most likely that's what we're doing with our obsolescent but very much still alive sagas. We are happy they're being read in translation—but we make sure to stress that they are ours. Or is it the other way round? Because our cute, old ancestors wrote them, we think everyone must read them? I don't know. I only know that the names of the stories are unpronounceable to most people abroad, and that when we boldly presented our group portrait to the office staff at Villa Concordia, they had to read the description three times to understand it was from a famous scene.

So we don't have a Goya. Who cares? I, too, wouldn't know a Goya if I saw one—unless I read the caption beneath it. It is the case with everything. So we're good.

All photographs provided by the author.