Book Excerpt: Iceland’s Thousand Year Old Parliament

In a recent article I posted a couple of photos taken along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, where the North American and Eurasian Plates are moving apart. The Þingvellir plain was home to Iceland’s parliament a thousand years ago. In this excerpt from my most recent book, Out in the Cold, we visit the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the site of the parliament.

THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD PARLIAMENT

An hour’s drive east of Reykjavik family sedans fill a parking lot. Sven seems to think our Super Jeep needs more room, for he scoffs at that lot and aims for an empty one that looms ahead. We spin to a stop and scatter some rock and the monster asserts our arrival.

We set out along a footpath over one of the more remarkable bits of land on earth, the boundary between two tectonic plates. The bulk of the mid-Atlantic ridge lies beneath the ocean, so along almost all of its reach, standing in witness to its downright remarkableness is impossible.

It is the longest mountain range in the world, here separating the diverging Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. As manifest in Iceland, to the east rides a raised lava ridge, the Eurasian plate, from which the North American plate, to the west, pulls up from the Earth and apart.

Its width varies. Just here it presents as a three foot deep grass covered crevasse just wider than your arms can reach. You can jump inside and stand on the spot where the Earth is coming apart.

Elsewhere the crevasse deepens to twice the height of a man and fills with icy, transparent-as-the-ether water.

We stop along the path.

“Now we are on the Eurasian plate.”

With a hop, “Now the North American.”

Hop. Europe. Hop. North America. You can change continents in Istanbul too, but you have to drive across a bridge.

Here is the earth pulling itself apart

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Most places, a morning walk along a fault line would make your day right there at breakfast. Here in Iceland, two for the price of one, you get epic geography and epic history too, for on this spot lies the heart and soul of the Icelandic nation.

Sven stops farther along the path. Just … HERE, he thinks, this may be the spot where was held the world’s original Parliamentary meeting in 930.

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A WORD ABOUT WORDS, AND TALKING ABOUT TALKING

“Parliament” derives from the eleventh century Old French “parlement,” and every schoolchild knows “parlez-vous Français” means “do you speak French?” so quite literally, a Parliament is a talking shop.

Turns out, even before they worked out a word for it in French, way up here the real thing existed. “Thing” in Old Norse and Icelandic translates as “assembly,” and it is spelled “Þing” in Faroese and Icelandic. Resist the natural inclination to pronounce the letter (called “thorn”), written “Þ,” as “p.” Rather it is pronounced as an unvoiced “th.”

In modern Scandinavian tongues “thing” has become “ting.” The Faroes’ assembly began life as the Althing, a “general assembly of all free men,” and was later renamed the Løgting, “law assembly”. It began on the Tinganes peninsula in Torshavn, still the seat of Parliament and the city’s pride.

The Faroese Løgting and Iceland’s Althing carry on a rivalry to the claim of “world’s oldest Parliament.” The Faroese might logically claim the crown since expansion from the Norse mainland reached the Faroes before Iceland, but memory gets hazy when you gaze so far into the past.

Iceland claims its Althing was the world’s first, established here where we stand on the Þhingvellur plain in the specific year of 930. There are other “oldest” claims. The Tynwald on the Isle of Man claims to be the oldest “continuous” Parliament at over age one thousand, but without a great deal of evidence. And the Jamtamót, the Parliamentary assembly of a Swedish province claims, like the Althing, to have been created in the first half of the tenth century.

Whoever convened first, we know that each year at the summer solstice, leaders, village chiefs from around Iceland, convened on this spot to discuss common interests, and make policy. Though this plain was a more or less central spot, those from farthest east Iceland traveled as long as seventeen days around mountain and glacier.

The base of a cliff served as a natural amplifier for a speaker’s voice, allowing him to address the assembled. Each year, for two weeks in high summer laws were made, disputes settled, foreign VIPs petitioned.

Site of the Þingvellir

History played out for centuries at this place they called Þingvellir, the “Parliament Plain.” After that first meeting in 930 the Goði, or chieftains, convened on the same spot each year until 1798.

At one particularly fateful meeting in 1000, 39 Goði met under pressure, for Olaf, the king of Norway, had issued a threat. The wrath of his kingdom, and the most fearsome fleet of war-fighting longboats in the Atlantic hung poised to hammer the island if the Goði failed to accept Christianity. This was the king’s demand.

Iceland’s founding some seven decades before came about in flight from the tyranny – and taxes – of Harald Fairhair of Norway. The Goði meant for their new country to be a land of laws and not kings. That was why they were here, assembled at Þingvellir to make their own laws in the absence of a king.

Now, these elders were reasonably confident the king wouldn’t risk his fleet in a peril-fraught adventure to Iceland. As Frans G. Bengtsson wrote in The Long Ships, “… in the border country, few men’s authority extended beyond the limit of their right arm.”

Their grandfathers hadn’t been wrong fleeing Harald for the island (in fact, Icelanders specifically and knowingly benefitted from the lack of taxation needed for defense). Still, the Norwegian fleet could block Iceland’s tenuous European lifeline. King Olaf held the sons of some Goði hostage even as they met.

Legend tells us that as the men debated, a messenger arrived with word that an eruption had sent lava toward the farm of one of the attendees. That put a little bit of the fear of (Norse) gods into the assembly. Message: The gods won’t stand for this changing religion nonsense.

Christianity had come to Norway after most of these pagan Icelanders left. Some learned of Jesus while passing through the British Isles, many absconding with wives. Synecretism led some to worship both the Christian and pagan gods, but in hard times Thor was still the go-to god.

What to do?

Heads turned to a wise man called Snorri Þhorgrímsson, a chieftain from the west of the island. The Sagas reckoned him “… a very shrewd man with unusual foresight,” and “… the wisest man in Iceland not counting those who were prescient.”

Snorri asked, “What angered the gods when the lava burnt which we are standing on now?” He meant that eruptions were just part of life on their blasted isle, gods or no gods. The attendees saw his point. A vote was held and the Þing adopted Christianity as Iceland’s religion.

Besides, in accepting Christianity the most powerful men in Iceland surmised – correctly – that an appreciative hierarchy of Christian bishops and officials from Norway would look favorably on the Goðis’ power and rule.

In the event, the Þing had opted for the best of both worlds. Hoping to hold Harald at bay, the Goði proclaimed “one faith and one law” – the faith would be Christianity, but anyone wishing to worship the pagan gods were free to do so in private. Snorri had a church built at Helgafell, his farmstead on the western Snæfellsnes peninsula.

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Everyone with power and influence attended the Þing. Crimes would be adjudicated, laws recorded, marriage alliances arranged. But besides the chance to forge and strengthen ties among the Goði, beyond their heavy responsibilities, most marvelous of all, the Þing was a flourishing Nordic medieval bazaar.

I try to conjure the spectacle of a Þing in progress a millennium ago; a governing experiment, societal pageant, a kind of grand plenum and Icelandic Burning Man, all tossed together and served on the volcanic plain:

Having come from far and wide, the villages chiefs have brought an entourage of family, competitive athletes and horsemen, traders and cattle. Over the years they have built structures of boulders and turf (ruins exist today) and each year they cover them with temporary roofs of wood and turf.

The Þingvellir is utterly unlike the attendees’ home villages. Just a few months ago back home, the silence was unrelenting (save for the howl when the wind got going, and the raking sleet across the roof; the nights went on and on, with stimulation scarcely more potent than the strength of a candle.

Now, in high summer, headmen are free from home affairs, laborers from the dismal croft, to a man exhilarated in the runaway intoxication of it all. News of the welfare of kin. Gossip from the farthest ends of the island. Intrigue at time-worn lies told over mead. Barely mediated chaos.

Every kind of merchant, sword-sharpeners and brewers, coopers and tanners and peat-cutters, clowns and tale-tellers, holding forth while itinerant farmhands seek seasonal work and traders probe for deals, some coming from abroad in search of exotic exports.

Villagers delight at the smell of grilling meat until they encounter the pungent atrocity of the tannery. Everywhere, in every direction, for days, Icelanders august and modest share in the spectacle.

Athletes astound. Ropes are tugged, cabers heaved, sheaves hurled, dice tossed and fortunes lost, challenges taken and gauntlets thrown, blood feuds resolved and new ones begun, all in a mad fervor to drink in life and all of it, here in high summer, on this lovely spot, softened by greenery and painted by wildflowers with waterfalls and cascading rapids in the river Öxará swaying across the plain.

Stories are humans’ most enduring possessions. Since the campfire and the cave we are a narrative species, and the tales we tell shape the people we become. The tales of this country’s founding were told and retold year after year at the Parliament Plain, the hardships of the earliest settlers, the privation, the fights for survival.

Stories told at the Þing traveled home to every corner of the land, and over the years and through the retelling, a common heritage was born and the people’s allegiance was bound to the nation, which duly bound itself back to Þingvellir. By a 1928 law Þingvellir, by the river Öxará, shall remain the protected property of the Icelandic nation.

The river Öxará on the Parliament Plain.

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Get Out in the Cold via Amazon here in the U.S., or at your country-specific Amazon site in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, India, Canada, Brazil, Mexico or Australia. And have a look at the photos in the Iceland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Visiting East Greenland

If you can clear five minutes of your time I really recommend this documentary called Arctic Boyhood by Samuel Collardey, posted today to the New York Times website.

It’s from the village of Tiniteqilaaq, near Tasiilaq, the biggest town in East Greenland, which I visited and wrote about in my most recent book, Out in the Cold.

Eclipse Book Excerpt 6

In anticipation of Monday’s total eclipse, this week we’ve got a series of excerpts from the Svalbard chapter of Out in the Cold, in which we traveled up to 800 miles from the North Pole in search of totality in March, 2015. Get a copy of the whole book for yourself, or order the unabridged audiobook.

HOW DID WE DO?

I go back to around to visit people I had seen before. Two of them tell me they felt they held a privileged position in that they didn’t have to get here, and maybe that was why they hadn’t thought about it much, but it turned out it was something they never expected.

A lady selling wool sweaters in a tourist shop says she thought it would be darker. I suggest the majesty, noting that the width of the moon’s shadow is usually only about 160 kilometers (267 km at most), so isn’t it incredible that across the whole of the Earth, you should happen to find yourself exactly underneath it? And she nods, but still, to her it should have got darker.

The lady at the Apotek calls it unbelievable and magical. “And more than the eclipse, the light on the ground, everything.”

The airport lady: “Amazing. I didn’t think so much about it before.”

Downtown Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen is fast emptying out when I walk into the tourist office the day after, deserted but for two young women with expectant smiles. Might they help me?

I want to know if the tourist office feels we all behaved ourselves on their island and they think we did. The day before the eclipse there was a snowmobile accident. There had been some frostbite (but that was always). There was that one polar bear thing. It is illegal to shoot a polar bear. Shooting a polar bear who wants to eat your son is a better idea than obeying the law, obviously, but every incident requires “full … what? … research … investigation” as Sigrid, the snowmobile guide, put it.

Mark Sabbatini, editor of the local English language newspaper, tells me, “We had an arsonist which was the first time I’d ever seen that happen. I think it was last night or yesterday over on 222. All the streets here have numbers and 222 is a kinda busy residential area … there’s a whole bunch of homes, it’s kind of like suburban central … somebody went along there trying to start fires.”

In other European cities you can always try to stay warm in the train station. Maybe some didn’t think it through that there is no transport hub here to hide.

“We had a rash of people who came in Thursday night on the late flight, stayed up all night at pubs, didn’t have a place to stay. Pubs close down here about three or four at the latest, god knows what they did after that to stay warm until the sun came up, so they had folks going door to door basically knocking and begging to sleep on floors or hoping there was someone left their house unlocked and wasn’t home, just a bunch of folks came up here to prey upon the kindness of strangers. But nobody died….”

A lady from Greece tells me she paid $150 to sleep on a travel agency office floor the first night (“They threw down skins for us to sleep on”) and then $800 for a room without private bath on the night before the eclipse. We booked a year and a half out, but even then the Radisson SAS hotel (it’s a small Radisson) was bulk booked by a tour company. The rumor was that it had been booked in its entirety eight years out.

You mustn’t let the sunshine fool you. Days since our arrival have been sunny and if you can call -12 or -16C mild, then, mild, but the meteorological tide turns the day after the eclipse and with the sun obscured, in an Arctic, all blue way that makes the way people ambled up the main walkway the day before like leisure country rambles.

Today is all anonymity and purpose, heads wrapped, strides long and purposeful. Suddenly you see how, impossible as it seems, the last few days, with the hard frozen footpaths and the snowmobiles parked on the two-foot snowbank outside the window, were springtime for Svalbarders, a time to enjoy walking without mufflers wrapped up to their ear hats.

And it really must feel like some strange springtime, because at such a latitude as this, just in the time of our visit the length of the day increased from 11:54 to 13:10 – an extra hour and sixteen minutes of daylight in five days.

Which comports with the strangest single realization about this latitude, namely that scarcely five weeks since the first sunrise of the year (until 16 February the sun had been beneath the horizon, yet in the very first day that it rose, it didn’t just peep and retreat but stayed up for a full hour and forty minutes), already it never gets totally dark at night. Instead the sun skims a shallow enough path below the horizon to give the sky a twilight glow all night, ahead of – less than a month from now – 19 April, when the sun will stay up all day.

With the weather even better than way down in Oslo, we lull ourselves into believing Svalbard is just like home, it’s just way up north. Until the day after the eclipse. Snow falls all day long. Wind pounds the windows when they aren’t rattled by sleet. We wake with no agenda and ponder the standard inventory of kitchen utensils at the Svalbard Lodge, which includes among other things,

7 glasses

7 wine glasses

7 coffee cups (mugs from Ikea)

7 schnapps glasses

7 cognac glasses

Seven.

Svalbard Lodge doesn’t do coziness, the sense of well being expressed by the German gemütlich or the Danish hyggeligt, but it has one mighty heater, and today that goes a long way. We toast to eclipse success using two-sevenths of our supply of cognac glasses.

•••••

Eclipse Book Excerpt 5 of 6

In anticipation of Monday’s total eclipse, this week we’ve got a series of excerpts from the Svalbard chapter of Out in the Cold, in which we traveled up to 800 miles from the North Pole in search of totality in March, 2015. Get a copy of the whole book for yourself, or order the unabridged audiobook.

MEANWHILE DOWN BELOW

As the eclipse approached Svalbard began to fret:

Svalbard eclipse prompts warnings

January 22, 2015

Authorities on Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard are bracing for an onslaught of tourists in connection with the solar eclipse on March 20. That’s prompted them to issue warnings to the public, in an effort to avoid over-capacity.

“Since Longyearbyen (the main settlement on Svalbard) is a small town, we can have problems when so many people gather,” the local sheriff wrote in the warning posted on Svalbard’s public sector website.

Tourism agency VisitSvalbard reported that all hotels and other forms of lodging have been fully booked for several years on and around March 20. Now authorities are warning that there also is limited capacity in Longyearbyen’s few local restaurants and cafés, that no warming tents will be available to ward off the chill of the Arctic night, and that anyone venturing outside the city limits of Longyearbyen must have protection against polar bears.

So worried were the authorities that the hospital didn’t schedule appointments in the days around the eclipse. The town laid in extra food supplies and with characteristic Norwegian efficiency, the Red Cross had tents up and ready.

All hotels sold out a year before and they reckoned island population would swell to 3,500 or 4,000, or maybe more if you account for those who rented vacation homes or friends who came to stay with friends.

On eclipse day a dozen charter and private flights flew in for the eclipse and then out the same day, and authorities worried that a weather change could prevent those same-day visitors from departing when the whole town was already full.

In the event, the weather didn’t change and Longyearbyen handled things with good humor. We all tramped up and down their normally sovereign daily paths, most people wearing appropriate gear, and I think, just five weeks since the first sunrise of the year, the clerks and barkeeps were mostly happy to see all the strangers.

Until the eclipse actually crossed the sky it seemed as if local people downplayed its significance. Maybe they just didn’t think about it much, mainly marveling at the arrival of visitors from far away. I think they thought we were nuts.

Some said they hadn’t planned anything special, or hadn’t given it much thought. Maybe they thought they already lived in a place of wonder. Mostly, I think, the few who stayed at work wished they had taken a day off.

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