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28 June 2008 @ 03:04 pm
Iceland: Old manuscripts, new land  
June 22

(June 22 photos here.)

(Earlier photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland trip reports here.)

We dropped the car off early (okay, around 9 or 10--but we'd adjusted to the late sunsets well enough that it felt early) and headed into Reykjavík for a city/museum day.

We started at the Þjóðmenningarhúsið/Culture House, winding our way through history displays to make our way to an exhibit of old Icelandic manuscripts.

Only to say "old manuscripts" makes them sound trivial, when in fact Iceland's medieval manuscripts are national treasures, taken to Copenhagen centuries ago during Danish rule, and only returned--after a fair amount of effort--in the later decades of the 20th century.

The moment we entered the dim rooms where the manuscripts were displayed, we could feel the reverence in which these calfskin pages--encased in glass, some more than 800 years old--were held. Among other things, I remember copies of the Codex Regius (containing the Poetic Edda), Flateyjarbók (containing assorted sagas), Grágás (the Gray Goose, Iceland's saga-era law code), Jónsbók (later laws), a bound miniature 8-page grimoire, and a page from one of the earliest copies of Njál's Saga, holes wearing their way through the browning paper, but lovingly preserved, nonetheless.

I didn't take any pictures here, and not only because I suspected it wasn't allowed. This was clearly sacred ground, too, though this time the sense of the sacred came from words set to paper and the way the people who wrote those words treasured them afterwards, rather than from the ground we walked on.

Beyond the manuscripts, there was an exhibit on bookbinding and ink making. Looking at my notes now, I have this interesting note: that from the 11th century to around 1400, the Roman alphabet and the runic one existed side by side.

The Culture House also had an exhibit on Surtsey, one of the world's newest islands, formed by an underwater volcanic eruption from 1963-1967. We'd caught a glimpse of Surtsey a week before, from Bergþórshvöll, where Njáll once lived.

As we entered the exhibit, a huge screen showed footage of the eruption, multiplied fourfold. It was impossible not to stop and watch the yellow/orange/red lava, sometimes crusting, sometimes swelling, sometimes bubbling, sometimes flaring. Watching those flares--far from the overwhelming heat that would have gone with them--I found that whenever that orange fire leapt up, my heart somehow leapt up too, in much the way it might on a roller coaster, just beginning its drop.

Beyond the screen, the rest of the exhibit documented Surtsey's history since that eruption, along with more general information on Iceland's volcanic natural history.

I don't know whether Surtsey is sacred ground, because if all goes well, I'll never set foot there. When Surtsey was formed, the decision was made to keep it as a nature preserve, with only the most limited human contact--giving us all a chance to study just how life gets started on brand new land.

The answer seems to be--surprisingly fast. The island was still erupting when lyme grass began growing in 1966. By 1968, just a year after the eruption ended, there were more than 100 species of algae. By 1970, fulmar and guillemot were nesting there, and spiders and lichens had settled in, too.

By 1985 that lyme grass had formed sand dunes. By 1991 there were dandelions. The first woody plants showed up in 1998, and in 2004 (to much general excitement, we gathered) the first puffins showed up. By 2006, just over 40 years after the eruption began, there were 65 species of higher plants on Surtsey; 90 species of birds (13 of which nested there); snails, moths, wasps; and even an earthworm.

It's enough to make one believe that the whole planet must have a deep instinct toward life and growth.


For lunch, having eaten fabulous local seafood and pretty decent local hot dogs we decided it was clearly time to try ... Mexican food. We were curious, when we saw the Red Chili restaurant, just how Iceland would interpret our own local cuisine.

The burritos were pretty much as expected, if a little heavy on the rice and light on the chicken, only with nacho cheese sauce on top. The veggie enchiladas were a little stranger, more like veggie tacos, thoroughly doused with more nacho cheese sauce, inside and out. But there was, as there should be, guacamole and sour cream and (admittedly mild) salsa and cheesy Mexican pop music coming through the speakers, so it almost worked, except for one thing: along with that salsa, there was ketchup on the tables.

I will now make the only dogmatic statement I plan to make this entire trip report: Mexican food should never, ever be served with ketchup.

Not even ketchup with illustrations of red chili peppers on the label.

From the Red Chili we headed on to Reykjavík 871±2, another settlement exhibit, and yet another excavation of another turf house--this one a Reykjavík farmhouse that was occupied from around 930-1000, but whose oldest walls date to 871, plus or minus two years, based on the age of the volcanic layer they were found in. The ruins were found when ground was being broken for a Reykjavík office building, and so were left intact, and a museum was built around them (and the office, as planned, was still built above).

What this meant was that one had ruins in the center of the room--an outline in stone and dirt, turf and timbers mostly long gone--and around it, 360 degree views of what Reykjavík might have looked like from that spot, at the time of settlement. Walking around, one saw images of forest and bay, and over them, ghostly white images out of the past would appear--a man hunting a bird, women milking a sheep, a boat approaching over the ocean--all giving a sense of the ghosts over whose past we stood now, and from whose time the excavated house comes.

The exhibition was also packed full of practical, daily life and other details--the shape of keys, the ways of lighting fires (jasper and flint, sparked on steel), the materials for making rope (horsehair and hides), that glass was rare but present (especially in beads), how long after settlement it took for Iceland's forests to disappear (less than 100 years), that the Icelandic horse is related to the Shetland pony, that homespun was indeed dyed, that there was folklore claiming that putting animal bones in walls brings good fortune (though I can't remember now whether such bones had been found at the exhibition site). We spent a couple hours there, and could have easily spent more, if our brains weren't full and our legs tired by then.

We wandered a while, eventually making our way to the Eymundsson for some book browsing (in self-defense, we'd made a rule: we could only buy books printed locally--imported British books or--especially--U.S. and Canadian ones, we could wait until we were home to buy), then to a cafe for tea and mushroom soup bowls before catching the bus back to our campground.
Pamela D Lloyd: watercolor sparrowpdlloyd on June 28th, 2008 10:42 pm (UTC)
Lovely descriptions, Janni.
some guy named Larrylnhammer on June 28th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC)
Your description doesn't quite convey just how taken the exhibit was with the idea that puffins! were nesting! on the new island yay!

probably pining for the fjords: éghildigunnur on June 29th, 2008 12:15 am (UTC)
There have been restaurants in Iceland that have been more successful in producing Mexican food that Red Chili. The major hurdle is the fact that a lot of Icelanders don't like piquant flavours.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Surtseyjanni on June 29th, 2008 02:09 am (UTC)
I wondered if there were others and that wasn't just the most obvious, being right there downtown. :-) I actually expected the flavors to be pretty mild--I definitely don't expect most folks to have our fondness for burn-your-tastebuds chilis--but the ketchup did make me laugh. :-)

Mind you, there are Mexican places in the Midwestern U.S. that probably serve their Mexican food with ketchup, too!
the most saint-obsessed Jew you'll ever meet: the world is quiet hererymenhild on July 22nd, 2008 07:15 am (UTC)
Manuscript libraries are sacred places for me, too. Thank you for describing the Culture House here.
Janni Lee Simner: bookshelfjanni on July 22nd, 2008 01:55 pm (UTC)
Lovely descriptions there, too. (And lovely icon.)

I'm often in the habit of thinking of sacredness as coming from the land, so it was good to be reminded that sacredness can come from the things we create, too. (Not that I don't regularly think of books as wondrous things in their own right, too!)

Edited at 2008-07-22 02:01 pm (UTC)