Iceland’s Respect for Nature is Centuries Old
Most European travel destinations draw crowds for their notable architecture, museums, and artistic monuments. While Iceland does have all of these things, its primary draw is a totally unique physical landscape. The island is characterized by volcanic mountains, sulphuric steam vents, geysers, glaciers, hot springs, waterfalls and fjords; a wild side that can at times feel otherworldly. Iceland’s rich cultural heritage, particularly in the Icelandic Sagas, reveals a devotion to the mysteries and wonder surrounding the country’s defining physical landscape.
The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route in Iceland, encompassing a number of sites near Reykjavik. Thingvillir, the first location on the route, is the site of the first parliament in the world. The area has a small rest stop and a few scattered homes but is largely undeveloped. Walking paths make it easy to explore the park, which is also where the American and European tectonic plates meet.
Geysir and its less famous but more active buddies are found at the second stop on the Golden Circle. You can walk around the geothermal area and see the various geysers, some of which bubble gently and others which expulse massive gushes of water every few minutes.
Gullfoss waterfall is a bit farther down the road. This waterfall is impressive by any standard, but particularly notable for how close you are able to get to it if the weather is okay. A walking path takes you down beside it, where you can stand on a rocky ledge made slick by the waterfall’s spray. A fence of two small ropes–and hopefully your better judgement–are all that is there to dissuade you from getting even closer.
All three of these wildly popular sites are natural wonders rather than works of artistic human genius. Their existence is completely independent of people, although people have set up shop around them, so to speak, in order to cater to and make money from the people who come to see them.
What is particularly interesting about the Golden Circle sites is that they facilitate participation rather than just observation. Famous works of art and architecture are amazing for having been made during a bygone time that we no longer have access to, by people that we will never meet. At the same time that those elements add value to those works, however, they also create distance between the work and the visitor; the work is a surface or symbol of something to which we will never have full access. In contrast, the Golden Circle sites are largely the same as they would have been when the Vikings settled, and the sense of awe at seeing them would not be significantly different than what those people felt. The sites are “timeless” in a very different way than art and architecture are.
In addition, in order to even get to the sites you must travel for a few hours outside of Reykjavik, past mountains and Icelandic sheep and pony farms. The Golden Circle is a set of marked locations, but it also a journey. This journey forces you to engage with the less dramatic aspects of the Icelandic countryside, and the sense of the country you get from that experience is all the richer and more balanced.
In preparation for visiting Iceland, I spent time reading some of the Icelandic Sagas. Now that my journey is finished, I find it incredible how much the elements of the Sagas aligned with what I experienced in Iceland.
The Icelandic Sagas describe the first settlers of Iceland, often Norwegian Vikings in exile that came to Iceland to build a new home. Although there are elements of the fantastic in the stories–shapeshifters, witches, men flying into berserker blood rages–the stories are largely oriented around the settlers’ relationships with the earth. Stories describe in detail who is given what land and where the boundaries are, and then later passages recount farmers and warriors arguing over said boundaries. The vikings work with the seasons, sailing for war and plunder in winter and maintaining their farms and homesteads in summer. Settlers host and attend feasts, and landmarks are named for the deeds done there.
The emphasis on the practicalities of everyday life at the time makes the Sagas very realistic. Where the Greek Epics focus on the impact the meddlings of gods has on the lives of humans, the Sagas focus on the lives themselves and the physical hardships of everyday events. The stories also focus on people who are notable for their deeds and personalities, and although their deeds are often exceptional or violent, the stories become relatable again the Vikings return to their farms. Like the Golden Circle sites, the emphasis on the earth and the settlers’ relationships with it make many parts of the Sagas (Viking blood rages excluded) very accessible even to modern readers.
Latest posts by Veronica Ross (see all)
- The colectivo: Exploring the Riviera Maya like a local - July 4, 2016
- Iceland’s Respect for Nature is Centuries Old - December 15, 2015
- Malta and Toronto Share More Than a ‘t’ - March 3, 2015