Eric the Red Was a Total Jerk

We began the day with a visit to the graveyard right next to our guesthouse. It has been in use by the immediate (very widespread) farming community for a long time, and is still in use.

The view from the graveyard. The gray two-story house in the background is the Saudafell Guesthouse, built as the family home 150 years ago.

Then we visited Erik the Red’s homestead. It is a careful reconstruction of the ruins of a turf house a few hundred yards away. And it looked like a hellish place to live in the winter. More on that later.

I hope you can tell from this image just how small Eric’s house was.

Eric the Red was what you might call a piece of work. He was born in Norway, but his father was banished for “murders,” number unspecified. When Erik grew up, he was just like his daddy. He married a woman whose parents gifted them the homestead we visited today. The trouble started when Erik’s slaves allegedly started a landslide on a neighbor’s land. Under Viking tradition and law, this would have entitled the neighbor to kill Erik’s slaves, which he did. Then Eric killed the neighbor, who had also been a friend, Eiyolf the Foul, and another man.

This was absolutely run-of-the-mill Viking behavior, by the way. The sagas are all about who killed whom for some petty grudge or slight.

Erik was banished for three years. He packed up his household, including, according to a geologist, the wood structure that supported the house underneath the turf. By this time, wood would have been getting scarce, as the Vikings cheerfully deforested the island for ships, houses, and fuel. He left some carved beams of mystical meaning with a friend, Thorgest.

You know what’s coming, right? Eric moved to the island of Oxney and returned to get his beams, but they were not at Thorgest’s homestead, and apparently Thorgest regarded them as a gift. Erik went to another of Thorgest’s households and killed the man’s sons “and some other people.” As a result, the Althingi (yearly parliament) banned Eric from Iceland for three years.

Eric sailed to Greenland, where he explored for three years, then returned to Iceland and launched one of the history’s most effective (and ultimately disastrous) public relation campaigns. He told everyone about a lush green, unpopulated new land–Greenland–a wonderful place to raise grain and sheep. (There were indigenous people in Greenland, but they wisely stayed as far from the Vikings as they could. Their wisdom is only confirmed by the name the Vikings applied to them–skraeling, or “wretches.”) He persuaded many people to go with him to colonize this wonderful new land. Five hundred years later, the Little Ice Age started, and Greenland became a death trap. It isn’t known whether the population evacuated or died in situ. But Erik apparently stopped killing people, as there are no further records of him murdering anyone.

Tom in Viking gear. It looks like the helmet had horns, but that’s in the background. Vikings did not have horned helmets. The horns would have provided a convenient handle for your enemy to grab you and chop off your head.

The turf house reconstruction tells you all you need to know about life in those days. It was a rectangular building completely covered with turf, walls and roof. No windows. There were two doors, one at each end of the house, that could be opened in good weather, and they must have needed all that fresh air desperately, because 15 to 30 people slept in that little house, two or three to each narrow bed. The beds were built into the walls, like ships’ berths. They slept head-to-foot–fragrant! There was no chimney, so it must have been smoky, despite the hole in the roof. Between that, the smell of raw wool, the sweat of hard labor, the chamber pots under the beds, etc., the stench must have been stomach-turning. But of course, they were used to it.

Exterior of Eric’s turf house.

It was also what they had to do to survive. Winters here aren’t as cold as in the American Midwest, but the wind chill factor can be deadly. The wind can blow so hard that waterfalls fall up.

Our next stop was the harbor village of Stykkishholmer. I had thought of it as a way-station on the way to the Snaefellsnesjokul, an enormous glacier on the volcano at the tip of the peninsula. We had just started to get breathtaking views of the glacier when the clouds rolled in, veiling the entire landscape in gray fog and rain.

Snaefellsnessjokull on a clear day. We didn’t see this through the fog and rain.

Stykkishholmer, population 350, was much smaller than I had imagined, but they had a truly great restaurant, Narfeyrarstofa, specializing in local ingredients. I had a fish soup with mussels, scallops and fish from the fjord, and a creative salad full of goodies like blueberries, amour-en-cage, pine nuts, dried parsnip, and shredded veggies. (Always happy to see the veggies.) Tom had a salmon filet that was to die for.

The harbor at Stykkishholmer. This was taken from the elevated perch of the Water Library.

Iceland is not a large place, but it takes forever to get anywhere. In Ireland, which has a few similarities with Iceland, you never drive very far before hitting a village. Every few miles, you can count on it. Here, the villages are spread hours apart, and when you get there, there may not be many amenities. All you see are isolated farmsteads, usually miles from any other farmstead. Everywhere, you can see small rock cairns, usually built on top of a lava flow or other elevated area. I think these are very old boundary markers or markers to show the way. Tourists have started piling their own cairns, and Icelanders call them “tourist warts,” tearing them down when they find them. Another reason it takes so long is the gravel roads, upon which the wise traveler will drive slowly, especially when it’s raining.

We realized that due to the weather and visibility, going back to Saudafell Guesthouse was the best idea. So we walked around in the rain for a while to check out the village. First, we encountered a museum that focused entirely on eiderducks. Quick visit. Then we walked up a scenic path and found a place called the Water Library. Inside, there were enormous glass columns of water from various glaciers, unlabeled and providing zero information. Another room had books on water. There was one book in two volumes entirely upon the subject of brackish puddles. Quick visit.

I made Tom walk back down this path after he reached the top so I could take a picture of him.

At the Water Library. No info, but cool image.

Tom graces the Water Library.

Walking back to the car, we encountered an old house, painted entirely in black. We’ve seen several dwellings painted black, and my conjecture is that it absorbs heat and helps to keep the building warm. A THIRD museum in tiny Stykkishholmer! It turned out to be a house built from Norwegian wood (sound familiar?) by a wealthy merchant in the middle of the 19th century. It was the first two-story building in Iceland. Inside, it was spacious, elegantly furnished in the Victorian manner. Everyone else was still living in tiny turf houses, some windowless. This place must have looked like a gleaming palace to them.

The Norwegian House.

It rained all the way back. I literally didn’t recognize our car when I came out of the grocery store where we stopped in Budardalur (the closest village to Stykkishholmer, about an hour and a half drive). The car was so inundated in mud, I thought it was someone’s beater.

The patterns made by the mud on the back window of our van.

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