Renfaire, Icelandic Style

The view from Gasír, looking across the Eyafjördur to the mountains beyond.

Today we went to Gasír, which was a site used only once a year like the Thingvellir, with no permanent habitations. Its purpose was trading with foreign ships that sailed down the fjord every year until the harbor silted up.

There was a two-day market fair re-enactment going on, as we had been told by Hannah at the Akyreyri Museum. While we were driving there, we made plans to go to Grimsey Island, where you can see puffins. It takes an entire day, but I really wanted to see puffins.

Another view from Gasír.

The Gàsir market fair is near the original site, overlooking the Eyafjordur with snow-splotched mountains beyond. A gorgeous spot. We walked down a grassy path through a meadow to get there, and were given small pottery tokens on a cord to indicate we had paid, which we could keep.

Rear view of the “booths,” which were used for sleeping while people were at the market. They are constructed in much the same manner in medieval times as during Viking times. The tents are pitched atop low turf walls, making for much cozier sleeping conditions.

The entire camp was tiny, especially compared to our Renaissance Faires. I expect the real thing had been much larger, given its economic importance. There was no fantasy cosplay going on either–everyone who worked there was dressed in authentic Medieval clothing in dull colors. The visitors who chose to dress in historical costume wore the same kind of garb. Icelanders of the period, being poor, had little in the way of expensive accessories. The jewelry was crude and handmade. The utensils and tools on display were hand-made of wood, iron, bone, leather, and stone. They had few ceramics that weren’t imported and were therefore precious, handed down from generation to generation. Hannah told me that archeologists had found remnants of broken pottery that had been stitched together to save it. I don’t know what they used for the stitching or how well that worked for them.

There were a number of crafts being demonstrated: rope-making, wood carving, sewing, fortune-telling, blacksmithing, and so forth. Some young people played a game of knattleikr, which is similar to lacrosse.

Blacksmithing, using an authentic portable forge.

Wood carving.

Young people playing knattleikr.

A fortune-teller sewing in front of her tent.

The market fair was well-attended by Icelanders. There were a few tourists, but not many. It was nice to be among the people who live here, people who were interested in their history and heritage.

I decided to have a fortune teller throw runes for me (not the fortune-teller pictured above.) After she told my fortune–and she was serious about it, not just pretending–I was, as usual, asking questions, and something she said made me ask her if she worked with the native plants–something that is very important to the book I am working on. I had been feeling rather overwhelmed about learning Icelandic herb lore because it seemed to me that it required such a vast amount of research. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do enough just via books and photos.

Sometimes things just work out. My fortune-teller turned out to be an herbalist. We exchanged emails and parted with a warm hug.

Sigridur Ásny Kettílsdottír, rune-caster and herbalist. And a lovely woman.

We were on the way out when one of the women in costume at the entry booth said, “We have talked before, at the museum!” It was Hanna, of course. She told me that an archeologist would be present later that day to talk about the archeology of the site. So we decided to get some lunch and went to a fish restaurant in Akuréyri, where the young man at the counter tried to talk me into eating fermented shark, claiming it was delicious.

I don’t recall if I have mentioned this before, but I would never eat fermented shark. It is prepared from the Greenland shark, which has poisonous flesh. The animal has developed a biological antifreeze, trimethaline oxide, which is a clever adaptation to its environment. But if you eat its unprocessed meat, you will die. Fermenting the meat destroys the poison and renders it edible. Note that I did not say “palatable.” While it is touted as an “Icelandic delicacy,” Anthony Bourdain said it was the most disgusting thing he ever put in his mouth, and that’s saying something.

But taste is not the issue. The Greenland shark grows slowly and reproduces slowly. It lives for 300 to 500 years, the longest known life span of any non-microscopic animal, and its status is near-threatened. Consider that the only reason for trying to eat this animal had to be extreme poverty and hunger, and that even after it is rendered safe to eat it still tastes horrible.

I think the guy in the restaurant just wanted to see my face when I tasted it. I had fish and chips.

We went back to Gasír to meet the archeologist. I didn’t understand a word he said, of course, but I got his name and email later, and he agreed to answer some questions.

So the Gasír market fair turned out brilliantly. And Tom realized that we are leaving tomorrow, not Monday, as we had thought. No Grimsey. No puffins. We have to drive back to Reykjavík to catch a plane. I suppose/hope that we will stop and see some sights on the way. I am betting on waterfalls, not puffins.

A tiny and very noisy Viking.

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