Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Touring with the Sagas

When some people go to Iceland for the first time, they want to see it all. In seven days they drive the entire Ring Road, bagging all the sights.

I'm a little different. I've been to Iceland 19 times, twice staying over three months, and I have yet to see huge swaths of the country. I've never been to the East Fjords. I've only glimpsed much of the north.

Instead, I've gone deep. I've gotten to know one corner of Iceland very well: the area between Borgarnes and the island of Flatey in Breiðafjorður, out to the tip of Snæfellsnes with its evocative glacier, and in to Surtshellir cave at the edge of the highlands. It's an area with a wonderful variety of landscapes--farms, fishing villages, lava fields, glaciers, beaches, waterfalls.

I like to stay on one farm for a week, traveling only as far as I can reach on foot or horseback or the occasional half day's drive. On various trips I've found a path through the lava that had long been lost, crouched behind a rock while a sea eagle strafed me, rode a horse across a swift salmon river (careful not to let the eddies dizzy me), collected crowberries, watched fox pups play, rescued trapped sheep, frightened myself in a pitch-dark cave, drank sweet water from the well in another, soaked in a wilderness hot pool, sunned on the flank of a volcano.

I'm not a naturalist: What drew me to this part of Iceland were the sagas, with their tales of sheep-farmers and sorcerors, horse fights and feuds, love and grief and hard times and strife. Tales of a satisfying life scratched from an unforgiving land. Tales tempered with poetry and grace.

I've sat where the wily chieftain of Helgafell, Snorri goði, sat, ten centuries before, pondering his next move. On horseback, I've ridden the route he followed to collect his father-in-law's corpse--and the one his namesake, Snorri Sturluson took to confer with his nephew a few nights before he died.

The first time I visited Iceland, in 1986, I went in search of Snorri goði, a character in two of my favorite sagas, Eyrbyggja Saga and Laxdæla Saga. I was then a graduate student studying medieval literature and simultaneously working for a science magazine; I wanted to write a historical novel about Snorri. That book was never published, but ten years later much of my research--done on horseback, as well as in libraries--found its way into my first published book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (Stackpole Books, 2001).

My second book about Iceland brought me back to Snæfellsnes. The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt, 2007) uses medieval literature and modern archaeology to tell the story of Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir and the Norse expeditions to North America. Guðriður grew up on the tip of Snæfellsnes, in the shadow of the glacier some people call the third most holy spot on earth. (Seeing it rise out of the sea is certainly one of my favorite views of Iceland). I've since retold Guðríður's story as a young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, which will be published by Namelos in the spring of 2015.

My most recent book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) required me to get to know Borgarfjörður even better. This book is a biography of another Snorri--Snorri Sturluson, who lived at Borg and then at Reykholt, and by the end of his life in 1241 ruled most of the West Quarter of Iceland. At Borg he probably wrote Egils Saga, while at Reykholt he wrote the Edda, which contains almost everything we know about Norse mythology, as well as Heimskringla, his long collection of sagas about the kings of Norway from the ancient days of Oðin the Wizard-King through King Magnus Erlingsson in 1177.

The best way to research my books, I've found, is to walk through the landscape where history happened, to live where my subjects lived and face some of the same challenges. To cross rivers on horseback, for example, or climb a volcanic crater. To experience the midnight sun in summer, when the birdsong never stills, as well as the dark days of winter (though I must admit, I've let a very few of them stand in for the rest). 

In 2012 I was approached by the trekking company America2Iceland, which had just moved its base of operations to the farm of Staðarhús in Borgarfjörður. They wondered if I'd be willing to join their tours and share my love of Iceland's history and sagas. Together, we began developing a tour called "Song of the Vikings," after my book. The first year it was a riding trek circling through Snorri's domain. The next year we combined riding lessons for beginners with more sightseeing by bus, visiting saga sites and museums, and allowing more time to learn about Iceland's history and culture.

Next summer, by request, the tour will have no mandatory horseback riding (though, since we will be based at a horse farm with a resident riding teacher, optional lessons and trail riding can be added). From July 27 to August 2, we'll follow in Snorri Sturluson's footsteps, taking the chieftain's trail from Thingvellir, where he took part in the yearly assembly, to Reykholt, his main estate--now a research institute with an exhibition about his life.

We'll see the highest-volume hot spring in the world, discussing the value of hot springs in medieval Iceland--and how a fight over this one may have caused the sagas to be written. We'll meet the Icelandic horse and learn why the horse, not the dog, is "man's best friend" in Iceland. We'll visit the Settlement Center in Borgarnes and compare new theories about Iceland's settlement. We'll see the Egil's Saga exhibition there as well, and discuss how that saga reflects Snorri Sturluson's own life. We'll drive into the highlands to see the cave Surtshellir, named for the Fire Giant who will destroy the world at Ragnarök, and discuss the connections between Icelandic nature and Norse mythology. And we'll see how those myths are still vital in modern popular culture, by sharing some of the literature and art Snorri Sturluson inspired, from Wagner to Tolkien to Neil Gaiman.

This tour is limited to 12 people, so each will get my personal attention. For more information, or to sign up, see or contact Rebecca at America2Iceland by email at or phone at 1-828-348-4257. I think this is the perfect tour for first-time visitors to Iceland. Even if you've been to Iceland before, you'll see it in a completely new light.

(A version of this essay was published in the December 15 edition of the Icelandic-Canadian newspaper, Lögberg-Heimskringla.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Fiske Collection at Cornell

Earlier this week the president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, traveled to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY to present the Order of the Falcon, one of Iceland's highest honors, to a librarian.

Why? The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell is one of the three largest collections of books on Icelandic literature and civilization in the world (the other two are in Reykjavik and Copenhagen), and its librarian, Patrick Stevens, has been very active not only in preserving the collection and making it accessible, but also in greatly increasing it.

Cornell's first librarian, Daniel Willard Fiske, was a friend of Iceland. Upon his death in 1904 he bequeathed the university a collection of books now valued at over $30 million. Since then, the Fiske Icelandic Collection has quadrupled in size. It contains the largest selection of books in America by modern Icelandic authors and claims to be "unrivaled in its resources for the study of the medieval Nordic world."

That doesn't sound like an exaggeration to me. As a writer who specializes in Viking culture, Norse mythology, Icelandic sagas, skaldic poetry, and the Norse voyages to America, the Fiske Collection is the library of my dreams. Some of its books date back to the 1500s. Others were published this year.

Patrick Stevens (right) receives the Order of the Falcon.
I first visited the Fiske Collection in November 1989, 12 years before my first book came out. At the time I was employed as a science writer for Penn State University, and I had gone to Cornell to attend a meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. The speakers at these meetings are hand-picked for their skill at making the latest scientific discoveries both relevant and exciting--and I'm ashamed to say I remember none of it at all. What I do remember is contacting librarian P.M. Mitchell in advance of my visit and asking if I might take a look at some of the books in the Icelandic collection. I was working on a historical novel and was particularly interested, I told him, in old accounts of people traveling by horseback. I arranged to meet him on the first day of the conference, a Sunday.

It hadn't occurred to me that the Fiske Collection would be closed on a Sunday. Asking directions at the library information desk, I was redirected down a darkened corridor toward an open door from which spilled a pool of yellow light. Stepping inside, apologies on my lips, I was greeted warmly by an elderly gentleman--I want to dress him in a cardigan sweater and give him a pipe, but I think I'm confusing him with a famous portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien. He was that kind of fellow. He was just making tea, would I like some?

He had several stacks of books on his desk for me, from Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas by Sabine Baring-Gould (1863) to Six Weeks in the Saddle by S.E. Waller (1874) to Routes Over the Highlands by Daniel Bruun (1907). Now these books are available over the Internet, scanned by Google Books, but in 1989 they were very rare. As I paged through them, wondering where even to begin, Mitchell handed me a mug of tea--and a key. "I'll just leave you to it," he said. The key opened both the library building and his office. I could use his desk, after hours, as long as the conference lasted. "And help yourself to the tea."

And so began several long, long nights poring over musty old traveler's tales and taking notes (on a yellow legal pad, in pencil), some of which informed my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (2001) and others of which ended up in my most recent book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (2012). (The historical novel I'd been working on was never published.)

Willard Fiske
If I could go back in time, I'd love to meet Willard Fiske. We have a lot in common. According to "The Passionate Collector," an exhibition Patrick Stevens and his colleagues put on in 2005 and preserved online, Fiske's "fascination with Norse myth" inspired him to sail to Copenhagen in 1850, when he was only 19. He studied Danish and Icelandic--and began collecting Icelandic books. Soon he moved on to the University of Uppsala, where he learned Swedish well enough to give lectures on American and English literature. He had hoped to sail on to Iceland in 1852, but things didn't work out and he would not make it to the island whose literature he loved until 1879.

Fiske was not only a gifted linguist, he was a writer, supporting his studies by working as a journalist. Returning home, he embarked on a career marked by his passion for the written word--and his inability to keep still. He was assistant librarian at the Astor Library in New York. He founded a magazine, The American Chess Monthly. He became general secretary of the American Geographical Society, then left for Vienna in 1861 as an attache. In 1863, he became an editor of the Syracuse Daily Journal. He tried to run a bookstore, returned to journalism as the managing editor of the Hartford Courant, then gave it all up to travel again, this time through Europe and the Middle East.

In 1868, Fiske joined Cornell University (founded in 1865) as its first librarian. He also took charge of what we'd now call the university's PR office, its alumni office, and even its university press. He taught a journalism course and served, as well, as Professor of North European Languages, offering classes in Icelandic, Swedish, German--and even Persian.

According to "The Passionate Collector," "In July 1879, Willard Fiske was finally able to travel to Iceland." He landed at Húsavík in the north and went by horseback to Reykjavík. "Along the way, he absorbed the fantastic landscape, with its waterfalls and rugged fells." He met several friends, including the poet Matthías Jochumsson. Jón Sigurðsson himself, the leader of the Icelandic independence movement, wrote him a letter of introduction, which remains in the Fiske Collection.

A year later in Berlin, Fiske married Jenny McGraw, a young heiress Fiske knew from Ithaca, who was touring Europe in search of a cure for her tuberculosis; tragically, she died just after the married couple returned home in 1881. Fiske used the millions he inherited to buy more books, many of them about Iceland. He also endowed the Reykjavík Chess Club, founded the Icelandic chess magazing Í Uppnámi, and donated chess sets and books to the inhabitants of the island of Grimsey, whose story had impressed him when he was in Iceland (though he hadn’t visited Grimsey itself). He also bought a villa in Italy, where he spent the last two decades of his life.

Fiske playing chess in Italy c. 1900.
When Fiske died he was working on volume two of his history, Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature. It was never published, but I've consulted volume one quite heavily while writing my current book, The Ivory Vikings, which argues that the world famous Lewis chessmen were carved in Iceland by a woman artist around the year 1200. I didn't have to visit the Fiske Icelandic Collection to read Fiske’s book—it’s now available on the Internet—but librarian Patrick Stevens graciously searched the archives to answer the many questions I emailed him. The technology may have changed, but the Fiske Icelandic Collection remains the library of my dreams. I'm proud to say it contains every one of my own books about Iceland.

To learn more about the Fiske Icelandic Collection, a good place to start is the website of Cornell's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Links from that page explain how to search the Cornell Library online for its Icelandic holdings, including books, letters, journals, and photographs, many of which can also be viewed online.

Photos here are courtesy of the Cornell University News Service and the Fiske Collection.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ayla's Dream Is to Study the Art of Riding in Iceland

When I first met Ayla Green, she was trying to dissolve into the back of a sofa. A beautiful 16-year-old with long blonde hair, she looked distinctly out of place in the guesthouse at Staðarhús in western Iceland last June: The person closest to her in age was her aunt, Laura Benson.

Laura had arrived that morning from California to teach a group of 60-year-old Americans (and one in her 30s) how to ride an Icelandic horse as part of the America2Iceland tour I was leading. Ayla had come along to help--and to get to know Iceland better.

She sat on the sofa, as we all chatted, and fiddled with her hair or fiddled with her phone, or maybe she was reading a book--I admit, I paid her very little mind.

Throughout the week, while our tour group took their riding lessons, she was put to work cleaning stalls or exercising young horses. Once she had to babysit. Other than "Good Morning," I don't think she and I exchanged two words.

Ayla competing at the CIA Open in Santa Ynez, California.

Then, one morning, as our excited group of beginners was heading out for their first-ever Icelandic trail ride, our hostess, Linda, flagged down Laura and Ayla. Laura waved me over. A pair of German tourists, also staying at the guesthouse, had booked a horseback ride for that morning and Linda had just realized, watching Laura about to disappear down the drive, that she had no one who could lead them. (Linda herself is a horse trainer, but had to watch the children that day.)

The Germans said they were good riders. They could not reschedule: They had to catch a plane. Could Ayla babysit? Laura had a better idea: Why not let Ayla lead the ride? She didn't know the trail--but I did. We agreed. I'd show them the way, but Ayla would be in charge of making sure the Germans had a safe and pleasant ride.

Ayla and I led our horses back to the barn, where the two Germans were waiting. Somehow, on the short way there, she was transformed from a shy teenager in the shadow of her aunt into a confident and confidence-inspiring riding instructor herself.

Ayla competing at the CIA Open in Santa Ynez, California.

She took the two horses Linda had suggested out of their stalls and helped the Germans groom them and properly tack them up. She asked polite questions to assess their riding skill (something that many tourists exaggerate). These two, we learned, were experts--they owned a riding stable in Germany and had competed on Icelandic horses. Still, Ayla left nothing to chance, but had them warm up their horses in the indoor arena while she watched to make sure horse and rider were well matched.

They were, and we headed down the trail. Ayla had not been intending on leading a tour group. She was riding a young horse with very little training--and a lot of spirit--who tended to spook at just about everything. Ayla didn't let that bother her. She kept her horse even with mine (a very solid trekking horse), every now and then drifting back to check that our guests were enjoying themselves. It soon was apparent that I was the least experienced rider of the group (though I've owned and ridden Icelandic horses since before Ayla was born).

The road beside the river at Stadarhus.

We rode along the stream on a narrow track, passing our beginners' group on their way back, then waded the stream to pick up a gravel road that serviced some summerhouses. We stopped briefly to rest the horses in a grassy glade surrounded by birch thickets, the snow-streaked mountains brushing the sky all around us. Then we went back by a different path, crossing the stream again just above a waterfall. Once back on the riding track, heading home, we picked up speed and had an exhilarating run to the barn, still riding two-by-two.

When I said goodbye to Ayla Green after that week at Staðarhús, I knew I'd met an exceptional young horsewoman--and one I'd be hearing more about in the small world of Icelandic horses in the U.S. So I was happy to learn recently that Ayla has decided to pursue her dream of "building a life around this wonderful breed."

Through the website GoFundMe, she is raising money so that she can afford to attend Hólar University, Iceland's premier school for equestrian science, beginning in the fall of 2015. "This university specializes in the training of the Icelandic horse," she explains. "Hólar is also one of the most respected schools where one can learn horsemanship with Icelandic horses."

What she has failed to add is that her aunt, Laura Benson, was the first American to graduate from Hólar with a B.S. degree.

If you ride Icelandic horses and hope to see the breed flourish in North America, as I do, I hope you'll join me in adding a few dollars to Ayla's fundraising campaign. She's not offering T-shirts or coffee mugs (this isn't Kickstarter), but if you're lucky, you'll meet her in Iceland and she'll take you for a ride.

Share Ayla's dream at

Photos of Ayla by Heidi Benson

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

America2Iceland's 2015 Trekking Bootcamp

In late July, with the help of America2Iceland--and you, if you're game--I'm going to recreate my favorite scene from my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse.

Be prepared to ride fast and far, to get tired and probably wet, and to have an adventure you'll never forget riding on the silvery sands beneath the great glacier Snæfellsjökull, or "Snow Mountain Glacier," on Iceland's west coast.

The year before I bought my horses, I spent the summer in an abandoned house on the edge of the Longufjörur, or Long Beaches trail, a 40-mile riding trail uncovered only at low tide. The route, along the south side of Snæfellsnes, has been in use since the Saga Age. It cuts the mouths of several rivers, some of them deep-channeled salmon streams, others edged with quicksand. The safe paths shift from storm to storm, while the force of the wind and its direction, and the fullness of the moon, decide how fast a rider must cross.

"It's a dangerous path," my neighbor, Haukur of Snorrastaðir, told me, "if you don’t know the tides." But one memorable day he lent me two of his best "family" horses, Elfa and Dögun, and let me go with him and the group of riders he was leading over the sands.

At last the tide was low, I wrote in A Good Horse Has No Color:

We opened the paddock gate and let the swirl of color resolve itself into free-running horses. First after them went Haukur on Bjartur, the cream-colored gelding he always rode. His hand horse, a black, he led at his knee, and I did my best to mimic him, riding Elfa and ponying Dögun, though I kept losing my right stirrup: with her every step Dögun banged into my heel.

We rode from the farm beside the River Kaldá on a path so deep our feet brushed the rim of the ruts and grass swished against our boot tops. The ponying got easier when the deep path emptied out onto a black-pebbled beach. I relaxed, took great drafts of the salty air, and settled in to enjoy the ride. This was living, Haukur said. This was Iceland.
We crossed over mudflats pocked with airholes and headed for several grass-topped islands abandoned by the tide like a pod of stranded whales. A sea eagle lifted off one of the islands as we approached and scolded us with a high-pitched cackle. Geese flew over, banking, startled. We rode north onto the sandbar, across some grassy flats, back out through the sucky mud to the hard wet sand, whose color ranged from black to coffee-colored to tawny to gold. 

We rested the horses on a grassy hillside out of sight of a nearby farmhouse. The buzz had been growing in our ears for some time before any of the riders registered what it was (some of us were half asleep with our hats over our eyes). A plane was coming in low. It zoomed over our hillside, making us sit up and snatch at the nearest bridles. A little red and white two-seater, the craft rose and banked steeply over the sea, then turned its nose toward us and dove again. Again it turned, and now it sparked Haukur's ire. He waved his cap and hollered at it.

The other riders had mounted their horses and were circling around the spares. Again the plane passed low over us, then dipped even lower until it was skimming the mudflats. Haukur's holler suddenly turned concerned. The pilot would crash, would kill himself if he tried to land in that soft mud. Haukur thrashed his hat in the air again and began riding toward the beach. The plane lifted slightly, sailed across a wide tidal stream, and came down at last on the sandbar a quarter-mile offshore.

Haukur shook his head. There must be something wrong, he said. The pilot must be out of gas. There was no way off that sandbar, and the tide was rising. He turned and looked over his riders, all quite experienced except for me. We'll have to rescue him, he said. We'll have to swim.

Down he rode toward the stream and, without hesitating, urged his two horses in. The water rose above his thighs. The horses lifted their heads and bared their teeth, all but their heads and necks underwater. The loose horses and the other riders followed, but my hand horse balked and Elfa skittered farther down the shore before I could steer her in—with the result that she missed the sloping bank and was instantly swimming.

My boots filled up. The current pressed hard against my right leg and tugged away at my left. I lost my stirrups. The spare horse I was ponying began swimming with the stream, dragging her rein around behind my back. Elfa began turning seaward as well, her swimming a strange rolling motion. I began to panic.

Rationally I knew that what we were doing was quite ordinary. Horses have long been called "the bridges of Iceland," and Icelanders still will not go out of their way to stay dry crossing a bit of a brook. The English painter Samuel Waller wrote of a day in 1874 when he crossed 40 streams. He warned, "The great thing to beware of is looking at the water. You lose your head at once if you do so, as the eddies swirl around you so rapidly." If you should become unseated, he advised, "strike out for the bank at once and leave the animals to take care of themselves. To be engulfed with a horse in the water is a very complicated piece of business."

And I had two horses. It occurred to me suddenly that I was not "used to horses" at all.

I quickly took inventory and concluded I was hardly a rider. Rather than standing "firm in the stirrups," as Waller suggested, I had no stirrups. My hand horse was tipping my balance awry with her rein tight behind my back. Determined at all costs to stay on, I had cocked my feet up to lessen the drag on my water-filled boots and was clenching my knees, my hands in a death-grip on the reins.

In spite of all this, Elfa was swimming steadily, her ears back, but otherwise not noticeably upset that we weren't gaining the shore. Suddenly I knew what to do. Keeping firm hold of my hand horse, I dropped Elfa's rein, grabbed onto her mane, and relaxed. Immediately, as if I'd called out in a language we both understood, Elfa's head swung toward shore. My hand horse fell behind and swam nicely along after us. Soon we had sand under our hooves. Elfa kicked up and we came splashing out onto the beach in a fine smooth tolt. We charged over to where the other horses waited and I gratefully slid off.
My first thought was to empty out my boots. Someone handed me a beer. I chugged it down, standing on one foot, holding two fidgeting wet horses and a boot full of water. Slowly I made out the tale. The pilot was the boyfriend of one of our riders and had flown out to treat her to a cold drink.

Hardly had the absurdity of the situation sunk in when I realized the riders were remounting. The plane's engine was being revved up. Someone grabbed my empty bottle and I was up and off, Elfa stretching out behind Haukur's Bjartur in the incredible gait called the flying pace—fast enough that my hand horse had to gallop to keep up, yet still Bjartur outdistanced us. We eased back into a canter and let the loose horses catch us, while our little beer-plane scooted by overhead, waggled its wings, and disappeared….

Never would I have imagined that, 17 years later, I would be leading riding tours in Iceland myself. But in 2013 I started doing so for America2Iceland, which is owned in part by the riding instructor and horse trainer Guðmar Pétursson and based at his farm of Staðarhús in the west of Iceland.

Photo by Rebecca Bing for America2Iceland
In 2015 Guðmar and I will be recreating the beach ride I wrote about in A Good Horse Has No Color, riding on the sands beneath the great glacier Snæfellsjökull on the America2Iceland Trekking Bootcamp Tour, July 27 to August 2.

There’s only room for 12 riders, so sign up soon if you want to come with me. Look here for more information:
Note that I cannot guarantee there will be a plane to deliver beer to us on the sands, as there was in the book. But I can guarantee a memorable ride.

(Don't ride? Then take a look at my other America2Iceland tour, "Song of the Vikings," here:

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sheep-Shearing Day at Hestholl Icelandics

The hardest part of Sheep-Shearing Day seemed to be getting the halters on. A sheep halter is not like a horse halter--at least, not like any horse halter I'm used to. There were no buckles, no obvious browbands.

The sheep halters were a noose of bright nylon rope that, looped and twisted correctly, gave you a secure grip on an obstreperous ewe but--twisted incorrectly--let her easily escape to scramble into the yard and glare at us with her yellow eyes while Jill enjoined the youngsters not to scream and not to chase her and a few sheep-savvy helpers made a loose ring behind her and urged her gently back toward the rest of her flock, penned in the open barn, where the professional sheep-shearer stood waiting in the middle of a bright green tarp. The escapee sauntered within his reach, was deftly snagged by one horn and up-ended to sit on her bottom between the shearer's knees--at which the ewe immediately relaxed and let him get on with the task of stripping her of her heavy fleece.

It was Sheep-Shearing Day, after all. The local 4H Club was there to help, though I only noticed one club member who was much help at all: She was an expert at toenail trimming. Most of us had come to Jill Merkel's Hestholl Icelandics in Richmond, VT, to take photos or otherwise gawk at the sheep, which gawked back at us.

The sheep were Icelandic sheep: black and white and brown and spotted. Some had horns, some were hornless, and some just had little nubs. Some were cooperative: They'd hop up onto a metal grooming stand and set their heads onto the headrest; they wouldn't fuss even when you tightened the noose that kept them there and systematically picked up each foot to trim their nails. Others fought back. They despised the stand--or were frightened of it. They refused to keep still, even when tied, jerking their legs as hard as they could to make Jill or young Eva, with the nail clippers, let go--though they didn't. They just waited out the jerking and squirming and then went on with the task.

Sheer off the wool, trim the nails, check the color of the membrane around the eyes (a way to see if the animal has worms), administer wormer, if required, dribble some insecticide along each spine to defeat the fleas, then on to the next sheep.

The shearing seemed to be the quickest step. It took the shearer about five minutes per sheep, using electric clippers. He finished 32 sheep in about four hours, and half the time he seemed to be standing there with a shorn sheep at the end of its rope and saying calmly, "Somebody take this sheep. Where's the next one?"

As soon as I arrived, having never helped with a sheep-shearing before, I was handed a sheep. It did not like me. It spun and kicked and squirmed and did all it could to get off that rope. Thankfully, the sheep-shearer knew how to halter a sheep and this one did not get loose.

My friend Linda, also new to sheep-shearing, first got the task of taking before and after photos. The "before" sheep were handsome and stout; the "after" sheep were lumpy here and skinny there, altogether awkward-looking beasts.

Later Linda got the more appealing task of stuffing the wool into sacks, each neatly labeled with the ewe's name. "The wool is still warm when you pick it up," she mused, "like a sweater someone has just slipped off."

Soon it will be spun and knitted into a sweater once again, and the ewe will grow a new fleece, to be shorn off next spring.

Visit Hestholl Icelandics online here:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Witch's Bridle: An Icelandic Folktale

This time of year in Iceland, the nights are getting long, clouds and rain and fog keep the days generally dark, and if you find yourself walking through a lava field in the half light and hear a fox bark, it's easy to believe in ghosts and trolls and witches.

Or, if not to "believe," at least to scare the wits out of yourself remembering the old stories. My favorites in this genre of Icelandic folktales are the ones about the Witch's Bridle.

In one story, a young farmhand, nearly asleep, feels his mistress place in his mouth the bit of a bridle. Immediately he is compelled to follow her outside, where she mounts him like a horse. She rides him "over hill and dale, over rocks and rubble. To him it seems as if he is wading through sea foam." They stop at the edge of a crater, "which yawns, like a great well, down into the earth," and she ties her "horse" to a stone and disappears into the pit.

As in all of these tales of travel to the Otherworld, the witch-ridden boy manages to pull off the magic bridle and follow her to spy on her doings. In some stories, like this one, her destination is a grand palace in Alfheim (Elfland), where she is greeted like an honored guest. In other tales, she is riding for the Black School in Heim-Utspell (Land of Fire), where she will receive magical training at the hands of Old Nick himself. (Alternatively, Satan's Black School is in Paris!)

The Witch's Bridle transforms not only people, but individual bones into serviceable horses. Often these are bones of horses--shoulder-bone, jawbone, legbone--but occasionally they are human bones. The famous churchman Sira Halfdan of Fell once bridled the hip-bone of a man, turning it into "a willing horse that could go as well over the sea as on land." It is also said that the Witch's Bridle is the only way to fully tame a nykur or nennir, the magical white horses that come out of the sea.

To make a Witch's Bridle, one story says, cut three narrow strips of skin off the spine of a newly dead corpse and twist each one while pulling it through a hole in a skull--usually the ear hole. (The witch would use an already prepared skull, rather than that of the fresh corpse; of course she'd have one at hand.) Braid the strips into reins. Next, flay off the dead man's scalp and fashion it into the head-piece of the bridle, with the hair left on. The bones at the root of the tongue (the hyoid bones) are used for the bit, while the hip bones make the cheek pieces--the Witch's Bridle follows the form of the classic Icelandic bridle, with its large cheek pieces.

When properly pieced together, the bridle can be fastened onto "any man or beast, stock or stone, and it will go quicker than lightning wherever one wants to go." In practice, however, the bridle must have been programmed by magic words to go to one particular destination, for in no instance in the tales does the witch-ridden bone, beast, or man deviate from course--even when the rider is not the witch, as in the tale above, in which the farmhand turns the tables on his mistress and bridles her for the ride back home from Elfland. Perhaps the spell was recited while the skin for the reins was being pulled through the ear hole, thus allowing the skin to "hear" the instructions.

Interestingly, although many magical objects have been retrieved from graves in Iceland, no artifacts resembling the collection of skin and bones of a Witch’s Bridle have been found--yet.

For more shakes and shivers (and a few love spells), read last year's Halloween post about the Icelandic Witchcraft Museum:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gerri Griswold's "Iceland Affair"

Even her friends call her "peculiar." Her Facebook pages (yes, she maintains several) are littered with selfies taken in the crapper at Logan Airport or the big bathtub in her back yard (censored by soap bubbles). She drivels on and on about her juicing diet and her real job (one of them) as a radio station traffic reporter. She has a pet pig. She's passionate about bats and porcupines, which she rehabilitates for the White Memorial Conservation Center.

Where am I going with this? To Iceland, of course, for Gerri Griswold is passionate, too, about the land of Fire and Ice, which is how our paths crossed. Gerri's is the spirit behind Iceland Affair--and that's what makes this quirky all-day, all-Iceland festival in Connecticut so much fun.You just never know who you might meet and what you might learn.

According to a press release for Iceland Affair, which Gerri has almost single-handedly put together near her home in Connecticut each year for the last five, Gerri Griswold fell "hopelessly in love with Iceland on her first trip in May 2002 and has since traveled there 34 times."

Reading that made me seriously jealous. I fell in love with Iceland in 1986 and I've only racked up 18 return trips. How does she do it?

One answer is, she doesn't sleep. I learned that the hard way, sharing a room with her for a June night in Iceland in 2013, where she was up until at least 3 a.m. editing photos to post on Facebook. She once was a professional chef, Gerri told me. "I'm used to having five burners going at once."

To fund (or fuel) her Iceland habit, Gerri established a travel agency, which I wrote about in a previous blog post. [Read it here:] I toured with her group for about 24 hours, during which time I hiked along the rim of a volcanic crater at midnight, swam in a natural hotspring, visited sulfur pots and lava formations, learned about lichens, found the ram with the biggest horns in Iceland, and listened to the stirring voices of a men's choir in the elegant surroundings of a bird museum while munching on Icelandic cheese. I think that was more than five burners going at once.

And it was fun. Gerri's company pairs an elegant logo of a raven with a name that, while it does mean "raven," is pronounced by every American as "crummy": Krummi Travel. The company logo is No crybabies, cranks, or pantywaists allowed. What's a pantywaist? I spent that whole day touring with them and didn't have the nerve to ask.

Still don't know--and don't tell me, because I'm taking part in another of Gerri's productions this weekend: the Fifth Annual Iceland Affair in Winchester Center, CT.

Inside the Winchester Center Grange on Saturday, October 18, from 10 to 5, will be a full slate of lectures and presentations. At noon, I'll be speaking on my book A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse. There will be talks on Iceland's geology and its currently active volcano, Barðarbunga. The breeder of Icelandic goats whose farm we all saved from the dragons (bankers) with the Indiegogo campaign will be there, as will experts on Icelandic gyrfalcons and Icelandic pop music. [Read more about the goats here:]

Downstairs at the Grange will be free food-tastings all day: Icelandic hot dogs, dried fish, chocolate, skyr, and more. Vendors will be selling Icelandic sweaters and vinaterta and books (mine, of course).

Outside on the Winchester Center Green will be a veritable Icelandic petting zoo: Icelandic horses, Icelandic sheep, Icelandic sheepdogs, Icelandic chickens--yes, there really are Icelandic chickens.

"Anything worth doing is worth overdoing," Gerri stresses.

Finally, at 8 pm, there's a concert (which is not free; Gerri's got to pay for this event somehow). The Fire and Ice Music Festival at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, CT will feature Icelandic musicians Lay Low, Svavar Knutur, Myrra Ros, Agnes Erna, Snorri Helgason, Bjorn Thorodssen, and Kristjana Stefansdottir, playing everything from pop to folk to jazz. [You can read bios of the artists (and buy tickets, if there are any left) here:]

"Surprises are in store for every guest attending--and for the artists," Gerri concludes.

I'm not surprised. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Not Leif Eiriksson Day, but Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day

Tomorrow, October 9, is Leif Eiriksson Day, when people of Scandinavian heritage and Viking enthusiasts like me celebrate the fact that the Vikings explored North America 500 years before Columbus.

While I whole-heartedly support the celebrations, I wonder, Why does Leif get all the credit? As I wrote on this blog before--in 2012 and 2013--I think we should celebrate "Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day," instead. Leif spent a winter in the Viking's Vinland and never went back. His sister-in-law, Gudrid, lived there three years and bore a child in the New World.

Gudrid is mentioned in both of the medieval Icelandic sagas about the Vikings' adventures in Vinland, or Wine Land, around the year 1000. Experts believe the stories in The Saga of the Greenlanders were first collected by Gudrid's great-great-grandson, Bishop Brand, in the 1100s. The Saga of Eirik the Red was commissioned about a hundred years later by another of Gudrid's many descendants, Abbess Hallbera, who oversaw a convent in northern Iceland.

The two sagas don't agree on the particulars of Gudrid's life, and they don't tell us very much about her. She was "of striking appearance," intelligent, adventurous, and friendly. She could sing and she was Christian. She was born in Iceland, married in Greenland, explored Wine Land, returned to Iceland and raised two sons, took a pilgrimage to Rome, and became one of Iceland's first nuns. Many Icelanders today trace their ancestry from her.

Over the last 50 years, archaeologists have proved more and more of her story true. In Greenland, they uncovered Eirik the Red's Brattahlid and the church built there by his wife, Thjodhild. They uncovered the house at Sand Ness where Gudrid's husband died.

On the far northwestern tip of Newfoundland, near a fishing village called L'Anse aux Meadows, they found three Viking houses. This small settlement is now thought to be the gateway from which the Vikings explored North America. Among the Viking artifacts found there was a spindle whorl, proving a Viking woman had been on the expedition.
Three white walnuts, or butternuts, found at L'Anse aux Meadows prove the Vikings sailed well south, to where butternut trees—and the wild grapes for which Wine Land was named—then grew. The most likely spots seem to be near the mouth of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, where there was a large Native American settlement at the time.
In 2001 a team of archaeologists began working in Skagafjord, the valley in northern Iceland where Karlsefni came from. I volunteered on the project one summer as we uncovered a Viking Age house on the farm called Glaumbaer, where the sagas say Gudrid finally made her home. The floorplan of the house looked like no other found in Iceland. It most closely resembled a house at L'Anse aux Meadows.
I told the story of my summer working on the archaeological team in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, which was published by Harcourt in 2007. I thought then that I had written all I could about Gudrid the Far-Traveler. Her spirit disagreed. As soon as that book came out, I began writing a new one.

My young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, will be published in Spring 2015 by namelos. I look forward to sharing the process with you.

To read my earlier posts about Leif Eiriksson Day, see: and

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Icelandic Toys

In the old days, when Icelanders lived in turf houses like this one, how did the children play?

The English traveler Alice Selby visited Iceland in 1931. During the week she spent on a farm in a narrow northern valley, she writes, "the weather grew steadily worse. At first it was bright but cold. Then it grew cloudy, and then the rain began. After that it grew still colder, the rain turned to snow and sleet, and the bitterest wind blew unceasingly. My first impression of the Icelandic countryside was one of complete gloom."

Then one day, out on a walk, she met a local man who shared with her a secret: "When we drew near the farm where he lived, he led me out of the way to a sheltered hollow and showed me a little village of toy houses made by children from the farm. The tiny mud houses were roofed with turf and fenced with sheep's horns. There were flowers, daisies and little pink arenaria planted in the gardens, and there was even a cemetery with crosses made from match sticks. I felt unaccountably cheered."

Selby doesn't mention the animals at the children's farm, but I came across this extensive farm-animal set one year when I visited the Skogar Folk Museum in southern Iceland. Before Legos there were bones. According to Jónas Jónasson frá Hrafnagili, in his book on Icelandic folkways, the knucklebones of sheep were sheep, the knucklebones of cows were cows, while the legbones of sheep were horses, though jawbones were sometimes horses too, like this well-laden packhorse:

In the airline magazine, on the way home from that trip, I read about a new toy set designed by Róshildur Jónsdóttir, "Something Fishy." According to the magazine, it's "a model-making kit including cleaned bones from fish heads and paint … The kit doesn't contain any instructions; it's up to the creative mind of each user what they want to create: spaceships, angels, or elves--anything is possible. A great alternative to virtual games and plastic toys." Here's an example:

Róshildur was inspired, the magazine says, by "the old days," when children's favorite toys were bones. You can read more about "Something Fishy" here: