The Holy Mountain: Guest Post by Nancy Brown post
Time for another guest post. This one is from American author and horsewoman Nancy Marie Brown.
When I wrote a recent post on elves in Iceland, Nancy’s publishers sent me a copy of her upcoming book Looking for the Hidden Folk.
Like me, Nancy has fallen in love with Iceland, and also like me she has quite a hard-headed, sceptical view of superstition. A rational person might ask how can so many people in a modern well-educated society like Iceland entertain the concept of hidden people or elves? This book is her answer, and it’s fascinating. It’s also a wonderful evocation of Iceland, its people and its countryside.
Here is an excerpt, about an early visit to Helgafell, Iceland’s “Holy Mountain”, very close to where my detective Magnus’s grandfather’s farm at Bjarnarhöfn.
I was a graduate student in medieval literature when I first went to Iceland in 1986. I wanted to see the farm of Helgafell, site of the Icelandic saga Eyrbyggja—a saga Michael Ridpath, my host on this blog, used to great effect in his fourth Magnus Iceland Mystery, Sea of Stone.
My husband and I took the bus from Reykjavik to the town of Stykkishólmur, then backpacked the four miles back to Helgafell. There’d been an inch of snow that morning. In my journal I reduced the walk to “rain, bones, sheep dung, mud; some birds: Iceland gull, snipe, geese low overhead.”
Helgafell: photo Nancy Marie Brown
Helga Fell means Holy Mountain. According to the saga, the hill was named in 884 by Thorolf, a chieftain hounded out of Norway by King Harald Fair-Hair. Iceland was nearly empty at the time—there were no indigenous Icelanders—so Thorolf, in the first wave of settlers fleeing Harald’s unification schemes, had his choice of house site. Sailing up Iceland’s west coast, he’d reached a broad bay when the wind failed. Throwing overboard a wooden post bearing an image of Thor, he declared he’d settle wherever the Thunder God came ashore.
That turned out to be the peninsula on which Stykkishólmur sits. Thorolf named it Thor’s Ness. “On this ness,” says the saga, “stands a hill.” To Thorolf, this hill was so holy that no one should even look at it without washing first. Nothing on the hill was to be killed, neither animals nor humans, unless they came down from the hill of their own will. Thorolf named the hill Helgafell and believed that he would go into it when he died.”
He may have been right. His son Thorstein Cod-Biter, it’s said, “ran a magnificent farm” at Helgafell. “He always had sixty free men with him and was generous with food, so they were constantly rowing out to fish” among the uncountable islands in the Breidafjord, the broad bay to the peninsula’s north.
One evening, his shepherd “saw the whole north face of the hill open up. Looking inside, he saw great fires burning. He heard a drinking bout going on, amid raucous merriment. And as he listened, trying to catch what they were saying, he heard someone greet Thorstein the Cod-Biter and his crew, and tell him to take a seat on the bench opposite his father.” The news came from the islands the next morning: Thorstein the Cod-Biter had drowned.
In 1986, when I arrived, Helgafell was a dairy farm. Dropping my backpack in the dirt of the lane, I went up to one door of what turned out to be a duplex and knocked. To the formally dressed old man who answered, I said, “Snorri goði búa hér?” He understood, despite my grammatical fault, that I was asking about a former tenant—the grandson of Thorstein Cod-Biter—who had moved out in the year 1008.
I did not understand what the old man answered, but at that moment his son stepped out of the cow barn, his coveralls streaked with cow dung, a stocking cap tight over his ears. With the younger man, my husband tried a more practical approach: “Tjalda? Tent? Here?” The farmer nodded and led us back up the lane to a large stack of fertilizer bags, which he made us understand, using gestures and easy words like vindur (wind), would provide a windbreak. He pointed out walking trails up the hill and around it and out between the fields, introduced himself as Hjörtur, son of Hinrik (the old man I had originally approached), shook both our hands, and went back to work.
We traipsed all over the farm in a drizzle, up the hill (without remembering to wash first), down to the lake, out to the farthest skerries edging the shallow bay, collecting sparkling stones and wisps of sheep’s wool, taking photos, and watching the birds—black-backed gulls, greylag geese, arctic skua, redshanks, whimbrel, ringed plover, golden plover, loon.
On the north side of Helgafell itself, I spied a raven, hunched up in the corner of two basalt columns. The bird flew out, cawing, as I came up. A second raven took up the racket, perched on an outcrop. As I walked on, I glanced back at the first bird’s perch and spied the nest: two young ravens, almost full-grown, sitting motionless, head-to-tail, in a tangle of twigs and feathers and white sheep bones.
Our water bottles empty, we went up to the house. Two women answered the door. “Átt þú meiri vatni?” I mumbled. “You need some water?” replied one of the women. She was the local English teacher. We told her about the raven’s nest. The farmwife, Kristrún, wanted to see it, so we traipsed back around the hill (with our interpreter) and studied the birds with binoculars. Kristrún was delighted and insisted we come home for coffee. She had been searching for that nest.
The English teacher soon left, but the oldest daughter, Jóhanna, who was learning English in school, helped us out. We had coffee and tea, chocolate cake, raisin cake, and crackers with cheese. The whole family—mother, father, five children, mother’s mother—and a hired man crowded into the little kitchen to meet us. They asked us to come back the next morning.
At 11, they fed us sandwiches and more cake. At 12:30 they fed us fresh-caught lake trout. We did not have much luck talking, though I managed to say that the fish was very good. My husband took out our Icelandic-English dictionary and entertained them by trying to pronounce Icelandic numbers. After lunch, they showed us pale violets and made us understand that the whole hillside was covered with purple wood geraniums in the summertime.
Ravens are the wise god Odin’s birds. Two sit on his shoulders, named Thought and Memory. Says Odin in the old Icelandic Lay of Grímnir:
Thought and Memory
Fly every day
The wide world over.
Thought, I fear,
May never return;
I worry more for Memory.
Folklore tells how the ravens gather each autumn to divvy up Iceland’s farms, two birds to each, a male and a female, to become the “house ravens,” bringers of luck, as these ravens were for me.
That day at Helgafell, my life changed. Instead of becoming a professor and teaching medieval literature, I now write books about a mysterious otherworld where hills are holy and stories hold lasting power.
My seventh book, from which this essay is partly excerpted, comes out in October. Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth is a conversation about how we look at and find value in nature. It reveals how the words we use and the stories we tell shape the world we see. It argues that our beliefs about the Earth will preserve, or destroy, it.
Scientists name our time the Anthropocene, the Human Age: Climate change will lead to the mass extinction of species unless we humans change course. Iceland suggests a different way of thinking about the Earth, one that, to me, offers hope.