2015 | Iceland

Iceland: Place, Culture, and Theology in a “Frontier” Location

Iceland fascinates. Its beguiling landscape is well known: a plethora of active volcanoes, glaciers, lava beds, waterfalls, thermal baths, geysers, fjords, not to mention regular appearances of the “northern lights.” But Iceland’s past is equally beguiling. A frontier outpost of Scandinavian culture and therefore a land of the Norse gods, Iceland witnessed the coming of Christianity (1000) and then the coming of Lutheranism (1540-50s) in truly perplexing ways. (See professor Howard’s blog on the religious history of Iceland). Yet today Christianity has virtually evacuated the land, making it among the most secular places on earth.

Add to all of this the fact that the erstwhile Norsemen’s “Althing” is today the oldest parliamentary body in the world. Tally everything up and you have compelling JAF alumni study trip—and a direct flight from Boston! Through joint excursions, readings and discussions, this trip takes as its purpose to consider the relationship between culture, religion, and location, and how their mutual interaction shapes human experience.

Photo Journal

A collection of pictures, many of which correspond with the reflection below.

Iceland: Life between Frost and Fire

Carl Nellis, '10 (JAF 2007-08)

On the evening of our third day in Iceland, Ryan Groff ('06, JAF 2005-06) and I crawled into our beds exhausted, but with our minds spinning. There were still two days of the trip left, and I was already overwhelmed by the things we had seen: waterfalls, geysers, glaciers, mountains, rift valleys, volcano calderas, fjords, and broad lava-covered plains where the jagged rolls of rock are carpeted by mats of lichen.

On our narrow hostel beds, feeling not quite at home, Ryan and I returned to some of our earlier conversations about Iceland's history, religion, and culture. Our group discussions had ranged from Iceland’s Christianization around the year one thousand to the significance of its modern constitution. Even having read a brief historical overview of life on the island, The Prose Edda from Iceland’s medieval period, and the Augsburg Confession of 1530, I was still groping for a framework in which I could understand the relationship between Iceland’s people and landscape. Nothing we had read was connecting the dots in our constellation of experiences.

I turned to Ryan and said, “I’m surprised we haven’t read more. I was expecting we would use more texts.” Ryan replied, "I think on this trip, the place is the text."

We stepped out of the van after a long cross country drive and were immediately punished for the act. Wind greeted us with a cold slap in the face, rushing down off the mountain peaks on the horizon and charging across the lava fields to where we stood huddled together, pulling on gloves, zipping jackets to our chins, wrapping scarves around our necks. This was our first stop on our first morning in Iceland. We shared the squinting bewilderment of the unwelcome.

A winding path of wooden planks led us down into the crevasse where Hvítá, a glacier-fed river flowing down from the highlands, becomes Gullfoss—a gray, charging, churning waterfall. In the river’s ravine the wind only got stronger, throwing spay into our faces and biting our eyes. We clutched cameras, hats, and hoods, and stared down into the dark cleft where the water descends with impressive force. Falling through two a first ridge of rock, twisting in an arc 180 degrees, and falling through another row of angular, stony teeth the river leaps into a dark gap, spitting foam, before it runs away through a cut in the land made by centuries of the river's assault on Iceland's volcanic surface.

A nearby sign offers visitors this anecdote: when an English engineer asked the owner of the land to sell him Gullfoss so he could harness the water’s energy, the farmer replied, "I do not sell my friends." Between the Icelandic farmer for whom this scene of startlingly intermingled power and beauty is a backyard, a friend, and the entrepreneur who came looking for a way to turn the land into wealth, we JAF visitors struggled to determine exactly how we could relate ourselves and our lives to the land we were finding, yes, beautiful, but also surprisingly inhospitable.

On our way back from Gullfoss, as we passed field after field of low grass, slender shivering trees, and clusters of sheep huddling near scattered fences, Tal posed us the question that has arisen for many thinkers when they meet something so unsettling, so beautiful, that it refuses to nestle down comfortably among their mental furniture, but instead tosses the rest aside, leaving our metaphysics in a state of blank desertion, demanding a new interior architecture. With more eloquence than any of the rest of us could muster, he asked: “What do you do with that?” See photo journal >>


From Gullfoss falls we drove to Geysir, the geyser that gave the term to the English language. The historic spout only erupts every month or so now, but others nearby, Strokkur and Litli Geysir, offered us their best explosive salutes, Strokkur firing steam thirty feet into the air surrounded by an admiring crowd. Heated by contact with the subterranean heart of the island, the water here bubbles and runs away across rock broken by a spiderwork of crevices and vents. It is one testament to Iceland's seat on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are pulling apart from each other at a rate of 2.5 cm per year. The steam at Geysir bespeaks Iceland’s origins: the island formed 70 million years ago when magma rose into the ocean through the geological gap and reached the water’s surface. Among the landmasses Iceland is a relative infant.

The Norwegians who first settled Iceland in 874 found the land empty of inhabitants. In Viking Age Iceland, Jesse Byock describes the island as “a remote place with a fragile subarctic ecology” that “allowed only limited agriculture and produced little” of value to the outside world. Today’s Iceland has a different story to tell.

Though Gullfoss still carries the sign that proudly announces it is not for sale, Icelanders have found that volcanic heat is a resource worth harnessing, and selling to a market of global buyers. Time and again we heard stories of geothermal heating warming Icelandic homes, businesses, greenhouses (so that’s how they grow summer vegetables!), and, of course, public pools and hot springs. Like the power of the falls, Iceland’s geothermal heating has attracted the interest of outsiders. Energy intensive processes (such as aluminum smelting, we learned) are often cheaper in Iceland than anywhere else, and that means low operating costs for transnational industrial firms. The Iceland that we visited in 2015 is a global hub, complete with American fast food chains dotting Reykjavik’s street corners and a tourism industry that made our travel around the island as simple (often) as following road signs emblazoned with St. John’s Arms, the square knot that many Scandinavian countries adopted in the 1960s to mark “places of interest.”

Familiar to Apple users as the command sign (?), St. John’s Arms has been in use in Iceland since settlement. The museum label for a Viking era weight made of lead that has similar knotwork scratched in the surface calls its square symbol “an inlaid design of an Irish reliquary,” probably in reference to Ranvaik’s Casket, an Irish reliquary now housed in the Danish National Museum. Iceland’s place in the Mid-Atlantic and its settlement by global traders and (former) raiders meant that from the beginning the land was understood as one dot on a wide map, as one destination in a wide network of places connected by the square sails of Viking longships. See photo journal >>


The current exhibit at Reykjavik’s Culture House, “Points of View,” speaks to the diversity of Icelandic art, diversity in medium, diversity in subject. On the fourth floor the collection brings together pieces that address the Icelandic landscape. Panoramic views of harbors and mountains are here, but the most striking pieces express the tension between Iceland’s frost and fire, its glaciers and volcanos.
One painting that held me in my tracks was the 1973 Fire of the Earth, by Þorbjörg Höskuldsdóttir. A volcanic column dominates the left site of the image, stretching from the bottom, where it gathers magma from three brilliant red roots, to the top, where it branches into arcs of fire in a smoky sky.

Around the roots, and framing a dark field in which pale figures stand rigidly in a row, repeating patterns of St. John’s Arms suggest the medieval past. In the sky, seen through volcanic smoke, the looped square knots form, in their negative space, the shape of the cross, glowing orange and red as if in sympathy with the earth’s destructive heat, the heat that gave life to the island in the first place. Suspended in the center, a city of small white buildings is frozen in time, half the buildings aflame, the other half as yet untouched, but indistinct, individual buildings fading into a smudge of white.

Iceland’s Prose Edda, a thirteenth century collection of Norse mythology, starts the cosmos in a gap between ice and fire. In the meeting place of these two destructive extremes, life emerges. In the Old Norse cosmos, the world of men, Midgard, is suspended on a great ash tree. The reinterpretation of ash tree in Fire of the Earth speaks to the ongoing concerns of Iceland’s artists today: keeping alive the traditions of the early settlement, while staying alive in a place that has never made itself hospitable to the people who call it home.

The title card for “Points of View” in the museum brochure suggests that “how to live off the land and use everything it has to offer” was how Icelanders answer the question of “what to do” with the Icelandic landscape. Life on the volcanic island was always at the risk of bursting into flames. The museum’s audio tour suggests that in Iceland, “the notion of enjoying the land is relatively new.” In this narrative framework, the Icelanders’ relationship to their landscape has not been metaphysical, but material. By contrast, we American visitors, secure in knowing that we would eat our fill each day and sleep in relative security each night, were free to consider the questions’ other aspects—how to turn encounters with a stark, intimidating, beautiful landscapes into conversations, photo albums, and narratives of human survival in an inhospitable place.

But Icelanders have done more than survive. At the beginning and end of every day in Iceland, we were striking out and returning to a bustling human city, layers of history and culture worked and reworked, that were framed by, and every day reframed, the land we encountered. Here and there, as we went, visiting Iceland’s scattered farms, its isolated churches standing alone in wide fields of low brush, we tasted the rich fish stews and hearty breads in seaside cafes. We walked through halls filled with Icelandic painting and sculpture. We visited the famous hot springs at the Blue Lagoon. We read the Edda together, a monument in world literature.

Our last morning in Iceland we visited the Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s national cathedral. Designed to resemble basalt lava, angular faces of concrete sweep up to a spire that towers over Reykjavik. From the top of that tower, designed to imitate and reproduce the character of the land, the harbor and the surrounding cityscape is laid out to the eye, framed across the water by the imposing, barren, beautiful slopes of a volcanic mountain. See photo journal >>