I never thought I’d get the chance to meet a king. Although he may not reign, Gunnar “Viking” Ólafsson does have royal blood. Gunnar is a living, breathing Viking based here in Reykjavík, and founder of Einherjar, the city’s only group dedicated to the Old Norse warriors.
In Iceland, the streets are swimming with plastic relics of the nation’s mythological past, and thanks to various TV series and films blockbusters, tourists are on a crusade to find out more. With his signature ice-blond hair and piercing blue eyes, Gunnar is quintessentially Nordic. Sat with a lollipop in one hand, and a Pepsi in the other, we begin to discuss his royal ancestry.
“I can trace my lineage back to 632 AD,” says Gunnar. “I’m related to both Danish and Norwegian kings. My 31st grandfather was King Harald ‘Hardrada’ Sigurdsson.” “Hardrada” is an epithet meaning “hard ruler.” “He died trying to take the crown from England in 1066.”
Gunnar is quick to point out that he is not superficially interested, but genuinely fascinated by his notable connections. “People often ask me about my royal bloodline, but I’m not concerned,” he says. “I’m more interested in my reason for being. To me, they are just my grandparents—they’re just people, so it’s great to know where I am from.”
Gunnar is a historical reenactor, TV extra and biker who has dedicated his life to Norse mythology. He’s working hard to bring the past to the present. “Myself and the group are like time travellers,” he explains. “We meet in the Viking hall—a 1940s military barrack built by the British. We’ve been there for seven years and have regular meetings.”
The Einherjar are not to be messed with. They regularly practice with replica spears and swords. “We have to be skilled fighters when we are in shows,” says Gunnar, “and brush up on our techniques. The Vikings were actually very peaceful people, but they needed to know how to fight by sword to protect themselves, their families, and their land.”
Vikings on screen
Every year, the group organises the Reykjavík Viking Festival, where you can mount a long ship and immerse yourself in living history. “We even have a skáld—a Norse storyteller—coming from the UK, to connect visitors with stories from the Viking ages.”
Despite a somewhat bloody past, Icelanders and Brits have a shared interest in Vikings. Gunnar and his army often tour the UK, and indeed the world to educate and inspire. “It might sound silly,” says Gunnar, “but I think a lot of the popularity has come from Hollywood films like ‘Thor’. People are interested in Oðinn, Loki, and their origins in northern Europe.”
Gunnar has even made a name for himself on the screen. He and his fellow berserkers are often extras in TV series and have even picked up gigs randomly dressed as hippies. “We were recently chosen to feature in a documentary film,” he says. “In the 17th century, Spaniards came to Iceland and were fishing close to the land. They became shipwrecked so stole a sheep. The Icelanders didn’t take a liking to this, so the sheriff of the Westfjords said they should all be killed. Sixty souls arrived on land, and all were killed. I was an extra in the documentary, alongside twenty other locals.”
Army of one
It’s not just a fad—Gunnar has been contacted by a whole host of people who are desperate to uncover ties to the past. “More people are becoming fascinated by history,” he enthuses. “Many have traced their origins back to Iceland, especially visitors from Canada. Even Icelanders are becoming more interested.”
Iceland is proud of its heritage, and is lucky enough to have genealogical records such that you can easily find out where your grandparents lived in the 18th, 17th and 16th centuries. “You can visit the spots of your ancestors, and connect to the country—it’s an incredibly profound experience,” Gunnar recalls.
If you’re planning a pilgrimage, there’s plenty of ways to transform into a Norseman (or woman). “To get the full Viking experience, take advantage of what’s being offered here in Iceland,” says Gunnar. “Ride the Viking Ship in Reykjavík, or ride one of our horses. The horses have been here since the Viking ages! Hafnarfjördur also has a great scene. There’s a restaurant, Fjörukráin, where you can eat and drink like one of us.”
For those into roleplay, kidnapping is available on request, as Gunnar and his horde hope to craft their very own “Viking Expeditions.” “There are locations in Iceland where there are still huts and historic relics,” he says. “We hope to point people in the right direction so they can find out more.”
My audience was complete, and it was time for me to leave. Gunnar accompanied me to his chariot—a 4×4 with a kingly personalised “VIKING” licence plate, no less.