From Iceland — A Splinter of History Straight into Your Eye

A Splinter of History Straight into Your Eye

Published June 30, 2006

A Splinter of History Straight into Your Eye

Most nations in the world enjoy celebrating their heritage in some form or another. On some date on every national calendar, there will be a day where people recognise their cultural ancestors’ plights and hardships as they built their respective nations. Most of them sing songs. Some raise glasses and toast. Others raise machine guns and fire a couple of bursts into the air for good measure. Still others dress up as Vikings and hack the shit out of each others’ plywood shields.

Although the Grapevine’s consistently packed schedule did not permit coverage of the entire Viking festival in Hafnarfjörður, we did manage to squeeze in a few hours’ attendance on an uncharacteristically sun-drenched summer day towards the end of the festivities.

The festival took place in a market of sorts, where vintage-looking tents had been erected in a parking lot, mostly to sell various Viking Age trinkets. Among the wares being peddled were woven blankets, candles, carved knives and jewellery that would not look out of place in a really shitty vampire movie. There was also a spit-roast, and some form of meat was available, although the less adventurous visitors were satisfied with Iceland’s trademark easy access to hot dogs and room temperature soda.

A bunch of Vikings also ambled about, seemingly at random, brandishing vintage weaponry and beards to lose one’s car keys in, but most of them just hung out, seemingly exhausted, in the shade under a concrete awning cunningly disguised as a tree thicket by the strategic placement of branches. They spoke in few words, spending most of their time staring solemnly into space, and I found them endearingly convincing; if I were to make any kind of educated guess as to how Vikings spent most of their time in the days of yore, it would probably be something along these lines. One of them scratched his nose. Another picked at a dent in his axe.

Mesmerising as they were in their unquestionable authenticity, I eventually drifted towards the far end of the market, where I was intrigued to discover a grown man proudly teaching a wide-eyed young boy or two how to throw a hatchet the right way, with what I assumed to be their mother standing nearby, smiling proudly at her son’s proficiency with thrown weapons. I made a mental note of the scene in case they ever find a murder victim in Iceland whose skull has been split with a tomahawk, and moved on.

Incidentally, if children are not your thing, you would do well to avoid the Viking festival. There were probably a hundred of them there, running about the marketplace yelling at each other and anyone close enough to grab their attention. Also, some wise individual had apparently sold their parents some wooden swords and shields with which to beat the crap out of each other, which they did to the careful instructions of a friendly looking Viking standing over them in a patch of grass separating the parking lot from Strandgata.

“All right, everyone take your positions,” he called, and thirty children obeyed, standing equidistant from each other and posing with their weapons. They looked ready to kick some ass, and I found myself wondering if you could get away with training an army this way. “Okay, now beat your shields,” the instructor said, and again the children did as he said, albeit slightly more timid this time. “And…attack!” The children then proceeded to awkwardly whack each other about with their weapons for a bit. Most of them just had stubby wooden swords, but one kid had a spear; he rocked.

As immensely gratifying as it was to see all the wonderful little rays of sunshine jab each other with wood, I found myself drifting back towards where the Vikings sat, encumbered by their authentic-looking armour, only to find them gone, leaving only a few candy wrappers and a pitcher of ice water where they used to be. Before I could start wondering how a dozen armed medieval warriors had slipped by me without my seeing them, they reappeared on the grass where the children used to be, scaring them away in a single drove to hide behind their parents, who laughingly assured them that the would-be Vikings wished them no harm, and were simply there for the same purpose the kids had been: to pretend to kill each other.

The Vikings were then introduced with the pomp befitting them and took their places while I shuffled in eager anticipation of the awesome staged fight I knew was coming. But sadly, the Vikings staved off the action with a short play intended to justify the violence to come. The play’s quality in terms of acting, plot and dialogue were inferior only to that of Police Academy 4, but thankfully, it was substantially shorter than PA4’s hour-and-a-half, and before long the Vikings were chopping away at each other.

I’m glad to say that I was entertained by the mess they made. Someone seems to have realised that something had to be hacked to pieces in place of human flesh in order for a staged swordfight to be entertaining, so they came up with the ingenious concept of making large plywood shields that splinter spectacularly when struck hard enough. The action itself was rowdy enough to earn gasps from the crowd, which was steadily increasing in size as the battle progressed.
I was also pleased by the wide variety of costumes being worn by the performers. While some of them were clothed as simple peasants taking a break from some important manure-shovelling, others had fur capes, hardy-looking helmets and huge swords with engraved grips, and at least two wore complete suits of distinctly un-Viking-like armour. A girl of about 20 wore something resembling a crusading templar’s armour and a spiked helmet, while a foreign-looking man with a neat moustache wore black-and-red samurai-like chainmail.

As I watched them splinter each other’s finely crafted shields into very poor firewood, I felt a swell of pride at my ancestors’ guile and ingenuity. For when the deep fjords and thick woods of Scandinavia proved too taxing for them to wage a decent battle, they fled for the barren fields of unclaimed petrified lava they called Iceland to wreak all-new havoc upon. They would no doubt be as proud as I am of them to know that one day, their fierce struggle for superiority over nature and each other would lead to this fine Saturday afternoon ruckus as their rich, fat and happy descendants watched while eating popsicles and comforting their children.

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