Some try to explain this alcoholic phenomenon by pointing out various factors, such as the climate, the extremes of light and night, and most recently, that the answer is is in the Icelandic DNA, which is alleged to contain a so-called “alcoholic gene”.
All of these explications may be to some extent plausible, yet they seem unsatisfactory in explaining the enormous hold this simple substance “alcohol” has on our very souls. We have to look further still. Could it be that part of the cause for our plight is to be found in our cultural background? Let’s venture into the bloody past, into an era in which there were no AA-meetings, where there existed no such concept as the Judean “sin”, where “atonement” translated as “revenge”; the era of Odin himself.
Searching for Valkyries at the bottom of a bottle
Before blatantly selling out to Christianity, we were stout believers in the mighty gods who dwell in Ásgardur. These deities were quite imperfect creatures: some of them excelled at throwing hammers, while others were apt at deceiving women and writing poetry; all were first-rate boozers. None of them could be described as omnipotent or all-good, and certainly not virtuous. Well, that depends on how one defines “virtue”, of course; one of their “virtues” was the very act of drinking.
Thor was the most macho of the gods (and, incidentally, a part-time transvestite). He was once defied to prove his manliness, and immediately chose the “sport” of demonstrating how much mead he could imbibe. This criterion of manhood quickly caught on among mortals and has become something of a trend, certainly in this country; indisputably our all-time favourite “sport”.
If we are brave in battle, we are to expect a certain class of women (Valkyrjur) to select us as worthy enough to fall by the sword. They then pick up our souls and carry them all the long way to Valhalla: Banquet Hall of the Slain, where we shall join the celestial company of the gods, namely Odin, our host. We are to be greeted at the surly gates by another Valkyrja offering us a decent cup of wine. In this version of heaven, there are no fair harp-strumming angels, there is no eternal peace. In fact, there is no peace at all. Instead, we fight blood-spattered battles all day long, constantly preparing for an inevitable Armageddon. And at night… at night we drink.
Heaven is a place with no hangovers
The reward, free drinks each and every night, is the greatest benefit of being a Warrior of Valhalla. The supplier of ale is Heiðrún, a mighty goat who eats from the Tree of Life and whose tits shall piss an endless stream of ale, to be drunk in perpetual festive joy and inebriation, and get every dead man dead-drunk.
The stories portraying drunkenness as a desirable state are legion in Icelandic folklore. Real heroes and poets (like Egill Skallagrímsson) get drunk before reaching the age of three. The fact that Heaven is a banquet hall with free booze is an indication too.
In latter-day Iceland, few worship the ancient gods, but “Heiðrún” still endures as the name of the largest state-run alcohol store. We remain under the firm guidance of that Goat of Goats, praying each night for a Valkyrja to take us home. It is not unlikely that our obsession with alcohol stems in part from wine-drinking being the marrow of our old-time religion and consequently a vital factor in the literature of the Sagas. Isn’t it at least as probable as some theory concerning a hypothetical gene?
Let’s end this mythological account on the origins of Icelandic alcoholism and strengthen it’s premise no end, by citing that most authoritative of authors, Hall dó’r Laxness himself: “To this day the Icelanders believe much more firmly and sincerely in the distilled Spirit than in God almighty; at least they’d much rather seek comfort there, than in their one true evangelical-Lutheran religion”. Amen.
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