Much to the disappointment of many holiday-goers, modern day Icelanders are pretty far removed from their Viking ancestors. Ceremonial sacrifices to the gods and gory battles are things of the past.Bifröst is a university town, not the bridge linking Ásgarður and Miðgarður. Every summer, however, Vikings from around the world gather in Hafnarfjörður for an annual festival to honour their heritage and give tourists the opportunity to see what they really came here for anyway.
The Viking Festival (‘Víkingahátið’ in Icelandic) transforms Hafnarfjörður’s somewhat cliché Viking Village into exactly what it’s meant to be: a chance to experience first-hand what life was like a thousand years ago. Walking through the grounds visitors could see tiered spits roasting several whole lambs at a time, live battle scenes, and craftsmen making weapons, jewellery, clothing and more. In order to gain a better understanding of the festival, I asked a resident Viking, Anna Margrét Björnsdóttir, a few questions.
Anna Margrét first went to the Viking Festival eight years ago and was instantly charmed. “There was just something about the atmosphere that made me instantly comfortable and I didn’t want to leave,” she says. After returning to the festival every year afterwards, she eventually joined the Viking group Rimmugýgur in September 2012.
Rimmugýgur is made up of about 90 members who come together for combat training, bow-shooting, handcrafting, and great company. The group was formed during a ceremony by Öxarárfoss in Þingvellir on June 7, 1997, two years after the first Viking Festival in Hafnarfjörður. They spend the winters training, and visit festivals at home and abroad in the summers. “Rimmugýgur really is a brotherhood and the members care a lot about each other,” Anna Margrét says. “It really feels like that at times. It’s like having a second family.”
In addition to the camraderie, Anna Margrét waxes lyrical about the Viking bread. “I know, I know. There’s just something about it,” she says. “Grilled bread with melted garlic and herb butter. I look for it every year and eat an inordinate amount of it. I have been doing so since before I became a Viking myself.”
She’s right, the Viking food was fantastic. Walking through the fairgrounds, there is a constant smell of meat roasting. In one spot, a group of kids decked out in traditional dress were serving soup out of a cauldron over an open flame. Why Icelanders insist on drowning food in sauces is beyond me—simplicity is key.
Merciless slaughters: that’s what we came to see
My favourite parts of the festival were the battles. First, there was Viking School, where children at the festival fought Viking instructors with wooden swords and shields. After screaming the “VÍKINGABÖRNIN!” (Viking children) war cry, there was a clear victory for the kids who courageously charged and defeated their teachers.
Later on, there were three battle scenes spread throughout the day between vikings from Rimmugýgur dressed in full costume and carrying real weapons. They started with a short argument (“Hey, that’s MY daughter/land/sheep!”) and then devolved into magnificent violence. I like to think of myself as an enlightened, peaceful person, but to be honest when it comes to vikings, I want nothing more than to see someone get hacked to bits with an axe. I don’t think I’m alone either. To me, saying you really like the handmade jewellery sounds tantamount to “I only read it for the articles.”
Anna Margrét tells me they make a real effort to make each show memorable. She explains how particularly popular or funny storylines are reused and that they practice stage-fighting strikes, kicks, hair-pulls, etc., to make the battle more interesting.
“The battle is always planned beforehand, but the partaking Vikings are given free rein with what they say within that battle,” she says. “After a brief chat, a battle ensues. The only thing about the battles that has been decided beforehand is if, for the sake of the storyline, someone is unkillable or a certain party wins. Almost anything else you see on the field is improvisation.”
Watching the battles, I was very surprised by how short they were. In films and television, battles often go on for twenty minutes with warriors moving in slow motion, but these were over in about 30 seconds. This in mind, I asked Anna Margrét about the historical accuracy of the fights. She tells me that without clear, comprehensive written sources on styles of fighting (i.e. Runic Swordplay For Dummies) they are able to piece it together from sources on clothing and weapons from archeological finds. “All of our weapons are historically accurate, and in that way the fights are as close to what we can call historically accurate as possible,” she says.
The red carpet
As I was walking around I felt a bit underdressed in my cap and hoodie. It was amazing how many people had come in costume. These were no Hókus Pókus frocks either, but rather made out of durable fibres and leather. Everything from clothes, to armour, to weapons are handmade by the Vikings themselves. It turns out that in addition to being vicious fighters, these Vikings are also all accomplished tailors and blacksmiths.
“I am not so good with the sewing,” admits Anna Margrét, explaining that a Viking’s first kit is largely made by him/herself with the help of more experienced members, and her mother actually helped make some of her basic items (trousers and a tunic, a dress, an apron) and senior members helped her with the leather gauntlets and bracers.
Past Golden Circle trips to Þingvellir have taught me that a thousand years ago ‘Alþingi’ and ‘mall’ used to go hand-in-hand with all the booths (búðir) and craftsmen. Today, it is no different. Vikings whose talents lie outside of the domestic arts have the opportunity to go shopping at Viking festivals for pre-Christian-chic fashions. “Luckily we have a lot of skilled crafters in our group so you can usually either get help with, or purchase, the things you need within the group,” says Anna Margrét.
I am a big fan of the television show ‘Vikings,’ which follows the legendary Ragnar Loðbrók (literally Ragnar ‘Fuzzy Pants’) on his journeys to Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries, and I was surprised at how similar a lot of the clothes were at the Viking Festival. Anna Margrét confirms that the Hollywood portrayal of Vikings is largely accurate:
“The way that Vikings are portrayed in today’s media is leaps and bounds more accurate than they were even just 10 or 20 years ago. However, there are still some glaring errors in that those who create the props and costumes for the character are catering to today’s trendy style of dark and gritty and leathery, when Vikings were in fact all about the bright and flashy in fabrics and style because brighter colours were more difficult to accomplish and thus more expensive. Vikings liked to show off their wealth, so their riches were generally in clothes, weapons and jewellery, which they carried on their person. It is also a myth that Vikings were dirty barbarians. They generally bathed about once a week and were known for being very clean and well groomed, especially compared to others at the time.”
Strong warriors and snazzy dressers, the Vikings were a fascinating people. So if you are disappointed that Ásatrúarfélagið (modern Icelandic pagans) ignore the mandatory nine sacrifices, or cringe whenever someone pronounces Óðinn as ‘Odin,’ come to the next Viking Festival and feel like you’re in Valhöll.