On Monday, in the wake of its national banking meltdown, the Icelandic government collapsed, its demise hastened by a saga-era tradition: the angry mob. The Economist can do a better job of explaining the political implications than I ever could; I’ll only note that most photos of the protests in front of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, show crowds congregated in Austurvöllur, one of Reykjavik’s most picturesque public squares and—come on, surely you saw this coming—a place of symbolic interest to medievalists.
According to Landnámabók, the Icelandic “Book of Settlements,” the first permanent Nordic settler in Iceland was Ingólfr Arnarson, who put down roots in A.D. 874. Written centuries after the fact, Landnámabók may not be a perfectly reliable source, but Ingólfr’s legend is kind of fun:
That summer when Ingolf set out with his companions to settle Iceland, Harald Fairhair had had been for twelve years King over Norway. There had elapsed from the creation of the world six thousand and seventy three winters, and from the Incarnation of our Lord eight hundred and seventy four years. They held together until they sighted Iceland, then they separated. When Ingolf sighted Iceland he cast overboard his high seat pillars for an omen, and he made the vow that he would settle there wherever his high seat pillar came ashore.
Ingólfr’s foster brother, Hjorleif, settled west of where Ingólfr camped out, but he was killed by his Irish slaves. Ingólfr took revenge and killed them—supposedly naming the Westman Islands after the Irishmen in the process—while his own slaves, Karli and Vifill, searched the coast for his cast-off pillars. Karli, who came across the pillars three winters later, found the ritual anticlimactic. “To an evil end did we pass through goodly country-sides,” he griped, “that we should take up abode on this outlying ness.” Karli ran away—but when Ingólfr, his slaves, and the entourage he filched from his dead foster brother raised the recovered pillars, they were witnessing, of course, the founding of Reykjavik.
Austurvöllur is said to have been one of Ingólfr’s hayfields; today a statue of 19th-century independence campaigner Jon Sigurdsson stands in its center, with the Icelandic parliament and the country’s most venerable church in sight. I like the symbolism of Icelandic democracy playing out on Ingólfr Arnarson’s old property. Maybe there’s a certain pagan allure to the legend of the pillars, a plain case of casting your fate to the cold northern tides, as the British and the Dutch did with their Icelandic bank accounts, but the determination of the modern protesters also recalls lines from the Poetic Edda that Ingólfr Arnarson probably knew:
Erat maðr alls vesall,
þótt hann sé illa heill;
sumr er af sonum sæll,
sumr af frændum,
sumr af fé ærnu,
sumr af verkum vel.
Betra er lifðum
en sé ólifðum,
ey getr kvikr kú;
eld sá ek upp brenna
auðgum manni fyrir,
en úti var dauðr fyr durum.
“No man is wholly wretched, though he have ill luck,” these verses read in English. “One is blessed with sons, another with kinsmen, another has sufficient money, another has done decent deeds. Better to live than not to live; the living man gets the cow. I saw a fire blaze up for the wealthy man, but he was dead outside his door.” The wisp of smoke that passes for Nordic optimism infuses those lines, asserting that problems can always get worse. Ingólfr’s heirs, angrily milling about Austurvöllur with placards and flags, are raising their pillar on a much less medieval foundation: the notion that Iceland can also be better.