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I, Viking

… it’s all a blank canvas for my imagination to paint bloody tableaus.

Story and photos by Lance Steagall - lgsteagall@gmail.com
Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

My companion is in it for the Northern Lights, but I’m traveling to Iceland with Vikings and their Gods on the mind. Visions of Odin the Allfather; of Viking marauders trampling the holy things of Irish monks; of Valkyries riding high in the saddle.

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

I try to sleep on our Icelandair red-eye, but my eyes fix on the little service napkin under my club soda, which tells me that Leifur Eiriksson, Viking par excellence, sailed from Iceland to America in the year 1000. My in-flight entertainment outlines the feminine curves of Viking longships. My leisure reading offers an abridged inventory of Viking atrocities–one such being the “blood eagle”, wherein a victim’s ribs are cut at the spine, cracked, and spread forward to resemble the eagle’s wingspan. The lungs are then pulled out through the wounds and salt is applied.

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

The soft thud and slight crunch that accompanies our aircraft touching down sounds to my distracted ear like a sword’s hilt impacting a skull.

Driving North from Reyjkavik, the roads are desolate, and the snowbound landscapes are marred only by the black road snaking in front of us; it’s all a blank canvas for my imagination to paint bloody tableaus. I see Viking leaders on horseback, the severed heads of their enemies strung as trophies from the saddle horn; Ari the Wicked slaughtering every man on the island of Grimsey, then going door-to-door to assure the widows that he himself (along with their kind help) would see to the village’s repopulation. When we stop and fill up at the N1 station outside Skagastrond, I imagine the blue-eyed attendant as a slave, forced into the grave with her deceased Viking lord and his horse, as was the custom.

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

It would be a noble position for such a low-born girl, to be buried along with her Lord’s horse. Seen as symbols of fertility, horses were minor deities to Norsemen, sacrificed in solemn ceremonies and positioned as lead actors in all the Epics and Sagas. They were used for everything from transportation to battle companion to dinner entree, and their pride of position continues to this day (the modern Icelandic palette being no stranger to horse meat). And, although the national animal is officially listed as the gyrfalcon, it’s clear that the Icelandic horse paces closest to the national heart. They’re ubiquitous throughout the countryside–otherwise pristine landscapes showing only strings of horses and the passive fences that confine them. Traces of their human owners are limited to bales of hay and the occasional abandoned auto. As such, the Icelandic horse seems a natural feature of the land. An animal that time and man forgot.

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

And, in a sense, they are. The Icelandic horse is perhaps the most enduring remnant of the Viking era in Iceland, their bloodlines remaining pure even as Viking barbarism was diluted by Christian holy water. Since the year 982, the Icelandic Althing (Parliament) has upheld a law prohibiting the importation of horses, and any Icelandic horse that leaves the island is thereby exiled for life. Allowing them to return would risk foreign disease that their brethren, living for over a millennium in isolation, would have no natural defense against.

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

The consequence of this prohibition is that the Icelandic horse has evolved through natural selection into a distinct species, with its own peculiar set of characteristics; they are a short, squat breed–pony-sized even at full maturity. Winter coats are coarse and heavy, and include dun, pinto, roan, palomino, bay, chestnut, et al. Necks are muscular and withers broad; tails ride low on the hind. Its wide forehead and broad nose give the Icelandic horse a Joe Camel type appearance and, as my companion points out, the manes display a Bieber-esque flair.

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

It’s these strange creatures, not Icelandic humanoids, that greet us along every road and trail traveled.

In fact, human interaction is mostly limited to the sale of gas and rations at small Hamlet filling stations. Our last night in Iceland, several pints and a couple tumblers of the local schnapps deep, a gentleman in Reykjavik did threaten me with a “blood eagle” of his own. But he proved more hat than cattle. So, now, on our flight back to JFK, the horse remains the only real Viking legacy I encountered.

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

And for that, my companion, satisfied in her own auroral aims, is thankful.

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

Photo © Lance Steagall

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