No Taste for Monarchy
`IT is our sacred place,'' an Icelander told me once. The words seemed to clash with a landscape so unforgiving that it looks as if it were hammered into being by Thor himself. I am standing at Thingvellir, a lava bed of prehistoric origin that slopes magnificently towards Iceland's largest lake, Thingvalla. Thingvellir is where the Icelandic parliament was established in 930. Dark, barren, and exposed, it looks like the face of the most hardbitten Icelandic farmer, yet in that volcanic countenance is encased the heart and spirit of Icelandic nationalism.
It might seem odd that the Norwegian outlaws who settled Iceland in the 9th century should establish the world's first representative government. But consider that these people were fleeing the rule of an oppressive king, Harald Fairhair, and it is little wonder that they arrived on Iceland's windswept shores with little taste for monarchy. In fact, they shunned the idea of any highly centralized authority at all, opting instead for a parliament, or ``Althing,'' which would act in the interests of all Icelanders. Further, its gathering place had to be of sufficient majesty to suit the old gods themselves. Thingvellir seemed ideal.
More than a thousand years later, Thingvellir remains essentially unchanged. A more profiteering people might have erected a city on the site, or studded its hallowed ground with souvenir stands. But aside from the modest church and prime minister's summer residence, there is nothing here but the wide plain, the bordering cliffs of naked basalt, and the little river "Oxar'a, glistening like a silver ribbon as it courses serenely towards Lake Thingvalla.
As I walk through a narrow pass bordered by basalt walls, I am conscious of treading the same ground as those Vikings of the saga age. It is the old processional route they followed at the annual opening of the Althing, which convened for two weeks every summer, when there was light and warmth enough to be able to conduct business in relative comfort. I ascend a grassy brae and arrive atop a prominence from which I am able to look down upon the whole of Thingvellir - past the "Oxar'a, toward the far mountains crusted with snow. Over this almost greenless expanse lies a dome of the bluest sky I have ever seen. I am standing upon the Mount of Laws, from which the Law Speaker would recite, from memory, passages from the legal code of old Iceland. I realize that he must have had phenomenal lung power to reach the ears of the crowds mustered on the plain below.
The Althing was led by the 39 powerful chieftains of Iceland, but anyone was free to attend. It was the great event of the year, socially as well as politically. Marriages were contracted, expeditions to foreign lands arranged, and news in general was exchanged in an atmosphere of conviviality. But the central business of the gathering was to hear the law, after which the various litigants would present their cases.
Those accused of crimes during the year were on their honor to appear at the Althing come summer. Punishments, by and large, were meted out as fines. Even murderers could generally pay a sum of silver to satisfy a victim's kin. Other punishments included outlawry or banishment, or the right was given plaintiffs to exact blood vengeance to recoup lost honor or to even a score. On occasion executions were carried out at Thingvellir.
As no central armed force existed in medieval Iceland to maintain general order, the Althing itself frequently became the site of violent outbreaks between angry litigants. According to the sagas, one of the more famous clashes occurred in 1012, when the friends of Nj'al, a legendary scholar who had been burned in his home, became dissatisfied with the Althing's verdict. A general battle ensued with the loss of many lives. Spent of blood and energy, the litigants eventually calmed down, deplored the unfortunate occurrence, and returned to court to settle the case in accordance with the tenets of law and justice.
Thingvellir was sometimes the site of bloodshed because the early men and women of Iceland wore their honor like an armor that tarnished too readily. But it was also the place where most cases were settled equitably and to the satisfaction of all interested parties. The Althing thus rein-forced, on an annual basis, that only through law could descendants of the Norwegian sea rovers in this harsh land become civilized.
As if to punctuate this yearning, the Icelanders abandoned the vengeful Norse divinities and adopted Christianity in the year 1000. The conversion took only a moment's proclamation, from the Mount of Laws, the very place where I was standing.
The Althing persisted down through the centuries, but in the end it was climate and random misfortune which conspired against its continued existence. It began with the cooling of Iceland's climate in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was followed, in the 18th century, by epidemics, famines, sheep diseases, and devastating volcanic eruptions. The number of Icelanders dwindled to around 30,000. A pall of indifference and hopelessness descended over the land.
Thingvellir was abandoned as the Althing's meeting place, which was moved to an indoor location in Reykjav'ik, the capital. But by 1800 the Icelandic national spirit had ebbed in tandem with the island's population. It seemed as if the heart had gone out of the country. When the by-then ruling Danes abolished the Althing in that same year, nary an Icelander raised a hand in opposition. It wasn't until 1845 that the Althing was restored as a consultative parliament.
Today, Thingvellir's significance is more than historical. Its great plain is actually the rift zone between the North American and European tectonic plates. Its basalt cliffs, to the east and west, are the exposed faces of these plates. In a sense, then, Thingvellir has its feet in both worlds, the old and the new. In the most Viking of traditions it went forth and conquered - not with sword and longship, but with an idea that was burning brightly in an island nation in the North Atlantic, while much of the known world was adrift in the political and moral shadows of the Dark Ages.