An Icelandic Pilgrimage

Lori Erickson, Viking (Bob Sessions photo)

Lori Erickson, Viking (Bob Sessions photo)

Yes, I know it’s a cheesy photo. And those horns are totally wrong, because Vikings didn’t wear helmets like this. But something about visiting Iceland has put me in a playful mood, despite the fact the country threatened me with an exploding volcano, buffeted me with wind, froze me with cold, steamed me like a lobster in outdoor hot tubs, and led me across many a hill and dale in a vain search for elves. I’ve forgiven Iceland for all of it. In fact, by the time I left, I was hoping the volcano would erupt so I had an excuse to stay longer.

Bob and I went to Iceland for a meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers, but I had a personal reason as well, one that has to do with my last name: E-R-I-C-K-S-O-N. My ethnic heritage is Norwegian, but because the Norwegians settled Iceland, I’ve decided I get to claim it as my ancestral homeland too. In downtown Reykjavik they even have a statue of my most illustrious relative: Leif Erikson, the first European to visit North America. (Well, I don’t know for certain he’s my direct ancestor, but we have the same last name and how many people in Scandinavia have the unusual last name of Erickson?)

A statue of Leif Erikson overlooks Reykjavik. The family resemblance is uncanny, isn’t it? (Bob Sessions photo)

A statue of Leif Erikson overlooks Reykjavik. The family resemblance is uncanny, isn’t it? (Bob Sessions photo)

For a country of just 320,000 people, Iceland competes above its weight class. They call it the Land of Fire and Ice, a tourism slogan more accurate than most. It’s a place where they like to multiply their natural disasters by installing glaciers on top of volcanoes––that way, there’s a gigantic flood when the volcano erupts. Earthquakes, lava flows, blizzards, ice storms, gale-force winds, even something called a volcano tornado––Iceland’s got ‘em all. The country is both gorgeously green and as bleak as Mordor in Lord of the Rings; with cold winds that chill you and bubbling geothermal pools that warm you back up again. If you’re bored with the same ol’-same ol’, you might want to head to Iceland to shake things up.

Iceland is also quirky, which perhaps comes from those long winters. At the opening reception for SATW, for example, the mayor of Reykjavik (movie star handsome, just like many of the Icelandic people) spoke of the country’s innovative marketing campaigns of the past few years. “In 2008 we crashed our economy and in 2010 we blew up the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and shut down European airspace for six days––both of which succeeded brilliantly in increasing recognition of our brand name,” he said.

It’s not surprising that a country with these characteristics has a complex and somewhat contradictory spirituality. More than half of Icelanders believe in God, but only a small fraction go to church more than once or twice a year. A surprisingly high percentage of them believe in the existence of Hidden People (a.k.a. elves). The largest non-Christian denomination is Ásatrú, a revival of faith in the Old Norse gods and goddesses.

Here’s what I think after two weeks of touring the country: if Thor, Odin and Freyja are still alive anywhere, it’s in Iceland.

In writing about Iceland, I also describe a type of trip I haven’t previously covered on this Spiritual Travels website. Searching for family roots often has elements of pilgrimage and can have profound effects on people’s identity. There are rich insights to be gained from walking in the steps of your ancestors.

Looking out to sea from the bow of a Viking longship at Viking World in Reykjanesbær, Iceland (Bob Sessions photo)

Looking out to sea from the bow of a Viking longship at Viking World in Reykjanesbær, Iceland (Bob Sessions photo)

I’ve wanted to visit Scandinavia for many years, and my experiences in Iceland were deeply meaningful to me. One of my favorite moments came when I stood in the bow of a reconstructed Viking longboat at Viking World in the seaside town of Reykjanesbær. The wooden vessel had been built according to old designs and was sailed to America in 2000 as part of the millennial celebration of Leif Erikson’s journey to the New World. Dismiss it as a romantic fantasy if you like, but as I stood there looking out at the stormy Atlantic just beyond the glass, for a few brief moments time and space seemed to shimmer a bit, almost as if I really was at sea with my ancestors.

It’s for moments like this that we travel, isn’t it? To be taken out of ourselves and transported to a place that is unexpected and yet familiar. I felt a shiver of recognition there and a call to something I still can’t quite name.**

So come along with me to Iceland by clicking on the following links. I’ll introduce you to the high priest of the old Norse religious community, tell you some stories about the Hidden People, take you along on One of the World’s Great Road Trips, and try to convince you that the Vikings were not marauders but rather misunderstood farmers with poor social skills. There may even be a troll sighting or two. Step on board, won’t you?

 **I know you’re thinking raiding and pillaging, but it’s not that.