Built heritage in Iceland of any serious age is few and far between. Despite it being a very old country. Reykholt is an unassuming site, but it was the home of Snorri Sturlson arguably one of the most important Icelanders to have ever lived. The real history of Iceland, Iceland’s castle’s and cathedrals so to speak, is the sagas. Snorri was the man who wrote many of them down (among other accomplishments). His home has rightly been preserved.
Snorri was born in 1179, he was an aristocrat in a time before Iceland had a king and before changes to law were written down. Between 1262 and 1264 Iceland handed itself over to Norway following a period of extreme unrest. After this law was codified, but during Snorri’s time- he was killed at Reykholt on the 23rd of September 1241- a law speaker recited all changes to the laws at the law rock at Þingvellir. This recitation occurred during the meeting of the parliament known as the Alpingi each summer. The law speaker also interpreted the law. The Alpingi was a meeting of all the different chieftains to come to agreements on a wide variety of issues. You can see Þingvellir and an approximation of where the law rock was in the images below.
Þingvellir itself is absolutely fascinating and I will be writing a post about it at a later date.
But to return to Snorri. He was the law speaker at Þingvellir from 1215-1218 and 1222-1231. He was an immensely influential chieftain in Iceland, spending time in Norway with King Hakon Hakonson and becoming embroiled in affairs there as well. He also owned a lot of land in Iceland, collecting the revenues from over 100 farms and holding 11 chieftainships, covering roughly a quarter of Iceland . While he was undoubtedly influential in his own time, what has made Snorri important to the history of Iceland is his role in the sagas. He recorded many of the sagas, not just the mythic ones but the stories of the life of Icelanders. Much of what we know about this period descends from his work. It is arguable whether he wrote them all himself, but if he didn’t they were probably written at Reykholt under his direction. One of the most important is the Edda, which is the source of most knowledge about Norse mythology. Snorri wrote down the pagan tales of Nordic poetry and culture, possibly in part to save them as new types of romantic and ‘courtly’ verse was making their way in from the rest of Europe. While Snorri’s writing may not have been incredibly influential in his own time, there is no doubt that it has come to be the main source for this period and much of what the history of early Iceland is based on.
Snorri certainly didn’t live a pure and noble life. He brought much of his trouble on himself through his machinations and arrogance. He was also power hungry and helped to contribute to the unrest that resulted in Iceland handing itself over to Norway. He definitely made an impact though.
Snorri died in September 1241 when Gissur Thorvaldsson, an old enemy of Snorri’s who had been married to one of Snorri’s daughters, had a letter from the King of Norway instructing Gissur to return Snorri to Norway (Snorri had left against the King’s orders in 1239) or to kill him. Gissur rode with 70 men to Reykholt. Snorri heard them approaching from where he was asleep and ran to the small house where the priest Arnbjorn was staying. He hid in the cellar. The priest gave him up in fear of his life and the men went down into the cellar. Snorri was alone and unarmed, an old man of 62. Simon, one of Gissur’s lieutenants, gave the order to kill and according to a contemporary account Snorri tried to order them to stop, saying “you will not strike” Simon replied “kill him now” Snorri insisted, drawing on all his authority, “you will not strike”.
It didn’t work. Snorri was struck the death blow by Arni beiskur and several other men continued to stab him. It was a sad end for a man who shaped the past and the future of Iceland for better and for worse. Snorri’s life is much more complicated and interesting than I could possibly summarise here, see my references at the bottom of this piece if you want to learn more.
You can see his (non contemporary) statue at Reykholt below.
The site of Reykholt itself is a difficult one in some ways. There are no contemporary buildings left, but the modern and 19th century buildings for the most part pay homage well enough to the original purpose.
There are original features, but most are archaeological remains, you can see some below.
The most interesting original feature is Snorralung (Snorri’s pool). The Book of Settlements shows that there was definitely a hot water pool being used on or near the site in the 10th century. When Snorri lived at Reykholt the site had become an active farm and church. The Sturlunga Saga, which was written after Snorri’s death by one of his nephews, depicts Snorri sitting in the pool talking with friends. You can see the pool in the photo below.
The pool is fed from the near by Skrifla hot spring via a conduit. It is built of hewn stones of geyserite slabs, the same that paved some of the surrounding medieval buildings. It is 4m in diameter and nearly a metre deep. The surrounds of the pool are not original, nor is the small roofed door you can see just above the pool. The roofed door and the turf around are in place to protect the remains of a passage that connected the original medieval buildings to the pool. It is in no way meant to replicate what the passage would have looked like, or how it would have been used. The pool was one of the earlier archaeological remains listed in Iceland in 1817.
Reykholt is not a site that has been isolated and preserved as a ruin, there is a hotel and conference center and it has been an active religious site for much of its history. It has also had a high school built on it and was a working farm into the 20th century, both of which have sadly destroyed some of the archaeology.
There is, however, an excellent cultural center explaining Snorri’s life and a library (which was sadly closed while I was there). In Snorri’s time it would have been a busy medieval farm very much in keeping with others of its type throughout medieval Europe. There has been extensive archaeological excavation at Reykholt. The farm on the current site was established around 1000 CE. The earliest buildings would have been long houses. There was another slightly later separate structure which was probably a church, though it has a sunken section which is very unusual for churches in Iceland. These buildings would have been wooden.
There were a number of new buildings by the medieval period in which Snorri would have been living in Reykholt. There was most likely a dwelling called a stofa, which is a type of Norwegian timber house set on stone foundations. A stofa in Reykholt is mentioned in the Sturlunga Saga, but the specific building that might have been this structure has never been definitively identified.
The saga lists the source of the wood for the dwellings as a harbour in the north of Iceland. As the only other semi reliable source of wood in Iceland was driftwood, and Reykholt held the driftwood rights only on the western peninsula in the time period, the wood must have come from Norway . Driftwood in Iceland was a much sought after commodity as Iceland was largely deforested and because it was impregnated with saltwater so it withstood Iceland’s weather. Siberian trees like pine, fir and larch are brought to Iceland on the Arctic Ocean currents and more exotic woods like mahogany come on the Gulf Stream. When driftwood rights belonged to a particular person they cut their driftwood mark onto it when it was on the beach. This meant that they retained that right even if the driftwood went back out to sea and was carried around to another beach. You can see some marked driftwood in the photo below.
But to return to Reykholt. The stofa was described as having a litlastofa attached to it, which might have been the private room for the master. If this was the layout, it was most likely from litlastofa that the passage to Snorri’s pool ran. The total length of the passageway is more than 30 m and the entrance was possibly behind a hidden door. There was also a spiral staircase leading down to it (very rare in Iceland). It may have been intended as a secret way in and out of the house, it may have been a status symbol, or it may have just been a way for the owner of the house (possibly Snorri) to access the pool without having to go out in the weather.
There were a number of dwellings at Reykholt, but the other building of most significance was probably the stave church which was built sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries. It would have stood slightly separate from the other buildings on the site. Stave churches are a fascinating and really beautiful construction. You can see the 12th century Urnes Stave Church from Norway in the photo below and read about its history here
Hot steam as well as water was also channeled through to various points on the site, possibly based on a hypocaust system. This sort of sophisticated design, along with the number, size and specific utility of many of the buildings (most individual buildings in Iceland had multiple utilities) indicate the importance of Reykholt and its high status in Icelandic society. This status is born out by other sources like the sagas.
Reykholt is still very much part of its landscape too. You can see the remains of the original medieval road and the valley has been re-forested in recent decades. Woods are unusual in Iceland so these are important, as well as being a cultural touchstone for Icelanders. You can see both the road and the woods in the photo below.
Reykholt also sits on top of a knoll with clear site lines in a very fertile valley. The landscape in Iceland is absolutely key. Many of the nearby sites that feature in the sagas can still be visited. This includes the Deildartunga, which was a nearby region the inheritance of which was much disputed. Ultimately this dispute led to Snorri being fostered by Jon Loftsson who shaped the direction of his life.
You can see the hot spring at Deildartunga in the photos below.
The hot springs are Europe’s largest with a flow rate of 180 litres per second. The other pertinent nearby feature is Hraunfossar, an incredible waterfall that flows off the Hallmundarhraun lava field. It is named after Hallmun who, according to the Grettis Saga lived in the area. The author of the Grettis Saga is unknown, but it was written around the same time that Snorri was writing so it was part of the same tradition. You can see the waterfall in the photos below.
These two natural features illustrate just how epic Snorri’s landscape and Iceland in general was and is. It’s easy to see how people came to believe in trolls, giants and meddlesome gods living in this sort of environment. Thankfully Snorri and his ilk’s determination has preserved these stories.
Edda by Snorri Sturlson translated by Anthony Faulkes ISBN: 9780460876162
The Buildings of Medieval Reykholt: The wider context edited by Gudrun Sveinbjarnardottir ISBN:9789935231574
Sagaland by Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason ISBN: 9780733338236
Site visit 2018
The photos are all mine