Visiting Þingvellir, spelled Thingvellir in English because the Icelandic letter Þ is pronounced like th in English, was one of the highlights of our trip. It’s the birthplace of Iceland as a nation. The country’s most important cultural heritage site. The most significant assembly site in Northern Europe. The tectonic border between North America and Eurasia. A UNESCO site. And Iceland’s first national park.
The first thing you notice about Thingvellir is its natural beauty.
The park is enclosed by mountains on three sides. Its sunken grass-covered lava fields are green as Ireland. Interwoven with chasms, barren rock and dwarf birch trees, the park is flanked by Þingvallavat, the largest natural lake in Iceland. A short hike takes you to Öxaráfoss, a charming waterfall, and Flosagjá rift, the place other tourists asked us how to get to. The park also includes Thingvellir Church and an adjacent farm.
The second thing: you can walk in the seismic rift valley where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates mark the border between the two continents— the only place in the world where this rift is above sea level.
For millenniums, these tectonic plates have been moving apart, about two centimetres a year. You can see evidence of this. The ball of molten magma we live on has welled up into lava fields, and the continental shift, combined with earthquakes, has ripped open ravines and collapsed an old part of the wall along the Almannagja (All Man’s Gorge), a cleft in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
But most visitors come to Thingvellir to see where Viking Age pioneers organized their society—forming laws and creating a commonwealth—creating the longest ongoing parliament in the world.
Like Ingólfur Arnason who arrived first in 874 and set up a farm near what is now Reykjavik, the island’s earliest settlers were emigrants from Norway who opposed King Harald Fairhair. Heba, owner of a guesthouse we stayed at, reminded us that the Norwegian settlers came with their Irish and Scottish slaves.
Violence began occurring between the different clans as people fought for limited resources. Resenting the concentration of power near Reykjavík, settlers around the island ‘s shores began pushing for order and demanding a voice in establishing it.
They granted thirty-nine men, chieftains they’re often called, authority over specific regions. Each chieftain selected a farmer to represent and speak for at district assemblies. A man named Grímur Geitskör was assigned to gathering the representatives and finding a place where they could assemble—somewhere that would take no longer than seventeen days for those farthest away to get to!
Grim luck or Nordic Noir, the landowner of the place Grímur found was convicted of murder and his property became public. It was given the name Þingvellir (“Assembly Plains”).
The open-air general assembly, called Alþingi (Parliament) was established at Þingvellir in 930 and continued meeting there for more than 850 years. The only time Alpingi didn’t operate was between 1799 and 1844 when it was disbanded then reinstated by royal decree when Iceland was under the control of Denmark. Since 1881, representatives have gathered at Parliament House in Reykjavik, but ceremonial meetings continue at Thingvellir, such as in 1944 when Icelanders declared independence from Denmark and the country confirmed its first president at Alpingi.
At the first Alpingi in 930, the island had a population of about 35,000 people. Around the time of the summer solstice, citizens gathered here to amend laws, settle disputes, appoint juries, and try and punish criminals. Speeches were made, ideas were submitted, proposals were advanced, laws were recited and summonses were announced. In bad weather, proceedings were held in the church. Decisions were made collectively.
The only person on the political payroll was the Lögsögumaður (Law Speaker). He ran the proceedings from the Lögberg (Law Rock), where he made proclamations and recited the laws. The Lögsögumaður, who was elected, had to be a great orator with an excellent memory because every year he proclaimed one-third of the laws for the people to go home and memorize.
There were five courts of law, four for the four quarters of the country comprised of 34 farmers appointed by the chieftains, and the fifth, an appeal court for cases not locally resolved comprised of 48 famers from all quarters, 36 who deliberated in each case.
A law code was written and adopted in 1271-1273 and enhanced eight years later into what’s known as Jon’s book, the most extensive in the Nordic world at the time.
Let’s look at those laws and their punishments, which Magellan and I found to be one of the most fascinating things about Thingvellir.
In those days it was believed the gods would exact retributions from whole societies for bad behaviour, so to avoid divine wrath penalties were stringent, executions a public spectacle.
The main reasons for executions?
Men were beheaded for incest, their most common crime. (Heba told us that Iceland’s gene pool is still so small that there’s an app for singles to find out whether they’re too closely related to hook up, and incest is a running theme in Oddný Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins, winner of the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize.) Women were put in a sack, pushed into a pool in the Öxará River and held under and drowned for infanticide, their most common crime and the second-most reason for execution, which became law with Jon’s Book in 1281. From 1602-1750, seventy-two people are known to have been executed at Þingvellir: thirty males were beheaded, fifteen hanged, and nine burned at the stake; eighteen women were drowned.
Many of Þingvellir’s placenames are derived from the executions: Galgaklettar (Scaffold Rock), Hoggstokkseyri (Execution Block Spit) and Brennugja (Stake Gorge) where witches were also burned.
As an aside, here’s a quote from the park’s brochure that Magellan and I picked up about punishment today at Þingvellir:
Drunkenness is inappropriate here, and disturbs other visitors. The National Park reserves the right to expel inebriated visitors.
Now back to those two weeks at Þingvellir.
The atmosphere was a bit like a mini festival with people camping in temporary shelters called booths that they had built themselves, walls from turf or stone covered with roofs of woolen cloth. The ruins of about fifty booths can still be seen.
As Egill Bjarnason writes in How Iceland Changed the World:
People could catch up on the latest news from around the country, congratulate those who had made it to North America and back, buy and sell wares, do a little dance, make a little love, all while carrying out their duties as members of parliament.
One more thing about Þingvellir—the gift shop sells the tastiest chocolate we ate in Iceland, a brand (Konigsberg?) we never saw again.
Bjarnason, Egill. How Iceland Changed the World. New York: Penguin Books, 2021. Even if you’re not planning a trip to Iceland, Egill’s book will astonish, delight and intrigue you.
Eir, Oddný. Translated by Philip Roughton. Land of Love and Ruins. Brooklyn:Restless Books,, 2016. Winner of the environmental activist the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature and the 2012 Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize. San Diego Book Review: “Part memoir, part diary, part dream-log, part travel guide, Eir travels Iceland (and England and France) after years abroad in search of a sense of home, a sense of peace and calm. The terrain Eir covered is full of family and national history, meditations on Iceland’s recession and socio-politics, archaeology and ornithology, sex and relationships, farming and food, cohabitation and tourism, writing and productivity.” She points out that Irish monks were living in Iceland before the Vikings came and drove them away and that if someone was a chieftain it was most certainly at the expense of others; injustice and inequality ingrained.
Guesthouse Heba, a fabulous place to stay. Heba is a great storyteller, has a house full of treasures and serves a grand breakfast.
“Þingvellir National Park – Where You Walk Between Two Continents.” Guide to Iceland.
Holverberg, Elif. “Thingvellir – Northern Europe’s First Parliament.” Library of Congress. May 6, 2016.