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Discovering Iceland: Myth vs. Reality

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If you watch Game of Thrones, you’re probably familiar with Iceland as the dramatic landscape for the scenes shot behind the wall. Iceland has long been surrounded by myth. Is it really the Viking’s Valhalla on ice? Contributing writer David DeVoss investigates.

Like a pendant on a necklace, Iceland, pop. 322,000, dangles from the Arctic Circle. Tiny, remote and forbidding, it is a land of fire and ice dominated by 250 active volcanoes, four enormous glaciers and a black pumice desert. The interior is a barren lifeless sprawl, riven with fissures that incessantly grumble and belch sulphurous spume. Iceland so closely resembles the surface of the moon that Apollo astronauts visited the country prior to their lunar landings. More recently, it serves as the backdrop for scenes beyond The Wall in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

The Icy Gateway to Hell

During the Middle Ages, Iceland was a place to be avoided. Europeans called Mt. Hekla, the “Abode of the Damned” and thought the doorway to Hell was located in its fiery innards. In 1783, the eruption of Mt. Lakagfgir was so powerful that it covered the entire continent of Europe with a blue haze. Novelist Jules Verne began his Journey to the Center of the Earth at the Snaefellsnes glacier north of Reykjavik. More recently, in April 2010, a volcanic ash cloud blanketed Europe for almost a week and caused the cancellation of more than 100,000 flights.

Iceland’s geological instability results from it location. The country rests atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the tectonic plates of Europe and North America rub together. As the two plates drift apart, fissures fill with molten magma and glacial water, which explode on contact to form geysers (an Icelandic words) and hot springs. The wonder of natural hot water means that Iceland can produce semitropical fruits and vegetables in greenhouses year-round. Thermal water heats most of Iceland’s homes, keeps pedestrian malls free of snow during winter blizzards and allows Reykjavik’s air, unpolluted by coal or heating oil, to remain the cleanest of any world capital.

Natural hot water also fills Reykjavik’s public swimming pools, which the city’s 205,000 people seem to visit on a weekly basis. In winter, bathers splash about in comfort while a crust of ice forms on their heads. In summer, they sit cheek-to-cheek in public hot tubs of varying temperatures, chatting amiably as they drink in the warmth.

Because their country produces little grain, and has barely enough pasture to sustain wandering herds of sheep, Icelanders are forced to live off the sea. Their diet of baked haddock and cod liver oil may not be tempting, but it clearly produces leaner physiques than high-calorie fare.

Nightlife Norsemen

The Norse heritage lives on in diverse and profound ways. During the Viking epoch, women fought and died alongside men. Today, the country remains remarkably egalitarian. Just about everyone goes by his or her first name. Indeed, Iceland is such a first name country that telephone directories list subscribers in alphabetical order by their Christian names. When several people in the same city share a common name, professions are listed to distinguish one person from another.

“Our entire society is the same size as a small town in America, yet we have just as many brain surgeons, museum curators, artists and heart specialists as a large city,” says Vigdis Finnbogadóttir, Iceland’s 82-year old former president who today serves as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador. “We survive by spotting talent early and then providing enough financial support to ensure that it’s fully developed. The fewer fish that swim in a river, the more food they get,” she says with a smile.

Chief among the government’s priorities is preserving the Norse heritage. Children study Iceland’s sagas at every grade level. “The Viking reputation for violence was just a reflection of the age in which they lived,” explains Finnbogadóttir. “Vikings were traders, not terrorists.”

Perhaps. But the concept of Viking Heaven, Valhalla, still lives on. The afterlife was understood to be a great palace where fallen warriors fought all day for the fun of it. At the end of the day the dead and wounded were all healed so they could spend the night feasting on roast pork and mead. When the ale horns ran low, Amazonian Valkyries magically appeared with refills.

In modern Reykjavik the closest one can come to that sort of heaven is Astro, a long, squat disco on Laugavegur Street. Here from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. every weekend, Iceland’s modern Vikings hone their predatory instincts while knocking back $12 shots of whisky. The action is even more intense at NASA, a super club close to the Hotel Borg, where youths with cheeks the color of Mackintosh apples pass the evening in embrace. NASA attracts Kate Upton clones who, once lubricated on a potent schnapps called Black Death, are particularly expressive at interpretive dance.