Exploring Reykjavík’s Museums (Must-see Spots for Saga Fans!)

Today I’m going to continue the tale that I began in my previous post about my wanderings in Iceland! So do read that if you haven’t—but if you have, áfram!


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Humble indeed, and not all that interesting—but it was enough to get me going again!

After that delicious dinner at Café Loki, I wandered back to my hotel for some much needed rest. I don’t recall how many hours I slept that night, but it was certainly more than I had on the plane the day before. I woke up just before 7am, I believe, which was when breakfast was being served. It was a humble meal, but still Icelandic enough to satisfy my desire to experience their food culture—or so I tell myself. I will admit, though, that my choice of watermelon wasn’t very Icelandic—but how could I resist? It’s fine to be normal, even when traveling.

Now, I’m not quite sure how I managed to start my day without any tea, but it wasn’t long before I was walking back (full of energy) to the heart of Reykjavík for another day of adventuring. I had deemed that day ‘museum day,’ and you can certainly imagine just how eager a graduate student studying medieval Icelandic history would be to explore museums full of old and wonderful things! But where to go first? Reykjavík is filled with an assortment of interesting museums to enjoy, after all. But how could a saga-loving skald not yearn to visit the Saga Museum first?!


The Saga Museum (https://www.sagamuseum.is)

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 A detail from the “Snorri” display in the Saga Museum.

After a long walk with many stops (yielding many more pictures), I finally arrived at the Saga Museum. Now, for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Sagas, I suggest checking out my Sagas and Tales of Icelanders page for a short introduction to their holy greatness; and honestly, if you’re already here in my Hall, I’m sure they wouldn’t disappoint you! In short, they are medieval prose narratives written primarily during or around the 13th century about the so-called Saga Age, which typically ranges from the time of settlement (c.870) until the mid-11th century (or from 930 to 1030, depending on who you ask). But technicalities aside, this museum is fan-fricken-tastic. If you have even an ounce of interest in Iceland’s medieval history, you should definitely give this museum a place on your itinerary—even if you haven’t read a saga before! The museum will provide you with all the information you need to enjoy and learn from their exhibit. But I suppose I should share my thoughts about it, since not everyone here is a saga-obsessed academic like myself (who doesn’t need convincing).

To begin, the museum has a very comfortable atmosphere. It almost feels like a bit of a café that has been mixed with a gift-shop and someone’s cozy home. It even has a little restaurant attached to it, which will surely be a delight for many folk! But the way this museum works is that you walk through several (extremely well-crafted) displays while listening to an (optional) audio tour. There are several languages to pick from, so you can choose whichever you’re most comfortable with (assuming they have it). Also, each display is accompanied by a small plaque filled with useful information (in both Icelandic and English), often including details not mentioned in the audio tour, so feel free to hit pause and read if something catches your interest.

By the end of the tour (which doesn’t take too long, honestly), you will have gained valuable insight into medieval Iceland and its impressive literature. But, more importantly, you will be able to appreciate one of the core elements of modern Icelandic culture, as well. As I learned in my Icelandic course (which I will be writing about in the near future), Icelanders still quote lines from the Sagas today, such as this one:

Nú falla öll vötu til Dýrafjarðar.
—Vésteinn, Gísla saga

That line means “now all waters flow to Dyrafjord,” and it comes from a saga known as Gisli’s Saga in English (which you can read for free online here, or even listen to a podcast about it here). Icelanders quote that line when it is too late to turn back (fate has, and will, run its course). And if I remember correctly, my Icelandic teacher said that this line was spoken at the Althing (the Icelandic Parliament) after the economic crash of 2008. Indeed, a politician quoted a medieval saga to express that it was too late to turn back the devastating effects of an economic crash—better to look forward and deal with what fate has given. I think that alone attests to the powerful influence that the Sagas still have on Icelandic culture even today, which is why I highly recommend everyone consider the Saga Museum when visiting Reykjavík. Otherwise, you’d be missing out on an essential part of Icelandic culture. (You may also read some wonderful books about them here in my library, if you can’t go to Iceland.)

But here’s a gallery of photos I took at the Saga Museum! Honestly, my pictures don’t do them justice at all, but something to show is better than nothing. Can you figure out which sagas these scenes refer to? How about which characters and heroes they represent? Comment your thoughts below!

 

 


Lunch at Egill’s (http://jacobsen.bar)

There’s usually nothing too special to say about a lunch break, but after visiting the Culture House (which I did right after the Saga Museum—and perhaps I’ll write a post about that later), I was getting pretty hungry (my breakfast was rather humble, after all). So I decided to wander back to the busier parts of Reykjavík in order to find a bite to eat— which, I will admit, was no easy task. There are a lot of options for people when it comes to food in Reykjavík, but I eventually stumbled across a place called the Egill Jacobsen Kitchen & Bar. It looked quite good, the prices seemed decent enough, and (to be completely honest) a good ol’ burger sounded pretty nice at the time. So, with all that in mind, I wandered in (a bit awkwardly) and found myself a seat.

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Although not very Icelandic, this was such a wonderful meal! I do recommend going to Egill’s, especially if you happen to crave a good burger while in Reykjavík.

I must say, I wasn’t disappointed at all! I got a delicious burger (which rivals many that I have had here at home in Vínland—North America). But more importantly, I got a lovely pot of warm English Breakfast tea, and gods did I need that! While I much prefer Irish Breakfast tea, I was delighted to be able to have some (loose-leaf) tea with my burger. Sure, that’s a bit of an odd combo for most people, but I hadn’t had a good cup of tea in several days, so I was quite happy about it! I actually came back here on my last day in Reykjavík, if that says anything about how much I enjoyed the food (and the tea). Usually you’re supposed to go to different places each time, you know? Gotta taste around and experience as many places as possible, they say. But I’ll be honest, sometimes it is nice to revisit a place. It was 3 weeks later for me, after all, and I didn’t mind going somewhere that felt comfortable to me. So don’t feel pressured to do what other people would expect you to do—always do what’s most comfortable (and fun) for you!


The National Museum of Iceland (http://www.thjodminjasafn.is/english/)

Now, this might sound crazy, but I almost didn’t go to this museum. Shamefully, I was pretty unfamiliar with what this museum actually has to offer. I also didn’t think I had the time, so I didn’t place it very high on my priority list (at first). But what helped convince me to go was actually buying a ticket to see the Culture House. Apparently, when you buy that ticket there, you also get admission into the National Museum (and vice versa), so I figured “why not?” And my gods, I would have been beside myself had I not gone there! This museum ranks as high as the Saga Museum, in my mind (now that I am more aware of its richness). So if you’re a fan of Icelandic history (and not just medieval), you simply cannot allow yourself to succumb to the fate I nearly faced. It truly was one of the best experiences I had while I was in Reykjavík!

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 A detail from Valþjófsstaður door, featuring Íven (Fr. Yvain) and his loyal lion companion.

My favorite object there was definitely the Valþjófsstaður door. Not only am I quite fond of medieval wood carvings (especially when they’re Norse), but I’m also a major fan of medieval Icelandic literature of all kinds. This door, which was carved around 1200 and served as a door for an Icelandic church, depicts scenes from a French romance known as Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion, or Yvain, the Knight of the Lion; but there’s also an Old Norse version of this story called Ívens saga. I wrote a paper about this saga for a class in Old French, but I also quite enjoyed reading the saga itself (which you can find here). But honestly, I would say that the best part about this door is how it blends two cultures together, that of Norse and continental (French, in this case). It is too easy to think of Norse culture as having been insular and isolated from the rest of the world, but in reality it interacted and shared with many other cultures. I find this door to be a fascinating example of how that process of cultural exchange works, because here medieval Icelanders have taken a French romance and made it their own (in both written and material forms).

But of course, here are a few more pictures that I took while I was there (which poorly represent the many, many fascinating things to see at this museum, honestly). Sadly they are of even worse quality than those I took from the Saga Museum, but again, something to show is better than nothing at all. Also, my bias is pretty evident, since all of these come from the medieval part of the museum 🤷🏻‍♂️ (but this is a medieval blog, after all). But allow me to ask this: which is your favorite? Comment below!

 

 


The Settlement Exhibition (http://borgarsogusafn.is/en/the-settlement-exhibition)

After enjoying the plethora of wonderful things at the National Museum, I wandered back to another interesting place: the Settlement Exhibition—Reykjavík 871 (+/- 2). This is yet another museum stop that I nearly missed out on, but this time out of complete ignorance, because I didn’t know about this place at all. I only learned about it while walking to the National Museum from the Culture House, since I just happened to pass by it (although I don’t really believe in coincidence). That just shows you how important it is to wander around new places, my friends, because you just never know what interesting things you’ll happen to stumble upon!

This museum is rather unique: not only is it a very interactive, hands-on museum, but is has also been built around the actual foundations of a 10th century Icelandic hall! I was honestly quite surprised to learn that the foundations of such an old building were still preserved at the heart of a modern city like Reykjaví; but they aren’t even just any old foundations, they are among the oldest man-made structures found in Iceland so far and complicate (and enrich) our understanding of Iceland’s permanent settlement, which is traditionally dated to 874 with Ingólfur Arnason’s arrival (you may read this account in Landnámabók, or the Book of Settlements). But tephra layers found at this site, however, have been dated to 871 (+/- 2), which suggests that there was permanent settlement prior to Ingolf’s own settlement. So, if you go there, you’ll not only be face-to-face with an actual archaeological site from medieval Iceland, but you’ll also be able to engage with the ever-evolving historical process! That’s pretty cool (and unique), honestly.

Unfortunately, it was a bit difficult for me to get good pictures at that museum, but here’s a few that I think are worth sharing still. Can you find the walrus bones that were imbedded into the structure?

 

 


But I think that’s enough rambling for today! Besides, I fear that this blog post has already stretched the word-count limits governing the attention spans of wandering readers. There is, of course, much more I could say about that day (and much that I have indeed left out), but perhaps I can return to certain things later on. For now, I hope you have found some enjoyment in reading this blog post about my wanderings in Iceland! (And hopefully you’ll be looking forward to my next post about that trip!)

If you liked this post, please give it a warm like or feel free to leave a comment (a nice “skál!” is always welcome)—and since I would like to hear from my blog-guests, I must ask this: which museum would you say is your favorite? Comment below!

Skál! 🍻
— Fjörn

Fjörn's Fellowship (Patreon)My sincerest thanks go to Fjörn’s Fellowship (on Patreon) for their gracious support. Without your companionship, this Hall would be nothing. Here are the names (taken from Patreon) of those who supported me while I wrote this post: Anasasia Haysler, Froggy, Jonas Lau Markussen, Kathleen Phillips, Patch, and Sarah Dunn. Þakka ykkur kærlega fyrir!


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