One of the safest destinations in the world is Iceland. Things were a more ‘exciting’ in the middle ages. The settlement in the ninth century seems to have been mostly peaceful, at least by Viking standards! Amongst the settlers, there were undoubtedly more peaceful folks than fierce vikings. There was feuding but the chieftains were many and fiefdoms were small. This changed in a dramatic way in the 13th century when an Icelandic civil war devoured the country. Game of Thrones fans would be gratified by the complexity, intrigue and violence. The chieftains also had a lot of mistresses which reminds one of Game Thrones.

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Immerse yourself in VR exhibition of the Icelandic civil war

With the new virtual exhibition called ‘1238: The Battle of Iceland‘ opening in the town of Sauðárkrókur in the northwest of Iceland this summer, you can immerse yourself in the Icelandic civil war. In this article, I interview Áskeill Heiðar Ásgeirsson who is the manager of the exhibition. But first, the basics of the Icelandic civil war.

Fighting like rats in a sack

During the 12th and early 13th century, power gravitated to a few clans which came to rule large parts of the country. For about forty years, from about 1220 – 1262 the clans and their leaders fought for land, prestige and wealth like rats in a sack. The rich and powerful dominated Althingi which was strictly a legislature and a judiciary. There was no executive power in the form of a king, only power hungry chieftains and the farmers they ruled.

Christians not really loving their neighbours

And if you are thinking that these were pagan chieftains fighting in the name of Odin and Thor, think again. Iceland in the 13th century was devoutly Christian country. In 1208 an Icelandic chieftain, Kolbeinn Tumason, composed a famous psalm, ‘Heyr Himna Smiður’ just before he and his crew went after the renegade bishop Guðmundur Arason. Guðmundur was considered a bit annoying since he kept on giving a lot of food to the poor.  In any case, the psalm was so good that God summoned Kolbeinn to heaven almost immediately after he heard it by guiding a very large rock to his skull. This happened in a fight against the bishop and his men. True story.

Video – the lovely Eivör Pálsdóttir sings Heyr Himna Smiður – in Icelandic ‘Hear Smith of the Heavens’

The clans fighting it out

The clans have Icelandic names of course, the main ones were Haukdælir and Oddaverjar in the south of Iceland, Ásbirningar in the north west, Vatnsfirðingar in the Westfjords, Svínfellingar in the East of Iceland and the Sturlungar in the west. The civil war between these clans is named after the Sturlungar, so we call it the Sturlungaöld or the age of the Sturlungs.

Farmers get tired of fighting the Icelandic civil war

Clan leaders fell under the sway of the Norwegian kings who were keen to add Iceland to their domain. After all, Iceland’s population was one third of Norway back then. Kings always want more tax revenues and Iceland was easy pickings! After the Icelandic chieftains had exhausted themselves, the people seem to have had enough. In 1262 the Icelanders ‘bent the knee’ in Game of Thrones parlance, to the Norwegian king. He  would ensure peace and that a minimum number of ships would sail to Iceland every year. Peace and trade trumped war and anarchy. Iceland became peaceful and to this day, we have no military, Only a plucky coast guard!

The battles of the Sturlungaöld

There were three main battles in the age of the Sturlungs. They all took place in the north west of Iceland. In 1238 there was the battle of Örlygsstaðir in Skagafjörður from which the exhibition in Sauðárkrókur takes it name. In 1244 there was a large sea battle in the bay of Húnaflói. This is the original ‘Gulf War’ of course. In 1246, the biggest battle of them all took place. This was the battle of Haugsness in Skagafjörður. Some 1100 men fought there and about 100 died.

Throw those rocks

The main weapon in these battles were rocks. Yes, the opposite sides would form up and throw rocks at each other. In addition medieval weapons such as axes, spears, swords (if you were rich) and various farm tools were used to kill the other side. Not very nice to be in the thick of it. There were many other small scale fights and in some cases farms were burnt down. The famous instance of that is the burning of the farm at Flugumýri (1253) during a wedding in, you guessed it, Skagafjörður.

Hello Áskell Heiðar and thank you for taking a time out of your busy schedule for this interview. Can you tell me what inspired you and partners to set up this exhibition?

Skagafjörður is a historical region and the scene for the dramatic and devastating battles of the Sturlunga era in the 1200’s. In recent years a lot has been done to recall those dramatic conflicts.  When creating an attraction for the town of Sauðárkrókur, it felt natural to look to history and build upon what had already been done. New possibilities in immersive virtual reality add an extra depth to the experience.

Áskell Heiðar Ásgeirsson is the manager of the 1238 exhibition.
Áskell Heiðar is ready to do battle.

Can you describe to us what the experience will be like?

We often say that this exhibition goes a step beyond the regular history museum. Guests are invited to take part in history through virtual reality. Guests go 800 years back in time, experience standing on the battlefield at Örlygsstaðir and fight next to the chieftain Sturla Sighvatsson. The exhibition also gives an overview of other large battles. Interactive installations are woven into the presentation. Grána Bistro and a local souvenir shop are located on the ground floor. Sauðárkrókur and the Skagafjörður region in the north west of Iceland is just beautiful.

What are your favorite places or activities in the north west of Iceland?

Drangey on the left, Kerling in the middle and the island of Malmey on the right
Drangey on the left, Kerling in the middle and the island of Malmey on the right

I like going to the swimming pools, no matter the weather. In Sauðárkrókur and Skagafjörður we have many walking trails for both trained and untrained hikers. Skagafjörður is known for various activities. These include horseback riding, river rafting and sailing to Drangey island.

Sunset in Skagafjörður in Iceland. The island of drangey in the distance.
Sunset in Skagafjörður in Iceland seen from Borgarsandur. The islands of Drangey and Malmey in the distance.

Drangey, Hólar and Austurdalur valley are my favorite places.  The sunset seen from Borgarsandur in Sauðárkrókur is breathtakingly beautiful.

What advice would you give to those who are visiting Iceland for the first time?

I recommend taking a detour of the ring road and take the road less travelled. Don’t miss out on kjötsúpa and enjoy yourself in one of many natural pools.

Great advice. I look forward to check out the exhibition!