The Legendary Topography of the Viking Settlement of Iceland
By Verena Höfig
Landscapes: the Journal of the International Centre for Landscape and Language, Vol.8:1 (2018)
Abstract: From the time of their earliest texts in the vernacular, Icelanders were interested in the semioticization of their landscape, the mapping of nature into culture by inscribing it with memories from the settlement of the island during the Viking Age. Such a description and inscription of landscape with meaning occurs most prominently in The Book of Settlements or Landnámabók, a thirteenth century prose text preserved in several versions. This paper focuses on Icelanders’ myth of origin as presented in the various Landnámabók redactions, and explores how a largely fictional medieval text can assert ownership and control over territory, and ultimately contribute to the creation of a legendary topography.
Introduction: Nations connect with their pasts as a means of confirming and legitimizing their present. As a country devoid of many visible remains of the past, such as intact buildings predating the eighteenth century or ruins comparable to monumental markers found elsewhere in Europe, such as castles, fortresses and cathedrals, Icelanders have chosen instead to focus on literature and literary descriptions of their landscape when attempting to relate their present to the past.
The description of landscape is omnipresent in the medieval Sagas of Icelanders, and with that, the mapping of nature and landscape into culture. This is done by negotiating and utilizing space through descriptions of landownership, or the origins of place-names, and by attaching story telling traditions to certain natural and man-made markers such as mountains, rivers or grave-mounds. Using landscape in this manner, filling it with significance, and endowing it with signs, is what Jürg Glauser has called the semioticization of landscape in an article dedicated to the Sagas of Icelanders and the þættir, shorter pieces of narrative, arguing that they are literary representations of a new social space.