The 16th century Russian archbishop Makarij complained that the “unholy objects of worship” of many Northern peoples were “forests, stones, rivers, marshes, springs, hills, the sun, the moon, stars, lakes and simply all manner of things.” Had he visited the Northlands recently, he would likely have had the same lament. In Iceland, for example, people whose beliefs predate the arrival of Christianity a thousand years ago, usually do not like to be referred to as pagans. We’re heathens, they told me, and after a moment’s reflection I understood why. If a heath is a “wasteland,” terrain that is “uncultivated,” then Iceland has more heath than any place I have ever visited. The landscape looks empty and desolate, like the surface of the moon, except that it is green, greener sometimes than the radiant greens of Ireland.
Iceland is a painter’s dream. Imagine a low sky of writhing clouds, mountains after mountains and miles of undulating hills with a few sheep grazing here and there and perhaps an occasional farmhouse. Many mountains are active volcanoes; earthquakes and geysers are also part of this heath, and searing winds from the North Pole, and the slate-colored sea all around. Geysers, storms and waterfalls create a magical landscape that is always present, like a pulse, or a heartbeat. In this stark landscape I felt like I was continually walking on the skin of a drum.
Unfortunately, this little sketch can’t suggest lava flows or thermal springs, let alone the presence of Huldufólk, the “hidden people,” who live contentedly, mostly invisibly, here in this harsh beauty. But I offer it anyway to friends in Iceland and elsewhere who revere all manner of unholy objects.