If you look around in the town of Reykjavik (which the inhabitants insist on calling a city) you could be forgiven to think that Iceland was settled in the later part of the 19th century. You could even start to imagine Iceland like the American West, settled by intrepid adventures who escaped staid Europe and came to this unhabited land by steamboat for the opportunity to endure cold weather, brave the perilous North Atlantic to fish and raise those beautiful Icelandic sheep.
When vikings and monks collide, the monks dissapear
There simply are no really old buildings around. But this is deceptive. As „everyone“ knows Iceland was settled in the later part of the ninth century by people mainly from Norway, the Nordic countries and the British Isles (many of these were unwilling slaves who were kidnapped in Ireland by vikings and brought to this remote place far from home).
It should be mentioned that there is compelling evidence that Iceland was settled a century or two earlier than the sagas indicate. This is a touchy subject as the sagas and the accounts of the settlement are canonical to a lot of Icelanders and not really subject to revisionist theroy. Nevermind archeological evidencence and new methods of carbon dating.
Legends speak of Irish hermit monks, the so called „Papar“ who are said to live here worshipping God when the (mostly) pagan norsemen arrived. If a cross is found cut into the rock in a cave somewhere (and there are loads of those), people are usually quick to attribute those to the reclusive Irish monks. The monks fade into history after the settlement, I suspect they were either driven out or even killed by the aggressive settlers or they left on their own accord when they discovered they weren´t alone anymore. And the name “papar” probably comes from the word “papist” but what allegiance the Irish monks had to the pope in Rome remains unclear.
The settlers built their farmsteads from turf, sods, stone and timber when they could but that was often in short supply, especially. After Icelanders started to use concrete for their housing and move away from the countriside and become urbanised, most of the old farmsteads simply merged with the ground and are almost invisible today. There a few notable exceptions and we shall cover those in future blog posts.
Icelandic cave men (and women)
But it seems that early on some of the settlers used caves as a temporary or even a permanent housing, especially in the south of Iceland where there are many man made (or at least enlarged) caves used as human habitats.
Last summer my wife and I drove to one of the largest man made cave in Iceland.
The farmstead on which the cave is derives its name from the massive cave and is called the farmstead of Hellar (or literally „caves“) in the countriside called „Land“ (or literally „country“). No prices for original place names I suppose. It is located in the interior of the rural south of Iceland.
The people at this busy farm welcome tourists who want to look at the cave for a small fee and they have even hooked up electrical lights to illuminate it.
The cave is accessible from an outhouse and is carved into the soft sandstone. The cave is divided into three parts. There are two large rooms and a 50 meter long “hallway.” Altogether the cave is some 200 square meters and quite amazingly some three meters high. The cave has three air vents which are placed strategically to get smoke out.
At the entrance there is an alcove which is called “Dísukrókur” (or “Dísa´s corner”). According to legend a girl with a mental disorder was tied to the wall and kept there. A sad reminder of the way people with disabilities or mental disorders treated in the past.
The walls of the caves are full of carvings with runes and crosses and in the innermost past there is the so called “Saint´s pedestal” (Dýrlingsstallur) and of course this has been attributed to those elusive Irish monks we talked about earlier.
The cave is mentioned in documents dating back to the early 14th century but my feeling that they have been used as dwellings a lot earlier than that. You can imagine them to be quite cosy but at the same time you marvel at the sheer effort of creating it using primitive tools (iron used in the Iceland in the middle ages was often low quality). So when you visit you can debate whether this huge cave was preferable to a farmstead made mostly from stones and sods. I would prefer the cave, maybe there is a bit of cave man to me after all 🙂
Written by Jón Heiðar Þorsteinsson
How to get there?
From the main ring road turn on to road nr. 26. Proceed until you come to a sign marked “Hella”
This blog is partly based on the book 101 Ísland – “Áfangastaðir í alfaraleið” by Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson.
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