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[from the collection of Mr. Walter Reimer]
article from the August, 1930 issue
written by Edward R. Mynah, Jnr.
International Hydrographic Magazine
Vol. LVIII, No. Two
Vanirge, Where One Lands in Hot Water
Edward R. Mynah, Jnr.
(Author of “Pacific Islands Emerging from the Fog of War”
in The International Hydrographic Magazine.)
I sat at the native luau with my wife and the rest of our party as the dancers moved through their steps with all the verve and energy of Parisian can-can dancers. Drums and blown conch shells provided the rhythm and the stamping of the dancers’ feet made a magnificent counterpoint. The light swish of grass skirts combined with the slightly deeper sound of woven and dyed wool scarves and headgear moving in time to the dance.
Wool, in Polynesia? Indeed so, for these were no ordinary Pacific islands, but the Icelandic-colonized archipelago known as Vanirge. Here, the traditions of the Vikings combine with the hospitable tradition of the Pacific Islanders to create a distinct and vibrant culture. Our guide assured us that no stranger sight could be seen, unless one traveled to the northern villages of Spontoon’s Main Island.
LANDS OF FIRE
Well into the last century, the colonial powers have explored the many islands of the Pacific, and settled colonists there to live and work amongst the native tribes. The Vanirge Archipelago was settled by a mix of predominantly Icelandic (with some Faeroese) fishermen and their families. Over the years, there has been much intermarriage and a gradual blending of the two cultures.
The visitor to these islands is struck by the relative peace he finds here. There has never been a war or even much civil strife, and as the grip of the colonial powers relaxed, the population formed their own government based on both traditions.
Vanirge is composed of three main islands, Norderon, Frison, and Brisingaland, with many smaller islands stretching in a chain from southeast to northwest. Its capital, Ostmanneyjar, can be found on the western coast of Norderon. The archipelago is bounded on the west by the Cook and Marquesas Seas, on north and east by the Abyssal Sea, and on the east by one of the Polynesian Republics.
My wife and I, representing the INTERNATIONAL HYDROGRAPHIC, arrived in Ostmanneyjar by steamship from Tahiti. We were immediately confronted by a quiet and very spruce little town with an interesting mix of architectural styles. The steeply pitched thatch roofs of Polynesian homes sat cheek by jowl with low homes roofed by green turf, a sight familiar to many who have traveled to Iceland or other northern lands touched by the Vikings long ago. There are two churches, built from long staves of wood in the best Scandinavian design, and the same architectural style is shown in the building that houses the island’s thing, or governing council.
The entire island chain is volcanic, thrown up by cataclysmic forces thousands of years ago, and those ancient volcanoes have left smaller descendants behind to remind those who live here of their land’s stormy past. The religion of the original inhabitants speak of Mother Pele, as the natives do in Hawai’i, who lives in these smoking pits of boiling lava; the Icelanders who settled here had their own god of fire, Surt, and over the years the two have become associated with each other. There is a local legend of a ‘celestial marriage’ between Pele and Surt, which shows the quaint customs adopted to explain what are, to us, natural phenomena.
WHERE SURT AND PELE PLAY
It is possible to read Dante’s Divine Comedy and find some parallels to the volcanic fields on Norderon. The highest peak on the island is Mount Kirkfell, so named for its passing resemblance to a low church steeple. Steam and the occasional fall of ash or pumice give eloquent voice to the fact that the volcano merely slumbers. Surrounding the mountain on all sides are twisted and cold lava flows, bearing scant signs of life.
But the same fiery mountains that threaten life on these islands also offer a distinct boon, in the form of water heated by the magma beneath the land. Hot springs are prevalent here, and where the water bubbles up through the soil the locals can offer hot mud baths to passing tourists. My wife and I were prevailed upon to try this home-grown treatment. Our guides extolled it for its abilities to heal more ailments and weaknesses than even the slickest snake oil salesman could think of.
HOT WATER OR HOT MUD?
It took some urging by our guides, but my wife and finally accepted their offer of a medicinal bath. I have had a touch of arthritis since a sojourn in Nepal, so I thought that there may indeed be some therapeutic value. After all, thousands of furs each year visit the spas of Europe to take the waters. After disrobing, my guide assisted me in immersing myself to my neck in a steaming fumarole filled with mud the consistency of fine Scottish porridge. Once I was in, I was enjoined to breathe deeply of the sulfuretted air and to relax.
Relaxation proved to be quite enticing, for despite the warm tropical air the mud felt very comfortable. I felt drowsy after several minutes, and my guide then roused me and made me climb out and sit on a nearby rock. I must say that I must have looked quite a sight with my fur matted down under a coating of mud, and I had to resist laughing at the sight of my wife when she emerged from her own fumarole. After the mud had dried, we were invited to bathe in a hot spring to remove the coating. I shall have to admit that bathing with one’s wife beneath a tropic moon is certainly quite romantic! And later I did discover that my arthritis was quite a bit better!
A VISIT TO THE PARSON
After our visit to the mud baths, we toured the town of Bringild, several miles east of Ostmanneyjar. The villagers here subsist by farming and raising sheep and goats for meat and milk. The houses were a mixture of the two cultural styles, with the walls of the dwellings half-embedded in high turf banks and a tall, steeply-pitched thatch roof over all. Native children wearing little but a modest loincloth or less scattered in our wake, drawn by the sight of exotic newcomers. Most of the men and women of the village sported long braids, bound in a crisscross style with leather strips.
We visited the local church, a small building reminiscent of many a small country church in America, with a cross surmounting the steep roof. The parish priest turned out to be a stocky and good-humored elkhound from Minnesota! It seems that he had come to Vanirge shortly before the War as a missionary, and had decided to stay.
I asked him if there had been any conflicts between Christianity and the native religions, and he was quick to assure me that the two faiths got on under very friendly terms. Most of the colonists were Lutheran, and brought with them a dedication to hard work and to the land. This devotion dovetailed neatly with the Polynesian reverence for the land and the sea, so (apart from minor reservations concerning the usual undressed state of the natives) the two faiths settled down side by side in peace.
The priest directed us inland and to the north, towards the volcanic heart of the island, where this blending of customs is at its most marked.
AN ENCOUNTER WITH A NATIVE
After parting with Bringild’s parish priest, our guide led us along a narrow lane between thick stands of jungle growth. To our right we could glimpse far off the bulking mass of Mount Kirkfell. The mountain’s peak was wreathed in cloud, and the guide muttered that Pele and Surt were asleep. Often the mountain will awaken, and the glow of lava fountains in the central caldera can be seen from Ostmanneyjar.
The jungle gradually disappeared to be replaced by fields of taro, pineapple and wheat tended by nearly-unclothed women, their small children slung Red Indian-style to their backs. The children were shielded from the tropical sun by thin, almost gauzy woolen shades. One young miss smiled coquettishly to our guide as we trudged up the road.
As we passed a farmhouse the farmer hailed us and paused in his work of chopping wood, leaning matter-of-factly on his axe. After we had introduced ourselves, he gave his name as Hengist Tupousson, the headman of the village.
Hengist was a Faeroe pony, a short and stocky fellow with a long and shaggy mane of headfur that was braided into two long tails that hung nearly to the small of his back. His fur was oiled and brushed in the finest Polynesian style, and indeed he did show a few signs of mixed ancestry. After all, how many equines has one met with an orange tabby cast to their fur?
We sat and talked about living beneath the shadow of the largest volcano in the islands, and Hengist averred that proper rituals were credited with keeping Surt and Pele from having a marital spat. One such ritual was scheduled for that night, in fact, in order to keep the two of them lulled to sleep.
MOONLIT VOLCANO RITUAL
That night we sat on low benches and piles of woven mats as the entire village turned out for the ritual. The moon was high overhead, and if looked at from the correct angle seemed to be perching on Kirkfell’s summit.
The mood was festive as everyone settled down for a luau. Fruits were offered to us, along with cooked pork and mutton, and washed down with either water or the native-brewed beer as a beverage. The beer was based on wheat, and was interestingly flavored with fermented pineapple. It made for a strangely refreshing taste, and it went well with the food provided.
The dancing and chants described at the beginning of this article followed. The priest of the village, a canine fellow with intricate patterns brushed into his oiled fur and a fierce-looking bone through his nose, chanted in a mixture of tongues as a chorus of women implored Pele to keep her home quiet. The men took up the chant, offering the same sound advice to Surt.
We said our farewells to Hengist and the villagers the next day, but the farmer stopped us and went into his turf house. He emerged with a small stone carving as his wife offered us a cup of beer for the road. It seems that Hengist is also a local artisan, carving idols and statues from the volcanic rock native to the region.
The idol he presented to us portrayed Surt and Pele as a married couple, with various imps and lesser demons at their feet. We thanked Hengist and his family for their hospitality, secure in the knowledge that the statuette would find a happy home at the INTERNATIONAL HYDROGRAPHIC headquarters in Washington.
VOYAGE TO BRISINGALAND
Upon our return to Ostmanneyjar, we found that a meeting of the local council was in progress. Since visitors are welcomed to these open meetings, our party paused to observe the native government.
The Vanirgean Thing is what is known as a direct democracy, and all members of the community for the district are invited to attend. Any matter can be brought up and debated. It is customary to leave weapons at the door, but since Vanirge is a peaceful archipelago there were no weapons to be seen. However, in keeping with tradition, farm implements such as shovels and scythes were stacked along one wall. After observing for several hours, we departed the hall for the port and our next stop.
We boarded the local steamer Leif Ericsson for a voyage to the northwest and the smallest of Vanirge’s main islands, Brisingaland. The voyage would take several days, as the steamer had to make stops along the way. It was piled high with various supplies and stocks of goods that are unobtainable by native efforts. My wife and I were somewhat dismayed to find that half of the living space in our cabin was taken up by tins of Australian beef!
Finally we caught sight of our goal. Brisingaland is a volcanic ridge, and the fires that created it have long since died and grown cold. The island is bisected by the tall Trollheim range, some peaks reaching as high as five thousand feet. The naked rocks of the ridge vanish beneath a layer of thick and nigh-impenetrable jungle, which in its turn gives way to carefully tended farms and several small villages. The inhabitants here make their way through life fishing and farming, trading their wares among the other islands in the archipelago and to places as far away as Piccucapac.
AN ENCOUNTER WITH A SKALD
Scarcely had we set foot on the docks at the island’s largest town of Vagar that we noticed a large crowd gathering at another dock. We hurried over to see what was going on.
It seemed that a local notable had returned from one of the tiny communities to the south of the island. His boat, rowed by a mix of sturdy canines and felines, was an outrigger canoe whose main hull was made of close-fitting boards in the Viking manner. The gunwales were carved with scrollwork and runes, and charms of shark’s teeth hung from the prow. A wooden tiki of a bearded seagull rested high on the sternpost.
The important personage was none other than the island’s skald, a wandering minstrel and priest. He was a tall, gaunt hound who walked with the aid of a long staff carved with various designs. He also appeared to be quite blind from the manner in which he groped his way along. He wore a grass skirt mingled with twists of white wool and he wore a thin shawl of wool about his bony shoulders.
The villagers pressed him for a song, and after offering him beer he sat on a handy box. Others sat around him as he began to sing. The tradition of oral storytelling is thousands of years old, and has reached a high level of artistry here in Vanirge, where two such traditions have combined their forces. The skald, belying his apparent age and frailty, managed to make his voice clearly heard above the sound of the sea and the circling birds.
Our guide translated for us, and told us that the skald was recounting his voyage to the outlying fishing communities, offering blessings for newborn children and for bountiful harvests. He concluded with a paean to the village for their generous welcome and the tasty beer, and implored them to let him go home and rest. The crowd laughed at the end and cheered as the skald was assisted to his feet and led off.
Local skalds and festivals are a welcome diversion for these hard-working people, heirs of two rich island traditions that have learned to exist together in peace.
Modern civilization with all of its fascinations and dangers is gradually encroaching on the inhabitants of Vanirge, and it remains to be seen whether they can successfully blend the tide of modernity with their ages-old traditions.
clipping from the collection of Mr. Walter Reimer