Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

The Origins of the Remote Viking Democracy

Towards Democracy
The Oxará River flows between the Icelandic prime minister's current holiday home and the hillside on which the Althingi, considered the first parliament in the world, was installed.
Guardians of Thingvellir
The permanent residents of the Oxará River and Thingvallavatn Lake to whom the Thingvellir landscape remains most of the time.
Solfar: The Sun Voyager
Sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason, a boat ode to the sun installed in Sæbraut, on the outskirts of Reykjavik.
Current “viking” settlement
Reykjavik townhouse seen from the air with the cathedral of the Icelandic capital highlighted.
Eriksson, the settler
Reykjavik's homage to one of its pioneer settlers, the Viking Leif Eriksson.
Icelandic sunset
Sun sets in the last hours of a June day and adds color to Thingvellir's scenery.
Lake arms
Geological faults create rock slits in which Lake Thingvallavatn stretches.
flag below
Official removes the Icelandic flag from a pole in front of Reykjavik Cathedral.
Marco C. Pereira and Sara Wong on one of the characteristic geological faults of PN Thingvellir and that prove the slow separation of the North American plate from the Eurasian plate.
Monument to the unknown bureaucrat
Statue of Magnús Tomásson in the center of Reykjavik.
The Prime Minister's Summer Residence of Iceland.
The Prime Minister's Summer Residence of Iceland.
The Lutheran church which, with the adjoining cemetery, completes the set of structures created by the man of PN Thingvellir.
Cleft Almannagj
The tectonic fissure in which political meetings and community religious proceedings were carried out.
The foundations of popular government that come to mind are the Hellenic ones. But what is believed to have been the world's first parliament was inaugurated in the middle of the XNUMXth century, in Iceland's icy interior.

In the wake of the 2008-2012 financial crisis, the world and especially its more left-wing politically sensitive tenants have once again praised the Fire and Ice Island.

This time, the reason was not the rough, mountainous, frigid and volcanic sceneries.

Such popular apology was due to the way the Icelandic government handled the failure of its Glitnir, Kaupthing and Landsbanki banks which, among other commercial mischief, offered deposits with interest rates above 8% that attracted not only Icelandic but Dutch customers, British and other nationalities.

Its assets totaled eleven times the nation's GDP. But these same banks also made the country's external debt increase up to seven times the Iceland's GDP 2007. They caused their own disruption and the failure of the national financial system.

When the same happened with several other North American, European and global financial institutions, until then with structures that were thought to be unshakable (Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Lehman Brothers) in the USA and European countries, governments deprived top managers of responsibility.

Thingvelir, Origins of Iceland Democracy, Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat

Statue of Magnús Tomásson in the center of Reykjavik.

They favored rescue operations based on taxpayer taxation. In Iceland, by contrast, pressure from the people and their relative intimacy with the government forced them to let the banks fail and to give back what they could to Icelandic depositors.

The Icelandic parliament has also decreed a criminal investigation. The finance minister and several presidents, bank directors and managers, businessmen and lawyers were sentenced to prison terms. The prime minister in power during this crisis admitted his responsibility and resigned.

Shortly thereafter, the Icelandic people elected a new government that, even with its blemishes, wasted no time in pulling the nation out of the quagmire it had plunged into.

In Search of the World's First Parliament, the Althing

The real genesis of democracy centers on Ancient Greece but, even if more recent, the tradition of conscience and popular intervention for justice in destinations Iceland is millenary and equally pioneering.

It officially began in AD 930, with the inaugural session of what is considered the world's first parliament, the Althing.

After circling the island departing and returning to the capital Reykjavik, we detoured from the Ring Road onto the Golden Circle route and headed for Thingvellir National Park.

After almost an hour of driving, we found ourselves in the depths of a wide valley flanked by mountain ranges of moderate altitudes for what we had already seen, yet with the summits covered with snow.

The flat expanse we were following was dotted with lakes and ponds interconnected by geological faults filled by canals or streams.

Thingvelir, Origins Democracy Iceland, Oxará

The Oxará River flows between the Icelandic prime minister's current holiday home and the hillside on which Althing, considered the first parliament in the world, was installed.

A considerable cloud cover flew over us at great speed and, at intervals, let the sun's rays from the almost setting sun caress the scenery browned by the cold.

By the time we left the car to walk, we no longer saw a soul. Erma as it was, that also strange landscape fascinated us on the double.

How has long fascinated Icelanders.

The Viking History in the Genesis of the Founding of Althing

The Book of the Colonization of the Nordic Peoples narrates that the village of Iceland was inaugurated at the end of the ninth century and that, since then, several inhabitants of Viking and Celtic origin have settled on the island, often refugees from disagreements or persecutions dictated by the royalty or by the more powerful clans of the territories in which they lived.


Reykjavik's homage to one of its pioneer settlers, the Viking Leif Eriksson.

After seeing the conditions that the new domain offered, many did not want to go back. Instead, they created district assemblies.

As the population increased and the descendants of the pioneer chief of colonization of the island, Ingólfur Arnarson conquered supremacy over other families, rival chiefs demanded the establishment of an assembly that would limit their power.

Between 927 and 930, a man named Grímur Geitskör (Goat-bearded Grímur) was tasked with touring Iceland and choosing the most suitable place for a draft parliament.

It didn't take long to see the chosen place. It was selected by him due to its privileged position on the shores of the island's largest lake, Thingvallavatn, at the base of a prominent rock fault and with an unobstructed view.

Thingvelir, Origins of Iceland Democracy, Thingvallavatn

Geological faults create rock slits in which Lake Thingvallavatn stretches.

Also contributing to the choice was the desirability that the previous owner, Thorsteinn Ingólfsson, was convicted of murder and that Bláskógar, his land, was declared public.

This was a mature communal and judicial decision considering that we were in the first third of the dark ages and still taking into account the eccentricity of the geographic coordinates – read almost arctic and mid-Atlantic – in which the episode took place.

The Mystical Desolation of Thingvellir National Park

We still don't see any sign of people. On the other hand, ducks abound. His indifference, pride and even aggressiveness make us feel like the invaders we are.

A pair of birds that slumber on the gorse-lined ground do not move their feet from the narrow, walled path because we are supposed to move forward.

When we try to get around them, we are pecked in such a way that the hypothesis comes to mind that they are winged Viking reincarnations.

Thingvelir, Origins Democracy Iceland, duck

The permanent residents of the Oxará River and Thingvallavatn Lake to whom the Thingvellir landscape remains most of the time.

The animals force us to climb the small wall, detour along the edge of the Canyon de Silfra and cross the bridge over the Oxará river.

Thingvallabaer and Thingvallakirja, the Buildings Now Standing Out from Thingvelir

We then came upon a complex of white wooden buildings with steep roofs and realized that it was the Thingvallabaer – the official summer residence of the Icelandic Prime Minister.

Thingvelir, Origins Democracy Iceland, Thingvallabaer

The Prime Minister's Summer Residence of Iceland.

And Thingvallakirja, a church that replaced the original from the XNUMXth century.

Both were erected in 1930 to commemorate the inaugural millennium of Althing, as a complement to the constitution of Iceland's first national park, PN Thingvellir, which we continued to unveil.

We examine the buildings and the small cemetery in which two contemporary poets of Icelandic independence are buried.

Thingvelir, Origins Democracy Iceland, Thingvallakirja

The Lutheran church which, with the adjoining cemetery, completes the set of structures created by the man of PN Thingvellir.

Also from that angle, we were confronted with the high wall of solidified lava that anticipated the horizon to the northwest.

We are on our way to your heights.

The Slope Foot That Housed the Viking Parliament Althing

With that ascent, we finally converged on the Lögberg (Rock of Law), the exact place where Althing met annually. It was there, between two deep cracks, that the lögsögumadur recited the laws to the assembly.

After the Christianization of Iceland, this site moved to the foot of other cliffs that revealed an acoustic more favorable to spread the speeches through the crowd coming from the four corners of the island.

Some of the chiefs arrived after seventeen days of travel, the maximum foreseen for those coming from its eastern end, in which successive mountains and icelandic glaciers they proved far more complicated to transpose.

We have no difficulty finding this other place at the foot, marked by a flagpole.

Thingvelir, Origins of Iceland Democracy, Thingvallavatn

Sun sets in the last hours of a June day and adds color to Thingvellir's scenery.

It is hard to imagine where the Nedrivellir (the Low Fields) would be located, the flat area housed on a lower level, facing the cliffs.

There it is believed that the Lögrétta – a juridical council made up of 48 voting members, 96 councilors and two bishops – debated until reaching crucial decisions for the future of the growing community.

In the vicinity, we still find several budders, stone and peat shelters where the participants in the assemblies camped, others that served as food and drink stands, much like what happens nowadays during music festivals.

In those times, as today, one of the most traded products was beer. Food and veils, among others, were also sold and bought.

Almannagjá, the Fissure in the Border between the North American and European Plates

We place a foot on each side of one of the narrowed extensions of the Almannagjá fissure, in a symbolic but precarious balance over a depth of black lava.

Thingvelir, Origins of Democracy Iceland, Almannagja

Marco C. Pereira and Sara Wong on one of the characteristic geological faults of PN Thingvellir and that prove the slow separation of the North American plate from the Eurasian plate.

Even so, we laugh at the curiosity of the participating Viking and Celtic settlers encamping, legislating and consolidating the future Icelandic nationality, while North America and Europe were separated even if only a few millimeters a year.

This tectonic back-turn has long left its mark on the Thingvellir plain.

Not only the Almannagjá rift, but also other smaller geological expressions such as the Brennugjá (the Burning Abyss).

Thingvellir, Origins of Democracy Iceland, Almannagj

The tectonic fissure in which political meetings and community religious proceedings were carried out.

During the XNUMXth century, nine men accused of witchcraft were burned there and Drekkingarhylur, where the waterfall of Öxararfoss, used to drown women accused of infanticide, adultery or other crimes, precipitates.

These days, the Icelandic authorities are a little more forgiving.

However, out of respect for the antiquity and historical pragmatism of its democracy, contrary to what happens all over the place, there are few authors of crimes that escape the will of the people and the law.

That's how it was seen with the actual prison sentences of the several responsible for the frauds that aggravated the Icelandic financial crisis of 2008-11.

All decided on the successor to the original Althing, now housed in a gray stone building in the capital Reykjavik.

Thingvelir, Origins Democracy Iceland, Reykjavik

Reykjavik townhouse seen from the air with the cathedral of the Icelandic capital highlighted.

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