Civity Iceland: “Thingvellir” or the “Assembly Field”
Who would have thought that I would find reverberations of civity while sightseeing in Iceland?
Last month,I attended a conference in Reykjavik and then had the opportunity to spend a few days exploring Iceland with my husband. We rented a car and drove along the coast, taking in Iceland’s amazing waterfalls, glaciers, fjords, lava beds, and windswept mountains.
One of the highlights was Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park, about an hour’s drive out of Reykjavik. (There is, apparently, a Game of Thrones scene filmed in Thingvellir, but this blog is not about that. Sorry, fans!)
According to UNESCO, which has designated it a World Heritage Site, Thingvellir is “where the Althing (Alþing), an open-air assembly, representing the whole of Iceland, was established in 930 A.D. and continued to meet until 1798. Over two weeks every year, the assembly set laws - seen as a covenant between free men - and settled disputes.” After 1798, the Althing moved to Reykjavik, where it continues to meet today.
To put this in perspective: The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1791 and has been in effect now for a bit more than two hundred years. We in the U.S. think this is pretty amazing. The Althing, however, the oldest continuously meeting legislature in the world, had already been in existence for approximately 850 years – eight-and-a-half centuries – at the time the Constitution was drafted.
Iceland – a large island with lots of volcanoes and glaciers – lies at the juncture of two tectonic plates. On one tectonic plate, North America is moving ever so slowly westward; on the other, Europe is moving ever so slowly eastward. Thingvellir is situated in a rift where you can stand on one continental plate and look across the valley to the other. The scale of the place is larger-than-life. There are crevasses filled with glacial water filtered by volcanic rock. The water is as clear as water can be, and it never freezes.
As you walk from the Visitor Center down into the rift, you walk by a platform built to mark the Law Rock (Lögberg). This was, say the interpretive signs, the focal point of the Althing. A Law Speaker, chosen by the Legislative Assembly (Lögrétta), recited the laws over a three-year period. “At Lögberg anyone could step forward; speeches were given about important matters, and news was reported of significant events.”
It is a stirring image – the Law Speaker proclaiming the law to the crowd below.
(Full disclosure: The fine print on the sign notes that the precise location of the Law Rock is unknown. The platform was just built on the hill where it was built – a convenient spot.)
When we return to the Visitor Center, I ask the man at the admission desk how to pronounce Thingvellir. He obliges, and we fall into conversation.
Yes, he says, the Law Rock moved around. His own personal view (he is extremely knowledgeable about the history of the place) is that the original place of speaking centered on a promontory of land extending out into those clear glacial waters that never freeze.
The Althing, he tells us, wasn’t just a legislative assembly. There were booths and crafts. People saw family members who had married into other families and moved to other places.
The image I have in my mind shifts into a swirl of celebration, reunion, argument, trading – a froth of interaction. This is also a stirring image, but my focus shifts to the crowd, the people, the families, friends, and even rivals.
The Icelandic word “thing” means “assembly.” (“Althing” is the assembly of all.)
The Icelandic word “vellir” means “field.”
“Thingvellir” is, literally, the field where the people assembled.
It is all too easy to gloss over the people and allow our attention to be captured by the individual who is addressing the crowd – the Law Speaker in medieval Iceland; any one of a number of high-profile public figures today.
Thingvellir – and civity – call our attention back to the people. They are where the energy is. It is their actions – our interactions – that matter.