Read CHAPTER XLVII of The Land of Thor , free online book, by J. Ross Browne, on


We rode for some time along an elevated plateau of very barren aspect till something like a break in the outline became visible a few hundred yards ahead. I had a kind of feeling that we were approaching a crisis in our journey, but said nothing. Neither did Zoega, for he was not a man to waste words. He always answered my questions politely, but seldom volunteered a remark. Presently we entered a great gap between two enormous cliffs of lava.

“What’s this, Zoega?” I asked.

“Oh, this is the Almannajau.”

“What! the great Almannajau, where the Icelandic Parliament used to camp!”

“Yes, sir; you see the exact spot down there below.”

And, in good truth, there it was, some hundreds of feet below, in a beautiful little green valley that lay at the bottom of the gap. Never had my eyes witnessed so strange and wild a sight. A great fissure in the earth nearly a hundred feet deep, walled up with prodigious fragments of lava, dark and perpendicular, the bases strewn with molten masses, scattered about in the strangest disorder; a valley of the brightest green, over a hundred feet wide, stretching like a river between the fire-blasted cliffs; the trail winding through it in snake-like undulation all now silent as death under the grim leaden sky, yet eloquent of terrible convulsions in by-gone centuries and of the voices of men long since mingled with the dust. Upon entering the gorge between the shattered walls of lava on either side, the trail makes a rapid descent of a few hundred yards till it strikes into the valley. I waited till my guide had descended with the horses, and then took a position a little below the entrance, so as to command a view out through the gorge and up the entire range of the Almannajau.

The appended sketch, imperfect as it is, will convey some idea of the scene; yet to comprise within the brief compass of a sheet of paper the varied wonders of this terrible gap, the wild disorder of the fragments cast loose over the earth, the utter desolation of the whole place would be simply impossible. No artist has ever yet done justice to the scene, and certainly no mere amateur can hope to attain better success.

Looking up the range of the fissure, it resembles an immense walled alley, high on one side, and low, broken, and irregular on the other. The main or left side forms a fearful precipice of more than eighty feet, and runs in a direct line toward the mountains, a distance of four or five miles. On the right, toward the plain of Thingvalla, the inferior side forms nearly a parallel line of rifted and irregular masses of lava, perpendicular in front and receding behind. The greater wall presents a dark, rugged face, composed of immense pillars and blocks of lava, defined by horizontal and vertical fissures, strangely irregular in detail, but showing a dark, compact, and solid front. In places it is not unlike a vast library of books, shaken into the wildest confusion by some resistless power. Whole ranges of ink-colored blocks are wrenched from their places, and scattered about between the ledges. Well may they represent the law-books of the old Icelandic Sagas and judges, who held their councils near this fearful gorge! Corresponding in face, but less regular and of inferior height, is the opposite wall. In its molten state the whole once formed a burning flood, of such vast extent and depth that it is estimated by geologists nearly half a century must have elapsed before it became cool. The bottom of this tremendous crack in the sea of lava is almost a dead level, and forms a valley of about a hundred feet in width, which extends, with occasional breaks and irregularities, entirely up to the base of the mountain. This valley is for the most part covered with a beautiful carpeting of fine green grass, but is sometimes diversified by fragments of lava shivered off and cast down from the walls on either side.

The gorge by which we entered must have been impracticable for horses in its original state. Huge masses of lava, which doubtless once jammed up the way, must have been hurled over into the gaping fissures at each side, and something like a road-way cleared out from the chaos of ruin. Pavements and side-stones are still visible, where it is more than probable the old Icelanders did many a hard day’s work. Eight or nine centuries have not yet obliterated the traces of the hammer and chisel; and there were stones cast a little on one side that still bear the marks of horses’ hoofs the very horses in all probability ridden by old Sagas and lawgivers. Through this wild gorge they made their way into the sheltered solitudes of the Almannajau, where they pitched their tents and held their feasts previous to their councils on the Logberg. Here passed the members of the Althing; here the victims of the Logberg never repassed again.

There are various theories concerning the original formation of this wonderful fissure. It is supposed by some that the flood of lava by which Thingvalla was desolated in times of which history presents no record must have cooled irregularly, owing to the variation of thickness in different parts of the valley; that at this point, where its depth was great, the contracting mass separated, and the inferior portion gradually settled downward toward the point of greatest depression.

Others, again, hold the theory that there was a liquid drain of the molten lava underneath toward the lake, by means of which a great subterranean cavity was formed as far back as the mountain; that the crust on top, being of insufficient strength to bear its own great weight, must have fallen in as the whole mass cooled, and thus created this vast crack in the earth.

I incline to the first of these theories myself, as the most conformable to the contractile laws of heat. There is also something like practical evidence to sustain it. A careful examination of the elevations and depressions on each wall of the gap satisfied me that they bear at least a very striking analogy. Points on one side are frequently represented by hollows on the other, and even complicated figures occasionally find a counterpart, the configuration being always relatively convex or concave. This would seem to indicate very clearly that the mass had been forcibly rent asunder, either by the contractile process of heat, or a convulsion of the earth. The most difficult point to determine is why the bottom should be so flat and regular, and what kept the great mass on each side so far intact as to form one clearly-defined fissure a hundred feet wide and nearly five miles in length? This, however, is not for an unlearned tourist like myself to go into very deeply.

How many centuries have passed away since all this happened the first man who “gazed through the rent of ruin” has failed to leave on record if he ever knew it. The great walls of the fissure stood grim and black before the old Icelandic Sagas, just as they now stand before the astonished eyes of the tourist. History records no material change in its aspect. It may be older than the Pyramids of Egypt; yet it looks as if the eruption by which it was caused might have happened within a lifetime, so little is there to indicate the progress of ages. I could not but experience the strangest sensations in being carried so far back toward the beginning of the world.

At the distance of about a mile up the “Jau” a river tumbles over the upper wall of lava, and rushes down the main fissure for a few hundred yards, when it suddenly diverges and breaks through a gap in the inferior wall, and comes down the valley on the outside toward the lake.

During my stay at Thingvalla I walked up to this part of the Almannajau, and made a rough sketch of the waterfall.

From the point of rocks upon which I stood the effect was peculiar. The course of the river, which lies behind the Jau, on the opposite side, is entirely hidden by the great wall in front, and nothing of it is visible till the whole river bursts over the dark precipice, and tumbles, foaming and roaring, into the tremendous depths below, where it dashes down wildly among the shattered fragments of lava till it reaches the outlet into the main valley. A mist rises up from the falling water, and whirls around the base of the cataract in clouds, forming in the rays of the sun a series of beautiful rainbows. The grim, jagged rocks, blackened and rifted with fire, make a strange contrast with the delicate prismatic colors of the rainbows, and their sharp and rugged outline with the soft, ever-changing clouds of spray.

The flocks of the good pastor of Thingvalla were quietly browsing among the rugged declivities where I stood. Here were violence and peace in striking contrast; the tremendous concussion of the falling water; the fearful marks of convulsion on the one hand, and on the other

“The gentle flocks that play upon the green.”

As I put away my imperfect sketch, and sauntered back toward the hospitable cabin of the pastor, a figure emerged from the rocks, and I stood face to face with an Icelandic shepherdess.

Well, it is no use to grow poetical over this matter. To be sure, we were alone in a great wilderness, and she was very pretty, and looked uncommonly coquettish with her tasseled cap, neat blue bodice, and short petticoats, to say nothing of a well-turned pair of ankles; but then, you see, I couldn’t speak a word of Icelandic, and if I could, what had I, a responsible man, to say to a pretty young shepherdess? At most I could only tell her she was extremely captivating, and looked for all the world like a flower in the desert, born to blush unseen, etc. As she skipped shyly away from me over the rocks I was struck with admiration at the graceful sprightliness of her movements, and wondered why so much beauty should be wasted upon silly sheep, when the world is so full of stout, brave young fellows who would fall dead in love with her at the first sight. But I had better drop the subject. There is a young man of my acquaintance already gone up to Norway to look for the post-girl that drove me over the road to Trondhjem, and at least two of my friends are now on the way to Hamburg for the express purpose of witnessing the gyrations of the celebrated wheeling girls. All I hope is, that when they meet with those enterprising damsels they will follow my example, and behave with honor and discretion.

Standing upon an eminence overlooking the valley, I was struck with wonder at the vast field of lava outspread before me. Here is an area at least eight miles square, all covered with a stony crust, varying from fifty to a hundred feet in thickness, rent into gaping fissures and tossed about in tremendous fragments; once a burning flood, covering the earth with ruin and desolation wherever it flowed; now a cold, weird desert, whose gloomy monotony is only relieved by stunted patches of brushwood and dark pools of water all wrapped in a death-like silence. Where could this terrible flood have come from? The mountains in the distance look so peaceful in their snowy robes, so incapable of the rage from which all this desolation must have sprung, that I could scarcely reconcile such terrible results with an origin so apparently inadequate.

I questioned Zoega on this point, but not with much success. How was it possible, I asked, that millions and billions of tons of lava could be vomited forth from the crater of any mountain within sight? Here was a solid bed of lava spread over the valley, and many miles beyond, which, if piled up, shrunken and dried as it was, would of itself make a mountain larger than the Skjaldbraid Jokul, from which it is supposed to have been ejected.

“Now, Zoega,” said I, “how do you make it out that this came from the Skjaldbraid Jokul?”

“Well, sir, I don’t know, but I think it came from the inside of the world.”

“Why, Zoega, the world is only a shell a mere egg-shell in Iceland I should fancy filled with fiery gases.”

“Is that possible, sir?” cried Zoega, in undisguised astonishment.

“Yes, quite possible a mere egg-shell!”

“Dear me, I didn’t know that! It is a wonderful world, sir.”

“Very especially in Iceland.”

“Then, sir, I don’t know how this could have happened, unless it was done by spirits that live in the ground. Some people say they are great monsters, and live on burnt stones.”

“Do you believe in spirits, Zoega?”

“Oh yes, sir; and don’t you? I’ve seen them many a time. I once saw a spirit nearly as large as the Skjaldbraid. It came up out of the earth directly before me where I was traveling, and shook its head as if warning me to go back. I was badly frightened, and turned my horse around and went back. Then I heard that my best friend was dying. When he was dead I married his wife. She’s a very good woman, sir, and, if you please, I’ll get her to make you some coffee when we get back to Reykjavik.”

So goes the world, thought I, from the Skjaldbraid Jokul to a cup of coffee! Why bother our heads about these troublesome questions, which can only result in proving us all equally ignorant. The wisest has learned nothing save his own ignorance. He “meets with darkness in the daytime, and gropes in the noonday as in the night.”