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List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
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religion was adopted by a large majority.

The first Christian missionaries who came to Iceland seem
to have had a rather peculiar manner of enforcing the
truths of the Gospel. Their leader was a person of the
name of Thangbrand. Like the Protestant clergymen Queen
Elizabeth despatched to convert Ireland, he was bundled
over to Iceland principally because he was too disreputable
to be allowed to live in Norway. The old Chronicler gives
a very quaint description of him. "Thangbrand," he says,
"was a passionate, ungovernable person, and a great
man-slayer; but a good scholar, and clever. Thorvald,
and Veterlid the Scald, composed a lampoon against him;
but he killed them both outright. Thangbrand was two
years in Iceland, and was the death of three men before
he left it."

From the Althing we strolled over to the Almanna Gja,
visiting the Pool of Execution on our way. As I have
already mentioned, a river from the plateau above leaps
over the precipice into the bottom of the Gja, and flows
for a certain distance between its walls. At the foot of
the fall the waters linger for a moment in a dark, deep,
brimming pool, hemmed in by a circle of ruined rocks; to
this pool, in ancient times, all women convicted of
capital crimes were immediately taken, and drowned.
Witchcraft seems to have been the principal weakness of
ladies in those days, throughout the Scandinavian countries.
For a long period no disgrace was attached to its
profession. Odin himself, we are expressly told, was a
great adept, and always found himself very much exhausted
at the end of his performance; which leads me to think
that perhaps he dabbled in electro-biology. At last the
advent of Christianity threw discredit on the practice;
severe punishments were denounced against all who indulged
in it; and, in the end, its mysteries became the monopoly
of the Laplanders.

All criminals, men and women, were tried by juries; and
that the accused had the power of challenging the jurymen
empannelled to try them, appears from the following
extract from the Book of Laws:--"The judges shall go out
on Washday, i.e., Saturday, and continue out for challenges,
until the sun comes on Thingvalla on the Lord's-day."
And again, "The power of challenging shall cease as soon
as the sun can no longer be seen above the western brink
of the chasm, from the Logberg."

Turning aside from what, I dare say, was the scene of
many an unrecorded tragedy, we descended the gorge of
the Almanna Gja, towards the lake; and I took advantage
of the opportunity again to examine its marvellous
construction.  The perpendicular walls of rock rose on
either hand from the flat greensward that carpeted its
bottom, pretty much as the waters of the Red Sea must
have risen on each side of the fugitive Israelites. A
blaze of light smote the face of one cliff, while the
other lay in the deepest shadow; and on the rugged surface
of each might still be traced corresponding articulations,
that once had dovetailed into each other, ere the igneous
mass was rent asunder. So unchanged, so recent seemed
the vestiges of this convulsion, that I felt as if I had
been admitted to witness one of nature's grandest and
most violent operations, almost in the very act of its
execution. A walk of about twenty minutes brought us to
the borders of the lake--a glorious expanse of water,
fifteen miles long, by eight miles broad, occupying a
basin formed by the same hills, which must also, I imagine,
have arrested the further progress of the lava torrent.
A lovelier scene I have seldom witnessed. In the foreground
lay huge masses of rock and lava, tossed about like the
ruins of a world; and washed by waters as bright and
green as polished malachite.  Beyond, a bevy of distant
mountains, robed by the transparent atmosphere in tints
unknown to Europe, peeped over each other's shoulders
into the silver mirror at their feet, while here and
there from among their purple ridges columns of white
vapour rose like altar smoke toward the tranquil heaven.

On returning home we found dinner waiting for us. I had
invited the clergyman, and a German gentleman who was
lodging with him, to give us the pleasure of their company;
and in ten minutes we had all become the best of friends.
It is true the conversation was carried on in rather a
wild jargon, made up of six different languages--Icelandic,
English, German, Latin, Danish, French--but in spite of
the difficulty with which he expressed himself, it was
impossible not to be struck with the simple earnest
character of my German convive. He was about
five-and-twenty, a "doctor philosophiae," and had come to
Iceland to catch gnats. After having caught gnats in
Iceland, he intended, he said, to spend some years in
catching gnats in Spain.--the privacy of Spanish gnats,
as it appears, not having been hitherto invaded. The
truth is, my guest was an entomologist, and in the pursuit
of the objects of his study was evidently prepared to
approach hardships and danger with a serenity that would
not have been unworthy of the apostle of a new religion.
It was almost touching to hear him describe the intensity
of his joy when perhaps days and nights of fruitless
labours were at last rewarded by the discovery of some
hitherto unknown little fly; and it was with my whole
heart that, at parting, I wished him success in his
career, and the fame that so much conscientious labour
merited. From my allusion to this last reward, however,
he seemed almost to shrink, and, with a sincerity it was
impossible to doubt, disclaimed as ignoble so poor a
motive as a thirst for fame.  His was one of those calm
laborious minds, seldom found but among the Teutonic
race, that--pursuing day by day with single-minded energy
some special object--live in a noble obscurity, and die
at last content with the consciousness of having added
one other stone to that tower of knowledge men are building
up toward heaven, even though the world should never
learn what strong and patient hands have placed it there.

The next morning we started for the Geysirs: this time
dividing the baggage-train, and sending on the cook in
light marching order, with the materials for dinner. The
weather still remained unclouded, and each mile we advanced
disclosed some new wonder in the unearthly landscape. A
three hours' ride brought us to the Rabna Gja, the eastern
boundary of Thingvalla, and, winding up its rugged face,
we took our last look over the lovely plain beneath us,
and then manfully set forward across the same kind of
arid lava plateau as that which we had already traversed
before arriving at the Almanna Gja. But instead of the
boundless immensity which had then so much disheartened
us, the present prospect was terminated by a range of
quaint parti-coloured hills, which rose before us in such
fantastic shapes that I could not take my eyes off them.
I do not know whether it was the strong coffee or the
invigorating air that stimulated my imagination; but I
certainly felt convinced I was coming to some mystical
spot--out of space, out of time--where I should suddenly
light upon a green-scaled griffin, or golden-haired
princess, or other bonnie fortune of the olden days.
Certainly a more appropriate scene for such an encounter
could not be conceived, than that which displayed itself,
when we wheeled at last round the flank of the scorched
ridge we had been approaching. A perfectly smooth grassy
plain, about a league square, and shaped like a horse-shoe,
opened before us, encompassed by bare cinder-like hills,
that rose round--red, black, and yellow--in a hundred
uncouth peaks of ash and slag. Not a vestige of vegetation
relieved the aridity of their vitrified sides, while the
verdant carpet at their feet only made the fire-moulded
circle seem more weird and impassable. Had I had a trumpet
and a lance, I should have blown a blast of defiance on
the one, and having shaken the other toward the foul
corners of the world, would have calmly waited to see
what next might betide. Three arrows shot bravely forward
would have probably resulted in the discovery of a
trap-door with an iron ring; but having neither trumpet,
lance, nor arrow, we simply alighted and lunched: yet
even then I could not help thinking how lucky it was
that, not eating dates, we could not inadvertently fling
their stones into the eye of any inquisitive genie who
might be in the neighbourhood.

After the usual hour's rest and change of horses, we
galloped away to the other side of the plain, and, doubling
the further horn of the semicircle, suddenly found
ourselves in a district as unlike the cinder mountains
we had quitted as they had differed from the volcanic
scenery of the day before. On the left lay a long rampart
of green hills, opening up every now and then into Scottish
glens and gorges, while from their roots to the horizon
stretched a vast breadth of meadowland, watered by two
or three rivers, that wound, and twisted, and coiled
about, like blue serpents. Here and there, white volumes
of vapour, that rose in endless wreaths from the ground,
told of mighty cauldrons at work beneath that moist cool
verdant carpet; while large silvery lakes, and flat-topped
isolated hills, relieved the monotony of the level land,
and carried on the eye to where the three snowy peaks of
Mount Hecla shone cold and clear against the sky.

Of course it was rather tantalizing to pass so near this
famous burning mountain without having an opportunity of
ascending it; but the expedition would have taken up too
much time. In appearance Hecla differs very little from
the innumerable other volcanic hills with which the island
is studded. Its cone consists of a pyramid of stone and
scoriae, rising to the height of about five thousand feet,
and welded together by bands of molten matter which have
issued from its sides. From A.D. 1004 to 1766 there have
been twenty-three eruptions, occurring at intervals which
have varied in duration, from six to seventy-six years.
The one of 1766 was remarkably violent. It commenced on
the 5th of April by the appearance of a huge pillar of

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