Rediscovering Iceland at CLU’s symposium
California Lutheran University’s Nordic Spirit Symposium focused on the land of “Fire, Ice, and Vikings”
Judith Gabriel Vinje
A larger than usual turnout for the 16th annual Nordic Spirit Symposium at California Lutheran University over the weekend of Feb. 6-7 reflects the growing popularity of and interest in the symposium’s focal point—Iceland.
An audience of about 200 people sat spellbound throughout the two-day session to hear about Iceland and the Vikings, Iceland and the volcanoes, and Iceland as a vital part of Scandinavia, dating back to its settlement in the 10th century by Norwegians and Celtic sojourners.
“Iceland: Land of Fire, Ice, and Vikings” brought a slate of international experts to the podium, ranging from Ásgeir Margeirsson, CEO of HS Orka, Iceland’s largest privately owned energy company, to Apostolos Athanassakis, professor emeritus of UC Santa Barbara, who raised intriguing parallels between ancient Greek and Norse cultures.
Whereas Iceland has preserved much of the original Old Norse language, and is responsible for documenting Viking mythology and history in its Icelandic sagas, the island nation is far enough away from the shores of Scandinavia that the centuries-old links are often forgotten.
Iceland was the last country in Europe to be settled, and to this day remains the continent’s most sparsely populated state.
“I had never really thought of Iceland as being so closely linked with my Norwegian heritage,” observed Norwegian-American Patricia Savoie of Pasadena, retired literature professor and world traveler. “Iceland was always just that place you flew over on your way to Oslo.” And now? “Definitely on my bucket list,” she said.
The popularity of the subject is reflected in the fact that the number of tourists to Iceland has increased dramatically, particularly since its recent volcano eruption. The volcanic nature of the land has resulted in geothermal energy that is unexcelled anywhere else. “Iceland produces more electricity per capital than any other country,” according to Margeirsson, “and it’s still the cleanest.”
With a population of only 320,000, Iceland is also a leader in human genomics research, noted Eirikur Steingrimsson of the University of Iceland Biomedical Center.
Other speakers included Elisabeth J. Ward, who co-edited the book “Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga” during the millennium celebration of Viking arrival on North American soil. She is the director of the Scandinavian Cultural Center at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. Speaking as the daughter of an American soldier and an Icelandic woman, she discussed the role of the U.S. and NATO in post-World War II Iceland, and how Icelanders related to the wider Scandinavian and European arenas, especially through literature.
In keeping with the Symposium’s framework of blending lectures with entertainment and fine food, music by The Evening Guests, an indie/folk band formed by Icelandic songwriter Jókull Jönsson, and a dinner performance by jazz vocalist Anna Mjöll, singing in her native Icelandic language.
Members of the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation (SACHF), co-sponsors with CLU of the symposium, and of the Norsemen Sons of Norway Lodge of Thousand Oaks, were on hand to staff the registration table and to serve refreshments at coffee breaks.
Next year’s symposium will focus on Scandinavia during the Reformation, according to Howard K. Rockstad, founder and director of the series.
The Nordic Spirit Symposium is made possible by a grant from the Barbro Osher Pro-Sueciav Foundation. Osher is Consul General for Sweden in San Francisco, and is former owner and publisher of Vestkusten, a Swedish-American newspaper. Additional support comes from the Norway House Foundation, an organization dedicated to honoring the Norwegian seafarers who risked their lives for the Allied cause in World War II.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.