The Practice of Drowning Women: The Dark Side of Icelandic History at Þingvellir

If you’ve done any research about Iceland you would no doubt have heard of “the Golden Circle”. It’s a must not miss destination for all tourists that is close to Reykjavik, the capital of this nation. Our course of action here in this great northern island nation has been to leave the Golden Circle for last, as much of my research told me to do just that. Now, perhaps the most famous sight of all on the Golden Circle is Thingvellir (Þingvellir), which is a national park located at the site where parliamentary sessions (Althing) were held many many centuries ago, and incidentally where many women were drowned presumably for crimes or errors that they had committed. Excuse me? Did I just say that? Women were drowned? That sounds hideous, for I have a great fear of drowning. I can’t even begin to imagine what offenses would warrant such a cruel death!

We arrive at Þingvellir after a day of free entertainment  (  and we decide to blow our budget buying ice cream cones. Kind of a funny thing happens at this little shop……a couple sitting next to us is making out so intently that it is actually quite funny…..close your eyes kids…..I decide to ramp it up a bit and start making loud smooching noises as I pretend to make out with my husband. The couple doesn’t notice….or maybe they do but just ignore us and keep on proving their infatuation for one another at the table next to us. 

I am not sure if Tristan thinks my simulated smooching noises are that hilarious, but Jasmine gets a chuckle. 

The first order of business, after pigging out on ice cream, is finding a place to camp. There is a campground right next to the shop where we bought the ice cream from, but it looks boring and uninspiring, and it’s filling up with campers. I know I am making a big deal about our camping spot, but it’s very relevant to my story. We venture out to find a better place….more serene and quiet and private….

On our drive into Þingvellir from northwestern Iceland I had seen a couple spots that seemed conducive for tent camping, and so we head on over to explore. One such spot is literally just around the corner, so we go to check it out. 

The place that we find has some strange rock formations that pique my curiosity. 

Rock formations at Thingvellir National Park, Iceland UNESCO
We clambor up the steep hill beside our potential camping spot and end up in this strange canyon. Now, diehard Game of Thrones movie fans might recognize this place from the movie, for as I have come to find out this is the very location of filming for one of the episodes. 

This path upon which our feet wander is where the Eurasian Plate and North American plates converge. This is known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. So on the left you see the rock formations that are part of the European continent, and on the right is the North American continent. Amazing! 
Thingvellir National Park Iceland

As I am walking along I suddenly feel as though a strange force is beckoning me. Now perhaps it’s because we don’t have much time and I want to explore, or perhaps it’s because this inexplicable force is pulling me…..I break into a run with nary a word to David, who is left wondering what on earth I am doing. 

I am running as fast as I can, the wind whipping through my hair, my feet surprisingly light. I wonder to myself why I am running. I know I should stop and tell my husband where I am off to, but I can’t seem to stop…and I don’t know where I am going…and I most certainly don’t know why I am running. 

I disappear around the corner. 

I run until I come upon a river. It’s a strange river. It flows through the canyon here, and then makes a sharp u-turn and doubles back on itself. I stop to take in the sight, and soon David appears at my side. 

“Why did you take off running,” he asks?

I have no explanation. 

“I don’t know. Something strange happened. I just started running for some reason! I knew I needed to stop, but couldn’t until I got here,” I reply. 

David shrugs his shoulders. We watch the water flow around the tight bend for a few minutes and then we walk back hand in hand together from whence we came.  

Thingvellir National Park Iceland
When we descend from the ridge we decide that this is indeed where we will camp. Perhaps this is the best camping spot of this entire trip. It’s just us here, right next to this incredible mid-Atlantic Ridge and canyon where the Eurasian plates meet the North American plates. It’s kind of spooky in it’s own right. Should there be an earthquake tonight, and the plates split apart, we will be swallowed up whole by the ground. Tonight is our sixth and final night of tent camping in Iceland. 

We unload the car, and much to my dismay the air mattresses are again covered in a film of dust. You may remember we are towing a small trailer, which obviously is a joke because the dust off the road goes right into the trailer!  What company would rent you a trailer that allows road dust to cover all your belongings? 

I get the kids to work setting up camp. It’s getting late and we want to go explore Þingvellir National Park yet before it gets dark tonight. 

We thought we were going to have our own private little oasis here on the convergence of the tectonic plates, but two young backpacking men would have it otherwise. They set up camp just behind the bushes from us. I guess in a way it is comforting to have neighbors in this spooky place. 

Before long the neighbors are at our campground wondering if we have any fuel so they can cook supper. Well, you can’t leave two handsome young men starving to death on the edge of creation, so I offer them my gas and burner so they can get a hot meal, full well knowing that we will run out of fuel ourselves and not have enough for cooking our breakfast. I hope the ice cream shop is still open, for I saw some fuel for sale in there. 

We stop at the little shop long enough to pick up a little fuel can for a ridiculous sum of money, and then head on over to the Þingvellir National Park just a stone’s throw away from our campsite….where the first known parliament was held each year starting from 930 AD. This is one of the most visited sites in all of Iceland, and is part of what is known as the “Golden Circle” that literally thousands of tourists peruse each year. 

When we arrive it’s sufficiently late that the visitor center is not open, but that doesn’t stop us. We are delighted that the tourists are all gone away. Only a handful of people are taking in the sights at this UNESCO World Heritage site. 

We don’t get very far when we find the Þingvellir Drekkingarhylur “drowning pool”. Yes, you read that right!!  Apparently at one point in a dark Icelandic historical era this pool was used during the annual parliamentary sessions to drown errant women. They would place a sack over the offending woman’s head and tie a rope about her waist. Then she would be dragged across the water at this pool, held under by a long pole, her life extinguished by drowning in its icy waters. Eighteen women met this horrific fate here between the years  1618 – 1749. 

This can’t be for real! How is this okay?
Þingvellir Drekkingarhylur drowning pool Iceland UNESCO
I look at the list of 18 names. Helga. Katrin. Margret. Gudridur. Who are these women? Katrin….such a beautiful name. Who was she? Was she tall and strong and beautiful? Was she sensible and compassionate and kind and caring…..? I want to think she was. Who knows. Maybe she was evil and mean and horrific. But surely she didn’t deserve to be dragged across this pool inside of a sack. 

How her heart must have beat mercilessly in her chest when they placed the sack over her head and tied the rope upon her. Did she resist when the rope pulled her into the water? Did she cry out for mercy? Did she ask for spiritual help and pray for release from bondage? Did she have children or a husband? Was her family here to witness her fate? When the cold water enveloped her did she scream, only to have all sounds extinguished when she submerged under the water? 

What of the heart and soul’s condition of the man pulling the rope, and the one wielding the long pole? Did he have misgivings for his deeds? Did he have remorse when he saw the fear in the beautiful woman’s eyes? Or when he felt her stiffen up and resist? Or when he heard her scream and beg for mercy? Who and what is a man who can perpetrate such atrocities against a woman? Men….those who should be protectors of women….

Did he delight when he heard her splash into the water, and saw her sink beneath the surface?  Did he have a sense of satisfaction when she stopped moving, succumbing to her watery death of suffocation?

I feel a chill go down my spine as I read the plaque that explains the happenings of this place. What horrific things must a woman have done to deserve such a fate? Adultry? Fornication? Infanticide? Perhaps these are words that many people today don’t even know what they mean. 

Þingvellir Drekkingarhylur drowning pool Iceland UNESCO

Now you may have heard the saying that “history repeats itself”. I find myself wondering if this type of barbaric punishment for sins, real or imagined, could be culturally acceptable in the future. Much to my distress I realize that indeed there are many parts of the world where barbaric punishments are wrought upon people for what would seem like minor infractions, perhaps even just for being the wrong religion or ethnicity or gender. Why? Why is humanity this way? Why can there not be forgiveness for mistakes and wrongdoings, such that the offended would have mercy upon the doer of misdeeds should they have remorse in their hearts? 

My heart is heavy as we continue along the path. As I walk away from the “drowning pool” I feel as though a kindred soul is begging me not to leave, begging me to ask the punishers to forgive her and all generations to follow. Alas, there is not much I can do, for I am just a lone weak voice in a vast world of injustice. 

I realize now that Katrin’s death, and that of the other women, was not in vain here at the drowning pool. She is very much alive this many years later, telling her story right here….a story of death….of a life extinguished prematurely…..of a life extinguished in such a barbaric manner that makes my heart ache for humanity and my breath catch in the back of my throat hundreds of years after her death. 

We continue on down the pathway. Apparently the Icelandic people set up camps in these fields here during the annual meeting of parliament (Althing). This is where laws were made and rules established, where young men and women came to meet their life partners, where entertainers and sellers of wares converged for centuries. 
Thingvellir National Park Iceland UNESCOÞingvellir National Park Iceland UNESCO

We walk along the path that is built upon the split between two continents. The drowning pool is just behind us, and our camping spot maybe less than 1 km from there. I think during the day this walkway is probably pretty crowded. 

Þingvellir National Park Iceland UNESCO

There must be something interesting under the walkway. 

Þingvellir National Park Iceland UNESCO

From the top of the walkway we have great views of Þingvallavatn, which is the largest natural lake in Iceland. 

Þingvallavatn Lake at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCO

Across the way we can see the summer residence of the president of Iceland, and a delightful little church…..where presumably one can receive absolution for sins…..or at least advice for how to seek pardon….

Þingvellir National Park Iceland UNESCOÞingvallavatn Lake at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCO

This photo shows how high the cliffs are here in this rift between the Eurasian continent and North American continent. Amazing. 

Þingvellir National Park Iceland UNESCOIceland President's Summer Residence at Thingvellir

We explore the beautiful little church. 

Þingvallakirkja Church at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCO

It is closed, but we peer in the windows of the empty church….and we can see clear out to the other side….

Þingvallakirkja Church at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCOÞingvallakirkja Church at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCOÞingvallakirkja Church at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCO

As we head back to our car we find the Öxarárfoss waterfall. It’s beautiful and serene…and ominous….for it feeds the pool within which the women were drowned….all 18 of them…..

I watch in silence as the water thunders mightily over the precipice. I know where this water is coming from. It’s coming from that river that I ran to earlier near our camping spot, the one that had somehow magically made me run towards it…..that somehow had called me to its shores…..that made that strange 180 degree bend in the canyon yonder……that’s the water that is thundering over this precipice….that fills the drowning pool…..where Katrin and Margret, and Helga and so many other women lost their lives…..for what atrocities I likely will never know. It’s a solemn moment. 

Öxarárfoss waterfall at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCOÖxarárfoss waterfall at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCO

I feel inundated by feelings of sorrow. I must shake this off. I send David and the kids to the water’s edge for some great fun shots. How I love them! And how precious are these moments in my life that I can share with them in this mystical place! I find myself wondering if I had been one of those 18 women drowned here, if my beautiful family would have wept bitterly as my body plunged into the icy water and my limbs stopped moving as the water filled my lungs. 

Öxarárfoss waterfall at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCOÖxarárfoss waterfall at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCO

My eyes follow the path of the Öxará River as it rushes water drop by drop to the drowning pool downstream. 

Öxará River at Thingvellir, Iceland UNESCO

We return to our car, but before we head back to our campsite we stop at a place called Silfra. Now snorkeling here was on my to-do list for Iceland, but is so cost prohibitive that we have decided to skip it. This is a crevasse between the continental plates where you can go snorkeling or scuba diving. The water is freezing cold and apparently there are no tropical fish or anything to see (duh), but the experience is supposed to be super amazing. I just can’t fathom dropping $700+ for an hour of snorkeling with our crew. We are here just to check it out. 

Silfra at Thingvellir National Park Iceland UNESCOSilfra at Thingvellir National Park Iceland UNESCOSilfra at Thingvellir National Park Iceland UNESCO

Once we are back at the campsite Jasmine and Tristan make dinner. Fish….and rice….it’s delicious……

It’s nearly midnight when we crawl into our little tent. David lies next to me quietly as we settle in, and soon his breaths become deeper and slower….he is fast asleep. I think I fall asleep for a little while, too. It’s an uneasy sleep, and soon I awaken with a start. My heart is beating wildly in my chest. I feel a chill descend upon me. I roll over and snuggle my head into David’s shoulder. 

“David,” I whisper, “I’m scared.” 

He does not reply, his breathing remains even and deep. 

I lay motionless and silent. My thoughts are drawn to the woman standing next to the drowning pond. Her golden locks are tied back into a braid, and her eyes are as dark blue as the pool before her, wide open and etched with fear. She is young ….maybe mid 20’s. Her strong frame stands proud and straight, as though to muster courage in the midst of this horrible affair. It’s as though I can hear the woman’s muffled screams from behind the crude sack that was just placed upon her head. I can almost feel the rope tightening about her waist, cutting sharply into her skin when the executioner across the pond tugs. I can see her body jerk forward when the slack in the rope tightens. She braces herself and screams again. It’s a prayer….a cry for help….a cry for mercy and compassion….a cry for forgiveness….

Are there none here who would forgive her for her sins, whatever they may be? Are there none who would have mercy upon this wretched woman? Can they not hear her pleading? I look all around me at the stern faces, but not a single person dares to resist the executioners. 

It’s all I can do to resist as I step briskly forward and call out to the woman, “I would forgive you all your transgressions….whatever they are….I don’t know what they are! I don’t care what they are! Surely you don’t deserve this hideous death!” My body is wracked by a thousand shudders at once, and I convulse vigorously. 

I can see her cloth covered head turn towards my voice. I wave frantically, but then realize that she cannot see me. Her golden locks are sticking out in an unruly fashion beneath the crude cloth that covers her head. Surely as a woman she would have wanted her hair to be neat and tidy at this moment, but the executioners don’t care. 

The executioner acts swiftly. With a sharp jerk the woman lunges forward, falling into the water with a surprisingly small splash. And then all is silent. Drowning is silent. Her arms and legs flail and thrash under the surface. With a swift kick she begins to surface, but within seconds the man who placed the sack upon her head and the rope about her waist….he reaches for a long pole and deftly thrusts it into her back….he pushes down hard and the woman goes down….down….down…..into the depths of the water. 

It’s as though I can feel the pole pressing into my own back as I lay still next to my husband. The pain is there, right in the same spot where the woman was struck. I feel my back tighten and the hair on my neck bristle. A cold sweat breaks out suddenly and I shiver uncontrollably. My breath catches and my lungs are starving for oxygen. I gasp. Is it true, is it me who is under the water, drowning helplessly with a pole jammed into my back? Am I the sinful woman? I stifle a scream. My heart is pounding mercilessly, threatening to pop right through my chest wall. 

I feel David move beside me and his breathing eases. He is awake. The wind has picked up and is pulling at the tent fabric, straining and flapping for a moment. He reaches towards me and draws me close. “Kaija….” he mutters.

“David,” I reply, “I am so scared! Those poor women!”

I don’t need to explain to him what women I am referencing. He knows of whom I speak. His heart has been troubled, too. 

“I know! It’s so sad,” he murmurs half asleep, “Don’t be afraid.”

He draws me tighter yet. I cling to him, seeking reassurance and comfort from his strength. I allow his familiar scent to fill my nostrils and bring me comfort and relief, the terrifying experience fading away from my consciousness. Perhaps it was just a dream, but one can’t be too sure in this perplexing land of mystique and mystery. 

I must have fallen asleep again for I awaken to my phone alarm. We rise to a cloudy day. 

The kids are packing up their own camping gear. FYI: If you’ve ever considered tent camping on road trips with kids you have to teach them to help with their own gear. Otherwise you will hate your life. 

Camping at Thingvellir National Park Iceland UNESCO

I cook up one last breakfast on our Iceland camping trip. As usual, the very dear father of my children is joking with the kids. 

As I finish cleaning up camp the kids run up onto the ridge, the one that separates Europe from North America. Up and down they go. Luckily no earthquake occurred last night to swallow us up whole. 

Who knows….maybe during the kids’ lifetime this fault line will shift and the continental plates will bump and grind…and they will remember how many years ago they had slept right here in a tent….oblivious to the rift beneath them…..oblivious to the distraught woman I had seen in my sleep….oblivious to all the problems of this world….the injustices…..the cruelty…..the inhumanity of humanity….. the lack of grace and forgiveness…..the void that fills the hearts of many mankind……

Upon such a day, if it should arrive, my hope is that their hearts would be quick to forgive, slow to punish, and full of love for all of the human family. 

When the car is packed I call up to the kids on the ridge to let them know that we are leaving. They race down the hill, invigorated…..their cheeks aglow, their eyes bright, their steps light, their hearts joyful…..

….and eager….they are eager to love me, eager to explore, eager to learn….eager to forgive their faulty mother…..

They hop into the car with energy only a child can exhibit, and we are off to drive around the Golden Circle.