The Beaches of SnÃ¦fellsjÃ¶kull
A real-world location fit for filling out your adventure; where norse icelandic fishermen suffered unthinkable conditions throughout frigid winters to harvest the fruits of the ocean.
Iceland's medieval natives were hardy beyond comprehension. Lack of arable land made for difficult living, and they made do with lamb, cattle, and what little grain they could eke out of the soil. During the winter months they subsisted on the fruits of the ocean, which they would smoke, pickle, and salt for preservation. SnÃ¦fellsjÃ¶kull is a volcano on the western side of the island, near a set of ancient fishing settlements on the coastal lava where the hardiest of the hard launched their boats and landed their harvest.
Winter conditions in Iceland are harsh, and winter fishing is some of the most grueling work imaginable. Boats were launched on narrow rocky beaches between jagged coastal cliffs. Reaching them requires crossing the sharp, treacherous, and ice-covered volcanic rock. As a local fisherman that was merely the beginning of your worries.
The beaches are as majestic as they are deeply unsettling, the unforgiving landscape and deadly conditions reeking of evil spirits and dark tidings. Any normal adventurer would balk at the thought of spending a freezing night at the cliffs, let alone the entire winter fishing the frigid waters. The locals sleep in low stone hovels with covered roofs, packed like sardines among the drying fish for warmth and economy. The modern ruins blend into the bleak terrain, their low walls built from the abundant volcanic rock.
Only the hardiest served on the fishing vessels, and lifting stones were used to judge status. If you could heft the hÃ¡lfdrÃ¦ttingur 'weakling' stone (49kg, 107.8 lb) onto a hip-high ledge you were considered a man, and could help the fishermen on shore. The hÃ¡lfsterkur 'half-strength' (104kg, 228.8 lb) stone would get you a spot on a boat and a one-third share. Those who could lift the fullsterkur full-strength stone (155kg, 341lb) would receive a full share of fish.
Serving on a boat meant rowing into the wintry weather, working rope and casting nets to haul in all sorts of fish. Sharks and whales were hunted for their livers, which were used to make oil. Shark was considered a delicacy, but to catch one meant baiting hooks on long lines and dropping them deep into the icy depths. The work was punishing and the conditions were borderline unimaginable.
The fishermen wore wool gloves, but would soon get wet palms from handling the soggy ropes. The gloves had two thumbs so they could be rotated such that the soggy patch was at the back of their hands. Once that got too cold they would dip their hands into the icy water, letting the exterior freeze, and the wool would still provide some warmth.
After the fish was dried it was carried back to town. This meant trekking over the frozen lava fields, often in simple leather-wrapped footwear, bearing as much fish as you could physically carry back to civilization. The weather was notoriously uncooperative, with snow storms, high winds, and coastal moisture all stacked against you.
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? Responses (5)
An informative piece, especially with the lifting stones, and showing how hardy of a people the Icelanders are. That being said, it's a bit on the mundane side, as in somewhat lacking in the fantastic. It is a bleak and treacherous place, inhabited by stoic fishermen, where is the hook to reel a group of PCs to their shore?
Fair statement. I played a great campaign based on Norse invaders who raided our village and ended up capturing and bringing us PCs back to their homeland. Interacting with the culture and having to play as an outsider learning how to interact in the bizarre and unforgiving world was a fantastic experience. This post is a very small part of that larger world.
Great piece - man, 340 lbs? Wow. I echo Scras's comments, though I like all the details.
...Aaaaaaand that's where dudes like Halfthor Bjornsson come from. Great detail, from whence comes 'game value', but also what Scras said.
Well written and engaging read