In the black lava fields of Búðahraun on the westernmost tip of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is Búðakirkja, the black timber church, one of Iceland’s top attractions.
Along with the Hotel Búðir, the church is all that remains of Búðir, a once-prosperous port dating back to the earliest settlement of Iceland, one of the best places in the country to photograph aurora borealis. Magellan and I booked in for two nights and said yes to a wake-up knock if the northern lights were dancing.
One of only three black wooden churches in Iceland, Búðakirkja was built when Iceland was ruled by Denmark. In 1701, after a merchant named Bent Lauridtsen received a bishop’s permission to build a church in the area, an old woman suggested making a man spin in circles until he was dizzy, then have him shoot three arrows into the air and build the church where the third arrow landed. The small turf chapel stood until 1816 when the Danish King ordered it dismissed. By this time, the port and trading post for commercial ships and fishing vessels were abandoned.
Steinunn Svieinsdóttir, one of the parish ladies who cared for the church’s artifacts, fought strongly for a new house of worship. Eventually she received royal permission, but on the condition that it be fully financed and maintained by the residents of Búðir. A quote on the door ring says, “This church was built in 1848 without the support of the spiritual fathers.” Steinunn is buried in the church’s historic graveyard.
Renovations were made in 1951 and between 1984-86 the church was reconstructed according to its original Danish design and painted in black pitch for protection from the harsh weather.
Alone in a field of lava rock, the iconic wooden church seats fifty people. It has no heating; maybe parishioners keep warm by singing to the music from the church organ. Among its valuable possessions are a bell from 1672, an altarpiece from 1750, and an old silver chalice and two candlesticks from 1767. Magellan and I didn’t see inside because the church, now owned by the National Museum of Iceland, was bolted shut.
Even when we arrived on a Sunday afternoon in September, the small parking area near the church was full, cars overflowing onto the roadway between it and the hotel. One of the huge advantages of staying at the hotel is being there when the traffic has cleared and capturing a photo of the church in its stark, isolated glory.
The words of the famous Icelandic author, Sjón, seem most fitting for aurora swirling over a church:
In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanting play of colors they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering golden dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and there in their wild caperings.
The original Hotel Buđir, built in 1947, burned down twenty years ago but was completely rebuilt to resemble the old inn. With wooden floors and stairwells, antique prints and manor-house furnishings, its 28-room replacement has the feel of lived-in luxury. Our top-floor room was a bit pokey and the restaurant over-promised but photographing the aurora here was a highlight of our trip.
While the other hotel guests returned to their rooms after ten minutes of aurora-watching, Magellan and I ventured down the road to the church where we hung out from midnight until 2 am.
Most of the time we were alone except for a couple of serious photographers escaping a group of fifty aurora-chasers at a nearby waterfall.
How do you describe aurora, intensifying the velvet night sky with fluctuating swashes of colour?
Do you think the obsolete word selcouth works, used by Leah McLaren in her controversial new novel?
Selcouth (adj.): Unfamiliar, rare, strange, and yet marvelous. (Northern Lights). The feeling, the sound, the singing of the northern lights—a celestial mutter interspersed by static. The solar wind brushing up against the earth’s hemisphere, creating a natural radio signal. Babbling a gentle gibberish.
An old Icelandic saga telling the story of a pregnant woman named Sigridur and her husband Gunnar led to the myth that watching the aurora eases the pain of childbirth but there’s a caveat; the baby will be born cross-eyed. After two hours of watching cosmic light strobes and swizzles of emerald and magenta kaleidoscoping 130 kilometres above us, we were feeling a bit cross-eyed, too. Only to (luckily!) repeat this selcouth experience again the next night.
What is it about the alluring phenomena of aurora? Beckoning us to polar regions, drawing us out into nights of stars and shimmers, challenging us to create words and images that marvel at its beauty?
In the quest is the existential; in a haiku by Lize Bard may be the answer.
I am guided by
the northern lights in my mind
I have yet to see
McLaren, Leah. Where You End and I Begin: A Memoir. New York: Harper, 2022. Here’s the National Post’s account of the book’s controversy.
Sjón. Translated by Victoria Cribb. The Blue Fox: A Novel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. Sjón is a celebrated Icelandic novelist who won the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize (the equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) for this novel. The Whale was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Also a poet, librettist and lyricist, he frequently works with musicians and composers, including Björk. Sjón is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and former chairman of the board of Reykjavik, UNESCO city of Literature. His novels have been translated into thirty languages.
Svamber, Jan. “Aurora Myth from Iceland—Cross-Eyed Child.” Lumyros. October 20.