The Poetry of Insults

As Gunnlaug’s career showed, being a poet was one of the most honourable and highest status activities a medieval Icelander could partake in.  However, successful poets often turned their talent to less dignified demonstrations of their skill with words.  Perhaps the best example of this is Bjorn, the Champion of Hítardalur, a long valley a little further up the west coast from Borgarnes, and my next destination.

Looking east into Hítardalur

Looking east into Hítardalur

A lift from Borgarnes with a Swedish businessman/amateur orchestral conductor and his son left me standing in the rain at the beginning of the Hítardalur road.  The unpaved road works its way eastwards from the main road past three or four farms and a couple of holiday cottages, into a narrow valley flanked by steep scree-like mountains, and covered across much of its width by an ancient lava flow.  Twenty-one kilometres away at the top of the valley lies the lake of Hítarvatn, where Bjorn settled; I would need lifts to get all the way to the end and back to my rucksack lying behind a rock by the main road in one day.  I didn’t know that as I jogged the next fourteen kilometres to the end of the ‘good’ track only two vehicles would pass me (one going the wrong way), or with the rain pouring at regular intervals I might not even have attempted the journey to Bjorn’s farm of Hólmur.

Hítardalur, looking north over lava field (dark green).

Hítardalur, looking north over lava field (dark green).

After a number of daring exploits as a young man abroad, fighting a perilous duel in Russia, and slaying a dragon while serving on one of King Canute’s warships in England, Bjorn eventually settled on a farm in Hítardalur.  Although farming then occupied most of his time, Bjorn became engaged in an increasingly slanderous dispute with another local poet, Thord.  Much like in Gunnlaug’s saga, this other poet had deceived Bjorn’s fiancée and her family, convincing them that Bjorn was dead, and had married the girl himself.  Thord invited Bjorn to spend his first winter with them to try and patch things up, but then lost his temper when Bjorn spent much of his time talking with Thord’s wife, Oddny.  He composed a verse bragging of his theft of Oddny from Bjorn:

From Bjorn – Bjorn will remember –
the bracelet-Grund, proud lady,
from the hands of Hitardal’s
hero has slipped now.
Fate has deemed me for a wife
the fir-tree with her headband;
that rogue won’t win the slender
woman – the gain is mine.

And with that the medieval equivalent of a rap battle began.  Bjorn quickly came up with three verses about an earlier encounter on an island off the Danish coast, where Thord had tried unsuccessfully to hide from Bjorn in a bush, including this one:

I think vengeance has been done
for making the brooch-bed your bride.
Your honour now only
ebbs, Thord, and dwindles
since by a bridge you grovelled
in Branno islands, to dodge me,
under a bank, dishonoured,
on Oddaeyri, you braggart.

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Things didn’t improve, and when Bjorn left Thord’s farm the following spring their relationship was worse than ever.  Some time later word got around that Thord had been bitten on the thigh by a seal he was trying to kill, and because he had attempted to keep the embarrassing wound a secret, it had become infected and forced Thord to his bed.  Bjorn composed a verse about this, which became popular in the area:

The wealth-warder lies wounded,
wise men here have heard it;
scratched by a seal, the pallid
suet-gobbler’s injured.
When waves come rushing roughly
on rocks – like a pebble
the sluggard goes skimming
smartly over the mudflats.

Not long after this Bjorn visited his cattle one night with a farmhand, who tripped over a new-born calf in the dark, and then refused to lift it up into the stall.  Bjorn shrugged his shoulders and did the job himself, which would have been fine if the farmhand hadn’t then told his friends how Bjorn had performed this menial job when he himself had refused to do it.  The story became known in the district, and came back to Bjorn from Thord in this form:

Why must you, O mighty
mud-dweller, keep casting
(though a seal has scratched me)
scorn on my wounding?
You’ll be sorry, soldier
at sight of shield shaking,
you clutched a twisted calf beneath
a cow’s tail, dung-encrusted.

Hítardalur, looking west.

Hítardalur, looking west.

Bjorn took Thord to court for this verse and forced him to pay compensation, after which things were quiet for a while.  Not for too long, however, for the saga continues with masterly understatement:

It is further related that something appeared on Thord’s harbour mark which hardly seemed a token of friendship.  It represented two men, one of them with a black hat on his head.  They were standing bent over, one facing the other’s back.  It seemed to be an indecent encounter, and people said that the position of neither standing figure was good, and yet that of the one in front was worse.  Then Bjorn spoke a verse: 

Here stand the helmsmen
of harbour landing-places,


suited is the stalwart
spear-pointer for this work.
The weapon-wielder’s anger
weighs on Thord foremost.

The missing lines may have been even more indecent than the rest of the verse, for at some early point in the passing down of the saga they disappeared!  This time Bjorn had to pay compensation, but Thord still felt aggrieved, and much of the rest of the saga describes his various attempts to catch Bjorn unprepared and kill him.  There are still comic moments, such as the inclusion of three verses from a poem Bjorn composed.  In it he suggested that Thord’s mother had become pregnant with Thord as a result of eating a washed-up lumpsucker fish:

A fish came to land
with the flood on the sand,
a lump-sucker seeming,
slimy flesh gleaming.
She-wolf of the gown
gulped grey-belly down,
poisoned; you’ll see
bad things in the sea.

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A final attempt was made to reconcile the two rivals, but just as a peaceful settlement seemed to be within their grasp, Thord insisted on composing one final verse to even the score:

Boldly Bjorn each morning
brews some scheme for evil,
the dolt, jaws dropping, always
dazed by every slander;
and the white-talking windbag,
wide of arse and loathsome,
stripped of sense and reason,
stays a useless loser.

Needless to say, the settlement was abandoned.

Hítardalur, looking east towards Hólmur.

Hítardalur, looking east towards Hólmur.

Meanwhile I had arrived at the end of the regular track, beyond the last farm, with my rucksack already fourteen kilometres away back down the road, and no probability of a lift back to it.  It was clear that I was not going to make it the extra seven kilometres to the abandoned farm Hólmur and the lake Hítarvatn, so I contented myself with climbing a steep scree-sided hill beside the road there and surveying the rest of the valley from there.  I couldn’t quite see to where Bjorn lived, or to the hill pasture where Thord and a large gang of his friends eventually caught Bjorn, armed only with a pair of shears, and killed him.  But I had no doubt I was looking over the land he farmed, the path he took when he rode around the district, and a valley that once rang with the laughter of his household and neighbours when he took his place by the fire and spoke his verses.

Hítardalur in an almost sunny moment.

Hítardalur in an almost sunny moment, looking east towards Hólmur.

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4 comments on “The Poetry of Insults

  1. Gamlefar says:

    Wonderful. We need some brave poets around here as well; looks like you could be a candidate. All you need is an enemy.
    Keep at it Wills!
    Jan

  2. Ruth says:

    Oh dear – all that brash poetry full of confidence, humour and life set against the poignancy of an ignoble murder. I feel you were really there seeing it all unfolding.

  3. Rob Anderson says:

    William, another interesting bit of Icelandic history. Sorry you didn’t make it all the way up the valley.

  4. Entertaining, informative and as fascinating as always.

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