To the Holy Mountain

It seemed appropriate, with the depiction of women in the sagas fresh in my mind, to be heading towards Helgafell, the ‘Holy Mountain’.  An important site from the first years of the settlement of Iceland, Helgafell was at different times the home of two key figures in the family sagas: Snorri the Godi, and Gudrun Osvifsdottir.  Gudrun is remarkable for being, arguably, the only woman with the leading role in a saga, the epic Saga of the People of Laxardal.  This, one of the best and best-known of all the sagas will have a blog post to itself when I get to Laxárdalur, but Helgafell is a good place to consider Gudrun herself, as it is where she spent the second half of her life, where she died, and where her tomb stone is still visible and visited.

Gudrun's grave, Helgafell

Gudrun’s grave, Helgafell

But it is a long and winding road from the end of Snaefellsnes Peninsula to Stykkishólmur, where Helgafell stands, through a landscape full of stories.  Here is the site of a terribly haunted farm, further along a witch’s farm, above the road there a cliff two slaves ran off in a panic; there are too many to tell here and now, but it is perhaps worth giving a short version of one of these stories.  It concerns Helgafell’s most famous resident, Snorri the Godi, in a well-known story that is intrinsically linked to the landscape of northern Snaefellsnes.

Búlandshöfði, off which the unfortunate slaves ran.

Búlandshöfði, off which the unfortunate slaves ran.

Kolgrafafjörður

Kolgrafafjörður

Hraunsfjörður

Hraunsfjörður

As you draw closer to Helgafell, travelling from the west, you come upon a great sea of lava, a wall of ancient moss-covered rock, frozen into a maze of sharp points and jagged edges.  The modern road passes right over it, but an older track follows the southern edge of the lava across grassy meadows, and I, still with my friend from the previous day, followed this route.  From this angle the full depth of the lava flow can be seen, over six metres in places, and one can appreciate just what an obstacle it must have presented to the Viking farmers who lived along its edges.

Southern edge of Berserkjahraun, 'Berserk's Lava'

Southern edge of Berserkjahraun, ‘Berserk’s Lava’

One of these was the farmer Styr, who had in his household two berserks, a valuable asset, but violent and difficult men to control.  One of them took a liking to the farmer’s daughter, and asked Styr to marry her to him.  In addition to the berserk’s difficult nature, he had no property or other assets, so Styr was naturally unwilling to agree to this, but afraid to reject the request outright.  He went to Helgafell to ask the advice of the chieftain Snorri, who lived there at the time.  Snorri was known for his cunning and good advice, and the two of them went up onto the hill beside the farm and talked for some time.

Berserkjahraun

Berserkjahraun

When Styr returned home he told the berserk he could marry his daughter, but since he had no possessions to bring to the marriage he would have to pay in advance by performing certain tasks for Styr.  Amongst other things, he and his brother were to clear a path across the lava field, a task ordinary men could not accomplish with years of labour.  But the brothers set to, going into one of their famous berserk fits, and worked furiously until the path was cleared.  Meanwhile Styr had an underground steam bath constructed by his farm, and when the berserks returned, utterly exhausted now that the berserk fit had passed, he invited them to relax with a steam bath.  When they had gone down into the chamber, already prepared with extremely hot rocks to create steam, Styr barricaded the door and laid out a slippery cowskin on the steps outside.  Then he had large quantities of water poured in onto the hot rocks through an opening at the top, creating a choking quantity of steam.  The berserks realised something was wrong and charged at the door.  Even in their weakened state they were able to force the door, but Styr, quite a warrior himself, was waiting with his spear.  The first berserk slipped on the cowskin, and Styr speared him through, before finishing off the second berserk over his brother’s body.

'Road' over Berserkjahraun lava field

‘Road’ over Berserkjahraun lava field

This was cause for celebration all round, especially for Snorri, who then married Styr’s daughter himself.  Reading it today, however, one cannot help feeling rather sorry for the berserks who were deceived and murdered so callously.  Berserks occupy a curious place in Viking society, and in the saga literature.  Prized possessions, they were a valuable asset to any powerful chieftain’s entourage, provided he had the means to provide for them, and plenty of violent business to occupy them.  But they were also despised and distrusted, and as in this story, not really treated as humans at all.  In the sagas berserks are the main category of Viking that regularly abduct women, and many of the heroes of the sagas prove themselves by challenging and defeating berserks in this kind of situation.

So berserks are often used as a literary device, but there may be more truth to this particular story.  The path the berserks made through the lava is still supposed to be visible, and excavations beside it revealed the skeletons of two unusually large men in a deep grave…

South of Helgafell

South of Helgafell

After leaving the lava it is a short drive to Helgafell, just outside Stykkishólmur.  A little church sits beside the small hill that is the ‘holy mountain’, and just outside the church wall is the gravestone of Gudrun Osvifsdottir.  Gudrun was born and grew up at Laugar, at the north-eastern end of the fjord which runs inland from Helgafell, and she was widely regarded as the most beautiful and intelligent woman in Iceland.  She was witty and astute, and good with people; today she would probably have become president or prime minister of Iceland.  In the tenth century it meant only that she had the pick of the young men, and she became engaged to an outstanding young man from the same region, Kjartan Olafsson.

Helgafell, looking south.

Helgafell, looking south.

However, as so often happens in the sagas, Kjartan went abroad to seek his fortune and make his name, and failed to return after the three years agreed for their engagement.  Instead Gudrun was persuaded by her father and brothers to marry Kjartan’s best friend and foster-brother, Bolli, who told her that Kjartan had become involved with a Norwegian princess and was unlikely to return to Iceland.  Gudrun and Bolli were married the same night Kjartan finally returned home, and the predictable fall out was a lot of bad blood, and a good deal of spilt blood.  The saga lays much of the blame for this at Gudrun’s feet, for it was her anger and dismay at being tricked out of marrying the man she loved that led to the breakdown in relations between the families.  Undoubtedly, she was largely responsible for the deaths of Kjartan and, therefore, Bolli, who was killed in revenge for Kjartan’s death.  But I find it hard not to think that it was those who created the situation in the first place that bear the prime responsibility, Kjartan and Bolli themselves.  However, the local people did not think so, and Gudrun made a timely land swap with Snorri, escaping from her outraged neighbours to Helgafell, where she lived for the remainder of her life.

Guðrún Ósvífursd Helgafell 1008

Guðrún Ósvífursd
Helgafell
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From Gudrun’s grave a path winds its way up Helgafell, a little steep-sided crag that stands out in the flattish landscape of the little peninsula from which it rises.  Standing by the ruins of an old chapel on the summit, the views in every direction are excellent.  In three directions wide fjords stretch almost as far as the eye can see, broken by a myriad of tiny islands, while to the south the brightly coloured mountainous landscape of Snaefellsnes lines the horizon.  But I had eyes only for the fjords; I was finished with Snaefellsnes for now, and already anticipating the next morning’s ferry journey that would take me across to the remote Westfjords.

Looking east from Helgafell over Hvammsfjörður

Looking east from Helgafell over Hvammsfjörður

Basalt cliff at Stykkishólmur harbour

Basalt cliff at Stykkishólmur harbour

 

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Snaefellsnes

I was travelling out along the peninsula of Snaefellsnes with a friendly Icelander who had picked me up, wet and dirty after my trek around Hítardalur, and particularly my second river crossing, which had soaked me to above the waist.  After reassuring me cheerfully that the car belonged to his son, ‘an expert at cleaning cars’, Elías took care to point out and stop at many of the stunning natural features along our route.  When he learned that I was planning to camp that night, he even invited me to stay with him in the holiday cottage he had booked from his worker’s union.  I gratefully accepted, and with my night’s accomodation sorted settled down to enjoy the scenery.

Eldborg - the extinct volcano of 'Fire Fortress'

Eldborg – the extinct volcano of ‘Fire Fortress’

Mineral rich and naturally sparkling spring at Ölkelda

Mineral rich and naturally sparkling spring at Ölkelda

Volcanic rock in the sand dunes at Búðir

Volcanic rock in the sand dunes at Búðir

As you travel west along the Snaefellsnes peninsula the landscape seems to become greener and undefinably richer and more vigorous in life.  Perhaps the soil is better on this long arm of land that stretches out into the sea; perhaps the sea makes the climate slightly milder.  The medieval Icelanders had their own tradition about Snaefellsnes that might explain the phenomenon.  According to Bard’s saga, one of the settlers in that area was Bard, who was part human, part giant, and part troll.  As he grew older he became increasingly retiring, and in the end Bard moved away from other men altogether, and went to live on the glacier on the summit of Snaefell.  He became a guardian spirit of sorts, exerting his benign influence over the landscape, and appearing when his friends or relatives were in trouble.

Waterfall on Snaefellsnes

Waterfall on Snaefellsnes

We stopped to buy fresh mackerel from the fishing boats in the harbour at Arnarstapi, where Bard had his farm before he disappeared, and where he is celebrated in a larger than life stone statue:

Bard at Arnarstapi

Bard at Arnarstapi

Arnarstapi - a paradise for seabirds

Arnarstapi – a paradise for seabirds

We were staying in the next village, and as the next morning was a Saturday, and Elías was on holiday, he offered to help me explore the peninsula.  We started just outside the village we had stayed in, Hellnar, where a small lake in a remarkable hidden crater is known to have been Bard’s bathing spot of choice.  In fact the lake was once naturally heated, and though not hot, was warm, or at least lukewarm, so there is almost certainly some truth in the story of the lake’s historic use.

Bard's bathing spot of choice

Bard’s bath

A short distance further along the road is the site of the farm Laugarbrekka where Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir was born in the tenth century, famed for being the most widely travelled Icelandic woman until the twentieth century.  This extraordinary claim to fame was achieved partly due to her participation in one of the Vínland expeditions, when a group of intrepid Icelanders set up a settlement in North America.  Her place in the history books was assured when in later life she made a pilgrimage to Rome.

Laugarbrekka

Laugarbrekka

It all sounds very egalitarian, and indeed, Viking society is often celebrated for its progressive attitude to women, who kept ownership of their property in a marriage, ruled for all practical purposes their household, and could even demand a divorce, provided the discontented wife had some male relatives to handle the legal and physical business of recovering her property.  And there are only a couple of instances of physical violence towards women (except witches, naturally) in all the forty odd family sagas.  But it is too easy, especially for a Viking enthusiast, to idealise this, and to forget that for women many of the practicalities and attitudes in daily life were, well… medieval.

Lónbjörg, western end of Snaefellsnes

Lónbjörg, western end of Snaefellsnes

Bard’s saga provides some excellent examples of this inequality, largely through the story of Bard’s daughter, Helga.  When Helga was young, perhaps in her early teens, she was playing a competitive game with her sisters and cousins, and became stranded on an ice floe that blew out to sea.  Miraculously it carried her to Greenland, where Eirik the Red had recently established a settlement.  Her life was saved, but the extraordinary way in which she had arrived in Greenland and her unusual strength, equal to that of a man in everything, prevented her full acceptance into the community there.  Some of the men called her ‘troll’ (and to be sure, according to her ancestry given in the saga she did have troll blood in her, but that is not the point!), and she longed to return to Snaefellsnes.  But when she did finally return to Iceland her father took her away from the man she loved, and she was left to travel the country alone.  Her experiences meant she had difficulty sleeping, hid her identity, and always distrusted men.  At one farm a fellow traveller, a Norwegian, tried to take advantage of her, and was left with a broken arm and leg – but it was Helga who slipped away in embarrassment soon afterwards.

Kirkufell in Grundarfjörður

Kirkjufell in Grundarfjörður

Bard himself was no angel in his treatment of women.  On one of his returns to the human world he spent the winter with a family and seduced the fifteen-year-old daughter.  Soon after he left the following summer she gave birth, and from then on the girl’s father more-or-less ignored her, as if he had not facilitated the whole situation.  Not the egalitarian society we occasionally like to imagine!  As always, we can rely on the sagas to combine fantasy with gritty reality and a truly human element in their accounts of medieval life.  And to be fair to the Vikings, I’m not sure we’ve come so very much further in these matters than they did – except perhaps in Iceland itself.

Waterfall at Grundarfjörður, northern Snaefellsnes

Waterfall at Grundarfjörður, northern Snaefellsnes

Besides, nobody wants too much reality in stories, so it is not surprising that Bard is primarily remembered as a benevolent father figure who always appeared when needed, the guardian spirit of the Snaefell glacier.  And even just passing by, one does sense some kind of supernatural power emanating from the almost always cloud-covered glacier peak of the mountain.  Perhaps it is just the magic of the bleak but enchanting landscape that surrounds the mountain.

Grundarfjörður

Grundarfjörður, looking west in direction of the glacier

Grettir’s Cave

I had come as close as I could to the world in which Bjorn lived, but my work in Hítardalur was not yet over.  For Hítardalur is also the setting for a number of stories about one of the best-loved Icelandic heroes of them all, Grettir ‘the Strong’ Asmundarson.  Having accidentally burnt to the ground a house full of people after being shipwrecked in Norway, Grettir spent much of his life as an outlaw, roaming the mountains of his native Iceland.  He was exceedingly tough, and the strongest man in Iceland at the time, and yet he had a curiously human failing: he was afraid of the dark, and as a result hated being on his own.  On several occasions Grettir’s desperation for human company while living up on the moors led him to offer the shelter of his little hut to strangers who then tried to kill him, an occupational hazard of being an outlaw.  However, Grettir’s desire for company also resulted in some more cheerful stories, as when he came to visit Bjorn here in Hítardalur.

Although Bjorn recognised Grettir’s worth as a man, he did not want to actually take the outlaw into his household, which would have jeopardised his own safety and position.  Instead he directed Grettir to a cave in the mountain at the western end of the valley which was fairly safe from attack, well positioned to rob travellers on the road below, and close enough that Bjorn could provide assistance should Grettir get into any serious trouble.  The two soon became good friends, and spent a good deal of time competing with each other in various trials of strength and endurance, including a several kilometre swim down the river Hítará to the sea.

The upper Hítará river, flowing out of Hítardalur

The upper Hítará river, flowing out of Hítardalur

The river is generally regarded as being too shallow for such a feat to be possible, and probably at its upper end it is too shallow.  However, my route as I left the little-trod for the un-trod path involved fording the river twice.  The water first came up to my knees, and then further downstream perilously high up my thighs – the force of the river at that seemingly mild depth was a good lesson in when not to ford rivers!  I could well imagine Bjorn and Grettir swimming their way down the river, particularly in a spring flood, and provided that the heroes wouldn’t mind a few knocks on the occasional large rock.

Hítará and Fagraskógarfjall

Hítará and Fagraskógarfjall

Across the river the mountain of Fagraskógarfjall rose before me, apparently riddled with caves, any one of which could have been Grettir’s.  I set off up the mountainside towards one of the more promising blocks of shadow, walking through lush grass, past grazing sheep, scrambling up the loose scree and eventually climbing hand and foot up solid rock.  Only to be met by a sheer rock face and a trickling waterfall – no cave here.  The loose rocks in the scree did, however, offer a few consolatory treasures:

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Treasure in the scree

Treasure in the scree

I enjoyed the whimsical notion that the last person to have this obscure view over Hítardalur may have been Grettir himself.  Indeed, perhaps the sheep grazing below me were direct descendants of the sheep Grettir carried off from the surrounding area when he lived here – though as part of Grettir’s agreement with Bjorn these particular sheep would probably have been safe.  Bjorn made Grettir agree to leave alone the people under his protection, but encouraged him to provide for himself from Bjorn’s enemy Thord.  As Grettir’s saga says, with characteristic understatement, ‘Bjorn did not think it was entirely futile if Grettir were to cause trouble to Thord’s men or livestock.’

Hítardalur from waterfall gully

Hítardalur from waterfall gully

I was fast coming to the realisation that I could spend days climbing up to what looked like caves from the valley floor, without ever finding a cave that matched the description in the saga.  I am sure if I had met a local they could have pointed me to it without hesitation, but I hadn’t seen any person for hours, nor was I likely to.  I decided to have one more go, climbing up towards the most promising shadow of all:

Grettir's 'hole right through the mountain'?

Grettir’s ‘hole right through the mountain’?

But once again, on close inspection the great mass of darkness resolved itself into a decidedly uncave-like cleft in the mountain:

Or not!

Or not!

It was five o’ clock, I had a long and challenging walk back to the main road and my rucksack ahead of me, so I knew I had to give up on the cave.  According to the saga it should have been somewhere very near where I was, ‘in the mountain beside the river at Hítará’, but as is often the case in temperamental Iceland, finding it is a pleasure I reluctantly decided to save for my next trip.

As for the outlaw, after three years Grettir’s banditry and sheep-rustling had earned him so many enemies that Bjorn warned Grettir that he could no longer protect him.  So Grettir left, disappearing into the mountains in central Iceland to live for a time among the trolls and giants of the interior.  I was to catch up with Grettir and his misadventures several more times on my journey around Iceland, but a variety of circumstances meant he was always to remain (to me) frustratingly intangible.  However, I left Fagraskógarfjall with the strong feeling that his powerful presence had made its mark on the mountain in a surprisingly visible sense.  Like the Icelandic chieftains during his nineteen years of outlawry, I couldn’t quite pin Grettir down, but I certainly knew he’d been there…

Can you see Grettir?

Can you see Grettir?

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.