Breiðafjörður

One morning in the late ninth century a Viking ship sailed up Breiðafjörður.  The leader of the small group of people on the ship had been a nobleman’s daughter in Norway, a Viking queen in Dublin, the mother of a Viking king in the Hebrides and Scotland, and now she was about to become the one of the most distinguished of the original settlers of Iceland.  Her name was Aud, sometimes called Unn, and she was known as ‘the Deep-Minded’.

Breiðafjörður from above Stykkishólmur harbour.

Breiðafjörður from above Stykkishólmur harbour.

The ship sailed along the southern shore of the wide fjord until it began to narrow, and there they stopped for breakfast on a peninsula still known as Dagverðanes – ‘Breakfast Headland’.  Then they continued past a series of little islands, and on down what would become known as Hvammsfjörður.  At the end of the fjord they stopped again on another headland, where Aud happened to lose one of her bone-tooth combs.  This place is today known as Kambsnes – ‘Comb Point’.  They made their final journey northwards along the end of the fjord until they came to a protected valley with the fjord in front of it and high heathland around it.  Here Aud established a farm, and on a hill above the settlement she raised crosses for the strange new religion she had brought from the British Isles.  She called her farm Hvammur, and that is still its name, eleven hundred years later.   In 1965 a stone cross was raised in commemoration of the tradition Aud started:

Krosshólar - the cross hill

Krosshólar – the cross hill

Aud’s importance as one of the most prominent early settlers is clear.  Her story, in rather abbreviated forms, is told at the beginning of both the Saga of the People of Laxardal, and the Saga of Eirik the Red.  She was the daughter of Ketil Flat-nose, a Norwegian lord who became king over the Hebrides following the supposed unification of Norway by Harald Fine-hair in the late 9th century.  The accounts differ on how this came about – some say he went west to escape the tyranny of King Harald, the same reason given for much of the early settlement of Iceland.  Others say Harald sent him to extend Norwegian rule into the Western Isles, but having established himself there Ketil then felt little compulsion to send any taxes back to Norway.  Certainly he fell out with the king, and with their Norwegian lands confiscated Ketil’s descendants ended up living all over the western part of the Viking world.

Hvammur, site of Aud's farm

Hvammur, site of Aud’s farm, seen from Laxárdalur

Aud had a number of adventures, including a desperate escape to Orkney in a hastily built little boat, following her son’s defeat and death at the hands of a Scottish army in Caithness – a story reminiscent of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape to Skye.  Eventually Aud arrived in Iceland, where two of her brothers had already settled.  She stayed her first winter with her brother Bjorn, further out along the southern shore of Breiðafjörður.  The following spring she set out to claim some land of her own, and somewhere just outside Stykkishólmur her route transected my own, as my early morning ferry steamed out of the harbour and northwards across the fjord.

Visibility was poor, but in the distance beyond the islands I could see a dark smudge of land that I fancied was Aud’s Dagverðanes:

Dagverðanes at foot of ridge.

Dagverðanes at foot of ridge.

To the west of the ferry we passed Elliðaey, now home only to a lighthouse and a large colony of seabirds, nesting on the basalt cliffs.  At one time, however, Elliðaey was an important waymark for voyagers leaving Iceland.  Out in the middle of the fjord, it was the perfect spot to wait for the right wind to begin a journey, particularly if you had killed a few too many people to be safe on the mainland.  If a wind blew up that could bring an outlaw’s enemies out to attack him there, the same wind would carry him out to the relative safety of the ocean long before they got there.

Elliðaey

Elliðaey

Nesting site on basalt cliffs, Elliðaey.

Nesting site on basalt cliffs, Elliðaey.

An open stretch of ocean followed, and with the weather worsening I retired to the middle deck to read up on the outlaw Gisli Sursson, whose realm I was about to enter – only to be called back up on deck by a garbled message from the speaker system, the only intelligible word of which was echoed all over the ship – ‘dolphins!’  They were far away and dropping back further as the ferry ploughed on, but unmistakable as their fins and backs broke the surface.  By the time the ferry steamed up to the jetty at Flatey we were mostly pretty cold and wet, but excited too.  Breiðafjörður is a teeming haven for numerous bird species, as well as seals, dolphins, and whales, and I was keeping a particular look out for the latter,  though without success.

Dolphin!

Dolphin!

Flatey is the only one of the thousands of islands in Breiðafjörður still inhabited year round, albeit only just – its winter population is reputed to be five people and a dog.  For centuries it was an important monastic and then trading centre, and the home of the invaluable medieval manuscript collection Flateyjarbók, but these days it is advertised primarily as a place to stroll among the attractive painted houses and birdwatch – on a nice day.

Flatey

Main settlement on Flatey

This day was wet and windy, and the next ferry wasn’t for another five hours, so I did my admiring from the upper deck of the ship as it continued northwards through fog and rain to the remote Westfjords, homeland of one of my favourite of all the saga characters, Gisli Sursson.

Cormorants/shags and gulls near Flatey jetty.

Cormorants/shags and gulls near Flatey jetty.

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

 

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.

Drama in the Dales

Inland from Borgarnes lies some of the best farmland in Iceland, and as you might expect, this also made it the home region of a number of important saga characters.  I was staying with a colourful young Icelandic man who I had found on couchsurfing.org.  He was a native of the region, and he took me out the next day to visit some of the most interesting places in the valleys to the east of Borgarfjörður.

Farmland near Reykholt

Farmland near Reykholt

First, by my request, was the farm called Indriðastaðir, where the brother-in-law and sister of Hord (of the island Geirshólmi in Hvalfjörður) lived, according to the saga.  Hord wasn’t on the best of terms with his brother-in-law Indridi, and in fact Indridi was one of the leaders of the group that finally killed Hord and the outlaws. This was fair enough really, as he and his neighbours had suffered from the depredations of the outlaws for a long time.  Although Hord was sometimes disloyal to the outlaws so that he could help his sister, her husband was one of the main chieftains in the area, and inevitably there came a time when Hord could no longer stand between the two forces.  He was with the outlaws when they walked over the ridge from the south one night, planning to catch Indridi unawares and burn his house down around him.  Fortunately Hord’s sister foresaw the attack in a dream, and told Indridi to redirect the nearby stream so that it filled the house with water and would not burn.  I wanted to assess the plausability of this strategy, and sure enough, two streams still flow down the mountainside behind the farm.  If this doesn’t make the story likely, it at least makes it possible.

Indriðastaðir

Indriðastaðir

Throughout these conflicts Hord and his sister Thorbjorg remained friends, and when the local chieftains gathered to plot the destruction of the outlaws, Thorbjorg rode to the gathering and declared that she would see dead the man who killed Hord.  This Thorbjorg later accomplished, and she was also able to protect Hord’s wife and sons when they came to her after swimming to safety from the island.

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Our route led northwards across the mouths of several valleys, the good farmland alternating with rougher moorland where the ground was higher.  We stopped at Deildartunguhver, where the biggest hot spring by volume in Europe produces an incredible 180 litres of boiling water every second.  This single spring provides hot water to the towns of Hvanneyri, Borgarnes and even to Akranes over seventy kilometres away, as well as everything in between.  It also heats several greenhouses locally, producing large quantities of tomatoes.

Secondary springs at Deildartunguhver

Secondary springs at Deildartunguhver

East of Deildartunguhver is the settlement of Reykholt, where Snorri Sturluson lived.  Snorri is one of the few medieval Icelandic authors about whom we know anything.  He and his family were the most important Icelanders of their time, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and feature in a contemporary saga of their own, Sturlunga saga.  Though for much of his life he was deeply involved in Icelandic politics, Snorri is today most famous for writing Heimskringla (a history of the kings of Norway) and the Prose Edda, a guide to writing poetry that recounts many of the myths of Norse pagan religion.  He is also thought to have written our old friend, Egil’s saga.

Snorri's Pool

Snorri’s Pool

In the end politics (and specifically the enmity of the Norwegian king) caught up with Snorri, and the old man was murdered in a cellar passage beneath his house.  Snorri usually used this passage as a route to the stone-lined hot pool in his garden, and both pool and passage have survived in one form or another to this day.

Snorri's last view?

Snorri’s final view?

I was excited to discover that my host and guide had been brought up on the third saga site I wanted to visit, the farm of Gilsbakki.  At Gilsbakki the poet Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue also grew up, a millennium earlier.  Gunnlaug followed the career path of many Icelanders in the medieval period, that of a court poet.  He travelled all over Scandinavia and Britain, winning fame and wealth for the praise poems he composed for various kings and earls.  However, his very first attempt to win favour failed comically when Gunnlaug couldn’t restrain his obstinacy and sharp tongue in front of Earl Eirik of Norway.  He started squabbling with a pushy follower of the Earl, prompting Earl Eirik to predict a short life for Gunnlaug.  Gunnlaug only muttered a reply to this, but when the Earl asked Gunnlaug to repeat himself he stubbornly did just that:

Gunnlaug:            I said what I thought fit, that you should not call curses down on me, but                               should pray more effective prayers for yourself.

Earl Eirik:            (Menacingly) What should I pray for then?

Gunnlaug:            (Boldly) That you don’t meet your death in the same way as your father                                  Earl Hakon did.

Earl Hakon had been murdered by a servant while hiding in a pigsty!  Earl Eirik turned bright red and ordered Gunnlaug’s immediate arrest.  Only the intercession of a friend at court preserved Gunnlaug’s life long enough for him to get away to England, where he had better fortune with King Ethelred.  Tragically, Gunnlaug was so busy being a success that he failed to return to Iceland in time to honour his engagement to Egil’s granddaughter, the beautiful Helga.  Her father agreed to marry her to another poet who Gunnlaug had insulted when they had met previously abroad, and when Gunnlaug finally returned to Iceland the rivals fought a series of duels that ended in both their deaths.

Ravine at Gilsbakki

Ravine at Gilsbakki

The farm of Gilsbakki is situated high up on the valley side, looking out over the last part of a great lava flow which extends a long way inland.  There was no sign of Gunnlaug there, but my host directed me to a mound in a field above the ravine for which Gilsbakki is named, said to be the burial mound of Gunnlaug’s more prudent older brother.  Gunnlaug’s brother was an important chieftain, and therefore worthy of a large burial mound – but he was also a Christian, and so should have been buried according to the Christian tradition.  So who is really in the mound?  Or is this an example of early Christian and pagan practices being mixed?  What is interesting is that the historical fictions of the saga and its characters are treasured and remembered, despite their improbabilities, in the way people today experience the landscape.

Hermund's burial mound at Gilsbakki

Hermund’s burial mound at Gilsbakki

Lava flow beyond Gilsbakki

Lava flow beyond Gilsbakki

Surtshellir lava caves

Surtshellir lava caves

Egil

On a calm, clear evening the sunset at Borgarnes campsite is spectacular.  There is a clear view to the west, and the sun sets over the shore of the fjord, lighting up the tide-washed mud of the inlet.  Here, so goes the story, the coffin of Kveldulf washed ashore sometime in the late ninth century after the old man died on the voyage from Norway.  Usually when they were approaching Iceland the settlers would throw overboard the ‘high seat pillars’ from their hall back in Norway, and found a new farm wherever they washed up.  Kveldulf was a darker character altogether; he gave instructions that his son should set up a farm where his coffin came ashore.  And that was in this bay, by which I was going to camp after my day on Esja and around Hvalfjörður.

Sunset at Borgarnes campsite

Sunset at Borgarnes campsite

A short time after the sun had set, a tremendous full moon rose above the mountains across the fjord to the southeast (Borgarnes lies on a peninsula that juts into Borgarfjörður from the northeast).  This seemed somehow fitting, for as anyone familiar with the Scandinavian languages will have noticed, Kveldulf means ‘Evening Wolf’.  Shape-shifting was generally looked down on by the saga writers, and Kveldulf’s werewolf reputation is little more than hinted at.  But he certainly was a berserk, and the two things often went together.  Friendly and hardworking in the mornings, he had a reputation for becoming increasingly difficult and even violent as night approached.

Moonrise

Moonrise

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His son Skallagrim (Bald Grim!) inherited much of his father’s character, but was generally able to keep it under control.  Occasionally it would break out, as on one occasion at a local gathering, again near the campsite at the northern end of the peninsula.  Skallagrim was competing in a game against his twelve-year old son Egil, and Egil’s older friend, and he seemed to be losing.  However, as evening came on he was filled with a tremendous strength; he grabbed Egil’s friend and dashed him to the ground so hard that he died instantly.  Egil would have suffered the same fate, but his childhood nurse Brak shouted at Skallagrim, shaming him with his bestial lack of control.  Skallagrim turned on her instead, chasing her the length of the peninsula, and then hurling a great rock to drown her as she tried to swim to safety on an island just offshore.

Brákarsund, scene of Skallagrim's least worthy killing; the cairn reads 'Here Skallagrim drowned Brák'.

Brákarsund, scene of Skallagrim’s least worthy killing; the cairn reads ‘Here Skallagrim drowned Brák’.

That evening the twelve-year-old Egil walked into their hall with an axe and drove it into the skull of Skallagrim’s foreman and favourite servant.  Then he sat down and they ate as if nothing had happened; but father and son didn’t speak to each other all winter.  As you may have realised, Egil was not your average child.  He had already committed his first killing aged six following a playground squabble.  Amusingly, his mother didn’t even scold him for this first killing, instead proclaiming proudly that he had the makings of a great Viking.

Borg in the Marshes, site of Skallagrim and Egil's farm.

Borg in the Marshes, site of Skallagrim and Egil’s farm.

Egil certainly was a terrific Viking, and won great renown and wealth fighting for Athelstan of England at the battle of Brunanburh.  However, at the site of his home, just outside Borgarnes, it is not as a warrior, but as a poet that he is remembered.  An abstract statue in front of the church there recalls a poem Egil wrote following the drowning of one of his sons, a short time after the death of another.  It is a long poem, but I will quote a few verses:

4.
My stock
stands on the brink,
pounded as plane trees
on the forest’s rim,
no man is glad
who carries the bones
of his dead kinsman
out of the bed.

7.
The sea-goddess
has ruffled me,
stripped me bare
of my loved ones:
the ocean severed
my family’s bonds,
the tight knot
that ties me down.

25.
Now my course is tough:
Death, close sister
of Odin’s enemy
stands on the ness:
with resolution
and without remorse
I shall gladly
await my own.

Egil and Bodvar

Egil and Bodvar

The poem and the story behind its composition reveal great sensitivity and deep anguish.  These seem quite at odds with his tough exterior, but this contrast is just what makes Egil real to me; people’s characters are often contradictory.  It is the warrior who is not capable of sadness or ‘poetry’ that is frightening and unnatural to us today, and the sagas seem to suggest that the Vikings felt the same way.  The greatest warriors in the sagas are poets like Bjorn of Hitardal, or are afraid of the dark like Grettir and Gisli, or in Gunnar of Hliðarendi’s case suffer confusion because they feel guilt at killing, though society tells them this is unmanly.  The few characters who are simply the psychopathic killing machines we tend to imagine when we think of the Vikings are eventually shunned even by their closest friends and relatives.

A moment of sun at the campsite; Borg in the distance

A moment of sunshine at the campsite; Borg in the distance, where the church stands today.

After visiting Borg in the rain the next morning, the site of Skallagrim and Egil’s farm below the rocky outcrop in the marshland that is the ‘borg’ (fortress), I headed back into Borgarnes.  I swam in the almost empty swimming pool, where gratuitous use of the water slides, steam bath, and hot pools counteracted the rain that continued to fall throughout.  Clean, warm, and briefly dry, I returned to the main street through a park where I came across the burial mound of Skallagrim, in which Egil also buried his son Bodvar.  A bronze cast in relief beside the cairn showed the devastated Egil carrying Bodvar’s limp body, and again I reflected that it is this moment of vulnerability in Egil’s life that we are most drawn to today.  And if reading it now moves us, it can only be because it moved the medieval Icelanders who told and wrote the stories about Egil.  Read it, and the emotion you feel connects you directly to those people and that time; and inevitably we realise that we are those same people.

Skallagrim's burial mound

Skallagrim’s burial mound