Laxárdalur

The prosperous Dalir region to the south of the Westfjords is, as one might expect, the setting for a rather grander and nobler saga than those of the Westfjords. The Saga of the People of Laxardal tells the story of several generations of a family that settled in Laxárdalur in the tenth century. The saga has a bit of everything: beginning with the account of Unn’s arrival and settlement of the region described in my Breiðafjörður post, the story continues with the separate adventures abroad of two half-brothers and their subsequent feuding over their inheritance. A ghost story and a feud with a family of witches are thrown in for good measure, and then at last Laxdæla saga arrives at its tragic climax, a tumultuous Shakespearian epic of love, betrayal, and murder.

Laugar, home of Gudrun Osvifsdottir.

Laugar, home of Gudrun Osvifsdottir.

The struggle between the half-brothers Hoskuld and Hrut over their inheritance from their mother Thorgerd provides a nice exception to the way we usually imagine Vikings settling their differences, as well as some further detail about the position of women in Viking society. Although Thorgerd travelled to Norway and remarried after the early death of Hoskuld’s father, her property remained her own, most of it remaining under the supervision of Hoskuld on his farm Hoskuldsstaðir in Laxárdalur. In other words, she had more property rights in marriage than is standard even today; but Hoskuld’s legal defence for not handing over to Hrut his share shows that matters weren’t quite as egalitarian as they sound. Hoskuld argued that he was the legal guardian of his mother when she remarried without his permission or knowledge, and that therefore neither the marriage nor its progeny were legitimate. It was generally thought that Hoskuld was wrong about this and that Thorgerd had been in a position to choose for herself, but there was some disagreement, and as possession really was nine tenths of the law Hoskuld kept the property for himself.

Hoskuldsstaðir caught by the sun.  Lots of good hay fields.

Hoskuldsstaðir caught by the sun. Lots of good hay fields.

When Hrut came out to Iceland to claim his inheritance he settled nearby and for three years pressed Hoskuld to hand over his inheritance at every assembly, making a good case and never resorting to violence. When this failed he took advantage of Hoskuld’s absence one day to go to Hoskuldsstaðir and drive away half the cattle there. Some of Hoskuld’s farm hands pursued him and his men and a battle was fought in which Hoskuld’s men came off worse. Hoskuld himself was furious when he heard what had happened and rode home to gather all his supporters for revenge. Things looked bad until Hoskuld’s wife Jorunn intervened, pointing out that most people thought Hrut had justice on his side and had behaved honourably and patiently. Also pointing out that attacking him would be dangerous and difficult, she persuaded Hoskuld that making a settlement instead ‘would do honour to both’. This was accomplished, and I suspect that the majority of disputes in early medieval Iceland were settled in this same way. The sagas probably disproportionately favour disputes that end in murder because it makes for a better story, but even in the stories we often find disputes settled peacefully through the law courts or through the mediation of mutual friends.

Hrut's farm Hrutsstaðir just outside Laxárdalur.

Hrut’s farm Hrutsstaðir just outside Laxárdalur.

Meanwhile Hoskuld’s children were growing up, foremost among them the beautiful Hallgerd (more of her later), and Olaf (known as Olaf Peacock), Hoskuld’s son with an Irish slave woman purchased while travelling in Denmark. Although ever since her captivity this woman, Melkorka, had been thought to be unable to speak, one day Hoskuld overheard her talking with their son in Irish. He discovered that she was in fact the daughter of the Irish king Myrkjartan, and had been captured there aged fifteen. Although Olaf was technically still illegitimate this revelation massively changed his fortunes; an old and wealthy farmer offered to foster him, and people began to treat him with the respect his notable character and appearance demanded. In this story at least being Norse or Irish seems to make little difference; nobility is what counts. When he was old enough Melkorka sent Olaf off to Ireland to find her father.

 

Arriving in Ireland Olaf’s ship was attacked by hostile locals, but fortunately was anchored just far enough off shore to prevent them all being captured, as usually happened to Vikings in the sagas who came to Ireland accidentally. At that moment a group of well-armed horsemen arrived on the scene, among them the old King Myrkjartan, Olaf’s grandfather. Olaf’s family resemblance, fluent Irish, and possession of a golden ring given to his mother by Myrkjartan when she was a baby (miraculously preserved throughout her abduction and years of slavery!) convinced Myrkjartan that Olaf really was his grandson, and Olaf was welcomed into the court. Like any young Icelandic hero at a foreign court, Olaf soon showed that he was a cut above the rest, and was even asked by Myrkjartan to succeed him as king – which he sensibly declined on the grounds that Myrkjartan’s other relatives wouldn’t stand for it.

Returning to Iceland rich and successful, with his high social status confirmed, Olaf was able to marry none other than the daughter of that old ruffian Egil Skallagrimsson of Borg, and to set up his own farm Hjarðarholt, which like those of his father and uncle is still there and apparently prospering, with the striking district church just below the farmyard.

Church at Hjarðarholt

Church at Hjarðarholt

However, all these episodes are but a preamble to the central drama of Laxdæla saga, which follows the friendship and enmity between Olaf’s family and the household at Laugar in Sælingsdalur, where I arrived on the final Sunday afternoon of last August. The sun was shining for once, so I pegged out my inner and outer tents to dry out after several days of continual dampness, and then walked a short way up the valley. The central feature of Sælingsdalur is the ‘elf cathedral’ in the middle of the valley, where according to a folk tale (as opposed to a saga) two brothers fell foul of the elves when one of them interrupted a sacred service that the other had been invited to in the magical cathedral. The intruder was trampled to death by elf riders on the slope beyond the knoll, while the other brother lived several more decades, until one year when he was giving the Easter service a chance gust blew open the doors of both human and elf church opposite at the same moment. He looked straight out of the door and into the elf cathedral, met the eye of the elf bishop, and fell down dead on the spot. And he wasn’t even the one who’d disturbed the elves in the first place! Icelandic elves clearly require very respectful treatment…

Grazing land at Laugar (Tungustapi 'elf cathedral' to right)

Grazing land at Laugar (Tungustapi ‘elf cathedral’ to right)

Tungustapi, an Elf Cathedral

Tungustapi, one of Iceland’s elf cathedrals

However, I was more interested in the events of a few centuries earlier, when Gudrun Osvifsdottir, the same Gudrun whose grave I visited at Helgafell, lived at Laugar with her father and brothers. Just above a present day boarding-school/hotel a little stone pool that calls itself ‘Gudrun’s Pool’ is situated near the buried remains of the original Viking age hot pool which Gudrun famously liked to hang out in, chatting to visitors and travellers who stopped for a bath. The current pool was hot and I had travelled a long way from Bolungarvík that morning, so I changed and waded in in a cloud of swirling green algae. It settled gradually as I gently soaked and, looking over at the little copse where their house is supposed to have been, tried to imagine Gudrun and her family doing just what I was a little over a thousand years earlier.

'Gudrun's Pool'

‘Gudrun’s Pool’

(almost) Bath hot!

(Almost) bath temperature!

I summarised the tragic story of Gudrun, Kjartan (Olaf Peacock’s son, named for King Myrkjartan), and Bolli (Olaf’s nephew and Kjartan’s foster-brother) in the post ‘To Helgafell’, and, in any case, no summary can do justice to the masterful build up of tension and escalation of their feud in The Saga of the People of Laxardal; I can only heartily recommend it as reading material.

Site of Viking Age farm thought to be that of Gudrun's family.

Site of Viking Age farm thought to be that of Gudrun’s family.

But what about that Irish influence in these old families? Did that outlive Olaf and his children? In one way at least it certainly has. By a curious coincidence the names of the couple that gave me the lift to Laugar, where Kjartan Olafsson so often travelled to see Gudrun, were Ásta and… Kjartan!

Campsite at Laugar

Campsite at Laugar (Tungustapi in distance)

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
1008

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