Saturday, 5 February 2011

On the Víga-Glúmr trail at Munkaþverá and Espihóll

The modern farm at Munkaþverá,
as seen from the road
In conjunction with exploring the landscapes in which the Íslendingasögur are set over the course of the year, an important part of my project is to meet people currently living in the places that are mentioned in the sagas. One of the things I find most remarkable and compelling about the sagas and Iceland -- something that is rarely found in Britain or elsewhere to the same degree -- is that a great number of the farms in which saga-characters lived, places where events in the sagas were played out, are still inhabited and bear the same names. Of course, the dwellings in which the saga-characters lived are long since vanished: farms now generally comprise a number of modern barns and outhouses and a 20th-century farmhouse. The predecessors to these modern buildings were turf-roofed houses which were often added to over the course of several centuries in some cases; one example of an old turf-house construction can be seen at Laufás, 30 kms north of Akureyri. Archaeological excavations of a large Viking-Age longhouse in the centre of Reykjavík (Reykjavík 871 +/-2) give an idea of what settlement-period and early medieval sagasteads (or at least important ones) might have looked like.      

The modern farmhouse and buildings at Munkaþverá, Víga-Glúmr's farmstead (called Þverá in the saga), stand where old turf-houses were before, as do those at Espihóll across the river from Munkaþverá on the western side of the valley. Much of Víga-Glúms saga tells of the disputes and physical clashes between Víga-Glúmr and his family, and the Esphœlingar, the inhabitants of Espihóll. The current inhabitants of both Munkaþverá and Espihóll are not descended from the saga characters...but generations of each family have lived and farmed the land for a century or so. Guðný Kristjánsdóttir (b. 1941), who lives with her husband at Espihóll, told me how her father passed down stories about Víga-Glúmr and the Esphælingar orally when she was a child growing up at Espihóll: he had read the saga, and Guðný remarked that much of what she knows about the saga comes from him, in addition to her own reading of it. Events from the saga were related in conversation around the kitchen table; Guðný remembers also how, while at school, she was taken on outings to saga-sites in Skagafjörður. 

Espihóll, ('Aspen/poplar hill')
Looking out of the east-facing sitting room window in Espihóll, the bare hill of the same name rises abruptly just to one´s right. Diagonally to the left, across the river, is Munkaþverá. Guðný tells me that the river -- as is to be expected, and as the saga itself notes at one point -- changes its course from year to year ('Þar var þá vað á ánni, er nú er ekki', 'There was a ford then across the river, which does not exist now').* Walking down from the farm, just beyond the foot of the Espihóll hill, one hits a small tributary. This, Guðný states, is where the river ran at the time of the Víga-Glúms saga, and she mentions one of the saga's climactic fights in which Glúmr and his men take up position on their side of the river, and the Esphœlingar on the other, and the two sides throw stones and weapons at each other. Honour and reputation in the district are at stake.

'Þar var nú vað á ánni, er nú er ekki. Þeir sǫfnuðu nú at sér átta tigum vígra manna um nóttina ok bjuggusk við á hólinum framanverðum, þvá at þar var vaðit á ánni við hólinn sjálfan. En frá Arnóri er at segja, at hann finnr Glúm ok segir honum frá fǫrum sínum. Hann svarar: "Ekki kom mér at óvǫrum, at þeir léti eigi kyrrt, ok er nú á vandi nǫkkurr, svívirðing, ef kyrrt er, en allósýn virðing, ef við er leitat at rétta, en þó skal nú safna mǫnnum." Ok er ljóst var um morgininn, þá kom Glúmr at ánni með sex tigu manna ok vildi ríða yfir ána. En þeir grýttu á þá, Esphœlingar, ok gekk eigi fram reiðin, ok hvarf Glúmr aptr, ok bǫrðusk yfir ána með grjóti ok skotum, ok urðu þar margir sárir, en engir eru nefndir. Ok er heraðsmenn urðu varir við, þá drifu þeir til um daginn ok gengu í milli, ok var á komit sættum ok leitat, hvat Esphœlingar vilja bjóða fyrir ósœmðarhlut þann, er þeir hǫfðu gǫrt Arnóri.' (Víga-Glúms saga, ed. Jónas Kristjánsson, Íslenzk fornrit 9 (Reykjavík, 1956), p. 39. My English translation below at *)

Somewhere on the Munkaþverá side of the river, on the diagonal between Munkaþverá and Espihóll, is the site of the field 'Vitazgjafi', the dispute over which initially sparks the feud between Glúmr and the Esphœlingar early on in the saga. The field, whose name means something which gives certain returns (the field seems to have supernaturally fertile properties perhaps through its association with the god Freyr, whose temple is said to be at Þverá), is used by the Esphœlingar and those at Þverá in alternate years. While Glúmr is abroad in Norway, however, the Esphœlingar encroach on Glúmr´s and his mother´s rights to the field; on his return, Glúmr is prompted by his mother into taking action against this unjustness.
Looking from the river on the Espihóll side over to
After an incident when the Esphœlingar cattle have broken into the Þverá homefield and they are beaten and driven back to Espihóll by Glúmr, we hear how Glúmr laughs and about the extraordinary physical reaction that comes over him when the killing-mentality comes on him. 'Glúmr veik heim, ok setti at honum hlátr, ok brá honum svá við, at hann gerði fǫlvan í andliti, ok hrutu ór augum honum tár þau, er því váru lík sem hagl, þat er stórt er. Ok þann veg brá honum opt við síðan, þá er víghugr var á honum' ('Glúmr turned home, and laughter came upon him, and he was so affected that he became pale in his face, and tears sprang from his eyes which were like hail, they were so big. And he was affected in that manner often afterwards, when the mind for killing was on him'). One morning soon after, Glúmr dresses himself in his fine blue cloak and takes up his gold-inlaid spear in his hand, and he rides down to the field Vitazgjafi where the Esphœlingar Sigmundr Þorkelsson and his wife are working. Sigmundr´s wife expresses regret that the relationship between the Esphœlingar and those at Þverá -- they are kinsmen -- has broken down and she fixes Glúmr´s brooch to his cloak. Glúmr looks over the field and comments that the field appears still to be true to its name; he turns then to Sigmundr and strikes at his head with his spear. 'Þurfti Sigmundr eigi fleiri' ('Sigmundr did not need anything more'): Sigmundr is dead.   

* 'There was then a ford across the river, which does not exist now. They [the Esphœlingar] gathered to them now 80 good men during the night and positioned themselves at the front of the hill, because the ford across the river was there by the hill itself. And about Arnórr there is this to say: that he finds Glúmr and tells him about his journey. He [Glúmr] answers: 'It doesn´t come as a surprise to me that they do not let things be, and there will be some difficulties now: disgrace if things are left as they are, but not guaranteed honour if we try to do something about it; however, we will now gather men." And when it was light in the morning, they Glúmr came to the river with 60 men and wanted to ride over the river. But they, the Esphœlingar, threw stones at them, and it wasn´t possible to advance, and Glúmr turned back and they fought each other across the river with stones and shot, and many were wounded, but none are named. And when men in the district became aware of this, they hurried there during the day and intervened, and the parties came to parley and it was asked what the Esphœlingar would offer for the insult that they had directed at Arnórr.' 

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