Friday, 25 March 2011

Egils saga in the past and present (1)

The year is 891 CE and Skalla-Grímr Kveld-Úlfsson ('Baldheaded-Grímr, son of Evening-Wolf') sails to Iceland from Norway. Skalla-Grímr's father, Kveld-Úlfr (so called because he is a shapeshifter, his human characteristics being taken over by wolfish ones when the evening draws in), sails in convoy but becomes weaker and weaker from post-berserkr exhaustion as the ships approach the new land. Kveld-Úlfr orders a companion on his ship: 'Þér skuluð bera kveðju mína Grími syni mínum, þá er þér finnizk, ok segið honum þat með, ef svá verðr, at hann kemr til Íslands, ok beri svá at, þótt þat muni ólíkligt þykkja, at ek sjá þar fyrir, þá taki hann sér þar bústað sem næst því, er ek hefi at landi komit' (Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, ed. Sigurður Nordal, Íslenzk fornrit II (Reykjavík, 1933), ch. 27, p. 71; 'You shall bear my greetings to my son Grímr, when you find each other, and tell him this too, if it happens that he comes to Iceland, and if it turns out that -- although it seems unlikely -- I am there ahead of him, then he shall settle in the place next to where I have come to land'). 

On his death, Kveld-Úlfr's coffin is thrown overboard following his final instructions. The coffin is washed into the fjord now known as Borgarfjörður -- and the place where it is driven ashore, and where it is subsequently interred after being found, is known afterwards as Kveldúlfshöfði ('Kveldúlfr's headland'). The place where Skalla-Grímr's ship took land was named Knarrarnes ('Merchant-ship headland'), one of the larger islands of the hundreds of skerries that pepper the sea to the east of the Mýrar peninsula, described by W. G. Collingwood as  'a romantic fringe of ness and voe' (W. G. Collingwood, Pilgrimage, p. 56; photo of Collingwood below).

W. G. Collingwood on horseback,
Iceland 1897

Thus Skalla-Grímr 'built a house at Borg, one of the highest of the castle-like holts that rise above the mires ... We can stand on Egil's Borg and see in the sunset to northward, above wide rolling grass land, a long range of peaks from Eiríks-jökul and Baula to Snæfell fifty miles over the bay. To the south, close at hand, rises Hafnar-fjall, steep and scarred, above the blue fjord and rocky Borgarnes.' (Collingwood, Pilgrimage, p. 56, 59). There was no sunset to illuminate the mountains along the Snæfellsnes peninsula during the days I spent exploring Mýrar with Egils saga in hand: snow had buried the land and constant clouds concealed the mountains to the north and east. Nor was there much evidence of the Eden-like abundance of flora and fauna that, according to the saga, the new settlers discovered, and from which many of the names these men bestowed on places derive: 'var þar mýrlendi mikit ok skógar víðir, langt í milli fjalls ok fjöru, selveiðar gnógar ok fiskfang mikit ... fundu þeir þar andir margar ok kölluðu Andakíl ... þá kómu þeir á nes eitt lítit ok veiddu þar álptir nökkurar ok kölluðu Álptanes' (Egils saga, pp. 72-72; 'there was a great expanse of moor-land and it was widely-forested, a great distance between the mountains and the shore, plentiful seal-hunting and great stores of fish ... they found many ducks there [in one place] and called it Andakíll ('Duck-inlet') ... then then came to a certain small headland and hunted some swans there and called it Álptanes ('Swan-headland')').

Álptanes church from the shoreline
I drove down to Álptanes -- a journey of c. 30 kms or so from Borgarnes which took a good 45 minutes in the Embulance, what with the road being so snow-choked -- and began to get a sense of the expanse and relative flatness of the Mýrar country. The tide was out and there were great stretches of black sand between the exposed skerries; oily ribbons of water incised sinuous channels through the dark sands. Climbing up onto the outcrop of rock to the east of the church and the current farm buildings it was possible to see for miles: east across the fj0rd over to the sharp flanks of Hafnarfjall, north-east over to Borgarnes, west and south-west over the skerries on which numerous ships have foundered (the most famous in recent times being the French schooner Pourquoi Pas?, wrecked in 1936 on its way back from a research-expedition headed by Jean-Baptiste Charcot in Greenland).

It was to Álptanes that the 3-year-old Egill rode from Borg, on his own, after his father Skalla-Grímr refused to let him come with him and others to a feast that Egill's maternal grandfather was holding at Álptanes one spring, saying that Egill didn't know how to behave in public when there was heavy drinking. Egill is given a warm welcome by his grandfather when he enters the farmhouse: men are merrily drunk and composing verses as entertainment and Egill offers one up himself (Egils saga ch. 31, pp. 81-82; my translation):

Kominn emk enn til arna
Yngvars, þess‘s beð lyngva,
hann vask fúss at finna,
fránþvengjar gefr drengjum;
mun eigi þú, þægir,
þrévetran mér betra,
ljósundinna landa
linns, óðar smið finna.
Prose order: Kominn emk enn til arna Yngvars, þess’s gefr drengjum lyngva fránþvengjar beð; vask fúss at finna hann; þú mun eigi, þægir ljósundinna linns landa finna þrévetran óðar smið betra mér.
Translation: I have come to Yngvarr’s hearth, he who gives to heroes the bed of the flashing-thong of the heather [snake > gold];  I was eager to find him; you will not, thruster of the gleaming twisting land of the serpent [gold > generous man], find a three-year-old crafter of poetry better than me.

Egill is given three sea-snail-shells and a duck's egg as payment for his poetic exertions; verses attributed to him -- both single ones, and longer poems such as the famous Höfuðlausn ('Head-Ransom') and Sonatorrek ('Terrible Loss of Sons') -- are worked into the saga prose throughout the long narrative. Sonatorrek is Egill's articulation of his grief at losing his dearly-loved son Böðvarr, who drowns after his boat is capsized in Borgarfjörður. Böðvarr's corpse is washed onto Einarsnes, a headland a short distance to the east of Borg, across a small creek; Egill has Böðvarr's body laid beside that of his father Skalla-Grímr's, in the burial mound he had raised for Skalla-Grímr on Digranes (now Borgarnes, and in a small public park). 
Egill carries his dead son Böðvarr
to Skalla-Grímr's mound

Skalla-Grímr's and Böðvarr's mound
(in the park in Borgarnes)

At Borg, 'the historical homestead, still partly built of oak-beams carved and moulded in the ancient times' that Collingwood found on the site (Pilgrimage, p. 59) is no longer there; a Pre-Raphaelite-style altarpiece painted by Collingwood at the time of his visit, paid for by the then-incumbent priest, hangs above the altar in the small wooden church, however. A cairn has been raised on the rocky borg ('dome-shaped hill') itself marking the place as an 'Egils saga site', and a striking sculpture by the famous Icelandic sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson which represents Egill in the process of composing Sonatorrek stands between the sea and the church and vicarage. Modern responses to Egils saga are rich in this area, and beyond: this evening, I attend a performance of the one-man-play 'Mr Skallagrímsson' at the Landnámssetrið; the next post will report on this, and gather together some other modern 'retellings' or material engagements with the saga...Egils gull, anyone?   

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Borgarnes in the bitter cold

From the marshes of the south-west to the swamps (mýrar) of the north-west: after some happy and warm days in Reykavík, I set off north yesterday with the intention of spending the next two weeks around Mýrasýsla. It has snowed and snowed over the course of the past week but the time has come to resume work in the field despite the bitter cold (the water in my 5-litre plastic water cans froze overnight...). 

The young Egill
(exhibit at the Landnámssetrið)
Mýrasýsla is rich in saga-sites and home to one of the most famous of all of the Íslendingasögur, Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar. The protagonist of this saga, Egill Skalla-Grímsson, is one of the most colourful and ambivalent of all characters featured in the sagas. He is dark in appearance and unrelentingly difficult in temperament; he composes his first verse at the age of three; notches up his first killing at the age of six; and his long life is a series of violent encounters that take place in Iceland, Norway, England, and further afield.   

My first port-of-call in Mýrasýsla -- given the challenging conditions outside -- was the excellent Landnámssetrið (Settlement Centre) in Borgarnes which describes itself not so much as a museum as an 'installation'. The Centre houses two permanent exhibitions, both of which are navigated around with informative and entertaining audio-guides. The first exhibition covers the settlement of Iceland at the end of the 9th century and includes exhibits on Viking Age sea-faring and why and how the country was first settled, the flora and fauna that the new settlers found on the island, and how Iceland got its name (Landnámabók, 'The Book of Settlements' relates that it was initially called Snæland ('Snow-land') by Naddoddr, the 9th-century Norwegian who first sighted the island after being blown off-course on a voyage; it was then renamed Garðarshólmi ('Garðar's Island') by a Swede, Garðarr Svavarsson, who visited a few years later; and finally Ísland ('Ice-land') by the Norwegian Hrafn-Flóki Vilgerðarson). There are also a couple of fantastic 3-dimensional relief maps which show exactly where the first settlers established themselves around Iceland, and around the Borgarnes area.

A woodcut representation of Egill
(exhibit at the Landnámssetrið)
The second exhibition presents the principal episodes of Egils saga via audio-guide and various creative representations of scenes from the saga -- wooden sculptures, tableaux, woodcuts, a horse's head mounted gorily on a pole (Egill's níðstöng, or 'scorn-pole', which he sets up against the sorceress queen Gunnhildr and her husband, King Eiríkr blóðøx 'bloodaxe' of Norway). I enjoyed the exhibition's retelling of Egils saga very much, as did two German tourists who I had met the night before at an Ásatrú meeting (more on this in a future post...) and  for whom the exhibition was a first taste of the Icelandic sagas. 

The sun is at last breaking through the clouds...and tomorrow I head to Borg, Egill's farm, where I will meet the priest of the church there and begin my pilgrimage to the Egils saga sites in the area. W. G. Collingwood describes Mýrar as 'low and undulating, a wide stretch of swampy pasture-land ... beset with rocky holts which break the general level of the ground like waves in a stormy sea' (Pilgrimage, p. 54); I will hope for a safe passage and more on Egils saga will be posted shortly.   

Monday, 14 March 2011

Tales from southern marshes

Traðarholt with Ingólfsfjall behind the settlement, to the north
The Norwegian Jarl Atli inn mjóvi 'the slender' Hundólfsson had three sons: Hallsteinn, who was the eldest and wisest of the brothers, Hersteinn, and Hólmsteinn. After the deaths of Atli, Hersteinn, and Hólmsteinn in battle, Hallsteinn flees Norway and heads for Iceland 'sem þá gerðu margir gildir menn, at þeir flýðu óðul sín fyrir ofríki Haralds konungs' (Flóamanna saga, in Harðar saga, ed. Þórhallur Vilmundarson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, Íslenzk fornrit 13 Reykjavík, 1991), ch. 4, p. 238; 'as did many great men, who left their inheritance because of the aggression of King Haraldr [inn hárfargri, king of Norway 872-930 CE].' On approaching Iceland, Hallsteinn flung the partition-beams from his Norwegian house overboard into the sea as an auspice, following the old custom: the posts drifted to land at the place that since has been called Stokkseyrr (on the south coast of Iceland, to the east of the enormous Ölfusá estuary), and the ship came into Hallsteinssund, to the east of Stokkseyrr, and broke up there ('Þeim sveif á land, þar sem síðan heitir Stokkseyrr, en skipit kom í Hallsteinssund fyrir austan Stokkseyri ok braut þar', Flóamanna saga ch. 4, p. 238).  

Sleet, hail, and rain were driving down alternately from the grey sky when I arrived in the area. In the town of Eyrarbakki,  a few kilometres west of Stokkseyri, I stood on the heavy stone walls built along the sea-front as a defence against the huge Atlantic rollers that come crashing in. I looked south out to sea, saw nothing because of fog. A short distance from the eastern fringe of Eyrarbakki is the site of the old Einarshöfn ('Einarr's harbour'), once one of the most important trading posts in Iceland, now windswept sandbanks and hollows some metres inland. The shore-line has changed greatly over centuries, shaped and reshaped by the elements; inland too, the lie of the marsh-dominated land has been altered physically as the result of 20th-century agricultural drainage programmes. 

The events that took place over 1000 years ago in the Flói district around Eyrarbakki and Stokkseyri are the subject of Flóamanna saga, 'The Saga of the People of Flói (flói, 'a marshy moor')'. The main protagonist of the saga is Þorgils Örrabeinsstjúpr Þórðarson, the great-grandson of the Hallsteinn whose seat-pillars are commemorated in the name Stokkseyri, 'beam-bank' or '-point'. At the age of five, Þorgils is thrown out of his home at Traðarholt, north-east of Stokkseyri, for killing his stepfather's horse, Illingr. Þorgils had previously wanted to join other local boys who were playing at duels, but was not allowed to play because of the boys' rule that only those who had killed something alive could participate.

I drove east out of Stokkseyri and turned north up the track to Traðarholt (later a haunt of the famous 18th-century outlaw Fjalla-Eyvindur). The farm is deserted now and has not been inhabited for several decades; the land around the decaying buildings is used for grazing horses. The farmhouse is on the brow of a hill, a square building with two watchful windows. I left the Embulance in the care of some curious horses and walked up to the building; to the right of the house, a single horse stood silhouetted against the sky, stock still until I was within a few metres of the place. To the side of the house, broken-down concrete steps lead up to a rotting door swinging open; the porch inside still holds old coats and dust-covered wellies.

Þorgils goes abroad to Norway aged 15: he gains royal favour, despatches a couple of draugar/zombies, acquires a precious sword. Further battle-renown (and a wife) is picked up while raiding in Scotland and Ireland, then it's back to Iceland and Traðarholt -- Þorgils's stepfather has been killed in a local squabble by this time. Þorgils becomes an important man in the district; he converts to Christianity and is subsequently targeted by the heathen god Þórr who appears frequently Þorgils's dreams and works hard at turning Þorgils from Christianity. Further narrative colour permeates a section in which Þorgils spends a few winters in an unsuccessful attempt at settling in Greenland: shipwrecks, plague, more zombies, a polar bear, troll-women.

When Þorgils's wife is mysteriously murdered, Þorgils takes up his newborn son and cutting open his nipple, he breastfeeds the child: 'Um nóttina vill Þorgils vaka yfir sveininum ok kvaðst eigi sjá, at hann mætti álengdar lifa, -- "ok þykki mér mikit, ef ek má eigi honum hjálpa; skal þat nú fyrst taka til bragða at skera á geirvörtuna," -- ok svá var gert. Fór fyrst út blóð, síðan blanda, ok lét eigi fyrr af en ór fór mjólk, ok þar fæddist sveinninn upp við þat' (Flóamanna saga ch. 23, pp. 288-89; 'During the night Þorgils wanted to stay awake over the boy and said he could not see how he might live longer, --"and it seems to me a grave thing, if I cannot help him; first I shall now take a step [to get out of this difficulty] by cutting open my nipple," -- and so this was done. First blood came out, then a mixture, and he did not stop before milk came out, and thus the boy was suckled in this way"). 

Flóamanna saga is a strange saga to say the least (all that's missing from the Greenland section is Frank Zappa's Nanook Suite as a soundtrack) -- and it is not a well-known one. Setting the saga's events in the physical landscape context of the Flói district was not such an easy or immediate experience as  I found for Harðar saga (see posts of 3rd March and 24th February). Many of the places named in Flóamanna saga cannot be identified today; those which can be, and whose names are accounted for in the saga, are not clustered together as evocatively as the Harðar saga places with the Helga-element in Hvalfjörður are, for example. 

Nevertheless, the saga is thought to have been composed locally, perhaps by a cleric at Gaulverjabær (east of Stokkseyri) in the early 14th century. Gaulverjabær -- where Þorgils grew up with his foster-father, Loptr Ormsson, after being thrown out of Traðarholt by his stepfather -- was an important farm and church centre, and there was a hospital for old and sick priests there until the mid-16th-century Reformation in Iceland. Local people did have things to say about the saga when I asked them for their opinions...I particularly enjoyed the verdict of one man with whom I talked in the petrol station in Stokkseyri: 'it's a pack of lies' he the general laughter of a number of others gathered around, drinking coffee on a rainy morning.

Gaulverjabær today

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Place-names and a mention of puffins

Place-names, and the study of them (toponymy), is not a subject I have spent much time thinking about in the past -- but it is something that I am becoming increasingly absorbed by with regard to the sagas, as my Sagasteads project progresses. There are numerous instances in the sagas where place-names are elucidated by a saga-author and connected with events described in a saga narrative. It is possible -- and likely in some cases -- that these anecdotes were invented by saga-authors, or by other figures at some point between the date of a saga's action and that of its written composition, in order to explain how places got their names. But whether or not individual anecdotes about events and places that purportedly led to places acquiring their names are historically 'true', I am finding the 'in situ' saga-fieldwork process of mapping written explanations behind place-names onto the  physical topography of local areas to be very engaging and revealing. 
Geirshólmr from Þyrilsnes

The photo above is of Geirshólmr (now Geirshólmi), the island in Hvalfjörður on which the outlaw Hörðr Grímkelsson and his band lived for a couple of years until they were tricked into coming ashore with the promise of reconciliation, and met their deaths (a brief summary of the saga narrative is given in my previous post on Harðar saga). The name of the island translates, simply, as 'Geirr's Island'; the saga explains how 'Sá hólmr er nú kallaðr Geirshólmr; tók hann nafn af Geir Grímssyni' (Harðar saga, ed. Þórhallur Vilmundarsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, Íslenzk fornrit 13 (Reykjavík, 1991), ch. 24, p. 65; 'That island is now called Geirshólmr; it took its name from Geirr Grímsson'). Geirr was Hörðr's foster-brother and closest friend; it is rather odd that the island takes its name from Geirr rather than Hörðr and the Íslenzk fornrit editor of the saga comments in his introduction that people have long thought this strange ('hefur mönnum að vonum löngum komið það spánskt fyrir sjónir, að hann skuli ekki fremur vera kenndur við aðalsöguhetjuna', Harðar saga, p. xxxvi).

The island is approximately 100m long and 45m wide now: I heard opposing views in conversations with Hvalfjörður locals regarding the extent to which the island might have decreased in size over the past 1000 years as a result of weathering. Even if the island was somewhat larger when Hörðr and his men were living on it, there cannot have been much room for them all: the saga states they were never fewer than 80 and at their most, 200. Hörðr describes the island as being 'sæbrattr ok víðr sem mikit stöðulgerði' (Harðar saga ch. 24, p. 64; 'rising steeply from the sea and widely like a milk-pail [in shape, I imagine...]'); Collingwood notes how the island's sides 'rise absolutely, vertically sheer from the water-line, all around, with no foreshore except at the north-east, where there are a few yards of broken rock, into the cracks of which the bow of a boat may be thrust' (A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland (Ulverston, 1899), p. 34).

It being winter, I didn´t manage to find a boat or a boatman to take me out to the island but looking onto the bare and exposed island from various vantage points around the Hvalfjörður shoreline made a deep impression on me, and my thoughts turned often on what it must have been like for Hörðr -- both in practical and emotional terms -- to have been forced by circumstances to live in such a place. The saga relates how Hörðr and his men build a great hall there with a door in the middle of one side to the west; Geirr's farm at Botn is taken down and the materials conveyed to the island, and water from a nearby river is rowed over to the island and stored in a great cask. When Collingwood explored the island, the ruined remains of the hall were apparently still visible but upon asking whether this is still so, I learnt that it is no longer the case...tunnel-digging nesting puffins might have played a large part in this...  

In Harðar saga, Þyrilsnes, the projection of land that comes out from the northern shore of the mainland and curls into the fjord, is called Dögurðarnes ('Breakfast-Ness/Peninsula') -- and it is so-called because it is there, according to the saga, that Torfi Valbrandsson and the others involved in capturing and killing Hörðr and the Holm-dwellers have their breakfast before the Holm-dwellers are ferried over from the island and executed ('Þeir átu dögurð um morgininn eptir á nesi því innanverðu, er þeir kölluðu Dögurðarnes síðan', Harðar saga ch. 32, p. 80; 'They ate [their] day-meal the next morning on the inner side of the ness, which since they [i.e. people generally] call Dögurðarnes'). The outermost point on the ness where Geirr's dead body is washed ashore bears the name Geirstangi ('Geirr's Spit'; 'Þar heitir Geirstangi, er líkit rak á land', Harðar saga ch. 35, p. 85; 'That place is called Geirstangi, where the corpse was driven onto land'); and the place where Hörðr fights his last fight and dies is called Harðarhæð ('Hörðr's summit'), though this place-name is not mentioned in the saga. Nor, specifically, are Helguvík ('Helga's bay') and Helguhóll ('Helga's hill'), though the saga states that the place that Hörðr's heroic wife Helga rests after swimming from the island with her two boys, on the striking mountain Þyrill (see photo above) is now called Helguskarð ('Helga's ridge-pass').

More elaborate anecdotes are presented in conjunction with other place-names in the saga and a good number of these are connected with Hörðr's and the Holm-dwellers' raids on local farmers around Hvalfjörður and over in Svínadalur and Skorradalur, north of Hvalfjörður. The pass down into Skorradalur from Svínadalur, for example, is called Geldingardragi ('Wether-trail'; see photo left, of Dragá/Geldingardragi looking south from Skorradalur): chapter 29 of Harðar saga relates how after Christmas one year, Hörðr, Geirr, and 40 others head over into Skorradalur where they conceal themselves during the day, raid a sheep-shed when night comes, and drive the 80 wethers they find away. The weather (oh dear, no way around the punning here, sorry!) is against them (there is the suggestion that this is because of sorcery, of which there is a good deal in the saga) -- there is a heavy snowfall and the bell-wethers (i.e. the lead sheep) become exhausted. Geirr and the men want to abandon the sheep but Hörðr states this would be unmanly, 'þó at nökkur snæskafa væri eðr lítit mugguveðr í móti' (Harðar saga ch. 29, p. 74; 'although there might be some snow-whirling or a little bit of drizzling weather against us'). He takes hold of the bell-wether and drags it over the mountain: 'varð þat slóð mikil; þeir ráku þar í eptir annat féit; því heitir þar Geldingardragi síðan' (Harðar saga ch. 29, p. 74; 'consequently there was a big trail; they drove the other sheep on afterwards; thus the place has been called Geldingardragi since').

Episodes from Harðar saga are found 'written' into the landscape thus, crystalised as place-names, all over Hvalfjörður. Even people I spoke to who had not read the saga knew the story, or parts of it, and could relate it to the local area and to specific place-names. I suspect that the saga I intend to move on with now, Flóamanna saga, set in a part of the south coast of Iceland (around Eyrarbakki and Stokkseyri)  may not be so rich in this respect...though there is certainly much of interest in it: dreams in which the god Þórr appears, a trip to Greenland, a breast-feeding father...  rather glad I wasn't quizzed by Egill Helgason on his programme Kiljan (watch -- and overlook grammatical howlers -- here, at 23/24 minutes in ) on this one...

So Flóamanna saga next -- thanks for reading and following!