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! 


  1. What a great posting! You got me on the puffins ... kofar in Old Icelandic, I believe (though my grammar fairly sucks). As toponymy and OI poetry are among my favorite things to study, your blog today has really rung a bell with me.

    Thanks! I'm very much looking forward to the next one.

  2. Hörðr and his chums were hardy living in such a small space - my ducks (between 4 and 20) use up that much space now to survive a winter's grazing and they just have a mobile duck house - not a hall - great story :)

  3. @ Fridrikr -- very glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, re. puffins in OI -- though I think *kofa* (fem) is a young one, *lundi* (masc) the grown-up...

    @ Donnie -- love your comments, thank you for all of them. Yes, I was amazed at the size of the island and found it very hard to imagine how so many living on it might have been possible...cue the thorny question of the extent to which the sagas are historically accurate...