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


  1. You take a good photo, Ms Bulance...

  2. Why thank you, Queen Vi... though Iceland being Iceland, I think it would be very difficult to take a bad photo here...

  3. Am looking at Collingwood's "Saga-steads" come all the way from a library in California via interlibrary loan. Printed in 1899 it has the aura and smell only old books can have.
    All b&w sketches and a good number in color. The photos you've posted are more impressive, however, than C's drawings and give the sweep of the landscape and that visionary sky.
    One disadvantage is the pages and binding are delicate and I fear inflicting more wear and tear flipping around from page to page.

    Will have it only for a limited time but will following along. I also see now "Google maps" is sufficient - Collingwood has a map using a numbering scheme connecting points on the map with descriptive sections in the text.