Saturday, 2 April 2011

Egils saga in the past and present (2)

Streetsign in Borgarnes
Streetsign in Borgarnes
(with Landnámssetrið behind)
It is impossible to spend any length of time in Borgarnes and the Mýrar area and to remain oblivious to Egils saga and its place in the region's history and identity. Most of the street names in Borgarnes commemorate characters in the saga and several large cairns (some with accompanying explanatory signs) have been raised at places which feature in the saga. Þorgerðr Brák was an ambátt ('bondwoman') in Skalla-Grímr's household who fostered Egill as an infant: she is described as being 'a large woman, strong as a man and well-versed in magical lore' ('hon var mikil fyrir sér, sterk sem karlar og fjölkunnig mjök', Egils saga, ed. Sigurður Nordal, Íslenzk fornrit II (Reykjavík, 1933), ch. 40, p. 101). The saga relates how, when Egill was 12 years old, the winter-time ice-hockey-like-game knattleikr was played just south of Borg, on the ice of the small bay Sandvík. Egill and his friend Þórðr Granason played against Skalla-Grímr and the game went their way while the day lasted; when the evening drew in, however, as Skalla-Grímr's inherited werewolf/shapeshifting traits came out, he  grows in strength and seizes Egill's friend Þórðr, driving him down onto the ice with the result that he dies instantly. Egill is Skalla-Grímr's next target -- but at this point, Þorgerðr Brák steps in and exclaims 'Hamask þú nú, Skalla-Grímr, at syni þínum' (Egils saga ch. 40, p. 101; 'You're now taken by a fit of berserk-like rage towards your own son!').

Skalla-Grímr grabbed Þorgerðr, but she escaped his grasp and ran all the way down the Digranes/Borgarnes peninsula, chased by Skalla-Grímr. When she reached the end of the peninsula, the saga describes how she threw herself into the water to swim to safety; Skalla-Grímr cast a great stone after her and it hit her between the shoulders, 'ok kom hvártki upp síðan; þar er nú kallat Brákarsund' (Egils saga ch. 40, p. 102; 'and neither of the two came up afterwards; that place is now called Brákarsund ('Brák's Channel')). A cairn stands at the end of the Borgarnes peninsula marking the spot where this part of the saga narrative took place; a bridge now connects the peninsula with the small island, Brákarey, that lies just off the peninsula, and on which local buses are parked and a handful of workshops stand.

Egill composes Sonatorrek 
(Statue at Borg byÁsmundur Sveinsson; on the left, 
Þorgerðr hands a harp to Egill, on the right, with a
gaping hole where his heart and stomach should be)
There is no more in Egils saga about Þorgerðr Brák other than the short description of her quoted above and the few lines which outline the violent climax of the knattleikr. Her story, however, has been made into the subject of the one-woman play 'Brák' written and performed by Brynhildur Guðjónsdóttir and still showing at the National Theatre in Reykjavík. One creative idea that the play presents is that it was Brák who nurtured Egill's poetic talents. The prose of the Icelandic sagas is famously silent as far as the elucidation of saga-characters' inner thoughts and emotional responses is concerned. In the one-man play 'Mr Skallagrímsson', written and performed (at the Landnámssetrið in Borgarnes) by Benedikt Erlingsson, however, Egill's relationship with Þorgerðr Brák, with his father Skalla-Grímr, brother Þórólfr, and others in the saga, are explored from a sympathetic, human perspective, to the end that Egill -- nominated as 'Badass of the Week' on this um interesting website and whose throat-biting, vomiting, excessively violent behaviour in the saga is often unattractive to say the least  -- might be seen almost as a tragic figure.

Egill the Poet, drawn by Guðmundur Þorbjarnarson 
of Borg, aged 6/7. Egill's ability to touch his nose
with his tongue symbolises his poetic talent.
'Mr Skallagrímsson' is a two-hour tour-de-force and an outstanding demonstration of how the sagas (or their component narrative episodes) may have been passed down orally prior to their written composition in the 13th/14th centuries, and were certainly subsequently 'performed' from the manuscripts in which their texts were copied to the assembled members of farm-households, during the long winter evenings, right up until the early 20th century. Benedikt Erlingsson tells Egils saga -- which runs to around 300 pages in printed editions/translations -- with no props, no special effects, and without the expectation that the audience should know the saga well or at all. The energy in his performance when I saw the show was extraordinary and the audience were drawn in and held from start to finish, laughing unrestrainedly for much of the duration of the play -- sometimes at direct quotations from the saga itself. How about that for making the sagas accessible and immediate to audiences today... 

Another way in which Egils saga is made immediate and concrete for those interested in the saga in the 21st century is through archaeological research connected with the saga that has been conducted (and is still ongoing) in the area, especially at Mosfell (back towards Reykjavík), the farm to which Egill moved in his old age, and where he died and was buried. Major excavations have been undertaken here by the Mosfell Archaeological Project (MAP) team headed by Jesse Byock of the University of California in Los Angeles. A full outline of the project and reports covering the excavations so far can be found on the MAP website.

Egils saga relates how initially, Egill was buried in a pagan burial mound but when the country converted to Christianity a decade or so later, Egill was exhumed and his bones laid to rest in the newly-consecrated chuch at Mosfell. When a new and larger church was built 150 years later, Egill was exhumed for a second time by a famous descendant of his, Skapti Þórarinsson, a priest and a learned man. On this occasion, the unusually large size, weight, and appearance of Egill's skull -- the outer surface was ridged all over like a scallop-shell -- provoked interest: the saga describes how Skapti placed the skull on the churchyard fence and hewed at it with an axe to see how thick it was. Remarkably, the blow from Skapti's axe had no result other than that the skull turned white at the point of the impact. Not a bad thing for a viking to have such an indestructible skull, comments the saga...see here, however, for Jesse Byock's argument (published in the Scientific American) that Egill may have suffered from the bone condition known as Paget's Disease. Egill's bones have not yet been found and exhumed for a third time...presumably he is still resting in peace somewhere, and perhaps best to leave him be for the next millennium?


  1. love the statue - iceland has some amazing public art :))

  2. When we were in Borgarnes, it was on a flying visit. I was most humpty that I had to dash off as the others on the trip wanted to leave before I did. Somewhat curtailed my perambulations round the museum and the streets. I am entirely envious of the luxury of the time you have.

  3. hey sis - still loving all this - are you following me???!! !