Sunday, 24 April 2011

Laxdæla saga 2: Unnr the deepminded, the matriarch of Dalir

Monument to Snorri Sturluson at Hvammur, looking north-west up Skeggjadalur

Unnr djúpúðga var á Katanesi, er Þorsteinn fell, sonr hennar; ok er hon frá þat, at Þorsteinn var látinn, en faðir hennar andaðr, þá þóttisk hon þar enga uppreist fá mundu. Eptir þat lætr hon gera knörr í skógi á laun; ok er skipit var algört, þá bjó hon skipit ok hafði auð fjár. Hon hafði brott með sér allt frændlið sitt, þat er á lífi var, ok þykkjask menn varla dæmi til finna, at einn kvenmaðr hafa komizk í brott í þvílíkum ófriði með jafnmiklu fé ok föruneyti; má af því marka, at hon var mikit afbragð annarra kvenna (Laxdæla saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit 5 (Reykjavík, 1934), ch. 4, p. 7; 'Unnr djúpúðga 'deep-minded' was in Caithness [in Scotland] when Þorsteinn, her son, fell; and when she learned that Þorsteinn was dead, and her father deceased, then she thought there was no future to be had there. After that she had a knörr [a kind of cargo ship] built in secret in the forest; and when the ship was finished, then she loaded it and had a great quantity of wealth. She took away with her all her relations who were still alive, and men think there is scarecly a parallel to be found of a woman getting away in such war-torn times with an equal quantity of goods and companions; it may be seen from this, that she was greatly superior to other women').

View to the east from Dagverðarnes

As I wrote in my previous post, one feature of Laxdæla saga is that it presents one remarkable woman after another -- Unnr (sometimes called Auðr) is the first of these and in many ways the yardstick against which the other women in the saga are measured. Unnr was born in 834 C.E., the daughter of the Norwegian chieftain Ketill flatnef, and by the time of the passage above, the widow of King Óláfr hvíti, king of Dublin, who died fighting in Ireland. From Caithness, Unnr sailed to the Orkneys, from there to the Faroes, and thence to Iceland where, after her ship broke up on the southern coast, she travelled on with her party and goods to her brother Björn who had already settled in Breiðafjörðr. Most other sagas tell of male first-generation settlers and Unnr is an exceptional example of a female land-taker. She claimed a great swathe of land in Dalasýsla in the north-west of Iceland, established a homestead at Hvammr (at the southern end of Hvammsfjörður, on the northern shore), and gave extensive parts of the land she had claimed to her followers, many of whom were well-born themselves, and others whom she released from bondage.

Ch. 6 of Laxdæla saga tells, for example, of how she gave land to a certain Hörðr, to a man named Sökkólfr, to Hundi, and to Vífill amongst others. The names of many of the valleys in Dalasýsla -- Hörðadalur, Sökkólfsdalur, Hundadalur, Vífilsdalur respectively -- commemorate this first generation of settlers who came to Iceland with Unnr and the land-taking is thus recorded in, or written into, the landscape (a useful sketch/map of the area which includes some of these valleys can be found here). Other place-names in the area are associated in the saga with the journeying process of Unnr´s land-taking. Dögurðarnes ('breakfast' or 'main-meal-of-the-day-nes'; now Dagverðarnes, on the western tip of the northern shore of Hvammsfjörður) is so-called because Unnr and her party ate their morning meal there, and Kambsnes ('comb-nes', a wedge-shaped peninsula on the inner eastern end of Hvammsfjörður) acquired its name -- according to the saga -- because Unnr lost her comb there. An alternative explanation for this latter name that I heard from a local farmer is that when one looks over to the peninsula from the raised vantage point of Krosshólaborg, it tapers off at the end of the Laxárdalsháls ridge (which runs on a north-east/south-west axis) like a comb. 

Kambsnes is now a tiny airstrip; Dagverðarnes is at the end of several kms of rough and winding track which this time of year, presented various snow-drift, ice- and mud-related challenges when I negotiated it in the Embulance -- 4-wheel-drive and the diff lock were on all the way. There is a small church, a house, and some outhouses there now...and just enough mobile reception for me to let people know that I´d got there. The wind howled and rain pelted down overnight; eating my morning meal there -- with the sun breaking from the clouds, the countless islands and skerries that lie beyond the peninsula coming into sharper focus, the mountains that form a chain along the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the southern shore of Hvammsfjörður glittering white, and seabirds screaming -- was an intense experience.

Church and farm at Hvammur

Another noteworthy fact about Unnr is that she was baptised as a Christian prior to her arrival in Iceland. The majority of settlers held pre-Christian beliefs and worshipped the gods and goddesses in the Norse pantheon; Iceland was not converted to Christianity until the year 999/1000 C.E., when the lawspeaker at that time (the chieftain Þorgeirr Þorkelsson from Ljósavatn in the north of Iceland) decreed that the country should officially accept the Christian faith as their 'national' religion. Unnr's farmstead at Hvammr was an important place through Icelandic history: it was a chieftain´s farmstead in the Middle Ages, and later a priest´s residence; the famous politician/historian/poet Snorri Sturluson was born there in 1179, and  Árni Magnússon (b. 1663) -- the great collector of Icelandic manuscripts -- grew up there in the 17th century with his grandfather Séra ('Reverend') Ketill Jörundsson, a priest who produced copies of a number of medieval parchment manuscripts.

The present church and farm at Hvammur are situated at the foot of Hólafjall, about 2kms inland from the water of Hvammsfjörður; by the shore, however, and not marked on any map I looked at but shown to me by another local farmer, are some grassy mounds and stones which are said to be very old and bear the name 'Auðartóftir' ('Auðr's toft/homestead'). Landnámabók is more explicit about Unnr's Christianity than Laxdæla saga, and notes that Unnr used to go up to the top of a nearby hill every day to pray: the rocky outcrop known as Krosshólaborg, on which an imposing (modern) stone cross commemorating Unnr and her Christian faith, is said to be this hill. One local woman suggested that Unnr might have made a daily habit of walking up this hill -- or perhaps one closer to Hvammr which might in fact have been the 'real' Krosshólaborg -- because it offers very good views in every direction and would therefore have been a useful vantage point from which this resourceful and powerful woman could see what was going on in the area.

The modern cross at Krosshólaborg
(looking towards the north)

The chapter in which Unnr's death is related in Laxdæla saga is an incredibly vivid one and there is a nice link between the report of her burial in the saga and a local tradition attached to a rock known as 'Auðarsteinn' ('Auðr's stone') that rises out of the water some metres from the shoreline of Hvammsfjörður, not far from Hvammur. Unnr has grown old but though she does not get up before midday and goes to bed early, her influence and standing has not diminished: she has married off her children and grandchildren and her final matriarchal act is to arrange the marriage of her favourite grandson, the promising Óláfr feilan ('little wolf', from the Old Irish fæl, 'wolf') Þorsteinsson to a woman called Álfdís.

Unnr prepares a lavish bridal feast and invites the leading men from other districts around Iceland to it. On the day of the feast, she sleeps even longer than usual in the morning but gets up when the guests arrive and greets them all with great honour and pleasure, thanking them for travelling such long distances. During the course of the feast, Unnr announces that it is her wish Óláfr inherit Hvammr and her land-holdings, and after this, she retires to her bed-closet. The saga states: Svá segja menn, at Unnr hafi verit bæði há og þreklig; hon gekk hart útar eptir skálanum; fundusk mönnum orð um, at konan var enn virðulig (Laxdæla saga ch. 7, pp. 12-13; 'Men say that Unnr was both tall and strong/stout; she walked quickly from the hall; people spoke about how the woman was still splendid'). Men drink through the evening after Unnr has retired and the next day, when Óláfr goes to Unnr´s bed-chamber, he finds her sat upright against her bolster, dead. 'It seemed to men remarkable how Unnr had maintained her honour until her death-day' (þótti mönnum mikils um vert, hversu Unnr hafði haldit virðingu sinni til dauðadags, Laxdæla saga ch. 7, p. 13). 

Óláfr's wedding feast thus simultaneously becomes Unnr's wake, and Laxdæla saga relates how Unnr was buried on the last day of the feast. According to Laxdæla saga, 'Unnr's corpse was conveyed to that mound which had been prepared for her; she was laid in a ship in the mound, and a great deal of treasure was placed in the mound with her; afterwards the mound was filled in' (var Unnr flutt til haugs þess, er henni var búinn; hon var lögð í skip í hauginum, ok mikit fé var í haug lagt með henni; var eptir þat aptr kastaðr haugrinn, Laxdæla saga ch. 7, p. 13). There is a discrepancy here with the information found in Landnámabók regarding Unnr's burial which states that she 'was buried at the flood-mark, as she had instructed before, because she did not wish to lie in unconsecrated earth, as she was baptised' (var grafin í flæðarmáli, sem hún hafði fyrir sagt, því at hon vildi eigi liggja í óvígðri moldu, er hon var skírð). The stone, Auðarsteinn, that is said by local people to mark her burial place in the shallows just beyond Akursvík in Hvammsfjörður, would seem to correspond with the account in Landnámabók rather than that in Laxdæ with Kjartanssteinn (discussed in the previous post), we will probably never know whether or not this stone really does mark the burial place of Unnr djúpúðga, and whether she was buried in a mound or at the tide-mark under a rock. But perhaps, the very fact that alternative traditions with regard to Unnr's burial exist might be seen in itself as evidence of the far-reaching impact that Unnr -- both as an historical character and the figure as presented in written sources -- had on the construction of the settlement-period history of Dalir, and the hold that this 'founding mother' still has in local people's consciousness.


  1. i remain ever amazed at the icelandic saga stories - living in a place as i do with so little written history pre the 17th century - yet an amazing amount of archaeological remains and tantalising place names:))

  2. far away she is my cousin...

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