Thursday, 19 May 2011

Eyrbyggja saga I: Berserkers and bathhouses on the Snæfellsnes peninsula

„This, even more than Thingvellir, is the saga-pilgrim‘s classic ground“ wrote William Gershom Collingwood of the Þórsnes peninsula (at the northern end of which now is the town of Stykkishólmur), located on the inner northern shore of the Snæfellsnes ‚arm‘. „Its associations are richer even than those of Lythend [where Gunnar of Njáls saga lived]: its history is fuller and more varied than any other Icelandic neighbourhood“ (Pilgrimage, p. 82). The Snæfellsjökull glacier at the western end of Snæfellsnes is perhaps most famous for being the entry-point of the German Professor Otto Lidenbrock‘s, Axel‘s (the Professor‘s nephew), and Hans‘s (the guide) journey to the centre of the earth as related by Jules Vernes in his 1864 novel of that name. The stories told in Eyrbyggja saga (‚The saga of the Ere-Dwellers‘), however, set 1000 years before Jules Vernes‘s fiction, are just as absorbing and at times as outlandish as Vernes‘s flights of fancy—if not more so, and with their kernel in historical characters and events. There is everything in this saga—politics, heroics alongside dastardly behaviour on the battle-field, love, the walking dead... it is a saga whose plot and substance I have found difficult to hold as a whole in my head in the past, and some pieces of academic criticism on the saga have judged its structure to be wanting in cohesiveness at times. But reading the saga in its landscape somehow clarified it for me—both its component narrative parts, and the saga as a whole narrative: the stranger episodes seemed even stranger, the romance more romantic and more painful, the often dark or dry humour sharper.  

Dritsker, Hofsstaðir
The vividly-named Þórólfr Mostrarskegg (‚Mostr-beard‘, Mostr being an island in Norway) was the first settler here: the beginning of Eyrbyggja saga describes how he left Norway, sailed to Iceland, cast his seat-posts (with a likeness of the god Þórr carved onto them) overboard and established a homestead and a temple to Þórr at Hofsstaðir, on the inner northern shore of Hofstaðavogur, into which the seat-posts were washed ashore—Þórólfr gave Breiðafjörður (‚Broad fjord‘) its name sailing in to it from the west and claiming it for himself. Þórólfr worshipped Þórr steadfastly and, in addition to naming the nes or peninsula in honour of Þórr and building a temple to him at Hofsstaðir, the place where the seat-post likeness of Þórr had landed became the local assembly site. This place was so holy that no-one was permitted to desecrate it by shedding blood or by defecating there—this latter necessary activity was to be carried out on a close-lying skerry which took the apt name of Dritsker (‚Dirt-skerry‘).

Þórssteinn, Þingvellir
After a fight broke out between the Þórsnes-men and others over this rule at one spring assembly, and the sacrosanct land was defiled by bloodshed, the þing-site was moved to a north-eastern location on the peninsula—Þingvellir (‚Assembly-plains‘). Eyrbyggja saga describes this second assembly-site where, at the time of the saga‘s writing down, Þar sér enn dómhring þann, er menn váru dæmðir í til blóts; í þeim hring stendr Þórs steinn, er þeir menn váru brotnir um, er til blóta váru hafðir, ok sér enn blóðslitinn á steininum (Eyrbyggja saga, ch. 10, p. 18; ‚There one sees still the judgement ring, where men were doomed to sacrifice; in that ring stands Þórr‘s stone, where those men were broken who were to be sacrificed, and one sees still the blood-stain on the stone‘). There is a working farm at Þingvellir today: when I visited, the farmers were waiting for the imminent beginning of lambing and driving shit from the sheep-shed over the field where the judgement-ring was set those many centuries ago—and in the middle of which, Þórr‘s stone still stands. Collingwood noted the stains on the stone: „ upon it here and there a brown stain which may have been what the saga-man saw: not of blood but of iron in the stone“ (Pilgrimage, p. 95). More striking when I inspected the stone was a bright yellow lichen clinging and spreading tenaciously over the surface. It is almost certain that human sacrifice never took place in pre-Christian Iceland (as Collingwood himself noted)—and this must be understood as an antiquarian elaboration on the part of the saga-writer.     

Helgafell, looking east

Þórólfr believed the hill on the Þórsnes peninsula that rises abruptly from the lower-lying land, and that from some angles resembles the hump of a beached whale, was especially holy: he named the hill Helgafell (‚Holy-hill‘) ok trúði, at hann myndi þangat fara, þá er hann dæi, ok allir á nesinu hans frændr (Eyrbyggja saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarson, Islenzk fornrit IV, Reykjavík 1935, ch. 4, p. 9; ‚and he believed that he would go there when he died, and all his kinsmen on the peninsula‘). Slightly later in the saga, Þórólfr‘s son, Þorsteinn þorskabítr (‚cod-biter‘), goes out fishing; that night, a shepherd sees the hill-side opened up. A great fire is burning inside and he hears noises of great revelry and drinking and the welcoming of Þorsteinn (together with his companions), who is invited to sit on the highseat opposite his father. The next morning, men come back to the farm and announce the news that Þorsteinn had drowned while out fishing. Later in the saga, after a number of other local men are drowned while out at sea, they (or their reanimated corpses) return to their farmstead and sit, dripping seawater onto the floor, around the fire in the hall every night until they are subjected to a legal ceremony which bans them from occupying the house...   

Berserkjagata, with Bjarnarhöfn at the foot of the
mountain behind
Helgafell becomes the seat of Þórólfr‘s great-grandson Snorri—a wily and powerful chieftain who figures prominently throughout the saga and is famous for dispensing clever, if ‚cold‘, advice—until in later age he swaps homes with Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir from Laxdæla saga (a photo of Guðrún‘s headstone at Helgafell is in the previous post of 10th May). At one point, Snorri helps a local man called Styrr who has got into a tight spot with a couple of imported Swedish berserkers. These men are proving difficult to keep under control and one of them expresses his wish to marry Styrr‘s daughter Ásdís. On Snorri‘s advice, Styrr sets the berserkers an impossible task in order to win Ásdís‘s hand—to clear, in three days, a path through the lava field between his farmstead at undir Hrauni (‚below the lava‘) and Bjarnarhöfn (on the peninsula to the west of that of Þórsnes; originally the homestead of Björn Ketilsson inn austræna (‚the easterner‘) who is a brother of Auðr/Unnr in djúpúðga of Laxdæla saga). This the berserkers manage to do—but meanwhile, Styrr builds a bathhouse, into which he then lures and locks the berserkers, and when they try to break out after the bathhouse becomes unbearably hot, Styrr deals one of them his deathblow, and the other is driven back into the bathhouse and dies there. Their bodies are taken out into the lava and in a sunken valley therein where nothing can be seen but the sky above, they are buried under a pile of rocks...and Ásdís subsequently becomes Snorri‘s wife. The path (‚Berserkjagata‘) is there today and can be followed from start to finish—as is the dys beside the path which marks the berserkers‘ final resting place; a local woman told me that the story must be true because noone but berserkers could have been strong enough to clear the path through the lava.

Berserkjadys (the rectangular stone structure)
The colours in the landscape made a deep impression on me as I explored the Snæfellsnes peninsula (there will be a second post on the saga shortly...). The gleaming white of the glacier with its crooked horns, the dusty greys of the thick moss that grows over the lava—itself sometimes dark and black, sometimes magenta or russet or mauve—the bright vivid luminous green of wet moss. I drove from the northern shore of the peninsula south up over the Fróðárheiði and then west along the southern shore and around the glacier almost reeling at times from the visual impact of the landscape on me. The Embulance, I‘m pleased to report, was not affected physically in the same way...and so the journey continues...           

Snæfellsnes and Embulance


  1. Fantastic pictures, great account. Keep it up!

  2. Thanks Valdimar -- and others (Donnie especially) for your continuing encouragement! It gives me a great lift reading your positive comments (which is not to say that critical comments would not be welcome too...). Crazy weather the past few days in the West Fjords, endless snow and freezing temperatures (again). Thought I'd got through the worst as far as the weather was concerned. Set to improve though will believe it when I see it! Emily

  3. gorgeous gorgeous pics - Helgafell looks amazing - you can have some of our wind and rain if you wish to swap :)

  4. Trying to pinpoint via GPS where the Þórssteinn is for a project. Do you know?