Thursday, 21 July 2011

From Eastern Parts I: Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða

The most famous saga set in the east of Iceland is Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða. The saga is relatively short and its plot is simple; with regard to interpretation, however, it is a highly ambiguous saga in many ways and more has been written about it—and what its ‚message‘ may be—than about many other sagas put together. It is a narrative about power, certainly, and what it takes to hold on to power, but it is by no means a black-and-white picture...

Aðalból today, looking south down Hrafnkelsdalur
The eponymous Hrafnkell establishes a farm at a place called Aðalból, in Hrafnkelsdalur (to the west of the long narrow lake Lagarfljót, at whose head is the modernday capital of the east, Egilsstaðir). He is a devotee of the god Freyr, becomes a powerful and overbearing chieftain (and acquires the by-name ‚Freysgoði‘, or Freyr‘s priest‘), and owns a horse which he names Freyfaxi. Hrafnkell vows he will kill anyone who rides this horse. Einarr, the son of a poor neighbour, is employed as Hrafnkell‘s shepherd: Hrafnkell tells him he may ride any one of his horses except Freyfaxi—doing so will result in death. ‘Forewarned is forearmed‘, comments Hrafnkell („Eigi veldr sá, er varar annan“, Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða ch. 3, ed. Jón Jóhannesson, Íslenzk fornrit 11, Reykjavík 1950, p. 102).

Faxagil, south of Aðalból
One day, however, Einarr cannot find the sheep. He decides to make use of a horse to search for them, but all of the horses run off with the exception of Freyfaxi. Einarr mounts Freyfaxi and goes off to look for the sheep, which he eventually finds back at the place where he started his search. Freyfaxi runs home to Aðalból, sweating and foaming at the mouth; Hrafnkell sees the horse has been ridden, and kills Einarr to avenge this. Einarr‘s cousin Sámr takes on the legal case against Hrafnkell—Hrafnkell laughs at this—but after gaining the support of powerful brothers from the West Fjords, Sámr wins the case at the Alþingi (the national assembly) despite being very much the underdog. After returning to the east, Sámr subjects Hrafnkell and his men to gruesome torture at Aðalból (tying them together and hanging them up by means of threading a rope through their hamstrings, until the blood runs out of their eyes), and Sámr then gives Hrafnkell the choice of death or keeping his life but moving out of the district. Hrafnkell chooses to move away, and Sámr takes up residence himself at Aðalból. Hrafnkell moves east and establishes a new farm which is called Hrafnkelsstaðir. Freyfaxi is driven over a cliff and drowned in a pool; Hrafnkell‘s temple to Freyr is destroyed.
Looking north up Hrafnkelsdalur
Hrafnkell prospers on his new farm and builds up his power again; he abandons his devotion to the god Freyr. Some years later, Sámr‘s brother Eyvindr returns to Iceland after a stint abroad. Hrafnkell learns that Eyvindr is travelling to visit Sámr at Aðalból; pursues him, and kills him in order to exact vengeance on Sámr. Sámr finds his dead brother, raises a burial mound over him. Hrafnkell goes home to Hrafnkelsstaðir, calmly has a meal, and then sets off to Aðalból where he gives Sámr the same choice of options that Sámr offered to him before: to die, or to live (with shame) and move out of Aðalból. Sámr chooses the latter and moves back to his farm at Leiksskálar. Hrafnkell dies of sickness and is buried in a mound at Aðalból; his sons take over his chieftancy and become powerful men themselves. ‚And there concludes what there is to say about Hrafnkell‘ (Ok lýkr þar frá Hrafnkeli at segja, Hrafnkels saga ch. 10, p. 133).    

The saga has long been a test-case in the debate over whether the sagas are essentially 13th-century fiction, or have their origins in oral traditions about historical events that were passed down from one generation to the next and finally inscribed on parchment several hundred years after the times these events are said to have taken place. Much scholarly ink has also been spilt over the extent to which the presentation of local topography in Hrafnkels saga ‚fits‘ or can be reconciled with what is to be found in the local area in modern times.

Hrossageilar, above Aðalból, where Sámr and
his men left their horses before going down
to Aðalból to torture Hrafnkell??
There are a number of occasions in the saga where place-names are explained as having come into existence after certain events: the saga notes, for example, how places around where Sámr‘s brother Eyvindr was killed by Hrafnkell are known variously as Eyvindartorfa (‚Eyvindr‘s turf‘),Eyvindarfjöll (‚Eyvindr‘s mountain‘) and Eyvindardalr‘ (‚Eyvindr‘s valley‘) (Er þar ok kölluð Eyvindartorfa ok Eyvindarfjöll ok Eyvindardalr, Hrafnkels saga ch. 8, p. 130; ‘That place is now called Eyvindartorfa and Eyvindarfjöll and Eyvindardalr‘). The spot where Sámr and his men concealed their horses above the farm Aðalból before driving Hrafnkell away ‚has since been called Hrossageilar (‚Narrow glen/lane of horses‘)‘ (heita þar síðan Hrossageilar, Hrafnkels saga ch. 5, p. 119). And the spot from where the horse Freyfaxi was driven to his death ‚has since been called Freyfaxahamarr (‚Freyfaxi‘s cliff‘)‘ (Heitir þar síðan Freyfaxahamarr, Hrafnkels saga ch. 6, p. 124).  

Many of the places named in Hrafnkels saga—individual farmsteads, shepherd‘s cots, natural features such as rivers and gullies—can be found on a map, though as always, it is possible to debate whether the identification of these places today corresponds with where they were (or were thought to be) at the time when the saga was written, and again, at the time when the events that the saga describes took place. The farm at Aðalból itself is one example of this—was the Aðalból of the saga located where the modern Aðalból is today, or was it originally somewhere further south in the valley? Some of those who have written about topography and Hrafnkels saga have questioned the ‘fit‘ between the saga‘s description of the natural features around Aðalból, and the lie of the land in which the present Aðalból is set. Others are certain that the saga Aðalból was located where the modern Aðalból is, though the valley has not been continuously inhabited from the saga-age to present times, due to volcanic ash falling at different times (after the volcano Hekla erupted in 1185, for example, the valley seems to have been deserted until the late middle ages when it was resettled).

Basalt formations with moss
The present Aðalból was dug by Sigurður Vigfússon in the late 19th century and identified a mound there which may or may not be Hrafnkell‘s is said to be his, at any rate (and Sigurður wrote that the human bones found in it must be Hrafnkell's). Other sites in the valley have been excavated too: archaeologists have identified a total of 20 dwelling places from early times, 16 of which were apparently abandoned after the 1185 Hekla eruption. Some places named in the saga cannot be (or have not been) identified at all—though local people and scholars of the saga have walked hill and dale to find them. One site that was long sought out was the location of the shepherd‘s cot Reykjasel, mentioned in Hrafnkels saga in conjunction with the shepherd Einarr‘s fated searching for Hrafnkell‘s missing sheep. A local man who had been pondering the location Reykjasel for many years finally stumbled upon it, literally, while rounding up sheep in an autumn fog, shortly before construction (or destruction, depending on one´s perspective) work begain on the infamous Kárahnjúkur dam and reservoir in 2005. The site was excavated hurriedly in 2005 before the land was flooded and turned into the Hálslón lagoon that feeds the Kárahnjúkur hydro-electric power-plant. Other examples are Eyvindartorfa (where Eyvindr was buried, see above) and Freyfaxahamarr (where the horse Freyfaxi met his death, see above).

The saga continues to draw people to the remote Hrafnkelsdalur valley, however—on the present farm there is accommodation, a petrol pump, and a bar which goes by the name of ‘Sámsbar‘...and in which I am writing up this post. When I asked the owners why the bar is named after Sámr and not Hrafnkell, they replied that they found him to be a more sympathetic character...and so he is in many, though not in all, ways (here I think of his hamstringing of Hrafnkell). But the victory of the underdog turns out to be short-lived—perhaps it would have been more enduring had Sámr killed Hrafnkell as he was urged to do by others...but this is an uncomfortable equation/conclusion. „Svona er lífið“ (‚Such is life‘), an Icelander might say...  
From the southern foot of Hrafnkelsdalur

For those who want to read more about Hrafnkels saga and place-names, one place to start is with an article by O. D. Macrae-Gibson, ‘The Topography of Hrafnkels saga‘, published in the Saga-Book of the Viking Society 19 (1974-77), 239-63, and accessible online at Further references to previous scholarship can be found therein.

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