Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Circles and Rounds-about Vápnfirðinga saga Country

Iceland's Coat of Arms
Vopnafjörður, in north-east Iceland, is famous on several counts, both medieval and modern. It is home to one of Iceland's four mythical guardian spirits or landvættir, the dragon (the other three are a great bird which resides in Eyjafjörður in the north, a bull based around Breiðafjörður in the west, and a mountain giant who roams around the south-west): all four creatures are pictured on Iceland's coat of arms, and on the obverse of Icelandic coins. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Vopnafjörður was the port from which the greatest numbers of Icelanders set sail for America and Canada after the terrible hardships of life in the east at that time became impossible to endure any longer. Most recently -- and at the opposite end of the financial spectrum -- Vopnafjörður, or the rivers in the area and the salmon in those rivers, have attracted figures such as Prince Charles and George Bush as well as numerous other high-profile tourists...

Looking north-east from Hof

The saga that is set around Vopnafjörður, Vápnfirðinga saga ('The saga of the people of Weapon-Fjord') was the last of the eastern sagas on my list to work through. I have written in recent posts about some of the connections -- genealogical, geographical, narrative -- between these eastern sagas and Vápnfirðinga saga is no exception here. One of the two key places in Vápnfirðinga saga, Krossavík, is where Grímr Droplaugarson of Droplaugarsonar saga hid out after murdering Helgi Ásbjarnarson (see post of 29th July). A local man who was born and grew up on the farm at Krossavík came with me for a spin about the countryside in the Embulance and pointed out the places associated with Grímr around Krossavík land, as well as passing on countless other anecdotes attached to local places.

(the land slopes down to the sea to the left of the photo) 

Vápnfirðinga saga is not a very long one and it deals for the most part with the close friendship, and subsequently deadly enmity, between two brothers-in-law: Brodd-Helgi Þorgilsson who lives at Hof, and Geitir Lýtingsson who lives at Krossavík. The rift between the two men comes after a Norwegian merchant is murdered: Brodd-Helgi and Geitir at first divide the Norwegian's possessions between them, but the goods are later taken from Brodd-Helgi and Geitir by another man who delivers the possessions to the dead Norwegian's family. It is unclear what becomes of two precious things (a gold arm-ring and a casket), however, and the friendship between Brodd-Helgi and Geitir is poisoned by mutual suspicion. Tension is compounded when Brodd-Helgi abandons his terminally-ill wife (Geitir's sister) and announces his betrothal to another woman. The two men take different sides in various local disputes and eventually, one thing leads to another, and Geitir kills Brodd-Helgi. The feud is passed down to the next generation and Brodd-Helgi's son Bjarni then kills Geitir (who was his foster-father) in order to avenge his father's death...then Geitir's son Þorkell tries to kill Bjarni in order to avenge his father´s death...

Hof (the white building to the right of the frame),
from Guðmundarstaðir, looking south-west across the valley
At a battle that takes place on a peninsula along the coast to the south of Vopnafjörður, both Bjarni and Þorkell sustain wounds -- but the battle is halted after women run out from a nearby farm and throw cloths over the weapons men are wielding. Bjarni offers a settlement package to Þorkell which he accepts, and so the saga ends, at least, with reconciliation...

I had the pleasure of being shown around other saga-sites in Vápnfirðinga saga by another local, Cathy -- who (together with her husband Sverrir) came to my rescue after somewhat alarmingly, the Embulance brakes seized up from chronic over-heating as I was descending the infamously steep and long Hellisheiði mountain pass into Vopnafjörður. A terrible smell of burning brakes culminated in a rather dramatic handbrake stop amidst clouds of dust...but all ended happily, thankfully, and the Embulance and I lived to tell the tale and continue to travel. It was an amazing road -- I took no pictures en route as all my energy was focused on staying on the road and negotiating the countless hairpin-bends -- I´d love to drive it again some time...but perhaps in a slightly lighter and more easily manouverable vehicle! Cathy is remarkable for many reasons, one of them being her history: her grandparents were amongst the many 'Western' Icelanders who emigrated from Vopnafjörður to the United States, which is where Cathy was born and lived...until she visited Iceland in order to explore her family past, and moved back east for good. A story of emigration come full circle...   

Surprised sheep at the abandoned Guðmundarstaðir,
another farm in Vápnafirðinga saga
Cathy is part of a local group which came together over the winter and, as part of a course on local tourism, read Vápnfirðinga saga and put together a very informative brochure about the saga. The brochure can be picked up in the tourist information and cultural centre (housed in an old merchant warehouse building called Kaupvangur) in Vopnafjörður, and it includes a map on which all of the farms mentioned in the saga are marked. Interestingly, it seems that the formation of this group has ignited a spark of local interest in the saga which wasn´t widely present before. On asking various people, it seemed that knowledge of, and interest in the saga hasn´t particularly been a part of life in Vopnafjörður for past generations... Now though, the saga is taught in the local school, and various Vápnafirðinga saga-related projects and activities are afoot. I spent a delightful hour leafing through a pile of pictures produced by school-children illustrating scenes and characters from the saga: one of my favourites was a brightly-coloured picture of a local farmhouse -- a farm which features in the saga, and on which the grandparents of the artist live today. The next post -- on Reykdæla saga ok Víga-Skútu -- will be something of an antidote to the all-too-often romantic temptations of seeing continuity between past and present in Iceland as far as the sagas and the places in them are concerned...but I left Vopnafjörður musing on how this saga, at least, seems to be one that has come full circle too, as far as its place in local consciousness is concerned.   

Cairns on Sandvíkurheiði, on the way north from Vopnafjörður


  1. Dear Emily, Michael and Emily Perry from Croomshill Greenwich just sent me the link to your beautiful blog.. I will be in Iceland on 21st september, perhaps I meet you somewhere or not, but just a few words to say your uncle Nico was an angel in my life, and that I like the idea of following your adventure, you are great !!!!!! christine, malegoude, france

  2. Ég er svo fegin að þú komst heil á húfi til Vopnafjarðar!

  3. Fascinating read and photos!
    -Eva Maria