Sunday, 11 September 2011

Sheep Past and Present, and Grettis saga

Sheep may safely breakfast companions this morning

Rounded-Up Sheep
Last weekend, I helped round up the sheep in one part of Eyjafjarðarsveit (in the north of Iceland) -- something I've done each autumn for the past four years. Farmers send their sheep up into the mountains early in the summer to graze, and they're rounded up and driven down in fill freezers for the winter and be turned into all kinds of sausage/pate/smoked- pickled- or minced-meat goodies... The sheep-roundup is a co-operative local operation and in this and in other ways, I don't imagine the basic methods have changed for hundreds of years, though communication on the hillsides and moors is made easier now thanks to walkie-talkies, and some ride quad-bikes or motocross bikes rather than horses or walk. Those rounding up the sheep will string out over a designated area and move forward together in a line, shouting and whistling to drive the sheep down and into a herd; this herd is then driven into a sheep-fold and the individual sheep are then sorted by the farmers according to the identification tag in their ear. It's a big local community event and many people turn up to watch or get involved in the sheep-sorting part of the process, if they weren't out there rounding up the sheep to begin with. 

Sheep being sorted in Vatnsdalur
The sound of hundreds of sheep bleating away together, and the sight of them hopping along in a woolly mass, makes for a hugely entertaining spectacle: they are funny creatures. My delight at sheepish behaviour is nothing new however: the famous saga outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson seems also, at times, to have had a soft spot for sheep though more often he rustles them from local farmers for his supper. There is a rather pitiful description of a dusky-coloured wether in the remote Highland valley Þórisdalur, whose lamb Grettir takes and eats in his 8th or 9th year as an outlaw: after 'Mókolla' loses her lamb, she goes up to Grettir's hut every night and bleats, so that Grettir cannot sleep; Grettir regrets killing the lamb on account of this disturbance ('En er Mókolla missti dilks síns, fór hon upp á skála Grettis hverja nótt ok jarmaði, svá at hann mátti enga nótt sofa; þess iðraðisk hann mest, er hann hafði dilkinn skorit, fyrir ónáðum hennar', Grettis saga, ed. Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit 7 (Reykjavík 1936), ch. 61, p. 200).  

Drangey and Kerling, looking north
Grettir spent the final three years of his life on the island of Drangey in Skagafjörður; when he arrived on the island (with his younger brother Illugi, and a thief/servant called Glaumr), Grettis saga states there were around 80 sheep grazing there, belonging to local farmers. After a couple of years, Grettir and the others have eaten their way through all of these, but they allow one ram to live -- as a source of (presumably badly-needed) entertainment. This ram was 'hösmögóttr at lit ok hyrndr mjök. At honum hendu þeir mikit gaman, því at hann var svá spakr, at hann stóð fyrir úti ok rann eptir þeim, þar sem þeir gengu. Hann gekk heim til skála á kveldin og gneri hornum sínum við hurðina' (Grettis saga ch. 73, p. 237; 'grey-bellied in colour and with big horns. They had much fun with him, for he was so tame that he stood outside and ran after them wherever they walked. He went home to the hut in the evening and rubbed his horns against the door').

Grettir survived longer as an outlaw than any one else in Iceland and there are countless places around the country where he is said to have hid out in a cave or built a shelter, or demonstrated his strength by lifting a large rock (known as a 'Grettistak' or 'Grettishaf'). According to the saga, Grettir installed himself on Drangey after his sojourn in Bárðardalur, where he fought two trolls/giants (see my previous post of 30th August). Grettir's younger brother Illugi is determined to accompany him; their mother Ásdís, on saying her farewells, knows she will never see her sons again, and that they will be overcome by treachery. Drangey is a perfect defensive stronghold: 'hon var grasi vaxin, en sjábrött, svá at hvergi mátti upp á komask, nema þar sem stigarnir váru við látnir, ok ef upp var dreginn inn efri stiginn, þá var þat einskis manns færleikr, at komask á eyna' (Grettis saga ch. 69, p. 225; 'It was grown over with grass, but with steep cliffs down to the sea, so that noone could come up onto it except where the ladders were, and if the upper ladder was pulled in, then noone had the strength to get onto the island'). The island rises up sheer in the middle of Skagafjörður, with the rock-stack Kerling to its south.

Grettir, Illugi and Glaumr built a hut on a grassy patch at the south-eastern end of the island: this part of the island is now known as Kofabrekka ('Hut-slope'). Other place-names on the island commemorate Grettir's time there: the only water source on the island is called 'Grettisbrunnur' ('Grettir's well'), a certain cliff-face is called 'Grettissteinar' ('Grettir's stones'), and another cliff-face, Hæringshlaup ('Hæringr's leap'), is said to be where a Norwegian assassin named Hæringr, who had amazingly managed to scale the cliffs, ran back and fell off the cliff down to the rocks below after Illugi approached to fight him. Grettir had an ally who lived on the farm at Reykir on the Reykjaströnd shore (the western side of Skagafjörður) and rowed him out to the island secretly: on one occasion, when the servant Glaumr carelessly lets the fire go out, Grettir swims to the mainland to get fire...and warms up after his swim in the natural hotspring at Reykir.

Reykir from the sea
Sign at the hotpot at Reykir

Today, this hotpot is known as Grettislaug ('Grettir's Bath'), and a boat departs from Reykir to the island in the summer. I stayed at Reykir last night in the Embulance: there were northern lights, after a pink and grey sunset in which I lost myself while soaking in Grettislaug, and I woke this morning to a pearly sunrise over Skagafjörður and the sound of breakers crashing on the shingle a few metres from where I'd parked the van. And most exciting of all, I joined a short tour out to the island this morning...something which I have been waiting and hoping for for days. William Gershom Collingwood describes how he 'steamed into the fjord, rolling in the swell of the open sea after rough weather, [as] the sunset died away in purple and rosy light on the hills, and gave place to a cold twilight, with a moon that silvered the snowy summits. Drangey stood grim and grey upon the water, seeming unapproachable, with bare sides and bare top, the most inhospitable of abodes' (A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland, 1897, p. 169). It's an island that has exerted a great hold on the saga-saturated imagination for centuries. 

We didn't go up onto the island -- which I will have to do next summer now -- but it was remarkable to sail around it and examine it up close. Although it looks like a solid mass from the mainland, in fact its contours and cliffs are not at all regular and, particularly on the western side, there are a number of small headlands or peninsulas that jut out into the water and form a couple of bays (one of which is known as Uppgönguvík, literally 'Climbing-Up-Bay', where one ascends the island via ladders and a small track). The colours struck me too -- warm honey-yellows, thick white crusts of birdshit, a black seam that runs on a rough horizontal through some of the cliff-faces, the green of the grassy slopes on the island's crown. The water-source, Grettisbrunnur, is visible from the sea, being on a small grassy ledge, accessed by a ladder and with a sheer drop to the sea below; one can see too the slope where Grettir's hut is said to have been...tantalising. 

The southern end of Drangey;
Kofabrekka is the higher grassy slope
Grettir died on Drangey -- but only after a witch cast a spell on a log which washed up on the island, and off which Grettir's axe glanced into his leg when chopping it up for firewood. The wound Grettir sustained caused his leg to swell up monstrously and turn black; this rather incapacitated him when his enemies finally managed to get up to the top of the island. 'Hösmagi [the grey-bellied sheep] is knocking at the door, brother', said Illugi; 'and is knocking rather hard and without mercy', said Grettir; and at that moment the door burst open' ('Þá mælti Illugi: "Knýr Hösmagi hurð, bróðir," segir hann. "Ok knýr heldr fast," sagði Grettir, "ok óþyrmiliga;" ok í því brast sundr hurðin', Grettis saga ch. 82, p. 259). Grettir is overpowered despite his brother's valiant attempt to defend him; 'there was no defence from him, because he was already near dead from the leg-wound; the thigh was suppurated all the way up to his guts; they dealt him many wounds, but little or no blood came from him  ('Varð þat engi vörn af honum, því at hann var áðr kominn at bana af fótarsárinu; var lærit allt grafit upp at smáþörmum; veittu þeir honum þá mörg sár, svá at lítt eða ekki blæddi', Grettis saga ch. 82, p. 261). Grettir's principal enemy Þorbjörn Öngull cuts off Grettir's hand to plunder his famous short-sword Kársnaut (acquired after fighting a trollish zombie in his burial mound in Norway), and then cuts off his head with the same sword. Þorbjörn later presents Grettir's mother with Grettir's head at the family farm at Bjarg (I head there tomorrow), and is eventually killed himself by the same sword by another of Grettir's brothers in Constantinople.

The closing words of the saga present the verdict on Grettir's life as formulated by Sturla lögmaðr ('lawspeaker') Þórðarson, who lived in the 13th century and was a poet and writer as well as a key political figure of his time. Grettir was the greatest of all outlaws, for three reasons, Sturla proclaimed: first, he was the wisest of all outlaws, because he survived longer than any other outlaw and was never overcome while he was healthy; second, he was the strongest man in Iceland of his time and better at dealing with the walking dead and other monsters than other men; finally, because he was avenged in Constantinople, as no other Icelander has been, and this by his brother Þorsteinn drómundr who was an exceptionally blessed/lucky man. Bedtime now for me -- with my hair stiff with sea-salt, a bright moon shining over the Embulance, and my head full of thoughts of Grettir; the story of his encounter with another revenant-troll, Glámr, will be told in the next instalment.     

Drangey and Kerling

1 comment:

  1. ticket booked. arriving on the island on the 3rd at 3.30.