Monday, 10 October 2011

Vatnsdæla saga: Place-Names and Petit Point

Vatnsdalur, looking north up the valley

"As we advance along the rich meadows of the dale, Jörundarfell rises grandly over a magnificent facade of contorted beds of rock, like a bit of the Savoy Alps in general aspect, though not identical in geology. Among the incidents of the valley there is a pretty waterfall ... hanging from the cliffs, -- losing itself half way down in spray, and finding itself again in a stream collected out of the thin fringe of falling rain, in which the iris shines distinct in the afternoon against the black background of the gill" (Pilgrimage, p. 160). As I drove south down Vatnsdalur the other day, the rich meadows Collingwood noted in his description of the valley were barely visible for thick low rainclouds; the waterfall was less of a -fall than a -lift or an upward-kicking of spray because of the winds; and when the clouds eventually lifted, snow could be seen to have dusted itself over the upper reaches of the steep mountain Jörundarfell, and had lined the countless vertical cracks and gullies running down to the lower reaches, producing a sharp inlay effect.

Hof in Vatnsdalur, Ingimundr's farmstead
Collingwood thought Vatnsdalur to be one of the most beautiful valleys in Iceland. The saga which tells of the valley's first settlers and their descendants, Vatnsdæla saga, is a rich one too, with a romping mythical-heroic opening section set in Norway that includes giant-killing and princess-marrying; a reluctant emigration to Iceland by the son of the giant-slayer and the princess; local feuds a-plenty over several generations once Vatnsdalur and the surrounding area has been settled; magic of various kinds; prophetic dreams; a clowder of cats (really!); and endless anecdotes explaining how one place or another acquired its picking-grounds for those interested in saga-onomastics.

In the entrance hall of the local school is a vast mural painted by the Catalan artist Baltasar Samper (famous for his frescoes in the church on the island of Flatey) in the 1980s which presents the saga narrative chronologically in visual form. I was told that all children know of the saga and know the principal episodes in it because of this mural; presently, the saga is being 'retold' in textile-form by a group of local people who began work on the 'Vatnsdæla tapestry' this year. The tapestry's design takes its inspiration from the Bayeaux Tapestry; work will continue for a good 10 or 15 years...until the tapestry reaches its projected length of 45 metres...

In an inversion of the more usual topos at the beginning of the Íslendingasögur where 'independent Norwegian emigrates to Norway after refusing to bow to the tyranny of King Haraldr hárfagri ('Fair-Hair)', Ingimundr -- who is a close friend and ally of King Haraldr -- is reluctant to emigrate to Iceland, calling it an eyðisker ('wasteland skerry'; Vatnsdæla saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit 8 (Reykjavík 1939), ch. 10, p. 27). But a Finnish seeress prophecies that Ingimundr's fate lies on this hostile rock, and says that her prediction will come true -- as a proof, some silver that is in Ingimundr's purse will disappear and he will find it in the place in Iceland where he is ordained to build a farm. A little later, three more supernatural Finns perform an out-of-body exploration of Iceland on Ingimundr's behalf, and survey the area where Ingimundr's fate will lead him, describing the local features of the landscape.

Memorial stone to Þórdís at Þórdísarholt
Ingimundr sails from Norway with his wife and children; they come into Borgarfjörður in the North-west, and set off to explore the land to the north, naming valleys and natural features as they go. In one fjord, two rams run down a mountain towards them: that fjord they call 'Hrútafjörðr' ('Rams' Fjord'); they come across a large piece of driftwood on a small peninsula in Hrútafjörður and call that place 'Borðeyri' ('Plank-spit'); on a valley that is widely-grown with willow-trees they bestow the name 'Víðidalur' ('Willow Valley'). Eventually, the landscape unfolding before them resembles that which the Finns described for Ingimundr; they reach the mouth of Vatnsdalur ('Water Valley'), and Ingimudr's wife calls a temporary halt to the travelling while she gives birth to a daughter. The baby girl is given the name Þórdís, and the birth-site is given the name Þórdísarholt ('Þordís's coppice').  

Memorial stone to Ingimundr at Hof
The party continue on down the valley and stop on a grassy slope; here, Ingimundr decides to build his new home. Digging into the hill while building a large temple, Ingimundr finds the silver that had disappeared from his purse back in Norway...The farmstead is called Hof ('farm' or 'temple'). There is more naming around the local area: a female polar-bear and her two cubs who have washed up on Iceland on an iceberg give rise to the name 'Húnavatn' ('Young bear lake'); some sheep who disappear in the autumn and are then found the next spring are remembered in the place-name 'Sauðadalr' ('Sheep Valley'); a boar called Beigaðr gives his name to a hill on which he dies, 'Beigaðarhóll' ('Beigaðr's Hill').

The valley is settled widely over time, and the saga narrative proceeds. Ingimundr is killed in a fight by the river in the middle of the valley by a trouble-making outlaw to whom Ingimundr has offered protection; Ingimundr's sons avenge him and the saga then takes up their stories, and then the storie of their sons. Vatnsdæla saga is truly a multi-generational saga, though local knowledge seemed mostly to focus on Ingimundr, the first settler of the valley. In one vivid episode, one of Ingimundr's sons, Jökull, chases another local trouble-maker called Þórólfr down the valley, catching him up on a moor above the river; when Þórólfr sees that he will not escape, the saga states that ‘he sat down in the bog and cried; that place has been called Grátsmýrr (‘Weeping bog’) since’ (þá settisk hann niðr í mýrinni ok grét. Þar heitir síðan Grátsmýrr, Vatnsdæla saga ch. 30, p. 83). Jökull gains great renown for ridding the area of this dubious character.

Breiðabólstaður today
Vatnsdæla saga is thought to have been written by someone in the Benedictine monastery at Þingeyrar (founded in 1133) which sits on a raised open stretch of land in the mouth of Húnaflói, north of Vatnsdalur, and which is visible from miles around. Þingeyrar was the first monastery in Iceland; an event of great significance and with great literary ramifications had taken place in the area some 15 years beforehand, however. Over the winter of 1117/18, under the supervision of a powerful chieftain called Hafliði Másson who lived on a farm called Breiðabólstaður, the laws of the Commonwealth of Iceland were written down in the Icelandic vernacular, for the first time. A memorial stone at Breiðabólstaður marks this vital step in the ‘process of textualisation’ in Iceland, i.e., the shift from an oral culture (prior to 1117/18, the laws were recited by heart by the elected lög(sögu)maðr (‘law (reciting) man’), every summer at the National Assembly (the Alþingi), one-third at a time over 3 summers) to a literary/manuscript culture. Aspects of the oral culture never disappeared entirely though – and even fully modernised 21st-century Vatnsdalur, something of that spirit still seems to live on. On Saturday afternoon, between 1 and 5pm, people met in the building in the local town Blönduós where the Vatnsdæla tapestry is being produced, and sewed away at the story of the people of Vatnsdalur as they listened to someone reading aloud from the saga and ‘re-oralising’ the very events their needles were weaving in and out of.   

Þingeyrar church


  1. it is a great pleasure to read your blog and i've enjoyed the lovely clear pictures, too ... don't stop

  2. What script were the laws written in?

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