Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Þorgeirr Hávarsson: A Headless Footnote

Fóstbræðra saga ('The Saga of the Sworn-Brothers'), which is set for the most part in the West Fjords and which I wrote about earlier this year in May when I was there (see post of 14th June), tells the story of two immensely strong and brave warriors and friends (Þórmóðr Kolbrúnarskáld Bersason and Þorgeirr Hávarsson) who swear to avenge each others' deaths...

One place I could not visit when I was exploring Fóstbræðra saga locations around the West Fjords was the site where Þorgeirr fought his last battle, died, and was buried...because this place is in north-east Iceland, on the peninsula called Melrakkaslétta ('Arctic fox plain'). Þorgeirr is attacked by his enemies there in the bay/harbour called Hraunhöfn, on board his ship: there is a violent battle and Þorgeirr kills 14 men before eventually being overcome. Once fallen, Þorgeirr's head is chopped from his trunk by a man called Þórarinn ofsi ('the overbearing').

Hraunhafnartangi, looking south
Þorgeirsdys is to the left of the lighthouse as pictured

The saga narrator tells us how further bodily mutilation is inflicted on Þorgeirr's corpse out of anatomical curiosity: 'Some men say that they cleaved him to the heart and wanted to see what it was like, him being the courageous man he was, and men say that his heart was rather small; and some men believe it to be true that the heart of a courageous man is smaller than that of a coward, because men say there is less blood in a small heart than a big one, and say that the amount of blood in a heart is concomitant with fear, and men say thus the heart of a man drops/throbs in the breast when the blood and heart is stirred up in a man' (Svá segja sumir menn, at þeir klyfði hann til hjarta ok vildu sjá, hvílíkt væri, svá hugprúðr sem hann var, en menn segja, at hjartat væri harla lítit, ok höfðu sumir menn þat fyrir satt, at minni sé hugprúðra manna hjörtu en huglaussa, því at menn kalla minna blóð í litlu hjarta en miklu, en kalla hjartablóði hræzlu fylgja, ok segja menn því detta hjarta manna í brjóstinu, at þá hræðisk hjartablóðit ok hjartat í manninum; Fóstbræðra saga, ed. Björn K. Þórólfsson and Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit 6, Reykjavík 1943, ch. 17 pp. 210-11). In the version of the saga found in the manuscript called Hauksbók, Þorgeirr's heart is said to be no bigger than a walnut, hard as a callous, and without any blood in it... 

After the battle, Þórarinn ofsi rides off to Eyjafjörður with Þorgeirr's head in a bag: Þórarinn and his men amuse themselves en route by taking the head out and mocking it...until they take fright at its horrible appearance (its eyes stare back at them, open-wide, and the tongue lolls out of the open mouth) and they bury it not far from a place called Naust. Back on Melrakkaslétta, local men clear up the aftermath of battle, burying the men who have fallen right there because the nearest church at that time was a long way away. 

Þorgeirsdys looking east
There is a lighthouse on Hraunhafnartangi ('Lava-harbour-point') now, and not far from it is a huge stone cairn, known as Þorgeirsdys ('Þorgeirr's cairn'). The peninsula is bleak and windswept, grey boulders piled up high along the shoreline and endless driftwood and tangles of old fishing-nets that have been washed ashore. I walked out to the cairn, after having read a small notice that explains why the cairn is so huge: it is a tradition to add a stone to the cairn, and then to walk clockwise around it, making a wish for others' happiness and good luck while doing so. My stone added, and my wishes sent up to the sky, I wandered back to the Embulance -- thinking about Þorgeirr and the distance between his head and body, and feeling somewhat vulnerable as far as my own head was concerned as angry arctic terns (kría in Icelandic) dive-bombed and screeched angrily at me for disturbing their otherwise completely uninhabited patch...

From the foot of Þorgeirsdys


  1. Siiiis, we miss you. You're adventures and the latest saga sounds epic and wonderful. Keep your icey spirits high and keep the rab kit close! Can't wait to speak/ see you soon. Love bro xxx