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17 exhibits from the Icelandic Sagas

 

At the museum you will find many of the legends from the Icelandic sagas, historical figures like Snorri Sturlusson, Ingolfur Arnarson and Leifur Eiriksson. Learn about the disastrous Black death, the most devastating pandemics in human history, requiring anything between 75 to 200 million people. There are 17 exhibits on display today.

Iceland rises out of the ocean on the volcanically active, Mid-Atlantic ridge that separates the European continent from North America. The island was thrust up by a series of massive eruptions some 15 million years ago. It is located on one of the world’s major hot spots and since it is still in the process of formation volcanic eruptions are not uncommon. A large proportion of the country is mountainous with almost no vegetation. Two main ocean currents meet along its coast. One of them, the Gulf Stream, is a warm current that issues from the Bay of Mexico and without which the country would probably be uninhabitable.

The oldest Icelandic record of the papar can be found in Íslendingabók written by Ari Þorgilsson, better known as Ari fróði or Ari ‘the Learned’, in the period 1122-33 AD. In that work he writes that “there were Christian men here, whom the Norsemen called papar, but they left because they did not want to share the land with heathens. They left behind them Irish books as well as crooks and bells from which it is possible to determine their origin.” This is the only mention by Ari the Learned of the Christian inhabitants of Iceland, but it ought to be pointed out that he was writing some 250 years after Iceland was settled by the Norsemen and therefore had little more than word-of-mouth reports and Dicuíl’s account to support his claims. Nevertheless, this short passage from Ari the Learned provided the basis for the belief in later times that the papar were the first settlers of Iceland.

The word papar means “fathers..” These fathers appear to have been hermit monks dedicated to a simple and frugal existence. They sailed to the Hebrides and other small islands off the British coast in small hide-covered craft called currachs in search of new uninhabited places where they might settle and devote themselves to their faith, undisturbed by any intruders. Even though no actual remains have been found in Iceland there are a number of place names that appear to suggest their presence. These place names are mostly found in the East Fjords of Iceland. Examples include Papey (Papar Island), Papýli (Papa farm) and Papafjörður (Papa fjord) in Lón.

If the first Vikings who came to Iceland did meet some Irish monks here, it is unlikely that they would have treated them any better than any other Christians they encountered. It is thus no surprise that Ari the Learned should have been ashamed of the way in which his heathen ancestors generally behaved towards Christians and perhaps explains why he said so little about the presence of the papar in Iceland. This kind of reticence is well known among ancient chroniclers. If, on the other hand, Ari did want to play down the presence of these monks in Iceland, one must ask why he mentioned them at all.

According to The Book of Settlement, Irish monks or papar were living at Kirkjubær at Síða before the first Norse settlers arrived in the ninth century, and it is said that is why heathens could not settle there. A Viking known as Ketill the Fool took possession of the land at Síða, but he was “well Christianised” by then, his nickname being a dig at his adopted faith. After Ketill died, a man called Hildir Eysteinsson intended to move his farmstead to Kirkjubær but met with sudden death before he could carry out his designs, apparently because he was a heathen.

If the papar did manage to sail across the Atlantic in simple curraghs to Iceland, it was truly an amazing feat. The Vikings, on the other hand, were known as excellent sailors and navigators. Not only did they sail across the open ocean to search out new lands but they also succeeded in making their way back again to tell others of their discoveries.

The first such explorer known to have come to Iceland was a Viking called Naddoður. The chronicles tell us that he sailed off course on his way back to Norway from the Faroe Islands and therefore found Iceland by complete chance. At about the same time a Swede by the name of Garðar Svavarsson came to Iceland. He circumnavigated the country thereby discovered it was an island. Garðar stayed here for one winter and then returned home. When he reached Norway he greatly praised the land which, according to his account, was covered with forest from the mountains to the sea. He called the country Garðarshólm.

As a result of the journeys of these two men, their contemporaries learned that there was a large, uninhabited island lying northwest of the Faroes. One man, Flóki Vilgerðarson, had his ship loaded up with his belongings, including what livestock he could get aboard and made his way to Iceland. Navigational technology was primitive in those days for example there were no compasses and the Vikings kept directions by the position of moon and stars. They also knew a good deal about the flight paths of birds and for that reason they mainly sailed during the migration seasons of spring and autumn. Flóki went one step further than this and took three ravens aboard with him for which he asked the blessings of the gods. En route he released the ravens in the hope that they would help him find the way to Iceland. The first raven flew towards the Faroe Islands, the second flew up into the air and then back down to the ship but the third flew forwards and thereby led Flóki to the coast of Iceland. From that time on he was therefore known as Hrafna-Flóki or Raven-Flóki.

Hrafna-Flóki settled in Vatnsfjörður on Barðaströnd. But things did not go well for him. Instead of storing fodder for his livestock, he neglected the farm and spent the entire summer fishing and hunting. The following winter was especially harsh and all the livestock that he brought with him perished. Flóki left Iceland for good the following summer and it is to him that we owe its present name after he claimed he had seen a fjord completely covered over with ice floes in the middle of spring. When he returned to Norway, he spoke badly of the country although many other travelers reported that it was good and had much to offer.

From the details of Hrafna-Flóki’s journey, it is clear that the Vikings had little in the way of navigational instruments. There has been some difference of opinion as to whether they used some kind of lodestone, but it is almost certain that they did not have proper sextants or compasses. This lack of navigational technology often made it difficult to locate Iceland in bad weather but presented much less trouble to those making the return journey to Norway. On the way out they had to locate an island in the mid-North Atlantic, while on the way home it would have been difficult not to find some point along the extensive coastline of Norway.

The first Norseman to settle in Iceland and live here for the rest of his life was Ingólfur Arnarson, who came to the country with his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttir in the year 874 AD. The couple can be seen here standing on the beach by a recently discovered high seat pillar or öndvegissúla.

When Ingólfur Arnarson saw Iceland rise up out of the sea he decided to let the gods decide where might be the best place along the coast for him to settle. He then threw the carved pillars of his high seat overboard and swore that he would build his farm wherever they came ashore. These pillars, or öndvegissúlur as they are known in Icelandic, were carved with the family name and special emblem along with representations of the gods, but prominently featured the god to which they believed they owed the greatest allegiance. After having thrown them into the water, Ingólfur came ashore at what was subsequently known as Ingólfshöfði, where he raised a house and spent his first winter. He sent out two of his slaves, Vífill and Karli, to look for the carved pillars. They searched along the coastline for three years before finally locating them in a large bay in the southwest of the country.

When Vífill and Karli found the pillars they returned immediately to let Ingólfur know. They were not impressed with the place and said that “there had been little point in their having traveled far and wide across fertile land if they were going to end up settling in this out-of-the-way place.” Ingólfur paid little attention to their complaints and moved to the place where the pillars came ashore. He called the place Reykjavík (literally ‘steam bay’) because of the large amount of steam that rose from the nearby hot-springs.

Ingólfur settled all the land between the River Botnsá in Hvalfjörður in the west to the river Ölfusá in the east and gave Vífill and Karli their freedom and some land on which to set up farms. In time, he also gave newly-arriving relatives sizeable portions of land. Ingólfur’s descendants continued to live at his farmstead in Reykjavík and his son Þorsteinn became one of the leading advocates for establishing the first þing (pronounced ‘thing’— a political assembly) at Kjalarnes.

From the time of the settlement to the fifteenth century, Icelanders produced iron from deposits they found in the country’s marshlands by a smelting process known in Icelandic as “red-blasting.” The process had been known in Northern Europe from the beginning of the Iron Age over a millennium earlier. One of the most celebrated blacksmiths of the Settlement Age in Iceland was the craftsman Skalla-Grímur Kveldúlfsson who can be seen here working alongside his son Egill.

Grímur Kveldúlfsson is described as having been of a dark and unattractive complexion, reticent and little given to the company of others. He lost most of his hair in his mid-twenties and was from that time on known as Skalla-Grímur or Grímur the Bald. He and his father, Kveldúlfur, were forced to leave Norway by King Harold Finehair and escaped to Iceland.

Kveldúlfur died before they reached Iceland, and it was his dying wish that his coffin be tossed into the sea, requesting his son to settle at whatever place the coffin washed ashore. Upon arrival Skalla-Grímur built the farmstead known as Borg at the spot where the coffin came ashore near to the site of the present town of Borgarnes. Because he had little livestock in the first few years, Skalla-Grímur and his men supported themselves by hunting small game and fishing. He had three farmsteads erected for his family and gave sections of the surrounding land to the crew who had sailed with him to Iceland.

Skalla-Grímur was a great craftsman and set up a smithy down by the shore. There was a plentiful supply of mýrarauði, the rock from which iron was extracted but Skalla-Grímur had to dive into the swater offshore to find a rock large enough to serve as an anvil. So heavy was the stone that it would have taken several men to carry up to the smithy to use as an anvil, but Skalla-Grímur had such great strength that he retrieved it alone from the bottom of the sea.

One of Skalla-Grímur’s sons inherited his dark complexion and foreboding features as well as his immense physical strength. He was called Egill and is considered to have been one of the outstanding poets of the Saga age. He was wild and unruly as a boy and difficult to deal with. On one famous occasion he was prohibited by his father from attending a feast held by his maternal grandfather, but Egill rode there anyway and recited his first poem in front of the guests. He was at that time only three years old, yet he was as large as any lad twice his age.

A few years later when Egill was six years old he was playing a game something like the modern game of hockey, with some boys of his own age. Apparently, something about the attitude of one member of the opposing team irritated Egill and he hit the boy on the head so hard that the blow split his skull and killed him. This was the first but certainly not the last time that Egill killed a man. He is reported to have shown great bravery on many an occasion but just as frequently managed to get himself into a tight spot. Just like his father he succeeded in provoking the anger of a king, this time it was Eric Bloodaxe, the son of Harold Finehair. The dispute ended with Egill reciting his famous poem “Höfuðlausn” or “Stay of execution” which saved his life and for which he was highly praised. The other poem for which Egill is best known is “Sonatorrek” or an eulogy on the deaths of his two sons Böðvar and Gunnar, who died at a very young age.

According the Book of Settlement, only a small proportion of the first people to come to Iceland were of Celtic origin. The latest research on the genealogical connections between the Icelanders and the Irish on the one hand and the rest of Scandinavia on the other indicates that about eighty percent of the male population in Iceland at that time was of Nordic origin. However, the same research has shown that the greater part of the female population at the time was Celtic rather that Norse. Even though the culture and the language of the Icelanders are indisputably Scandinavian, it is clear that a great many of the women were of Celtic origin, captured and enslaved by the Vikings who then took them to Iceland. One such woman was the famous Melkorka Mýrkjartansdóttir, one of the main characters in The Saga of the Laxdalers.

Melkorka was taken into slavery when she was only fifteen years old. A decade later she was purchased by a man called Höskuldur Dala-Kollsson when he went Hörðaland in the western part of Norway to acquire some timber. When he reached the place of purchase Höskuldur appears to have forgotten his plans and instead of buying timber he spent his money on acquiring Melkorka, for his personal pleasure. Although Melkorka was a mute, she carried a much higher price than the other female slaves on sale because she so outshone them in physical beauty. Höskuldur took her home with him to Iceland and late in the winter she bore him a son known as Ólafur Pá, whom Höskuldur showed great affection.

One day, to his great astonishment, Höskuldur came upon the boy deep in conversation with his mother. That was then Melkorka addressed him for the first time and told him that she was the daughter of an Irish king called Mýrkjartan. Naturally this discovery led to a speedy change in her status and situation and Höskuldur gave her own farmstead Melkorkustaður, farther down the valley of Laxárdalur.

From an early age, it was clear that Ólafur Höskuldsson, called Ólafur Pá (the word Pá is of uncertain origin), was going to be a good and generous man. He married Þorgerður, the daughter of Egill Skalla-Grímsson, who unfortunately inherited her father’s temperament. The very different response shown by the couple to the news of their son Kjartan’s death, bears witness to Ólafur’s goodness. Kjartan and his foster-brother, Bolli Þorleiksson, had been vying for the same woman, a certain Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, which ended with Bolli killing his rival Kjartan. His mother Þorgerður urged her remaining sons to avenge Kjartan’s death while Ólafur completely rejected that notion on the grounds that their son’s life would never be compensated by the death of their foster-son. Later it was Ólafur who came to his foster-son’s aid when his own sons made ready to attack Bolli.

It is curious indeed that Ólafur’s Christian ethics and his generosity of spirit made him such a popular and respected figure in the heathen Icelandic society since he clearly opposed all the traditional rules concerning the revenge of blood relations. Ólafur was also known to be a modest man with no desire to bring attention to himself. When his grandfather, King Mýrkjartan, asked him to be his successor and rule the kingdom he respectfully declined on the grounds that his mother Melkorka would not be pleased if he left Iceland for good. He added that it was better to “enjoy a brief period of popularity than lasting infamy” and therewith bade his grandfather farewell. Instead of ruling an entire nation, Ólafur built himself a farmstead in the Dales and lived a quiet and peaceful life among the people there.

The expansion of Norse culture in the west and its search for new countries to settle or raid did not end with the discovery of Iceland. As the story goes a certain Gunnbjörn made his way by ship from Norway to Iceland but ran ashore on an island west of Iceland. Eric the Red heard of Gunnbjörn’s troublesome journey and set sail from Iceland to be the first Nordic settler in Greenland.

One of Eric’s sons was called Leifur. He is described as “[…] a large, strongly-built man, intelligent, with an energetic temperament moderate in all things.” He sailed to Norway as a young man and stayed at the court of King Ólafur Trygggvason, who made Norway Christian. Ólafur sent Leifur to Greenland to convert the people there to Christianity. On the way to Greenland, Leifur lost his way and discovered a land he called Vinland. There are actually two independent accounts of his discovery of Vinland, one in The Saga of the Greenlanders and the other in The Saga of Eric the Red.

Greenland was reported as being extremely fertile and the rivers were teeming with salmon of a size the settlers had never seen before. The climate was so temperate that it never froze there so the livestock could therefore be out in the open all year around. Leifur had some dwellings built there and stayed along with his crew for the entire winter.

When they finished setting up camp Leifur divided his men into two groups, one was to go and scout out the surrounding area while the other stayed at the camp they called Leifsbúðir. On one of these scouting expeditions a man named Tyrkir, who was German of origin and had partly raised Leifur, became separated from his party. Leifur took his disappearance badly and was about to send some men out to search for him when Tyrkir suddenly reappeared, clearly ecstatic. There is a colourful description of him in The Saga of the Greenlanders: he had “a protruding forehead and darting eyes, with dark wrinkles in his face; he was short in stature and frail-looking, but a master of all crafts.” At first, the others could not understand a word he said because he was not speaking their language. However, he began to speak Norse again and said that he had found both vines and grapes.

As a result, the rest of the party went out gathering grapes, filled their vessels with them and returned to Greenland with the news of the discovery of a new land, “Vinland the Good.” On the way back Leifur helped to rescue a group of Norse sailors and this and his discovery of Vinland led to him being called Leifur the Lucky.

As well as stories of Leif the Lucky, there are also tales of his sister, Freydís. In The Saga of the Greenlanders, she is seen as evil and treacherous while The Saga of Eric the Red portrays her as outstandingly courageous in her fight against the natives of Vinland. It is worth remembering that both sagas were written about two hundred years after the actual events that they deal with and can thus hardly be considered as reliable historical evidence. Indeed, this reservation applies to all the stories that refer to the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries since there is no extant written documentation from that time. However, the remains of a Norse settlement from the 11th century have been found at L´Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, a discovery that confirms beyond doubt the fact that our forefathers were the first Europeans to discover North America.

In The Saga of Eric the Red we learn how Freydís accompanied her husband to Vinland on an expedition led by Þorfinnur Karlsefni and his wife Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir. When they reached Vinland they soon encountered the native people and begun to trade with them. However, during such an exchange of goods a bull owned by Þorfinnur went on a rampage and the natives who had never seen such a beast before immediately took up their weapons. A skirmish ensued in which natives appeared to have the upper hand and Þorfinnur and his party begun to flee. Freydís reprimanded the men in no uncertain terms for their cowardice and tried to encourage them to make a stand but they ran as fast as they could into the cover of the forest. Freydís eventually followed the men but since she was pregnant she soon begun to slow down and lose sight of them. She ran past the body of a certain Þorbrandur Snorrason who had been slain by a blow to the head with a rock, and then saw the natives preparing to attack the Viking party with a battery of rocks and stones. As they pursued the Vikings the natives suddenly came across Freydís and surrounded her. Fearlessly, she seized hold of Þorbrandur’s sword which lay beside his body, opened her tunic to reveal one of her breasts and held the sword tightly against it. This bold gesture seems to have frightened the natives and they ran of terrified by what they apparently thought was an evil omen.

One of the reasons why the Viking colony in North America collapsed is that the expedition party contained so few women. It was a large, unexplored area and men had heard of the natives whom they called skrælingjar and who they knew to be hostile. That is why the majority of the people aboard the ship were men, able to defend themselves against the natives. Yet this fear on the part of the Vikings was probably quite unjustified since according to most accounts the natives showed much greater interest in trading than fighting.

The greater majority of the settlers of Iceland were heathen and believed in the old gods or Æsir as they were called. The belief in the Æsir is a polytheistic religion in which the gods are human-like in appearance, needs and actions, but far more powerful than mortals. The mythology of the Æsir is recounted in the famous “Völuspá” where Odin, father of the gods and men, listens to the tale of the prophetess concerning the beginning and the end of the world. The heathens believed in such fate, a belief they inherited from their Germanic forefathers, where each man’s destiny was preordained and that certain women could foretell the future and predict what was to come. The Vikings called their contemporary seers or prophetesses völvur and treated them with a mixture of respect and fear.

The ancient Vikings distinguished between völvur and witches or sorceresses. The former could predict the weather and man’s fate while the latter actually tried to have an effect on an individual’s action or destiny. Witches or sorceresses were therefore associated with evil while the völvur had high status and were often given gifts after they had made their prophecies. Nevertheless things occasionally went badly for any völva whose predictions were not to the liking of whoever had asked her to make them. Instances like this can be seen, for example, in the conversations with Odin in the “Völuspá.”

One of the most detailed accounts of such a völva or seer can be found in the Saga of Eric the Red. The Norse community in Greenland had endured hard times in recent years and a woman named as Þorbjörg lítilvölva (lítil means “little”, thus Þorbjörg the Little Prophetess) was invited to a feast and asked to predict what the future might hold for them. Upon her arrival she was greeted warmly and given the chair of honour, the seat of which was stuffed with chicken feathers. The description of Þorbjörg’s attire is lengthy and detailed and her clothing has been compared to the ceremonial garb worn by shamans in Lapland (in northern part of Finland). At the start of the prediction, Þorbjörg asked if there was any woman who knew the poem “Varðlokkur” since she would need assistance. It transpired that Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, who had recently arrived from Greenland with her father, could recite that piece by heart. She and other women then formed a circle around Þorbjörg while Guðríður chanted the poem with great accuracy. When this was done Þorbjörg thanked her and said that the lean times and pestilence with which they had contended in Greenland would soon come to an end. She also foretold Guðríður’s future saying that a great light shown over her and all her descendants.

This prediction concerning Guðríður’s family supports the idea that The Saga of Eric the Red was written under the influence of some churchmen to raise the status of her family, since no fewer than three Icelandic bishops descended from Guðríður. At about the same time as the saga was written, Christians had sought out many of these völvur who were skilled in the art of magic and had them killed for heresy. It is therefore interesting that the Christian who wrote the saga did not try to represent Þorbjörg as a wicked and evil woman.

The Icelandic völvur were usually married with families. Nevertheless, they were regarded as independent and well rewarded in a society where women rarely worked anywhere else than at home. Although male sorcerers are mentioned in the sagas, there is no male counterpart to the völva. However, sorcerers and witches were always regarded with disdain and most of the time things turned out badly for them. Despite being on the margins of the society in Iceland the völva was a greatly respected profession and only suffered if the prophecy did not suit the protagonist of the saga. One might also note that the Icelandic neologism for ‘computer’ is tölva which combines the word völva with the word tala, meaning number.

In the year 1000 AD the dispute over what religion Icelanders should practice reached a climax. King Ólafur Tryggvason of Norway had taken four sons of Icelandic chieftains captive and sent two men, Gissur the White and Hjalti Skeggjason, to the country to deliver an ultimatum. The king’s command was heard at the Althing that summer and was greeted with little enthusiasm by those who followed the old gods. The assembly divided into two factions, heathens and Christians, who rejected each other’s system of laws and each faction elected their own Law Speaker. Hallur at Síða became the Law Speaker for the Christians while Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði that of the heathen faction, and it was their prerogative to recite the laws for their individual factions. The nation was thus on the brink of civil war.

Hallur and Þorgeir were both advanced in years and known to be wise men. It was clear that it would be disastrous to have two different legislations, one for the heathens and one for the Christians, so Hallur resigned from the position he was elected to and gave over to Þorgeir the task of speaking for the whole assembly. Shortly afterwards, Þorgeir went to his booth and crawled under some hides to think the matter through. As the dispute continued at the assembly outside his booth, a nearby volcano began to spew out lava which flowed towards the farmstead of one of the representatives who was on the verge of accepting the new faith. A messenger arrived at the assembly with the news of the eruption and the heathen faction took this to be confirmation that their gods were angry. To this, a Christian chieftain named Snorri replied: “Who angered the gods when the lava flowed that we now stand upon?” The following day, Þorgeir reemerged from his booth and acquired the promise of the entire assembly to endorse and obey whatever laws he recited.

Þorgeir realised that national peace could only be achieved by striking a compromise between the two factions. He therefore declared that all should take up the Christian faith and that those who were not already baptised should be baptised without delay. Against this, Þorgeir also let it be known that certain heathen traditions such as the bearing out of children and eating horse flesh were to be allowed to continue as well as sacrifices to the old gods, provided they took place in private.

If discovered such actions would be punishable by a term of three years in exile. As a result those who worshipped the old gods were allowed to continue to do so as long as they kept it to themselves. We can conclude from this that the change over to Christianity, though an important issue, was not taken too seriously.

This national conversion to Christianity was the first time since the establishment of the Icelandic democracy that the Norwegian king had a direct influence on Icelandic internal affairs. Although the Icelandic nation did at first not want anything to do with the new religion, King Ólafur Tryggvason’s stubbornness eventually led to the country’s conversion and Icelanders accepted baptism. Some scholars have pointed out that many Icelandic chieftains probably conceded to being baptised out of fear of King Ólafur invading and conquering the country himself. Thus, to a large extent, the decision to convert was not spiritual but political. It is said that Iceland has a unique among nations in that it required only one meeting for the people to accept the Christian faith, whereas in most other places it had taken missionaries centuries of preaching to spread the word.

Towards the end of the settlement period the Icelandic chieftains decided to base their legal system on foreign prototypes. To this end a man named Úlfljótur, a farmer in the east who had many years of legal experience, was sent to Norway to learn all he could of the legal system there. The suggestions that he returned with were endorsed by the Icelanders but there was no writing tradition in the country at the time so the leaders of the legislature therefore undertook the extraordinary task of learning all the laws by heart.

While Úlfljótur was travelling in Norway, his foster-brother Grímur Geitskór travelled all over Iceland looking for a suitable place to hold the national assembly. The location he finally selected was at a place called Bláskógar by Lake Ölfusvatn, but which was later named Þingvellir and the lake Þingvallavatn. In 930 A.D. the Alþingi (Althing) or general assembly met for the first time and after that each summer and was in session for one or two weeks. At the founding of the Althing, there was a total of thirty six goðorð or representational rights in the whole country, which then was divided into four regions.

At the time, taking revenge by the spilling of blood was common in Iceland, and even though the Althing presided over murder cases, it was often the party of the plaintiff who had to carry the sentence. The Lögrétta was the legislative body of the Althing, and comprised of the Law Speaker, all the holders of goðorð and nine additional persons who had voting rights on that committee. The role of Lögrétta was to deliberate on conflicts in the existing laws, create new laws and it probably also acted as a court in the early period. However, after the country was divided into four regions, each region had its own court.

The only member of the Althing to receive payment was the law speaker whose task it was to commit to memory the entire body of laws, recite in front of the assembly all the laws that were in effect and further to preside over the meetings of the assembly. With the appearance of recorded laws in book form, the role of the law speaker changed dramatically and his title changed to lögmaður which meant something like chief lawyer. In time, men who were well versed in reading and writing took over the office of chief lawyer, such as Snorri Sturluson, Styrmir Kárason and Sturla Þórðarson. Even so, when the first book of laws known as Grágás appeared the chief lawyer probably required the assistance of scholars since he would not have had the literacy needed to carry out the task alone. The role of the law speaker and later chief lawyer was not only to stand at Lögberg the “Lawrock” and recite the laws but also to keep a record of all the important dates on the annual political agenda for the proceedings and assemblies during the following year.

The Icelandic church was established by the country’s leading chieftains and they chose one of their number to act as bishop. Many of these chieftains had churches built on their lands and became priests, sometimes even bishops so to begin with spiritual and worldly power was held by the same parties just as it was before the advent of Christianity. In 1097 AD tithes were endorsed by the Althing and thereby provided the basis for wealth and power among the chieftains to whom they were paid. Some of them also begun to accumulate goðorð or the right to representation at the assembly and increased their power by that means. However, less than a hundred years later a law was passed by the Alþing that prohibited the holder of a goðorð from entering the priesthood. The first Icelandic bishop to distinguish himself as a spiritual leader and rise against the existing secular powers was a man named Guðmundur Arason known as Guðmundur the Good.

Guðmundur Arason, known as Guðmundur the Good, was born in 1161. He lost his father at a young age and was brought up by his paternal uncle who was a priest and soon began to teach Guðmundur theology. Guðmundur travelled far and wide with his uncle. At nineteen, he went with him on his first journey abroad. Their ship was caught up in a storm and Guðmundur was so badly injured that he limped for the rest of his life and probably had to travel about in a wooden cart. Five years later, he was ordained a priest by Bishop Brandur Sæmundsson at Hólar.

Over the next few years, Guðmundur travelled all over Iceland despite his disability. He was an ascetic and did little to promote the church as an institution. He was offered a very profitable farmstead at Vellir in Svarfaðardalur but said that he “did not wish to accept it because he had no desire to take on the worry and the responsibility that it might entail as a result of his own personal lack of wealth.” Guðmundur thought very little of material riches and spent his time instead trying to do good deeds and help the poor and needy.

In 1203 Guðmundur was made bishop at Hólar by the archbishop of Trondheim in Norway. He was chosen for the office by both clerics and laymen, but the man most responsible for his promotion to bishop was Kolbeinn Tumason, whom Guðmundur served for a period as a priest. Kolbeinn came from the Ásbirningar family and was one of the most powerful chieftains in the north of the country. However, Guðmundur was not the kind of man to attach himself to or join a powerful clique and he denounced the church’s desire to amass riches, saying that the poor were far more deserving of any profits to which the Hólar church was party.

In his first years as bishop of Hólar, Guðmundur gathered to himself a large group of paupers and vagrants, and the resources of the church at Hólar were gradually depleted by their constant dependence. Kolbeinn Tumason was greatly irritated and distressed by what was happening, as were other chieftains. The differences of opinion between Guðmundur and Kolbeinn steadily increased until finally, in 1208, Kolbeinn arrived at Hólar with a large party of armed men. Kolbeinn and his men did not hear the Hólar church bells ring the evening before they confronted bishop Guðmundur, and believed this was because God was angry with them. In response, Kolbeinn composed a poem “O, Hear Creator on High” in which he asks God for forgiveness for what he has attempted to perpetrate. On the following day, Kolbeinn intended to allow Guðmundur and his party to leave but changed his mind when his men protested strongly that he was letting the bishop off too easily. A battle ensued at Víðines, between the bishop’s men and Kolbeinn’s which ended abruptly with Kolbeinn receiving a fatal head wound.

In the following years, Guðmundur continued to travel around the country and was on several occasions driven away from Hólar. He went all over with his group of paupers and outcasts and was unwelcome almost everywhere. He lived despised by the chieftains but worshipped as a saint by the poor and needy. Guðmundur the Good maintained his office as bishop until his death in 1237, at the ripe old age of 76.

During the first half of the 13th century Iceland was virtually ablaze with civil war waged by a number of prominent chieftains who forced assembly members and farmers under their power to attack their rivals. One of the most significant struggles for power was conducted by the Sturlungar family, which was comprised of the descendants of Hvamm-Sturla. They were not only renowned warriors but also subtle politicians and prolific writers of literature and history. For a time the sons of Hvamm-Sturla had acquired half of the goðorð in the country, a degree of power attested by the fact that this particular period in Icelandic history came to be known as Sturlungaöld or the Age of the Sturlungar Family.

Snorri Sturluson was the son of Sturla at Hvammur. At a young age he was taken in as a foster-child by Jón Loftsson at Oddi in Rangárvellir. In 1202, Snorri married Herdís Bersadóttir and became master at Borg in Mýrar as well as gaining possession of the Mýrar goðorð or the right to represent that county at the Althing. Over the following years Snorri gathered a large number of such goðorð and by the time he was thirty he was considered the richest and most powerful man in the whole country. He moved to Reykholt in 1206 and spent the rest of his life there.

In the year 1215 Snorri was chosen to the office of law speaker at the Althing. He held that position for three years until he sailed to Norway to meet with the king. He befriended Earl Skúli Bárðarson who was King Hákon’s chief advisor. It appears that Snorri had promised King Hákon he would bring Iceland under the power of the Norwegian throne, but when he returned home he evidently laid these plans aside. Snorri was elected Law Speaker for a second time in 1221 and kept that office for a further decade.

By 1230, Snorri had indisputably become one of the most respected and influential chieftains in Iceland, but his lack of interest in bringing the country under Norwegian rule soon prompted his downfall.  In 1235, Snorri’s nephew Sturla Sighvatsson arrived from Norway under the appointment of King Hákon to carry out what Snorri had failed to achieve. He drove Snorri out of the country and set about his royal task by entering a bloody power struggle with the rest of Iceland’s leading families.

Snorri was in Norway when a disagreement arose between his friend Skúli and King Hákon. Skúli was in favour of allowing Snorri to return home and reclaim his lands but the king stubbornly refused his permission and prohibited Snorri from leaving Norway. Snorri contradicted the king’s orders by setting out for Iceland anyway and was almost certainly assisted by Skúli. At that time Skúli had been conspiring to overthrow Hákon but the attempted coup failed miserably and it was abundantly clear to Hákon that Snorri was among the party who betrayed him. The king responded by sending Gissur Þorvaldsson, who was by then the most powerful chieftain in Iceland, a letter requesting that Snorri be declared a traitor and that Gissur was either to bring him back to Norway or have him killed.

In the summer of 1241, Snorri’s sons-in-law, Kolbeinn the Young and Gissur Þorvaldsson met up on Kjölur, the mountain route across the Icelandic highlands, and devised a plan. It was on the eve of the 23rd September that same year that Gissur and his men broke into Snorri’s house and searched the premises for him. When they had him cornered they squabbled about which one of them should deal the final blow, when Snorri well over sixty years old repeated constantly: “Eigi skal höggva,” literally “Do not strike.” Gissur’s men paid no heed to Snorri’s words and together struck him down and killed him.

With that ended the life of one of the most prominent politicians in the history of Iceland. He was not at all famous for his prowess as a warrior but rather for his financial exploits and for his prolific output as a writer. He left behind him a large range of works such as Heimskringla, a collection of chronicles of the Norwegian Kings and one of the most important historical accounts of medieval literature, as well as the Snorra-Edda, which contains, among other things the story of “Gylfaginning” and remains a central document on Nordic mythology and cosmogony, under the guise of fiction. Snorri is also thought to have written one of the best sagas of the period, The Saga of Egill Skalla-Grímsson. There is no indisputable evidence of his having written the tale but the fact that Snorri began his career as a chieftain at Borg in Mýrar on the farmstead and land once owned by Egill’s father Skalla-Grímur strongly indicates that this might be true.

In 1238 one of the Sturlungar family, Sturla Sighvatsson attempted to establish himself as the most powerful chieftain in the country by summoning Gissur Þorvaldsson, a chieftain at the Árnes assembly, to meet him at Lake Apavatn. Sturla was accompanied by a force of three hundred men while Gissur had just forty followers. At the meeting Sturla declared that Gissur was the only man in Iceland he feared and had him arrested. He then forced Gissur to swear an oath of allegiance to him and ordered him to leave the country immediately. Evidently Gissur felt that he should avenge this mistreatment at Sturla’s hands and made a military alliance with the leader of the Ásbirningar family, Kolbeinn the Young. Together, they raised an army of sixteen hundred men and went in search of Sturla. He too had gathered a considerable force in the west of the country and then made his way to Gilsfjörður and waited for his attackers at the fortress of Kleifar.

Later that same summer, opposing forces gathered again and Sturla went to Skagafjörður to meet his father, Sighvatur, who himself had arrived from Eyjafjörður in the north with an army of nearly five hundred men. Kolbeinn the Young and Gissur, with the support of a great many farmers, succeeded in putting together a much larger force than Sturla and Sighvatur, whom they outnumbered by approximately four to one. Kolbeinn took his own men and those under Gissur’s command north across the highland route of Kjölur and took Sturla and Sighvatur completely by surprise at Örlygsstaðir on 21st August, 1238. Sturla’s and Sighvatur’s men had no time to prepare for the battle which led to many of them deserting their leaders. The combined forces of Gissur and Kolbeinn had an easy and swift victory. About fifty of the Sturlungar men were killed and only seven from Gissur’s party while Kolbeinn’s force did not suffer a single casualty.

During the battle Sighvatur, then in his seventies, tried to hide himself behind a wall and when he was discovered by Kolbeinn’s men, they were ordered to slay him. Sighvatur received seventeen wounds and was stripped of his weapons and clothes. His son Sturla, a renowned warrior, fought on bravely, attacking the enemy with his famous spear Grásíða, but the shaft was so weak that he had to realign it with the spearhead after almost every stroke. He finally stopped fighting after receiving two deep wounds to the face and a third that pierced so heavily into his throat that the account says that one could have put three fingers into it. When Sturla surrendered and pleaded for mercy, Gissur’s men granted it and covered him with a protective wall of shields. Then Gissur himself arrived, ordered his men to remove the shields and said: “I shall strike here” and delivered Sturla such a blow that he himself was “lifted up and saw the space between his feet and the ground.” That blow proved not only to be the demise of Sturla Sighvatsson but also the end of the reign of the Sturlungar family.

It is clear that from 1220 to 1262, Iceland was in a state of civil war, one in which individual chieftains forced their communities of farmers to take part in fighting their neighbours, armed with virtually no other weapons than rocks and boulders.  There is little doubt that the general populace welcomed the country’s subjection to the Norwegian crown in 1262 since it brought with it the restoration of peace. Clearly, the Icelanders, engaged in a constant internal battle for power, were in no position to rule their own country. Whether a handful of megalomaniac chieftains or King Hákon was to blame for the unrest is another matter, one thing is certain: changes had to be made and a treaty with the Norwegian crown was probably the only viable option at that time. It took the Icelandic nation seven centuries to win back their independence.

Towards the middle of the fourteenth century, a deadly epidemic raged through Europe. It has variously been called the Great Plague or the Black Death and it wiped out about a third of the population of Europe. The epidemic originated in Asia and was divided into two strains, one carried by humans and the other by rats. The latter, and more common of the two, was the bubonic plague, distinguished by a swelling of the glands, high fever and severe head pains. The former and more deadly strain infected the respiratory system and was airborne. Its primary symptoms were extreme breathing difficulties and severe coughing. The bubonic plague was mainly carried by rats and since there were hardly any rats in Iceland prior to the 18th century, it probably did not take root here. The Black Death did however not reach Iceland until about 50 years after its outbreak on the mainland.

In the year 1402 a ship carrying the plague arrived in Iceland from England, owned and captained by a certain Einar Herjólfsson. One set of annals from that time records that “such a deadly disease had struck that it could kill a man inside three days.” The plague spread across the south of Iceland that autumn, where it decimated entire communities. Over the next two years, it continued to spread across the country and is thought to have killed almost a third of Iceland’s population. Naturally, there is very little extant evidence from the period and this estimate of the total number of deaths is therefore difficult to substantiate. Indeed, some believe that it may have destroyed up to twice that number of people. Most experts believe it was a pulmonary disease but there have also been suggestions that the epidemic might have been typhoid. It is ironic that while Einar Herjólfsson ship is known to have brought the plague to Iceland he personally managed to survive being smitten.

Europe was devastated by the plague. Entire villages were emptied and abandoned as what was left of the rural population flocked to the towns. Widespread economic change and a decrease in the population led to a depression that lasted for decades. In comparison to Norway, however, the effects of the plague in Iceland were minimal. It took the Norwegian nation nearly two hundred years to recover from the social upheaval that was a direct result of the plague. In Iceland, there was hardly any social change at all to speak of. Instead, there was an increasing demand for workers and a corresponding rise in wages. Those farmsteads that had been deserted while the plague raged through the country now stood empty and ready to be leased out. As a consequence the cost of renting decreased. Indeed, one may say with some conviction that ordinary people who were brought up in Iceland after the plague enjoyed much better economic conditions than their parents. There was plenty of work to be had and there were empty farmsteads all over the country to be taken over for a low price.

But the consequences of the plague were also cultural. After 1400, there was an abrupt end to the writing of the saga literature. The production of books and the art of bookbinding them also declined rapidly, which has been explained by the fact that neither the landowners nor the church had the financial resources to sustain the craft in the same manner as before the plague struck. Because so many scholars and writers died during the plague, it is also considered likely that they took Iceland’s literary tradition to the grave with them. However, not everyone agrees with this explanation. The ties to the Norwegian court had been diminishing and a shortage in readers fluent in Icelandic definitely contributed to the downfall of the saga writings. The age of the sagas had come to an end.

Wide scale persecution of sorcery began on the European mainland at the end of the fifteenth century when the church changed its views on magic and the pope declared it to be a form of heresy. Icelanders had their share of witch-hunting, especially in the Western Fjords in the middle of the seventeenth century. Although the persecutions on the mainland were focused on women, in particular unmarried women who lived alone, Iceland distinguished itself by primarily prosecuting and burning men at the stake. Nevertheless, the first person to be convicted of heresy and suffer the awful fate of being burned at the stake was a nun called Katrín, nearly three centuries before the inquisition on the continent begun.

In 1343 Sister Katrín, a nun at the convent of Kirkjubær in the south of Iceland was found guilty of having sold her soul to the devil and was punished by being burned at the stake. However, the annals from that period give differing accounts of the matter and her culpability appears to increase the further away from the scene of the event they were written. For example, in one account she is said to have given herself to a demon in a letter, and in another to have slandered the pope. In a third account, the letter to the demon is mentioned but she is also accused of having repeatedly committed fornication with men from outside the convent. Katrín, or Kristín as she is sometimes called, is therefore said to have been guilty of heresy, slander or fornication, or perhaps all three.

 

If the accusations against Katrín are scrutinized, it is interesting to note that what she said about the pope was probably quite true. The pope in question was Clement VI and he was well known for his lechery and love of entertainment. The group of people he gathered about him would have been more suitable courtiers for a secular power than a spiritual leader. He is also reputed to have said that his predecessors did not know how to act as popes. On the other hand it is highly doubtful that Katrín had any knowledge of the pope’s behaviour since he was elected to the papacy only one year before she was burned at the stake.

The Icelandic church did not really begin to be a wealthy institution until the fifteenth century, when many farmsteads stood empty as a result of the plague or various natural disasters. Then they became available for a pittance and many of them were purchased by bishoprics. The manner in which the church thus amassed wealth was in full accordance with what was taking place in the rest of Europe. On the other hand, the material difficulties into which the church fell eventually led to the papacy being a manipulated by monarchs and other wealthy individuals. Indeed, at one time there were three popes in Christendom, each of whom excommunicated his rivals. In turn, the voices for reform within the structure of the church grew louder, culminating in 1517 with the protest of the German monk and theologian Martin Luther who publicly denounced the church in Rome. From that time the Reformation was set in motion and its chief advocates turned out to be monarchs and various other secular leaders who saw an opportunity to fill their own coffers with the riches they could appropriate from the Roman church

On Whitsun morning in the year 1539, the Royal Governor of Iceland decided he had had enough of trying to peacefully to persuade the country to the king’s wishes for a reformation, and descended on the cloister on the island Viðey with a force of men. Once there, he took possession of everything on the island in the name of the crown. His sheriff was about to launch a similar attack on the bishopric at Skálholt but was killed with all his men by the defending force. One year later, Gissur Einarsson became bishop and it was well known that the new bishop favoured the conversion to Lutheranism. When the new Royal Governor, Christoffer Huitfeld, arrived from Denmark he was accompanied by two fully armed warships to assist him in carrying out the king’s orders. Lutheranism was officially announced to be Iceland’s new religion at the Althing in 1541, but the Northerners and their bishop Jón Arason did not turn up to the assembly. In that same year, the first Icelandic priest was married.

The following years were relatively uneventful and the Governor applied little pressure to Jón Arason and his sons at Hólar. His eldest son, Ari, was the lawman for the Hólar bishopric. In 1548, Gissur Einarsson died and Bishop Jón Arason considered it his duty to take Skálholt under his protection until a new bishop was appointed. In the wake of this event Jón Arason decided to make a concerted effort to restore Catholicism in the south of the country. Marteinn Einarsson was appointed bishop at Skálholt that same year, and one year later at the Althing Jón Arason, the only remaining Catholic bishop in the whole of Scandinavia, was outlawed by the king. Jón took little or no notice of the royal proclamation against him, went to Skálholt with his men in the summer of 1550 and had Bishop Marteinn arrested. Jón also had the remains of Bishop Gissur disinterred and deposited in unconsecrated ground. He restored the cloisters on the island of Viðey as well as at Helgafell, but did not manage to proceed any further with his plans because he and his sons were arrested at Sauðafell and taken to Skálholt.

On November 7th 1550, less than a month after they were arrested, Bishop Jón Arason and his two sons were taken to the block and beheaded by the southern authorities who feared an imminent invasion of Skálholt from Jón’s supporters in the north. Ari the lawman was led out first and decapitated with one blow. Next, Björn’s head was placed on the block, but it took four blows to finish the bloody task. Finally Bishop Jón Arason himself was lead to the block, and it says in the annals that he had an expression of gladness on his face as he walked to his death holding a crucifix in his hand. The executioner was a petty criminal called Jón Ólafsson. The man must have been tired by the time he came to his third victim because it took seven blows to ultimately severe the bishop’s head from his body. A year after these executions the Northerners avenged them by chasing down the executioner and pouring molten lead into his mouth. The supporters of Jón Arason completed their revenge by also killing the king’s sheriff as well as all the Danes living in Seltjarnarnes and Álftanes.