Celts in Iceland - Melkorka Mýrkjartansdóttir

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 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. It was then that 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.

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