Eyrbyggja Saga 1

Plot and characters

Eyrbyggja saga follows events on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in west Iceland, starting with the family trees of the first settler who fled Norway under King Harald Fine-Hair to settle the area, through 20 pages or so of the first settlers and their feuds, before it gets to what seem to be the main characters although, since characters appear then disappear from the narrative and are likely to drown or be killed just like that, it is very hard to get your bearings and really develop a feeling for, an empathy with, any of the characters.

If there is a central character it is Snorri the Priest, originally named Thorgrim Thorgrimson. It’s changed to Snorri because this means ‘turbulent’ or ‘troublesome’, and he is a deeply ambivalent character, sometimes violent, hiring assassins, himself killing men; but also, as priest of Thor, responsible for trying to establish peace despite the endless feuding of gangs of men (eg the Thorbrandssons versus the Thorlakssons). His character might be said to grow and the translators like him but he is at one with the violent untrustworthy milieu.

Arnkel the Priest is a fairly sympathetic character who tries to maintain some honour and dignity in the feud-bedeviled culture and despite provocation from his fiery Viking father Thorolf Twist-Foot, before he is eventually killed at a lone stand atop a haystack on his farm by a gang of eight men led by Snorri.

Bjorn Asbrandsson the Breidavik-Champion also emerges in the latter part of the saga, having seduced Thurid, wife of Thorodd the Tribute-Trader, and survived an attack on him by Thorodd and his relatives, Bjorn is outlawed, travels to Norway, Denmark and then east to join the legendary Jomsvikings, among whom he rises to become a chieftain, before returning many years later to Iceland.

Paganism

The Age of Sagas (870-1050) covers the period of the Christianisation of the Icelanders’ homelands of Denmark and Norway (in the 960s) and then the Christianisation of Iceland itself in 1000. the sagas were mostly written in the Christian 1200s, probably by monks or scholars educated in Christian culture.

Eyrbyggja Saga is notable for having details of pagan life, belief and ritual found nowhere else, in any written sources. The founder, the first arrival at Snæfellsnes, Thorolf Mostur-Beard, is described as ‘a friend of Thor’, casts his temple pillars into the sea to see where they will wash ashore, and there builds his settlement. There is a detailed description of his pagan temple which is, alas, almost certainly fictitious. Despite a few more details, and despite two of the leading characters (Snorri and Arnkel) being surnamed ‘the Priest’, the details and the real feel of paganism are here as elusive as everywhere else. There is almost nothing about beliefs or rituals compared to, say, the details given of legal procedure, how they are conducted and what people think of them.

The arrival of Christianity

The arrival of Christianity, which you would have thought a momentous occasion, is dealt with in the six sentences which comprise chapter 49 (compared to the five chapters which describe Christianisation in Nja’s saga):

The next part of the story tells how Gizur the White and his son-in-law Hjalti came to Iceland to preach the faith. Everyone in Iceland was baptised, and Christianity was adopted by law at the Althing. It was Snorri the Priest who more than anyone else persuaded the people in the Westfjords to embrace the new faith… The priests promised each farmer as many places in Heaven as there was standing room in any church he might build. This proved a great inducement to them to put up churches…

The advent of Christianity had little impact on the feuding and killing. A little on the supernatural as Holy water i snow used to disperse the ghosts. The introduction to this Penguin edition argues that the saga as a whole demonstrates a moral progression from chaotic violence in Norway, to the eruption of countless feuds in Iceland, to a growing respect for peace and the law. Doesn’t feel like that to me. Violence and the touchy pride and dangerous edge which lead to violence so quickly seem to me present right to the end.

Ghosts and the supernatural

The world of the saga is saturated with the supernatural, with ghosts and night-riders, strange animals, omens and portents:

  • one of his shepherds sees the whole of Helgafell opening and Thorstein Cod-Biter being welcomed inside, later discovering Thorstein has drowned
  • Gunnlaug Thorbjarnarson is ridden to death by a night hag, probably Geirrid Thorolf’s-daughter
  • Thorolf Twist-Foot dies in his chair and they cut through the wall behind it in order to drag him to his grave. But he rises again, birds and wild animals are killed and then humans until the entire valley is emptied, until his son Arnkell the Priest with helpers digs up Thorolf’s corpse and drags it to the seashore where it is reburied
  • Thorodd the Tribute-Taker drowns at sea but the ghosts of him and his crew come back to haunt his farm at Frodriver all one winter, until banished by a combination of a door-court in which legal formulas force them to leave – cemented by the blessing of the house with holy water
  • the entire episode of Thorgunna, an immigrant from the Hebrides with her luxurious bedding who is caught in a rain shower which turns out to be of blood (!) before she takes to her bed and dies, warning that all the bedding is destroyed. When it is not, she returns to haunt the farmstead.

Thor

It is generally thought that Thor was the most commonly worshiped of the pagan gods: small lockets depicting him or his holy hammer have been found in burial sites. In Eyrbyggja Saga the first settler of Snæfellsnes where the action is set is a priest of Thor who throws his temple pillars into the sea to see where the god will wash them ashore and there builds his new temple, and maintenance and tithes for the temple play a role in the action.

Part of the evidence for the popularity of Thor the god is the sheer number of personal names formed from the stem Thor, namely: Thorarin, THorbjorn, Thorbrand, Thord, Thordis, Thorfinn, Thorgerd, Thorgest, Thorgrim, Thorgrima, Thorgunna, Thorir, Thorlak, Thorlief, Thormod, Thorodd, Thorolf and Thorstein.

Nicknames

The Icelanders are fond of giving each other nicknames – presumably to bring to life and make more manageable the blizzard of very similar names which surrounded them. Thus: Alf the Short, Aud the Deep-Minded, Bork the Stout, Egil the Strong, Eirik the Red, Eyjolf the Grey, Illugi the Black, Ketil Flat-Nose, Kjallak the Old, Svart the Strong, Thorarin the Black, Thord the Cat, Thorgrima Witch-Face, Thorofl Mostur-Beard, Thorolf Twist-Foot, Thorstein Cod-Biter, Vermund the Slender.

Greenland

is mentioned twice in the saga. Almost at the end, in chapter 64, a man named Gudleif son of Gudlaug is introduced solely to tell the story of how he and his ship gets lots in a storm and end up making landfall on (prsumably) Greenland where the native people (Inuit Indians?) tie them up and take them before a grey-haired elder who amazes them by suddenly speaking in Old Norse. He never gives his name but asks them to take a gold ring and sword back to Iceland and give them to Thurid and the boy Kjaltan. It is obviously Bjorn Asbrandsson the Breidavik-Champion whose strange career has taken him form fighting with the Jomsvikings in the Baltic to ruling over Inuit in Greenland. A fitting and almost moving end to a fairly brief (141 pages) saga which in the end contains multiple and fascinating elements.

Translation

This translation is by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Presumably Edwards is responsible for the final English style which is admirable. It is clear and rhythmic and comfortably colloquial. It’s the colloquialisms which all too often let a translation down but Edwards is relaxed and assured:

‘I’ll tell you what’, said Arnkell. ‘We’ll each have to do what we think best. You two run back home and rouse my men.’ (Ch37)

He tried to tread as softly as he could, for he had already caught a glimpse of Thord and Bjorn sitting by the fire, and thought he had a lifetime of freedom within his grasp, but as he crossed the doorsill, he stepped on a loose tassel. He tried to move to the other foot, but the tassel was caught, so that he tripped and crashed onto the floor with a great thump that sounded like the carcass of a skinned bull being thrown down. Thord leapt to his feet and asked who the devil was there. (Ch 43)

Then Alf the Short stepped forward and asked Ospak not to take the whale. ‘You’d better keep out of this, Alf,’ said Ospak, ‘you’ve a thin skull, and I’ve a heavy axe. One step more and you’ll finish up like Thorir.’ It was good advice, and Alf took it. (Ch 57)

Related links

Icelanders paying a social call

Icelanders paying a social call

Other sagas

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