The Saga of the Confederates

Bandamanna saga is that rare thing, a saga with a sense of humour. It is a satire on the venality of the chieftain class who spout fine words and bring big law cases but are only motivated by greed and can be easily bought off.

1 – Ofeig lives in Midfjord. He’s not rich. He has a son, Odd, who he ignores. Odd asks for some capital to set up on his own but Ofeig promises the minimum possible. One day Odd simply takes some fishing reel and cloth and rides north to Vatnsnes where he joins a group of fishermen and flourishes. After three successful years he has enough capital to buy a share in a ferry; then in an ocean-going boat. Soon he is the richest merchant.
2 – Odd carries on from strength to strength, settling at a farm named Mel. Ospak, from a bad family, wants to join. Odd gives him a try and he is a good worker. All Odd lacks is a godord so he buys one.
3 – Ospak does well. Two winters later Odd announces he’s going abroad. He first offers control of the farm to his kinsman Vali who is not keen; then to Ospak who pretends reluctance but is very keen, and so it is Odd hands over running of all his affairs – including his godord – to Ospak, and he carries out  his duties, both at the farm and the Althing, very well.
4 – Ospak happens to ride north to Vididal, to Svolustadir, where he meets and falls in love with Svala. Her kinsman Thorarin the Wise, refuses to be involved and so she performs a self-betrothal and marries Ospak and returns with him to Mel, though they keep on the farm at Svolustadir. Odd returns from his merchant trip successful, as usual, and finds the farm well looked after. He asks Ospak for control of it and his godord back. Ospak delays, saying it’s traditional to do such things at the autumn Althing. However, on the last day of the assembly Odd wakes late to find everyone leaving, the proceedings closed, and his godord not returned. A few days later, at table, he suddenly leaps up with an axe in his hand and threatens Ospak to hand back control of the farm and godord. Which he does. There is now bad blood. Ospak packs and goes to Svolustadir. That autumn thirty of Odd’s sheep go missing. Vaki goes north on a trading trip and drops in a Svolustadir. Conversation turns to the missing sheep and Vali says lots of people thing Ospak stole them as revenge, Ospak gets angry. Back at Mel Vali reports the conversation. On the Summons Days Odd takes twenty men to Svolustadir with the aim of accusing Ospak, but Vali begs to intercede first. He goes into the darkened hall where someone leaps from a bench and strikes him a blow in the back. Ospak had meant to kill Odd. As he falls dying he warns Ospak that Odd is outside, says, Flee and tell Svala to go out and say we’ve made up the row and I’ve ridden north with you. Svala goes tell Odd this, he believes and rides home. Vali dies and Ospak buries him then disappears. Word spreads and Odd is dishonoured by the failure of his trip.
5 – At the Althing Odd brings a case against Ospak. Thorarin the Wise, kinsman of Ospak’s wife Svala, and another chieftain Styrmir, discuss the case. They both know there’s a legal flaw in it. Odd raised ten men as witnesses in his district, but one died and he renamed a new one in the district, not at the Althing as he should have. Thorarin says who cares. Styrmir argues that Odd is arrogant and overbearing and needs taking down a peg or two. Thorarin reluctantly agrees and they go to court and present this defence which destroys Odd’s case. Walking back to his booth, stunned, Odd meets an old scruffy man. It is his father Ofeig. Ofeig asks after the case, then offers to rectify it, if given enough silve. Odd gives him a big bagful.
6 – Ofeig enters the judgement ring and persuades the judges they have failed in their oath to bring justice to an obvious murderer, Ospak. He lets the bag of silver become obvious and eventually opens it and counts out the silver and says he will give some to all the judges and half a mark to whoever delcares Ospak an outlaw. The combination of money and the argument about their oaths persaudes them. Next day Ospak is declared an outlaw whom anyone can kill with impunity.
7 – Styrmir and Thorarin fel humiliated that their case has been overthrown. They muster six other powerful chieftains to their cause. In the spring Summons Days they ride to Mel and summons Odd for causing money to be brought into the court. Odd is relaxed but Ofeig says this is bad and to load all his movable belongings into a boat ahead of the Althing.
8 – At the Althing Ofeig sees the overwhelming forces before him and wanders thinking. He happens to be outside Egil Skulason’s booth as Egil is showing people out. He contrives to be invited in where he makes a long explanation that Odd is anticipating a prosecution and has removed all his belongings: this along with the promise of the Confederates to share half of Odd’s belongings among themselves, half with the chieftains of the district, means Egil will get one-sixteenth of not-very-much. Egil foresees humiliation and loss of honour. Ofeig presents Egil with a bag of silver, purely as a sign of his respect, and suggests that if Egil limits the settlement it will look better for him, Egil says he will need an ally among the Confederates.
9 – Ofeig works the same magic with Gelli Thorkelsson, persuading him there will be little money and much dishonour in pursuing the case. He gives Gelli money but also says Odd is willing to marry his daughter, and to provide a rich dowry himself. Gelli will never get a better offer. He is persuaded to join with Egil.
10 – In a tour de force at the Althing Ofeig persuades Hermund the leader of the Confederates, to let Ofeig choose the arbitrators. He goes through the Confederates one by one assassinating their characters until he is left with who he claims are the two worst, Egil and Gellir; he nominates them. Egil and Gellir confer as if coming up with something when, in fact, they have already pledged to Ofeig to keep the sum low. They return and announce Odd must pay 13 ounces of hack silver ie nothing. The other Confederates are outraged at which Egil launches a diatribe agains them each, describing their stinginess and personal vices till they shut up. Never have so many proud chieftains been humiliated at once. Ofeig has a spring in his step. There is much bad feeling.
11 – Ofeig tells his son what he has achieved and he is delighted. Odd sails to the Orkneys to collect grain and malt and returns to organise a sumptuous feast for his wedding to Gelli’s daughter. At the feast end Odd gives both Egil and Gelli rich gifts and they part firm friends.
12 – The saga concludes with a series of unfortunate events:

  • Hermund musters forces and rides to burn Egil in his house but en route there is the sound of a bowstring twang and Hermund feels a sharp wound in his side, abandons the expedition, returns home and dies.
  • One Bergthor summed up the case against Ospak when he was outlawed: one night there is a loud banging on his door and Bergthor realises it is Ospak and refuses to go out. In the morning nine of his cows have been killed.
  • Five of Odd’s best stud horses are found dead and Ospak is blamed.
  • Mar Hildisson marries Svala ie Ospak’s wife, and moves into Svolustadir. One morning someone ie Ospak enters his bedroom and stabs him, reciting a verse that no-one else shall sleep with Svala. But on the way out Mar’s idiot brother Bjalfi stabs the intruder. In the autumn farmers find Ospak’s body in a cave where he staggered and died after Bjalfi’s wound.

Odd lived to ripe old age and in good friendship with his father.

Sayings

  • Many eyes squint when there’s money around (5)
  • Wisdom is welcome wherever it comes from (10)

Translation

Translated into good, clear modern English by Ruth C. Ellison, with notably English idiom eg the chieftains have a ‘chat’. Included in the excellent portmanteau Penguin volume, The Sagas of the Icelanders.

Related links

Hack silver, measured by weight not face value - the currency of the Bandamanna

Hack silver, measured by weight not face value – the currency of the Vikings and Icelanders

Other sagas

Egil’s saga (13th century)

Then Egil said, ‘Let us go back to the farm and acquit ourselves like true warriors: kill everyone we can catch and take all the valuables we can carry.’ (Ch 58)

The saga of Egil Skallagrimsson is said to be one of the masterpieces of the genre, along with the sagas of Grettir, Njal and the people of Laxdale.

The saga is 90 chapters long. Typically the eponymous hero only appears in chapter 31, over a third in, and is old and ceases to play much of an active role by chapter 80 – ie as with all the other sagas one man’s life is deeply embedded in the lives and stories of his forebears and ancestors.

That first third is devoted to the collapse of the relationship between Norwegian King Harald Fine-Hair, or Tangle-hair as is here translated, and one of his leading men Thorolf Kveldulfsson. In brief Thorolf serves the king excellently but is the victim of slanders made by the sons of the second marriage of a man whose property he inherited via his friend, the grandson. In their bid to regain the property they think rightly theirs, the sons convince Harald Thorolf is a traitor plotting his murder and Harald first deprives Thorolf of his role of King’s tax collector, then surrounds his homestead, burning it (as in Njal’s saga) before massacring the men who run out. Thorolf’s downfall convinces Egil’s father Grim the Bald (Skallagrim) and many of his kinsfolk to flee Harald’s dictatorial behaviour for the newly discovered and unpopulated island of Iceland.

History

One thing which makes Egil’s saga easier to read than most is that it is firmly embedded in a historical framework. Egil’s family are entangled with successive kings of Norway, Denmark and England. The first third of the saga is the story of Egil’s uncle Thorolf’s doomed relationship with King Harald Fine-Hair. Once he has reached adulthood, Egil sails back to Norway where he has difficult relations with Harald’s son Eirik Bloodaxe, serves King Athelstan of England in battle against King Olaf the Red of Scotland, and falls foul of King Gorm of Denmark.

The known dates of these kings, their battles and successions, although a bit mangled in the saga, nonetheless give the reader a fixed and logically unfolding framework or chronology in which to situate the narrative. Unlike, say, the Eyrbyggja saga, where obscure events relate only to other obscure events, and unknown characters relate to lots of other unknown characters, creating a tapestry of confusion.

Psychopath

I’ve read blurb saying Egil is an ambivalent figure. He’s not. He’s a violent psychopath. He kills lots of people. As a youth he is unnaturally large and ugly and strong. He commits his first murder aged seven and doesn’t look back. He kills Bard at the feast where Bard is hosting King Eirik Bloodaxe along with his queen Gunnhild. He kills all the men in the boat Eirik sends after him, including Eirik’s son prince Rognvald.

The warship gave such a jolt that the sea flooded over one side and filled it. Egil leaped aboard, clutching his halberd and urged his men to let no one on the ship escape alive. Meeting no resistance, they did just that: everyone on the ship was killed, and none escaped. Rognvald and his men died there, thirteen of them in all. Egil and his men rowed to the island of Herdla. Then Egil spoke a verse:

We fought, I paid no heed
that my violent deeds might be repaid.
My lightning sword I daubed with the blood
of warlike Eirik and Gunnhild’s son.
Thirteen men fell there,
pines of the sea’s golden moon,
on a single ship; the bringer
of battle is hard at work.

He kills all the men he confronts in battle fighting for King Athelstan. He kills Olvir. He kills Berg-Onund and Frodi and Hadd. And the appalling savagery of Viking mentality is described with blunt factuality as Egil and his brother Thorolf go a-viking, killing countless farmers and their workers, stealing everything they can carry, burning everything else.

In the spring, Thorolf and Egil equipped big longships and took on a crew to go raiding in the Baltic that summer. They won a huge amount of booty and won many battles… One day they put into an estuary with a large forest on the upland above it. They went ashore and split up into parties of twelve. Thay walked through the woodland and it was not far until the first settlement began, fairly sparse at first. The Vikings began plundering and killing people at once, and everyone fled from them. (Ch 46)

Poetry

His poetry is meant to redeem Egil. It’s hard to tell from the translations. These are very good, lucid and atmospheric, but I’m not qualified to compare them to any other skaldic poetry embedded in 13th century Icelandic sagas.

Black Slicer did not bite
the shield when I brandished it.
Atli the Short kept blunting
its edge with his magic.
I used my strength against
that sword-wielding braggart,
my teeth removed that peril.
Thus I vanquished the beast.

But obviously the poetry is key to the character of Egil as conceived or recorded in the tradition and he creates and speaks verse at most of the major events in the story. It’s striking that this poetry is appreciated by all and sundry with none of the pretentiousness which has surrounded it in the West since the Romantic revolution (?1800). The crudest warriors repect the power of well-articulated speech. Good verse can temper very bad opinions of its author: when he falls into King Eirik’s grasp Egil is about to lose his life but manages to save it by writing and reciting a 20-verse drapa in Eirik’s praise, even though, once he’s escaped, he makes it clear he didn’t mean a word.

The saga contains 60 poems in all. Highlights include:

2 – a threat poem that displays Skallagrim’s power after he had just plundered a ship and killed many men
6 – a poem insulting King Eirik after the king gave Skallagrim what he thought a poor gift
17 – a grief-poem for his brother Thorolf
23 – a love poem for his future wife
29 – an insult poem to Eirik and Gunnhild for banishing him
Ch 79 – a grief poem for drowned son Bodvar
Ch 80 – a praise poem for his lifelong friend Arinbjorn

The poems lend this saga something unique, which is psychology. They give an insight, albeit oblique and objectified, of the characters’ feelings. Thus, despite the monstrousness of Egil’s behaviour, the poems – which become increasingly softer and more elegiac as he ages – lend the text a deceptive sense of gentleness. Despite his hideous behaviour, it is hard not to respond to the sad tone of the final poems of his age and infirmity.

Their numbers are dwindling, the famous
warriors who met with weapons
and spread gifts like the gold of day.
Where will I find generous men,
who beyond the sea that, nailed with islands,
girds the earth, showered snows of silver
on to my hands where hawks perch,
in return for my words of praise?

Translation

The translation is by Bernard Scudder and from The Saga of the Icelanders. It is excellent, clear, concise and modern, with no jarring archaisms or dated colloquialisms. It reads as if it is being told now.

Related links

Egil carrying the corpse of his drowned son Bodvar (Photo: Gangleri/Wikimedia Commons)

Egil carrying the corpse of his drowned son Bodvar (Photo: Gangleri/Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

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