The Vatnsdæla saga (13th century)

Ingimund was a popular figure with all good men (18)

Vatnsdæla saga is the chronicle of one family over five generations, starting in Norway and following them through the settlement of the Vatnsdal, a valley that runs south from Hunafloi in the north of Iceland. Ingimundur, the grandson of a Norwegian chieftain, Ketill Raum, fights for King Harald Fairhair of Norway at the battle of Hafrsfjord and is rewarded by him. At the prompting of a fortune-teller he moves to Iceland where he lives to old age. The saga tells the story of his family until the arrival of Christianity at the end of the tenth century.

Distinctive feel

Shorter than Egil’s or Njal’s sagas (a mere 47 chapters long), the saga of the people of Vatnsdale has a notably different feel for several reasons. For a start, the opening scenes where young Thorstein is shamed by his father into going and doing a deed of derring-do like the heroes of old, and so hides in the house of a hero/giant, before killing him a) feels more like a fairy story than the grim realism of a saga b) ‘heroes of old’? The whole saga is written with a knowing, antiquarian reverence for the past and its legends. The other sagas just tell the events baldly and blankly.

This kind of editorialising happens periodically throughout and creates a distancing affect. Other sagas are in the moment and therefore dramatic; the narrator of Vatnsdæla saga refers to things as being ‘from the olden times’ thereby giving a slightly more folk tale affect; in fact making me realise that a characteristic of the folk tale is the conscious sense of describing ‘the olden days’.

The behaviour of young men today is not what it was when I was young. In those days men hankered after deeds of derring-do, either by going raiding or by winning wealth and honour through exploits in which there was some element of danger.

The dialogue at the start is also longer and more psychological ie it expresses feelings and is aware of other peoples’ feelings. In your average saga dialogue is the barest expression of wants and tends to lead either to violent disagreements or strong male bonding. The saga maintains this slight folk story/fairy tale air throughout.

Good people

The second and most obvious difference is that the successive heads of the family – Thorstein, Ingimund and Thorstein, Ingolf, Thorkel – are good men, who live in peace and plenty with their neighbours, respected and honoured. This concern for the abstract idea of honour makes it feel as if the text has been influenced by French romance, where high ideals motivate character. In Njal’s saga the key idea is justice in accordance with the convoluted processes of the Law. In Egil’s saga the hero behaves like a beast and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. Vatnsdæla saga‘s dwelling on honour is one of its distinctive features.

This is well and nobly spoken… Ingimund stayed over the winter, and his honour seemed to be much on the increase… (7) Ingimund, in great honour, visited his father after the battle of Havresfjord (8) It is a great honour to be the object of your goodwill… As before the king showed him all due honour… (12) There were good people a-plenty in the vicinity, but is was Ingimund who enjoyed the most honour (16) He maintained his honour in this affair as in all others. (35) Ingolf had lived on in great honour for twelve years after the death of his father. (41) I believe that you will be a source of honour to your kinsfolk. (43) The Vatnsdal people did everything possible to honour Thorkel Scratcher. (45) Thorkel resolved this case in an honourable way. (46)


1-7 Thorstein son of Ketil the Large, proves himself a hero by clearing the public highway of the menace of the giant Jokul, then surrenders himself to his father Ingimund. Surprisingly Ingimund lets him live and even marry Jokul’s sister, Thordis. Thorstein names his eldest son after his father-in-law ie Ingimund and as soon as he is old enough Ingimund goes off a-viking.

7 – Ingimund and Saemund come into conflict, then negotiate and become bosom friends.

8-9 Ingimund joins King Harald Fine-Hair’s army at the Battle of Hravnsfjord, winning his friendship and awarded an amulet (cf the enmity Egil’s family got for not supporting Harald).

10 – Ingimund encounters a Lapp sorceress who predicts he will emigrate to Iceland and says the amulet has been spirited to the place he will settle. Ingimund says he doesn’t want to go but later searches for and can’t find the amulet.

11 – Thorstein dies. 13 – Ingimund’s wife Vigdis gives birth to two boys, Thorstein named for his paternal grandfather and Jokul named for the giant his grandfather Thorstein killed at the start. 14,15 – It is this Ingimund Thorsteinsson who takes the family to Iceland and settles the northern valley of Vatn giving names to all the landmarks. In complete contrast to Egil, Ingimund is a good man, respected and honoured.

18-26 The incident of Hrolleif the Tall and his mother, Ljot the witch. After staying with various relatives and causing trouble everywhere they go, Hrolleif is dumped on Ingimund where he comes into continual conflict with the five sons. When he refuses to make way for them at the salmon fishery a fight breaks out. When the old and nearly Ingimund is led there on horseback Hrolleif spears him. Ingimund staggers home and is found dead in his chair (23). In acts which are entirely uncharacteristic of the sagas, two of his friends, Eyvind the Proud and Gaut fall on their own swords in suicide (23). Is it some strange fusion with the learned author’s knowledge of classical literature? Or can it possibly be true?

The narrative torch is passed to his sons who take some months coming up with a plan to ambush Hrolleif outside his own house, where they chop off  his head and his mother the witch dies of rage. Only just in time because she had been planning to rearrange the entire landscape so the brothers could never find their way there.

27 ‘Thorstein became chief of the Vatnsdal people’. 28 – The story of Thorolf Sledgehammer who is a pest and defends his house with magic cats who, when confronted, runs off over the fields carrying two chests full of silver before grabbing the nearest pursuing man and jumping down a deep shaft never to be seen again.

29 The story of Thorgrim Skinhood: a disoute about a good piece of pasture land escalates into a pitched battle between the Ingimundsons with 25 men and Thorgrim and kin with 40, until broken up by neighbours. It is settled in the law court and Thorgrim is exiled.

30 The story of Thorolf Darkskin who rustles cattle until a posse of 19 set off for his fortified homestead, storm it, and Jokul chases Thorolf across fields to a marsh where he sits down and weeps and is killed.

31-36 The story of Berg the Bold, a pushy showoff who doesn’t show Thorstein respect; arriving at a wedding he barges Thorstein out of the way which makes hotheaded Jokul hit him which leads to the threat of a fight. At a lawcourt Thorstein offers to undergo turf-reparation but Berg is rude so he stops and they arrange a double duel, but the weather is so bad that, although Thorstein and Jokul show up, Berg and his ally Finnbogi don’t, thus losing much face. And they then assemble a posse to ambush the brothers but are outnumbered by the brother’s own posse and go meekly away. So humiliating that they pack up and leave the area.

36 Two sisters arrive. Groa performs a magic spell, walking backward round the house and waving a handkerchief at the mountain, then there is a rockfall which kills everyone inside. The other sister is driven away and the site becomes haunted.

37 Thorstein persuades his brother, Thorir the berserkr, to adopt the illegitimate son of Thorgrim (son of their sister, Thordis) who has been left out to die. Thorir does so and Thorstein successfully prays for him to stop being a berserkr. When found the baby was scratching at the cloth over his face and becomes known as Thorkel Scratcher.

38 Thorstein dies, as do Jokul and Thorir. His sons succeed: Ingolf and Gudbrand. 37-40 Ingolf falls in love with Valgerd daughter of Ottar who disapproves. This escalates into a feud with Ottar hiring two successive itinerants to assassinate either Ingolf or Gudbrand. The first, Thorir, tries to axe Gudbrand but the blade sticks in the roofbeam and Gudbrand kills him. But the second, Svart, stays with Gudbrand a whole winter before spearing him to death. Ingolf takes Ottar to the Althing (first mention of it) where a settlement is made.

41 Ingolf dies in a famous solo attack on the sheiling of highway robbers. He kills five and scares the others off before collapsing from his wounds.

42 Thorgrim acknowledges his 12 year-old son Thorkel Scratcher when they collaborate on a plan to kill Thorkel Silver from Helgavatn who, in the casting of lots to become next godi of Vatnsdal, kept winning by using magic.

43 Thorkel Silver sails to the Orkney Isles and serves earl Sigurd with distinction when they go a-viking. Thorkel makes a single-handed raid on a castle and earl Sigurd lets him keep the silver he wins so Thorkel can free his slave-mother and thus become a freeman and legitimate.

44 The long story of how Thorkel Scratcher kills Glaedir the blusterer who insults him at a wedding and the conflict and legal case this leads to which is won when Thordis the Prophetess instructs Thorkel to tap Gudmund the advocate on the cheek so he forgets what to say

46 Bishop Frederick arrives to convert Iceland. At a feast at Olaf’s he makes a great and incomprehensible demonstration involving two berserkrs and three fires. Iceland is converted. Thorkel is baptised and builds a church.

47 Bard the Peevish conducts a magic spell to ward off a storm. A long and incomprehensible feud arises where Thorkel seems to give sound advice. He dies old and full of years.

With that he died and this was a great sorrow to his thingmen, and all men of the region, because he seemed – as was indeed the case – a great district leader, and a man blessed with great luck, and the man most like the old Vatnsdal men such as Thorstein and Ingimund. However, Thorkel surpassed them in that he was a man of the true faith, and loved God, and prepared himself for death in the Christian way. And with that we make an end of the saga of the people of Vatnsdal.

Magic and human sacrifice

Magic is omnipresent, like Thorolf Sledgehammer’s enchanted cats, Ljot rearranging the landscape, the witch who makes a cloak imvulnerable. The move to Iceland isn’t prompted by simple self-defence as with Egil’s family, but because of an elaborate yarn about an amulet which is magicked over the sea and buried in Vatnsdal. Berg’s sister is, inevitably in this saga, a witch who can see the future.  When two sisters arrive from Norway one, Groa, is inevitably a witch who performs a strange spell. After Thorkel Scratcher kills Glaedir his kin consult Thordis the Prophetess who works magic to win the case. Bard the Peevish performs a magic spell, even after the conversion to Christianity.

It is notable that the adversaries in the central confrontations are accused of digging ditches in which they sacrifice animals and humans. Did this take place? Or is it legendary – propaganda – an addition by the Christian author of the text?

Viking is an activity not a race or ethnic group

In Vatnsdæla saga as in Egil’s saga, viking is an activity anyone can undertake, meaning violent raids to grab loot.

He went raiding each summer and won wealth and honour… Ingjald and Thorstein held a feast together each autumn when they returned home from their Viking raids… They then set off raiding for a second summer and seized large amounts of booty from pirates and robbers… In the last summer that Ingimund and Saemund held fellowship together, they returned with far more booty than ever before… Hrafn had been on Viking raids for a long time, and was well off for weapons and war-clothing… Hrafn always wanted to talk about his Viking adventures and raids… (17)  During the following summer they went raiding… (43)

To quote Tom Shippey:

The many ‘sagas of Icelanders’, or Íslendinga sögur, are not strictly speaking about Vikings, for ‘Viking’ was a job description rather than an ethnic label; but some Icelanders, notably Egil Skallagrimsson, went through a Viking phase, as did several of the Norwegian kings whose lives are recorded in the ‘kings’ sagas’ or konunga sögur, and more indirectly in the praise poems of their skalds (bards). (London Review of Books Vol. 32 No. 14 · 22 July 2010)

And so also Thorstein and Ingjald and, in the next generation, Ingimund and Saemund, go through their ‘Viking phase’ before settling down to become respected landowners.


The translation is by Andrew Wawn and from the Penguin volume, The Saga of the Icelanders. It is clear and modern but somehow not quite as fluent as Bernard Scudder’s translation of Egil’s saga. But both are vastly better than the old Victorian/Edwardian translations and just a bit zippier than the Magnus Magnusson translations from the early 1960s.

Related links

Head of a man carved from an antler

Head of a man carved from an antler

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.


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.


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)


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?


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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