Reading sagas

The Icelandic sagas are about family trees and genealogies, hundreds of pages of them. Occasionally something like an anecdote or short scene emerges from the blizzard of names. The reader of sagas must be prepared:

  • To read the first 30 or 40 pages of names and relations and incidents sprawling over numerous generations, before you even get to the nominal ‘hero’ of the saga (Egil doesn’t appear until chapter 31 of his 90-chapter saga is a third in; Njal just appears in chapter 20 of the 159-chapter Njal’s saga) .
  • For the nominal hero of the saga to die some time before the end and the saga to carry on detailing the lives and actions of innumerable relations and descendants for some decades after the main character’s death (Njal dies in chapter 130 leaving 29 further Njal-less chapters).
  • For challengingly complex lists of families and wives and children and descendants and the farms they settled and built and bought and sold each other…
  • made very hard to remember because there seems such a paucity of names: there appear to be only about thirty names, so that fathers, brothers and cousins and blood-enemies can all share the same first name – very confusing – lots of Bards and Thorsteins.
  • For no psychology: one of the appeal of the sagas is the lack of psychology, instead everything is implied. There are sequences of events which unfold at the same relentless pace. Characters comment a little on this or that killing or legal settlement, but you almost never see into their ‘feelings’. Very occasionally, like a gleam of sunlight on an overcast day, there might be a one-sentence glimmer of psychological insight; but there will be at most two such sentences in 400 pages of text. (Gunnar’s mention of the beauty of his meadows, the fateful attraction which makes him turn back from exile and thus seals his fate (chapter 75) stands out as the only psychological moment in the 400 pages of Njal’s saga.) You have to piece together any sense of what the characters are like from a handful of incidents and a nickname; to the casual reader they may all seem like violent psychopaths except some are a bit more cunning than the others.
  • Instead, dialogue and description are kept to the bare minimum necessary to explain what really got medieval Icelanders going – which is more genealogies and family trees and explanations of who killed who, where, as a result of what grudge, the reprisals the killing led to among precisely which of the victim’s numerous friends and relatives; and then the elaborate legal proceedings it all led to at the Quarter sessions or the Althing.
  • For phenomenal violence, killing basically, at the drop of a hat: it’s surprising that Iceland was ever colonised considering the rate at which the colonisers from Norway, Scotland or the Hebrides killed each other. Surely they can’t have been representative, surely permanent feuds can’t have emptied whole valleys. In which case the sagas are deliberately omitting most of the behaviour of most of the population for most of the time to focus on just the grudges and fighting and feuds…
Gunnar's single handed defence of his home against thirty attackers in Njal's saga

Gunnar’s single-handed defence of his home against thirty attackers in Njal’s saga

Other sagas

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

The Poetic Edda – the heroic poems

The Icelandic poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana starts, in the Codex Regius manuscript, with an unusually large letter A (starting the word ‘Ar’ meaning Early or Once upon a time) which suggests the scribe was well-aware that he was transitioning from the sequence of mythological poems – stories about the unruly Norse gods – to the second part of the Poetic Edda, which records the deeds of heroes and mortal men and women.

The most striking thing about the 19 heroic poems is the way they focus on the same cycle of stories which dominate Snorri’s Prose Edda and are also the subject of the Volsungsaga, namely the legends of King Sigmund, his sons Helgi and Sigurd, the latter’s fight with the dragon Fafnir, his ill-fated love triangle with Brynhild and Gudrún, the latter’s ill-starred marriage to Atli, and then to king Jörmunrekkr. The Greeks have many cycles of legends – the Trojan War, or Theseus, or Perseus, or Jason and the Argonauts. But Norse legend seems fixated on this one, rather fissile tragedy of Sigurd and Gudrún.

The 14 poems about this legend have the added distinction of having a massive hole ripped out of the heart of them. 8 folios which could have contained anything between 200 and 250 stanzas – at an average of 50 stanzas per poem, some 5 entire poems – have at some stage been removed from the Codex, right in the middle of the Sigurd cycle of poems, giving rise to endless speculation about the missing content.

The heroic poems fall easily into three sections:

The story of Helgi Hundingsbani
The story of the Nibelungs
The story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths

…respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin.

The story of Helgi Hundingsbani

Immediately (and typically of the Poetic Edda) there are textual issues, because poems 1 and 3 are about Helgi Hundingsbana (so-called because he kills king Hunding in battle) but poem 2 is about a completely different Helgi, Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, who lived a generation before Helgi Hundingsbana and who Helgi Hundingsbana was named after. It makes for a much simpler experience just to read poems 1 and 3. When you do this you realise that number 3 covers a lot of the same ground as number 1, and both – after the heroic birth and heroic deeds and comic flyting before the big battle – are about the surprisingly romantic story of Helgi the hero and his true love Sigrun the valkyrie. The poems lead up to the climactic scene of Sigrun’s nightly visits to Helgi’s funeral barrow, hoping to meet and talk with her dead lover, a subject which endeared itself to the sentimental Victorians. The (as usual) rather confusing story of Helgi Hundingsbane is usefully summarised on Wikipedia.

Helgakviða Hundingsbana I – The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane or Helgi the Hunding-Slayer
(Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar – The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjörvard)
Helgakviða Hundingsbana II – The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane or Helgi the Hunding-Slayer

As usual, I quote the Henry Adams Bellows translation because it is both out of copyright and easily available online:

1. In olden days, | when eagles screamed,
And holy streams | from heaven’s crags fell,
Was Helgi then, | the hero-hearted,
Borghild’s son, | in Bralund born.

2. ‘Twas night in the dwelling, | and Norns there came,
Who shaped the life | of the lofty one;
They bade him most famed | of fighters all
And best of princes | ever to be.

3. Mightily wove they | the web of fate,
While Bralund’s towns | were trembling all;
And there the golden | threads they wove,
And in the moon’s hall | fast they made them.

The Niflung or Nibelung Cycle (the story of Sigurd, Bryinhild and Gudrún)

Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Sinfjötli’s Death) This is a short prose text which summarises the story found in the saga and elsewhere: Sinfjötli, son of Sigmund, who had been prominent in the Helgi poems for carrying out dialogues of abuse with various enemies, is poisoned in front of his father by his step-mother in revenge for killing her husband/brother (delete as appropriate, depending on which version you’re reading). In all the versions the grieving Sigmund does nothing to the poisoner but carries the body to a fjord and calls a ferryman to take him across but the boat is only big enough for one passenger and the ferryman takes Sinfjötli’s body and then mysteriously disappears. Was he Odin?

Grípisspá (Grípir’s Prophecy) 53 stanzas – Sigurd abruptly appears in the cycle of poems, rides up to his uncle Gripir’s who prophesies his destiny. It’s not a pretty sight.

“Ever remember, ruler of men,
That fortune lies in the hero’s life;
A nobler man shall never live
Beneath the sun than Sigurth shall seem.”

Reginsmál (The Ballad of Regin) The editors point out that the next three poems might very well be one long one; they are in a similar style, with frequent short prose inserts to move the story along. The third one breaks off abruptly where vital pages have been torn from the Codex. In Reginsmál the young Sigurd is apprenticed to Regin at the court of king Hjalprek. The king gives Sigurd ships to sail back to Volsung land and take revenge for his father. A stranger shouts at the ships from the shore. It is Hnikar (?) and they ask him what are the best omens before a battle:

20. “Many the signs, | if men but knew,
That are good for the swinging of swords;
It is well, methinks, | if the warrior meets
A raven black on his road.

21. “Another it is | if out thou art come,
And art ready forth to fare,
To behold on the path | before thy house
Two fighters greedy of fame.

22. “Third it is well | if a howling wolf
Thou hearest under the ash;
And fortune comes | if thy foe thou seest
Ere thee the hero beholds.

23. “A man shall fight not | when he must face
The moon’s bright sister setting late;
Win he shall | who well can see,
And wedge-like forms | his men for the fray.

24. “Foul is the sign | if thy foot shall stumble
As thou goest forth to fight;
Goddesses baneful | at both thy sides
Will that wounds thou shalt get.

25. “Combed and washed | shall the wise man go,
And a meal at mom shall take;
For unknown it is | where at eve he may be;
It is ill thy luck to lose.”

Fáfnismál (The Ballad of Fáfnir) 44 stanzas – Like so many of the poems the action happens before it starts. In the prose prologue Sigurd waits in the trench and kills the dragon. This poem is about what interests this culture, a dialogue between the hero and the dragon about wisdom and fate. Eventually leads to the scene where Sigurd cooks the dragon’s heart, tastes the blood, understand the birds warning him against Regin, who he promptly decapitates.

Sigurth spake:
28. “Better is heart | than a mighty blade
For him who shall fiercely fight;
The brave man well | shall fight and win,
Though dull his blade may be.

29. “Brave men better | than cowards be,
When the clash of battle comes;
And better the glad | than the gloomy man
Shall face what before him lies.

Sigrdrífumál (The Lay of Sigrdrífa) In this poem, in this version, the woman asleep on the Hind’s Fell surrounded by a wall of flame is not Brynhild, but a different Valkyrie named Sigrdrífa. Sigurd wakes her and then they do what these people love: have a wisdom dialogue, in fact a monologue, in which she first explains what runes you need to practice various skills, and then gives a numbered set of practical advice for warriors. It is in the middle of this sequence, after stanza 27, that the poem breaks off abruptly because a great hole has been torn in the codex. The fifth folio of eight sheets is missing, maybe 250 verses, a huge chunk of text covering the central story of the betrothal of Sigurd and Brynhild and the treachery of queen Grimhild, are missing. This is referred to as THE GREAT LACUNA.

6. Winning-runes learn, | if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, | and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.

7. Ale-runes learn, | that with lies the wife
Of another betray not thy trust;
On the horn thou shalt write, | and the backs of thy hands,
And Need shalt mark on thy nails.
Thou shalt bless the draught, | and danger escape,
And cast a leek in the cup;
(For so I know | thou never shalt see
Thy mead with evil mixed.)

8. Birth-runes learn, | if help thou wilt lend,
The babe from the mother to bring;
On thy palms shalt write them, | and round thy joints,
And ask the fates to aid.

9. Wave-runes learn, | if well thou wouldst shelter
The sail-steeds out on the sea;
On the stem shalt thou write, | and the steering blade,
And burn them into the oars;
Though high be the breakers, | and black the waves,
Thou shalt safe the harbor seek.

Apparently this is the most confused and scraped together of all the Codex Regius poems. As Henry Adams Bellows puts it: “the strange conglomeration of stanzas which the compiler of the collection has left for us, and which, in much the same general form, seems to have lain before the authors of the Volsungasaga, in which eighteen of its stanzas are quoted, is not a poem at all… The Sigrdrifumol section as we now have it is an extraordinary piece of patchwork…a collection of fragments, most of them originally having no relation to the main subject. All of the story, the dialogue and the characterization are embodied in stanzas 1-4 and 20-21 and in the prose notes accompanying the first four stanzas; all of the rest might equally well (or better) be transferred to the Hovamol…”


Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (Fragment of a Poem about Sigurd) After the Great Lacuna this poem starts or rather resumes in mid-flow. Its 19 stanzas cover Sigurd’s murder and the recriminations between brother and sister Gunnar and Gudrun. It’s notable that’s Sigurd’s death, in this poem, happens out of doors by a river on some journey. Also that it is treated very casually:

4. They cooked a wolf, | they cut up a snake,
They gave to Gotthorm | the greedy one’s flesh,
Before the men, | to murder minded,
Laid their hands | on the hero bold.

5. Slain was Sigurth | south of the Rhine;
From a limb a raven | called full loud:
“Your blood shall redden | Atli’s blade,
And your oaths shall bind | you both in chains.”

6. Without stood Guthrun, | Gjuki’s daughter,
Hear now the speech | that first she spake:
“Where is Sigurth now, | the noble king,
That my kinsmen riding | before him come?”

7. Only this | did Hogni answer:
“Sigurth we | with our swords have slain;
The gray horse mourns | by his master dead.”

“Slain was Sigurth | south of the Rhine” that’s how the central moment of the entire legend is casually described, preparing the way for stanzas recounting Gunnar’s conversations with Gudrun. Dialogue always trumps action in these poems.

Fra Dauda Sigurdar This is a short piece of prose which admits there are at least three versions of where Sigurd was killed: by a river, in a forest, or in bed.

Guðrúnarkviða I (The First Lay of Gudrún) In 27 stanzas Gudrun is unable to weep for her dead husband despite various ladies of the court coming to her and telling their life stories and the woes they have suffered; until suddenly she breaks down and bitterly laments..

17. “So was my Sigurth | o’er Gjuki’s sons
As the spear-leek grown | above the grass,
Or the jewel bright | borne on the band,
The precious stone | that princes wear.

18. “To the leader of men | I loftier seemed
And higher than all | of Herjan’s maids;
As little now | as the leaf I am
On the willow hanging; | my hero is dead.

Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd) at 71 stanzas the longest poem in this section, it recaps much of the plot, including the murder of Sigurd which, here, takes place in his bed next to Gudrun. In fact the poem isn’t about Sigurd at all, but in the first part describes Gudrun mourning – and in the second half details Brynhild’s elaborate plans to kill herself and arrange a big funeral pyre for herself and Sigurd. It is striking that, in this poem, Sigurd is killed in his bed and that, again, there appears to be lines or maybe whole stanzas missing, so that the fatal event is strangely mangled and elided.

20. “Gotthorm to wrath | we needs must rouse,
Our younger brother, | in rashness blind;
He entered not | in the oaths we swore,
The oaths we swore | and all our vows.”

21. It was easy to rouse | the reckless one.
. . . . . . . . . .
The sword in the heart | of Sigurth stood.

Helreið Brynhildar (Brynhild’s Hell-Ride) a short poem of 14 stanzas in which Brynhild, riding down to hell is questioned by an ogress in a cave and justifies her life and actions. “It shows the confusion of traditions manifest in all the later poems; for example, Brynhild is here not only a Valkyrie but also a swan-maiden.”

13. “Yet Guthrun reproached me, | Gjuki’s daughter,
That I in Sigurth’s | arms had slept;
Then did I hear | what I would were hid,
That they had betrayed me | in taking a mate.

14. “Ever with grief | and all too long
Are men and women | born in the world;
But yet we shall live | our lives together,
Sigurth and I. | Sink down, Giantess!”

Dráp Niflunga (The Slaying of The Niflungs) A short prose piece recounting the gruesome events after Sigurd’s funeral, where Gudrun is married off to Atli who invites her brothers to Hunland, hoping to steal their gold, tortures them, cuts out Hogni’s heart, then throws Gunnar in the snakepit where he plays the harp until bitten by an enormous adder which may or may not be Atli’s witch mother.

Guðrúnarkviða II (The Second Lay of Gudrún) In these 44 stanzas Gudrun is seen telling her story to captive king Theoderic, from the murder of Sigurd through her drugging and betrothal to Atli, to the visit of her brothers to Atli and their murder, and up until Atli’s fearful bad dreams – which presage Gudrun’s bloodthirsty murder and cooking of her own sons! This is thought to be the oldest poem in the book, dating form the 900s, an estimate reinforced by the use of Germanic details eg the fact Sigurd is murdered in a forest. It seems that the version of him being murdered in bed next to Gudrún is a later, Scandinavian, version.

This poem has real power.

3. Till my brothers let me | no longer have
The best of heroes | my husband to be;
Sleep they could not, | or quarrels settle,
Till Sigurth they | at last had slain.

4. From the Thing ran Grani | with thundering feet,
But thence did Sigurth | himself come never;
Covered with sweat | was the saddle-bearer,
Wont the warrior’s | weight to bear.

5. Weeping I sought | with Grani to speak,
With tear-wet cheeks | for the tale I asked;
The head of Grani | was bowed to the grass,
The steed knew well | his master was slain.

Guðrúnarkviða III (The Third Lay of Gudrún) a very short 11 stanza poem on a side event, one of Atli’s slave girls Herkja, claims to have seen Gudrun being unfaithful with the captive king Thjodrek. they both undergo ordeal by boiling water: Gudrún plunges her hands into the boiling water to get the stones from the bottom of the kettle and her hands are fine; Herkja does the same and her hands are badly scalded so she is thrown into a bog and drowned as punishment.

Oddrúnargrátr (The Lament of Oddrún) In these 34 stanzas Oddrún laments the tragic events which have overcome them all. She is sister to Atli who became Gunnar’s lover (presumably after Brynhild’s death). She doesn’t feature in any of the other versions or stories. It seems she has been invented in order to author this lament.

19. “Love to Gunnar | then I gave,
To the breaker of rings, | as Brynhild might…

21. “Yet could we not | our love o’ercome,
And my head I laid | on the hero’s shoulder…

Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli) These 44 stanzas cover Atli’s invitation to Gunnar and Hogni to come visit; Gudrun’s inclusion of a ring carved with runes warning them not to; their deliberation and fateful decision to go; their capture immediately on arrival; Hogni’s heart is torn out but Gunnar refuses to confess where the gold is and so he is thrown into the snakepit; in revenge Gudrun serves up the corpses of their sons to her husband Atli, before stabbing him in bed and then setting fire to the entire stronghold, killing all the staff and servants. This is reckoned to be one of the oldest poems in the collection and is without doubt one of hte grimmest and most intense.

Atlamál hin groenlenzku (The Greenland Ballad of Atli) A much longer version of the above, with 101 stanzas – ie Gunnar and Hogni’s fateful visit to Atli, this time bringing in their wives for extensive conversation before the boys set off.

The story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths Though put in a separate category by scholars these stories are just a continuation of the story of Gudrún: having woken up beside the bloodsoaked body of her husband, mortally wounded by her brothers, she grieves and laments then is drugged and married off to Atli, only to witness her two brothers have their hearts torn out or be bitten to death in a snake pit, before she murders her two sons by Atli and serves him up their cooked corpses, before setting fire to the entire stronghold and burning everyone inside to death. She walks into the sea to drown herself but can’t, instead floating across the sea (strongly indicating, as the scholars point out, that she has become part-witch). Here, in a new land, she is found by and marries her third husband, Jonak, and bears him three sons Sorli and Erp and Hamther. Here she brings up Svanhild, her daughter by Sigurd. The mighty and violent Goth king Jormunrek wants to marry Svanhild and sends his son Randver to woo her. Inevitably, Randver and Svanhild fall  in love but are betrayed to the king who promptly has his son hanged, and the beautiful Svanhild trampled to death under horses’ feet.

A handy summary of this story is told on the Kids Britannica website.

To quote Henry Adams Bellows:

“Chief among the popular tales of Ermanarich’s cruelty was one concerning the death of a certain Sunilda or Sanielh, whom, according to Jordanes, he caused to be torn asunder by wild horses because of her husband’s treachery. Her brothers, Sarus and Ammius, seeking to avenge her, wounded but failed to kill Ermanarich. In this story is the root of the two Norse poems included in the Codex Regius. Sunilda easily became the wife as well as the victim of the tyrant, and, by the process of legend-blending so frequently observed, the story was connected with the more famous one of the Nibelungs by making her the daughter of Sigurth and Guthrun. To account for her brothers, a third husband had to be found for Guthrun; the Sarus and Ammius of Jordanes are obviously the Sorli and Hamther, sons of Guthrun and Jonak, of the Norse poems. The blending of the Sigurth and Ermanarich legends probably, though not certainly, took place before the story reached the North, in other words before the end of the eighth century.”

Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún’s Inciting) 22 stanzas. “The present title is really a misnomer; the poet, who presumably was an eleventh century Icelander, used the episode of Guthrun’s inciting her sons to vengeance for the slaying of Svanhild simply as an introduction to his main subject, the last lament of the unhappy queen.” The story is told much more fully in the prose Voldungsaga; what this emphasises is the way the Codex Regius poems are about, emphasise and foreground the experiences of women, especially the figure of the grieving Gudrún. Much more than Sigurd or Gunnar, she is the enduring memory of the heroic poems.

Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir) 31 stanzas. Gudrun’s sons take revenge for the trampling to death by horses of their sister Svanhild. They chop off the four limbs of the king responsible, Jörmunrekkr, before themselves being stoned to death by his men. This is a strange afterthought of a poem, starting with the sons’ foreboding, skipping very elliptically over their murder of their half-brother Erpi on the way, and then in just a few stanzas dealing with what must have been an epic fight in which king  Jormunrek and both sons die, and their last words are a fitting epitaph to the whole sorry story…

“We have greatly fought, | o’er the Goths do we stand
By our blades laid low, | like eagles on branches;
Great our fame though we die | today or tomorrow;
None outlives the night | when the Norris have spoken.”

Or, in the Penguin Andy Orchard translation:

“Great glory we have gained
though we die now or tomorrow;
no man survives a single dusk
beyond the norns’ decree.”

This is Svanhild, daughter of Sigurd and Gudrún. Pretty, eh? Her father is murdered in his bed, her mother drowns herself, and Svanhild is either tied to horses and torn to pieces or trampled to death by horses, depending on which version you read.

Black and white illustration of Svanhild

Svanhild (from Fredrik Sander’s 1893 Swedish edition of the Poetic Edda/Public Domain)

Everybody dies and the Völsung line is wiped out. A fitting end to these strange, damaged, elliptic and addictive poems from the depths of Europe’s long Dark Age.


The Poetic Edda – the mythological poems

If the previous post was a factual review of the background to the Elder Edda, this one is a more detailed consideration of the individual poems which make up the first part of the Codex Regius, called the Mythological poems because they deal exclusively with stories about the Norse gods.

Icelandic poetry, like Old English poetry, is characterised by beats not rhymes. The poems come in a number of metres. By far the most common is the so-called Fornyrthislag (“Old Verse”), generally four lines each with four beats, handily remembered as four-four measure. Each short line is divided by a cæsura into two half-lines. Each half-line has two accented syllables and two (sometimes three) unaccented ones. The first and second emphasised syllables in the first half of the line alliterate with the first of the two emphasised syllables in the second half. In this example of a Fornyrthislag stanza the accented syllables are underlined:

VreiÞr vas VingÞórr, | es vaknaÞi
ok síns hamars | of saknaÞi;
skegg nam hrista, | skor nam dýja,
Þ JarÞar burr | umb at Þreifask.

It isn’t always possible to replicate this in English and various translators try (and succeed) to varying degrees. Often the stanza doesn’t have four lines and often it’s hard to identify three clearly alliterating elements, and the translations I’ve read rarely stick rigidly to this schema. In fact finding four English lines each containing four beats, three of them alliterating, is the exception rather than the rule.

The poems have many stanzas, the longest over 160, the average being around 50.

The poems rarely include narrative. They don’t often tell you what happens. Rather as in Greek drama, what happens generally happens offstage and is reported in prose prefaces or prose sentences or paragraphs inserted throughout a poem. This frees the poems to concentrate on what they do well – dialogue: dialogues about the Universe (on the origins and destiny of the world); dialogues about Wisdom (proverbial advice); speeches of praise; and the trading of vituperative insults (in medieval English poetry referred to as flyting (it is striking that the Wikipedia entry on flyting takes as examples two poems from the Poetic Edda, the Hárbarðsljóð where Thor and Odin exchange insults, and the Lokasenna where Loki abuse all the other gods)).

Carolyne Larrington is the author of a very useful paper, Translating the Poetic Edda into English. This lists an impressive sequence of translators: Icelandic Poetry by Amos Cottle (1797), Select Icelandic Poetry by William Herbert (1804, 1806, and 1842), The Edda of Sæmund the Learned by Benjamin Thorpe (1866), The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, with certain songs from the Elder Edda by Eiríkr Magnússon and William Morris (1870), Corpus Poeticum Boreale by Vigfusson and York Powell (1883), The Elder or Poetic Edda by Olive Bray illustrated with black-and-white drawings by W. G. Collingwood (1908), The Poetic Edda by Henry Adams Bellows (1926), The Poetic Edda by Lee M. Hollander (1928), Poems of the Vikings by Patricia Terry (1969), Elder Edda: A Selection by WH Auden, Taylor, and Salus (1969), The Poetic Edda by Carolyne Larrington (1996), Norse Poems (the expanded Auden and Taylor) (1981), and Poetic Edda by Ursula Dronke (1969, 1997), The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore by Andy Orchard (2011).

In an ideal world one would a) have access to them all b) have time to carefully compare and contrast the versions. Ideally one would understand medieval Icelandic in the first place and be able to compare all the translations with the originals. In this life, however, I don’t understand medieval Icelandic and I can’t access most of the 20th century versions. The best I can do is compare & contrast the versions I can access, and try to nail down, to identify, the poetry in these poems. Are they worth reading? Why? What pleasures do they give?

The Tree of Yggdrasil, title page of The Elder or Poetic Edda translated by Olive Bray. By WG Collingwood (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Tree of Yggdrasil, title page of The Elder or Poetic Edda translated by Olive Bray. By WG Collingwood (source: Wikimedia Commons)

þ is pronounced as th as in thing. ð is pronounced as d.

1. The Eleven (or is it Ten?) Mythological Poems

Völuspá (66 stanzas long) – The Volva or seer or prophetess tells what she knows about the Creation of the World, and then about Ragnarok, the famous twilight of the gods when Valhalla will go down in flames and most of the gods will be killed. The wolf Fenrir will swallow Odin. Thor will kill the serpent Jörmungandr but then collapse, dead from its venom.

Henry Adams Bellows translation (1923):

44. Now Garm howls loud | before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free;
Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight.

45. Brothers shall fight | and fell each other,
And sisters’ sons | shall kinship stain;
Hard is it on earth, | with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men | each other spare.

Andy Orchard (2011)

44. Garm howls loud before Looming-cave
The bond will break, and the ravenous one run;
much lore she knows, I see further ahead,
of the powers’ fate, implacable, of the victory-gods.

45. Brothers will struggle and slaughter each other,
and sisters’ sons spoil kinship’s bonds.
It’s hard on earth: great whoredom;
axe-age, blade-age, shields are split;
wind-age, wolf-age, before the world crumbles:
no one shall spare another.

Hávamál (165 stanzas long) – a long rambling collection of proverbs and wisdom sayings with the tale of Odin and the mead interpolated. The length, complexity and – ultimately – thin content of this one makes it my least favourite. If in doubt, skip it.

Vafþrúðnismál (55 stanzas long) – a wisdom poem, Odin visits the giant Vafthruthnir and they immediately engage in a series of questions about the origin of the world and the workings of the universe.

Othin spake:

36. “Ninth answer me well, | if wise thou art called
If thou knowest it, Vafthruthnir, now:
Whence comes the wind | that fares o’er the waves
Yet never itself is seen?”

Vafthruthnir spake:

37. “In an eagle’s guise | at the end of heaven
Hræsvelg sits, they say;
And from his wings | does the wind come forth
To move o’er the world of men.”

Grímnismál (54 stanzas) – naming himself Grimnir Odin visits king Geirröth who ties him between two fires as a torture. On the eighth day as the fire is burning his cloak Odin/Grimnir speaks a long encyclopedia text, describing the halls in heaven, the geography of the earth with its rivers, the wolves that chase the sun and moon across the heavens, with a resounding peroration enumerating all his names, before the terror-stricken king rises to his feet, stumbles over his sword and (in a fitting punishment for his hubris) impales himself.

46. Grim is my name, | Gangleri am I,
Herjan and Hjalmberi,
Thekk and Thrithi, | Thuth and Uth,
Helblindi and Hor;

47. Sath and Svipal | and Sanngetal,
Herteit and Hnikar,
Bileyg, Baleyg, | Bolverk, Fjolnir,
Grim and Grimnir, | Glapsvith, Fjolsvith.

48. Sithhott, Sithskegg, | Sigfather, Hnikuth,
Allfather, Valfather, | Atrith, Farmatyr:
A single name | have I never had
Since first among men I fared.

Skírnismál (43 stanzas) – Frey spies the giantess Gerd and falls in love with her. He sends Skirnir with his sword to woo her. When Gerd refuses polite offers of apples and gold Skirnir turns very nasty and declaims a long curse: Gerd will live in misery among the giants who rape her and feed her filth. Abruptly, Gerd realises she was in love with Frey all along!

29. “Rage and longing, | fetters and wrath,
Tears and torment are thine;
Where thou sittest down | my doom is on thee
Of heavy heart and double dole.

30. “In the giants’ home | shall vile things harm thee
Each day with evil deeds;
Grief shalt thou get | instead of gladness,
And sorrow to suffer with tears.

Hárbarðsljóð (60 stanzas) – Thor, returning from another giant-killing expedition to the east, comes to a sound and shouts across at the ferryman to bring his boat. The ferryman refuses and they hurl insults at each other, more precisely asking each other what they’ve achieved and belittling each other’s claims. The ferryman is Odin in disguise. It is noticeable that while Thor boasts of fighting giants, Harbard/Odin boasts of sleeping with women.

Harbarth spake:
18. “Lively women we had, | if they wise for us were;
Wise were the women we had, | if they kind for us were;
For ropes of sand | they would seek to wind,
And the bottom to dig | from the deepest dale.
Wiser than all | in counsel I was,
And there I slept | by the sisters seven,
And joy full great | did I get from each.
What, Thor, didst thou the while?”

Thor spake:
19. “Thjazi I felled, | the giant fierce,
And I hurled the eyes | of Alvaldi’s son
To the heavens hot above;
Of my deeds the mightiest | marks are these,
That all men since can see.

Hymiskviða (40 stanzas) – Thor visits the giant Hymir with a view to borrowing his cauldron so Ægir can brew mead for the gods. He persuades Hymir to go fishing but whereas Hymir catches two whales Thor pulls up the world-serpent Jörmungandr. This poem is notable for its unusually high density of kennings or allusive references, poetic riddles.

23. The warder of men, | the worm’s destroyer,
Fixed on his hook | the head of the ox;
There gaped at the bait | the foe of the gods,
The girdler of all | the earth beneath.

24. The venomous serpent | swiftly up
To the boat did Thor, | the bold one, pull;
With his hammer the loathly | hill of the hair
Of the brother of Fenrir | he smote from above.

25. The monsters roared, | and the rocks resounded,
And all the earth | so old was shaken;
Then sank the fish | in the sea forthwith.

Lokasenna (65 stanzas) – Loki gatecrashes a party of the gods and insults each one in turn, with detailed knowledge of their misdeeds and vices. None go uninsulted.

Loki spake to Tyr:
40. “Be silent, Tyr! | for a son with me
Thy wife once chanced to win;
Not a penny, methinks, | wast thou paid for the wrong,
Nor wast righted an inch, poor wretch.”

Loki spake to Freyr:
42. “The daughter of Gymir | with gold didst thou buy,
And sold thy sword to boot;
But when Muspell’s sons | through Myrkwood ride,
Thou shalt weaponless wait, poor wretch.”

Loki spake to Byggvir:
46. “Be silent, Byggvir! | thou never couldst set
Their shares of the meat for men;
Hid in straw on the floor, | they found thee not
When heroes were fain to fight.”

Þrymskviða (33 stanzas) – Thor wakes up to find his hammer is missing. Loki flies as a bird to the house of the giant Thrym who confirms he has it and will only return it if he can marry the goddess Freya. Loki concocts a plan to dress Thor as a woman and journey to Thrym’s court. Here they fool hrym right up until the giant foolishyl returns his hammer to Thor whereupon the god brains him and all his followers. Composed around 900, short and punchy, with no gaps or interpolations, it has been called one of the best ballads in the world.

18. Then bound they on Thor | the bridal veil,
And next the mighty | Brisings’ necklace.

19. Keys around him | let they rattle,
And down to his knees | hung woman’s dress;
With gems full broad | upon his breast,
And a pretty cap | to crown his head.

20. Then Loki spake, | the son of Laufey:
“As thy maid-servant thither | I go with thee;
We two shall haste | to the giants’ home.”

Völundarkviða (43 stanzas) – As Andy Orchard points out, this poem is in the wrong place. It’s a poem about the legendary crippled blacksmith, Völund, his trials and revenge on King Nithuth for hamstringing him (Völund kills the king’s young sons, presents their skulls adorned in silver as drinking cups and their eyes as gems to the queen, and seduces and impregnates the king’s daughter Bothvild). It should be in part two, the section on mortal heroes. That’s where Henry Adams Bellows moves it to.

37. “Their skulls, once hid | by their hair, I took,
Set them in silver | and sent them to Nithuth;
Gems full fair | from their eyes I fashioned,
To Nithuth’s wife | so wise I gave them.

38. “And from the teeth | of the twain I wrought
A brooch for the breast, | to Bothvild I gave it;
Now big with child | does Bothvild go,
The only daughter | ye two had ever.”

Alvíssmál (35 stanzas) – Thor keeps the dwarf, Alvis, who has come to collect Thor’s daughter in marriage, in conversation with a series of questions about the correct names of parts of the universe (sky, sea, stars etc) until day breaks and the dwarf is turned to stone by sunlight.

Thor spake:
29. “Answer me, Alvis! | thou knowest all,
Dwarf, of the doom of men:
What call they the night, | the daughter of Nor,
In each and every world?”

Alvis spake:
30. “‘Night’ men call it, | ‘Darkness’ gods name it,
‘The Hood’ the holy ones high;
The giants ‘The Lightless,’ | the elves ‘Sleep’s joy”
The dwarfs ‘The Weaver of Dreams.”‘

Only ten poems, but reading them all is to go on a long journey across time and space, from the creation of the universe to the end of the world, via a whole series of mini-dramas and ballads laced with heartlessness, humour and horror. These poems and their harsh unforgiving worldview are addictive.

The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Grettir is one of the last of the great Icelandic sagas, set down at the end of the fourteenth century by an unknown author, some 350 years after the events it describes. The sagas are divided into categories and Grettir belongs to the ‘Icelanders’ sagas (Íslendinga sögur), heroic prose narratives written between the 12th and 14th centuries about deeds of the great settler families of Iceland from the period 930 to 1030, the period actually known as the söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history.

Grettir is not mythical; it references to no Norse gods. Instead it is firmly rooted in historical events and mentions many historical figures: the historical jarl (earl) Eirik sails off to join his brother-in-law Knut, who was king of England from 1016 to 1035; three real bishops are mentioned (Fridrik, Isleif, Thorlak) who, along with references to churches and mass and priests, demonstrate the diffusion of  Christianity throughout Icelandic society only a few years after its arrival in 1000 CE; late in the book Grettir journeys to petition Olaf, king of Norway 1015 to 1028, and so on. Instead of myths, the narrative is overwhelmingly made up of small-scale fights and feuds, ambushes and long-harboured grudges. Which makes the two key moments in the narrative – Glam’s curse half way through, and the sorceress’s spell at the end of the saga – powerfully compelling irruptions of the supernatural into the otherwise wholly naturalistic.

Editions I read the Everyman edition which consists of the 1913 translation by G.A. Hight garnished with a 1965 introduction and notes by Peter Foote. The Hight translation is available online. Hight wrote: “My aim has been to translate in the colloquial language of my own day, eschewing all affectation of poetic diction or medievalism,” and he succeeds very well. Hight’s prose is brisk and clipped:

The following summer jarl Eirik the son of Hakon was preparing to leave his country and sail to the West to join his brother-in-law King Knut the Great in England, leaving the government of Norway in the hands of Hakon his son, who, being an infant, was placed under the government and regency of Eirik’s brother, jarl Sveinn. Before leaving Eirik summoned all his Landmen and the larger bondis to meet him. Eirik the jarl was an able ruler, and they had much discussion regarding the laws and their administration. It was considered a scandal in the land that pirates and berserks should be able to come into the country and challenge respectable people to the holmgang for their money or their women, no weregild being paid whichever fell. Many had lost their money and been put to shame in this way; some indeed had lost their lives. For this reason jarl Eirik abolished all holmgang in Norway and declared all robbers and berserks who disturbed the peace outlaws. Thorfinn the son of Kar of Haramarsey, being a man of wise counsel and a close friend of the jarl, was present at the meeting.

Or take this specimen of dialogue when Thorhall, son of Grim, hires big Glam to be his shepherd:

‘What work can you do best?’ he asked.

Glam said it would suit him very well to mind sheep in the winter.

“Will you mind my sheep?” Thorhall asked. “Skapti has given you over to me.”

“My service will only be of use to you if I am free to do as I please,” he said. “I am rather crossgrained when I am not well pleased.”

“That will not hurt me,” said Thorhall. “I shall be glad if you will come to me.”

“I can do so,” he said. “Are there any special difficulties?”

“The place seems to be haunted.”

‘”I am not afraid of ghosts. It will be the less dull.’

Prior to Hight, this saga had been translated by the enthusiastic medievalist William Morris, aided by Eirikr Magnusson, back in 1869. Morris’s translation of Grettir’s Saga is available on Project Gutenberg and also on The Icelandic Saga Database. Morris’s Victorian patiche of medieval style is as dated as  his chintz wallpaper, but it has an interesting introduction and a handy chronology dating all the events: 997 Grettir born, 1012 slaying of Thorir Paunch, 1015 burning of the sons of Thorir, 1016 Grettir meets king Olaf but fails to bear iron, 1031 Grettir dies.

Contrast Hight’s crispness with Morris’s style:

But before Earl Eric went away from the land, he called together lords and rich bonders, and many things they spoke on laws and the rule of the land, for Earl Eric was a man good at rule. Now men thought it an exceeding ill fashion in the land that runagates or bearserks called to holm high-born men for their fee or womankind, in such wise, that whosoever should fall before the other should lie unatoned; hereof many got both shame and loss of goods, and some lost their lives withal; and therefore Earl Eric did away with all holm-gangs and outlawed all bearserks who fared with raids and riots.

It’s quite hard to read the Hight for any length; it would be impossible to read the Morris. There are also a Penguin translation and an OUP edition.

Medieval manuscript picture of Grettir the Strong

14th century illustration of Grettir the Strong (by Haukurth, from Wikimedia Commons)

Plot summary The plot is more a long sequence of events, though there is skill in the way the story detours to follow one thread then returns a few chapters later to pick up the main plotline of Grettir’s life. Only towards the end do you see the way various threads have been prepared right at the start to bring the narrative to a climax. Only when it’s completely over does the figure of Grettir emerge much bigger and more moving than at any one place in the text.

The saga is divided into 93 short chapters. Some are only a few paragraphs long.

  • Grettir is a disappointment to his rich successful father, Asmund Longhair, but his mother Asdis dotes on him, giving him her grandfather Jokull’s sword,  when he leaves home.
  • Grettir is a difficult antisocial child, prone to irritate people with smart oneliners and biting lampoons: “The likely may happen – also the unlikely.” “Work not done needs no reward.”
  • Grettir has red hair and freckles.
  • On a voyage with Haflidi he alienates the whole crew by doing no work, until the boat is in peril of sinking when he suddenly bales out with the strength of ten men.
  • At Vindheim Grettir breaks into a howe (from the Old Norse haugr meaning hill, knoll or mound) and fights the demon howe-dweller to win the treasure buried here with the dead king Kar.
  • Grettir is a guest at Thorfinn who is away at the Yule Feast when a boat of vikings lands and threatens to rape and carry off Thorfinn’s wife and daughters. Grettir fights them off, killing no fewer than ten including the leaders Thorir Paunch and Ogmund the Bad.
  • Grettir kills in single combat the troll who has been ravaging Thorfinn’s land.
  • Grettir kills Bjorn who had been teasing him.
  • Grettir kills Bjorn’s brother, Hjarrandi after the latter ambushes him.
  • Grettis kills Hjarrandi’s brother, Gunnar, after being ambushed by him and five assistants. What surprises about this is not the anarchy of these death; the opposite, it’s the way Grettis is hauled before jarl Eirik and Gunnar’s relatives argue on one side and Grettir’s supporters on another and the jarl speak openly of his anger at these deaths and is only just persuaded to let Grettir go free.
  • A whale washed up on the beach prompts a fight between Thorgils Makson and the twins Thorgeir Havarsson and Thormod Coalbrow-Skald. Thorgeir kills Thorgils. Again what’s interesting is this leads to a lengthy case at the annual Thing or court where both sides make cogent arguments; Thorgils’ relatives win and Thorgeir is banished and Thormod ordered to pay blood money to Thorgils’ family.
  • Grettir wins a horse fight at Langafit. Apparently the Icelanders made pairs of stallions fight each other by goading them with sticks.
  • Thorhall, the son of Grim, the son of Thorhall, the son of Fridmund, needs a shepherd and hires an enormous man called Glam, warning him his homestead is haunted. Glam is big and surly and refuses to fast on Christmas Eve. He stuffs his face and goes out to mind the sheep in a big storm. Later the men find his corpse and signs of a big struggle. He has been killed by the spook. Although they bury Glam he rises from the grave to haunt the neighbourhood, riding on people’s rooftops, scaring and sometimes killing men.
  • Grettir comes to the neighbourhood of Vatnsdal and ends up confronting Glam’s ghost and killing him. But not before the spook curses him, predicting that he will never be stronger than he is now, and will be followed by bad luck. Glam’s Curse:

“Hitherto you have earned fame through your deeds, but henceforward there shall fall upon you exile and battle; your deeds shall turn to evil and your guardian-spirit shall forsake you. You will be outlawed and your lot shall be to dwell ever alone. And this I lay upon you, that these eyes of mine shall be ever before your vision. You will find it hard to live alone, and at last it shall drag you to death.” (chapter 35)

Compare with the William Morris translation:

“Hitherto hast thou earned fame by thy deeds, but henceforth will wrongs and man-slayings fall on thee, and the most part of thy doings will turn to thy woe and ill-hap; an outlaw shalt thou be made, and ever shall it be thy lot to dwell alone abroad; therefore this weird I lay on thee, ever in those days to see these eyes with thine eyes, and thou wilt find it hard to be alone and that shall drag thee unto death.”

  • And thereafter Grettir is afraid of being in the dark, because it is then that Glam’s eyes appear to him and terrify him.
  • Grettir, like many others, seeks employment under the new king of Norway, Olaf, and sets sail. But on the boat Thorborn Slowcoach insults his now-dead father, Asmund, and Grettir slices his head off at a stroke.
  • The trading boat Grettir is on moors off the coast of Norway in a blizzard. The traders see fire across a river and Grettir swims there to ask for some but the men in the house attack him when he lumbers in looking like a troll, so he fights back, seizes some burning brands and flees back to his ship. The next day they discover the house burned down killing everyone in it. They were the sons of Thorir an important man. Grettir is shunned.
  • In Trondheim, Norway, Grettir seeks an audience with king Olaf. He says burning Thorir’s sons was an accident. The king him the ordeal of holding iron. This was the practice of holding iron bars which have been heated in a furnace a) you have to be inured to pain to hold them b) afterwards, if the wounds heal you are innocent, if not you are guilty. A crowd gathers in the church for the liturgy which precedes the ordeal but an adolescent taunts Grettir so much he strikes him and the king calls the ceremony off. Grettir’s impatience is harming him.
  • Grettir is staying with Einar, a wealthy man in Norway. Robbers led by the berserk Snaekoll, ride down out of the forest and threaten to carry away his daughter, Gyrid. After a laconic exchange Grettir rams the berserk’s shield into his mouth breaking his jaw, pulls him off his horse and decapitates him with his axe.
  • Meanwhile in Iceland Grettir’s father dies a natural death, leaving his holdings to his son Atli. But Atli is murdered by Thorbjorn Oxmain. Meanwhile Thorir learns about his sons who were burned to death by Grettir and takes a large force to the Thing or court, where he gets Grettir proclaimed an outlaw. Grettir’s ship form Norway arrives in Iceland and he learns these three facts in one blow.
  • He steals Sveinn’s horse, saddlehead and rides it a long way in the rain stopping to speak verses to the people he meets. When Sveinn tracks hi down, instead of fighting, they end up swapping verses and becoming good friends.
  • Grettir surprises Thorbjorn Oxmain and his son in the fields as they are gathering in the hay. He shatters Arnor’s skull with a side blow of his sword, then embeds his axe in Thorbjorn’s head. He knows he is outlaw so bids farewell to his mother, still grieving for the loss of her son, Atli, and rides west.
  • Grettir winters with Thorgills at Reykjaholar; two other guests, Thorgeir and Thormod, attack him. They are in mid-fight when Thorgils appears and tells them to stop. Which they do, like naughty schoolboys.
  • A long account of the All-Thing or court where Skapti the Lawman and Snorri the Godi adjudicate the case of Atli’s murder and Thorbjorn’s murder. The remission of Grettir’s status as outlaw is mooted but firmly rejected by Thorir of Gard whose sons were burned in the house. Thus Grettir’s status as outlaw is confirmed, though with misgivings.
  • Grettir roams the westlands taking what he wants from farmers and shepherds. Eventually a posse of 30 men surround and ambush him and tie him up and have a lengthy debate about what do with him, which was turned into a separate humorous poem. At which point the lady of Isafjord rides up and has him released on his good behaviour.
  • Grettir is a plague on the land, stealing from all passersby. He builds himself a hit by the sea and tries to earn a living fishing. Grettir’s enemies, the men of Hrutafjord, hire a mercenary, Grim, to kill him. But Grettir kills Grim.
  • Thorir of Gard commissions Thorir Redbeard, another outlaw, to kill Grettir. For two years he lives and works with him on Arnarvatn Heath. One day, as a storm blows up over the lake and Grettir is repairing the boat, Thorir grabs his sword to kill Grettir who leaps back into the lakewater, swims behind Thorir, dashes him to the ground and cuts his head off.
  • Thorir of Gard attacks Grettir in a narrow pass with 80 men and yet Grettir fights them off. After Thorir withdraws grettir discovers his back had been covered by a strongman named Hallmund. For a while Grettir lives in Hallmund’s cave along with is daughter.
  • Then Grettir confers with Bjorn and goes t olive in a cave overlooking Fagraskogafjall. Bjorn and Grettir are both superstrong and have contests such as swimming the river Hitara from lake to the sea, and creating vast stepping stones.
  • A big man much given to ornaments, decorations and boasting, Gisli, arrives with three helpers to kill Grettir at his mountain fastness. Grettir fights off the assistants then chases Gisli all down to the mountain to the river as the coward strips off all his clothes one by one. At the river Grettir beats Gisli with a tree branch then lets him go free, returning up the hill and collecting all Gisli’s abandoned gear.
  • Grettir is attacked at a narrow spit between forks in a river by two coordinated bands but fights them off with two helpers.
  • Grettir migrates to a secret valley below a glacier which he believes to be protected by a blending, a giant named Thorir, and his daughter, so he called the valley Thorisdal.
  • Another grim takes over Grettir’s abandoned hut by the sea and catches fishes. On two successive nights Hallmund steals the fish laid out to dry. On the third night Grim catches him in the act and chops his neck with his axe. Hallmund flees back t ohis cave and recites the lay of his lifestory to his daughter, dying just at the end. Grim arrives and he and his daughter mourn together and become friends.
  • Grettir outwits another expedition Thorir sends to kill him, outflanking them and stopping to recite verse to Thorir’s daughter.
  • At Eyjardalsa in Bardardal dwells Thorsteinn the White and his wife Steinvor. One Yule she travels to church for mass and when she comes back her husband has vanished. The next year she travels to church leaving her servant behind. Once again he is gone when she returns. Grettir hears of the disappearances and arrives under the alias of Gest. First he carries Steinvor and her daughter across a flooded river so they can go to church. When he returns he builds a barricade in their house and sure enough in the middle of the night a troll appears and there is a massive fight. Some say Grettir hewed off her arm and she ran for the rocks, some say they were fighting when day arose and she turned to a woman-shaped stone which can still be seen. He rests form his fight then the priest tells Grettir of a cave behind a waterfall. Grettir dives into the water, climbs up into the cave and fights an ugly giant. When he has killed him he explores the cave and finds the bones of two dead men, obviously the missing men from Bardardal. He carries them to the church (v Christian) and writes the story of the giant-battle in runes on a staff (v pagan).
  • On advice Grettir journeys to the isle of Drangey. He goes with his younger brother, Illugi, just 15. Their mother Asdis is tearful at the parting.
  • Grettir squats on the isle of Drangey, living with Illugi and a servant, off seabird eggs and the sheep there. In fact the island belongs to some 20 freemen, chief among them Thorbjorn Angle, but they can’t dislodge him, Grettir lives there 2 years. Once when the fire goes out he swims a nautical mile to the mainland, secures fire and a boat back.
  • Thorbjorn persuades a young man called Haering to climb up the cliff while he and his men distract Grettir form the boat. Haering climbs up and is sneaking up on the brothers when Illugi turns and spots him and gives chase. They chase all over the island until Haering jumps over the cliff and breaks every bone in his body. At the spot known ever since as Haering’s Leap.
  • At that summer’s All-Thing Grettir’s supporters claim his 20 years outlawry is expired. His enemies say he should be outlawed all over again for the wicked things he has done. the Lawgiver decides he has not completed the full 20, but that twenty is the maximum any man can have. Grettir will be freed the following summer.
  • Desperate to get his island back Thorbjorn Angle takes a boat out to it with his foster mother Thurid, an old woman and a witch and heathen from the old times before Christianity came. She listens to Thorbjorn shouting up at Grettir on top the cliff, and Grettir refusing to discuss leaving and then shouts out a curse at Grettir, that his doom is sealed and his days will grow worse. Grettir throws a huge stone out into the boat which breaks the old woman’s hip. But she is confident her curse will work.
  • the sorceress performs a strange rite on a log on the beach and sends it off, against the current, to Grettir’s island. Here it bumps against the cliff and Grettir rejects it twice. But on the third day the servant Glaum brings it up and to the hut. Unaware Grettir goes to chop it up with his axe which slips and badly injures him in the thigh. The wound festers.
  • Then Thorbjorn assembles a gang of men and goes back in the boat. The useless thrall Glaum has left the ladder down and Thorbjorn’s men easily climb to the top, overpower Glaum, and launch a massive attack on Grettir’s house. His brother Illugi defends him bravely but he is pinned down by all the shields while the others kill Grettir. Although he is said to be already dead from the festering wound. they cannot free his sword form his grip until they cut his hand off. And then Thorbjorn ruins the sword by cutting off Grettir’s head which he packs in salt.
  • Thorbjorn rides with the head to Bjarg to confront Grettir’s mother Asdil who conducts herself with dignity.
  • At the next All-Thing it is decided that all feuds around Grettir are ended; but instead of getting the price on the head of the outlaw Thorbjorn finds himself exiled for using sorcery in this increasingly Christian culture. His relations go recover Grettir and Illugi’s bodies and bury them in Bjarg church.

Postscript The saga doesn’t end with Grettir’s death and burial. Blood feuds weren’t optional in Icelandic society, even after Christianity was established, and how they played out, how the relatives of those killed bore their responsibility for revenge, were as much a source of interest in this kind of prefeudal society as the finest details of their genealogy. And so Grettir’s half-brother pursues his murderer all the way across Europe to take his revenge. What is extremely odd is the way this brutal saga then turns into a medieval Romance of love and adultery – and then again turns into a Christian tract preaching ideal repentance and holiness, all in the last 30 or so pages!

  •  Thorbjorn sells his goods and takes ship to Constantinople where he becomes a warrior in the emperor’s guard. But he is tracked there by Grettir’s quiet half-brother Thorsteinn Dromund who also joins the Varangian Guard and takes the first opportunity to kill Thorbjorn and is thrown into prison.
  • At this point, surreally, the saga turns into a medieval romance as the lady Spes walks past the dungeon and hears Thorbjorn singing. She pays for him to be released and they become adulterous lovers behind the back of her ineffectual husband Sigurd. They conspire to get Sigurd to falsely accuse her so that he can be disgraced and forced to divorce her and they get married and have sons and move back to Norway.
  • From here, in old age, they decide to atone for their youthful sins and travel to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope, and then to live out their days in separate holy retreats. And thus they die reconciled to God.


Sturla the Lawman has declared that no outlaw was ever so distinguished as Grettir the Strong. For this he assigns three reasons. First, that he was the cleverest, inasmuch as he was the longest time an outlaw of any man without ever being captured, so long as he was sound in health. Secondly, that he was the strongest man in the land of his age, and better able than any other to deal with spectres and goblins. Thirdly, that his death was avenged in Constantinople, a thing which had never happened to any other Icelander.
Further, he says that Thorsteinn Dromund was a man who had great luck in the latter part of his life.
Here endeth the story of Grettir the son of Asmund.

I was moved to learn that there is a memorial to Grettir the Strong near his legendary homestead of Bjarg in Iceland:

Photo of the memorial to Grettir the Strong at Bjarg in Iceland

Memorial to Grettir the Strong at Bjarg in Iceland (Image: Bromr under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons)

Understatement The saga has some examples of the famous Norse understatement:

  • Grettir counted the men. There were twelve in all, and their aspect did not look peaceful.
  • ‘I shall come again, and it is not certain that we shall then part any better friends than we are now.’
  • Thorbjorn sidled round to the front of the door and thrust his spear with both hands into Atli’s middle, so that it pierced him through. Atli said when he received the thrust: ‘They use broad spear-blades nowadays.’
  • ‘Have you not heard that I have not proved a mound of wealth to most of those who have had to do with me?’ said Grettir.
  • He said: “Here is a man coming towards us with his axe in the air; he has a rather hostile appearance.”

But, to be honest, not as many as you’d expect.

Naming legends There are references to the contemporary present of the author, and a number of naming stories of the kind you commonly find in oral literature. (They litter the early books of the Bible.)

  • “The spear which Grettir had lost was never found until within the memory of men now living. It was found in the later days of Sturla the Lawman, the son of Thord, in the very marsh where Thorbjorn fell, now called Spearmarsh. This is the proof that he was killed there and not in Midfitjar, as has been elsewhere asserted.”
  • Grettir went up to the Arnarvatn Heath and built himself a hut there of which the remains are still to be seen. (chapter 55)
  • Grettir and Bjorn swam in one course the whole length of the Hitara from the lake at its head down to the sea. They brought the stepping-stones into the river which neither floods nor freezing nor icedrifts have since moved from their places. (Ch 58)
  • “Grettir fell back a little and reached a stone which is still standing by the side of the way and is called Grettishaf, where he stood at bay.” (Ch 59)
  • The place where they fought is now called Grettisoddi. (ch 60)
  • They laid Grettir’s head in salt and put it for the winter in the out-house called Grettisbur in Vidvik. (ch 82)
  • Angle let him take the head and bury it in a sand-hill, which is now called Grettisthuf. (ch 84)

Lovely words

  • a bondi is a class of warrior freeman
  • holmgang (meaning “walk on an island or small place”) is a Viking duel.
  • a jarl is a leader or chieftain, next in line to the king. Origin of our word “earl”.
  • luck, from the Dutch apparently, and cognate with modern German Glück.
  • thing is a meeting to administer and decide cases; the All-Thing was the annual meeting of Iceland, held every Summer
  • weregild – a value placed on every human being and piece of property under Salic Law. If property was stolen or someone was injured or killed the guilty person would have to pay weregild as restitution to the victim’s family or to the owner of the property. Weregild is composed of were, meaning “man” (as in werewolf), and geld, meaning “payment or fee”, as in Danegeld; Geld is modern German for ‘money’.
  • berserker (from the Icelandic for “bear-skin”) is a fighter capable of working himself up into a homicidal frenzy. In their delirium they sometimes bite their own shields and I was delighted to learn that the Lewis chessmen include just such knights in the act of biting their shields!

“The berserk thought they were trying to get off by talking. He began to howl and to bite the rim of his shield. He held the shield up to his mouth and scowled over its upper edge like a madman.” (chapter 40)

Other sagas

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