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Icelandic Heroes and the Women who Betrayed them (BJ)

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benedikt12bwSome people think drama, love and hate, betrayal and true friendship started in the romantic age of the 19th century. Those people don’t know the Icelandic sagas; stories that still cause debate about who was good and who was evil, who was wise and who was stupid, even where the coffins are buried. I mean the treasures, not the bodies, but even their burial places are discussed.

Before we go any further let me explain that the Icelandic sagas are written in the 13th century about people who lived in Iceland in the time period 870 to 1030. Back then Icelanders, who had just settled in this wonderful country, and barely had time to switch from being Norwegian to being Icelandic. At that time Icelanders were truly heroic. They were the strongest Vikings, the best poets, the most beautiful women and at the same time possessed wisdom unsurpassed in modern times.

You might think such characters would be rather one dimensional, but the stories tell about love, deceit, cunning conspiracies and violent jealousy. Some Icelanders think that not only nothing significant has been written after the year 1300 AD; they say nothing of importance happened after that.

Let me just tell you about a select few Icelandic heroes:

Egill Skallagrímsson was the unsophisticated brute, who started writing poetry at a very young age. In fact schoolchildren still sing one of his verses. He lived in Borgarfjördur, and you can still see where his farm stood at Borg, just outside Borgarnes. But in spite of being rather ugly and ruthless, he still wrote the greatest Icelandic poetry of grief, Sonatorrek, after he lost two of his sons. He also managed to save his head when he was captured by the English king, not through fighting but by a long ode to the king.

I name two women in the story of Egill; Thorgerdur brák, a slave from Ireland who loved Egill and tried to protect him from his ill-tempered father (like father, like son). His father, Skallagrímur, eventually chases the woman out into the fjord and kills her by throwing a stone after her.

Egill named his daughter, Thorgerdur Egilsdóttir, after his nanny. This shows his respect and love for the ill-fated slave. Thorgerdur married Ólafur pái, a very wise and beautiful man, who was the son of an Irish slave girl and a powerful man in Dalir in Western Iceland. Thorgerdur was cunning and she talked to her father who was depressed after losing his sons. She told him he should stop sulking and write a poem about his feelings. Hence we have Sonatorrek.

In old age Egill lived with Thorgerdur and hence we have the story of his silver, a story that still brings excitement and adventure to young and old boys. Two hundred years after Egil’s death his head was found in the cemetery at Mosfell. His skull was unusually thick and it is thought he had an unusual disease (or syndrome as we say nowadays) that may explain his mood swings.

Thorgerdur, Egil’s daughter, is also a character in another story, called Laxdæla. The story is about dramatic friendship, rivalry and hatred. Kjartan Ólafsson, son of Thorgerdur and Ólafur pái, is one of the greatest heroes of the sagas. He was beautiful and could fight better than anybody. As a young man he travels to Ireland to find his grandfather, who turns out to be king Mýrkjartan.

Before Kjartan left Iceland, he was engaged to a fair woman, Gudrún Ósvífursdóttir. She had been married twice before. She divorced her first husband the second drowned. A romance between Gudrún and Kjartan seemed to be made in heaven. However, Kjartan’s cousin and closest friend Bolli, also fell in love with Gudrún. When Kjartan had been more than three years on his Viking excursion, Gudrún got offended, and married Bolli. Kjartan came home and married another woman. The friendship turned into rivalry and hatred. At the high point of the story the two clans meet in battle. Kjartan had the upper hand but Bolli was sitting idle by. Finally, someone calls to Bolli and tells him to join the battle. He goes to Kjartan, who sees his old friend and throws away his sword. Bolli kills his cousin and immediately regrets what he did. Kjartan dies in his arms.

Revenge had its way and Bolli was eventually also killed. Gudrún got married once more and once more lost her husband to drowning. When she was old her son, Bolli, asked her which of her husband she loved the most. She described all of them as being good in their own way, except the first one. When Bolli persisted she said: “I was worst to the one I loved the most.” Perhaps the most dramatic words of the Icelandic sagas.

The most beautiful and evil woman in the Icelandic sagas was Hallgerdur, sister of Ólafur pái. She was married thrice. Her first two husbands met their untimely deaths at the hands of her slave. Her third marriage was to the greatest hero of all the sagas, Gunnar Hámundarson, who lived in Hlídarendi in south Iceland, a farm facing the beautiful Eyjafjallajökull. Gunnar swung his sword so fast that there seemed to be three in his hand. He could jump his height in full armor. The two met at Althingi at Thingvellir and fell for each other’s beauty. The Saga of Njáll says it was a matter of lust on both sides. Gunnar’s friends tried to persuade him not to go ahead with the marriage, but he longed for Hallgerdur and loved her beautiful and long hair.

In the story Hallgerdur and the wife of Gunnar’s best friend Njáll battle and kill each other’s slaves. When they are short of food Hallgerdur lets her slave steal butter from a neighbor. Gunnar found out and slapped her.

Eventually, Gunnar and his brother are sentenced to three years of exile from Iceland. They were on their way when Gunnar’s horse fell and our hero looked back at beautiful landscape and said that he could not leave this magnificent scenery and returned to his farm.

This gave Gunnar’s enemies an excuse to kill him legally. They came to his farm in a flock. Gunnar was at home with only his mother and his wife Hallgerdur. He still fought gallantly and killed some of his foes until one of them cut his bowstring. Gunnar asked Hallgerdur to lend him a lock of her long hair, so that he might mend the bow. Hallgerdur refused and said: “I remember the time you hit me.” Gunnar was then defenseless and met his destiny.

Do we believe these stories? Well, at least we still debate them and read them every few years. Feminists say that Gunnar deserved his faith, while others see Hallgerdur’s response as the ultimate act of evil. We still recite Egil’s poetry and look for his silver.

Benedikt Jóhannesson - [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.