I’d heard of The White Viking before but The Black Viking… who was that? As I’ve always been interested in history and the Icelandic sagas, I listened intently when this mysterious character came up at a recent social event.
Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), a mediaeval manuscript listing the Norse settlers of Iceland in the 9th and 10th centuries, describes Geirmundur Heljarskinn, the son of Norwegian king Hjör Hálfsson, as “the noblest of all settlers.”
He was said to have traveled the country with no fewer than 80 armed men and been in possession of a large group of slaves, who were stationed around the West Fjords and Dalir regions, from the lush Breiðafjörður in the south to the rugged Hornstrandir in the north.
Geirmundur was a man of great wealth but how he came by this wealth is unknown. One would think he should have proven a worthy protagonist for a saga, yet only fragmentary sources and a handful of legends about him exist.
Icelandic author and doctor of Norse studies Bergsveinn Birgisson asked himself why that was. A decade of research led to the publication of Den svarte vikingen (‘The Black Viking’) in Norway in 2013, a cross between an academic essay and historical novel.
It’s a fascinating read. Here’s a short excerpt in my translation:
The rumors about Iceland must have been circulating in Dublin for a long time … Perhaps Geirmundur and his men had talked with someone who had sailed there earlier. There had probably been a Norse expedition to Iceland at some point in the past and when an upcoming expedition came up, it must have caught the attention of the Norse elite in Dublin who rushed to enter their representatives in this race for resources.
Geirmundur and his entourage may have sailed around the entire island to evaluate each region … In Hornstrandir they observed huge numbers of the animals they were after but realized that it wasn’t the ideal place to settle. It must have taken a great effort to locate good transport routes between Breiðafjörður and Hornstrandir.
We know at least this: When Geirmundur and his men sailed into the northern Breiðafjörður they found exactly the right environment and resources they were looking for. These guys wouldn’t have had our modern touristic view when they scanned the fjords; they desire the land. The settler desires a fjord, desires a valley and the resources they offer, and he thinks: “This will be mine.”
According to Bergsveinn, walruses are what Geirmundur was after: skin for making rope, blubber for making oil and ivory. These products were extremely valuable to the Viking settlers in Dublin and to merchants from further away.
In sources, Geirmundur is described as “black and ugly” and his nickname Heljarskinn means ‘black skinned’ (literally: ‘skin like Hel’). Bergsveinn reasons that Geirmundur was actually half-Mongolian, that his father had met his wife through trading with an indigenous people who hunted walruses in a country the Vikings called Bjarmaland, modern day Siberia.
To support his theory, Bergsveinn sites Agnar Helgason’s research of the Icelandic gene pool at deCODE and the discovery of a special mutation in the haplogroup Zia by Dr. Peter Forster at Cambridge, which confirms the nation’s part Mongolian origins. This is still apparent in some Icelanders today, Bergsveinn points out, such as in Björk, who has an Asian look in spite of being ethnically Icelandic.
So why was Geirmundur’s story hushed up?
Not just his looks but also his practices didn’t really fit the image the saga authors wanted to promote when documenting their nation’s history two centuries or so after the settlement, Bergsveinn writes.
Iceland was supposed to be a nation of equals, a nation of independent men who escaped the tyranny of King Harald Fairhair and founded a democracy, while Geirmundur’s empire was very much divided into classes with slaves being the lowest of the low.
Perhaps it was the fact that Geirmundur was primarily considered to be a resourceful businessman by the saga authors and didn’t get caught up in enough drama to be included, even though Bergsveinn reasons that once the walrus disappeared and Geirmundur’s empire collapsed, there was certainly enough drama worthy of a thrilling saga.
There’s much more to The Black Viking which Bergsveinn has dug out of the depths of history, challenging the largely accepted image of the Vikings and the history of Iceland’s settlement.
Bergsveinn got me fired up for sure, so based on his book and my interview with him, I will elaborate on the previously untold saga of Geirmundur Heljarskinn in an article in the next issue of Iceland Review magazine.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)icelandreview.com