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Landnama Post by :cbshop2 Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :3252

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Landnama

I have been reading in Landnama Book the records of the settlement of Iceland and can now realise how lately in our history it is that the world has become small. At the beginning of the last century it was roughly of the size which it had been at the end of the last millennium. It then took seven days to sail from Norway to Iceland, and if it was foggy, or blew hard, you were likely not to hit it off at all, but to fetch up at Cape Wharf in Greenland. It was some such accident, in fact, which discovered Iceland to the Norwegians. Gardhere was on a voyage to the Isle of Man "to get in the inheritance of his wife's father," by methods no doubt as summary as efficacious. But "as he was sailing through Pentland frith a gale broke his moorings and he was driven west into the sea." He made land in Iceland, and presently went home with a good report of it. He may have been the actual first discoverer, but he had rival claimants, as Columbus did after him. There was Naddodh the Viking, driven ashore from the Faroes. He called the island Snowland because he saw little else. Nevertheless, says his historian, "he praised the land much." Such was the beginning of colonisation in Thule. It was accidental, and took place in A.D. 871.

But those who intended to settle there had to devise a better way of reaching it than that of aiming at somewhere else and being caught in a storm. What should you do when you had no compass? One way, perhaps as good as any, was Floki Wilgerdsson's. "He made ready a great sacrifice and hallowed three ravens who were to tell him the way." It was a near thing though. The first raven flew back into the bows; the second went up into the air, but then came aboard again. "The third flew forth from the bows to the quarter where they found the land." It was then very cold. They saw a frith full of sea-ice--enough for Floki. He called the country Iceland, and the name has stuck. They stayed out the spring and summer, then sailed back to Norway, of divided minds concerning the adventure. "Floki spoke evil of the country; but Herolf told the best and the worst of it; and Thorolf said that butter dripped out of every blade of grass there." He was a poet and his figure clove to him. "Therefore he was called Butter Thorolf."

The first real settlers were two sworn brethren, Ingolf and Leif. They went because they had made their own country too hot to hold them, having in fact slain men in heaps. This had been on a lady's account, Helga daughter of Erne. They had gone a-warring with Earl Atle's three sons, and been very friendly until they made a feast afterwards for the young men. At that feast one of the Earl's sons "made a vow to get Helga, Erne's daughter, to wife, and to own no other woman." The vow was not liked by anybody; and it was not, perhaps, the most delicate way of putting it. Leif in particular "turned red," having a mind to her himself. These things led to battle, and the Earl's son was killed. Then the sworn brethren thought they had best go to Iceland, and they did; but Leif took Helga with him. They left their country for their country's good, and for their own good, too.

Having found your asylum, how did you choose the exact quarter in which to settle? The popular way was that adopted by the sworn brethren. "As soon as Ingolf saw land, he pitched his porch-pillars overboard to get an omen, saying as he did so, that he would settle where the pillars should come ashore." That was his plan. If it wasn't porch-pillars it was the pillars of your high seat. Either might be the nucleus of your house; both sets were sacred things, heirlooms, symbols of your worth. You never left them behind when you flitted. Another plan, and a good one, was to leave the site to Heaven. Thorolf, son of Ernolf Whaledriver, did that. He was a great sacrificer, and put his trust in Thor. He had Thor carven on his porch-pillars, and cast them overboard off Broadfrith, saying as he did so, "that Thor should go ashore where he wished Thorolf to settle." He vowed also to hallow the whole intake to Thor and call it after him. The porch-pillars went ashore upon a ness which is called Thorsness to this day, as the site of the shrine Thorolf built is still called Templestead. Thorolf was a very pious colonist. "He had so great faith in the mountain that stood upon the ness that he called it Holyfell;" and he gave out that no man should look upon it unwashed. It should be sanctuary also for man and beast, a hill of refuge. "It was the faith of Thorolf and all his kin that they should all die into this hill." I hope that they did so, but Landnama Book doesn't say.

There were few, if any, Christians among these fine people. King Olaf and his masterful ways with the heathen were yet to come. And those who took on the new religion took it lightly. They cast it, like an outer garment, over shoulders still snug in the livery of Frey and Thor. It was not allowed to interfere with their customs, which were free, or their manners, which were hearty. Glum, son of Thorkel, son of Kettle Black, "took Christendom when he was old. He was wont thus to pray before the Cross, 'Good for ever to the old! Good for ever to the young.'" That seems to have been all his prayer, which was comprehensive enough. But there are older and more obstinate garments than religions. Illugi the Red and Holm-Starri "exchanged lands and wives with all their stock." But the plan miscarried, for Sigrid, who was Illugi's wife, "hanged herself in the Temple because she would not change husbands." The compliment was greater than Illugi deserved.

With the world as large as it was in those spacious days there was room for strange things to happen. Here is the experience of Grim, son of Ingiald. "He used to row out to fish in the winter with his thralls, and his son used to be with him. When the boy began to grow cold they wrapt him in a sealskin bag and pulled it up to his neck. Grim pulled up a merman. And when he came up Grim said, 'Do thou tell us our life and how long we shall live, or else thou shalt never see thy home again.' 'It is of little worth to you to know this,' he answered,' though it is to the boy in the sealskin bag, for thou shalt be dead ere the spring come, but thy son shall take up his abode and take land in settlement where thy mare Skalm shall lie down under the pack.' They got no more words out of him. But later in the winter Grim died, and he is buried there." So much for Grim. His widow took her son forth to Broadfrith, and all that summer Skalm never lay down. Next year they were on Borgfrith, "and Skalm went on till they came off the heath south to Borgfrith, where two red sand-dunes were, and there she lay down under the pack below the outermost sand-well." There the son of Grim set up his rest. There will nevermore be room in the world for things like that, but it is pleasant to know of them.


(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Landnama

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