Christmas in the Icelandic sagas is not always pleasant. Perhaps a shipload of berserks will arrive at your isolated farmstead intent on rape and slaughter. Or maybe the undead have become active, killing your shepherds or overrunning your mead-hall. Or, worst-case scenario, are trolls haunting the landscape and ghost seals haunting your floorboards? These are all tales I will be exploring today as we look at the dangers of a saga Christmas.
It is a curious thing that such ill-deeds occur on Christmas in the sagas and there appears to be two reasons for this. The first is didactic. Bad things happen to those who fail to celebrate the festival – for example, things do not end well for the berserks who decided to undertake a raid on Christmas Eve. The second follows from this, and reflects an inherent tension between Christianity and paganism that exists within many Icelandic sagas. The saga world is one in which Christianity was a relatively new player and, in these narratives, there is a recognition that paganism was still active in society, as was belief in creatures of pre-Christian origin, and there is an apparent desire to repress both. This is certainly true of the sagas we are looking at today: the events of both Eyrbyggja saga and Grettis saga occur within a Christianised or Christianising Iceland and, more importantly, the authors of both wrote within a thoroughly Christian milieu.
A note that, though the word for Christmas in the texts is synonymous with the English ‘Yule,’ a word with pre-Christian origins reflecting pre-Christian religious rites, it should not be in doubt that what is referenced within these tales is the Christian festival. As such, I won’t be touching upon pre-Christian festival of Yuletide (and its origins), though I just read a rather good article on the topic from Brute Norse.
For two of the three stories, we will be spending time with Grettir Ásmundarson – in fact one of the stories has been covered in our post on Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas, so I’ll only look at that briefly. But as we are Grettir-heavy, let’s have a little chat about the lad. Grettir fills a role in the Icelandic pantheon of heroes not unlike that filled by Heracles (Hercules) in Greek mythology. In detail, the parallels are not necessarily obvious – for example, in contrast to Heracles, Grettir is not a demi-god, and the gods are not explicitly active in his life. But fate is. Grettir and Heracles are both fate-bedevilled heroes, outcast from society due to socially transgressive behaviour, who in their exile cleanse the landscape of otherworldly creatures. Neither is directly guilty of the crime for which they are exiled – Heracles was cursed by Hera, while Grettir was wrongly accused of a hall-burning – yet it is society’s belief in their extraordinary personal prowess that makes the extraordinary nature of the alleged transgressions so believable. In neither case does the hero learn humility, and both men go on to be a burden and a boon to society as they continue to transgress cultural norms while relieving society of the creatures that haunt it. Now I won’t push this comparison further (frankly, it requires some more thought); however, I hope that places Grettir within a more familiar context for many people.
Grettir’s heroic antics often have a correlating episode in Beowulf – but I dealt with the Grettir-Beowulf relationship in Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas, so head there for that.
And now. How to deal with the monsters of Christmas like an Icelandic hero…
A Murder of Berserks and a Murderous Grettir
Strictly speaking, our first monsters are monstrous humans. We have a collection of berserks. These men are angry at a recent law banning duelling. Duelling was a problematic activity, according to the saga, as berserks were wont to challenge noblemen, not as a measure to compensate a wrong, but as a measure to gain the nobleman’s goods or women. A lucrative business that was now banned, as were berserks themselves. One of the men instrumental in passing this law was Thorfinn, a man that was hosting our hero Grettir at his island farmstead, and the berserks were out for revenge.
Now Thorfinn left for the Christmas feast with thirty freed men; it was very entertaining and enjoyable there. Now Christmas Eve came; the weather was clear and calm. Grettir was out for the greater part of the day and saw ships sailing up and down along the coast, for everyone was visiting each other wherever a party had been arranged … Then Grettir saw a ship rowing to the island; it wasn’t very big and it was set with shields from stem to stern; the ship was painted above the water-line. They rowed strongly and made for Thorfinn’s boat-shed, and when the ship ran aground the men on it jumped over the side. Grettir counted these men and saw that there were twelve of them. They didn’t look very friendly to him.
Left in the house with Grettir was Thorfinn’s wife and daughter, and eight farm-hands – on paper not a group likely to stand long against a group of marauding berserks. Grettir recognises this, and also recognises that the berserks were unlikely to be there for a cup of tea and chat. So Grettir aims for subterfuge – pretending to work with the berserks, making them welcome in the house, getting them nice and drunk, and showing them around Thorfinn’s stores. It is at this point that Grettir locks them in a storeroom and rushes back to the house to find weapons (it is also only now that members of the household realise Grettir was not truly siding with the berserks).
Grettir snatched [a] helmet and spear and fastened [a] cutlass at his side and went out quickly. The mistress called to the farm-hands and told them to go and help him, such a fine fellow as he was. Four of them ran to get weapons, but the other four didn’t dare go anywhere near.
[The berserks] managed to break down [a] partition and so got out into the passageway and from there out to the steps; then the berserk fury came upon them and they howled like dogs. At that moment Grettir reached them; he thrust the spear with both hands at the middle of Thorir’s body just as he was going to come down the steps, so that it went straight through him. The head of the spear was both long and broad. Ogmund the Bad was following close behind Thorir and pushed him forward against the thrust so that it pierced right up to the barbs; then the spear came out between Thorir’s shoulders and so on into Ogmund’s chest. They both fell down dead from the spear. Then each of the others jumped down from where they stood on the steps. Grettir attacked them one at a time, sometimes striking with the cutlass, sometimes thrusting with the spear, and they defended themselves with pieces of wood that were lying on the ground and anything else they could get hold of; it was very dangerous to fight them because of their great strength, even though they had no weapons. Grettir killed two of the Halogalanders there in the yard … Six of the vikings fell there, and Grettir was the slayer of them all. Then the other six fled; they got down to the boat-shed and went into it; then they defended themselves with oars … Grettir killed two in the boat-shed, but four got out past him. Then each pair went off in different directions; he chased the ones that were nearer [and] in the end Grettir killed them both; he was then terribly tired and stiff, and it was well on into the night. The weather became very cold and there was drifting snow. He didn’t care then to go looking for the two vikings that remained; now he went back to the farm.
What a guy! And don’t worry – the remaining berserks were found dead the next day, so we have closure. It is worth noting that this event occurs while Grettir is in Norway under a minor outlawry from Iceland (3 years’ exile – this predates his major outlawry). This means that Grettir is yet to establish his reputation, but clearly he is on his way.
So the lesson here? Be wary of unexpected Christmas visitors, and keep your cutlass close to hand.
A Dozen Ghosts (Draugr), the Men Who Sued Them … and a Ghost Seal
We’ll leave Grettir to enjoy a rare taste of good fortune and step across to Eyrbyggja saga – the saga focuses upon the intrigues of the Snæfellsnes region of Iceland from its settlement up to the immediate conversion era. It is perhaps most interesting for the author’s clear interest in the pre-Christian rituals and folklore of Iceland (though he is absolutely a Christian who preferences Christian characters). It is fair to say that as collective body of literature, the sagas may promote Christianity, but tend to retain and advocate respect for their pre-conversion culture and ancestors – this is rarely better displayed than in Eyrbyggja saga.
So it’s Christmas time and the family wants to visit. But they’re dead.
This has to be among most interesting, the oddest, and the best stories in all the sagas…
It all starts in the summer in which Christianity was adopted as the religion of Iceland at the Alþing. A wealthy Hebridean-Norse woman named Thórgunna came to Iceland with some (apparently textile) fineries rarely seen on the island. She is rather protective of these items and, falling ill, she requests of a man named Thórodd that her bed and bedding be burned should she die. He promises, she dies, but he doesn’t follow through, and then things get weird. As he and some helpers transport Thórgunna to Skàlholt for burial they decide to stop the night in Stafholtstungur, though the farmer does not offer them hospitality. Not to worry, Thórgunna has it sorted. She rises from her coffin, completely naked, helps herself to the farmer’s stores, and begins preparing dinner for her coffin-bearers. The farmer suddenly decides to offer the full hospitality of the house. Thórgunna takes full advantage and the visitors ate their food and no one found fault with it although it had been prepared by Thórgunna…
But we have only just begun and, as the coffin-bearers return to Fróðá (where all this is happening), ill-omens begin to appear. Death soon follows. At the start of winter, a shepherd mysteriously fell ill and died. Not one to let death keep him down, soon after he attacked a man named Thórir as he returned from the toilet during the night. Thórir died shortly after and joined the shepherd in his posthumous nocturnal activities. By the time Advent had begun, four more men joined them in death and in terrorising the small community.
But life in winter in Iceland was tough and the business of living could not be dissuaded by the undead. Shortly before Christmas Thórodd had need to head to his store-house on the island of Nes to collect some dried fish and he and his retinue of six had need to spend the night…
That same evening, after Thórodd had gone and the fires had been lit, it happened that people came into the room and saw a seal’s head coming up out of the fire-pit. One of the women saw it first when she came in. She grabbed a cudgel which was in the doorway and struck the seal on the head; but the blow only made the seal rear up even higher, and it stared up at Thórgunna’s bed-canopy.
Yes, the impetus for all this otherworldly activity really is Thórodd’s broken promise to burn Thórgunna’s bed sheets. And yes, this is a spectral seal…
One of the farm-hands came over and started hitting the seal, but with every blow it rose higher until its flippers emerged. At that the man fell down senseless. Everyone there was paralysed with horror. Then young Kjartan rushed up and lifted up a huge sledge-hammer and struck the seal on the head with it; it was a powerful blow, but the seal only shook its head and looked around. Kjartan kept hammering away at the head and the seal went back down like a driven nail; he kept on hammering until the seal had sunk down so far that he could pound the floor flat over its head. And so it went on throughout the winter: all the ghosts feared Kjartan the most.
But our Christmas story does not end with the ghost seal, not even remotely. Sailing back to Fróðá from the island where the above events occurred, Thórgunna finally metes out her posthumous revenge and Thórodd and his crew drown at sea. The saga is unclear why the heroic young Kjartan was not among the dead – he was clearly on the island to hammer the seal-head, but he is also clearly the host of the funeral-feast. But is it really a funeral feast when the men who died show up to partake in the event? They push the living away from the fire and taking up all the heat until the fire burned to ash. So it went on throughout the entirety of the Christmas period and, not to be outdone, once the guests for the funeral feast departed, Thórir and his own five companions, covered in soil, joined Thórodd’s crew each night. Thus, whether the fire was lit in a different room or two fires were lit, the undead still came taking up all the space around the fires and warming themselves.
The resolution to the situation is stunningly Icelandic – at the time a famously litigious culture. Kjartan summons the undead to court, accused of trespass and deprivation of life. These were properly formulated court-cases: a jury was appointed, testimony given, cases argued, and verdicts given. As sentences were passed on each of the defendants, the draugr responds to effect of: I sat here while the sitting was good, and left to never return. It is also of note that Kjartan finally burned Thórgunna bed-clothes. (To hear about this episode in fuller detail it is worth listening to the Eyrbyggja saga episode of the Saga Thing podcast).
What a Christmas! The saga tells us that of the thirty people who began their winter in Fróðá, only seven remained at the end – whether dead or fled.
So I guess that our main lesson here is to keep your promises, be wary of curses, and don’t let Christmas stand in the way of a good court case…
Glam the Revenant
This is a story I have covered in detail in Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – so do look there for a full analysis, but let’s take a brief look at this fun Christmas story.
A wealthy farmer named Thorhall has a haunting problem on his farm, and had a problem getting shepherds to work for him. So enters a Swede by the name of Glam who declares: ‘I’m not afraid of ghosts, and I will find it the less boring.’
That’s bad choice number one. Bad choice number two was having breakfast on Christmas Eve after Thorhall’s wife informed him: ‘It is not the custom for Christian people to eat on this day, for tomorrow it is the first day of Christmas, and so it is obligatory to fast to begin with today.’
Glam replied: ‘You go in for a lot of superstitions that I see no point in. I do not know that people are any better off now any more than then when people didn’t bother with such things. I thought ways were better when people were said to be heathens, and I want my food and no messing about.’
The farmer’s wife said: ‘I know for sure that it will go ill for you today if you go ahead with this wicked act.’
Glam told her to get the food straight away, said that otherwise things would be the worse for her. She dared nothing other than do what he wished. And when he had finished he went out, and was in rather a nasty mood.
Glam would not return alive. His corpse was found the following day, killed by whatever monsters haunted the farm. Yet his body could not be moved, and it would shortly be found that Glam had become a far worse monster than anything that had bother Thorhall in the past. The final straw is the following Christmas Eve when Glam’s replacement goes out shepherding (presumably having observed the fast), and is himself killed by Glam. From this point Glam’s reputation grows and it is this that brings Grettir Ásmundarson, monster-slayer extraordinaire, to the farm to test his strength. Grettir leaves victorious, but cursed – that however is not a Christmas story…
Obviously the moral here is to conform to local custom, no matter how odd. And it is interesting that the Grettis saga author notes Glam’s refusal to fast on Christmas Eve as the main driver behind his demise. A similar remark is made by the Eyrbyggja saga author just as Thórodd set out for his island store-house – It was coming up to Advent, but in those days people in Iceland did not observe the fast.
It seems that, for our authors, Christmas was a time when the pagan and Christian worlds were most at odds. The Grettis saga author in particular records Grettir as also having killed a troll-wife on Christmas (once again covered in Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas), defeating another berserk in a separate incident on Christmas Eve, and killing a fearsome and surprisingly intelligent bear another Christmas. Grettir does his best monster-slaying at Yuletide. Overwhelmingly the authors give the impression that not only of an entrenched paganism in post-conversion Iceland, but that there was a naivety to Christian practice. The sense of the amusing Eyrbyggja saga narrative is that people didn’t quite know how to do the Christmas thing properly, After all, that incident was set only a year after conversion. Yet the intent of the authorial voice should not be doubted – the monsters of a pagan past were intruding on one of Christianity’s most holy festivals, and Christian Icelandic heroes were beating them back.
So we’ll leave it there and, with Christmas upon us remember: keep your promises, be wary of strangers, tolerate family traditions, and keep a cutlass handy…
- Feature image: A witch places a curse upon a log that will bring Grettir’s downfall, but also result in the outlawing of sorcery – Henry Justice Ford (1901).
- Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
- Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards, trans., ‘Eyrbyggja saga,’ in The Icelandic Sagas, edited by Magnus Magnusson, volume 1, London: Folio Society, 1999, pp. 275 – 384. [Translations drawn from this text].
- Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas, translated by Peter Foote, Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2007.
- ‘The Saga of Grettir,’ in Three Icelandic Outlaw Sagas, edited and translated by J. M. Dent, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2004. [Translations drawn from this text].
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