Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature 1843845075, 9781843845072

The hope of salvation and the fear of damnation were fundamental in the Middle Ages. Surprisingly, however, this topic,

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Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature
 1843845075,  9781843845072

Table of contents :
Acknowledgements ix
Abbreviations xi
Note on the Text xiii
Introduction 1
1. Confession and Penance 23
2. Life's Journey towards Salvation: Salvation and the Biographical Pattern 57
3. Betrayal 97
4. Outlaws and Marginal Figures 115
5. Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World 139
6. The Hour of Death 183
7. Last Things and Judgement Day 211
Bibliography 231
Index 251

Citation preview


Studies in Old Norse Literature Print ISSN 2514-0701 Online ISSN 2514-071X Series Editors Professor Sif Rikhardsdottir Professor Carolyne Larrington Studies in Old Norse Literature aims to provide a forum for monographs and collections engaging with the literature produced in medieval Scandinavia, one of the largest surviving bodies of medieval European literature. The series investigates poetry and prose alongside translated, religious and learned material; although the primary focus is on Old Norse-Icelandic literature, studies which make comparison with other medieval literatures or which take a broadly interdisciplinary approach by addressing the historical and archaeological contexts of literary texts are also welcomed. It offers opportunities to publish a wide range of books, whether cutting-edge, theoretically informed writing, provocative revisionist approaches to established conceptualisations, or strong, traditional studies of previously neglected aspects of the field. The series will enable researchers to communicate their findings both beyond and within the academic community of medievalists, highlighting the growing interest in Old Norse-Icelandic literary culture. Proposals or queries should be sent in the first instance to the editors or to the publisher, at the addresses given below. Professor Sif Rikhardsdottir, Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Iceland, Aðalbygging v/Sæmundar­ götu, S-101 Reykja­vík, Iceland Professor Carolyne Larrington, Department of English Language and Literature, St John’s College, Oxford University, Oxford, OX1 3JP, UK Boydell & Brewer, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 3DF, UK Previous volumes in the series are listed at the end of the volume.

Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature

Haki Antonsson


© Haki Antonsson 2018 All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under current legislation no part of this work may be photocopied, stored in a retrieval system, published, performed in public, adapted, broadcast, transmitted, recorded or reproduced in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the copyright owner The right of Haki Antonsson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

First published 2018 D. S. Brewer, Cambridge

ISBN 978 1 84384 507 2 D. S. Brewer is an imprint of Boydell & Brewer Ltd PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 3DF, UK and of Boydell & Brewer Inc. 668 Mt Hope Avenue, Rochester, NY 14620–2731, USA website: www.boydellandbrewer.com A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library The publisher has no responsibility for the continued existence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this book, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate

This publication is printed on acid-free paper

This book is dedicated to the memory of my father, Anton Erlendsson (1921–2017)

contents Acknowledgements Abbreviations Note on the Text

ix xi xiii

Introduction 1 Confession and Penance 2 Life’s Journey towards Salvation: Salvation and the Biographical Pattern 3 Betrayal 4 Outlaws and Marginal Figures 5 Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World 6 The Hour of Death 7 Last Things and Judgement Day

1 23 57 97 115 139 183 211

Bibliography Index

231 251

acknowledgements The idea for this book emerged from my study of Yngvars saga víðfõrla, a text I initially aimed to examine from a social perspective. The limitation of such an approach was soon revealed: the twin themes of damnation and salvation seemed central to this tale of eastern travel. I am grateful to Ildar Garipzanov who suggested, some six years ago, that broadening the scope of inquiry might prove fruitful. Many friends and colleagues have helped me along the way – and are likely unaware of their important contribution. My reading of Rauðúlfs þáttr was prompted by an email from Margrete Syrstad-Andås in which she outlined similarities between architectural features of Nidaros Cathedral and the ‘revolving house’ of that remarkable tale. Margrete may take a lot of the credit (should she so wish) but none of the blame for my interpretation. Others who have responded to my queries and who are equally innocent of any blunders and unsound conjectures are Ásdís Egilsdóttir, Bergsveinn Birgisson, Dario Bullitta, Jamie Cocrane, Alison Finlay, Mart Kuldkepp, Brittany Schorn, Louisa Taylor, Michael Staunton and Judy Quinn. I also thank my colleagues in the Department of Scandinavian Studies for creating such a congenial workplace, and especially Erin Goeres, an Old Norse specialist and a friend. I am indebted to the School of European Languages, Cultures and Society (SELCS) for allowing me, in 2016-17, to claim sequentially two accumulated sabbatical semesters. This period of research and writing proved vital to the completion of this book. I also extend my gratitude to the editors of this series, Carolyne Larrington and Sif Ríkharðsdóttir, and Boydell and Brewer’s brilliant editorial team: Caroline Palmer, Rob Kinsey and Nick Bingham. Conversations with Marteinn Sigurðsson, my ‘leikbróðir í lýzku’, have, as always, been an invaluable source of creative stimulation. A special mention must be made to Sootie the cat who came to spend her twilight years with us four years ago when I was embarking on this project – and died on the very day that I submitted the manuscript. I owe the greatest debt to Richard North, Margaret Cormack and my wife, Julie Kerr, who read the whole manuscript in the closing stages and offered invaluable advice on style and content. The flaws and mistakes are mine alone.


abbreviations ÍF 1: Íslendingabók - Landnámabók. Fyrri hluti, ed. Jakob Benediktsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1986). ÍF 2: Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, ed. Sigurður Nordal (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1933). ÍF 3: Borgfirðinga Sõgur, ed. Sigurður Nordal and Guðni Jónsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1938). ÍF 5: Laxdæla saga, Halldórs þættir Snorrasonar, Stúfs þáttr, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1934). ÍF 6: Vestfirðinga Sõgur, ed. Björn K. Þórólfsson and Guðni Jónsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1943). ÍF 7: Grettis Saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. Guðni Jónsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1936). ÍF 8: Vatnsdæla saga, Hallfreðarsaga, Kormákssaga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1939). ÍF 12: Brennu-Njáls Saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1964). ÍF 13: Harðar Saga [...], ed. Þórhallur Vilmundarson and Bjarni Vilhjálssom (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1991). ÍF 15: Biskupasögur 1–2: Kristni saga, Kristni þættir, Þorvalds þáttr víðförla [...], ed. Sigurgeir Stengrímsson, Ólafur Halldórsson and Peter Foote (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 2003). ÍF 16:2: Biskupa sögur, Hungrvaka [...], ed. Ásdís Egilsdóttir (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 2002). ÍF 17: Byskupa sögur; Árna saga biskups, Lárentíus saga biskups, Söguþáttur Jóns Halldórssonar biskups, Biskupa ættir, ed. Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1998). ÍF 23:1–2: Morkinskinna, ed. Ármann Jakobsson and Þórður Ingi Guðjónsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 2011). ÍF 25: Færeyinga saga, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar eptir Odd munk Snorrason, ed. Ólafur Halldórsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 2006). ÍF 26–28: Heimskringla, 3 vols., ed. Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag (1941-51). ÍF 29: Ágrip af Nóregskonunga sõgum: Fagrskinna – Nóregs konunga tal, ed. Bjarni Einarsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1984).


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature ÍF 30: Sverris Saga, ed. Þorleifur Hauksson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 2007). ÍF 31–32: Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar, ed. Þorleifur Hauksson, Sverrir Jakobsson and Tor Ulset (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 2013). ÍF 34: Orkneyinga saga [...], ed. Finnbogi Guðmundsson (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1965). ÍF 35: Danakonunga sõgur, ed. Bjarni Guðnason (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1982).


a note on the text In relation to place names and personal names I have chosen to adopt a flexible rather than dogmatic approach. Thus, for instance, I refer to the location of Óláfr Tryggvason’s death or disappearance in its Old Norse form (Svõlðr) but the fateful waters of Laxdœla saga, Borgarfjörður, in its modern Icelandic rendering. Similarly, I refer to Danish kings, such as Eiríkr góði, as they appear in the editions of the Old Norse texts rather than in their modern parlance (e.g. Erik ejegod). In each case I hope the rationale behind my choice is fairly transparent. I have chosen to translate some passages myself but also rely on many of the excellent translations of Old Norse texts now available. For Harmsól, Sólarljóð, Eiríksdrápa and Sigurðarbálkr I follow the translations of the Skaldic Poetry Project. I have, however, taken the liberty of excising (the highly useful in other contexts) explanations of kennings, which feature in the printed texts. For reasons of space I have not included passages in the Latin original but in each instance the reader is guided to the appropriate sources.


Introduction This is a study of how the twin themes of damnation and salvation appear in Old Norse literature. For medieval Icelanders, like their Catholic contemporaries, death did not signify the end of the self but a metamorphosis to a different state of existence. It was accepted, at least by the better informed, that only a few would reach Heaven – namely the saints and those exceptional others whose sins had been fully purged. These blessed few would return instantly to humankind’s natural homeland following the abnormal, even harrowing, exile of earthly life. But everyone knew, or was expected to know, that the rest would suffer in Hell or, far more likely, undergo a purgatorial condition of some kind. Although for most people, most of the time, such thoughts were secondary to mundane matters, they were never far below the surface. The death of a loved one, an unexpected illness, the prospect of falling in battle or merely confessing to a priest might, at least momentarily, bring the alternatives to mind. The Old Norse literary corpus reflects these existential issues. The emergence of this corpus – commencing with Ari Þorgilsson’s ĺslendingabók (1122 x 1133) – coincided with significant developments in Iceland’s political and religious life. This includes the founding of monasteries and the rise of homegrown cults of saints at Skálholt and Hólar, the country’s two bishoprics. The establishment of the Niðaróss (Nidaros) archbishopric in 1152/3 heralded closer relations between Iceland’s clerical elite and their Norwegian counterparts whose relationship with the crown became increasingly complex and even fractious. Further, the strengthening of Norwegian kingship in this period attracted ambitious Icelanders to court and so the secular politics of the two countries became ever more closely entwined.1 In a not unrelated development, a handful of Icelandic families progressively increased their authority over people and territories. This process began, at the latest, in the second half of the twelfth century and by the 1230s power in Iceland was effectively monopolised by them. This was also a time of blurred boundaries between the secular and ecclesiastical spheres. In Norway a Faroese priest, Sverrir Sigurðarson, became king in 1184, and the arguably most eminent Icelandic chieftain, Jón Loptsson (1124–97), was an ordained deacon. However, membership of holy orders 1

For a good introduction to the early Icelandic Church see, Orri Vésteinsson, The Christianization of Iceland: Priests, Power, and Social Change 1000–1300 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature prevented neither man from clashing with the ecclesiastical authorities. The archbishop of Niðaróss excommunicated Sverrir, while the same authority had threatened Jón with an identical fate because of his colourful sex life.2 But both were concerned with the fate of their souls. King Sverrir commissioned a learned polemical tract to illustrate the illegality of his excommunication, whereas Jón Loptsson reportedly planned to spend his remaining years in a monastery to be founded on his own land.3 In both cases excommunication, or the threat of excommunication, showed how the furthering of their agenda in this life might endanger their prospects in the next.4 Jón Loptsson and King Sverrir Sigurðarson had obviously internalised the growing emphasis on the role of penance in every Christian’s life. From a broader perspective, salvation affected how Icelanders perceived their past.5 Uniquely, at least in a medieval European context, the country’s history began at a specific point in time, namely with the settlement of mainly pagans of Norse origin from around 870 onwards. Ari fróði and successive writers agreed that most Icelanders remained heathen until the official conversion of 999/1000. Thereafter salvation was in theory attainable by the baptised. A number of the Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur) are set in the decades before and after this seminal moment. These texts relate how characters like Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir in Laxdœla saga and Njáll Þorgeirsson in Njáls saga were baptised and so could embark on their journeys towards salvation. In the case of other figures of Old Norse literature, such as the eponymous hero of Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, matters are not so straightforward. The same applies to the greatest hero of the Kings’ sagas, Óláfr Tryggvason of Norway (d.1000), whose trajectory from a pagan Viking to a Christian warrior and missionary served as a continuing source of fascination for saga composers. I do not offer an inventory of every Old Norse saga or poem that features my topic. The corpus is vast and therefore I have chosen a limited number of texts. The focus is on works that illuminate and exemplify the principal themes and patterns that I have observed in reading the Old Norse corpus. At the heart of this study are the Sagas of Icelanders, the Kings’ sagas, the so-called þættir 2 3 4


Diplomatarium Islandicum. Íslenskt Fornbréfasafn. Fyrsta bindi: 834–1264 (Kaupmannahöfn: S.L. Möllers, 1857–1876), 262–4. For King Sverrir see below, 00. About Jón Loptsson’s alleged plans to establish a monastery to which he intended to retire, see ÍF 16:2, 181–82. On excommunication in medieval Iceland, see Lára Magnúsardóttir, Bannfæring og kirkjuvald á Íslandi 1275–1550: lög og rannsóknarforsendur (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2007). For important studies on how Old Norse authors perceived the pagan past and how it connected with salvation history, see Gerd Wolfgang Weber, ‘Siðaskipti: Das religionsgeschichtliche Modell Snorri Sturluson in Edda und Heimskringla’, in Sagnaskemmtun: Studies in Honour of Hermann Pálsson, ed. R. Simek, Jónas Kristjánsson and Hans Bekker-Nielsen (Vienna: Böhlau, 1986), 309–29; idem, ‘Intellegere Historiam: Typological Perspectives of Nordic Prehistory (in Snorri, Saxo, Widukind and Others)’, in Tradition og historieskrivning: kilderne til Nordens ældste historie, ed. Kirsten Hastrup and Preben Meulengracht Sørensen (Århus: Århus universitetsforlag, 1987), 95–141.


Introduction (or short sagas), and the Contemporary Sagas. The last category includes the Sturlunga saga compilation, the separate sagas about Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson and Aron Hjõrleifsson, and the Sagas of Bishops (biskupa sögur). Only two Legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur) are included and none of the translated and indigenous Chivalric sagas (riddarasögur). It is, I recognise, regrettable to ignore such texts as Õrvar-Odds saga or Mírmanns saga, where our themes are present. The decision to exclude most fornaldarsögur and all of the riddarasögur is partly due to the usual concern of confining the study to a practical length. But in another sense I do not excuse focusing on texts that are set approximately from the period of conversion to around the middle of the fourteenth century. Harmsól and Sólarljóð are the exceptions in that they ‘take place’ outside a specific historical setting. These I include not only for their evident literary quality but also because both illuminate themes of historical, religious and literary importance. Finally, I focus on individual sagas, þættir and poems. Although it would have been an option to examine how my chosen theme features within individual manuscripts (for instance, Flateyjarbók and Hauksbók), such an approach would have radically altered the nature of this study. The book neither offers an overall theory of my chosen topic nor claims to find the key to unlock the general meaning or (still more problematically) the single ‘message’ of a particular text. There are compositions in which salvation and damnation clearly play an advanced role. For instance, this is so with Yngvars saga víðfõrla and Gísls þáttr Illugasonar as well as the poems just mentioned. But in most cases my twin themes are among several that contribute to the unique texture of a given work. It follows that I seek to illuminate how they engage with other strands, such as the human life-cycle, disputes, outlawry, power, geography and the visible world. I focus on how across the corpus similar themes and patterns appear repeatedly but invariably in different shapes and forms. My approach to these texts can be described as structuralist in nature, in as much as it refers to identifying recurring patterns of thought and expression within a specific textual corpus. I stress, however, that I am equally interested in illustrating how the identified patterns play out in individual works; in this respect my approach highlights the particular over the general. Further, I agree that philology (in its broadest sense) is the art of ‘slow reading’, which I take to mean close reading.6 A greater understanding of a given text is reached by a close (and still closer) reading which, in the first instance, acknowledges the specific, the telling detail, at the expense of general ideas and ready-made assumptions. Only then can we ascend to a higher plane of literary and historical contextualisation. But this, of course, is not how research in the field is conducted in practice (or at least not in my experience). The question remains: how do we know what details are relevant without recognising the broader literary and 6

This term originally derives from Nietzsche, see Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces. True, False, Fictive, transl. Anne C. Tedeschi and John Tedeschi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 220.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature historical contexts? Thus the usual process calls for repeated shifts of perspective from the general to the specific and from the specific to the general. Such, essentially, is the theoretical underpinning of my study. To flesh out these broad methodological statements and to introduce the study’s principal themes, we now turn to three introductory examples.

A Scene from Heiðarvíga saga The opening example may not seem a promising one for the method I have just outlined. The passage appears early in Heiðarvíga saga, ‘The Saga of the MoorKillings’. More precisely, the scene derives from a section that was destroyed in the Great Fire of Copenhagen of 1728. Thankfully and remarkably Jón Ólafsson Grunnvíkingur (1705–79), the sometime notary of the manuscript collector Árni Magnússon, partially reconstructed the missing material from his notes and memory. This recovered part, which is set in western and north-western Iceland in the early eleventh century, centres on Styrr (Víga-Styrr) Þorgrímsson, a ruthless chieftain who had slain numerous men without ever offering recompense. Styrr’s rule of terror was finally terminated by Gestr (Þorgestr) Þórhallason who refused to accept the chieftain’s risible offer of compensation for his father, and killed Víga-Styrr some seven years after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity. Snorri goði Þorgrímsson led the prosecution against Gestr but the scheme foundered and Gestr left for Byzantium never to return. Not one to give up so easily, Snorri goði gathered the forces at his disposal intending to exact revenge on those who had supported Gestr. It is against this background that Snorri solicited his son, Guðlaugr, to join his cause: Snorri gengr til kirkju, er hann hafði þar gera látit; skein þá sól ór austri. Ok er hann gengr inn, mœtir hann Guðlaugi; ætlar hann þá út at ganga ok hefir á bœnum verit eptir venju sinni. Snorri mælir, hvárt hann vili eigi með sér fara at hefna móðurfõður síns. Guðlaugr svarar, at hann ætli, svá muni vel mannat, at eigi þurfi síns liðs við, ok hafi hann eigi skipt sér af vígaferlum hingat til; megi faðir sinn ráða því, en helzt vili hann þó heima sitja. Snorri mælti: “Ek hefi eigi kallat at þér um verk þín hingat til, ok skaltu þeim sjálfr ráða upp frá þessu, ok er mér vel um gefit, þú hvergi farir ok rœkir siðu þína.” Svá hefir Snorri frá sagt, at hann hafi aldri slíka manns ásjónu sét sem Guðlaugs, sonar síns, þá er hann mœtti honum í kirkjunni; hafi hann þá verit rauðr sem blóð at sjá í andliti, ok hafi sér svá sem nõkkurum vetrum síðar til Englands; gaf faðir hans honum fé með sér; gekk hann þar í munkaklaustr; fœrði siðugan lifnað ok þótti inn bezti klerkr allt til dauðadags.7 [Snorri went to the church he had built. The sun shone from the east. And when he entered, he met [his son] Guðlaugr. He was just leaving, and he had been at his prayers after his custom. Snorri asked whether he did not wish to go along to avenge his grandfather. Guðlaugr replied that Snorri had such 7

ÍF 3, 246–7.


Introduction a large force he did not need his help, and that he had never taken part in killing. His father might decide, but he would prefer to remain at home. Snorri said, ‘Up to now I haven’t spoken to you about your affairs. And from now on you shall govern them yourself. And I am well pleased that you go nowhere and practice your religious devotions.’ Snorri said about this [later] that he had never seen a man’s face like that of Guðlaugr, his son, when he met him in church. His face had been as red as blood, and it seemed to inspire terror. Some years later Guðlaugr went to England. His father gave him money for the voyage. There he entered a monastery, led a virtuous life, and was regarded as an excellent cleric until his dying.]8

Thomas Hill, in a close reading of the passage, focuses on Guðlaugr’s flushed red face.9 He interprets Guðlaugr’s physical reaction from the angle of medieval Christian writings. There vessels of divine favour – saints, angels and biblical prophets – are commonly depicted with a glowing or red countenance. Here, Hill is primarily concerned ‘with the iconographic significance of one moment in the saga rather than the saga as a whole’.10 Thus Hill maintains that such symbolism does not mean that Heiðarvíga saga is more or less Christian than any other saga. In short, the featuring of religious symbolism or motives should not automatically lead us to an overall religious interpretation of a given text.11 In criticising Hill’s interpretation, William Sayers sees Guðlaugr’s red face as indicating his embarrassment or shame. Instead of placing the feature within a religious context, Sayer sees it as signifying honour and family loyalty.12 Sayer observes that Guðlaugr’s refusal to follow his father is distinctly lukewarm; it hardly amounts to a principled opposition to violence one might expect from a saint. Rather, what prompts the facial flush is Snorri’s exclusion of his son from the political arena. This act transforms Guðlaugr’s status within an honour-based society.13 The two interpretations of Guðlaugr’s flushing face highlight different approaches to the sagas. One emphasises the social context

8 9 10 11

12 13

This is Thomas D. Hill’s translation (see next footnote) which relies on Paul Schach, Icelandic Sagas (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1984), 92. Thomas D. Hill, ‘Guðlaugr Snorrason: The Red Faced Saint and the Refusal of Sainthood’, Scandinavian Studies 67:2 (1995), 145–52. Ibid., 152. Seemingly unknown to Hill, Bjarni Guðnason had earlier proposed such an ‘holistic’ interpretation in his monograph on Heiðarvíga saga. There Bjarni argued – not especially convincingly in my estimation – that the work is essentially a thinly veiled Christian allegory with the main characters allotted their respective biblical roles. Bjarni Guðnason, Túlkun Heiðarvígasögu (Reykjavík: Bókmenntafræðistofnun Háskóla Íslands, 1993). For a critical view of Bjarni’s approach see D.A.H. Evans, ‘Túlkun Heiðarvígasögu. By Bjarni Guðnason’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 24 (1994–97), 361–5. William Sayers, ‘The Honour of Guðlaugr Snorrason and Einarr Þambarskelfir. A Reply’, Scandinavian Studies 67:4 (1995), 536–44. Somewhat less convincingly, Sayers sees Snorri’s debarment of his offspring from local politics as ‘anticipating the separation of Church and State’. Ibid., 539.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature where disputes are the main points of reference, the other foregrounds the significance and influence of Christian learning. A further detail, either overlooked or ignored by Hill and Sayer, reveals another possibility which combines the ‘religious’ and the ‘social’ planes into an interpretation that accounts for the appearance of Christian motifs at this point in the saga. This is the mention of the sun shining in the east as Snorri approaches the church out of which his son emerges.14 The association of the sun in the east with Christianity and, more specifically, with Christ and salvation is a familiar trope in medieval thought, and one that features in early Norse Christian literature of instruction. Thus the Old Norwegian Homily Book, compiled no later than c.1200: ‘Ok sólin sjálf rennr í austri upp ok jarteinir hon Krist’ [‘the sun rises in the east which tokens Christ’].15 This symbolism also appears in the so-called Legendary saga of St Óláfr (Helgisaga Óláfs Helga), a work preserved in a Norwegian manuscript from the mid thirteenth century but based on an Icelandic saga of older provenance.16 There the motif operates, like in Heiðarvíga saga, on both a naturalistic and a symbolic level. King Óláfr confronts Dala-Guðbrandr, a recalcitrant pagan chieftain, who mockingly contrasts the invisibility of the Christian God with the concrete presence of pagan idols.17 St Óláfr directs Guðbrandr’s gaze to the rising sun: ‘“Oc litið nu aller i austur oc seð. Þar færr nu guð vart með miklu liose.” Oc rann þa sol upp a fioll.’ [‘“And now look all of you to the east and see. There our God travels with great light.” And then the sun shone upon the mountain.’]18 In isolation the solar reference in Heiðarvíga saga may not warrant a symbolic reading. However, when set alongside the identified Christian theme its details may appear in a different light. Most notably, the scene depicts Guðlaugr exiting a church where he would have faced the altar and so ad orientem. The sun, as a sign of salvation, combines with Guðlaugr’s countenance and his choice of leaving Iceland to embark on a cloistered life abroad. As will become apparent, Heiðarvíga saga is far from being the only saga to feature Christian imagery or motives. Still, the presence of such symbolism 14

15 16



Uwe Ebel, ‘Ex oriente lux. Zum Problem theologischer Sinngebung in der Heiðarvíga saga’, in International and Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber, ‘ein runder Knäuel, so rollt’ es uns leicht aus den Händen, ed. Michael Dallapiazza et al. (Trieste: Edizioni Parnaso, 2000), 176–9. Gamal Norsk Homiliebok. Cod AM 619 4to, Norsk Historisk Kjeldeskriftinstitutt, ed. Gustav Indrebø (Oslo: Hovudkommisjon hjaa Jacob Dybwad, 1931), 56. See Jónas Kristjánsson, ‘The Legendary Saga’, in Minjar og Menntir. Afmælisrit helgað Kristjáni Eldjárn 6 desember 1976, ed. Guðni Kolbeinsson et al. (Reykjavík: Menningarsjóður, 1976), 287–9. Theodore M. Andersson, ‘Lore and Literature in a Scandinavian Conversion Episode’, in Idee, Gestalt, Geschichte: Festschrift Klaus von See: Studien zur europäischen Kulturtradition, ed. Gerd Wolfgang Weber (Odense: Odense University Press, 1988), 261–84. Olafs saga hins helga: die “Legendarische Saga” über Olaf den Heiligen (Hs. Delagard. saml. nr. 8to II), ed. Anne Heinrichs (Heidelberg: C. Winter Universitätsverlag, 1982), 90.


Introduction may seem surprising in a text that focuses on a long-running dispute which begins with Víga-Styrr and his killings. But we need not linger on these seemingly exotic features. Instead we should contextualise them within the saga’s general description of post-conversion Iceland. The salient point is that though the sun of salvation has risen over Iceland, Guðlaugr must still leave the land of his birth and follow a redemptive path in a foreign monastery. So the scene highlights the elementary state of Christianity before the appearance of bishoprics, monasteries and Icelandic saints. After all, the saga is set in the period of foreign missionary bishops which Ari Þorgilsson had highlighted in his Book of Icelanders.19 Heiðarvíga saga makes clear that the conversion of 999/1000 ushered Iceland into a phase of salvific imperfection. Most importantly, the barren religious landscape leaves the field open for ambitious chieftains: Í þann tíma gerðusk þau góð tíðendi á landi hér, at forn trúa var niðr lõgð, en réttir siðir teknir upp; létu þá margir ríkir bœndr byggja kirkju á bœ sínum; þeira einn var Styrr, ok lét hann kirkju reisa undir Hrauni. Sú var trúa á þeim tímum, at sá, er kirkju lét gera, ætti ráð á svo mõrgum mõnnum at kjósa til himnaríkis sem margir gæti staðit innan kirkju hans.20 [In those days the good news occurred in this country that the old religion was abolished and the correct customs adopted. Many rich farmers had churches erected on their farms. One of those was Styrr who erected a church below Hraun. It was the belief in those days that anyone who built a church could choose as many people to enter heaven as could stand within his church.]

Styrr’s church building activities also appear in Eyrbyggja saga: Og þegar er þingi var lokit, lét Snorri goði gera kirkju at Helgafelli, en aðra Styrr, mágr hans, undir Hrauni, og hvatti menn þar mjõk til kirkjugørðar, at þat var fyrirheit kennimanna, at maðr skyldi jafnmõrgum mõnnum eiga heimilt rúm í himnaríki, sem standa mætti í kirkju þeiri er hann léti gera.[...] en prestar urðu eigi til at veita tíðir at kirkjum, þótt gõrvar væri, at þeir váru fáir á Íslandi í þann tíma.21 [When the Thing was over, Snorri Godi had a church built at Helgafell and his father-in-law, Styrr, had a second church built at Hraun. Men were greatly encouraged to build churches by the priests’ promise that they would have the right to places in heaven for as many people as could stand in the church they had built [...] but there was no priest to perform mass at the church once it was built, because there were so few of them in Iceland at the time.]22


ÍF 1, 18–21. ÍF 3, 230. 21 ÍF 4, 136. 22 The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Including 49 Tales, general editor Viðar Hreinsson, 6 vols (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 3, 195. 20


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Both passages differentiate between the beliefs of the early Christian Icelanders and those held at the time of writing. In the neophyte phase salvation was associated with the patronage of chieftains. The local rulers built, maintained and kept control over the churches. Thus, chieftains such as Snorri goði and Víga-Styrr dominated the sole physical space that was essential for salvation. The power of the chieftains, which otherwise involved attracting followers for secular reasons, is linked here with collecting souls to attend their private churches. The passages exemplify what we have already seen: that in the ‘Saga Age’ Christianity was fundamentally different from that which existed at the time of the saga writing. The issue at stake is not that feuding is unchristian but rather that conditions in the early post-conversion phase narrowed, even closed, the most obvious paths to salvation. This is illustrated by Guðlaugr leaving Iceland to enter an English monastery where he lived out his life. Further, irrespective of whether Heiðarvíga saga was composed around 1200 or in the latter part of the thirteenth century, the work highlights how religion was dominated by secular lords. For the early saga audience the notion that chieftains could save souls by building larger churches would have been considered naïve and erroneous. That said, in the thirteenth century the size of churches did in fact matter. This was not because larger ones were more efficacious in aiding people toward eternal life, but because they offered shelter from certain mutilation and even death.23 In Heiðarvíga saga Iceland’s neophyte phase is further underlined in an episode involving Barði Guðmundsson, who is arguably the main character of the saga’s latter part. Barði asks for permission to stay over the winter at Óláfr Haraldsson’s court but the king declines, observing that he ‘still has some old ways about’ him ‘and such manner of faith that goes utterly against my own. Now for the reason that I have parted clean from such things, our will is not to take you in.’ [‘ok þó hafi þér nõkkut forneskju ok þess konar átrúnað, sem oss er óskaptíðr, ok fyrir þá sõk, at vér hõfum þat svá mjõk frá oss skilit, þá vilju vér eigi taka með yðr. En þó skulu vér vera vinir yðrir, Barði.’].24 Barði’s meeting with the In Íslendinga saga Sturla Þórðarson describes how in 1237 Sturla Sighvatsson and his followers attacked and defeated Þorleifr Þórðarson and his men at Bær in Borgarfjörður. Members of Þorleifr’s faction crammed into the local church for sanctuary or mercy (grið) but, according to the saga, the church could only contain half of the crowd and this led to a massacre outside its entrance. Sturlunga saga, ed. Jón Jóhannesson, Magnús Finnbogason and Kristján Eldjárn, 2 vols (Reykjavík: Sturlungaútgáfan, 1946), vol. 1, 405–6. On the intersection between power, church space and church sanctuary, see Sverrir Jakobsson, ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth: Church and Sacred Space in Thirteenth-Century Iceland’, Scandinavian Studies 82:1 (2010), 1–20. 24 ÍF 3, 324–5. This attitude contrasts with Bjarnar saga hítdœlakappa where the hero’s closeness to St Óláfr connects with a more positive view of early Christianity in Iceland (see ÍF 3, 130–4). For the theme of underdeveloped Icelandic Christianity and the Norwegian kings in the Kings’ sagas, see Margaret Clunies Ross, ‘From Iceland to Norway: Essential Rites of Passage for an Early Icelandic Skald’, Alvíssmál 9 (1999), 55–72. 23


Introduction Norwegian king is one of the saga’s central episodes. Here the great saint of the northern world examines the representative of the old Iceland and concludes that his Christianity is wanting. Although the Icelander is baptised he fails to meet Óláfr’s standards of conduct. The king’s somewhat unexpected answer links with an earlier episode where Barði escapes his pursuers when darkness unexpectedly descends.25 Magic or forneskja appears to rescue Barði, and this further highlights the religious ambivalence of Iceland’s early Christian phase. Again we note Heiðarvíga saga’s pessimistic presentations of the country’s early religious state; the roads to salvation are either closed or made more difficult to travel by the secular politics of the time. The pagan-Christian contrast in Heiðarvíga saga does not rest on feud as a pagan vice and peace as a Christian virtue. Instead it illustrates an acute sensitivity about the religious limitations that these authors thought inherent to the immediate post-Conversion period and, further, how this contrasts with their own time. In this sense Guðlaugr’s chosen road to salvation abroad is juxtaposed with immature Christianity which is dominated by chieftains who are occupied with personal vendettas and private ambitions. It is easy to envisage how a topic like this might have resonated with a thirteenth-century audience.

A Vow before Battle The second scene is from Þórðar saga kakala which, as an independent saga, dates to around 1270. This text was subsequently adapted into Sturlunga saga, a compilation which covers Icelandic history from the late twelfth century to the end of the Commonwealth in 1262–4.26 The setting is northwest Iceland on 25 June 1244, when the country’s two most powerful men, Þórðr kakali Sighvatsson and Kolbeinn ungi Arnórsson (1208–1245) – the leaders of the Sturlungar and Ásbirningar respectively – prepared to engage in what would become known as Flóabardagi (‘The Battle of the Gulf’). Although the clash was inconclusive, Kolbeinn’s losses were more substantial. Two years later Þórðr proved victorious at the Battle of Haugsnes which established his authority in northern and western Iceland and his entry into the elite band of ‘super-chieftains’.27 In this company Þórðr remained until he was recalled to King Hákon Hákonarson’s court where he died in 1256.


ÍF 3, 309. Þórðar saga features in the main manuscripts of Sturlunga saga, namely Króksfjarðarbók and Reykjafjarðarbók, although there are some notable differences between the two. See Guðrún Nordal, ‘“To Dream or Not to Dream”. A Question of Method’, in The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of the Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th–12th August, 2006, ed. John McKinnell et al. (Durham: The Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), 304–13. 27 For the political history of this period see Sverrir Jakobsson, Auðnaróðal. Baráttan um Ísland 1096–1281 (Reykjavík: Sögufélag, 2016). 26


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature As the armies steel themselves for the fight, Þórðr’s men suspect that they are confronted by a numerically superior opponent. Þórðr counters this by seeking divine aid: Þá hét Þórðr á guð almáttkan ok heilaga Máríu, móður guðs, ok inn Helga Óláf konung til árnaðarorðs. Var því heitit, at allir menn, þeir er þar váru með Þórði, skyldi vatna allar föstunætr innan þeira tólf mánaða ok fasta laugardaga alla til vetrar framan ok láta kaupa tólf mánaða tíðir fyrir sál Haraldar konungs Sigurðarsonar. Þá var fest heitit með handtaki.28 [Then Þórðr vowed to God almighty, St Mary, mother of God and King St Óláfr. It was vowed that all the men who were there with Þórðr should fast on bread and water on fasting-nights in the next twelve months and fast on every Saturday until winter, and purchase masses to be sung for the soul of King Haraldr Sigurðarson for the next twelve months. The vow was sealed by the shaking of hands.]

Þórðr kakali asks for Mary’s help in the coming encounter. By the early thirteenth century the Virgin had become Iceland’s most popular saint; her patronage attracted private devotion. Indeed Þórðr himself would repay the Virgin her aid in Flóabardagi by sumptuously celebrating her feast day (15 August) the following year.29 The Queen of Heaven was, of course, a uniquely potent intercessor. But it was also wise to seek patronage from less exalted intermediaries. Thus Konungs skuggsjá, which was probably composed at the court in Norway early in the reign of Hákon Hákonarson (1217–1263), advises merchants to seek aid from lesser saints along with the Virgin.30 For Þórðr kakali, a long-standing courtier of King Hákon, it would seem only natural to call on St Óláfr, the patron saint of the Norwegian crown, in addition to the mother of God.31 The appeal to Óláfr and the Virgin before battle evokes a historical precedent that merits further notice. In Sverris saga Mary and St Ólafr appear as Sverrir Sigurðarson’s celestial protectors throughout his life. Early in his career, on his way to Trøndelag, Sverrir and his men successfully negotiate the wilderness of the (supposedly) pagan eastern part of Dalarna in Sweden. The saga’s author, Abbot Karl Jónsson of Þingeyrar, attributes this feat to the Virgin’s protection.32 Sverrir’s success in battle shortly thereafter elicits his gratitude: ‘Sverrir konungr þakkaði nú allsvaldanda Guði ok heilagri Guðs móður Maríu ok Óláfi konungi þenna fagra sigr er Guð gaf honum, ok sýndi hann þat með því at hann gaf hverjum grið, þeim er þess beiddi.’ [‘Sverrir thanked all-powerful God and St Sturlunga saga 2, 54. Ibid., 70. 30 Konungs skuggsiá, ed. Ludvig Holm-Olsen (Oslo: Kjeldeskriftfondet, 1945), 6. 31 For the popularity of the Virgin Mary and St Óláfr in Iceland see Margaret Cormack, The Saints in Iceland: Their Veneration from the Conversion to 1400 (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1994), 126–9; 138–44. 32 ÍF 30, 20–1. 28 29


Introduction Mary, mother of God, and King Óláfr for this splendid victory that God gave him, and he expressed his thanks by granting mercy to anyone who requested it.’]33 Similarly, when the Birkibeinar are caught in a blizzard near Bergen, Sverrir urges them to repent for their sins, saying, ‘Nú skulum vér allir kalla til Guðs miskunnar ok heilagrar Marie ok ins Helga Óláfs konungs með helgum bœnum’ [‘Now we all shall to call on God’s mercy and that of holy Mary and St Óláfr with holy prayers’].34 On a more felicitous occasion – at the launching of Sverrir’s great ship Maríusúðinn – he asks the Virgin and Óláfr to protect the vessel from danger.35 So there was a tradition of connecting Sverrir’s swift and unexpected rise to power with the celestial patronage of Óláfr and Mary. These were the heavenly helpers most closely linked with the grandfather of the king whose court Þórðr kakali had attended before his return to Iceland in 1242. Their aid was seen to have facilitated Sverrir gaining and defending his God-given patrimony, the realm of Norway. Further, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar (composed 1263–4) manifestly cultivates a link between Hákon and Sverrir.36 As the saga was royally commissioned we can surmise that the same association was promoted at Hákon’s court. For instance, the saga explains how in 1223 a special council deliberated about Hákon’s and Earl (Jarl) Skúli Bárðarson’s respective claims to the throne. Dagfinnr, a prominent local chieftain, was asked his opinion on this matter: ‘Ek kom ungr til Sverris konungs, ok var ek í nökkurum bardögum með honum, þeim tveim öðrum er hann barðisk í Flóruvágum við Eyskeggja ok annnan á Jónsvöllum við Bagla. Ok skilði hann svá fyrir áðr hann barðisk: “Guð gæti vár ok heilög Máría ok hinn helgi Óláfr konungur. Ok gefi Guð mér svá sigr í dag sem ek hefi rétt at mæla ok at verja mína föðurleifð, en þeir rangt er í móti mér eru.” Ok því veit ek at hann ok hans afspringi eru réttkomnir til konungsdóms’.37 [‘I came to King Sverrir as a young man and I fought in some battles with him, the two he fought at Flóruvágur with the Eyjarskeggjar and another one at Jónsvellir against the Bagglar. And he said the following before he fought: “God protect us and the Holy Mary and St Óláfr. And God grant us victory today if I am correct in what I say and in defending my patrimony, and that they are wrong who are against me.” And because of this I know that his offspring are rightfully born to kingship.’]

Ibid., 25–6. Ibid., 34–5. 35 Ibid., 123. 36 Tor Ulset, ‘Sturla Þórðarson og Sverris Saga’, in Sturlustefna. Ráðstefna haldin á sjö alda ártíð Sturlu Þórðarsonar sagnaritara 1984, ed. Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir and Jónas Kristjánsson (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 1988), 86–93. 37 ÍF 31, 263. 33 34


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Thus when our pre-battle scene was written the twin patronage of the Virgin Mary and St Óláfr was especially connected with the Sverrir dynasty’s claim to the throne. It is against this literary and historical background that we should consider Þórðr kakali’s vow prior to Flóabardagi. Þórðar saga kakala emphasises Þórðr’s rightful claim to a region in northern Iceland which he considered his patrimony. At the Battle of Örlygstaðir in 1238 the Sturlung dynastic alliance had been comprehensively defeated by rival families. The death of Sturla and Sighvatr left Þórðr as the outstanding member of the family; as such he attended the Norwegian court until his return to Iceland in 1242. Þórðar saga kakala, as it appears in Sturlunga saga, relates the protagonist’s life from his arrival in Iceland in 1242 to his return to the court in 1250. Whether the independent Þórðar saga told of Þórðr’s early life is not at all certain. Indeed it could be that this or a similar text was written sometime after 1250 to present Þórðr’s version of the events that occurred during this brief period.38 It is known that in 1247 Þórðr kakali ensured that an account of his disputes with Gizurr Þorvaldsson was read out to King Hákon,39 and we can surmise that he had another account composed after his abortive mission to Iceland. How better to present Þórðr’s efforts in a positive light than to compare the reclamation of his ‘patrimony’ to that of Sverrir Sigurðarson, Hákon’s grandfather?40 For our purposes, the seemingly incidental detail of Þórðr kakali and his men soliciting divine aid from St Óláfr and the Virgin Mary serves that political subtext. We now turn to the second and more surprising part of the scene, namely the promise to sponsor Mass for the benefit of King Haraldr harðráði’s soul. Why pray for the soul of a long-dead, albeit famous, Norwegian king? This seems like a curious activity for thirteenth-century Icelanders to engage in. After all, in the Middle Ages prayers for the dead were overwhelmingly ‘directed towards

Einar Már Jónsson, ‘La Saga de Thórdur kakali: une oeuvre de propagande’, Médiévales 50 (2006), 47–57. 39 Sturlunga saga 2, 82. 40 Parallels between Sverrir Sigurðsson and Þórðr kakali can be noted. Both were confronted with seemingly impossible tasks when they arrived in Norway and Iceland respectively without any secure basis of support. Still, Sverrir and Þórðr quickly attracted followers and gained authority over regions that (they believed) belonged to them by right. But it is also important to observe that Þórðar saga kakala appears to encourage a comparison of its hero with King Sverrir. Thus, in spite of Þórðr’s speech impediment (which gave rise to his cognomen: ‘stammerer’) he, like Sverrir, delivers hortatory speeches to his followers whilst, as happens on a number of occasions in Sverris saga, God protects his army (Sturlunga saga 2, 63). When Þórðr ferries his men to Flatey in precarious weather, he successfully pleads for God’s aid (ibid., 49, and compare this with ÍF 30, 34–35). On the similarities between the historical careers of Sverrir Sigurðsson and Þórðr kakali (rather than their literary depictions), see Hans Jakob Orning, ‘Statsutvikling i Norge og på Island i høymiddelalderen belyst ut fra en analyse av Þórðr kakali Sighvatssons og Sverre Sigurdssons vei til makten’, Historisk Tidskrift (Norwegian) 4 (1997), 469–86. 38


Introduction kinship and locality’ rather than long-dead foreign rulers.41 Thus, in 1248 Þórðr kakali donated a farmstead to Skálholt for the benefit of his parents’ souls.42 His mother, Halldóra Tumadóttir, had died in the preceding year whereas, as noted, Sighvatr Sturluson had been killed at Örlygsstaðir. Similarly, in 1279 a certain Randalín Filippusdóttir donated all the gold she possessed to sing Mass for the soul of her husband, Oddr Þórarinsson, who had been slain some twenty-five years earlier.43 A sudden loss might spur relatives to aid their kin in the afterlife. In 1238 Þorsteinn galti, a farmhand in Skagafjörður, fasted for forty days for the benefit of the soul of his son, who had been executed earlier that year for killing a member of the powerful Ásbirningar family.44 Further, the close connection between farmers and their churches offered ample opportunities for prayers to be sung for the benefit of friends and relatives. One of the oldest surviving charters (máldagi) (c.1211), which pertains to a church in the Westfjords (Vestfirðir), stipulates the following: Prestr scal minnasc. j hverre messo er hann syngr at Mario kirkio. þeirra manna allra. er sin auþæfe hafa lagt til þeirra[r] kirkio. nefna til einkum Steingrim. þoriþe. Kar. Yngilldi. Hogna prest oc Cecilio. oc renna hug sinom op alla þa menn. er sina olmoso hafa þangat lagt.45 [The priest shall mention, in every Mass which he sings at the church of St Mary, all those men who have donated their riches to that church, in particular [he should] name Steingrímr, Þuríðr, Kári, Yngvildr, Högni the priest and Cecilia, and turn his mind to all those men who have given their alms to it.]

Irrespective of whether the people listed here were dead or alive at the time of the charter’s production, the underlying idea is that the living can benefit the deceased. But the vow to pray for King Haraldr harðráði’s soul differs from these examples; it involves a long-dead historical character who was not related (to my knowledge) to any of the participants. That said, concern for the salvation of Norwegian rulers does appear in thirteenth-century Icelandic sources. Morkinskinna tells of the generosity that Haraldr gilli Magnússon (1130–6) showed Bishop Magnús Einarsson of Skálholt (1124–48). The king presented Magnús with a precious chalice (borðker) which, on his return to Skálholt, the bishop was advised to sell for the benefit of the poor. But Magnús stipulated that King Haraldr gilli himself should gain from the chalice, saying, ‘Ok vilda ek at þeir inir helgu menn allir er hér er af helgum dómum í þessi inni helgu kirkju léti konung hvert sinn njóta er yfir honum er messa sungin’ [‘I wish that all the saints whose relics are kept in this holy

41 42 43 44


John H. Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (London: Hodder and Arnold, 2005), 163. Sturlunga saga 2, 84–5. ÍF 17:3, 75. Sturlunga saga 1, 441–2. Diplomatarium Islandicum. Íslenskt Fornbréfasafn. Fyrsta bindi, 371–2.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature church would let the king benefit each time a Mass is sung for him’].46 Similarly Hungrvaka, a brief history of Skálholt diocese from the beginning of the thirteenth century, suggests that the fate of King Haraldr Sigurðarson’s soul was a live issue. Hungrvaka reports that King Óláfr kyrri (1067–93) sent Bjarnharðr to Rome to ‘make peace for the souls of the dead’ [‘friðaði fyrir õnduðum’]. This Bjarnharðr purportedly served as a missionary bishop in Iceland and later as bishop of Selja/Bergen. From the context the intended beneficiary of the Roman mission would be Óláfr’s father, Haraldr harðráði.47 The inclusion of Bjarnharðr’s mission in Hungrvaka attests to the esteem in which Haraldr harðráði was held by the leaders of the Icelandic Church. Not only had the king allegedly donated wood to the first communal church in Iceland at Þingvellir, but he had also aided Icelanders during a famine. Can we therefore conclude that a sentiment of this sort lay behind the vow of Þórðr kakali Sighvatsson and his men before Flóabardagi in 1244? Our next example might just throw further light on this question.

Hugi’s Vision One night a priest named Hugi, who served the church at Õgvaldsnes (Avaldsnes) in Karmøy, has a dream-vision. Hugi finds himself looking into the churchyard where the ghosts of those buried there now appear above ground. He sees some of the ghosts pushing one figure away, whereas at the other side of the church ghosts are pulling another man towards them. From this melee a ghost in the form of a naked woman emerges and Hugi asks her what this commotion signifies. She answers: “lik kemr þat til kirkiv i morgin er sol er i landsvðri er hvarigir vilia við taka en þat man koma at miðivm degi er allir vilia til sin draga en þat lik er fyr kemr villda ek at grafið væri iavstan verðvm kirkiv garði en þat er siðar kemr villda ek at grafit væri fyrir norðan þar er kirkian mœtiz ok songhvsið ok þar mvnv þer manzbein finna ok villda ek at þeim væri laðit alla vega vtan at likinv þvi at þat erv bein min”.48 ‘A corpse is coming to the church this morning when the sun is in the southeast which neither party wants to receive. But one will be coming at midday, which everyone wants to get hold of. But the corpse that comes first I would like to be buried on the east side of the church-yard, but the one that comes afterwards I would like to be buried to where the nave and choir meet, and 46

ÍF 26:2, 166–7. See also, Giovanna Salvucci, ‘Between Heaven and Hell: The Konungasõgur and the Emergence of Purgatory’, in The Fantastic in Old Norse/ Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of the Thirteenth International Saga Conference. Durham and York, 6th–12th August, 2006, ed. John McKinnell et al. (Durham: The Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), 871–2. 47 ÍF 16:2, 12 (see there the comments in footnote 4). 48 Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar, ed. Gillian Fellows-Jensen (Copenhagen: Einar Munksgaard, 1962), 43–4.


Introduction there you will find a person’s bones, and I would like these to be piled round the corpse on all sides, for they are my bones.’49

When questioned about how Norway’s king will fare abroad the woman explains that he will fall. A sequence of questions and answers ensues in which she foretells the length of the reigns of Norwegian rulers up to and including King Sigurðr Jórsalafari Magnússon (1103–30) (although no names are directly mentioned). The woman declines to extend her prophecy further because thereafter many bad things will come to pass. The priest wakes up and the two corpses are brought to Õgvaldsnes at the mentioned times. This vision is related in Hauksbók which is a codex largely compiled and written by the Lawman Haukr Erlendsson (d. 1334) at the beginning of the fourteenth century. This short episode features in the second part of Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar which is preserved in Hauksbók. There Hugi’s dream-vision appears just prior to King Haraldr harðráði’s fateful invasion of England in 1066. But before we contextualise the episode within Hemings þáttr it is necessary to focus in more detail on some of its salient themes. The setting of the vision on Õgvaldsnes is significant. From the early Viking Age the location served as an important nodal point on the lucrative coastal trading route of western Norway; in skaldic poetry it appears as one of King Haraldr hárfagri’s centres of power. This is also where, according to the Kings’ sagas, Óðinn (or perhaps the devil) met King Óláfr Tryggvason and told him about past events.50 However, in the second half of the thirteenth century Õgvaldsnes would also have been known for its large stone church, built by King Hákon Hákonarson and dedicated to St Óláfr.51 A central point of the vision is the fate of the Norwegian royal lineage and so, fittingly, it is set in a location that is closely associated with the saint who was this dynasty’s celestial patron. Hugi’s dream can be categorised as a ‘ghost-vision’ that features the dead appearing to the living in churches and cemeteries.52 The vision falls into two interlinking parts. In the first Hugi sees the dead behave in contrasting ways towards two men whose corpses, the woman claims, will join them in the graveyard the next day. The second part involves a brief prophecy about the Norwegian kings. What connects the two sections is the fate of King Haraldr Sigurðarson who, the woman foretells, will fall in his foreign adventure. As we shall see, the treatment of the two men by the ghosts serves as a foreshadowing; Hemings þáttr, transl. Anthony Faulkes (Dundee: Thorisdal, 2016), 32. For instance, Heimskringla 1, 312–14. For an analysis of these encounters, see Merrill Kaplan, Thou Fearful Guest: Addressing the Past in Four Tales in Flateyjarbók (Helsinki: Academia Scientarium Fennica, 2011), 155–92. 51 Øystein Ekroll and Morten Stige, Middelalder i stein (Oslo: ARFO, 2000), 136–9; Dagfinn Skre, ‘From Kaupang and Avaldsnes to the Irish Sea’, in Clerics, Kings and Vikings. Essays on Medieval Ireland in Honour of Donnchadh Ó Corráin, ed. E. Purcell et al. (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015), 236–47. 52 See, for example, Nancy Mandeville Caciola, Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), 113–56. 49



Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature it reveals their view of the persons that will be buried in their vicinity. The corpse of one is welcomed in the cemetery whereas the other is shunned. The woman continues this theme as she comments on their suitable places of burial. The desired corpse should be buried in the cemetery, but in proximity to the holiest place in the church, the high altar, whereas the unwanted one should be buried in the east side of the churchyard. The woman wishes her bones to be piled around the corpse of the newcomer. The implication is evident. The woman and the other ghosts in the churchyard are in a purgatorial state. They aim for salvation and are thus concerned with the holy space they inhabit. The woman’s request reflects, of course, the ancient Christian custom of burial ad sanctos where physical proximity to the bodily remains of the saint aids the Christian’s progress in the afterlife. A saved soul, and even more so a saint, will radiate properties that benefit those around.53 Accordingly, in ‘Hugi’s Vision’ the second corpse to arrive the next day is someone who already resides in Heaven and, perhaps, is a holy person. Conversely, the presence of a suspect or even damned individual pollutes the graveyard and so damages the prospects of those buried within its perimeter.54 Hugi’s vision does not explicitly state that the first corpse to arrive belongs to a damned soul. However, the inference is that this might be so and thus this person’s bones are best buried far away from the woman’s remains, although still within the cemetery. We can view the scene as a kind of triptych where the souls of the cemetery reside at the centre. In a purgatorial state they are flanked by the souls of the expected arrivals whose fate is either damnation or salvation. But to whom do the earthly remains that arrive at Õgvaldsnes belong? We are not explicitly informed, but only told that two corpses came at the times predicted. The answer to this question explains why ‘Hugi’s Vision’ was included in Hemings þáttr in the first place (at least in its incomplete Hauksbók version). Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar divides into two halves that are connected by the figures of Hemingr Ásláksson and King Haraldr Sigurðarson who are essential to both. The saga begins with Haraldr demanding onerous hospitality from a wary and reluctant Áslákr, a prosperous chieftain in northern Norway. The king discovers that Áslákr has a son who had not been seen by anyone for a long time. When Haraldr orders Áslákr to bring his offspring before the king he at first ignores the command. Threatened with his own death and that of his son, Áslákr instructs twelve of his men to fetch his son, Hemingr. This leads them to a remote valley where Hemingr lives with a farming couple. Back at the court Haraldr tests Hemingr’s skill in archery and swimming. When Hemingr has out-shot and out-swum the king, Haraldr orders him to 53

Thus around 1540, about a decade before the official termination of Catholicism in Iceland, Lawman Páll Vigfússon requested in his will to be buried in the local church near the altar. Páll, who lived until 1570, also left property behind for prayers to be sung for his soul every Friday. Diplomatarium Islandicum. Íslenzkt fornbréfasafn X (1538–1542) (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Bókmenntafélag, 1914), 596. 54 Ann Marie Yasin, Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 210–39.


Introduction perform one more feat: to ski down a high ice-clad slope and abruptly stop right at the edge of a sheer precipice. Hemingr replies that this will likely lead to his death, but Haraldr responds that he will certainly die should he fail to comply. At this point a certain Oddr Ófeigsson, an Icelandic royal retainer, secretly provides Hemingr with a cloth of linen that had belonged to St Stephen, the protomartyr. Oddr claims that no one has died wearing the cloth. King Haraldr, dressed in a red cloak, positions himself at the edge of the cliff. When Hemingr attempts to avoid falling over the cliff-edge he grabs hold of the cloak which, however, the king hurls after him. Hemingr’s garments billow out which allows him catch a cliff-ledge where he hangs precariously. Hemingr now vows to divide all his wealth into three parts. One part he will give to St Óláfr, the second to pilgrims on the road to Rome and those in need, and the third to St Stephen should he ever be fortunate enough to meet Oddr again. In the dark night a great light appears above him and a man pulls him up onto the top of the cliff. The rescuer is, of course, St Óláfr who explains that he has helped him for a particular reason: “... fyrer þuit ath ek villda ei ath þu fyrer færiztt. Suo ath Haralldi kongi ykizzt á byrgd j. en heit þitt skallttv efna ok ganga sudur. Enn af þv kemur fyrer okunna men. þa skallttv nefnaztt Leifur medan Haralldur kongur er á lifi. veitaztt mun þier þat er þu batt ath vidridin mvnttv vera þa er Haralldur kongur læztt. Enn eiki þiki mier þv vel launa mier lif giofina. ef þu veiter þier þar mikel af skiptti. nv mvnv vid skilliaztt fyst ath sinni”.55 [‘... because I did not want you to be destroyed in such a way that King Haraldr’s responsibilities would be increased by it. But you must carry out your vow and go on pilgrimage to Rome. But if you come across strangers, you must call yourself Leifr while Haraldr is alive. You shall be granted what you prayed for, that you will be involved when Haraldr dies. But I do not think you be rewarding me properly for the gift of your life if you take a major part in it. Now we shall part for the time being.’]56

After the rescue Hemingr finds Áslákr and his brother at prayer. Thereafter Hemingr fulfils his vows. The first half of Hemings þáttr is patently structured around episodes of oppositions where King Haraldr features as the constant. There is the uneasy stand-off between the mild mannered Áslákr and the overbearing Haraldr who insists on meeting Hemingr. Tests of character and skill ensue in which Hemingr’s brilliance exposes the cracks in King Haraldr’s persona. Haraldr becomes angry, depressed and finally homicidal. In one sense Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar can be read as a concentrated attack on both Haraldr’s character and his prospects in the afterlife.57 Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar, 27–8. Hemings þáttr, transl. Faulkes, 21. 57 Note, for example, how near the saga’s beginning Haraldr is introduced as ‘the most courteous of men’, a statement which is immediately undercut by the following. 55 56


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature The fate of Haraldr’s soul is first explicitly addressed as Hemingr falls over the cliff’s edge as he attempts grab hold of the king’s cloak. Haraldr quips that now ‘had parted here the dead and the undead’. Oddr, Hemingr’s friend and protector, answers that ‘it would not have been the case that you would both have gone the same way, even if you had both died’ [‘ei mundi þid til einnar gistingar farit. þo ad þid hefdit bader hier latist’].58 The king asks what these two places would be. Oddr replies that he himself would like to ‘go to the lodging place that I think is prepared for Hemingr. But I think that Christ must not wish the devil to be so pleased with you as to receive you this evening.’ [‘giarna uillda eg fara uidlika gisting sem eg ætla ad Hem(ingi) sie firer buinn: en eg hygg ad Kristur mundi ei uilia at fiandinn yrdi þier suo feiginn at hann tæki uid þier j kuolld’].59 Thus, according to Oddr, Hemingr is saved while only divine intervention can rescue Haraldr from damnation. Indeed Haraldr’s soul is seemingly aided and protected by St Óláfr who saves Hemingr from certain death not because of any special concern for his life but rather out of care for Haraldr’s eternal fate: ‘I did not want you to be destroyed in such a way that King Haraldr’s responsibilities would be increased by it’ [‘þuiat eg uillda ei at þu firir færist: suo at Haralldi kongi iukist a byrd j’]. The first part of Hemings þáttr juxtaposes Haraldr’s ambition, recklessness and lack of consideration for his soul with Hemingr’s unassuming excellence and steadfast interest in his own salvation. It is also striking how the saga plays on the theme of martyrdom. Oddr presents Hemingr with a relic of St Stephen, the protomartyr who was stoned to death for his belief. Hemingr’s increasingly difficult tasks mirror the progressively more cruel tortures meted out to the martyrs. Before the final, near impossible assignment, Haraldr tells Hemingr that he will be killed should he refuse. Hemingr answers that ‘everyone is obliged to extend his life [as long as he can]’ [‘en þad er þo huerium manne bodit ad leingia lif sitt’]. Hemingr thus shuns a dramatic martyr-like death and instead places his trust in the natural fulfilment of his destiny. Here we also observe something else, namely that the conclusion to the saga’s first part highlights several key elements relating to salvation: celestial patronage of a saint (St Stephen and St Óláfr); votive offerings; pilgrimage to Rome and the prayers of the living (by his father and his brother). At the beginning of the second part of Hemings þáttr we find Hemingr and Oddr attending the court of Edward the Confessor.60 Hemingr (or Leifr as he now When Haraldr returns to Norway he leaves behind his queen, Silkisif, in Novgorod (Hólmgarðr). But as a pledge Haraldr deposits a treasure which she can keep should he fail to return within fifteen years. Haraldr immediately remarries and, some two decades later, the king shamelessly collects the treasure from Silkisif to fund his English adventure. 58 Hemings þáttr, transl. Faulkes, 20. Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar, 25. 59 Hemings þáttr, transl. Faulkes, 20. Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar, 25. 60 At this point Oddr disappears from the story but not before he founds a church, at Miðfjörður in north-western Iceland, dedicated to St Stephen. The saga comments that the ‘cloth that Hemingr had around him is still there today’.


Introduction calls himself) befriends the young Harold Godwinson and together they help Edward to crush a rebellion. The focus now turns to the political machinations that follow Edward’s death. Harald succeeds to the throne but the kingdom is coveted by his brother Tósti who seeks aid from Sveinn Úlfsson. The Danish king turns him down, arguing that God has given him Denmark and thus it would be wrong to seek another king’s realm. Haraldr of Norway, however, is persuaded to support Tósti and he prepares a full levy for the invasion of England. One morning, as the king awaits a favourable wind, he recounts to Tósti a dream of his. He explains how he was approached by an angry looking figure, whom he identified as St Óláfr, who recited the following verse: Gramr var frægr til fremdar flestan sigr en digri laut ek þo at heima sætim heilact fall til vallar ugi ek efzt rað tiggia yðr man feigð um byriað trollz gefit fakum fylli fiks velldrað gvð sliku.61 [For the renowned kin the stout one [St Óláfr], most victorious brought glory. When I fell to earth I was in state of grace, not having ventured out from my own dominions. I fear for the king’s final undertaking; I tell that your fate awaits you: You will provide its fill to the greedy troll-wife’s horse [wolf]; This expedition does not have God’s blessing.]62

Tósti suggests that the figure may have been conjured up by English magic, but Haraldr retorts that no sorcerer could simulate Óláfr Haraldsson so well. This is the first forewarning about Haraldr harðráði’s English adventure. Haraldr’s war-like intentions are juxtaposed with his half-brother’s martyrdom at Stiklastaðir (Stiklestad) where Óláfr’s death signifies his salvation (and indeed sanctity). St Óláfr returned to Norway to re-conquer his kingdom, his rightful patrimony, which had been unjustly taken from him by the Danish king and his own disloyal chieftains. Óláfr’s fall into ‘a state of grace’ [‘heilact fall til vallar’] is linked with him not having exceeded his earthly brief which implies that Haraldr will meet a very different fate. Haraldr will die on foreign soil attempting to gain that which does not belong to him. Within Hemings þáttr Óláfr’s warning (which features in other Kings’ sagas) continues the theme of the saint’s concern for the soul of his half-brother. As Haraldr sails to England he receives a second warning. The Norwegian fleet meets a ship steered by Líka-Loðinn, a former ally of St Óláfr. Líka-Loðinn 61


Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar, 39–40. Hemings þáttr, transl. Faulkes, 29–30.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature tells of strange omens he and his crew experienced on the journey from Greenland. First they saw a great fire, then blood-rain and lastly an enormous flock of birds heading eastwards that returned the following day, flying in the opposite direction and with largest bird amongst them missing. The saga explains LíkaLoðinn’s curious name (which means ‘Corpse-Loðinn’). This he acquired on an errand to Greenland for Óláfr Haraldsson where he retrieved the corporal remains of the king’s nephew. Fittingly, this episode leads into ‘Hugi’s Vision’. Upon landing in England Haraldr receives yet another warning, this time in the shape of a ‘troll-wife riding a wolf in the sky’ [‘trollkonv riða vargi i loftinv’] who recites three stanzas that foretell the king’s bloody end. As Tósti and Haraldr prepare for battle the latter’s horse stumbles three times, prompting him to comment, ‘Why do you do that, brother Óláfr?’ [‘hvi skal nv sva Olafr broðr’]. Haraldr then explains to Tósti that he shall ‘have no one else to thank for it more than you if he turns his favour from me’ [‘eigi man ek annars manz meir at giallda en þin ef hann litr af mer’]. With this Haraldr Sigurðarson suggests that Óláfr has withdrawn his patronage since he pursues a wrongful adventure spurred on by Tósti. The other side of the coin is that the saint will cease caring for the fate of his soul. Thus Óláfr’s help in this world is but a reflection of his more important role as an intercessor for eternal life. Hemingr reappears as a highly honoured warrior in Harald Godwinson’s retinue. One feat which Haraldr had pressed Hemingr to undertake was to shoot an apple, William Tell-style, from the head of his brother. In one example of the saga’s obsessive concern with parallels and symmetry, now at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Hemingr’s arrow grazes Haraldr’s cheek. Hemingr shoots the arrow not with the intention of killing the king but in order to reveal his identity to Harold Godwinson and his army. Hemingr explains that he did not wish to kill Haraldr because he feared St Óláfr. When the saint had saved Hemingr from certain death on the cliff-edge, he had made him promise not to fight hard against his half-brother. Having identified the Norwegian king, it is Harald Godwinson who shoots him in the throat. Recognising himself mortally wounded, Haraldr harðráði adopts a more penitential mode. He asks Tósti to agree to divide the kingdom with his brother, Harald Godwinson, and that he himself should only have six feet of English earth. Tósti replies that both shall ‘be the guests of the same fellow tonight’ [‘ein kall skvlv vit baðir gista i kvelld’], clearly echoing an earlier exchange between Haraldr and Oddr. With his last words Haraldr responds that he is ‘speaking of the fellow whose hospitality I wanted never to accept’ [‘þar getr þv þers kals er ek villda alldri gisting at þigia’]. In his final moments Haraldr therefore comprehends the uncertain fate of his soul and the possibility that he is headed for damnation. After Stamford Bridge Hemingr fights bravely at Hastings, where Harald Godwinson is injured but then rescued and hidden by a farmer and his wife. When Hemingr visits his lord and suggests that he should re-conquer the kingdom from William, Harald Godwinson replies:


Introduction “... se ek at þetta ma fram ganga en of margr verðr þa eiðrofi ok vil ek eigi at sva illt leiði af mer. nv bil ek gera eftir dœmvm Olafs konvngs Trygva s(vnar) at siþan er hann for vsigr fyrir Vinlandi þa villdi hann eigi fara aftr til rikis sins helldr for hann vt Grecia ok þaði þar gvði meðan hann lifði. nv vil ek lata gera mer ein ermita kofa i Kantara byrgi þar sem ek mega sem oftaz sia Vilialm konvng i kirkivnni enn þann ein skal ek mat hafa er þv fœrir mer”.63 [‘I realise that this may be possible, but then too many will become perjurers. And I don’t want so much evil to happen on my account. Now I am going to follow the example of King Óláfr Tryggvason who, after he was defeated off Vinðland, decided then not to return to his kingdom, but instead went to Greece and there served God as long as he lived. Now I am going to have a hermit’s cell made for in Kantarabyrgi, where I shall be able to see King Viljálmr as often as possible in the church. And the only food I shall have is what you bring me.’]64

Harald resides in his Canterbury hermitage for three years, attended only by Hemingr and a priest who receives his confessions. Hemingr eventually reveals everything to King William and leads him to Harald’s cell where they find his corpse ‘so beautiful and pleasant to look at, and people smelt there a sweet smell, so that everyone present realised that he was a truly saintly man’ [‘kendv men þar sœtan ilm sva at allir vndir stoðv þeir er hia varv at hann var sanheilagr maðr’]. William pardons Hemingr and offers to make him the most noble baron in his kingdom. But Hemingr wishes only to stay in England in the same cell that his lord had formerly occupied. There Hemingr lives until he expires in old age.65 It should now have become apparent how ‘Hugi’s Vision’ connects with the marked binary patterning of Hemings þáttr. The two corpses brought to Õgvaldsnes are, of course, not literally the remains of Hemingr Ásláksson and King Haraldr Sigurðarson. Rather, they signify their respective fates in the afterlife, just as in the previous scene the birds seen by Líka-Loðinn and his crew announce Haraldr’s earthly fate. In Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar we see a binary theme which crystallises in these two main characters as their actions indicate their likely posthumous destination. Indeed in relation to the ‘good corpse’ of Hugi’s vision we need not restrict ourselves to an identification with Hemingr. The ‘binary salvation/damnation theme’, as I will refer to it in the course of this study, runs throughout Hemings þáttr and represents one of its main structural features. It involves the pairings of Haraldr harðráði and St Óláfr, Haraldr harðráði and Harald Godwinson and, most importantly, Haraldr harðráði and Hemingr Ásláksson. In this and other ways Hemings þáttr includes themes relevant to this study: the efficacy of prayer and the votive offering, the Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar, 57–8. Hemings þáttr, transl. Faulkes, 44. 65 Gillian Fellows-Jensen, ‘The Myth of Harold’s II Survival in the Scandinavian Sources’, in King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry, ed. Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005), 53–64. 63 64


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature potency of relics, the celestial patronage of the saints and, moreover, the story of a warrior whose life-trajectory concludes in penance. ‘Hugi’s Vision’ in particular and Hemings þáttr in general may indicate why Þórðr kakali and his men prayed for the soul of Haraldr harðráði and to St Óláfr and the Virgin Mary. By doing so they effectively prayed for the souls of their enemies which, of course, is a meritorious act in its own right. The Virgin Mary and St Óláfr were on their side; Óláfr died a martyr in pursuit of his rightful patrimony and, like Hemingr, he will help those pursuing a just cause. In contrast Haraldr’s soul was compromised as he died attempting to conquer a foreign kingdom. This will be the fate of those who die fighting Þórðr kakali in Flóabardagi which is another instance of the binary theme. The topic of penance comes into focus at Hemings þáttr’s conclusion and this theme will be the subject of the next chapter.


N 1 n Confession and Penance Historical Background In our period the afterlife was intimately associated with confession and penance. Only by sincere repentance for his sins and by making adequate earthly amends could the sinner expect salvation or, at least, a purgatorial state. Early in the twelfth century salvation became a significant area of theological interest.1 Broadly speaking there was an increasing emphasis on the sinner’s responsibility for his or her own salvation. Although Christian conduct and good works remained essential for the health of the soul, it was recognised that an ordinary mortal could never fully recompense for past sins merely by words and deeds. Salvation was thus contingent on divine grace for accumulated debts, and the pre-condition for attaining grace was the person’s heartfelt contrition. Such was the theological underpinning of the notion that all Christians should regularly confess their sins and perform appropriate penance. This development culminated in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council which stipulated that everyone should confess their sins at least once a year. ‘The Older Church Law’ (Kristniréttr inn eldri), which was incorporated into the Icelandic laws in the first half of the twelfth century, does not lay down the appropriate penance for each specific sin. Kristniréttr focus rather on the practical aspects of Christian behaviour such as baptism, burial, fasting, dietary regulation and the proper celebration of major feasts. In general punishments for minor sins mirrored those found in secular laws. For instance, a person is permitted to fish on a Sunday so long as the transgressor attends a morning service. Failure to show up at church merits a fine of three marks.2 Confession is mentioned in ‘The Older Church Law’ in relation to people considered unfit to be buried in a cemetery: only those who had confessed their sins to a priest or (in an emergency) to a layman were allowed to rest in hallowed ground.3


2 3

For a succinct overview of this topic see Thomas A. Fudge, ‘Concepts of Salvation in the Western Church to the Sixteenth Century’, Communio Viatorum 45:3 (2003), 217–46. Grágás: Elzta lögbók Íslendinga. Útgefin eptir skinnbókinni í bókasafni konungs, ed. V. Finsen, 2 vols (Copenhagen: fornritafjélag norðurlanda, 1852), 1, 25. Ibid., 12.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Bishop Þorlákr Þórhallsson of Skálholt (1178–1193) introduced a penitential to guide the clergy within his diocese.4 ‘Þorlákr’s Penitential’ (‘Skriftarboð Þorláks helga’) contains thirty-five decrees with penances for sins that range from working during Easter week to molesting another man’s wife. The main emphasis, however, is on misdemeanours of a sexual nature.5 In line with its pastoral role ‘Þorlákr’s Penitential’ includes penances different in kind to the punishments assigned in ‘The Older Church Law’. Its penances consist of corporal punishments, ritual displays of supplication, as well as fasting for a period commensurate to the committed sin.6 The preserved version of the penitential stipulates that each person should confess his or her sins at least once a year, a decree which is echoed in the so-called Þorláks saga B.7 The latter hagiographical work dates to the late thirteenth century and so to a time when the canon of the Fourth Lateran Council had become familiar. It is therefore an uncertain testimony to Þorlákr’s policy.8 In this respect a more promising source is the oldest hagiographic saga about Þorlákr Þórhallsson, Þorláks saga A, from the early thirteenth century. This saga presents Þorlákr as a pioneer in matters relating to confession and penance. It explains that, before becoming bishop, Þorlákr served at Kirkjubær for six years, which at that time was a church farm, though a convent was founded there in 1186. There Þorlákr and his fellow priest Bjarnheðinn became renowned for their piety and good works. The two were especially acknowledged for their attention to confession and penance: Skiptu þeir ok svá við sína undirmenn at þeir tóku af þeim þungar byrðar er á þá hõfðu lagzk af mótgørðum ok meinmælum við Guð ok góða menn, en eptirlæti við fjándann, en lõgðu á þá í staðinn Guðs byrðar léttar ok linar í hógbærum skriptum ok auðveldum yfirbótum.9 [They also deal with their subordinates in such a way that they took from them the heavy burden which had been laid on them because of their indulgence

4 5 6


8 9

The most recent analysis and edition of ‘Þorlákr’s Penitential’ is Sveinbjörn Rafnsson, ‘Skriftaboð Þorláks biskups’, Gripla V (1982), 77–114. Sveinbjörn Rafnsson, ‘Þorláksskriftir og hjúskapur á 12. og 13. öld’, Saga 20 (1982), 115–16. The principal influence on ‘Þorlákr’s Penitential’ was the so-called Excarpsus Cummeani, an eighth-century penitential handbook which was likely produced in the French monastery of Corbie. Excarpsus Cummeani influenced Carolingian reformers but, as the Icelandic example illustrates, it also enjoyed an afterlife in the high Middle Ages. See Rob Meens, Penance in Medieval Europe, 600–1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 109–11. ÍF 16:2, 160. The relevant clause in ‘Þorlákr’s Penitential’ is also likely a later addition. Sveinbjörn Rafnsson, ‘Skriftaboð Þorláks biskups’, 85–6. ÍF 16:2, 56.


Confession and Penance of the devil, and laid upon them instead God’s light and mild burdens, in easily borne penances and undemanding acts of atonement.]10

In the 1150s Þorlákr had been educated at Lincoln and Paris. This was precisely the time when scholars made descisive arguments for the theological centrality of confession and penance. Paris was, of course, the hub for these changes with its nascent college and the influential Augustinian abbey of St Victor where Þorlákr Þórhallsson may have studied. Hugh of St Victor (d. 1141), the head of its school, placed confession and penance at the heart of his treatise On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis), whilst The Four Books of Sentences (Libri Quattuor Sententarium), an even more influential work of Peter Lombard (d. 1160), afforded them a ‘clear and central role among the Church’s sacraments’.11 Although there is scant evidence for the application of ‘Þorlákr’s Penitential’, the mere fact that it was introduced to Skálholt (if not elsewhere in Iceland) was surely significant.12 Most importantly, the text highlighted the sacrament’s centrality in pastoral care. But a clear division between ecclesiastical and secular laws was not fulfilled until 1275 when Bishop Árni Þorláksson introduced his ‘Church Law’ (‘Kristinréttr Árni Þorlákssonar’) to his diocese of Skálholt and, very likely, to the whole of Iceland.13 The new code instructed that everyone above the age of twelve years old should confess once a year during Lent and receive the sacrament at Easter. Anyone neglecting this for three years in a row was deemed to engage in heathenism (‘drýgir heiðinn dóm’) and should be outlawed.14 This stipulation fleshed out a decree that Bishop Magnús Gizurarson of Skálholt had issued around 1224, which forbade priests from allowing those who had failed to confess in the previous year to attend the Easter service.15 From the second half of the twelfth century the sacrament became central to Christian doctrine throughout Catholic Europe. There was an increased focus on private confession and penance, although a public dimension remained; indeed communal public penance was practiced at Hólar in the early fourteenth century. Whilst the sacrament of confession was an institutionalised ritual, it also encouraged the sinner to engage actively with his or her personal history and conscience. The twelfth-century learned discourse on the sacrament located ‘remission of sin in contrition not oral confession, although the requirement 10 11 12

13 14


The Saga of Bishop Thorlak. Þorláks Saga Byskups, transl. Ármann Jakobson and David Clark (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2013), 6. Joseph Goering, ‘The Scholastic Turn (1100–1500): Penitential Theology and Law in the Schools’, in A New History of Penance, ed. Abigail Firey (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 229. Páls saga byskups, a short biography of Bishop Páll Jónsson of Skálholt (1195–1211), mentions that many were relieved that Páll honoured all the commandments or directives (boðorð) of his predecessor, St Þorlákr. This could refer to ‘Þorlákr’s Penitential’. ÍF 16:2, 304. Járnsíða og Kristinréttur Árna Þorlákssonar, ed. Haraldur Bernharðsson, Magnús Lyngdal and Már Jónsson (Reykjavík: Sögufélag, 2005), 33–8. Ibid., 183–4. Diplomatarium Islandicum. Íslenskt Fornbréfasafn. Fyrsta bindi, 456.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature of confession is not removed’.16 In other words, the significance of penance extended beyond the act of confessing to a priest; it ideally called for constant self-monitoring of one’s thoughts and behaviour. As we shall see, the absence of an ecclesiastical authority did not preclude the individual from showing contrition and effecting atonement. The Icelandic sources are not especially forthcoming about how all this played out in practice. Nevertheless, the issue is illuminated by some anecdotal and incidental evidence. For instance, one Sunday in 1180, a ship heading from Iceland to Norway hit bad weather. The foreman asked Ingimundr Þorgeirsson, a priest, to hear the crew’s confessions, for they believed they were in mortal danger. Ingimundr replied that his fellow travellers should have heeded his call to confession on Sundays past. But at this late stage, Ingimundr claimed, God alone can hear their confessions and, moreover he himself, Ingimundr, was now in need of the sacrament.17 Manifestly, Prestssaga Guðmundar Arasonar, composed in the early to mid thirteenth century, is a suspect source about what happened on a ship in 1180, but the episode indicates that it was not out of the ordinary for seculars to confess before Sunday Mass prior to receiving the Eucharist. Not surprisingly, perhaps, we also learn that ecclesiastics sometimes had difficulty in convincing laymen to recount their sins. Ingimundr’s young nephew, Guðmundr Arason, was present on the same voyage to Norway. Guðmundr was the future bishop of Hólar (1203–1237) and a recognised saint in his diocese from the early fourteenth century onwards. During his turbulent tenure of Hólar, Guðmundr pursued a policy of greater ecclesiastical autonomy, and he frequently did so against the wishes of Iceland’s most influential chieftains. Even before becoming bishop, Guðmundr was seen as someone who led by example in pastoral matters. Thus Guðmundr’s habit of travelling around the country with a collection of relics attracted attention and even mockery.18 Guðmundr was also known for confessing every time he met a priest, which suggests that such behaviour was considered somewhat out of the ordinary.19 It is through Guðmundr’s interaction with his followers that we gain a rare insight into how churchmen transferred ideas and practices to elite laymen. In ‘Þorlákr’s Penitential’ the most common form of penance involves knéboðföll, which has the sinner falling to his or her knees with the palms striking the ground. In Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, the hero of the saga named after him, who is a friend of Guðmundr Arason, assumes this posture at his execution.20 The gesture was in fact conceived as a penance for specific sins confessed to a priest. It also serves as an example of how secular figures could show their 16 17

18 19


Caroline Walker Bynum, ‘Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 30:1 (1980), 3. Sturlunga saga 1, 125–6. Ibid., 148. Ibid., 134. Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, 43.


Confession and Penance repentance in the absence of ecclesiastics. A still more dramatic posture could be applied for comparable purposes. In 1228 Þorvaldr Snorrason, a chieftain from the Westfjords, was burnt inside his farmstead. Sturla Þórðarson’s Íslendinga saga describes how Þorvaldr ‘walked into the hall when the fire was increasing and the houses were ablaze. He lay over the hearth with his hands in the shape of a cross where he was found later’ [‘Þorvaldr gekk í eldahús, þá er eldrinn sótti at ok húsin loguðu. Hann lagðist yfir eldstó ok lagði hendr frá sér í kross, ok þar fannst hann síðan’].21 Þorvaldr’s last act is an act of final atonement. The same saga also relates how some thirty-six years later the chieftain Þórðr Andréasson similarly extended his hands before his execution.22 Sturlunga saga hints at how the ‘cross-shaped penance’ came to be adopted by high-status laymen. In 1222 Bishop Guðmundr and his followers were routed by the Sturlungar on the isle of Flatey where they had sought temporary refuge. On this occasion Eyjólfr Kárason, a leading supporter of the bishop, was badly injured following a heroic defence against overwhelming odds. Eyjólfr threw himself into the sea, but was later discovered on a skerry, overcome by his wounds: ‘lá Eyjólfr á grúfu ok hafði lagt hendr í kross frá sér. Ekki blæddi þá er þeir lögðu til hans’ [‘Eyjólfr lay face down and had extended hands in the shape of cross. He did not bleed when they smote him.’].23 Describing the same event, Arons saga Hjõrleifssonar underlines the prayer-like nature of Eyjólfr’s behaviour before death and adds that ‘he looked east as though in prayer’ [‘horfði sjálfr til austr svá sem til bænar’].24 This is an act of last penitential supplication which solicits grace in the absence of a proper confession. The observation that Eyjólfr did not bleed is perhaps intended to suggest that his pleading was heard. Later in the same saga Aron Hjõrleifsson, having narrowly escaped from Flatey, hides at his mother’s farmstead. She observes Aron falling to the ground in the shape of a cross and singing the Benedicite and Ave Maria. When his mother enquires where he learnt to pray in such a way, Aron explains that Bishop Guðmundr Arason had taught him this gesture.25 Aron’s response illustrates (likely here in an idealised way) the relationship that could develop between ecclesiastics and laymen of a certain standing. More generally, given that churches and cemeteries were attached to most major farms in Iceland, the elite and their entourage lived in close proximity to the daily rhythm of religious life. For instance, it is reported that Hafr, a steward of the major farmstead of Hrafnagil in Eyjafjörður, prayed every night in the associated church. Íslendinga saga says that he was slain when he retired to his bed after returning from his usual vespers.26 The secular elite also acquired 21


23 24

25 26

Sturlunga saga 1, 322. Ibid., 534. Interestingly, when Snorri Sturluson described the killing of Eysteinn Haraldsson (1157) he chose to depict the king as extending his arms out in the same manner. ÍF 28, 345. Sturlunga saga 1, 292. Sturlunga saga 2, 251. Ibid., 268. Sturlunga saga 1, 289.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature celestial patronage through saints who were considered de jure owners of major church-farms. Thus Sturla Þórðarson was buried at his old farmstead of Staðarholt which was owned by St Peter whom he ‘had loved above all other holy men’ [‘hann hafði mesta elsku á haft af öllum helgum mönnum’].27 St Peter was also the patron saint of the church at Hrafnagil which the unfortunate Hafr frequented, but an authority there must have honoured Thomas Becket, for the farmstead owned a Life of that saint. This is known because the chieftain Þorgils skarði Bõðvarsson considered St Thomas to be his special patron; when he stayed overnight at Hrafnagil he asked for the conclusion of the Life to be read out.28 Kolbeinn Tumason, however, held Mary in especial esteem; the church at his farmstead, Víðimýri in Skagafjörður, was dedicated to the Virgin and he is believed to have composed a poem in her honour.29 In short, men in the upper echelon of Icelandic society cultivated personal ties with individual saints to benefit their earthly endeavours and prospects for the hereafter. These same men also engaged in a continual assessment of their societal status. The political game required constant monitoring of one’s position in relation to current (or potential) friends and enemies. At every point in time the player needed to know who owed what both materially and in the less tangible sphere of personal relations. This is the society on show in the Sagas of Icelanders, albeit in a highly stylised form. The same principle holds true for the layman’s relationship to confession, because this sacrament required frequent evaluation of ones standing with God; debts had to be cleared, but the amount of penance owed was always uncertain. In the present the person might (with great effort) keep the situation under control through pious behaviour and regular confession. But after death, or with death approaching, the individual entered an uncharted territory in which he or she had to rely on grace and on the prayers of those left behind. The Old Icelandic Homily Book highlights parallels between the sacrament of penance and the resolution of disputes. For both arbitration was essential and in the former case the priesthood played the role of the ‘good men’ who stipulated the settlement between conflicting parties: viþ þan man hvern vill guþ drótten sættasc at kene manna sina dóme es góþra manna dóm vill þiggia. fyr allar sacar þær. es men gera viþ hann. vill guþ drótten oc eige siálfr hefna. heldr vill hann hlíta þeira manna forráþe. [...] fyrgef sva þu oss órar synþer. Nú es vér biþiom þic guþ drotten af aollum hug. oc endom yfer beótr slíkar sem kene men þiner bióþa oss. sem vér fyrgefom þeím monnom. er afgøra viþ oss i þesse veroldo. oc bióþa oss yferbeótr slíkar er þeir hafa til at goþra manna dóme. þa es þeir biþia oss af aollum hug sinom... .30

Sturlunga saga 2, 236. Cormack, The Saints in Iceland, 146; 196. For the reading, see p. 000 below. 29 Ibid., 42. 30 Homiliu-Bók. Isländska Homilier efter en handskrift från tolfte århundradet, ed. Theodor Wisén (Lund: C.W.K. Gleerups Förlag, 1872), 135–6. 27



Confession and Penance [The Lord God wishes to arrive at a settlement, according to the judgement of his priests, with each man who wishes to accept the judgement of good men, for all those wrongs which men do to him. The Lord God does not wish to take vengeance himself, rather he wishes to rely on the management of these men [...]. Forgive us our sins, now that we pray to you Lord God with all our hearts and perform such penances as your priest command us, just as we forgive those men who transgress against us in this world and offer us such compensation as they have according to the judgement of good men, when they beg us with all their hearts... .]31

This comparison is, of course, somewhat suspect, as there is limited parity between the disputing parties: an all-powerful God and a wretched sinner. The essence here, however, is that arbitration by the priesthood, in the form of confession, is essential to avoid the ultimate act of justice and vengeance, namely the consigning of the sinner to eternal damnation. But in practice the role of arbitrator was not always (and perhaps seldom) simply that of a neutral, disinterested adjudicator.32 Moreover, the penalty for not adhering to the ‘judgement of good men’, that is, to the priesthood, might hinder any further negotiation or settlement. In Commonwealth Iceland, however, as elsewhere in medieval Catholic Europe, penance and dispute settlement could easily overlap.33 Indeed penance became an ancillary element in conflict resolution. In 1214 Þorvaldr Snorrason sought to settle matters after the killing of Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, who had been a popular chieftain in the Westfjords. Þorvaldr agreed to submit to the judgment of Þórðr Sturluson who stipulated his outlawry for five years. However, the outlawry could be commuted to three years, should Þorvaldr travel to Rome and receive papal absolution (an option which he chose).34 In 1261 Ásgrímr Þorsteinsson, who had participated in the notorious burning at Flugumýri some eight years earlier, also reconciled by submitting to arbitration. Part of

For a discussion of this passage (in the context of dispute resolution in Njáls saga) see, Judith Jesch, ‘“Good Men” and Peace in Njáls Saga’, in Introductory Essays on Egils Saga and Njáls Saga, ed. John Hines and Desmond Slay (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1992), 82. I use Jesch’s translation of this passage. 32 See, for instance, William Ian Miller, ‘Avoiding Legal Judgment: The Submission of Disputes to Arbitration in Medieval Iceland’, The American Journal of Legal History 28:2 (1984), 95–134. 33 Levi Roach, ‘Penance, Submission and deditio: Religious Influences on Dispute Settlement in Later Anglo-Saxon England, 871–1066’, Anglo-Saxon England 41 (2012), 343–71. 34 Accordingly, for bishops excommunication, or even the withholding of essential church services, could serve as a potent weapon. For instance, in 1253 the Norwegian Heinrekr of Hólar proclaimed that confession should be withheld from Hrafn Oddsson and Sturla Þórðarson until they settled their dispute with Þorgils skarði (whom the bishop considered the rightful representative of King Hákon Hákonarson). Sturlunga saga 2, 289. 31


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature his penance was apparently to seek absolution in Rome which he subsequently did.35 These cases fuse punishment, exile and penitential pilgrimage. It is important to emphasise the public dimension to such journeys of atonement. True, these were undertaken for the benefit of the participants’ souls but they were also communal displays of piety: the audience at home needed to know about the undertaking. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of Sturla Sighvatsson’s pilgrimage to Rome in 1233. The archbishop of Niðaróss had issued a letter to the major Icelandic chieftains in which he condemned the violence that had been perpetrated against Bishop Guðmundr Arason. The principal culprit was Sturla who, along with his father, had attacked the bishop and his men at Grímsey in 1222. As part of a settlement with the Church, Sturla appears to have agreed to seek absolution in Rome. Sturla Þórðarsson’s wellknown description of his cousin on this pilgrimage highlights both the sincerity of Sturla’s penance and the honour accorded to him by foreign dignitaries. The journey reads more like a triumphal procession than a penitential pilgrimage. In Norway Sturla is splendidly received by Earl Skúli and King Hákon and King Valdimar of Denmark gives him precious gifts. In Germany Sturla Sighvatsson meets Bishop Páll of Hamar and together they travel to Rome: Sturla fekk lausn allra sinna mála í Rómaborg ok föður síns ok tók þar stórar skriftir. Hann var leiddr berfættr á millum allra kirkna í Rómaborg ok ráðit fyrir flestum höfuðkirkjum. Bar hann þat drengilega, sem líklegt var, en flest fólk stóð úti ok undraðist, barði á brjóstit ok harmaði, er svá fríðr maðr var svá hörmuliga leikinn, ok máttu eigi vatni halda bæði konur ok karlar.36 [In Rome Sturla was absolved of all his cases and those of his father and there he made major penances. He was led barefoot between all the churches in Rome and flogged before the main churches. He endured that with fortitude, as was to be expected, but many people stood outside and wondered, beat their chests and grieved, that such a handsome man suffered so terribly, and both men and women were unable to contain their tears.]

The episode draws attention to the witnesses to Sturla’s dramatic penance: a wellrespected bishop is with him in Rome, where people of the city observe his public acts of self-humiliation. The description both reflects Sturla Þórðarson’s interest in his cousin’s salvation and the notion that for powerful men penance was not a private matter. Further, elite members of society had easier access to regular confession as well as other ‘fonts of salvation’: relics, prayers administered by those in Holy Orders, and the means to undertake a pilgrimage. Just as the actions of the powerful were especially exposed to communal opinion, so the health of their souls was monitored by society at large, as is vividly shown in Sturla Sighvatsson’s public penance and his namesake’s reporting of it. The stakes were high, as the excommunication of a chieftain not only imperilled 35 36

Ibid., 528. Sturlunga saga 1, 364.


Confession and Penance his own soul, but also threatened the salvation of those who depended on his authority.37 Penance and power were thus linked in complex ways and these can only be touched upon here. Let us still briefly address two examples from Íslendinga saga. In 1232 Snorri Sturluson had vested his son Órœkja with considerable authority in the Westfjords. The young Órœkja proved to be a somewhat dissolute leader who allowed banditry in his region. Órœkja soon clashed with fellow Sturlungar, most importantly with Sturla Sighvatsson, who had arrived from Norway with great ambitions. The saga relates how in July 1236 Sturla rode with his retinue into Snorri’s farmstead at Reykholt and apprehended Órœkja. Sturla then stipulated that Órœkja should leave Iceland. For somewhat unclear reasons Sturla brought Órœkja to a cave some thirty kilometres from Reykholt where he unsuccessfully attempted to blind and castrate his cousin. Sturla Þórðarson, who was then a supporter of Órœkja and had been left behind in Reykholt, explains that while being tortured Órœkja called for the help of St Þorlákr Þórhallsson and sang ‘Sancta Maria, mater domini nostri, Jesus Christi’. The claim that Órœkja’s plea to St Þorlákr was half-successful is probably linked to the date of his misfortune, which is said to have taken place on 21 July, the day after the feast of the saint’s translatio.38 Following Órœkja’s mutilation it was Sturla Þórðarson who, according to his own words, sought to be shriven at the Augustinian priory of Helgafell. Sturla then rode to Eyri in Borgarfjörður where he was told by his father, Þórðr Sturluson, that the penances imposed were too harsh and that he should confess to the bishop of Skálholt.39 There Sturla was joined by the now revived Órœkja and both were absolved by Bishop Magnús Gizurarson of Skálholt.40 At first this episode appears somewhat confusing. After all the only sins on show – the torture and maiming of a relative – are surely those committed by Sturla Sighvatsson.41 Órœkja is the victim whereas his follower, Sturla Þórðarson, is marginal to the episode. But Sturla’s emphasis on his own confession should be read within a broader narrative framework. The episode brings one phase in Íslendinga saga to an end and marks the beginning of another: Sturla Sighvatsson See, for instance, Sturlunga saga 2, 204. Sturlunga saga 1, 395. 39 Ibid., 396. This incident illustrates how attuned chieftains could be to the appropriateness of the prescribed penances (although in this case it should be noted that Þórðar was an ordained deacon). Gunnar F. Guðmundsson, Íslenskt samfélag og Rómarkirka, Kristni á Íslandi 2, ed. Hjalti Hugason (Reykjavík: Alþingi, 2000), 97. 40 Sturlunga saga 1, 396. 41 It has been argued that the whole maiming incident was stage-managed by Sturla Sighvatsson with Sturla Þórðarson’s knowledge and assent. The purpose was to drive Órœkja from Iceland rather than kill him. According to this scenario, Órœkja was taken to Surtshellir but no attempt was made to castrate him. Kari Ellen Gade, ‘1236: Órœkja meiddr ok heill gõrr’, Gripla 9 (1995), 115–32. This article also refers to Helgi Þorlákon’s suggestion that Órœkja Snorrason was excommunicated at this time, which would explain Sturla Þórðarson’s need to confess and make penance, ibid., 121. 37



Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature has now become the undisputed master of western Iceland and his ambitions lead inexorably to his downfall at the Battle of Örlygsstaðir two years later. Additionally, the episode confirms a shift from Sturla Þórðarson’s allegiance to Órœkja towards tying his fortune to Sturla Sighvatsson’s cause. This powershift crystallises in a telling detail recorded at the meeting in Reykholt on the morning of the botched mutilation between Órœkja, Sturla Sighvatsson and Sturla Þórðarson. Sturla Sighvatsson appropriates Kettlingr, Órœkja’s sword, which Sturla Þórðarson had been holding (for some unexplained reason).42 Three years later, a year after the Battle of Örlygsstaðir and the death Sturla Sighvatsson, Órœkja retrieves the sword from Sturla Þórðarson.43 The curiously detailed description of Sturla’s confession and penance therefore serves as kind of ‘clearing of accounts’ in more ways than one. Similarly, Órœkja’s confession heralds his temporary exit from the stage and prepares for his subsequent Roman pilgrimage of absolution. Thus in the Órœkja episode the sacrament of confession serves as a structural marker in Sturla Þórðarson’s saga, just as Sturla Sighvatson’s earlier penance in Rome wipes the slate clean for his return to Iceland with a brief to extend King Hákon’s authority in Iceland. But the Órœkja episode also has another purpose: it informs the reader about the state of Sturla Þórðarson’s own soul which, it becomes abundantly clear, is intimately linked with his high social status as highlighted by his meetings with the canons of Helgafell and the bishop of Skálholt. It is instructive to compare these happenings with a related scene in Íslendinga saga that features confession; this time with Sturla’s father in a more prominent role. The background is a conflict in the Westfjords between Órœkja Snorrason and Snorri Magnússon in 1234–35. Amongst the followers of the former is Filippus Kolbeinsson, Órœkja’s brother-in-law, while a prominent backer of Snorri is Maga-Bjõrn. When Órœkja and his men execute Snorri Magnússon, Maga-Bjõrn retaliates by killing Filippus. Maga-Bjõrn and five followers flee the region and live by brigandry in the Breiðafjörður region.44 Finally they are caught in Fagurey by Þórðr Sturluson who orders the killing of Maga-Bjõrn and his men. Before the execution they are allowed to confess. Hearing their sins, the priest claims that one of Maga-Bjõrn’s associates, Þorkell Eyvindarson, cannot be executed on the spot because of the things he had confessed. Þorkell’s sins, it seems, were so serious that it was beyond a mere priest to grant absolution. Þórðr Sturluson responds that he should not be spared but rather judged and hanged.45 The contrast between this scene and Þórðr’s response, on the one hand, to the penance of Sturla and Órœkja and, on the other hand, to the confession of Þorkell Eyvindarson is striking. In the former case Þórðr, a chieftain and a Sturlunga saga 1, 395. Ibid., 445. 44 Ibid., 382–4. 45 ‘Þá er honum eigi líft, ok skal dæma hann at því ok hengja síðan.’ Ibid., 384. 42 43


Confession and Penance deacon, is concerned with the spiritual well-being of his kinsman and so he directs him to the bishop of Skálholt who grants them absolution. Faced with a comparable pastoral problem, Þórðr, instead of allowing Þorkell to seek another confessor, uses the confession as an excuse to execute Þorkell as a common criminal. Even considering the different context of these two scenes, Þórðr’s contrasting response suggests that power and status were never far away when it came to confession, penance and absolution. By allowing or refusing an enemy the opportunity to confess, the perpetrator not only terminated his enemy’s life but also shaped how people would perceive his fate in the hereafter. Sturlunga saga includes many examples of laymen seeking confession in situations of extreme stress and danger.46 Although descriptions of this kind dramatise the action and even contribute to the structure of the narrative, it is clear that by the thirteenth century the sacrament now lay at the heart of religious life of the laity. How this came about is a process that is (as one would expect) mostly hidden from our view. Certainly vernacular literature of instruction and propaganda played a significant role. Most notably homilies, such as the ones preserved in the late twelfth-century Old Icelandic Homily Book, attest to a thriving tradition of preaching on the subject. Indeed we have already seen how one such homily aligns confession and penance with societal concerns about secular disputes. But poetry was also important in conveying the message, and it is to two such examples that we shall now turn.

Penitential Poems: Harmsól and Sólarljóð Harmsól is a poem in sixty-five stanzas attributed to Gamli kanóki (‘Old Canon’), who was a brother of the Augustinian cloister of Þykkvabær in the latter half of the twelfth century.47 Þorlákr Þórhallsson had served as an abbot of Þykkvabær before his election to Skálholt in 1178. Bishop Þorlákr – who took an active interest in the organisation of the Augustinian Order in Iceland – is likely to have kept a close eye on his alma mater that now lay under his jurisdiction. It is therefore plausible that Gamli kanóki composed Harmsól within a religious milieu where lay participation in confession had become essential. In the first four stanzas Gamli kanóki praises God and Christ while pleading for divine mercy and grace. Stanza five highlights the importance of formal penance: Þú býðr õll með iðran, einn Kristr, viðum Mistar The following studies deal with death in Sturlunga saga: Guðrún Nordal, ‘Eitt sinn skal hver deyja: Dráp og dauðalýsingar í Íslendingasögu’, Skírnir 163 (1989), 72–94. Eva S. Ólafsdóttir, ‘Heiður og helvíti. Sviðsetning dauðans í Sturlunga sögu í ljósi kristilegra og veraldlegra miðaldarita’, Saga 43 (2005), 7–42. See also Margaret Cormack, ‘Saints and Sinners. Reflections on Death in Some Icelandic Sagas’, Gripla 8 (1993), 187–218. 47 Poetry on Christian Subjects. Part 1: The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, ed. Margaret Clunies Ross (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 70–132. 46


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature linns fyr lærðum mõnnum lýti sín at tína, ok, hábrautar, heitið hreggvõrðr, þegar seggjum sannri líkn ok syknu, snjallr, fyr vás ok galla. [You, the one Christ, command to enumerate all their faults with repentance before learned men; and you promise straight away to men true mercy and acquittal for sinfulness and flaws.]

Here Gamli kanóki emphasises to his lay audience the importance of the confessor as a mediator between the sinner and grace. Harmsól is a praisepoem to God which doubles as a guide to salvation, and highlights regular confession and penance as the keys to eternal life. To convey this message Gamli kanóki recounts his own sinful ways, a narrative device that gives the poetic performance a distinctly confessional tone. In this sense Harmsól reverses the raison d’être of courtly skaldic poetry where praise of the ruler solicits earthly wealth and prestige. Here God receives praise as well as the poet’s confession of his own sins. The sinner recites his shortcomings which are then rewarded, not with silver and honour, but with gifts of a spiritual nature. The sixth verse foregrounds a central theme in Harmsól, namely the importance of frequent and continuing confession: Oss verðr ey, nema þessum aldr várn boðum haldim (menn búisk mõrgu sinni) meiri ógn (við þeiri), hver þvít hætt rṍ ð bõrva hljóms á øfsta dómi upp fyr allri skepnu ósõgð koma lõgðis. [Our terror will always increase unless we keep these commands during our lives; let men prepare themselves for it many a time, since all unconfessed, dangerous counsels will become known before all creation at the Last Judgement.]

Gamli kanóki acknowledges that partaking of the Eucharist unshriven is a sin in itself (stanza 12), and although Christians may perform good deeds they cannot avoid sin (stanza 15). Gamli kanóki understands that people are prone to self-deception in that they note the transgressions of others while ignoring their own. But nothing will escape God’s gaze (stanza 13). At the Last Judgement all un-confessed sins will be tallied (again stanza 6). Gamli kanóki recognises that not every sin can be accounted for and thus grace is needed for salvation (16). There follows a remarkable sequence of stanzas (21–34) in which Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection are transformed


Confession and Penance into a vision of the Last Judgement. Stanzas 22–24 tell about the thieves who were crucified with Christ but reacted very differently: one mocked Christ for not saving himself from certain death, whereas the other repented as he foresaw the tortures of Hell. In stanza 24 the latter gains Paradise as a reward. The scene of Christ and the thieves on the cross is one of the archetypes of the binary pattern mentioned earlier. This engages the contrasting choices and fate of two characters or groups who otherwise share common features. Later in this study we shall meet this pattern more than once. Stanza 28 brings us to the Resurrection while stanza 31 announces the Second Coming and the Last Judgement. The theme of frequent confession and penance appears again in stanza 41: Kosti hverr við harra – hætts ella mjõk – sættask byrjar láðs – hvat bíðum? blikvaldr þrimu tjalda. Opt verðr Ægis leiptra ein stund viðum grundar – nauðr erumk õll at eyða andar mein – at seinum. [Let every wielder try to reconcile himself with the lord of the land of the fair wind otherwise, there is great danger; what are we waiting for? Often one hour will be too late for men; it is a necessity for me to blot out all injuries of the spirit.]

This warning is amplified in the following stanza which recognises the onerous nature of continuing penance. The sinner is reminded that only when confession becomes a habit (‘venja’) can he make amends in this life. There follow examples of three biblical figures who grievously sinned but who subsequently repented and were pardoned. These are King David, St Peter and Mary Magdalene (here, as often in medieval writings, identified with the prostitute who washed Christ’s feet). The inclusion of these examples offers hope and humanises the poem’s texture after the drama of the Crucifixion and Last Judgement. If murder and adultery, or the denial of Christ, or prostitution may be forgiven, so in due course can the humble sinner be pardoned. But no amount of penance can fully pay for all the sins owed. In stanza 57 he asks God to judge him more out of mercy than justice, and in the next Gamli kanóki elaborates on how salvation is contingent on grace: Hvar megim oss, inn õrvi ýta kyns, fyr synðir sṍr eða sekðir órar, sættir, skjóls of vætta, nema lastauknum líkna, logskríns, vilir þínum


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature sjalfr, þeims synðir skelfa, sæll gervandi, þræli? [Where may we expect shelter because of our sins, griefs or guilts, God, unless you yourself desire to have mercy on your sin-laden servant, whom sins cause to tremble, God?]

At this point Gamli kanóki offers a sight of a grace that can save us from damnation. So far Harmsól has firmly upheld opposite poles by stressing sin and the Last Judgement; most vividly in the central scene of the two thieves on the cross. Now the audience is told how debt can be mitigated or cancelled through the intercession of the saints, and especially the Virgin Mary (stanza 59): Hlut meguð hvern til gotna, happkunnig, miskunnar ramligs bús af ræsi rõðuls, Máría, õðlask. Vest ávalt at trausti, vegstýris, mér dýru, mild, at missak aldri, móðir, yðvars góða. [Mary, renowned for good fortune, you can obtain everything from God for mercy for men. Always be a precious support to me, gentle mother of God, so I may never lose your goodwill.]

Harmsól evokes here the aid that the saints can offer sinners in the afterlife. The pleadings of the blessed can alleviate penance in the purgatorial state. So also can the prayers of the living, as illustrated in the subsequent stanza where Gamli kanóki exhorts his audience to pray for his own salvation. The poem concludes with a prayer to ‘invite together all baptised men, to where an abundance of happiness and peace will never end’ [‘Võrðr, laða skatna skírða, / skýtjalds, saman alla, / ítr, þars aldri þrjóti / unaðsgnótt ok frið, dróttinn’]. Harmsól offers reassuring answers to the most important of Christian existential questions. Proper conduct in this world and frequent confessions are the gateways to Paradise, and so is the help of God’s friends – the saints. At the heart of Harmsól lies the belief that sincere contrition and regular penance unlock grace. As such Harmsól is the product of the late twelfth-century pastoral reform which stressed the centrality of confession for salvation. But in spite of the poem’s adept construction and vivid imagery it is essentially an uncomplicated advisory work in which a living person, Gamli kanóki, guides the audience on to the path to salvation. In this sense the work transforms the act of confession into a poetic sermon for the laity. Sólarljóð is a quite different kind of poem from Harmsól for, above all, it emphasises the anxiety and uncertainty associated with the afterlife. Here the transition between this world and the next is offered in a highly personal manner, as the poem follows the trajectory of someone who has ‘lived’ through


Confession and Penance death. In Sólarljóð the pulpit declamations of Harmsól are replaced by intimate advice offered by (it seems) a dead father to a living son. Sólarljóð, ‘The Poem of the Sun’, is commonly dated to the second half of the thirteenth century.48 This work of eighty-three stanzas in an eddaic metre is especially notable for elements associated with pagan wisdom poetry (of which Hávamál is a prime example) and medieval vision literature. Indeed Sólarljóð’s use of pagan mythological imagery within an otherwise Christian context presents considerable interpretative conundrums.49 These qualities, combined with the poem’s rapid shifts between seemingly unrelated scenes and images, might be a source for trepidation in any reader approaching this text. The following analysis does not purport to be an ‘overall interpretation’ of Sólarljóð but merely to highlight facets that are relevant to this study. The opening stanzas describe an unnamed man who has committed numerous evil deeds; he is a thief who lives alone with his ill-gotten gains. The thief’s solitude is interrupted by a travelling stranger to whom he offers food and shelter. The visitor then murders his host while the latter is asleep. When the host ‘wakes up’, slain, he prays to God and then expresses relief when he discovers that his sins have been translated to the traveller. His prayers have thus been heeded (stanza 7): Helgir englar kómu ór himnum ofan ok tóku sál hans til sín í hreinu lífi hon skal lifa æ með almátkum guði [Holy angels came down from the heavens above, and gathered his soul to themselves; it will live in a pure existence forever with almighty God].

The meaning of this opening episode in Sólarljóð seems at first sight somewhat enigmatic. What, after all, has the robber done to merit everlasting life? He has, of course, extended hospitality to a stranger and so ignored his own safety. The robber has acted according to Christian charity and in a way his impractical ‘actions are seen to be wise, even shrewd, when viewed from the soul’s perspective after death. True pragmatism and self-interest must therefore incorporate consideration of the eternal ramifications of a given course of

48 49

Poetry on Christian Subjects. Part 1, 296–357. On the use of pagan imagery in the poem see, Frederick Amory, ‘Norse-Christian Syncretism and Intepretatio Christiania in Sólarljóð’, Gripla 7 (1985), 251–66. Carolyne Larrington, ‘Freyja and the Organ-Stool: Neo-Paganism in Sólarljóð’, in Germanisches Altertum und christliches Mittelalter; Festschrift für Heinz Klingenberg zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Bela Brogyanyi (Hamburg: Kovaĉ, 2002), 177–96. For a contextualisation of the poem within the eddic corpus, see Brittany [Erin] Schorn, ‘Eddic Poetry for a New Era: Tradition and Innovation in Sólarljóð and Hugsvinnsmál’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 7 (2011), 131–49.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature action.’50 But it is questionable whether the robber’s salvation hinges on this single act of charity. Indeed his redemption seems contingent on additional factors: he is killed unjustly and it is only after death that he pleads sincerely for grace (stanza 6): Himna guð bað hann hjálpa sér, þá er hann veginn vaknaði, en sá gat við syndum taka, er hann hafði saklausan svikit. [He asked God of the heavens to help him when he awoke slain, and the one [the guest] who had betrayed him without cause took on his sins.]

These factors combine with the third and perhaps crucial element, namely that the robber dies in a penitential state of mind which is shown by his uncharacteristic display of hospitality. Although the gesture might seem a minor one when tallied against the robber’s lifetime of sin, the selfless offer of charity attests to his contrition and desire to repent. The poet has chosen an extreme example to demonstrate God’s boundless grace. Sólarljóð’s startling opening episode is no mere heterodox invention. For instance, there is a fourteenth-century manuscript from Iceland which tells a story that was preached in England by a ‘distinguished bishop in honour and praise of God’s mercy’ [‘merkiligr biskup til lofs ok tígnar guðligri milldi’].51 Somewhere in England the devil had ensnared a certain Vilchin who now travelled around committing misdeeds. The tale proper begins with Vilchin entering a church and demanding to be shriven, but hearing about the visitor’s numerous crimes the priest refuses the request. Vilchin responds by cleaving the priest’s head with an axe while exclaiming, ‘If you do not want to give me penance I will give penance to you’ [‘Ef þú kannt eigi at skripta mér, þá skal ek kunna at skripta þér’]. Later that same day Vilchin delivers a repeat performance in another church. But in the third church Vilchin is allowed to confess and thereafter the priest tells him about famous examples of penances. The priest advises Vilchin to begin his atonement by fasting until sunset and to donate his clothes to the poor people he meets during this period. When Vilchin has fulfilled this penance he should dedicate the remainder of his life to God. Right at the end of his day of atonement, as Vilchin prepares to slake his thirst, he is identified by a person who then shoots an arrow through his heart. But signs appear that indicate Vilchin’s redeemed soul. The story ends with the narrator pointing out that what matters is ‘the greatness of the suffering’ [‘beiskleikans mikilleik’] rather than its duration.

Brittany Schorn, Speaker and Authority in Old Norse Wisdom Poetry (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2017), 131. 51 Íslendzk Æventyri: Isländische Legenden, Novellen, und Märchen, ed. Hugo Gering, 2 vols (Halle: Verlag der Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, 1882–1883), vol. 1, 30–3. 50


Confession and Penance This exemplum captures the essence of Sólarljóð’s opening story. At the end of his life, which is unjustly and suddenly terminated, the sinful outsider turns to God but for a brief moment. Meeting an extremely violent end means that both Vilchin and the robber attain salvation. By opening with such a story Sólarljóð focuses on a person who might seem as far away from God’s grace as is possible. Still, this sinner is granted redemption and, indeed, immediate entry into Paradise. The robber has atoned through the unjust violence he endures, as well as the penitential state of his last gestures in life and the contrition he shows after his death. Although the last element is highly unusual, it does, as we shall see, play a role in Sólarljóð’s overall scheme. Sólarljóð highlights the penitential properties of violence as shown by two passages which revisit this theme. Stanzas 8–18 contain a lament of sorts that features a quasi-allegorical exemplum concerning the fickleness of fortune, the evil temptation of women, the distraction of love, the sin of pride, and the destructive nature of envy. In one of the poem’s longest stories (stanzas 20–24), Sõrli kills the brother of Vígolfr. Vígolfr suggests a truce-meeting where, it seems, wergild will change hands. But Vígolfr betrays and kills Sõrli and then conceals his crime by throwing his body into a well, but to no avail for ‘the lord saw it from heaven’ [‘dylja þeir vildu, en dróttinn sá / heilagr himni af’]. The conclusion of this section returns to the theme of the poem’s beginning – the slaying of an unsuspecting victim: Sál hans bað inn sanni guð í sinn fögnuð fara; en sökudólgar hygg ek síðla myni kallaðir frá kvölum. [The true God commanded his soul to journey into his joy; but I think that his enemies will be summoned late from torments.]

Near the poem’s end (stanza 74) this theme is repeated as the narrator tells how in Heaven he saw a wagon conducted by those men ‘who are murdered for no cause [lit. causes] at all’ [‘menn þeim stýra, er myrðir eru / alls fyrir öngvar sakir’]. Further, a mention is made of a place in Paradise where those killed unjustly reside. The efficacy of prayers and good works is highlighted but the narrator recognises that he ignored them in his lifetime. Rather, Hell had ensnared him (stanza 37). The depiction of Hell as exerting a concrete, physical, power in this world is worth noting: the ropes fetter the narrator and his soul seems destined for damnation:52


Quite fittingly, a similar imagery appears in a passage on the Feast of the Ascension in the Old Icelandic Homily Book in which the devil casts the sinner in fetters which prevents an heaven-ward ascension. Homiliu-Bók, 21.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Heljar reip kómu harðliga sveigð at síðum mér; slíta ek vilda, en þau seig váru; létt er lauss at fara. [The ropes of Hell came around my sides, powerfully twisted; I wanted to tear them but they were tough; it is easy to move unbound.]

In the subequent stanzas the narrator apprehends both visual and aural signs about the state of his own soul. The sun seems to bow down, flecked with blood, and grows larger, while he hears the roar from the gate or the abyss of Hell (‘Heljar grind’).53 The narrator ‘was then forcefully tilting out of this world’ [‘mjök var ek þá ór heimi hallr’] (stanza 44). He is shown Hell where souls of the damned assume the form of midges and suffer various tortures and humiliations, each commensurate to the sin committed. Stanzas 69–74 offer a glimpse of Heaven and introduce those who follow God’s law and dispense charity, honour their parents, practise asceticism or, in another reprise of the opening theme, are unjustly killed. At this juncture we might ask about the identity of the poem’s narrator and about the place from which he speaks. Stanza 78 seems to answer the first question, for the speaker introduces himself as the father of the poem’s recipient, who is his son (or ‘heir’, ‘arfi’). Thus the father seems to reveal the poem to his son from the beyond and, if the last stanza is deemed original, he does so through a dream-vision. As illustrated in stanza 35 the narrator is obviously a sinful man: Glaðr at mörgu þótta ek gumnum vera, þvít ek vissa fátt fyrir; dularheim hefir dróttinn skapat munafullan mjök. [I seemed to men to be happy at many a thing, because I knew little of what lay ahead; the Lord has created a world of delusion very full of pleasures.]

As seen, Harmsól emphasis the individual’s prudent, long-term, preparation for death. Although good deeds and the avoidance of sin are essential, the poem emphasises the importance of habitual confession which reduces the debt owed in the afterlife. What stands out in Sólarljóð – without minimising the importance of other thematic strands – is the abrupt wrenching from this world which precludes the necessary preparations for the afterlife. The narrator leaves this life early and recognises that he paid little heed to confession (stanza 50): Hörundar hungr tælir hölða opt; hann hefr margr til mikinn;


See the commentary in Poetry on Christian Subjects, Part 1, 322.


Confession and Penance laugavatn mér leiðast var eitt allra hluta. [The hunger of the flesh often entraps men; many a one possesses it in the extreme; washing water was alone to me most hateful of all things.]

Describing his moment of death the narrator beholds the sun in a terrified and grief-stricken state (stanza 43–44). The sun’s appearance reflects the narrator’s own frame of mind as he faces death without adequate preparation.54 In stanza 45 he acknowledges that he has not seen the sun since that day (‘sól ek sá síðan aldri / eptir þann dapra dag’). The sun signifies Christ and salvation which now, temporarily at least, recedes from his view. The narrator is neither sent to Hell nor allowed to enter Heaven but is granted a vision of both as his soul leaves the body (stanza 46): Vánarstjarna fló – þá var ek fæddr – burt frá brjósti mér; hátt at hon fló; hvergi hon settiz, svát hon mætti hvílð hafa. [A star of hope flew away from my breast; then I was born; it flew on high; nowhere did it come down so that it might rest.]

The equation of souls with stars is familiar in medieval thought, but here this celestial symbolism is a qualified expectation or hope (‘ván’). The narrator finds himself in an intermediate place between Heaven and Hell. It is through penance that he strives to reach his goal of atoning for his earthly sins in the afterlife. This sense seems to be pre-figured in an earlier stanza (29) where the narrator declares his determination to complete his journey: Síðla ek kom snemma kallaðr til dómsvalds dura; þangat til ætlumz; því mér heitit var; sá hefr krás, er krefr. [I came late, [I was] called early to the doors of the ruler of judgement; I intend to go there; that was promised to me; he who asks gets the delicacy.]

This journey in the afterlife is completed not only through contrition and penance but also the participation of those – kin and friends – who are left behind (stanza 48): Virði þat ok viti inn virki guð, sá er skóp hauðr ok himin,


Björn M. Ólsen, Sólarljóð, gefin út með skýringum og athugasemdum (Reykjavík: Prentsmiðjan Gutenberg, 1915), 43–4.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature hversu munaðarlausir margir fara, þótt við skylda skili. [May the precious God, who created earth and heaven, value and know that, how many journey loveless, through they part from their kin.]

This enigmatic stanza is arguably best understood as continuing the inversion theme in stanza 46, that is, of the narrator being born into death or another life which, of course, is a common Christian trope. Here, the dying person is left loveless (‘munaðarlaus’) by those who remain on earth. Family and friends fail to pray for souls which depart alone on their journey. A purgatorial state is directly addressed in stanza 56: Norðan sá ek ríða niðja sonu ok váru sjau saman; hornum fullum drukku þeir inn hreina mjöð ór brunni Baugreyris. [I saw the sons of the dark phases of the moon riding from the north, and they were seven together; they drank the pure mead from the well of Baugreyrir out of full horns.]

The scene is of the inhabitants of the purgatorial realm traversing from north to south where north represents the location of Hell and south the abode of salvation, Paradise and Christ; the identity of the seven men is, however, unclear. Put differently, the travellers are in a state of change which culminates in their drinking from the ‘well of Baugreyrir’ [‘brunni Baugreyris’], which is seemingly the font of salvation. Additionally, the riders are referred to as ‘niðja sonu’ which may be translated as ‘the sons of the dark phases of the moon’. If this interpretation is correct, the poem implies that the seven men are under the power of the waning moon or just prior to its emergence. The choice of comparisons is particularly apposite in light of the poem’s central imagery: the sun, signifying Christ, as the source of salvation. This imagery envisions those in Purgatory moving away from Hell (the north) to the Godhead (south) and from darkness (the absence of light or the partial moon) to the illumination through the rays of the sun (the full moon).55 Kindred imagery appears in the thirteenth-century Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar. There a man called Eyjólfr finds himself outside, where ‘he thought he saw so many moons as if they were stars, some were full, some were half, some more, some less, waxing and waning’ [‘Hann þóttisk sjá tungl svá mõrg sem stjõrnur væri, sum full, en sum hálf, sum meir, en sum minnr, vaxandi eða


Differing interpretations of this stanza have been put forward. To name but one, Njörður P. Njarðvík and Björn M. Ólsen argue that it refers to a Purgatory or limbo of a kind. Sólarljóð, ed. Njörður P. Njarðvík (Reykjavík: Bókmenntafræðistofnun Háskóla Íslands og Menningarsjóður, 1991), 87–8. Sólarljóð, ed. Björn M. Ólsen, 52–4.


Confession and Penance þverrandi’].56 A mysterious figure appears who recites a stanza which explains that these are souls in a state of flux between worlds (‘heima í milli’) which, as seen in Sólarljóð, represents a journey from north to south. It is tempting here to posit a link between Sólarljóð and Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar. Indeed a connection between the two texts is supported by another parallel. The second part of Eyjólfr’s stanza depicts the agonies suffered by the damned in Hell: ‘Spirits are tormented in the serpent’s maw. The strong sun shudders. I counsel you to waken.’ [‘Kveljask andir / í orms gini, / skelfr rammr rõðull, / ræð ek þér at vakna’]. The image of dragons or serpents mauling humans in Hell is familiar, but depiction of the shuddering sun is striking and is only found in one other Old Norse text, namely Sólarljóð stanza 43: Sól ek sá á sjónum skjálfandi hræzlufullr ok hnipinn, þvít hjarta mitt var harðla mjök runnit sundr í sega. [Terrified and cowed, I saw the sun, trembling in my eyes, for my heart had completely turned to shreds.]

In Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar the shuddering sun is associated with the terrible tortures of sinners in Hell but also, by implication, with the end of time which will consign the same sinners to infinite torments. Although interpretative challenges remain, Sólarljóð offers a sense of continuity between this life and the next. Whereas Harmsól relies primarily on a binary framework which is encapsulated in the story of Christ’s interaction with the two thieves at the Crucifixion, Sólarljóð extends the narrative to the other world and highlights how the sinner can still be saved even in the absence of regular confession and earthly penance. Indeed it is telling that Sólarljóð only mentions confession when the narrator acknowledges his neglect of this sacrament. The poem advises the living on how to avoid the narrator’s – the father’s – chosen path which leads him to a purgatorial state. In this way Sólarljóð shows kinship with the didactic elements of Harmsól. Sólarljóð, however, is distinctive in the way it adopts the perspective of someone who has already tumbled into the pitfalls of life. True, the sinner can advise his son on how to avoid these dangers, but above all it is he who requires earthly prayers to earn grace and progress towards salvation. Sólarljóð thus recognises the vicissitudes of one’s existence where piety, regular confessions and the ideal structure of religious life are either absent or ignored by the sinful. Even so, as Sólarljóð suggests in the opening tale, all is not lost; salvation can be attained at the last moment before death or, as in the case of the narrator, in the hereafter. The overwhelming impression is of salvation as a journey that encompasses this life and the next. The afterlife is an unfinished saga.


Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, 30.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature

Oddr Þórarinsson Biography, or a saga dedicated to one individual, was the dominant form of writing about contemporary or near-contemporary events in thirteenth-century Iceland. Sturla Þórðarson’s Íslendinga saga is the outstanding exception to this general trend. Forming the backbone of Sturlunga saga, the work narrates the history of Iceland from the twelfth century to the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth in 1262/1264. But Íslendinga saga pays specific attention to a handful of characters and especially members of his own family, the Sturlungar, who from the 1220s stood at the centre of Iceland’s ‘Civil War’ or Sturlungaöld, the ‘Age of the Sturlungs’. In this account the two most prominent personalities are Sighvatr Sturluson (c.1170–1238) and his son, Sturla Sighvatsson (1199–1238), whose contrasting preparations for the Battle of Örlygsstaðir in 1238 will be touched on in chapter 6. Along with this momentous battle and the notorious burning of Flugumýri in 1253, the death of Oddr Þórarinsson (born in 1230) is one of Íslendinga saga’s set-pieces. In 1254 Gizurr Þorvaldsson was summoned to the Norwegian court to explain his conduct. During his absence Gizurr vested his authority in north-western Iceland in Oddr Þórarinsson, a scion of the eastern family of Svínfellingar. Oddr proved himself to be an inexperienced actor on the political stage and he soon fell foul of two mighty chieftains of the time, Eyjólfr ofsi Þorsteinsson (1224–1255) and Hrafn Oddsson (1225–1289). Oddr planned a preventative attack but his movements were anticipated, and in early January of 1255 Hrafn and Eyjólfr ambushed this charismatic but raw chieftain. Sturla Þórðarson describes Oddr’s demise in considerable detail and with notable care; the episode extends to some four pages in the modern edition.57 We follow Hrafn and Eyjólfr and their retinues as they ride to Oddr’s farmstead, a journey punctuated by prophetic dreams and ominous signs. The attention shifts to Oddr who rests overnight at Geldingaholt in Skagafjörður. When Hrafn and Eyjólfr ofsi arrive with superior manpower, Oddr conducts a heroic stand but he is eventually captured. Íslendinga saga then relates the following: Ok þá mælti hann [Oddr]: “Prestsfund vilda ek í guðs nafni,” segir hann. Þetta heyrði Svarthöfði Dufgusson, – hann sat á kirkjustéttinni –, ok margir aðrir. Var þá unnit á Oddi. Nikulás Þórarinsson hjó í höfuð honum, ok var þat banasár. Hallbjörn hali Jónsson vann ok á honum. Lét Oddr þar líf sitt við mikla hreysti ok drengskap. Þá var lýst nökkut, er Oddr lést. Eigi flettu þeir hann. Var þá skotit skildi yfir líkit þar í túninu.58 [And then he [Oddr] spoke: ‘In God’s name I wish to see a priest,’ he said. This Svarthöfði Dufgusson heard, and many others, as he sat in the church57


Sturlunga saga 1, 512–15. Ibid., 516.


Confession and Penance porch. Oddr was then attacked. Nikulás Þórarinsson struck at his head and this caused a fatal wound. Hallbjörn hali Jónsson also attacked him. Oddr died there with great fortitude and honour. It had become somewhat light when Oddr died. They did not strip off his clothes. A shield was then placed over the body in the enclosure.]

Sturla focuses as much on Oddr’s brilliant defence as on his preparation for the afterlife, which includes a final plea to be shriven. Sturla chooses to quote Oddr’s words verbatim: ‘Prestsfund vilda ek í guðs nafni’ [‘In God’s name I wish to see a priest’]. This is a rare example of the use of direct speech in such circumstances. Further, we are specifically told that Svarthöfði Dufgusson, a prominent member of Hrafn Oddsson’s retinue, overheard Oddr’s pleading. Read in conjunction with the saga’s earlier mention that the previous night Oddr ‘sang and read the Psalter for a long time’ [‘söng lengi ok las saltara sinn’], the use of direct speech suggests that Sturla is keen to highlight Oddr’s concern about the afterlife. This fact that Sturla describes the curious burial arrangement that follows strengthens this conjecture: ‘Menn Odds fluttu líkama hans upp til Seylu – ok grafinn þar síðan undir kirkjugarðinum, – en þó var engi gröftr at þeiri kirkju –, ok svá langt inn undir kirkjugarðinn’ [‘Oddr’s men brought his body up to Seyla – and he was buried there just outside the church wall, even though no burials were allowed at the church’].59 Thus Oddr is denied rest in a hallowed ground and his followers are forced to place his earthly remains as close as possible to the church’s enclosure. Here one recalls the famous reburial of Egill Skallagrímsson’s earthly remains as described in his saga. When a new church was built at Mosfell the local priest found a skull beneath the altar which, due to its size, was believed to be Egill’s.60 Egils saga relates that when Christianity arrived in the region Egill’s adopted daughter, Þórdís, had moved his remains from a pagan grave to the newly erected church. This act resonates with the attitude already addressed in which, according to the saga authors, the first Christians thought their control of sacred spaces translated into power over damnation and salvation. In Heiðarvíga saga and Eyrbyggja saga this space corresponded to the size of the church, whilst in Egils saga it involved burying a person who had only received pre-baptism or prima signatio (prímsigning) in the church’s most holy place. But a century and a half later there was, of course, no chance for Egill’s remains to be allowed to rest in hallowed ground. Instead Egill was reburied by the edge

Sturlunga saga 1, 516. I have discussed the case of Oddr Snorrason’s burial in Haki Antonsson, ‘Árna saga biskups as Literature and History’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116:3 (2017), 268–72. 60 ÍF 2, 298–9. 59


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature of the churchyard at Mosfell.61 The woman in ‘Hugi’s Vision’ would certainly have been partial to this transfer.62 Oddr was buried at the graveyard’s perimeter because he died as an excommunicant. Oddr’s quarrel with Eyjólfr ofsi had soured his relations with Heinrekr Kársson of Hólar. The Norwegian bishop was a staunch royalist who expected Eyjólfr to further King Hákon’s interests in Iceland. In the autumn of 1253 Eyjólfr had orchestrated the burning of Flugumýri, the farmstead of Oddr’s ally, Gizurr Þorvaldsson, and Oddr retaliated by killing some of Eyjólfr’s associates. This set Oddr on a direct collision course with Heinrekr whose support for the arsonists of Flugumýri was revealed when he agreed to hear their confession at Hólar.63 On 8 September 1254 the bishop excommunicated Oddr for refusing to pay a fine for what the bishop considered an illegal appropriation of livestock. The animals had belonged to a farmer who, according to a judgment at the Althing, had known about the conspiracy to attack Gizurr at Flugumýri. A few days later Oddr effectively occupied Hólar and imprisoned Heinrekr.64 Although the farmers of the region soon negotiated the bishop’s release, Oddr now incurred a double ban: a violent act against a bishop along with an appropriation or spoliation of Church property meant ipso facto excommunication. All things considered, Oddr Þórarinsson’s posthumous fate should have been as gloomy as that of his follower who, during the occupation of Hólar, had dared to question Heinrekr’s favourable stance towards the arsonists of Flugumýri. The bishop retorted that he only regretted ‘that your soul will burn in Hell, and this is what you wish and that is worse’ [‘at sál þín skal brenna í helvíti, ok viltu þat, því er verr’].65 Íslendinga saga prepares us for Oddr’s death by highlighting issues of damnation and salvation. The year before his death Oddr Þórarinsson had attacked Hrani Koðránsson, one of his principal enemies and a major participant in the burning of Flugumýri. Íslendinga saga describes how Hrani and other 61


63 64


Grágás stipulates that unbaptised infants who had received prima signatio should be buried at the edge of the churchyard. This is the status allotted to the reburied Egill. See Fjodor Uspenskij, ‘The Baptism of Bones and Prima Signatio in Medieval Scandinavia and Rus’, in Between Paganism and Christianity in the North, ed. Leszek P. Slupecki and Jakub Morawiec (Rzeszów: Wydawn. Uniwersytetu Rzeszowskiego, 2009), 17–18. In 1284 a certain Bjõrn Dufgusson seized the church farm of Hjarðarholt contrary to the wishes of Bishop Árni Þorláksson, an act for which Bjõrn was duly excommunicated. Five years later Hjarðarholt was returned to ecclesiastical control (ÍF17, 194). In the meantime, however, Bjõrn Dufgusson had died and been buried in a churchyard. When Árni visited Hjarðarholt he had men swear that Bjõrn had on his deathbed accepted the bishop’s cause and so repented for the sins he had committed against the Church. This late penance sufficed for Árni along with the abbot of Þykkvibær exhumed Bjõrn and annulled his excommunication. Thereafter Árni ritually purified the whole cemetery from the pollution caused by Bjõrn’s bones. Ibid., 269. Sturlunga saga 1, 494. Ibid., 506–8. Ibid., 508.


Confession and Penance participants in the atrocity fled to Flatey but that they were eventually confronted by Oddr and his men. Following a valiant defence Hrani found himself alone on a boat and desperately fending off the attackers. Hrani asked for the service of a priest which was granted.66 After confessing his sins Hrani raised himself up in a highly emotional or tearful state (‘hafði mjök við komizt’). He then addressed his foes with the following words: ‘“Vera má,” segir hann, “at yðr þykki eigi karlmannliga við orðit minnar handar. En mik má mjög ugga, at eigi sé vís gistingin, sú er mér gegni.”’ [‘“It may be,” he said, “that you do not consider it manly how I reacted. But I fear that the accommodation which awaits me is uncertain.”’].67 Hrani retrieved his weapon and fought valiantly to the end. This leads into the death of Oddr at Geldingaholt and so we are invited to compare the two episodes. Both manifestly feature memorable feats of arms and superhuman fortitude. The differences, however, are telling. Whereas Oddr allows Hrani confession, he is denied the same for himself. More importantly, Hrani’s utterance might be read as an ironic utterance were it not for his emotional state of mind. Sturla Þórðarson here foreshadows the penitential mood that is of such crucial significance in his portrayal of Oddr Þórarinsson’s last stand. Further, Hrani’s short speech verbalises the anxiety which accompanies the act of confession and penance: is the soul destined for Heaven, Hell or the intermediate phase where all remaining sins are atoned for through temporary purgation? Regardless of his bravado and almost martyr-like stoical stance, Hrani is in the dark about the fate that will soon befall him. Oddr Þórarinsson’s death scene now comes into finer focus. The underlying question is how an excommunicated individual can even hope for salvation. With final confession denied redemption must be sought elsewhere. The sinner’s state of mind in his last hours is most significant here. First consider the statement that Oddr ‘slept little during the night and sang and read his Psalter for a long time’ [‘svaf lítit um nóttina ok söng lengi ok las saltara sinn’].68 The reading or reciting the Psalter was considered an effective way for the laity to commune with God without an ecclesiastical intermediary. The Psalms were seen as King David’s praise poems and pleadings to God, and so a public recital of them engages in a ritualised, dramatic performance.69 The emphasis is on a direct relationship with God through David, the penitential king, so that the audience recognises the sinner’s sincere contrition. An appreciation of Íslendinga saga’s depiction of Oddr Þórarinsson’s death-scene relies on two factors. The first is Oddr’s double excommunication. The second is the performative dimension to his death. But to further illuminate Oddr’s penitential behaviour yet another Sturlunga saga 1, 504–5. Ibid. 68 Ibid., 513. 69 Annie Sutherland, ‘Performing the Penitential Psalms in the Middle Ages’, in Aspects of the Performative in Medieval Culture, ed. Manuele Gragnolati and Almut Suerbaum (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 15–37. For the penitential Psalms see Michael Driscoll, ‘The Seven Penitential Psalms: Their Designation and Usage from the Middle Ages Onwards’, Ecclesia Orans 17 (2000), 153–201. 66 67


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature element must be brought into play. This concerns the historical context in which Sturla wrote this scene around 1280. In the summer of 1277 the archbishop of Niðaróss sent a letter to Iceland’s bishops, Árni Þorláksson of Skálholt and Jõrundr Þorsteinsson of Hólar, which summoned them to a synod in Bergen in two years’ time. The letter, which is summarised in Árna saga biskups, also addressed the issue of Oddr Þórarinsson’s posthumous fate. The pope had decreed that Oddr was absolved of his excommunication and, it followed, he could now be buried in holy ground.70 Prominent and wealthy people must have stood behind the effort to lift Oddr’s double excommunication after his death. We do not know for sure the identity of this patron or patrons. Oddr’s widow, Randalín Philippusdóttir, is certainly a possible candiate. In 1279 Randalín was still living at Valþjófsstaðir, an important farmstead in eastern Iceland. Another possible backer is Oddr’s brother, Þorvarðr Þórarinsson, whom we shall encounter in a different context in chapter 3. In 1273 King Magnús Hákonarson had given royal authority in Iceland to the two great survivors of the Sturlung Age. One was Þorvarðr who became the king’s man in the Southern and Western Quarters. The other was Hrafn Oddsson who had accompanied Eyjólfr ofsi Þorsteinsson in ambushing and killing Oddr Þórarinsson. Thus in 1279 Iceland’s most powerful men were in some way involved with Oddr’s death that had occurred more than two decades earlier. We can only speculate about how Oddr’s posthumous fate played into the politics of the time. Although the rehabilitation of Oddr’s soul is unlikely to have been a priority for Hrafn Oddsson, nothing indicates that the issue was advocated against his wishes. In fact Hrafn, along with Randalín, later rendered a considerable fortune to the bishopric of Hólar to cover the outstanding worldly debt that Oddr had owed at the time of his death. It may be that Hrafn and Oddr had planned the papal petition, perhaps during their stay in 1273 at the court of King Magnús Hákonarson. This would have been a gesture of reconciliation of sorts; although Þorvarðr Þórarinsson had defeated Hrafn at the Battle of Þverá, Oddr’s killing had never been adequately settled. Understanding the intricacies of the politics involved is not essential for our purpose. The main point is that Íslendinga saga’s account of Oddr Þórarinsson’s final hours would have been topical at the time of writing. Sturla Þórðarson’s description bore directly on how Oddr’s death was remembered and, by the same token, how his fate in the afterlife would be viewed. The archbishop’s letter claims that two witnesses swore they had heard Oddr requesting a priest before his execution. One of the stated witnesses is Svarthöfði Dufgusson who reportedly hears Oddr’s plea to be shriven. It now becomes apparent why Sturla resorted to direct speech at this instance; no one should be in any doubt that Oddr had asked for the service of a priest. An investigation and procedure of this kind was in tune with ‘the new moral theology of the later twelfth century, [in which] contrition was the pellucidly clear criterion which distinguished the sinful but penitent from the utterly 70

ÍF 25:3, 56–67.


Confession and Penance unregenerate’.71 The gist of the petition sent to the papacy, as far as can be gleaned from Árna saga biskups, adheres to the same principle. It was an apologia for Oddr Þórarinsson which argued that he had met his end in a penitential state. Such contrition is performative in the sense that the audience must interpret the penitent’s frame of mind by observing his words and gestures. This accounts for Sturla Þórðarson’s careful description of Oddr’s singing of the Psalter during the night, his request to be shriven the following day, and the identity of the person who heard him do so. The issue at stake could not be more serious; on such details hinged the fate of the soul in the afterlife. In the late summer of 1279 the two Icelandic bishops gathered at Seyla where, some quarter of a century earlier, Oddr Þórarinsson had been buried by the cemetery wall. Two years had elapsed since they had received the archbishop’s letter about Oddr’s papal absolution. Bishop Jõrundr of Hólar, as Árna saga biskups describes, still had reservations about the whole affair. Even at this late stage he attempted to stall the proceedings. Árna saga does not explain Jörundr’s stance but, again, there may have been deep political undercurrents at play. Furthermore, Jõrundr may have been reluctant to lift an excommunication handed down by one of his predecessors. If a person left this world in a state of damnation, then surely the same was hell-bound without hope of parole or pardon? Christ had descended into Hell between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and from there liberated pagans worthy of redemption. But this had been a unique event and, in any case, Christ had not delivered those who deserved eternal damnation. What Bishop Jõrundr, as portrayed in Árna saga, missed, or chose to ignore, was that there had been a shift in the Church’s stance towards those who died in a state of excommunication. In the first half of the thirteenth century the papacy abandoned its long-held policy that certain damnation awaited those who died as excommunicants. Now it was recognised that excommunication simply delayed atonement in the afterlife as it rendered void the prayers of the living for the dead. With the excommunication lifted, and a suitable payment rendered by the living, the dead person could now progress on his or her journey towards redemption. Quite appropriately, therefore, the stand-off at Seyla between the bishop of Hólar and Skálholt was resolved when Árni Þorláksson produced a decretal of Innocent III which revealed these important changes.72 The clinching factor was likely the pope’s decretal of 1199 which addresses the absolution of the dead. It instructs that an absolution can be granted if two criteria are met: the excommunicated person must have shown obvious signs of contrition before dying, and earthly satisfaction (i.e. money) had to be rendered to the Church Carl Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 182. 72 ÍF 25:3 114. Árna saga tells that following his episcopal consecration Árni received a gift of ‘decretalis cum apparatus’ from Archbishop Jón rauði. ÍF17, 13. This text is plausibly the so-called Liber Extra of Gregorius IX. Sigurðr Líndal, ‘Um þekkingu Íslendinga á rómverskum og kanónískum rétti frá 12. öld til miðrar 16. aldar’, Úlfljótur. Afmælisrit – 50 ára 50 (1997), 254. 71


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature by those concerned for the salvation of the deceased.73 Bishop Jõrundr finally relented and Oddr’s remains were exhumed and absolved of his outstanding issues with the Church at the time of his death. Árni then transported the bones to Skálholt where the bishop buried them with some ceremony. The case of Oddr Þórarinsson reveals the manifold ways in which the afterlife might play an important and tangible part in the affairs of thirteenth-century Icelanders. What at first sight seemed to be Sturla Þórðarson’s carefully stylised depiction of Oddr’s death turns out to have been a matter that still resonated at the time of composition. Politics aside, the issue was the posthumous fate of Oddr who, dying an excommunicate, seemed destined to suffer in Hell for all eternity. Absolved by the papacy and the rituals performed by the Icelandic bishops, his trajectory towards salvation could now proceed with the aid of the living. As touched on earlier, to facilitate this journey Randalín Filippusdóttir, his wealthy widow, donated all her gold to the bishopric of Skálholt so that masses could be sung for his soul.74 The remembering, and in the process reshaping, of the memory of her husband’s death through saga accounts, oral testimonies and legal petitions had given him, so to speak, a new lease of life. For more than two decades, however, his fate, as perceived from the perspective of the living, had hung in the balance. As Sólarljóð so vividly illustrates, the purgatorial state extended the individual’s saga into the afterlife.

Gísls þáttr Illugasonar The themes of salvation, Purgatory and penance coalesce in Gísls þáttr Illugasonar.75 This short saga is preserved in two principal versions. One appears in the late-thirteenth-century Kings’ saga, Hulda-Hrokkinskinna.76 Gísls þáttr also features in renderings of Jóns saga Õgmundarsonar, the hagiographic saga about the first bishop of Hólar (1106–1121).77 My analysis will focus on the Hulda-Hrokinskinna version of Gísls þáttr Illugasonar.




76 77

Elisabeth Vodola, Excommunication in the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 44–5; 156. Interestingly, the ‘Oldest Church Law’ in Grágás stipulates that should a man attempt to commit suicide but repent of his actions before dying, he can be absolved and buried in holy ground. And should no priest be at hand, those present should gauge the penitential mood of the dying person for the purpose of his or her later absolution. Grágás 1, 12. ÍF17, 75. Two fine separate studies of Gísls þáttr have focused on the issue of dispute of revenge. Magnús Fjalldal, ‘Um Gísls þáttr Illugasonar’, Skírnir 160 (1986), 153–66. Marlene Ciklamini, ‘The Literary Perspective of Gísl Illugason’s Quest for Blood Revenge’, Scandinavian Studies 38 (1966), 204–16. ÍF 3, 331–42. A version of Jóns saga dates to the thirteenth century, and another was written in the early fourteenth century, most likely by Árni Lárentíusson (born 1304) of Þingeyrar abbey. These Old Norse redactions are primarily based on a Latin biography written by Gunnlaugr Leifsson around the turn of the thirteenth century.


Confession and Penance This version of Gísls þáttr Illugasonar begins with Gísl, a seventeen-year-old Icelander, arriving in Niðaróss (Nidaros) where King Magnús berfœttr Óláfsson (1093–1103) and his court reside. Gísl tells the keeper of the inn where he is staying that he intends to avenge his father who had been killed by Gjafaldr, a well-respected courtier. In a vividly described scene Gísl wounds Gjafaldr as the king’s retinue passes through the town. The Icelander escapes but he is soon caught and thrown into a royal dungeon. The focus now shifts to other Icelanders in Niðaróss. Three Icelandic ships are docked in the harbour with no fewer than three hundred men, including Teitr the son of Bishop Gizurr Ísleifsson of Skálholt (1082–1118). Jón Õgmundarson, the saint and future bishop of Hólar who at the time was still a priest, was in town visiting the bishop of Niðaróss. The king orders Gísl’s immediate hanging but the Icelander obtains temporary reprieve when church bells ring in Holy Weekend. The bishop explains that executions should not take place during this sacred hour. The following day the mortally wounded Gjafaldr asks the king to pardon Gísl for the killing. Gjafaldr had heard from an unidentified ecclesiastic that his soul was imperilled should he fail to atone for his greater sins. Gjafaldr claims he can only atone by pardoning sin that has been committed against him: ‘Nú vænti ek þess herra, at eigi munir þú byrgja svá fyrir mér himinríki at sjá sé dauðamaður’ [‘Now I expect, lord, that you do not block me from heaven so that I will become a damned man’].78 The king’s answer is non-committal and Gjafaldr dies. Teitr Ísleifsson, who had led an attempt to rescue Gísl from jail, is now captured along with all the Icelanders in his party. The þáttr’s central episode takes place at an assembly summoned by King Magnús where the fate of the Icelanders hangs in the balance. Sigurðr ullstrengr, a prominent courtier, delivers an uncompromising speech in which he calls for ten Icelanders to be put to the sword for every Norwegian killed. Teitr Ísleifsson asks for a permission to speak but the king tells him to keep quiet. However, Magnús allows Jón Õgmundarson to address the assembly. The ensuing speech is worth citing in full: “Guði er þat at þakka, at lõndin eru kristin orðin, Nóregr ok Ísland, því at áðr óðu saman menn ok fjandr, en nú gengr fjandinn eigu svá djarfliga í sýn við menn; fær hann nú menn til at bera fram sín ørendi, sem skammt er á at minnask, at fjandinn mælti fyrir munn þessum, er nú talaði; var fyrst veginn maðrinn einn, en síðan fýsti hann, at drepa skyldi tíu; ok þat hygg ek, at slíkir menn muni mest at vinna í sinni illgirnð ok vándum fortõlum at eyða réttlæti ok miskunn ok õðrum góðum siðum hõfðingjanna, en hvetja þá ok hvessa til grimmðar ok glœpa ok gleðja svá fjandann í kristinna manna drápi. En jafnt er vér, herra konungr, þínir þegnar sem þeir, er hér eru innanlands; skyldu þér at því hyggja, er settir eruð hér í heiminum hõfðingjar ok dómendr yfir fólkinu, at þér berið merking þess dómandans, er koma mun at efsta dómi at dœma alla verõldina. Nú mun yðr, herra, mikit við liggja, at þér dœmið rétta dóma, en eigi ranga, því at til hvers þings ok móts kemr sjálfr almáttigr guð ok hans helgir men; vitjar guð góðra manna ok réttra dóma; svá kemr ok 78

ÍF 3, 335.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature fjandinn ok hans árar at vitja vándra manna verka ok rangra dóma; ok útan ef mun sá dómandi koma um síðir, er alla hluti mun rétt dœma. Hyggið at nú, herra konungr, hvárr eldrinn mun vera heitari ok langæri, sá lagðr er í eikstokkinn, eða hinn, sem kveiktr er í þurru limi. Nú ef þú, konungr, dœmir ranga dóma, þá mun þér orpit í þann eldinn, er í eikistokkinn er lagðr, en ef þú dœmir rétta dóma eptir þínu viti, þá er þá ván, at þú skírir þik í hreinsanareldi þeim, er af þurru limi er gõrr.”79 [‘God is to be thanked that Norway and Iceland are now Christian because formerly men and devils mingled together. Now, however, the devil is not so freely in the sight of men and he employs men to do his bidding. As we witnessed not long ago, the devil spoke through the mouth that now speaks. When one man was killed he wished to have ten men killed. It is my opinion that such men will achieve, with their badness and evil arguments, the destruction of justice and mercy and other good customs of lords. They exhort and incite them to commit evil and crimes and so gladden the devil with the killings of Christians. But, my king, we are equally your subjects as those who live in this country [i.e. Norway]. You who are placed in this world as lords and judges over people, should always bear in mind that you represent the judge who will come at the Last Judgement to judge the universe. Now much depends, lord, on your right judgements and not wrong ones, because Almighty God Himself and his saints are present at all meetings and assemblies. God visits the correct judgements of good people, just as the devil and his minions visit the workings of evil men and their bad judgements. And without doubt the Judge shall eventually arrive who will judge all things correctly. Consider, lord king, which fire will be hotter and burn longer, the one that is placed in oak stock or the one that is kindled from dry twigs. Now if you, king, judge wrongly you shall be cast into the fire that is in oak stock. But if you judge correctly, according to your wisdom, there is hope that you purge yourself in the fire made from the dry twigs.’]

Jón Õgmundarson’s main role in the ‘Kings’ saga version’ of Gísls þáttr Illugasonar is to deliver this admonitory address.80 This address is constructed around a sequence of juxtapositions: Norway versus Iceland; Christian versus pre-Christian; God’s judgment versus the devil’s; one Norwegian versus ten Icelanders; justice versus injustice; damnation versus salvation; and perhaps most important of all, Hell in juxtaposition with Purgatory. The speech, like the þáttr as a whole, neither focuses on Gísl’s justification for exacting vengeance 79


Ibid., 339–40. Not surprisingly in the Jóns saga version greater emphasis is placed on the bishop, whereas Gísl recedes somewhat into the background. This is shown by the different beginnings of the two versions. Whereas the former commences with Gísl coming to Niðaróss to kill a Norwegian, the latter begins with Jón visiting the town as a pilgrim to St Óláfr’s shrine. In the ‘Jóns saga version’ Gísl is sentenced to hanging from which he is saved through Jón’s miraculous intervention. No such episode features in the Hulda-Hrokkinskinna version. Otherwise the central themes of penance, forgiveness and salvation are central to both representations of Gísls þáttr Illugasonar.


Confession and Penance nor a tension between ‘heroic’ and Christian ethics. Rather, Jón Õgmundarson’s set-piece exemplifies the guiding theme of Gísls þáttr Illugasonar, namely the nature of the penance required in this life for attaining salvation. The first state in the development of this theme occurs when the ringing of church bells not only saves Gísl from execution but prevents the king from committing an unjust act. The incident plants a seed of doubt in King Magnús’s mind about the justice of executing the Icelander. The ringing for the hour of the none (about three on a Friday) rings in the weekend, where the holiness of Saturday (from about midday) represents the ‘peace that just men experience between their death to the Resurrection’ [‘Eycþar helge a þvatdag merker þa huíld es ander retlatra manna hafa fra andláz dag sínom til enar efsto upvriso’].81 This theme – the fate of the soul between death and the Last Judgement – will occupy the king and his three courtiers for the remainder of the þáttr. As mentioned, Gjafaldr asks the king to repay him for loyal service by pardoning Gísl. This request fuses giving in this life with receiving in the next: Gjafaldr’s pardoning of Gísl renders God the penance owed so that he may hope for Paradise or, alternatively, a lighter retribution in Purgatory. But for this to happen Gjafaldr must collect whatever debt the king may feel he owed the courtier for his past service. The scene thus prefigures Jón’s speech which stresses the clearing of large debts of sins in this life so that eternal life can be attained through paying minor ones in the beyond. It is probably not a coincidence that this scene takes place on the following Sunday, the day of deliverance and salvation.82 The attention now shifts to the king’s prospect of salvation. Magnús’s pardoning of Gísl not only repays Gjafaldr his faithful service, but also foreshadows God’s eventual judgement of the king when he faces his mortality. This connects with Jón Õgmundarson’s speech which describes how the king’s judicial role mirrors God’s power over the dead (‘þér berið merking þess dómandans...’). Magnús not only pardons Gísl but also offers him Gjafaldr’s former place at court. The king aims not to denigrate the deceased courtier but to aid his own prospects in the afterlife. The underlying idea is the equation of the king’s authority with divine authority and the earthly court reflecting the celestial one: the king’s (or the judge’s) justice and mercy should mirror God’s.83 Gísl now assumes Gjafaldr’s position in the former whereas Gjafaldr (presumably) attains a place in Heaven. Gísl’s arrival stirs Gjafaldr into a belated but potent penance for his sins. This focuses on his suffering before death and, above all, the pardoning of his assailant. In turn Gjafaldr’s case, along with Jón’s intervention, awakens King Homiliu-Bók, 28. On the symbolic dimension of medieval church bell ringing see John H. Arnold and Caroline Goodson, ‘Resounding Community: The History and Meaning of Medieval Church Bells’, Viator 43:1 (2012), 118–24. 82 See the discussion of the significance of Sunday in Homiliu-Bók, 25–8. 83 This notion is, for instance, addressed in Alcuin’s De virtutibus et vitiis liber which was translated early into Old Norse. Gamal Norsk Homiliebok, 19–20. Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, ‘Prose of Christian Instruction’, in A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, ed. Rory McTurk, 2nd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 347. 81


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Magnús’s concern about his uncertain posthumous destiny. Jón Õgmundarson had explained that although Magnús will not immediately attain Paradise, he can still atone for minor sins in Purgatory. Jón’s speech delineates the options at King Magnús’s disposal: a long time in Purgatory or a shorter one should he choose the path of justice. The granting of Gjafaldr’s wish signifies the king’s first step to clear his accounts, but he knows that more is required. Magnús discerns that Jón Õgmundarson is a holy man whose prayer will be beneficial in his quest for salvation, stating, ‘Vel virðisk mér þitt formæli; hefir þú af guðs hálfu talat; vilda ek gjarna vera undir þínum bœnum, því at þær munu mikit mega við guð, því at ek trúi, at saman fari guðs vili ok þinn’ [‘Your presentation is good. You have spoken on God’s behalf. I would like to be under your prayers for they will have great influence with God. I believe your will and God’s are alike.’].84 Finally, the examples set by Gjafaldr and King Magnús also affect Sigurðr ullarstrengr, the bullish ‘evil courtier’ who had proposed executing ten Icelanders in retaliation for Gjafaldr’s assassination. The þáttr concludes with Sigurðr falling ill and greeting the visiting Jón with the words: ‘Eigi veit ek, prestr, nema orðin þín hafi bitit mik, því at ek em sjúkr og vilda ek, at þú syngir yfir mér’ [‘I do not know, priest, but that your words have affected me because now I am sick, and I wish you would pray for me.’].85 Sigurðr suggests that Jón’s words at the assembly had prompted his illness. There Jón had indeed implied that Sigurðr had become, at least temporarily, the devil’s instrument. Thus not only penance is required but also an exorcism of a kind. Following Jón’s visit Sigurðr exclaims, ‘Mikit megu orð þín, bæði hõrð ok góð, því að nú er mér gott’ [‘Your words are of great benefit, both the harsh and the fine ones, because now I feel better’].86 Atoning for his grievous sins Sigurðr presents Jón with gifts but, more importantly, he finances the first monastery in (or rather near) Niðaróss. In the abstract Gísls þáttr Illugasonar is an exemplum which focuses on the role of Purgatory in attaining salvation. Actions in this life will have consequences in the next; everyone, even a king and his courtier, must atone for their major sins while the minor ones can be accounted for in Purgatory. Through the three Norwegians – King Magnús, Gjafaldr and Sigurðr – Gísls þáttr Illugasonar touches on a strikingly broad range of issues relating to penance and purgation. The king understands that for the furtherance of his soul his execution of justice should mirror God’s, whereas Gjafaldr’s pardoning of Gísl on his own death-bed serves as his atonement. Also facing imminent death is the seemingly damned Sigurðr who, like the robber in Sólarljóð, reverses his direction at the last possible moment. Sigurðr’s parting gesture is his founding of a monastery in which, the reader must conclude, the brothers will pray for his soul in perpetuity.


ÍF 3, 341. Ibid. 86 Ibid. 85


Confession and Penance The issue of salvation is tightly woven into a short narrative which seemingly corresponds fairly closely to the classical pattern of a þáttr.87 But on closer examination we note how the normal expectations and narrative strategies of the genre are manipulated and even undermined. Thus the protagonist’s sole achievement is to kill Gjafaldr on a busy street in Niðaróss; ironically, whatever the past sins of the Norwegian, it is Gísl who commits the þáttr’s one serious transgression. Thereafter Gísl’s fate is out of his own hands as the focus shifts towards the salvation concerns of the king and his courtiers. There is also a sense of ironic undermining of tradition when Gísl, in the time-honoured way of the skald in trouble, attempts to save his life by reciting a poem in praise of the king. Magnús grants the request but the author then comments that he ‘performed the poem with confidence but it did not have much literary value’ [‘Hann flutti kvæðit skõrulega, en ekki var þar mikill skáldskapr í því kvæði]’.88 Gísl’s pardoning and his subsequent elevation to courtly status are due to Jón Õgmundarson’s holiness and the belated concern of the three Norwegians for the fate of their souls. So they, rather than Gísl, are the main beneficiaries of the events he unwittingly sets in motion when he avenges his father. Gísls þáttr Illugasonar pulls off an impressive feat, namely to narrate a fast-paced short story of a dispute that doubles as a meditation on atonement, Purgatory and the aid which the living may offer the dead.


The classic study of the structure of þættir is Joseph Harris, ‘Genre and Narrative Structure in some Íslendinga Þættir’, Scandinavian Studies 44 (1972), 1–27. 88 ÍF 3, 340–1.


N 2 n Life’s Journey towards Salvation: Salvation and the Biographical Pattern Sigurðr slembidjákn Magnússon – Eiríkr góði Knútsson – Brandr Kolbeinsson Ívarr Ingimundarson’s poem Sigurðarbálkr tells the story of its hero, the Norwegian pretender, Sigurðr slembidjákn Magnússon, from his early years until his capture, torture and death in 1139 at the Battle of Hólm in grá (Holmengrå). The poem includes forty-five stanzas in the fornyrðislag metre and features almost in its entirety in Morkinskinna. According to Snorri Sturluson’s Skáldatal, Ívarr Ingimundarson composed poetry about King Magnús berfœttr Óláfsson, Eysteinn Magnússon and Sigurðr Jórsalafari, but these works have not survived.1 The first stanza, of which only a single line remains, explains that Sigurðr was raised by Aðalbriktr who, according to Morkinskinna’s prose, was a priest in southern Norway. The saga also relates that Sigurðr’s father was King Magnús berfœttr and that he became a deacon. This information may have appeared in the lost lines of the opening stanza. Stanzas 2 to 6 recount how Sigurðr joined the military retinue of Earl Haraldr Hákonarson of Orkney (d. 1131) and subsequently that of King David of Scotland (1124–53). Stanzas 9 and 10 then focus on Sigurðr’s pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem: Vann Róms gõtu ræsir Þrœnda fœti farna, sás frama drýgði. Sótti síðan ok synðum hrauð hers oddviti helga dóma. [The ruler of the Þrœndir who increased his honour, travelled the road to Rome on foot. Then the leader of the army visited holy shrines and expiated his sins.] Sótti breiða borg Jórsala õrr oddviti út í lõndum, áðr í vatni, þvís vígði guð, Sigurðr af sér synðir þvægi. 1

Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300, ed. Kari Ellen Gade (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 501–27.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature [The brave leader visited the large city of Jerusalem in distant lands, before Sigurðr washed away his sins in the water which God had consecrated.]

Sigurðr’s expiation of his sins in the River Jordan evokes King Sigurðr Jórsalafari’s earlier and more famous immersion in the same waters.2 But Sigurðr’s spiritual cleansing should not merely be read as a high-profile atonement for past misdemeanours. In the subsequent stanza the attention shifts abruptly to Sigurðr performing an ordeal, overseen by no fewer than five bishops, to demonstrate his royal paternity. The impression given is that the pilgrimage was an act of purification in preparation for the ordeal.3 Sigurðr successfully proved his paternity but had less luck establishing himself as a king in Norway. Sigurðarbálkr recognises that although some accepted his claim there were others who did not. Also noteworthy is the fact that Ívarr Ingimundarson sidesteps a central event in Sigurðr’s life, his killing of King Haraldr gilli Magnússon in Bergen in 1136. This deed of fratricide – should one accept Haraldr’s and Sigurðr’s dynastic claims – was arguably of such a serious nature that it was omitted from a poem that argued for Sigurðr’s salvation. Instead the spotlight is firmly on Sigurðr’s gruesome death after his defeat by the supporters of King Ingi (1136–61). Sigurðr’s defeat is explained by the size of his small force in contrast with his enemies’ impressive fleet (‘mikit lið’). Sigurðr’s prospects are further depleted by the desertion of sixteen of his allied (Danish) ships (stanza 40). He attempts to escape but is caught and tortured to death (stanzas 41–5). There is a description of Sigurðr’s behaviour during his ordeal (stanza 44): Sõng saltara, meðan Sigurð pínðu jõfurs óvinir, ýta dróttinn. Bað fyr brõgnum bõðfrœkn jõfurr, þeims vellskata veittu píslir. [The lord of men sang the psalter while the prince’s enemies tortured Sigurðr. The battle-brave prince prayed for the men who inflicted torments upon the generous chieftain.]

2 3

ÍF 28, 249. This interpretation is supported by an episode in the later Sverris saga (written just after 1200) which also associates the ritual of the ordeal with immersion in the Holy River. There a certain Eiríkr Sigurðarson submits himself to an ordeal to prove that he is King Sigurðr munnr’s son and therefore Sverrir’s legitimate brother and rightful coheir to the throne. But before promoting his claim in Norway, Eiríkr travelled to the Holy Land and bathed in the River Jordan. Eiríkr combined this purifying ritual with a trial by fire of sorts: he entered the holy water carrying a candle and proclaimed that his royal parentage would be established should it still burn when he emerged from the river. That saga recounts that Eiríkr’s followers reported that this is what happened (ÍF 30, 92). Here, as in Sigurðarbálkr, a show of blue blood combines with a penitential journey to the East.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation In one sense Sigurðr’s singing of the Psalter is a gesture of bravado in the fashion of Gunnarr’s lyre playing in the snake-pit in Atlakviða. But the following stanza, which concludes Sigurðarbálkr, brings the scene into finer focus: Frák, at léti líf sitt konungr, þás saltara sungit hafði. Vildi ganga gramr til skriptar, en því þjóðkonungr þeygi náði. [I heard that the king gave up his life when he had sung the psalter. The lord wished to be shriven, but the mighty king by no means achieved that.]

The singing of the Psalms is a penitential act in the absence of forgiveness for sins acknowledged. Thus Sigurðr’s martyr-like end does not signify his sanctity, rather his conduct before death compensates for the absence of formal confession. In his Gesta Danorum (composed c.1200), Saxo Grammaticus describes how Sigurðr confessed to a layman: as no priest could be brought to hear him confess his sins, he divulged them in the permitted manner to those standing nearby, after stating that in repentance he would carry out whatever penance they decided on, for he was well aware that if no priestly assistance was available, he was allowed to refer his transgressions to the examination of laymen.4

Saxo adds that Sigurðr’s penance through fortitude and bravery should be upheld as an example to the Danish clergy.5 In Gesta Danorum, like in Sigurðarbálkr, Sigurðr’s contrition and penance is expressed through his death by torture. And like in the case of Oddr Þórarinsson we note the importance of the performative element in staging the ‘good death’. The audience – both the listener/reader and those witnessing the scene – must observe the hero end his life in a sincerely penitent frame of mind. Sigurðarbálkr seeks to illustrate and argue for the protagonist’s salvation. Although the advancement of this theme may not be the sole reason for the poem’s composition, it still contributes to the work’s structural and thematic cohesiveness. Sigurðarbálkr is a biographical poem which begins with Sigurðr’s youth and concludes with his death. Later Sigurðr’s life and dramatic death was retold by the Icelander Eiríkr Oddsson in a saga that has become known as Hryggjarstykki. This work, of which only sections survive in Morkinskinna, is thought to have been written between 1150 and 1170. Hryggjarstykki would therefore have been

4 5

Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum. The History of the Danes, ed. Karsten Friis-Jensen, transl. Peter Fisher, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2015), vol. 2, xiv, 29.4, 1216. What Saxo had heard or read about Sigurðr’s death is not known. Judging from his reliance on Icelandic poems he may well have been familiar with Sigurðarbálkr.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature one of the oldest known of the Kings’ Sagas.6 Eiríkr offers a more detailed description of the gruesome tortures inflicted on Sigurðr slembidjákn while adding that his earthly remains were transferred to the Virgin Mary’s church in Ålborg. The information about Sigurðr’s burial is attributed to Provost Ketill (or St Kjeld of Viborg who died in 1150) who served the same church.7 This account has led commentators to associate Sigurðr with sanctity and his death with martyrdom. In fact it has been supposed that Hryggjarstykki was composed to promote his sanctity.8 Although this cannot be ruled out, the earlier Sigurðarbálkr is essentially a praise poem of a figure who failed to become an undisputed king of Norway. His journey through life, however, is re-interpreted as evidence of something of even greater import – Sigurðr’s claim to eternal life. Hryggjarstykki simply continues this theme while adding a less than authoritative statement about his assured redemption. If Sigurðr’s political life was a failure, the contrary is true of King Eiríkr góði Sveinsson of Denmark (1095–1103). His brief reign saw two significant developments in Danish history: the establishment of the archbishopric of Lund and the association of warfare with Christianity. Both are highlighted in Eiríksdrápa, a poem of thirty-two stanzas composed by Markús Skeggjason shortly after the king’s death.9 In commemorating his protagonist the Icelandic poet, like Ívarr Ingimundarson, chooses a biographical framework which extends from his youthful adventures to his death. Eiríksdrápa starts with an address to Eiríkr’s brother and successor, Nikolás Sveinsson (1104–34). From the outset the poem sets out its dual aim: to praise the recently deceased Eiríkr and to offer a mirror of princes for the newly established king. The third stanza relates how the young Eiríkr won fame and fortune in Russia before returning to Denmark to assume kingship. Although nothing is otherwise known about Eiríkr’s eastern activity it does serve the ruler with a suitably exotic back-story. In this the poem connects with a wellknown Norse story pattern: the prince who arrives from faraway lands, laden with treasure, to claim his rightful patrimony. After recounting how Eiríkr cleared the seas of pirates and successfully fought the pagan Wends, Eiríksdrápa highlights the king’s pilgrimage to Rome and his generosity towards the shrine of St Nicholas in Bari. The attention shifts to Eiríkr góði crushing the Wends and the subjection of Baltic territories that had once allegedly bowed to Sveinn tjúguskegg’s lordship (stanzas 13–22). The linking of religious sentiments with Eiríkr’s Wendish 6 7

8 9

ÍF 24:2, 208–10. Bjarni Guðnason, Fyrsta sagan (Reykjavík: Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs, 1978). ÍF 24:2, 210. Bjarni Guðnason, Fyrsta sagan, 128–45. Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2, ed. Gade, 432–460. The best discussion of Eiríksdrápa is Judith Jesch, ‘Old and New in Markús Skeggjason’s Eiríksdrápa’, in Scandianavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. Papers of the Twelfth International Saga Conference Bonn/Germany, 28th July–2nd August 2003, ed. Rudolf Simek et al. (Bonn: Hausdruckerei der Universität Bonn, 2003), 268–74.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation campaign is not surprising. The king’s warring against the ‘host of the heathen temples’ (‘hõrga herr’) can be viewed as a form of penitential warfare which he follows by establishing the archbishopric of Lund and the founding of churches (stanza 25):10 Dróttinn lét í Danmõrk settan, dõglings grundar, skammt frá Lundi erkistól, þanns õll þjóð dýrkar, eljunþungr, á danska tungu. Hildingr framði heilagt veldi; hvargegnan má Õzur fregna – hṍnum vísar haulda reynir himna stíg – til byskups vígðan. [The energetic lord had an archbishopric established in Denmark, a short way from Lund, which all the people of the ruler worship in the Danish tongue. The prince advanced the holy kingdom; one can hear that the very capable Õzurr was ordained bishop; God shows him the path to the heavens.]

Eiríkr embarks on a second pilgrimage, this time to the Holy Land, in order ‘to cure his inner wounds’, that is, to atone for his sins. At the time of composition an eastern pilgrimage and the fight against pagans in the Baltic would have linked to a topical matter, namely the armed pilgrimage to the Holy Land and conquest of Jerusalem in 1099: Lýst skal hitt, es læknask fýstisk liðhraustr konungr sṍr in iðri; norðan fór með helming harðan hersa mœðir sṍ l at grœða. Harri bjósk til heims ins dýrra; hann gerði fõr út at kanna – buðlungr vildi bjart líf õðlask – byggð Jórsala friði tryggða. [It shall be made clear that the troop-bold king was eager to cure his inner wounds; Eiríkr travelled from the north with a fierce unit to heal his soul. The lord prepared himself for the better world; he made his way out to explore the settlement of Jerusalem, secured with peace; the prince wished to gain a glorious life.]


I do not argue that Eiríkr and his followers considered the fight against the Wends in terms of penitential warfare, let alone a crusade. Rather, Eiríksdrápa shows that shortly after the king’s death such a connection could be made. On the crusading context of Eiríkr’s reign, see Janus Møller Jensen, ‘Danmark og den hellige krig. En undersøgelse af korstogsbevægelsens indflydelse på Danmark ca. 1070–1169’, Historisk Tidsskrift (Danish) 100:2 (2000), 291–300.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Eiríkr góði Sveinsson is splendidly received by the Byzantine emperor but the poem concludes with his death (in Cyprus) and a traditional stanza praising him as the greatest of kings.11 Eiríksdrápa offers a novel perspective on the achievements of a praiseworthy king: generosity, gift-giving, martial prowess and penitential acts are associated with attaining eternal salvation. Eiríksdrápa, it should be remembered, is composed in honour of a dead ruler whose fate in the afterlife is ultimately unknown to the living. The poem therefore not only serves as a commemorative performance but also as an argument for, and a prayer towards, the salvation of its protagonist. In Eiríksdrápa and Sigurðarbálkr we see the poets grapple with depicting the life-trajectory of warrior kings within the frame of a journey towards salvation. Ívarr Ingimundarson and Markús Skeggjason crafted their respective works in honour of quite different historical figures. Whereas Ívarr celebrated a king who had failed and left no dynastic legacy, Markús composed his work to be performed within a prestigious institutional context and, it seems, in the presence of a ruling king (Nikolás). Nonetheless, both poems adopt an essentially similar narrative line. After a successful early life of a bellicose nature the protagonists assume or attempt to assume their rightful patrimony. Subsequent descriptions of war-like activity alternate with penitential gestures. Sigurðr slembidjákn’s violent end emerges as an ultimate act of penance, whereas Eiríkr dies from natural causes on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; for both the East plays a significant role in their spiritual quests. Finally, both poems combine the contours of a traditional ‘memorial poem’ (‘erfidrápa’) – which praises the martial prowess of the dead person – with that of a prayer where the audience is offered reasons to believe in the protagonist’s redemption. We are largely in the dark about the background to Eiríksdrápa and Sigurðarbálkr. It has been suggested that Markús Skeggjason composed the former work for the occasion of Jón’s consecration to Hólar in Lund.12 As King Nikolás is addressed at the poem’s beginning, it seems simpler to assume that Markús composed Eiríksdrápa for delivery at the Danish court (although the king’s presence at Jón’s consecration cannot be ruled out). The question who, if anyone, commissioned Sigurðarbálkr remains open, for nothing in its surrounding prose speaks directly to this issue. This considered, it is instructive to note briefly another of what I am inclined to call ‘memorial poems of salvation’, and one which allows a more concrete historical contextualisation. Þórðar saga kakala describes how, on the night of 18 April 1246, Bjõrn Starrason, a follower of Þórðr kakali Sighvatsson, dreamt that a man leaned over his bed and spoke the following words: ‘Domine Jesu Christe, accipe spiritum meum’. This occurred three times during the night. Björn 11

On the perception of the First Crusade as an act of pilgrimage for both participants and commentators, see William Purkis, Crusading Spirituality in the Holy Land and Iberia, c. 1095–c. 1187 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008), 59–85. 12 See Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2, ed. Gade, 432.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation then testified that he had recognised the visitor to be Brandr Kolbeinsson, the chieftain who led the Ásbirningar, a powerful family of northern Iceland.13 The next day Brandr was captured after fighting against Þórðr kakali and his forces at the Battle of Haugsnes. Þórðr denied Brandr mercy and one of his henchmen executed him. This slaying doubtlessly reflected badly on Þórðr kakali; by all accounts Brandr had been a popular chieftain and the deed was witnessed by some thirty men. A cross was raised on the site where Brandr met his brutal end, which would have further aided the memorialisation of his death.14 Not long thereafter Þórðr kakali appears to have commissioned a poem to commemorate Brandr Kolbeinsson. Þórðar saga kakala states that a certain Ingjaldr skáld Geirmundarson crafted a flokkr about him and includes four stanzas from this composition. Three of these, not surprisingly, highlight Brandr’s prowess and death at Haugsnes. The fourth, however, is a prayer for Brandr’s soul: Élgrundar, bjarg öndu, œztr þjóðkoungr, mæztri, – góðs samir buðlung beiða –, Brands, – við fjörnis landa. Hvíld fái öðlingr, – aldar, – alvíss paradísar, – prútt sás píslum léttir, – Páls bróðir frið sálu.15 [Powerful king of Heaven, save the good soul of Brandr – it befits to pray to God for good things. All-knowing king of Paradise who liberates men from torment, grant Brandr’s soul peace and rest.]

Ingjaldr skáld Geirmundarson was a fylgdarmaðr (‘follower’) in Þórðr kakali’s permanent retinue. This was a semi-official position in the ‘courts’ of the major chieftains. Earlier, in 1233, Ingjaldr had served Snorri Sturluson in a similar capacity and we find him later in Sturla Þórðarson’s entourage.16 Ingjaldr had clearly carved out a career for himself by offering his services to prominent members of the Sturlungar family. When Þórðr kakali arrived in Iceland in 1241 Ingjaldr seems to have joined his gestasveit, a kind of permanent retinue.17 There Ingjaldr served as Þórðr’s adviser,18 emissary19 and ‘court-poet’ who composed the poem Atlöguflokkr which celebrated Flóabardagi.20 The last we see of Ingjaldr is in 1246, after Haugsnes, when he departed with Þórðr kakali for Norway.21 13 14

15 16 17

18 19

20 21

Sturlunga saga 2, 74. Ibid., 79. Ibid., 80. Sturlunga saga 1, 362; 396. Sturlunga saga 2, 12. Ibid., 22. Ibid., 49; 66. Ibid., 56. Ibid., 82.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Following this unusually bloody battle Þórðr kakali and Gizurr Þorvaldsson had agreed to submit their disagreement to royal arbitration which ended in King Hákon opting for Þórðr’s cause. Þórðr returned to Iceland in 1248 with a brief to secure the allegiance of all Icelanders to the crown. Þórðr kakali’s most pressing task was to incorporate Brandr’s former powerbase in Skagarfjörður within his own sphere of authority. Brandr’s dominion had ‘been large and continous; he [was] nearer to being petty king than a chieftain in the old style’.22 As previously mentioned, Brandr had also been a popular and generous lord – qualities which Ingjaldr’s flokkr reflects. Nevertheless, Þórðr kakali successfully gained the acceptance of the farmers of Skagafjörður. Part of that effort likely involved Ingjaldr composing his flokkr about Brandr Kolbeinsson. This would accord well with Þórðr kakali utilising literary composition to further his earthly aims; Þórðr had had an account written which detailed his disputes with Gizurr Þorvaldsson which was read in King Hákon Hákonarson’s presence.23 The poem on Brandr Kolbeinsson not only honoured a popular fallen leader but facilitated his journey in the afterlife. Bjõrn Starrason’s vision, which foreshadows Brandr’s death, includes a plea for salvation by the chieftain in his final hour. This appeal is clearly echoed in the stanza produced above from Ingjaldr’s flokkr; both call on God to admit Brandr to Paradise. Brandr’s words may strike one like a generic prayer uttered at the hour of death. Yet the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, accept my soul’ are significant as they are those uttered by St Stephen, the protomartyr, at his stoning (Acts 7:58–60). Moreover, following from these words St Stephen pleads for the soul of his assailants (which included the Apostle Paul), a gesture which, for instance, the late twelfth-century Old Icelandic Homily Book discusses at some length.24 Thus Ingjaldr’s flokkr serves as a prayer for Brandr’s soul and, arguably, as an act of atonement on behalf of his leader and patron, Þórðr kakali Sighvatsson. As in Gísls þáttr Illugasonar we observe an intricate weaving of patronage and gift-exchange associated with our binary theme.

Óláfr Tryggvason From an early time King Óláfr Tryggvason’s life was a source of differing interpretations and considerable mystery. This Viking had made good his claim to the Norwegian throne and during a five-year reign – terminated by his defeat and (apparent) death at the sea-battle of Svõlðr (Svolder) – he proved crucial for Norway’s conversion to Christianity. Óláfr Tryggvason’s life offered poets and writers a remarkable career that included extraordinary success, conversion, violence and tragedy. Our focus here, however, is not on Óláfr the ‘state-builder’


‘Héraðsríki Brands var stórt og samfellt; hann var nær því að teljast smákóngur heldur en goði að gömlum sið.’ Sverrir Jakobsson, Auðnaróðal, 207. 23 Sturlunga 2, 82. 24 Homiliu-Bók, 177–8. Gamal Norsk Homiliebok, 45–6.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation and missionary king, but rather on how the early Icelandic authors saw his journey from improbable beginnings to an enigmatic conclusion. The first historian to comment on Óláfr did not doubt the king’s damnation. In the early 1070s, Adam of Bremen, a master at the cathedral school of HamburgBremen, described Óláfr’s death as a cowardly act of suicide rather than a heroic defeat. In this account, the king, thinking all is lost, ends his life by throwing himself into the sea.25 Adam’s hostility towards Óláfr, in his view a semi-pagan who engaged in necromancy, perhaps reflects his view that the king had ignored Hamburg-Bremen.26 Whatever the reason, Adam portrays Óláfr Tryggvason as a Saul-like figure: a king who falls from God’s favour, is associated with witchcraft, and is finally defeated in a battle in which he terminates his own life. In all this King Óláfr Tryggvason’s fate is contrasted with the salvation and sanctity of his namesake, Óláfr Haraldsson, whom Adam of Bremen praises profusely. As far as we know, the next to write about Óláfr’s death were Sæmundr fróði Sigfússon (d. 1133) and Ari Þorgilsson (d. 1148). Although Sæmundr’s Latin chronicle on (inter alia) the Norwegian kings is lost it was certainly consulted by medieval writers. Thus in his Íslendingabók Ari specifically refers to Sæmundr’s account of Óláfr Tryggvason’s fall (‘at sõgu Sæmundar prests’) although Ari himself only touches on the king’s death.27 Not surprisingly Adam of Bremen’s description of Óláfr Tryggvason’s death found little favour in the earliest Norwegian historical writings from the second half of the twelfth century, the so-called ‘Norwegian synoptics’.28 These include Theodoricus Monachus’s History of the Ancient Kings of Norway and the anonymous Historia Norvegiae, both written in Latin, as well as the Old Norse Ágrip. In these texts Óláfr Tryggvason’s career is determined by his advancement of Christianity. Thus Theodoricus Monachus contrasts Óláfr, who is born a pagan but transforms into a militantly proselytising king, with the pagan Earl (Jarl) Hákon, ‘the evil’, of Hlaðir (c.970–95), the de facto ruler of Norway who is introduced as his early enemy. Hákon and Óláfr are likened to the Roman emperors Julian the Apostate and Jovian, who re-instated Christianity following Julian’s apostasy. While in England Óláfr, when saved from imminent danger, vows to become a Christian, which leads to his baptism on the Isles of Adam von Bremen, Hamburgische Kirchengeschichte, ed. B. Schmeidler (Hannover und Leipzig: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1917), II, ix (38), 100–2. 26 Sverre Bagge, ‘The Making of a Missionary King: The Medieval Accounts of Olaf Tryggvason and the Conversion of Norway’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 105:4 (2007), 473–513. 27 ÍF 1, 17–18. Ari Þorgilsson also composed a now-lost history or chronicle of the Norwegian kings and, as we shall see, this included information about Óláfr’s fate at Svõlðr. 28 Adam of Bremen’s consignment of Óláfr to Hell was very likely known to the composers of these texts. Birgit and Peter Sawyer, ‘Adam and Eve of Scandinavian History’, in The Perception of the Past in Twelfth-Century Europe, ed. Paul Magdalino (London: Hambledon Press, 1992), 42. 25


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Scilly. Fearing that Óláfr will threaten his hold on power, Earl Hákon entices the neophyte to Norway by fabricating news about his own death. The ruse backfires and Hákon suffers an ignominious end when killed by a slave in a pig-sty; and so he ‘crossed from temporal death to death eternal’.29 Through preaching and violence Óláfr converts Norway and the Norse colonies of the North Atlantic. The king’s success is terminated by the combined forces of the Danish and Swedish kings as well as the earl of Hlaðir. Theodoricus Monachus describes Óláfr’s demise in the following manner: Some say that the king then escaped from there in a skiff, and made his way to foreign parts to seek salvation for his soul. Some, on the other hand, say that he plunged headlong into the sea in full armour. I dare not say which of these accounts is the truer. I like to believe only this: that he now enjoys perpetual peace with Christ.30

This is the first intimation in historical writing of a notion that is implied in Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld’s (before c.1007) memorial poem about Óláfr Tryggvason, namely the rumour that he survived the Battle of Svõlðr.31 Theodoricus thus recognises a tradition that the defeated king left Norway for foreign lands to seek his salvation. Here, the alternative explanation, that Óláfr drowned, does not carry the connotation of damnation which Adam is happy to give in his rendering. In either case, Theodoricus would ‘like to believe’ in Óláfr Tryggvason’s salvation. This suggests that his redemption is not a certainty, as that of King Óláfr Haraldsson was thought to be. Although Historia Norvegiae agrees with Theodoricus’s History about the uncertainty of Óláfr’s fate at Svõlðr, the work leaves little doubt that the king attained salvation. The infant Óláfr is brought to Orkney but thereafter he is enslaved by Vikings and moved to the Baltic. From there Óláfr is sold into Rus’ but he soon gains his freedom and becomes a fearsome Viking who roams the northern world. At the ‘edge of Britain’ Óláfr meets an anchorite with prophetic powers who impresses him so much that he accepts baptism. He who ‘had hitherto shrouded beneath the shadow death’ was now garbed ‘with the robe Theodoricus Monachus. Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium. An Account of the Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings, transl. David and Ian McDougall (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998), 12. On the damnation theme in this story which also features in Old Norse accounts, see Andrew J. Hamer, ‘“Death in a Pig-sty”: Snorri’s Version of the Death of Hákon Jarl Sigurðarson’, in Latin Culture and Medieval Germanic Europe. Proceedings of the First Germania Latina Conference held at the University of Groningen 26 May 1989, ed. Richard North and Tette Hofstra (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1992), 55–69. 30 Theodoricus Monachus, 18. For the Latin see, Monumenta Historica Norvegiae. Latinske kildeskrifter til Norges historie i middelalderen, ed. Gustav Storm (Kristiania: Trykt hos A.W. Brøgger, 1880), 24. 31 Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035, ed. Diana Whaley (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), 400–441. See stanzas 19–23 and 5. See also Erin Goeres, The Poetics of Commemoration. Skaldic Verse and Social Memory, c. 890–1070 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 74–84. 29


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation

of eternal brightness’. The neophyte returns to Norway where he delivers ‘all those of his compatriots who lived along the seaboard into union with the King of Kings’ while Hence God’s triumphal car, increased by ten thousand souls, and Christ’s chariot, filled with His freely-granted deliverance, were drawn by this wonderworking monarch as if by a powerful steed right to the ends of the earth till they turned around in their course and drove back to our homeland, which is Paradise.32

At Svõlðr, Óláfr is last seen standing ‘high up in the stern’ and here the author of Historia Norvegiae, like Theodoricus, offers two alternative scenarios about the king’s fate: either he sank beneath the waves in his chained mail or, as some believe, he was seen ‘after a long lapse in a particular monastery’.33 However, Historia Norvegiae includes two elements that are absent from Theodoricus’s account, namely the possibility that Óláfr was saved by ‘angelic spirits’ and that he is referred to as ‘beatus’ after his baptism. The latter unambiguously announces the king’s salvation or perhaps even sanctity. In Historia Norvegiae the contrasting figure to Óláfr is not Earl Hákon Sigurðarson of Hlaðir but, somewhat surprisingly, King Hákon góði Haraldsson (d. 961). Óláfr Tryggvason’s trajectory is the inverse of Hákon góði’s, that is, of the king who is raised as a Christian in England but becomes an apostate king in Norway; in his ‘blind ambition for a perishable kingdom he was swayed forever from lasting merit’. In Historia Norvegiae, Hákon dies not of his wounds following the Battle of Fitjar (as he seemingly did in reality) but is killed by a spear thrown by a boy and so he ‘who had dared to renounce the Christ-child, after the defeat of his foes was himself vanquished by a humble child’. The biblical exemplar seems to be King Ahab who was killed by a stray arrow in divine vengeance for his transgressions.34 Why these two works, which are textually unrelated, chose to present Óláfr’s ‘after life’ in such different manner is an open question. Little is known about the compositional context of Historia Norvegiae.35 Contrastingly, Theodoricus’s dedication of his work to Archbishop Eysteinn of Niðaróss places his History within a specific intellectual milieu in which St Óláfr was upheld as the patron saint of both the Norwegian kingdom and archbishopric.36 Hence Theodoricus depicts Óláfr Haraldsson as a divinely chosen ruler who brings the promise of salvation to his people through missionary work and martyrdom. Óláfr 32

33 34 35 36

Historia Norvegiae, ed. Inger Ekrem and Lars Boje Mortsensen, transl. Peter Fisher, with contribution on the MSS by Michael Chesnutt (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2003), 97. For the Latin see, ibid., 94–6. Ibid., 99. Ibid., 85. For the Latin see, ibid., 84. For Ahab, see 1 Kings 22:34–5. Historia Norvegiae, 11–24; 155–226. Lars Boje Mortensen and Else Mundal, ‘Erkebispesetet i Nidaros - arnestad of verkstad for olavslitteraturen’, in Ecclesia Nidrosiensis 1153–1537. Søkelys på Nidaroskirkens og Nidarosprovinsens historie, ed. Steinar Imsen (Nidaros: Tapir akademisk forlag, 2003), 353–84.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Tryggvason, however, is presented as hardly more than a ruthless Viking who sees the light and continues his violent, albeit justifiable, ways in the service of the true religion. In Historia Norvegiae, on the other hand, Óláfr Tryggvason’s martial qualities are married to his status as God’s chosen instrument of salvation to the North. Historia Norvegiae shows Óláfr Tryggvason as the first king to promote Christianity in Norway and, in spite of different stories about his fate after Svõlðr, he gains the heavenly kingdom as recompense for his earthly one. Further, Adam of Bremen’s Gesta appears to have served as a structural model for Historia Norvegiae. Both are divided into four books and both feature geographical descriptions of the lands subject respectively to the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen and the king of Norway.37 Historia Norvegiae’s exaltation of Óláfr Tryggvason can therefore be read as a riposte to Adam’s consignment of the king to Hell. Thus Óláfr’s fate following Svõlðr was disputed; his salvation was asserted by some (the author of Historia Norvegiae) but merely considered likely by others (Theodoricus monachus). The ambiguity of the matter is well captured in Ágrip, a Norwegian saga from the early thirteenth century: En til falls Óláfs konungs var ekki vitat. Hitt var sét, at þá er mjõk rénaði orrostan, at hann stóð lífs þá enn í lyftinginni á Orminum langa, er hafði tvau rúm ok .xxx. En þá er Eiríkr skyldi ganga upp í stafninn á leit hans, þá sleri ljósi fyrir hann sem elding væri, en konungrinn sjálfr horfinn er ljósit hvarf af. Sumir menn geta hann á báti braut hafa komizk, ok segja at hann hafi verit sénn síðan í munklífi nõkkvuru á Jórsalalandi. En sumir geta at hann hafi fyrir borð fallit. En hvatki er lífi hans hefir lukt, þá er þat líkiligt at guð hafi sṍlina.38 [But of the fall of King Óláfr nothing was known. It was seen that as the fighting lessened he stood, still alive, on the high-deck astern on the Long Serpent, which had thirty-two rowing-places. But when Eiríkr went to the stern of the ship in search of the king, a light flashed before him, as though it were lightning, and when the light disappeared, the king himself was gone. Some suppose he got away in a boat and say that he was seen afterwards in a monastery in the Holy Land, but others think that he fell overboard. But whatever ended his life, it is likely that God has the soul.]39

Compare this with the introduction of Óláfr Haraldsson shortly thereafter: svá mikla kostan ok stund sem Óláfr Tryggvasunr lagði á at fremja krisni – er við ekki vétta sparðisk, þat er guði væri tígn í ok kristninni styrkr – svá lõgðu þeir feðgar allt megin fram at drekkja kristninni, ok svá gæfisk, ef eigi hefði guð þá sína miskunn til sent með tilkvṍmu Óláfs Historie Norvegiae, 17–18; 168–9. Ágrip af Nóregskonungasõgum, ed. Matthew J. Driscoll, 2nd en (London: The Viking Society for Northern Research, 2008), 32–4. 39 Ibid., 33–5. 37



Life’s Journey Towards Salvation grœnska, er þat mund hafði hug sinn mjõk á veraldar sigri, sem hér má brátt heyra, ok veik síðan trú sinni til kristni ok laut af staðfestu trúar eilífa sælu ok helgi. En at menn viti ætterni hans til ríkis, þá má hér nú heyra.40 [But as much pain and effort as Óláfr Tryggvason had put into forwarding Christianity – and he spared nothing which was to the honour of God and the strengthening of the Christian faith – so Eiríkr and his son put all their strength into the quelling of it; and this would have come to pass had not God’s mercy been manifested in the arrival of Óláfr, son of Haraldr grenski, who at that time had his mind much set on worldly victory, as will soon be heard. He later turned his faith to Christianity and through his steadfast belief gained eternal bliss and sanctity.]41

Through Norwegian and German accounts, skaldic poetry and no doubt oral tales, Icelandic authors inherited a substantial body of material concerning Óláfr Tryggvason’s life and afterlife.42 The pioneers in writing about the Norwegian king were two monks of Þingeyrar abbey, Gunnlaugr Leifsson and Oddr Snorrason. Both would have had to consider multiple sources on Óláfr’s life and death. This is indicated in Flateyjarbók which relates that ‘Brother Gunnlaugr states that he has only written down what he has gathered from trustworthy men, and especially what he has read in books by Ari the Wise’ [‘Segir bróðir Gunnlaugr þat eina skrifat hafa, sem hann hefir af sannorðum mönnum heyrt, ok einkannligast hafa saman lesit þat, er hann hefir fundit í bókum Ara prests hins fróða’].43 The writings of Gunnlaugr and Oddr about King Óláfr are preserved in Old Norse translations. Indeed Oddr’s saga survives in three different versions of the same translation, whereas only a few suspected episodes from Gunnlaugr’s account are preserved in the fourteenth-century Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta, ‘The Greatest Saga of Óláfr Tryggvason’. A notable feature of Þingeyrar was the symbiotic relationship amongst the brothers, the local elite and the bishopric of Hólar.44 For instance, the first abbot of Þingeyrar, Vilmundr Þórólfsson, who had studied at the cathedral school at Hólar, was the son of a chieftain in the northern quarter. In 1151 Þorgils Oddason, whose feud with Hafliði Másson from 1115 to 1121 merited a saga (Þorgils saga ok Hafliða), entered the monastery where he died the same year. The abbey was where prominent chieftains such as Guðmundr dýri Þorvaldsson might spend their last years atoning for their sins; he joined Þingeyrar following Ibid., 34. Ibid., 35. 42 Indeed it cannot be ruled out that the Icelandic tradition, especially Ari and Sæmundr but also potentially Oddr and Gunnlaugr, influenced the ‘Norwegian synoptics’. This is a notoriously intractable issue which cannot be addressed here. See Gudrun Lange, Die Anfänge der isländisch-norwegischen Geschichtsschreibung (Reykjavík: Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs, 1989). 43 Flateyjarbók 1, 568. Svend Ellehøj, Studier over den ældste norrøne historieskrivning (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965), 45. 44 Orri Vésteinsson, The Christianization of Iceland, 133–5. 40 41


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature the notorious burning of his foe Õnundr Þorkellsson in 1197 as is related in Guðmundar saga dýra.45 Yet one would be mistaken to assume that Þingeyrar was merely a ‘retirement home’ for older aristocrats. As was the case elsewhere in Christian Europe, the establishment of monasteries allowed younger men, such as Guðlaugr Snorrason in Heiðarvíga saga, to pursue a religious vocation outside the traditional framework of their social standing. Such was also the case with the authors who will be the focus of this chapter, Oddr Snorrason and Gunnlaugr Leifsson. The Þingeyrar monks chose the story of Óláfr Tryggvason as a subject for two major Latin biographies. One reason for this choice might have been their wish to honour a king who was important for Iceland’s conversion. It has also been suggested that Oddr and Gunnlaugr sought to promote the Norwegian king as a kind of counter-saint to St Óláfr Haraldsson. According to this argument, Óláfr Tryggvason would have been upheld as a pro-regnum holy figure to support King Sverrir in his ideological war against his enemies who identified with the Niðaróss saint.46 It is true that Abbot Karl Jónsson of Þingeyrar composed Sverris saga about the same time as his cloister brothers completed their sagas of Óláfr. But there is little to suggest that Óláfr Tryggvason was held in particular esteem by Sverrir Sigurðarson and his followers. If this had been the case then we would expect to find traces of such admiration and even veneration in Karl Jónsson’s account. In fact, judging from Sverris saga, Sverrir actively associated his kingship and cause with St Óláfr (see chapter 6). In the final analysis, as we shall see, the Þingeyrar brothers did not present Óláfr Tryggvason as a holy figure. Rather, while recognising the king as God’s instrument, they acknowledged his fallability; for Gunnlaugr and Oddr it was precisely Óláfr Tryggvason’s transformation from a pagan to a penitent that held a special fascination.47 Oddr Snorrason’s preface to Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, seen through its later Icelandic translation, offers the best indication as to why he chose to write about the king: Sturlunga saga 1, 189–192. Lars Lönnroth, ‘Studier i Olaf Tryggvasons saga’, Samlaren 84 (1963), 54–94. See also Dietrich Hofmann who argues there was a split in Þingeyrar abbey between those who adhered to a royalist position (Karl Jónsson and Oddr Snorrason) and those who followed a libertas ecclesiae agenda (whose names are not known). Dietrich Hofmann, ‘Die Vision des Oddr Snorrason’, in Festskrift til Ludvig Holm-Olsen på hans 70- årsdag den 9 juni 1984, ed. Bjarne Fidjestøl et al. (Øvre Ervik: Alvheim og Eide, 1984), 142–51. 47 For an argument that Oddr wished to uphold Óláfr Tryggvason as a saint which is primarily based on the hagiographic influence on his saga, see Sverrir Tómasson, Formálar íslenskra sagnaritara á miðöldum: rannsókn bókmenntahefðar (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 1998), 263–79. Siân Grønlie has recently stressed the ambiguity of Oddr’s portrayal of Óláfr Tryggvason. Her thorough analysis focuses especially on Oddr’s blending of saga narrative and hagiography. Siân E. Grønlie, The Saint and the Saga Hero. Hagiography and Early Icelandic Literature (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017), 39–78. 45 46


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation Heyri þér, brœðr enir kristnu ok feðr! Því játi ek fyrir Guði ok helgum mõnnum at mik gleðr dýrð at vinna enum heilsamligsta Óláfi konungi Tryggvasyni, ok gjarna vilda ek hans veg vinna með mínum orðum. Slíkt sama gøri þér veg Óláf konungi, er undirrót er yðvarr hjálpar ok skírnar ok alls farnaðar, ok samnafna ens helga Óláfs konungs, er þá kristni timbraði upp og fegrði.48 [Hear, you Christian brothers and fathers! I confess before God and the saints that I am glad to strive for the glory of the beneficial King Óláfr Tryggvason, and I would like to increase his glory with my words. You should do the same for King Óláfr, who is the reason for your salvation and baptism, and his namesake the holy King Óláfr Haraldsson, who raised and adorned Christianity.]

The first sentence points to the saga’s early audience. These are monks and their ecclesiastical superiors. This is not a work intended for evening or wedding entertainments at sundry farmsteads; it is a Latin text directed at Iceland’s elite. To reinforce this point, Oddr later favourably compares his own creation to ‘step-mothers’ tales told by shepherds’ (‘stjúpmœðra sõgur er hjarðsveinar segja’), by which he likely means legendary stories or sagas. Oddr Snorrason’s Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar was written for a small circle of learned men who occupied the higher echelons of society – a textual community of the kind we shall encounter in this chapter. In the opening address Oddr Snorrason is concerned with the reputation and deeds of Óláfr Tryggvason, a king who brought the prospect of salvation to the northern world. Further, a comparison between Óláfr Tryggvason and Óláfr Haraldsson is established early in the saga. Shortly thereafter Oddr has the former baptise the latter, which establishes a typological association between the two rulers. The former, Oddr states, is John the Baptist to the latter’s Christ. This comparison has been plausibly interpreted as Oddr forging a dynastic continuum between the missionary kings where none had probably existed in reality.49 But the biblical comparison also implies a typological amplification or fulfilment. Just as Christ completes John the Baptist’s message of salvation, so St Óláfr fulfils the work begun by his namesake and predecessor. Óláfr Haraldsson’s sanctity, however marvellous, is only a pale reflection of Christ’s, while Óláfr Tryggvason’s career, however glorious, merely echoes John the Baptist’s significance. It follows that Óláfr Tryggvason’s status is less than that 48


ÍF 25, 125. Julia Zernack, ‘Vorläufer und Vollender Olaf Tryggvason und Olaf der Heilige im Geschichtsdenken des Oddr Snorrason Munk’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 113 (1998), 77–95. For a broader contextualisation of this idea see Jonas Wellendorf, ‘Forerunners and Fulfillers: Structuring the Past in Old Norse Historiography’, in La typologie biblique comme forme de pensée dans l’historiographie médiévale, ed. Marek Thue Kretschmer (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), 179–98. Lönnroth emphasises how this use of typology counters Adam of Bremen’s negative attitude towards Óláfr Tryggvason. Lars Lönnroth, ‘The Baptist and the Saints: Oddr Snorrason’s View of the Two King Olavs’, in International Scandinavian and Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber, ed. Michael Dallapiazza et al. (Trieste: Edizioni Parnaso, 2000), 257–64.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature of his namesake and successor. He is certainly God’s messenger and instrument but, unlike Óláfr Haraldsson, his holiness is doubtful and, as we shall see, so is his fate in the afterlife. Oddr reflects this sense of uncertainty when he observes that Óláfr Tryggvason was not known to have performed any posthumous miracles. Oddr does not seek to apologise for a saint without any miracles to his name, but instead emphasises that Óláfr’s fate in the afterlife is uncertain. Óláfr may or may not be a saint; in the absence of external signs we are in the dark about this issue. Oddr himself thinks Óláfr is saved: ‘Þó trúum vér hann dýrligan mann ok ágætan Guðs vin’ [‘Though we believe him to be a glorious man and God’s good friend’].50 Further, throughout his saga Oddr suggests that Óláfr Tryggvason served as God’s instrument. The young Óláfr is sold into slavery in the East but, still a pagan, he escapes bondage and becomes a prominent figure at the Russian court. There he experiences a vision in which he was lifted onto an enormous stone: [hann] sá fagra staði ok bjarta menn er þar váru ok kenndi sœtan ilm ok fagra blóma ok meiri dýrð en hann kœmi hug á. Hann heyrði rõdd fagra mæla við sik: “Heyrðu, efni góðs manns, er aldregi blótaðir guðum ok óhreinum õndum, heldr svívirðir þú þau ok rækðir, ok því munu þín verk margfaldask mjõk ok til góðra hluta frævask. En þó skortir þik enn mikit at þú megir þessa staði byggva, er þú veizt eigi deili á skapara þínum ok hverr saðr Guð er”. Ok er hann heyrði þetta, þá hræddisk hann ok mælti: “Hverr ertu, Dróttinn, at ek trúa á þik?” Rõddin mælti: “Far þú til Grikklands, ok mun þér þar kunnigt gert nafn Dróttins...”.51 [from there he saw] fine places and men of bright appearance who lived there. There he recognised a sweet smell and all kinds of sweet flowers, he heard a voice address him: ‘Hear, the substance of a good man who never sacrificed to gods or unclean spirits, but despised and insulted them, and your works will greatly multiply for good works. But still you lack much so that you may inhabit these places, as you do not know your maker and God’s customs.’ And when he heard this he became afraid and spoke: ‘Who are you, that I might believe in you?’ The voice spoke: ‘Go to Greece and there you will be taught God’s name.’].

Óláfr Tryggvason is then shown Hell where he sees many of his friends suffer torture and pain. He understands that this will be the fate of his hosts, the king and queen of Rus’. Óláfr travels to Greece, where he undergoes preliminary baptism and on his return to Russia he convinces the queen of the new faith. There follows the conversion of the principality. What stands out in this scene is the idea that Óláfr must merit his salvation. Although in a strictly theological sense saints are not born sinless, the medieval hagiographic tradition overwhelmingly marks them out from ordinary sinners from birth. They may 50 51

ÍF 25, 125. Ibid., 162–3.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation experience an epiphany or calling later in life, but their sanctity, not to speak of their salvation, is inherent in their very existence. However, in Oddr’s account Óláfr’s life is depicted as the journey of a pagan warrior towards redemption. Óláfr Tryggvason receives divine aid on his road to power. When the king lands at Mostr in Norway, St Martin appears to him in a dream and promises to facilitate his preaching to the pagans.52 Óláfr’s men recount strange occurrences at the king’s camp. A follower named Þorkell once told Haraldr harðráði that he saw Óláfr pray with his hands raised to heaven while a bright light shone above him. Two figures, dressed in white, held their hands over the king’s head, a sight that was accompanied by wondrous music and fragrance.53 On another occasion Óláfr is sitting on his high-seat attending Mass when he suddenly vanishes. A bishop tells the surprised onlookers that only he can see the king conversing with a figure of brightness (‘bjartan mann’). Shortly thereafter Óláfr is seen again by all on his high-seat. One retainer comments that it is more likely that he was an earthly king or God’s angel clad in human form sent to preach the Gospel.54 Oddr Snorrason refrains from overtly expounding on Óláfr Tryggvason’s extraordinary nature, but rather reports the alleged sightings of the king’s followers. Just after relating the two miraculous testimonies Oddr comments that during his short time in power Óláfr only began Norway’s conversion; at the time of his death paganism was still strong in parts of the kingdom. Tellingly Oddr chooses this moment to repeat the comparison between Óláfr Tryggvason and St Óláfr: the former laid the foundations for Christianity while the latter built the walls; one plotted the vineyard which the other grew to ripeness. Most importantly, Óláfr Haraldsson ‘spilt the blood of his death’ [‘hellti hann út sínu banablóði’] for Norway’s salvation as shown by his miracles. And though no one doubts that God sent Óláfr Tryggvason to preach the true religion, no one knows about his fate (‘vita menn ekki hans vistir’) following Svõlðr.55 Oddr Snorrason portrays Óláfr Tryggvason as a figure whose divine calling mitigated rather than negated his sinful nature. In one instance Óláfr has his dogs maul to death a man who had killed one of his courtiers. A bishop sternly rebukes the king for this cruel act and makes him perform public penance.56 Such ambiguity colours Oddr’s description of Óláfr’s final moments and his subsequent fate. Oddr reports that both his enemies and followers saw a heavenly light enrobe Óláfr as he made his last stand on his ship before vanishing with the light. He claims that some say he escaped whilst ‘some say that he died there. But whatever happened in his life, it is likely that God has his soul considering the time he spent promoting Christianity’ [‘ok segja sumir hann braut hafa komizk, en sumir hyggja hann þar fallit hafa. En hvat Ibid., 212–13. Ibid., 269. 54 Ibid., 270. 55 Ibid., 273. 56 Ibid., 285–6. 52 53


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature sem lífi hans hefir brugðit, þá er líklegt at Guð hafi sálina, slíka stund sem hann lagði á at fremja kristnina’].57 Important to note here is the less than assertive tone. Oddr Snorrason believes rather than affirms that Óláfr ‘likely’ (‘líklegt’) attained salvation. At the conclusion of his saga Oddr presents a possible version of what happened to Óláfr after his final battle. The king was able to shed his byrnie in the water and reach a ship heading for the Baltic. There he recuperated from his injuries but then refused to regain his kingdom. The reason he gives is telling. In one of the Old Norse translations of Oddr’s Latin original the king ‘thought that God may not have liked in every way his rule and prolifigacy’ [‘kvað vera mega at Guði hefði eigi í alla staði hugnat hans ríki ok áburðr’],58 whereas in another version he feared it was because ‘he disliked my service. It is not appropriate for me to force men into such hardship and lead a great army into battle again’ [‘kvað því Dróttin sinn eigi vilja veita sér fullting sitt í orrostunni, – “at honum hafi mislíkat mín þjónusta, ok eigi byrjar mér at þrøngva fólkinu í svá mikla þraut at leiða mikit lið í orrostu optar”’].59 The underlying sentiment is clear: although a champion of Christianity, Óláfr’s defeat at Svõlðr and loss of his kingdom is a divine punishment for his sins. Such sentiments would certainly have been familiar to Oddr and his audience. Most topically at the time, in 1187 the defeat of the Christians at Hattin dealt a death-blow to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Calling a new crusade, Pope Gregory VIII issued the bull Audita Tremendi which blamed the defeat on the sins of the Franks in Outremer. The loss of Jerusalem required a period of penance.60 In Iceland this calamity was linked to natural omens and disasters that followed Jerusalem’s fall: ‘Þá dró myrkr fyrir sól um miðdegi, svá at margir óvitrir menn ætluðu verða mundu heimslit. Þat var kallaðr fellivetr’ [‘then the sun became darkened at midday, so that many unwise men thought that the end of the world was coming. That was called the winter of death for livestock.’].61 Oddr highlights the mystery surrounding Óláfr Tryggvason’s death: ‘En síðan væri hann Guði kunnr, þótt mõnnum væri hann ókunnugr’ [‘But then he was known to God, although he was unknown to men’].62 A short but extraordinary account follows. Óláfr Tryggvason sends an envoy to Erlingr Skjálgsson (the king’s former liegeman who married his sister), with the message that he now lived somewhere in a cloister. As proof of this the messenger brings a knife and some gold which Ástríðr recognised as having belonged to her brother. Oddr Snorrason then directly addresses his audience:


58 59 60 61


ÍF 25, 346. Ibid., 357. Ibid. Penny J. Cole, ‘Christian Perceptions of the Battle of Hattin (583/1187)’, Al-Masāq 6 (1993), 9–39. Sturlunga saga 1, 135–6. ÍF 25, 357.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation En margir eru þeir menn er þetta gruna ok tortryggva þessa hluti, ok margir ifa enn um, en þó ætla ek at vísu at þetta myni satt vera, at hann myni lifat hafa eptir bardagann ok fœrt sik Guði í fórn af áblásning heilags anda, ok var hann í munklífi i Girklandi eða Sýrlandi, ok bœtt svá sína misgerninga með iðran, er hann hafði gert á œskualdri. 63 [But there are many who distrust and suspect these things, and many still doubt, but I consider it true that he lived after the battle and offered himself as a sacrifice to God through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. And he was in a monastery in Greece or Syria and atoned for the misdeeds he had done in his youth.]

Thus, in Oddr Snorrason’s view, Óláfr’s life did not conclude and culminate at Svõlðr but in a monastery where he atoned for his sins. It hardly needs emphasising that such an end to the king’s life would have held an appeal to a Benedictine monk whose duty was to praise God, and seek his own salvation through pious living and praying for the salvation of others. At the saga’s close Oddr does not ask us to pray to Óláfr Tryggvason but for his salvation: ‘Nú bið ek hvern sem einn mann er less sõguna, at hann biði Dróttin at hann gerisk þess verðr at eignask erfð himinríkis með konungi konunga, Dróttni várum Jesú Kristó, fyrir þetta hitt stundliga ríki er hann hafði látit fyrir Eiríki jarli Hákonarsyni’ [‘Now I ask everyone who reads the saga to pray to God that he will be worthy to inherit Heaven with king of kings, our Lord Jesus Christ, on account of the temporal kingdom he had lost to Earl Eiríkr Hákonarson’].64 Brother Oddr Snorrason thought Óláfr Tryggvason – the missionary king of Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Greenland, the Faroes and Orkney – might still need our prayers to attain salvation. What shines through is that Óláfr’s salvation is not a given: the king’s redemption is contingent on his penance and our prayers. Oddr’s Ólafr Tryggvason is chosen to bring the message of salvation to the North and he is someone who enjoys a special relationship with God. Svõlðr terminated Óláfr’s kingship irrespective of whether or not he survived. The fulfilment of the task now fell to Óláfr Haraldsson who, whilst not strictly a sinless king, was undoubtedly a saint. This raises issues about Oddr’s approach. For instance, his use of biblical comparisons is potentially problematic. Oddr’s direct comparison of Óláfr to St John the Baptist has already been discussed, and so has Oddr’s reporting of the king communing with celestial messengers. Further, as has long been recognised, Oddr partly models the flight of Óláfr’s mother to Sweden from Earl Hákon’s clutches on Mary and Joseph’s escape to Egypt with the infant Jesus.65 If there is a parallel between Óláfr’s escape from Norway and Christ’s escape from Egypt, how does this square with Oddr’s uncertainty about the Ibid., 358. Both versions attribute this account to Ástríðr, the daughter of King Búrizláfr of the Wends. 64 Ibid., 358. 65 Lönnroth, ‘Studier i Olaf Tryggvasons saga’, 68. 63


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature king’s salvation? Considering Oddr Snorrason’s prevarication regarding Óláfr Tryggvason’s redemption, this amounts to an arguably mixed portrayal of a missionary king. Oddr’s dilemma was how to present the career of a former pagan within a convincing Christian context. It is therefore instructive to see how a writer working some two centuries earlier approached a comparable problem. The author is Dudo of St Quentin (c.960–1026) and the character in question is Rollo, the founder of Normandy’s ducal dynasty.66 The opening book of Dudo’s Gesta Normannorum recounts the life of Rollo, the Danish leader of the Normans whose destiny was to settle his followers in Neustria, a region of the Carolingian empire which had suffered devastating Viking attacks. Back in pagan Denmark the young Rollo falls foul of an unjust king who seeks to eliminate the most powerful families. Deprived of his lands, Rollo hears (in his sleep) a ‘divine voice’ utter the following words: ‘Arise swiftly, Rollo, going hastily across the deep in navigation, proceed to the Angles, there you will hear that you will return healthy to the fatherland and that in it you will, without defeat, enjoy never-ending peace’. Rollo consults a Christian who interprets the auricular message in these words: ‘In the opportune course of time to come, you will be purified by sacrosanct baptism and will become an especially worthy Christian and at a future time you will come from the deception of this wavering world all the way to the Angles, that is the angels and with them you will have the glory of everlasting peace.’67

As with Óláfr Tryggvason God has chosen Rollo, a Viking leader, to serve as his instrument; not as a rod of wrath but as a messenger of salvation.68 The Christian’s words to Rollo play on the common double meaning of the term patria as signifying both his future homeland, Normandy, and the natural abode of all redeemed Christians, Paradise. This is a play on ‘England’, ‘Angli’, whose kingdom serves as a stepping-stone to the eventual conquest of Normandy but which also evokes the image of angels escorting the redeemed to Heaven. Rollo sails to England where his martial valour secures him the submission of the natives. As Rollo deliberates on his future course of action, he receives a second dream-vision. Rollo is transported to the top of a high mountain Dudo of St Quentin. History of the Normans, ed. and transl. Eric Christiansen (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1998). For the Latin see De moribus et actis primorum Normanniæ ducum auctore Dudone Sancti Quintini decani, ed. Jules Lair (Caen: Mémoires de la Société des Antiquaires de Normandie, 1865), 146. There is, of course, no question of a textual connection between Dudo’s work and Oddr’s saga. Saxo Grammaticus, however, was influenced by the Gesta Normannorum. See, Inge Skovgaard-Petersen, Da Tidens Herre var nær. Studier i Saxos historiesyn (Copenhagen: Den danske historiske Forening, 1987), 65–7. 67 Dudo of St Quentin, 28. 68 Leah Shopkow, ‘The Carolingian World of Dudo of Saint-Quentin’, Journal of Medieval History 15 (1989), 19–37. 66


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation where he bathes in a spring of ‘sweet-smelling water’ which washes away the ‘contagion of leprosy and itch’ that had afflicted him. At the foot of the mountain he sees numerous birds of various types and colours who harmoniously eat and bathe in the river that flows from the spring. Another Christian offers Rollo an interpretation of the dream; the mountain represents the Frankish Church whereas the spring denotes the salvation of baptism that will wash away his sins. Those who submit to Rollo’s rule are represented by the various kinds of birds and symbolise the diverse origin of the Norman gens. Thereafter, despite suffering various setbacks, Rollo fulfils his destiny. King Charles grants Rollo the region of Normandy and later he is baptised in the presence of King Robert of France and his archbishop. Dudo then describes Rollo’s just rulership of his dukedom while praising him for resurrecting the Church that had been decimated by Vikings. Dudo of St Quentin transforms the life story of this founder of the Norman ducal dynasty into a quest that involves both earthly and spiritual goals – on the one hand his rule over Normandy and ‘re-establishment’ of Christianity, on the other his own salvation. Rollo succeeds in joining together disparate people into a new gens and in the process he gains redemption. Rollo’s trajectory introduces a central theme in Dudo’s work, namely the piety and – in the figure of his son, Count William Longsword – the sanctity of the Norman dukes. But unlike the later rulers of Normandy there was no escaping the fact that Rollo began his life as a pagan Viking. This clearly constituted a conundrum for Dudo who composed his work to demonstrate the divine legitimacy of the ruling Norman dynasty and, arguably, also to enlighten the reigning duke and his offspring.69 For this purpose he married the apparently meagre oral sources for Rollo’s life with his considerable learning. Dudo’s guiding structural model is Virgil’s Aeneid with its hero’s exile from his fatherland and his journey to reach his promised destination (Normandy and Paradise). Indeed the Aeneid (or what Dudo knew of Virgil’s work) has a claim to represent ‘the organising principle of Rollo’s saga’.70 Rollo’s delayed conquest and settlement in Normandy echoes Aeneas’s frustrated journey that nevertheless concludes with Rome’s foundation. In turn the protagonist’s journey is typologically associated with the Israelites’ time in the wilderness seeking the Promised Land. Throughout Rollo is presented as God’s instrument of choice who attains salvation as a reward for his heroic achievement. Further, Rollo’s career is an inversion of the stock theme of the Vikings as God’s instrument of wrath who were sent to punish the sinful. Indeed the Gesta Normannorum does not begin with Rollo but rather with the unregenerate Anstign, a Viking 69

Michael H. Gelting, ‘The Courtly Viking Education and mores in Dudo of St. Quentin’s Chronicle’, in Toogtredivte tværfaglige vikingesymposium. Syddansk Universitet 2013, ed. Lars Bisgaard, Mette Bruus and Peder Gammeltoft (Odense: Forlaget Wormianum, 2014), 7–36. 70 Eleanor Searle, ‘Fact and Pattern in Heroic History: Dudo of Saint-Quentin’, Viator 15 (1984), 126.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature who devastates the lands that Rollo will eventually rule over. Anstign delivers God’s wrath to the Franks who deserve it, whereas Rollo allows them to seek salvation through the restoration of the Church. Thus, unlike Oddr’s text, where conflicting traditions are still apparent, Dudo both streamlines and contextualises Rollo’s biography within a familiar framework that is drawn from biblical and classical literature. As we have seen, Oddr applies biblical parallels in a more problematic way which, as noted, align somewhat uneasily with his less than assertive stance about Óláfr’s afterlife. However, at least one Icelandic contemporary of Oddr Snorrason had no doubts about Óláfr Tryggvason’s fate in both this life and the next. In about 1200 Hallar-Steinn, of whom nothing is otherwise known, composed a thirty-five stanza praise-poem in honour of the missionary king. His Rekstefja (‘Split-Refrain’) is constructed in the biographical mould of Eiríksdrápa and Sigurðarbálkr.71 The young Óláfr emerges from Russia and, prior to his Norwegian kingship, enjoys a Viking career, yet when in power Óláfr destroys pagan temples and upholds Christianity. Unlike in Eiríksdrápa and Sigurðarbálkr nothing is related about the hero’s pilgrimage or penance. Although Óláfr’s role as missionary is highlighted, the main focus of Rekstefja is the Battle of Svõlðr. Interestingly, Rekstefja includes an episode that also appears in Oddr’s saga. The aforementioned Þorkell, who is curious about Óláfr’s nightly disappearance from the camp, sees the king in a forest clearing (stanza 31): ‘arrayed more beautifully than the sun with the adorned angels of the Lord in a house’ [‘Sigrgjarn sólu fegri / sénn vas skrýddr með prýddum / dõglingr dróttins englum / dyggðar fúss í húsi’]. But HallarSteinn, unlike Oddr, is certain about the veracity of this fantastic occurrence. Hallar-Steinn places Óláfr’s death at Svõlðr and he is convinced of his hero’s salvation. Óláfr Tryggvason is presented as an honoured guest at God’s celestial court, perhaps evoking the entry of kings such as Hákon góði in Hákonarmál into the (pagan) otherworld: Þengill þróttarstrõngum þeim bauð Kristr af heimi byrtjalds (beztu heilli) bragningi (goð fagni). Ygglaust alla þiggi eljunfimr á himnum Óláfr œzta sælu ítrbóls með gram sólar. [Christ invited the ruler strong in valour out of the world; may God receive [him] with the highest grace. May the vigorous Óláfr receive without fear all the highest bliss in the heavens with God.] 71

Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1, ed. Whaley, 893–939. For an analysis of Rekstefja and its prose context, see Rolf Stavnem, ‘Creating Tradition: The Use of Skaldic Verse in Old Norse Historiography’, in Eddic, Skaldic, and Beyond: Poetic Variety in Medieval Iceland and Norway, ed. Martin Chase (New York: Fordham University Press), 95–101.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation For the monks of Þingeyrar such a confident view of Óláfr’s death and redemption at Svõlðr was not acceptable. Flateyjarbók includes the following words: ‘Svá segir bróðir Oddr, er flest hefir komponat á latínu annarr maðr en Gunnlaugr af Ólafi konungi Tryggvasyni’ [‘So says Brother Oddr who has composed more in Latin about King Óláfr Tryggvason than any man other than Gunnlaugr’].72 Gunnlaugr Leifsson’s task was to steer between Hallar-Steinn’s assertiveness and Oddr’s vagueness regarding Óláfr’s fate. It is to Gunnlaugr’s saga that we must now turn. Unlike Oddr’s work no complete (or near complete) translation of Gunnlaugr’s Latin original has survived. What remains of Gunnlaugr’s work are a few sections that were included in Flateyjarbók and Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta. Accordingly, we must identify episodes that likely stem from Gunnlaugr’s saga. In this there is always the danger of circular argumentation, that is, to attribute episodes to this author simply because he composed a saga of Óláfr Tryggvason. The following analysis focuses on a section that can be ascribed to Gunnlaugr with reasonable confidence. Little suggests that Gunnlaugr told a radically different story about Ólafr’s early life, rise to power and eventual defeat in battle. Rather, Gunnlaugr is likely to have emphasised particular strands within an accepted framework. Broadly speaking, it has been argued that Gunnlaugr’s Latin biography of Óláfr Tryggvason was more hagiographic in nature than Oddr Snorrason’s saga.73 I take this to mean that the text paid more attention to religious elements in Óláfr’s life. More specifically, Gunnlaugr seemingly paid closer attention to the contribution of ecclesiastics in this missionary effort and may have portrayed Óláfr in a more ‘clerical’ manner than his predecessor.74 Another important strand concerns Óláfr’s fate following the Battle of Svõlðr and his road to salvation. As we have seen, Oddr adopted a rather non-committal stance about Óláfr’s fate. I suggest that Gunnlaugr Leifsson’s intention was to streamline this important aspect of Óláfr’s life. An examination of a single section may illuminate how Gunnlaugr approached this task. This episode, which I shall refer to as the ‘Episode of Gautr’, is placed near a sequence in Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar en mesta that is attributed directly to Gunnlaugr while one rendering adds that it had originally been composed in Latin. Only Gunnlaugr and Oddr are known to have written about King Ólafr in Latin and this episode does not appear in Oddr’s work. Lastly, an ‘oral genealogy’ at the end of the episode, which lists the authorities on which it depends, aligns well with a date of composition around 1200. In other words,

Flateyjarbók 1, 573. See, for example, Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Royal Biography’, in A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, ed. Rory McTurk, 2nd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 394. 74 For a detailed discussion of Gunnlaugr’s work, see Sveinbjörn Rafnsson, Ólafs sögur Tryggvasonar: Um gerð þeirra, heimildir og höfunda (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2005), 242–63. 72



Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature its attribution to Gunnlaugr Leifsson is as secure as we can reasonably expect it to be. The ‘Episode of Gautr’ describes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land which was undertaken in 1046/47 by two otherwise obscure Norwegians, Gautr and Gauti.75 Having visited the usual sites they travel to the Red Sea which is at some distance from Jerusalem and other sacred places. Soon, however, the Norwegians find themselves lost in the desert. Gauti dies of illness while Gautr wanders aimlessly until he reaches a river which he cannot cross. Falling asleep by the riverbank he dreams of a man who tells him that on awakening he shall find a boat fit for the crossing. This transpires and on the other side Gautr discovers a beautiful city. Before reaching the city he comes to a stone house inhabited by the same figure he saw in the dream. This mysterious person, conversant in Norse, asks about news from Norway, and especially about what Gautr knows of Ólafr Tryggvason’s fate at Svõlðr. Gautr is hardly less ambivalent about this issue than Oddr Snorrason. At first Gautr suggests that Óláfr drowned as his armour dragged him into the depths. The hermit, obviously annoyed by this answer, replies that this was unlikely as Óláfr was a renowned swimmer. Now suspecting the hermit’s identity, Gautr offers a different story, namely that King Óláfr was spirited to Heaven. The hermit makes light of this scenario for while Óláfr did many good things there were other deeds for which he needed to atone. The pilgrim proffers a third and final explanation: Óláfr spent the end of his life in a monastery in the Holy Land. Gautr then asks the hermit whether he is Óláfr Tryggvason and receives an affirmative answer. Ólafr now requests Gautr to take his sword back to Norway to show that he has relinquished his royal status. The two attend Mass in a city which seemingly acknowledges Óláfr’s authority. The following day Gautr seeks out his royal compatriot but finds the stone house boarded up; Óláfr is nowhere to be seen. Gautr is told that the hermit had organised an escort for him out of the region. The disappearance of Óláfr can only signify one thing: he has now completed both his penance and his time on earth – he has finally attained Paradise. This remarkable episode prompts a number of questions of which arguably the most pressing relates to the nature of the region on the other side of the river bank. That this is a place of purgation is indicated by Óláfr Tryggvason’s own statement that he needs to atone for his former life. That the beautiful city and its environs is merely a regular, albeit well hidden, earthly place is difficult to accept. Indeed, we sense that there is an otherworldly dimension to Gautr’s adventure. For instance, crossing a river to a region of beauty is a common trope in medieval vision literature. It signifies the translation of the protagonist from this world to a location that shows, or prefigures, the delights of Paradise.76 Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta. Editiones Arnamagnæanæ, ed. Ólafur Halldórsson, 3 vols (Copenhagen: Einar Munksgaard and C.A. Reitzel, 1958–2000), vol. 2, 340–7. 76 Christian Carlsen, Visions of the Afterlife in Old Norse Literature (Oslo: Novus Forlag, 2015), 162–78. 75


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation Further, the journey of the two Norwegians mirrors the wanderings of the Jews in the wilderness after the crossing of the Red Sea. As the Israelites seek the Promised Land, so Gautr and Gauti appear as penitential pilgrims seeking salvation. The hardship that befalls our pilgrims, with Gauti’s death en route, corresponds to the hardships that befall the sinful on the way.77 Contrastingly, Gautr’s seemingly miraculous deliverance parallels the miraculous crossing of the River Jordan into the Promised Land. The reader is prepared for these biblical associations when, near the episode’s beginning, the Red Sea is identified as the one through ‘which Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt’ [‘ok hvar Moyses hafði Gyðinga lyð leið[t] utaf Egipta landi’].78 Therefore Exodus is the archetype that is echoed by the pilgrimage of the two Norwegians. But if Óláfr Tryggvason escaped the Battle of Svõlðr and was still alive some forty-six years later, what explains his appearance in a purgatorial space? Moreover, this is also a notably pleasant environment compared with common depictions of Purgatory. It is difficult to establish what Gunnlaugr Leifsson understood this place to represent and he may have been confused about the issue, as many others were during the formative phase of Purgatory as a single identifiable locale. The most likely explanation is that Gunnlaugr was inspired by Honorius Augustodunensis’s description in his Elucidarius of a place allotted to the so-called ‘imperfect’. This work, which was translated into Old Norse at an early date, introduces a special space, a purgatory of sorts, which is neither of this world nor the next. This place allows the almost just but not yet perfect to repent for their sins before shedding their earthly garb.79 Óláfr’s disappearance from the ‘beautiful city’ would then signify the fulfilment of his penance and entry into Paradise proper. Further, Gunnlaugr seems to connect the two elements already highlighted: the ‘Exodus theme’ and the ‘earthly Purgatory’. The ‘Episode of Gautr’ is set during the brief joint rulership of Magnús góði and Haraldr harðráði (1046–7). In another episode, which also likely derives from 77

For instance: ‘God led the sons of Israel out of Egypt so that he might show them the Promised Land. But they did not reach it because of their sins (Deut. 1:35). Many of them died in the desert before they came to the Promised Land.’ The Old Norse Elucidarius, ed. and transl. Evelyn Scherabon Firchow (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1992), 45. 78 Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 2, 341. 79 L’Elucidarium et les Lucidaires, ed. Y. Lefévre (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1954). See Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Paradise, Death and Doomsday in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 183–7. It is interesting to note that a visio from Honorius Augustodunensis’s Speculum Ecclesiae was translated into Old Norse. This recounts how a rich, sinful man was shown Hell (which is located in the north) and Heaven. Before beholding the latter he is shown a beautiful and wonderous place which, however, his guide informs him is not the real Heaven. In the early modern manuscript this place is equated with Ódáinsakr. For an edition of this visio (along with some of the Latin original text), see Einar G. Pétursson, ‘Einn atburður og leiðsla um Ódáinsakur: leiðsla Drycthelms eða CI. æventýri í safni Gerings’, Gripla 4 (1980), 138–65.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Gunnlaugr’s work, Norse visitors to the Holy Land encounter Óláfr Tryggvason in the year 1005.80 Gunnlaugr, it appears, has the Norwegian king relinquish his royal status at this point in time. This marks the beginning of Óláfr’s period of repentance in the Red Sea hermitage. In other words, Ólafr completes his penance in some forty years which likely links with the wandering of the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. The association here is, of course, also with Christ’s fasting for forty days in the desert following his baptism as well as the forty days of Lent.81 So a significant reason why Gunnlaugr Leifsson wrote about Ólafr Tryggvason not long after Oddr had composed his work was to present a more religiously satisfying termination for Óláfr Tryggvason’s earthly life. As far as the surviving text suggests, Gunnlaugr, unlike Oddr, proffers a coherent scenario where Ólafr attains salvation through atoning for his early life through a heremitic life. The prerequisite for this progression is Óláfr´s renouncing of his royal title and seeking and finding redemption in the East.

Yngvars saga víðfõrla In the prologue to his Saga of Óláfr Tryggvason Oddr Snorrason indicates that he intends his work for the discerning and the educated. The same holds true of Gunnlaugr Leifsson’s saga about Óláfr which was also written in Latin. Indeed in this case we know the identity of one elite reader for Gunnlaugr Leifsson reveals that he showed the work to the chieftain Gizurr Hallsson and ‘corrected [or amended] it with his counsel’ [‘emenderaði hann hana sjálfr, þar sem Gizuri þótti þess þurfa’].82 Compare this with the following words that conclude Yngvars saga víðfõrla in its fifteenth-century manuscript: Enn þessa sogu hofum uer heyrt ok ritat epter forsaugn þeirar bækr, at Oddur munkur hinn frodi hafdi giora latit at forsaugn frodra manna, þeira er hann seger sialfur j brefi sinu, þui er hann sendi Joni Lofzssyni ok Gizuri Hallsyni. Enn þeir er uita þiciazt innuirduligar, auki uid, þar sem þikea skorta. Þessa sogu segizt Oddr munkur heyrt hafa segia þann prest, er Isleifur hiet, ok annann Glum Þorgeirsson, ok hinn þridi hefer Þorer heitit. Af þeira frasaugn hafði hann þat er honum þotti merkiligazt. En Isleifur sagdizt heyrt hafa Ynguars sogu af einum kaup[manni], enn sa kuezt hafa numit hana j hird Suiakongs. Glumur hafdi numit af fodur sinum. Enn Þorer hafdi numit af Klaukku Sâmsyni, en Klacka hafdi heyrt segia hina fyrri frændur sina. Ok þar lyktum uer þessa sogu.83 [We have heard and written down this story according to the book composed by the learned monk Oddr, which he based on the accounts of wise men, whom Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 2, 320. Homiliu-Bók, 63. 82 Flateyjarbók 1, 575. 83 Yngvars saga víðfõrla, jämte ett bihang om ingvarsinskrifterna, ed. Emil Olson (Copenhagen: S.L. Møller, 1912), 48–9. 80 81


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation he mentions in his letter, namely Jón Loptsson and Gizurr Hallsson. Those who believe they know better must add to the account wherever they believe it is lacking. Brother Oddr says he heard this story told by a priest named Ísleifr, and also by Glúmr Þorgeirsson, and his third informant was named Þórir. Oddr took from each of these whatever he thought most interesting. Ísleifr told him he had heard it from a merchant who had learned it at the royal court of Sweden. Glúmr had the story from his father, Þórir learned it from Klakka Samson, while Klakka learned it from his elder kinsmen. And there we conclude this saga.]

Again Gizurr Hallsson, a prominent chieftain of the Haukdælir family and an influential figure at the Skálholt bishopric, is involved in revising the text. And so is Jón Loptsson, the chieftain of the southern Oddaverjar family who was mentioned near the beginning of this study. Yngvars saga and the two sagas of Óláfr Tryggvason circulated within a textual community of elite men who were particularly concerned with the theme of salvation. More specifically, they were interested in Norse characters whose secular careers were consistent with their salvation. The author of this passage is very probably the translator of Oddr Snorrason’s original Latin Yngvars saga víðfõrla. The passage also conveys the oral transmission of the material from Yngvarr’s time. Interestingly Gunnlaugr Leifsson does something comparable in the ‘Episode of Gautr’ when he explains how the account reached Iceland via three generations of oral informants: ‘Þessa sogu heyrði Teitr Asgerisson segia merkan mann ok vitran Þorarin Þorualldz (son). En Þorarni sagði sialfr Einar þambar skelfir’ [‘This story Teitr Ásgeirsson heard Þórarinn Þorvaldsson tell. Þórarinn, an important and wise man, was told the story by Einarr þambarskelfir himself.’].84 Similar to the early sagas of Óláfr Tryggvason, it is uncertain how accurately the preserved text corresponds to Oddr Snorrason’s original Yngvars saga. Indeed Oddr may have written a chronicle-like saga of Yngvarr to which subsequent translators and/or redactors added more fantastic material. This possibility cannot be discounted but, as we shall see, there is notable consistency in how the saga presents our twin themes of damnation and salvation. Moreover, the focus on the themes in Yngvars saga corresponds to their prominence in the Þingeyrar sagas about Óláfr Tryggvason. This considered I see little reason to doubt that the preserved Yngvars saga víðfõrla approximates a text that was composed around the turn of the thirteenth century. The basis of Yngvars saga clearly derives from historical memory. Some two dozen eleventh-century rune-stones, most from the Uppland region of Sweden, refer to a Viking expedition that was led by Yngvarr and which came to a bad end in Serkland, the land of the Saracens.85 The saga and Icelandic medieval annals both date Yngvarr’s death to 1041. Yngvars saga begins in Sweden where 84


Ibid., 347. Jonathan Shepard, ‘Yngvarr’s Expedition to the East and Russian Inscribed Stone Cross’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 21 (1982–85), 222–92.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Yngvarr’s ambitions are not fulfilled. Yngvarr is of noble, albeit not royal, stock and relations between his family and the ruling dynasty are troubled. Yngvarr’s worth is finally recognised by the Swedish king who offers him a share of the realm. This proposal comes too late and Yngvarr embarks on a foreign adventure. He assembles a crew and set sails for the East. The travellers are welcomed at the court of Grand-Prince Yaroslav of Rus’, but Yngvarr wishes to continue his journey into the unknown. As they do so, peculiar animals and human beings appear, and finally the Vikings reach a pagan kingdom ruled by a queen called Silkisif. She invites Yngvarr to convert her realm to Christianity and to marry her. But Yngvarr is not prepared to abandon his expedition for, above all, he wishes to discover the source of the river which runs east out of the kingdom. This takes Yngvarr and his cohort to the Red Sea; shortly thereafter the Vikings are struck by a plague which kills Yngvarr along with many of his men. The saga’s last section recounts how Yngvarr’s son, Sveinn, follows in his father’s footsteps as he organises another expedition. Sveinn fulfils Yngvarr’s promise to convert Silkisif’s kingdom to Christianity and he marries the queen. Yngvars saga víðfõrla is traditionally classified as a fornaldar saga (Legendary Saga) although it does not slot easily into this rather fluid genre. Yngvars saga is neither set in the legendary Viking past nor does it include poetry like a number of such sagas. The account was originally written in Latin by a learned monk who, as we have seen, sought advice about his work from Iceland’s two most respected chieftains of the time. Accordingly, one may question whether the saga was intended purely as an entertainment of the kind Oddr Snorrason himself dismisses in his prologue to Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar.86 Here it is useful to distinguish between the saga’s original intellectual context and its subsequent afterlife in an Old Norse translation. In the latter case the elements of exotic adventure were undoubtedly the attractions that secured the saga’s later preservation. But I argue that damnation and salvation are Yngvars saga víðfõrla’s central themes – themes that run parallel to the hero’s quest for honour, wealth and status. As he sets out from Sweden, Yngvarr’s aim is to gain a kingdom for himself and his family. But this goal recedes somewhat into the background when Silkisif offers Yngvarr a kingship which he declines. Yngvarr’s ultimate aim, it transpires, is to discover the source of the river which he follows into the East. Why he keeps pushing further into the unknown is never explained. But I suggest that from the author’s perspective he does this less in the spirit of Livingstone and Stanley and more in the manner of the medieval man’s search for redemption. For informed Icelanders around 1200 the East was important on a number of levels. Jerusalem figured, of course, as the centre of the world and the Holy Land was considered a kind of great holy relic in its own right. Further, the idea of an armed pilgrimage – crusade – to the East had become a commonplace in Catholic Europe. Indeed influence of what can be termed ‘crusading ideology’ is 86

ÍF 25, 126.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation easy to detect in Yngvars saga.87 Thus both Yngvarr and Sveinn lead bands which battle non-Christians and they are accompanied by ecclesiastics who sanctify their combat. Moreover, Sveinn’s expedition is explicitly one of conquest and conversion in which divine aid secures victory over the ‘pagans’. Crusaders in the East have been likened to a ‘monastery on the move’ and a similar mode of thought certainly infuses our saga.88 For instance, Yngvarr stresses that his men should refrain from fraternising with pagans, especially seductive women who, in one instance, turn out to be demons in disguise.89 The East was also where the Earthly Paradise was located. Veraldar saga (‘History of the World’), from around 1200, states that a ‘place of delight was made in the eastern part of the world called Paradise. This place is quite far from all those lands now inhabited by people.’ [‘Ynðis stadr sa var gorr i avstanverþm heimi er Paradisvs hetir, sa staðr er fiarllegr hardla þeim iorþvm avðrom er nv erv bygþar af monnvm’].90 According to Isidore of Seville, the Earthly Paradise was far away and so well guarded that no living person could ever visit it.91 Attempting to find the place could be construed as hubristic. Thus a Jewish twelfth-century legend, rendered into Latin as Alexander magni iter ad paradisum, describes how Alexander the Great navigated a river until he reached the Earthly Paradise which he could not enter.92 To find the Earthly Paradise one had to follow the four rivers that originated in a well – the fountain of life and salvation – which flowed into the world. These, according to Veraldar saga, are the Ganges and Tigris in Asia, the Nile in ‘Blaland’ and the Euphrates which flows east of the land of the Jews.93 In Gõngu-Hrólfs saga Yngvar is identified as the one who wished to seek the source of the river and, as previously noted, this is an important driving force in his saga.94 Although Yngvars saga never explicitly states that Yngvarr’s quest is for his own salvation, a well-versed audience would have recognised the signs


88 89 90 91 92 93 94

Galina Glazyrina, ‘The Viking Age and the Crusades Era in Yngvars saga víðförla’, in Sagas and Societies: International Conference at Borgarnes, Iceland, Sept. 5.–9. 2002, ed. Stefanie Würth, Tõnno Jonuks and Axel Kristinsson (Tübingen: Universitätsbibliothek, 2004), at: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bsz:21-opus-10685 An expression used in Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press 1986), 202. Yngvars saga víðfõrla, 16–17; 26. Veraldar Saga, ed. Jakob Benediktsson (Copenhagen: Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri, 1944), 5. Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and transl. Stephen A. Barney, W.J. Lewis and J.A. Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 14.3, 285. Jean Delumeau, History of Paradise. The Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition, transl. Matthew O’Connell (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 29–70. Veraldar Saga, 5. Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, ed. Guðni Jónsson, 3 vols (Reykjavík: Forni, 1943–44), vol. 3, 165.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature that his journey carried religious connotations. In this respect the ‘source of the river’ theme would have offered the most conspicuous clue.95 In a city called Helipolim (i.e. Heliopolis) Yngvarr and his men receive hospitality from King Jólfr. Yngvarr asks the king about the source of the river: Julfur kuezt þat uita med sannleik, at hon fiell ur uppsprettu þeiri, “er uœr kaullum Lindibellti. Þaðan fellr ok aunnr til Raudahafs, ok er þar micill suelgr, sa er Gafi er ŷkalladr. A milli siofar ok ârinnar er nes þat er Siggeum heitir. Ain fellr skamt, adr hon fellr af biargi j Raudahaf, ok kaullum uer þar enda heims”.96 [Jólfr claims to know with certainty that it runs from a source ‘we called Lindibelti. From there another river runs into the Red Sea where there is a great whirlpool named Gapi. Between the sea and the river is a headland named Siggeum. The river falls a short distance before it falls off a mountain into the Red Sea. This we called the end of the world.’]

There are echoes here of the Earthly Paradise. There is the fountain or well from which the river flows in addition to its location at the end of the known world.97 But the place of Jólfr’s description has an ominous rather than a hopeful sense to it, one which he does little to dispel by adding that the river is infested with hostile creatures which Yngvarr and his men later fight. After further adventures they reach the expedition’s extreme point which is somewhere in the vicinity of the Red Sea. There the Vikings come to a fortified city where they discover a splendid hall. Curious to find out more about this place, Yngvarr orders Sóti, a pagan, to lodge overnight in the hall: En er sŷd uar ordid, syndizt honum diofullinn mannz asionu ok mœllti: “Siggeus hiet madur styrkr ok mattugur. Hann atti þriar dætur. Þeim gaf hann micit gull. En er han dô, uar hann þar grafinn, sem nu sau þier drekann. Epter hann daudan fyrirmunde hin ellzta sinum systrum gullz ok gersima. Hun spillti ser sialf. Hennar dæmi hafdi aunnr systerin. Hin þridia lifdi þeira lengzt ok toc arf epter fodr sinn ok forrædi þessa stadar, eigi at eins medan hun lifdi. Hon gaf nafn nesinu ok kalladi Siggeum. Hun skipar hueria nôt hollina med fiolda diofla, ok em ek einn af þeim, sendur at segia þier tidindi. En drekar atu hræ kongs ok dætra hans, enn sumer menn ætla, at þau se at drekum ordin. Þat skaltu uita, Sôti, ok segia kongi ydrum Ynguari, at Haralldr Suiakongr for fyrir longu þessa leid, ok forst hann j Raudahafs suelg med sinu foruneyti, ok er hann nu kominn hier til forrâda: ok til uitnis [sa]ugu minnar er hier uardueitt merki hans j haullinni, ok skal Ynguar þat med sier 95

I should emphasise that before my contribution Sverrir Tómasson had argued that Yngvars saga and Eiríks saga víðfõrla cannot be properly understood unless they are read in the context of the search for the ‘spiritual or earthly Paradise’ (‘leit að andlegri eða jarðneskri paradís’). Sverrir Tómasson, ‘Ferðir þessa heims og annars. Paradís – Ódáinsakur – Vínland í íslenskum ferðalýsingum miðalda’, Gripla 12 (2001), 38. 96 Yngvars saga víðfõrla, 18. 97 Veraldar saga, 5.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation hafa ok senda þat til Su[iþ]iodar, til þess at þeir gangi eigi dulder, huat af kongi þeira er ordit. Þat skaltu ok segia Ynguari, at hann mun j þessi deyia med myclum hluta lids sins. En þu Sôti, ert ranglâtur ok trvlaus, ok þui skaltu med oss epter dueliaszt; enn Ynguar mun hialpazt af tru þiri, er hann hefer til Guds.” Þa þagnadi diofullinn, er hann hafdi þetta mœlt. Alla nattina uar þar þys micill ok kall. En er mornadi, kom Ynguar þar, ok sagdi Sôti honum þat, er hann [hafdi] sied ok heyrt. Ok er Soti hafdi lokit sinni frasogn, at þeim ollum aseaundum fiell hann daudr nidr.98 [Late at night a demon in human form appeared to Sóti who said the following: ‘Once upon a time there was a strong and forceful man called Siggeus. He had three daughters whom he endowed richly with gold. He died and was buried at the place where you saw the dragon. Following his death the eldest sister so begrudged the others the gold and treasure that she killed herself. The second sister followed suit. The third lived on and she inherited her father’s wealth and remained in command of the estate even after her death. She gave the name of Siggeum to the headland. Each night she fills the great hall with demons. I am one of them, sent to tell you this story. Dragons ate the bodies of the king and his daughters. It is into dragons that some people believe they were transformed. Remember this Sóti and tell your king that King Haraldr of Sweden travelled this way a long time ago. He drowned in the Red Sea whirlpool along with all his followers. Now he had come to take charge here and to attest my tale. I can tell you that his standard is kept here in the hall. Yngvarr must take it and send it back to Sweden so that the people there will no longer be in the dark about what happened to their king. Tell Yngvarr this, too, that he and most of his men will die on this expedition. But you, Sóti, and unrighteous, faithless man, must remain here with us. Yngvarr, however will be saved by his faith in God.’ After the demon had spoken he fell silent, although there was plenty of commotion and roaring throughout the night. The following morning Yngvarr returned and Sóti told him what he had heard and seen. Thereafter he dropped down dead before their very eyes.]

Siggeum is the name of the city as well as the hall to which Jólfr had referred earlier. The hall is obviously an earthly manifestation of Hell. It is ruled by a demon and the overall imagery aligns with the medieval trope of the devil enthroned, attended by dragons mauling the damned.99 This Hell is localised in relation to one particular family. But the most startling feature of this scene is the reference to King Haraldr of Sweden, who has been turned into a sort of demon-in-chief in Siggeum. Although the identity of this Haraldr is unknown, we are invited to parallel his fate with Yngvarr’s. Both Swedes travel the same route which ends in the same region near the Red Sea. Haraldr’s drowning in those waters along with his followers evokes the familiar scene from Exodus: the destruction of the 98 99

Yngvars saga víðfõrla, 23–4. Gary Schmidt, The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell: Eighth-Century Britain to the Fifteenth Century (Selinsgrove, PA; Cranbury, NJ: Susquehanna Press; Associated University Presses, 1995), 88–9.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Pharaoh and his army as they pursue the Israelites. In medieval typology the Pharaoh is commonly equated with Satan whose drowning signifies damnation, as in Veraldar saga: ‘Pharao ok her hans sá er drukknaði í sjónum rauða merkir fjandann og synðir er af hverjum manni deyja í skírnar vatni’ [‘the Pharaoh and his army, who drowned in the Red Sea denote the devil and sins which for each person dies in the water of baptism’].100 The drowning-damnation element establishes a binary pattern in which the Israelites’ escape from Egypt heralds the protracted journey to the Promised Land and their eventual salvation; in Yngvars saga this binary pattern is transferred, in a typological sense, to Yngvarr and Haraldr. Shortly after the episode at Siggeum Yngvarr and his men fall ill. This leads onto Yngvarr’s death-scene, the saga’s the second scene featuring our theme: “eg hefi sott tecit, ok get ek, at hun leidi mic til bana, ok hefi ek þa þann stad, sem ek hefi til unnit. Enn med Guds myskunn uænter ek, at Guds son ueiti mier sitt fyrirheit þuiat af aullu hiarta fel eg mic Gudi a hendi a hueriu dægri, sâl mina ok likama; ok ek gætta suo þessa lyds, sem ek kunna bezt. Enn þat uil ek, at þier uitit, at af rettum Guds domi eru uær lostner þessi drepsott, ok allra mest er sea drepsott ok fiolkyngi til min gior, þuiat þegar sem ek em daudr mun huerfa af sottin”.101 [‘I have become ill and expect it to be my death’, he said. ‘I shall be going to a place that I have earned. I know that God is merciful and that his son will keep his promise for I have placed myself daily in His hands, body and soul, and I have done all that I could for my people. There is something I want you to know. I have been stricken with this disease by God’s just judgement. Both plague and witchcraft were directed more against me than the others, and when I am dead the plague will vanish.’]

Yngvarr meditates openly on his own redemption; he expresses uncertainty about his posthumous fate. Yngvarr expects to enter Paradise but this is by no means certain. His words read more like a prayer than a confident claim to redemption. Yngvarr knows that he has sinned but he hopes that atonement through sacrifice and suffering will carry him to the light. While the living cannot know their fate in the afterlife, those left behind can only rarely gauge the fate of the departed. This is higlighted in the third and last ‘salvation scene’ of Yngvars saga. Silkisif orders the erection of a church to be dedicated to Yngvarr. The bishop, a member of Sveinn’s retinue, responds to the queen’s request in the following manner: Biskup svarar: “hvij villtu so drottning? Edur hefur Jngvar jarteiknum skinit efter dauda sinn? Þviat þa eina kổllum vier helga, er þa skijna jardteiknum, er lijkamer þeira eru j jổrd grafner.” Hun svarar: “af ydrum munne heyrda ec, ad meira være verd firer Gudi stadfeste riettrar truar ok vane heilagrar ästar, 100 101

Veraldar saga, 82. Yngvars saga víðfõrla, 27–8.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation enn dyrd jardteikna; enn ec dæme, sem ec reinde, ad Jngvar var stadfastur j heilagra äst vit Gud.” Þa er drottning qvad ä, at so skylde vera, vijgde biskup musterid Gude til dŷrdar ok ollumm helgum med nafne Jngvars.102 [‘But why?’ asked the bishop, ‘has Yngvarr shone in miracles after his death? The only men we can call saints are those who shine in miracles after their bodies have been buried in the earth.’ She replied, ‘From your mouth I heard that the steadfastness of true faith and the constancy of holy love are worth more in the eyes of God than glory of miracles. And from my own experience I know that Yngvarr was steadfast in the holy love of God.’ When the queen had said that this should be, the bishop dedicated the minster to the glory of God and all his saints along with Yngvarr’s name.]

Dietrich Hofmann found in this scene a thematic correspondence with Oddr Snorrason’s saga of Ólafr Tryggvason. He argued that Oddr wished to present Ólafr as a saint but the lack of relics and miracles made this more difficult, and so in Yngvars saga he shows how miracles are not necessary for the establishment of a cult.103 This interesting idea somewhat misses the point. Both the bishop and Silkisif are manifestly in the dark about Yngvarr’s posthumous fate. The authoritative voice is not the neophyte queen, but rather the bishop who dedicates the church to all the saints with Yngvarr’s name included. The Feast of All Saints celebrates all holy men and women, including those whose sanctity is known to God but not to men. Yngvarr may have attained salvation, indeed he may well be a saint. But without explicit signs there is no way to know and hence the bishop evokes the Feast of All Saints. The subtext surely is that in spite of Silkisif’s well-meaning words, Yngvarr may not reside among the blessed.104 The scene therefore crystallises the sense of doubt about the departed rather than the certainty of sanctity. Lastly we observe the interesting parallels between Oddr’s Yngvars saga, more specifically the scene at Siggeum Hall, and the ‘Episode of Gautr’. Both scenes are set near the Red Sea and both figure a splendid city in which one structure is set apart from the rest: Óláfr Tryggvason’s stone hermitage and King Haraldr’s richly adorned hall. In the ‘Episode of Gautr’ the possibility of Ólafr’s immediate ascent to Heaven contrasts with the alternative scenario, namely that he drowned at the Battle of Svõlðr. The former option represents Ibid., 45–6. Dietrich Hofmann, ‘Die Yngvars saga viðförla und Oddr munkr inn fróði’, in Speculum Norroenum: Norse Studies in Memory of Gabriel Turville-Petre, ed. by Ursula Dronke et al. (Odense: Odense University Press 1981), 188–222. 104 The Feast of All Saints could be evoked in support of unproven sanctity. Prestssaga, informs how on that occasion, 1 November 1200, the monks of Þingeyrar came out in processio to welcome Guðmundr Arason, then still a priest, while singing a responsorium which exclaimed that a saint was in their midst, thus indicating Guðmundr’s holiness. Guðmundr clearly caught the mood as the saga informs us that he subsequently gave a long sermon about the Feast of All Saints. We are told that the organisers of this ritual were Gunnlaugr Leifsson and Abbot Karl Jónsson. Sturlunga saga 1, 145. 102 103


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature salvation while the latter, as with the Pharaoh, signifies damnation. In Yngvars saga the demon obviously links the drowning of Haraldr in the Red Sea with Yngvarr’s predicted salvation. In the ‘Episode of Gautr’ Ólafr asks the Norwegian pilgrim to take his sword back to Norway to show that he has relinquished his royal title. King Haraldr, on the other hand, asks Yngvarr (through Sóti) to bring his royal standard back to Sweden. The ‘Episode of Gautr’ takes place in 1046/47 while the scene at Siggeum occurs just before Yngvarr’s death in 1041. Both texts were almost certainly written by monks of Þingeyrar who shared a keen interest in Ólafr Tryggvason. In fact, at one point Yngvars saga explicity compares its main protagonist to the Norwegian missionary king.105 Thus the ‘Episode of Gautr’ and the ‘Episode at Siggeum’ almost mirror each other. Such mirroring a set of elements that fundamentally share similar features is known in Old Norse literature. Anne Holtsmark labelled this stylistic device ‘association by contrast’ (‘assosiasjon ved kontrast’).106 One example is Óðinn hanging from (presumably) Yggdrasil, which corresponds to Christ’s Crucifixion on a number of levels. But the set similarities between the two scenes also include contrasts or, more precisely, inversions. Most obviously, Óðinn, a type of Satan, hangs himself for occult practices whereas Christ is crucified for the salvation of humankind. This narrative ploy derives from typological thinking where Old Testament figures both correspond to and contrast with characters in the New Testament. For instance, from early Christianity there was a strong link between Eve and the Virgin Mary as well as Adam and Christ: as ‘Christ redeems mankind by defeating death, which Adam brought upon the world, so the humble Mary reopens the gates to Paradise which proud Eve had closed to mankind’.107 Essential to such thinking is that a set of similarities also includes a set of contrasting features. This sense is concretely illustrated in the well-established tradition, recorded for example in Maríu saga, of reversing the name Eve (or Eva) to ‘Ave’, the first word uttered by the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation.108 But inversion could also be divorced from typology and applied to any religious (or even secular) text. The binary nature of damnation/salvation made Yngvars saga víðfõrla, 9–10. See, for instance, Anne Holtsmark, Studier i Snorres mytologi (Oslo: Oslo Universitetsforlaget, 1964), 61–4. Heinrich Beck, ‘Snorri Sturlusons Mythologie – Euhemerismus oder Analogie?’, in Snorri Sturluson – Historiker, Dichter, Politiker, ed. by Heinrich Beck, Wilhelm Heizmann and Jan van Nahl (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2013), 9–10. On the topological dimension grounding of Holtmark’s observation, see Michael Males, ‘Allegory in Old Norse Secular Literature: Theoretical and Methodological Challenges’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 9 (2013), 106–12. 107 Kristin B. Aavitsland, Imagining the Human Condition in Medieval Rome: The Cistercian Fresco Cycle at Abbazia delle Tre Fontane (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), 85. 108 Mariu Saga. Legender om Jomfru Maria og Hendes Jertegn, ed. C.R. Unger (Christiania: Brøgger og Christie, 1871), 359. For a more detailed discussion of the typological ‘inversion’ pattern, see Haki Antonsson, ‘The Construction of Auðunar þáttr Vestfirzka: A Case of Typological Thinking in Early Old Norse Prose’, Scandinavian Studies (forthcoming 2019). 105



Life’s Journey Towards Salvation these especially appropriate themes for such treatment. For instance, Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum (composed around 1220) describes how a Cistercian falls into a trance and is shown the glories of Heaven, including the Church fathers, the prophets and the saints. However, when he expresses his surprise that his Cistercian brothers were nowhere to be seen, the Virgin Mary reassures him that as the Cistercians were so precious to her she keeps them close at all times; she the opens up her her mantle and reveals innumerable members of the order.109 In his prologue to the Summoner’s Tale Chaucer inverts this story by telling how a mendicant was shown Hell where the Devil displayed a multitude of his order sheltered in his anus.110 In Chaucer’s hand the inversion becomes parodic but the essence of the approach is familiar, a narrative pattern of similarities and contrasts which relate to the binary nature of damnation and salvation. A kindred approach allowed the Þingeyrar brothers to shape their material as they utilised learned Christian literature as well as each other’s writings. This is the plausible explanation for thematic echoes between the scene at Siggeum and ‘The Episode of Gautr’. We shall later encounter a comparable application of such thinking. The life’s journey from sin to salvation held a peculiar attraction for the Þingeyrar authors. Oddr Snorrason’s saga of Óláfr Tryggvason recounts an extraordinary transformation of a pagan Viking to a missionary king, while Gunnlaugr Leifsson adds the third act to Ólafr’s drama, namely his adoption of the monastic life and eventual salvation. In Yngvars saga an ambitious warrior travels eastwards, the direction of salvation, and dies praying for his redemption, while key episodes both before and after Yngvarr’s death deliberate on the same theme.111 We see these early saga writers grappling with the problem of how the laity, embroiled as it was in wordly affairs, might achieve salvation. The surest way was to enter the one available Earthly Paradise – the monastery; but for most penance and heartfelt contrition were more realistic options. In Gunnlaugr’s rendering Óláfr Tryggvason does both as he renounces royal power and as a hermit undertakes atonement thereafter. This must have been a topic of some resonance for the Þingeyrar monks who prayed alongside brothers, such as Guðmundr dýri Þorvaldsson, who had abandoned their worldly careers.

Eiríks saga víðfõrla Eiríks saga víðfõrla explicitly combines a journey to the Earthly Paradise with the protagonist’s road to salvation. This saga, whose manuscript survival attests Caesarius of Heisterbach, The Dialogue on Miracles, transl. H. von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, 2 vols (London: G. Routledge & Sons, 1929), vol. 1, 546. 110 John Fleming, ‘The Summoner’s Prologue: An Iconographic Adjustment’, The Chaucer Review 2 (1967), 95–107. 111 It is noteworthy that Gunnlaugr Leifsson composed Þorvalds þáttr víðfõrla which recounts the story of an Icelandic chieftain who became a missionary and ended his life in a monastery in the East. Not coincidentally it was dedicated to St John the Baptist, the patron saint and symbol of the secular penitent. 109


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature to its popularity, is thought to have been written about 1300.112 One evening at Christmas Eiríkr, the son of the king of Þrándheimr (Trondheim), vows to find the place that heathen men ‘call Ódáinsakr [the Meadow of the Undead] but Christians call the earth of the living or Paradise’ [‘stad þann er heidnir men kalla Vdains akr. En kristnir men jord lifande manna edr Paradisum’].113 Thus the story begins in a pre-Christian ‘Viking World’ that is familiar from other fornaldarsögur. Splendidly outfitted, and in the company of twelve followers, Eiríkr travels to Denmark where he stays the winter at court. There the expedition is joined by the king’s son, another Eiríkr, and together the princes sail to Constantinople where the emperor recruits the contingent to fight Vikings who are ravaging his lands. A central part of the saga is set during Eiríkr’s three-year stay in Constantinople. This section involves an extended questionand-answer scene featuring Eiríkr and the Byzantine emperor, which begins with the former querying about who created the world. This part includes an explanation of God’s creations, the design of this world, as well as the nature of Heaven and Hell. Finally, when Eiríkr asks about the location of Ódáinsakr, the emperor, echoing Eiríkr’s earlier vow, speaks of ‘Paradise’ or the ‘Meadow of the Undead’. The Earthly Paradise, he explains, can be found in the East not far beyond India, but no mortal men can enter the place for it is guarded by a high wall of fire. Eiríkr, now baptised, and his followers set out on their quest. On their pleasant and peaceful journey the band encounter exotic people and wondrous things. They are aided by a letter of recommendation that the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople have issued in many languages. Having traversed India the Norse cohort arrives at Phison, which is one of the four rivers that flow from Paradise. On the other side of the river they behold a land of plenty whose sweet fragrance they can smell. The one crossing is a stone bridge guarded by a terrifying dragon. Though the Danish Eiríkr expresses reluctance to continue, his Norwegian namesake grabs his sword and, along with one unnamed follower, jumps into the dragon’s mouth. Believing Eiríkr víðfõrli has been killed, the other Eiríkr returns to his homeland where he tells about the expedition. But the adventure of his friend and co-leader is far from over for the dragon’s jaws turns out to be a portal to the beautiful region. Eiríkr and his companion now travel until they come upon a tower which seems to be suspended in mid-air with a ladder reaching up to the entrance. There the weary travellers find a room supplied with food and drink which they sample before falling asleep. In his dreams Eiríkr is visited by a figure of pleasing appearance who introduces himself as a guardian angel of Paradise. The angel explains that he had been keeping watch over Eiríkr since his vow to discover ‘the Meadow of the Undead’, and that he had also prompted the Norwegian to travel to Constantinople. The angel further informs him how, by God’s command, he orchestrated Eiríkr’s baptism, the emperor’s words of 112 113

Eiríks saga víðfõrla, ed. Helle Jensen (Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzels Forlag, 1983). Ibid., 4.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation instruction and the letter of protection (in addition to Eiríkr’s bathing in the River Jordan, an incident that is not otherwise mentioned). The angel tells that he had shielded Eiríkr from danger during his travels but now, rewarding his efforts, he shall be shown ‘the Meadow of the Undead’. This place turns out be a pale reflection of the real Paradise where the angel and the chosen few can gaze directly at God’s countenance. Eiríkr now states his intention to return home and spread the Gospel. But first he wishes to meet the emperor and bear witness to his adventures. The angel agrees and foretells that Eiríkr will be important for the conversion of his people. Having exhorted Eiríkr to pray regularly and follow God’s laws, the angel declares that he will visit him in ten years’ time and ‘bring you to that place [Paradise] because here God wishes to maintain a court that will last until the Judgement – they shall await the Judgement’ [‘færa þigh i þenna stad þui ath her vill gud ath þau se her hird til doms – þau skulu doms bida’].114 Eiríkr retraces his steps, reports to the Greek emperor and returns to Norway, where he dies ten years later. A striking aspect of Eiríks saga víðfõrla is its mixture of exotic travel and matters of Christian instruction. Indeed, sections of the question-and-answer scene are heavily influenced by Honorius Augustodunensis’s Elucidarius.115 A comparison with Yngvars saga is illuminating. There, religious themes and motives, such as the ‘quest for the Earthly Paradise’, are tightly woven into a saga that purports to tell the story of an expedition to the East. Yngvars saga víðfõrla, however, never explicitly states that Yngvarr sought out the Earthly Paradise but rather alludes to this aim through ‘the source of the river’ motif. Contrastingly, from the beginning of his saga Eiríkr intends to find ‘the Meadow of the Undead’ or the place the Christians call ‘Paradise’. But whereas the two sagas adopt a similar narrative arc – a Norse prince travelling to the East in search of knowledge relating to salvation – they diverge in important ways. Eiríkr is a pagan who receives Christian instruction and finally baptism from a ruler in the East. From the start Yngvarr is a Christian who instructs Queen Silkisif in the religion which leads to her baptism. Further, in Eiríks saga víðfõrla there is no ambiguity about the hero’s fate in the afterlife: he has earned his place in Paradise. In Yngvars saga víðfõrla, however, the hero expresses distinct anxiety about his own redemption. Yngvarr prays for mercy at the hour of his death and his bishop speaks to Silkisif about the difficulty of verifying the fate of the dead. Note also the contrast between Eiríkr’s innocuous cruise to the East and the danger Yngvarr encounters on his route. The author of Eiríks saga, one is tempted to conclude, knew Yngvars saga and derived from it features to both include and invert. The angel of Eiríks saga víðfõrla, who follows and protects the hero from beginning to end, is absent from Yngvars saga víðfõrla. Although the association of angels with salvation was a long established one in Christian thought, it became 114


Ibid., 14. On the learned sources for Eiríks saga Víðförla see Rudolf Simek, ‘Die Quellen der Eiríks saga víðfõrla’, Skandinavistik 14 (1984), 109–14.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature a special topic of interest in twelfth-century scholastic circles.116 The Archangel Michael was particularly linked with redemption through his role of weighing up sins at the Last Judgement. Early evidence of this belief in Old Norse literature appears in the skaldic poetry of Arnórr Þórðarson (born c.1011).117 More familiar is perhaps Síðu-Hallr’s baptism by the German missionary Þangbrandr. In Kristni saga and in the so-called Kristniboð Þangbrands the Icelandic chieftain asks Þangbrandr about St Michael.118 Þangbrandr’s description of St Michael and his heavenly host so impresses Síðu-Hallr Þorsteinsson that he accepts baptism the following day, which falls on the Feast of the Archangel. Here, as elsewhere, the Archangel’s role in leading the saved into Paradise is paralleled with the sacrament of baptism. Síðu-Hallr’s understanding is that he has acquired a powerful guardian spirit. As the Old Icelandic Homily Book shows, it was disputed whether ‘senior angels’ deigned to perform such a personal service or whether guardian angels were exclusively drawn from the common host.119 In late Anglo-Saxon prayers St Michael was called upon by the dying to lead them into Paradise, whereas the liturgy for baptism summoned an unnamed angel to protect the neophyte’s soul.120 Although the angel in Eiríks saga víðfõrla remains anonymous throughout, this is the celestial figure that guides Eiríkr through the five stages that lead to Paradise. On the first rung Eiríkr víðfõrli appears as the noble heathen who intuits Christianity, but he does not intellectually or spiritually understand it. On the second level Eiríkr seeks knowledge about the fundamentals of religion which leads to the third stage, his baptism. Thus equipped, Eiríkr is offered a glimpse of the delights of the afterlife. But this revelation is only a faint echo of the true Paradise. The depiction of ‘the Meadow of the Undead’ is worth considering: good food, drink, beautiful pastures and richly adorned rooms; all these are commensurate to Eiríkr’s stage of development. The angel compares this rather desolate, unpopulated, place to the real reward that awaits the saved: to behold directly God in the company of the Blessed. This marks Eiríkr’s fifth and final stage, reached after ten years of prayer and piety, which culminates in the angel spiriting him away forever. Eiríkr’s life trajectory may appear familiar, if we recall the pagan Óláfr Tryggvason, who shuns heathen rituals but learns of the faith in Greece which leads to his baptism. Seen in the company of angels, Óláfr returns to his homeland to introduce Christianity and finally, according to some, he is spirited away into Paradise at his moment of death.

116 117 118 119


David Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 74–115. Diana Whaley, The Poetry of Arnórr Jarlaskáld: An Edition and Study (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998), 134; 312. ÍF 15:2, 130. Homiliu-Bók, 88–92. Further on St Michael as a guardian angel in Old Norse literature, see Hamer, Njáls saga and its Christian Background, 108–11. Helen Foxhall Forbes, Heaven and Earth in Anglo-Saxon England. Theology and Society in an Age of Faith (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 108–15.


Life’s Journey Towards Salvation It is noteworthy how ‘the Meadow of the Undead’ in Eiríks saga víðfõrla compares to the beautiful city in the ‘Episode of Gautr’. Although both are reached by crossing a river and both are likely inspired by Elucidarius, the former is found near the Earthly Paradise, east of any human habitation, whereas the latter is located near the Red Sea. These settings correspond to the different nature of the two places. The Red Sea is associated with the washing away of sins through penance, whereas Ódáinsakr’s proximity to Paradise links it with the prospect of the hero’s reward. This is the level which the newly baptised Eiríkr has reached at this stage of his life, but through piety and grace he finally attains the real Paradise. Richard W. Southern, in the celebrated final chapter of his The Making of the Middle Ages, highlights how in twelfth-century literature inner religious life is reflected in movement and travel. In this corpus there is less talk of life as an exercise in endurance, and of death in a hopeless cause; and we hear more of life as seeking and journeying. Men began to order their experience more consciously in accordance with a plan: they think of themselves less as stationary objects of attack by spiritual foes, and more as pilgrims and seekers.121

The examples in this chapter reflect a similar sense of the lived life as a spiritual quest. Associated with this yearning for spiritual advancement is the notion of travelling away from the homeland, southwards and eastwards to the Holy Land or into unknown territories. We can only guess at the mentality that led Icelandic monks – whose existence, as far as we know, was stationary, regimented and repetitive – to write about a life of travel, wonders and excitement. Moreover, they did so within a framework that essentially agreed with their own condition and purpose: the life as a journey towards salvation.


R.W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (London: Pimlico, 1993 [first published 1953]), 210.


N 3 n Betrayal The ‘Episode of Gautr’ is set during the brief joint reign of King Magnús góði and Haraldr harðráði (1046–7). Óláfr Tryggvason, now living incognito by the Red Sea, tells Gautr about his admiration for Magnús and also recounts how, while he was travelling through Greece, he heard much about Haraldr’s foreign adventures. Óláfr adds that Haraldr was just as much a Viking as a king. Though Óláfr’s opinion about the two rulers may seem innocuous, they encapsulate a comparison of the bellicose, adventurous and ruthless Haraldr with his wise and conciliatory nephew. Unexpected as it was, King Magnús’s sudden death was a concern for early Icelandic and Norwegian writers. If Norway’s conversion to Christianity, crowned by St Óláfr’s sainthood, formed part of a divine plan, then his death seemed an inexplicable event. All things being equal, St Óláfr should have been the progenitor of the Norwegian dynasty, but this was not to be. The ancestor of the Norwegian kings was not the son of St Ólafr but Haraldr, whose personality and reputation differed greatly from that of Magnús. Theodoricus Monachus approached this problem by appropriating biblical and Roman examples that illustrate the poison of envy within ruling families. Just before dealing with Magnús and Haraldr, the Norwegian writes about Emperor Titus (AD 79–81) whose younger brother, Domitian, coveted the imperial throne. Titus warned Domitian that he would defile himself should he kill his own brother, i.e. him. As supreme power would soon be Domitian’s anyway, he would have no need to commit such a crime.1 And so it transpired; Titus died shortly thereafter and Domitian was spared the ignominy of fratricide. Theodoricus implies that, given the opportunity, Domitian and thus Haraldr harðráði would have killed their kinsmen to further their worldly ambitions. But chance or, more likely, Divine Providence allowed both to gain power without bloodshed. Heimskringla’s quite different take on the same issue merits attention. Snorri Sturluson, like Theodoricus, is concerned with the tense and ambiguous relationship that developed between Magnús góði and Haraldr harðráði. The reader senses that something must eventually give. But instead of a bloody showdown between the kinsmen the stand-off is resolved by a dream-vision: 1

Theodoricus Monachus, 26.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Þat var eina nótt, þá er Magnús konungr lá í hvílu sinni, at hann dreymði ok þóttisk staddr þar, sem var faðr hans, inn helgi Óláfr konungr, ok þótti hann mæla við sik: “Hvárn kost viltu, sonr minn, at fara nú með mér eða verða allra konunga ríkastr ok lifa lengi ok gera þann glœp, er þú fáir annathvárt bœtt trautt eða eigi”? En hann þóttisk svara: ”Ek vil, at þú kjósir fyrir mína hõnd”. Þá þóttisk svara: “Þá skaltu með mér fara”.2 [[King Magnús] had a dream and dreamt he was in the presence of his father the blessed King Óláfr, and he dreamt he spoke to him: ‘Which would you rather, my son, go with me now or become the most powerful of all kings and live a long time and commit a misdeed that you will scarcely or not at all be able to put right?’ And he dreamt he replied: ‘I want you to make the choice for me.’ Then he dreamt the king replied to him: ‘Then you shall go with me’.]3

In Heimskringla, as in other Kings’ sagas, St Óláfr assumes the role of a celestial patron to the Norwegian royal dynasty. For instance, Óláfr appears in dream to Magnús and promises to help in the upcoming battle against the pagan Wends.4 But in our dream-scene Óláfr offers his son a different kind of support. The saint lays two options before Magnús. He can die and be saved or kill his uncle and so gain sole rulership in Norway. The latter will certainly compromise his soul; killing a close relative is a mortal sin for which it would be difficult to atone. Óláfr therefore concerns himself not only with his son’s earthly fate but also his salvation. The royal saint effectively chooses the path of redemption for King Magnús Óláfsson and consequently the future of the Norwegian royal dynasty. We saw, in the Introduction, how a similar theme played out in Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar in which St Óláfr concerned himself with a decidedly less responsive Haraldr harðráði. The Heimskringla scene does not rely on any known earlier source. Indeed, as we shall see in another context, Morkinskinna recounts Magnús’s death in a quite different manner (see chapter 6). The dream-vision centres on a choice between an earthly power and eternal life. Opting for the latter turns Magnús’s early death into an attestation of his redemption. In a sense this neutralises the tragedy; what seems like the inexplicable demise of a popular ruler transforms into a victory which benefits his eternal soul. Note, for instance, a pivotal scene in the Serbian ‘The Downfall of the Serbian Empire’ from the so-called Kosovo Cycle. This epic poem, compiled in the nineteenth century but shaped by centuries of oral telling, narrates the epochal defeat of Prince Lazar against Ottoman forces in 1389. Before battle the Prophet Elijah brings Lazar a letter from the Virgin Mary in which the prince is offered two alternatives: to choose




ÍF 28, 105. Snorri Sturluson Heimskringla, Volume III: Magnús Óláfsson to Magnús Erlingsson, transl. Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2015), 62. Ibid., 43.


Betrayal either an ‘earthly crown’ or a ‘heavenly crown’.5 Lazar can attain the former by conducting a dawn raid on the Turks, whereas eternal life can be secured by confronting them in pitched battle. Lazar chooses the latter and is martyred on the Field of the Blackbirds. Our Heimskringla scene, however, includes the additional ingredient of intrafamily betrayal; the alternatives of salvation and damnation are contingent on committing or avoiding the murder of a close relative. The same dilemma also underlies an episode in Orkneyinga saga, The Saga of the Earls of Orkney, a text originally written in the early thirteenth century and which served as a source for Heimskringla.6 Again we are confronted with an uneasy power relationship within a ruling dynasty. This involves the cousins Hákon Pálsson and Magnús Erlendsson, the sons of earls who had jointly ruled Orkney between 1064 and 1098. Orkneyinga saga narrates how the young Hákon had stirred up trouble between the co-rulers and their followers. This effectively brought about his exile from the earldom. While enjoying the hospitality of the Swedish king, Hákon consults a pagan prophet (spámaðr) about his future. The prophet foresees power and glory for Hákon and his descendants but, although Hákon will eventually rule Orkney alone, he will also commit a crime: ‘Þú munt ok á þínum dõgum láta gera glœp þann, er þú munt annattveggja fá bœtt trauðla eða eigi við þann guð, er þú trúir á ...’ [‘You will in your days commit a crime you find difficult to be pardoned by the God you believe in’]. This anticipates Hákon’s treacherous killing of his cousin and co-ruler, Magnús, some two decades later (1116 or 1117). Magnús’s death was, of course, interpreted as martyrdom and in due course he became a major saint in the Orkney earldom and beyond.7 As with King Magnús góði the issue is the possibility of killing a close relative and co-ruler to gain greater earthly power. In both the protagonist is warned that such an action will likely lead to damnation. In Heimskringla St Óláfr steers his son away from such a crime, whereas the pagan soothsayer can only exclaim that Hákon’s soul is in mortal danger. A further link between the episodes is suggested by the clear verbal echo between St Óláfr’s utterance and the soothsayer’s words. The former states, ‘ok gera þann glœp, er þú fáir annathvárt bœtt trautt eða eigi’ while the latter says, ‘gera glœp þann, er þú munt annattveggja fá bœtt trauðla eða eigi’. Moreover, when the prophet asks Hákon why he chooses to consult a pagan rather than receive advice from St Óláfr, ‘to whom all your faith is given’ [‘er þér hafið allan trúnað á’], Hákon answers that the saint will not deem him worthy of receiving wisdom from him. But Hákon’s damnation is not preordained for later in the saga he embarks

5 6 7

The Battle of Kosovo, transl. John Matthias and Vladeta Vučković (Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 1987), 90. ÍF 34, 92. See also Haki Antonsson, ‘Kings of Norway and the Earls of Orkney: Orkneyinga saga, Chapter 36’, Mediaeval Scandinavia 15 (2005), 81–100.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature on a Roman pilgrimage of atonement. This is part of Hákon’s life that remains hidden from the pagan soothsayer.8 In these two examples damnation and salvation appear within the context of betrayal, or at least the prospect of betrayal, within a family or dynasty. King Magnús’s eternal soul is defended by his saintly father who had also aided him in his earthly endeavours. But Hákon is left bereft of such a heavenly patron and so he must atone for his deeds unaided. We now turn to instances set in Iceland where our twin themes link with the betrayal of friends and kinsmen.

Svínfellinga saga In Svínfellinga saga past relations between the victor and the vanquished crystallise in a single scene of attempted penance and violence.9 The saga centres on a feud between the kinsmen Sæmundr Ormsson and Õgmundr Helgason, who are both scions of the Svínfellinga family which held authority in southeastern Iceland.10 In 1241 Sæmundr inherits a chieftaincy but soon Õgmundr begins to establish his own power base in the same region, although initially with limited success. Matters finally come to a head a decade or so later when Õgmundr and his followers ambush, capture and execute Sæmundr along with his brother, the adolescent Guðmundr. The tragedy of this act is compounded by Õgmundr having fostered Guðmundr. Svínfellinga saga, which features in Sturlunga saga, culminates and concludes with this scene which comprises nearly half the saga. The following represents its climax: Þá mælti Sæmundr: “Hvat skal fyrirsát þessi, Ögmundr? – Ek hugða, at vér værim menn sáttir.” Ögmundr segir: “Þú skalt deyja ok svá Guðmundr, bróðir þinn.” “Prestsfund vilda ek hafa” segir Sæmundr. “Skömmu muntu prest hafa fundit,” segir Ögmundr. “Ger nú sem guð kennir þér,” segir Sæmundr. Jón karl sagði, at eftir presti skyldi fara. Þrír voru prestar á staðnum. Þormóðr hét staðarprestr, annarr Hjalti, þriði Sæmundr. Nú koma prestar ok biðja þeim griða, en Sæmundr prestr varð hraporðr ok sagði Ögmund seint mundu bætt fá glæp sinn, ef þetta færi fram. Ögmundr hlýddi til, hvat þeir töluðu, ok gaf sér ekki um. Sæmundr Ormsson bað Ögmund, at senda skyldi eftir Brandi ábóta, ok kvaðst vilja finna hann. Ögmundr kvað þess enga ván. Ok er engi kostr var griða, skriftaðist Sæmundr við Þormóð prest, en Guðmundr við Hjalta prest, ok tóku báðir þjónustu, hold ok blóð Jesu Christi í sinn líkama. Eptir þat lásu þeir letaniam. Síðan varp Sæmundr af sér yfirhöfninni ok fell á kné ok laut í gaupnir sér ok bað guð almáttkan sér miskunnar. Hann varð bæði við dauðans harðliga ok hjálpvænliga. Ögmundr mælti til Árna gullskeggs: “Tak hér öxi, ok högg í höfuð Sæmundi, ef hann leggst eigi niðr.” Sæmundr 8

ÍF 34, 94. Svínfellinga saga is preserved in both the Reykjafjarðarbók and Króksfjarðarbók manuscripts of Sturlungasaga. Rolf Heller, ‘Studien zur Svínfellinga saga’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 79 (1964), 105–16; Úlfar Bragason, Ætt og saga. Um frásagnarfræði Sturlungu eða Íslendinga sögu hinnar miklu (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2010), 85–9. 10 Sturlunga saga 2, 87–103. 9


Betrayal fell þá til jarðar ok hafði hendr fyrir augum sér. Árni hjó þá á hálsinn, svá at öxin stóð í sandinum, en höfuðit hné af honum. En þat undruðust menn, er ekki blæddi líkamanum. Guðmundr Ormsson ok prestarnir lásu þá sjau sálma, ok fann engi maðr, at hann brygði sér nökkut við þessi tíðindi – annan veg en hann kvað nökkut harðara at orðunum en áðr. Þá var hann átján vetra.11 [Then Sæmundr spoke: ‘Why this ambush, Õgmundr? I thought we were reconciled’. Õgmundr says, ‘You shall die and also your brother, Guðmundr’. ‘I would like to see a priest’, says Sæmundr. ‘You will shortly meet a priest,’ says Õgmundr. ‘Do now what God instructs you,’ says Sæmundr. Jón karl said that he would fetch a priest. There were three priests on the farm. The name of the local priest was Þormóðr, the second Hjalti and the third Sæmundr. Now the priests arrived and pleaded for a truce for them, but Priest Sæmundr spoke angry words and said that Õgmundr would find it difficult to atone for this deed if he carried it out. Õgmundr listened to what they had to say but took no notice of it. Sæmundr Ormsson asked Õgmundr to have Abbot Brand fetched as he wished to speak to him. Õgmundr said there was no chance of this. And as there was no opportunity for peace Sæmundr confessed to Priest Þormóðr and Guðmundr to Priest Hjalti. Both received communion, the flesh and blood of Christ into their bodies. After that they recited a litany. Then Sæmundr threw off his cloak and fell on his knees, looked into the palm of his hands and asked Almighty God for mercy. He behaved in the face of death both with fortitude and with hope of salvation. Õgmundr spoke to Árni gullskegg: ‘Take an axe and strike a blow to Sæmundr’s head if he does not lie down’. Sæmundr then fell to the ground with his hands over his eyes. Árni then struck at his neck so that the axe got stuck in the sand and the head fell off. But people were surprised that the body did not bleed. Guðmundr Ormsson and the priests recited seven Psalms and no one saw him become emotional because of this event, apart from the fact that he recited the words more forcefully. He was then eighteen years old.]

The conflict between Sæmundr and Õgmundr begins over a seemingly innocuous issue. This involves the responsibility for an orphan whom Sæmundr, as the region’s chieftain, had entrusted to a farmer living under Õgmundr’s protection. Õgmundr considers this a challenge to his authority and returns the child. This prompts Sæmundr to launch a prosecution at the Althing (in 1249) but the intervention of Abbot Brandr Jónsson of Þykkvabær averts a showdown. Sæmundr is not content and joined by Guðmundr he raids Õgmundr’s farmstead. Brandr again calms the waters by securing a truce between the disputing parties which, however, proves shortlived. As just described, Õgmundr ambushes and kills his kinsmen. Svínfellinga saga terminates with Abbot Brandr settling the dispute with Õgmundr paying significant blood-money and departing from the region.


Ibid., 99–100.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Abbot Brandr’s role as a mediator is a central feature of Svínfellinga saga.12 First, by his presence at the Althing, where he dissuades Sæmundr from prosecuting Õgmundr, and then by his absence at the following Althing: ‘Sæmundr hefir þá fram mál þat, er hann hvarf frá it fyrra sumarit, þá er Brandr ábóti var á þinginu. Gekk þat nú auðveldliga, því at engi var til andsvara fyrir Ögmundr. Lýkr því svá at Ögmundr varð sekr’ [‘Sæmundr presents the case which he had abandoned the previous summer when Abbot Brandr was at the thing. All went smoothly as there was no one to defend Õgmundr. The case concludes with Õgmundr being judged guilty.’].13 When Brandr and Sæmundr meet for the last time the abbot is non-committal about Õgmundr’s trustworthiness. Nevertheless, he tells Sæmundr to be on guard and then they ‘parted with great friendliness never to meet again while alive’ [‘Ok skilðu þá með blíðu ok fundust ekki síðan lífs’]. This implies that the two may meet again in the afterlife.14 Crucially from this meeting onwards Sæmundr appears like a man transformed. He sheds the persona of the ruthless chieftain and assumes the role of the victim who is betrayed. At this juncture Sæmundr’s, and indeed Guðmundr’s, redemption is foregrounded. The brothers’ likely salvation contrasts with Õgmundr’s anticipated posthumous punishment for breaking a truce. This notion is expressed by one of the three priests at the scene of execution. His task is not to receive Sæmundr’s last confession but rather to issue a warning: ‘seint mundu bætt fá glæp sinn’ [‘you will find it difficult to atone for this deed’]. This statement clearly echoes the aforementioned words of St Óláfr in Heimskringla and the soothsayer in Orkneyinga saga.15 Although it is uncertain whether the verbal similarity is consciously applied, the priest’s turn of phrase places Õgmundr within the context of men in authority whose salvation is imperiled by their betrayal of a friend or relative. The poignancy of Sæmundr’s pleading for Abbot Brandr is only heightened by the presence of the three priests; he wants to confess to a high-ranking cleric. As mentioned, men of high standing likely preferred to confess to senior ecclesiastics [see above, 32–3]. But Sæmundr’s request is clearly a desperate final attempt to avert his impending doom. Three years earlier the abbot had prevented him from prosecuting Õgmundr at the Althing. It was Brandr’s absence from the Althing which set in motion the chain of events that led to Sæmundr’s downfall. Now Brandr’s second absence seals Sæmundr’s fate. The irony of this turn of events should not be missed. The detailed description of Sæmundr’s execution contrasts with Õgmundr’s staccato-like utterances. First Sæmundr confesses his sins, then the brothers 12

Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir, ‘Um afskipti erkibyskupa af íslenzkum málefnum á 12. og 13. öld’, Saga 20 (1982), 54. 13 Sturlunga saga 2, 94–5. 14 As in Sólarljóð stanza 82: ‘Hér vit skiljumz ok hittaz munum / á feginsdegi fira.’ Poetry on Christian Subjects. Part 1, ed. Clunies Ross, 356–7. 15 ÍF 34, 92.


Betrayal receive corpus domini and finally pray. Sæmundr asks for God’s mercy. During Guðmundr’s killing, the priests recite the seven penitential psalms. Sæmundr’s beheaded corpse does not bleed. This contrasts with Õgmundr’s countenance when confronted with killing Guðmundr, his foster son, who begs to be spared: ‘Ögmundr leit frá ok mælti: “Eigi þorum vér nú þat, fóstri minn”, segir hann. Var hann þá rauðr sem blóð’ [‘Õgmundr looked away and spoke. “We do not risk that, my foster-son”, he said. He was then red as blood.’].16 Õgmundr’s men refuse to execute the popular Guðmundr and a passing farmhand is called to do the deed. Thus Sæmundr’s implied salvation is juxtaposed with Õgmundr’s damnation or, at least, his uncertain afterlife following this crime. Svínfellinga saga, like most other sagas, refrains from explicitly claiming that a character is damned. Rather, subtle yet clear hints are made about the sinner’s poor posthumous prospects. At the end of Svínfellinga saga Brandr Jónsson buries the brothers and Õgmundr requests legal settlement for the deaths of Sæmundr and Guðmundr. The abbot stipulates that Õgmundr should pay a hefty fine and leave the region within three days or, alternatively, become a monk at Þykkvabær. Õgmundr chooses to pay and, much poorer, he moves to a farm in northern Iceland. Just as the saga begins with an introduction of Brandr so it ends with the abbot ruling on the peace settlement. Svínfellinga saga focuses almost exclusively on the brief but dramatic feud between Sæmundr Ormsson and Õgmundr Helgason and especially the extended scene of execution.17 We have also identified Sæmundr’s shift from an ambitious, even ruthless chieftain to someone who dies a dignified and ‘good death’. His redemption is underlined, not by his reported state of mind, as in Oddr Þórarinsson’s case, but through proper confession. The violent climax to Svínfellinga saga occurs after an act of betrayal; a truce between two factions tied by friendship and kinship is unilaterally broken.

Þorgils saga skarða For a significant chieftain of the ‘Sturlung Age’ Þorgils skarði Bõðvarsson enjoyed an unusual career. Born in 1228 into the Sturlungar dynasty on his father’s side, and the family of Ásbirningar on his mother’s side, Þorgils entered the court of King Hákon of Norway at the age of eighteen. There Þorgils stayed until 1252 or when the king sent him to Iceland, along with Gizurr Þorvaldsson, with a brief to bring the country under royal rule. Þorgils chose to establish his power 16 17

Sturlunga saga 2, 100. Indeed, the author might have, but chose not to, feature other disputes from the region of south-eastern Iceland. In Reykjafjarðarbók the material found in the earlier Króksfjarðarbók, which is essentially local in nature, has been augmented by material of more ‘national’ importance. See Guðrún Nordal, ‘Rewriting History. The Fourteenth-Century Versions of Sturlunga Saga’, in Creating the Medieval Saga: Versions, Variability and Editorial Interpretations of Old Norse Literature, ed. Judy Quinn and Emily Lethbridge (Odense: Odense University Press, 2010), 175–90.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature base in western Iceland, the old heartland of the Sturlungar dynasty, where he soon ran into opposition from Sturla Þórðarson and Hrafn Oddsson. Þorgils proved to be a ruthless operator whose harsh treatment of non-compliant farmers some considered excessive. Þorgils then wasted little time in extending his authority over an area in north-western Iceland that had traditionally been the preserve of the Ásbirningar family. At this point Þorgils’s main ally was the powerful chieftain Þorvarðr Þórarinsson, the brother of Oddr whose case we examined in chapter 1. Þorvarðr allied with Þorgils to avenge Oddr Þórarinsson’s death. This culminated in the Battle of Þverá (1255) where they defeated Hrafn Oddsson and Eyjólfr ofsi. From the start the saga stresses the bond between Þorgils and Þorvarðr as well as their (in reality not so close) kinship. Their apparent friendship is further enhanced after the victory at Þverár when they vow to support each other and seal the agreement with a handshake.18 But the next morning Abbot Brandr Jónsson, addressing one of Þorgils’s followers, sounds a note of caution: “Vilda ek, mágr, at þú fylgðir Þorgilsi vel ok fýstir hann jafnan ins betra. Vilda ek nú, at guð væri yðr fyrir vápn ok vörð ok hyljanarmaðr Tómas erkibiskup. En treystið lítt á drengskap Þorvarðs, því at mér segir eigi mjök hugr um, hversu til enda ganga skipti þeira Þorgils ok Þorvarðs, ok ætla ek Þorvarðr valdi afbrigðum”.19 [‘I wish, kinsman, that you would follow Þorgils and urge him towards the best always. I wish now that God would be your weapon and defence and that Archbishop Thomas be your protector. But do not trust in the integrity of Þorvarðr, because I do not know how the relations between Þorgils ok Þorvarðr will end, although I assume Þorvarðr will betray him.’]

Thus immediately after the vow of friendship a theme of betrayal is struck which, moreover, is associated with St Thomas Becket. The next day Þorgils and Þorvarðr arrive at the farmstead of Hvamm, the home of Ásgrímr who, three years earlier, had attended Oddr’s killing. Ásgrímr’s wife claims that her husband is away but Þorvarðr refuses to believe her. Then a telling incident occurs. Þorvarðr suspects that Ásgrímr has fled to the farmstead’s church. Þorvarðr kicks down its locked door and so threatens to break into the sanctuary. The saga comments that ‘Þorgils and some men advised him not to break down the door’ [‘Þorgils ok nökkurir menn lögðu til, at hann skyldi eigi brjóta hurðina’].20 Þorgils then promises to spare all inside the church but it transpires that Ásgrímr is not among them. This scene illustrates Þorvarðr’s impetuosity and ruthlessness; he threatens to violently enter a place of worship. Contrastingly, Þorgils, who has shown similar character traits earlier, exhibits 18

‘kvað þá eigi skyldu skilja, meðan líf þeira væri, við hverja menn sem skipta væri.’ Sturlunga saga 2, 175. ‘Hét Þorvarðr ok Þorgilsi sinni liðveizlu með frændsemi, svá sem hann ynnist til, meðan þeir væri báðir uppi.’ Ibid., 176. 19 Ibid., 177. 20 Ibid., 178.


Betrayal restraint and shows respect for church sanctuary. The scene, it should be noted, follows Brandr’s statement that Becket would be an ideal protector for Þorgils and his men. Not coincidentally, Þorvarðr’s attempt to break into the church, a place of sanctuary, evokes the most high profile of such transgressions – the murder of the archbishop in his own cathedral.21 Subsequent to the Battle of Þverár, Heinrekr of Hólar excommunicated Þorgils and Þorvarðr for taking up arms against the Crown’s rightful representative in Iceland (the bishop now supported the side of Eyjólfr ofsi). Heinrekr issued his excommunication even though the two chieftains had been absolved after the battle by the abbot of Munka-Þverá.22 Nevertheless, the farmers of Skagafjörður accepted Þorgils as their leader. Thus Þorgils’s political prospects seemed good. Even at this late stage the saga highlights his fine relationship with Þorvarðr who was then ‘very friendly [towards Þorgils] and the kinsmen got on well’ [‘Var Þorvarðr þá inn blíðasti ok fór þá með þeim frændum vingjarnlega’].23 But from now on it becomes apparent that Þorvarðr has less than honest intentions. The focus turns to Þorgils’s attempts to reach a concord with his two main opponents: Hrafn Oddsson and Bishop Heinrekr of Hólar. Þorgils is successful on both counts although his initial encounter with the bishop ends acrimoniously. Þorgils accepts all of Heinrekr’s demands apart from relinquishing power in Skagafjörður. The bishop retorts: ‘ok eigi skal yðr heimul jörð at ganga á, eigi himinninn at horfa á ok engan hlut heimilan nema helvíti’ [‘and you shall not be allowed an earth to walk on nor a heaven to look at. You will be allotted nothing but Hell.’].24 Heinrekr thus confirms his previous sentence, but now with the added force of a verbalised excommunication in the sinner’s presence.25 As Þorgils is denied church service, and thus confession and penance, Heinrekr intimates his grim posthumous fate. Later Bishop Heinrekr threatens Þorgils with banning church services in his region.26 But the seemingly intractable dispute is mediated and Þorgils’s excommunication is finally lifted. Thereafter 21

22 23 24

25 26

For comparative purposes one may mention Magnúss saga lengri (‘The Longer Magnúss Saga’), a hagiographic work on Earl Magnús of Orkney from the fourteenth century. There Earl Hákon has his men forcibly drag his co-earl from a church, and he is killed. ÍF 34, 365–6. (Orkneyinga saga, on the other hand, makes no mention of a church in this context.) The intention here is to highlight Hákon’s ruthlessness in breaking the sanctuary of the church and, as I have argued, to align Magnús’s martyrdom with that of St Thomas Becket. A much earlier Latin source (perhaps from the late twelfth century) on St Magnús underlies this account. Haki Antonsson, ‘Two Twelfth Century Martyrs: St Thomas of Canterbury and St Magnús of Orkney’, in Sagas, Saints and Settlements, ed. Gareth Williams and Paul Bibire (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 41–64. Arngrímr Brandsson likens the despoliation of Hólar by Arnórr Tumason and Sigurðr Ormsson in 1210 to the despoliation of Canterbury cathedral that followed Becket’s martyrdom. Byskupa sögur III: Hólabyskupar, ed. Guðni Jónsson (Reykjavík: Íslendingasagnaútgáfan, 1981), 272. Sturlunga saga 2, 192. Ibid., 197. Ibid., 199. Vodola, Excommunication in the Middle Ages, 45–6. Sturlunga saga 2, 204.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Þorgils also settles all outstanding issues with Hrafn Oddsson, his principal secular opponent. So, by the end of 1255, Þorgils skarði Bõðvarsson had achieved his three principal aims. He had consolidated his authority in north-western Iceland, resolved the conflicts with his most powerful foes, and secured his re-entry into the Church. In all this Þorgils skarði is shown in a markedly different light than earlier in the saga. In its concluding part Þorgils saga skarða combines the usual narrative of conflict and settlement with an extended preparation for the hero’s ‘good death’. This requires the dying person to become reconciled with the living. We witness Þorgils’s change from an unpopular chieftain, who had harassed and maimed disobedient farmers, into an ideal lord. Note, for instance, Þorgils’s lavish display of gift-giving and feast-holding: Buðu flestir bændr honum þá heim, ok fór hann at veizlum um vetrinn um allt herað ok þá af bóndum inar sæmiligustu gjafir. Var nú í heraði gleði mikil, ok þóttust bændr þá hafa náliga himin höndum tekit, er þeir hafa fengit slíkan höfðingja. Þótti þeim nú Kolbeinn aftr kominn ok endrborinn, ok þá langaði æ eftir.27 [Most farmers invited him to their farmsteads and he travelled around the region and accepted fine gifts from them. Now there was a great joy in the region and because they had gained such a chieftain the farmers thought they had almost been awarded heaven. They thought they now had Kolbeinn reborn, and wished this situation to continue.]

Þorgils refuses to suspect Þorvarðr Þórarinsson of bad intentions, even when his supposed ally attempts a power-grab in Eyjafjörður. Ominous dreams and omens, like blood appearing on Þorgils’s loaf of bread, fail to rouse his suspicion.28 Finally, as Þorgils prepares to meet Þorvarðr to deliberate on their differences, he ignores a direct warning not to stay overnight at Hrafnagil. There follows an often commented on description of the available entertainment: ... honum þar vel fagnat, Skipaði hann mönnum sínum þar á bæ. Honum var kostr á boðinn, hvat til gamans skyldi hafa, sögur eða dans, um kveldit. Hann spurði, hverjar sögur í vali væru. Honum var sagt, at til væri saga Tómass erkibiskups, ok kaus hann hana, því at hann elskaði hann framar en aðra helga menn. Var þá lesin sagan ok allt til, er unnit var á erkibiskupi í kirkjunni ok höggvin af honum krúnan. Segja menn, at Þorgils hætti þá ok mælti: “Þat myndi allfagr dauði.” Litlu síðar sofnaði hann.Var þá hætt sögunni ok búizt til borða.29 [... he was cheerfully received and he settled his men on the farmstead. He was offered a choice of entertainment that evening: sagas or dance. He asked what sagas there were to choose from. He was told that there was a saga of Ibid., 207. Ibid., 215. See also 211 and 217. 29 Ibid., 218. 27



Betrayal Archbishop Thomas and he chose it because he loved Thomas more than all other holy men. The saga was read until they attacked the archbishop in the church and cut off his [tonsured] crown. People say that Þorgils stopped there and said, ‘This is indeed a beautiful death.’ Shortly thereafter he fell asleep. He soon fell asleep. The reading of the saga was then stopped and people prepared for a meal.]

This scene is a rare reference to communal reading in thirteenth-century Iceland. But in Þorgils saga skarða the passage echoes and extends earlier themes. The generous reception at Hrafnagil illustrates Þorgils’s popularity amongst the farmers of the region. Further, Þorgils’s choice of reading recalls Abbot Brandr Jónsson’s claim that St Thomas of Canterbury would be an appropriate protector in the looming conflict with Þorvarðr Þórarinsson. But, still oblivious of Þorvarðr’s intentions, Þorgils ignores a call to have watchmen stationed in the neighbourhood: ‘Þorgils kvað þess eigi þurfa mundu ok kvaðst engan grun mundu hafa á Þorvarði frænda sínum’ [‘Þorgils said that this was not needed and that he had no suspicion about his kinsman Þorvarðr’].30 Under cover of night Þorvarðr and his cohort enter Hrafnagil unopposed. Þorgils grabs his sword but it shatters following his brief defence. When Þorgils asks to be granted a confession he is dragged along the farmstead floor and stabbed. Finally, Þorvarðr orders one of his henchmen to finish the job which he does by slicing off the top of Þorgils’s skull. The intention is to evoke the gruesome death of Thomas Becket. This is underlined by the reference to Þorgils’s death falling on the feast day of St Vincent of Saragossa (22 January) who was tortured to death. Later the saga reiterates this point in a more stately manner: ‘Víg Þorgils var, þá [er] liðit var frá holdgan várs herra Jesu Christi þúsund ára ok tvau hundruð fimmtíu ok átta át, ellifta kal. febrúarii, Vincentíusmessudag djákns’ [‘The killing of Þorgils took place when one thousand two hundred and fifty-eight years had been since the incarnation of our lord Jesus Christ, and two hundred and fifty-eight years, 11 February [correct is 11 November], since the Feast day of St Vincent, the deacon’].31 Þorgils’s body is transferred to Munka-Þverá abbey and examined by Abbot Eyjólfr Valla-Brandsson and the brothers, who count twenty-two wounds. Þorgils’s salvation is clearly implied: Veittist Þorgilsi þat, er hann hafði þvílíkt sár, sem sagt var um kveldit, at inn heilagi Tómas erkibyskup hafði særðr verit í kirkjunni í Cantia, ok Þorgilsi þótti um kveldit fagrligast vera mundu at taka slíkan dauða. Lét ábóti þá sveipa líkit ok segir svá, sem margir hafa heyrt, at hann kvaðst engis manns líkama hafa sét þekkiligra en Þorgils, þar sem sjá mátti fyrir sárum.32

Ibid. Ibid., 221. 32 Ibid. The slicing off of the crown of Becket’s skull became a part of the iconography of Becket’s martyrdom. Tancred Borenius, Thomas Becket in Art (London: Methuen 1932), 70–104, especially 100–1 (see plate xliv). 30 31


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature [It was granted to Þorgils that he received a wound like the one Archbishop Thomas had received in the church in Canterbury, which was told about in the evening, about which Þorgils had commented that it would be most beautiful to receive such a death. The abbot had the body wrapped and said, as was heard by many, that he thought he had seen no body as fair as Þorgils, where it could be seen for the wounds.]

As we have seen, the second part of Þorgils saga skarða relates Þorgils’s dealings with his kinsman, Þorvarðr Þórarinsson, who eventually betrays him. A feature of this part is Þorvarðr’s growing ambition and unpopularity. This is juxtaposed with Þorgils’s shift from a ruthless chieftain to a man of reconciliation who gains popularity amongst the farmers of his region. Moreover, the ‘betrayal theme’ links with the three scenes that feature St Thomas of Canterbury. The first not only connects Þorgils’s cause with Becket’s but also foregrounds Þorvarðr’s untrustworthiness and Þorgils’s misguided faith in his supposed ally. The second prefigures and mirrors Þorgils’s own violent death. The third offers an authoritative verification of the parallels between the two scenes whilst signalling his likely salvation. Þorgils saga skarða neither seeks to argue for Þorgils skarði as an Icelandic Becket nor to present his death as bona fide martyrdom. Rather, a narrative pattern familiar from the Lives of Becket concludes a problematic political career.33 This is the death of Þorgils at the height of his power when he has won over the leading farmers of his region and the bishop of Hólar. The Becket pattern essentially consists of three phases. Thomas and Henry II begin as friends but the souring of the relationship leads to the archbishop’s exile in France. When Becket returns he expects to be reconciled with the king. However, the truce is broken when Becket is attacked and killed in the cathedral by the king’s knights. The overarching trajectory is that of an ally turned enemy who betrays (at least in words if not deeds) and so bears the responsibility for the protagonist’s killing. This is the pattern which Þorgils saga skarða underlines with the three references to the Canterbury saint. Þorgils’s death clearly echoes Becket’s martyrdom. Indeed we are invited to directly compare the manner of their deaths as Þorgils terminates the reading of Thomas’s Life just at the point of the killing in the cathedral. In a sense the people of Hrafnagil witness with their own eyes a reenactment of the narrative climax that was absent from the reading.34 But for what purpose are these Becket parallels and allusions applied? The saga does not argue for Þorgils’s sanctity and therefore we must look elsewhere for answers. Most obviously, Becket is represented as a favourite of Þorgils so, we can deduce, his salvation 33

The Lives were translated into Old Norse from around 1200 onwards. I briefly addressed the Becket theme in Þorgils saga skarða in ‘The Lives of Thomas Becket and Early Scandinavian Literature’, Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni (SMSR) 81:2 (2015), 408–9. 34 I thank Margaret Cormack for pointing out the significance of the reading’s abrupt termination.


Betrayal will have been helped by the Canterbury martyr. Further, the Becket theme structures the concluding part of Þorgils saga as it elevates a seemingly cruel and pointless death to a higher level of significance. Saga authors are concerned with how people died. In the cases of Oddr Þórarinsson and Sigurðr slembidjákn such descriptions are crucial as they argue for the protagonist’s salvation. In fact these accounts can be read from a legal perspective; they present an argumentation and a pleading for the future of the protagonists’ souls. Here we recall the strangely precise recounting of Þorgils’s wounds. In Commonwealth legal tradition the tallying of injuries and wounds was important for exacting appropriate compensation from the opposing party. There are indeed instances where Sturlunga saga’s descriptions of injuries may have been recorded for practical purposes, as markers for future law cases.35 In chapter 1 we saw how the sinner establishes a reciprocal relationship with God through confession and penance, with the priesthood serving as mediators. In Þorgils saga skarða the precise counting of wounds is essentially a legalistic proof in the eyes of God and men about Þorgils’s suffering before death. Similarly to the robber in Sólarljóð (analysed in chapter 1), extreme suffering at the point of death serves as a concentrated form of penance. There are, of course, less subtle ways of illustrating the same idea. A fourteenth-century Icelandic manuscript includes the following exemplum translated from Latin. A mendicant in Bologna, who has not lived an ideal life, suspects that his end is fast approaching. The monk prays that God will reveal how long his illness will last as a penance for his sins. An angel explains that he will suffer for twelve months and then be saved. The brother considers this far too long, especially as he does not believe he has committed any major sins. The angel appears for the second time and now offers to halve the time of the earthly penance. Again the brother is unhappy and again the angel halves the stipulated time. When the brother repeats his request for the fourth time the angel offers another deal: that the penance shall only last until vespers on the same day. No sooner has the friar gratefully agreed than his eyes fall out of their sockets and dangle over his cheekbones. Matters do not improve much. The friar becomes paralysed and he feels as though every bone in his body is being crushed. With his fellow brothers gathering around him, he suffers these excruciating tortures until evensong. Just before expiring he awakes, relieved of his pain, and explains how God has made him suffer for every sin. He then dies with his soul ascending to Heaven.36 Like the Bologna mendicants who congregate around the dying brother to witness his repayment for sins, so the monks of Munka-Þverár abbey attest to the price paid on his body by Þorgils skarði Bõðvarsson.


Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir, ‘Um Sárafar í Íslendinga sögu Sturlu Þórðarsonar’, in Sturlustefna. Ráðstefna haldin á sjö alda ártíð Sturlu Þórðarsonar sagnaritara 1984, ed. Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir and Jónas Kristjánsson (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 1988), 184–203. 36 Íslendzk Æventyri 1, 126–8.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature

Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar In applying the thematic design illustrated above, the author of Þorgils saga skarða may have been inspired by Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar. This saga, which is customarily dated to 1230–1250, recounts the career of the eponymous hero, a chieftain in the Westfjords, who was executed in 1213. Hrafns saga is preserved both separately and in a somewhat modified form in Sturlunga saga.37 The following analysis relies on the former version. Hrafn, a just and pious chieftain who commands respect and loyalty in his region, embarks on a pilgrimage to Rome which takes him to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. The introduction of Þorvaldr Snorrason, an impecunious son of Hrafn’s recently deceased friend, marks a watershed in the narrative. Hrafn invites Þorvaldr to live on his farmstead but he soon receives warning signs about the nature of his protégé. A wise woman named Ragnheiðr comments that he is fostering a wolf at his side (‘hafir þar úlf at fœða er hann er’). Like Þorgils skarði who ignores the warnings of sensible men about the intentions of Þorvarðr Þórarinsson, so Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson dismisses Ragnheiðr’s concerns.38 Þorvaldr establishes himself as an independent farmer and goði in Vatnsfjörður. He proves to be an ambitious and aggressive chieftain who repeatedly impinges on the interests of Hrafn’s dependants. But Hrafn stands his ground, even when Þorvaldr brings a band of followers to Eyri with ominous intent. As in Þorgils saga skarða, dreams and omens that foreshadow the hero’s death are left unheeded: En þat sýndisk opt, at Hrafn var ógrimmr maðr ok hann vildi heldr deyja fyrir tryggðar sakir en fyrir ótryggðar. Nú vildi hann eigi gøra eptir þeim Þorvaldi né drepa hann, svá sem hann átti þá kost, ef hann vildi, því at hann vildi eigi vinna þat til fára vetra virðingar, sem opt kunna manna ráð verða, heldr vildi Hrafn hafa svívirðing af mõnnum í orðlagi fyrir guðs sakir ok hætta svá lífi sínu til eilífrar miskunnar almáttigs guðs.39 [But it was often revealed that Hrafn was not an aggressive man and he more wished to die because of his honesty rather than his dishonesty. He did not wish to pursue or kill Þorvaldr and his associates as he had the opportunity to do. This is because he did not wish to be honoured for only a few years as people often decide to do; rather, Hrafn wanted to endure the opprobrium of people’s words for God’s sake and thus endanger his life regarding the eternal mercy of Almighty God.]

This direct authorial comment highlights a principal theme in Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, namely that from the beginning Hrafn’s life was marked by


Úlfar Bragason, ‘The Structure and Meaning of Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar’, Scandinavian Studies 60:2 (1988), 267–92. 38 Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, ed. Guðrún P. Helgadóttir (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 17. 39 Ibid., 32–3.


Betrayal his search for grace and salvation. In this the work differs from Þorgils saga skarða where the ‘Becket pattern’ is first introduced at a much later stage in the saga. From early in his saga Hrafn is associated with King Óláfr Haraldsson’s supernatural powers and celestial patronage. The saga recounts how Hrafn’s great-grandfather had fought in the Battle of Hlýrskógsheiði (1043) at which King Magnús góði Óláfsson crushed the pagan Wends. Before battle King Óláfr appears to his son in a dream-vision and asks him to choose twelve of his most distinguished followers who are to receive special powers of healing which will remain in their families. Amongst those is Hrafn’s ancestor, and so ‘by the grace of God the art of healing first entered the family of Bárðr the Black’ [‘Svá kom lækning af guðs miskunn fyrsta sinni í kyn Bárðar svarta’].40 Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson then uses this gift to heal his followers and dependants. This illustrates not only Hrafn’s illustrious and divinely favoured background, but also Hrafn accruing spiritual benefits from abroad. Hrafn embarks on his pilgrimage to Rome and Santiago de Compostela and he likewise visits Canterbury and St Gilles in Provence. At the shrine of Thomas Becket he donates a tusk from a walrus in recognition of the martyr’s help in catching the creature. The visit to St Gilles highlights an important theme in the saga. By the twelfth century the town had become a major pilgrimage destination, not least due to its location on the road Santiago de Compostela. St Giles (650–710), however, was a major saint in his own right. This holy man was especially renowned (somewhat anachronistically) for securing Charlemagne’s salvation by interceding for the emperor when it seemed that a grave (though unspecified) unconfessed sin would condemn him to Hell.41 According to a famous tenth-century account, as St Giles prayed for the emperor’s soul a letter of absolution landed on the altar.42 Hrafn’s visit prompts the following comment: ok er hann kom þar þá minntisk hann þess, er mælt er af alþýðu, at guð veiti hverjum manni, þeim er kemr til Egidum, eina bœn, þá er maður vildi helzt biðja, af verðleikum Egidii. Þá bað Hrafn þess guð almáttkan, at af verðleikum Egidii skyldi hvárki fjárhluti né þessa heims virðing svá veita honum, at þeir hlutir hnekkti fyrir honum fagnaði himinríkis dýrðar. Ok þat hyggjum vér, at Kristr veitti honum þetta, því at Hrafn hafði nær alla hluti til þess, at hann mætti mikill hõfðingi sýnask, en þeygi var sá orðrómr á af alþýðu manna hér á landi um hans virðing, sem oss sýndisk hann til vinna, því at vér sám nõkkura menn þá meiri virðing hafa af alþýðu, er minna unnu til virðingarinnar.43 And when he came there he remembered the saying of the general populace that God fulfils one prayer, that he most wants to pray, for every person who visits St Giles. Then Hrafn prayed to almighty God that by the merits of St Ibid., 1. Susanne Hafner, ‘Charlemagne’s Unspeakable Sin’, Modern Language Studies 32:2 (2002), 1–14. 42 Ásdís Egilsdóttir, ‘Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, Pilgrim and Martyr’, in Sagas, Saints, and Settlements, ed. Gareth Williams and Paul Bibire (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 29–40. 43 Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, 4. 40 41


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Giles, neither wealth nor status in this world would be granted to him so that they would prevent him from enjoying the glories of heaven. And we believe that Christ granted him this, because Hrafn possessed nearly all the attributes to be a great chieftain, but his reputation among the people at large was not in our opinion the one he deserved, as we have seen a number of men who have received greater respect among the people but who had done less to earn it.

Hrafn’s prayer to St Giles centres on his wish to balance power in this world with redemption in the next. In other words, Hrafn puts forward his claim to salvation by fulfilling his duty as a good chieftain. The author suggests that this point has not been sufficiently recognised. Hrafns saga aims to show how Hrafn refused to sacrifice his ideals on the altar of earthly power and so salvation should be his reward.44 The author repeatedly strikes the theme of earthly ambition, celestial glory and betrayal. For instance, Hrafn ignores advice to kill Þorvaldr, even as Þorvaldr’s hostile intentions become apparent and, as already noted, he suffers insults from many as a result but, the saga comments, instead he ‘endangered his life in order to obtain the eternal mercy of an omnipotent God’ [‘hætta svá lífi sínu til eilífrar miskunnar almáttigs guðs’].45 As in King Magnús’s dream vision in Heimskringla, he chooses the heavenly kingdom above earthly power and glory. In Þorgils saga skarða dreams and omens prefigure the hero’s betrayal, whereas in Hrafns saga they also indicate his eventual salvation. One morning Hrafn and his companions ‘saw a great light in the east from the farmstead at Eyri. Hrafn saw three men within the light, himself and two other men. He told few about this sight which he considered important.’ [‘sá þeir ljós mikit ór austri frá bœnum á Eyri. Hrafn sá í ljósinu þrjá menn. Þar þóttisk hann kenna sik sjálfan ok tvá menn aðra. Þessa sýn sagði hann fám mõnnum, ok þótti honum mikils um vert’].46 We recall Heiðarvíga saga describing the sun shining from the east as Guðlaugr exits the church. There the celestial sign denotes both the arrival of Christianity and Guðlaugr’s road to salvation.47 In Hrafns saga this wakingvision strongly implies Hrafn’s salvation as he sees himself within the light. The culminating scene of Hrafns saga includes elements that should now be familiar.48 The night before his death Hrafn cannot sleep. He asks one of his companions to recite a poem about St Andrew and he comments on the apostle’s martyrdom. During the night a priest repeatedly dreams about St 44

45 46 47


I have argued that Hrafn saga Sveinbjarnarnarsonar seeks to portray an ideal chieftain who gains his just rewards. Such a portrayal would likely have resonated with the audience at the time of writing. Haki Antonsson, St Magnús of Orkney: A Scandinavian Martyr-Cult in Context (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 170–1. For a comparable conclusion, albeit one reached by a different route, see Torfi H. Tulinius, ‘Hvers manns gagn. Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson and the Social Role of Icelandic Chieftains around 1200’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 40 (2016), 91–104. Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, 33. Ibid., 29. See Introduction, notes 14–18. Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, 40–43.


Betrayal Andrew’s passion. Þorvaldr, arriving under the cover of night, sets the farm on fire. Hrafn orders his priest to sing matins but the farmstead quickly fills with smoke. Upon capture he asks Þorvaldr to let him go free on the condition that he will undertake a pilgrimage to Rome ‘for the salvation of us both’ [‘til hjálpar okkur báðum’] and make a promise never return to Iceland. When Þorvaldr rejects this offer Hrafn manages to secure a promise that his family and followers will not be harmed: ‘Ok er Hrafn heyrði þann dóm, þá beiddisk hann at ganga til skriptar ok taka þjónustu, ok hann gekk til þjónustu við Valda prest ok mæti skriptargang ok tók corpus domini ok fell til bænar ok felldi tár með mikilli iðran’ [‘And when Hrafn heard this judgment he asked to be shriven and receive the eucharist. And he went to receive service from Priest Valda, and was shriven and took corpus domini. He fell down in prayer and shed tears with great contrition.’].49 Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar details the ritualistic steps we encountered in Sæmundr Ormsson’s death-scene, namely confession, the partaking of the eucharist, and an outward display of inner penance that concludes with a pleading for grace. Hrafn falls on his knees and elbows ‘as he was wont when he prayed’ [‘sem hann var vanr at liggja til bœnar’], before decapitation. The saga offers one posthumous sign, or rather double-sign, of Hrafn’s salvation. The following summer the place of his execution, a fallow patch of earth, miraculously turns green. This location, moreover, ‘is where the light had been seen the previous winter’ [‘er ljósit hafði sézk um vetrinn áðr’] – the light that we just saw enveloping Hrafn and the two unidentified figures. In Þorgils saga skarða the ‘betrayal theme’ combines with the celestial patronage of St Thomas Becket which, we are led to conclude, secures Þorgils’s salvation. This pattern focuses on a falling out between old friends or allies that leads to the betrayal and killing of an unsuspecting victim. The same theme is significant for the structure of Hrafns saga. Þorvaldr Snorrason assumes a similar role to that of Þorvarðr Þórarinsson in Þorgils saga skarða. Accordingly it is not surprising that the depiction of Hrafn’s execution and its immediate aftermath are manifestly affected by Becket’s martyrdom. It has in fact been shown that an identifiable vita of the Canterbury saint influenced elements of this climatic scene.50 Arngrímr Brandsson, who became abbot of Þingeyrar in 1350, took stock of this thematic pattern when he composed his hagiographic saga of Bishop Guðmundr Arason (a text known as Guðmundar saga byskups D). The two characters involved are Guðmundr Arason and Kolbeinn Tumason, the bishop’s early opponent among the Icelandic chieftains. When Guðmundr, at that time a priest, saves the life of Kolbeinn’s ill wife, the powerful chieftain swears eternal support and friendship.51 Kolbeinn, whom Arngrímr explicitly compares to King Henry II, turns against Guðmundr, who is likened to Becket. The saga does not, however, conclude with Guðmundr’s martyrdom but rather with Kolbeinn Ibid., 43. Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, lxxxviii–xcii. 51 Byskupa sögur III, 200. 49



Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Tumason’s early demise. Later Arngrímr meditates on Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson’s undeserved death (as noted, Hrafn had been a friend of Bishop Guðmundr). Arngrímr again has the Becket motif in mind. He explicitly underlines the theme of betrayal by a former trusted friend: Hrafn’s martyr-like end is all the greater because Þorvaldr was someone who Hrafn had ‘fed and fostered like his own carnal son’ [‘fætt ok fóstrat sem sinn kjötligan son’].52 Inevitably one recalls Ragnheiðr’s warning to Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson in his saga. The themes of damnation and salvation are central to the construction and conception of Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar. The theme extends beyond Hrafn’s execution as Þorvaldr accepts the settlement for deed. The saga ends with the words: ‘Þorvaldr kom út þá er hann hafði þrjá vetr útan verit ok gengit suðr ok bjó síðan í Vatnsfirði, meðan hann lifði’ [‘Þorvaldr came to Iceland when he had been abroad for three years on his pilgrimage to Rome, and for the remainder of his life he lived in Vatnsfjörðr’].53 The saga therefore concludes with Þorvaldr’s act of atonement and not with his slaying in 1228 at the hands of Hrafn’s sons.

52 53

Ibid., 239. Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, 45.


N 4 n Outlaws and Marginal Figures Gísla saga Súrssonar The role of Christian elements in Gísla saga Súrssonar is elusive and so it resonates with the general ambiguity of this work. Our binary themes of salvation and damnation are rarely far from the surface of a drama that centres on preserving honour in a society of conflicting kinship and friendship. In Gísla saga our topic features in a unique way. Gísla saga, which is usually dated to the first half of the thirteenth century, is set in the pagan period before the official adoption of Christianity in Iceland and Norway.1 The text’s time frame therefore does not straddle the moment of conversion in either country, as, for instance, it does in Njáls saga, Laxdœla saga and Eyrbyggja saga. Unlike the other ‘classical sagas’, Gísla saga concludes before Iceland’s conversion. Even Egils saga, which is set mainly in the early tenth century, extends beyond this seminal point, ending as it does with the reburial of Egill Skallagrímsson’s remains in a Christian cemetery. In Gísla saga Súrssonar Iceland and Norway are excluded from direct association with Christianity. In this world only Denmark offers a route to that religion. Christian matters are first mentioned after Gísli’s emigration with his family from Norway to Iceland. The setting is Viborg (Vébjõrg) where Gísli Súrsson and his brother-in-law stay over the winter: Þat var þá margra manna siðr at fagna vetri í þann tíma ok hafa þá veizlur ok vetrnáttablót, en Gísli lét af blótum, síðan hann var í Vébjõrgum í Danmõrku, en hann helt þó sem áðr veizlum ok allri stórmennsku.2 [In those days, it was the general custom to celebrate the coming of winter by holding feasts and a sacrifice at Winter Nights. Gisli no longer sacrificed after he left Viborg, but he still held feasts and showed the same magnanimity as before.]



For an overview of the scholarly debate about the dating of Gísla saga, see Emily Lethbridge, ‘Dating the Sagas and Gísla saga Súrssonar’, in Dating the Sagas. Reviews and Revisions, ed. Else Mundal (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2013), 76–113. ÍF 6, 36.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature In Viborg Gísli and Vésteinn cement their alliance by splitting a coin in two parts. Gísli hands one half to Vésteinn with the instruction to return it should he ever find his life endangered. Gísli’s changing attitude towards pagan sacrifices implies that he (and also presumably Vésteinn) had been exposed to Christianity in this ‘merchant town’ (kaupstað). Gísla saga relates that Gísli and Vésteinn stayed in Viborg sometime during Haraldr gráfeldr’s reign in Norway (961–70). Their mercantile venture thus coincides with the rule of Haraldr blátõnn (c.958–86) who, according to saga tradition, introduced the Danes to Christianity. Here, as elsewhere, the saga refrains from including obvious anachronisms in religious matters. Still, the choice of Viborg for Gísli’s and Vésteinn’s winter stay merits further attention. Viborg is not otherwise known in the sagas as a trading or merchant town, and this is hardly surprising considering its inland location. But the town would have been familiar to a thirteenth-century audience as an episcopal seat, and more specifically as an important destination for pilgrims on the way to Rome. Knýtlinga saga refers to Viborg as one of Denmark’s bishoprics,3 while the pilgrimage guide Leiðarvísir, which is traditionally attributed to Abbot Nikulás Bergsson (d.1159/1160) of Munka-Þverá, features Viborg as one of the three main stops for pilgrims travelling down the Jutland peninsula.4 When Gísli settles in Iceland, familial jealousy ensnares him in a blood feud that leads to his outlawry. The defining event is the murder of Vésteinn at Gísli’s farmstead, which occurs soon after Vésteinn’s return to Iceland. Although no one owns up to the slaying, this deed is committed either by Gísli’s brother, Þorkell, or by his brother-in-law and ally, Þorgrímr. The slaying appears to be prompted by Þorkell’s accidental discovery of a past connection between Vésteinn and his own wife, and of the fact that Auðr, Gísli’s wife, had once been attached to Þorgrímr. The saga’s first reference to the afterlife comes at Vésteinn’s funeral. Þorgrímr insists on tying Vésteinn’s shoe-laces as he is placed in a burial mound: “Þat er tízka,” segir hann, “at binda mõnnum helskó, þá er þeir skulu ganga á til Valhallar, ok mun ek þat gera við Véstein.” Ok er hann hafði þat gõrt, þá mælti hann: “Eigi kann ek helskó at binda, ef þessir losna.”5 ‘It is the fashion,’ he says ‘to tie hel-shoes for men who will walk to Valhalla, and this I shall do for Véstein.’ And when he had done this, he exclaimed: ‘I do not know how to tie hel-shoes if these come undone.’

3 4


ÍF 35, 152. Kr. Kålund, ‘En islandsk Vejviser for Pilgrimme fra 12. Århundrede’, Aarbøger for nordisk Olkyndighed og Historie 3:3 (1913), 51–105. Janus Møller Jensen, ‘Vejen til Jerusalem. Danmark og pilgrimsvejen til Det Hellige Land i det 12. Århundrede: En islandsk vejviser’, in Et Annat 1100–tal. Individ, kollektiv og kulturelle mönster i medeltidens Danmark, ed. Peter Carelli et al. (Stockholm: Makadam, 2004), 284–337. ÍF 6, 45–6.


Outlaws and Marginal Figures This is the second time Þorgrímr uses a solemn pagan ritual to insult or mock Vésteinn. Earlier, Þorgrímr had refused to include Vésteinn in a pact of bloodbrotherhood during a ritual that involved Gísli and Þorkell. Following Vésteinn’s funeral, Gísli Súrsson murders Þorgrímr with Grásíða, the spear with which Vésteinn had been slain. At Þorgrímr’s ship-funeral Gísli Súrsson ties the vessel with an enormous stone as ballast, alluding to Þorgrímr’s earlier tying of Vésteinn’s ‘hel-shoes’. The reappearance of Grásíða and the veiled taunts at these pagan funerals reveal the consciously crafted cross-referencing and allusive nature of Gísla saga. The audience is required to recall similar incidents and motives to underline particular points which amplify the unfolding drama.6 Þorgrímr’s brother, Bõrkr, now marries Gísli’s sister, Þórdís, who soon tells her new husband that her brother had been responsible for Þorgrímr’s murder. Gísli is outlawed and the rest of the saga follows him, as, for thirteen years, he eludes Bõrkr and his assassins. Although Gísli receives nominal support from Þorkell, it is only his wife Auðr who offers him extended shelter and company. From Gísli’s outlawry to his last stand the saga focuses intensely on the hero’s actions and psychological state, so infusing the narrative with a sense of claustrophobia and doom. Important for this atmosphere of unease are the vivid dreams that Gísli experiences from early on in his outlawry. These are told in fifteen stanzas, four of which Gísli recites to his wife as he hides at her farmstead in Geirþjófsfjörður. In a kind of prologue to these verses, the saga informs us that when Gísli awakes after a restless sleep, Auðr asks his about his dream. Gísli answers: “Ek á draumkonr tvær,” sagði hann, “ok er õnnur vel við mik en õnnur segir mér þat nõkkut jafnan, er mér þykkir verr en áðr, ok spar mér illt eina. En þat dreymði mik nú, at ek þóttumk ganga at húsi einu eða skála, ok inn þóttumk ek ganga í húsit, ok þar kennda ek marga inni frændr mina ok vini. Þeir sátu við elda ok drukku, ok váru sjau eldarnir, sumir váru mjõk brunnir, en sumir sem bjartastir. Þá kom inn draumkona mín in betri ok sagði, at þat merkði aldr minn, hvat ek ætta eptir ólifat, ok hon réð mér þat, meðan ek lifða, at láta leiðask forna sið ok nema enga galdra né forneskju ok vera vel við daufan ok haltan ok fátœka ok fáráða. Eigi var draumrinn lengri”.7 [‘There are two women I dream of,’ he said. ‘One is good to me. The other always tells me something that makes things seem worse than before, and she only prophesies bad things for me. Just now I dreamed that I seemed to be walking towards a house or hall, and it appeared that I walked into the 6


Such patterning has led one saga scholar to observe that the ‘only criticism that can be levelled against the saga is that it is perhaps too sculptured and self-conscious, not only artistic but contrived’. Theodore M. Andersson, The Icelandic Family Saga: An Analytical Reading (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 182. See also Taylor Culbert, ‘The Construction of of the Gísla Saga’, Scandinavian Studies 31:4 (1959), 151–65. ÍF 6, 70.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature house and recognised there many of my kinsmen and friends who sat by fires and drank. And there were seven fires, some of them almost extinguished and some burning brightly. Then my good dream-woman came in and said that this signified how many years I had left to live, and she advised me to stop following the old faith for the rest of my life, and to refrain from studying any charms and ancient lore. And she told to be kind to the deaf and the lame and the poor and the helpless. This is where the dream ended.’]

Gísli’s description broadly corresponds to the content of the three verses he subsequently recites. In the first, a woman advises Gísli to observe the number of fires in a hall as they signify his remaining years. The second verse admonishes Gísli to keep his mind open to what is good, whereas the third tells him to help the blind and the ‘handless’ and not to mock the lame.8 There are notable differences between verse and prose. For instance, the poetry does not exhort Gísli, as the saga claims, ‘to stop following the old faith for the rest of my life, and to refrain from studying any charms and ancient lore’. This comment seems to refer back to Gísli’s Viborg visit where, as already observed, he is said to have abandoned pagan practices or, at least, sacrifices. Contrastingly, verse 19 includes a piece of advice – not be the first to kill and be peaceful to men – that does not correspond to the prose. This advice is not especially relevant to Gísli’s predicament; hardly more so is the advice that he should show kindness to the handicapped. Neither the prose nor the poetry exhorts Gísli to adopt Christianity. In spite of his unwillingness to participate in public heathen rituals, he is, and will remain, a non-Christian.9 It is commonly accepted that the ‘dream verses’ were composed in Christian times, although not necessarily by the author of Gísla saga Súrssonar.10 In particular, the Christian influence in stanzas 16–19 is so pronounced that a dating to the tenth century is problematic. Christian elements appear in the reference to the lame and the handicapped and also, it seems, in the warning against initiating a conflict.11 That said, the rest of the stanza does not obviously agree with any post-Conversion context. For instance, it is difficult to judge whether the reference to ‘Allvaldr’ (‘all-ruler’) in stanza 29 refers to the Christian God or a powerful pagan deity such as Óðinn. Otherwise, the poetic language


ÍF 6, 72–3. S.A. Krijn, ‘Om Gísla saga Súrssonar’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 51 (1935), 69–85. 10 For the most recent contributions see P.S. Langeslag, ‘The Dream Women of Gísla saga’, Scandinavian Studies 81:1 (2009), 47–72; Christopher Crocker, ‘All I Do the Whole Night Through. On the Dreams of Gísli Súrsson’, Scandinavian Studies 84:2 (2012), 143–62. 11 An echo from biblical verses has been noted here. Fredrik Paasche, ‘Esras aabenbaring og Pseudo-Cyprianus i norrøn litteratur’, in Festskrift til Finnur Jónsson 29 mai 1928, ed. Johs. Brøndum-Nielsen et al. (Copenhagen: Levin and Munksgaards, 1928), 199–205. For the possibility of the stanza combining allusions both to the biblical passage and Ragnarõk in Võluspá, see David Clark, ‘Revisiting Gísla saga: Sexual Themes and the Heroic Past’, in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106:4 (2007), 496–500. 9


Outlaws and Marginal Figures brims with pagan mythological kennings and, at times, seems almost wilfully ambiguous in meaning.12 It should be apparent though that sources of salvation are absent from Gísla saga. The exceptions are Auðr’s conversion and pilgrimage at the saga’s conclusion and the tantalising promise of eternal life by the ‘Good Woman’ of Gísli’s dreams. The thematic thread of redemption is therefore confined to the women Gísli encounters in his waking and dreaming life. A striking feature is the way in which Gísli’s glimpse of salvation aligns with what one might expect a pagan, at least one with passing knowledge of Christian religion, to envisage about the good afterlife. This involves the presence of friends and relatives, a beautiful woman, and the accruing of earthly riches. These features do not confirm any pagan origin for the stanzas, but rather the saga’s presentation of a plausible imagining of pre-Christian beliefs. In Iceland Christianity is closed to Gísli. Moreover, until Gísli’s violent end, his mode of survival is conditioned by the actions of others rather than by his own free choice. Whatever the provenance of the ‘dream-stanzas’ or their link with the surrounding prose, Gísli is only offered a simulacrum of redemption. The cruelty of Gísli’s fate, however, is that he cannot fully comprehend the meaning of salvation or, indeed, how it might be attained. This runs in parallel to his increasing sense of claustrophobia as the world closes in on him. If forces beyond Gísli’s control determine his inevitable death, so the dreams reveal to him a blissful state just beyond his reach. Indeed Gísli’s experience can be viewed as an original variation on the well-known hagiographic theme of the Christian, who, facing a violent death, glimpses the beauty and wonder of the paradisiacal life to come.13 Hope of salvation is absent from the Iceland of Gísla saga. It is from this country that Auðr, Gísli’s wife, along with Vésteinn’s widow, Gunnhildr, both travel to Denmark. Unlike their spouses, however, Auðr and Gunnhildr never return. In this closing section we recall their husbands’ stay in Viborg and so detect the saga’s concluding narrative pattern. Viborg, as noted earlier, does not feature as a merchant town elsewhere in the saga corpus; its inland location makes it irrelevant to seafarers. But as has also been observed, the town was an early destination on the pilgrim route to Rome. It is here that Gísli is exposed to Christianity which seemingly leads him to relinquish pagan sacrifices. According to Leiðarvísir, the next pilgrim destination south is Hedeby (Heiðabær). At Lars Lönnroth, ‘Dreams in the Sagas’, Scandinavian Studies 74:4 (2002), 455–64; Karin Olsen, ‘Woman-kennings in the Gísla saga Súrssonar: A Study’, in ‘Doubt Wisely’: Papers in Honour of E.G. Stanley, ed. M.J. Toswell and E.M. Tyler (London: Routledge, 1996), 267–85. 13 Siân E. Grønlie has emphasised how Gísli’s outlawry, the environment he inhabits and his dreams, owe a debt to the literature on the desert saints: ‘For Gísli, then as for the desert saint and the visionary, the wilderness is a site for “eschatological drama”, understood as an interior process of self-assessment that is projected outwards into his dreams.’ in The Saint and the Saga Hero. Hagiography and Early Icelandic Literature (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017), 172. 12


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature the end of the saga Gísli’s widow retraces his steps but then travels further to Hedeby where she receives baptism proper. So, as Auðr adopts Christianity, she completes a journey that is denied to her husband. From there she and Gunnhildr continue their pilgrimage to Rome where, it is implied, they join a monastic community. Thus the theme of conversion, and the hope of salvation, is highlighted through amplification or fulfilment in two lifetimes. One character – Yngvarr, Óláfr Tryggvason, Gísli Súrsson – begins a journey or task which is completed by another: Sveinn Yngvarsson, St Óláfr and Auðr.

Fóstbrœðra saga Á dõgum ins helga Óláfs konungs váru margir hõfðingjar undir hans konungdœmi, eigi at eins í Nóregi, heldr í õllum lõndum, þeim er hans konungdómr stóð yfir, ok váru þeir allir mest virðir af guði, er konungi líkaði bezt við.14 [In the days when St Óláfr was king he had many chieftains under his rule, not only in Norway but in all the other lands over which he reigned, and God gave honour to all those whom the king favoured most.]

The opening of Fóstbrœðra saga, as presented in Flateyjarbók and Möðruvallabók, is interesting in more ways than one. Setting the chronological scene by referring to Norwegian rulers is a familiar narrative device in the Sagas of Icelanders. Beginnings of this kind also prepare for the saga’s initial location in Norway rather than in Iceland. Although akin to such openings, the beginning of Fóstbrœðra saga serves an additional purpose. Most importantly, the immediate introduction of Óláfr underlines his importance for the fate of the saga’s protagonists, Þorgeirr Hávarsson and Þormóðr Kolbrúnarskáld. So far so good. Nonetheless, there is something curious about how the saintly king is introduced. For instance, what does it mean that hõfðingjar were under the king’s command not only in Norway but also in other lands over which he reigned? This might refer to the Norse colonies of the North Atlantic, the Faroes and the Orkney-Shetland domain, which reputedly recognised King Óláfr’s overlordship. Alternatively, these words might merely mean that King Óláfr’s authority extended beyond Norway’s border through ties of homage. This would certainly be relevant to Þormóðr Kolbrúnarskáld who served the king in Iceland, Greenland and Norway. But the most noteworthy idea in the opening sentence is that chieftains favoured by Óláfr were blessed by God. In other words, Óláfr reflects the light of grace onto those he chooses, who enjoy this privilege during their lifetime. Just as St Óláfr grants favour from his celestial abode to those who pray to him, so God favours those who stay loyal to the king. The guiding notion is 14

ÍF 6, 122. For the debate about the dating of Fóstbrœðra saga see Theodore M. Andersson, ‘Redating Fóstbrœðra saga’, in Dating the Sagas: Reviews and Revisions, ed. Else Mundal (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2013), 55–76.


Outlaws and Marginal Figures not only the acquisition of worldly success but also, as we shall see, the idea that his proximity will benefit Óláfr’s followers in the hereafter. Good lordship on earth is reflected in good lordship in Heaven. A prominent theme in Fóstbrœðra saga is Þorgeirr’s and Þormóðr’s earthly loyalty to their leader, St Óláfr. This is especially true of the Flateyjarbók version in which the saga is interpolated into accounts of the Norwegian king.15 But this loyalty contrasts with their neglect of how their privileged position might benefit them in the afterlife. Not far into the saga we find two somewhat surprising authorial statements, which pre-figure the fates of the protagonists: Snimmendis sagði þeim svá hugr um, sem síðar bar raun á, at þeir myndi vápnbitnir verða, því at þeir váru ráðnir til at láta hlut hvergi eða undir leggja, við hverja menn sem þeir ætti málum at skipta. Meir hugðu þeir jafnan at fremð þessa heims lífs en at dýrð annars heims fagnaðar.16 [Both also felt early on – and it later turned out to be true – that they would die fighting, since neither was the kind of man to back off from or give in to anyone he came up against. They were more concerned with success in this life than glory in the life to come.]17

These words do not call for extensive commentary. Þormóðr and Þorgeirr are more concerned with their reputation than their posthumous fate. Although the meaning of the authorial intrusion may seem commonplace, it introduces a significant theme that threads its way throughout the saga. This is the dichotomy between the indifference of the two towards the next life, on one hand, and the idea that glory in the next is the real glory to gain, on the other. This reward, the saga suggests, is there to be grasped by those who seek it. A second authorial address in the Flateyjarbók version links their behaviour with God’s gift of free will:18 En þó var eigi undarligt, því at inn hæsti hõfuðsmiður hafði skapat ok gefit í brjóst Þorgeiri svá øruggt hjarta ok hart, at hann hræddisk ekki, ok hann var svá øruggr í õllum mannraunum sem it óarga dýr. Ok af því at allir góðir hlutir eru af guði gõrvir, þá er øruggleikr af guði gørr ok gefinn í brjóst hvõtum drengjum ok þar með sjálfræði at hafa til þess, er þeir vilja, góðs eða ills, því at Kristr hefir kristna men sonu sína gõrt, en eigi þræla, en þat mun hann hverjum gjalda, sem til vinnr.19


16 17



Úlfar Bragason, ‘Fóstbrœðra saga. The Flateyjarbók Version’, in Studien zur Isländersaga: Festschrift für Rolf Heller, ed. Heinrich Beck and Else Ebel (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000), 268–74. ÍF 6, 124–5. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 2, 331. Uwe Ebel, ‘Archaik oder Europa: Theologisches Argument und Interpretation von Gewalt in der Fóstbrœðra saga’, in Studien zur Isländersaga: Festschrift für Rolf Heller, ed. Heinrich Beck and Else Ebel (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000), 25–50. ÍF 6, 133.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature [And yet it was no great wonder, since the Almighty Creator had forged in Þorgeir’s breast such a strong and sturdy heart that he was as fearless and brave as a lion in whatever trials and tribulations befell him. And as all good things come from God, so too does steadfastness, and it is given unto all bold men together with a free will that they may themselves choose whether they do good or evil. Thus Jesus Christ has made Christians his sons and not his slaves, so that he might reward all according to their deeds.]20

St Óláfr protects the sworn brothers in this life and, as we will see, his patronage may extend into the next. Þorgeirr’s death is a direct result of his ignoring Óláfr’s warning not to leave the court for Iceland. The king makes it known that Þorgeir’s decision will entail grave consequences.21 After Þorgeirr’s death, Þormóðr becomes Óláfr’s man and subsequently his unswerving loyalty is arguably the saga’s main theme. This loyalty is rewarded when Óláfr protects his retainer from mortal danger in Greenland. During a fierce fight with Falgeirr Þórdísarson, who had had Þormóðr outlawed earlier, ‘his thoughts turned to King Óláfr and the hope that the king’s good fortune would assist him. At that moment, the axe fell from Falgeir’s hand down over the rocks and into the sea’ [‘rennir þá hugnum þangat, er var Óláfr konungr, ok vætti hans hamingju at honum myndi duga. Fellr þá øxin ór hendi Falgeiri niðr fyrir hamrana ofan á sjóinn’].22 Shortly thereafter Þormóðr is stranded on a skerry in Greenland awaiting his death. King Óláfr appears in a dream to a local farmer whom he instructs to rescue his follower.23 The saga concludes with Þormóðr dying with Óláfr at Stiklastaðir. The day before the battle Óláfr asks Þormóðr why he is in low spirits. Þormóðr explains: “Því, herra, at mér þykkir eigi víst vera, at vit munim til einnar gistingar í kveld. Nú ef þú heitr mér því, at vit munim til einnar gistingar báðir, þá mun ek glaðr”. Óláfr konungr mælti: “Eigi veit ek, hvárt mín ráð megu um þat til leiðar koma, en ef ek má nõkkuru um ráða, þá muntu þangat fara í kveld, sem ek fer”.24 [‘Because, Lord, it is not certain that we shall be resting in the same place tonight. Promise me now that we shall be and I will be glad.’ King Olaf said, ‘I don’t know whether it is within my power to decide, but if it is, then tonight you shall go where I go.’]25

This exchange illuminates the two characters that dominate the saga’s final scene. It reveals Þormóðr’s obsessive focus on loyalty, whereas St Óláfr’s mind is firmly on his future heavenly abode. Figuratively the two main protagonists thus speak a different language. On the surface they seem to understand each 20 21

22 23 24


The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 2, 336. ÍF 6, 193–4. The Complete Sagas of Icelander 2, 381; ÍF 6, 240. ÍF 6, 256–7. Ibid., 263–4. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 2, 392.


Outlaws and Marginal Figures other, but their reference points are diametrically opposite. On the face of it Þormóðr, in a rare mode of modesty, appears to say that he will inhabit Hell while his lord will attain Heaven. Þormóðr’s question, however, shows that his concern is not with salvation; he simply wishes to serve his king wherever that might be. Þormóðr is oblivious to the spiritual dimension of the unfolding events. Þormóðr recites two stanzas where he declares his willingness to die for the king and, more pointedly, he alludes to the absence of Sighvatr Þórðarson. Sighvatr is another of King Óláfr’s Icelandic court poets, one who at the time happened to be on a pilgrimage to Rome. In short, Þormóðr shows not the slightest understanding of the salvific significance of Sighvatr’s journey. This is reflected in Óláfr’s response: ‘Sighvati skáldi þykisk þú nú sneiða, ok þarftu þess eigi, því at hann myndi sik nú hér kjósa, ef hann vissi, hvat hér væri títt; ok má svá vera, at hann komi oss at mestu gagni’ [‘your remarks about Sighvatr are cutting and unnecessary, for he would be here if he knew what was happening – and he may yet prove of great use to us’].26 Here Óláfr alludes to Sighvatr’s prayers in Rome which, so the king suggests, might aid them in the afterlife (as well as, of course, Sighvatr’s subsequent poetry about Óláfr). After Óláfr’s death Þormóðr again laments his absence from the king: ‘Þat ætla ek nú, at eigi muna ek til þeirar gistingar, sem konungr í kveld, en verra þykki mér nú at lifa en deyja’ [‘Since I shall not be resting in the same place as the king tonight, living seems worse than dying’].27 This is when a fatal arrow strikes Þormóðr in the chest. In one sense Óláfr’s utterance to Þormóðr as the king confronts martyrdom – an imitatio Christi – is an inversion of Christ’s words to the repentant thief on the Cross. Óláfr states: ‘I don’t know whether it is within my power to decide, but if it is, then tonight you shall go where I go’ [‘Eigi veit ek, hvárt mín ráð megu um þat til leiðar koma, en ef ek má ráða, þá muntu þangat fara í kveld, sem ek fer’]. This recalls Christ’s words: ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23: 43).28 The difference, of course, is that whereas one of the sinful thieves is redeemed by both repenting and recognising Christ’s divinity at the last hour of his life, Þormóðr remains blissfully uncaring about his fate as he lays down his life for his lord. As Heiðarvíga saga illustrates, sources of salvation are largely absent from immediate post-conversion Iceland but these can still be sought abroad. The irony, as well as the tragedy, of Fóstbrœðra saga is that the main protagonists ignore the opportunities on offer. The opening words ‘God gave honour to all those whom the king favoured most’ now come into sharper focus. Perhaps ÍF 6, 266. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 2, 393. ÍF 6, 268–9. 28 Bjarni Einarsson, ‘Frá Þormóði, kappa hins helga Ólafs konungs’, Íslenzk tunga 4 (1963), 116. Jónas Kristjánsson, Um Fóstbræðrasögu (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, 1972), 238–40. Also noted without attribution in Paul Schach, Icelandic Sagas (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1984), 79. See also the exposition of this scene in Homilu-Bók, 68–9. 26 27


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature the saga implies that the sworn brothers did after all attain salvation. But, if so, then it was through the exceptional intercessional powers of St Óláfr rather than their own merit or suffering.

Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, which in its surviving form dates to the fourteenth century, is neither a Christian allegory nor an account of one man’s search for salvation. Rather, it is a biography of a peculiar individual from a respectable family who survives as an outlaw for nearly twenty years before dying a miserable death on the isle of Drangey. Grettis saga is open to diverse analysis and interpretation for two main reasons. One is Grettir’s mercurial character, which reveals a calculated sadism, extreme generosity, feats of unselfish heroism and psychological vulnerability.29 These dimensions to Grettir’s personality richly combine with societal norms, the wild landscape and supernatural forces.30 The other is the question to what extent Grettir’s character contributes to his tragic career, and to what degree his life is directed by forces beyond his control. Religion first features in Grettis saga when Ásmundr, Grettir’s father, returns from his adventures in Norway. Ásmundr had accrued wealth and honour by mercantile activity abroad. During this period his son, Þorsteinn drómundr, was born. Not long thereafter his wife died and Ásmundr returned to Iceland. There Ásmundr initially stayed with Þorkell krafla, a powerful chieftain in the north-west. The saga tells that Þorkell’s farmstead served as a base for Friðrekr, the German missionary bishop, and his Icelandic minder, Þorvaldr Koðránsson. We also learn that Þorkell and a number of his followers underwent prima signatio. Ásmundr then settles at this own farmstead with his second wife and raises two sons, Grettir and Atli. No more is told of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity. Thus there is no ‘Christianisation episode’ of the kind that features in Njáls saga and Laxdœla saga, even though the events of AD 1000 coincide with Grettir’s childhood years. The earliest mention of Christianity occurs after the introduction of Þorsteinn drómundr, the son who was born during Ásmundr’s foreign adventures, before the birth of Grettir. This marks the earliest sign of a binary pattern that will weave its way through the saga. The issue of interest is the contrasting career trajectories of the half-brothers, Grettir and Þorsteinn. The former is seemingly burdened with a grim fate, the latter with an earthly journey that contains glory, honour and exceptional luck. Grettir ends his life on an isolated island


On different interpretations of Grettir’s personality see, for instance, Robert Cook, ‘Reading for Character in Grettis saga’, in Sagas of the Icelanders: A Book of Essays, ed. John Tucker (New York: Garland, 1989), 226–40. Hermann Pálsson, ‘Drög að siðfræði Grettis sögu’, Tímarit Máls og Menningar 30 (1969), 372–82. 30 Russell Poole, ‘Myth, Psychology, and Society in Grettis saga’, Alvíssmál 11 (2004), 3–16.


Outlaws and Marginal Figures seemingly devoid of God’s grace, whereas Þorsteinn lives his last years in a hermitage attending to the health of his soul. The episodic Grettis saga is neither a Christian exemplum nor an ‘intricately and self-consciously composed’ saga like Gísla saga Súrssonar.31 Still, the text is arranged so that discerning readers recognise similarities and subtle differences between seemingly unrelated episodes. For instance, Grettis saga begins by recounting the adventures of the Viking Õnundr Ófeigsson, Grettir’s greatgrandfather, who loses a leg below the knee in battle. Õnundr is fitted with a wooden substitute which does not hinder his Viking way of life. On the contrary, the loss of his leg proves to be a blessing in disguise. One of his companions even insists that Õnundr was ‘quicker than many who had healthy legs’ [‘rõskvari en marga þá er heilfœttr váru’].32 When Õnundr, now having accrued the cognomen tréfótr, ‘tree-foot’, faces Vígbjóðr, his most formidable opponent to date, it is the wooden foot that saves his life when an assailant’s sword gets stuck in it, allowing Õnundr an easy victory. Near the end of the saga, Grettir’s enemies float towards Drangey a lump of drift-wood that is cursed with pagan runes. Grettir senses the danger and he twice refuses to use the log for fire. But the third time he changes his mind, strikes it in anger with his axe and sees the blade glance off into his leg. Grettir’s wound turns septic and, rendered defenceless, he is killed. Thus the weapons are associated with trees; namely at the beginning of the saga wood saves a life whilst at the conclusion, it takes a life. The saga juxtaposes Õnundr, the successful pagan Viking, with the haunted Grettir, a Christian, whose adult life is lived in the shadow of his seemingly inexplicable bad luck.33 This is just one example of echoes between episodes,34 or the inclusion of minor details such as personal names.35 Grettir’s encounter with the revenant Glámr marks a turning point in his life. Grettir arrives at the farmstead of Þórhallsstaðir which had become all but uninhabitable by the hauntings of Glámr, a pagan Swedish shepherd who has earlier been found mutilated in the wilderness. Glámr has manifestly been killed by an (unnamed) revenant who has now taken possession of the Swede. Glámr’s possessed state is first indicated when attempts are made to bring his corpse to church. With the author inverting the familiar scene of saints’ corporal relics obstructing their own translation from one location to another, this proves impossible and Glámr is interred in the wilderness. The following Christmas Glámr kills Þorgautr, a brave shepherd who has taken over his duties. Þorgautr’s mutilated body is discovered at the very location where Glámr had been buried. This time around, however, the shepherd’s corpse is Anderson, The Icelandic Family Saga, 181. ÍF 7, 110. 33 Andrew J. Hamer, ‘Grettis saga and the iudicium dei’, in Northern Voices: Essays on Old Germanic and Related Topics. Offered to Professor Tette Hofstra, ed. Kees Dekker, Alasdair MacDonald and Hermann Niebaum (Leuven: Peeters, 2008), 19–40. 34 Kathryn Hume, ‘The Thematic Design of Grettis saga’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 73 (1974), 469–86. 35 Poole, ‘Myth, Psychology, and Society in Grettis Saga’, 5. 31



Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature easily transported to church, which illustrates that Þorgautr, unlike Glámr, was immune to demonic possession. The saga implies that people had expected the sequence of possessions to continue, but ‘thereafter Þorgautr hurt no one’ [‘ok varð engum manni mein at Þorgauti síðan’].36 Thus, when Grettir arrives at Þórhallsstaðir, one soul has been compromised by the demonic (Glámr), whereas the other has remained unaffected (Þorgautr). It can be said that the remainder of Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar revolves around Grettir’s battle to avoid Glámr’s fate and to follow Þorgautr’s. Grettir wrestles with Glámr and with great difficulty defeats the revenant, who then curses him to the effect that he will only achieve half the strength he was destined to; henceforth his actions will only lead to bad luck, loneliness and outlawry. Glámr’s remains are burnt and buried and Þórhallr ‘praised God and thanked Grettir well when he had defeated this unclean spirit’ [‘lofaði guð fyrir ok þakkaði vel Gretti, er hann hafði unnit þennan óhreina anda’]. Þórhallr’s words again bring home the idea that Glámr’s personality, combined with his lack of Christianity, had allowed this demonic possession in the first place. Grettir’s struggle in exile is not simply to survive his harsh condition and hostile enemies, but also to avoid passing the line of no return where he, like his former foe, would be ripe for possession. Grettir’s fear of the dark and visions of Glámr’s eyes are both a symptom and a warning of this possibility. Henceforth Grettir is tormented by demonic powers.37 After slaying Glámr, Grettir travels to Norway to join Óláfr Haraldsson’s entourage. The king, who has had only recently come to power in Norway, seeks the service of men of quality and ambition. A tour de force passage both highlights the religious dimension of Óláfr and his court and foreshadows the deed which will condemn Grettir to full outlawry.38 We learn that Þórir Skeggjason, a prominent Icelandic farmer, had earlier visited Óláfr’s court. There Þórir had the king’s bishop bless two planks of a ship in which he then sailed safely to Iceland. Then Þórir had the vessel dismantled and the planks turned into weather-vanes, one of which could anticipate a south wind while the other sensed the north wind. Fittingly, therefore, while sailing to Norway, Grettir finds himself blown off course. Desperately needing fire, Grettir volunteers to solicit aid from a farm they see across an inlet. After a superhuman swim Grettir enters the dwelling but then, perhaps not surprisingly, he is taken for a troll. In the commotion the house accidentally catches fire, spelling death for all there but Grettir. Amongst those killed in the fire are the two sons of Þórir Skeggjason and, to make matters worse, Grettir’s shipmates spread the story that he intentionally set the dwelling ablaze. 36

ÍF 7, 14–15. For a comparable interpretation which unlike mine, however, emphasises the allegorical nature of Grettir’s fate, see Bernadine McCreesh, ‘Grettir and Glámr – Sinful Man versus the Fiend: An Allegorical Interpretation of a Fourteenth-Century Icelandic Saga’, Revue de l’Université d’Ottawa 51 (1981), 180–8. 38 ÍF 7, 128–31. 37


Outlaws and Marginal Figures Such is the precarious position in which Grettir finds himself as he asks King Óláfr’s permission to join his court. Óláfr grants Grettir a trial by iron to prove his innocence. But as he is led to church a young boy emerges from the crowd and rudely objects to Grettir being allowed to clear his name. Losing his temper, Grettir strikes the boy unconscious.39 The saga comments that some men think ‘it had been an unclean spririt sent for Grettir’s bad luck’ [‘at þat hafi verit óhreinn andi, sendr til óheilla Gretti’].40 The trial is abandoned and, in spite of Grettir’s pitiful pleadings, the king advises him to return to Iceland where, so he foretells, Grettir will live out the rest of his life. Along with Grettir’s encounter with Glámr, this is arguably the saga’s watershed moment. The botched trial by fire prevents Grettir from clearing his name and thus from evading the lawsuit that will condemn him to full outlawry. It also severs Grettir’s last hope of avoiding the world of the liminal and demonic. Grettir (and thus the saga author) knows the importance of this occasion, which takes place in the presence of the king, his courtiers and an attentive crowd. As in Fóstbrœðra saga, Óláfr Haraldsson is a source of grace. However, whereas Þormóðr throughout remains almost comically oblivious to the proximity of this source, Grettir intuits that Óláfr is his sole possible source of salvation in this life. Only in this light can we appreciate the pathos of Grettir begging the king to reconsider his decision. We now turn to Grettir’s death on Drangey, which is orchestrated by Þorbjõrn õngull, a man who seeks to raise his financial and social standing thereby. After killing the defenceless Grettir, Þorbjõrn has his victim’s head cut off to verify the deed, thus preparing to collect the bounty promised to anyone who slays Iceland’s most famous outlaw. Illugi, Grettir’s brother and companion in Drangey, predicts that Þorbjõrn’s act will rebound on him. The court of popular opinion now turns against Þorbjõrn, who unsuccessfully attempts to collect his prize at the Althing. Instead, he is made an outlaw for exactly the reasons Illugi had foretold. Þorbjõrn’s crime was slaying a dying man, the despoliation of Grettir’s corpse and, above all, the use of sorcery in committing the killing. Grettir’s bodily remains are now treated with honour: Skeggi, sonr Gamla, en mágr Þórodds drápustúfs, en systursonr Grettis, fór norðr til Skagafjarðar með atgangi Þorvalds Ásgeirssonar ok Ísleifs, mágs hans, er síðan var byskup í Skálholti, ok samþykki alls almúga ok fekk sér sér skip ok fór til Drangeyjar at sœkja lík þeira brœðra, Grettis ok Illuga, ok fœrðu út til Reykja á Reykjastrõnd ok grófu þar at kirkju; ok er þat til marks at Grettir liggr þar, at um daga Sturlunga, er kirkja var fœrð at Reykjum, váru grafin upp bein Grettis, ok þótti þeim geysistór ok þó mikil. Bein Illuga váru grafin síðan fyrir norðan kirkju, en hõfuð Grettis var grafit heima at Bjargi at kirkju.41 39

For a plausible interpretation, supported by hagiographic parallels, of the boy as expressing ‘in some ways Grettir’s own sense of guilt’, see Grønlie, The Saint and the Saga Hero, 251 (and ibid., 249–52). 40 ÍF 7, 133. 41 Ibid., 269–70.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature [Skeggi, son of Gamli, brother-in-law of Þórodds drápustúfs, and nephew of Grettir, went north to Skagafjörðr exhorted by Þorvaldr Ásgeirsson and his brother-in-law, who later became bishop of Skálholt, and with the agreement of the population at large. He secured a ship and went to Drangey to fetch the bodies of the brothers, Grettir and Illugi, and brought then to Reykjar at Reykjarstrõnd and buried them at the church. Evidence that Grettir lies there is that during the time of the Sturlungs, when the church at Reykjar was moved, his bones were exhumed and they were considered extremely large. The bones of Illugi were then buried north of the church, but Grettir’s head was buried at home at the church at Bjarg.]

The removal of Grettir’s (and Illugi’s) bones from Drangey to the church at Reykjar serves as a posthumous reconstitution of a kind. Of course, according to church law, an outlaw could not be buried in consecrated ground and so was excluded from any hope of salvation. Grettir’s outlawry is, to all intent and purposes, lifted by the translation of his bones to a churchyard. We may observe the solemnity with which Grettis saga recounts the movement of his remains. Especially noteworthy is the participation of Ísleifr Gizurarson, who would later become Iceland’s first bishop. Moreover, the formulation ‘samþykki alls almúga’ [‘with the agreement of all the people’] channels the idea of vox populi, a common feature in the identification of saints.42 Grettir’s status is changed from that of assured damnation to having at least the hope of salvation. As seen in the case of Oddr Þórarinsson, by the turn of the fourteenth century it was recognised that the fate of an excommunicated person could be influenced posthumously (chapter 1). This, essentially, is what happens with Grettir Ásmundarson. As with Oddr and his family, this is not a trifling matter. Because of Grettir’s prolonged purgatorial existence in the wilderness and horrific, unjust and pathos-laden end, it seems that, to the author, Grettir still merits a chance of salvation. Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar does not conclude with Grettir’s death and burial but with ‘Spesar þáttr’. This episode’s overt aim is to describe how Þorsteinn drómundr Ásmundarson avenges his brother in Constantinople. After killing Þorbjõrn õngull, who had joined the Varangian guard, Þorsteinn is thrown into a royal dungeon. His freedom, however, is soon secured by Spes, a wealthy noblewoman who is seduced by the Icelander’s beautiful singing as she passes the gaol. Episodes of adultery follow that recount how the lovers deceive Spes’s suspicious husband. Finally, although Spes swears a false oath of innocence, her husband requests a divorce. Þorsteinn and Spes then marry and move to Norway where he becomes a courtier of King Magnús góði, but when Haraldr harðráði ascends to sole rulership, Spes persuades her husband to atone for their former sins.43 In passing, one may note here an echo of the binary theme For the interplay between episcopal authority and vox populi see André Vauchez, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 13–21. 43 ÍF 7, 286–7. 42


Outlaws and Marginal Figures commonly associated with the contrasting characters of these two rulers [see below, 184–9]. Þorsteinn and Spes then distribute their wealth, giving ‘some to churches for the benefit of their souls, but some they took with them. They now travelled to Rome and many prayed for their souls.’ [‘En Þorsteinn ok þau Spes skiptu í sundr sínum hlut fjársins ok gáfu sumt til kirkna fyrir sál sinni, en sumt hõfðu þau með sér. Réðusk þau nú til Rómferðar, ok báðu margir vel fyrir þeim’].44 In Rome they are also praised for making penance freely and without prompting. When told to tend their souls for the rest of their lives, Spes suggests that they should become hermits, and both spend the rest of their lives as such. The contrasting fates of the brothers forms a binary pattern. The different careers of the charmed Þorsteinn and the cursed Grettir hardly need explaining. Grettis saga Ásmundssonar underlines this theme at regular intervals. For instance, when Grettir attempts to prove his innocence through judicial trial, he is thwarted through little fault of his own. In contrast, Spes, and thus Þorsteinn by association, successfully negotiates her judicial trial by deception. The issue is not that Grettir is damned while Þorsteinn is saved. At the very end of the saga, the fates of the half-brothers intersect, with Grettir dying and Þorsteinn avenging him in Constantinople. The two take differing roads to redemption, as we see exemplified in Harmsól and Sólarljóð: one is of diligent confession and preparation for death; the other involves a posthumous reinterpretation of his life at the moment of death and thereafter.

Arons saga Hjõrleifssonar Arons saga Hjõrleifssonar is a biography of a loyal supporter of Bishop Guðmundr Arason of Hólar, who defies the power of the Sturlungar. This leads to Aron’s outlawry, a state in which he survives for some three years until his escape to Norway (in 1225). There Aron joins the retinue of Earl Skúli and subsequently the court of King Hákon Hákonarson, whom he serves with distinction until his death (in 1255). Arons saga does not feature in the Sturlunga saga compilations. The work has in fact been assembled from late medieval and early modern manuscripts. Nevertheless, it is possible to date the saga with some assurance to the early fourteenth century.45 Arons saga Hjõrleifssonar is pro-ecclesiastical, in the sense that Aron’s career is associated with Bishop Guðmundr Arason’s conflict with Iceland’s secular leaders. In this way, the saga should be linked to the growing interest in Guðmundr’s sanctity, which culminated in 1315 with the translation of his relics at Hólar.46 Ibid., 288. As it was apparently known to the author of the so-called Guðmundar saga A, believed to have been composed in the 1320s. Guðmundar sögur biskups I. Ævi Guðmundar biskups. Guðmundar saga A, ed. Stefán Karlsson Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzels forlag, 1983), xli. Úlfar Bragason, ‘Arons saga: Minningar, mýtur og sagnaminni’, Ritið 13 (2013), 125–31. 46 John Porter, ‘Some Aspects of Arons Saga Hjörleifssonar’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 18 (1970–1973), 139–44. 44



Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature From an even broader perspective, Arons saga should be placed alongside Árna saga biskups [see below, 192–3] and the biographies of Guðmundr Arason from the same period. These interpret the past from the perspective of an increasingly confident Church following the Treaty of Õgvaldsnes (Avaldsnes) in 1297. Arons saga begins with an introduction of Iceland’s leading figures at the time of Aron’s childhood. From the start, the saga distinguishes between chieftains and men of the Church: Þat er upphaf af þessari sögu, at Sverrir konungr, sonr Sigurðar Haraldssonar, réð fyrir Nóregi, sem mönnum er kunnigt. Í þann tíma váru biskupar á Íslandi: Páll biskup Jónsson í Skálaholti, Guðmundr biskup Arason at Hólum – þessir valdsmenn af leikmönnum: Jón Loftsson ok Sæmundr sonr hans, Gizurr Hallson ok Þorvaldr, sonr hans, ok Magnús, er síðan var biskup í Skálholti, Snorri Sturluson ok bræðr hans, Þórðr ok Sighvatr.47 [It is the beginning of this saga that, as men know, King Sverrir, the son of Sigurðr Haraldsson, ruled over Norway. At that time the bishops in Iceland were Bishop Páll Jónsson in Skálholt and Bishop Guðmundr Arason at Hólar. Among the lay people the following were powerful men: Jón Loptsson and Sæmundr, his son; Gizurr Hallsson and Þorvaldr, his son, and Magnús, who later on was bishop at Skálholt; Snorri Sturluson and his brothers Þórðr and Sighvatr.]

This chronologically somewhat misleading introduction concludes with Þórðr and Sighvatr, whose fates are contrasted in Íslendinga saga [see below, 189–92].48 Arons saga now establishes a binary pattern which will continue throughout. The characters involved are Aron Hjõrleifsson and Sturla Sighvatsson. Aron is initially brought up at Miklaholt on the Snæfell peninsula but soon he is sent to live with a kinsman in Borgarfjörður. There the adolescent Aron encounters Sturla Sighvatsson who had been fostered partly at the same farm. The two ‘become like foster brothers’ [‘váru þeir svá sem fóstbræðr’] although their competitiveness quickly begins to strain the relationship.49 To prevent an escalating rift Aron is sent north to his uncle Helgi. On an errand to Flatey, Aron meets Eyjólfr Kárason, a close relative and a prominent chieftain, with whom he stays for two winters. A loyal ally of Guðmundr Arason, Eyjólfr heeds the bishop’s request for help against the overbearing Sighvatr Sturluson and Sturla Sighvatsson. Thus Aron, now around twenty years old, is drawn into a dangerous conflict that pits the bishop of Hólar and his allies against Iceland’s most formidable political faction. The irony should not be lost that this outcome was indirectly prompted by Aron’s youthful rivalry with Sturla Sighvatsson.

Sturlunga saga 2, 237. Jón Loptsson died in 1197, King Sverrir in 1202, while Guðmundr became bishop of Hólar in 1203. 49 Sturlunga saga 2, 238. 47



Outlaws and Marginal Figures In 1221 Guðmundr is forced to flee Hólar when control of the place is taken over by Tumi, Sturla Sighvatsson’s brother, who thus ‘took possession of the property of saints as though he had become an inheritor’ [‘lagði undir sik heilagra manna eign, svá sem hann væri erfingi orðinn’].50 The wording evokes the Staðamál disputes of the 1270s when, among other things, prominent laymen were accused of usurping the property of the patron saints.51 The statement also prefigures Aron’s outlawry, which follows from his attack on the occupiers of Hólar. Viewed from this perspective, his deed was not a crime but one committed in defence of the Apostle Peter, John the Baptist, and, most significantly the Virgin Mary.52 Guðmundr and his associates, including Eyjólfr and Aron, now establish a base in Málmey in Skagafjörður. Soon they run out of provisions, which prompts the two kinsmen to lead a raiding party to Hólar. They complete their mission after a violent confrontation in which Tumi Sighvatsson is killed. Guðmundr, not surprisingly, interprets this success as a divine blessing for their cause. Anticipating swift retribution the bishop and his followers decamp to Grímsey on the Arctic Circle. The heroic but hopeless defence at Easter on this remote northern isle is the dramatic high point of Arons saga Hjõrleifssonar. As the enemies disembark – now led by Sturla Sighvatsson – Bishop Guðmundr offers Aron an opportunity to confess his sins. Aron replies that he has no time for such things and is anyway required elsewhere on the island. Guðmundr replies, ‘[Y]ou will always be devout, my son, and do your best for the poor’ [‘en þó skyldir þú sem trúmestr vera, sonr minn, ok vertu sem bezt við fátæka menn’].53 The bishop further foretells that although he will be treated harshly by the Sturlungar, the two of them shall nevertheless meet again.54 Aron delays the attackers in a seemingly miraculous resistance: Nú þótt Aron sýndi vörn þessi meira mátt en líkindi væri á, þá kenna menn þat meir guðs miskunn ok bænum Guðmundar biskups en einkum framkvæmð sjálfs hans, ok hitt annat, at þeir hafa minni ábyrgð hafða fyrir guði, er vörðu Guðmund biskup, en hinir er at sóttu ...55 [... although Aron showed more power in this defence than seemed likely, people attribute this to God’s mercy and Bishop Guðmundr’s prayers rather than his own actions, and another thing helped, that those who were defending Bishop Guðmundr had less to answer for to God than did those who attacked him.] 50 51


53 54


Ibid., 240. See, for instance, ÍF 17:3, 119–20. On the patron saints of the churches in the diocese see, Margaret Cormack, ‘Saints of Medieval Hólar: A Statistical Survey of the Veneration of Saints in the Diocese’, Peregrinations. International Study for the Study of Pilgrimage Art 3:2 (2011) [http://peregrinations.kenyon.edu/vol3_2/Cormack%20article%20text%20 onlyJUNE2011DONE–1.pdf]. Sturlunga saga 2, 246. Ibid., 246. Ibid., 248.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature That the bishop’s cause is considered divinely favoured is not surprising. What, however, merits note is the sense that his enemies carried a greater burden of unconfessed sins. The encounter occurs at Easter, a time of penance and, as we later see, a season when matters of sin and punishment are out in the open. The sinners involved are the Sturlungar and especially Sturla Sighvatsson, who compounds his violent behaviour on Flatey by breaking the sanctuary of the church when the bishop is at prayer inside. Considering the tradition of comparing Guðmundr to Thomas Becket, the aim is seemingly to evoke the archbishop’s martyrdom and thus cast Sturla in the role of a secular adversary. Sturla has two priests dragged out and castrated, while his plan to cut out Guðmundr’s tongue comes to nothing. The theme of penance and salvation is further highlighted at the death of Eyjólfr Kárason, Aron’s secular patron, after a heroic defence on the shore. Throwing himself into the sea and swimming to a reef, Eyjólfr falls to his knees and then to the ground, looking east, while he extends his hands as in a prayer.56 It is worth restating that Easter is a time of death, resurrection, penance, and anticipation of mankind’s salvation. After a narrow escape from Flatey, Aron is condemned to full outlawry; the ultimate secular punishment which we have seen befall Gísli Súrsson and Grettir Ásmundarson. The focus now turns to Aron avoiding the clutches of Sturla and his henchmen. Here Sturla plays a role comparable to that of Bõrkr in Gísla saga, although Sturla’s resources are of course far greater. Aron’s outlawry is also depicted differently from that of Grettir and Gísli. Unlike Grettir, Aron does not seek shelter in the wilderness but rather with friends, family and allies. We see Aron as a popular outlaw who remains loyal to Bishop Guðmundr’s cause against all odds. Although Aron is persecuted, we sense that his cause is just and supported by all right-minded Icelanders. His story lacks the evershrinking world of Gísli Súrsson, and the mood of claustrophobic doom that accompanies this process. The contrast between Arons saga and the two outlaw sagas is most vividly illustrated in Aron’s relationship with grace. As seen, Gísli’s exile synchronises with dreams that obliquely and tantalisingly reveal the prospect of salvation. In Fóstbrœðra saga the main protagonists, whilst living in the immediate postConversion era, seem oblivious to the redemptive paths open to them. By an unfortunate alchemy of his own character and demonic design, Grettir Ásmundarson is denied the opportunity to halt his descent into the void. Only posthumously is the cycle of despair broken. In Arons saga Hjõrleifssonar, however, the troubled association between outlawry and grace is effectively reversed. In the summer of 1223 Aron hides out in Geirþjófsfjörður, as Sturla Sighvatsson has dispatched a contingent to the Westfjords to capture or kill him. Two armed strangers unexpectedly appear but, trusting his instincts, Aron greets them unarmed. The visitors turn out to have been sent by Þorvaldr Snorrason, a powerful local chieftain whose relations with Sturla have been less than friendly. 56

Ibid., 251.


Outlaws and Marginal Figures These men warn Aron that hostile forces are arranging against him, but instead of reacting to the ominous news, he tells of his dream-vision: “Þat dreymði mik”, segir Aron, “at maðr kom at mér í kórkápu. Sá ek lítt í andlit honum, því at kápuhöttrinn var síðr. Draumamaðrinn segir: “Þú skalt skriftast við mik, ef þú vill.” Ekki hefi ek lagt þat hversdagliga í vanða minn,” er ek sagða. Greiddi hann þá til kápuna, en ek þóttumst í fara, ok í því vaknaða ek, at ek þóttumst kenna manninn, ok þótti mér [sem] væri Guðmundr biskup”.57 [‘I dreamed,’ says Aron, ‘that a man came to me in a priest’s cape. I saw little of his face because the hood was hanging low. The dream-man says: ‘You shall go to confession with me, if you will.’ ‘I have not made it a daily custom,’ I said. He spread out his cape and I thought I put it on, and just when I awoke I seemed to recognise the man, and I thought it was Bishop Guðmundr.’]

Later the same day Aron, supported by the two men, successfully defeats three of Sturla’s emissaries. This dream-scene in Arons saga Hjõrleifssonar is essential for defining the nature of Aron’s outlawry. There is little sense here of outlawry equating with total spiritual isolation. Deprived of the regular structure of communal Christian life, Aron is extended a lifeline of salvation by Guðmundr. The saga emphasises Aron’s alienation from the regular rituals of the faith: ‘Ekki hefi ek lagt þat hversdagliga í vanða minn’ [‘I have not made it [confession] a daily custom’]. We also note the clear delineation of Aron’s spiritual development. Aron had declined Guðmundr’s offer to confess his sins at Grímsey, but now he gratefully accepts his cape. The garment serves as a symbolic substitute for the regular confessions Aron misses during his outlawry. Further, the dream’s imagery would have carried specific connotations for an informed contemporary audience. In one version of Gísls þáttr Illugasonar, Jón Õgmundarson, who is one of Guðmundr’s predecessors, drapes his cloak over Gísl and thus miraculously saves his life as he hangs on the gallows.58 But a more germane parallel is a well-known (and earlier mentioned) vision of the Virgin in Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum.59 There a Cistercian monk, having been shown the splendours of Heaven, weeps over the fact that no brothers of his order are to be found there. The Virgin Mary appears and opens her cloak under which she shelters numerous Cistercians.60 In Arons saga Hjõrleifssonar Guðmundr takes the Virgin Mary’s place as the hero’s special protector. Although the bishop only allows Aron to continue Sturlunga saga 2, 260–1. ÍF 15:1, 327–9. 59 Caesarius of Heisterbach 1, 546. See p. 000 above. 60 The imagery became connected with the Virgin of Mercy (Maria Misericordia) and especially her relationship with the mendicant orders. On the origin of this imagery see Susan Solway, ‘A Numismatic Source of the Madonna of Mercy’, The Art Bulletin 67:3 (1985), 359–68. 57



Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature his path to salvation, the Marian model suggests that Heaven is indeed his ultimate destination. Guðmundr also acts as Aron’s intercessor, as he seemingly miraculously avoids Sturla and his henchmen.61 The dreams of Aron Hjõrleifsson and Gísli Súrsson both occur at a desperate juncture, or when the protagonists are progressively hemmed in by their enemies. Otherwise the dreams are as different as can be imagined. In Gísli’s case they only enhance the sense of dread by cruelly allowing him a glimpse of an unattainable afterlife. Aron’s dream, however, signifies grace through St Guðmundr’s intercession. I suggest it is not coincidental that the author of Arons saga has the main protagonist relate his dream in Geirþjófsfjörður, the same fjord where Gísli Súrsson experienced his most pertinent dream-visions. Two years later we find Aron sheltering at his mother’s farmstead on Snæfellsnes. She warns Aron that Sturla has discovered his hiding place: En við þessa sögu leggst Aron flatr niðr á jörðina ok rétti sik í kross. Söng hann fyrst sálminn Benedicite ok Ave Maria. Síðan stóð hann upp ok sagði enn nökkut gott mundi fyrir liggja. Sigríðr mælti: “At hverjum hefir þú numit þetta bænahald, sonr minn?” Aron segir, at Guðmundr biskup hefði honum þetta bragð kennt, at hann skyldi þetta bænahald hafa ok þetta atferli, þá er honum þætti á liggja, at guð heyrða bæn hans ok in helga Máría.62 And at this news Aron lies down flat on the ground and spreads himself in the form of a cross. First he sang the psalm Benedicite, and Ave Maria. Then he stood up and said that some good would yet lie ahead. Sigrid said: ‘From whom have you learnt this way of saying prayers, my son?’ Aron says that Bishop Guðmundr had taught him this practice, that he should use these prayers and that procedure when he thought it important that God and the Holy Mary would hear his prayers.

As with the episode in Geirþjófsfjörður, an imminent threat illuminates Aron’s religious life. In this instance Aron tells his mother about his devotion to the Virgin Mary – an especially fitting confession to a mother who is protecting her son. The devotion on display is an act of penance in the absence of formal confession. In the spring of 1226 Aron, assisted by Bishop Guðmundr’s supporters, escapes Iceland for Niðaróss. This marks the beginning of the third and final phase of his career, when he becomes an esteemed member of the Norwegian court. There is a striking contrast between the second part – which relates Aron’s survival as an outlaw – and this concluding section. Indeed, this contrast contributes to Arons saga Hjõrleifssonar’s unique characteristic. From being hounded in Iceland and living on the outskirts of society, although supported by friends and family, Aron seamlessly transforms into a courtier of great distinction. 61

For instance, sudden changes in the weather, which are here clearly attributed to divine intervention, allow Aron to his escape his pursuers. Sturlunga saga 2, 268. 62 Ibid., 268.


Outlaws and Marginal Figures This abrupt shift of focus is underlined when Bishop Guðmundr and Aron’s father welcome him to Norway: ‘þóttust hann ór helju heimtan hafa’ [‘they thought they had retrieved him from Hell’].63 In Niðaróss Aron joins the court of Earl Skúli Bárðarsson who is then ruling in tandem with the young king, Hákon Hákonarson. Aron stays the winter at his court but in the spring he requests leave of absence to fulfil his vow to visit Jerusalem. Skúli, however, denies this wish. Breaking his vow would compromise Aron’s soul and so he ignores the jarl’s wishes and travels to the Holy Land. On Aron’s return Skúli refuses to receive him back at court, even though King Hákon pleads on his behalf: ‘Vill hann bæta við yðr þat, sem hann hefir brotit, en hann hefir nú mikit bætt sál sína’ [‘He wishes to amend what he committed against you, and has greatly amended his soul’].64 Skúli’s refusal to show him mercy prompts Aron to translate his allegiance to the royal court in Bergen. Aron marries a blue-blooded and wealthy widow, and this allows him to establish a splendid home close to the court. Thus Aron, by showing greater obedience to God than to Earl Skúli, becomes a prosperous and honoured courtier. At this point Sturla Sighvatsson reappears in the saga as a visitor to Hákon’s court. A brief meeting between the two enemies allows Aron to allude to their change of fortune: ‘Hverzu lízt [þér] nú á skógarmann þinn, Sturla, er þú horfir á hann svá lengi, eða hversu þykkir þér ek skipazt hafa, síðan vit skilðum næst?’ [‘How do you like your outlaw now, Sturla, since you are staring at him for such a long time, and how do you think I have fared since we last met?’].65 For the remainder of the saga, Aron’s magnanimity is illustrated by his dealings with Sturla’s brother. This is Þórðr kakali Sighvatsson, whose dissolute lifestyle and boorish behaviour have turned him into a penniless outcast from court. If Aron is the ideal courtier, then in Arons saga Þórðr represents his antithesis. The contrast between Aron and Þórðr is highlighted by their initially uneasy relationship on which the author comments as follows: ‘er þat jafnan fátt, er ólíkara er til’ [‘there is always coolness where there is difference’].66 The two are nevertheless brought closer together by the Battle of Örlygsstaðir, which turns Þórðr’s financial position from the precarious to the desperate. Aron even helps the brother of his erstwhile nemesis to mend matters with King Hákon. As to Þórðr’s brother, Sturla’s violent and unexpected end at Örlygsstaðir continues the binary theme, for it stamps a divine judgement on his character and conduct. Grace and celestial aid are granted to his enemy Aron Hjõrleifsson, however, who thus displays a merciful side to his character. The conclusion of Arons saga further illustrates one of its principal themes, namely the journey of a secular figure towards salvation which is aided by his deference to ecclesiastical authority. In 1252 Aron accompanies the newly consecrated bishop of Hólar to Iceland where he stays for a year. The following Ibid., 269. Ibid., 270. 65 Ibid., 272. 66 Ibid., 274. 63 64


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature autumn, Providence intervenes again when Aron narrowly escapes as his vessel is wrecked off northern Iceland. By the ‘mercy of God’ [‘með guðs miskunn’] Aron saves two of his companions. The shipwreck turns out to be a blessing in disguise, since it allows Aron to compensate for a killing he had committed some thirty years earlier: ‘eftir þetta var Aron sáttr við alla menn á Íslandi’ [‘thereafter Aron was reconciled with all men in Iceland’].67 With this turn of events, the saga prepares Aron Hjõrleifsson’s exemplary death; he has atoned for earthly misdeeds in anticipation of eternal life. On his return to Norway Aron falls ill and is visited by King Hákon. Aron receives the last rites, whereupon he dies. The king delivers a eulogy at the burial, to which the author appends a benediction for Aron’s soul: “Þessi maðr, Aron, várr hirðmaðr, hefir víða farit ok [í] mörgum mannsraunum vel prófazt ok í mörgum lífsháska staddr verit, ok viljum vér því orði á lúka,” segir konungr, “at hér hefir látizt eitt it bezta sverð af várum þegnum.” Var hans líkferð með mikilli sæmð ger. Ok er þat væntanda, at sál hans hafi gott heimili fengit, bæði fyrir meðalgöngu vinar síns, ins góða Guðmunrdar biskups Arasonar, ok einkanliga fyrir mjúkustu várs lausnara miskunn, hvers pílagrímr hann má réttliga kallast fyrir þat, er hann heimsótti hans helgustu gröf ok marga aðra heiliga staði.68 [‘This man, Aron, our retainer, travelled widely, and proved himself in many dangers, and has risked his life many times, and we would like to conclude with these words,’ the king says, ‘that here has died one of the best man among our subjects.’ His funeral was conducted with great honour. And it is to be expected that his soul has found a good resting place, both through the intercession of his friend, the good Bishop Guðmundr Arason, and especially through the mercy of our most gentle redeemer, whose pilgrim he may justly be called, for he visited his most holy grave, and many other holy places.]

The speech translates Aron, the ideal courtier, to a promising future in the afterlife. Its words crystallise an important theme in Arons saga, namely the association between gaining honour in both earthly and heavenly courts; in both cases advancement depends on proper conduct. This results in patronage and mercy from both terrestrial and celestial rulers. A familiar medieval depiction of Heaven was that of a court presided over by God or Christ and attended by a hierarchy of angels and saints. 69 In Konungs skuggsjá the earthly court is shown to mirror the heavenly one, for there the king, in imitation of God, sits on his throne and dispenses justice, mercy and patronage.70 A homily written in Iceland around the time of Aron’s death explains how tears of repentance Ibid., 278. Ibid. 69 The image became especially popular in the thirteenth century, see for instance Gábor Klaniczay, Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses: Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe, transl. Éva Pálmai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 243–5. 70 See especially Konungs skuggsíá, 89–105. 67



Outlaws and Marginal Figures may secure a place at the ‘heavenly court and the friendship of the eternal king’ [‘himna hirðar ok vináttu ins eilífa konungs’].71 As seen, Gísls þáttr Illugasonar explores similar ideas. The image of Mary, the Queen of Heaven, sheltering Cistercians under her cloak is essentially that of patronage; in Aron saga Hjörleifssonar this patron is Bishop Guðmundr Arason. Because of St Guðmundr’s intercession Aron escapes from certain death on Grímsey, the bishop thus enabling Aron to repent of his sins as an outlaw. Again at Jarl Skúli’s court it is Guðmundr who facilitates Aron’s progress. Further, it is the protagonist’s concern for his own soul, as he embarks on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which steers him to the king’s court. Aron Hjõrleifsson is accorded privileged status at the royal court, and this suggests that he has now gained a parallel prize in Heaven. Unlike the other protagonists in this chapter, Aron Hjõrleifsson did not live around the time of Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity. The author of Aron’s saga, writing some half a century after his death, is able to place the hero in a radically different religious landscape than the composers of Gísla saga, Fóstbrœðra saga or Grettis saga. Now sources of salvation are to be found in Iceland. Although Aron escapes his homeland, he does so only because of political necessity brought about by the wrongdoing of others. Above all it is St Guðmundr Arason who steers Aron towards salvation. In this Guðmundr foreshadows the post-Commonwealth Icelandic Church which had the power and means to affect the fate of secular individuals in both this life and the next.


This is a fragment of homily that Stefán Karlsson believes was written around the middle of the thirteenth century by a Norwegian attached to either Skálholt or Hólar. Stefán Karlsson, ‘Om himmel og helvede på gammelnorsk AM 238 XXVIII fol,’ in Festskrift til Ludvig Holm–Olsen på hans 70- årsdag den 9 juni 1984, ed. Bjarne Fidjestøl et al. (Øvre Ervik: Alvheim og Eide, 1984), 188.


N 5 n Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World The Earth and the Sky In the sagas and poems we have examined, salvation has been intimately associated with travelling. In the cases of Sigurðr slembidjákn, King Eiríkr góði and Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson we have seen how journeys to shrines of saints benefitted the sinner’s soul. A mention may also be made of Auðr, Gísli’s wife, in Gísla saga Súrssonar and of the fortuitiously united Þorsteinn and Spes in Grettis saga. Visiting a faraway place helped the sinner’s prospects in the afterlife; the hardship and danger endured on such journeys, along with prayers offered by the holy men or women at the final destination, cleansed the soul of past misdemeanours. Pilgrimage, of course, also served as a metaphor for a person’s progress towards redemption. But Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson did not visit St Gilles in southern France merely because the hermit-saint had lived and died in that place. Rather Hrafn sought celestial aid at this shrine because the saint’s corporal relics were there. These relics were not mere curiosities or mementoes but concrete manifestations of salvation. Although St Giles’s soul resided in Heaven, it was believed he was fully present in each fibre of his corporal remains. A twelfth-century description of his shrine informs us about what Hrafn would have encountered on his visit: located behind the altar stood a large casket richly decorated with finery and biblical images which culminated in the Ascension. An inscription there may be rendered as ‘this wonderful vessel, adorned with gold and jewels, contains the relics of St Giles’.1 Such objects offered the sinner a tangible glimpse of Paradise; every fragment ‘encapsulated the essence of Christian cosmology’ and so served as an object in time and space that promised eternal bliss.2 In a celebrated phrase, the saints and their relics brought about ‘the joining of heaven



The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela: Critical Edition, ed. Alison Stones et al., 2 vols (London: Harvey Miller, 1998), vol. 2, 36–40; see Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013), 271. Julia H. Smith, ‘Portable Christianity: Relics in the Medieval West (c. 700–1200)’, Proceedings of the British Academy 181 (2012), 152.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature and earth’.3 Relics were both foci of miracles and reminders of salvation; they were portals to redemption.4 If relics represented concrete manifestations of Heaven on earth, then we might consider the opposite notion: namely the appearance of Hell and damnation in the here and now. Unlike the prospect of Paradise, which resided in exceptional things or places associated with Christ, the Virgin and the Blessed, Hell could infest the entire material world. And here the landscape comes into play; the more inhospitable the location, the closer it accorded with established views about the nature of this infernal destination. Not surprisingly, therefore, Iceland and its surrounding waters became linked with Hell. Thus in Konungs skuggsjá the ‘Father’ informs the ‘Son’ that the island’s ice-cold streams of water and subterranean fires represent the real torments of sinners and a reminder to the living about their possible fate.5 Similarly, in his prologue to Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus explains how the crashing icebergs off Iceland’s coast generate a ‘weird cacophony’ which, some believe, emanates from ‘wicked souls condemned to torture’ as they atoned for their sins.6 In Cistercian circles the volcano Hekla was promoted as a northern Vesuvius or Stromboli with its earthly opening to inferno. Around 1180 Herbert of Clairvaux reported a fearsome Icelandic volcano that even places Etna on Sicily in the shade. Herbert’s account is especially interesting for its description of an eruption that obliterates the surrounding area.7 Moreover, popular notions about the ‘hidden people’ inhabiting the landscape meshed with the Christian conception of Hell. An illustrative example of this appears in the Norwegian miracula of St Óláfr from the late twelfth century. Here a farmhand, having travelled to the edge of the wilderness to cut firewood, is lured by a pair of beautiful women into a mountain cave. There he is graciously greeted by a fine nobleman who tempts the young man with food, drink and merriment. But the farmhand is not fooled and he calls on God and St Óláfr to 3


5 6 7

In Peter Brown’s well-known phrase, The Cult of the Saints. Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 1; Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, 20. Some Icelandic churches owned relics, although the medieval inventories (máldagar) are relatively silent about them, especially in comparison with their collections of statues and sacred books. Most importantly, of course, Skálholt and Hólar housed the remains of St Þorlákr Þórhallsson and St Jón Õgmundarson. However, as a depository of prestigious relics, Rome, with its numerous shrines of major saints, reigned supreme and the city’s centrality for Icelandic pilgrims is well attested in the Old Norse corpus. See, for instance, John D. Shafer, ‘Journeys to Rome and Jerusalem in Old Norse-Icelandic Sagas’, Linguistica e Filologia 31 (2011), 7–35. Konungs skuggsíá, 18–19. Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum 1, 15. Herbert von Clairvaux und sein Liber Miraculorum. Die Kurzversion Eines Anonymen Bayerischen Redaktors: Untersuchung, Edition und Kommentar, ed. Gabriela Kompatscher Gufler (Bern and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005), 260. Sigurður Þórarinsson, ‘Herbert múnkur og Heklufell’, Náttúrufræðingurinn 22:2 (1952), 49–61. Konrad Maurer, ‘Die Hölle auf Island’, Zeitschrift der Vereins für Volkskunde 3 (1894), 257–69.


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World deliver him from these ‘phantasmal illusions’.8 The mask now drops and the festive coterie metamorphose into loathsome demons while a sulphurous fire splits the cave down the middle. As the young man is steadfast in his prayers, the demons vanish, while St Óláfr guides him back to the farmstead. The farmhand reportedly told this story to Eysteinn Erlendsson when the archbishop visited the region. Underlying this episode is the folkloric belief, attested in Norway and Iceland up to the modern era, of creatures that live within cliffs, hills or mountains and entice or abduct humans into their abode. A comparable miracle features in Arngrímr Brandsson’s saga about Bishop Guðmundr Arason. There, a farmer from the Westfjords who is on his way to Mass is accosted by a demon in the shape of a troll-woman (‘fjandi í flagðkonu mynd’) who seeks to force him from the path and into the mountains. A figure in a dark cape suddenly appears and chases the demon away. The mysterious saviour is, of course, Guðmundr Arason (who at that time was still alive) and he escorts the farmer back to his farmstead.9 Thus demons and Hell which infest the landscape may be defeated by the saints as well as by sacred spaces and rituals. Nonetheless, there is the underlying sense of damnation as a physical, tangible presence, which reflects the ever-looming threat of sin. Where demons go, Hell follows. Þorvalds þáttr víðfõrla, dating to the early thirteenth century, recounts how Koðrán, the father of the missionary, Þorvaldr, placed his trust in a ‘spámann’ (‘prophet’) who inhabits a nearby boulder. Þorvaldr tells his father that if he wishes to live in ‘everlasting light’ [‘eilífu ljósi’] and ‘indescribable bliss for all eternity’ [‘umrœðiligri sælu útan enda’] he must renounce his relationship with the stone-dweller whom he sees as an evil spirit to be exorcised.10 In this scenario, the demon, similarly to the ‘handsome man’ of the Norwegian miracle, is a deceitful, smooth-talking enticer (‘flærðarfullr’). The demon, like the devil of which he is but a local manifestation, has lulled his victim into a false sense of security and well-being. Failure to reject him will result in Koðrán’s damnation. Similarly, Bergbúa þáttr (‘The Episode of the Mountain-Dweller), combines a Christian exemplum with native lore which is set in a wilderness inhabited by non-human figures of menace and representatives of damnation.11 This brief tale, which takes place in the southern Westfjords, relates how Þórðr, a well-to-do farmer, travels with his farmhand to attend Mass at a church some distance away. When the weather turns bad and Þórðr suspects they are lost, they seek shelter under a cliff and discover a cave. Þórðr erects a cross in the cave’s mouth and they prepare to stay the night. Soon noises emerge from deep within. Praying, they peer within and see two enormous oval lights like the eyes of a monstrous creature. They hear twelve stanzas (Hallmundarkviða) recited and these constitute the core of Bergbúa þáttr. This poem, it should be A History of Norway, 64–7. Byskupa sögur III, 188. 10 ÍF 15:2, 60–8. 11 ÍF 13, 441–50. 8 9


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature stressed, is believed to be older than the preserved þáttr.12 The end of each stanza concludes with a repetitive refrain of the kind associated with ghost or dream verses, thus inbuing the atmosphere with terror and foreboding.13 From these we learn that the creature is an old giant named Hallmundr. Although the meaning of the verses is far from transparent, they relate how Hallmundr connects with a tremendous volcanic eruption – the fusion of fire and ice – which brings death and destruction to humans. The poem’s apocalyptic tone is unmistakable. But Hallmundr is not the only subterranean force around. The concluding stanzas refer to a conflict between Þórr and the giants in which Þórr proves victorious. In other words, the underworld is no longer dominated by the traditional creatures of the land but rather Þórr, who the early audience of Bergbúa þáttr would have seen as a demon and hence a type of the devil. In the last stanza Hallmundr advices Þórðr and his companion to learn the poem by heart. This Þórðr does and he lives into old age, whereas the farmhand fails in this task and he dies a year later. Whatever Christian meaning Bergbúa þáttr seeks to convey (not to speak of the separate and earlier Hallmundarkviða), its singular message is how the landscape is inhabited and contested by malignant forces of destruction and damnation. The apocalyptic and hellish forces unleashed link with the framing of the story: the long journey to a church is essentially an act for the salvation of the two human protagonists. The essence here is the sheer physical proximity of the devil, Hell, sin and damnation. In Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, Guðbrandr Gestsson, a priest, dreams that he is approached by a large, dark-looking, figure who introduces himself: Líðr gott sumar gróðrar. Gandreyðr þrumir landa. Heimr er með beztum blóma birtr. Nú er ráð at hirtask. Mjõk er gráliga glýjaðr, Gapir hann á sjõt manna ólmr und œgishjalmi, Ingólfr kominnn hingat.14 [Summer rich in growth passes. The snake lies still. The world is brightened in finest bloom. Now it is advisable to discipline oneself. Ingólfr, who has

For the (assumed) dating of Hallmundarkviða to the thirteenth century and Bergbúa þáttr to the fourteenth century, see ibid., cxxii. For recent discussion of both see Oren Falk, ‘The Vanishing Volcanoes: Fragments of Fourteenth-century Icelandic Folklore’, Folklore 118:1 (2007), 7–9; Declan Taggart, ‘All the Mountains Shake: Seismic and Volcanic Imagery in the Old Norse Literature of Þórr’, Studia Islandica 68 (2017), 99–122, especially 110–18. 13 Indeed, the þáttr is marked by a strong performative aspect, most notably in combining the booming voice emanating from the cave and the sonic effect of the apocalyptic scene it portrays. Kate Heslop, ‘Hearing Voices: Uncanny Moments in the Íslendingasögur’, Gripla 19 (2008), 102–4. 14 Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, 9. 12


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World come here, is very maliciously gladdened – ferocious under helmet of terror, he gapes over men’s homes (or the ‘host of men’)].15

This stanza is set in 1197 against the background of impending strife between two factions in the southern Westfjords. The saga comments that ‘[we] believe this dream foretold the strife that would take place on Rauðasandur’ [‘Þann draum hyggjum vér verit hafa fyrir þeim ófriði er á Rauðasandi var’]. The origin of the dispute aligns well with the poem’s eschatological tone. Markús Gíslason is a prominent chieftain whose concern for the proper upkeep of churches is emphasised. After his wife’s death Markús embarks on a pilgrimage to Rome. On the way Markús collects wood in Norway and bells in England which on his return he donates, along with a shrine of St Óláfr, to a church he erects at Rauðasandur. The saga relates that following his wife’s passing Markús was often depressed or unhappy (‘óglaðr’), and we may infer that he undertook the Roman journey and built the church for her soul’s benefit. Markús’s dispute with Ingi Magnússon, a neighbouring farmer, begins over the latter’s neglect of a chapel at his farmstead.16 The feud escalates and concludes with Ingi killing Markús. The tenor of Ingólfr’s stanza is in line with the disaster that befalls Markús Gíslason. Markús unselfishly attends to the pastoral care of others, and the detail in which Hrafns saga recounts this suggests that he will be recompensed in the afterlife. Markús’s exemplary life is brutally interrupted because of a quarrel over the issue that best illustrates his virtue. Although the accompanying stanza does not specifically refer to his case, it encapsulates an essential feature of Hrafns saga and, arguably, of Icelandic Commonwealth society in general. The state of equilibrium and contentment is but brief: ‘Heimr er með beztum blóma birtr’ [‘The world is brightened in the finest bloom’], it will inevitably be shattered by the sins of men; the snake, the Devil, will eventually bring about terror and conflict. The only thing that mortal men can do to alleviate this condition is to confess and do penance (‘Nú er ráð at hirtask’). The image of the snake is especially striking: ‘Gapir hann á sjõt manna / ólmr und œgishjalmi’ [‘ferocious under helmet of terror, he gapes over men’s homes (or the ‘host of men’)]’.17 Peter Foote has suggested that the image evokes the sea’s calm, which the Miðgarðsormr of Norse mythology (‘The World Serpent’) Ibid., 98. Ibid., 7. 17 Ibid., 98–9. Peter Foote, ‘Three Dream-Stanzas in Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar’, in Sagnaskemmtun: Festschrift für Hermann Pálsson, ed. Rudolf Simek et al. (Vienna, Cologne and Graz: Böhlau, 1986), 99–104. The imagery also evokes the gaping Fenrisúlfr at Ragnarõk, and so can be compared with the fusion of pagan and Christian imagery on the tenth-century Gosforth Cross. There, Víðarr tears at the jaws and kills the wolf Fenrir; a likely allusion to Christ’s defeat of Satan at the end of time. Meyer Schapiro, ‘Cain’s Jaw-Bone that Did the First Murder’, The Art Bulletin 24: 3 (1942), 205–12, see footnote 66, p. 211. Schmidt, The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell, 3–16. Most recently and more extensively, see Lilla Kópar, Gods and Settlers: The Iconography of Norse Mythology in Anglo-Saxon Sculpture (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), 68–89. 15 16


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature may disturb at any moment. The Miðgarðsormr would here, of course, represent Satan. Supporting this interpretation is a passage in Niðurstigningar saga, an Old Norse rendering from around 1200 of the Evangelium Nicodemi, in which Satan, having been cast out of Hell by Christ, transforms into a serpent or dragon: ‘þa likti hann sik i mynd ogurligs dreka þeim er jafnat er at mikeleik vid Midgardorm sa er sagt at ligi um allan heiminn’ [‘Then he took the shape of an awful dragon, whose largeness is compared to that of the Midgard Serpent, about whom it is said that it lies around the whole world’].18 Moreover, in medieval art and literature, the mouth or the jaw of the serpent or dragon is a common representation of Hell’s entrance.19 The stanza reminds us that Hell is ever present. It is not only a terrifying place that the sinful shall encounter after their earthly existence; it is also one firmly embedded in the material world. Here a demonic figure travels around Iceland ever ready to punish humans for their transgressions. But the topographic outposts of Hell were not confined to mountains and stones. Away from Iceland, in remote locations, human structures served similar roles. In Yngvars saga the hall at Siggeum is a localised Hell inhabited by man-eating dragons and a demon in the shape of King Haraldr of Sweden (see chapter 2). With its biblical allusions this is a distinctly erudite kind of inferno. The satanic hall can be viewed as a grotesque inversion of the enthroned Christ flanked by angels and the Blessed. Indeed, it is likely that visitors to Hólar cathedral around 1200 would have seen a similiar representation. Only thirteen wooden panels are preserved of this large Byzantine-influenced Doomsday painting, but there is enough to indicate that it featured the devil enthroned with snakes or dragons.20 Christ in Majesty would have provided a dramatic counter-image to this portrayal. The hellish Siggeum is located near the world’s edge and the hall is linked with landscape features that are worthy of attention. There is obviously the whirlpool, the abyss, which manifestly denotes a descent into Hell. Less conspicuous, but no less interesting, is the placement of Siggeum on a headland (‘nes’). In Old English Christian eschatological literature headlands (‘næssas’) are associated with the extremities of human habitation and as such they signify Hell’s entry. In turn in Beowulf this combination of headland-descent/chasm/ abyss-Hell is commonly thought to have influenced the portrayal of the abode of Grendel and his mother.21 They ‘occupy a hidden land, wolf-slopes, windy Dario Bullitta, Niðrstigningar saga. Sources, Transmission and Theology of the Old Norse ‘Descent into Hell’ (Toronto, Buffalo, NY, and London: University of Toronto Press 2017), 157 and 170. 19 See, for instance, Schmidt, The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell, 41–5. 20 Selma Jónsdóttir, Byzönzk dómsdagsmynd í Flatatungu (Reykjavík: Almenna Bókafélagið, 1959). See also Hörður Ágústsson, Dómsdagur og helgir menn á Hólum: Endurskoðun fyrri hugmynda um fjalirnar frá Bjarnastaðahlíð og Flatatungu (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenska Bókmenntafélag, 1989), 60–1. 21 For the reference see D.R. Letson, ‘The Old English Physiologus and the Homiletic Tradition’, Florilegium 1 (1979), 36–7. For the scholarly debate regarding the influence 18


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World headlands, a perilous fen-passage, where a mighty stream goes down below the shadows of headlands, water below the land’ [‘ðær fyrgenstream/under næssa genipu niþer gewiteð, / flod under foldas’].22 With its nocturnal setting, guardian serpents, and the cannibalistic activity associated with Grendel, this anti-hall resembles the hall at Siggeum. This more resplendent place, which comes alive during the night, hosts an equally grizzly family that includes the king’s human-devouring daughters. In Yngvars saga, however, a counterpoint to this infernal combination is the presence of another geographical location, namely the Red Sea and its promise of salvation for the deserving. A more mundane structure than Siggeum’s hall features in Þorsteins þáttr skelks which is preserved in the Flateyjarbók redaction of Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar.23 The episode places King Óláfr and his retinue east of Viken. The travelling court is billeted in a dwelling some distance from the main farmstead. In the evening, over drinks, the king advises his men not to make unescorted nocturnal visits to the latrines. An Icelander, Þorsteinn Þorkellsson, who had joined the king a year earlier, wakes up in the middle of the night but is unable to arouse his companion. Þorsteinn goes to the main house and enters a large latrine where eleven men are sitting on either side. A demon, materialising on the furthest station, introduces himself as Þorkell hinn þunni who ‘fell upon corpses with King Haraldr hilditõnn’ [‘er féll á hræ með Haraldi konungi hilditönn’]. Þorkell recalls the defeat and death of Haraldr of Denmark at the legendary Battle of Brávellir. The aging Haraldr hilditõnn had sought this battle to meet a heroic end, and thus for a place in Valhalla rather than for the shadowy abode which was the destination of those who died of old age. Asked where he has come from, Þorkell replies that he has just arrived from Hell, into which he descended (one must conclude) along with King Haraldr. The peculiar expression ‘féll á hræ með Haraldi konungi hilditönn’ here denotes falling in battle, but it also evokes evil or overambitious kings who bring disaster to their family and followers. One is again reminded of Haraldr in Yngvars saga. This Swedish king drowned with all his men in the Red Sea and then presided over an infernal court where his family members feasted on each other’s corpses. In both cases Hell is manifested on earth and may be visited by the brave in nocturnal settings. Demons, who were formerly humans, relay tales about the fate of kings who are damned. on Beowulf see Andy Orchard, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript, revised edition (Toronto/London: Toronto University Press, 2003), 38–48. 22 The translation is taken from P.S. Langeslag, Seasons in the Literature of the Medieval North (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2015). 93. For an analysis of the lair of Grendel and his mother see ibid., 92-97. 23 Flateyjarbók, vol. 1, 462–4. For studies of this text, see John Lindow, ‘Þorsteins þáttr skelks and the Verisimilitude of Supernatural Experience in Saga Literature’, in Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature: New Approaches to Textual Analysis and Literary Criticism, ed. John Lindow, Lars Lönnroth and Gerd Wolfgang Weber (Odense: Odense University Press, 1986), 264–80; Carolyne Larrington, ‘Diet, Defecation and the Devil: Disgust and the Pagan Past’, in Medieval Obscenities, ed. Nicola McDonald (York: York Medieval Press, 2006), 151–5.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature But there is a notable difference between the physical manifestations of Hell – or rather the extension of Hell to earth in Þorsteins þáttr skelks and in Yngvars saga. Whereas the pagan Sóti finds himself in an unfamiliar or exotic locale, a splendid hall, Þorsteinn enters the most humble of spaces, and does so not on request, but (quite literally) for personal relief. The privy is presented as a gateway to Hell. In this way, it serves as its localised antechamber during Þorsteinn skelkr’s brief encounter with his infernal counterpart.24 Indeed the inversion of the association of the monumental and regal with Hell plays to the þáttr’s comic nature. Þorsteinn skelkr and Þorkell hinn þunni are minor followers of renowned kings. Moreover, both end their lives in legendary battles alongside their lords: Þorsteinn at Svõlðr, Þorkell at Brávellir. Thus we have pairings of opposites in Þorsteinn and Þorkell, and Kings Óláfr Tryggvason and Haraldr hilditõnn, as well as the battles of Svõlðr and Brávellir. In one a young missionary king, the bringer of Christianity to the North, is defeated following a heroic fight. This end signifies either his salvation or the beginning of the road to redemption. In the other an old king chooses death in battle for selfish reasons, a choice which consigns him to Hell.25 Although separated in time by the New and Old Dispensation respectively, these contrasting examples share essential common features. In Þorsteins þáttr skelks a familiar and humble human space is temporarily transformed into a miniature version of Hell. There is a sense here that both the landscape and human abodes may be inhabited by evil and demonic forces. By default the visible world is the devil’s natural environment; as seen, it is only through special buildings (churches and monasteries), sacred objects (relics) or specific rituals that it can be protected from his presence. Pagan burial places were particularly susceptible to demonic influences. Although mounds or barrows were an integral part of the landscape of medieval Scandinavia, such impressive markers of the pagan past were less visible in Iceland. In the sagas, however, burial mounds are especially linked with the hero’s forced entry into these structures (haugbrot).26 Typically, the mound is inhabited by a fearsome character who comes ‘alive’ and battles the hero to safeguard his weapons and treasure. These are the dwellings of draugar or revenants who inhabit spaces that are yet accessible to the living. And as gateways to the other world, such places might be expected to be associated 24

The gateway comparison features in Larrington, ‘Diet, Defecation and the Devil’, 153. 25 Paralleling of the careers of Haraldr hilditõnn and Óláfr Tryggvason also appears in the thirteenth-century Sõgubrot af fornkonungum. The former presents a kind of preChristian prefiguring of the latter. Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, ‘Sõgubrot af fornkonungum: Mythologised History for Late Thirteenth-Century Iceland’, in Making History: Essays on the Fornaldarsögur, ed. Martin Arnold and Alison Finlay (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2010), 7–8. In the thirteenth-century Rauðúlfs þáttr, of which more later, Haraldr features along with Sigurðr Fáfnisbani [see below, 188]. 26 See, for example, Brendalsmo and Røthe, ‘Haugbrot eller de levendes forhold til de døde – en komparativ analyse’, META 1–2 (1992), 84–119.


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World with the Christian inferno. Certainly, the fusing of pagan barrows and Hell appears in Anglo-Saxon literature and visual art. There mounds are shown as miniature versions of Hell in which the damned are tormented in close geographic proximity to the living. In other words, these are multiple localised manifestations of the one Hell which underlined ‘the concept that hell and torment were literally immediately below one’s feet’.27 Although in the Icelandic landscape similar ‘mini-hells’ are usually associated with mountains, hills and cliffs, it was only natural to connect pagan burial barrows with damnation. Yet they could also highlight the hero’s salvation, and this is evident in the fourteenth-century saga about Bárðr Snæfellsáss. Bárðr is a decidedly nonChristian, and indeed partly non-human, character. However, in the saga’s concluding part, Bárðr’s son Gestr represents a new generation that is more open to Christianity. Gestr stays the winter at King Óláfr Tryggvason’s court where he is initially reluctant to embrace the religion but finally accepts prímsigning. On Christmas Eve the court is rudely interrupted by a fearsome-looking man who enters and exits without saying a word. The imposter leaves a great stink behind him which kills all the guard dogs and generally wreaks havoc.28 The offending figure, it is explained, is a revenant called Raknarr who had once been a powerful king in Helluland, a region that medieval Icelanders located north of Greenland: “Ekki hefi ek sét hann [i.e. Raknarr] fyrri, en sagt hefir mér verit af frændum mínum, at konungr hefir heitit Raknarr, ok af þeira sögn þykkjumst ek kenna hann; hefir hann ráðit fyrir Hellulandi ok mörgum öðrum löndum. Ok er hann hafði lengi löndum ráðit, lét hann kviksetja sik með fimm hundruðum manna á Raknarsslóða; hann myrði föður sinn ok móður ok margt annat fólk… .”.29 [‘I haven’t seen him before, but I’ve been told by my kinsmen of a king named Raknarr and I think that I recognised him from their stories. He had ruled over Helluland and many other countries. When he had ruled for a long time, he had himself buried alive along with five hundred men in Raknarr’s ship Slodinn. He murdered his own father and mother, and many other people…’]30

Gestr sets out for Helluland with a sizable retinue and with a special gift from Óláfr Tryggvason – a candle that will self-ignite when held aloft: ‘því að svart mun í haugi Raknars. En vertu eigi lengur en lokið er kertinu og mun þá hlýða’ [‘because it it will be dark in Raknarr’s mound. But do not stay longer than the candle lasts and then matters will turn out well.’]. This candle is reminiscent of the Paschal candle that denotes God’s presence on earth and which, as the Old Sarah Semple, Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England. Religion, Ritual, and Rulership in the Landscape (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 236. 28 In medieval visions stink is associated with Hell. See the references provided in Larrington, ‘Diet, Defecation and the Devil: Disgust and the Pagan Past’, 154 (footnote 54). 29 ÍF 13, 161. 30 The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 2, 261. 27


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Icelandic Homily Book explains, signifies ‘the guiding light to Paradise’ [‘leíþar víser til paradísar’].31 Similarly in Niðrstigninga saga the inhabitants of Hell observe that Christ arrives with the ‘light of His divinity’ [‘liose guþdoms sins’] as he descends into the darkness of death.32 Thus Óláfr’s donation of the candle prefigures Gestr’s baptism through the Paschal candle’s association both with the baptism of neophytes and with the Harrowing of Hell.33 After an arduous journey through a lava field the company arrives at a tidal island on which they discover a great mound. During three consecutive days they force an opening into this mound, only to find it closed again the next morning. The third night Jósteinn the priest keeps vigil over the opening and experiences the following: …sá hann, hvarr Raknarr ríðr, ok var hann fagrbúinn; hann bað prest fara með sér ok kveðst góða skyldu hans ferð gera, “ok er hér hringr, er ek vil gefa þér, ok men.” Öngu svarar prestr ok sat kyrr sem áðr. Mörg fádæmi sýndust honum, bæði tröll ok óvættir, fjándr ok fjölkunnigar þjóðir; sumir blíðkuðu hann, en sumir ógnuðu honum, svá at hann skyldi þá heldr en áðr í burt ganga. Þar þóttist hann sjá frændr sína ok vini, jafnvel Óláf konung með hirð sinni, ok bað hann með sér fara. Sá hann ok, at Gestr ok hans kompánar váru í búningi ok kölluðu, at Jósteinn prestr skyldi fylgja þeim ok flýta sér í burt. […he saw where Raknarr was riding, magnificently dressed. He asked the priest to go with him and said that he should make his journey worthwhile, ‘and here are a ring and a necklace that I will give you.’ The priest did not reply and sat still as before. Many marvels appeared to him – both trolls and evil spirits, fiends and fairy folk. Some entreated him, while others threatened him, urging him to go away instead. There he seemed to see his kinsmen and friends, even King Óláfr with his court, who asked him to come with them. He also saw Gestr and his companions in disguise and they called on Jósteinn to come with them and hurry away.]34

Jósteinn therefore experiences threats and temptations to join Raknarr and his entourage which clearly means choosing damnation and Hell. With the opening now clear Gestr descends into Raknarr’s mound where the light from the candle paralyses the inhabitants whom Gestr then easily decapitates. After looting the ship-burial, Gestr confronts Raknarr, but at this point the candle dies and the king comes menacingly to life. First Gestr calls on his father but to no avail. Then he vows to adopt the religion that Óláfr Tryggvason had introduced him to. Óláfr duly appears, accompanied by a great light which allows Gestr to behead the raging Raknarr. Waiting outside the mound, Gestr’s companions lose their minds (‘ærðust allir’), except for Jósteinn. The priest is Homiliu-Bók, 70. Bullitta, Niðrstigningar saga, 146 and 164. 33 Karl Tamburr, The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2007), 4–13. 34 ÍF 13, 165–6. 31



Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World able to pull Gestr out of the barrow and welcomes ‘Gestr as though he had retrieved him out of Hel’ [‘fagnaði Gesti ok þóttist hann ór helju heimt hafa’]. Thus the brave but unbaptised Gestr can only complete his quest with the aid of King Óláfr and Jósteinn the priest. Thereafter the priest brings the other companions to their senses by sprinkling water over them, presumably holy water. The earth now begins to tremble as it did at the time of the Crucifixion and Christ’s Harrowing of Hell:35 [Jósteinn prestr gekk þá fram fyrir þá ok hafði róðukross í hendi, en vatn í annarri ok stökkti því. Þá klufðist sjórinn, svá at þeir gengu þurrum fótum á land. Fóru þeir allan inn sama veg. Gestr færði konungi alla gripuna ok sagði allt sem farit hafði. Konungr bað hann þá skírast láta. Gestr sagðist því heitit hafa í Raknarshaug; var þá ok svá gert.]36 [Jósteinn the priest then took the lead with a crucifix in one hand and water in the other, which he sprinkled. The sea then split so that they could walk to land without wetting their feet. They all went the same way. Gestr presented the kin with all the treasures and told him everything that had happened. The king then asked him to be baptised. Gestr said that he had promised to do so in Raknarr’s mound. And so that was done.]

The escape from Raknarr’s mound evokes the Harrowing of Hell as well as the Crossing of the Red Sea – two events that are closely linked in medieval exegesis.37 The Paschal candle is also intimately associated with both.38 The appearance of the Red Sea motif at this point is highly appropriate. Gestr’s emergence from the confines of Hell leads to his baptism, which, of course, is a sacrament figuratively associated with the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. Further, as explained in a sermon for Palm Sunday in the Old Icelandic Homily Book, the Paschal candle guides the way to Paradise as the Red Sea does for the Israelites.39 Although Gestr dies while still (figuratively speaking) in his baptismal clothes, his salvation seems assured. As Siân Grønlie has also observed, in the conclusion of Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss the burial mound as an infernal place is combined with Christian references relating to salvation: the 35

36 37



‘Sva micell craptr oc gnýr hevir at gørzc viþ þat er sva sciot reð um brotet helvites at dioflar aller toco at falma oc at scialva’ [‘Such great power and din had occurred with it, and so quickly He destroyed Hell that all the devils began to flinch and tremble’]. Bullitta, Niðrstigningar saga, 145 and 163. See also Tamburr, The Harrowing of Hell, 5–6. ÍF 13, 169. See for example Celia Chazelle, The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era: Theology and Art of Christ’s Passion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 201–2. For the Paschal candle and Exodus, see Scott M. Langston, Exodus throughout the Centuries (Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 2006); D.H. Green, The Millstätter Exodus. A Crusading Epic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 17–20. For the Paschal candle and the Harrowing of Hell, see Tamburr, The Harrowing of Hell, 6–7. Homiliu-Bók, 70.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Paschal candle, the Red Sea motif and, above all, the sacrament of baptism.40 To this religious web we should also add the Harrowing of Hell. In contrast to Hell’s earthly materiality, salvation was frequently associated with celestial bodies.41 Earlier we observed how Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson’s redemption was foreshadowed as he saw himself within a light in the night sky. In a vision crafted by Brother Gunnlaugr Leifsson, a similar phenomenon attests to the salvation of Bishop Þorlákr Runólfsson (1118–33).42 A certain Brestir finds himself falling asleep while praying in church. He sees a moon traversing from the east in which there is a ship holding two men. They turn out to be Óláfr Tryggvason and Sigurðr, the king’s court bishop, who inform Brestir that they are headed for Skálholt to collect the recently deceased Bishop Þorlákr. The following night Brestir sees the same moon and ship in the sky, except now with one more man on board. Bishop Þorlákr (the third man) counsels that Magnús Gizurason should succeed him as bishop.43 Brestir’s vision is not the only one to associate Þorlákr Runólfsson’s salvation with celestial signs. Hungrvaka explains how at the point of Þorlákr’s death Árni, a learned and pious priest in northern Iceland, heard a beautiful song coming from above. This was the cantilena for St Lambert: ‘Sic animam claris cælorum reddidit astris’ [‘In this way, he returned his soul to the bright stars of the heaven’].44 As Maríu saga reminds, saved souls will turn out to be ‘brighter than the sun’ [‘biartari en sól’].45 Celestial signs may not simply signify assured salvation, they may indicate the soul’s translation from Purgatory to Paradise. Thus, as we saw in chapter 1, in a different context, Hrafns saga relates how Eyjólfr Snorrason dreamt that he was outside: Hann þóttisk sjá tungl svá mõrg sem stjõrnur væri, sum full, en sum hálf, sum meir, en sum minnr, vaxandi eða þverrandi. Ok er hann undraðisk þessa sýn, þá sá hann mann hjá sér, ok kvað vísu: Sé þú, hvé hvarfa heima í milli syndauðigra sálir manna. 40 41





Grønlie, The Saint and the Saga Hero, 205. See also the hagiographic paralells Grønlie has observed in this concluding part of Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss (ibid., 200–7). See, for instance, the examples provided by Marek Tamm, ‘Martyrs and Miracles: Depicting Death in the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia’, in Crusading and Chronicle Writing in the Baltic Frontier. A Companion to the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, ed. Marek Tamm et al. (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), 143–4. Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta 3, 65. Susanne Miriam Fahn and Gottskálk Jensson, ‘The Forgotten Poem: A Latin Panegyric for Saint Þorlákr in AM 382 4t’, Gripla 21 (2010), 19–60; Gottskálk Jensson, ‘*Revelaciones Thorlaci Episcopi – Enn eitt glatað latínurit eftir Gunnlaug Leifsson munk á Þingeyrum’, Gripla 23 (2012), 133–75. ÍF 16:2, 27. Mariu saga, 52.


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World Kveljask andir í orms gini, skelfr rammr rõðull, ræð ek þér at vakna.46 [He thought he saw so many moons as if they were stars, some were full, some were half, some more, some less, waxing and waning. And when he wondered about this sight, he saw a man at his side, who recited a poem: ‘See where the souls of sinful men move wavering between worlds. Spirits are tormented in the serpent’s maw. Strong sun shudders. I counsel you to waken.’]

The multiple moons in the sky signify the progression of souls from damnation to salvation or vice versa. The dead are incorporeal so their different states are shown by increasing or decreasing light. Similarly, in the medieval English Vision of Thurkill, recorded in 1206, the purgatorial state connects with a (or the) church that the souls seek to enter. In this text the state of each soul is indicated by moral colour-coding related to its distance from the church. Those far back are coloured black, whereas souls nearer the church are flecked with white and those within the church are sparkling white.47 However, in Eyjólfr Snorrason’s vision, it is not clear whether the numerous moons signify the quick or the dead. From the context the former seems more plausible. The vision appears before a violent encounter and so the souls may represent those who will participate in this event. Certainly the idea that living souls were under constant judgement is familiar; again, the Vision of Thurkill may serve as a comparison. There, Hell is shown as a theatre where the damned souls reenact their sins while mocked and tortured by demons (in a sort of medieval prefiguration of modern interactive theatre). In the stalls, empty seats are in a permanent state of construction or deconstruction signifying, according to Thurkill’s guide, the state of living peoples’ souls.48 Like the changing moons in Eyjólfr’s vision the seats denote the souls’ shifting state which depends on confession, penance and, of course, the avoidance of sin. In Hrafns saga the fate of those who fail to repent is vividly illustrated when the damned souls are devoured by a dragon or a serpent. In this miniature vision the celestial sign – the ‘shuddering sun’ lighting the innumerable moons in the night sky – is a warning to those who might die in an impending conflict. We have seen how in Sólarljóð the sun shudders as the sinner leaves this world (‘Sól ek sá / á sjónum skjálfandi’).49 Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, 30. Visio Thurkilli Relatore, ut Videtur, Radulpho de Coggeshall, ed. Paul G. Schmidt (Leipzig: Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR Zentralinstitut für alte Geschichte und Archäologie, 1978), 52. 48 Ibid., 55. 49 Interestingly, in Võluspá the enormous Yggdrasil – an oak tree of life of sorts – shudders, ‘skelfr’, as the world is turn asunder in Ragnarök. Eddukvæði I: Goðakvæði, 46 47


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature

Rauðúlfs þáttr One Old Norse text combines the idea of a salvific earthly locus with an overarching sense of celestial harmony. This is Rauðúlfs þáttr, which dates from the first half of the thirteenth century.50 Much can be said about this hypersymbolic and intricately woven work, but the following discussion focuses on elements relevant to our chosen theme.51 Bjõrn, a steward of King Óláfr Haraldsson in eastern Norway, accuses the people of his region of stealing livestock. At the local assembly Rauðúlfr, the spokesman for this isolated community, confronts Bjõrn about his indictment. The steward responds by blaming Rauðúlfr and his family for the cattle theft. But King Óláfr, who happens to be travelling through the region, pursues this matter. At the end of Rauðúlfs þáttr, Rauðúlfr and his sons are shown to be wholly innocent. The thief turns out to have been Bjõrn himself, whom Óláfr summarily banishes from his kingdom. This story serves as a narrative frame for three extraordinary scenes that take place at Rauðúlfr’s farmstead. The first is a question-and-answer scene in which King Óláfr queries Rauðúlfr and his sons, along with members of the royal retinue, about their one outstanding quality or attribute. It transpires that Rauðúlfr’s is no ordinary family. Rauðúlfr shows himself to be exceptionally knowledgeable and prescient; he claims to know things from the wind as well as ‘from the heavenly bodies, the sun or moon or the stars, and some from dreams’ [‘en sumt af himintunglum, sól eða tungli eða stjõrnum, en sumt af draumum’].52 Sigurðr, the elder of Rauðúlfr’s two sons, can observe heavenly bodies irrespective of whether it is day or night. Dagr, the younger son, states that he understands the nature of people, both their good and bad qualities, by merely looking into their eyes. Thus Rauðúlfr and his sons are skilled in discerning what is hidden from others. Apart from Bjõrn, the aforementioned steward, the participating retainers are five brothers who will all fight either for or against Óláfr at Stiklastaðir. Kálfr Árnason is the sole of these siblings who will turn on his king; rather appropriately, his skill is being able to suppress his anger for however long he wishes. Finnr Árnason, who will fight valiantly for the king, exclaims that his quality is loyalty and that he will not desert his lord as ‘long as he holds out and remains on his feet’ [‘meðan ed. Jónas Kristjánsson and Vésteinn Ólason. Íslenzk Fornrit (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka fornritafélag, 2014), 306. 50 Rauðúlfs þáttr, ed. and transl. Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011). For a discussion of Rauðúlfs þáttr’s preservation and principal sources see, Anthony Faulkes, Rauðúlfs þáttr. A Study (Reykjavík: Heimspekideild Háskóla Íslands og Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs, 1966). 51 Most recently, Árni Einarsson, ‘Táknrænt hús í Rauðúlfs þætti’, in Á sprekamó. Afmælisrit tileinkað Helga Hallgrímssyni sjötugum, ed. Sigurður Ægisson (Akureyri: Bókaútgáfan Hólar, 2005), 42–52, and, by the same author, ‘The Symbolic Imagery of Hildegard of Bingen as a Key to the Allegorical Raudulfs thattr in Iceland’, Erudiri Sapientia 2 (2001), 377–400; ‘St. Olaf’s Dream House: A Medieval Cosmological Allegory’, Skáldskaparmál 4 (1997), 179–209. 52 Rauðúlfs þáttr (2011), 8–9.


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World hann vill við haldask ok standi hann upp’]. The accomplishments of Óláfr’s retainers are not randomly chosen; they foreshadow King Óláfr’s salvation, his sanctity and the great significance of his martyrdom for Norway’s history. The prefiguring of Stiklastaðir prepares us for this þáttr’s second central scene. Óláfr is escorted to a large circular chamber with a lighted candle carried before him. Earlier Rauðúlfr had informed the king that this was his ‘sleeping-hall’ (‘svefn-skemma’) which had been erected the previous summer. Óláfr’s sleeping arrangements are described in detail. The king’s bed is raised on a dais located in the middle of the circular room. Four triple-branched candlesticks are fitted atop the four bed posts. The room itself is divided into four and each quarter is sectioned into an inner and outer part. Here the retinue will rest and, Rauðúlfr explains, where Óláfr may experience revelatory dreams. This he does and, moreover, he senses that either his bed or the house revolves. The elaborate description (which is only briefly summarised here) entails another level of discernment and prefiguring. The image of the living Óláfr, reclining on his raised bed in the centre of Rauðúlfr’s revolving circular structure, is partly inspired by The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne. This twelfth-century Old French epic describes how Charlemagne slept in the centre of a revolving circular house surrounded by his retainers.53 But this influence does not clarify the purpose behind Óláfr’s curious bedtime arrangements. Let us now compare two passages. The following is from Rauðúlfs þáttr and the second is from Heimskringla: Í miðju húsinu var arinn kringlóttr ok víðr, með tré gõrr, ok pallar umhverfis upp at ganga. En uppi á arninum stóð sæng mikil ok gõr með hinum mesta hagleik. Flest tré váru þar með kopparajáum gõr ok steint allt, en sumt gullagt. Upp af hornstõfunum váru stórir knappar af eiri gõrvir ok gylldir. En út ór hornstõfunum váru járnslá en þar af upp kertistikur og stóðu þar á upphaldskerti með þrim kvíslum.54 [In the middle of the building there was a wide circular dais, made of wood, with steps round it to get up onto it. Up on the dais stood a large bed made with the finest craftsmanship. Most of the woodwork was decorated with chiselling and it was all coloured and in some places gilded. On top of the bed-posts were great knobs made of brass and gilded. Iron bars were fixed to the sides of the posts with candle-sticks on them, and on these stood threebranched processional candles.]55 Magnús lét gera skrín ok búa gulli ok silfri ok setja steinum. En skrín þat var svá gõrt bæði at mikilleik ok at õðrum vexti sem líkkista, en svalir undir niðri, en yfir upp vétt vaxit sem ræfr ok þar af upp hõfuð ok burst.56

Faulkes, Rauðúlfs þáttr, 30–45. Rauðúlfs þáttr (2011), 14. 55 Ibid., 15. 56 ÍF 28, 20. 53



Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature [King Magnús had a shrine made and ornamented with gold and silver and set with precious stones. And this shrine was both in size and its shape made in other respects like a coffin, except that there were legs underneath and on top the lid was shaped like a roof and up above it a figureheads and a ridge.]57

We first note the similarities between the two descriptions. A visitor to Óláfr’s shrine in Niðaróss in the early thirteenth century, such as Snorri Sturluson, would probably have been confronted with the following sight: in the centre of the newly built Octagon (or martyrium), elevated on a table or platform, stood the saint’s old shrine in the shape of a coffin adorned with gold and precious stones. Pilgrims could perambulate around the shrine with a sectioned ambulatory on the outer side that was distinguished by large columns.58 In Rauðúlfs þáttr St Óláfr’s bed is decorated with gold and precious stones and it stands on a raised platform in the centre of a circular structure. Around this central object were partitioned bays or outer sections, interspersed with high and mighty columns (‘stafir hávir og digrir’). The þáttr does not establish an exact correspondence between the corporal relic in Niðaróss cathedral and the arrangement of Óláfr’s bed in the centre of Rauðúlfr’s structure. Rather, the latter represents a foreshadowing of the cathedral with its reliquary of St Óláfr, just as the question-and-answer scene foreshadows Stiklastaðir. As this scene prefigures Óláfr’s martyrdom, so the central scene in the bed-chamber foreshadows his position in Heaven as manifested by his relics on earth. The irony, of course, is that Rauðúlfr and his remote farmstead are associated with religious ambiguity and perhaps paganism (indeed Rauðúlfr’s very name points in that direction). The location of the þáttr thus contrasts sharply with Niðaróss cathedral, which is the centre of Norway’s Christianity. It is not incidental that earlier in the þáttr the reader is steered towards connecting Rauðúlfr’s structure with a church. As Óláfr rides into Rauðúlfr’s compound he asks whether it is a church.59 Moreover, it is not difficult to envisage how Rauðúlfs þáttr’s author came to link the sleeping, living, Óláfr with the saint’s corporal relics lying in state. Þórarinn loftunga, an Icelandic court poet, composed Glœlognskviða in 1032 or thereabouts. This nine-stanza poem, which is ostensibly addressed to King Sveinn Knútsson of Norway, is essentially in praise of St Óláfr, his supernatural Heimskringla 3, 12–13. ‘We must assume that the Octagon was designed in order to keep the shrine of St Olav above the high altar in the central space’, Øystein Ekroll, ‘The Shrine of St Olav in Nidaros Cathedral’, in The Medieval Cathedral of Trondheim. Architectural and Ritual Constructions in their European Context, ed. M.S. Andås, Ø. Ekroll and N.H. Pedersen (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 186; idem, ‘St. Olavs skrin i Nidaros’, in Ecclesia Nidrosiensis 1153–1537. Søkelys på Nidaroskirkens og Nidarosprovinsens historie, ed. Steinar Imsen (Trondheim: Tapir akademisk forlag, 2003), 325–50. More generally on the Octagon see idem, The Octagonal Shrine Chapel of St Olav at Nidaros Cathedral. An Investigation of its Fabric, Architecture and International Context (Trondheim: NTNU, 2015). 59 Rauðúlfs þáttr (2011), 7. 57



Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World powers, and his role as mediator between Heaven and earth. Glœlognskviða focuses on St Óláfr’s relics and their miraculous powers and it depicts the saintly king resting as though on a bed (‘sæing’) within a wooden structure with lit candles on the altar.60 The resemblance between this image and the description in Rauðúlfs þáttr of a ‘sæng mikil’ framed by candelbras is striking. Rauðúlfs þáttr relates how the retinue is carefully positioned around the sleeping king. As Óláfr lies on his bed he observes the images painted on the ceiling: Hann sá þar skrifaðan Guð sjálfan ok veldishring hans, en þar ofan í frá englafylki, ok þar fyrir neðan himininn, þann er hvelfðr er útan um lopt õll. En þar með váru mõrkuð himintungl, en neðast ský ok vindar ok þá fuglar margskyns, en neðast jõrðin, ok þar með grõs ok viðir ok margskonar kykvendi, sjár ok võtn ok sjákykvendi á marga lund. En á neðra ræfrinu fyrir útan stafina váru markaðar fornsõgur ok frásagnir frá ágætum konungum, ok leit konungr þar lengi á.61 [He saw there depicted God himself and his aureole of glory, and beneath him the hosts of angels, and beneath them the firmament that is vaulted over round all the skies. And there also were depicted the heavenly bodies, and lowest of all the clouds and winds and then many kinds of birds, and right at the bottom the earth, with plants and trees and many species of living creatures, seas and lakes and sea-creatures of many kinds. And on the lower part of the ceiling, on the other side of the pillars, were depicted stories of ancient times and the histories of outstanding kings, and the king looked at these for a long time.]62

This vertical image of the universe, with the king gazing at Heaven as he sleeps, prefigures Óláfr’s dream that night which centres on a crucifix. Rauðúlfr explains: ‘Þér sýndisk í svefninum kross standa á jõrðunni mikill ok grœnn sem gras, ok líkneski á krossinum’ [‘There appeared to you in the dream a cross standing on the ground, large and green as grass, and a figure on the cross’].63 The following day, after Mass, Óláfr asks Rauðúlfr to interpret his dream. The king also comments, as earlier intimated, that he felt as if the bed or the dwelling revolved throughout the night. Rauðúlfr confirms the king’s observation and adds that it revolved ‘so that your dream should follow the course of the sun, and all your actions and questionings as well’ [‘at þér skylduð jafnt horfa á sólina, ok draumr þín skyldi ganga at sólu, ok allt athæfi þitt ok forvitni’].64 Rauðúlfr then explains that particular features of this cross signify the history of the Norwegian royal dynasty from Óláfr’s reign down to Sigurðr Jórsalafari.

Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: Part 2, 871. Rauðúlfs þáttr (2011), 14. 62 Ibid., 15. 63 Ibid., 18–19. 64 Ibid., 16–17. 60 61


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Thus the head and the halo of the crucified figure symbolise St Óláfr’s glorious kingship and martyrdom. Thereafter the reigns of King Magnús góði and Haraldr harðráði are again juxtaposed: “Þá leiddir þú fyrir augu þér faðm ok brjóst róðunnar, ok út hendrnar á krossinum. Þat sýndisk þér gõrt af brenndu silfri, þar var á markaðr himintungla gangr, sól ok stjõrnur, tungl með birti ok fegrð: þat ríki er þá kemr næst mun vera harðla vegsamligt. Svá sem himintungl lýsa lopt ok jõrð ok allir menn fagna birti sólarinnar, ok hon er nytsamlig heiminum, hon gefr ıjósit í verõldina, hon vermir jõrðina til ávaxtar: svá mun ok þat ríki kært ok ársamt ok gott ok þarfsælt õllu landsbúinu. En þá er þú sátt líkneskit breiða faðminn, þar mun sá hõfðingi hafa miklu meira í fangi en allir aðrir hõfðingjar hafa haft hér í landi, ok vera víðfaðmari at þrøngva undir sik ríki ok fólki af õðrum lõndum. En er lokkar þeir inir gulligu fellu ofan um brjóstit, þar mun sá inn ágæti hõfdingi vera yðr nõkkut hendilangr ok prýðask af yðarri dýrð. En svá breiðr sem hann var, þá var hann þó stuttr, ok mun ríki hans vera eigi langt”.65 ‘Then you brought your eyes to bear on the arms and breast of the crucifix, and the arms outstretched on the cross. This seemed to you to be made of refined silver, and on it were depicted the host of heavenly bodies, the sun and stars, the moon with its brightness and beauty: the reign that comes next will be very glorious. Just as the heavenly bodies illumine the earth and sky, and all men rejoice in the brightness of the sun, and it is beneficial to all the world, giving light to the earth, and warms the ground so that it brings forth fruits: so will that reign be popular and prosperous and good and profitable for everyone in the country. And in that you saw the figure stretching out its arms, so this ruler will have much more within his grasp than all other rulers in this land have had, and will be more widely-embracing in subjugating kingdoms and peoples of other countries. And in that those golden locks fell down over the breast, so this fine ruler will be to some extent subservient to you and will shine with the reflection of your glory. But broad as was his embrace, yet it was short in length, and his reign will not be long.’66

Note the parallel between this image and the portrayal of Heaven that Óláfr had earlier observed on the ceiling. King Magnús góði basks in his father’s reflected glory and the associated celestial imagery suggests his salvation. The lower part of the ceiling depicts ‘stories of ancient times and the histories of outstanding kings’ [‘markaðar fornsõgur ok frásagnir frá ágætum konungum’] and below the outstretched arms of the crucifix.67 In Óláfr’s dream the part below the outstretched arms, a broad belt made of iron reaching from the neck to the waist, signifies the reign of Haraldr harðráði. The belt is decorated with stories of ‘ancient times’ which appear to depict the ‘story of Sigurðr Fáfnisbani

Ibid., 18–20. Ibid. 67 Ibid., 14–15. 65 66


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World and Haraldr hilditõnn (‘wartooth’) and also something of the deeds of Haraldr finehair’ [‘saga Sigurðar Fáfnisbana ok Haralds hilditannar ok enn nakkvat af verkum Haralds hins hárfagra’].68 Haraldr’s reign, Rauðúlfr explains, will ‘seem hard and harmful to many from beginning to end and in between’ [‘þat ríki vænti ek at mõrgum þykki hart ok skaðsamt frá upphafi ok til enda ok þar á milli’].69 Not only do the reigns of the two kings contrast, but their place in the creation also suggests their different fates in the afterlife. We recall how in Þorsteins þáttr skelks Sigurðr Fáfnisbani and King Haraldr hilditõnn are represented as pagans in Hell.70 Rauðúlfs þáttr is an intricate attempt to encapsulate the glorious sanctity of Óláfr Haraldsson in a three-dimensional image. First, there is Óláfr in Heaven who gazes at God (symbolised by the sun) who bestows reflected light on his successors and, in particular, Magnús góði. Second, the celestial Óláfr and earthly life are linked by a corporal relic that resides on a raised platform in his specially designed dwelling in Niðaróss cathedral. Third, there is Óláfr of the sagas who is unaware of his sanctity and engages in profane and mundane matters, such as exposing the duplicity of the unjust Bjõrn. Rauðúlfs þáttr is shaped around the notion of prefiguration. The question-and-answer scene foreshadows Óláfr’s martyrdom at Stiklastaðir, whilst his dream-vision in Rauðúlf’s circular structure prefigures his relics residing in the Niðaróss Octagon. At a remote farm Óláfr enters a space where his sanctity is discerned by Rauðúlfr and his sons, whose special qualities are precisely seeing and sensing things that are hidden from others. Hell, as we have seen, can manifest itself in everyday surroundings. In Rauðúlfs þáttr the most unlikely location – a farmstead in a remote region inhabited by less than convincing Christians – becomes a microcosm of Óláfr’s place within creation that will follow his martyrdom at Stiklastaðir; at the time of writing this microcosm could be found in Niðaróss cathedral.

Water In Yngvars saga Haraldr’s damnation is signified by his drowning in a Red Sea vortex. The king’s fate is that of the Pharaoh whose drowning denotes his descent into Hell.71 The vortex is named ‘Gapi’ which chimes with the common depiction of Hell’s entry as a gaping mouth. In the ‘Episode of Gautr’, Gautr Ibid., 20–21. Ibid. 70 See above, p. 000. For a wide-ranging discussion of the differing presentations of Sigurðr Fáfnisbani in Old Norse literature, including Rauðúlfs Þáttr and Þorsteins þáttr skelks, see Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, ‘Quid Sigvardus cum Christo? Moral Interpretations of Sigurðr fáfnisbani in Old Norse Literature’, Viking and Medieval Studies 2 (2006), 166–200. 71 On the Pharaoh’s drowning and his subsequent equation with the devil, see David Lyle Jeffrey (General Editor), A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), 260. 68 69


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature presents Óláfr’s drowning as one of three possible scenarios. The others are Óláfr ascending to Heaven or repenting for his misdeeds. Ascending and drowning represent salvation and damnation respectively. In Purgatory xxxvi Dante juxtaposes the virtuous Elijah who is hurled into Heaven by a whirlwind with the overambitious Ulysses, who is drawn into the depths by a whirlpool when he ventures beyond the Pillars of Hercules.72 In Draumkvæði, a Norwegian vision recorded in early modern times (but probably of medieval provenance), the narrator, having been shown Heaven and Hell, strikes the following refrain: ‘I have been up under the sky / And deep in the sea’ [‘Egh hæv vori uponde Skye / aa jupt i Havsens Gronne’].73 The deep sea or deep water linked with damnation on three main levels. First, as Adam of Bremen implied in the case of Óláfr Tryggvason, a watery grave suggests the mortal sin of suicide (see chapter 2). Second, drowning can denote God’s judgement of a particular person. For instance, contemporary commentators viewed the wrecking of the White Ship in 1129 as a divine judgement on William Adelin, the sole legitimate son of King Henry I of England.74 Lastly, such an unexpected death precluded an adequate preparation for the afterlife, while burial in hallowed ground was obviously impossible. Those destined for salvation were simply not supposed to die in this way.75 If they did, it was necessary somehow to demonstrate that those concerned avoided damnation.76 Two episodes in Prestssaga illustrate the fear of dying at sea unshriven and the wish to show that the drowned had not been consigned to Hell. Both episodes involve Priest Ingimundr Þorgeirsson who during Guðmundr Arason’s early life appears as his foster father and friend. In the first episode, which was touched upon in another context in chapter 1, the shipmates of Guðmundr and Ingimundr seek to confess as their boat is battered by a storm. Ingimundr reminds the crew that they should have heeded his calls for confession when they were on land. Still, he counsels them to promise a tenth of the cargo to God 72 73 74 75 76

On this see Anthony K. Cassell, ‘The Lessons of Ulysses’, Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 99 (1981), 119–20. Michael P. Barnes, Draumkvæde: An Edition and Study (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1974), 150. See Michael Evans, The Death of Kings: Royal Deaths in Medieval England (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2006), 87–117. Christopher Daniell, Death and Burial in Medieval England 1066–1550 (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 65–6. One example of Nordic provenance will have to suffice. In the late twelfth century Norwegian and Danish crusaders, heading to the Holy Land, were ship-wrecked off the coast of Norway. For the Danish author of Historia de profectione Danorum in Hierosolyman (composed around 1200), the salvation of the drowned crusaders was shown by the fact that the disaster took place on Good Friday. Scriptores Minores Historiae Danicae Medii Aevi, ed. M. Cl. Gertz, vol. 2 (Copenhagen: I Kommission G.E.C. Gad, 1917–1918), 484–5. See also Karen Skovgaard-Petersen, A Journey to the Promised Land: A Crusading Theology in the Historia de profectione Danorum Hierosolymam (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2001), 57.


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World and the Virgin Mary for their deliverance.77 A couple of years later, however, Ingimundr fails to survive another danger at sea when his vessel is blown off course. Fourteen years thereafter, the remains of seven men from the ship are found in a cave in Greenland, including Ingimundr, whose body is perfectly preserved (‘heill og ófúinn’) in contrast to the bones of his six shipmates. People ‘thought this was a great sign of how God had liked Priest Ingimundr’s conduct’ [‘En þetta þótti mönnum mikil merki, hvé guð hafði líkat atferð Ingimundar prests’].78 Therefore two episodes frame the ‘saga of Ingimundr’. One highlights the importance of confession in the face of sudden death at sea and the other includes a miraculous sign of Ingimundr’s salvation. But the waters of the world were not intrinsically the devil’s preserve. Quite the contrary, seas, lakes and rivers were seen to be infused with the essence of redemption, since after all they originated in the well of salvation in the Earthly Paradise.79 The waters had also been sanctified through Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan.80 A confrontational scene which features in the fourteenth-century sagas about Guðmundr Arason hammers this point home. Guðmundr reminds the archbishop of Niðaróss of water’s essential sanctity when questioned about his frequent blessings of rivers and springs in Iceland.81 Thus a binary pattern was associated with water, which could signify purification – baptism and salvation – as well as punishment for sin and damnation. The Flood consigned all humankind to destruction, Noah and his family apart, whilst the crossing of the Red Sea marked the drowning of the Pharaoh and his army and their consignment to Hell. In an analogical sense the rescue of the Israelites signified baptism, which prefigured another crossing, namely that of the River Jordan which led to the Promised Land and salvation.82 An illustration of this binary quality appears in a brief description in Sturlu saga which is preserved in the Sturlunga compilation. The saga reports the following occurring (in 1171): Ok síðan dreymdi Pál Þórðarson, at hann þóttist vera í skykktum línkyrtli. Ok eftir þat drukknaði hann á Ísafirði ok nökkurir menn við honum. Ok var þá ráðinn draumrinn, at línkyrtill sá væri bárur stórar ok ljósar, er at honum gengi. [And then Páll Þórðarson dreamt that he was wearing an undulating linen cloak. And thereafter he drowned in Ísafjörðr along with a few men. And the dream was interpreted as though the linen-robe was like the large and bright waves that came on him.]83 77

78 79

80 81

82 83

Sturlunga saga 1, 126. Further on this episode see Peter Foote, ‘Nafn guðs hit hæsta’, in Speculum Norroenum. Norse Studies in Memory of Gabriel Turville-Petre, ed. Ursula Dronke et al. (Odense: Odense University Press, 1981), 139–54. Sturlunga saga 1, 139. Veraldar saga, 5. Homiliu-Bók, 60. For the episode in Guðmundar saga D, see Byskupa sögur III, 309–11. Homiliu-Bók, 60. Sturlunga saga 1, 104–5.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Páll Þórðarson, a man of distinguished lineage from the Westfjords, had an interesting back story. Not long before his watery end Páll had abducted Hallgerðr, the wife of a priest living at Helgafell. Also residing there was Hallgerðr’s father, Rúnólfr ‘a very learned man and a chief-priest’ (‘höfuðprestr’). Jón Loptsson, who knew these distinguished clergymen, persuaded Hallgerðr to return to her husband, a mediation which suggests the abduction was not altogether contrary to her wishes. Páll’s dream should therefore be associated with his transgressions against the priest at Helgafell. This interpretation is supported by Jón’s markedly moralistic speech to Hallgerðr.84 The dream’s imagery evokes the customary robe of baptism. Moreover, the saga’s interpretation of the dream compares the unusual texture of Páll’s linen cloak with water. The description of the waves as ‘bright’ (‘ljósar’) evokes the white colour of the baptismal robe. The white baptismal robe refers to Matthew 28:3 where, at the Resurrection, Christ’s clothes are shown to be exceedingly bright. Further, in a sermon for Easter the Old Norwegian Homily Book describes how Christ was clad in bright clothes but also surrounded by fire, thus reminding humankind of the two alternatives – salvation or damnation.85 Which alternative Páll’s dream foreshadows is left open to the reader. The theme of baptism and the danger of drowning at sea also combine in Hallfreðar saga vandrœðaskálds, which is a text commonly dated to the early thirteenth century.86 Hallfreðr vandrœðaskáld arrives in Norway only to discover that his patron, Earl Hákon, is dead and that Óláfr Tryggvason is now in power. Wishing to depart from Norway, the Icelandic poet and his shipmates call on pagan gods for a favourable wind. Not surprisingly, they are blown off course by a ferocious storm. The following morning, with the ship still endangered, a group of men from a nearby vessel row towards them. Hallfreðr asks about their leader, who introduces himself as ‘Akkerisfrakki’ (literarily ‘Anchor Coat’). Hallfreðr recites a stanza which laments their precarious condition and especially the absence of a functioning anchor. Akkerisfrakki replies with a stanza that indicates he has already dived into the sea and resolved the problem. Thereafter Hallfreðr vandrœðaskáld and his companions reach shelter and the incident initiates a series of encounters with the king that conclude with Hallfreðr’s baptism. As has been shown, religious connotations underlie this episode. Norway is now under Christian rule and so invoking the pagan gods brings 84

On the ecclesiastical flavour of this speech see Peter Foote, ‘Sturlungasaga and its Background’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 13 (1946–1953), 234. More generally see W.H. Vogt, ‘Charakteristiken aus der Sturlunga Saga’, Zeitschrift für deutches Altertum 54 (1913), 376–95. 85 Gamal Norsk Homiliebok. Cod AM 619 4to, ed. Gustav Indrebø (Oslo: Hovudkommisjon hjaa Jacob Dybwad, 1931), 83. A sermon in the Old Icelandic Homily Book on Holy Thursday relates how, according St John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper Christ took off his cloak and draped himself with a linen cloth (‘líndúke’). Homiliu-Bók, 64. Christ’s body is draped in ‘hreinan dúk’ as he is placed in the tomb. Further, the bright attire of the angel guarding the tomb denotes the message of salvation. Ibid., 70–1. 86 ÍF 8, 152–3.


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World about God’s wrath and the possibility of Hallfreðr’s damnation by drowning. Óláfr Tryggvason saves the ship by supplying an anchor, one of Christianity’s oldest symbols. It signifies redemption as it anchors the sinner’s soul, and thus complements the topos of the Church as a nautical vessel.87 Hallfreðr’s meeting with Óláfr Tryggvason resembles Kjartan Óláfsson’s famous first encounter with the same king, as recounted in more than one saga (beginning, it seems, with Oddr Snorrason’s Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar).88 Especially noteworthy is how the baptism of both Icelanders is prefigured in their earliest meetings with the Norwegian king. Kjartan beats Óláfr in a dunking contest while the king rescues Hallfreðr at sea. We have seen how Christian motifs of salvation feature in Hallfreðr’s encounter with Akkerisfrakki, whereas baptism is evoked by Óláfr’s seemingly playful submersion of Kjartan and his subsequent gift to him of a precious cloak.89 These scenes juxtapose drowning with the salvific properties of water. In both cases they signify the first step in a progression that culminates in baptism. Helgi’s baptism at Óláfr’s court is an important moment in Laxdœla saga, a text that is traditionally dated to the middle of the thirteenth century. The episode introduces Christianity and foreshadows later associations of water with religious themes. Yet even before this scene, midway through the saga, shipwreck and drowning are conspicuous. Thus Auðr (or Unnr) djúpúðga Ketilsdóttir, the founding settler of the Laxdœla family, suffers a shipwreck on her first landing in Iceland, although with no loss of life.90 More ominous is a disaster in which twelve drown due to a heavy current in Breiðafjörður. The suspicion of malignant forces at play here is strengthened by the appearance of a seal whose eyes seem that of a human and who circles the ship, and then disappears before the sinking.91 In one instance a drowning in Laxdœla saga’s pre-Christian period suggests punishment for past behaviour. The case is that of Geirmundr, whose conduct towards his wife, Óláfr Hõskuldsson’s daughter, 87

88 89 90 91

John Lindow, ‘Traditions concerning Óláfr Tryggvason and Hallfreðr Óttarsson vandræðaskáld and the Problem of the Conversion’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106:1 (2007), 64–80. In further support of this reading, we note that in the aforementioned ‘Vision of Brestir’ King Óláfr Tryggvason appears, along with his court bishop, in a ship in which they collect Þorlákr Runólfsson’s soul. The vessel is not the king’s legendary longship, Ormurinn langi, but rather the Church. To further underline this symbolism the ship, coming to a standstill over Skálholt cathedral, is framed by the moon. The full moon represents the triumph of the Church whose existence, of course, is the precondition for the sinner’s salvation. For the equation of the full moon with the establishment of Christianity and the Church, see Homiliu-Bók, 74–5. For further contextualisation of the ‘Akkerisfrakki scene’, see Christopher Abram, ‘Modeling Religious Experience in Old Norse Conversion Narratives: The Case of Óláfr Tryggvason and Hallfreðr vandrœðakáld’, Speculum 90:1 (2015), especially 125–7. Lindow, ‘Traditions concerning Óláfr Tryggvason’, 65–7. Weber, ‘Intellegere Historiam’, 95–141. ÍF 5, 8. Ibid., 41.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature is less than honourable. Having tried to abandon his wife and infant daughter, Geirmundr takes the latter in lieu of his sword, which he leaves with his now ex-wife, and drowns with all his crew en route to Norway.92 Further on how shipwrecks in Laxdœla saga connect with the idea of the figurative shipwreck of the soul, with penance signifying the ‘second plank after the shipwreck’, I refer to Andrew Hamer’s fine analysis.93 In another scene it is the absence of an association between the sea and salvation that is of interest. This involves the death and burial arrangement of Auðr djúpúðga, the mater familias and earliest settler. According to Laxdœla saga, the pagan Auðr dies what could be seen as an ideal pagan death. Just before expiring, she holds a sumptuous feast which she follows with an orderly division of her inheritance. After her demise she is interred in a mound along with her remaining property. Laxdœla saga chooses to ignore a quite different view of how Auðr organised her burial, for in Landnámabók Auðr (here named Unnr) is a devout Christian who, in the absence of consecrated earth, requests a burial at the flood mark (flæðarmál). With this arrangement Unnr connects with the sea which, it has been argued, was sanctified through Christ’s baptism in Jordan and the rivers of the Earthly Paradise.94 Why Laxdœla saga depicts Auðr as a paragon of pagan customs rather than Christian piety is not obvious. But in this way Kjartan’s conversion later in the saga is thrown into starker relief; it is only from that point onwards that Christian themes and motifs begin to influence the narrative.95 A central scene in the life of Laxdœla saga’s second heroine, Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir, focuses on prophetic dreams. The teenaged Guðrún reports her dreams to the wise old seer, Gestr Oddleifsson, who interprets them as prefiguring a rather colourful marital future. Three of the dreams involve water. In the first, Guðrún’s ill-fitting headgear stands for her first ill-fitting husband whom she quickly divorces. In the second dream, Guðrún stands by a lake into which she drops a well-fitting ring, foretelling the death of Þórðr, her beloved second husband who drowns when caught in storm whipped up by a magic spell. In the fourth dream Guðrún sees herself wearing a helmet set with gold and precious stones. But the helmet is so heavy that it tilts from her head and tumbles into Hvammsfjörður (which leads in from Breiðafjörður). Gestr takes this for a prophecy that a rich and powerful man will completely dominate her and that this person will ‘encounter the same fjord on the last day of his life’ [‘þá mun hann þann sama fjõrð fyrir hitta á inum efsta degi síns lífs’].96 Ibid., 83. Hamer, Njáls saga and its Christian Background, 42–51. 94 Stefán Karlsson, ‘Greftrun Auðar djúpúgðu’, in Minjar og menntir: afmælisrit helgað Kristjáni Eldjárn 6. desember 1976, ed. Guðni Kolbeinsson et al. (Reykjavík: Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs, 1976), 481–8. ÍF 1, 146–7. 95 This accords more or less with the interpretation in Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, ‘The Adaptation of Laxdæla Saga in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta’, Leeds Studies in English 36 (2005), 157–74. 96 ÍF 5, 90–1.

92 93


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World Of special interest here is Guðrún’s fourth marriage, to Þorkell Eyjólfsson, who from the start is depicted as a powerful, wealthy and assertive character. Þorkell’s flaw is pride and excessive confidence. Alhough Þorkell is outwardly pious, two episodes illuminate how these defects relate to his engagement with the recently introduced religion.97 In the first, Þorkell visits Óláfr Haraldsson to procure from the king enough wood to build a church at Helgafell. Óláfr grants this wish but it dawns on the king that the Icelander intends to erect a church of equal proportions to the one he had built in Niðaróss. When Þorkell brushes aside Óláfr’s accusation of excessive ambition, the king predicts that he will lack the opportunity to build anything with it at all. Aside from the question whether building a king’s size church is sinful, Þorkell’s stance associates his piety with a desire to rule his district. This reading has support in a scene that precedes Þorkell’s encounter with the Norwegian king. Þorkell dreams that his beard extends throughout Breiðafjörður, which he takes to prefigure his dominance in the region. But Guðrún comments that the dream is more likely a sign that one day his ‘beard will be dipped into Breiðafjörður’ [‘heldr mynda ek ætla, at þar myndir þú drepa skeggi í Breiðfjõrð niðr’]. Back in Iceland with the timber, Þorkell must transport the wood from Hrútafjörður to Helgafell. The first leg of the journey involves moving it from Ljárskógar and from there by ferry across Breiðafjörður. During Lent Þorkell stays at the farmstead of Þorsteinn Kuggason, a cousin of his who owns a ferry. Before the transfer of this haul to Helgafell, Þorsteinn asks a favour from Þorkell; to follow him to meet a certain Halldórr whose land he covets at Hjarðarholt. Þorkell agrees, but Halldórr refuses to sell and a scene of sharp verbal exchanges ensues. When Þorkell finally loses his patience and threatens violence, Halldór answers that Þorkell ‘will be embracing the seaweed in Breiðafjörður before I’m forced to sell my land against my will’ [‘Fyrr muntu spenna um þõngulshõfuð á Breiðfirði en ek handsala nauðigr land mitt’].98 This is effectively the third warning that Þorkell’s life is in danger and the second that he will drown. The likeness of Halldórr’s use of imagery to Þorkell’s second warning is obvious. In Þorkell’s dream the root or ‘head’ of the seaweed from which the tentacles extend evokes the flowing beard that extends from his head in all directions. Þorsteinn wants to attack Halldór at once but Þorkell refuses as ‘it would be an outrage during this holy season’ [‘er þat in mesta óhœfa á slíkum tíðum’]. Here Þorkell Eyjólfsson uses Lent as a somewhat calculating pretext for delaying the attack. Right after this scene Þorkell admits that he chose not to assault Halldórr at the meeting because an attendant slave would then have killed Þorsteinn. Þorkell claims, somewhat disingenuously, that Lent has saved Halldór’s life, at least for the time being. The irony is that Lent and Holy Week will prove significant for the fate of Þorkell’s own soul. Indeed, as has been shown, his drowning and posthumous appearance carefully coincide with Lent and



Ibid., 215–21. Ibid., 221.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Holy Week.99 Ignoring Þorsteinn’s warning about the dangerous weather, Þorkell sets out with the timber on the morning of Maundy Thursday. Sailing along Breiðafjörður they are hit by a gale which soon abates and it seems that Þorkell and his crew have escaped the worst. But then a gust of wind suddenly sinks the ferry. All on board drown, while the timber scatters across the fjord. Again we recall Þorkell’s dream of his beard extending across the bay which he thought foretold his growing authority in the region, but Guðrún saw as an omen of his death. Now, the very symbol of Þorkell’s ambition – the timber for his large church – may be seen floating through the same fjord. That evening Guðrún is walking through the churchyard gate when she sees a ghost who simply exclaims: ‘Important news, Guðrún’ [‘Mikil tíðendi, Guðrún’]. In the church the following vision awaits her: ‘Þorkell and his men had returned home and stood in front of the church. She saw sea-water streaming from their clothes. Guðrún did not speak to them, and went into the church and stayed there as long as she thought fit.’ [‘ok er hon kom til kirkjunnar, þá þóttisk hon sjá, at þeir Þorkell váru heim komnir ok stóðu úti fyrir kirkju. Hon sá, at sjár rann ór klæðum þeira. Guðrún mælti ekki við þá ok gekk inn í kirkju ok dvalðisk þar slíka hríð, sem henni sýndisk’].100 On Good Friday Guðrún sends men to get news about what has happened but on the ‘Saturday before Easter, people heard the news and thought it very grave, for Þorkell had been a great chieftain’ [‘Þváttdaginn fyrir páska spurðusk tíðendin ok þóttu vera mikil, því at Þorkell hafði verit mikill hõfðingi’]. Laxdœla saga underlines the communal nature of the disaster that befalls Þorkell and his shipmates. When Þorkell and his nine companions drowned, ‘people were watching their progress from both shores’ [‘sá menn ferðina af hvárutveggja landinu’].101 Moreover, Guðrún not only sees the ghost of Þorkell but also of the whole crew. As Andrew Hamer has highlighted, the two scenes, Þorkell’s drowning and Guðrún’s vision, connect with public penance, in that sinners confess on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, while individual penance is imposed by the priest or bishop. During this time of public atonement the participant is effectively expelled temporarily from the Church. Then on Maundy Thursday – the Thursday before Easter Sunday – the penitent is readmitted in a public ritual. It is not so easy to separate private and public penance in this period. The decrees of Bishop Magnús Gizurason of Skálholt (issued around 1224) distinguish between secret and public (or non-secret) penances, with the former relating to personal sins while the latter extend to both secular and ecclesiastical misdemeanours of a more serious kind.102 But the sinner could, of course, Andrew Hamer, ‘Liturgical Echoes in Laxdœla saga’, in Via Crucis: Essays on Early Medieval Sources in Memory of J.E. Cross, ed. T.N. Hall, T.D. Hill and C.D. Wright (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press), 377–92. 100 ÍF 5, 223. 101 Ibid., 222. 102 Diplomatarium Islandicum. Fyrsta bindi, 463. 99


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World make earthly amends through both private and public penance for the same transgression (for instance, by reciting the Psalter and undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome ). Especially interesting in the context of the Laxdœla episode is communal public penance where the whole congregation is in attendance. Elsewhere in Catholic Europe rituals of this kind featured at Lent and Maundy Thursday throughout the Middle Ages.103 Thus in thirteenth-century France sinners were frequently physically barred from entering churches on specific days.104 Such public penance is mentioned in the Ordo Nidrosiensis, a thirteenth-century ordinal for the archepiscopal see of Niðaróss, and the practice is also attested in Norway by a reference from 1297.105 Just how common the ritual was in Iceland is difficult to assess.106 However, Laurentius saga, a saga about Bishop Lárentíus Kálfsson of Hólar (1324–31), shows that communal public penance was performed in the first half of the fourteenth century. The saga mentions sinners being brought to Hólar on Maundy Thursday, whilst those who had committed especially serious offences took their turn on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.107 Þorkell and his men are not the only ghosts to feature near the conclusion of Laxdœla saga. After her husband drowned, the saga tells how Guðrún became a ‘deeply religious woman’ [‘trúkona mikil’] and the first woman in Iceland to learn the Psalter, an anchorite who habitually kept nocturnal vigils in the church. One night Herdís, Guðrún’s granddaughter, is visited by a hooded woman of unsightly appearance who complains that Guðrún allows her searing teardrops to fall so that she feels as if she is burning all over.108 The following 103 104 105




Sarah Hamilton, The Practice of Penance 900–1050 (Woodbridge: The Royal Historical Society/Boydell Press, 2001), 209–10. Mary C. Mansfield, The Humiliation of Sinners; Public Penance in Thirteenth-Century France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 287–298. Margrete Syrstad Andås, ‘Art and Ritual in the Liminal Zone’, in The Medieval Cathedral of Trondheim. Architectural and Ritual Constructions in their European Context, ed. M.S. Andås, Ø. Ekroll and N.H. Pedersen (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 68–72. Thus it is not mentioned in the ‘The Old Church Law’, ‘Þorlákr’s Penitential’, the above mentioned decrees of Magnús Gizurarson, Árni Þorláksson’s ‘Church Law’, or Bishop Jón Halldórsson’s additions to ‘Þorlákr’s Penitential’ (issued about 1326). ÍF 12, 390–1. On tears of repentance see Alcuin’s De virtutuibus et vitiis liber (Gamal Norsk Homiliebok, 9–10). Such tears were especially associated with reading the Psalter, see for instance Sutherland, ‘Performing the Penitential Psalms in the Middle Ages’, 17–18. Orkneyinga saga includes an interesting example of tears of repentance. Following the execution of Earl Magnús Erlendesson (1116/17) his mother, Þóra, asks Earl Hákon for the body for proper burial. Shedding tears Þóra relates how Hákon’s mercy will elicit God’s mercy for him. Þóra’s tears of sorrow and pleading prompt Hákon to shed tears of repentance as he grants Þóra’s wish. Þóra responds by claiming that Hákon is now her adopted son. The scene forms a part of an attempt to imply Hákon’s salvation (in spite of his serious crime). The scene is preceded by Magnús forgiving his enemy at the scene of execution and is followed by Hákon’s penitential pilgrimage to Rome. ÍF 34, 110–13. The scene between Hákon and Þóra is commented on in Carl Phelpstead,


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature morning Guðrún and Herdís discover under the church floor some blue and evil-looking bones. People considered these to be the remains of a sorceress and they were reburied in the wilderness. The apparitions of Þorkell and the sorceress offer two sides to essentially the same phenomenon – the appearance of the dead to the living. In Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar we encountered the damned Glámr who still haunted the living. Malignant ghosts of this kind, though perhaps less corporeal than Glámr, feature prominently in twelfth-century English sources. Such too is the nature of the sorceress in Laxdœla saga. In English thirteenth-century texts, however, less menacing and more pitiful revenants appear who plead to the living – their friends and relatives – for prayers to aid them in their journey to salvation [see below, 180]. This is essentially the nature of Þorkell’s apparition for he reenacts the ritual of public penance in the afterlife and solicits prayers from his wife. Guðrún and Þorkell travel two different paths to redemption. One atones for sins in Purgatory, whereas the other pays through prayer and penitence in this life. But note also how the fates of both intersect with the physical structure of church buildings. Þorkell’s hubristic character is revealed by his plan to erect a church so large that it equals St Óláfr’s church in Niðaróss. Yet again we recall Heiðarvíga saga’s claim that in Iceland’s neophyte phase the hope of salvation was associated with the size of the churches that chieftains built. In that saga the erroneous belief is then juxtaposed with the genuine piety of Guðlaugr, who leaves Iceland and enters an English monastery. But in Laxdœla saga Guðrún heralds the next stage in Christianity’s development in the very same region. The farmstead of Helgafell emerges as a forerunner of a cloister that will serve as a locale of salvation: Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir’s tears of penance and prayers for her dead husband sanctify the place and prefigure the founding of Helgafell priory in 1184.109 There is a sense of amplification or fulfilment of the kind that we have encountered, for instance, in Gísla saga Súrssonar and Yngvars saga víðfõrla. In all this the sea, or more specifically Breiðafjörður, plays an important role. When Gestr Oddleifsson, Guðrún’s prescient confidant, falls gravely ill, his last wish is to be buried at Helgafell, ‘[F]or that place will become the greatest in these parts. I have often seen a light shining there’ [‘því at sá staðr mun verða mestr hér í sveitum; þangat hefi ek opt ljós sét’].110 As Breiðafjörður is frozen over, it appears impossible to ferry his corpse from Barðaströnd to Helgafell. Two days later, however, a forceful gale blows the ice away from the shore and this is followed by benign weather that allows the ferrying of Gestr’s remains to Helgafell. The contrast with Þorkell’s fate as he ferries the church timber is striking. Here, as when Gestr escaped from Raknarr’s mound in Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, the ‘Red Sea’ motif is evoked: the splitting of Breiðafjörður, a place

Holy Vikings: Saints’ Lives in the Old Icelandic Kings’ Sagas (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2007), 94–5. 109 It is worth noting that Snorri goði, Guðlaugr’s father, built the first church at Helgafell. 110 ÍF 5, 196.


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World of damnation throughout the saga, provides the path for another Gestr to be buried at the now hallowed Helgafell.

The Cardinal Directions The North The association of north with the devil’s domain was familiar in early and high-medieval thought. Konungs skuggsjá reminds us that when Lucifer rebelled against God he turned away from his lord with his followers towards the north.111 But Lucifer failed to erect a throne in the northern part of Heaven where God sat in Majesty (Isaiah 14:13). Instead, Satan’s rebellion linked him to the terrestrial rather than the celestial north. Thus, physically turning northward signified a protective stance against evil influence emanating from this direction. In this way, according to the Old Icelandic Homily Book, the deacon shelters the congregation from the devil’s influence: ‘En þa er diacn les guþspiall þa iarteiner hann iesum christum þuit hann bodar þa orþ guþs. Sa es guþspiall less snýsc í norþr, þuiat hann sýner þat at guþs orþ er til skióls monnum a mót diofle er norþr átt tácnar’ [‘As the deacon reads the Gospel he denotes Jesus Christ for he exclaims the Word of God. The one who reads the Gospel faces the north for he demonstrates that God’s Word is a shelter for people against the devil, who symbolises north.’].112 Jeremiah 1:14 was one scriptural passage that accorded well with the Norse pagan past as well as the Viking assaults on Catholic Europe: ‘Then the Lord said unto me: Out of the North an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.’113 The reference features, for instance, in Ailnoth of Canterbury’s Gesta Swenomagni et eius filiorum (c.1120) and Passio Olavi (1170s).114 In both works the north, the home of paganism, is juxtaposed with the south which denotes Christianity. Passio Olavi opens with an arresting image of this process: Living in a region close to the north, it was that same north, from which comes every evil over the whole face of earth, that had possessed them all the more inwardly and gripped them all the more firmly in the ice of unbelief. From its face Jeremiah saw a seething pot; and in Isaiah there is the boaster who says, ‘I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north.’ But the great and praiseworthy Lord, who builds his city on the sides of the north, scattered the rigour of the north with the mild wind of the south and at last softened Konungs skuggsíá, 79. Homiliu-Bók, 123. See also Derek Rivard, Blessing the World: Ritual and Lay Piety in Medieval Religion (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 103. 113 On the Carolingian use of this biblical reference in relation to the Vikings, see Simon Coupland, ‘The Rod of God’s Wrath or the People of God’s Wrath? The Carolingian Theology of the Viking Invasions’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42:4 (1991), 538. 114 Vitae Sanctorum Danorum, ed. M.C. Gertz (Copenhagen: I Kommission Hos G.E.C. Gad, 1908–1912), 37. 111



Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature the stubborn and fierce hearts of savage peoples with the warmth of faith. They heard of the teaching of the Lord, and he sent messengers to them as heralds of his word.115

The metaphor of the ‘ice of unbelief’ being overturned by the ‘mild wind of the south’ appears on both a figurative and a literal level in Svaða þáttr, which is found in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta. Along with its companion piece, Arnórrs þáttr kerlingarnefs, Svaða þáttr may have been written by Gunnlaugr Leifsson.116 This episode, which is set in north-western Iceland during a year of famine around 986, introduces Arnórr, the most powerful chieftain of the region. Arnórr returns from a gathering at which it was decided that old and helpless people should neither be fed nor housed. Arnórr’s mother expounds the cruelty of this decree as well as his ultimate responsibility for his followers. Arnórr heeds her advice and brings the region’s vulnerable under his protection. Arnórr then delivers a speech in which he exhorts the farmers to show mercy and generosity towards the old and weak while offering practical advice on how to feed them (to the detriment to the local dogs who are subsequently eaten). Arnórr concludes by claiming that if the true God, who made the sun, agreed with the measures he had proposed, then he and his people will believe in him alone. When all concur, the following comes about: Þá var inn snarpasti kulði ok frost, sem langan tíma hafði áðr verit, ok inir grimmustu norðanvindar, en svelli ok inu harðasta hjarni var steypt yfir alla jõrð svá at hvergi stóð upp. En á næstu nótt eptir þenna fund skiptisk svá skjótt um með guðligri forsjá ýmisleikr loptsins, at um morgininn eptir var á braut allr grimmleikr frostsins, en kominn í staðinn hlœr sunnanvindr ok inn bezti þeyr.117 [On the day of the meeting, and for a long time before it, the cold and frost had been most severe, and the north winds most biting. Ice and frozen snow had covered the earth so completely that the ground could nowhere be seen. But the next night after the meeting so rapid a change occurred in the weather through Divine Providence, that on the following morning the severe frost was gone altogether, and succeeded by a rapid thaw and a warm southern wind.]

With the famine relieved, Arnórr and the people of the region accept Christianity. Within a few years, according to the þáttr, the whole of Iceland adopted the religion into law. Arnórr’s mercy towards the vulnerable prefigures the conversion of Iceland. The imagery links the cold north with paganism, whereas Christianity is associated with the warm southerly wind. In the Passio Olavi this trope symbolically heralds Christianity’s arrival in Norway. However, in Arnórrs þáttr kerlingarnefs a comparable device is transformed into a concrete A History of Norway and The Passion and Miracles of the Blessed Óláfr, 26. For the Latin, see Monumenta Historica Norvegiae, 127. 116 ÍF 15:1, cciii–ccv. 117 Ibid., 154. 115


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World historical context whilst also retaining its symbolic associations. Thus the north can signify both a state of being where the devil and paganism hold sway and the home of those who invite salvation from the south. The East The close association between the East and salvation needs little introduction. On the cross Christ’s head is directed east, which denotes life and redemption, whereas west commonly represents death and darkness.118 In Heiðarvíga saga and the Legendary saga of St Óláfr the shining sun in the east represents Christ and salvation. Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson sees a light in the east above his farmstead which foreshadows his own redemption. In the ‘Vision of Brestir’ the moon approaching from the east heralds the salvation of Bishop Þorlákr Runólfsson of Skálholt. The centre of the world is in the East: the Holy Land, Jerusalem, and the Earthly Paradise. Journeying in that direction, whether as a crusader or a common pilgrim, is connected with spiritual advancement. In Yngvars saga and the ‘Episode of Gautr’ the main protagonists confront the prospect of their salvation near the Red Sea. A version or pre-figuration of the ‘Earthly Paradise’ is revealed to Eiríkr víðfõrli as he travels eastwards to the farthest edges of the known world. We have seen that redemption is linked primarily with two places. One is, of course, the celestial abode of the blessed which is beyond time and space. The second is the Earthly Paradise, which can be found in the far east but not entered by ordinary mortals. It nevertheless serves as example and reminder to the living of the glorious Paradise to come. In one instance we observe a saga author transposing the story from the heavenly Paradise to the earthly one. The two versions of Rannveigarleiðsla (‘The Vision of Rannveig’) are preserved in fourteenth-century sagas about Bishop Guðmundr Arason of Hólar. The earliest version, however, likely featured in the Prestssaga of Guðmundar Arason from the first half of the thirteenth century.119 The setting is eastern Iceland in the winter of 1187. Rannveig is the concubine of a priest and she had earlier been in a similar relationship with another clergyman. One morning in her farmstead, on the last Saturday before Lent, she fell into a trance. Upon awakening Rannveig reported her experience to Priest Guðmundr Arason, telling him how demons dragged her through a lava-filled landscape dotted with deep pits and boiling cauldrons encircled by fire. There Rannveig saw many chieftains who had misused their power. The demons exclaimed that her conduct had polluted the service of the Church and then they forced her towards a boiling pit. When Rannveig called on the Virgin Mary and St Peter a bright light appeared above in which she saw St

118 119

See, for instance, Homiliu-Bók, 37. Guðmundar sögur biskups 1, ed. Stefán Karlsson (Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzels Forlag, 1983), 52–8.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Óláfr, St Magnús of Orkney and St Hallvard of Oslo, all of whom chased the demons away. After the saints had admonished Rannveig to mend her sinful ways, they let it be known that the Virgin and St Peter would show her the glory of Heaven. There Rannveig beheld the holy men of her country, both the living and the dead, whose prayers sheltered Iceland from harm. Rannveig first encountered St Peter, who was as bright as snow and thereafter the Virgin Mary who was as bright as the sun. Rannveig was shown beautiful, sweet-smelling meadows with numerous houses and palaces. Mary named the owners of these dwellings. They were the bishops of Iceland; she specifically identified Ísleifr Gizurarson and Þorlákr Runólfsson. Still holier are Þorlákr Þórhallsson of Skálholt and Jón Õgmundarson of Hólar. Also mentioned is Bjõrn, a hermit at Þingeyrar who would have been alive around the time of the vision. The vision’s climax and conclusion is a depiction of a beautiful dwelling that had been allotted to Guðmundr Arason, which showed that he was no less holy than St Thomas Becket. Rannveig’s vision merits close analysis in its entirety.120 Here I simply seek to highlight a feature relating to its spatial location. The landscape of Hell, with its lava and boiling cauldrons, is that of Iceland (although this may hardly be said of the eastern fjords). Hell is thus manifested in the familiar landscape. Heaven, however, is shown in terms of a contrasting environment: idyllic meadows dotted with splendid abodes instead of boiling geysers. Around the mid fourteenth century ‘Rannveig’s vision’ was re-fashioned for quite a different audience. Abbot Arngrímr Brandsson (d. 1361) wrote his biography of Guðmundr to advertise an uncanonised saint to a non-Icelandic audience.121 Although Arngrímr retains most of the vision’s earlier features, his changes are still revealing. Most notably, Arngrímr excises any mention of Icelandic bishops and saints apart, of course, from Guðmundr Arason himself. These characters would not have been of relevance to a foreign audience. What is also striking is Arngrímr’s reinterpretation of the heavenly place shown to Rannveig: Nú þat efni, sem at Guðmundi víkr í vitran þessi, sýnist concordera þeirri sýn, er forðum sá í andargjöf Nikulás byskup Paterensis fyrir systursyni sínum Nikulao, er í þann tíma var í barndómi, en síðan Mirrensis erkibyskup. Af þeirri hallar sýn til austrættar í lifandi manna jörð er öll ein frásögn ok nú greindum vér í sagðri vitran.122


For an extended analysis of this vision, see Carolyne Larrington, ‘Leizla Rannveigar: Gender and Politics in the Otherworld Vision’, Medium Aevum 64:2 (1995), 232–49; Carlsen, Vision of the Afterlife, 63–8. 121 Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, in Medieval Scandianvia. An Encyclopedia, ed. Phillip Pulsiano (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1993), 246. 122 Byskupa sögur III, 156–60.


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World [Now the matter, which pertains to Guðmundr in this vision, seems to correspond to the vision which Bishop Nicholas of Paterensis saw in a spiritual gift regarding his nephew Nicholas, who then was in his childhood but became the bishop of Myra. That vision points to eastwards on earth of the living and is like the one we reported in the said vision.]

Here Arngrímr refers to a Life of St Nicholas, presumably Bergr Sokkason’s Nikolás saga erkibiskups. Arngrímr therefore chooses to connect Rannveig’s vision with that of Nicholas of Bari (or Myra) as he re-dates the Icelandic vision from 1197 to around the time of Guðmundr’s birth (1161).123 But there is also another reason for Arngrímr to evoke this episode from the Life of St Nicholas: the heaven Rannveig was shown is not the ‘real Heaven’ but its prefiguration in the form of the Earthly Paradise in the East. Earlier we identified a similar idea in the ‘Episode of Gautr’, with its beautiful city located near the Red Sea, and in Eiríks saga víðfõrla the hero is offered a glimpse of ‘Ódáinsakr’, the ‘Meadow of the Undead’ (see chapter 2). There the land was empty but nevertheless Eiríkr understood that it foreshadowed his own salvation. Rannveig beholds a beautiful meadow with only one abode which is the dwelling that symbolises Guðmundr’s sanctity. Here again the Earthly Paradise prefigures the heavenly one. The West The hero of Flóamanna saga is Þorgils Þorgrímsson who as a child is brought from Norway to the Flói area of south-west Iceland. The saga, which likely dates to the first half of the fourteenth century, consists of three main sections. The first (chapters 1–17) tells about Þorgils’s family background in Norway and his adventures in Norway, the Hebrides and Ireland. The narrative progression is straightforward, featuring Vikings, berserks and Glámr-like ghosts which Þorgils dispatches with aplomb. This section is devoid of religious references of either a pagan or a Christian kind. The first nine chapters are influenced by the Sturlubók version of Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), whereas the style of chapters 10–17 recalls legendary sagas.124 A short interlude (chapters 18–19) relates two violent encounters in Iceland.125 Thereafter Þorgils settles in southwest Iceland with Þórey, his second wife, and converts to Christianity a few years before AD 1000. This marks the beginning of the saga’s second and middle act. Apart from a notice at the saga’s conclusion about the translation of Þorgils’s bones to a church and the accompanying claim (in the saga’s slightly longer version) that ‘he was trustworthy and religious, pious and good to his friends’

Ibid., 160. ÍF 13, 254–7. 125 Þorgrímr, Þorgils’s step-father, is killed while courting a woman on a neighbouring farmstead. In an unrelated incident Þorgils slays the foreman of his farmstead who had plotted to kill him. 123 124


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature [‘hann var tryggr ok trúrækinn, guðhræddr ok góðr vinum sínum’],126 it is only in this section that we find references of a religious kind. There is an abrupt change in tone when Þórr, the resident pagan deity, begins to visit Þorgils in his dreams shortly after the latter’s conversion to Christianity. Here, as in other sagas, Þórr is a demon and so an incarnation, or a spawn, of the devil. Until chapter 25 Þórr, rather than any human, serves as Þorgil’s main adversary. Þórr appears to Þorgils and chastises him for adopting the new religion and allotting him the worst property on his land while also, for good measure, throwing his silver into a dirty pond. Þorgils rejoices at the end of their association and declares his full trust in God. After another threatening dream appearance, Þórr avenges the slight against him by killing Þorgils’s cattle. When Þorgils keeps a night vigil over his livestock he is found blue and battered and people think he had fought Þórr in battle. Thereafter the animal killing ceases, but Þorgils nevertheless accepts Eiríkr rauði’s invitation to settle in Greenland. For the third time Þórr appears in a dream and again Þorgils defiantly responds: ‘far þú burt, inn leiði fjandi! Sá mun mér hjálpa, sem alla leysti með sinum dreyra’ [‘get away from me, you loathsome fiend. He will help me who redeemed us all with His blood.’].127 Here Christ’s extreme suffering is evoked as a shield against pagan forces; in the reader’s mind a link is forged between blood and salvation. Fittingly, Þórr foretells that for turning against him Þorgils will suffer for a long time. A theme which centres on a prolonged martyrdom has been introduced. The voyage to Greenland proves to be testing for their vessel fails to find the wind. Stationary, and with provisions rapidly dwindling, Þórr appears yet again and now with the following promise: should Þorgils return to the pagan fold they will safely reach harbour within seven days. Yet again Þorgils refuses to acknowledge Þórr even though this might lead to their death at sea. When Þorgils awakes he throws a calf overboard which he now remembers he once dedicated to Þórr. Parallels to Þorgils’s denial of Þórr and his destruction of pagan idols are not unique in the saga corpus.128 Moreover, a similarity between this scene and Christ’s rejection of the Devil and his temptations has been suggested (Matthew 4:8–10).129 Lastly, there is the example of the early martyrs who refuse to honour pagan idols, even when confronted with torture and death. Some three months later they are shipwrecked in a Greenland bay. Trapped in an inhospitable place dominated by a forbidding glacier, Þorgils and his crew build a farmstead and eke out a living. When Þórey gives birth a period of extreme hardship ensues. With Christmas approaching a new theme is sounded as Þorgils becomes concerned with maintaining Christian standards of conduct: Þorgils tells ‘his men to be quiet and well-behaved during the evenings and to keep their faith well’ [‘Hann bað sína menn vera hljóðláta ok 126

ÍF 13, 326. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 289; ÍF 13, 279. 128 See Richard Perkins, ‘The Dreams of Flóamanna saga’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 19 (1973–1977), 200. 129 Ibid., 202. 127


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World siðsama á kveldum ok halda trú sína vel’]130 and, shortly thereafter, to be quiet and retire to bed early.131 As we might expect, Þorgils’s warnings go unheeded. Over Christmas there is a knock on the door and when one of the crew leaves to investigate he fails to return. Then Jósteinn, along with a few followers, finds the missing person, who, having gone mad, dies the following morning. Thereafter Jósteinn and his men are struck by a plague which leaves six dead before Jósteinn himself succumbs. For the third time Þorgils admonishes his men to conduct themselves like good Christians.132 The pertinent paradigm here is that of the good Christian leading his flock through unfamiliar, hostile, territory and suffering hardship directed by demonic forces. We have seen something similar with Yngvarr víðfõrli, in his saga, exhorting his band to refrain from contact with natives as they travel through non-Christian lands. As Þorgils commands his men not to depart from their base, Yngvarr forbids his followers to leave Silkisif’s palace in her pagan kingdom. In the latter case, one Viking is killed when he flouts the injunction. More dramatically, others ignore Yngvarr’s ban on consorting with local women who then turn out to be demons in disguise. This brings a plague onto Yngvarr and his men which terminates the expedition (see chapter 2). The archetype for this theme is the journey of the Israelites through hostile lands as they seek and then conquer the Promised Land. In spite of Moses’s and Joshua’s frequent admonitions the Israelites intermittently fail to follow God’s law; consorting with natives and worshipping ‘pagan’ deities they are punished accordingly. Analogically, of course, attaining the Promised Land may be equated with gaining Paradise. After the Christmas deaths Þórey has a dream: Þat var enn eitthvert sinn, sem optar bar at, at Þórey sagði draum sinn Þorgilsi, at hon þóttist sjá fögr heröð ok menn fagra ok bjarta – “ok vænti ek,” segir hon, “at vér leysimst heðan í burt ór ánauð þessari.” Þorgils segir: “Góðr er draumr þinn, ok þó eigi ólíkari, a viti meir till annars heims hluta, ok muntu eiga fyrir höndum fagra staði, ok munu dýrðlegir menn hjálpa þér fyrir hreint líf ok mannraunir.”133 [It was once, as often, that Þórey told Þorgils about her dreams. She thought she had seen a beautiful land and bright and shining people: ‘I expect’ she said ‘that we will be freed from this bondage.’ Þorgils replied: ‘Your dream is good , but it is not unlikely that it is more an intimation of things of the other world and there you have in store fare places, and glorious men will help you for your good life and your trials.’] The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 290; ÍF 13, 283. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 290; ÍF 13, 284. 132 ‘Þorgils helt þá sínum mönnum öllum ok ræðir jafnan um við þá, at þeir sé hljóðlátir ok siðsamir, bað láta sér annars víti at varnaði verða, minnast á guðliga hluti ok fremja nú skynsemd um kristnihald sitt ok söngva.’ ÍF 13, 285. 133 ÍF 13, 286–7. This wording is preserved in the longer, and ostensibly more original, version of Flóamanna saga. 130 131


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature There is pathos in this dream which leads into arguably the central scene in Flóamanna saga’s episode in Greenland. Þórey envisions an idyllic land of plenty which she believes foreshadows their deliverance in this life – an earthly escape from their present hardship and suffering. But Þorgils recognises that the vision represents Paradise, the Christian’s proper homeland, rather than the good life they seek in the west. Þórey’s choice of words already suggests this interpretation. She expects to ‘be freed from this bondage’ [‘leysimst heðan í burt ór ánauð þessari’]. This turn of phrase carries specific religious connotations. Through his tortures on the Cross, according to The Old Icelandic Homily Book, Christ delivered humankind from bondage (‘ánauð’). Similarly, the escape from Egypt signified delivery from bondage and the expectation of salvation (‘Ór egiptalanz anaúþ leysomc ver’ [‘We are delivered from Egypt’s bondage’]).134 We have seen how Þorgils’s denial of Þórr parallels the martyr’s rejection of the old gods. With Þórey’s dream Flóamanna saga again appropriates a familiar theme from the same corpus, namely the martyr’s intimation of salvation and Paradise before suffering a violent death. For instance, in the Acts of Felicity and Perpetua, one of the earliest surviving martyr accounts, one of the virgin’s companions has a vision: ‘We have suffered’, he said, ‘and we departed from the flesh and we began to be carried towards the east by four angels, whose hands were not touching us. But we were moving, not on our backs facing upwards, but as if we were climbing a gentle hill. And when we were freed from this world, we saw a great light and I said to Perpetua (for she was at my side), “This is what the Lord promised us: we have received the promise”. And while we were being carried by the four angels, a great space appeared before us, which was like a formal garden, having rose trees and flowers of all sorts. The height of the trees was like that of cypress trees, and their leaves were falling without ceasing. There in the garden were four other angels more radiant than the others …’135

The vision here is of the prefigurative type of Paradise in the East we encountered in Eiríks saga víðfõrla and Arngrímr Brandsson’s version of Rannveig’s vision. Following Þórey’s vision and with the situation becoming desperate Þorgils embarks on an exploratory journey into the mountains. Leaving Þórey and her newborn behind, Þorgils returns to find that she has been fatally stabbed. Þórey’s vision of Paradise and her subsequent brutal murder culminates the saga’s central part. Þórey glimpses her own salvation which she (presumably) attains through her violent fate and the hardship she endured, thus mirroring the early martyrs. Further, as Þorgils intimates in his interpretation of her dream-vision, Þórey redemption will be aided by holy men ‘helgir menn’. With his wife killed and the provisions looted Þorgils Þorgrímsson now beholds his his starving infant son suckling his dead wife: ‘The sight of it caused Þorgils 134


Homilu-Bók, 27 The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, ed. and transl. Thomas Heffernan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 130. On such visions of Paradise see ibid., 278.


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World the greatest sorrow he ever felt’ [‘þessa sýn hafði Þorgils svá sét, at honum þótti mestr harmr í vera’].136 Þorgils then cuts into his nipple with the result that there ‘came out blood, and then a mixed fluid, but he did not stop until milk came out, and he nursed the boy with it’ [‘Fór fyrst út blóð, síðan blanda, ok lét eigi fyrr af en ór fór mjólk, ok þar fæddist sveinninn upp við þat’].137 This extraordinary scene calls out for contextualisation. In medieval physiology milk was associated with blood, indeed it was seen simply as a processed form of it. And from the eleventh century onwards blood and milk became known as potent earthly substitutes and symbols of salvation. Thus Flóamanna saga evokes the twin image of the bleeding Christ and the lactating Virgin Mary which feature in medieval texts and art. Milk, moreover, from a typological perspective was linked with the attainment of Paradise and the Promised Land. ‘The land of milk and honey’ was equated with the earthly Jerusalem which, in turn, prefigured the heavenly abode. Milk was linked with the entry into the covenant of salvation through the baptismal rite, and the journey to the Promised Land. Christ is therefore frequently depicted feeding the faithful with the blood running from his wounds and the milk flowing from his breasts.138 Not least, we may note the popular image of the pelican, the bird of salvation, who feeds her starving offspring by pecking her breast until blood flows from the wound.139 In these examples the notion of martyrdom combines with nurturing and the promise of redemption.140 It need not be assumed that the author of Flóamanna saga had all these ideas in mind. Oral tales and folkloric material may well have contributed to the scene’s construction.141 Still, it is important to underline how this episode connects with the broader narrative strand of extended martyrdom that begins with Þorgils renouncing Þórr. Þórr retaliates by terrorising Þorgils’s farmstead. There ensues the disastrous Greenland expedition which entails near-starvation and the attack of revenants. All this is brought about by the devil’s power. But throughout this harrowing experience Þorgils and his family are followed 136 137


139 140 141

The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 291; ÍF 13, 288. ÍF 13, 289. Carolyne Walker Bynum, ‘Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing’, Harvard Theological Review 70:3–4 (1970), 257–84. Siân Grønlie, ‘Saint’s Lives and Saga Narrative’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 36 (2012), 21–2. See also, Aelred of Rievaulx’s (d. 1167) De institutione inclusarum: ‘Make haste lest you be too late; taste the honeycomb and your honey, drink your wine and milk, the blood transformed into wine for you so that you may become drunk upon it, the water changed to milk that you may be nourished.’ I have borrowed the quote and the translation from Nicholas Vincent, The Holy Blood: King Henry III and the Westminster Blood Relic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 140. Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Natural Lore, 9–10. Þorgils sees his own son suffering which, like the Virgin beholding the tortures of her son, is a form of martyrdom. Homiliu-Bók, 5. For a fine survey of stories from Greenland in the saga corpus, see Jonathan Grove, ‘The Place of Greenland in Medieval Icelandic Narrative’, Journal of the North Atlantic. Special Volume 2 (2009), 30–51.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature by a yet stronger force, namely grace and the hope of redemption. Þorgils’s breast-feeding scene only makes sense if viewed against a backdrop of a battle between Þórr/the devil and grace. This theme crystallises in Þórey’s paradisiacal vision but also in a later dream of Þorgil’s when he finally sails from Greenland. This is a vision of his own future prosperity in Iceland which includes his most illustrious descendant: St Þorlákr, Iceland’s first and most significant saint.142 Is it this saint who will eventually secure the redemption of Þórey and Þorgils, and which Þorgils had alluded to in his interpretation of her dream-vision? As Þorgils, his five companions and his son (who dies shortly thereafter) sail away from Greenland they again run out of provisions and become weak from thirst. One man asks Þorgils for permission to drink their own urine with sea-water. Þorgils neither allows nor bans, but asks to say a prayer over this concoction: “Þú, it argasta dýr, er ferð vára dvelr, skalt eigi því ráða, at ek né aðrir drekki sinn þarfagang”.’ Í því fló fugl, því líkastr sem álkuungi, burt frá skipinu ok skrækti við. Þorgils hellti síðan útbyrðis ór auskerinu.143 [‘O most evil of beasts, you who delays our journey, you shall not prevail and make me or anyone else drink his urine.’ At that a bird, most like a young auk, flew away from the ship, shrieking. Thorsteinn them poured the bailing scoop over the side.]144

The bird flies northwards and Þorgils declares that the creature ‘has left us at last and may the demons take it’ [‘Seint hefir fugl þessi við oss skilit, ok taki nú allir gramir við honum’].145 This scene, which adapts an incident from the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, represents Þorgils’s final exorcism of Þórr and prepares for his comparatively placid life in Iceland thereafter. 146 Flóamanna saga integrates a thematic pattern that is familiar from the acts of martyrs with events that take place after Þorgils’s conversion to Christianity.147 The saga thus provides the region of Flói with an early Christian who suffers torment and loss for his decision to cast aside heathen idols. There is a similiarity here with Þáttr Þiðranda ok Þórhalls where the ‘old customs’ require a sacrifice before recognising the superiority of Christianity.148 But in Þáttr Þiðranda ok

142 143 144

145 146 147


ÍF 13, 295; 326. Ibid., 297. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 293. ÍF 13, 298. Grønlie, ‘Saint’s Lives and Saga Narrative’, 20. Having formulated my reading of Flóamanna saga I have encountered Siân Grønlie’s excellent interpretation of the ‘Greenlandic episode’. Grønlie emphasises the model offered by the Desert Fathers, such as St Anthony, who fought against hardship and temptation in the wilderness (with Greenland serving as an obvious analogue). Siân Grønlie, The Saint and the Saga, 182–96. Merrill Kaplan, ‘Prefiguration and the Writing of History in Þáttr Þiðranda and Þórhalls’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 99 (2000), 379–94.


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World Þórhalls the transition between paganism and Christianity at a local level is shaped around a thoroughly indigenous (even folkloric) material that focuses on dísir and the fateful events that transpire around the twelve days of Christmas. The central section of Flóamanna saga, however, is imbued with themes and motifs borrowed from Christian literature. In this the West, that is Greenland, becomes a space contested by God and the devil: it may be compared with the desert in which the early saints suffer but eventually triumph through grace. The Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) recounts expeditions to Vínland around the year 1000. Four of these are undertaken by the offspring of Eiríkr rauði Þorvaldsson, the most illustrious of the early settlers in Greenland. Along with thirty men Þorvaldr Eiríksson sails to Vinland, where he establishes a base. Natives soon attack the Norsemen and in a skirmish Þorvaldr is killed by an arrow. Before expiring Þorvaldr asks to be buried with a cross at the head and foot of the grave.149 Þorsteinn Eiríksson, along with his wife Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir, leaves Eiríksfjörður for Vínland to bring back his brother’s remains. Blown off course they land in Lýsufjörður on Greenland’s western coast. There the couple is approached by Þorsteinn svartr, a pagan, who invites them to his farmstead. Þorsteinn Eiríksson’s retinue is duly hit by a plague, which kills some of his crew. He orders the bodies to be placed in coffins and brought to the ship so that they may eventually be transported to Eiríksfjörður. But the plague now strikes his host’s farmstead and Grímhildr, Þorsteinn svartr’s wife, is the first victim. Þorsteinn Eiríkson becomes ill and Grímhildr’s corpse proves restless and hard to dispose of. When eventually Þorsteinn dies a peculiar scene enfolds. Þorsteinn svartr takes the grieving Guðríðr in his arms as they sit by her dead husband. Þorsteinn svartr speaks words of consolation and thereafter his namesake sits up and utters the following words: “Mér er annt til þess, at segja Guðríði forlõg sín, til þess er hon kunni þá betr andláti mínu, því at ek em kominn til góðra hvíldarstaða. En þat er þér at segja, Guðríðr, at þú munt gipt vera íslenzkum manni, ok munu langar vera samfarar ykkrar, ok mart manna mun frá ykkr koma, þroskasamt, bjart ok ágætt, sœtt ok ilmat vel. Munu þit fara af Grœnlandi til Nóregs ok þaðan til Íslands ok gera bú á Íslandi; þar munu þit lengi búa, ok muntu honum lengr lifa. Þú munt útan fara ok ganga suðr ok koma út aptr til Íslands ok bús þíns, ok þá mun þar kirkja reist vera, ok muntu þar vera ok taka nunnu-vígslu, ok þar muntu andask”.150 ‘I want to tell Gudrid her fate, to make it easier for her to resign herself to my death, for I have gone to a good resting place. I can tell you, Gudrid, that you will be married to an Icelander, and you will live a long life together, and have many descendants, promising, bright and fine, sweet and well scented. You will leave Greenland to go to Norway and from there to Iceland and set 149


ÍF 4, 256. Ibid., 259–60.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature up house in Iceland. There you will live a long time, outliving your husband. You will travel abroad, go south on a pilgrimage and return to Iceland to your farm, where a church will be built. There you will remain and take holy orders and there you will die.’151

Grœnlendinga saga concludes with Guðríðr’s pilgrimage to Rome and thereafter becoming an anchorite at a church in Glaumbær, Skagafjörður, which her son, Snorri, had built. A descendant of Guðríðr, we are informed, was Bishop Þorlákr Runólfsson of Skálholt (1118–33). The scene’s high point is the apparent confirmation that Þorsteinn Eiríksson has attained salvation: ‘I have gone to a good resting place’ [‘ek em kominn til góðra hvíldarstaða’]. Þorsteinn’s assertion could, of course, be read as his attempt to comfort a grieving widow, and that his real fate is Purgatory or worse. But the prophecy he delivers about Guðríðr’s glorious future undercuts this interpretation; it suggests that Þorsteinn has attained salvation and can now foresee the future. If that is the case then Þorsteinn, a saved person, communicates in corporis with the living. This is a noteworthy exception to corporal revenants, such as Glámr in Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, which are invariably violent and threatening. The posthumous Þorsteinn Eiríksson is clearly not of this ilk. As in the rest of medieval Europe, most Icelandic ghosts represent souls who had no hope of reaching Paradise.152 Exceptions are souls such as that of Þorkell Eyjólfsson in Laxdœla saga and of the naked woman in ‘Hugi’s vision’ who visit from a purgatorial state. In medieval writings saints and angels certainly communicate with the living and, as we have noticed, the living are sometimes shown the glories of Heaven. Ordinary people who are saved rarely show themselves on earth.153 In Grœnlendinga saga, however, the unburied Þorsteinn appears to testify as a revenant about his own redemption. From this perspective the scene could be construed as being somewhat heterodox. The story of Guðríðr and her husband’s death is told differently in Eiríks saga rauða. The newly-weds Þorsteinn and Guðríðr stay the winter at a farmstead in Lýsufjörður which they own in common with another Þorsteinn. This Þorsteinn, unlike his namesake in Grœnlendinga saga, is neither a pagan nor an accommodating stranger. Illness strikes in spring and the first to succumb is Garði, an unpopular foreman.154 Thereafter both Sigríðr, wife of Þorsteinn, The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 1, 641. Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, transl. Theresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998). Kirsi Kanerva, ‘The Role of the Dead in Medieval Iceland: A Case Study of Eyrbyggja Saga’, Collegium Medievale 24 (2011), 23–9. 153 One exception appears in Arngrímr Brandsson’s saga about Bishop Guðmundr Arason. There an unnamed man has a dream-vision in which Símon, a deceased priest and kinsman of Guðmundr, attests to the honour accorded to the bishop in Heaven. Byskupasögur III, 430–1. 154 On the fate of Garði, who Þorsteinn Eiríksson blames for the apperance of the revenants and denies Christian burial, see Katharina Baier and Werner Schäfke, 151



Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World and Þorsteinn Eiríksson fall ill. Sigríðr has a vision in which she sees herself and all those who have died from the plague, including Þorsteinn Eiríksson, whom she beholds preparing to flog this ghostly troop with a whip. Sigríðr dies the following night. The bedridden Þorsteinn Eiríksson asks his namesake to rid him of Sigríðr who has arisen and visited him. Þorsteinn expires later that same day but the following night he also arises and then tells his namesake that he wishes to speak to Guðríðr as ‘it is God’s will this brief time be given to me to improve my prospects’ [‘Guð vill, at þessi stund sé mér gefin til leyfis ok umbótar míns ráðs’]. Guðríðr agrees to the meeting as she believes that God will surely protect her from harm: Nú fór Guðríðr ok hitti Þorstein; sýndisk henni, sem hann felldi tár. Hann mælti í eyra henna nõkkur orð hljótt, svá at hon ein vissi, en þat mælti hann svá at allir heyrðu, at þeir menn væri sælir, er trúna heldu, ok henni fylgði õll hjálp ok miskunn, ok sagði þó, at margir heldi hana illa. – “Er þat engi háttr, sem hér hefir verit á Grœnlandi, síðan kristni kom hér, at setja menn niðr í óvígða mold við litla yfirsõngva. Vil ek mik láta flytja til kirkju ok aðra þá menn, sem hér hafa andazk, en Garðar vil ek brenna láta á báli sem skjótast, því at hann veldr õllum aptrgõngum þeim, sem hér hafa verit í vetr.” Hann sagði henni ok um sína hagi ok kvað hennar forlõg mikil mundu verða, en bað hana varask at giptask grœnlenzkum mõnnum; bað, at hon legði fé til kirkju ok sumt fátœkum mõnnum… .155 Gudrid then went to see Thorstein, and he seemed to shed tears. He spoke several words in her ear in a low voice, so that she alone heard, and said that those men rejoiced who kept their faith well and it brought mercy and salvation. Yet he said many kept their faith poorly. ‘These practices will not do which have been followed here in Greenland after the coming of Christianity: burying people in unconsecrated ground with little if any service said over them. I want to have my corpse taken to a church, along with those of the other people who have died there. But Gardi should be burned on a pyre straight away, as he has caused all the hauntings which have occurred here this winter.’ He also spoke of his situation and declared that her future held great things in store, but he warned her against marrying a Greenlander. He also asked her to donate their money to a church or to poor people …156

Both Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða feature illness and death as well as a haunting at Lýsufjörður, and in both Þorsteinn Eiríksson relays a message to his wife from the beyond. But the differences between the sagas are equally noteworthy. In Grœnlendinga saga Þorsteinn Eiríksson seems to appear as a revenant who has attained salvation. In Eiríks saga rauða, however, ‘When the Dead no longer Rest: The Religious Significance of Revenants in Sagas Set in Viking Age Settlements around the Time of the Conversion’, in Death in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: The Material and Spiritual Conditions of the Culture of Death, ed. Albrecht Classen (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2016), 131–54. 155 ÍF 4, 216. 156 The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 1, 664.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature he manifestly visits his wife from Purgatory. As a part of that process Þorsteinn is briefly allowed to address his wife. The penitential dimension here is clear. Þorsteinn’s tears are those of repentance, like those Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir sheds in Laxdœla saga. Sigríðr’s vision of Þorsteinn preparing to flagellate the dead souls evokes the common penitential ritual meted out to the living. Further, Þorsteinn Eiríksson’s appearance benefits both Guðríðr’s soul and the souls of those who had received inadequate burial. A proper burial in hallowed ground with Mass sung for the deceased will lessen the punishment in Purgatory. Garðar, however, is beyond redemption and so his corporal remains are burnt. In Grœnlendinga saga Þorsteinn’s message to Guðríðr is, above all, prophetic. It foresees her producing glorious descendants, making a pilgrimage to Rome and becoming an anchorite. In Eiríks saga rauða the prophetic element is absent from Þorsteinn’s direct speech and is merely touched on at the scene’s conclusion. Befitting his purgatorial state, Þorsteinn is chiefly concerned with the burial arrangements of the dead, including himself. Moreover, earlier in the saga (in a much-studied scene) the glorious future of Guðríðr and her descendants had already been foretold by a pagan prophetess.157 In late twelfth-century England it became accepted that the dead who visited the living were not necessarily damned. For instance, Walter Map, in his De nugis curialum (‘The Courtier’s Trifles’), recounts how one evening a knight was visited by his deceased father who assured him that he was not a demon. The father, who had died in a state of excommunication, requested a priest and told him that he had been allowed to visit the living to gain absolution. The father was granted this wish and subsequently he returned to his grave.158 Stories of this kind expressed the growing belief that proper contrition could purge greater sins in the afterlife.159 In Iceland the case of Oddr Þórarinsson illustrates how such ideas affected ecclesiastical procedures and even Icelandic politics [see above, 44–50]. Accordingly, it is tempting to explain the difference between the ‘ghost scene’ in Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða as illustrating a shift from an earlier, essentially binary, view of the afterlife to new, tertiary, one. The example of Þorkell Eyjólfsson in Laxdœla saga, who appears to the living in a similar condition, might also be marshalled in support of this interpretation. But such a conclusion is hardly warranted, if only because the old assumption that a late-thirteenth-century Eiríks saga relies on a Grœnlendinga saga from around 1200 is suspect.160 157

ÍF 4, 410–13. Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, Courtiers’ Trifles, ed. and transl. M.R. James, rev. R.A.B. Mynors and C.N.L. Brooke, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1983), 206. 159 For this trend in general see Carl Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England; idem, ‘Sin, Penance and Purgatory in the Anglo-Norman Realm: The Evidence of Visions and Ghost Stories’, Past and Present 175 (2002), 3–33. 160 See the summary in Ólafur Halldórsson, Grænland í miðaldaritum (Reykjavík: Sögufélag, 1978), 398–400. 158


Salvation, Damnation and the Visible World Nor is interpreting the Lýsufjörður episode in Grœnlendinga saga in any way straightforward; the same saga records other strange happenings. Most famously, in Vínland a woman appears to Guðríðr as she holds her newborn son. The woman introduces herself as Guðríðr but then vanishes into thin air, not seen by anyone but the real Guðríðr.161 The subsequent episode describes the notorious massacre of men and women in Vínland at the behest of Freydís. This occurrence has no parallel in the saga corpus and it is difficult to look past the idea that the extreme location contributes to the most extreme of acts. The Lýsufjörður episode in the same saga reveals a similarly unsettling strand of the narrative which, at least, should tell us that things are not as they seem. In Grœnlendinga saga Þorsteinn Eiríksson and Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir seek shelter and provisions in an unfamiliar place. Then, just before Þorsteinn svartr’s sudden appearance, the saga underlines that Christianity was new in Greenland. Þorsteinn svartr’s words of introduction highlight his peculiar character and the religious context in which the episode takes place: ‘…en fásinni er mikit með mér at vera, því tvau eru vit þar hjón, því at ek em einþykkr mjõk; annan sið hefi ek ok en þér hafið, ok ætla ek þann betra, er þér hafið’ [‘[I]t will be an unexciting stay, as there are only the two of us, my wife and myself, and I prefer my own company. Also I have another faith than you, although I expect yours is the better of the two.’].162 In Eiríks saga rauða, Lýsufjörður is a location familiar to Þorsteinn and Guðríðr, a shelter for them following a disastrous voyage. Þorsteinn (who is here not named as ‘svartr’) is a Christian and a business partner of Þorsteinn Eiríksson. There is scant ambiguity about Þorsteinn’s posthumous appearance (or about the vision of other people who die in the plague), for this highlights common elements associated with the passage through Purgatory. This approach fits well with a possible ecclesiastical and orthodox context for its composition. Ólafur Halldórsson has argued that the original version Eiríks saga rauða was written at the end of the twelfth century. The purpose would have been to glorify Guðríðr who was, as the saga states, the ancestor of Bishop Bjõrn Gilsson of Hólar (1147–62). The bishopric was then attempting to promote a cult of Björn along with that of Jón Õgmundarson.163 161

ÍF 4, 262–3. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 1, 26; ÍF 4, 258. 163 Ólafur Halldórsson, ‘The Vínland Sagas’, in Approaches to Vínland. A Conference on the Written and Archaeological Sources for the Norse Settlement in the North-Atlantic Regions and Exploration of America. The Nordic House, Reykjavík 9–11 August 1999, ed. Andrew Wawn and Þórunn Sigurðardóttir (Reykjavík: Sigurður Nordal Institute, 2001), 39–51. In the same volume, see also the plausible connection made between the Hauksbók version of Eiríks saga rauða and the nunnery of Reynistaðir, which was founded in 1295. Haukr Erlendsson shared an ancestry with Hallbera, the co-founder of the nunnery. Guðríðr purportedly settled at Reynistaðir following her western adventures. Haukr’s intention may therefore have been to present Guðríðr as a kind of prefiguration or predecessor of Hallbera at Reynistaðir. See Helgi Þorláksson, ‘The Vínland Sagas in a Contemporary Light’, in Approaches to Vínland, 63–77. 162


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature If journeys eastwards are associated with spiritual advancement and redemption, there is no comparable link in the sagas between westward travel and damnation. In general journeys westwards in the sagas ‘dramatize the hardship and claustrophobia of life at the edge of Norse cultural life, as seen from Iceland’.164 Nonetheless, Greenland, located in the extreme west, is a zone in which issues of damnation and salvation appear to be foregrounded, especially as these adventures tend to coincide with the Greenlanders’ official conversion to Christianity. Certainly, Þórey’s vision and her husband’s breastfeeding in Flóamanna saga, as well as the hauntings in Lýsufjörður – with their glimpses of Paradise and Purgatory – are unique in the Icelandic saga corpus.


Grove, ‘The Place of Greenland in Medieval Icelandic Narrative’, 32.


N 6 n The Hour of Death The mid-fourteenth-century þáttr, or ‘short saga’, about Jón Halldórsson of Skálholt (d. 1339) includes the death scene of this learned bishop, who, in addition to other ecclesiastical innovations, instituted the feast of Corpus Christi in Iceland.1 It relates that Jón became gravely ill during a visit to his former Dominican priory in Bergen. The bishop of Bergen administered the last sacrament as Candlemas approached – the day that celebrates the Purification of the Virgin Mary. On Candlemas morning a Mass was sung in Mary’s honour. Jón was present but he soon fell into a doze. When the bishop awoke he told those attending that he had seen a kindly looking woman enter the room. Then the figure, dressed in clothes befitting a nun and holding a candle in each hand, ascended through the roof. Asked what the dying bishop thought this signified, he answered that he had been allowed a vision of the Virgin ascending. And, were it not for his sins, his own soul would in due course follow her. Illustrious churchmen were known to have witnessed Mary’s heavenward ascent. In Maríu saga, Mary appears to Anselm in a dream and comforts the saint in his hour of despair. He saw how she ‘smoothly ascended from his sight and home to heaven’s palace’ [‘lidandi sidan fra hans augliti vpp i lopt ok heim til himinrikis hallar’].2 In Jóns þáttr Halldórssonar the novelty of the scene may be linked with its setting on the feast of the Purification in a way that underlines the potency of Jón’s own assured salvation. The feast celebrates the Virgin’s purification for forty days after the birth of Christ and her subsequent re-entry into the Temple. The feast was commonly seen, in a typological sense, to prefigure the sinner’s repentance and entry into Paradise. The two candles held by Mary not only represent the sacrifices she brought into the Temple, but also the qualities that allow the Christian to enter everlasting life.3 The scene also highlights Bishop Jón Halldórsson’s humility, since he states that his sins will bar him from immediately following Mary. Humility, too, is associated with the feast of the Purification. Anyone with a basic knowledge of Christian doctrine knew that the Virgin did not need cleansing before entering the Temple. Rather, Mary purified herself; while fully aware that she was without sin, 1

2 3

ÍF 17, 454–6. Mariu Saga, 471. See Homiliu-Bók, lines 11–23, p. 82.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature she nonetheless carried out the ritual in obedience to the Law.4 In Maríu saga the Virgin’s humility is juxtaposed with the arrogance of those who think themselves sinless and in no need of atonement.5 In contrast, Jón Halldórsson does not consider himself worthy to follow the Virgin Mary to the heavenly abode. The knowing reader sees through this trope of humilitas and connects the posthumous fate of the humble Dominican with Mary’s Ascension. Jón Halldórsson’s elegantly orchestrated farewell scene reveals the bishop’s salvation and offers one final example of his humility and learning. His death is, of course, an ideal death of the sort granted to few in the Old Norse corpus. Nonetheless, the following four examples show how death scenes, and the concomitant questions of salvation and damnation, highlight larger topical themes which resonate through these sagas.

The Death of King Magnús góði Óláfsson he death of King Magnús góði Óláfsson has featured earlier in this book. Heimskringla relates how St Óláfr effectively decided for Magnús that he should choose the heavenly kingdom over the sole rulership of Norway. The other principal description of Magnús góði’s death appears in Morkinskinna.6 The year is 1047 and the setting is the king’s ship, lying off Jutland where Magnús had contested the Danish crown with Sveinn Úlfsson. The death scene may be divided into two parts that are linked by a short interlude. The first begins with Magnús becoming feverish; seeking a cooler temperature, he asks for a bed to be laid out on the deck. Present is Einarr þambarskelfir Eindriðason, the powerful chieftain who some twelve years earlier had been instrumental in securing the throne for the young Magnús. On cue, as Magnús tells Einarr that he thinks he does not have long to live, King Haraldr harðráði enters. Magnús asks his uncle to be ‘a friend of his friends’ [‘vinir vina minna’], a request that manifestly refers to Einarr, whose position was destined to become precarious under Haraldr’s rulership. Haraldr agrees but adds that he has many enemies. Three years later, Haraldr lures Einarr to a meeting and has him killed.7 Thus Magnús, fulfilling the role of a good king by attempting to secure peace after his death, foreshadows Haraldr’s betrayal of a person attending his demise. The ideal death requires reconciliation with the living and a just and orderly distribution of earthly possessions. These are Magnús’s next steps, which are prompted by Einarr þambarskelfir’s sceptical words about Haraldr’s promise of friendship. At stake is Magnús’s claim to Denmark, which is the reason why the two co-rulers find themselves in Jutland in the first place. Magnús advises Haraldr to return to Norway, ‘your patrimony’ (‘ættjarðar þinnar’), and to 4

5 6 7

Ibid., lines 7–11, p. 82. Mariu saga, 34. See also Gamal Norsk Homiliebok, 66–7. ÍF 23:1, 167–77. ‘Nú leið svá at Einari lõng heipt ok fjándskapr er Haraldr konungr hafði lengi bundizk ok stiltan sik at, sem vísar fyrr í þessu máli... .’ Ibid., 216.


The Hour of Death rule to the best of his abilities. Magnús now recalls his agreement with King Hõrða-Knútr (or Harthacnut) of England, which stipulates that their respective claims to Denmark and Norway would be annulled upon the death of either of them. Haraldr’s statement that he will not relinquish Denmark leads Magnús to predict that his uncle will never rule over that kingdom. It now becomes apparent that Haraldr intends neither to show his enemies magnanimity nor to give up the lands that he considers rightfully his. The subtext is not only Haraldr’s desire for Denmark but also his ambitions for England, another kingdom to which Magnús had surrendered his claim, but one that eventually will lead to his uncle’s downfall. The focus turns to Magnús’s inheritance or, more precisely, to his material wealth. Haraldr asks: “Hversu mikit er eptir gulls þess er vér fluttum í land ok gáfum í yðvart vald ok þér þáguð hálft við oss?” Magnús konungr mælti: “Lít hér á borðin, frændi,” segir hann, “er skipuð eru góðum drengjum ok dýrligum. Þeim sõmum hefi ek gefit gullit ok haft í móti gullinu ást þeira ok hollostu, ok er víst betri fylgð ok framganga eins góðs drengs en mikit fé”.8 ‘How much is left of the gold that I brought to Norway and half of which I gave into your possession?’ Magnus said. ‘Look over the tables here, kinsman,’ he said – ‘at them are seated men who are excellent and highly esteemed. To these men I have given gold and received in exchange for that gold their affection and devotion. And surely the loyalty and valor of a good man is better than a lot of wealth’.9

Thus Haraldr will not inherit Magnús’s moveable wealth, as this treasure has already been transformed into something intangible: the love and loyalty of his retainers. We again sense a subtle prefiguration. Haraldr harðráði may have bought half the kingdom with gold, but he cannot (and will not) accrue the personal devotion that his nephew had attracted. Magnús then sends an emissary to King Sveinn Úlfsson to confirm that he has renounced his claim to Denmark. So concludes the first part of Magnús’s death scene. A brief episode follows which connects it with the second part, in which an Icelander arrives, Þorsteinn Hallsson, who has just returned from pilgrimage to Rome. The king apologises to Þorsteinn for having nothing to give, for he has already donated his remaining possessions. Þorsteinn, however, says that he does not covet wealth but rather the permission to use the king’s name in his own family. Magnús agrees to this request but warns him that the name might bring with it tragedy as well as distinction. This exchange looks back to the king’s earlier statement that he had transformed Haraldr’s treasure into something more precious than gold 8 9

ÍF 23:1, 169. Morkinskinna: The Earliest Icelandic Chronicle of the Norwegian Kings (1030–1057), transl. Theodore M. Andersson and Kari Ellen Gade (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 182.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature and silver, i.e. into the loyalty and love of his men. With Magnús’s treasure depleted for this reason, Þorsteinn Hallsson now asks Magnús for the essence of that quality – his name. This interlude illustrates Proverbs 22:1: ‘A good name is better than great riches: and good favour rather than silver and gold.’ This proverb features in a work that was probably familiar to the intended audience of Morkinskinna. The prologue to the earliest Þorláks saga observes that St Þorlákr was born in the year in which Bishop Þorlákr Runólfsson of Skálholt died (1133). By divine arrangement, therefore, the saint’s glory reflected on his predecessor. This shows how St Þorlákr’s name bestowed on those who venerated his memory some things more valuable than gold.10 But King Magnús warns that his name will bring mixed blessings to Þorsteinn’s family. In 1148 Þorsteinn’s great-grandson, Bishop Magnús Einarsson of Skálholt, perished along with seventy-two people in a blaze at the farmstead of Hítardalur. Looking forward in time to this tragedy is especially apposite, considering Bishop Magnús’s association with his immediate predecessor, Þorlákr Runólfsson, and the most glorious of the Skálholt bishops, St Þorlákr. Fittingly in this way, the ‘Icelandic interlude’ is crafted around a biblical passage, albeit one not explicitly cited in the saga, so that it refers to both the past and the future. Later in Morkinskinna we encounter Bishop Magnús Einarsson at King Haraldr gilli’s court. As the bishop prepares to leave, Haraldr regrets that the Icelander had visited at an unfortunate time. The treasure that he and his queen had distributed (presumably following a feast) was no longer available. But Haraldr improvises and gives the bishop a fine chalice from which he had seemingly been drinking. Further, he shames his queen into presenting Magnús with the precious embroidery on which she had reclined. On Magnús’s return to Skálholt a debate ensues about how best to use the treasures, some arguing that any money accrued should be donated to the poor. As noted in the Introduction, Bishop Magnús opted for an alternative solution. The chalice and the cloth (made into a Mass cope) were to be kept in the cathedral to solicit aid from its patron saints when Mass was conducted for King Haraldr gilli’s soul.11 Of course, from 1198 onwards St Þorlákr would have been one of these patron saints. Whether by accident or design (and I incline towards the latter explanation) the ‘Icelandic interlude’ of King Magnús and Þorsteinn Hallsson echoes King Haraldr gilli’s encounter with Magnús Einarsson. When Þorsteinn arrives, the king, like Haraldr gilli, has just distributed his wealth to his followers. Magnús has only his name to give, which brings honour, glory and tragedy to Þorsteinn’s dynasty. And yet when Magnús Einarsson – whose tragic fate is alluded to by his royal namesake – stands before Haraldr and his queen the treasure has similarly been depleted. Nevertheless, the king shows his generosity by giving the bishop precious items of a personal nature. The Icelandic bishop uses these for the spiritual aid of King Haraldr gilli and not for material benefit. Thus the 10 11

ÍF 16, 47. ÍF 23:1, 167.


The Hour of Death interlude continues the theme of how earthly wealth can never equal honour, friendship, loyalty and, most significantly, salvation. The state of Magnús’s and Haraldr’s souls is also of concern in the scene’s second part: Ok litlu síðarr fyrir andlát konungs þá sofnaði hann líttat, og var Haraldr konungr þar hjá honum. Ok við þann svefn opnaðisk munnr hans, ok sýnisk mõnnum sem fiskr renndi ór munni konungsins ok hafði gulls lit. Ok síðan vildi fiskrinn aptr hverfa í munninn ok náði eigi ok veik sér þá í munn Haraldi konungi, er hann sat nær konungi, ok sýndisk mõnnum sem þá væri hann døkkr álits. Ok þá vaknaði Magnús konungr, ok sõgðu menn honum þetta. Hann segir: “Þetta mun vera fyrir skammlífi mínu, ok kann vera at sumum verði myrkari ok kaldari ráð Haralds konungs, frænda míns, en mín”.12 [A little later, before the king died, he fell asleep for a while. King Haraldr was there by his bed. As he slept, his mouth fell open and people thought they could see a fish swim out of the king’s mouth, and it was the color of gold. Then the fish wanted to get back into his mouth, but was unable to do so and made for the mouth of King Haraldr, who was sitting close to the king. It stuck the onlookers that it then had a dark complexion. Then King Magnús woke up and was told of this. He said: ‘This signifies that I do not have long to live, and some people may feel that the counsels of my kinsman King Haraldr are colder and darker than my own’.]13

What should be made of this extraordinary scene? On one level, at least, the transformation of the fish from a golden colour to a dark one signifies the imminent transfer of power from Magnús, the ideal king, to Haraldr, whose reign will be marred by his mercurial and violent character. King Magnús himself offers an interpretation along these lines. The use of colours or substances to denote the qualities of kings is not an unknown device in Old Norse literature. One such example appears in Rauðúlfs þáttr in which St Óláfr, as already mentioned, has a dream vision of a great cross. The figure on the cross is not the vulnerable Christ but rather a statue (‘líkneski’) which is fashioned from different metals, each of which signifies the reign of a Norwegian king, and beginning with the head that is made of gold and denotes St Óláfr’s rule. The reign of Magnús is represented by the breast and the outstretched arms which are made of ‘refined silver’ [‘brenndu silfri’], while below Haraldr harðráði’s rule is marked by a belt ‘a girdle of might’ [‘megingjõrð’] crafted from burnished iron. The intended contrast is between the relatively peaceful, prosperous and good rulership of Magnús góði’s reign and the harsh, bellicose, nature of Haraldr’s kingship. Further, Rauðúlfs þáttr links the nature of their rules with language associated with salvation and damnation, with Heaven and Hell [see above, 156]. On Magnús’s part of the cross ‘were depicted the host of heavenly bodies, the sun and stars, the moon 12 13

Ibid., 170–1. Morkinskinna, 183.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature with its brightness and beauty; the reign that comes next will be very glorious’ [‘þar var á markaðr himintungla gangr, sól ok stjõrnur, tungl með birti ok fegrð: þat ríki er þá kemr næst mun harðla vegsamligt’].14 The belt which symbolises Haraldr harðráði’s reign, however, is decorated with engraved stories of the pagan heroes, Sigurðr Fáfnisbani and Haraldr hilditõnn, as well as Haraldr hárfagri. The subtext here is that although these are great heroes, they are nevertheless confined to Hell. Like Rauðúlfs þáttr, our scene in Morkinskinna entwines the political and the personal dimensions with salvation and damnation. Commentators agree that the ‘fish transfer’ incident relates in some way to the soul. It has been suggested that the fish is Magnús’s fylgja or familiar spirit, a well-known phenomenon in the Icelandic sagas.15 The fish has also been considered to be Magnús’s externalised soul or his essence, which in Celtic and Norse folklore was associated with the so-called ‘fish of life’ (fjörfiskur).16 Still more profitably the scene can be read as a kind of vision in which the rulers’ respective souls are evaluated just prior to Magnús’s death. Accordingly, the incident should be considered with the first part of Magnús’s death scene in mind. There the contrast in the characters of the kinsmen is underlined and Haraldr’s sole rulership is foreshadowed. The second highlights the different state of their souls at Magnús’s death. The notion of a soul temporarily escaping the body of a living person is a well-known device in medieval vision literature. The soul leaves the body to be shown the terrors of Hell and the delights of Heaven. For instance, Duggals Leiðsla (Visio Thnugdali), written in Ireland but translated into Old Norse in the twelfth century, tells of a sinful knight who fell into a deep coma for three days. After awakening the knight explained how he had experienced his soul leaving the body: “k sem aund mijn skildiz uid lijkamann ok uissi fyrir uijst at hann uar daudur. uissi hun ok synder sijnar ok tok att hrædaz miog ok uisse eigi huat hon skyllde at hafaz. hon uillde giarna aftur j likam sinn ok matti eigi jinn komaz ok þui uillde hon burt fara hræddizt huetuetna sem hon fordadiz. ok þui næst att hon uissi sig syndoga”.17 ‘When my soul parted from my body,’ he said, ‘and knew for certain that it was dead, it was also aware of its sins and began to be afraid, and did not know what it should do. It wanted to return to the body, but could not enter it. Then it wished to depart and was afraid of everything which it tried to escape, because it knew itself to be sinful.’18 Rauðúlfs þáttr (2011), 18–19. Bo Almqvist, ‘The Fish of Life and the Salmon of Life’, in Viking Ale: Studies in Folklore Contacts between the Northern and the Western World. Presented to the Author on the Occasion of his 60th Birthday, ed. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne-Almqvist and Séamas Ó Catháin (Boethius Press: Aberystwyth, 1991), 141–54. 16 Morkinskinna, 183. 17 Duggals Leiðsla, ed. by Peter Cahill (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 1983), 25. 18 Ibid., 111–12.




The Hour of Death As in Morkinskinna, the soul leaves the body of someone who believes he is dying, and in both cases the soul attempts to re-enter the body of the protagonist. Further, in Duggals leiðsla the soul of the sinful knight is shown the fate of good and bad souls, whereas King Magnús’s externalised soul is transformed from golden to black as it enters King Haraldr’s mouth. There are, however, significant differences between the two examples. Whereas in Duggals leiðsla the knight’s soul does return to his corporal reality, the fish in Morkinskinna reflects the state of the souls of both Haraldr and Magnús. Further, the vision is experienced by the audience rather than the person involved. Our scene illuminates the essence of the joint rulers at the point of King Magnús’s death. Like the innumerable moons in Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar which flicker from light to dark – so signifying the condition of individual souls [see above, 42–3; 151] – the spectral fish in Morkinskinna indicates the state of their souls and the quality of their reigns. The scene highlights Haraldr’s deficient character while also focusing on the dying King Magnús. The witnesses to this scene are the ones who will have to deal with the difficult Haraldr. Magnús’s salvation is assured, however. Shortly after this scene Morkinskinna tells of a blind old man who had gained his sight on account of the intervention of Magnús and St Óláfr.19 This miracle does not signify Magnús’s sanctity, but it does attest to his immediate attainment of salvation, presumably though his father’s advocacy. The fate of Haraldr harðráði, as we have repeatedly seen, is an altogether different issue.

Sighvatr Sturluson and Þórðr Sturluson Sturla Þórðarson was a rare political survivor from Iceland’s ‘Civil War’. As a scion of the Sturlungar, Sturla had participated in some of the major events and battles of the period, including the Battles of Örlygsstaðir (1241) and Þverá (1255). The young Sturla had supported father and son, Sturla Sighvatsson and Sighvatr Sturluson, even fighting alongside them at Örlygsstaðir. Yet their defeat here and the later killing of Snorri Sturluson did not terminate his career. Sturla in fact gained lands and lordships that had been left behind by his fallen kinsmen although he never joined the absolute first rank of Iceland’s power brokers. Sturla’s position in the period between the death of Þorgils skarði Bõðvarsson in 1258 and the end of the Commonwealth is a complex one. For the most part Sturla manoeuvred between the principal players of the time: Gizurr Þorvaldsson, Hrafn Oddsson and Þorvarðr Þórarinsson. In 1262 Sturla swore loyalty to King Hákon Hákonarson, but the following year saw him lead a bungled attack on Hrafn Oddsson, who had received a royal commission in Borgarfjörður. Hrafn turned the tables on Sturla, who left for Norway, initially it appears under a cloud of having committed treason against the Norwegian crown. Back in favour, Sturla returned to Iceland in 1271, bringing with him King Magnús’s new, albeit short-lived, law book (Járnsíða) for the new royal possession, Iceland. 19

ÍF 23:1, 174–5.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Sturla was the Lawspeaker until shortly before his death in 1284, and in this period he played second fiddle to Hrafn Oddsson and Þorvarðr Þórarinsson.20 My concern, as touched on earlier, is the subtle way in which our theme plays a role in the structure of Sturla Þórðarson’s Íslendinga saga. It does so in relation to characters whom he knew well, whose portrayal reflects his thoughts on the political fortunes of the Sturlungar right up to their defeat at Örlygsstaðir. This battle halted the rise of the Sturlungar and ended the lives of Sighvatr and, more importantly, Sturla Sighvatsson, whose ambition had been instrumental in the family’s downfall. Íslendinga saga shows Sturla’s father, Sighvatr, to be a somewhat world-weary and wry individual, who, when confronted with the alternatives, still chooses to support his ambitious offspring. To this end, the saga juxtaposes his personality, actions and posthumous fate with those of his brother Þórðr Sturluson (Sturla Þórðarsson’s father), who had died a year or so before the Battle of Örlygsstaðir. A thematic pattern commences on Palm Sunday 1235 when Sighvatr, Sturla and Þórðr kakali lead a large contingent into Borgarfjörður. Their purpose was to overwhelm the unpopular Órœkja Snorrason who wielded power in the Western Quarter (see chapter 1). Þórðr Sturluson rebukes Sighvatr for riding with an armed retinue on such a holy day, and predicts that God will punish him for this deed.21 Sighvatr reacts to Þórðr’s words with his customary nonchalance. This leads Þórðr to foretell further that should Sighvatr continue to support Sturla, his demise will soon follow. Another way of seeing this is to say that Sighvatr compromises his fate in the afterlife by aiding his son’s reckless ambition. In this sense Þórðr’s prophecy is reminiscent of the one that St Óláfr offered Haraldr harðráði about his venture to England (see Introduction). As shall become apparent, the comparison is apt in more ways than one. This pattern is now continued through the character of Bishop Guðmundr Arason. Íslendinga saga relates that in the winter of 1237 Guðmundr, now a frail figure, sent a monk to Þórðr with the message that ‘he should not doubt that they will meet this spring’ [‘ok bað mik segja þér, at þú skyldir ekki efast í, at þit myndið finnast í vár’]. The prophecy is that Þórðr will join him in Paradise next year. This contrasts with the fate of his allies who shall, according to Guðmundr, be ‘exterminated like wolves’ [‘drepast niðr sem vargar’].22 The saga highlights the significance of this scene by noting that when Guðmundr’s messenger arrived, Þórðr specifically requested Sturla to attend the meeting.


Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir, ‘Sturla Þórðarson’; Helgi Þorláksson, ‘Var Sturla Þórðarson þjóðfrelsishetja?’; Magnús Stefánsson, ‘Drottinsvik Sturlu Sturla Þórðarsonar’, in Sturlustefna. Ráðstefna haldin á sjö alda ártíð Sturlu Þórðarsonar sagnaritara 1984, ed. Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir and Jónas Kristjánsson (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 1988). 21 Sturlunga saga 1, 392. 22 Ibid., 399.


The Hour of Death The prophecy that Guðmundr makes about Þórðr’s salvation contrasts with his prediction of Sighvatr’s fate, which in turn amplifies Þórðr’s earlier warning.23 Sighvatr and his followers are confronted by the forces of Órœkja Snorrason and Kolbeinn ungi Arnórsson at Easter 1234 in Skagafjörður. A battle seems inevitable, and in preparation Kolbeinn confesses his sins to Bishop Guðmundr, who happens to be in Órækja’s retinue. Guðmundr remarks that there will be no fighting that day but still ‘Sighvatr will share the fate of King Haraldr Sigurðarson’ [‘en þó mun Sighvati fara sem Haraldi konungi Sigurðarsyni’].24 This prophecy points, of course, towards Sighvatr’s fate at the Battle of Örlygsstaðir, where he, like Haraldr at Stamford Bridge, is killed attempting to extend his dominion. Moreover, like Haraldr, Sighvatr receives warnings, most notably through dreams and visions, that ominously foretell his violent fate [see above, 20] – and Hell seems to be the fate of both. Although Sighvatr is not explicitly consigned to Hell or Purgatory, the subtext is still transparent. His untidy end at Örlygsstaðir contrasts sharply with the spiritual preparation enjoyed by the participants prior to the battle. Thus Kolbeinn ungi confesses his sins to a priest the previous day, whereas, just before the clash, Sturla Sighvatsson reads the penitential prayer of St Augustine.25 Sturla even notes how one fairly minor participant had a vision in which Magnús Gizurarson, the recently deceased bishop of Skálholt, promises to aid him in battle.26 Sighvatr’s religious preparation is therefore conspicuous by its absence. This absence is especially striking considering the attention Sturla otherwise pays to such matters, even in relation to relatively insignificant characters. The silence about Sighvatr seems like a subtle commentary. It is Þórðr Sturluson who first focuses our attention on Sighvatr Sturluson’s compromised soul. But Þórðr is important in another way, for his ‘good death’ contrasts with Sighvatr’s unshriven demise. Þórðr’s death, however, would not be out of place in the biskupasögur (‘Bishops’ sagas’). Þórðr divides his earthly possessions in the presence of his friends and relatives. The self-command he displays at his hour of his farewell could not be further from Sighvatr’s chaotic and humiliating demise, killed as he is by lowly men: Eptir þat var hann [Þórðr] óleaður, er hann hafði skipat. En hann andaðist föstudag fyrir pálmasunnudag at miðjum degi ok söng í andlátinu: Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum – eftir Hauki prest. Lík Þórðar var þar jarðat á Eyri, sem hann hafði fyrir sagt, fyrir framan kirkjuna.27 [After that he received Last Unction, as he had commanded. He expired on the Friday before Palm-Sunday, in the middle of the day, and according to Priest 23 24

25 26 27

For further analysis of Guðmundr’s prophecy, see Guðrún Nordal, Ethics and Action in Thirteenth-Century Iceland (Odense: Odense University Press, 1998), 169–71. Sturlunga saga 1, 372. Ibid., 429–30. Ibid., 429. Ibid., 401.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Haukr he sang at his death: Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum. As he had stipulated, Þórðr’s corpse was buried here at Eyri in front of the church.]

Bishop Guðmundr Arason’s prophecy had explicitly juxtaposed the fates of Sighvatr and Þórðr. His prediction is illustrated by the contrasting manner in which the two brothers meet their earthly ends.

Árni Þorláksson and Hrafn Oddsson At Christmas 1275, only six years into his episcopacy, Árni Þorláksson of Skálholt (1269–98) became gravely ill and retired to his bed.28 In preparation for a ‘good death’, Árni drew up his will (‘lögligt testamentum’); this procedure is stipulated in the ecclesiastical laws which he himself had introduced earlier in the year.29 Árni then asked Hallr how he rated the bishop’s chances of survival. Hallr responded ‘[I]t seems to us that our sun is due to set’ [‘nú sýniz oss sól vár at setri komin’].30 Árni agreed with this evaluation and requested to have the last rites ministered to him. Everything was set for a fine end. Árni had confessed, the inheritance had been distributed, and the bishop’s dignified departure had been verified by his distinguished friends. Yet subsequently the bishop’s health improved so dramatically that he conducted a Christmas service. The recovery was attributed to divine providence, for God saw that the bishop was needed for the difficult times and strenuous work ahead (‘sá þenna mann nauðsynligan sínu fólki at bera starf ok mæðu’). The meaning of Hallr’s rather staged utterance now becomes apparent. The connection between Christ’s birth and the rising sun is a common one in medieval thought. A sermon on the Nativity the Old Icelandic Homily Book includes the following: ‘þat barsc at i hans riki at sól ran upp a miþre nótt í gegn eþle síno. þat merkþe at a hans tiþ meonde berasc sa [ ] sól cristr síálfr sá er lýser allan heim af villo eilífs blindleíx...’ [‘It happened in his reign [Emperor Augustus] that the sun arose in the middle of the night, against its nature. This signified that in his time would be born the true sun, Christ himself, who scatters with his light the error of everlasting blindness’].31 Árni’s aborted demise and Christ’s rising sun thus synchronise with the Nativity.32 Both Christ’s birth and Árni’s remarkable convalescence denote God’s plan, namely humankind’s salvation and the steering of the Icelandic Church through turbulent times. This is one deathbed scene in which the protagonist fails to die. Árna saga biskups is essentially a history of how the Icelandic Church, represented by the diocese of Skálholt, weathered the political storms of the post-Commonwealth period. The saga highlights in particular Bishop Árni’s key role in acquiring major Church farms (staðir) that for generation secular 28

ÍF 17, 52–53. Járnsíða og Kristinréttur, 154–6. 30 ÍF 17, 53. 31 Homiliu–Bók, 47. 32 On the Nativity equated with the rising sun and longer days, see ibid., 14. 29


The Hour of Death landlords had possessed de facto. This dispute, which began in the 1270s and, for the most part, was resolved by the agreement of Avaldsnes in 1297, accelerated pre-existing divisions between Iceland’s ecclesiastical and secular elites. Yet either by accident or design (and the latter seems more likely), Árna saga biskups does not conclude with this landmark event or the bishop’s death two years later, but ends in 1290 (or at least the preserved version).33 Hrafn Oddsson (1225–89), a grandson of Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson [see above, 109–14], features as Bishop Árni’s main adversary from early on in his episcopacy. Hrafn, whom we met earlier in this study, was one of the few ‘winners’ to emerge from the ‘Age of the Sturlungs’. Born into the Seldælir family, whose authority lay in the Westfjords, he married into the still more powerful Sturlungar clan in 1245. Thereafter he was a key player in the high-stakes politics of his time and a direct participant in some of the most significant incidents. In 1253, for instance, Hrafn seems to have tacitly approved of the conspiracy that led to the burning of Gizurr Þorvaldsson’s farmstead of Flugumýri. The following year Hrafn, along with Eyjólfr ofsi Þorsteinsson, ambushed and killed Oddr Þórarinsson [see above, 44–50]. In 1255 Hrafn and Eyjólfr were defeated in the Battle of Þverá by a coalition of Þorvarðr Þórarinsson and Þorgils skarði Bõðvarsson. This halted Hrafn’s ambitions in northern Iceland. In the Commonwealth’s last decade Hrafn successfully consolidated his authority in the west, not least at the expense of Sturla Þórðarson, who left for Norway. In 1270 King Magnús Hákonarson invested both Hrafn Oddsson and Ormr Ormsson with the title of hirðstjóri (king’s representative) for Iceland. When Ormr died that same year Hrafn assumed sole authority as the highest ranking royal representative in the country, a position which he occupied until his death in 1289. Hrafn thus became hirðstjóri barely a year after Árni Þorláksson began his episcopal tenure. The earliest mention of Hrafn in Árna saga refers to him as one of the Church’s enemies, who, by lying (‘fals’), misrepresented the king’s will.34 The dispute over staðir commenced in the early 1270s. It is not until the death of King Magnús Hákonsson in 1280, and two years later the death of Archbishop Jón rauðr of Nidaros (Niðaróss), that Hrafn emerged as Árni’s principal opponent. Before these events Árni had relied on the king and archbishop both to protect and support the interests of the Icelandic Church; in the 1270s the bishop had appropriated significant staðir. After the deaths of king and archbishop, however, the royal and ecclesiastical authorities of Norway were usurped by a council of noblemen who allowed the young Eiríkr Magnússon to little more than service as the kingdom’s titular head. This new regime was more sympathetic to the wishes of the Icelandic secular elite to retain Church farms. The calamity that followed is likened to a devil-inspired disaster and soon spread to the peripheral parts of the Norwegian domain, including Iceland: ‘Laust þessi hvass hvirfilvindr fyrst hjörtu þeira manna sem Nóreg byggðu ok Árna saga biskups, ed. Þorleifur Hauksson (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, 1972), cvi–cvii. 34 ÍF 17, 27. 33


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature knúðu þar kappsamliga kirkjunnar formenn en dreifðiz síðan til várs útskaga’ [‘This sharp whirlwind first hit the hearts of the inhabitants of Norway where it pressed with zeal on the leaders of the Church, but then it scattered to our outlying promontory’].35 The saga also relates how a famine struck Norway in 1284 and, like the metaphorical whirlwind, it also spread to Iceland, its arrival coinciding with Hrafn Oddsson’s return to the country after a brief stay in Norway.36 We are not concerned with the details of the dispute between Árni and Hrafn. What is of greater interest is how Árna saga juxtaposes the two men by means of carefully chosen biblical references which imply a different fate for each man in the afterlife. Árni is likened to the prophet Elijah, who stood alone against the tyranny and idolatry of King Ahab, who is identified with Hrafn.37 Elijah fought for God’s interests against the tyrant and ascended to heaven in a whirlwind and a flash of light. In contrast, Ahab suffered a sudden death which signified divine displeasure and likely damnation (see below). Like King Ahab, however, Hrafn Oddsson is not an entirely evil figure, but rather someone whose own arrogance has led him astray from the paths of righteousness. Árna saga biskups marks the end of Hrafn’s life by underlining his uncertain prospects in the afterlife. The author achieves this by comparing him with the traditional enemies of the Church and religion in general. This author had little difficulty finding such villains in imported historical texts. Hrafn is compared to King Antiochus IV (c.215–164 BCE) whose desecration of the Temple of David and imposition of idolatry on the Jews are vividly described in Abbot Brandr Jónsson’s Gyðinga saga.38 Antiochus, ‘the root of sins’ (‘syndana rót’), duly reaps divine punishment for his actions. Intending to punish the Jews for the second time, the king is inflicted with a terrible stomach pain, which leads him to hasten his army’s march in order to expedite the killing of the Jews, but then he falls off his chariot and is dragged along for some distance after it. Suffering illness and injury in this way, Antiochus understands that his painful death is God’s punishment for his crimes against the Jews and their religion. Aware that his penance comes too late, the king pleads that his sins should not rebound on his son and heir. As an epitaph for King Antiochus IV, Brandr Jónsson observes that his fate was that of Herod Antipas, in that both began the torment in this life that they would suffer without end in the next (‘ok for vm hann sem vm herodem. at huartuegi hof vpp þa kuòi i lifinu sem þeir helldu oendanlega eptir daudann’).39 Not surprisingly Árna saga also chooses to compare Hrafn Oddsson with Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, both of whom had of course played key roles Ibid., 102. Ibid., 136. 37 Ibid., 173. 38 Gyðinga saga, ed. Kirsten Wolf (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 1995), 45. 39 Ibid. 35 36


The Hour of Death in Christ’s Passion. In Gyðinga saga Pilate commits a gruesome suicide and his body is thrown into the Tiber. Possessed by evil spirits, Pilate’s body causes the river to bellow with rage until it is retrieved. The same happens when his corpse is cast into the Rodun and then Lake Lausanne. It is only when Pilate is sunk into a deep pit in the mountains that he is properly disposed of. Nonetheless, the locals comment that the sound from the pits suggest that Pilate has become the devil’s favourite plaything.40 Similarly, as divine punishment for killing John the Baptist, Herod Antipas loses his army in battle and is forced into exile.41 Julius Caesar and Þiðrekr of Bern (Dietrich of Bern), the final two historical figures with whom Hrafn is compared, may at first sight seem surprising choices. Their careers would have been familiar to an educated Icelander of the early fourteenth century through Rómverja saga and Þiðreks saga af Bern. Although the inclusion of Caesar may seem to be slightly incongruous, the reference is likely to be to his infamous despoliation of the main Jewish temple following his entry into Rome, for which, it is inferred, he was repaid with a sudden and violent death.42 It is not difficult to identify the main thrust behind the comparisons with these well-known characters. Just as Hrafn Oddsson transgressed against divine justice by appropriating Church farms, so each of these historical figures has performed acts of sacrilege in his own way. Looking closer, however, we see that they also share a gruesome or unexpected end which foreshadows their dark fate in the afterlife. The very last example, also the most intriguing, supports this interpretation. Þiðrekr af Bern, whose saga was compiled in the thirteenth century, is a legendary presentation of the Ostrogothic King Theoderic (454–526). In the saga’s closing part, Þiðrekr allows his follower, the ruthless hero Heimir, to despoil a wealthy monastery within his kingdom through taxation.43 The monks resist this unprecedented attack on their ecclesiastical privileges and refuse to accept the royal demand. Enraged, Heimir kills all the monks and burns down the monastery. Not long thereafter Þiðrekr meets his end as he mounts a mysterious black steed which then gallops away with him, never to be seen again. Damnation thus seems to be Þiðrekr’s fate. Yet the saga keeps open the possibility of his redemption. As Þiðrekr is carried off he tells onlookers that he shall be back if God and the Virgin Mary allow it. The saga adds that some Germans had had dream-visions which indicated that Þiðrekr had reaped the benefit, that is, had been saved, by his last evocation of God and Mary.44 The ambiguous ending to Þiðrekr’s life with the uncertainty of his fate in the hereafter mirrors Árna saga’s treatment of Hrafn and his posthumous prospects. As seen, Ibid., 214–15. Ibid., 180. 42 Rómverja Saga, ed. Þorbjörg Helgadóttir, 2 vols (Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í Íslenskum fræðum, 2010), vol. 1, 264–8. 43 Þiðreks saga af Bern, ed. Henrik Bertelsen, 2 vols (Copenhagen: Møller, 1905–1911) vol. 2, 375–94. Prior to joining Þiðrekr’s court, Heimir had resided in the same monastery for the purpose of cleansing his soul 44 Ibid., 393–4. 40 41


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature writers are generally averse to explicitly consigning prominent characters to Hell. After all, Hrafn Oddsson was a respected figure of illustrious pedigree who served the Norwegian crown for the best part of two decades. In Hrafn’s case, the prospect of eventual salvation is replicated, but with Bishop Árni assuming the Virgin’s intercessory role. This point is brought home to us in no uncertain terms in the detailed description of Hrafn’s death near the saga’s conclusion. In June 1289, in the presence of the archbishop of Nidaros, an Icelandic priest accuses Hrafn of forcefully evicting him from the church. Hrafn arrogantly retorts that although he did not himself commit the deed, this was inconsequential for it would not have mattered if he had because he held the power to do so.45 Later during the same summer King Eiríkr Magnússon embarks on a military expedition to Denmark in which both Árni Þorláksson and Hrafn Oddsson take part. When Hrafn joins in the king’s siege of a town he is suddenly struck by three arrows one of which injures his finger. That autumn at court in Tønsberg (Túnsberg), Hrafn and Árni exchange news from Iceland, but things look ominous for the hirðstjóri’s health, as his finger and then his whole hand become infected.46 As Hrafn takes to his bed just after the Feast of All Saints (1 November), his followers advise him to draw up a last testament. But unlike Árni Þorláksson on his aborted deathbed, Hrafn refuses for, as the saga observes, ‘it is held to be true that Hrafn expected to live longer than proved to be the case’ [‘Hafa menn þat fyrir satt at hann vænti sér lengri lífdaga en raunir bar á’].47 Árna saga could not side-step the fact that Hrafn’s death was a long drawn out process rather than a sudden event. The termination of Hrafn’s earthly life is still presented as a ‘bad death’ where the person’s behaviour, when confronting imminent mortality, reflects his likely fate in the hereafter. Hrafn is compared to Ahab, probably because the latter’s unjust seizure of Naboth’s vineyard parallels Hrafn’s appropriation of Church farms.48 Ahab is killed in battle by a stray arrow which, it is made clear, signified God’s judgement on the king. The arrows striking Hrafn from an unidentified source offers a compelling parallel; Hrafn’s death – from what appears to be a very minor wound – is God’s judgment on his stance in Staðamál. This sequence, which leads up to Hrafn’s demise, proceeds directly from his arrogant claim to hold authority over Church property. Hrafn’s fate represents only one half of the identified binary pattern in Árna saga. Bishop Árni, as mentioned, is compared to Elijah (twice in fact), the prophet who alone confronted the unjust, impious and idolatrous Ahab.49 The comparison is especially apposite since Árni, in the absence of royal and archiepiscopal support, stands alone in the defence of God’s cause. However, 45

ÍF 17, 195. Ibid., 199. 47 Ibid., 203. 48 ÍF 17, 172. 49 Ibid., 168 and 172. 46


The Hour of Death Elijah’s relationship with Ahab is not merely antagonistic. The prophet extracts from the king a confession and an atonement of a kind. Similarly, Hrafn confessed to Árni every day while they were on campaign in Denmark. It is precisely on the one day that Hrafn forgets to ask the bishop for this favour that he is hit by the fatal arrows. This relationship continues after Hrafn’s death, for the saga tells us that Árni prayed for the salvation of the soul of his erstwhile enemy.50 The sense here is not of unremitting antagonism and condemnation, but rather of a hierarchical relationship that extends beyond the terrestrial life. In Árna saga the binary pattern which is manifest in the relationship of Bishop Árni Þorláksson and hirðstjóri Hrafn Oddsson serves a structural purpose. Hrafn’s adversarial relationship with Bishop Árni provides the strictly chronological, sometimes almost annalistic, narrative with a shape and purpose. The pattern also highlights a central point in the saga, that laymen rely on the Church for the salvation of their souls and that any hostility towards God’s divinely appointed vicars may, and perhaps will, have consequences in the afterlife. Thus a century or more after the composition of the sagas of Óláfr Tryggvason and Yngvarr víðfõrli, and indeed after the poems on King Eiríkr góði of Denmark and Sigurðr slembidjákn, we may see how our twin themes have developed or, at least, how they have assumed different contours. Absent now is the somewhat forced, even anxious, attempt to present the life of a secular person as a journey towards redemption. Rather, the focus in Árna saga biskups is on the power of the Church and how it extends even beyond the grave. We can also observe this shift in Arngrímr Brandsson’s biography (from around 1340) of Bishop Guðmundr Arason, with its emphasis on libertas ecclesiae.51 Íslendinga saga describes how, in 1208, Kolbeinn Tumason and his retinue clashed with Bishop Guðmundr and his followers at Víðines in Skagafjörður. Kolbeinn is fatally struck by a stone, but before he dies Guðmundr grants the excommunicated chieftain his last confession with a priest. Before expiring, Kolbeinn receives the Eucharist and is reconciled with the Church. Arngrímr Brandsson chose to expand on this scene.52 In his words it is clear that Kolbeinn’s death was nothing less than God’s judgement on his opposition to ecclesiastical rights. Like the stray arrow that hit Hrafn in Árna saga, the stonethrower who killed Kolbeinn Tumason remained unidentified; and like Árni, Guðmundr plays the role of an intercessor between the unjust chieftain and God’s judgement. Unlike the author of Íslendinga saga, Arngrímr Brandsson has Guðmundr ask Kolbeinn to repent and swear never to harm the Church again.

Ibid., 204. On the associated Becket pattern in the fourteenth-century sagas about Guðmundr Arason, see Stefanie Würth, ‘Thomas Becket: ein literarisches und politisches Modell für die isländische Kirche im 13. Jahrhundert̓’, in Samtíðarsögur – Contemporary Sagas. Níunda alþjóðlega fornsagnaþingið, Akureyri, 31.7–6.8.1994. Forprents – Preprints (Akureyri, 1994), 878–91. 52 Ciklamini, ‘The Hand of Revision’, 242–6. 50 51


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Prior to the battle of Viðines, Kolbeinn recites a three-stanza poem (‘Heyrðu, himna smiður’) in which he calls on Heaven to grant him mercy.53 Arngrímr stresses that the battle was fought on the day following the Feast of the Virgin’s Nativity (8 September). Earlier in the saga, Kolbeinn’s wife, a relative and friend of Guðmundr, asks the bishop whether the chieftain’s devotion to Mary and the poems he had composed in her honour will benefit his soul. Guðmundr replies that the Virgin will certainly recompense Kolbeinn when his need is the most. After Kolbeinn’s death Guðmundr brings his corporal remains to Hólar where he buries his former enemy and prays for his soul. At this juncture Arngrímr reminds the reader of Guðmundr’s comforting words to Kolbeinn’s wife.54 Here, as in Árna saga biskups, the bishop is shown to be a figure of authority who mediates between God and a chieftain who seems to be hopelessly compromised. The point of the exercise is to illustrate Guðmundr Arason’s own mercy and his communion with the Queen of Heaven.55

King Sverrir Sigurðarson Sverris saga, the saga of King Sverrir Sigurðarson of Norway, was completed not long before 1210. The author was Karl Jónsson (d. 1213), abbot of Þingeyrar, who is known to have stayed in Norway from 1185 to 1188. A year or so before Karl’s arrival Sverrir had won a crucial victory at Fimreiti in which he defeated his royal rival, King Magnús Erlingsson, who was killed in the battle. The king and the abbot worked in tandem on Sverris saga, judging from the prologue. Sverrir presumably recounted his extraordinary career up to and including Fimreiti, an encounter that left him as the sole, albeit not undisputed, king of Norway. In what follows I accept the argument that Karl Jónsson was the single author of Sverris saga.56 Sverrir, an ordained priest, had arrived in Norway from the Faroes in 1176, with the conviction that he was the illegitimate son of Sigurðr munnr Haraldsson of Norway (1136–55). The reigning king was Magnús Erlingsson, who had been crowned by the archbishop of Nidaros in 1163/64. As grandson of King Sigurðr Jórsalafari (d. 1130) through his mother, Sigurðr’s daughter, Magnús had a claim 53

Kolbeinn’s poetry recital is first mentioned in the sagas about Guðmundr Arason from the first half of the fourteenth century. It is not at all clear whether Kolbeinn composed the poem on the spot or recited an existing one. The beginning of ‘Heyrðu, himna smiður’ directly evokes King David’s pleading to God in the Psalms. See Stefán Karlsson, ‘Saltari Kolbeins Tumasonar’, in Þorlákstíðir sungnar Ásdísi Egilsdóttur fimmtugri 26. október 1996, ed. Guðvarður Már Gunnlaugsson and Margrét Eggertsdóttir (Reykjavík: Menningar- og minningarsjóður Mette Magnussen, 1996), 57–9. 54 Byskupa sögur III, 264. 55 On the importance of the Virgin Mary as Guðmundr’s protector and patron in Arngrímr’s saga of the Icelandic saint, see Marlene Ciklamini, ‘Hidden and Revealed: The Manifest Presence of the Virgin Mary in Bishop Guðmundr’s Life’, Frühmittelalterliche Studien 40 (2006), 224–61. 56 Þorleifur Hauksson, ‘Grýla Karls ábóta’, Gripla 17 (2012), 153–66.


The Hour of Death to kingship with less than firm foundations, because the tradition requried a king to be the son of a king. Nor did Magnús’s legitimacy go uncontested. Most notably, in 1174 the so-called Birkibeinar, a faction with its core based in Trøndelag, supported the claim to the kingship of Eysteinn meyla, the son of King Eysteinn Haraldsson (d. 1157). The Birkibeinar, however, suffered a crushing defeat in battle in 1177 which led to Eysteinn’s execution. As they needed a new royal figurehead to sanction their continuing struggle against King Magnús and his father, Erlingr skakki, the timing of Sverrir’s arrival in Norway was fortuitously propitious. Sverrir’s career was built on the claim that he was fathered by King Sigurðr munnr. On this proposition rested not only Sverrir’s legitimacy but also the fate of his soul. If his claim to be of royal blood was erroneous, indeed a lie, then his life represented an injustice towards God and the work of the devil. This was the view upheld by Sverrir’s many opponents. Accordingly, the opening chapters of Sverris saga argue for the protagonist’s legitimate claim to kingship. The context in which Sverrir becomes aware of his real parentage indicates anxiety about this central issue. Gunnhildr, a pregnant woman living in the Faroes, had a prophetic dream that foreshadowed the greatness of her unborn child. Some years after Sverrir’s birth, Gunnhildr, now married, embarks on a pilgrimage to Rome. There she confesses her sins, including the one by which the father of Sverrir was King Sigurðr. The case is brought before the pope, who stipulates that, as part of her atonement, Gunnhildr should inform her son about his parentage.57 The pontiff’s involvement (whether historical or not) reflects the seriousness of Gunnhildr’s sin. Ironically, however, Gunnhildr’s Roman visit also bestows a papal legitimacy of a kind on Sverrir’s kingship. Moreover, this episode connects the revelation of Sverrir’s royal blood with confession, penance and the concern for the soul in the afterlife. These related themes resonate throughout Sverris saga. Receiving the news of his parentage, Sverrir sails to Norway. Although he is by now an ordained priest, his dynastic descent soon attracts followers there. Sverrir’s royal legitimacy is then further supported through his dreams in which biblical figures and St Óláfr attest to his divinely sanctioned cause.58 We now turn to King Sverrir’s death scene some three decades later – a scene which has been carefully prepared in the preceding chapters.59 Although Sverrir falls ill in the town of Tønsberg, he is still able to travel to his hall in Bergen (Bjõrgvin), where he spends his last days attended by his retainers. At one point, when only a few are around, the king recounts a dream in which he was approached by an unknown man. Sverrir asked this figure, which had 57

ÍF 30, 7. Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, ‘Kungaideologi i Sverris Saga’, in The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature: Sagas and the British Isles: Preprint Papers of the Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York; 6th–12th August, 2006, ed. McKinnell et al. (Durham: Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), 583–92. 59 ÍF 30, 278–9. 58


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature appeared to him in an earlier dream, when he might expect his illness to subside. He received the following answer: ‘Búsk þú við upprisunni einni, Sverrir’ [‘Only for your rising up prepare, Sverrir’]. Sverrir explains to a courtier, one Pétr svartr, the double meaning of this utterance. It either signifies his ‘rising up’ from the sick bed or his redemption in the afterlife. Sverrir notes that one of the alternatives will soon come to pass. However, Pétr svartr confidently claims that the dream foretells the king’s resurrection: ‘En á þat horfir minn hugr at um þá muni rœtt upprisuna er á inum efsta dómi er’ [‘But to my mind it seems that the rising up refers to the resurrection which comes with the highest judgement’]. Sverrir replies that this may be a likely interpretation. Karl Jónsson draws here on a hagiographical tradition in which signs of salvation appear on the saint’s deathbed or at least when the holy person intimates his or her glorious future in the next life. Although the dying man, as we have seen in Jóns þáttr Halldórssonar, shows humility and concern about his imminent fate, there are signs that his final destination will be Paradise. Similarly, in the oldest Þorláks saga, Gizurr Hallsson delivers a speech on the saint’s deathbed. Gizurr asserts that Þorlákr will be as influential with God in death as he has been during his episcopacy. Þorlákr humbly answers that he does not expect God to confine him to Hell.60 However, there is an additional element in Sverrir’s final scene that may escape initial attention. The play on the double meaning of ‘upprisa’ seems somewhat forced and heavy-handed, but a proper understanding requires taking note of the scene’s liturgical context. Sverrir’s illness and death are carefully synchronised with Lent and Easter. The king arrives in Bergen at the beginning ‘or just before Lent’ [‘kom þar at fõstu eðr litlu fyrr’]. Sverrir’s exchange with Pétr svartr occurs on the ‘third day of the second week of Lent’ [‘inn þriðja morgun í annarri viku fõstu’], on Tuesday, whereas he dies on the following Saturday or in the Ember days (‘í sæludögum’). These days are especially associated with penance and prayer in preparation for Easter, which, of course, culminates in the Resurrection. As in the case of pious Bishop Jón Halldórsson and arrogant Þorkell Eyjólfsson in Laxdœla saga, a death scene that coincides with a particular occasion in the liturgical calendar allows the author of Sverris saga to shape the narrative in a more meaningful manner [see above 163–6]. This method also guides the reader towards a specific understanding of how the hero will fare in the hereafter. Thus Sverrir’s death at the end of the saga – like Gunnhildr’s revelation of his royal blood at its beginning – connects with penance in the expectation of the Last Judgement. The day after his dream, Sverrir sends for priests to prepare the last rites. Sverrir then declares his son, Hákon, to be his sole heir. However, before receiving the final sacrament, Sverrir asks to be placed on his throne. The king explains that he wishes to occupy it surrounded by his followers, so countering Bishop Nikolás Árnason’s prophecy that he will conclude his life killed ‘like cattle for ravens and dogs’ [‘hõgginn niðr sem búsmali fyrir hund


ÍF 16, 81.


The Hour of Death og hrafn’].61 But as Sverrir receives unction he feels his strength waning and death approaching. His farewell speech is succinct: “Við dauða minn,” segir hann, “látið bert andlit mitt. Látið þá sjá bæði vini mína ok óvini hvárt þá birtisk nõkkut á líkama mínum bann þat er óvinir mínir hafa bannat mér eðr bõlvat, ok mun ek þá ekki mega leynask ef eigi eru betri efni í en þeir hafa sagt. Hefi ek meira starf, ófrið ok vandræði haft í ríkinu en kyrrsæti eðr mikit hóglífi. Er svá at minni virðingu sem margir hafa verit mínir õfundarmenn, þeir er þat hafa látit ganga fyrir fullan fjándskap við mik, sem nú fyrirgefi Guð þeim þat õllum. Ok dœmi Guð milli vár ok allt mitt mál”. 62 [‘At my death leave my face uncovered’, he said, ‘so that both my friends and foes may see if there is any sign on my body that reveals the excommunication on account of which my enemies have cursed and sworn against me. If the situation is no better than they say, I shall not then be able to conceal it. The kingdom has brought me labour and unrest and trouble, rather than peace and a quiet life. In my opinion it is the case that many have been envious of me, and this has turned into utter enmity. May God forgive them all; and let my Lord now judge between me and them, and decide my entire case.’]

The king’s message is clear. Now God will deliver judgement not only on his soul but, by implication, on those of his enemies. The state of his corpse will be a sign as to whether he is damned or saved. The belief of Sverrir’s enemies has been misguided and hence they deserve to suffer in the afterlife. But the king pardons them for their sins, as a good Christian should. As in Gísls þáttr Illugasonar, royal mercy is shown to mirror divine mercy [see above, 53–4]. To facilitate his own ascension in the life to come, the king forgives his enemies. The ground for this utterance has been prepared in an episode that immediately precedes Sverrir’s deathbed scene. In Túnsberg, where Sverrir will later become ill, the king and his followers besiege a sizeable contingent of Baglar who stubbornly hold out on a hilltop. After weeks of fruitless and costly efforts, Sverrir calls a meeting and asks his men whether he should grant mercy. The Birkibeinar reply that that mercy is not appropriate, as their foes were responsible for the death of their fathers and brothers. Sverrir responds that he has suffered most from these same men: they have killed his brother and his kinsmen while calling him a bitch and a mare. Still, he adds, ‘I now wish to forgive them for God’s sake and I expect his foregiveness in return for what I have done against him. You have no less of a soul than I have. No one will call you cowards for this act.’ [‘Nú vil ek þat fyrirgefa þeim fyrir Guðs sakir ok vænta þar á mót af honum fyrirgefningar þess er ek hefi honum á móti gõrt. Eigu þér ekki síðr sálur en ek ok eigið þess at minnask. Engi maðr mun kalla yðr at heldr bleyðimenn fyrir þessa sõk’].63 61

ÍF 30, 279. Ibid., 279. 63 Ibid., 277. 62


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature The theme of royal mercy mirroring divine mercy is introduced still earlier in the saga. In 1194 Earl Haraldr Maddaðarson of Orkney (d. 1206) sought clemency from Sverrir after supporting a rebellion against the king. In a display of ritual submission, Haraldr falls at the king’s feet exclaiming: ‘legg ek allt á Guðs vald ok yðart, herra’ [‘I place everything into God’s power and yours, my lord’].64 Sverrir pardons Haraldr with the following words: ‘En nú er jarl hér kominn, sem þér meguð sjá ok iðrask nú þess sama er hann hefir af gõrt við oss, biðr nú miskunnar, ok hana vil ek veita honum, því at ek mun þess þurfa af allsvaldanda Guði at hann miskunni mér framarr en ek hefi til gõrt’ [‘The earl has now arrived, as you may see, and he repents what he has done against me. He asks for mercy which I shall grant him, for I will need an omnipotent God to show me more mercy than I deserve’].65 In his death scene Sverrir implies that his enemies have called him a usurper, an imposter, and thus someone who contravenes God’s order. By the force of these terms his damnation is assured. We now recall a speech that Sverrir delivered in 1184 at an assembly in Bergen following the funeral of his principal enemy, Magnús Erlingsson. The king presented the cause of Earl Erlingr skakki and King Magnús as wicked. More specifically, their opposition to God’s order was a manifestation of the evil that has cursed humankind since Adam’s exile from Paradise. The Pharaoh and King Saul, he adds, had also embodied the same malignant spirit. Sverrir then reveals the real purpose of his address, to confront claims that he is an emissary of the same evil spirit: ‘Þetta mæla sumir: “Sigrsæll er Sverrir. Vitr er Sverrir”. Þá er svarat: “Hvat er þat kynlegt? Mikit hefir hann til unnit: gefizk fjándanum. Sumir segja at ek sjá djõfullinn sjálfr ok kominn af helvíti...”’ [‘Some people say: “Sverrir is victorious. Sverrir is wise”. Then they answer: “What is strange about that? He has worked for it by submitting to the devil. Some people say that I am the devil himself, emerged from Hell.”’].66 Sverrir counters these accusations with (admittedly somewhat questionable) logic. Had he been in concord with the devil, his men would be damned by their subservience to such a monstrous figure, and they should ask themselves this question: would he knowingly sacrifice his eternal soul merely for an earthly kingdom, which for him has been a source of tribulations rather than comfort? The inclusion of such an apologia shows how religious ideas had entered political discourse around 1200, and that this development had not by-passed the early Icelandic saga writers. Not only were wealth, power and honour at stake, but also an individual’s fate in the world to come. Crusading rhetoric manifestly influenced Norwegian political discourse in this period of heightened fervour in Latin Christendom in the wake of the fall of Jerusalem in 1189. Especially revealing in this context is the so-called Canones Nidrosiensis, a collection of fifteen


ÍF 30, 191. Ibid., 191. 66 Ibid., 153. 65


The Hour of Death decrees (or canons) purportedly issued by the archbishopric of Nidaros. Canon nine addresses the posthumous fate of those who die in defence of the patria: We wish, however, that the bishops, abbots and other priests in every city, town, and village should by every means exhort the people entrusted to them that they strive to fight manfully against excommunicates and disturbers of the peace, reminding them at the same time that if they should die faithfully for the defence of peace and the safety of the fatherland, they shall attain the heavenly kingdom.67

The terminus ante quem of the Canones Nidrosiensis is the establishment of the Norwegian archbishopric in 1152/3; the single manuscript witness was produced around 1200. It is generally assumed that the decrees were issued either in relation to King Magnús Erlingsson’s crowning in 1163/4 or to his later struggle against Sverrir.68 However that may be, canon nine of Canones Nidrosiensis expresses the potent idea that a man may attain immediate salvation by fighting and dying in defence of a righteous cause.69 Sverrir’s last utterance is that God will choose between him and his enemies: one side will be consigned to Hell, or perhaps Purgatory, while the other will be redeemed. The king had already communicated a similar idea at greater length, in his speech at Erlingr skakki’s funeral following the Battle of Kalvskinnet (1179):70 “Eigi hœfir at þagat sé yfir õllu svá gõfugs manns grefti sem nú stõndum vér yfir. [...] En þat er sem mõrgum man kunnigt vera at Eysteinn erkibyskup ok margir aðrir lendir menn hafa jafnan sagt, at allir þeir menn er berðisk með Magnúsi konungi ok verði land hans ok létisk með því at sálur þeira manna allra væri fyrr í Paradísu en blóðit væri kalt á jõrðunni. Nú megum vér allir fagna hér svá margra manna heilagleik sem hér munu helgir hafa orðit ef For the original Latin, see Vegard Skånland, Det eldste norske provinsialstatutt (Oslo: Universitetforlaget, 1969), 29. 68 For the conflicting views on the dating of this document, see the studies listed in Anne Duggan, ‘De consultationibus: The Role of Episcopal Consultation in the Shaping of Canon Law in the Twelfth Century’, in Bishops, Texts, and the Use of Canon Law around 1200. Essays in Honour of Martin Brett, ed. Bruce C. Brasington and Kathleen G. Cushing (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 194–5. 69 An ecclesiastical promise of salvation for dying in defence of the patria can be traced back to Pope Nicholas I (858–867) who declared that those who died fighting against pagans or infidels would gain the heavenly kingdom. Ivo of Chartres (c.1040–1115) incorporated the statement into Decretum and from there it found its way into the twelfth-century Decretum Gratiani. Ernst H. Kantorowicz, ‘Pro Patria Mori in Medieval Political Thought’, The American Historical Review 56:3 (1951), 481–2. Archbishop Eysteinn’s Canones Nidrosiensis relies on Decretum Gratiani. See Anders Winroth, ‘Decretum Gratiani and Eystein’s Canones Nidrosienses’, in Archbishop Eystein as Legislator: The European Connection, ed. Tore Iversen (Trondheim: Trondheim Studies in History, 2011), 73–85. 70 I refer only to ‘Kalveskinnet’ as the modern Norwegian placename as the corresponding Old Norse name does not feature in Sverris saga. 67


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature þetta er svá sem erkibyskup hefir sagt, at allir þeir sé orðnir helgir menn er fallit hafa með Erlingi jarli. Þá megum vér ok ætla hversu heilagr sjálfr Erlingr mun orðinn er í fyrstu réð því er Magnús var til konung tekinn þá er hann var barn. [...] En yðr má þó miklu meiri fagnaðar á vera lífláti þeirra manna er nú eru við yðr skilðir líkamligri samvistu, ok íhugið nú vendiliga fyrirheitit erkibyskups. Nú er liðin sú stund at kalt mun vera orðit blóðit, ok þó at vér megim eigi fagna þeira jartegnum þá mun þó gott orðit til kyksettra í bœnum í þessi hríð. Munu þeir eigi þeira misst hafa, heldr munu þeir nú mega sýna yðr fagran ávõxt sinna verka ef þér dýrkið þá sem helga menn, svá sem þér hafið hugat. En ef svá illa er sem mér segir hugr um, at um þat sé at leika at brostit hafi þá in fõgru heitin sem þeim var heitit þá munu þeir œrit lengi goldit hafa þeira lygi ok lokleysu ok allir þeir er því trúðu. Ok þat er mitt ráð at skipta á aðra lund til, biðja fyrir þeim er fram eru farnir af þessum heimi ok biðja til Guðs at Erlingi sé fyrirgefnar allar þær synðir er hann gerði meðan hann var í þessa heims lífi, ok einkum þat er hann tók svo mikla dirfð til, einn lendr maðr, at hann lét gefa konungs nafn syni sínum, en á þat ofan reisti hann flokk ok merki á móti konunga sonum, Hákoni konungi ok Eysteinni konungi, ok felldi þá báða frá ríkinu. En síðan helt hann ríkinu með Magnúsi konungi ok eigi réttligar en nú megu þér heyra. Vér skulum nú ok biðja fyrir allra mann sálum, þeira er látizk hafa í þessu inu rangliga vandræði bæði nú ok fyrr, biðja þess Guð at hann fyrirgefi þeim allar synðir ok bjargi sálum þeirra. Vil ek ok fyrirgefa þeim fyrir guðs sakir allt þat er þeir hafa misgõrt mér”.71 [‘It is not appropriate that silence should be entirely observed at the burial of so noble a man as the one we now stand over. [...] It is known to many that Archbishop Eysteinn and many other landed men have constantly said about all who die fighting for King Magnús and defending his land, that their souls will enter Paradise before their blood is cold upon the ground. Now we may all rejoice in the sanctity of the many who must have become saints if what the archbishop said is true, and rejoice that all those who died fighting under Earl Erlingr have become saints. We may think how holy Erlingr himself has become, who first caused Magnús to be chosen king when he was a child. [...] However, you have cause for even greater joy at the death of those with whom you no longer have earthly dealings, and so consider the archbishop’s promise carefully. The time has come when their blood is cold, and though we cannot yet rejoice at any of their miracles, there must be an abundance of the living entombed in the town at this moment. You will not have lost them; rather, they will now be able to bestow on you great benefits if you worship them as saints according to your intention. But if the situation is as bad as I suspect, and that all the fine promises made to them are unfulfilled, then have they suffered long enough because of that lie and absurd nonsense, they and all who believed it. I would counsel, therefore, another way of acting. Pray rather for those who have departed from this world, and pray to God that Earl Erlingr may be pardoned for all the sins which he committed in this life, especially having such arrogance that he, a mere landed man, caused the title of king to be given to his son; and on top of that collected a force and raised 71

ÍF 30, 61–2.


The Hour of Death his standard against the sons of kings, King Hákon and King Eysteinn, both of whom he deprived of their realm, over which he ruled with King Magnús, without any rightful title than I now declare to you. Let us pray too for the souls of all those who have come by their death, now and previously, in this wrongful trouble. Pray God that He will forgive their sins and save their souls. For the sake of God I also wish to forgive them for all the ill they have done against me.’

With supreme irony, Sverrir addresses what he deems to be a monstrous deception carried out by Magnús and Erlingr in tandem with their ally, Archbishop Eysteinn Erlendsson of Niðaróss. The speech echoes the passage quoted from Canones Nidrosiensis in its reference to the Church’s promise of everlasting life to those who died fighting the enemies of King Magnús. The connection Sverrir makes between the spilling of blood in an internal political struggle and that in an act of martyrdom is especially striking.72 It is noteworthy thereafore that Knýtlinga saga, composed around the middle of the thirteenth century, applies Sverrir’s imagery in connection with the recapture of Jerusalem: Í þenna tíma var unnin Jórsalaborg af heiðnum mönnum, ok kómu þá sendiboð af Eugéníó páfa, at menn skyldu krossaz til Jórsalaferðar ok berjaz við heiðna menn, ok í þeirri ferð varð Konráðr keisari. En er þessi tíðendi kómu til Danmerkr, þá vildi hvárrtveggi konunganna vera í þeirri ferð, þvíat svá hafði páfinn fyrir mælt ok heitit því af guðs hálfu, at hverr skyldi lauss af öllum syndum, þeim er hann hafði til skripta borit, hvat sem hann hafði hent, þegar hann var krossaðr til útferðar; ok fyrri skyldi önd hans í himinríki, en blóð hans væri kalt á jörðu, ef hann létiz í þeirri ferð.73 [At this time Jerusalem was conquered by the pagans and Pope Eugenius sent a decree that men should take the cross for an expedition to Jerusalem and fight pagans, and in that journey was Emperor Conrad. But when this news arrived in Denmark, both kings wished to participate in that journey because the pope had decreed and promised on behalf of God that any man who took the cross would be relieved of all the sins he had confessed, whatever they were, and if he died on that journey his soul would be in Paradise before his blood was cold on the ground.]


Compare this with the following contemporary account of the siege of Acre: ‘The tears burst from my eyes; because often/Their battle line bore alone danger and loss of blood./ Truly that city of Tiberias has enough to say of this/ Martyrdom, lamentable loss, sad crime/ But not is Hattin silent about its slaughter, where/The barbarous mob threw down so many illustrious men./Moreover, the region of Acre experienced the most extreme slaughter,/Consecrated with the Temple’s pious blood... .’ For the original Old French text and translation, see Helen J. Nicholson, ‘“Martyrum collegio sociandus haberet”: Depictions of the Military Orders’ Martyrs in the Holy Land, 1187–1291’, in Crusading and Warfare in the Middle Ages: Realities and Representations. Essays in Honour of John France, ed. Simon John and Nicholas Morton (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2014), 111–13. 73 ÍF 35, 273.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Knýtlinga saga refers here to Pope Eugenius III’s Quantum praedecessores of 1145 which launched the Second Crusade (but conflating the loss of Edessa in 1144 with the fall of Jerusalem in 1187). The bull promised absolution of all sins for those who died fighting in the Holy Land, but it makes no mention of salvation of the crusaders being assured before their blood touched the ground.74 It can be surmised, however, that in the preaching the crusades memorable expressions, such as we find in Knýtlinga saga, were applied to stir the audience on an emotive level. In his speech Sverrir has himself become a ‘negative’ source of salvation, like the Muslims in the Holy Land or like the pagans of the Baltic, who offered crusaders an opportunity of redemption on the battlefield. The emphasis is on the immediate attainment of salvation through the ultimate sacrifice, by his enemies. Archbishop Eysteinn, Sverrir claims, had promised that those who fell would reach Paradise before ‘their blood was cold on the ground’ [‘[fyrr en] blóðit væri kalt á jõrðunni’]. This pledge allows Sverrir to adopt a sarcastic and even mocking tone: the archbishop and his prelates have equated salvation with martyrdom and hence sanctity. Salvation and sanctity are, of course, not necessarily identical concepts; in theory instant redemption was not confined to the holy alone. But Sverrir does not doubt that Archbishop Eysteinn has promised anyone who died for King Magnús a martyr’s rank. Sverrir concludes the speech by claiming that the fallen enemies had died without confessing or receiving the last rites (‘þjónustulausir ok skriftalausir’). Accordingly, the act of praying for the souls of these naive men, who had believed Eysteinn’s pernicious lies, is a source of salvation for Sverrir and his followers. The elimination of Sverrir’s principal enemy at Kalvskinnet in 1179 was his most significant victory to date, but it is also necessary to highlight how this triumph was laden with symbolic significance. The battle was fought in the proximity to Niðaróss, the home of St Óláfr’s cathedral and relics. The irony of the archbishop promising martyrdom to those killed in battle against Sverrir in this location is obvious. A central theme in the saga is St Óláfr’s patronage of Sverrir. Most notably, an episode that follows on from Gunnhildr’s fateful Roman pilgrimage has Sverrir relate a dream in which he meets St Óláfr. Sverrir understands that Óláfr is embroiled in a conflict with Earl Erlingr skakki and Magnús Erlingsson. Sverrir is welcomed at the court and finds Óláfr washing in a hall attended by his men. One of the followers seeks to wash in the same water, but is shunned by the saint, who invites ‘Sverrir Magnus’ to bathe in it instead. Óláfr not only bestows the name ‘Magnus’ on Sverrir but he also presents him with a sword and with his own battle standard. A messenger then announces that Óláfr’s enemies are at the palace gate. Before leaving the hall Óláfr offers Sverrir his own standard. They enter a wide beautiful field where Sverrir raises the standard, and the ranks of Erlingr and Magnús disperse as he


Ane L. Bysted, The Crusade Indulgence: Spiritual Rewards and the Theology of the Crusades, c. 1095–1216 (Boston, MA and Leiden: Brill 2015), 168–9.


The Hour of Death advances.75 Thus, even before he receives royal unction in a dream-vision from the Prophet Samuel, Sverrir is baptised in the waters of salvation sanctified by St Óláfr. Penance, baptism and salvation are themes that feature from the beginning of Sverrir’s remarkable ascent to kingship and culminate in his death scene. In his speech over Erlingr’s corpse Sverrir reverses the claim that he himself represents an inversion of St Óláfr’s ideal: that instead of a divinely chosen king, indeed a saint who bestows salvation on his followers, Sverrir only offers damnation to those who died fighting his cause. It is therefore interesting to observe that Sverris saga’s description of the Battle of Kalvskinnet, as well as Sverrir’s speech that follows, seems to borrow from an early account of St Óláfr’s martyrdom. In the previously mentioned Legendary saga of St Óláfr (Helgisaga Óláfs Helga), which is based on the so-called ‘Oldest Saga of St Óláfr’ from the late twelfth century, the king arrives at the field of battle and prepares his troops.76 Like Sverrir in his speech in Nidaros, Óláfr prays for the souls of those enemies who will die in the coming encounter. Indeed Óláfr orders a farmer to travel around the region to ensure that priests perform masses for their souls.77 Those killed at Stiklastaðir and Kalvskinnet die opposing God’s anointed and, accordingly, compromise their eternal fate. Both Óláfr and Sverrir have their followers confess before battle. A more direct correspondence between the Stiklastaðir scene in the Legendary saga and Sverrir’s Nidaros speech occurs when Óláfr confronts Erlendr, a farmer whom the king had entrusted with some of his lands. Óláfr foretells that Erlendr will die in the battle and that ‘[you] will be in Hell before your blood is cold on the earth’ [‘sal þin man fyrr vera í hælviti, en bloð þitt se kallt a iarðunni’].78 Later, in the heat of battle, one of Óláfr’s main adversaries, Kálfr Árnason, remarks that the sky becomes tinged with red before the blood of the combatants falls on the earth. This is a celestial sign of damnation. In Sverrir’s speech his enemies had been falsely promised that they would reach Paradise before this happened. Here Sverrir’s celestial patron, St Óláfr, reveals that this fate will befall those who oppose Sverrir. Lastly, the striking incident of Sverrir washing in Óláfr’s basin seems prompted by the Stiklastaðir episode in the Legendary saga. There, Óláfr orders that the injured should be bathed in the pool he himself had washed in. The Battle of Kalvskinnet thus re-enacts the Battle of Stiklastaðir, but this time, with St Óláfr’s help, the outcome is reversed. In Sverrir’s crucial early 75

ÍF 30, 8–9. For a further analysis of this dream, see Aleksander Busygin, ‘Sverrir and St Óláfr: Symbology of Power in a Saga Dream’, in Scandinavian and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference, Bonn, Germany, 28th July – 2nd August 2003, ed. by R. Simek and J. Meurer (Bonn: Universität Bonn, 2003), 67–71. 76 See Jónas Kristjánsson, ‘The Legendary Saga’, in Minjar og Menntir. Afmælisrit helgað Kristjáni Eldjárn 6. desember 1976, ed. by Guðni Kolbeinsson et al. (Reykjavík: Menningarsjóður, 1976), 281–93. 77 Olafs saga hins helga, 182. 78 Ibid., 192.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature dream-vision just mentioned, Sverrir scatters Óláfr’s enemies as his men advance holding aloft the saint’s battle standard. Similarly, at the height of the Battle of Kalvskinnet, Sverrir Sigurðarson specifically orders ‘that his entourage and his royal standard should be carried towards King Magnús’ [‘Hirð mína ok mitt merki vil ek láta fara á móti Magnúsi konungi’]. This advance, like the advance in the dream-vision, leads to the disintegration of Magnús’s (and Erlingr skakki’s) army. We can now address Sverrir’s further source of mockery in his speech following Kalveskinnet. At Stiklastaðir King Óláfr Haraldsson attained immediate salvation through martyrdom. As his passio puts it, he went ‘joyously from a soldier’s camp to the King’s eternal palace’.79 The subtext of Sverrir’s speech is the following: Can we really believe that those who died for Magnús Erlingsson at Kalvskinnet – having swallowed Archbishop Eysteinn’s lies – are allotted the same fate as St Óláfr, Norway’s eternal king, who was crowned with martyrdom? As Sverrir mockingly refers to the possible saintliness of the dead soldiers, Abbot Karl Jónsson’s choice of wording leaves us in little doubt about the purpose of this absurd comparison: ‘þá mun þó gott orðit til kyksettra í bœnum í þessi hríð’ [‘there must be an abundance of the living entombed in the town at this moment’] evokes Þórarinn loftunga’s reference in his Glœlognskviða to St Óláfr being ‘kykvasettr’ following his martyrdom (where the idea of being ‘buried alive’ becomes a poetic expression for the saint’s enshrinement). An important theme of salvation and damnation runs through Sverris saga which crystallises in the protagonist’s death scene. This theme adds cohesiveness to a text that is, overall, occupied with describing Sverrir’s journeys and battles. Indeed in his final words, which follow his request that his face should not be covered after his death, Sverrir implies that his struggle has been one of continuous penance in defence of God’s order. It is seemingly no coincidence that Sverrir’s claim to kingship began because of his mother undertaking penance for a grievous sin. One final detail of Sverrir’s deathbed speech merits attention, namely Sverrir’s aforementioned request that his face be should uncovered after his death to show both friends and enemies whether ‘there is any sign on my body that reveals the excommunication on account of which my enemies have cursed and sworn against me’ [‘hvárt þá birtisk nõkkut á líkama mínum bann þat er óvinir mínir hafa bannat mér eðr bõlvat’]. These words refer to Sverrir’s excommunication by Archbishop Eiríkr of Niðaróss in 1191. From an explicit acknowledgement in a letter from Pope Innocent III in 1198, it appears that Celestinus III ratified this decree in 1194.80 This was, of course, a grave development which Sverrir and his circle countered by producing the ‘Speech against the Bishops’ (Oratio contra clerum Norvegiae). This learned polemical tract contends that Norway’s 79


The Passion and Miracles, 31. Diplomatarium Norvegicum, 22 vols, ed. C.A. Lange, Carl R. Unger, H.J. HuitfeldtKaas, Gustav Storm, Ferdinand Linthoe Næshagen (Christiania [Oslo]: P.T. Mallings bokhandels forlag, 1949–1972), vol. 6, p. 10; ÍF 30, 186–7.


The Hour of Death clergy had no grounds for excommunicating Sverrir and, moreover, that they had subsequently misinformed the papacy about the whole matter.81 However, Abbot Karl Jónsson chose to confront the issue in a different way. In the spring of 1195, according to his saga, Sverrir convened an episcopal synod in Bergen to counter Archbishop Eiríkr’s influence. As a consequence of this meeting Sverrir sent the bishop of Hamar, accompanied (it appears) by a Benedictine monk, with a letter to Pope Celestine III. The following winter the two envoys, now joined by a papal legate, reached Denmark where they suddenly became ill and died; Sverrir claimed that they had been poisoned. But the letter which they had carried went on to Norway, revealing that the pope had lifted the excommunication.82 This letter was shown to be a forgery in Innocent III’s stern dispatch on the issue in 1198, so in the end it seems that Sverrir did die in a state of excommunication. But from the saga’s perspective an unequivocal absolution for Sverrir was essential, for anything less would have diffused and damaged the carefully prepared argument for the king’s salvation. For this purpose the erudite case offered by the ‘Speech against the Bishops’ did not suffice. When the dead Sverrir’s face is revealed in the saga, all those present who see it testify as one that ‘they had never seen a more beautiful dead man’s body than Sverrir’s’ [‘sá allir þeir er hjá voru ok báru síðan eitt vitni um at engi þóttisk sét hafa fegra líkama dauðs manns en hans’].83 So concludes an important theme in Sverris saga in which Abbot Karl Jónsson engaged with a problem that had also confronted Oddr Snorrason and Gunnlaugr Leifsson, his fellow monks at Þingeyrar. How to present the life of a secular leader as a successful journey towards salvation? Unlike Oddr and Gunnlaugr, however, Karl was writing about a recently deceased king who had commissioned the work and perhaps even dictated part of it in person. It is this combination that contributes to Sverris saga’s unique quality of apologia and assertiveness.

Anne Holtsmark, En tale mot biskopene: En sproglighistorisk undersøkelse (Oslo: Skrifter utg. av det Norske videnskaps-akademi i Oslo, 1931). 82 ÍF 30, 193. 83 Ibid., 280. 81


N 7 n Last Things and Judgement Day This study has explored narrative motifs and patterns relating to final things and new beginnings – the damnation and salvation of the soul. Instead of a traditional summary or conclusion I have chosen to end by exploring how our principal themes feature in the most celebrated of the Icelandic sagas. Christian themes in Njáls saga have, of course, been studied and accordingly I shall refrain as much as possible from covering familiar ground.1 My aim is to show how some of the principal patterns, themes, and motifs highlighted in previous chapters feature in Njáls saga. This work reveals how a late-thirteenth-century author could creatively apply these to a uniquely long and complex saga. We begin with the relatively minor figure of Kolskeggr, the brother of Gunnarr Hámundarson. Kolskeggr’s most notable role is to ride with Gunnarr to the ship that waits to take the hero abroad after he has been judged an outlaw. Famously, however, Gunnarr decides to return to his farmstead and confront his fate. Knowing well that this choice portends Gunnarr’s certain death, Kolskeggr seeks to change his brother’s mind but to no avail. We next encounter Kolskeggr in Denmark at the court of Sveinn tjúguskeggr. One night he dreams that a man, illuminated in brightness, commands Kolskeggr to arise and follow him. The figure promises him a bride and that he will become his knight (‘riddari minn’). A wise man interprets the dream as foretelling that he will go south and become God’s knight (‘guðs riddari’). Kolskeggr accepts baptism in Denmark but spends the rest of his career as commander in the Varangian Guard in Constantinople. Thus one of the first Icelanders in Njáls saga to convert to Christianity leaves Iceland never to return. Kolbeinn’s path to salvation steers him away from the blood-feud of his home country, albeit here to defend Christendom rather than reside in a cloister.2 1


Lars Lönnroth, Njáls Saga: A Critical Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976); Andrew J. Hamer, Njáls saga and its Christian Background: A Study in Narrative Method (Leuven: Peeters, 2014). It is noteworthy that the promise of a wife here links with the notion of miles Christi. There is an intentional ambiguity here: is Kolskeggr’s bride to be a real woman or the Virgin Mary (under whose aegis he will fight in Constantinople)? As Andersson points out, the ‘theme of the prelude to Njáls saga seems to be mismarriage’ but this observation could justifiably be extended to the saga up until the Kolskeggr episode. Andersson, The Family Saga, 291. On Kolskeggr’s foreign fate as anticipating or pre–figuring later Christian travels (i.e. pilgrimage) in Njáls saga, see Constance B.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature The fate of Kolskeggr (who now disappears from the story) manifestly contrasts with Gunnarr’s fate. This is emphasised when Gunnarr asks Kolskeggr not to leave for exile: “Eigi skal þat,” segir Kolskeggr; “hvárki skal ek á þessu níðask ok engu õðru, því er mér er til trúat; ok mun sjá einn hlutr sjá vera, at skilja mun með okkr, en seg þú þat frændum mínum ok móður minni, at ek ætla mér ekki at sjá Ísland, því at ek mun spyrja þik látinn, frændi, ok heldr mik þá ekki til útferðar”.3 [‘I will not be false to this agreement or to any other in which I am counted on, and this is the only thing that will separate us. Tell my kinsmen and my mother that I don’t expect to see Iceland again, for I will hear the report of your death, and then nothing will draw me back.’]4

The juxtaposition of the brothers’ fates is finely calibrated.5 Kolskeggr ascends to an understanding of Christianity and service in God’s cause which, we must assume, leads to his salvation away from Iceland. Gunnarr on the other hand follows his own desires and dies as a pagan. Which of the two has the author’s sympathy is an open question.6 Gunnarr’s seeming damnation and his brother’s salvation do not hinge on the acceptance or rejection of blood-feud. Rather, the principle at stake is the application of free will of the kind we encountered in Fóstbrœðra saga [see above, 121–2]. Kolskeggr’s choice is comparable to that of Guðlaugr in Heiðarvíga saga, and the results are similar; neither rejects the ‘honour society’. In point of fact Kolskeggr’s decision relies on his acceptance of the rules of the game, whereas Guðlaugr offers his services to Snorri goði (though in such a manner that his father declines it). Instead they follow their own conviction and simply abandon the domestic theatre. This leads Kolskeggr to embrace Christianity and serve as a miles Christi in Constantinople, whereas Guðlaugr serves God in a different way. Guðlaugr’s departure from Iceland for England reflects Heiðarvíga saga’s dim view of early Christianity in Iceland, whilst Kolskeggr’s spiritual revelation occurs against the backdrop of his pagan patria, yet with the conversion looming on the horizon. The conversion is again prefigured in a scene that follows Gunnarr’s heroic, but ultimately doomed, defence. There the identified elements coalesce into a remarkable scene:

3 4



Hieatt, ‘Hrút’s Voyage to Norway and the Structure of Njála’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 77:4 (1978), 492. ÍF12, 183. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 86–7. ‘Kolskeggr’s journey to Constantinople and ultimate death after a prestigious life is the other side of the coin to Gunnarr’s outlawry’, Joyce Hill, ‘Pilgrimage and Prestige in the Icelandic Sagas’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 23 (1990–1993), 436. Lönnroth, Njáls Saga, 157.


Last Things and Judgement Day Þeir urpu haug eptir Gunnar ok létu hann sitja upp í hauginum. Rannveig vildi eigi, at atgeirrinn fœri í hauginn, ok kvað þann einn skyldu á honum taka, er hefna vildi Gunnars; tók því engi á atgeirinum. Hon var svá hõrð við Hallgerði, at henni helt við, at hon myndi drepa hana, ok kvað hana valdit hafa vígi sonar síns ... [...] Þeir Skarpheðinn ok Hõgni váru úti eitt kveld fyrir sunnan haug Gunnars; tunglskin var bjart, en stundum dró fyrir. Þeim sýndisk haugrinn opinn, ok hafði Gunnarr snúizk í hauginum ok sá í móti tunglinu; þeir þóttusk fjõgur ljós sjá brenna í hauginum, ok bar hvergi skugga á. Þeir sá, at Gunnarr var kátligr ok með gleðimóti miklu. Hann kvað vísu ok svá hátt, at þó mátti heyra gõrla, þó at þeir væri firr: Mælti dõggla deilir dáðum rakkr, sá er háði bjartr með beztu hjarta benrõgn, faðir Hõgna: Heldr kvazk hjálmi faldinn hjõrþilju sjá vilja vættidraugr en vægja, val-Freyju stafr, deyja – Ok val-Freyju stafr, deyja. Síðan lauksk aptr haugrinn.7 [They raised a burial mound for Gunnar and placed him in it sitting up. Rannveig did not want the halberd to go into the mound, and she said that only a man who was willing to avenge Gunnar should have it. So no one took the halberd. She was so fierce toward Hallgerd that she was on the verge of killing her, and she said that Hallgerd had brought about the slaying of her son ... [...] One evening Skarphedin and Hogni were outside, to the south of Gunnar’s mound. The moon was shining brightly, though occasionally dimmed by clouds. It appeared to them that the mound was open and that Gunnar had turned around to look at the moon. They thought that they saw four lights burning in the mound, and there were no shadows. They saw that Gunnar was happy and had a very cheerful look. He recited a verse so loudly that they could hear it clearly, even at a distance: The bright bestower of rings, the man bold in deeds, who fought with full courage, the father of Hogni, spoke: The shield-holding ghost would sooner wear his helmet high than falter in the fray,


ÍF 12, 192–3.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature rather die for battle-Freyja – and die for battle-Freyja Then the mound closed again.]8

What is to be made of this striking scene? Most obviously Gunnarr’s appearance in the mound prompts Skarpheðinn and Hõgni to avenge his killing. More specifically, it allows Skarpheðinn, who was already committed, to recruit Hõgni to the cause.9 Skarpheðinn’s utterance certainly suggests that he thinks Gunnarr’s verses are an incitement to revenge. An important feature here is the atgeirr which Rannveig keeps outside the mound. Rannveig’s decision not to allow Gunnarr Hámundarson his weapon in the afterlife is obviously a form of goading. Gunnarr’s final defence had been terminated by Hallgerðr’s refusal to give him a lock of hair for his bow, an incident that Rannveig alludes to directly. Gunnarr’s lack of weapon in the mound is a constant reminder of the betrayal and so a call for vengeance. The same night Hõgni grabs the atgeirr and declares to his grandmother that he will take the weapon to his father ‘so that he may have it with him in Valhalla and use it in battle’ [‘Ek ætla,’ segir Hõgni, ‘at fœra fõður mínum, ok hafi hann til Valhallar ok beri þar fram á vápnaþingi’].10 The fate of the hero in the afterlife is here explicitly associated with the pagan abode of the dead. It is therefore tempting to read Gunnar’s ‘mound-scene’ as reflecting the perceived close link between bloodfeud – the spirit of vengeance, if you like – and paganism. According to this understanding the old custom is doomed to be superseded by the merciful and peace-loving message of Christianity. But such an interpretation risks overlooking the nuances of the set piece. A close reading suggests a carefully crafted entwining of religious elements of the sort that feature in Njáls saga’s two later climaxes, namely the burning of Bergþórshváll and the Battle of Clontarf. Initially Gunnarr is seated facing north, but when Skarpheðinn and Hõgni peer into the open mound he is facing southwards. Although the scene is set after nightfall there are two elements that allow Skarpheðinn Njálsson and Hõgni Njálsson to view the spectacle (seemingly from some distance away). Four lights illuminate the mound’s interior so that not a single shadow can be observed within the chamber. Moreover, the scene and, especially, Gunnarr’s countenance, is bathed in light from a moon which is intermittently flecked by clouds. If nothing else, this is an exceptionally well-lit scene. These features, which have attracted little scholarly interest, can naturally be considered as other-worldly ghost-like ‘effects’ that are devoid of any ulterior significance or meaning. For instance, the scene may recall Grettir 8

The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 90–1. How ‘Gunnar’s mound scene’ helps Skarpheðinn in this respect is subtly analysed by James Cochrane in ‘The Incredulity of Hõgni: The Importance of Believing in Ghosts in Njáls saga’ (forthcoming). I thank the author for sending me a version of this study prior to publication. 10 ÍF 12, 194. 9


Last Things and Judgement Day catching the gaze of Glámr as the revenant’s countenance is illuminated by the moon drifting through the clouds. Not surprisingly therefore the setting has mainly been interpreted within the context of ‘traditional’ memory or imagery,11 that shows Gunnarr’s defiance in the face of fate.12 Even less surprisingly the visual flair of Gunnarr in his mound resonated with gothic sentiments of nineteenth-century poets.13 But Gunnarr Hámundarson is no Glámr, no surly and spiteful Swedish outsider, whose death at the hands of a revenant turns him into a murderous menace. Unlike Glámr, Gunnarr’s whole countenance is tranquil, even joyous: ‘Þeir sá, at Gunnarr var kátligr ok með gleðimóti miklu’ ‘[[They] saw that Gunnar was happy and had a very cheerful look’]. This refers back to an earlier vision of Gunnarr in mound. A shepherd and a griðkona are driving sheep past the mound from which they hear Gunnarr happily reciting stanzas. The incident prompts Skarpheðinn, apparently with Njáll’s consent, to visit Hlíðarendi and deliberate with Hõgni Njálsson about avenging Gunnarr. The evocative image viewed by Skarpheðinn Njálsson and Hõgni in a sense repeats the experience of the two lowly workers from Hlíðarendi. The latter scene stirs Skarpheðinn into action, whereas the former scene goads Hõgni into avenging his father. Both the visual and the aural dimensions are of essence here. Hõgni must see Gunnarr in the mound for although Gunnarr’s verses speak of vengeance a crucial object is missing. This is the atgeirr which, as already observed, Rannveig refused to inter with her son. Hõgni explicitly states that the revenge he plans to take will allow Gunnarr to regain his weapon in the afterlife. The lighting within the mound seems especially unusual considering that pitch darkness is otherwise the default setting of pagan mounds. It is the hero, the mound-breaker, who must bring light into the subterranean space, a light which in some instances carries religious connotations. We have seen how in Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss King Óláfr Tryggvason offers Gestr a candle that selfignites when carried aloft. Óláfr does this ‘because it will be dark in Raknar’s grave, do not stay longer than the candle lasts, and all will go well’ [‘því at svart mun í haugi Raknars, en vertu ekki lengr en lokit er kertinu, og mun 11

Thus, comparing the demise Gunnarr with that of Gísli Súrsson: ‘After death, Gunnarr is seen by moonlight in his grave mound, exultantly chanting a verse in his honor [... ]. Such mystification is the reflex of sacred tradition of heroic demise: the strangeness of Gísli’s ferocious invincibility and spookiness of Gunnar’s defiant apparition invest their example with a special – and traditional – potency in the reader’s sensibility’. Craig R. Davis, ‘Cultural Assimilation in Njáls saga’, Oral Tradition 13:2 (1998), 438. 12 Kirsten Wolf, ‘The Unconquered Dead in Old Norse-Icelandic Tradition’, in Heroes and Saints. The Moment of Death in Cross-cultural Perspectives, ed. Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shinohara (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2007), 13–14. 13 ‘“What mean those awful sounds that rise/From the tomb where Gunnar lies?”/ Exclaim the shepherd in affright;/As by the moon’s uncertain light,/Athwart the solitary plain,/He homeward drive his fleecy train.’ Thus Richard Hole’s (1746–1803) poem, ‘The Tomb of Gunnar’, as quoted in Jón Karl Helgason, The Rewriting of Njáls Saga: Translation, Politics and Icelandic Sagas (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 1999), 27.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature þá hlýða’].14 Here the dark mound is clearly linked with Hell. When Grettir Ásmundarson breaks into the mound of Kárr inn gamli he recites a stanza that underscores the pitch-darkness of his surroundings.15 Earlier Grettir had observed fire coming out of the earth on the headland and was told that it marked the location of Kárr’s mound. This is the light of the menacing earth and, as such, it is associated with Hell and its inhabitants. But in Gunnarr’s mound the lights are already present, indeed they illuminate the interior to such a degree that no shadow is cast. What does this signify, if anything? That they are simply decorative features is perfectly plausible. But as in our early solar example from Heiðarvíga saga, a constellation of elements may lead us to an alternative interpretation [see above, 4-6]. Gunnar’s death and his subsequent appearance in the mound occur on the eve of the arrival of Christianity in Iceland. According to the saga’s internal chronology, Gunnar is killed in 990/2 and Þangbrandr, the missionary bishop, arrives in 997. The mound scene seems to pre-figure these momentous developments. One possible explanation is that the four lights are meant to evoke the four points of the cross which, as the Old Icelandic Homily Book explains, denotes the preaching of the Gospel to all four corners of the earth.16 The key concept here is anticipation or prefiguration. Earlier we saw how in the hypersymbolic Rauðúlfs þáttr lit candelabras are attached to the four posts of Óláfr’s bed. There the imagery is manifestly chosen to prefigure Óláfr’s posthumous saintly glory [see above, 154–5]. Customarily in Christian symbolism four lights signify expectation or prefigure significant markers on the road to salvation, a tradition that has survived in the four candles of Advent. For instance, in an English medieval play on the Purification of St Mary, the Virgin brings the infant Christ into the Temple and, according to the stage direction, four candles are lit before she lays him on the altar.17 Other variations on the same theme can be noted. The cemetery was a hallowed space of anticipation for the Resurrection. An influential tenth-century Carolingian Pontifical rite of consecration involves the bishop ‘singing the seven penitential psalms; marking the circuit


The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 2, 262; ÍF 13, 162. ‘Fekk í firna dõkkum,/fell draugr, tekit haugi/ sax. Þats seggja vextir/sõr, hyrlestir bõru’. ÍF 7, 60. 16 ‘þessa lausn allz mankyns merker crosen i vexte sinom. þuiat fiôrer endar hans horfa. i. iiij. atter heims. þa es niþr er lageþr crossen. Sedulius scáld seger svá fra písl. hans Hõfvþ iesus horfþe austr en féotr vestr en heógre hõn norþr. en in vinstre suþr. Hann var píndr fyr norþan iorsalaborg.’ Homiliu-Bók, 37 [‘The redemption of all mankind is signified in the shape of the cross, as its four ends point in the four directions of world when it is laid down. The poet Sedulius tells the following about the passion: Jesus’s head faced east, but his feet west, his right hand north but the left one south. He was martyred north of Jerusalem.’] 17 See Leah S. Marcus, ‘The Christ Child as Sacrifice: A Medieval Tradition and the English Cycle Plays’, Speculum 48:3 (1973), 501. See also Gamal Norsk Homiliebok, 67–8. 15


Last Things and Judgement Day of the cemetery with four lit candles; sprinkling the ground with holy water; and chanting three prayers’.18 It is difficult to judge whether the features I have highlighted in ‘Gunnarr’s mound-scene’ are incidental features or whether they have greater significance. The reason I would argue for the latter possibility is that it draws on symbolism that would have been familiar to Icelandic men of letters in this period. Related symbolism appears in Icelandic thirteenth-century writings: lights within the mound, the moon as a symbol of Christianity and the emphasis on the southnorth axis can all potentially carry Christian connotations. Secondly, as we shall see, comparable symbolism features elsewhere in or just after Njáls saga’s climatic scenes. In this reading the four lights in the mound pre-figure the arrival of Christianity. Gunnarr dies a pagan and thus hope of salvation is limited or nonexistent. But Gunnarr Hámundarson’s posthumous fate seems to be deliberately associated with Christian features that anticipate the new creed and its promise of redemption. Even if we accept this interpretation, however, other avenues of understanding should not be discounted. Most obviously we might wish to link the four lights with the four men whom Hõgni and Skarpheðinn kill in retaliation for Gunnarr’s death: Hróaldr, Tjõrvi, Skarkaðr and Þorgeirr. Comparable symbolism features in Flóamanna saga where Þorgils dreams of five candles of which one is about to go out. This dying candle seems to prefigure the death of Þorgils’s son, Þorfinnr.19 Indeed the most intellectually and aesthetically satisfying solution is to leave the main three elements – the pagan setting, the Christian symbolism and the element of revenge – in a suspended equilibrium. It is difficult to think of a more fitting scene to prefigure the profoundly ambiguous turn of events that are about to unfold.20 The slaying of Hõskuldr Þráinsson is the saga’s next highlight, and one which inexorably leads to the burning of Bergþórshváll. This tragedy centres on Hõskuldr, Njáll’s foster-son, who is killed by members of his adopted family. The chain of events is set in motion by Mõrðr Valgarðsson who sows seeds of suspicion about Hõskuldr’s intentions in the minds of Njáll’s sons. The saga implies that the slandering stirs up latent feelings of jealousy towards Hõskuldr, who is a favourite of Njáll. Earlier Mõrðr had attempted to turn Hõskuldr against his foster-brothers but he refused to be manipulated. Hõskuldr exclaims that he would rather die than do them any harm. 18

Barbara H. Rosenwein, Negotiating Space: Power, Restraint, and Privileges of Immunity in Early Medieval Europe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 178–179. See also Rivard, Blessing the World, 95. 19 Here I follow Cochrane’s suggestion in a footnote to his ‘The Incredulity of Hõgni: The Importance of Believing in Ghosts in Njáls saga’. 20 A striking application of ‘Gunnarr’s mound scene’ features in Seamus Heaney’s poem Funeral Rites (1975) where the poet intuited its inherent ambiguity and symbolic potential. See Heather O’Donoghue, ‘Heaney, Beowulf, and the Medieval Literature of the North’, in The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney, ed. Bernard O’Donoghue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 197–200.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature The poignancy of Hõskuldr’s death scene is amplified by its brevity. Although Skarpheðinn had insisted that they should all should partake in the killing, he is the only one identified by name. The brothers (along with Kári) find Hõskuldr sowing the field clad in a cloak and carrying a sword. Hõskuldr refuses to fight and Skarpheðinn brings him to his knees with a blow to the head. Before expiring Hõskuldr utters his last words: ‘Guð hjálpi mér en fyrirgefi yður’ [‘God help me, and forgive you’]. It has, of course, been noted that Hõskuldr’s death evokes, even imitates, martyrdom.21 But what is significant for us is that the relationship between Hõskuldr Þráinsson and the sons of Njáll, and in particular Skarpheðinn Njálsson, corresponds to the earlier discussed betrayal-salvation pattern – the killing of a former friend or family member who refuses to believe the worst about the eventual killer with an ensuing martyrdom-like death.22 In spite of its brevity, Hõskuldr’s death scene still foregrounds a crucial detail that will initiate the events that culminate in the burning of Bergþórshváll. This is the fact that Hõskuldr is wearing a cloak which Flosi had presented to him earlier in the saga. Flosi Þórðarson is a respected chieftain who was briefly mentioned when Hõskuldr married his niece, Hildigunnr. It is into this cloth that Hildigunnr gathers her husband’s blood and, awaiting an opportunity, pours it over the visiting Flosi: “Þessa skikkju gaft þú, Flosi, Hõskuldi, ok gef ek þér nú aptr. Var hann ok í þessi veginn, Skýt ek því til guðs ok góðra manna, at ek sœri þik fyrir alla krapta Krists þíns ok fyrir manndóm ok karlmennsku þína, at þú hefnir allra sára þeira, er hann hafði á sér dauðum, eða heit hvers manns níðingr ella”.23 [‘This cloak, Flosi, was your gift to Hoskuld, and now I give it back to you. He was slain in it. In the name of God and all good men I charge you by all the wonder [or ‘power’] of your Christ and by your courage and manliness, to avenge all the wounds which he received in dying – or else suffer the contempt of all men.’24 ]

The words in this iconic scene of female goading carry an unexpected religious dimension.25 To begin with, Hildigunnr Starkaðardóttir refers to Flosi’s especial enthusiasm for Christianity. The saga had earlier mentioned that he received prímsigning even before the official conversion, and that he had been a supporter of Þorvaldr Koðránsson, the early Icelandic missionary.26 The essence of 21


23 24



Lönnroth, Njáls saga, 95–6; 122. William Ian Miller has suggested that Hõskuldr’s death is intended to evoke the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. William Ian Miller, ‘Why Is Your Axe Bloody?’ A Reading of Njáls Saga (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 197. ÍF 12, 291. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 137. Carol J. Clover, ‘Hildigunnr’s Lament’, in Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature, ed. John Lindow, Lars Lönnroth and Gerd Wolfgang Weber (Odense: Odense University Press, 1986), 141–83. ÍF 12, 259.


Last Things and Judgement Day Hildigunnr’s utterance is that Christ will punish Flosi should he fail to avenge Hõskuldr’s death. The allusion to Hõskuldr’s wounds, the presence of his blood, the martyr-like nature of his death, as well as the reference to Christ’s vengeance, can hardly fail to evoke the most potent image of admonition in medieval Christianity – the sight of the wounded and bloody Saviour on the Cross (or, alternatively, the bloodied cross alone). This stark image – which, it was commonly thought, would appear before all at the Last Judgement – is a continuous reminder that Christ suffered so that the sinner gained hope of redemption.27 Placed alongside Hõskuldr’s martyr-like death, Hildigunnr’s goading affects the pious Flosi as it associates revenge with something more than honour and shame. The state of Flosi’s own soul now comes into play and when he recognises this his face ‘became in turn red as blood, as pale as grass, and as black as Hel itself’ [‘hann var í andliti stundum rauðr sem blóð en stundum fõlr sem gras, en stundum blár sem hel’].28 Another significant feature of Hõskuldr’s death scene is that he prays for both his own soul and those of his killers. The latter may seem like a common martyr-like piety that evokes Christ’s words as he is placed on the Cross (Luke 23:24) or, more pointedly, those of the protomartyr St Stephen to his assailants [see above, 64]. But only by considering Hõskuldr’s utterance can we comprehend a somewhat enigmatic description later in the saga. At the burning of Bergþórshváll it is Skarpheðinn, above all, who persuades his brothers and Kári Sõlmundarson to remain inside the farmstead. Skarpheðinn, of course, had led the attack on Hõskuldr Þráinsson and subsequently somewhat gratuitously spoiled the settlement with Flosi. The last glimpse of Skarpheðinn within the farmstead is when a burning beam crashes on him so that he ‘could not budge’ [‘mátti hann þaðan hvergi hrœrask’]. Skarpheðinn’s final appearance is when the bodies are retrieved from the cindered rubble. Skarpheðinn’s corpse is mostly unburnt and it is found standing up against a wall, the arms folded in a cross. As they strip the body they find ‘two marks on him, one between his shoulders and the other on his chest, both burned in the shape of a cross’ [‘tvá díla fundu þeir á honum, annan meðal herðanna, en annan á brjóstinu, ok var hvátttveggi brenndr í kross, ok ætluðu menn, at hann mundi sik sjálfr brennt hafa’].29 Those present judge Skarpheðinn to have been responsible for 27

See, for instance, Poetry on Christian Subjects, Part 1, 257–8. There is an element of goading in such visions. Oddr Snorrason’s Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar describes how Oddr became tempted to leave the monastic life. At that point of extreme vulnerability he saw Christ, spreading out his arms and drooping his head, addressing the monk with the following words: ‘Hér máttu nú s[já hvat] ek hefi þolat fyrir yðrar sakar, ok muntu vilja bera freistni fyrir mínu nafni’ [‘Here you can see what I have suffered for your sins, and you will wish to suffer temptation for my name’]. ÍF 25, 359. For such scenes in English medieval literature, see Ellen M. Ross, Grief of God. Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval England (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 15–40. 28 The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 137; ÍF 12, 292. 29 The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 163; ÍF 12, 342–4.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature the crosses on his breast and between his shoulders. But this interpretation is undermined by the aforementioned claim that Skarpheðinn was unable to move between the burning beams. The cross marks between Skarpheðinn’s shoulder blades and on his breast appear therefore to be of a stigmatic nature. Such crosses can signify those who are deemed worthy to be escorted by the Archangel Michael into Paradise,30 and they are primarily associated with grace. Fulcher of Chartres describes the shipwreck and drowning of four hundred crusaders on the way to the Holy Land in 1097. As the bodies washed ashore people ‘found crosses actually imprinted in the flesh of some of them, between the shoulders’. According to Fulcher, it ‘was proper that such a miracle should show those who witnessed it that the dead had now attained eternal life by the mercy of God’.31 Sverris saga reports that in 1190 Þorleifr breiðskeggr, a charismatic former monk, attracted a band of followers who roamed the Viken region. Þorleifr claimed to be the son of King Eysteinn Haraldsson (d. 1157) and so a rightful heir to the Norwegian throne. To prove his paternity he showed a cross-shaped scar between his shoulder blades.32 Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson healed a swollen man by ‘burning many marks in the shape of a cross on the breast, head, and between the shoulder blades’ [‘brenndi hann marga díla í kross bæði fyrir brjósti ok í hõfði hans ok í meðal herða’].33 This, according to the saga’s author, was ‘a healing by the grace of the Holy Spirit’ [‘sumum mõnnum er gefin lækning af miskunn heilags anda’].34 In other words, marks of this kind are divinely bestowed on the chosen person. Skarpheðinn achieves salvation not because of his own actions or repentance but rather through grace – and the key to this unexpected development, I suggest, is the prayer for his soul uttered by the dying Hõskuldr Þráinsson. Additionally, the extreme suffering at the time of death counts towards mitigating or nullifying Skarpheðinn’s posthumous penance. The saga is also concerned about Njáll and his fate in the afterlife. It has been observed that there is a strong possibility that Njáll, seeing the inevitable end, ‘stages’ his death and that of his family.35 Certainly, Njáll exerts final control over his household, which follows his order to retreat inside Bergþórshváll. It soon transpires that Njáll has made a fatal mistake and that all is lost. This may seem like an ignominious lapse of judgement for someone reputed for his

30 31

32 33 34


Hamer, Njáls Saga and Its Christian Background, 240. Fulcher of Chartres, Historia Hierosolymitana. A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem 1095–1127, transl. Frances Rita Ryan, ed. with an introduction by Harold S. Fink (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1969), 19. Further on the appearance of such crosses, see Haki Antonsson, ‘Insigne Crucis: A European Motif in a Nordic Setting’, in The North Sea World in the Middle Ages, ed. Thomas R. Liszka and Lorna E.M. Walker (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001), 15–32. ÍF 30, 175. Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, 5. Ibid., 6. Miller, Why Is your Axe Bloody?, 225–31.


Last Things and Judgement Day wise counsel and prescience. But the saga author allows Njáll a last redeeming insight into the future with the following utterance: “Verðið vel við ok mælið eigi æðru, því at él eitt mun vera, en þó skyldi langt til annars slíks. Trúið þér ok því, at guð er miskunnarsamr, ok mun hann oss eigi bæði láta brenna þessa heims ok annars.”36 [‘[Conduct yourselves] bravely and don’t express any fear, for it’s only a brief storm, and it will be a long time before we have another like it. Have faith that God is merciful, and that he will not let us burn both in this world and in the next.’37 ]

These words do not address the possible fires of Hell that await the people of Bergþórshváll. Rather, Njáll connects with an idea we encountered earlier in this study, namely that painful and undeserved death acts in lieu of penance in Purgatory [see above, 37–8, 107–9]. In other words, their death by fire will help to purge the sins they would otherwise suffer from in the afterlife.38 Hjalti Skeggjason observes the state of the bodies of Njáll, Bergþóra and a young boy, their grandson. Under the ox-hide, Njáll is seen to be almost untouched by the fire and Hjalti comments on his serene countenance.39 Bergþóra and the boy are also well preserved and so Njáll’s final prediction appears to come good. As the burning of Bergþórshváll prompts Njáll to comment on the future of his eternal soul, so Flosi recognises that his responsibility for this deed will affect his hope of salvation. Flosi makes the following comment when he and his men meet stubborn resistance: “Eru nú tveir kostir, ok er hvárrgi góðr: sá annarr at hverfa frá, ok er þat vár bani, en hinn annarr at bera at eld ok brenna þá inni, ok er þat þó stór ábyrgð fyrir guði, en vér erum kristnir sjálfir. En þó munu vér þat bragðs taka”.40


ÍF 12, 328–9. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 155. 38 Behind Njáll’s utterance lies the ‘well-known Medieval Latin Biblical maxim, non judicabit Deus bis in idipsum “God will not judge/punish someone twice for the same thing”’. Thomas D. Hill, ‘Njáll’s Comforting Words: Brennu-Njáls Saga, Chapter 129’, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 41 (2017), 72. 39 Further, as has been noted, the relatively well-preserved state of the three bodies evokes the legend of the Roman martyr St Eustace (St Placidus). Lönnroth, Njáls Saga: A Critical Introduction, 122. He was roasted along with his wife and son within a brazen bull from which their bodies were then retrieved unscathed. The suitability of this parallel or allusion does not solely rely on St Eustace and Njáll Þorgeirsson both having converted from paganism to Christianity, but also in their respective back stories. As St Eustace’s new-found faith is tested through extreme sorrow and misfortune – he loses his son and is separated from his wife – so Njáll’s fortune turns dramatically following his conversion to Christianity. That Njáll can hardly be described as a passive Job-like figure – indeed unlike St Eustace he is largely the author of his own misfortune – only adds poignancy to this sub-text. 40 ÍF 12, 327–8. 37


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature [‘There are two choices, and neither of them is good: one is to turn back, but that would lead to our death; the other is to bring fire and burn them inside, and that’s a great responsibility before God, for we’re Christian men. Still, that is the course we must take.’]41

The utterances of Njáll and Flosi echo each other; one expects the fire to purge his sins while the other knows that his actions will compromise his own soul as well as those of his followers’ souls and call for serious penance. A brief binary pattern is thus established between the two characters at the saga’s climatic juncture. A more expansive binary pattern juxtaposes Flosi and those who followed him at the burning of Bergþórshváll. Flosi anticipates a backlash against this unprecedented deed and so brings his men to Svínafell. From there they proceed to the eastern fjords to gather support for the imminent law-case at the Althing. But before setting out on this ultimately futile mission Flosi experiences a dream-vision. Flosi finds himself looking towards Lómagnúpr, a sheer cliff on Iceland’s south coast. A figure dressed in goat skin and carrying a staff emerges from the cliff and calls out the names of Flosi’s followers. First he calls a number of them before pausing, then he proceeds to name a few more. Flosi asks the figure who he is and where he intends to travel. The mysterious character introduces himself as Járnheðinn and that he aims for the Althing to cause strife. Járnheðinn recites a stanza which foretells Kári’s revenge. Thereafter the goatskin clad figure returns into Lómagnúpr. When Flosi wakes he tells his dream to only one associate who interprets it as foreshadowing the death of those whose names were called out. Flosi asks him to keep quiet about the incident. Einar Ól. Sveinsson recognised that the presentation of ‘Flosi’s dream’ owed much to an episode in the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, a widely circulated late-sixth-century text that had been translated early into Old Norse.42 The episode relates how one day the brethren of Suppentonia, a cloister near Rome, hear a voice emanating from above the cliff that towers over their monastery. The voice names a number of monks then pauses before continuing the recital. The monks understand that those called will soon die and immediately attain Paradise. Amongst them is the abbot of the house, St Anastatius. There are undeniably similarities between Flosi’s dream in Njáls saga and the episode in the Dialogues, namely the reciting of names, the pause between those called, the imminent death of those who feature, as well as the cliff or mountain that dominates both scenes. These all firmly indicate a direct influence from the Latin source on the Old Norse saga. But what do these parallels signify, if anything? Are they confined to the narrative framework of Flosi’s experience?



The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 154. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Á Njálsbúð: bók um mikið listaverk (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Bókmenntafélag, 1943), 33. For editions and bibliographic references on Gregory’s Dialogues see Kirsten Wolf, The Legends of the Saints in Old Norse-Icelandic Prose (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 122–7.


Last Things and Judgement Day Possibly so, but this still leaves the question of why the author of Njáls saga chose this episode from the Dialogues as a framing device for his scene. Pope Gregory tells the story about the monks of Suppentonia and their miraculous experience for a specific purpose. The episode addresses a theological issue relating to the nature of salvation. This point is revealed after the monks hear the voice above their cloister. The spotlight then turns on a monk whose name was absent from the recitation; the implication being that unlike those named this brother will not attain salvation. This unnamed monk seeks advice from Abbot St Anastatius, who prays for his soul, and shortly thereafter the same brother is also allowed to leave his earthly existence. The meaning of the story is now clear, and is further explained in an ensuing dialogue between the master and the pupil which centres on how prayers from exceptional people can aid the salvation of others. As observed, this notion underlies Skarpheðinn’s apparent salvation at Bergþórshváll. Still more relevant, the fact that salvation and damnation are at the heart of the Suppentonia episode guides us to the essence of Flosi’s dream. A comparison of the two reveals an interesting fact; the latter essentially represents an inversion of the former. To begin with, the voice in the Dialogues is clearly that of an invisible angel (perhaps St Michael) who appears above the mountain. In Njáls saga the messenger is manifestly of demonic origin as he emerges out from the sheer cliff, thus highlighting the association of Hell’s representatives with the landscape. Járnheðinn resembles a mysterious near-namesake of his in Íslendinga saga as well as the previously mentioned Ingólfr in Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar [see above, 142]. The Odinic features of all three are difficult to ignore.43 The different nature of the two groups of men involved is striking. On the one hand there are the monks of Suppentonia – known for their pious living in God’s service – and on the other the men who have just committed a heinous crime by burning Bergþórshváll and its inhabitants. Further, the monks hear the voice in a communal setting which brings joy as they understand the event to promise them Paradise. Flosi, however, is alone with Járnheðinn in his dream. This is an ominous encounter which Flosi chooses to share only with his confidant. To understand why this scene from the Dialogues was adapted in Njáls saga, we must be cognisant of the underlying point of Gregory’s exemplum. There the focus is not on the monks who are announced by the heavenly voice, but rather on the unnamed brother who does not hear his name called out. This indicates that his salvation is not assured and, wishing to follow his brothers, he asks St Anastatius to intervene. The abbot prays and through his intercession the solitary monk is granted his wish and dies soon thereafter. In ‘Flosi’s dream’ it is Flosi himself who is conspicuously absent from Járnheðinn’s recitation. And it is this absence that explains Flosi’s reluctance to tell his followers about the 43

See Jonna Louis-Jensen, ‘Odin in Skagafjörður. Járngrímr-episoden i Íslendinga saga’, in Greppaminni. Rit til heiðurs Vésteini Ólasyni sjötugum, ed. Margrét Eggertsdóttir et al. (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenska Bókmenntafélag, 2009), 259–67.


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature dream; he will not die at the Battle of Clontarf, and he will later honour his vow to make a pilgrimage to Rome. At stake is not only Flosi’s differing earthly fate but also the fate of his soul. ‘Flosi’s dream’ therefore combines the binary theme and the narrative device of inversion encountered earlier in this study. Before addressing our concluding example we can briefly take stock of the binary patterns so far identified. These involve three pairs: Gunnarr and Kolskeggr, Skarpheðinn and Höskuldr, Njáll and Flosi, and lastly Flosi and his followers at Bergþórshváll. None of these are simply damnation/salvation oppositions, but rather varied, or graded, contrasts on that spectrum. We have also observed the themes of Iceland’s neophyte status, prefiguring the conversion to Christianity, as well as the theme of ‘salvation and betrayal’. We have encountered violent death, late contrition, and the bestowing of grace at the point of death. Finally, in ‘Flosi’s dream’ we note the link between the demonic and the landscape as well as a (possible) subversion of this theme in ‘Gunnarr’s mound-scene’. The Battle of Clontarf, fought on Good Friday in 1014, just outside Dublin, heralds the culmination of the damnation/salvation theme in Njáls saga. The battle was contested between the forces of King Brian Boru of Munster, Ireland’s dominant king since 1011, and an alliance of the Norse of Dublin and the king of Leinster. Clontarf soon acquired a larger than life status in both Norse and Irish tradition.44 Thus in the twelfth-century Cogadh Gáedel re Gallaib (‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’), the most extended account of the Battle of Clontarf, the contest is elevated to an almost apocalyptic level as a tremendous clash between the ruler of the Irish and their ancestral foes, the pagan Vikings. All sources agree that Brian Boru’s side proved victorious even though he himself was killed. The saga skilfully transposes from the burning of Njáll and his family to the Battle of Clontarf. On Christmas Day 1013 Sigurðr Hlõðvisson, the earl of Orkney, hosts Sigtryggr Óláfsson, the king of Dublin, whose mother is the thrice-married and beautiful Kormlõð. Three participants in the burning of Bergþórshváll, including Flosi, are also at the Christmas feast. One, Gunnarr Lambsson, is asked to recount the story of the burning. But at that moment Kári, the survivor who had made it his mission to revenge the victims, arrives at the earl’s residence. He hears Gunnarr tell how Skarpheðinn had cried during the burning and he mimics the alleged behaviour of the doomed people of Bergþórshváll. At this Kári bursts inside and slices off Gunnarr’s head. Then Flosi retells the story of the burning but this time he praises the conduct of the victims of his own violence. Kári now disappears from the story until after Clontarf. Sigtryggr extracts a promise from Sigurðr to join him in battle against Brian Boru and offers in turn the earl a kingdom in Ireland and a marriage to Kormlõð.


Máire Ni Mhaonaigh, Brian Boru. Ireland’s Greatest King? (Stroud: Tempus, 2007); Seán Duffy, Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2013).


Last Things and Judgement Day Back in Ireland, Kormlõð tells Sigtryggr that he must recruit more support should he hope to defeat Brian Boru and she recommends two Vikings for the task, Bróðir and Óspakr. Bróðir is persuaded to join Sigtryggr when he receives the same promise of a kingdom in Ireland and Kormlõð’s hand in marriage. Óspakr, however, refuses to follow Bróðir on this venture for he does not wish to fight against Brian Boru. The two now divide the fleet between them. At this point the saga recounts that Bróðir had once been a Christian, indeed a deacon, but that he had turned into a pagan engaged in magical practices. As Bróðir and his retinue wait to join Sigtryggr’s army they are assailed by three supernatural events. On the first night boiling blood rains on them, whereas on the second they are attacked by their own weapons. On the third night they must defend themselves against ravens with iron beaks and claws. A great din accompanies all three occasions. Bróðir now visits Óspakr and, having related these occurrences, he asks him to interpret their meaning. Óspakr does so but only on the condition that Bróðir promises him immunity (grið): “Þar er blóð rigndi á yðr, þar munuð þér hella út margs manns blóði, bæði yðru ok annarra. En þar sem þér heyrðuð gný mikinn, þar mun yðr sýndr heimsbrestr: munuð þér deyja allir brátt. En þar er vápnin sóttu at yðr, þat mun verða fyrir orrostu. En þar er hrafnar sóttu at yðr, þat eru óvinir þeir, er þér hafit trúat á ok yðr munu draga til helvítis kvala”.45 [‘When blood rained down on you, it meant that you will shed the blood of many men, both your own and other men’s. When you heard a great noise, it meant that you will witness the breaking-up of the world: you will all die soon. When weapons attacked you, it meant you will take part in a battle. When ravens attacked you, it meant that the fiends in whom you trusted will drag you down to the torments of hell.’]46

Óspakr interprets Bróðir’s experience as an omen of the latter’s death at the Battle of Clontarf whilst also intimating his hellish fate in the afterlife. The description echoes the twelfth-century Visio Tnugdali (or Duggals leiðsla) which has been mentioned in a different context [see above, 188–9]. This correspondence between the two texts applies especially to Óspakr’s recounting of the third night of terror. At the beginning of his vision the Irish nobleman, or rather his soul, finds himself on the shore of Hell where he is accosted by unclean souls or demons. He is saved from their clutches by an angel who shows Duggal the horrors of damnation. In one locus of Hell he beholds a bird-like creature which resides on a frozen lake where it devours sinners who then undergo the most extreme tortures as they are digested by the beast. It further gives birth to creatures with iron heads and beaks made of steel. The obvious parallel here is the reference to the avian monsters’ iron claws and beak (‘þat hafdi jarn nef ok iarn klœr’) 47 45

ÍF 12, 447. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 212. 47 Duggals Leiðsla, 58. 46


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature which corresponds to Njáls saga’s ‘and it seemed that their beak and claws were of iron’ [‘ok sýnisk þeim ór járni nefin ok klœrnar’]. Bróðir, a former deacon, is an apostate and in Duggals leiðsla a bird-like beast punishes those in holy orders who have either lapsed into mortal sin or failed to fulfil their religious duties. Njáls saga specifies that a great noise or din accompanied the three assaults. The end of the world, the Apocalypse, is not only present in the judgement of Bróðir to Hell but it looms over the blood-rain and assault by weapons. The key word here is ‘heimsbrestr’ or ‘the din of world shattering’ which points less to the Book of Revelations and more to Passio Domini, Good Friday, where Christ’s passion prefigures the Last Judgement. As the Old Icelandic Homily Book recounts, at Christ’s Passion the earth’s shaking and the bursting of stone signified nature torn asunder.48 More generally, earthquakes in Scripture ‘can be direct manifestations of God’s anger, including the fury reserved for the enemies at end times’.49 Bróðir reacts angrily to Óspakr’s interpretation and the next morning he plans to kill his former companion. Óspakr counteracts this plan by vowing to become a Christian and to join Brian Boru’s retinue which he indeed does. The different salvific trajectories of the two Vikings, Bróðir and Óspakr, are here delineated. Bróðir is an apostate whose damnation is assured whereas Óspakr heads in the opposite direction. This juxtaposition is underlined by them fighting on the opposing sides at Clontarf as well as their very different fates – Bróðir dies a horrible death whilst Óspakr survives after heroically defending his lord. The action shifts to Dublin where Earl Sigurðr arrives with his army on Palm Sunday. Before this the saga mentions Flosi offering his services to the Orkney earl. Sigurðr declines the offer as Flosi still has to fulfil his vow of pilgrimage to Rome as atonement for his crimes in Iceland. The dating of Sigurðr’s arrival on Palm Sunday does not necessarily carry any deeper significance. Sigurðr, unlike Brian Boru, is no Christ figure but yet the timing raises the importance of the battle taking place in Holy Week. Bróðir now puts his pagan witchcraft (forneskja) into practice by divining the course of action on behalf of Brian Boru’s enemies. The answer comes back that Brian will fall but win should the battle take place before Good Friday. Hearing this Bróðir commands that battle should not commence before Good Friday: ‘Fimmta daginn reið maðr að þeim á apalgrám hesti ok hafði í hendi pálstaf; hann talaði lengi við þau Bróður ok Kormlõð’ [‘On Thursday a man rode up to them on an apple-grey horse, with a throwing-spear in his hand. He spoke at length with Bróðir and Kormlõð.’].50 Whatever our understanding of this scene, the mysterious rider seems somehow to prompt the battle which begins the following day, Good 48

Homiliu-Bók, 69. See also Gamal Norsk Homiliebok, 81. Laura A. Smoller, ‘Of Earthquakes, Hail, Frogs, and Geography: Plague and the Investigation of the Apocalypse in the Later Middle Ages’, in Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Caroline Walker Bynum and Paul Freedman (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 164. 50 The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 213; ÍF 12, 449. 49


Last Things and Judgement Day Friday. King Brian Boru refuses to fight on such a holy day. Bróðir first leads the charge and his pagan magic apparently shields him from harm. But soon he is brought low by the king’s brother and flees into the woods. The focus now turns to Earl Sigurðr’s army where one after another the holders of his raven standard are killed until Hrafn inn rauði refuses to carry it, with these words aimed at the earl, ‘Ber þú sjálfr fjanda þinn’ [‘You carry your fiend yourself’]. The earl takes Hrafn at his words and shortly thereafter he is killed. When Óspakr leads the charge against King Sigtryggr Óláfsson and his army, Bróðir attacks the ill-defended king’s camp. There follow quite contrasting death scenes. Bróðir decapitates Brian Boru and the king’s blood heals the injured hand of a youth who had tried to shield him. Bróðir is surrounded by the victorious troops led by Brian Boru’s brother, Úlfr hræða, who ‘slashed open his belly and led him about an oak and in this way twisted his intestines out. He did not die until they were all wound out of him’ [‘Úlfr hræða reist á honum kviðinn ok leiddi hann um eik ok rakti svá ór honum þarmana; dó hann eigi fyrr en allr váru ór honum raktir’]. The contrast between the deaths of Bróðir and Brian Boru is obvious.51 The case of Bróðir and Ófeigr is one example among several of a binary pattern in Njáls saga. As in Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar, albeit in multiple versions and over a far wider canvas, Njáls saga applies binary themes for structural purposes. The threads of these thematic patterns combine the three principal climaxes of the saga: the death of Gunnarr Hámundarson, the burning of Bergþórshváll and Flosi’s fate, and, finally, the Battle of Clontarf. The composer of Njáls saga was familiar with oral stories about the Battle of Clontarf and likely its briefer treatment in Orkneyinga saga.52 Above all it is the apocalyptic tradition associated with the Battle of Clontarf that offered the ammunition to present the clash within an eschatological context. The author (rightly or wrongly) associates Darraðarljóð with this tradition.53 The poem’s eleven stanzas describe valkyries weaving the fate of the participants in the clash. A specific feature of the framing narrative for Darraðarljóð will now be familiar. On the morning of Good Friday, the day of the battle, a man in Caithness called Dõrruðr sees twelve figures ride to and enter a house (dyngja). Peering in through a window he sees women weaving with human heads and intestines. The women then recite Darraðarljóð but when they have concluded six women ride south and six north. Whatever pagan tradition may underlie the poem, the imagery here echoes the association of the cardinal directions 51

ÍF 12, 449–53. Thomas A. DuBois, ‘Juxtaposing Cogadh Gáedel re Gallaib with Orkneyinga saga’, Oral Tradition 26:2 (2011), 267–96. There is, however, no need to conclude that the episode owes much to a separate Brjáns saga. On the historiography of this hypothesis, see Benjamin Hudson, ‘Brjans Saga’, Medievum Aevum 2002 (71:1), 242–4. 53 Judy Quinn, ‘Darraðarljóð and Njáls saga’, in Die Faszination des Verborgenen und seine Entschlüsselung: Rāði sār kunni. Beiträge zur Runologie, skandinavistischen Mediävistik und germanischen Sprachwisschenschaft, ed. Jana Krüger et al. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017), 299–313. 52


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature with the binary theme of salvation and damnation. The Battle of Clontarf will decide the fate of souls: some will be consigned to the south and others to the north. Variations on a similiar theme appear, for instance, in Sólarljóð and Þáttr Þiðranda ok Þórhalls. In the former work, ‘Heart of the sun’ [‘Sólar hjört’], a kenning for Christ, travels from the south whereas the seven ‘sons of the dark phases’ [‘niðja sonu’] journey from the north [see above, 42]. In Þáttr Þiðranda ok Þórhalls nine black-clad dísir ride from the north whereas nine white-attired dísir ride from the south and they are the ones that kill Þiðrandi.54 Þiðrandi’s death, however, prefigures the approaching conversion of Iceland to Christianity when the white dísir, as protectors of his family, will emerge victorious. In the high and later Middle Ages the appearance of the miraculous was, above all, a testament to a prefiguration of salvation. The saints remind the living of Paradise’s glory through their prayers and supernatural powers. Similarly, signs such as Njáll’s miraculously well-preserved remains, Skarpheðinn’s cross-marked torso, or King Sverrir’s radiant body offer rare attestations of redemption. These are indications of personal salvation and, as such, they touch on a sensitive question: what is the relation between the redemption of the individual and the Last Judgement? The examples explored in this study have so far focused exclusively on the former: the personal journey in this life and the next which are, for obvious reasons, especially compatible with the Icelandic sagas. But beyond the judgement at the hour of death and the progression of the souls thereafter lay another event, namely the Last Judgement, at which the individual participated in a communal event of a decidedly apocalyptic nature. The Battle of Clontarf in Njáls saga combines the two strands, namely the fate of the individual and the judgement of last things. Just as the saint is a pale, though still potent, imitation of Christ, so does the Battle of Clontarf prefigure the Last Judgement. It does so in a specific place and time: Good Friday and the whole of the northern world that has been the setting of Njáls saga. Just as the miraculous can impact on the visible world, so Hell can affect a specific location. In this case, however, such localised outbreaks extend to the whole of the northern world at one particular point in time.55 We read of Hrafn rauði, a member of Earl Sigtryggr’s army, who is chased into a river and ‘there he thought he saw Hell down below and devils trying to drag him down to them’ [‘þóttisk þar sjá helvíti í niðri, ok þótti honum djõflar vilja draga sik til’].56 This is a forceful example of the ‘Hell in the landscape’ theme discussed earlier. Hrafn, however, escapes an infernal fate by calling on St Peter and promising that he will embark on a pilgrimage to Rome. Hrafn escapes from the clutches of the demons. In this case the extraordinary occasion of the Battle of Clontarf allows 54

ÍF 15:1, 121–5. It is worth highlighting that the six miraculous events that take place after the description of the Battle of Clontarf seem to occur contemporaneously with the battle. See Rory McTurk, ‘The Supernatural in Njáls Saga: A Narratological Approach’, Saga Book of the Viking Society 23 (1990–1993), 39–40. 56 The Complete Sagas of Icelanders 3, 214. 55


Last Things and Judgement Day Hrafn to foresee and, perhaps, affect, his personal Last Judgement. The brief incident reminds us, of course, why Flosi escapes the crushing defeat of Clontarf. A still more powerful vision is recounted almost in passing: ‘Að Þvottá sýndist presti á föstudaginn langa sjávardjúp hjá altarinu og sá þar í ógnir margar og var það lengi að hann mátti eigi syngja tíðirnar’ [‘At Thvotta river [Þvottá] on Good Friday a priest thought he saw the depth of the sea next to the altar, and he saw many terrifying sights in it, and it was a long time before he was able to sing mass again’]. We have previously encountered the abyss or the sea as a manifestation of damnation and Hell. This motif appears here at one of the most sacred times in the Christian liturgical calendar and in the most sacred location where the celebration of the Eucharist takes place. It is difficult to imagine a more distilled display of the binary motif.

N  n In the Introduction I briefly touched on the issue of authorial intentionality and how it relates to my undertaking. I argue that the theme of damnation and salvation should be examined like other primary themes in the sagas: disputes, love, tragedy and echoes of pagan myth. We can conceive of these major subjects as having their own gravitational field which shapes the surrounding material in unique ways. Earlier in this study the reader may have noted a parallel between two scenes from different sagas. As Aron Hjõrleifsson escapes Iceland for Norway he is greeted by his father and Bishop Guðmundr Arason as though ‘they had retrieved him from Hel’ [‘ok þóttust hann ór helju heimtan hafa’]. When in Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss the priest Jósteinn pulls Gestr out of Raknarr’s burial mound, he ‘welcomed Gestr Bárðarson as though he had retrieved him from Hel’ [‘fagnaði Gesti ok þóttist hann ór helju heimt hafa’]. Positing a textual relation between the scenes is scarcely convincing; ‘Heimta úr helju’ is a common proverbial saying which, in fact, still features in modern Icelandic. It conveys a sense of an unexpected, even miraculous, deliverance from great danger or a seemingly insoluble situation.57 But the expression also carries religious connotations in that it referred initially to the pagan place of Hel from which no one escapes. Snorra-Edda relates how Hermóðr travels to Hel to secure Baldr’s release from this northerly location. Whatever the pagan origin of this story, by the thirteenth century Hermóðr’s journey to Hel had become associated with visions of the Christian inferno.58 By that time the ‘Hel’ of our proverbial saying would have evoked an image of the Christian Hell. For instance, Grímr uses this expression when he welcomes back Õrvar-Oddr and his followers after their adventures in Bjarmaland and Finnmõrk. Örvar-Odds saga, ed. R.C. Boer (Halle: Niemeyer, 1892), 36. 58 See Christopher Abram, ‘Snorri’s Invention of Hermóðr’s helreið’, in The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of the Thirteenth International Saga Conference Durham and York 6th–12th August 2006, ed. John McKinnell et al. (Durham: The Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), 22–31. 57


Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature Aron and Gestr are quite different characters. One, the son of a half-man half-giant, received pre-baptism at Óláfr Tryggvason’s court but died young shortly after his baptism proper. The other is a pious individual of good stock who lived more than two centuries later than Gestr and who became celebrated for surviving as an outlaw in Iceland. Nevertheless, there are clear similarities between their situations. Although the Iceland from which Aron escapes is, of course, not literarily Hell, staying there while outlawed placed him in a grave situation; not only was his life in danger but so was his prospect of salvation. Aron survives because of Guðmundr Arason’s (sometimes miraculous) assistance, and concludes his life as a prosperous courtier – a fate which mirrors his eventual fate in the heavenly court. It is at the point of his escape from this condition that Guðmundr applies the proverbial saying. Gestr escapes from the burial mound of a demonic king by miraculous means; the mound represents Hell as well as the pagan past that Gestr will leave behind. Like Aron’s case, Gestr’s deliverance and brief honouring at Óláfr Tryggvason’s court prefigures his bright afterlife. Although these two saga writers worked with quite different kinds of stories, each narrative includes the same component; the archetype of the just being saved from damnation. In each case it is precisely this feature that prompted the application of the proverbial expression of being recovered from of Hel. Similarly, the aim of this study has been to identify and explore the most significant strands in which salvation and damnation, our twin themes, led Icelandic authors to shape their creations in comparable but also distinct, and often creative, ways.



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index Acts of Felicity and Perpetua 174 Adam of Bremen 65, 68, 158 Aeneid, see Virgil 77 Ahab, biblical king 67, 194, 196–7 All Saints, Feast of 88–9, 196 Antiochus IV, a Seleucid king 194 Ari fróði Þorgilsson 1, 2, 7, 65, 69 Arngrímr Brandsson, abbot of Þingeyrar 113, 114, 141, 170, 171, 174, 197, 198 Arnórr Þórðarson 94 Aron Hjõrleifsson 27, 129–37, 229–30 Arons saga Hjõrleifssonar 3, 27, 129–37, 229–30 Ash Wednesday 164–5 Auðr (or Unnr) djúpúðga Ketilsdóttir 161–2 Auðr Vésteinsdóttir 116–17, 119–20, 137 Avaldsnes, see Õgvaldsnes Ágrip af Noregskonungasögum 65, 68 Árna saga biskups 47, 49, 130, 192–8 Árni Þorláksson, bishop of Skálholt 25,49, 192–8 Ásbirningar family 9, 13, 103, 104 Becket, see Thomas Becket Bergbúa þáttr 141–2 Bergþóra Skarpheðinsdóttir 221 Bergþórshváll, Burning of 220–4 Birkibeinar 11, 199, 201 Bjõrn Gilsson, bishop of Hólar 181 ‘Book of Icelanders’, see Íslendingabók Brandr Jónsson, abbot of Þykkvabær 101–3, 107, 194 Brandr Kolbeinsson 63–4 Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss 147–9, 229–30 Brávellir, Battle of 145

Breiðafjörður 161–7 Brian Boru, Irish king 224–7 Bróðir (character in Njáls saga)  225–7 Caesar, Julius 195 Caesarius of Heisterbach, his Dialogus Miraculorum 91, 133 Canones Nidrosiensis 202–3 Celestine III, pope 209 Chaucer, his Summoner’s Tale 91 Christ 18, 33–5, 41–3, 49, 64, 67, 71, 75, 78, 82, 90, 123, 136, 140, 144, 148–9, 159–60, 162, 167, 169, 172, 174–5, 187, 192, 195, 216–19, 226 Christmas 92, 125, 147, 172, 173, 177, 192, 224 Cistercian Order 91, 133, 137, 140 Clontarf, Battle of 214, 224–9 Constantinople 92, 128–9, 211–12 Crusades 61, 74, 84–5, 169, 206, 220 Dante Alighieri 158 Darraðarljóð 227–8 David I, king of Scotland 57 David, king and biblical character 35, 57 Draumkvæði 158 Dublin 224, 226 Dudo of St Quentin 76–8 Duggals Leiðsla (Visio Thnugdali)  188–9, 226 Earthly Paradise 85, 91–3, 171 Easter 24, 25, 131–2, 160, 164, 191, 200 Egill Skallagrímsson 115 Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 115 Einar Ól. Sveinsson 222

Index Einarr þambarskelfir Eindriðason 83, 184 Elijah, biblical prophet 98, 158, 194, 196–7 ‘Episode of Gautr’ (in Óláfs Saga Tryggvasonar en mesta) 79–82, 89–91, 97, 157, 169, 171 Eiríkr rauði Ívarsson, archbishop of Nidaros 208 Eiríkr Magnússon, king of Norway 193–4 Eiríkr góði Sveinsson 60–2, 139, 197 Eiríksdrápa, Markús Skeggjason’s  60–2, 72 Eiríks saga rauða 178–82 Eiríks saga víðfõrla 91–5, 171, 174 Erlingr skakki Ormsson, earl 199, 202–6 Erlingr Skjálgsson 74 Etna, volcano 140 Eugenius III, pope (his Quantum praedecessores) 205 Eysteinn Erlendsson, archbishop of Niðaróss 67, 141, 204–6 Eysteinn meyla Eysteinsson 199 Eysteinn Haraldsson, king of Norway 199, 220 Eysteinn Magnússon, king of Norway 57 Eyjólfr ofsi Þorsteinsson 44, 46, 48, 193 Eyrbyggja saga 7, 45, 115 Exodus, biblical myth 81,87, 149 Fitjar, Battle of 67 Flatey 27, 47, 130, 132 Flateyjarbók 3, 69, 79, 120, 121, 145 Flosi Þórðarson (character in Njáls saga) 218–19, 221–9 Flóabardagi (‘The Battle of the Gulf’) 9–10, 12, 14, 22, 63 Flóamanna saga 171–7, 182, 217 Flugumýri, Burning of 29, 44, 46, 193 Foote, Peter Godfrey 143 Fóstbrœðra saga 120–4, 127, 132, 137 Fulcher of Chartres 220 Gabriel, archangel 90

Gáedel re Gallaib (‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’) 224 Gamli kanóki 33–8 Geirþjófsfjörður 117, 132, 134 Gesta Danorum (Saxo Grammaticus’s) 59 Gizurr Hallsson 82–3, 130, 200 Gizurr Ísleifsson, bishop of Skálholt 51 Gizurr Þorvaldsson 12, 44, 46, 64, 103, 189, 193 Gísla saga Súrssonar 115–20, 125, 132, 137, 139, 166 Gísli Súrsson 115–20, 132, 134 Gísls þáttr Illugasonar 3, 50–5, 64, 133, 137, 201 Glámr, a character in Grettis saga  125–7, 166, 171, 178, 215 Glœlognskviða 154, 208 Good Friday 164, 224, 226–9 Greenland 20, 75, 120, 122, 147, 159, 172–82 Gregory the Great, his Dialogues 176, 222–3 Gregory VIII, pope 74 Grettir Ásmundarson 124–9, 132, 214, 216 Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar 2, 124–9, 166, 178 Grœnlendinga saga 177–82 Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir 177–81 Guðmundar saga byskups D, see Arngrímr Brandsson Guðmundar saga dýra 70 Guðmundr Arason, bishop of Hólar and saint 26,27, 30, 113, 129–37, 141, 158, 159, 169–70, 190–2, 197–8, 230 Guðmundr dýri Þorvaldsson 69, 91 Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir 162–7, 180 Gunnarr Hámundarson 211–15, 217, 224, 227 Gunnhildr (King Sverrir’s mother) 199 Gunnlaugr Leifsson 69–70, 79–83, 91, 150, 168 209 Gyðinga saga 194–5 Gõngu-Hrólfs saga 85


Index Hallar-Steinn, author of Rekstefja  78–9 Harmsól 3, 33–8, 40, 43, 129 Hamer, Andrew J. 162, 164 Harald Godwinson, king of England 19–21 Haraldr Hákonarson, earl of Orkney 57 Haraldr hilditõnn, legendary Danish king 145–6, 157, 188 Haraldr Maddaðarson, earl of Orkney 202 Haraldr gilli Magnússon, king of Norway 13, 58, 186 Harrowing of Hell 148–50 Haukdælir family 83 Hauksbók 3, 15, 16 Haukur Erlendsson 15 Hákonarmál 78 Hákon góði Haraldsson, king of Norway 67, 78 Hákon Hákonarson, king of Norway 9, 10, 15, 64, 129, 135–6, 189 Hákon Pálsson, earl of Orkney 99 Hákon Sigurðarson, earl (jarl) of Hlaðir (Lade) 67 Hallfreðar saga vandræðaskálds 160 Hallfreðr Óttarsson vandræðaskáld 66, 160 Hedeby (Heiðabær) 119–20 Helgafell, farmstead and later abbey 7, 31–2, 160, 163, 166, 167 Helgisaga Óláfs Helga, see Legendary saga of St Óláfr Heiðarvíga saga 6–9, 45, 70, 112, 123, 166, 169, 212, 216 Hel (the pagan abode of the dead) 135, 149, 229–30. Heimskringla 97–9, 102, 112, 153, 184 Heinrekr Kársson, bishop of Hólar 46, 105 Henry I, king of England 158 Henry II, king of England 108, 113 Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar 14–22, 98, 227 Herbert of Clairvaux 140 Herod Antipas 194–5

Hildigunnr Starkaðardóttir 218–19 Hill, Thomas D. 5 Historia Norvegiae 65–8 Hlýrskógsheiði, Battle of 111 Holtsmark, Anne 90 Holy Land 61, 62, 68, 80, 82, 84, 95, 135, 137, 169, 206, 220 Honorius Augustodunensis, his Elucidarius 81, 93 Hólar, bishopric 1, 25, 26, 46, 48, 49, 50, 51, 62, 69, 105, 108, 130, 131, 135, 144, 165, 198 Hólm in grá (Holmengrå), Battle of  57 Hrafnagil, farmstead 27–8, 106–8 Hrafn Oddsson 44, 45, 48, 104–6, 189–90, 192–8 Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar 26, 42–3, 110–14, 142, 143, 150, 151, 189, 223 Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson 3, 29, 110–14, 139, 150, 169, 193, 220 Hryggjarstykki 59–60 Hugh of St Victor 25 Hulda-Hrokkinskinna 50 Hungrvaka 14, 150 Hõskuldr Þráinsson 217–20 Ingi Haraldsson, king of Norway 58 Innocent III, pope 49, 208, 209 Isidore of Seville 85 Israelites 77, 81, 82, 85, 88, 149, 159, 173, 194 Íslendingabók (‘Book of Icelanders’) 1, 7, 65, 69 Íslendinga saga (Sturla Þórðarsson’s)  27, 31, 32, 44–7, 130, 190, 197, 223 Ísleifr Gizurarson, bishop of Skálholt 127, 170 Ívarr Ingimundarson 57–9, 62 Jerusalem 57–8, 61, 74, 80, 84, 135, 169, 175, 202, 205, 206 Jews, see Israelites John the Baptist 71, 75, 131, 195 Jón Halldórsson, bishop of Skálholt 183–4, 200 Jón Loptsson 1–2, 83, 130 Jón Ólafsson Grunnvíkingur 4


Index Jón rauðr, archbishop of Nidaros (Niðaróss) 193 Jóns þáttr Halldórssonar 183–4, 200 Jón Õgmundarson, bishop of Hólar and saint 51–5, 133, 170, 181 Jõrundr Þorsteinsson, bishop of Hólar 48–9 Kalvskinnet, Battle of 203, 206–8 Karl Jónsson, abbot of Þingeyrar 10, 70, 198, 200, 208–9 Kálfr Árnason 152, 207 Ketill (Kjeld) of Viborg, provost and saint 59 Knýtlinga saga 116, 205–6 Kolbeinn ungi Arnórsson 9, 191 Kolbeinn Tumason 28, 113, 197 Kolskeggr Hámundarson (character in Njáls saga) 211–12, 224 Konungs skuggsjá 136, 140, 167 Kristniréttr inn eldri, see ‘Older Church Law’ Landnámabók 162, 171 Last Judgement 34–6, 52, 53, 94, 200, 219, 226–9 Laurentius saga 165 Laxdœla saga 2, 115, 124, 161–7, 178, 180, 200 Lazar, Serbian prince and saint 98–9 Legendary saga of St Óláfr 6, 169, 207 Leiðarvísir 116, 119 Lent 25, 82, 163–5, 169, 200 Lómagnúpur 222 Lund, archbishopric of 60–2 Lýsufjörður, in Greenland 177–82 Lárentíus Kálfsson, bishop of Hólar 165

Magnús berfœttr Óláfsson, king of Norway 51, 57 Magnús góði Óláfsson, king of Norway 81, 97, 99, 111, 156, 184–9 Maríu saga 90, 150, 183–4 Markús Skeggjason 60–2 Maundy Thursday 164–5 Michael, archangel 94, 220, 223 Mírmanns saga 3 Morkinskinna 13, 98, 186–9 Munka-Þverá, monastery of 105, 107, 109, 116 Möðruvallabók 120 Niðaróss (Nidaros) 51, 54, 55, 134, 163, 166, 206–7 Niðaróss (Nidaros) archbishopric of 1, 2, 30, 48, 67, 159, 165, 193, 196, 198, 203, 205, 208 Niðaróss (Nidaros) cathedral 153–4, 157 Niðurstigningar saga 144 Nidaros, see Niðaróss Nikolás Árnason, bishop of Oslo 200 Nikolás saga erkibyskups 171 Nikolás Sveinsson, king of Denmark 60, 62 Njáls saga 2, 115, 124, 211–29 Njáll Þorgeirsson 2, 220–2, 224 Normandy 76–7

Oddaverjar family 83 Oddr Snorrason 69–76, 78–80, 82–4, 89, 91, 161, 209 Oddr Þórarinsson 13, 44–50, 59, 103, 104, 109, 128, 180, 193 ‘Older Church Law’ (Kristniréttr inn eldri) 23–4 Old Icelandic Homily Book 28, 94, 148, 192, 216, 226 Magnús Einarsson, bishop of Skálholt  Old Norwegian Homily Book 6, 160 186 Ordo Nidrosiensis 165 Magnús Erlendsson, earl of Orkney Orkneyinga saga 99, 102, 227 and saint 99, 169 Ólafur Halldórsson 181 Magnús Erlingsson, king of Óláfr Haraldsson, king of Norway and Norway 198, 202–3, 206, 208 saint 6, 8, 10–12, 17–20, 22, 65–8, Magnús Gizurarson, bishop of 70–3, 75, 97–9, 102, 111, 120, 122–4, Skálholt 25, 31, 191 126–7, 140–1, 145, 152–7, 163, 184, Magnús Hákonarson, king of 190, 199, 206–8 Norway 4, 193


Index Óláfr kyrri Haraldsson, king of Norway 14 Óláfr Tryggvason, king of Norway 2, 15, 21, 64–83, 89–91, 94, 120, 146–50, 158, 160–1, 197, 215, 230 Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta (‘The Saga Greatest Saga of Óláfr Tryggvason’) 79 Órækja Snorrason 31–3, 190–1 Óspakr (character in Njáls saga)  225–7 Palm Sunday 149, 190, 226 Paradise 35–6, 38–9, 42, 53–4, 63–4, 66, 76–7, 80–1, 88, 90, 92–5, 139,140, 148–50, 159, 169, 171, 173–5, 178, 182–3, 190, 200, 202, 204–7, 220, 222–3, 228 Passio Olavi 167–8 Peter Lombard 25 Pharaoh, biblical character 88, 90, 157, 159, 200 Pontius Pilate 194–5 Prestssaga Guðmundar Arasonar 26, 158, 169 Prímsigning (Prima signatio) 45, 124 Promised Land 77, 81, 88, 159, 173, 175 Psalter 45, 47, 49, 58–9, 165 Purgatory 42, 50, 52–5, 81, 150, 166, 178, 180–2, 191, 203, 221 Purification of the Virgin Mary, Feast of the 183–4, 216 Randalín Filippusdóttir 13, 48, 50 Rannveigarleiðsla 169–71 Rauðúlfs þáttr 151–7, 187, 216 Red Sea 80–2, 84, 86–90, 95, 97, 145, 149, 157, 159, 169, 171 Resurrection 35–5, 49, 53, 132, 160, 200, 216 River Jordan 58, 81, 93, 159, 162 Rollo, first ruler of Normandy 75–7 Rome, pilgrimage to 14, 17–18, 29–30, 32, 57, 60, 77, 110–14, 116, 119–20, 123, 129, 143, 165, 178, 180, 185, 199, 224, 226, 228 Rus’ 60, 66, 72, 78, 84 Russia, see Rus’

Samuel, biblical prophet 207 Santiago de Compostela 111 Saul, biblical King 202 Saxo Grammaticus 59, 140 Sayers, William 5 Sæmundr Ormsson 100–3 Sæmundr fróði Sigfússon 65 Sighvatr Sturluson 12–13, 44, 130, 189–92 Sighvatr Þórðarson 122 Sigtryggr Óláfsson, king of Dublin  224–5, 227–8 Sigurðr Fáfnisbani 156–7, 188 Sigurðr munnr Haraldsson, king of Norway 198–9 Sigurðr Hlõðvisson, earl of Orkney 224 Sigurðr Jórsalafari Magnússon, king of Norway 15, 57–8, 156, 198 Sigurðr slembidjákn Magnússon, Norwegian pretender 57–60, 109 Skagafjörður 13, 28, 44, 64, 105, 131, 178, 191, 197 Skarpheðinn Njálsson 212–24, 228 Skáldatal 57 Skálholt, bishopric of 1, 13–14, 24–5, 33, 49, 50, 83, 150, 186, 192 Skúli Bárðarson, earl (jarl) 11, 30, 129, 135 Snorri Sturluson 31, 57, 63, 97, 130, 154–5, 189 Southern, Richard W. 95 Sólarljóð 3, 36–43, 50, 54, 109, 129, 151, 228 Speech Against the Bishops (Oratio contra clerum Norvegiae) 208 St Andrew 112–13 St Giles 111–12, 139 St Gilles, Provence 111, 139 St Guðmundr Arason, see Guðmundr Arason St John the Baptist, see John the Baptist St Kjeld (Ketill) of Viborg, see Ketill St Magnús of Orkney, see Magnús Erlendsson St Mary, see Virgin Mary St Mary Magdalene 35 St Peter, 28, 35, 170, 228 St Stephen 17–18, 64, 219


Index St Thomas Becket, see Thomas Becket St Vincent of Saragossa 107 St Victor (Paris), abbey of 25 St Þorlákr, see Þorlákr Þórhallsson Staðamál 131, 196 Stamford Bridge, Battle of 20, 191 Stephen, see St Stephen Stiklastaðir (Stiklestad), Battle of 19, 122, 152–4, 157, 207–8 Sturla Sighvatsson 12, 30–3, 44, 130–5, 189–91 Sturla Þórðarson 27–8, 30–3, 44–50, 60, 104, 189–91, 193 Sturlungar family 9, 27, 31, 44, 63, 104, 131–2, 189–90 Sturlunga saga 2, 9, 12, 27, 33, 44, 100, 109–10, 129 Sturlu saga 159–60 Svaða þáttr 168 Sveinn Knútsson, king of Norway  154 Sveinn Úlfsson (Estridsen), king of Denmark 185 Sverrir Sigurðarson, king of Norway  1–2, 10–12, 70, 130, 198–209 Sverris saga 10, 70, 198–209 Svínfellinga saga 100–3 Svõlðr (Svolder), Battle of 64–8, 73–5, 78–81, 89, 146 Theodoricus Monachus 65–6, 68, 97 Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury and saint 28, 104–11, 113–14, 132, 170 Túnsberg, see Tønsberg Tønsberg 201 Yaroslav, Grand-Prince of Rus’ 84 Yngvars saga víðfõrla 3, 82–91, 93, 144–6, 157, 166, 169, 173 Yngvarr víðfõrli 82–91, 93, 120, 173, 197 Ulysses 158 Unnr djúpúðga Ketilsdóttir, see Auðr djúpúðga Ketilsdóttir Veraldar saga 85, 88 Vesuvius, volcano 140

Viborg (Véborg) 60, 115–16, 118–19 Virgin Mary 10–13, 22, 28, 36, 60, 75, 90–1, 98, 131, 133–4, 137, 159, 169–70, 175, 183–4, 195, 198, 216 Virgil, his Aeneid 77 Visio Thnugdali (Duggals Leiðsla)  188–9, 225–6 Vision of Thurkill (Visio Thurkilli) 151 Víðines, Battle of 197–8 Walter Map, his De nugis curialum (‘The Courtier’s Trifles’) 180 William the Conqueror, king of England 20–1 Þáttr Þiðranda ok Þórhalls 176, 228 Þiðrekr of Bern (Dietrich of Bern)  195 Þingeyrar abbey 10, 69–70, 78, 113, 170, 198, 209 Þorgeirr Hávarsson 120–1 Þorgils saga ok Hafliða 69 Þorgils saga skarða 103–9, 110–13 Þorgils skarði Bõðvarsson 28, 103–10, 189, 193 Þorgils Þorgrímsson, the main protagonist in Flóamanna saga 171–6 Þorkell Eyjólfsson, character in Laxdœla saga 162–4, 178, 180, 200 Þorlákr Runólfsson, bishop of Skálholt 150, 169–70, 178, 186 Þorlákr Þórhallsson, bishop of Skálholt and saint 24–5, 31, 33, 170, 186, 200 Þorleifr breiðskeggr, a Norwegian pretender 220 Þormóðr Kolbrúnarskáld 120–3, 129 Þorsteinn drómundr Ásmundarson  124–5, 128–9, 139 Þorsteins þáttr skelks 145–6, 157 Þorvalds þáttr víðfõrla 141 Þorvarðr Þórarinsson 48, 106, 113, 193 Þórðr kakali Sighvatsson 9–14, 22, 62–4, 135, 190 Þórðar saga kakala 9–14, 62–3 Þórðr Sturluson 29, 31–2, 189–92


Index Þórr, the pagan god 142, 172, 174–6 Þykkvabær abbey 33 Þverá, Battle of 48, 104–5, 189, 193 Õgmundr Helgason 100–3

Õgvaldsnes (Avaldsnes) 14–16, 21, 130, 193 Örlygsstaðir, Battle of 12–13, 32, 44, 135, 189–91 Õrvar-Odds saga 3


Studies in Old Norse Literature Already published 1 EMOTION IN OLD NORSE LITERATURE Translations, Voices, Contexts Sif Rikhardsdottir 2 THE SAINT AND THE SAGA HERO Hagiography and Early Icelandic Literature Siân E. Grønlie