The name of the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre was made public on 11 December 2009. The name Harpa was the winning name out of 4,156 proposals entered by 1,200 citizens. The rules stated that the name should be in Icelandic but easily articulated in most languages. The name Harpa has more than one meaning. It is the Icelandic name for the musical instrument harp. It is also an old Icelandic word that refers to a time of year and the name of a month in the old Nordic calendar. The first day of that month is celebrated as the first day of summer and marks the beginning of a brighter time where nature comes to live and the colours of the environment sharpen.
Harpa’s history goes way back. Icelanders started dreaming about building a good music house as early as in 1881, but other projects had a higher priority, such as the national theatre and the founding of Iceland’s symphony orchestra. The music house didn’t become a serious proposition until much later.
Music enthusiasts agreed on the construction of the concert hall in 1983, but had to wait until the 1990s before the state of Iceland and the city of Reykjavik decided to take part in the project. An empty plot for the new building was found by the harbour in Reykjavik city centre. The concert hall was to be part of an extensive harbour development project in Reykjavik, the East Harbour Project, with the aim of expanding and revitalising Reykjavik’s eastern harbour with a new downtown plaza, a shopping street, a hotel, residential buildings, educational institutions and mixed industry.
Harpa’s conception took place in 2004, in Iceland’s age of financial hallucination, when consortia of banks, architects and others were invited to bid for the privilege of building the home, long wished-for in this music-loving country, of concerts and opera. The winning group was led by Landsbanki, which would be a leading player in Iceland’s Gatsby moment.
Entering or leaving Harpa on foot, the piazza over which the upper floors loom is all that separates it from Reykjanesbraut (Route 41), which travels north-east from Keflavík directly into Reykjavík. Along with Route 49, these two arteries wrap around and loosely define the city’s older centre – bisected by the bustling Laugavegur – and effectively cut off the coast and harbour, leaving it as a sliver of land that bends up into the township of Seltjarnarnes.
Reykjavík’s harbour has long ceased any industrial activity that would demand a close connection to the city centre. Accompanying Harpa and the docks along this strip of land are small museums, cafés and shops selling Icelandic knick-knacks, united by the walk past Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager. Here you can look back at Reykjavík or take advantage of unhindered views of the Engey and Viðey islands and perhaps even the Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano. It is by no means a neglected or unpleasant area, rather one of disconnection. By Icelandic standards Route 41 is relatively busy – four lanes of traffic traversed via nondescript pedestrian crossings – and this post-industrial edge land, while not short on attractions, feels at times little more than an extension of the roadside that risks drifting off into Faxa Bay.
An international competition in 2004 called for masterplans of the area, to reunite the waterfront and the city centre, with only four partnerships invited to tender due to the scale and complexity of the project.
The winner, selected in 2005, was the Danish-Icelandic collective Portus Group, picked from a star-studded crop including Schmidt Hammer Lassen, Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel. Portus Group comprised the Icelandic Batteriíð Architects, Danish concert hall veterans Henning Larsen and Artec acoustic consultants et al, backed by the private investor Landsbanki. Portus’s masterplan was bold: a concert hall, conference centre, wellness centre, academy of fine arts, bank, cinema, shopping street, residential/commercial units and what would have been Iceland’s first five-star hotel. This was Iceland’s boom-time: it was a hugely zealous proposal around a major artery, one that would not just connect with Reykjavík’s centre but create an entirely new piece of city.
It was the proposed concert hall in particular – which would become Harpa – that would satisfy a longstanding desire for a dedicated performance space in Reykjavík. The Icelandic phrase ad ganga med bok I maganum (everyone gives birth to a book) extends too, it would seem, to music, with an incredible output from Icelanders Björk, Ólafur Arnalds, Sigur Rós and Samaris to name but a few. Early in the 20th century the only concert hall was the minuscule Hljómskálinn, built to house the city’s brass band and itself the subject of controversy over its position in the lakeside park it would eventually give its name to, Hljómskálagarðurinn. This 7.5 meter wide structure had the advantage of being central, but could not house the growing Iceland Symphony Orchestra, who decades later occupied the University of Iceland’s Cinema, itself under pressure for conferences and other events. Similarly, the now world-famous Iceland Airwaves festival used a hangar at Reykjavík airport for its first one-off event in 1999 – trendy, but acoustically not ideal. A building with the facilities of Harpa was long overdue.
The construction of Harpa started in 2007, but stopped in October 2008 when Iceland’s financial crisis hit. Harpa was the only part of the masterplan under construction, and was around 40 per cent complete. Fulfilling the rest of the redevelopment’s aims was out of the question. Harpa’s unfinished state became visual shorthand for economic irresponsibility, and with still-raw hindsight many questioned the collective madness that prompted a city of fewer than 200,000 to plan for such a large venue in the first place. (Rule No 2 of being Icelandic: Think BIG)
The Icelandic financial crisis was a major economic and political event in Iceland that involved the default of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks (including Landsbanki), representing 85% of the country’s financial system, in the same week in late 2008. Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland’s systemic banking collapse was the largest experienced by any country in economic history. The crisis led to a severe economic depression in 2008–2010 and significant political unrest.
Iceland’s response was controversial and represented a two-fingered salute to the polite society of academics and policy-makers who normally lay down the laws on economic disaster management. First, it let the banks go under: foreign financiers who had lent to Reykjavik institutions at their own risk didn’t get a single krona back. Second, officials imposed strict capital controls, making it harder for hot-money merchants to pull their cash out of the country.
While all the other countries started bailing out their greedy and irresponsible bankers, following the old free-market tradition that rules governments should never break faith with financiers, Iceland was the one country that defied the global consensus and did not. More than that, Iceland allowed those responsible for the crisis — its bankers — to be prosecuted as criminals.
There was shock to the system, but it was relatively short, and once the pain was dealt with, the country has bounced back stronger than ever. By refusing to allow its currency, the krona, to suffer ultra-low inflation to protect the assets of the rich — as in the rest of the West did — Iceland let the krona tumble. The resulting inflation and higher prices helped its export industries, unlike what happened in many European Union countries, which are contending with ongoing deflation. By 2011 Iceland had come through the crisis in better condition than anyone in 2008 dared hope.
When asked why Iceland was enjoying such a strong recovery while everyone else is still mired in debt, President Olafur Ragnar Grimmson said in 2013:
“Why are the banks considered to be the holy churches of the modern economy? Why are private banks not like airlines and telecommunication companies and allowed to go bankrupt if they have been run in an irresponsible way? The theory that you have to bail out banks is a theory that you allow bankers enjoy for their own profit, their success, and then let ordinary people bear their failure through taxes and austerity. People in enlightened democracies are not going to accept that in the long run.”
Grimmson’s “famous” reply to the controversial question, “What is the reason for Iceland’s recovery?” is most remarkable.
“We were wise enough not to follow the traditional prevailing orthodoxies of the Western financial world in the last 30 years. We introduced currency controls, we let the banks fail, we provided support for the poor, and we didn’t introduce austerity measures like you’re seeing in Europe.”
By paying off loans for consumers, forgiving homeowner debt (up to 110% of the property value), and throwing the offenders in prison (under the remarkable notion that choices and actions have consequences), Iceland was able to bounce back. There you have it. Instead of conceding to the crooks who made the mess, Iceland listened to its people. And the data speaks for itself.
In March 2015, the International Monetary Fund announced that Iceland had achieved economic recovery “without compromising its welfare model” of universal health care and education. And in March this year, Iceland ended capital controls (which had been winding down over the last few years), finally returning its economy to normal after the catastrophic banking collapse of 2008 and 2009. There is an interesting article on the subject in the Telegraph.
During the financial crisis, many, perhaps most, Icelanders took the obvious view, which was that with people losing homes and jobs, an expensive, oversized concert hall was not their priority. But the building structure was four storeys out of the ground and, faced with the alternative of abandoning it as an instant ruin and all-too-eloquent symbol of failure, the government pressed on. They took over the project and “with the help of very clever financing”, as one of those responsible for running the place put it, they “made it light for the taxpayers”.
With criticism mounting, the decision was made to pump government money into completing Harpa, and construction started again in March 2009. Harpa was the only construction project in Iceland for several years after the financial crisis.
Harpa opened in May 2011, with a concert conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. The opening took place a few months before the IMF’s bailout support programme ended. Rather than owing its existence to Landsbanki oligarch Björgólfur Guðmundsson, Harpa now stands as an adopted architectural child of the city and state.
Harpa became the sole jewel in Reykjavík’s ambitious East Harbour Project crown, with the rest of the masterplan postponed. Some visitors criticise Harpa for lacking connection with the city, but such criticism forgets, or is ignorant of the fact, that it was not initially conceived as, and will not always be, such a disconnected structure. Already another part of the masterplan, the first five star hotel in Iceland, Marriott Edition, with 250 rooms, is under construction next to Harpa. It is likely to open in 2019-2020.
It was Iceland’s decision to doggedly continue construction that won over the 2013 Mies van der Rohe Award jury. Chair Wiel Arets described how Harpa ‘captured the myth of a nation that has consciously acted in favour of a hybrid cultural building during the middle of the ongoing Great Recession’.
While waiting for the rest of the East Harbour masterplan to come to life, Harpa is anything but a reluctant icon: the façade has its own accompanying range of jewellery. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson produced not merely an artwork or ‘wallpaper’ to accompany the building but its entire external wrapping. The south façade, modelled on basalt columns, is formed from more than 1,000 quasi-bricks in a double skin (a 3D geometrical form), while the north, east and west façades mirror this geometry with a dragonfly-wing pattern in two dimensions (a cost cutting measure that quite possibly improved the design – 3D all around might have been a bit too much!). Externally it walks the tightrope between bling and artistry, and certainly does not reference anything close by.
The main idea behind the façade is to rethink the building as a static unit, and instead to allow it to respond dynamically to the changing colours of the surroundings. During the day, the geometrical figures create a crystalline structure which captures and reflects the light and initiates dialog between the building, the city and the countryside. In Iceland, light runs from endless translucent days in summer to the brief crawl of the sun above the horizon in winter, with many shades of black, blue and grey in between. Eliasson’s crystals filter, reflect and fragment light. They catch it, play with it, animate it and make it mobile. Sunshine lights up the foyers with a refulgence that is almost nuclear. In dim light the building gleams. The quasi-bricks of the south façade have glass at the back as well as the front, which gives depth. It means that light inhabits the façade rather than just bouncing off it.
In the evening, the façades are illuminated by LED lighting, which is built into each quasi-brick. The colour and light intensity can be adjusted, to bring the entire colour spectrum into play, forming patterns, letters or symbols.
The south façade in particular is rewarding once inside. The welded steel prisms are beautiful objects in their own right, each containing an integrated LED light whose colour and intensity can be individually programmed.
Being in Iceland, nature metaphors abound. Built in a black mixture of concrete and ash, the interior stands in soft contrast to the hard glass and mirrored edges of the main atrium. The main halls represent Fire (Eldborg), Air (Norðurljós), Earth (Silfurberg) and Water (Kaldalón), with Silfurberg and Norðurljós on the second floor linked by two soundproofed portals, allowing the two halls to be connected for larger events, and the smaller Kaldalón hall – named after an Icelandic bay – sitting below Norðurljós. Each hall derives its character from its namesake, Eldborg clad in deep red wood and Norðurljós housing mysterious programmable lights behind acoustic slats.
The largest auditorium, Eldborg, is named for a famous volcanic crater in Iceland (what else?!?).
Eldborg means Fire Mountain, and the auditorium, which can seat audiences of up to 1,800, is the vibrant red-hot powerhouse in Harpa’s inner core. The auditorium is built in concrete and surfaced with red-varnished birch veneer. Adjustable sound chambers around the auditorium add up to 30 percent more volume, giving a unique opportunity to adjust the reverberation time. With its characteristic shoe box form, Eldborg’s intense expression is a striking contrast to the more everyday atmosphere in the foyer.
Sound, not light, is the main business of a concert hall, and the world is littered with auditoria where acoustics have been sacrificed to spectacle. At Harpa the two are kept apart. If the façade is Eliasson’s, the halls are the domain of acoustic consultants Artec, who have guided some of the most successful modern auditoria in the world (Esplanade in Singapore; Jazz at Lincoln Centre in New York; Bartók Béla National Concert Hall in Budapest; Sala São Paulo in Brazil; the Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne, Switzerland), and at Harpa have produced a clarity of acoustic that has reportedly moved some performers to tears of joy.
Between Eliasson’s light and Artec’s sound comes the architecture of Henning Larsen Architects, and a core of dark concrete the colour of Iceland’s lava fields, that acts as a foil for one and a container for the other. This stands inside the glass box, forming the inner walls, balconies and stairs of the foyer. It is an admirably self-effacing role that the architects have chosen, and a collaborative one: Eliasson’s art was not simply attached to their frame, but created by artist and architect working together. The result is not a perfect integration of looking and hearing but a happy coexistence.
The interior is intentionally spare, suggesting to visitors that they look out at the surrounding sea, mountains, and city — an especially pleasant activity from the multitiered bar descending along the south façade.
Formally, Harpa is roughly split into two: the southern side housing the majority of the public space and facing towards the city, and the northern ‘backstage’ side housing the green rooms and offices, facing out to sea. Harpa’s shape is determined by the positioning of the main Eldborg hall along the north-south axis, with the Norðurljós (Northern Lights) and Silfurberg (a calcite crystal) halls sitting alongside at a slight angle.
Throughout the design process, emphasis was placed on giving Harpa enough versatility to host large and intimate events simultaneously and without interference with one another. Harpa’s facilities, which offer some of the most technologically advanced equipment available, are capable of accommodating everything from large conventions, concerts, and exhibitions to smaller banquets and meetings.
While the ‘conference’, ‘rehearsal’ or ‘concert’ halls are flexible, it is clear that the best reason to visit Harpa is to hear music. Kaldalón is booked for 90 per cent of the year. Here, steep raked seating with a screen suits film screenings or lectures, but the space has also been used as a black box for performances or recording electronic music, built with the same ‘box in a box’ soundproofing as the other halls. The fiery Eldborg, with its dramatic built-in seating, is less formally flexible, but still has changeable acoustics, seating that can be lowered to create an orchestra pit, and extra seating behind the stage. Each room has this flexibility in a slightly different way, with rotating panels or acoustic curtains.
Iceland’s position between the UK and US is Harpa’s main selling point as a conference hub, and its ample space means conferences can spill out of the halls with exhibitions, trade shows or buffets. They have bookings to 2025! Perhaps it is due in part to a lack of other venues, but Harpa’s programme is packed with everything from the EVE Fanfest – a celebration of the hugely popular Icelandic spaceship MMORPG – to the Arctic Circle Assembly. Björk’s Biophilia educational project – a large-scale pilot that draws together scientists, artists, academics and children in an exploration of music – is based here. Occasionally at weekends, markets flood the atrium and the piazza with local foods.
Harpa is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, the Icelandic Opera and the Reykjavik Big Band.
Little Puffles and Honey attended a concert in the Norðurljós recitall hall, Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert in the Eldborg hall and the comedy show How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes in the Kaldalón hall.
While How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes is a bit hit and miss when it comes to the jokes, having to rely on generalisations and stereotypes, it is actually very accurate when it comes to describing Iceland’s national character, and it does live up to its name. All the obvious stuff is in the show. They eat sheep’s balls (although this is actually rarely done these days), and they drink a lot of Brennivín. While the latter is true, the show also points out that if you’re spotted having a glass of wine on a Tuesday, you will generally be assumed to have a drinking problem, while a bottle or two of vodka on weekends is fine. One of the defining traits of Icelanders is their boundless optimism, even in the face of facts or reason. While this does give the country a certain dynamism, it has also been known to lead to trouble. Why does winter, while being an annual occurrence, still manage to come as a surprise every year? No one ever seems to remember to switch to winter tyres or get their warm clothes out, as if magically somehow this year winter won’t come. Then again, thanks to climate change, they may finally won’t need to.
First Harpa in Reykjavik. The venue is unusually defined by its facade. It’s a powerful statement created by fusing the creative visions of Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and internationally acclaimed artist, Olafur Eliasson. The sparkling glazed fenestrations transform the public areas, which are now often seen as being almost as important as the performing spaces themselves.
It is probably no coincidence that although Eliasson is Danish, his parents are Icelandic, allowing the citizens of Iceland to have at least part ownership in this world-class success at a difficult time in their history.
Seen from the foyer, the halls form a mountain-like massif that similar to basalt rock on the coast forms a stark contrast to the expressive and open facade. At the core of the rock, the largest hall of the building, the main concert hall, reveals its interior as a red-hot centre of force.
Little bears attended Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert, a festive program also including Dísella Lárusdóttir, Ólafur Kjartan Sigurðarson and Margrét Eiríksdóttir performing opera favorites and classic christmas songs with the Reykjavík Opera Choir and Kópavogur Men’s Choir, accompanied by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason.
Little bears attended another two shows at Harpa, Arvo Pärt and Mozart and How to Become Icelandic in 60 minutes, a hilarious comedy that taught them how to say Eyjafjallajökull!
Musiikkitalo deliberately reveals its treasures only after one actually enters the building. In the lobby huge panoramic windows look into the dark stained concert hall. Not only does the rather understated building have an auditorium with 1700 seats and five smaller halls – there are also three saunas!
Musiikkitalo was the least fun place to visit.
The stairs and stand of the auditorium are dazzling; the asymmetrical seats remind one of jammed rafts. The big hall resonates richly, but at the same time transparently; acoustics guru Yasuhisa Toyota was involved in the planning process from the start and did a great job here, where it is all about communication and not worship.
Wozzeck at Oslo Opera House was also not fun. Not the most cheerful of operas! Just between us, we can say we were present at Wozzeck but not that we have really seen Wozzeck.
The location, Oslo’s Bjørvika neighbourhood, was chosen because it was in need of urban renewal. The building had a subsidiary role in spearheading dockland redevelopment. Snøhetta opted for a roofline that rose from up from the waterline and the structure has been likened both to an iceberg and a stealth bomber that crashed into Oslofjord. The edges of the building can be used as a diving platform where they meet the water, and visitors can also walk up its sloping walls to the very top to admire the view. Passers-by often find themselves wandering into this fun structure without realising they have entered a concert hall.
In common with Harpa at present, the Oslo Opera House is surrounded by construction sites as the area continues to be renewed.
Wondering around the opera house was a bit more fun 🙂
The Oslo Opera House has proved a remarkably successful building, although the general view remains that there is a lot of bloom to the sound and that the overall building is more visually stunning than its auditorium.
Little bears found Stage 2 where Jingle Horse! was playing, a Christmas collage of well-known stories with a new twist, sometimes funny, sometimes less so. The show was in English, none of the stories escaped parody and not much was off-limits! Not even Mary Mother of God or the refugee crisis.
One of the reviews said the ensemble acting was so strong that it could carry any kind of text you could imagine. That was certainly true!
But the main character was very cute indeed! And an excellent actor 🙂
And yet at the end, everybody left the stage and left him all alone…
Little Puffles and Honey went to the rescue… 🙂
Danish Broadcasting’s new concert hall in Copenhagen, DR Koncerthuset, is sultry, curvaceous and clothed in aromatic reds and oranges. It is also spatially deceptive.
The performance of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fabio Luisi was outstanding. It received a standing ovation and rightly so.
Many moons ago, we selected a number of locations for the best chance of seeing the northern lights.
We have now visited all the locations and we have selected our favourite location for the northern lights: Tromsø. And not just because we were very lucky indeed to see the northern lights three nights in a row. As we have now discovered, there is a fundamental difference between the northern lights tours in Tromsø and the ones in Iceland, Sweden and Finland.
Given a clear and dark sky, suitable solar activity and a bit of luck, you can see the northern lights in each of these locations. You can choose to sit there and wait for the lights to come to you (it does happen!), or you can go find them! You might need a bit of help from the locals to find them.
The lights came to us both in Tromsø and in Abisko. It was playtime with little bears 🙂
The tours from Tromsø essentially come under the category of chasing the northern lights, which means that the tour operators have a single focus, finding a location to see the lights. They will drive 150-200km if that is what it takes to find a spot with a clear sky and aurora activity. I did find it odd that in the small print of the tour from Tromsø with AuroraPhotoGuide it said to bring my passport, but now I know that they will go all the way to Finland if that is what it takes!
By comparison, the tours from Abisko, Sweden, and Rovaniemi and Levi, Finland, have a set location, and seeing the northern lights would be a nice experience while they are filling in the time with other activities. At least in Abisko we had a photography focus and took some interesting photos.
During the first “northern lights tour” in Rovaniemi I got quite cranky. I could imagine Geir (the aurora guide from Tromsø) saying, “did you come here to see the aurora or did you come here to cook sausages?” And worse, there were children everywhere! Needless to say, we didn’t see the northern lights. The cloud cover was thick and covered the sky as far as the eye could see. At the end of the night, the tour guide made so many cheesy comments about the failure of the tour that if I rolled my eyes any harder, they would have got stuck permanently backwards!
All the tours were pre-booked and paid for, so sausages or not, I went on a second tour in Rovaniemi the following night. There was an improvement, no children in sight! I mean, late nights, cold nights and children. What could possibly go wrong? The sky was perfectly clear but the aurora did not show up at that location. And we had to survive -25C while waiting for it! It took so long to cook the sausage that I gave up and ate it half cold!
I also scheduled two “northern lights night tours” in Levi, but cancelled the tour on the first night. It was cloudy with no chance of a clear sky, -25C was the maximum temperature that day!!! so I abandoned the tour, which was essentially snowshoeing. I went out on the second night for the experience of driving the snow mobile. I didn’t think we had any chance of seeing the lights, but I took my camera and tripod just in case. The snow mobile experience was a lot of fun, but we didn’t see any lights.
As for Iceland, we joined a tour called Northern Lights Escape. Yeah, right! Zero effort was made towards the northern lights aspect. Adding the ‘northern lights’ to the names of the tours has become a nifty marketing ploy. And if you get really lucky and see the lights, they will happily take the credit.
There are plenty of fun activities in all these places, but if you want to maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights, and getting some good photographs of them, you need to look for a tour like the ones in Tromsø where the focus is only the northern lights and nothing else. And stay off boats. They are not suitable for photographing the northern lights. If the ‘northern lights’ tour includes snow shoes, snow mobiles, huskies, reindeer or some other similar thing, then the focus is on the snow shoes, snow mobiles, etc. etc., and not on the northern lights. But a warning, a real northern lights night tour can take 6-7 hours to 2am. With no toilet break! Remember, you are not at an established location. Like Geir would say, did you come to see the northern lights or did you come to sleep?
Icelandic children get to enjoy the favors on not one but 13 Father Christmases. Called the Yule Lads, these merry but mischievous fellows take turns visiting kids on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. On each of those nights, children place one of their shoes on the windowsill. For good boys and girls, the Yule Lad will leave candy. If not, the Yule Lads are not subtle in expressing their disapproval: they fill the shoe with rotting potatoes.
Don’t think well-behaved Icelandic kids have a sweet deal all around, however. They may enjoy 13 Santa Claus-like visits, but they also have to contend with a creature called Grýla who comes down from the mountains on Christmas and boils naughty children alive, and a giant, blood-thirsty black kitty called the Christmas Cat that prowls around the country on Christmas Eve and eats anyone who’s not wearing at least one new piece of clothing!
The harshness of the winters and the poor and simple living conditions of the Icelanders over the centuries did not hinder the development of a fine literary imagination. As a result, Icelandic folktales are richly endowed with ogres, elemental beings, monsters and their like.
The most loathsome and hideous ogress of all is the giant troll, Grýla. She first appeared in a 13th century manuscript, has made regular appearances since then and is now an infamous figure familiar to all Icelandic children. There have been many different descriptions given of her over the years, each one more horrible than the last.
As mother to the Yule Lads, Grýla plays an important part in Icelandic Christmas tradition. Apart from looking hideous, she has, it seems, a real craving for stewed child. But not for little bears! 🙂 Not just any child though – it has to be a naughty, lazy or rude one. Over the years she became quite handy to parents as a threat, and was regularly used as a warning to badly behaved children.
Grýla sets off as Christmas approaches, a sack over her shoulder, ravenous for naughty boys and girls! Whether she’ll enjoy a feast or go hungry will depend on how good the little ones’ behaviour has been over the past year. One story has her dying of starvation because the children have behaved so well. But she is born again, at least in stories, each and every Christmas, and will no doubt continue to be for many centuries to come.
Over the many centuries of Grýla’s existence she has had any number of romantic dalliances, including an affair with Lucifer. But only three permanent relationships have been recorded. Her first spouse was known as Boli. Grýla, it is said, had many children with him. He lived to a ripe old age, and since he was a troll this means we are talking thousands of years. He was bedridden long before he eventually expired.
About the second, very little is known. All we can be sure of is that his name was Gustur and that when he died, Grýla ate him!
The third is the most famous. The father of the Yule Lads, he is still around, turns up every Christmas, and goes by the name of Leppalúði. He is almost amiable compared to Grýla but shares with his spouse a liking for stewed child. A lazy, slobbish, uncouth layabout, he allows Grýla to do all the scavenging for wayward children while he puts his feet up and keeps the pot bubbling in anticipation of her return.
The mother of the Yule Lads, Grýla, was not one for letting the grass grow under her hooves, and there are over eighty recorded offspring attributed to this lady.
Whereas the character of the malicious, grumpy Grýla has changed little over the centuries, the nature of the Yule Lads has undergone quite a transformation. When first mentioned in the 17th century, they were described as evil ogres, like their parents, and were used for threatening or motivating lazy children. So much so, that the authorities in 1746 felt it necessary to issue the following decree:
The foolish custom, which has been practised here and there about the country, of scaring children with Yuletide lads or ghosts, shall be abolished.
The 19th century saw them reduced to the thirteen rascally, petty pilferers that are recognised today. Their act has softened up considerably and they have even stopped eating children altogether!
In 1932 a small book of charming verses by Jóhannes úr Kötlum was published, called Yuletide is Coming (Jólin koma). The verses told the story of Grýla and her family and were an instant success, remaining popular to this day. With the accompanying illustrations by Tryggvi Magnússon, they have gone a long way towards establishing the appearance and character of the Icelandic Yule family as they are known today.
With their traditional, shabby farm clothes, and beards of various shades and sizes, the brothers have largely managed to fight off the foreign influence of chubby, jovial Santa. However, during the course of the last century, and much to the delight of children, the Yule Lads took up the custom of leaving small gifts. Obviously, Mr Claus must take some of the credit for this trend.
Instead of stockings on bedposts, Icelandic children leave shoes on their window sills. One wonders what it is with Christmas gifts and footwear?
Each of the Yule Lads sets off from the family home in the Highlands and travels on foot over the mountains, making their individual appearances one after the other, on the thirteen nights before Christmas. Like Santa, they manage to cover the whole country, as well as delivering gifts to all the Icelandic children living abroad, in a single night. (No wonder they are hungry.)
The first to arrive in city, town and farmhouse is Stekkjarstaur, the Sheep Worrier. His chief characteristic is a gangly walk due to the stiffness in his legs. He is probably one of the older brothers and may suffer from a touch of rheumatism. He gets his name from his old habit of sneaking into the sheep cot where, feeling rather thirsty after his long trek from the mountains, he would try to suckle from the ewes but fail because he was too stiff to bend down. Now, it is doubtful whether sheep would yield any milk in the middle of December, which suggests his IQ could be somewhat less than three figures.
Fortunately, in modern townhouses these days there is no bending required, and he is quite happy to help himself to a glass of milk from the fridge!
Second on the list of benevolent hit men, another thirsty lad, is Giljaguar, the Gully Gawk. In days gone by, this decidedly elusive character would travel under the cover of deep gullies and dark ravines, furtively skulking along until he reached a farmhouse. There he would sneak stealthily into the animal quarters and seclude himself until the milkmaid was distracted. Then he’d pounce upon the milk pail, first savouring the creamy froth on top, his favourite treat, before quenching his thirst with the fresh warm milk.
These days he has no taste for the skimmed milks and sterilised stuff that he finds in modern kitchens, but it is a case of make do or do without!
The runt of the litter, Stúfur, or Stubby, is the third to arrive, though he is actually the first to set off. His little legs are so short and the snow is so deep that it takes him considerably more time and effort than his brothers to travel over the mountains. He is rather sensitive about his height, or lack of it, as it is a cruel fate to be the shortest member of a family of trolls.
You may not catch a glimpse of him on this particular night, as his size makes him adept at hiding, but the appearance of gifts the following morning is proof that he was there.
He’s another of the scroungers and hangs around the kitchen to scrape whatever he can off pans that the occupants, for whatever reason, haven’t managed to get around to washing.
While the rich are said to be born with a silver spoon in their mouths, this character definitely got the wooden spoon. His lot in life is to loiter around dark kitchens waiting for spoons to be set aside so that he can grab them and scurry back to his hiding place to enjoy them in peace.
Anyone who has done any baking with children around will realise that the wooden spoons don’t stay sticky for long, and Þvörusleikir is a handy character to dump the blame on. But on 15th December, do him a favour and don’t wash up the spoons, as he is awfully grateful for any sticky-spoon-connected morsel that will help nourish his emaciated frame.
It’s a good job these lads arrive at daily intervals, otherwise there would be a calamitous free-for-all, as they each head straight for the kitchens, suggesting that Icelanders might not be that prompt at doing the washing up! This suits Pottasleikir or Pot Licker, as his preference is for licking the leftovers off the sides and bottoms of pans, and especially for nibbling at the crunchy hardened bits that collect around the rim.
However, if he does come across a partly full pot, he won’t hesitate to gorge himself greedily until he is stuffed.
Askasleikir, Bowl Licker, is the last of the lickers. His personal liking is for an askur, or traditional wooden bowl with a hinged lid. In the old turf houses, members of the household would each have their own personal askur. The lid helped to keep the food warm and presumably protected it from any household pets. But is was no protection against Bowl Licker. He would hide under a bed (the bedroom doubling as a dining room in the small turf houses), waiting for the time when the dishes were set aside on the floor. Then, when the owners were distracted, he would sneakily snatch the dishes and lick them clean. How he manages these days, when the old-style askur sits unused in museums, is not recorded.
Hurðaskellir, or Door Slammer, is a frustrated percussionist, loud and boisterous. He likes to creep in under cover of darkness, as quiet as a mouse, and then bang on a door as loudly as he can, just for the fun of it. He often rushes from door to door, slamming each in turn, pausing only to enjoy the squeaks and creaks of old, unoiled hinges. This, as you can imagine, is not altogether welcome when he arrives in the middle of the night and wakes the whole household.
He is one of only two brothers who are not totally obsessed with their stomachs.
First it should be explained that skyr is a dairy product, similar to yoghurt, but made from separated milk. In the past it consisted of straightforward curds, but these days it is available in various tasty fruit flavours.
In general, Skyr Gobbler has had a better time of it than most of his brothers, as there was almost always plenty of skyr to be found in the farmhouse in the past and these days most household fridges will contain a pot or two of strawberry, peach or some other delicious skyr concoction.
Skyrgámur is renowned for being a glutton and will stuff himself until he is bursting at the seams.
In olden times, bjúgu (large sausages, approximately six times the size of a hot dog) were hung in strings from the rafters out of reach of cats, dogs and children. Although Bjúgnakrækir, or Sausage Stealer, is advanced in years, he is still nimble enough to climb stealthily up to the highest rafters. But these days the chances are as slim as himself of finding any food hanging up there. He is more likely to find what he’s looking for vacuum packed in the fridge.
Bjúgu are still available in the shops but the popular American hot dog is rapidly taking their place. Who knows, in years to come Bjúgnakrækir might even be re-christened “Hot Dog”.
The Peeper, as tradition has it, is a very shifty character. He loiters around windows, peeping in when nobody is about. He is always on the lookout for little knick-knacks that he can pilfer later on when everybody is ticked up in bed, fast asleep. If a child catches him looking in, Gluggangægir has a reputation for pulling funny faces to make himself look scary.
This Yule Lad believes that fair exchange is no robbery, and, as he always leaves presents in shoes, he considers a little pilfering perfectly acceptable. You can be sure he often gets the blame for ANY small objects that go missing at this time of year.
From far away over the mountains. Gáttaþefur, or Door Sniffer, gets his first whiff of the sweet-smelling “leaf bread” being cooked. Even with his eyes closed, he is guided by his highly developed sense of smell towards kitchen doors behind which Christmas delicacies are being prepared. Flour, until fairly recent times, was very much a luxury commodity in Iceland, and baking was kept for special occasions such as Christmas.
Once he has sniffed his way to a kitchen, Gáttaþefur’s genetic make-up means he is a compulsive cake thief, and when the opportunity arises he never fails to take advantage.
In the past, 22nd December was known as Hlakkandi (Looking-forward Day), because it was around this day that children started to anticipate the arrival of Christmas.
The penultimate Yule Lad is most definitely a carnivore. Meat is what he likes, any sort, and lots of it.
It was the simplest of exertions in days gone by to climb up onto the roof of an old turf house. There, with the aid of a long, stout hook, Ketkrókur would reach down the chimney and snag hold of a leg of smoked mutton or any other meat that might be hanging from the rafters. Or he might have reached further down (no doubt he had, and still has, lots of implements for different situations) to hook a morsel from a pot cooking on the hearth.
It was customary in the olden days to eat smoked lamb on St Þorlákur’s Day, 23rd December. However, these days, possibly to foil Ketkrókur, a tradition from the west of Iceland has become more generally accepted; that of eating skate on this day. The large, flat fish is hung for quite some time, until gamy, which means it has a most unappetising odour. This dish is decidedly an acquired taste!! Quite what Meat Hook thinks of the new development, nobody knows.
The tradition of giving lavish gifts at Christmas is a relatively recent one. However, the giving of candles on 24th December stretches back for centuries, a fact of which the last of the Yule Lads is well aware. Before the advent of electricity, children used the candles to brighten up the darkness in celebration of Christmas, but the hungry Candle Beggar would have devoured any he could lay his hands on. In those days the candles were made of tallow (animal fat) which – while not exactly delicious – was at least edible and would have helped to keep a wiry Yule Lad warm on his long journey back to the mountains.
These days Kertasníkir is still an avid collector of candles but he has to satisfy his nutritional needs by other means.
As if Grýla and all her mischievous offspring were not enough, the poor Icelandic children have to contend with the Yule Cat as well! A grossly overgrown house cat turned feral, it is cold, mean and ravenous. Instead of hunting mice like a normal-sized feline, it preys upon children – but not just any children. The Yule Cat s quite discerning, choosing only those who haven’t recently been given something new to wear!
It skulks across the frigid winter landscape, its yellow-green eyes glowing in the dark. Its teeth are sharp and its claws drawn ready to pounce on any poor, unsuspecting children whose uncaring parents have failed to provide them with a fresh item of clothing for Christmas.
Nobody knows where it comes from or where it goes, but on Christmas Eve, when the candles were lit, the Yule Cat would peer in through the window. If it saw each child of the household clutching a parcel containing something to wear, it would hiss and scowl and continue on its evil way.
Keeping warm in the Icelandic winter was, and still is, the number one priority. Children in the not-so-distant past were called upon to help with the preparation and production of new garments.
The spinning, weaving, knitting and sewing were performed, to some extent, by children. Until fairly recently in Iceland, all clothing came direct from the sheep. The wool had to be washed, combed and spun before it was painstakingly crafted into a garment. It was a long, arduous process. To make sure the children worked hard and concentrated while they all huddled round the light of a meagre flame, adults would put the fear of God into them with horrific tales of the Yule Cat.
These days every good Icelandic parent still makes sure that at the very least there is a new pair of socks or gloves for the kids at Christmas time – just in case! Because on long, dark, windy winter nights a faint, sinister caterwauling can sometimes still be heard.
From “The Yule Lads – A Celebration of Iceland’s Christmas Folklore” by Brian Pilkington.
The Icelandic Yule Lads are amongst some of the most curious Christmas Creatures of Icelandic folklore and are said to come down from the mountains every December to cause all sorts of havoc in the name of Advent. Each year the City of Reykjavík plays host to these Yule Lads, plus a number of other fascinating Christmas Creatures, who take up residence on some of the city’s most prominent buildings during Advent.
Little bears are at Harpa for a Friday series concert. The standard program features solo works paired with an orchestral work performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
Tonight’s main soloist is Víkingur Ólafsson, who is widely considered Iceland’s pre-eminent pianist. Víkingur is no stranger to Harpa. He performed at the concert hall’s opening event in 2011, and has premiered several new works there, performing regularly with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. In 2012, Harpa started hosting his annual chamber music festival, Reykjavík Midsummer Music. Needless to say, he’s grown very fond of the place.
Víkingur Ólafsson has shot to international fame due to his playing of Philip Glass. But tonight he is playing Arvo Pärt and Mozart.
Although Mozart and Arvo Pärt belong to two different periods, they have much in common artistically. Their music is pure and uplifting, often with a simple surface overlaying inner complexity. Für Alina for piano was a watershed in Pärt’s career, in which he found his own voice after a hiatus of many years. The Mozart-Adagio is Pärt’s piano trio arrangement of a gorgeous movement from one of Mozart’s piano sonatas.
Mozart’s piano works in c minor, written in 1785-1786, are unusually dark and tempestuous – even a sort of harbinger of the type of expression frequently associated with Beethoven. The Fantasia for solo piano is a perfect prelude to the concerto. In both pieces, Mozart explores the depths of the soul in a different way than he had previously done. Víkingur Ólafsson does double-duty as soloist and conductor, leading the orchestra from the piano, as was done in Mozart’s day.
Für Alina (1976)
Arvo Pärt went into a self-imposed creative exile for eight years, trying to find a way to resolve the creative conflict that he had opened up in Credo (1968). His Third Symphony, from 1971, is the only piece that dates from this transitional period, an attempt to fuse elements of the traditions Pärt was drawn to: Gregorian chant, harmonic simplicity, and the spiritual explorations into his Russian Orthodox faith he undertook at the same time.
In 1976 he succeeded in his quest, and the result sounds as if it had existed all along, music of the “little bells”, the so-called “tintinnabuli”, which you hear for the first time in this two-and-a-half minute piano miniature, Für Alina. This little piece is the seed from which the rest of Pärt’s musical life has grown: in the space of just a couple of years, Pärt composed the pieces that are still among his most popular today, including Fratres, the Concerto for two violins, Tabula Rasa, Summa, and the Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. These works helped establish his international reputation, especially in the West.
This short piano trio was written by Arvo Pärt in memory of his friend, the Russian violinist Oleg Kagan. Kagan is particularly renowned for his chamber music partnership with his wife, cellist Natalia Gutman, and pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Kagan had become seriously ill with cancer in 1989 and died a year later aged 43 in Munich. 216 years earlier in the same city, the 18-year-old Mozart had written his Piano Sonata in F K.280. Its Adagio, in the form of an F-minor Siciliana, has an extraordinary tragic power emphasised by poignant use of the semitone interval of a minor second (as in the opening three notes). Pärt’s reworking of the Mozart Adagio is respectful and moving.
Arvo Pärt is an Estonian classical composer and one of the most prominent living composers of sacred music, whose shimmeringly beautiful music is a curious and compelling blend of the secular and the sacred.
He was born in Estonia in 1935. In 1939 the Nazi-Soviet Pact handed the country to Stalin, and Pärt grew up under Soviet rule. That did not preclude a sophisticated musical education. At school he studied piano, percussion and oboe, and at 14 he began composing. Within three years he had written Meloodia, a solo piano piece in the style of Rachmaninov, which was commended in a young artists’ competition.
In 1954, he was called up for National Service in the army for two years. On his return from National Service, Pärt studied at the Tallinn Conservatory with Heino Eller, then a leading Estonian composer, whose teaching provides a thread running through modern Estonian music. Besides Pärt, Eller taught the great symphonist Eduard Tubin, who left Estonia in 1944; and his last student (Eller died in 1970) was Lepo Sumera, one of Estonia’s leading contemporary composers. By no means a modernist, Eller was tolerated by the Soviet authorities, and Pärt recalls him fondly: ‘There is only one central composition school in Estonia, and it’s Eller’s school. He gave me a path, but this path was very broad. He didn’t push in any direction, he supported you even if what you wrote wasn’t exactly like his own credo. He was very human, and it was a vivid apprenticeship.’
Still, it was not easy to be a composer in Estonia. In 1961, Pärt wrote what is widely acknowledged to be the first piece of Estonian serial music, his oratorio Maailma samm (‘The Stride of the World’), a work no longer included in the composer’s catalogue. The authorities regarded serialism as Western and decadent, and Pärt could not but come into conflict with those who controlled musical life, especially since much of his work was overtly religious. For many years he made his living working in radio and film, while writing music that struggled to find an audience.
In 1968 the authorities criticised Pärt’s work Credo, because its religious title seemed to challenge the pillars on which the Soviet Union was built. It seemed impossible for Pärt to be true to himself while also pleasing the authorities and so he hardly wrote a note during the next decade.
In the first half of the 1970s, Pärt’s health, damaged during his time in the army, recovered. He also joined the Russian Orthodox Church and married his second wife. A period of close study of medieval music led in 1976 to the style which Pärt labels ‘tintinnabular’ in recognition of his quest for a bell-like simplicity. Eventually the unending frustrations of Soviet life caused Pärt to emigrate in 1980, and he has lived in Berlin since 1982.
Pärt’s music relies on his deeply held faith and is infused with the centuries-old traditions of European church music, but it is for each listener to make up their own mind whether his music really is ‘religious’.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, K491 (1785-1786)
Mozart composed 12 piano concertos during the years 1784-86, an astonishing feat given the originality and exceptional quality of these works. To a large degree, much of their originality lies in the sonority and textures resulting from the expanded role of the wind instruments. Mozart was so taken with the abundance and abilities of the wind players in Vienna, that he used them in his scores as a distinct “mass” of sound against which the voice of the piano could be pitted, or to which it could respond in an interplay of motivic and timbral dialogue. In this sense, Mozart’s woodwind writing in this series of concertos figures prominently in the articulation of their forms; the winds no longer simply double the strings but function structurally as “dramatic personas” in their own right.
One of only two concertos Mozart wrote in a minor key, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K491 possesses a much darker, stormier nature than his previous piano concertos. The kaleidoscope of angst and emotions bundled inside of this work are far beyond those presented in Mozart’s previous concertos. A minor key signature establishes a distinctly different character than that of previous piano concertos. The foreboding character set up through the minor key signature is continued through the changes in structure and form, allowing for the introduction of more themes and contrasting ideas than most concertos. The synthesis of themes between orchestra and soloist also work towards the dark and turbulent character presented in this piece.
Premiered in Vienna on April 7, 1786 at one of three subscription concerts by Mozart, K491 was the last piano concerto of both his time of highly prolific piano concerto compositions, as well as his “Figaro season”. A dramatic change from his previous piano concertos, it was written only twenty-two days after the premiere of Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major and is regarded by many to be “one of Mozart’s most popular works in any genre.” One of Beethoven’s favorite pieces, Beethoven commented to his friend Johann Cramer after hearing a later performance of this concerto that “we shall never be able to do anything like that!” Many critics have noted the menacing, emotional mood of this concerto, describing it as having “an unrelenting, tragic character” that has a “gloomy agitation, but… a major mood, violent and energetic, to be sure, but not ‘tragic’.”
The fact that this concerto is written in a minor key departs from compositional norm of the time. This choice of a minor key illustrates a deliberate conveyance of something different, moodier, and more tempestuous than past concertos. German American musicologist Alfred Einstein, in describing the significance of different key signatures for Mozart observed that “If G minor is the fatalistic key for Mozart, then C minor is the dramatic one, the key of contrasts between aggressive unisons and lyrical passages. The lyrical quality is always taken over by gloomy outbursts.” Mozart’s use of C minor as a dark and emotional key had a large influence on Beethoven who later wrote his Pathetique Piano Sonata No. 8 in the same key, most likely hoping to express the same emotions of emotional turmoil presented in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24.
The torrid turbulence of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor is achieved through a variety of compositional techniques. The choice of a minor key signature, unusual for the time, sets up a more expressive, emotional turmoil than a major key signature would.
The innovation in dialogic interaction between the orchestra and the soloist creates a darker and more foreboding sound as well as providing a vaster array of themes. While Mozart’s piano concertos typically start with a dialogue like interaction between the orchestra and the soloist, K491 does not incorporate any of this direct interaction of dialogue in the initial theme. The first four notes of the orchestral introduction are never played by the soloist. The removal of this dialogue between orchestra and soloist at the beginning creates a more hostile, foreboding sound than the back and forth sharing of themes found at the beginning of previous piano concertos.
The topics expressed in each of the themes synthesize the symphonic storminess of the orchestral expositional theme with the more subtle conflict and struggle of the ascending and descending motives in the soloist expositional theme creating a highly emotional and stormy character. The form of the piece differs from previous concertos possessing a longer exposition into the relative major key as well as introducing more themes.
Finally, the expanded instrumentation of the orchestra gives the piece a larger range of sounds and dynamics to draw from to portray its emotional conflict and stormy nature. The vastness of the orchestra K491 is written for creates a sense of storminess and passion that a smaller orchestra would be unable to produce. Counted among one of the “symphonic concertos”, the instrumentation of Piano Concerto No. 24 includes not only the traditional instruments found in most piano concertos, but also a particularly large woodwind section with oboes and clarinets. The vastness of the instrumentation for this concerto adds to the stormy contrasts of emotions and volume of this concerto. Containing flute, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings, oboes, and clarinets the palette of colors, tones, and harmonies enhance the dark and stormy character being created in this concerto.
The pre-concert talk was not optional! Each piece and composer was introduced in depth, and in Icelandic 🙂 , as part of the concert.
For the encore, Víkingur Ólafsson played Philip Glass’ Etude No. 9.
Oh, there once was a Puffin
Just the shape of a muffin,
And he lived on an island
In the bright blue sea!
He ate little fishes,
That were most delicious,
And he had them for supper
And he had them for tea.
But this poor little Puffin,
He couldn’t play nothin’,
For he hadn’t anybody
To play with at all.
So he sat on his island,
And he cried for awhile, and
He felt very lonely,
And he felt very small.
Then along came the fishes,
And they said, “If you wishes,
You can have us for playmates,
Instead of for tea!”
So they now play together,
In all sorts of weather,
And the Puffin eats pancakes,
Like you and like me.
It was in the days of King Harald Fair-hair, son of Halfdan the Black, son of Gudrod the Hunting King, son of Halfdan the Mild and Meal-stingy, son of Eystein Fart, son of Olaf Wood-carver, King of the Swedes, that a man named Hallfred brought his ship to Breiddal in Iceland, below the district of Fljotsdal. On the ship were his wife and his son, who was named Hrafnkel. He was then fifteen years of age, promising and able.
Hallfred built a farm. During the winter, a foreign slave-woman named Arnthrud died there, and that is why it has since been called Arnthrudarstadir (Arnthrud’s place). In the spring, Hallfred moved his farm north across the heath, and built a new home at a place called Geitdal (Goat valley).
Then one night he dreamed that a man came to him and said, ‘There you lie, Hallfred, and rather carelessly too. Move your farm away, west across Lagarfljot river. That is where your luck is.’
After that he woke up, and moved his farm across the Ranga river in Tunga, to a place that has since been called Hallfredsstadir (Hallfred’s place) where he lived until his old age. But he left a boar and a he-goat behind him, and on the same day that Hallfred left, a landslide came down on the buildings. The animals were lost, and that is why the place has since been called Geitdal.
Hrafnkel made a habit of riding on the moors during the summer. At that time, Jokulsdal had been settled up as far as the bridges over the Jokulsa river. Hrafnkel rode up through the Fljotsdal district, and saw an uninhabited valley that branched off Jokulsdal. To Hrafnkel’s mind, this valley was more habitable than any other valley he had ever seen.
When Hrafnkel got home, he asked his father to divide the property, and said that he wanted to build his own farmstead. His father granted him this. He then built himself a farm in the valley, and called it Adalbol. Hrafnkel married Oddbjorg Skjoldolfsdottir from Laxardal. They had two sons. The elder was named Thorir, and the younger Asbjorn.
When Hrafnkel had taken the land at Adalbol, he held great sacrifices, and had a great temple built. Hrafnkel loved no other god more than Frey, and he dedicated half of all his best livestock to him. Hrafnkel settled the entire valley and gave people land, but he wanted to be their superior, and took the godord over them. Owing to this, his name was extended, and he was called Frey’s Godi. He was unfair towards other people, but was well accomplished. He forced the people of Jokulsdal to become his thingmen, and was mild and gentle with his own people, but stiff and stubborn with the people of Jokulsdal who never received any justice from him. Hrafnkel was often involved in single combats and never paid anyone reparation. No one received any compensation from him, whatever he did.
Fljotsdal heath is difficult to cross, and very rocky and wet, but father and son often rode over to visit each other because they had a good relationship. Hallfred felt that the route was hard going, and searched for another route for himself above the fells in the Fljotsdal district. There he found a drier, longer route which is called Hallfredargata (Hallfred’s track). This route is only travelled by those who know the Fljotsdal district well.
There was a man named Bjarni who lived on the farm at Laugarhus. That is near Hrafnkelsdal. He was married and had two sons with his wife, one named Sam, and the other Eyvind, both good-looking and promising men. Eyvind lived at home with his father, but Sam was married and lived at the northern end of the valley on a farm named Leikskalar, and he owned plenty of livestock. Sam was a very argumentative man, and clever with the law. Eyvind became a merchant. He went abroad to Norway, and was there for the winter. From there he went to other countries, and stopped in Constantinople where he gained great honour from the King of the Greeks. He stayed there for a while.
Hrafnkel had one animal in his possession that he valued more than others. It was a dun stallion with a dark mane and tail and a dark stripe down its back, which he named Freyfaxi. He dedicated half of this horse to his friend, Frey. He had such love for this stallion that he made an oath to bring about the death of any man who rode it without his permission.
There was a man named Thorbjorn. He was Bjarni’s brother and lived on a farm called Hol, opposite Adalbol to the east. Thorbjorn had few livestock, but many dependants. His eldest son was named Einar. He was big and well accomplished.
One spring, Thorbjorn told Einar that he should look for service somewhere, ‘because I need no more labour than the rest of this household can provide, and you will have a good chance of getting service because you are well accomplished. This dismissal isn’t brought about by any lack of love, for you are the child that is most dear to me. It is brought about by my own lack of means and poverty. My other children will also become labourers, but you will get a better position than they will.’
Einar answered, ‘You’ve told me about this too late, because now all of the best positions have been taken. I don’t like having to choose from what’s left.’
One day, Einar took his horse and rode over to Adalbol. Hrafnkel was sitting in the main room. He greeted him warmly, and with pleasure. Einar asked for service with Hrafnkel.
He answered, ‘Why are you asking for this so late? I would have taken you on first, but now I have taken on all my servants except for the only job that you wouldn’t want.’
Einar asked what that might be. Hrafnkel said that he had not taken on anybody to herd the sheep, but that he had great need of such a person. Einar stated that he did not care what work he did, whether it was this job or another, but said that he needed provision for a year.
‘I will give you a quick choice,’ said Hrafnkel. ‘You will herd fifty ewes back to the shieling each night, and gather all the wood for the summer. This you will do in return for your keep for a year. But I want to make one thing clear to you, as I have done with all my other herdsmen. Freyfaxi roams near the bottom of the valley with his herd. You are to take care of him during both summer and winter. But I warn you against one thing. I never want you to mount him, whatever need you may be in, because, as I have most seriously sworn, I will bring about the death of any man who rides him. Ten or twelve horses follow him. You are welcome to use any of these that you wish, be it day or night. Now do as I say, because there is an old saying that “he who gives warning is not at fault”. Now you know what I have stated.’
Einar said that he would not be so ill-fated as to have to use the one horse he was forbidden to ride if there were many others available.
Einar then went home to fetch his clothes, and moved over to Adalbol. The sheep were then driven up to a shieling near the head of Hrafnkelsdal, a place called Grjotteigssel. Einar did so well during the summer that no sheep were lost before midsummer, but then one night almost thirty ewes were found to be missing. Einar searched all the pastures, but found nothing. They were missing for almost a week.
Early one morning Einar went out, and the mist from the south and the drizzle had cleared. He took a staff in his hand, a bridle and a saddle-cloth. He went over the river Grjotteigsa which flowed in front of the shieling. There, lying on the gravel flats beside the river, were the sheep that had been at home during the evening. He drove them back to the shieling, and went to look for the other sheep that had gone missing earlier. He then saw the horses on the gravel flats, and thought of catching a horse to ride, believing that he would travel faster if he rode rather than walked. When he reached the horses, he chased them. Those which had never used to run away from people now all shied away from him; except for Freyfaxi alone. The stallion stood so still that it was as if he was rooted to the ground.
Einar knew that the morning was getting on, and did not think that Hrafnkel would find out if he rode the stallion. Then he took the stallion, bridled him, placed the saddle-cloth beneath himself on the horse and rode up by Grjotagil, up to the glaciers, and west alongside the glaciers to where the Jokulsa river flows out from beneath them, and then down beside the river to the Reykjasel shieling. He asked all the shepherds at the shielings whether anyone had seen the sheep, but no one had seen a thing. Einar rode Freyfaxi from the last part of the night until early next evening. The stallion carried him fast and far, because he was a good horse.
Einar decided that it was time to head back and herd together the sheep that were at home, even if he did not find the others. He then rode east over the ridges towards Hrafnkelsdal. When he came down to Grjotteig, though, he heard the sound of bleating near the end of the ravine he had ridden past earlier. He turned towards this place, and saw thirty ewes coming towards him, the same sheep that he had been missing for the previous week. He drove the sheep home, released the stallion beside the herd and walked back to the shieling.
The stallion was so soaked in sweat that it was dripping off every hair. He was splattered with mud and terribly exhausted. He rolled over some seven times, and after that gave a great neigh. He then set off down the track at great speed. Einar went after him, hoping to head the stallion off, catch him, and bring him back to the horses, but he was so shy that Einar could not get anywhere near him. The stallion galloped down the valley, and did not stop until he came to Adalbol. Hrafnkel was eating. When the stallion reached the door, he neighed loudly. Hrafnkel told one of the women who was serving at the table that she should go out, ‘because a horse neighed, and it sounded to me like the neigh of Freyfaxi’.
She went to the door and saw Freyfaxi in a very dirty state. She told Hrafnkel that Freyfaxi was outside the door, looking thoroughly filthy.
‘What should the champion want that he should have come back home?’ said Hrafnkel. ‘This does not mean anything good.’
He then went out and saw Freyfaxi, and said, ‘I don’t like the way you’ve been treated, my foster-son. But you had your wits about you when you told me of this. It will be avenged. Go to your herd.’
Freyfaxi went up the valley to his horses. Hrafnkel went to his bed that evening and slept through the night.
In the morning, he had a horse taken and saddled for him, and rode up to the shieling. He rode wearing black clothes. He had an axe in his hand, but no other weapons. Einar had just finished herding the sheep into the pen. He was lying on the wall of the pen, counting the sheep, and the women were milking. They greeted Hrafnkel. He asked how things had been going for Einar.
Einar answered, ‘Things haven’t been going well for me. Thirty ewes were missing for nearly a week, but they’ve now been found.’
Hrafnkel said that that was of no real importance. ‘Hasn’t anything worse happened? It hasn’t often occurred that sheep have been missing. But did you ride Freyfaxi yesterday?’
Einar said he could not argue with that at all.
Hrafnkel responded, ‘Why did you ride the horse that you were forbidden to ride when there were plenty of others that you had permission to take? I would have forgiven you this one time if I had not sworn such a serious oath, and you have owned up well. But we have the belief that nothing goes well for people when the words of an oath come down on them.’
Then he leapt off his horse and swung his axe at Einar. He met his death immediately. After he had completed that, Hrafnkel rode home to Adalbol and announced the news. He then sent another man out to herd at the shieling. He had Einar taken to a ledge west of the shieling, and raised a cairn beside his shallow grave. This is called Einarsvardi (Einar’s cairn). From the shieling, this site is used to reckon the time of early evening.
Over at Hol, Thorbjorn heard about the slaying of his son Einar.
He took this news badly. Then he fetched his horse and rode to Adalbol and demanded compensation from Hrafnkel for the killing of his son. Hrafnkel said he had killed more men than just this one.
‘You are not unaware that I never pay anyone reparations. People have to put up with that. All the same, I will admit that I regard this deed as one of the worst acts I have committed. You have been a neighbour of mine for a long time. I have liked you, and the feeling has been mutual. No great matter would have come up between Einar and myself if he had not ridden the horse. But we often have cause to regret having said too much, and we would more rarely have cause for regret if we spoke less rather than more. I will now show you that I regard this deed as worse than any other acts I have committed. I will supply your farm with dairy cows in the summer, and slaughtered meat in the autumn. I will do this for you every season for as long as you wish to live here. I will set up your sons and daughters elsewhere under my guardianship, and strengthen their position so that they come into improved circumstances. And from now on, anything that you know to be in my homestead, and need to have, then you must tell me and you will never want for these things again. You will live on your farm for as long as you wish, and then come here when you grow weary of that. I will then take care of you until your dying day. Let us now settle on this. I expect that most people will remark that this man was truly expensive.’
‘I don’t want that offer,’ said Thorbjorn.
‘What do you want then?’ said Hrafnkel.
‘I want us to choose others to arbitrate a settlement between us.’
Hrafnkel answered, ‘You regard yourself as my equal then, and we will never come to an agreement on that basis.’
Then Thorbjorn rode off, down through Hrafnkelsdal. He came to Laugarhus and met his brother Bjarni. He told him the news and asked him to take a share in seeking redress in this matter.
Bjarni said that he would not be dealing with an equal in the case of Hrafnkel: ‘Even if we had some money to dispose of, we mustn’t get involved in a dispute with Hrafnkel. It’s true that “it’s a wise man who knows himself”. Hrafnkel has complicated many law cases with stronger men than ourselves. I think you’re stupid to have turned down such a good deal. I don’t want any part in this.’
Thorbjorn uttered a number of cutting words to his brother, and said that the greater the stakes were, the less courageous his heart was. He then rode off, and they parted with little warmth.
He did not stop until he came down to Leikskalar, where he knocked at the door. Someone answered it, and Thorbjorn asked Sam to come outside. Sam greeted his uncle warmly, and with pleasure, and invited him to stay. Thorbjorn took that somewhat coolly. Sam sensed Thorbjorn’s unhappiness and asked him for the news, and Thorbjorn told him about the slaying of his son Einar.
Sam responded, ‘It’s no great news that Hrafnkel kills people. He’s pretty handy with a wood-axe.’
Thorbjorn asked whether Sam would offer him some support: ‘This matter is such that, even though I am the closest relative, the blow has landed not so very far away from yourself.’
‘Have you spoken to Hrafnkel about the question of your redress?’ asked Sam.
Thorbjorn told him the truth about how things had gone between him and Hrafnkel.
‘I’m not aware,’ said Sam, ‘that Hrafnkel has ever offered anybody such redress as he has offered you. Now I would like to ride back up to Adalbol with you. We’ll approach Hrafnkel very humbly and see if he is still prepared to keep to the same offer. In one way or another, he will act well.’
‘There are two things: Hrafnkel will now be unwilling, and I myself have no more mind to accept now than I had when I rode away from there.’
‘I believe it will be a heavy matter to get involved in a legal dispute with Hrafnkel.’
Thorbjorn responded, ‘The reason you young people never amount to anything is that you keep making such a huge fuss about everything. I doubt if there is any man who has such worthless relations as I have. I don’t think much of people like you, who make out that they are clever with the law, and eagerly take on small cases, but don’t want to accept a case like this which is so immediate. You will suffer reproach for this, and that is quite fitting since you are the loudest member of our family. Now I can see how this case is likely to go.’
Sam responded, ‘What benefit are you likely to gain if I take on this case, and we both end up getting humiliated?’
Thorbjorn answered, ‘It will still be a great consolation to me if you take on this case. We’ll just have to see what bargain comes out of this,’ he said.
Sam responded, ‘I go into conflict with Hrafnkel unwillingly. I do this mainly for the sake of my relationship with you. But you ought to know that I think I’m helping a fool.’
Then Sam reached out his hand, and took over the case from Thorbjorn.
Sam had his horse fetched for him, and rode up the valley. He rode to a farm where he gathered some people together and declared Hrafnkel responsible for the killing. Hrafnkel heard about this and found it ridiculous that Sam had taken on a case against him. He did not make any move for the moment.
That summer passed and the following winter. But in the spring, when the Summons Days arrived, Sam rode from his home up to Adalbol and gave Hrafnkel a summons for the murder of Einar. After that Sam rode down the valley and summoned neighbours to ride to the Althing with him. He then stayed at home until people started preparing to leave for the meeting.
Hrafnkel then sent people down the valley and summoned men. He got seventy men from his Thing district. With this company, he rode east over Fljotsdal heath, past the end of the lake, directly across the ridge into the Skridudal valley, and then up Skridudal and south over Ox heath to Berufjord. They then took the usual thingman route to Sida. Going south from Fljotsdal, it is a seventeen-day journey to Thingvellir.
After Hrafnkel had ridden out of the district, Sam started looking for followers. Apart from the men he had summoned, those that he found most prepared to go were unattached men. Sam gave them weapons, clothes and provisions. He took another route out of the valley. He went north to the bridges, crossed the bridge and Modrudal heath, and arrived in Modrudal where they stayed for one night. They then rode to Herdibreidstunga, above Blafjoll into Kroksdal, and from there south to Sand. They came down into Sandafell, and from there went on to Thingvellir. Hrafnkel still had not arrived. He came later because he had taken a longer route.
Sam set up a temporary booth for his men, nowhere near the place where the people of the East Fjords usually camped. Sometime later Hrafnkel arrived at the Althing. He set up his booth in his usual place and heard that Sam was already there at the Thing. He found this ludicrous.
This Thing was particularly well attended. Most of the chieftains in Iceland were there. Sam sought out all of the chieftains and asked for their help and support, but they all gave the same reply. None of them felt that they owed Sam anything to make it worth their while entering into a dispute with Hrafnkel, and risking their honour. They said that most of the Thing disputes that people had entered into with Hrafnkel had ended in the same way: he had routed everyone in the legal cases they had taken up with him.
Sam went back to his booth. He and his uncle were in a heavy mood and feared that this matter would go in such a way that they would gain nothing from it but shame, dishonour and ridicule. The two kinsmen were so troubled that they could neither sleep nor eat. All the chieftains had refused to offer them support, even those people that they had expected would provide them with assistance.
Early one morning, old Thorbjorn woke up. He awakened Sam and asked him to get up straight away, and not go back to sleep. Sam got up and put his clothes on. They went out, and down to the Oxara river, below the bridge. There they washed themselves.
Thorbjorn said to Sam, ‘I suggest that you have them collect our horses and that we get ready to go home. It is now obvious that we will get nothing other than ridicule.’
Sam answered, ‘That’s very good! All you wanted to do was have a dispute with Hrafnkel. You didn’t want to take the alternative which many others would have gladly accepted if they had to seek redress for a close relation. You questioned the courage of those of us who didn’t wish to enter into this matter with you. Now I will never give up until I see that there is no hope that I can do anything.’
When this speech ended, Thorbjorn was so moved that he burst into tears.
Then, on the west side of the river, some distance further down from where they were sitting, they saw five men walking together from a booth. The man in front was tall, but not particularly strongly built. He was wearing a leaf-green tunic and carrying an ornamented sword in his hand. He was a man with regular features, a ruddy face and an air of distinction, with light chestnut hair and good eyes. This man was easily recognizable because he had a light streak in his hair on the left side.
Sam said that they should get up, and cross over to the west side of the river to meet the men. They walked down beside the river, and the man in front greeted them first and asked them who they were. They introduced themselves.
Sam asked these men for their names. The man in front was named Thorkel, and he said he was the son of Thjostar. Sam asked him about his family background, and where he lived. He said both he and his family came from the West Fjords, and that his home was in Thorskafjord. Sam asked if he was a godi. He said that was far from the case.
‘Are you a farmer then?’ said Sam.
He said that he was not.
Sam said, ‘What sort of person are you then?’
He answered, ‘I’m unattached. I came home the year before last. I’d been abroad for six years, and been to Constantinople. I am a sworn follower of the Greek Emperor but am now staying with my brother whose name is Thorgeir.’
‘Is he a godi?’ asked Sam.
‘Certainly. He’s the godi for Thorskafjord and a number of other places in the West Fjords.’
‘Is he here at the Althing?’
‘Certainly he’s here.’
‘How many men has he got with him?’
‘Seventy men,’ said Thorkel.
‘Have you any other brothers?’ said Sam.
‘There’s a third.’
‘Who is that?’ said Sam.
‘His name is Thormod,’ said Thorkel, ‘and he lives in Gardar in Alftanes. He is married to Thordis, the daughter of Thorolf Skallagrimsson of Borg.’
‘Will you give us some support?’ asked Sam.
‘What kind of support do you need?’ said Thorkel.
‘The support and the might of chieftains,’ said Sam, ‘because we are involved in a lawsuit with Hrafnkel the Godi about the slaying of Einar Thorbjarnarson, and we can trust in our pleading of the case if we have your assistance.’
Thorkel responded, ‘As I said, I am no godi.’
‘Why were you passed over, when you are the son of a chieftain just like your brothers?’
Thorkel said, ‘I didn’t say that I didn’t own it. I passed my position of authority over to my brother before I went abroad. Since then I have not taken it back, because I think it is in good hands as long as he takes care of it. You go and speak to him. Ask him for help. He has a firm temperament, is a good comrade and is in all ways a well-accomplished, ambitious young man. Such people are most likely to offer you support.’
Sam said, ‘We won’t get anything from him unless you plead with him alongside us.’
Thorkel said, ‘I promise to stand with you rather than against you because I think it’s necessary to bring a suit after the slaying of a close relative. Now you go off to the booth, and walk inside. Everybody will be asleep. You will see two leather sleeping sacks placed across the floor at the far end of the booth. I just got out of one of them, but my brother Thorgeir is sleeping in the other. He has had an enormous boil on his foot ever since he came to the Thing, and so he hasn’t slept much at night. But the boil burst early this morning, and the core of the boil came out. He has been sleeping ever since, and has got his foot stretched out from under the sack on to the foot-board at the end of the bed because of the inflammation in his foot. Have the old man lead you as you go into the booth. He looks rather decrepit to me, both in terms of sight and age. And then, man,’ said Thorkel, ‘when you reach the sleeping sack, you should stumble badly, fall on to the foot-board, grab the toe that is bandaged, jerk it towards you and see how he reacts.’
Sam said, ‘You may be giving us good advice, but this does not feel like the advisable thing to do.’
Thorkel responded, ‘You are going to have to do one thing or the other: either you accept what I propose, or you don’t come to me for advice.’
Sam said that it would be as he advised.
Thorkel said, ‘I will come along later, because I am waiting for my men.’
Sam and Thorbjorn set off, and came into the booth. Everyone in there was sleeping. They saw immediately where Thorgeir was lying. Old Thorbjorn went first, stumbling badly. When he came towards the leather sleeping sack, he fell on to the foot-board, grabbed at the sick toe and jerked it towards himself. This woke Thorgeir. He sprang up in the sack and demanded to know who was going around so clumsily that they trampled on the feet of people who were already unwell.
Sam and Thorbjorn were speechless, but then Thorkel rushed into the booth and said to Thorgeir, his brother, ‘Don’t be so fast and furious about this, kinsman. It won’t do you any harm. For many people, things go worse than they intend, and many, when they have a lot on their minds, just don’t manage to be careful enough. Your excuse, kinsman, is that your foot is sore and has been very painful. You’re the one who has felt it most. Now it may well be that the old man is in no less pain at the death of his son, but he can’t get any compensation, and lacks the wherewithal himself. He’ll be the one who feels it most, and it can be expected that a man who has a lot on his mind will not always be careful enough.’
Thorgeir answered, ‘I don’t see how he can blame me for that. I didn’t kill his son, so he shouldn’t be taking it out on me.’
‘He didn’t mean to take it out on you,’ said Thorkel. ‘He came towards you harder than he intended, and has paid the price for his weak-sightedness, just when he was hoping for a little support from you. It is noble to extend generosity to an old man in need. For him it is not greed, but necessity that makes him bring a suit for the killing of his son. All the other chieftains pare refusing to give their support, which shows just how ignoble they are.’
Thorgeir said, ‘Whom are these men accusing?’
Thorkel answered, ‘Hrafnkel the Godi killed Thorbjorn’s son without cause. He commits one evil deed after another, but refuses to give any man just recompense.’
Thorgeir responded, ‘I will act just like the others, because I know there isn’t a thing that I owe these men to make me wish to enter into a dispute with Hrafnkel. It seems to me that every summer he treats those who have cases against him in the same way. Most of those people gain little honour, if any, by the time things have been concluded. It goes the same way for everyone. I expect that’s why most people act unwilling towards somebody whom they are not drawn to through any necessity.’
Thorkel responded, ‘It may be that I’d act in the same way if I were a chieftain, and that I wouldn’t like the idea of entering a dispute with Hrafnkel. But I don’t think so, because I prefer competing with someone who has routed everyone else. And, to my mind, my honour, like that of any chieftain who can get the better of Hrafnkel in any way, will grow rather than diminish, even if things go the same way for me as they have for others, because I can take what has happened to many before me. Who dares wins.’
‘I see how you are inclined,’ said Thorgeir, ‘and that you want to help these men. I will now pass over to you our godord and our position of authority. You will have it as long as I have now had it, and after that we will both share it equally between us, so you can help those that you wish.’
‘It strikes me,’ said Thorkel, ‘that the longer our godord is in your hands, the better. There is nobody I’d care to have it more than you, because in many ways you’re the most accomplished of us brothers, while at this time I am undecided about what I want to do with myself. You know, kinsman, that I haven’t really taken part in anything since I came back to Iceland. I can now see how much my advice is worth. I have now spoken all the words I mean to utter for the time being. It may be that Thorkel Streak will find a place where his words are more appreciated.’
Thorgeir responded, ‘I see where things are heading, kinsman. You are displeased, and I can’t stand knowing that. We’ll assist these men whatever comes of it, if that’s what you want.’
Thorkel said, ‘I only ask for what seems to me were best granted.’
‘What do these men think they are capable of doing to ensure that their case goes through?’ asked Thorgeir.
‘As I said,’ said Sam, ‘we need the backing of chieftains, but I will be in charge of presenting the case.’
Thorgeir said that made it easy to help him: ‘Now it’s a matter of preparing as correct a case as possible. But I think that Thorkel would like you to visit him before the court convenes. Your persistence will then reward you with consolation, or disgrace, or yet more anguish and torment. Now go home, and be cheerful, because you are going to need to be so if you mean to enter a dispute with Hrafnkel. Keep your heads high for a while, but don’t tell anyone that we have promised to give you assistance.’
They then walked home to their booth and both were in very high spirits. Their men were amazed at this sudden change in mood, because they had been so depressed when they went out.
They stayed there until the court convened. Then Sam summoned his men and went up to the Law Rock where the court was set. Sam went boldly up to the court, and immediately began calling forth witnesses, prosecuting his case against Hrafnkel the Godi in full accordance with the true law of the land, in a faultless and powerful presentation. After this, the Thjostarssons arrived with a large force of men. Everyone present from the west of the country joined them, which showed how popular the Thjostarssons were.
Sam prosecuted his case at the court until Hrafnkel was invited to come and make his defence, unless somebody else was present who wished to make a legal defence on his behalf in accordance with the true law of the country. There had been much applause for Sam’s case, so nobody said that they wished to do this.
People ran to Hrafnkel’s booth and told him what was happening. He reacted immediately, summoned his men and set off for the court. He did not think there would be much defence. He intended to discourage small fry from prosecuting cases against him, and was going to break up the court, and drive Sam off the case. But this turned out to be impossible. There was such a crowd in the way that Hrafnkel could not get anywhere near. He was forced back by the sheer weight of numbers so he did not manage to hear the case of those who were prosecuting him. It was therefore difficult: for him to present any legal defence for himself.
Sam prosecuted his case to the full extent of the law, until Hrafnkel was finally sentenced to greater outlawry at this Thing meeting.
Hrafnkel went to his booth, had his horses fetched and rode off from the Thing, greatly displeased at the way things had ended because this had never happened to him before. He rode east across Lyngdal heath, and then east to Sida, and did not stop until he came home to Hrafnkelsdal. He then settled back down at Adalbol, and acted as if nothing had happened.
Sam stayed at the Thing and strode about very haughtily. Many people were pleased, even though Hrafnkel had ended up being humiliated. They remembered that Hrafnkel had treated many people unfairly.
Sam waited until the Thing was dissolved, and people started preparing to go home. He thanked the brothers for their support. Thorgeir asked Sam with a laugh how he felt things had gone. Sam said he was pleased.
Thorgeir said, ‘Do you think you’re any better off now than before?’
Sam answered, ‘I think Hrafnkel has suffered such dishonour that he will be ridiculed for a long time to come. There are also many possessions involved.’
Thorgeir said, ‘No man is a full outlaw as long as the confiscation court has not been held, and that has to take place at his home. It must be done fourteen days after Weapon Taking.’
Weapon Taking is when a Thing is dismissed and the people all ride home again.
‘But I expect,’ said Thorgeir, ‘that Hrafnkel has now reached home, and that he means to stay on in Adalbol. I expect that he means to keep his position of authority from you. And you probably intend to ride home and settle back down on your farm as best you can, if you manage to settle at all. I expect that you have succeeded in so far as you can call him an outlaw. But I also expect that he will be wielding the same terror over other people that he did before. The only difference is that now you find yourself set even lower.’
‘That won’t ever bother me,’ said Sam.
‘You’re a courageous man,’ said Thorgeir, ‘but I don’t think my kinsman Thorkel means to leave you in the lurch. He means to help you until this business between you and Hrafnkel has come to an end, so that you can live in peace. Indeed, we feel duty-bound to accompany you to the East Fjords this one time since we have been most involved until this point. Do you know any route to the East Fjords that is not commonly used?’
Sam said that he would take the same route that he had taken from the east.
Sam was very pleased about this. Thorgeir chose his party, and had a following of forty men. This party was well equipped with weapons and horses.
They then set off, and all rode along the same route until they arrived in Jokulsdal in the last part of the night, and crossed the bridge over the river. This was the morning that the confiscation court was supposed to be carried out.
Then Thorgeir asked how they could best take Hrafnkel by surprise. Sam said that he knew a way of doing this. He immediately turned off the track and went up on to the mountainside and along the ridge between Hrafnkelsdal and Jokulsdal until they came out below the mountain that stands above Adalbol. There were some grassy gullies running up on to the heath there, and a steep slope going down the mountainside into the valley. There below stood the farm.
Sam dismounted there and said, ‘It is my advice that you dismount and let our horses go free. Have twenty men watch the horses. We’ll take sixty men and run down to the farm as fast as possible. We’ll go faster if we don’t take the horses, because it’s very steep. I don’t expect there will be many people awake.’
They did as Sam advised. That place has since been called Hrossageilar (Horse gullies).
They dashed down towards the farm, and reached it quickly just after rising time. People were not yet up. They rammed a log against the door and ran in. Hrafnkel was lying in his bed. They took him from there along with all those men on the farm who were capable of bearing weapons. The women and children were herded into another building.
There was a storehouse standing in the meadow, and running between the storehouse and the wall of the farmhouse was a beam that was used for drying clothes. They led Hrafnkel and his men over to this. He made many pleas for himself and his men, but when he saw that no notice was paid to this, he begged for the lives of his men, ‘since they have done you no wrong, while killing me will bring you no dishonour. I will make no protest against that. But I will protest against being humiliated. There is little honour for you in that.’
Thorkel said, ‘We’ve heard that you’ve been rather deaf to the pleading of your enemies, and it is right that you should suffer the same treatment today.’
They took Hrafnkel and his men, and bound their hands behind their backs. After that, they broke open the storehouse and took a rope down from some hooks. They then took their knives, pierced holes through the men’s heels behind the tendons and dragged the rope through these holes. They threw the rope over the beam, and strung the eight of them up together.
Then Thorgeir said, ‘So this is your present situation, and it seems quite fitting, Hrafnkel. You might have thought it unlikely that you would ever receive such shame as this from any man. What do you want to do, Thorkel? Sit here with Hrafnkel and keep a watch on them, or go with Sam to a safe place an arrow-shot away from the farm, and then carry out the confiscation court on some rocky knoll where there is neither a ploughed field nor a meadow?’
This was supposed to be performed when the sun was directly in the south.
Thorkel said, ‘I will stay here with Hrafnkel. That seems less work.’
Thorgeir and Sam then went and carried out the confiscation court. After that, they walked home. They took Hrafnkel and his men down and laid them in the hayfield. The blood had run into their eyes.
Then Thorgeir told Sam that he could do what he liked with Hrafnkel, ‘because I don’t think you’ll have any problem with him now. It’s clear that Hrafnkel never expected to fall into your hands.’
Sam answered, ‘I will give Hrafnkel two choices: the first is that he be led away along with those men that I choose, and be put to death. But since he has so many dependants to look after, I want to grant him the possibility of taking care of them. If he wishes to have his life, he must leave Adalbol with his close relations and only those goods that I allot for him. I will take over his present place of abode and his position of authority. Neither you nor your heirs will ever lay claim to it again. You must come no closer than the eastern side of Fljotsdal heath. We can shake hands on this if you wish to accept.’
Hrafnkel said, ‘Many would prefer a quick death to such humiliation, but I will be like so many others and choose life if it is an alternative. I do this mainly because of my sons. They will have little chance of ever amounting to anything if I die.’
Hrafnkel was then released and he granted Sam self-judgement. Sam apportioned to Hrafnkel those goods that he thought fit. That day, Hrafnkel moved all of his people and the goods he had been allowed away from Adalbol.
Thorkel said to Sam, ‘I don’t know why you are doing this. You yourself will most regret having given Hrafnkel his life.’
Sam said that that was how it would have to be.
Hrafnkel moved his farm east over Fljotsdal heath, and across Fljotsdal to the east of Lagarfljot river. Near the end of the lake, there was a small farm which was called Lokhilla. Hrafnkel bought this farm on credit, because he had no more than what he needed for provisions. People talked much about how his arrogance had been deflated, and many remembered the old proverb, ‘brief is the life of excess’.
It was a wide area of forested countryside, but the buildings were very poor and that is why he bought it at a low price. Hrafnkel was not so worried about the cost, though. He felled the forestland because it was so wide, and built a grand farm which has since been called Hrafnkelsstadir (Hrafnkel’s place). It has always been regarded as a good farm since that time. Hrafnkel lived there in great hardship for the first seasons, but he gained a great yield from fishermen. Hrafnkel worked very hard himself when the farm was being constructed. He reared calves and goat kids over the winter during that first season. He did well that first winter. Almost everything that he was responsible for survived. It might be said that by the spring there were two heads on each animal.
That summer a great run of trout entered Lagarfljot. Such things greatly improved living conditions for the people in the district, and this continued every summer.
Sam set up his farm at Adalbol after Hrafnkel had left, and held a splendid feast. He invited all of those who had been Hrafnkel’s thingmen, and offered to be their leader in place of Hrafnkel. People accepted this, but there were mixed feelings about it.
The chieftains, the Thjostarssons, advised him to be kind and generous to his thingmen, and a useful supporter for anybody who needed him: ‘Then they won’t be real men if they don’t follow you whenever you have need of any of them. We advise you to do this so that you will have success in everything, because you seem to us to be a brave man. Now take care, and keep your eyes open because you must always watch out for the wicked.’
During the day, the Thjostarssons sent for Freyfaxi and his herd, saying they wanted to see these wonderful animals that so many tales had been told about, ‘because you won’t find any better animals of this kind than these horses’.
The horses were led home, and the brothers looked them over.
Thorgeir said, ‘These mares look ideal for farming people. I recommend that they be put to work for people for as long as possible, until the winter or age start troubling them. But this stallion doesn’t seem any better to me than any other horses. If anything, he is worse since he’s been the cause of so much trouble. I don’t want him to be the cause of any more slayings than those which have already taken place. It would be most fitting that he who owns him should take him.’
They now led the stallion down through the meadows, and along beside the river. Below the farm, there are some high cliffs and a waterfall. There is a deep pool in the river there. They led the stallion out on to the cliff. The men from the West Fjords pulled a leather sack over the head of the horse, and took some stout poles and set them against his flanks. They then tied a stone around his neck, leaned hard against the poles and pushed him forward and off the cliff, so that he was destroyed. This place has since been called Freyfaxahamar (Freyfaxi’s cliff).
Standing above them were the temple buildings that had belonged to Hrafnkel. Thorgeir wanted to burn them. He had them stripped, and after that set fire to the temple building, burning everything up. They then went back to the farm. The guests prepared to leave and Sam gave fine gifts to everyone.
The brothers were ready to leave. Sam chose some excellent treasures for them, and they promised each other complete friendship. They parted as warm friends, and rode along the usual route west to the fjords. They came home to Thorskafjord with respect.
Sam sent Thorbjorn down to Leikskalar where he was supposed to live. Sam’s wife came to live with him at Adalbol, and they stayed there for the time being. Both sides now lived peacefully.
East in Fljotsdal, Hrafnkel heard about the activities of the Thjostarssons, how they had first destroyed Freyfaxi, and then burned the temple building and the images of the gods in Hrafnkelsdal. He then said that he considered it vanity to believe in gods and said that from that time onwards he would never believe in them. He kept his word, and after this never made any more sacrifices.
Hrafnkel stayed in Hrafnkelsstadir, and raked in riches. He soon won great respect in the district. Everybody was glad to stand or sit, just as he wished.
At that time, the traffic of ships from Norway to Iceland was at its height. Most of the land in the district was settled during Hrafnkel’s day. Nobody was allowed the freedom to stay there unless Hrafnkel granted them permission. Everyone had to promise him their support. He promised them his help and support in return, and took control of all the land east of Lagarfljot. This assembly district soon became much greater and more populous than the one he had had before, stretching out to Selfljot, all the way up Skridudal, and all the way along Lagarfljot. A great change had suddenly taken place in that the man was much more popular than before. He had the same temperament as regards his helpfulness and generosity, but was now a more gentle man than before, more restrained in all ways.
Sam and Hrafnkel often met at public gatherings, but they never mentioned their dealings with each other.
Sam lived on in this position of respect for six years. He was popular among his thingmen because he was peaceful and restrained, and good at providing solutions. He remembered what the brothers had advised him.
It is told that one summer a ship came in from the sea into Reydarfjord, and the skipper was Eyvind Bjarnason. He had been abroad for six years. Eyvind had developed greatly in character and had become the bravest of men. He was soon given the news of what had happened, but he showed little outward reaction to it because he was a man who kept himself to himself.
When Sam heard about this, he rode to the ship. The brothers had a very joyful meeting, and Sam invited Eyvind to come west to him. Eyvind gladly accepted this offer. He asked Sam to ride home first and send some horses to fetch his goods. He drew his ship up on land and set it in order. Sam now did as he had been told. He went home, had horses collected and sent his men to meet Eyvind.
When Eyvind had packed his goods, he prepared for his journey to Hrafnkelsdal. He loaded the pack-horses and went up Reydarfjord. There were five of them. The sixth was Eyvind’s servant boy. He was Icelandic by birth, and closely related to Sam and Eyvind. Eyvind had taken this boy out of poverty when he was living at home. He had taken the boy abroad with him, and treated him as he did himself. This act of Eyvind’s was much talked about, and it was generally rumoured that he had done other such things.
They rode up on to Thorsdal heath, driving sixteen pack-horses ahead of them. Two of Sam’s servants were there, and four traders. They were all dressed in colourful clothes, and rode carrying beautiful shields. They rode across Skridudal and over the ridge into Fljotsdal, to a place called Bolungarvellir, and then down to the Gilsareyri flats. They run along the east side of the lake between Hallormsstadir and Hrafnkelsstadir. They rode up beside Lagarfljot below the meadow at Hrafnkelsstadir, and then round the end of the lake and over the Jokulsa river at a place named Skalavad. It was midway between rising time and breakfast time.
A woman was by the lake washing her linen. She saw some people riding. The servant woman bundled together the linen, ran home, threw it down beside a wood pile and ran in. Hrafnkel had not got up, and some friends of his were still lying in the farmhouse, but the farm labourers had all gone off to work. It was hay time.
The woman started speaking as she came in: ‘It’s true what they said in the old days that “the older you get, the wetter you become”. The respect a man receives early in life isn’t worth much if he later loses it through dishonour and hasn’t got the self-confidence to go off and rescue his rights. And it’s a particularly big surprise in those men who have been made out to be courageous. Now those people who grew up with their fathers, their lives are different. You think nothing of them compared with yourselves, but then they grow up and they go from country to country and are thought of as being terribly important wherever they travel. And then they come back home and they’re thought of as being greater than chieftains. Eyvind Bjarnason, who just rode over the river at Skalavad with a shield so beautiful that it shone, is so accomplished that he’d make a worthy object for revenge.’
The servant woman went on relentlessly.
Hrafnkel got up and answered her: ‘It may be that much of what you say is true, even if you mean no good by it. You deserve to suffer more hardship for it. Go quickly south to Vidivellir and fetch Sighvat and Snorri, Hallstein’s sons. Ask them to come immediately with all the men that are still with them and are capable of bearing weapons.’
He sent another servant woman to Hrolfsstadir to fetch Thord and Halli, Hrolf’s sons, and those people there who were capable of bearing weapons. These were both worthy and able men. Hrafnkel also sent for his servants. When they arrived, there was a total of eighteen men. They armed themselves boldly, and rode over the river where the others had gone.
Eyvind and the others had reached the heath when Hrafnkel and his men were crossing the valley. Eyvind rode west until he reached the middle of the heath. That place is called Bersagotur (Bersi’s tracks). There is an open bog there, and it is like riding through mud, which sometimes reaches up to the horse’s knees or the middle of its legs, sometimes even its belly, but under that it is as hard as rock, so no one should expect that it will get any deeper. There is a big lava field to the west. They rode west over the rocky ground.
When they came on to the lava, the lad looked back and spoke to Eyvind: ‘There are some men riding after us,’ he said, ‘no less than eighteen or twenty of them. There is a big man in black clothes riding on horseback, and it looks to me like Hrafnkel, although it is a long time since I have seen him.’
Eyvind answered, ‘What has that got to do with us? I know of no cause to be frightened of Hrafnkel out riding. I have done him no harm. He must have some reason to meet his friends in the valleys to the west.’
The lad answered, ‘It strikes me that he wants to meet you.’
‘I don’t know of anything that has come up between him and my brother Sam since they came to terms,’ said Eyvind.
The lad responded, ‘I’d like you to ride ahead, west to the valley. You’ll be safe then. I know Hrafnkel’s temperament. He’ll do us no harm if he doesn’t catch you. Everything is taken care of if you are. Then there will be no tethered prey for them, and whatever happens to us, all will be well.’
Eyvind said that he would not ride ahead, ‘because I don’t know who these people are. Many people would think it ridiculous if I ran away without having any proof.’
They now rode west out of the lava field. Ahead of them was another bog called Uxamyri, which is very grassy. It has many wet patches so it is almost impassable for those who do not know it. Both bogs take equally long to cross, but this one is worse because it is wetter, and people often have to unload horses. That was why old Hallfred had made the track farther up, even though it was longer, because he found it difficult crossing here with these two bogs. Eyvind now rode west into the bog with his men. They got badly bogged down, and were much delayed. The others, who were riding unhindered, were travelling much faster, and they now rode into the bog too. When Eyvind and the others reached the western side, they recognized that it was Hrafnkel who was in pursuit, along with both of his sons. They also recognized many other men.
They begged Eyvind to ride ahead: ‘All the obstacles are now behind us, and you can ride west, down from the heath, quickly. As long as the bog is between us, you can still reach Adalbol. You’ll be safe there.’
Eyvind answered, ‘I will not ride away from men that I have done no wrong to.’
They now rode west out of the bog, and up on to the ridge. West of the ridge, there is a good, grassy valley, and as you come out of that valley to the west, there is another ridge before you come down into Hrafnkelsdal. They now rode up on to the eastern ridge. There are some peaks on this ridge, and on the outer edge of one of these, there is a knoll with lyme grass on top. It is much eroded, and has steep sides. There are good pastures there, and a bog. Eyvind rode off the track, and south into the gullies running to the east of the knoll. There he dismounted, and asked his men to let the horses graze.
‘We’ll soon discover what our lot will be; whether these men will turn to meet us or whether they have some other business west of the heath.’
Hrafnkel and his men were now very close behind. Eyvind hobbled his horse. After that they went up on to the knoll, and carried up some rocks from the sides. Hrafnkel turned off the track, south towards the knoll. He did not say a word to Eyvind, but went straight on to the attack. Eyvind defended himself well and bravely.
Eyvind’s servant boy did not think he was strong enough to fight, so he took his horse and rode west over the ridge to Adalbol, and told Sam about the game that was afoot. Sam reacted immediately and sent men off to the next farms. That made a total of twenty men altogether. This party was well equipped. Sam rode east on to the heath to the place where the fight had taken place.
By that time, the exchange was over and done with. Hrafnkel was riding east over the heath, away from the site of the conflict. Eyvind was lying dead along with all his men. The first thing Sam did was search for signs of life in his brother. It had been a thorough job. They had all lost their lives. Twelve of Hrafnkel’s men had also fallen, but six were riding away.
Sam did not stay there long, and told his men to ride after them immediately: ‘Their horses are exhausted, but all of ours are rested. It will be a close thing whether we catch them up or not before they come down off the heath.’
By that time, Hrafnkel had come east over Uxamyri.
Both groups rode on, and when they got to the eastern side of the bog, Sam’s men entered the lava field. By that time, Hrafnkel had reached the eastern side of the rocky ground, so the lava was now between them. While Sam was crossing the rocky ground, Hrafnkel got far ahead. Sam and his men rode on together until they reached the edge of the heath. Sam then saw that Hrafnkel had got far down the slopes, and realized that he would reach his own district ahead of them.
He told his men that they would not ride any farther, ‘because it will now be easy for Hrafnkel to gather reinforcements, so that he will soon have us in his hands’.
Having said this, Sam turned back. He came to where Eyvind lay, started work, and built a mound over him and his fellows who had fallen. These places are called Eyvindartorfa (Eyvind’s knoll) and Eyvindarfjoll (Eyvind’s peaks) and Eyvindardal (Eyvind’s valley).
Sam had the horses collected, loaded up the pack-horses and drove them home to Adalbol. When he came home, he sent men throughout Hrafnkelsdal in the evening, saying that all of his thingmen should come to him before breakfast, because he intended to go east over the heath: ‘My trip will turn out as it may.’
That night, when Sam went to bed, a great number of men had already arrived.
Hrafnkel rode home that night to Hrafnkelsstadir, and gave the news. He ate some food, and after that he collected men until he had seventy, and with that force, he rode west across the heath and made a surprise attack. He took Sam in his bed, led him out and gave him two choices.
Hrafnkel said, ‘So this is your present situation, Sam. A short while ago you might have thought it unlikely that I would have your life in my hands. I will be no worse a comrade than you were to me: I will offer you life if you wish, just as you did with me, or you can be killed. The other condition is that I alone will divide and choose things.’
Sam said that he would rather choose to live, but thought that both alternatives were hard.
Hrafnkel said that he could expect that, ‘because we have a debt to pay. I would treat you much better if you deserved it. You will leave Adalbol, and go back down to Leikskalar and live there on your farm. You will take with you those riches that Eyvind brought. You will take no other goods away unless people can confirm that you brought them here with you. I want to take back my godord and my position of authority, my farm and place of abode, and all the other possessions that I owned. I see that there has been quite an increase here recently in terms of wealth. You will not reap the benefit of that because I mean to take it. You will receive no compensation for your brother Eyvind, because you brought a very bold suit for the slaying of that other relation of yours. You have received quite sufficient compensation for your cousin Einar, since you have had both power and possessions for this time. I don’t regard the killing of Eyvind and that of his men as being worth any more than the injury done to myself and those injuries done to my men. You can stay at Leikskalar as long as your pride does not lead to your downfall. You will remain my underling as long as we are both alive. You can also expect to find yourself lower set than before.’
Then Sam went away, down to Leikskalar with his close relations, and settled back down on his farm there.
Hrafnkel then took over the farm at Adalbol with his people. There were both wealth and abundance for the taking. He placed his son Thorir at Hrafnkelsstadir, along with a housekeeper. He now held the godords for all the local districts. His son Asbjorn went west to Adalbol with his father because he was the younger.
Sam stayed at Leikskalar that winter. He was quiet and kept himself to himself. Many people felt that he was far from happy about his lot.
Later that winter, when the days started to grow longer, Sam had a horse shod, and got himself a groom. He took three horses, one of them for clothes, and rode over the bridge. From there, he went across Modrudal heath, and crossed the Jokulsa river up in the mountains, riding on to Myvatn lake, over Fljot heath and through the Ljosavatn pass. He did not stop until he came west to Thorskafjord. He was well received there. Thorkel had just returned from a voyage. He had been abroad for four years.
Sam was there for a week, resting himself. After that he told them about his dealings with Hrafnkel, and asked the brothers for assistance and support as before.
This time Thorgeir spoke more on behalf of the two of them, saying that they had already done a great deal, that he was a long way off and that there was a great distance between them, ‘since you are living in the east of the country, and we in the west. We thought we placed everything pretty firmly in your hands before we left, so that it would be possible for you to keep things as they were. It has followed my intuition that if you granted Hrafnkel his life you would come to regret it most. We urged you to execute Hrafnkel; we thought that most advisable for you, but you wanted to have your own way. The difference in wisdom between the two of you is obvious, since he left you in peace, and did not make a move until he got the chance to kill the person that he thought was wiser than you. We can’t have anything to do with this lucklessness of yours. We don’t have such a great desire to get involved in disputes with Hrafnkel that we feel like risking our honour any more. The main reason, though, is that we think there is too much distance between us for us to visit the East Fjords. But we would like to invite you and your dependants to come and live here under our protection if you think it less galling here than in the vicinity of Hrafnkel.’
Sam said that he did not feel like going to all the work of moving everything from the East Fjords, and thought they could only help him in the way that he had asked. He said he wanted to get ready to go back home and asked them to exchange horses with him. That was done immediately.
The brothers wanted to give Sam fine gifts but he would not accept any of them. He said they were small-minded men. After that, Sam rode home. None of them was totally happy about all this. Sam settled back down on his farm, and lived there into his old age. He never improved his position nor got any redress from Hrafnkel as long as he lived.
Hrafnkel stayed on at his farm and kept his honour for many years. He did not live to be an old man, because he died of an illness. His burial mound is in Hrafnkelsdal just outside Adalbol.
His sons took over his lands and position of authority. They met and divided the property between them, but held the position of authority together. Thorir got Hrafnkelsstadir and set up a farm there, while Asbjorn took over Adalbol and the valuables.
The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, succinct (!), direct and supremely realistic, is widely considered to capture the essence of the classical Icelandic saga. Set in the first half of the 10th century in East Iceland, but with important episodes in the West Fjords and at the Althing, it appears on the surface to be a straightforward and simple story. It tells how Hrafnkel, a worshipper of the god Frey, forbids a shepherd to ride one of his stallions and then kills him for breaking this rule. Hrafnkel is punished for this overbearing behaviour when Sam, a kinsman of the shepherd, uses skill at law and the support of two powerful brothers to have him sentenced at the Althing, confiscate his property and take over his godord. Eventually Hrafnkel takes vengeance and regains his position of power.