A story about merciful giants, unethical fortunetellers and glorious bastards
The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal tells the story of Ingimund1, the settler of the Vatnsdal valley in North West Iceland, and his descendants. The saga was written around 1300 AD and some scholars believe the writer must have been a monk of the famous Thingeyrar monastery that used to be located in this same valley. 2 The monastery was the oldest one in Iceland, built by the bishop of Hólar to thank God for ending the famine in Iceland. Unfortunately the building doesn’t exist anymore, but in its place now stands a beautiful stone church.3
A case of “Young people these days…”
Like many of the Icelandic sagas, the story starts in Norway. In 9th century Romsdal, North West Norway, a young man named Thorstein is scolded by his father for being a lazy coward who sits by his mother’s hearth and drinks mead all day, instead of going on raids and winning himself honor and treasure like his father and ancestors before him. Thorstein is enraged by these words and storms out of the house. He is determined to prove his worth by going into the local forest, to find out who has been making innocent travellers disappear there. (Which is exactly what his father intended him to do.)
The beautiful giant
In the forest Thorstein soon finds the criminal who is responsible for the robbing and murdering of travellers. It is a man who is as big as a giant, but also handsome and noble looking, which makes Thorstein hesitant to kill him. But he is desperate to prove himself to his father, so he hides himself in the giant’s house. Once the big man is fast asleep in his bed, Thorstein runs him through with a sword. The giant wakes up and even though he has been dealt a fatal wound, he manages to grab Thorstein and pull him between the bed panel and himself, holding him in a deadly grip. The giant introduces himself as Jokul, the son of Ingimund the Earl. He explains that he has indeed been attacking travellers in the forest, but that he recently started feeling remorse and that he would have changed his ways, had Thorstein not dealt him this death blow.
Jokul is in a position to kill Thorstein now, but instead the wounded man asks him for a favor: to marry Jokul’s sister. Jokul has the feeling that Thorstein is a man of good fortune, who could bring his family prosperity, and who could let Jokul’s name live on by naming one of his sons after him. Thorstein agrees to this proposition and pulls out the sword on Jokul’s request, after which Jokul dies. The young man goes home to tell his father the news that the forest had been freed of its menace (his father is very proud of him) and then sets off to the land of Earl Ingimund.
That awkward moment when your son’s murderer wants to marry your daughter
At the risk of his life, Thorstein introduces himself to the earl and the earl’s wife as the murderer of their son who would like to marry their daughter. It takes some convincing, especially on the part of the earl, but in the end they agree. Partly because they believe that this was indeed their son’s dying wish, and partly because of Thorstein’s honesty and courage. He could after all just have stayed home with his father and not have fulfilled his promise to Jokul. So Thorstein marries Thordis, the earl’s daughter, and they have a son together that they name Ingimund.
An unfortunate party
Ingimund grows up to be a brave, smart man. When king Harald Fairhair rises to power, Ingimund realizes that it is wiser to join him than to oppose him, and he becomes one of the king’s favorite warriors. Therefore he is not forced to flee to Iceland, like many other powerful men at the time. However, he does move to Iceland, for a totally different reason. Have you ever regretted going to a party because of how the evening turned out? Well, Ingimund has. He attends a party where a Lapp woman is present who can foresee the future. Ingimund doesn’t want to know his future, but the woman tells him anyway (I guess they didn’t have an ethical code for fortune tellers in those days). She tells him that his future lies in Iceland, and that his amulet of Freyr4 which the king gave to him is no longer in his purse, but is buried in Iceland, in the region where Ingimund will settle. Ingimund is angry at her for making this prediction, because he is happy in Norway and wants to stay there. But when he looks in his purse, the amulet is gone…
Moving to Iceland
In the following years Ingimund continues to live a prosperous life in Norway. He marries a woman called Vigdis and they have several children together. But the thought that fate wants him to move to Iceland gnaws at him and his friends tell him that no one can escape fate. So in the end he fulfills the prophecy and sets sail for Iceland, with his wife and children. He settles in the Vatnsdal valley that was described to him by the Lapps and when he puts pillars in the earth to build a temple, he finds his amulet of Freyr again.
Ingimund becomes a well-respected chieftain in Iceland. Meanwhile, his five sons are growing up to be five very different men, especially the two oldest. Ingimund’s first son, Thorstein, is thoughtful and clever, while his second son, Jokul, is strong and short-tempered. The other sons are called Thorir, Hogni and Smid, respectively.
Ingimund is respected not just for his courage and strength, but also because he is a generous and honorable man. His honorable behavior eventually leads to his death. As a favor to his foster-brother Sæmund, he lets Sæmund’s nephew Hrolleif live on his lands. Sæmund and other landowners in the district are fed up with Hrolleif, because of his bullying, violent behavior.
One day Hrolleif gets into an argument with Ingimund’s sons because he doesn’t respect their fishing rights in the local river. When Ingimund hears about this he goes to Hrolleif and tries to reason with him, but Hrolleif throws a spear into his midriff. Ingimund, who is by then already an old and almost blind man, gets home with the help of a servant boy. Before he dies, he tells the servant boy to warn Hrolleif and his mother to leave the area before Ingimund’s sons find out what has happened and take their revenge on them. Ingimund says: “I am no better avenged by his death and, no matter what happens later, as long as I have any say in things, it is right for me to protect the person whom I have previously agreed to help.”5
This behavior may seem overly noble, but in the Viking Age it was considered very important to protect family as well as houseguests. Examples of this occur in many Icelandic sagas.
Although Hrolleif flees, he is killed by Ingimund’s sons later that year. This is no easy feat for them, because Hrolleif’s mother protects him with witchcraft. But it is the combination of Jokul’s strength and Thorstein’s cleverness that makes them succeed in decapitating Hrolleif.
A new great leader
After Ingimund’s death his sons and especially Thorstein become the rulers of the district. Together they make a good team, but none of them by themselves is as great a man as their father Ingimund was. Great (wo)men were needed in those times, because many outlaws and robbers roamed Iceland, from which the people needed protection. Moreover, there were berserks who challenged men to duels if they would not give them their wives or wealth.
But new leaders can be found in unexpected places. One day Thorir, one of Thorstein’s younger brothers, is complaining about his own bad temper. He is prone to fits of rage in moments when these suit him the least, and he tells Thorstein that he would do anything to be rid of this. Thorstein says that he will ask ‘the god who created the sun’ to free Thorir of his bad temper, if Thorir will do two things for him in return. First of all, pass his position of goði6 on to Thorstein’s sons, and secondly, save the newborn bastard child that their kinsman Thorgrim has left out to die. Thorir agrees to both conditions and takes the baby home with him. The child is called Thorkel Scratcher, possibly because he was scratching at a cloth that was covering his face when they found him.7 Thorir raises the child and never has fits of rage again.
Thorkel Scratcher doesn’t have an easy youth, being a slave woman’s son. Many people don’t give him credit or make fun of him. But Thorkel proves himself by doing great deeds and fighting bravely, as well as being a hard worker and a social, agreeable man. When he is fighting for the earl of Orkney against many men on a beach, he doesn’t flee back to the ship like the rest of the crew, but takes them on by himself. And when there is a shortage of men to help organize a local wedding, Thorkel is the one who runs about the countryside to catch pigs and slaughter them for the feast. Because of his background as a bastard child, he has a kindness and humbleness that leaders like Ingimund and Thorstein may have lacked.
It is because of his many qualities that the slavewoman’s son becomes the goði of the district. The writer of the saga, an unknown Christian monk, also describes how an additional virtue of Thorkel was that he converted to Christianity (along with the rest of Iceland in 1000 AD). The saga of the people of Vatnsdal ends with Thorkel’s death. He dies of an illness at an old age, and is sorely missed by his þingmenn8.
What can we learn from this saga?
1. Great adventures are not had by staying home
Although Thorstein (senior) is angry when his father provokes him to move his but away from the hearth and out of the door, it’s good for him in the long run. He has an adventure that improves his confidence, wins him respect and leads him, albeit in a strange way, to the mother of his children. So sometimes we need to be our own Ketil the Large (that was the name of Thorstein’s father) and push ourselves to go out of the house and have new experiences. But I have to admit, at other moments it’s great to stay by the hearth and just read about other people’s adventures 😉
2. We shape our own fate
The Vikings believed that fate was pre-determined (which made sense considering the harsh conditions in which they lived), but in my opinion this saga gives us examples of the contrary: we can create our own destinies. One such example is Thorkel Scratcher. His initial position in society is less than ideal, but because of his own perseverance and good deeds he manages to climb the social ladder.
Another example is Ingimund. The fortune teller’s prediction about him moving to Iceland only came true because he chose to act on this prediction.
Funnily enough, I had a personal experience that was similar to Ingimund’s. I once met a woman who claimed to be able to read people’s auras and make predictions about their futures. She told me that she saw me working with children in Africa. Well… while that would be a noble thing to do, I never felt any desire to move to Africa and so far the prediction hasn’t come true. However, I did feel a strong desire to move to Iceland. When I first started considering this a lot of people around me thought it was a bad or weird idea, but I followed through and it is turning out well 🙂
Thank you for reading my blogpost on Vatnsdælasaga, as the saga is called in Icelandic. I hope you enjoyed it! As always, my goal was to give people a taste of the saga, by describing some of the major events. However, there are many more interesting subplots and characters in this story that I couldn’t cover, so for the full experience I recommend reading the saga yourself 🙂
1 I have decided to use English equivalents of the Icelandic names in my blogs, as is done in the book The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed., London: Penguin Books), my main source of information for this blog. I personally prefer to write the names according to Icelandic spelling, but I think this would become confusing for non-Icelandic readers, since Icelandic contains some different letters and Icelandic names are conjugated according to their position in the sentence (I am Ingimundur, I saw Ingimund, etc.). Thus in this blogpost Ingimundur has become Ingimund, Þorsteinn has become Thorstein, etc.
2 Wawn, A. (2001). “The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 188.
4 Freyr was a Norse fertility god and the brother of the goddess Freya, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freyr
5 Wawn, A. (2001). “The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 224.
6 Goðar were the local chieftains in Iceland. In the Viking Age they had both regilious and administrative duties, but after the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000 their function became purely secular. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothi
7 Wawn, A. (2001). “The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 248.
8 Þingmenn were the followers of a goði. Every free landowner in Iceland had to choose a goði to follow, this didn’t necessarily have to be the goði of their own district. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothi