During the late 9th century, Norse farmers, mostly from Norway and including a few small-scale chieftains, migrated to a new island that had been discovered in the North Atlantic. Most sagas tell us that these settlers were fleeing from King Harald Fair-hair’s tyranny, but the reality is much more complicated than that, of course. Nevertheless, this new land was Iceland, and aside from a few Irish anchorites who sought spiritual martyrdom there through isolation, the land was free from human settlement. Those Irish anchorites didn’t stay long though, especially after the Norse settlers arrived. But even then, the land was far from being empty, and the settlers had to approach the island with caution. According to Margaret Clunies Ross, the settlers believed that this land, although completely unknown to them until recently, was already occupied by land-spirits, who acted as its guardians.
Now, this may not seem relevant at first, but bear with me. I’m sure that most of our gathering knows that Norse ships often featured gaping animals heads on their prows. These carved heads were typically of serpents or dragons and served to protect the ship, its passengers, and its cargo from enemies, whether they be Vikings or spiritual beings that controlled natural forces, such as the personified sea-goddess known as Rán. In other words, these dragon-prows were meant to frighten enemies and spirits alike, attempting to assert dominance and authority over them. So, to return to our settlement story, we have a bunch of Norse settlers in ships decked out like dragons sailing towards a land full of guardian spirits. What could possibly go wrong?
While spirits of all kinds are known to scare unsuspecting farmers, it’s important to keep in mind that spirits can be scared too. So when the land-spirits saw these Norse settlers coming in their serpentine ships, they were probably a bit concerned about their potential new neighbors. On the flip side, we have Norse settlers who wanted to assert their authority over this new land while also trying to avoid upsetting these land-spirits, whose support they would in order to prosper there. This was a potentially awkward situation honestly, so what did they do about it?
Luckily, a certain man named Ulfljot bolstered his Icelandic legal career by campaigning on the slogan: “Don’t Scare the Land-Spirits!” According to the 12th century Book of Icelanders, he brought a law from Norway that could help his fellow settlers out. By then Iceland was widely settled though, so I’m sure there were several troubling instances of farmers who were smitten by angry land-spirits…but better late than never, right? His story is told with more detail in the beginning of the later Tale of Thorstein Bull’s-leg, so let’s hear that now:
When Ulfljot landed in Iceland, he settled in the Northern part of the island at a place call Lon. While there, he loafed around impressively until he was about 60 years old, which is when he finally decided to do something saga-worthy: he sailed to Norway, stayed there for three years, and worked some legal magic with his cousin Thorleif the Wise. Together, they worked on developing a legal code for Iceland that later came to be known as Ulfljot’s Law—sorry Thorleif. And when he came back to Iceland, the Althing, Iceland’s national assembly, had been established, and for a time his legal system was used to govern the whole land.
His laws allegedly included how pagan temples were supposed to operate, especially regarding a special arm-ring that chieftains had to use and wear during their ceremonies. But while that is certainly a fascinating topic that we could explore further, we shouldn’t leave our frightened land-spirits waiting. If you want to hear more about that ceremonial arm-ring, you’ll have to send me ravens bearing complaints, threats, or slander urging me to talk about it in more detail. But for now, I’m going to quote the part of this tale that pertains to our scared land-spirit friends:
The first provision in the pagan law code was that people should not sail ships with dragons’ heads at sea. But if people did, they were obligated to take the heads down before they came in sight of the land and not sail ashore with gaping heads or yawning snouts which would frighten the nature spirits of the land.
According to Margaret Clunies Ross, this legal fragment tells us that Iceland’s early settlers truly believed that their new home was inhabited by land-spirits before their arrival, and that those spirits could become frightened by their intimidating carvings, which was not the outcome they wanted. But more importantly, these settlers went out of their way to make sure that the land-spirits remained friendly towards them because they needed their support if they were to prosper there. In other words, since these settlers didn’t intend to turn their ships around and go back home, they had to live with these new land-spirits on peaceful terms.
So, how did these new neighbors get along? We’ll find out in the next post!
ᚦᚬᚴ:ᚠᛁᚱᛁᚱ:ᛚᛁᛋᛏᚱ! Þǫkk fyrir lestr! (Thanks for reading!)
Make sure to wander back for part III!
Endnotes and Resources
- Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 11. ^
- Margaret Clunies Ross, “Land-Taking and Text-Making in Medieval Iceland,” in Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages, edited by Sylvia Tomasch and Sealy Gilles, 159-84 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 163. [Google Books preview available] ^
- Ibid., 167. ^
- Siân Grønlie trans., Íslendingabók, Kristnisaga: The Book of Icelanders, the Story of Conversion (Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2006), 4. [Chapter 2] [Also available online] ^
- Reworded from George Clark trans., The Tale of Thorstein Bull’s-Leg, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, Vol. IV, 340-351 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 341. [Chapter 1] ^
- Ibid. ^
- Ross, “Land-Taking,” 169. ^
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- Siân Grønlie‘s translation of Íslendingabók and Kristnisaga (The Book of Icelanders and the Story of Conversion) is also available online for free via the Viking Society for Northern Research.
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