The Wonderful World of Eyrbyggja Saga

  • Eyrbyggja Saga, though not as epic as Njal's Saga, Egil's Saga and Laxdaela, is one of the most enjoyable of the Old Icelandic Sagas.
    Eyrbyggja Saga, though not as epic as Njal's Saga, Egil's Saga and Laxdaela, is one of the most enjoyable of the Old Icelandic Sagas.

Eyrbyggja Saga, though not as epic as Njal's Saga, Egil's Saga and Laxdaela, is one of the most enjoyable of the Old Icelandic Sagas. It has both primitive and gothic elements, such as the creepy hauntings at Fróðár River and the troubled graves of the vengeful dead. It has violent encounters with Vikings and berserks - and pervasive heroic spirit. It has complicated familial and social relations and larger than life romance with lovers crossing impassable mountains for an adulterous affairs.  And believe it or not, it has its version of Pandora's Box, in a visitor from abroad, Thorgunna. She is a domineering, irascible, still sexually active woman with an eye for a likely lad. Upon dying, she is taken some distance for burial. And, what do you know? Her corpse rises and cooks a meal for the coffin-bearers, stark naked – and, of course, domineering as ever.

From friendship to warfare

The scene is the northern part of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, with a touchdown in Dalasýsla and a visit to the Westfjords with, or course, the islands and islets of Breiðafjörður thrown into the bargain. Like all the great Sagas, Eyrbyggja Saga reads like a historical record, tracing the lives of several generations from the late ninth century to the early eleventh. Instead of central figures though (like the Njal's and Egil's Sagas), the story revolves around central clans. It starts benignly enough with two great friends, Thorolf Mostur-Beard and Bjorn the Easterner leaving Norway to settle in Iceland. Unfortunately, friendship is not genetically hereditary, and trouble starts brewing, culminating in their grandchildren.          

And what triggers their discontent into action? Well, greed, ambition, jealousy, envy, meanness and cold-hearted bargaining. Go figure.

Both Bjorn and Thorolf held great respect for the old gods. Thorolf held all his courts on Þórsnes, a place so holy that he would let no one desecrate it, either with bloodshed or excrement. For their privy they used a special rock in the sea, they called Dritsker (literally Shit Skerry). Troubles begin when Bjorn's grandsons refuse to go out to Dritsker to take a crap and instead ease themselves on the holy ground. Tensions build up, leading to a series of clashes and in due course, a fierce battle with a subsequent loss of lives. But, such is the descendants' anger that they refuse so stay dead wreaking havoc for future generations.

The undead

Decades pass in discord and private guerilla warfare, and we come upon the greatest ghost of the entire Sagas, Thorolf Twist-Foot, a malicious Viking settler. Thorolf leaves his tomb to cause devastation around Þórsnes. His body is buried, reburied, burned, but not easily defeated. He is reincarnated as a demonic bull and continues to cause relentless terror for nearly a year, before his son finally, and permanently lays him to rest on a hillside. Still, he is believed to continue haunting the hillside.

The Eyrbyggja Saga was most likely written in the mid- or late- 13th century. Even though the world of the Saga is remote from that of its author's – with its Vikings, the old gods, the witchcraft and whatnot – in others, it was still close, for the way of living, methods of farming, etc. It is a mixed world of the marvelous and the commonplace, the historically accurate and the artfully designed.