Icelandic Sagas and Spirit Companions

For a time back in the 1970s I couldn’t stop reading medieval Icelandic sagas. I can’t remember how this interest began, but if I were to guess through memory’s haze, I’d say it was probably while facing a wall of Penguin Classics paperbacks in some bookstore, those black or orange spines of the series promising some new literary discovery. Anyway, the reading of one saga hooked me for the rest. Considered the glory of medieval European literature, Icelandic sagas are strange books, their narratives fueled by Viking feuds that last for years or even decades until settled at an annual parliamentary and legal gathering (the first of its kind in Europe) called the Althing. Every now and then a little burst of the supernatural erupts in the sagas: a character with second sight, a dream that accurately predicts the future, a bit of shape-shifting. And love spells (and curses) are often cast—and quite expertly—by powerful women.

Most of the Icelandic Sagas were written two or three hundred years after historical events that took place in the ninth and tenth centuries. Like Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, the sagas were passed down through the years orally, before finally being codified into written versions. The people of the sagas, though actual figures from history, became literary characters.

These written versions contain a certain romantic nostalgia for a lost world of heroes, where death wasn’t feared but instead welcomed—if honor was at stake. The attraction for me in plunging into these books (I read five of them in short order) was watching the dramatic logic of a very different culture spool itself out, with individuals or entire families sometimes heading open-eyed to their doom. It seemed like not such a bad idea to bring a couple of them with me to West Africa, where I lived in a small rural village among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire with my wife, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, for sixteen months, from 1979-1981.

Early on during our stay in the Beng village of Kossangbé I read Njal’s Saga, which many critics consider the greatest of all the sagas, for its long tragic arcs of narrative, wide cast of characters, and spare yet evocative writing.

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I remember sitting on a reclining palm frond chair and closing the book when finally done, sitting there in the late afternoon of an African village, filled with the sight of women returning from the forest with firewood for cooking the evening meal, children chasing each other in play, and the thatched roofs of mud houses forming a gray pattern into the distance. Yet I was also filled with the competing, interior sights of Vikings on horseback heading into an ambush, or the tense moments of judgment during the annual Althing, when violent feuds and festering grudges were settled peacefully, though expensively.

As I sat there, the presence of Africa won out—not only because of the immediacy of my surroundings, but also because of the onset of a chill that signaled an approaching bout of malaria. This would be my second attack in as many months.

That evening, in our mud brick house, Alma recorded my temperature periodically, and for an alarming stretch of four hours I remained stuck at the 106 degrees fever mark. Unable to hold down sips of water, exhausted and dehydrated, I could barely speak, barely maintain consciousness. Consulting a book we’d brought along with the sobering title Where There Is No Doctor, Alma found the recipe for a “rehydration drink,” and she hurried to the kitchen. As I wrote in Parallel Worlds, the memoir Alma and I co-authored:

Then I heard Alma, so far away, stirring something in the kitchen: the faintest sound of a spoon scraping rhythmically inside of an enamel cup. It went on and on forever, until I felt it would pull me out of myself. Struggling with the heavy weight of my lids, I finally opened my eyes.

I saw, just outside the mosquito netting, two huge armored and bearded warriors, the outlines of their bodies faint, like ghosts. They were Vikings, visions straight out of my Icelandic saga. They pulled out their swords and slashed away at each other, and the odd, almost dispassionate sweep of their blades temporarily distracted me from my fever and the terrible dryness in my throat. I gaped at this slow-motion battle and listened to the Vikings’ shields echoing from each blow like footsteps.

“Alma,” I called out, and there she was, alone before me.

That rehydration drink clearly worked, or I wouldn’t be writing this today. From then on Iceland became for me a land of haunted shapes. Yet there was another possible significance that would take me decades to discover.

You can probably imagine my excitement when I heard that the 2017 NonfictionNow conference would be held in Iceland. Alma wanted to come along too (who could shrug off a possible trip to a location like that?). When we searched online for an AirBnB apartment in Reykjavik and discovered one on Njalsgata (Njal’s Street!), there was no question where we’d be staying.

It turned out that there are many, many streets in Reykjavik that are named after saga heroes, and many museums throughout Iceland devoted to a celebration of specific sagas. Before and after the conference, Alma and I traveled to various parts of Iceland’s remarkably austere, often otherworldly countryside. In the town of Borgarnes (at the southern base of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula), we visited the Settlement Center Museum. There, an exhibition devoted to Egil’s Saga will take you through the major plot points.

Egil was a confounding combination of trickster, warrior, poet and sorcerer. The Icelandic word for poet is skald, and Egil was a renowned skald, because after getting into some terrible scrapes he often saved himself by reciting his verse, which was seemingly invented on the spot. Vikings like poetry. Here’s one example of Egil’s spontaneous creations:

I made a mockery of
Their Majesties’ mastery,
I don’t deceive myself
As to what I dare;
A trio of true
And trusty royal servants
Have I hacked and hurled
Down to Hell eternal.

I should add that Vikings liked their poetry pretty rough.

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Near the Settlement Museum in Borgarnes you can walk to the edge of the Brákin strait, a body of water named after Thorgerd Brák, Egil’s childhood nurse. Thorgerd, having saved Egil from his murderous father, Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, jumped into the water in an attempt to swim away from the father’s wrath. Skallagrímur, however, “hurled a great piece of rock after her that caught her between the shoulder-blades, and neither she nor the rock ever came to the surface again.”

I think probably everyone in Iceland knows where this strait is, and the story behind it. The people of the sagas, long dead these past one thousand years, remain as vibrant as the living. The site of the Althing, for instance, is a kind of shrine, not just a tourist attraction. Located 50 kilometers northeast of Reykjavik, the summer parliamentary councils and legal hearings of the Althing took place beside a waterfall, on a flat section of a river valley formed between two separating tectonic plates.

Of course Alma and I visited.

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It’s here that the Viking hero Gunnar of Hlidarend first met his future wife, the hard-hearted Hallgerd, here where the families of Njal and Flossi settled (temporarily, alas) the fines arising from the death of Hoskuld. Here artisans and merchants met, here storytelling skalds entertained the gathered clans of every far-flung corner of Iceland.

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Besides the Egil’s Saga Exhibition in Borgarnes, there is an entire museum devoted to Njal’s Saga in the town of Hvolsvollur. This town is located near the landscapes where the dramas of the saga once took place, such as the river Markar (or Markarfljot), whose waters meander across a flat plain after arriving from a glacial mountain in the distance. This river is the site of one of the great, gory moments in Icelandic literature, the climactic battle between Njal’s outnumbered sons and the despicable Thrain and his clan:

Skarp-Hedin [Njal’s son] raced down straight towards the river, which was much too deep to be forded anywhere along that stretch. A huge sheet of ice had formed a low hump on the other side of the channel. It was as smooth as glass, and Thrain and his men had stopped in the middle of this hump. Skarp-Hedin made a leap and cleared the channel between the ice banks, steadied himself, and at once went into a slide: the ice was glassy-smooth, and he skimmed as fast as a bird.

Thrain was then about to put on his helmet. Skarp-Hedin came swooping down on him and swung at him with his ax. The ax crashed down on his head and split it down to the jaw-bone, spilling the back-teeth on to the ice. It all happened so quickly that no one had time to land a blow on Skarp-Hedin as he skimmed past at great speed. Tjorvi threw a shield into his path, but Skarp-Hedin cleared it with a jump without losing his balance and slid to the other side of the sheet-ice.

Kari and the others came running up.

“That was man’s work,” said Kari.

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Yes, there is a Skarp-Hedin Street in Reykjavik.

I have to confess, though, that by the time I’d made my pilgrimage to Iceland, eager to follow the trails of the sagas, I’d had my vision altered by a novel, Wayward Heroes, written by the modern Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955, Laxness designed his novel to deflate any reader’s budding (or established) nostalgia for the Viking days. Though written in the style of the old sagas, Wayward Heroes remains far from their spirit. Laxness makes clear that there was nothing romantic or uncomplicated about the raiding parties of the Vikings along the coasts of Scotland, Ireland and England. The Vikings were brutal pirates, pillaging, raping and enslaving the people of the seaside towns they encountered.

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Laxness’ novel tells the story of Thorgeir and Thormod, fatherless young men that were, as children, raised by their mothers on the stories of the sagas. They grew up loving a world that no longer existed, and they tried to live by that world’s values. As Thorgeir said, “A hero is one who fears neither man nor god nor beast, neither sorcerer nor ogre, neither himself nor his fate, and challenges one and all to fight until he is laid out in the grass by his enemies’ weapons. And only he is a skald who swells such a man’s praise.”

In the times that Thorgeir and Thormod lived in, most Icelanders had little interest in the Viking codes of honor: newly Christianized, they were mostly interested in peace and commerce. Part of the grim humor of the novel is that while everyone around them realizes they are anomalies, living ghosts of a lost world, Thorgeir and Thormod cannot see this as they create havoc and misery. The scorn of others, the setbacks they continually encounter never seem to deter them from their slowly approaching, inglorious deaths.

I’d also begun rereading Njal’s Saga before our trip, was still rereading it as Alma and I made our way through saga territory. But Laxness’ novel had dampened some of my enthusiasm for Njal’s grim tale. So as I walked through that museum in Hvolsvollur, which lovingly led a visitor through the magisterial unfolding of the saga, with the P.A. system playing a recording of horses hooves and clanging swords in the background, I felt I was both there and not there, both a fan and critic of a book I’d long loved. Alma came upon a wooden bin of plastic Viking helmets and set one on my head, camera drawn, but I agreed to the picture only if she promised to never, ever post it on any social media page.

My mood in the museum was further complicated by a footnote in Njal’s Saga that I’d recently come upon, a footnote whose contents I’d utterly forgotten from my first reading 38 years ago. It concerned the concept of something called a fylgja (also known as a “fetch”), which is: “the personification of a person’s spirit, perceptible to those with second sight or magic powers. Fetches often manifested themselves at times of crisis.” Reading this footnote, I thought it might have something to do with those Viking apparitions I’d seen during a malarial fever.

When Alma and I approached the end of the Njal museum, of course the last room—as in every museum—was a gift shop. Lots of overpriced sweaters, stuffed toys of Vikings, medieval chachkas of all sorts. And among all the touristy books was one titled Museum of Hidden Beings, by Arngrímur Sigurdsson.

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This was just the book for me. Apparently, Icelandic folklore contains a wide panoply of hidden creatures, including air spirits, milk worms, tide mice, elves, dwarves, sea cows, night trolls, shell monsters and more. Sigurdsson’s book takes you through the entire pantheon, one page of text and his own artist’s rendering on the facing page for each imagined creature.

As I paged through the book I came upon the two-page chapter devoted to the fylgja.

“Folklore,” Sigurdsson writes, “claims that when a baby is born, part of its soul remains, as a unique being, in the membrane that surrounds it in the womb and which later emerges as the afterbirth. This being is called a fylgja and will become the baby’s leader and, most likely, protector. It was referred to as sacred and may have been associated with destiny and fortune.”

Fylgja are shape-shifting spirit companions who can assume a metaphoric guise of what most troubles a person—like a chunk of the unconscious that rises up with a warning or alert.

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Those two Vikings I’d hallucinated outside the mosquito netting now had another possible explanation. Perhaps they were a manifestation of my fylgja. Perhaps my spirit companion split itself in two and the sword fight, echoing Alma’s scraping of the metal spoon against the enamel cup as she made the rehydration drink, was meant to keep me amazed and awake, was meant to prevent me from slipping into a dangerous unconsciousness before my wife returned to me.

I’m willing to consider it. As a child I was raised a Catholic, attuned to the mysterious presence of a personal guardian angel. I’ve lived in small villages in West Africa where people organize their lives around the belief in spirits and invisible ancestors and sorcery. There are more than a few Beng people that will tell you a bicycle accident I once had actually was an attack by hill spirits. And I’m the kind of writer who believes that the code of what is invisible in the world might be cracked–even if only a little–by short stories, novels, poetry and essays.

I walked to the museum shop’s cash register and paid for Sigurdsson’s book, all the while regarding his image of the smoky transforming face of a fylgja, its wide-open eye staring back at me. This trip to Iceland had somehow brought me full circle, revealing a possibility to my 65 year-old self that my 28 year-old self hadn’t guessed at, and I wondered: how many stories in my life contain a hidden coda?

Then Alma and I left the museum, started the car, and drove off for the Markar River, where ghosts still reigned, where Skarp-Hedin once slid across the ice to split open the skull of the unfortunate Thrain.

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2 Comments

  1. Great and insightful piece. Thank you!

  2. admin says:

    And thank you, Beth Ann, I’m so pleased you enjoyed this.

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