Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Songs of Iceland

The title of my book, Song of the Vikings, doesn’t refer to music, as I’ve noted previously. It’s more like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, his overall title for the series that starts with Game of Thrones.

But I was fascinated to find, second on this list of “typical Icelandic songs,” one written by a contemporary of Snorri Sturluson, the 13th-century Icelandic writer and chieftain whose story Song of the Vikings tells.

“This is what Icelanders listen to when they want to hear the very best Icelandic songs,” writes the listmaker, Benedikt Jóhannesson, on the Iceland Review website. “We may sing, dance, or cry, depending on the mood. Listen to the songs and then you will understand Icelandic culture a bit better.”

About his second choice, Benedikt writes: The next song is a psalm, and the text comes from the 13th century by Kolbeinn Tumason, who is said to have written the psalm the day before he was killed in battle with the bishop of Iceland! The composer, Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson, is best known for his very modernistic compositions. Here the psalm is performed by Eivör, the great Faroe Isles singer, who has resided in Iceland on and off for the last few years. Hördur Áskelsson, organist and conductor, has called this an almost perfect psalm. It is called Heyr himna smiður or ‘Hear me, Maker of Heaven.’”

I found Eivör’s version especially moving (though one of my Icelandic friends pointed out that she sings with a Faroese accent). This is not the kind of song I would have associated with Kolbein Tumason, who makes a brief appearance in Song of the Vikings. Like Snorri, Kolbeinn was quite greedy for wealth and power, yet here he is opening his soul.

Here is another version (in proper Icelandic), with English translation, sung by the Icelandic singer Ellen Kristjánsdóttir:

You can also find the full text and translation here:

Listen, smith of the heavens,
what the poet asks.
May softly come unto me
your mercy.…

Drive out, O king of suns,
generous and great,
every human sorrow
from the city of the heart….

Here is the story behind the psalm: In 1206, in the north of Iceland, Bishop Gudmund the Good came to court in full episcopal regalia and broke up a lawsuit between the chieftain Kolbein Tumason and a priest who owed him money. It was a little, everyday lawsuit. No one could have predicted the cataclysm it unleashed.

The bishop “forbade them to pass sentence on the priest,” the saga says. “But they passed sentence on him just the same.”

The priest was outlawed—exiled from Iceland.

The bishop took the outlawed priest into his own household at Holar (which made the bishop an outlaw too), and banned Kolbein from church. When Kolbein protested, Bishop Gudmund formally excommunicated him.

Kolbein was taken aback. He considered himself a pious Christian. He had long been the bishop’s firm supporter. Gudmund was a cousin of Kolbein’s wife and had been chaplain of the family’s church before the chieftain pushed for his election as bishop in 1201. True, his support may not have been entirely selfless. Notes Sturlunga Saga, “Many men commented that Kolbein had wanted Gudmund chosen bishop because he thought he himself would thus control both laymen and clergy in the north.” The writer of a later Life of Gudmund the Good, adds, “As soon as they got to Holar, Kolbein assumed full control both of household affairs and of finances.”

Historians blame Gudmund the Good for much of the strife that enveloped Iceland during the Sturlung Age—strife that would climax with the murder of Snorri Sturluson at the request of the king of Norway in 1241 and result in Iceland becoming a colony of Norway in 1262. When Bishop Gudmund denied the universality of Iceland’s laws, “the fate of Iceland’s independence was ultimately sealed.”

But Gudmund was not thinking about Iceland’s independence. If he thought about anything other than the rights of the Church it was the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral when Gudmund was a stubborn boy of ten. Saint Thomas’s dispute with King Henry II hinged on the punishment of “criminous clerks,” churchmen who committed crimes, just as Gudmund’s dispute with the Icelandic chieftains did. In the Saga of Gudmund the Good, written by one of his pupils, a woman dreams that Gudmund will “rank as high in Iceland as Thomas in England.” A verse by Kolbein himself is quoted: Gudmund, he says, “keeps firm his wish / to wield such power / as Thomas Becket. / This bodes danger.”

The first time Gudmund insisted that churchmen were above the law—when Kolbein sued the priest who owed him money—Kolbein backed down. The chieftain offered the bishop self-judgment and settled for a fine of twelve cows. He got six. The next time Kolbein sued some clerics (for theft), he said there was no use making an agreement, since the bishop wouldn’t keep it. 

A scuffle broke out. Someone threw a stone. It hit Kolbein in the forehead and killed him. God’s will be done.

Listen, smith of the heavens,
what the poet asks.
May softly come unto me
your mercy.

Parts of this essay were adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The stability of the written language can be deceptive; we would likely need an interpreter to speak with Kolbeinn Tumason. I would venture that Eivør chose to sing in her native accent, as in certain aspects it may be closer to 13th century would be interesting to ask her.