Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Death of Snorri Sturluson

In 2010, on the night of Snorri Sturluson’s murder, September 23, I sat on the stones surrounding his hot tub at Reykholt in western Iceland and dabbled my feet in the warm pool. The weather had turned: A cold mist replaced the sunshine of Thingvellir, where I’d walked, picking blueberries, that afternoon, memorizing the verse on the bronze plaque beside Snorri’s Althing booth, the place he called Valhalla. In English the lines run:

Snorri’s old site is a sheep-pen; the Law Rock is hidden in heather,
blue with the berries that make boys—and the ravens—a feast.

I knew the next two lines of this poem by Jónas Hallgrimsson (in the translation by Dick Ringler):

Oh you children of Iceland, old and young men together!
See how your forefathers’ fame faltered—and died from the earth!

And knew its fears were unsubstantiated: Researching Snorri Sturluson’s life for my book Song of the Vikings, I had concluded that Snorri, who lived from 1178 to 1241, was the single most influential writer of the Middle Ages.

For that we must thank the king of Norway, Hakon IV. Only fourteen when Snorri met him in 1218, King Hakon preferred the fashionably new French legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to traditional Viking skaldic poetry and tales of the gods Odin, Loki, and Thor. Snorri must have been shocked. It also hit him in the pocketbook. Poetry was Iceland’s cultural capital, to use a term popularized by sociologists. It was all Snorri had to sell on the international market. Iceland’s other exports were wool and dried fish. The bright-colored alum-dyed cloth from England and Flanders was more highly prized, and Norway had ample fish.

Perhaps, Snorri thought, King Hakon was just ill-educated. He simply needed a good introduction to the lore of the North. Snorri began writing his books to teach the young king to appreciate his own heritage.

His motives were not pure. Snorri was not only a poet and lover of books. He was one of the richest men in Iceland, holder of seven chieftaincies, owner of five profitable estates and a harbor, husband of an heiress, lover of several mistresses, a fat man soon to go gouty, a hard drinker, a seeker of ease prone to soaking long hours in his hot-tub while sipping stout ale, not a Viking warrior by any stretch of the imagination, but clever. Crafty, cunning, and ambitious. A good businessman. So well-versed in the law that few other Icelanders could out-argue him. At age forty-two, he was at the height of his power.

His secret ambition was to rule Iceland—and he almost succeeded. On the quay at Bergen in 1220, departing for home, he tossed off a praise poem about the king’s regent, Earl Skuli, said to be the handsomest man in Norway for his long red-blond locks. In response, the earl gave him the ship he was to sail in and many other fine gifts. Young King Hakon honored Snorri with the title of landed man, or baron, one of only fifteen so-named. The king charged Snorri, too, with a mission: He was to bring Iceland—then an independent republic of some 50,000 souls—under Norwegian rule.

Or so says one version of the story. The other says nothing about a threat to Iceland’s independence. Snorri was not asked to sell out his country, simply to sort out a misunderstanding between some Icelandic farmers and a party of Norwegian traders. A small thing. A few killings to even out. A matter of law.

This trip to Norway was the turning point of Snorri’s life. One quick, persuasive speech to the king, along with one colorful poem pronounced on the quay at Bergen, would mar his reputation—and seal his doom. When he sailed to Norway in 1218 he was, by most calculations, the uncrowned king of Iceland. When he returned in 1220, he was a suspected traitor.

The voyage did not go well. It was late in the year to sail, and the weather in the North Atlantic was fierce. His new ship lost its mast within sight of Iceland; it wrecked on the Westman Islands off the southern coast. Snorri had himself and his bodyguard of a dozen men ferried over to the mainland with their Norwegian treasures. They borrowed horses and rode, bedecked in bright-colored cloth like courtiers, wearing gold and jewels and carrying shiny new weapons and sturdy shields, to the nearby estate of the bishop of Skalholt. There Baron Snorri’s new title was ridiculed. Some Icelanders even accused him of treason, of having sold out to the Norwegian king.

From then until his death in 1241, he would fight one battle after another (in the courts, or by proxy) to see who, if anyone, would be Earl of Iceland, deputy to Norway’s king. He would die in his nightshirt, cringing in his cellar, begging for his life before his enemies’ thugs. He did not live up to his Viking ideals, to the heroes portrayed in his books. He did not die with a laugh—or a poem—on his lips. His last words were “Don’t strike!” As the poet Jorge Luis Borges sums him up in a beautiful poem, the writer who “bequeathed a mythology / Of ice and fire” and “violent glory” to us was a coward: “On / Your head, your sickly face, falls the sword, / As it fell so often in your book.”

Yet his work remains. In the twenty turbulent years between his Norwegian triumph and his ignominious death, while scheming and plotting, blustering and fleeing, Snorri Sturluson did write his books: the Edda, Heimskringla, and Egil’s Saga. He covered hundreds of parchment pages with world-shaping words, encouraging his friends and kinsmen to cover hundreds of pages more.

I had come to Reykholt to keep vigil on the night of his death. The clouds crept up on me as I drove north from Thingvellir, slowly, on the torturous, washboard roads of Uxahryggir and Kaldidalur, alone for hours, no other cars, not even a bird, only the gleaming presence of Skjaldbreidur over my shoulder, the inverted smile of Ok, a chunk of rainbow here and there, a hidden stream, patches of dirty snow, a cairn. Now, at Reykholt, I sought darkness—some place I could see if the northern lights were shining in celebration of Snorri’s life and art.

Snorri’s Reykholt is much the same as it was in 1241, though nothing medieval but his hot-tub remains: Beside an imposing church is a school, hotel, and library. Up a spiral stair is a writer’s studio. But the modern designers were in love with light. Streetlamps and spotlights washed the night sky everywhere but here, at Snorri’s pool, tucked beneath the hill beside the school. I leaned back and looked up—no northern lights; the stars were faint, veiled in cloud. I imagined Snorri’s last moments.

His enemy (and former son-in-law) Gissur of Haukadal had spies watching Reykholt. Late at night on September 23, 1241, he rode up with seventy men. They broke into the building where Snorri slept. He leaped out of bed in his nightshirt and ran next door into the fine Norwegian-style loft-house he had built at the height of his power twenty years before. He was heading, perhaps, for his writing studio and the secret spiral stair that led from it down into a tunnel to his hot-tub and escape…

It is cold in Iceland in late September. The birch leaves are bright gold, the berry shrubs crimson, the songbirds have all flown. Swans flock in the marshlands, sounding their haunting note. Night falls quickly and lingers long, the wind has the bite of ice. An old fat man in his nightshirt, barefoot, would not get far in the cold and dark of a late-September night.

Snorri hid in a cellar. A priest gave him away. Gissur sent five men down.

I dried off my feet and headed back toward the Snorrastofa writer’s studio, which I had booked for five days. On the way I heard people oohing and aahing. They were halfway down the drive, looking up at the northern lights, they said. I saw nothing. “They’re breaking up now,” said a man standing in the road.

Turns out that I, like Snorri that fateful night 772 years ago, had been looking the wrong way.

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Krummi Travel

One day last summer, under the midnight sun, I drove through the surreal landscape surrounding Iceland's Myvatn in a tour bus decorated with streamers and balloons. The driver, Thorstein, carried a big bag of candy. The company logo was No crybabies, cranks, or pantywaists allowed. What's a pantywaist? I didn't have the nerve to ask.

Paired with this hoopla was the elegant image of a raven, painted by the Icelandic artist Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (see more of his work here: and used as the company's logo by permission (okay, after the fact, but she did get permission) by the founder of Krummi Travel, Gerri Griswold of Connecticut.

Yes, Krummi Travel. Krummi is a fond nickname for ravens in Icelandic, but it was pronounced by pretty much everyone in Gerri's group as "crummy."

Being able to hold those two competing thoughts in your mind--elegant artwork, sounds like "crummy"--explains Gerri's brilliant approach to travel in Iceland. Yes, ravens are beautiful. They're also crummy: They eat the eyes out of newborn sheep. And Icelanders love them enough to give them a nickname on the order of "Tommy." (I know Icelandic men with the nicknames Gummi and Mummi.)

With Krummi Travel you get the nature and the culture of Iceland: the beautiful bird (mountain, fjord, etc.) and the layers and layers of cultural meanings. And you get it by meeting Icelanders.

Our tour guide around Myvatn, for example, Illugi (pronounced something like It-Louie), was a real raconteur. He jabbered on and on about how he lost his dog in the lava field. He made himself cry, remembering it. He made all of us cry. We were all out there in the lava field with him, in the snow, looking for the dog, who had fallen through a hole in the lava into a cave and burned her toes in the hotspring that nearly filled the cave floor. She was gone overnight. Illugi had to call in the Icelandic Rescue Squad to lift her out. 

But there she was, in the bus with us, missing a few toes. She happily climbed up an enormous tuff-ring volcano and hiked all the way around the crater rim as if we were taking a walk in a park watching the sunset--which we were, Icelandic style. 

Along the way, Illugi stopped to dismantle a cairn of stones some previous tourists had piled on the rim. He was quite annoyed by it. Cairns are used in Iceland to mark a path. They're not to be taken lightly or set up willy-nilly. To put one here was like spray-painting a statue. It was rock graffiti, which reminded Illugi to tell me about the real graffiti.

Can you imagine? Someone had clambered down into the bowl of this crater and spray-painted "CRATER" on the rocks. The letters were 17 meters tall, I later learned from a report on

The same someone had written "CAVE" in a nearby cave and "MOOS" on a mossy lava field (couldn't spell). Interviewed on local TV, the local police inspector said, "I mainly find it strange. A very peculiar motive must be behind it.”

Peculiar indeed. Somebody thought it was "art." 

A few days after my visit with Krummi Travel, I read about an Icelandic artist who was gallery hopping in Berlin. Reported, "He noticed an exhibition at the Alexander Levy gallery by an artist by the name of Julius von Bismarck, a student at the Studio Olafur Eliasson," run by the famous Icelandic-Danish artist. The visiting Icelander, Hlynur Hallsson, took photos of what he found on the gallery walls:

He then contacted the Icelandic media--and the police. 

Bismarck, the German art student, quickly released a statement denying that he was the "nature terrorist." He said, in part: "Different anonymous artists collaborated on each location to produce the inscriptions." He said he wasn't even in Iceland at the time.

The gallery's website, on the other hand, gave him credit: "… In a series of nature inscriptions, Bismarck and Julian Charriere directly bring together nature and its conceptual (humanised) form …" [See

Hlynur, who outed Bismarck, is also known for "spray-paint artwork." As he told the website Akureyri Vikublad, "I don't approve of works that damage nature, regardless [of] whether they're made in the name of visual art or commercialism. To mark moss, lava, or rock faces with paint which doesn't wash off in the rain is unnecessary…. To write in the sand or snow can be more effective even though it only lasts a short time. … Then nature would have been given the respect it deserves."

Reading this, I was reminded of an essay by Justin Erik Halldór Smith called "The Moral Status of Rocks." [Read it here:] He writes of meeting a "student in rural Iceland, of sheep-farming stock" who said, "in the hope of conveying to me the whole ethical-spiritual outlook of her country in a single concrete example: In Iceland we are taught not to smash rocks.

Smith goes on to talk about "environmental ethics" and why it usually refers to animals, sometimes to plants, but rarely to rocks. Except in Iceland. Where building a meaningless cairn, spray-painting a title on a crater, or smashing a rock are things no thinking human should do. Not even crybabies, cranks, or pantywaists--I mean, tourists. Or artists. Or those of us who aspire to being both.

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

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Surtshellir: The Outlaw's Cave

To explore the Outlaw's Cave, my friend told me, you need "a headlamp and serious shoes." I had a headlamp, though it malfunctioned and would only point straight down. On my feet I had rubber Wellington books--not up to clambering over hummocks of toaster-sized lava-rubble without twisting an ankle. I didn't make it far into the cave.

I never saw the statues a local artist had placed there--eerie faces carved of rock, I'd heard.

I missed the ice formations that apparently linger year round.

I gave up well before I reached the outlaws' hideout, thoroughly freaked out by being alone in the unimaginable dark, some 30 feet under a lava field on the fringe of Iceland's uninhabitable interior. If I cried for help, no one would hear.

Usually cavers don't come to Surtshellir alone. And most are more courageous than I. In fact, so many tourists have reached the outlaws' hideout, some 600 feet along this lava tube, that Icelandic archaeologists have launched a rescue excavation to learn what they can about the outlaws' house before the evidence disappears. As archaeologist Guðmundur Ólafsson  and his colleagues noted in 2004, tourists "were removing bones from it as souvenirs."

Surtshellir means "the cave of Surtr," the Norse fire-giant who will destroy the world. The lava in which the cave is found flowed shortly after Iceland was settled in the 870s. A mile-long tube, or tunnel, the cave was formed by thicker lava congealing around a faster flowing central stream that eventually ran out. At its broadest, the tube is about 45 feet wide and 30 feet high, though it shrinks down to about 6 feet high. In some places it branches out into side tunnels. In other places, the roof has fallen in, leaving large holes to the sky.

Beneath one of these sky holes, about 300 feet from the cave's mouth, the outlaws built a wall about 8 feet high and 43 feet long. Another 300 feet along a side passage stands "a unique drystone structure with an associated midden," or garbage dump, according to the archaeologists.

One of the first books written in Iceland, the Landnámabók or Book of Settlements (from about 1130) notes that outlaws lived in in the lava field near Surtshellir in the late 900s. Two of the Icelandic sagas (written in the 1200s and 1300s) describe the outlaws' downfall, when a posse of chieftains decided to wipe them out.

In the 1700s century, two Icelanders explored the cave and found what they thought was the outlaws' hut. Two centuries later, the Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness visited the cave and had his souvenir cow-bone dated by radiocarbon (carbon-14) testing in 1971. The dates he got spanned Iceland's Golden Age, from its founding in 870 to when it became a colony of Norway in 1264.

Since 1971, radiocarbon dating has improved. In 2004, Guðmundur Ólafsson and his colleagues dated some cow-bones from the midden to between 690 and 960.

The science of tephrochronology is also new since Halldor Laxness's effort; it uses the Greenland ice cores and other sources of information to date the layers of volcanic ash, or tephra, found like stripes in Iceland's soil. The lava field around Surtshellir rests on top of a tephra layer from an eruption dated to 871 (plus or minus 2 years).

That means the earliest date for outlaws to have lived in the cave (and left cow-bones in their garbage) is about 880. A range of 880 to 960, Guðmundur Ólafsson notes, is roughly consistent with the stories in the Icelandic sagas.

Which is why Guðmundur is a little puzzled by what he and his colleagues found in the cave in 2013, according to a recent report from Iceland Review.

With Kevin Smith from Brown University and Agnes Stefánsdóttir of Iceland's Cultural Heritage Agency, Guðmundur had made a 3D scan of the Outlaw's Cave in 2012. This year, the team returned--with huge lights--to excavate the cave floor. "Because there's an increased flow of tourists to the cave, we considered it necessary to save these remains before they're completely destroyed," Guðmundur told Iceland Review. 

They didn't find much besides animal bones. The outlaws weren't wealthy and they didn't live there long. But along with a few beads and scales made of lead, the archaeologists found "a small metal cross, probably made of lead but maybe of silver," Guðmundur said.

A cross? Although Iceland officially converted to Christianity in the year 1000, some of its first settlers were Christian. But the outlaws of Surtshellir? "The general view," said Guðmundur, "is that outlaws resided there around the year 1000, or in the 11th century, maybe. But they must have been Christian and that is a little strange."

The piles of bones they left, however, prove that they were a serious nuisance to the surrounding farms. There was no sign, in the form of fishbones or birdbones, that the outlaws even tried to support themselves by foraging. All the bones came from adult cows, horses, pigs, and sheep that could be rustled--or extorted--from the nearby farms.

But neither were the outlaws living rich. They worked over those bones, getting every bit of meat off them, breaking them for the marrow. It must have been a hard life, deep underground, cold and damp, with a long, treacherous way to lug your firewood or face the unimaginable dark.

They had no headlamps. No serious shoes. And did I mention the constant annoying drip-drip-drip of water from the roof? Christian or pagan, there must have been a lot of praying going on in the Outlaws' Cave.

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

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Viking Age: A Reader

 The History Channel's The Vikings series, and especially the sexy Ragnar Lothbrok, inspired a number of my friends to ask, What one book should they (or their children) read to learn about Viking history? I was at a loss. How to choose among the dozens of Viking books on my shelves?

Then I bought The Viking Age: A Reader, published in 2010. If you read only one book about the Viking Age, this is the one.

It's not a book about the Viking Age. It's a book from the Viking Age. It contains excerpts from 35 texts that were written between 787 and the late 1200s in Arabic, Latin, Old Irish, Old English, and Old Norse.

The Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, subject of my biography Song of the Vikings, is amply represented, as is his nephew, Sturla Thordarson (whom I called Saga-Sturla). For example, here are two passages from Sturla's Saga of Hakon the Old that give a nice picture of the dangers of travel in Viking ships:

King Hakon sailed along the coast of Jadar. As they approached Hvin, the steering oar on the king's ship broke, and almost the whole blade snapped off, but by using the gangplanks and the oars, they steered the ship south around the headland. When they had cleared the headland, they laid aside the gangplanks and steered into Skerdadarsound using the remains of the steering oar as well as the regular oars. The damaged steering oar was brought ashore when they came into port, and it seemed astonishing that such a large ship had been steered by such a small fragment of rudder.

And the second passage, from a voyage by Hakon's son, Magnus:

When they entered the harbor and dropped anchor, the momentum of the ship was so great that fire broke out in the windlass around which the cable was wound. The fear was that the rope would burn, so they soaked an awning, intending to stifle the fire with it, but Prince Magnus was much quicker and more resourceful. He lifted up a tub full of drink, poured it over the windlass, and cooled down the cable.

Ah, the uses of beer.

Another of Snorri's nephews, Olaf White-Poet, who lived many years at the Danish court, may have written Knytlinga Saga (The Story of the Family of Knut) about Canute the Great, king of England and Denmark. In it, we have the picture of the perfect Viking:

Knut was extremely tall and strong. He was an outstandingly handsome man, except for his nose, which was thin, high-set, and slightly crooked. He had a fair complexion and thick blond hair. His eyes were more beautiful than other people’s and his eyesight was keener. He was a generous man and a great soldier; he was gallant, victorious, and exceptionally fortunate in everything concerning power and wealth. But he was not a very reflective man, and the same is true of Svein, Harald, and Gorm before him. None of them were great thinkers.

True of the History Channel's Ragnar Lothbrok as well, I'd say.

Knytlinga Saga has not been fully translated into English. Neither has the Saga of King Hakon, one of our only sources for the life of Snorri Sturluson. For these little snippets alone I am grateful to Angus A. Somerville, one of the editors of The Viking Age: A Reader and translator of all the Old Norse excerpts. I hope he is inspired to translate the rest of these important sagas so that more people can read them.

I do read Old Norse, so the texts in The Viking Age: A Reader that are most important to me are those translated from Latin, Arabic, Old Irish, and Old English. For example, historians writing about the Viking attack on the English monastery of Lindisfarne in 793--often considered the beginning of the Viking Age--usually quote this phrase from a letter written that same year by the scholar Alcuin to King Athelred:

Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made.

But I've rarely seen quoted the middle of Alcuin's letter. Here it becomes clear that the Northumbrians were well acquainted with that "pagan race" who came by sea. The attack was terrible and surprising not because the English had never seen a Viking ship, but because God had allowed this holy place, this "place more venerable than all in Britain," to be "given as prey to pagan peoples."

Why would God allow this? Alcuin has an answer: Because the English had forgotten Christian charity. They had become like pagans themselves.

Wrote Alcuin to King Athelred:

Look at your trimming of the beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the pagans. Are you not menaced by terror of them whose fashion you wished to follow? What also of the immoderate use of clothing beyond the needs of human nature, beyond the custom of our predecessors? The princes' superfluity is poverty for the people. Such customs once injured the people of God, and made it a reproach to the pagan races, as the prophet says: 'Woe to you, who have sold the poor for a pair of shoes,' that is, the souls of men and women for ornaments for the feet. Some labor under an enormity of clothes, others perish with cold; some are inundated with delicacies and feastings like Dives clothed in purple, and Lazarus dies of hunger at the gate. Where is brotherly love?

The Viking Age doesn't seem so long ago after all. Just replace "the princes" with "the one percent" and we could still say that "The princes' superfluity is poverty for the people."

The Viking Age: A Reader was edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald and published by the University of Toronto Press in 2010. For teachers there's a new companion volume, The Vikings and Their Age (University of Toronto Press, 2013), that essentially provides a syllabus by placing the excerpts in The Viking Age: A Reader into a broader context.

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