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Medieval and Classical Library


Thorolf Most-Beard Comes Out To Iceland,
And Sets Up House There.

Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #33

Thorolf Most-Beard made a great sacrifice, and asked of Thor his well-beloved friend whether he should make peace with the king, or get him gone from out the land and seek other fortunes. But the Word showed Thorolf to Iceland; and thereafter he got for himself a great ship meet for the main, and trimmed it for the Iceland-faring, and had with him his kindred and his household goods; and many friends of his betook themselves to faring with him. He pulled down the temple, and had with him most of the timbers which had been therein, and mould moreover from under the stall whereon Thor had sat.

Thereafter Thorolf sailed into the main sea, and had wind at will, and made land, and sailed south along and west about Reekness, and then fell the wind, and they saw that two big bights cut into the land. (1)

Then Thorolf cast overboard the pillars of his high-seat, which had been in the temple, and on one of them was Thor carven; (2) withal he spake over them, that there he would abide in Iceland, whereas Thor should let those pillars come a-land.

But when they drifted from off the ship they were borne towards the westernmost firth in sight, and folk deemed that they went in sooth no slower than might have been looked for.

After that came a sea breeze, and they sailed west about Snowfellsness and stood into the firth. There see they that the firth is mighty broad and long, with great fells rising on either side thereof. Then Thorolf gave name to the firth and called it Broadfirth. He took land on the south side of the firth, nigh the midmost, and laid his ship in the creek, which thereafter they called Templewick.

Thereafter they espied the land and found on the outermost point of a ness north of the bay that Thor was come a-land with the pillars. That was afterwards called Thorsness.

Thereafter Thorolf fared with fire through his land (3) out from Staff-river in the west, and east to that river which is now called Thors-river, (4) and settled his shipmates there. (5) But he set up for himself a great house at Templewick which he called Templestead. There he let build a temple, and a mighty house it was. There was a door in the side-wall and nearer to one end thereof. Within the door stood the pillars of the high-seat, and nails were therein; they were called the Gods' nails. Therewithin was there a great frith-place. But off the inmost house was there another house, of that fashion whereof now is the choir of a church, and there stood a stall in the midst of the floor in the fashion of an altar, and thereon lay a ring without a join that weighed twenty ounces, and on that must men swear all oaths; and that ring must the chief have on his arm at all man-motes.

On the stall should also stand the blood-bowl, and therein the blood-rod was, like unto a sprinkler, and therewith should be sprinkled from the bowl that blood which is called "Hlaut", which was that kind of blood which flowed when those beasts were smitten who were sacrificed to the Gods. But round about the stall were the Gods arrayed in the Holy Place.

To that temple must all men pay toll, and be bound to follow the temple-priest in all farings even as now are the thingmen of chiefs. But the chief must uphold the temple at his own charges, so that it should not go to waste, and hold therein feasts of sacrifice.

Now Thorolf called that ness Thorsness which lieth between Swordfirth and Templewick; on the ness is a fell, and that fell Thorolf held in such worship that he laid down that no man unwashed should turn his eyes thither, and that nought should be done to death on the fell, either man or beast, until it went therefrom of its own will. That fell he called Holy Fell, (6) and he trowed that thither he should fare when he died, and all his kindred from the ness. On the tongue of the ness whereas Thor had come a-land he made all dooms be held, and thereon he set up a county Thing.

And so holy a place that was, that he would nowise that men should defile the field with blood-shedding, and moreover none should go thither for their needs, but to that end was appointed a skerry called Dirtskerry.

Now Thorolf waxed of great largesse in his housekeeping, and had many men about him; for in those days meat was good to get both from the isles and from the take of the sea.

Go to Chapter V

(1)  "They saw that two big bights cut into the land."  We have
     added the word "two", which is required both by situation
     and context.  The edition reads ™ "sa their at skarust i
     landit inn firthir storir."  The older reading, we take it,
     was: "sa their at skarust i landit inij firthir storir," and
     that an inadvertent scribe made of inij = inn ii, i.e., inn
     tveir (two), simply inn.  Our conjecture is borne out by the
     text itself, which in line 28 says: "they" (the pillars)
     "were borne towards the westerntnost firth," "sveif theim
     til ens vestra fjartharins", where the comparative, in
     connection with the definite article, makes it quite clear,
     that the westernmost firth was one of two firths already
     mentioned in the text.  This is also proved by the position
     of the ship.  It must have been on the latitude of
     Snowfellness; it had passed Reekness, the southern boundary
     of Faxebay, and now had in view the mountain ranges which
     formed the southern and northern littoral of Broadfirth.
     These two are the only big bights that cut into western
     Iceland, and no other bight or bay could be seen from on
     board Thorolf's ship.

(2)  "Thorolf cast overboard the pillars of his high-seat... and
     on one of them was Thor carven."  This is a general custom
     with the oldest settlers of Iceland while the island was
     still altogether, or to a great extent, a no man's land; but
     among the later settlers it gave way to other methods of
     land-take, when land was obtained under one form or another
     of contract.  Ingolf Ernson, the first settler, set the
     example, and so strong was his faith in the fortune that
     would be in store for his kindred if he settled where his
     high-seat pillars should come aland, that for three years he
     searched for them, and having passed through the best parts
     of the southern country, did not hesitate to plant his abode
     on the barren ness where, at last, the pillars were found
     ("Landnama", i. 7-8).  It is even related that a settler
     hearing, after ten or fifteen years, of the discovery of his
     high-seat pillars at the opposite end of the land, sold his
     estates, and took up his abode where they were found, though
     that was within the land-take of another settler
     ("Landnama", ib.).  Hallstein, son of Thorolf Mostbeard, who
     came to Iceland before he had become a householder (ch.
     vi.), and therefore had no high-seat pillars to plant in a
     new house of his own, made a vow to Thor, the family god,
     that he would deign to send him "high-seat pillars".
     Whereupon a tree drifted upon his land which was
     "sixty-three ells long and two fathoms round", and out of
     that he made high-seat pillars for himself, and supplied
     material for the same to "almost every house throughout the
     byfirths," the firths that cut into the northern littoral of
     Broadfirth ("Landnama", ii. 23).  There is a large number of
     instances relating to the high-seat pillars in connection
     with land-take in Iceland which we cannot enumerate here.
     Let it suffice to refer the reader especially to the
     "Landnamabok (Ingimund the Old, iii. 2; Crow (Kraku)-
     Hreidar, iii. 7; Lodmund the Old, iv. 5; Thorhad the Old,
     iv. 6; Hrollaug Rognwaldson, iv. 9, etc.), and for the
     solitary instance of a chief buried at sea on the voyage to
     Iceland, performing the function of Thor's pillars, to
     "Egilsaga", ch. xxvii.  The high-seat itself (ondvegi) was
     at this time arrayed in the middle of one of the side-
     benches of the hall; there was the chieftain's seat proper,
     on the nobler bench (ondvegi at aethra bekk), and the
     high-seat on the less noble bench (ondvegi a uaethra bekk),
     each facing the other.  Of the term "ondvegi" no
     satisfactory etymology has yet been found, nor is likely to
     be, until a misconception of long standing concerning the
     position of the wall against which it had its place is
     removed.  In the story of Olaf the Quiet, King of Norway,
     1066-93, it is stated, that in his day the high-seat in
     Norwegian halls was removed from the side wall to the dais
     at the inner gable end.  The sagaman adds, that heretofore
     the highseat proper, or the king's seat, always must "face
     the sun" ("Fornmannasogur", vi. 439-40).  From this it has
     been inferred that the high-seat always was on the northern
     side-bench of a hall, and that inference proceeds from the
     idea that the hall always turned east and west, which is
     obviously out of question.  The front of a hall was always
     that one of its side-walls on which were the two doors with
     which halls with the high-seats on the side-benches were
     furnished.  Built on the sea or lake shore, on the bank of a
     river, or on the underland of valleys, the front of the hall
     ran parallel with the line of the shore, and the course of
     the running water, and, where these determinating causes
     were not present, with the line of the highway. 
     Consequently, its front could face at a right angle any
     point of the compass, whereby then it is given that with the
     high-seat bench the case was the same.  In a sword-age, when
     halls were built just as much for defensive purposes as for
     the comfort of the inmates, it stands obviously to reason,
     that the chief's seat should be planted where he could most
     easily command the view of the two weakest points of his
     stronghold, the two doors.  That point was the middle seat
     on the bench which ran along the wall that was opposite to
     that through which the doors led into the hall.  On that
     bench, therefore, we take it, the high-seat was always
     found.  This diagram shows the position of the high-seat,
     and its bearing towards the doors.

____________________________________________________________ | high-seat | | -----------------[]------------------ | | nobler * bench | | * * | | * * | | * * | | * * | | * -----------------[]------------------ * | | * less noble bench * | | high-seat | |__________________________________________________________|
With regard to the derivation of "ondvegi" we can offer but a slight hint: "ond" may be the term "ond" = porch, entrance hall, or the mutated adv. "and-" = against, opposite (so the Oxford Dictionary), as in "ond-verthr", onward; "vegi", which sometimes goes into "ugi", as "verthr" into "urthr", seems to be a collective neuter, formed from "vegr", way (cf. -menni from mann-, thythi from thjoth, birki, bjork, etc., etc.), and should thus mean "ways". If we suppose that here, as in innumerable other instances in Icelandic, the noun which everyone had always in mind in speaking, was left out, namely, "saeti", seat, so that "ondvegi" stood instead of "ondvegis saeti", then we should have a perfectly intelligible expression for "the" seat, where the two ways met that lead up to the chief from either "ond" or door. (3) "Thorolf fared with fire through his land." See vol. i., xliwxlvi. (4) "Which is now called Thorsriver;" so the old edition. We now prefer the reading of the last edition: "Which he called." (5) "Settled his shipmates there." The original expression, "bygthi thar skipverjum sinum", is more technical: he gave lands to his crew, whom he made his tenants. For an exhaustive account of the various relations between various kinds of tenants and their land-settling landlords, see K. Maurer, "Entstehung des islandischen Staats". (6) "That fell he called Holy Fell, and trowed that thither he should fare when he died and all his kindred from the ness." This belief in an earthly paradise after death seems to have been chiefly confined to the Broadfirth folk. The "Landnama", on the authority of the lost saga of Thord the Yeller, records that the kindred of Aud the Deep-minded shared this belief with the Thorsnessings. "She worshipped at Cross-knolls, where she had crosses raised up became she was baptized and truly Christian. Her kindred afterwards had great worship for those knolls, and a temple was reared there when the service of sacrifice began to be done, and they trowed that they would die into the knolls, and therein was Thord the Yeller laid (buried) before he (*) took up his chiefship as is told in his story." -- Landnama ii 16, p. 111. Of Sel-Thorir, too, who, on his journey for the family abode which a mermaid had ordered to be planted where Thorir's mare, Skalm, should lie down under her loads, had lived for a year among the Broadfirth settlers, the "Landnama" (ii, 5) says, that he and his heathen kindred died into the Rocks of Thor (Thorsbjorg). See endnote 1 to Chapter XXVIII. (*) This "he" must refer to Thord the Yeller's son, Eyolf the Gray, and the "Landnama" passage must owe its senseless statement to the fact that the scribe did not know the sense of leitha = to bury, which, however, is a well-established one, e.g., Steinar's burying of his slave, Grani: "Steinar leiddi hann thar upp i holtunum" = Steinar buried him there up in = among the hillocks. "Egilsaga", ch. 84. His story, of course, means Thord the Yeller's saga.