In this episode, we continue our series of stories from the Northeast of Iceland. This time around, Helgi Droplaugarson goes head to head with the powerful chieftain Helgi Asbjarnarson. While Helgi D. makes life difficult for his rival by undercutting him at every chance he gets, Helgi A. takes it all with patience. Does Helgi A. have a good reason for holding back? Or is he just biding his time as he waits for the right moment to attack? There’s only one way to find out. Listen, as Saga Thing presents The Saga of Droplaug’s Sons!
The first part of this episode, much like the saga itself, is a bit heavy on social dynamics and genealogical connections. To help you navigate these relationships, Andy has prepared this handy genealogy using Family Echo. Be sure to click on different names in the genealogy to see where it takes you. The connections are fascinating if you pay attention.
Welcome to the first episode of Saga Shorts, a side project of Saga Thing where John and Andy review the þættir of medieval Iceland. In this episode, we provide a brief introduction to þættir and the difficulties one faces when trying to define the genre. If you’re not interested in those technical details, just skip ahead to 10:10, where we begin our review of Þorsteins þáttr stangarhöggs (The Tale of Thorstein Staff-struck). This fun little tale tells the story of an old Viking’s son named Thorstein who gets into some trouble with Bjarni Brodd-Helgisson, the local goði, after killing 3 of his farmhands.
Harris, Joseph. “Genre and Narrative Structure in Some Íslendinga þættir.” Scandinavian Studies 44 (1972): 1-27.
Harris, Joseph. “Þættir.” In Dictionary of the Middle Ages, vol. 12, edited by Joseph R. Strayer, 1-6. New York: Charles Scribner, 1989.
Jakobsson, Ármann. “The Life and Death of the Medieval Icelandic Short Story.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 112 (2013): 257-91.
Kristjánsson, Jónas. “Íslendinga þættir.” In Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature, translated by Peter Foote, 299-309. Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 1997.
Miller, William Ian. “A Case Study of the Sagas as Sources: Þorsteins Þáttr stangarhöggs and the Politics of Accident.” In Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland, 51-76. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Rowe, Elizabeth Ashman. “The Long and the Short of It.” In The Routledge Research Companion to the Medieval Icelandic Sagas, edited by Ármann Jakobsson, Sverrir Jakobsson, 151-63. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Rowe, Elizabeth Ashman and Joseph Harris. “Short Prose Narrative (þáttr).” In A Companion to Old-Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, edited by Rory McTurk, 462-78. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
It’s time to put the Saga of the People of Vopnafjord on trial. Who will go home with the honor of Best Bloodshed? Does this saga have the numbers to overtake the Saga of the Greenlanders in Body Count Density? Who has the best Nickname? Was anyone witty enough to earn the prize? Will Brodd-Helgi make it through Outlawry? And who will be selected to join John and Andy as thingmen?
Along the way, we get into a few digressions (I know, you’re shocked). Among the more interesting digressions is a brief follow up on our Viking spearheads discussion from Njal’s Saga. We delve into the terminology once again and review different types of spearheads as well as their appearances in the sagas, with special emphasis on Egil’s Saga. You can find lots of information out there on Viking spearheads if you look. Most of it isn’t terribly helpful in identifying what each of the original terms actually means. We recommend Hurstwic’s page on the subject as a good primer. They’ve got a great page on Viking spears and a more specific page on the types of spears discussed in this episode.
We also pause to talk about the exciting new exhibit at the Reykjavik City Museum, Viking Animals, which opened this week. The exhibition is based on the research of Lara Hogg, who shares my fascination with the place of animals in early Icelandic life.
Just look at all those cattle skulls. I wonder if Brodd-Helgi helped her prepare this part of the exhibit. If you’re in Iceland any time soon, swing by the Reykjavik City Museum and check it out. If not, then follow the exhibit’s progress on Twitter @VikingAnimals or on the exhibit’s blog.
Next time on Saga Thing, we’ll play with the Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck in our new side series tentatively titled Saga Shorts. That will be followed soon after by a two-part episode on The Saga of Droplaug’s Sons, which features many of the same characters from the Vopnafjord episode.
The Saga of the People of Vopnafjord picks up where The Saga of Thorstein the White left off. It tells the story of two friends, Brodd-Helgi Thorgilsson and Geitir Lytingsson, and their rise to power. The two men share everything in the beginning, including a desire to have that which is not theirs. Their friendship only deepens when Brodd-Helgi marries Geitir’s sister, Halla. Later, their son Bjarni is given to Geitir as foster-son. Things really couldn’t be better between the two leading men of Vopnafjord.
But things fall apart, as they do in these stories, after Brodd-Helgi and Geitir begin to mistrust one another after a plot to rob a hapless Norwegian merchant crumbles. Their relationship suffers further when Halla becomes ill and Brodd-Helgi wastes no time arranging another marriage for himself, this time to Thorgerd Silver. The resulting animosity between Geitir and Brodd-Helgi proves too much for the district to bear. Men from both sides are drawn into the conflict and some even lose their lives. Though Geitir is reluctant to act as the aggressor, he is finally put on the offensive after some prodding by his thingmen. What happens next is lost in the great gap left to us in the manuscript. The saga picks things up again with the next generation from each family trying to pick up the pieces. Here we find Bjarni, the son of Brodd-Helgi, going head-to-head with Thorkel, Geitir’s son. The two are not only kinsmen, they had also grown up together at Krossavik. Though Bjarni attempts to make peace with Thorkel, there’s little that can be done to assuage the thirst for vengeance. Will Bjarni succeed in putting an end to this bloody and unfortunate feud? Or will Thorkel continue the cycle of violence and pass it on to the next generation? There’s only one way to find out.
The above image comes from Hurstwic’s recreation of Brodd-Helgi’s clever use of a stone slab to protect himself from Svart in chapter 2 of Vápnfirðinga saga. Read all about this and other creative battle tactics here.
For some more on this saga and its background, check out:
And if you’re interested in traveling to Vopnafjord and taking in all the sights yourself, maybe take a gander at a waterfall or two and pause for some fishing, then start here at https://www.visitvopnafjordur.com/en
Still full from the epic meal of Njal’s Saga, John and Andy turn to lighter fare. In this episode of Saga Thing, Thorstein the White grows older and older and still older. Along the way, he has some children and loses his beloved wife. To make matters worse, he also loses his eyesight, which makes running the farm a bit more difficult. Fortunately, his son Thorgils is there to pick up the slack…until he’s killed in a local disagreement between Thorstein the Fair and his rival Einar. How will Thorstein the White get on without his trusted son? Who will raise little Brodd-Helgi Thorgilsson? And whose saga is this anyway? Listeners will find a lot more here about Thorstein the Fair and Einar than they will Thorstein the White. Nevertheless, join us as Saga Thing takes on The Saga of Thorstein the White!
Over the past few years, listeners have often asked us to do something with runes. And who doesn’t love runes? Whether it’s a fascination with the runic inscription as a point of contact with another time or a sense that the runes themselves are more than a mere phonetic symbol, there’s something magical about them. Even the word, rúnar carries with it layers of meaning, at times denoting “secret, hidden lore, or wisdom” and others referring to the written characters themselves. In this Saga Brief, John and Andy investigate the history, forms, and functions of runes with the help of Dr. Ragnhild Ljosland, linguist and runologist from the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for Nordic Studies in Orkney. Download this episode (right click and save)
While you may think of runes as the alphabet of the Vikings, it’s important to remember that runes come in many different forms and date back at least to the 2nd century CE. In fact, some point to the inscription on the controversial Meldorf fibula, a kind of brooch for pinning clothes, as evidence of runic writing in the early 1st century.
The Meldorf Fibula
The runic alphabet most of you will be familiar with is the futhark, named for the first six letters of the alphabet. With some minor variation, depending on region and date, the futhark was used by Germanic peoples throughout the early to late Middle Ages. This alphabet was designed for cutting or carving simple strokes into wood, leather, bone, metal, and stone. Each letter is drawn by combining verticle strokes (staves) and diagonal protrusions (branches). In the pre-Viking era, the dominant form of the futhark consisted of 24 letters representing the particular sounds of early Germanic languages.
The Elder Futhark
The opening of the Viking Age saw the emergence of a simplified 16 character alphabet, known as the younger futhark. Like its predecessor, the younger futhark’s exact look was largely determined by the region. On the top here, you can see the long-branch (Danish) version of the younger futhark. The second row features the short-twig runic alphabet, a variant most often linked to Sweden and Norway. The short-twig variant is obviously much easier to carve than the long-branch.
Wherever the Germanic and Scandinavian people went from the 2nd century to the early modern period, they left traces of their presence in the form of runic inscriptions on monuments, artifacts like jewelry, tools, and weapons, and other everyday materials. While the majority of their efforts have been lost, more than 6,000 items with runic inscriptions of one form or another survive. Most of these are from the period of the younger futhark. Below you’ll find a sampling of some of the items we reference in this episode.
“Alu” inscription on Bracteate G 205
Ribe Skull Fragment
We don’t mention this example, but it’s worth including here. On the top floor of the southern gallery of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul there is a parapet with a faded runic inscription dated to the 9th century featuring the name of the carver, Halfdan. John and I love to talk about the Varangian Guard, the Byzantine Emperors’ personal bodyguards. We’d like to imagine that Halfdan was a member of this elite unit. The plaque above the inscription suggests a date in the 800s, but don’t believe everything you read.
The “Halfdan” Runic Graffiti in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Near the end of the interview, we discuss ciphers. Really clever rune masters sometimes used these ciphers or cryptics to disguise their messages. The cryptic runes replace the letter with a picture containing a series of carefully plotted strokes. The simplest of these is the tree or branch runes, which can be seen on this image of the Hackness Cross:
Tree Runes on the Hackness Cross, Scarborough, North Yorkshire
The Hackness Cross from Hackness, Scarborough, North Yorkshire
There are tent cryptics, fish cryptics, and many others, but our favorite is the bearded face cryptic from a runic stick recovered from a site at Bergen, Norway. How could it not be?
Runic stick from Bergen, Norway
We hope you enjoy the interview and this brief introduction to runes. There’s plenty of good information out there if you’re interested. Dr. Ljosland recommends
If you’re interested in learning how to read runes, we recommend picking up a copy of Jesse Byock’s Viking Language 1 & 2. It’s an excellent introduction to Old Norse, runes, and the Icelandic Sagas! Visit http://www.vikingnorse.com/ for more information or click on the images below for links to purchase the books on Amazon.
At long last, it is time to put Njal’s Saga on trial. You’ve listened to the saga summary for nearly a year. Now, find out who will take home the prestigious Best Bloodshed and Notable Witticism trophies. Discover exactly how many bodies hit the floor (give or take a few). Learn interesting facts you never knew you needed to know, like who among the many candidates for Nicknames turns out to be related to Hamlet of Denmark. Review the crimes of the saga’s villains and consider along with the hosts who most deserves a sentence of outlawry. If you could only take one man or woman from the saga as your thingman, who would you choose and why? Listen as John and Andy debate the question and finally select a new ally to join their formidable bands of thingmen. Is this, as many scholars agree, the very best of the Sagas of the Icelanders? Only John and Andy can decide. Join us now for the epic judgments of Njal’s Saga!
The epic journey through Njal’s Saga finally comes to an end. In this episode, we follow Kari Solmundarson on his quest to avenge the deaths of everyone he was forced to leave behind in the burning house. His targets are Flosi and the Burners. With so many against him, the odds aren’t in his favor. But Kari is known throughout Iceland for his unmatched bravery and fearlessness. His pursuit of the burners carries him from Iceland to the British Isles and then on to Rome. Along the way, we’ll take a brief detour to Ireland for a glimpse at the historic Battle of Clontarf. Though this may be the end for our little summer saga, there’s plenty here for everyone to enjoy. In addition to the revenge, the battles, and the blood, you’ll want to keep listening for the world’s strangest mathematics word problem and a brief discussion on Entish naming practices. Enjoy!
In this, the penultimate episode in the Njal’s Saga summary, we follow Flosi and the Burners as they bounce around the region seeking support for the inevitable legal case against them. Meanwhile, a slightly singed, but recovered Kari Salmundarson prepares his own case against the burners. And who better to help him than Thorhall Asgrimsson, the young protégé of Njal himself. Unfortunately, Thorhall’s got a nasty infection in his leg and the case falls to Morð Valgardsson. The threat of violence permeates the proceedings as Morð and Eyjolf trade legal barbs and try to out maneuver one another. Will justice be served as cooler heads prevail? Or will the hallowed site of the Alþing be desecrated with the blood of those too slow to dodge an incoming spear? Find out as Saga Thing takes on Njal’s Saga, chapters 133-145.
This episode is full of interesting scholarly tidbits and legal minutiae. We’ve also got the usual nonsense, like old movie references and bad jokes.
Thanks to George Hook for the picture of the Althing from his trip to Iceland. This image is on the information sign for Snorri’s Booth.
Saga Thing returns after a not so brief holiday hiatus. When last we left you, the settlement for the slaying of Hoskuld Thrainsson had been disrupted by insults and threats of violence. We pick the story up as Flosi gathers his forces to surprise the Njalssons at home. When the surprise attack is spoiled by a wishy-washy conspirator, Flosi is left with the difficult task of finishing what he started regardless of the consequences. In this episode, we finally discover how the Saga of Burnt Njal got its name.