The term “Viking” is a collective name for Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and other Old Norse-speaking peoples of the period from roughly the 8th to 11th centuries, seafaring raiders who lived by plunder, conquest, and trade. Also called Northmen or Norsemen, many were expert shipbuilders and seamen, and their voyages ranged across some 5,000 miles from Scandinavia to England, France, Spain, Italy, North Africa, Greenland, and North America to the borders of Persia. Viking raids on European and other lands were ruthless and savage, and the Vikings were widely feared. The Viking Age was characterized by a period of a gradual consolidation of national political life, during which chieftains and notable families vied for power at all levels of government.
The body of literature known as the Norse sagas documents these elaborate political intrigues, and both the sagas and occasional foreign observers like Ibn Fadlan [q.v.] provide insight into Viking religious and cultural practices. The term “saga” is borrowed from the Old Norse and an Icelandic word to designate an Old Norse prose narrative; it has been described as a combination of story, tale, and history. The oldest sagas are so-called apostles’ sagas and saints’ lives, based on anonymous translations from the Latin; other genres of saga include what are known as kings’ sagas, sagas about Icelanders, biographies of poets, sagas about knights, and sagas of ancient times, fictionalized accounts of the history of earlier Viking peoples from the year 874, the settlement of Iceland, to 1000, the conversion to Christianity, and beyond. The best of these works are considered the highest achievement of the medieval storytelling art in Northern Europe. The selections included here were all written in Iceland, and while they purport to describe earlier periods, they shed light on medieval Scandinavian cultures of the 13th and 14th centuries. Of particular interest is the tenuous distinction in Viking culture, apparent from the time of the practices described by Ibn Fadlan several centuries earlier on into high Viking culture, between voluntarily allowing oneself to die and voluntarily killing oneself. Either form of death could involve violence and so ensure entrance into Valhalla.
Odin, the god of battle, knowledge, and poetry, appears as the chief pagan figure in medieval Scandinavian polytheism. Odin’s demands for sacrifice were immense and may have included animals, other human beings (e.g., slaves and enemies), and the self by suicide. Indeed, some have claimed he was known as the “Lord of the Gallows” or “God of the Hanged.” Both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda describe Odin’s self-destructive acts, including hanging himself, torture between two fires, and on different occasions, impaling himself for nine days and giving up an eye for knowledge. In a section known as the “Rune Poem,” the Poetic Edda relates:
I know that I hung on a windy tree
or nine long nights;
pierced by a spear—Odin’s pledge—
given myself to myself.
Through this act of self-mutilation, it is said, Odin sought to discover the runes and, through them, become possessed of secret wisdom.
The Ynglinga Saga, from which the first selection is taken, was compiled from earlier sources by Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241). It forms part of the Heimskringla, a history of the reigns of the Norse kings from the end of the 3rd century to 1177. The Ynglinga Saga tells the story of Odin—then a powerful king—as he lay dying in bed. According to this tradition, Odin marked his dying body with the point of a spear and thus prepared the way for the worthy to enter Valhalla, “the Hall of those who die by violence” (literally, “corpse hall”), a hall of feasting that courageous and mighty warriors enjoy after death. With Odin’s example before them, it was considered a disgrace for a man to die unwounded in bed, not in battle; death by violence was preferable. If a Viking followed Odin’s example by dying violently in battle or from a self-inflicted wound, a portion of the rejoicing at Valhalla might be his. The Valkyries chose the best and most heroic of the slain for Odin; the goddess Freyja, as the goddess of love, war and sex, also got to select half. Death in battle was the greatest honor and greatest qualification for Valhalla; suicide was next best, but those who died peacefully in their beds of old age or disease were excluded from Valhalla for all eternity.
The second selection, taken from the first of the three tales that form Gautrek’s Saga (13th century), tells the story of King Gauti of Gautland, who becomes lost in a forest and is given shelter by a most peculiar family. This family claims Gillings Bluff as their “Family Cliff,” which serves to control family size and ensure a good death. By throwing themselves down from its height, family members will be able to die immediately without suffering from illness, misfortune, starvation, or infirmity, and in realizing a violent death, they will, they believe, be transported directly to Odin’s welcoming abode. When King Gauti arrives, the family perceives the intrusion and the expectation that they feed the guest as such an affront, they decide it is time to use the Family Cliff. They take a slave along as a “reward” for his faithful service. A daughter survives, however, and bears King Gauti a son, Gautrekr, who later becomes king and plays a role in the second part of the saga.
Njal’s Saga, or the “Story of Burnt Njal” (probably written between 1275–1290), the longest and most highly acclaimed of the Norse sagas, is the story of two warring families. In the selection presented here, a complex plot reaches its climax as Njal, a wise and peace-loving father, when he learns that he and his family are surrounded and outmanned by their enemies, allows himself, together with his wife, sons, and a grandson, to die violent deaths by fire rather than suffer a continued existence in shame. When Njal’s body is found afterward, his friend reports that his “. . . body and visage seem to me so bright that I have never seen any dead man’s body as bright as his.”
Edda passage: The Poetic Edda, tr. by Patricia Terry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962, p. 138); Ynglinga Saga, ch. 6-11, 44: Snorre Sturlason, Heimskringla: The Norsking Sagas, tr. Samuel Laing (1844), available online from the Online Medieval and Classical Library; Gautrek’s Saga: Gautrek’s Saga and Other Medieval Tales, trs. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards (New York: New York University Press; London: University of London Press, 1968, chs. 1-2, pp. 25-32; Njal’s Saga: Sir George Webbe Dasent, The Story of Burnt Njal (London: J.M. Dent, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1911, chs. 20, 127-28, 131, pp. 34, 235-39, 246-47) .
ODIN MARKS HIMSELF WITH A SPEAR
OF ODIN’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS.
When Odin of Asaland came to the north, and the Diar with him, they introduced and taught to others the arts which the people long afterwards have practised. Odin was the cleverest of all, and from him all the others learned their arts and accomplishments; and he knew them first, and knew many more than other people. But now, to tell why he is held in such high respect, we must mention various causes that contributed to it.
When sitting among his friends his countenance was so beautiful and dignified, that the spirits of all were exhilarated by it, but when he was in war he appeared dreadful to his foes. This arose from his being able to change his skin and form in any way he liked. Another cause was, that he conversed so cleverly and smoothly, that all who heard believed him. He spoke everything in rhyme, such as now composed, which we call scald-craft. He and his temple priests were called song-smiths, for from them came that art of song into the northern countries. Odin could make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck, and their weapons so blunt that they could no more but than a willow wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker.
OF ODIN’S FEATS.
Odin could transform his shape: his body would lie as if dead, or asleep; but then he would be in shape of a fish, or worm, or bird, or beast, and be off in a twinkling to distant lands upon his own or other people’s business. With words alone he could quench fire, still the ocean in tempest, and turn the wind to any quarter he pleased. Odin had a ship which was called Skidbladnir, in which he sailed over wide seas, and which he could roll up like a cloth. Odin carried with him Mime’s head, which told him all the news of other countries. Sometimes even he called the dead out of the earth, or set himself beside the burial-mounds; whence he was called the ghost-sovereign, and lord of the mounds. He had two ravens, to whom he had taught the speech of man; and they flew far and wide through the land, and brought him the news. In all such things he was pre-eminently wise. He taught all these arts in Runes, and songs which are called incantations, and therefore the Asaland people are called incantation-smiths. Odin understood also the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practised; namely, what is called magic. By means of this he could know beforehand the predestined fate of men, or their not yet completed lot; and also bring on the death, ill-luck, or bad health of people, and take the strength or wit from one person and give it to another. But after such witchcraft followed such weakness and anxiety, that it was not thought respectable for men to practise it; and therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art. Odin knew finely where all missing cattle were concealed under the earth, and understood the songs by which the earth, the hills, the stones, and mounds were opened to him; and he bound those who dwell in them by the power of his word, and went in and took what he pleased. From these arts he became very celebrated. His enemies dreaded him; his friends put their trust in him, and relied on his power and on himself. He taught the most of his arts to his priests of the sacrifices, and they came nearest to himself in all wisdom and witch-knowledge. Many others, however, occupied themselves much with it; and from that time witchcraft spread far and wide, and continued long. People sacrificed to Odin and the twelve chiefs from Asaland, and called them their gods, and believed in them long after. From Odin’s name came the name Audun, which people gave to his sons; and from Thor’s name comes Thore, also Thorarinn; and also it is sometimes compounded with other names, as Steenthor, or Havthor, or even altered in other ways.
Odin established the same law in his land that had been in force in Asaland. Thus he established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth. Thus, said he, every one will come to Valhalla with the riches he had with him upon the pile; and he would also enjoy whatever he himself had buried in the earth. For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone; which custom remained long after Odin’s time. On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle. Over all Swithiod the people paid Odin a scatt or tax — so much on each head; but he had to defend the country from enemy or disturbance, and pay the expense of the sacrifice feasts for a good year.
OF NJORD’S MARRIAGE.
Njord took a wife called Skade; but she would not live with him and married afterwards Odin, and had many sons by him, of whom one was called Saeming; and about him Eyvind Skaldaspiller sings thus: —
“To Asa’s son Queen Skade bore
Saeming, who dyed his shield in gore, —
The giant-queen of rock and snow,
Who loves to dwell on earth below,
The iron pine-tree’s daughter, she
Sprung from the rocks that rib the sea,
To Odin bore full many a son,
Heroes of many a battle won.”
To Saeming Earl Hakon the Great reckoned back his pedigree. This Swithiod they called Mannheim, but the Great Swithiod they called Godheim; and of Godheim great wonders and novelties were related.
OF ODIN’S DEATH.
Odin died in his bed in Swithiod; and when he was near his death he made himself be marked with the point of a spear, and said he was going to Godheim, and would give a welcome there to all his friends, and all brave warriors should be dedicated to him; and the Swedes believed that he was gone to the ancient Asgaard, and would live there eternally. Then began the belief in Odin, and the calling upon him. The Swedes believed that he often showed to them before any great battle. To some he gave victory; others he invited to himself; and they reckoned both of these to be fortunate. Odin was burnt, and at his pile there was great splendour. It was their faith that the higher the smoke arose in the air, the higher he would be raised whose pile it was; and the richer he would be, the more property that was consumed with him.
Njord of Noatun was then the sole sovereign of the Swedes; and he continued the sacrifices, and was called the drot or sovereign by the Swedes, and he received scatt and gifts from them. In his days were peace and plenty, and such good years, in all respects, that the Swedes believed Njord ruled over the growth of seasons and the prosperity of the people. In his time all the diar or gods died, and blood-sacrifices were made for them. Njord died on a bed of sickness, and before he died made himself be marked for Odin with the spear-point. The Swedes burned him, and all wept over his grave-mound….
OF INGJALD’S DEATH.
Ivar Vidfavne came to Scania after the fall of his uncle Gudrod, and collected an army in all haste, and moved with it into Sweden. Aasa had gone to her father before. King Ingjald was at a feast in Raening, when he heard that King Ivar’s army was in the neighbourhood. Ingjald thought he had not strength to go into battle against Ivar, and he saw well that if he betook himself to flight his enemies would swarm around him from all corners. He and Aasa took a resolution which has become celebrated. They drank until all their people were dead drunk, and then put fire to the hall; and it was consumed, with all who were in it, including themselves, King Ingjald, and Aasa. Thus says Thjodolf: —
“With fiery feet devouring flame
Has hunted down a royal game
At Raening, where King Ingjald gave
To all his men one glowing grave.
On his own hearth the fire he raised,
A deed his foemen even praised;
By his own hand he perished so,
And life for freedom did forego.
The Family Cliff
This is the start of an amusing story about a certain King Gauti. He was a shrewd sort of man, very quiet, but generous and outspoken. King Gauti ruled over West Gotaland, lying east of the Kjolen Mountains between Norway and Sweden; the Gota River separates Gotaland from the Uplands. In that part of the world there are immense forests, very difficult to get about in except when the ground is frozen. This king we’re talking about, Gauti, used to go into these forests, with his hawks and hounds, for he was keen on hunting and got a great deal of pleasure from it. At this time there were plenty of people living deep in the forests, as a good many settlers had cleared the land to make their homes right away from the world. A number of these backwoodsmen had turned from society because of some misdeed or other, or else had cleared out to avoid the consequences of youthful escapades or adventure; they thought the best way of protecting themselves against people’s scoffing and sneering was to get completely away from it all, and so they lived out the rest of their lives without seeing another human being apart from their own companions. As these men had gone to live right off the beaten track, hardly anybody ever came to visit them, unless from time to time someone who happened to lose his way in the forest might stumble on their homes, and even so, he would often wish that he’d never set foot there. This King Gauti we’ve been talking about started out with his retainers and his finest hounds to hunt deer in the forest. The king sighted a fine stag and set his heart on getting it, so he unleashed his hounds and began chasing hard after it. This went on all day, and by evening he had lost all his fellow huntsmen and was deep into the forest. He realized that he wouldn’t be able to get back to them, as it was already dark and he’d covered so much ground during the day. Besides this, he’d hit the stag with his spear, and it had stuck fast in the wound. He didn’t on any account want to lose the spear if he could possibly help it, since it seemed to him a great humiliation to surrender one’s weapon. Gauti had been hunting so hard that he’d thrown off all his clothes except for his underwear. He’d lost his socks and shoes, and his legs and feet were badly torn by stones and branches, but still he had not caught up with the stag. By now it was night and very dark, and he had no idea where he was going, so he stopped to listen if he could hear anything, and after a little while he heard the bark of a dog.
It seemed most likely that where a dog barked there would be people about, so he walked on in the direction of the sound.
Shortly afterwards he saw a small farmstead, and standing outside was a man with a woodcutter’s axe. When he saw the king coming closer, the man pounced on the dog and killed it.
‘This is the last time you’ll show a stranger the way to our house,’ he said. ‘It’s obvious, this man’s so big he’ll eat up all the farmer has once he gets inside. Well, that won’t ever happen if I can help it.’
The king heard what the man said and smiled to himself. It occurred to him that he wasn’t at all suitably dressed for sleeping out; on the other hand, he wasn’t certain what sort of hospitality he would be offered if he waited for an invitation, so he walked boldly up to the door. The other man ran into the doorway with the idea of keeping him out, but the king forced his way past him into the house. He came into the living-room, where he saw four men and four women, but there wasn’t a word of welcome for the King Gauti. So he sat down.
One of them, evidently the master of the house, spoke up. ‘Why did you let this man in?’ he asked the slave at the door.
‘I wasn’t a match for him,’ said the slave, ‘he was so powerful.’
‘What did you do when that dog started barking?’ said the farmer.
‘I killed the dog,’ said the slave, ‘I didn’t want it to lead any more roughs like this to the house.’
You’re a faithful servant,’ said the farmer, ‘and I can’t blame you for this awkward situation that’s cropped up. It’s difficult to find the proper reward for the trouble you’ve taken, but tomorrow I’ll repay you by taking you along with me.’
It was a well-furnished house and the people were good-looking but not particularly big. It struck the king that they were frightened of him. The farmer ordered the table to be laid, and food was served. When the king saw that he wasn’t going to be invited to share the meal, he sat down at the table next to farmer, picked up some food and settled down to eat. When the farmer saw this, he stopped eating himself and pulled his hat down over his eyes. Nobody said a word. After the king had finished eating, the farmer pushed up his hat and ordered the platters to be cleared from the table . . . ‘since there’s no food left there now,’ he said.
The king lay down to sleep, and a little later on one of the women came up to him and said, ‘Wouldn’t you like me to give you a bit of hospitality?’
‘Things are looking up now you’re willing to talk to me,’ said the king. ‘Your household seems a pretty dull one.’
‘Don’t be surprised at that,’ said the girl.’ ‘In all our lives, we’ve never had a single visitor before. I don’t think the master is too pleased to have you as a guest,’
‘I can easily compensate him for all that he spends on my account,’ said the king, ‘as soon as I get back to my own home,’
‘I’m afraid this queer business will bring us something more from you than compensation,’ said the woman.
‘I’d like you to tell me what you and your family are called,’ said the king.
‘My father’s called Skinflint,’ she said, and the reason is, he’s so mean he can’t bear to watch his food stocks dwindle or anything else he owns. My mother’s known as Totra because she’ll never wear any clothes unless they’re already in tatters. She has the idea that this is very sound economics.’
‘What are your brothers called?’ asked the king.
‘One’s called Fjolmod, another Imsigull, and the third Gilling,’ she said.
‘What about you and your sisters?’ asked the king.
‘I’m called Snotra, because I’m the most intelligent. My sisters are called Hjotra and Fjotra,’ she said. ‘There’s a precipice called Gillings Bluff near the farm, and we call its peak Family Cliff. The drop’s so great there’s not a living creature could ever survive it. It’s called Family Cliff simply because we use it to cut down the size of our family whenever something extraordinary happens, and in this way our elders are allowed to die straight off without having to suffer any illness. And then they can go straight to Odin, while their children are spared all the trouble and expense of having to take care them. Every member of our family is free to use this facility offered by the cliff, so there’s no need for any of us to live in famine or poverty, or put up with any other misfortunes that might happen to us.
‘I hope you realize, my father thinks it quite extraordinary, your coming to our house. It would have been remarkable enough for any stranger to take a meal with us, but this really is a marvel, that a king, cold and naked, should have been to our house. There’s no precedent for it, so my father and mother have decided to share out the inheritance tomorrow between me and my brother and sisters. After that they’re going to take the slave with them and pass on over Family Cliff on the way to Valhalla. My father feel’s that’s the least reward he could give the slave for trying to bar your way into the house, to let the fellow share this bliss with him. Besides, he’s quite sure Odin won’t ever receive the slave unless he goes with him.’
‘I can see that you’re the most eloquent member of your family,’ said the king, ‘and you can depend on me. I take it you’re still a virgin, so you’d better sleep with me tonight.’
She said that was entirely up to him.
In the morning when the king woke up, he said, ‘I’d like to remind you, Skinflint, that I was barefoot when I came to your house, so I wouldn’t mind accepting a pair shoes from you.’
Skinflint made no reply but gave him a pair of shoes. All the same he pulled out the laces first. The king said:
‘Skinflint gave me
a pair of shoes,
but held the laces back.
I tell you a miser
can never give
a gift without a snag.’
After that the king got ready to go, and Snotra came to see him off. ‘I’d like to ask you to come with me,’ said King Gauti, ‘I’ve an idea our meeting may have certain consequences. If you have a boy, call him Gautrek; it’ll remind you of me and all the trouble I’ve caused your family.’
‘I think you’re pretty near to the mark,’ she said. ‘But I shan’t be able to go along with you now, as it’s today my parents divide their property between me and my brothers and sisters. When that’s done my father and my mother intend to move on over Family Cliff.’
The king said good-bye to her and told her to come and see him whenever she felt like it. Then he went on his way until he came up with his men, and now he took it easy.
But to get on with the story, when Snotra came back to the house, there was her father squatting over his possessions.
‘What an extraordinary thing to happen,’ he said, ‘a king has paid us a visit, eaten us out of house and home and then taken away what we could least afford to lose. It’s clear to me that we won’t be able to stay together any longer as one family since we’re reduced to poverty. That’s why I’ve gathered together all my things. And now I’m going to divide them up between my sons. I’m going to take my wife along to Valhalla, and my slave as well, since it’s the least I can do to repay him for his faithful service, to let him go there with me.’
‘Gilling is to have my fine ox, to share with his sister Snotra. Fjolmod and his sister Hjotra are to have my bars of gold, Imsigull and his sister Fjotra all my cornfields. And now I want to implore you, my children, not to add to the family, so that you’ll be able to preserve what you’ve inherited.’
When Skinflint had said all he wanted, the family climbed up to Gillings Bluff. After that the young people helped their parents to pass on over Family Cliff, and off they went, merry and bright, on the way to Odin.
Now that the young people had taken over the property, they decided they’d better set things right. So they cut some wooden pegs and used them to pin pieces of cloth round their bodies so that they couldn’t touch each other. They felt this was the safest method of controlling their numbers.
When Snotra realized she was going to have a baby, she loosened the wooden pins that held her dress together, so that her body could be touched. She was pretending to be asleep when Gilling woke or stirred in his sleep. He stretched out his hand and happened to touch her cheek.
Once he was properly awake, he said ‘Something terrible has happened, I’m afraid that I’ve got you into trouble. You seem to be much stouter now then you used to be.’
‘Keep it to yourself as long as you can,’ she said.
‘I’ll do no such thing,’ he said, ‘once there’s been an addition to our family there wouldn’t be a hope of hiding it.’
Not long after, Snotra gave birth to a beautiful boy. She chose a name for him and called him Gautrek.
‘What a queer thing to happen,’ said Gilling, ‘there’s no hiding this any longer. I’m going to tell my brothers.’
‘Our whole way of life is being threatened by this remarkable event,’ they declared. ‘This is indeed a serious violation of our rule.’
‘How stupid of me
to move my hand
and touch the woman’s cheek.
It doesn’t take much
to make a son
if that’s how Gautrek was got.’
They said it wasn’t his fault, particularly since he’d repented and was wishing it had never happened. He said he’d willingly pass on over Family Cliff, and added that this little affair might be only a beginning. His brother told him to wait and see whether anything else would happen.
Fjolmod used to herd his sheep all day, carrying the gold bars with him wherever he went. One day he fell asleep and was woken up by two black snails crawling over the gold. He got the idea that the gold had been dented where it was really only blackened, and he thought it greatly diminished.
‘It’s a terrible thing,’ he said, ‘to suffer such a loss. If this should happen once more I’ll be penniless when I go to see Odin. So I’d better pass on over Family Cliff just to cover myself in case it happens again. Things have never looked so black, not since my father handed me out all this money.’
He told his brothers about his remarkable experience, and asked them to share out his part of the property. Then he added:
have swallowed my gold,
everything goes against me.
Stripped of my wealth,
I snivel and sulk,
Now all my gold’s been gobbled.’
Then he and his wife went up to Gillings Bluff and passed on over Family Cliff.
One day Imsigull was inspecting his cornfields. He saw a bird called the sparrow – it’s about the size of a tit. He thought the bird might have caused some serious damage, so he walked round the fields till he saw where the bird had picked a single grain from one of the ears. Then he said:
‘The sparrow’s done
to Imsigull’s field of corn.
He ravaged an ear
And gobbled a grain;
What grief to the kin of Totra!
Then he and his wife passed joyfully on over Family Cliff, unable to risk such another loss.
One day, Gautrek happened to be outside when he noticed the fine ox – the boy was seven years old at the time. It so happened that he stabbed the ox to death with a spear. Gilling was watching and said:
‘The young boy has killed
that ox of mine,
Shall such treasure be mine,
no matter how old I grow.’
‘This has really gone too far,’ he added. And then he climbed up Gillings Bluff and passed on over Family Cliff.
Now there were only two of them left, Snotra and her son Gautrek. She made them both ready for a journey, and off they went all the way to King Gauti who gave his son a good welcome. So from then on Gautrek was brought up at his father’s court.
The Burning of Njal
THERE was a man whose name was Njal. He was the son of Thorgeir Gelling, the son of Thorolf. Njal’s mother’s name was Asgerda. Njal dwelt at Bergthorsknoll in the land-isles; he had another homestead on Thorolfsfell. Njal was wealthy in goods, and handsome of face; no beard grew on his chin. He was so great a lawyer, that his match was not to be found. Wise too he was, and foreknowing and foresighted. Of good counsel, and ready to give it, and all that he advised men was sure to be the best for them to do. Gentle and generous, he unravelled every man’s knotty points who came to see him about them. Bergthora was his wife’s name; she was Skarphedinn’s daughter, a very high-spirited, brave-hearted woman, but somewhat hard-tempered. They had six children, three daughters and three sons, and they all come afterwards into this story.
[Flosi, enemy of Njal and his family, is unable to take Njal’s house by arms, since Njal is well defended. Flosi decides to set Njal’s house on fire.]
Kari, and Grim, and Helgi, threw out many spears, and wounded many men; but Flosi and his men could do nothing.
At last Flosi said, “we have already gotten great manscathe in our men; many are wounded, and he slain whom we would choose last of all. It is now clear that we shall never master them with weapons; many now there be who are not so forward in fight as they boasted, and yet they were those who goaded us on most. I say this most to Grani Gunnar’s son, Gunnar Lambi’s son, who were the least willing to spare their foes. But still we shall have to take to some other plan for ourselves, and now there are but two choices left, and neither of them good. One is to turn away, and that is our death, the other , to set fire to the house, and burn them inside it; and that is a deed which we shall have to answer for heavily before God, since we are Christian men ourselves; but still we must take to that counsel.”
NOW they took fire, and made a great pile before the doors. Then Skarphedinn said, “What, lads! Are ye lighting a fire, or are ye taking to cooking?”
“So it shall be,” answered Grani Gunnar’s son; “and thou shalt not need to be better done,”
“Thou repayest me,” said Skarphedinn, “as one may look for from the man that thou art. I avenged thy father, and thou settest most store by that duty which is farthest from thee.”
Then the women threw whey on the fire, and quenched it as fast as they lit it. Some, too, brought water, or slops.
Then Kol Thorstein’s son said Flosi, “A plan comes into my mind; I have seen a loft over the hall among the crosstrees, and we will put the fire in there, and light it with the vetch-stack that stands just above the house.”
Then they took the vetch-stack and set fire to it, and they who were inside were not aware of it till the whole hall was a-blaze over their heads.
Then Flosi and his men made a great pile before each of the doors, and then the women folk who were inside began to weep and to wail.
Njal spoke to them and said, “Keep up your hearts, nor utter shrieks, for this is but a passing storm, and it will be long before ye have another such; and put your faith in God, and believe that he is so merciful that he will not let us burn both in this world and the next.”
Such words of comfort had he for them all, and others still more strong.
Now the whole house began to blaze. Then Njal went to the door and said, “Is Flosi near that he can hear my voice.”
Flosi said that he could hear it.
“Wilt thou,” said Njal, “take any atonement from my sons, or allow any men to go out.”
“I will not,” answers Flosi, “take any atonement from thy sons, and now our dealings shall come to an end once and for all, and I will not stir from this spot till they are all dead; but I will allow the women and children and house-carles to go out,”
Then Njal went into the house, and said to the fold, “Now all those must go out whom leave is given, and so go thou out Thorhalla Asgrim’s daughter, and all the people also with thee who may.”
Then Thorhalla said, “This is another parting between me and Helgi than I thought of a while ago; but still I will egg on my father and brothers to avenge this manscathe which is wrought here.”
“Go, and good go with thee,” said Njal, “for thou art a brave woman,”
After that she went out and much folk with her.
Then Astrid of Deepback said to Helgi Njal’s son, “Come thou out with me, and I will throw a woman’s cloak over thee, and tie thy head with a kerchief.”
He spoke against it at first, but at last he did so at the prayer of others.
So Astrid wrapped the kerchief round Helgi’s head, but Thorhilda, Skarphedinn’s wife, threw the cloak over him, and he went out between them, and Thorgerda Njal’s daughter, and Helga her sister, and many other folk went out too.
But when Helgi came out Flosi said, “That is a tall woman and broad across the shoulders that went yonder, take her and hold her.”
But when Helgi heard that, he cast away the cloak. He had got his sword under his arm, and hewed at a man, and the blow fell on his shield and cut off the point of it, and the man’s leg as well. Then Flosi came up and hewed at Helgi’s neck, and took off his head at a stroke.
Then Flosi went to the door and called out to Njal, and said he would speak with him and Bergthora.
Now Njal does so, and Flosi said, “I will offer thee, master Njal, leave to go out, for it is unworthy that thou shouldst burn indoors,”
“I will not go out,” said Njal, “for I am an old man, and little fitted to avenge my sons, but I will not live in shame.”
Then Flosi said to Bergthora, “Come thou out, housewife, for I will for no sake burn thee indoors.”
“I was given away to Njal young,” said Bergthora, “and I have promised him this, that we would both share the same fate,”
After that they both went back into the house.
“What counsel shall we now take,” said Bergthora.
“We will go to our bed,” says Njal, “and lay us down; I have long been eager for rest.”
Then she said to the boy Thord, Kari’s son, “Thee will I take out, and thou shalt not burn in here.”
“Thou hast promised me this, grandmother,” says the boy, “that we should never part so long as I wished to be with thee; but methinks it is much better to die with thee and Njal than to live after you.”
Then she bore the boy to her bed, and Njal spoke to his steward and said, “Now thou shalt see where we lay us down, and how I lay us out, for I mean not to stir an inch hence, whether reek or burning smart me, and so thou wilt be able to guess where to look for our bones,”
He said he would do so.
There had been an ox slaughtered and the hide lay there. Njal told the steward to spread the hide over them, and he did so.
So there they lay down both of them in their bed, and put the boy between them. Then they signed themselves and the boy with the cross, and gave over their souls into God’s hand, and that was the last word that men heard them utter.
Then the steward took the hide and spread it over them, and went out afterwards. Kettle of the Mark caught hold of him, and dragged him out, he asked carefully after his father-in-law Njal, but the steward told him the whole truth.
Then Kettle said, “Great grief hath been sent on us, when we have had to share such ill-luck together.”
Skarphedinn saw how his father laid him down, and how he laid himself out, and then he said, “Our father goes early to bed, and that is what was to be looked for, for he is an old man.”
Then Skarphedinn, and Kari, and Grim, caught the brands as fast as they dropped down, and hurled them out at them, and so it went on awhile. Then they hurled spears in at them, but they caught them all as they flew, and sent them back again.
Then Flosi bade them cease shooting, “for all feats of arms will go hard with us when we deal with them; ye may well wait till the fire overcomes them,”
So they do that, and shoot no more.
Then the great beams out of the roof began to fall, and Skarphedinn said, “Now must my father be dead, and I have neither heard groan nor cough from him.”
Then they went to the end of the hall, and there had fallen down a cross-beam inside which was much burnt in the middle.
Kari spoke to Skarphedinn, and said, “Leap thou out here, and I will help thee to do so, and I will leap out after thee, and then we shall both get away if we set about it so, for hitherward blows all the smoke.”
“Thou shalt leap first,” said Skarphedinn; “but I will leap straightway on thy heels.”
“That is not wise,” says Kari, “for I can get out well enough elsewhere, though it does not come about here.”
“I will not do that,” says Skarphedinn; “leap thou out first, but I will leap after thee at once.”
“It is bidden to every man,” says Kari, “to seek to save his life while he has a choice, and I will do so now; but still this parting of ours will be in such wise that we shall never see one another more; for if I leap out of the fire, I shall have no mind to leap back into the fire to thee, and then each of us will have to fare his own way.”
“It joys me, brother-in-law,” says Skarphedinn, “to think that if thou gettest away thou wilt avenge me.”
Then Kari took up a blazing bench in his hand, and runs up along the cross-beam, then he hurls the bench out at the roof, and it fell among those who were outside.
Then they ran away, and by that time all Kari’s upper clothing and his hair were a-blaze, then he threw himself down from the roof, and so crept along with threw smoke.
Then one man said who was nearest, “Was that a man that leapt out the roof?”
“Far from it,” says another; “more likely it was Skarphedinn who hurled a firebrand at us.”
After that they had no more mistrust.
Kari ran till he came to a stream, and then he threw himself down into it, and so quenched the fire on him.
After that he ran along under shelter of the smoke into a hollow, and rested him there, and that has since been called Kari’s Hollow.
KARI bade Hjallti to go and search for Njal’s bones, “For all will believe in what thou sayest and thinkest about them.”
Hjallto said he would be most willing to bear Njal’s bones to church; so they rode thence fifteen men. They rode east over Thurso-water, and called on men there to come with them till they had one hundred men, reckoning Njal’s neighbours.
They came to Bergthorscknll at mid-day.
Hjallti asked Kari under what part of the house Njal might be lying, but Kari showed them to the spot, and there was a great heap of ashes to dig away. There they found the hide underneath, and it was as though it were shriveled with the fire. They raised up the hide, and lo! They were unburnt under it. All praised God for that, and thought it was a great token.
Then the boy was taken up who had lain between them, and of him a finger was burnt off which had stretched out from under the hide.
Njal was borne out, and so was Bergthora, and then all men went to see their bodies.
Then Hjallti said, “What like look to you these bodies?”
They answered, “We will wait for thy utterance,”
Then Hjallti said, “I shall speak what I say with all freedom of speech. The body of Berthora looks as it was likely she would look, and still fair; But Njal’s body and visage seem to me so bright that I have never seen any dead man’s body so bright as this.”