Betra er einn að vera, en illan stallbróður hafa (“Better to be alone than in bad company”) – Icelandic Proverb
The Icelandic governing assembly called the Althing is the oldest extant parliamentary body in the world (founded around 930 A.D), and consisted of a gathering of the most powerful chieftains before any free man who wished to attend in order to decide on laws and dispense justice. Icelanders were seriously concerned about fair and equitable jurisprudence while the rest of Europe was mucking about in the Dark Ages. Not that everything was always rainbows and unicorns in Iceland. Around 1000 A.D., Christianity was adopted by consensus, although flavorings of Norse paganism persisted, but neither of these trumped the legal approach when it came to expelling unwanted ghosts, according to the Eyrbyggja Saga (The Saga of the People of Eyri), anonymously compiled sometime in the 13th Century, but detailing events of the 10-11th Century, including the colonization of Greenland.
Now, being a Viking might seem like good work if you can get it. You get to wear a cool hat with horns, sail around Europe, sack a few cities, and establish your much deserved reputation as the toughest guy on the block. Viking ships were the epitome of Medieval naval power, far more seaworthy than other contemporary feats of nautical engineering, but ultimately you are still talking about braving the North Atlantic in a 50 foot wooden rowboat with one sail, and imprecise tools for navigation. Much drowning ensued. In addition, in 10th Century Iceland, there was a long ongoing blood feud in the offing between the followers of the cheiftans Snorri Goði and Arnkel Goði. And Viking blood feuds generally ended with a corpse. In short, there were an awful lot of ways to give up the ghost, so to speak.
For instance, an upstanding young Viking noted for his trustworthiness and consummate seamanship named Thorod Scat-Catcher, veteran of numerous successful expeditions to Ireland and the Orkneys, and thusly nicknamed “Scat-Catcher” (scat being a Norse word for “tribute”), opted to winter in Iceland at the home of the famous Snorri Þorgrímsson, referred to as Snorri Goði. Thorod became quite chummy with Snorri’s sister Thurid. The happy couple was shortly thereafter married at Holyfell and took up residence on a homestead at Frodis-water on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. Not long after, strange reports started coming in from Frodis-water about a “Moon of Weird” (thought to portend the deaths of many men), followed by the inexplicable wasting death of the local shepherd. A local gentleman named Thorir Wooden-Leg claimed that the undead shepherd had visited his home. Thorir died shortly thereafter, and the two ghosts were seen in company wandering the fields. Six more residents of Frodis-water subsequently died without apparent cause. Something was clearly amiss, but Thorod Scat-Catcher, rough and tumble Viking that he was, had the upcoming Yule holidays to look forward to, and needed to stock up on fish, setting sail west with six of his Viking buddies. Although their ship and fish were found driven ashore a few days later, the bodies of Thorod and his crew were never recovered. This of course, doesn’t imply they weren’t seen again. In fact, like the well-mannered Vikings they were, they attended their own funeral feast (called an arvale).
Kiartan and Thurid bade their neighbours to the arvale, and their Yule ale was taken and used for the arvale. But the first evening when as men were at the feast, and were come to their seats, in came goodman Thorod and his fellows into the hall, all of them dripping wet. Men gave good welcome to Thorod, for a good portent was it deemed, since folk held it for sooth that those men should have good cheer of Ran if they, who had been drowned at sea, came to their own burial-ale; for in those days little of the olden lore was cast aside, though men were baptized and were Christian by name. Now Thorod and his company went down the endlong sitting-hall, which was double-doored, and went into the fire-hall, and took no man’s greeting, and set them down by the fire. Then the home-men fled away from the fire-hall, but Thorod and his folk sat behind there till the fires slaked, and then gat them gone. And thus it befell every evening while the arvale lasted, that they came to the fire. Much talk was hereover at the arvale, and some guessed that it would leave off when the feast was over. The guests went home after the feast, and somewhat dreary was that household left (Eyrbyggja Saga, LIV).
Once the period of funeral feasting had passed, not only did the ghostly visitation continue, they escalated when the moldy ghost of Thorir Wooden-Leg and his compatriots decided to join the party, with the curious addition of Throrir’s gang throwing their mold at Thorod and his fellow revenants. This continued over Yuletide. Eighteen more local folks died unexpectedly as these shenanigans persisted, and many fled Frodis-water. When Thorod’s wife Thurid fell sick, family friend Kiartan decided it was time for action. He called a “door-doom” together, which is essentially a little bit of Medieval Icelandic common law that allows for a local legal proceeding similar to the Althing. A trial of the unruly ghosts was held
Thereafter Kiartan summoned Thorir Wooden-Leg, and Thord Kausi summoned goodman Thorod, in that they went about that household without leave, and despoiled men both of life and luck; all were summoned who sat by the fires. Then was a door-doom named, and these cases put forward; and it was done in all matters even as at a doom of the Thing: verdicts were delivered, cases summed up, and doom given. But as soon as the sentence on Thorir Wooden-Leg was given out, he arose and said: “Here have I sat while sit I might;” and thereafter he went out by the door before which the court was not set. Then was the sentence on the shepherd passed. But when he heard it he stood up and said: “Go I now hencefrom; I ween erst it had more seemly been.” And when Thorgrima Witch-face heard the doom on her ended, she also arose and said: “Here while abiding was meet I abode.” Then they charged one after the other, and each arose as the sentence fell on him, and all said somewhat at their going forth; but ever it seemed by the words of each that they were all loathe to depart. At last was judgment given on goodman Thorod, and when he heard it he stood up and said: “Meseems little peace is here; so get us all gone otherwhere;” and therewith he went out (Eyrbyggja Saga, LV).
The ghosts abandoned their nightly vigil before the hearth in the indominatable face of Icelandic justice. Thorod’s wife Thurid made a complete recovery, and as an afterthought, they let a Christian priest sprinkle a little holy water around just for good measure. Sometimes you just have to sideline theology, and hire a lawyer. This begs the question of whether your particular legal system can be applied to ghosts, but perhaps as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren observed, “It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive”.
Morris, William, 1834-1896, and 1833-1913 Eiríkr Magnússon. The Saga Library. London: B. Quaritch, 1891.
I love this, the treating of the supernatural as one might a common sheep thief. And the dead vikings, being the plundering gentlemen they were, accepting their trial and leaving town because the council decided so.
Brilliantly written 🙂