Sunday, August 21, 2011

Njáls Saga - 23 August in the Year 1011

In the early morning of the 23 august in the year 1011 Flose Tordarsön, the chief, whom an implacable fate had made an arsonist, stood together with his men at the smoking ruins of the stately courtyard Bergthorsvol , the wise farmer Njál's estate on the southern part of Iceland. During the night they had burned Njál and his wife Bergthora and their sons and people from the household.

The drama is told in the famous Njál's Saga by an anonymous Icelandic writer ab. 1280. The major events described in the saga are probably historical but the material was shaped by the author, drawing on oral tradition, according to his artistic needs. Njáls saga is the longest and most highly developed of the sagas of Icelanders. It is often considered the peak of the saga tradition.

A saga's credibility is often discussed among the learned men. Sometimes this can be tested by an archaeological investigation. There was no doubt that Njal's fire took place. It is mentioned in so many medieval sources that the researchers consider it a historical fact. The saga itself informs that the fire took place three years before the Brian-battle at Clontarf in Ireland = 1011, on a Sunday evening, two months before winter = 22. August, but the fire pulled out until the next morning on the following day.

Some excavations took place at Bergthorsvol in the years 1883, 1885, 1927, 1928 and 1951. Some of it was disappointing. In 1927 -28 was found a fire site of a small house, which seemed to be a house for drying corn, but in 1951 was found a large fire site of a house, a stable. No fire sites of living houses were found, but the explanation can be that the living houses were leveled and rebuilt at once, leaving no fire traces, while the little house and the stable stood for a longer time without being rebuilt, which left fire traces in the ground. The buildings were found in a depth, which makes it probable that they are parts of Njál's farm. A radiocarbon dating was made of a piece of wood from the site, and this showed that the wood had grown inside the years 840-1040.

It was a coincidence that I fell over this old Skalk-magazine the other day. I have recently wondered about coincidences and here came one ! A thousand year old date so close to a present date. That was odd! But I had to use it.
I have translated a very short summary, a very free translation combined with informations in the Skalk-magazine from 1959. If you want to read the real saga, the link is here: Njáls Saga

A short summary:
Flose and his men have surrounded the courtyard. Njál and wife and sons and household are inside. One of the attackers is killed, another wounded, and Flose decides to burn the farm.

All the houses were burning now, and the women started to howl and moan. Njál told them to behave and stop moaning: "This is just a short storm," he said and went to the door: "Is Flose able to hear me?" Flose said yes. Njál said: " Will you negotiate with my sons or allow anyone to get out?" Flose said: " I will not negotiate with your sons, but this case must have an end. I won't leave before all of you are dead. But women and children and housecarls may come out. "

Njál told his people to go out. A woman, Astrid, told her husband Helge to go out with her. He said no, but agreed at last for the children's sake. She threw a cape and a hood over him, but when he came out, Flose said: " What a tall and broadshouldered woman. Take her!" Helge threw his cape and drew his sword and struck a man so his foot fell off. Flose came to and gave Helge a cut across the throat so his head fell off.

Bergthora said." What to do now?" - "Go to our bed," Njal said, "and lie down. I'm tired and I yearn for some peace and quiet." Bergthora told her grandson Thord Kåresön to be carried out by the others, but he said: "Grandmother, you have promised me that we shall always be together. I'd rather die with you and Njál than survive you." Then she carried the boy to the bed. Njál told his bryde: "Notice, where we lie down, for I'll not move for neither smoke or fire. Then you'll know where to find our bones. " The bryde promised. Njál and Bergthora lay down with the boy between them, and the bryde spread the deer-skin over them and went out.

Their son Skarphedin had seen it all and said: "Our father goes early to bed, but he's an old man."  Skarphedin and his brothers Kåre and Grim caught the fires as quickly as the outsiders threw them in, and this went on for a time. But then a beam fell down from the roof, and Skarphedin said: " Now is father dead and we heard nothing, neither mourning or coughing." The brothers went to a place, from where they might escape. Skarphedin told Kåre to jump first, and then he would follow. Kåre tricked the flock outside by throwing a burning beam on them, and they had to jump aside. Kåre's clothes and hair were on fire, and he jumped from the roof and run along the smoke. One of Flose's men said: "Wasn't that a man jumping from the roof?" - "No, not at all," said another. "It was Skarphedin throwing a fire down on us." But Kåre run, until he came to a brook, where he put out the fire in his clothes and hair.

Skarphedin run out upon a roof beam, but it broke under him. "Now I see how it has to be," he said. He went up to his brother Grim. They held each others hands while stomping on the fire, but Grim dropped dead. Skarphedin went to the house gable, but suddenly a huge roar sounded. The roof fell down, and Skarphedin was squeezed between the beam and the wall. He couldn't move. 

Flose and his men stayed by the farm into the break of the morning. A man came riding up to them. Flose asked his name, and he said he was Germund. "You have done  a great deed here," he said. Flose replied: "You may call it both great deed and misdeed, but there is nothing to do about it."

A thousand years have gone and what have we learned? A great question. Do we need another thousand years, before we get rid of war and hunger and disease? Will they in a thousand years from now say that we lived in another dark age ?

Source: The Icelandic Sagas, Njáls Saga; Skalk, Archaeological magazine, 4, 1959, Kristján Eldjárn.

photo: grethe bachmann


Wanda..... said...

One wonders how the intelligence of man can be so great to dream up and invent such miraculous modern day conveniences that we now have and yet, can't find their way to world peace and compassion for all. One would think history alone would be convincing enough.

Beautiful ponies, Grethe. What is the blue thing on the ground? At first, I thought it was a blanket where you might have been relaxing!

Thyra said...

Hej Wanda! Thank you for your comment. I hope history can learn us something.
I have thought about this blue thing myself. What is it doing there? Me relaxing among the ponies? Noooo......although they look so friendly I wouldn't dare.
Grethe ´)

Teresa Evangeline said...

What an interesting history, and a fascinating coincidence, too. :) It can be so dismaying to think that we learn nothing from history. It's difficult to understand how people can be so cruel to one another. Perhaps the tide is turning, but is imperceptible as yet. Only time will tell...

Love the ponies. And the footprint in the sand is the perfect illustration for your text.

Thyra said...

Thank you, Teresa! There are good people working for a better world, but it is not an easy job! Just look at your president. He's a good man.

Take care, where you lay your books. Buddy might have been infected by hearing about Yeller!!

Grethe `)