This is Part 30 of our ongoing series about Viking Age Iceland. For centuries, this island country, unique in Medieval Europe, operated with no king, no great lords, no foreign policy, and no defense forces but which developed legal and judicial systems to limit the violence of bloodfeud and protect the rights of freemen. Far out in the North Atlantic, Iceland was where the famous sagas developed. To explore Iceland’s place in the medieval world, we present selections from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland that investigate the history, archaeology, culture, systems of feud, and sagas of this magical place.
Thorgils worked hard at acquiring provisions, and every year he went out to the Strands. There he collected wild foods and found whale as well as other driftage.[i] Thorgils was a brave man and searched all through the common lands.
At this time the foster-brothers Thorgeir Havarsson and Thormod Kolbrun’s-Skald were making their reputations. In their coastal trading ship they sailed over a wide area, landing in many places. They were thought to be unjust men.
One summer Thorgils Maksson found a beached whale on the common land, and he and his companions immediately started to cut it up. When the foster-brothers learned about it, they went there as well, and at first the discussion seemed reasonable enough. Thorgils offered them half of the whale meat from the part that was still uncut. But the newcomers claimed for themselves all of the part that was still uncut or wanted to divide in two the parts already cut as well as those that were uncut. Thorgils flatly refused to give up the part that was already cut.
Tempers flared. Both sides armed themselves, and they began to fight. Thorgeir and Thorgils fought each other for a long time with no one interfering. Neither gave way and each fought furiously. Their long and hard exchange ended when Thorgils fell dead, killed by Thorgeir. Meanwhile Thormod fought in another place with Thorgils’ followers. Thormod won the victory in this exchange, killing three of Thorgils’ companions.
After Thorgils’ killing, his men returned to Midfjord, taking Thorgils’ body with them. People felt his death was a great loss. The foster-brothers took the whole whale for themselves. Thormod tells of this encounter in the memorial drápa[ii] which he composed in honour of Thorgeir.
Asmund Grey-Streak learned about the killing of his kinsman Thorgils. Asmund was the person principally responsible for prosecuting the legal case for Thorgils’ death, so he set out to name witnesses and to verify the type of wounds. He and his supporters interpreted the law such that they referred the case straight to the Althing because the event had taken place outside their quarter. Time passed for a while.
When a dead whale was found like this, how were the pieces of meat and blubber stored? The Saga of Gudmund the Worthy (Guðmundar saga dýra) provides some information. It mentions that after a long stand-off, a chieftain rewarded the men who had stood by him by opening his brother’s whale storage pits [hvalgrafir]. He gave each man three loads of whale meat, which they carried home with them. In such pits the meat and blubber fermented, a form of preservation. In a similar manner, Icelanders down to modern times preserve and eat rotten shark and skate fermented in their own juices, the process benefiting from the ammonia found in the urine.
[i] The line refers to eggs, seals, and all that was useful along the coast.
[ii] A drápa was a formal poem of praise. Fifteen stanzas of Thorgeir’s drápa are preserved in The Saga of the Foster-Brothers.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland