Eric the Red - George Upton

Appendix A: Skalds and Sagamen

The Discovery of Iceland

[From Joshua Toulmin Smith's Discovery of America by the Northmen ]

106 Iceland was colonized by Ingolf, a Norwegian, or Northman, and his followers in 875. He was the first who cast his doorposts towards the Icelandic shores. The island had, however, been discovered a few years previously by a pirate, or trader—for the term "pirate" was hardly understood in the same sense then as now—named Maddodd. It is, how ever, a very remarkable fact worthy to be recorded that Iceland was inhabited by a race of Christians long before the pagan Northmen settled there, which latter were not converted to Christianity till the year 1000. We have the highest authority for the truth of this fact. I will quote the words of the celebrated Landnamabok  (Landroll of the first settlers in Iceland), the authenticity of which none can dispute: "But, before Iceland was settled by the Northmen, there lived there men called by the Northmen 'Papa.' These were Christians and are believed to have come from the west, on the seas." This expression "from the west" would seem to imply that they came from America. There can, however, be no doubt that it refers to Ireland, which country was usually known to the Northmen by the name of the "west country" as being west of Norway, their original home.

Thorstein's Death

Another version of Thorstein's death runs as follows: "At the close of the same day, Thorstein died and Gudrida was much afflicted. Then Thorstein the Black desired Gudrida to retire and rest herself, for that he would watch by the dead body. He endeavored to comfort and console her in every mode and promised that he would take her, together with the dead body of her husband, Thorstein, and those of all his men, to Eriksfjord, 'and I will also,' he added, 'send for some friends here to comfort you.' She thanked him. At this moment Thorstein Erikson rose and cried, 'Where is Gudrida?' Thrice he repeated these words and then was silent. Thorstein the Black went to Gudrida, roused her, and having desired her to mark herself with the cross, and to ask the aid of her God, he told her what Thorstein Erikson had said: 'He wishes you to go to him; so determine whether you will or no, for I do not know how to advise you.' She answered:

'Perhaps this extraordinary circumstance has reference to some events of futurity. I trust that God will protect me, and I will, therefore, under His mercy, venture to go to my husband and hear what he wishes to say, for I shall be unable, at any rate, to escape if it forebodes evil. The matter may be of importance.' Then Gudrida went to Thorstein. He seemed to her to pour forth tears. He spoke a few words in a low tone to her, which none but herself could hear; afterwards he spoke as follows, in the hearing of all: 'They are blessed who hold the Christian faith, for they will have salvation.' . . . He also foretold to her something of her future lot, indicating that a high destiny awaited her, and he besought her not to marry any man of Greenland. He desired her to bestow a part of his money on a church, and a part on the poor. Having thus spoken, he expired."

Story of Thorhall and the Whale

[From an ancient manuscript]

"That winter was very severe, and as they had no stores provided, provisions ran short. So they passed over on to the island but found little better means of subsistence though the cattle were somewhat better off. Then they prayed to God that he would send them food; which prayer was not answered as soon as they desired.

"About this time Thorhall was missing and they went out to seek for him. The search lasted for three days. On the morning of the fourth day, Thorfinn and Biorn found him lying on the top of a rock. There he lay, stretched out, with his eyes open, blowing through his mouth and nose and mumbling to himself. They asked him why he had gone there. He answered that it was no business of theirs, that he was old enough to take care of himself without their troubling themselves with his affairs. They asked him to return home with them, which he did.

"A short time after a whale was cast ashore and they all ran down eagerly to cut it up, but none knew what kind of whale it was. Neither did Thorfinn, though well acquainted with whales, know this one. The cooks dressed the whale and they all ate of it but were all taken ill immediately after. Then said Thorhall, 'Now you see that Thor is more ready to give aid than your Christ. This food is the reward of a hymn which I composed to Thor, my god, who has rarely forsaken me.

"'I left the shores of Eriksfjord To seek, O cursed Vinland, thine, Each warrior pledges there his word That we should quaff here choicest wine.

Great Odin, Warrior God, see how There water pails I carry now; No wine my lips has touched but low At humblest fountain I must bow.'

"And this is the song which Thorhall mockingly sang as he sailed away from Vineland:

"'Now home our joyful course we'll take Where friends untroubled winters lead; Now let our vessel swiftly make Her channel o'er the ocean's bed; And let the battle-loving crew Who here rejoice, and praise the land— Let them catch whales, and eat them too, And let them dwell in Furdustrand."

"When they heard Thorhall's hymn, none would eat any more, and so they threw all the remainder of the flesh from the rocks, commending themselves to God. After which the air became milder. They were able to go fishing, nor from that time was there any want of provisions, for there was abundance of wild animals hunted on the mainland, of eggs taken on the island, and of fish caught in the sea."

Skalds and Sagamen

[From Wheaton's History of The Northerner.]

"The Skalds were at once poets and historians .. . A regular order of men was perpetuated and a list of two hundred and thirty in number, of those who were most distinguished in the three northern kingdoms, from the reign of Ragnar Lodbrok to Vlademar II, is still preserved in the Icelandic language. . . . The ancient literature of the North was not confined to the poetical art. The Skalds recited the praises of kings and heroes in verse, whilst the Sagamen recalled the memory of the past in prose narratives. . . . The memory of past transactions was thus handed down from age to age in an unbroken chain of tradition, and the ancient songs and Sagas were preserved until the introduction of book-writing gave them a fixed and durable record. . . . The recitations were embellished with poetical extracts from the works of different Skalds. Story and song were thus united together, and the memory was strengthened by this constant cultivation, so as to be the safe depository of the national history and poetry. . . .

"The interesting scene, presented to this day in every Icelandic family, in the long nights of winter, is a living proof of the existence of this ancient custom. No sooner does the day close, than the whole family . . . [being assembled,] one of the family takes his seat near the lamp, and begins to read some favorite Saga. . . . In some families the Sagas are recited by those who have committed them to memory, and there are still instances of itinerant orators of this sort, who gain a livelihood during the winter, by going about, from house to house, repeating the stories they have thus learnt by heart. About two centuries and a half after the first settlement of Iceland by the Norwegians [that is, about A. D. 1100] the learned men of that remote island began to collect and reduce to writing these traditional poems and histories. . .

"Some of the ancient Sagas which now exist in the Icelandic language, remained for a long period in oral tradition, before they were reduced to writing." And, again: "One general remark, made by a learned and ingenious writer who comes fresh from reading these works, is applicable to them all,—that the ancient poetry and romance of the North deals more in reality, and less in fiction, than that of the South. He explains this by the well-known fact, that the history of the Middle Ages of the south of Europe was written exclusively by the clergy; and the lay poets, having only the field of fiction left to them, could distinguish themselves in no other way, than by giving a higher coloring to the marvellous stories they found in the monkish chronicles. In the North, on the contrary, the Skalds, who were attached to the courts of kings, and to the most distinguished families of the country, were the sole depositories of its historical traditions, which it was their interest, as well as glory, faithfully to preserve."