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Outlaws on Ice January 10, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Beachcombing has just, through extraordinary and characteristic, incompetence lost a week of his life. He thought that he began teaching the 23 Jan, when, instead, it seems that he is to start on the 16. He now has two days to write three academic articles. Given this emergency situation he was planning (ha!) to type out only a short and probably inadequate post today. However, come the hour, come the man…

Leif has sent in this extraordinary account of Icelandic outlaws and the post has, thanks to Leif, written itself. Beach doesn’t know what to make of the following material. It sounds rather as if fairies had been humanized and there are some hints of fairy themes throughout. Or should we see this as the proud Icelanders trying to keep a part of their wild Viking soul pristine? Or perhaps, God forbid, there is something true at the bottom of the fern-laced well…

It would, in any case, be interesting to know how late this legend survived: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. Are there complaints at Reykjavik city council meetings today about Outlaws joy riding in cars from the suburbs and setting fire to trash bins?

A fuller version of the following appears as the ninth chapter (164-177) in Forbes’ Iceland: its volcanoes, geyser, and glaciers (1860)

‘UTILEGU-MENN’, literally Outlying-men, but what may perhaps be better rendered in English by the term Outlaws, were a race supposed to live on the borders of the desert interior of Iceland; they were said to intermarry amongst themselves, and even to preserve a language of their own. The glaciers in the neighbouring Bald Yökul, and other vast desert localities in the interior, were pictured as their favourite haunts. With regard to their origin, they were supposed to have sprung from that portion of the original colonists who declined to trammel themselves with the laws which their contemporaries adopted, and were gradually recruited by those desperate spirits who had indistinct ideas of the rights of property; or for other misdemeanour were obliged by law to quit the island, when, instead of leaving the country, they ran into the interior. They were supposed to exist by plundering the flocks and herds of those who lived on the confines of the uninhabited waste which forms the interior, and also by waylaying travellers who had to cross that district. Even at the present day many intelligent people declare that they still exist, and one of the reasons adduced on my subsequent return from Snæfells Yökul for not being able to procure me a guide direct to Geyser, was, that we should have to traverse a district that Utilegu-rnenn were believed to inhabit, and, consequently, it was unsafe for a small number.  The chief argument adduced to prove their present existence is, that thousands of sheep annually disappear from the high pasture-lands of the island, leaving no trace of their remains; and further, that. this loss is greater always after a severe winter, when the Utilegu-menn, having lost all their flocks are driven to replenish from those of others.

Forbes is having nothing of this, of course. But he does have the good manners to cite 6 accounts that range from eye-witness accounts to folk-tales posing as eye-witness accounts.

1) Pr. Jòn Hjaltalin, whilst a student, whenever he went home for the holidays, during the vacation stayed a night with a farmer named Simon, at Palsmynni, in the Lànjidalr. On one of these occasions he found the household in a state of unusual excitement, whilst arms were lying about in all directions. On inquiring the cause of this disorder, he was told by the farmer, a worthy and credible man, that his boys-having gone a few days ago further than usual towards the mountains, in search of missing cattle met a flock of from two to three hundred sheep, driven by two men with long staves in their hands, who, by a threatening gesture, warned them not to come nearer. The boys returned home, and, having related what they had seen, sixteen men of the neighbourhood, with their arms, assembled to pursue the strangers, for there were good grounds for supposing that the sheep they were driving had been stolen. The ground being damp, the track of the flock could easily be traced, whilst at the same time it was observed from the foot-prints that there were four drivers instead of two. The pursuers then rode after them, passing the Baula as far as the Bald Yökul, to which the track led. At last, however, night compelled them to return, for it was unsafe to enter the wilderness after dark, as an encounter with the Utilegu-menn was to be apprehended.

2) Farmer Runólfr, for instance, of Mariubakki, in the district of Fljòtshverfi, of the Skaptafellsysla, saw once, in the neighbourhood of Fiskivötn, six men together, whose appearance clearly indicated that they did not belong to the inhabited parts of the island. He likewise noticed traces of their horses distinctly leading towards the mountains, and not towards the inhabited part of the country.

3) In the district of Biskupstùngur, on the northern boundary of Arnessysla, there stands Brædratùnga, a stately farm, in which there lived last year, and, as far as I know, lives still, a farmer of the name of Jòn, an honest and trustworthy man. He was asked to ride into the mountains with a person named Nikolás, to shoot swans and gather angelica (hvönn). Once these two men strayed away three weeks, and returned in a very sad plight, the horses jaded and tired to death; Jón had a bad wound in his shoulder, Nikelás was wounded still more severely, and entirely covered with blood. The latter died of his wounds, but Jòn recovered, and is now quite well. Neither liked to speak of the affair, though the clergyman of the parish, Sera Björn Jònsson, as well as Dr. Hjaltalin, inquired very earnestly. Jòn, however, told the parson that there still were Utilegu-mnenn in the Kaldakvisl, and confessed that he himself had seen them; he even offered to show them out, providing the party did not exceed three persons, that they were accompanied with his dog, and that they would act entirely according to his directions. It is generally supposed that Jòn and Nikolàs had fallen into the hands of such people, and to save their lives had promised not to speak of them.

4) Stories are also rife of their occasionally venturing into the places of trade. About ten years since a man who called himself Gestr (i.e. guest) came into Eyrarbacka with an unusual quantity of wool and tallow, which he would only barter for salt and iron. His manner was much embarrassed, and, when asked where he came from, he said from a farm called Landssweit, which no one ever heard of before. Other instances occur of unknown men coming in at night to trade, generally demanding grain, salt, or iron; and it has been remarked that their horses are sometimes shod with horn discs, instead of shoes.

5)‘In the middle of last century (1743-64), Sigurdr Sigurdarson held office, and resided at Hlidarendi, in the district of Fljòtshlid. He brought up in his house a lad named Oddr, who from his skill in wrestling was called Glimu-Oddr, or Oddr the Wrestler. Sigurdr had some land in the Eyjafjördr, and had sent Oddr there with a message. He told the young man, who was then twenty years of age, to take the Kaldadals track, as that of the Sprengisandr was too perilous. The youth, however, on his way back, chose the latter, as it was the shorter of the two, and he did not think much about the dangers. When he was about half way through the Sand, having the Arnarfell on his right and the Odádahraun on his left, he observed a man trotting towards him from the east. He was mounted on a brown horse, dressed in knitted clothes of black wool, and had a dark reddish-brown cap on his head. Oddr saw instantly that he had to deal with a Utilegumadr. The man dismounted, and made towards Oddr, to pull him from his horse. The latter likewise lost no time in quitting his saddle, and both began to wrestle. A tough struggle ensued, but at last Oddr threw his adversary, who then begged for mercy. Oddr spared his life, but, to prevent him taking any treacherous advantage of this favour, broke his leg with a stone, drew him to a small sand-hill, and left him there. On his return he was asked how he had fared during the journey, and where he got the stout brown nag he had with him; he replied that nothing particular had happened to him, and as to the horse, he bought that in the Northland. A long time after, when Oddr was sixty years old, after he had married and lost his wife, he went to visit a son-in-law of Sigurdr, or Thorleifr Nikulásarson, at Háfimùli, in the Fljötshlid; he once accompanied him to the Althing, and after its termination to Reykjavik, but they left their horses at Kópavogr to pasture, as no provender was to be had in the neighbourhood of the former place. One day Oddr went to look after them, when he saw a number of tents pitched in Fossvogr, and to amuse himself walked about amongst them. He observed three men sitting on the grass at the top of the Kópávogsháls. They had their horses, but, unlike those of the other people about, they were not unsaddled. Odds saluted them, and discovered that one of them was aged and lame. He asked him if he had ever broken his leg; the stranger replied in the affirmative. When Oddr returned home he related the whole story to an old acquaintance, and added that the man whom he saw sitting on the grass was he with whom he wrestled on the Soul.

6) There once lived, in the Skagafjördr, a robust, hard-working man, who at the time of the story was about thirty years of age. His name was Asmundr, and he had a habit of wandering every winter into the Southland, whence he was called Sudrferda Asmundr, or the Southland Wanderer. Once, when he and his companions went on one of these fishing expeditions, he was taken ill near Melar, in the Hrùtafjördr , and as lie was no better on the following day he advised his friends to go on, promising to join them when he recovered. They went away accordingly, leaving Asmundr behind. Next day he felt better, and resumed the journey. At first the weather was fine, but when he got as far as the heath a snowstorm came on, and not being able to see his way be lost himself. When he found that it was useless to attempt proceeding any further, he scooped out a hole in a snowdrift, unloaded his horses, and piled the baggage at the entrance. He then fastened the horses by the bridles, and went into his snow but. He cut an opening opposite the direction of the wind, so that he might look out and see how it fared with the weather; then, taking out his provisions, he began to eat. At this moment a dark-brown dog made its appearance, forced its way through the snow, looked fierce and savage, becoming more angry as Asmundr continued eating. He did not take much notice of the animal, but at last threw it a good-sized sheepbone. This the dog took up, and-ran out of the hut. Not long after, a tall, elderly man came to the entrance, saluted Asmundr, and thanked him for his kindness to his dog. ‘Art thou not Asmundr, the Southland traveller?’ he asked. ‘So people call me’, was the reply. ‘Well’, continued the stranger, ‘I will give thee the option of remaining where thou art, or of accompanying me, for the storm will not cease till thou art dead. For thou must know that I am the author of this storm as well as of thy illness. I have need of thy services, for I know that thou art the most resolute man in this neighbourhood.’ Asmnndr, seeing that there was no alternative, preferred accompanying the stranger to perishing in the snow, so they both went off together. In the mean time the storm had ceased, and the weather became fine. The stranger went first , and Asmundr, with the horses, followed; but he could form no idea where they were going, as he had lost his way. After they had journeyed some time, a little valley appeared before them, with a brook running through it, with a farm on each side; and Asmundr was surprised to observe that, whilst one side was quite red, the other was perfectly white with snow. They now turned towards the farmyard, which lay on the side of the valley covered with snow. The man put the horses into the stable, and gave them some hay; then he led Asmundr into the farm and sitting-room. Here he found an old woman and a good-looking young girl, but no one else; he saluted them, and the old man offered him a chair. The woman was continually muttering to herself how bad it was to live without tobacco; Asmundr, hearing this, drew a pound of tobacco from his pocket, and threw it towards her, which made her quite pleased and happy. The stranger and the girl brought something in the mean time to eat, and, whilst Asmundr was eating, his host talked to him and seemed very cheerful; when he had finished eating, the man and the girl went out together. Asmundr suspected that the subject of their conversation was how they might murder him. The old man soon returned, and invited him to retire to bed, to which Asmundr consented. The old man now led him to an outhouse, where there was a bed prepared, and wishing him good night he left; but the girl remained, and helped him to take off his wet clothes, and wanted to carry off his shoes and stockings to dry them. To this Asmundr objected at first, thinking that some treachery was intended, but lie allowed her to take his things away when she assured him that no evil would befall him; she then kissed him, wished him good night, and withdrew. Asmundr thought these proceedings in the house of a Utilegumadr very singular: he nevertheless very soon fell asleep, and did not wake till it was broad daylight, when he saw his host standing by his bedside. The old man bade him good morning, and told him that he should now be made acquainted with the reason of his being brought here. ‘Twenty years ago’, he said, ‘when I lived down in the country, I ran away with a relative, and was consequently obliged to flee to these parts. The old woman whom thou sawest last night is my sweetheart, the girl that showed thee to bed is the child she bore. When I first came to this place, certain UTILEGUMENN lived in the farm on the other side of the brook; there are still two of them there, and they have all along been enemies of mine. Hitherto I have been able to hold my own against them, but now they have got the upper hand, and cause all the snow that falls to drift to my side. I used to feed my sheep on their land on the other side of the brook, but now I am not strong enough to do this. I should like thee to take the sheep this very day to graze there. I know that thou art a resolute man, and the matter in hand requires boldness; both my enemies, thinking that I am with the sheep as usual, will attack thee. But in order that thou mayest defend thyself, thou shalt have my brown dog, which will powerfully aid thee. Asmundr then got up, took the sheep; the old man putting his cap on his head, and giving him his axe. No sooner was he on the opposite side of the brook than two outlaws came running, thinking that Asmundr was the old man. They cried out loudly, ‘Now he is doomed to die’. When they came closer they saw they had made a mistake, but nevertheless began to attack Asmundr. He set the dog at one of them, and turned upon the other himself. The dog very soon threw down its opponent, and, being now two to one, Asmundr very soon finished the other. Towards evening Asmundr returned to the farm with the sheep. The old man came out to meet him, and thanked him for his exertions, which he said he had witnessed from a distance. The next day they crossed the brook, to look at the farm of the two dead men. The building was spacious, well built, and full of property, but they saw no people. At last they came to a door, which they were unable to open; but Asmundr, by a violent lunge against it, burst it in. It led to a small outhouse, where Asmundr and his companion found a beautiful woman tied by the hair to a pot, but who looked pale and careworn. Asmundr unbound her, and asked who she was, and whore she came from? She replied that she was the daughter of a farmer at Eyjafjördr, and had been carried off by the two outlaws; they wanted to force her to marry one of thorn, and because she refused to do so she had been ill-used by them, under the impression that her obstinacy would at last yield to their harshness. Asmundr told her what had happened, and that she was under the protection of honest people, which greatly rejoiced her, as she now felt that she was saved. They afterwards carried everything they found there to the other farm, whore they remained during the winter. Asmundr liked the old man very much, but the two girls a great deal better, particularly the daughter of his host, who had been taught a great many useful things by the maiden from Eyjafjördr. In the spring the old man told him that he might return home, and come back again in the autumn, for he said lie would himself be dead then, and Asmundr might take away his daughter, his wife, if still alive, and the girl from the Eyjafjördr, together with the property e the farm. Asmundr accordingly rode home to the Skagafjördr, where he was received by his relations as if he had risen from the dead. He told no one whore he had passed the winter, but next autumn he returned again to his friends of the valley. They received him with great joy, told him that the two old people had died, and had been buried by them in an adjoining hill. He passed the winter in the farm, but in spring he started northwards with the two girls and all the property, and returned to Skagafjördr. There he bought a farm, and married the old man’s daughter; he gave the girl from Eyjafjördr. in marriage to one of his neighbours; and thus ends the legend of Asmundr, the ‘Southland traveller’.


22/1/2012: Mathias writes in: ‘It’s interesting the story of Glímu-Oddr should mention Sprengisandur. That area is the topic of a well known (probably even the most famous)Icelandic folk song: Á Sprengisandur. (You can listen to the (beautiful) song here:  Lyrics and a translation here). On listening to the song for the first time in a while I realized that it even mentions outlaws. They are being heard calling for sheep in Ódàhraun, exactly where Oddr meets one. It seems there is a longer tradition of útilegurmenn in this place. What’s interesting is that a hraun is a barren lava field (even more barren than the rest of Sprengisandur) so I doubt you could even keep sheep there. Then again hraunar have alway been seen as the domain of trolls, outlaws and other unsavoury persons… The other thing I noticed was the fact that the girl in Suðurferða Ásmundurs story was tied down by her hair. I don’t know how prevalent that motive is in western European tales but in Iceland it is found in several of the later sagas (the more fanciful, less realistic ones of the late middle ages which rather disparagingly used to be called ‘lygisögur’ ‘sagas of lies’ and which we now prefer to call ‘legendary sagas’). An example I can think of off the top of my head is Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss. The name Gestr being used by an outlaw is also a topos that goes back a long time. It is a name often used by Oðinn when he doesn’t want to be recognized but it is also used for the same purpose by other characters in sagas.’ Thanks Mathias!