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  • An Early Icelandic Fairy December 5, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback


    Iceland has often featured on this blog for two reasons: first, because it is a part of the formula by which the thuggish Vikings made it to the New World five centuries before Columbus; and, second, because it retains in its traditions some particularly old pagan customs, customs that have been absorbed or overlaid by Christianity elsewhere. Here is a striking example of what in Britain and Ireland we would call a fairy, though Beach find it especially exciting because it is early (tenth century); and it is in a religious context, the fairy is, in some senses, worshipped.

    At Gilja there stood a stone to which [Koðran] and his kinsmen used to sacrifice, and they claimed that their tutelary spirit lived in [the stone].

    Gilja is in the wild North-West of Iceland and this passage appears in Kristni’s Saga, which dates to the twelfth century and that describes the disjointed generation, in the late 900s, in which Iceland became Christian. Yes, above it is claimed as a ‘tenth-century story’, but there do seem to be good oral or written records behind the saga: so don’t give up on it being ‘early’ too easily.

    Things unfortunately end badly for the tutelary spirit. Friðrekr, a German bishop, comes and chants over the stone that, allegedly, explodes! The Saga writer helpfully notes that on the explosion:

    Then Koðran thought he understood that the tutelary spirit had been overcome.

    Of course, northern European saints’ lives often have a saint, or a third-rate foreign bishop in this case, praying at pagan shrines and working magic on the tokens of the heathen. There is a memorable passage where Columbanus (sixth-century Irish saint on the continent) breathes on a beer barrel, dedicated to one of the Germanic ghouls (Woden?), only to have the immense satisfaction of seeing the barrel disintegrate before his eyes.

    But back to the tutelary spirit… This being was called armaðr in the second sentence. Beachcombing’s Icelandic and Norse is not yet at the advanced stage (ahem, ahem, ahem) but one source gives ‘hearth-man’ as an etymology for this word. Any clearer or more authoritative statement please write to: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Finally, a thought. What is the difference between Koðran and his kinsmen sacrificing at the stone and a nineteenth-century farm girl leaving milk out for the pixies? Beach honestly can’t think of a single thing, but he hopes and expects to be contradicted.

    30 Dec 2014: This came in from Leif:  Dear Dr. Beachcombing: Your early Icelandic ‘fairy’ quote raises two questions. First, what does it tell us about the old Norse religion, and second, exactly what kind of creature are we dealing with? Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the old Norse world was populated with a number of distinct supernatural races. The “ármaðr” incident actually appears in two sources: “Kristni saga” and “The Tale of Thorvald the Far-travelled”:


    from Kristni saga“.

    The bishop and Þorvaldr stayed at Giljá with Koðran for the first winter together with thirteen men. Þorvaldr asked his father to be baptized, but he was slow to respond. At Giljá there stood a stone to which he and his kinsmen used to sacrifice, and they claimed that their guardian spirit lived in it. Koðran said that he would not have himself baptized until he knew who was more powerful, the bishop or the spirit in the stone. After that, the bishop went to the stone and chanted over it until the stone broke apart. Then Koðran thought he understood that the spirit had been overcome. Koðran then had himself and his whole household baptized, except that his son Ormr did not wish to accept the faith.[1]


    Description of The Tale of Thorvald the Far-travelled’ [A].

    Prophecy is portrayed as having an important role in the conversion process in Scandinavia, as discussed in Chapter 1, and in yet another text depicting the confrontation of the old and new faiths, Þorvalds páttr viðforla (The Tale of Thorvald the Far-travelled), a pagan, Koðran, declares that the person the Christians call their “bishop” is this faith’s spámaðr ‘prophet’. Koðran says that he has his own prophet (spámaðr, masculine gender) in whom he trusts and who lives in a rock and helps him in various ways, warning him in advance of coming evil, as well as guarding his livestock; moreover, this prophet warns him about the Christians and their ways. Inevitably, in the contest that follows, the bishop’s prayers and ceremonies prove that Koðran should “turn to the most powerful god” (snúisk til þess ins styrkasta guðs), with the result that the fiend (fjándi) leaves, but not before relating to Koðran the many things that have happened to him because of the bishop’s actions and saying that he has been ill rewarded by Koðran.


    Siân Grønlie, Kristni saga’s translator, includes an extensive endnote on the ármaðr:

     The Norse term is ármaðr, which in prose usually means ‘steward’, and perhaps we are meant to understand that the spirit is a steward to Koðran’s goods. However, the evidence of place-names (e.g. Ármannsfell) and folk-tales suggests that ármaðr could also refer to a landvættr or nature spirit living in mountains, hills and rocks (see Einar Ól. Sveinsson 2003: 161–3, and Jón Árnason 1954–61: I 201–2 on Jorundr, Ásmundr and Ármann). These beings later developed into elves and trolls, who typically oppose the coming of Christianity in kings’ sagas, bishops’ sagas and later folk-tales (see, for example, Oddr Snorrason 1932: 174–9, and Guðmundar saga byskups in BS I 560–61, 598–9). Similar beings are mentioned in Landnámabók (ÍF I 330–31), Heimskringla (ÍF XXVI 270–72) and Þiðranda þáttr ok Þorhalls (ÓTM II 150); and in a sermon in Hauksbók (1892–6: 167), women are forbidden to offer sacrifices to nature spirits living in stones. Sacrifice to stones is also mentioned in Landnámabók and Harðar saga (ÍF I 273; XIII 90–91). In Þorvalds þáttr, the spirit is called spámaðr ‘prophet’, a term not usually applied to non-humans, but which aids comparison with the Christian bishop, and so underlines the opposition between paganism and Christianity (ÓTM I 285–6). [3]


    Grønlie’s endnote makes it clear that modern scholars don’t know exactly what to make of these passages. Our knowledge of the pagan Norse religion is fragmentary. It appears medieval Icelanders believed that their pagan ancestors sacrificed to demigods. This association provided benefits, including divination. Beyond that we cannot say much.

    But what manner of being was the ármaðr? I disagree with Grønlie. Elves and troll were are mentioned in sagas, and our ármaðr doesn’t fit with either race. Dr. Beachcombing has offered two guesses: fairy or pixie. In these he is (perhaps unwittingly) prescient. For the record, elves [álfar], fairies [huldur], and pixies [nisse in modern Norwegian] were distinct races.

    The Icelandic equivalent of fairies is the Huldufólk (literally hid-folk), who have magical powers and live in rocks (among other places). They make occasional appearances in the present time:


    In 2010, Árni Johnsen, a former member of the Icelandic Parliament, flipped his SUV on an icy road in southwest Iceland, careened off a small cliff, and survived without any major injuries. Later, he credited a group of elves living in a boulder near the wreck with saving his life. [4]


    While a huldur seems a good candidate, there is another possibility– In the fjørdland in the west of Norway there dwells a creature called a gårdvord– literally, the protector of the farm. He is also known as a tunkall–the old fellow of the courtyard. This being is a bit like a brownie but he is big, unusually strong, and invisible to all but the second sighted. He is the original inhabitant of the farm and has seen many families come and go. [5] Significantly, Iceland was settled from west Norway.

    Mitchell mentions that the being helped guard the livestock. In fourteenth century Sweden, St. Birgitta warned against worshiping ‘tomta gudhi’– household gods, or in other words: brownies. [6] So it sounds like our ármaðr is a gårdvord or a nisse.

    The etymology of ármaðr is probably ‘serving man’ [7], but it would be lovely if the ‘hearth man’ association holds up. The Old Norse word ‘arinn’ refers to the hearthstones. In a long house, the hearth was in the middle of the hall with a smoke hole in the roof. The fires were called langeldar, literally long fires. ‘Arinn’ symbolized the sacredness of home [8]– the hearth was the heart of the farm.

    What follows is pure speculation, but it’s just too tempting… If the stone Bishop Friðrekr broke was a hearthstone, there would be an added dimension to the tale. He would not have merely driven away a neighbor, but– to the pagan mind– the gårdvord, the very spirit of the farm.

    One final note: Friðrekr seems to have won this skirmish, but the battle was a draw. The ármaðr wasn’t the only one who had to leave. Friðrekr wasn’t too long in the country before he had to hightail it out, never to return.




    [A] I am unable to locate the text of ‘The Tale of Thorvald the Far-travelled’.

    [1] Grønlie, Siân. Íslendingabók– Kristni saga. Viking society for northern research, University College London. 2006. p 35-6.

    [2] Mitchell, Stephen A. Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2011. p 59-60.

    [3] Grønlie, Siân. ibid. p 58.

    [4] The Atlantic. Why So Many Icelanders Still Believe in Invisible Elves?
    Ryan Jacobs. 29 oct 2013. accessed 9 December 2014.

    [5] Christiansen, Reidar. Folktales of Norway. University of Chicago press. 1964. p 141-3.

    [6] Sancta Birgitta. Revelaciones Lib. VII. Ed. by B. Bergh. Uppsala 1967. ch 78.

    [7] Mittelalter wiki (de). Search results for ‘armaðr’. accessed 9 December 2014. http://de.mittelalter.wikia.com/wiki/Mittelalter_Wiki.

    [8] Germanic lexicon project: search results for ‘arinn’. Source: Cleasby/Vigfusson (1874), page b0025, entry 8. accessed 9 December 2014. http://web.ff.cuni.cz/cgi-bin/uaa_slovnik/gmc_search_v3?cmd=formquery2&query=arinn&startrow=1.