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MY ICELAND: The Stories*

Almost everybody knows about the Icelandic Sagas – the epic tales of Vikings and kings that were so eloquently recorded in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries and which still physically exist today in the form of our manuscripts, most of whom are preserved at the Culture House here in Reykjavík. As many readers will know, the literary tradition is still very much alive in Iceland – this country sells more books per capita than any other country, and there is zero illiteracy. Iceland is a nation of storytellers, and one of the most amazing things about travelling in this country are the incredible stories associated with virtually every patch of ground in this country.

EPI and I belong to a hiking group, and each year we explore a new part of Iceland – generally places off the beaten track. This year we’re going to Skagafjörður, staying in a small village called Hofsós [where the Emigration Centre is located] and during our trip we’ll be sailing out to an island called Drangey, which features very dramatically in the story known as Grettis Saga, which EPI re-told me the other day in anticipation of our journey.

Grettir Ásmundarson was a warrior known for his exceptional strength, who murdered a bunch of people and was consequently outlawed. He became famous for wrestling with and defeating a certain ghost named Glámur had been making the lives of some farm folk utterly miserable. This ghost was more like a walking corpse – a zombie. He would show up every night after dark, first wreaking havoc all around the farmhouse, banging and rattling and generally being a massive pain in the ass, after which he would throw open the door, grab the person nearest the door, and mangle them to death. So Grettir decided he would sleep next to the door the first night following his arrival. The ghost shows up and starts banging on the house and rattling everything and generally scaring the sh*t out of the farm folk, after which he throws open the door and makes for the first person there [which of course was Grettir]. However, amazingly, when the ghost went to tear off the skin [as in animal skin] beneath which the person [Grettir] was sleeping, the skin wouldn’t budge. Grettir was hanging on beneath it. So the ghost pulled and pulled, until crafty old Grettir suddenly let go, the ghost was flung against the wall, and Grettir pounced on him. A horrible fight ensued, during which Grettir managed to grab hold of him below the waist and snapped his spine, then fell on top of him and pinned him against the ground. At which the ghost said to him, “Look into my eyes.” Grettir knew he shouldn’t because everyone who looked into the ghost’s eyes went mad; however, at just that moment the moon appeared from behind a cloud and he found himself staring into the eyes of the ghost, and they were utterly terrifying. And from that moment on, Grettir became terrified of the dark.

Anyway, after being outlawed, Grettir escaped to the aforementioned island known as Drangey, in Skagafjörður. It has sheer cliffs rising straight up from the water and was virtually like a fortress because it was impossible to get up those cliffs undetected. Because Grettir was so afraid of the dark, he got his brother Illugi to go to Drangey with him to keep him company. This was fine for a while, until one day their fire went out. According to the lore, Grettir swam not only from Drangey back to the mainland [which was considered virtually impossible] but also all the way back with the fire lit.

Eventually Grettir’s enemies got the best of him when they got an old sorceress to put a spell on a tree root and float it out to the island. Grettir – who was desperate for firewood – went to pick it up, but for some reason the root wouldn’t budge. So he got out his axe and went to chop it in two, but [on account of the spell] the axe turned in his hand and hit him in the leg, injuring him severely. He managed to survive, but was not able to recover his strength, and before long his enemies organized a raid on Drangey. A fierce battle ensued between Illugi, Grettir and the attackers, at which time Grettir was felled.

So anyway, we’re going out to Drangey this summer for a bit of exploration. [I’ll be sure to steer clear of any roots.] And speaking of stories: EPI’s grandfather was the first man after Grettir’s alleged feat to swim out to Drangey. Many people considered the story of Grettir fiction because they said there was no way you could swim all that way in the freezing cold sea. EPI’s grandfather begged to differ and proved that a real human being actually could. Since then, this particular swim, called Drangeyjarsund, has been undertaken many times in Iceland, but it’s still considered a major feat. ~ Incidentally, EPI’s great-grandfather taught the Icelandic nation how to swim, something I wrote about here a while back. Which no doubt accounted for his son’s exceptional swimming abilities.


Cloudy, a bit damp and chilly, moderate winds. Everything is so GREEN all of a sudden – in the space of about a week it’s been TRANSFORMED. Went to check out some things at the Reykjavík Arts Fest today, including Dr. Ruth’s ‘performance’ such as it was and a nekkid woman riding a Nicelandic horse, … alas, so much to write about, so little time! Right now we have 8°C [46F] sunrise at 4:02 am, sunset 10:48 pm.

* Not, you may note, ‘The Sagas’ because I’m really badly informed. Icelandic children read them in schools, whereas YT in her Canadian incarnation read Shakespeare. Virtually all I know about the Sagas is gleaned from cultural references and EPI’s enthusiasm for them and fabulous storytelling abilities.



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Professor Batty May 19, 2008, 1:31 am

    …If you run into Bill Holm in Hofsós, take him out to eat if you can- he’s a good table companion, with a world of stories, he lives there in the summer months…

  • Steve May 19, 2008, 2:51 am

    “nekkid woman riding a horse” Hasn`t that been done before? In, um… England, maybe? 🙂

  • Colin May 19, 2008, 4:17 am

    The missus and I read the Eyrbyggja saga and tried to find the beserkjagata in a lava field (hraun?) near Stykkisholmur. We found the sign, but I can’t say that we found the path. Having something obvious to go to, like an island, seems like the kind of plan that we should have made.

  • marjolijn hof May 19, 2008, 7:47 am

    That’s interesting. I used the Grettissaga in a children’s book I wrote, but I didn’t know about people trying to accomplish Grettir’s Drangeyjarsund . I would like to know more about these attempts.

  • Ægir May 19, 2008, 9:02 am

    Love this post! …it’s been a long time since I read the story of Grettir. Lived all my childhood in Hofsós and with my parents and a lot of relatives still living there I go there as often as I can.

    Thought you might like to see Drangey and the late night sun next to Þórðarhöfðinn outside of Hofsós.

    And the story of Drangey (wikipedia):
    An old legend says that two night-prowling giants, a man and a woman, were traversing the fjord with their cow when they were surprised by the bright rays of daybreak. As a result of exposure to daylight, all three were turned into stone. Drangey represents the cow and Kerling (supposedly the female giant) is to the south of it. Karl (the male giant) was to the north of the island, but he disappeared long ago.

  • alda May 19, 2008, 10:53 am

    Professor – yes, I know of Bill, I’ve seen him on telly and know he’s an excellent storyteller. As for taking him out for dinner, I doubt there will be time for that, but if I run into him, I’ll get him to tell me a story. 🙂

    Steve – yes I know, it’s so old. *yawn*

    Colin – yes, you could say it’s pretty foolproof. 🙂

    marjolijn – I don’t know if there is any documentation about the swims – and incidentally I think most were successful, so not attempts, but accomplishments.

    Ægir – so you’re a Hofsósbúi! I’ve never been there and am very much looking forward to it. Oh, and thanks for the photo links and story. Love both.

  • sigga May 19, 2008, 11:21 am

    Thanks Alda, Skagafjörður is ofcourse where Maja and I hail from. It´s a lovely place, maybe one day after the Drangey visit you will recount the story of Guðmundur Góðis´encounter with the Devil on Drangey where my favourite Icelandic saying came from “einhversstaðar verða vondir að vera”

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson May 19, 2008, 5:26 pm

    Hi, don´t forget to take a bath in Grettislaug when you return from Drangey.

  • CDW May 23, 2008, 6:17 pm

    I love these posts!

  • Rozanne May 24, 2008, 3:41 pm

    What a riveting tale! That Glamur ghost is a piece of work. Terrifying!

    Very cool that you’ll be going to Drangey this summer. Take lots of photos!

  • FrenchFred July 8, 2008, 12:43 pm

    This (tourist) map: https://www.icelandreview.com/icelandreview/upload/files/maps/saudarkrokur.jpg writes “to be a real icelandic man, you’ve got to swim to Drangey, naked, holding Iceland’s flag and singing the national anthem.”

    … which decided me to attempt this next year, in july 2009. I’ll just add some Brennivin at the arrival, in my own tradition.

    I love Iceland, already came here three times – and took a sea bath twice, including on New Year’s day near the President’s house…

    I’ve started training, and probably will blog somewhere about this. Icelandic friends will provide assistance.

    Do you know that Lewis Pugh swam 1 km in July 2007 in the North Pole, in a minus 1,8°c water?

    I’ll be very happy to read more stories on this swim – and to get any advice tou can provide.

    Of course, i’ll be very happy to receive some kind of honour citizenship after this !!!

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