Grettis Saga and Seals

Hello.  I’m back.

The next bit of our trip, we stopped near Vatnsfjörður to see this:

Yes, a pile of stones, but one of folklorish significance.  Local tradition holds that this cairn (that’s a fancy term for a pile of stones built to either help hikers find their way or commemorate something – I think mentioned it in a previous post) was built by Grettir the strong.

Grettir,the protagonist of Grettis Saga, was a renowned monster slayer.  But due in part to Grettir’s efficiency as a monster slayer, and in part Iceland’s conversion to Christianity (a religion that causes severe habitat-loss for monsters), Grettir started running out of work.  Effectively, the monster slayer became rather monstrous himself, an outcast from society, and a danger to local farmers.  In one episode, a band of farmers managed to capture him and were planning to hang him.  The local chieftain, Vermundr, was away, but in his place, his wife, Þórbjörg, acted as judge over the matter.  She ruled that he should be set free, and in her honor he built this cairn.

You might not be able to tell from this picture, but the cairn is pretty well over eight foot high, so surely only Grettir could have built it

Here is a shot looking down from the cairn.  You can see the local church and an excavation of several medieval houses.

And here is one such medieval house:

The fire-pit is in the middle, and it’s not quite long enough for me to lie down in.  The local lord, his wife, his children, possibly some of his children’s spouses, his retainers, his servants, his dogs, &c., would all live here together.  The beds would all lie length-wise along the walls, so there were no windows there (though there might have been one up near the gables, and a hole for the smoke to escape).  I’ll bet this is one of the psychological reason behind some of the feuds: my temper would be bad too if I lived in such a crammed house.

Here is a shot of another part of the excavation.  This appears to be a slightly later group of buildings – maybe some houses and a barn.  It’s off season, though, so the archaeologists have covered up the site.

We left Vatnsfjörður to head to Súðavík, where we were planning to tour the Arctic Fox Museum.  Yes, the arctic fox (vulpes lagopus) has its own museum, but here it might be fairly deserving of one, for the arctic fox is Iceland’s only native land mammal (pinnipeds like seals and walruses aren’t counted as land mammals).  So we arrived in Súðavík hoping to honor the noble beastie, but alas, the museum was closed.  So we went on.

And we did see wildlife.  After a few miles, our bus driver pulled over to the side of the road so we could go see the seals.

Look at them all.  They’re so funny!  And the fact that they kept staring made it look like they thought the same of us.

Icelanders have a good few folktales about seals, which they regard as being suspiciously human.  They say that if you go seal hunting, you can’t kill a seal once you’ve looked it in the eyes, as seal eyes look eerily similar to human eyes.

Thus the Icelanders suspect that the seals were once human.  Here’s the theory: when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt through the Red Sea, the Egyptian army was following close on its heals, and when God brought the sea back together it swallowed them up.  But because God is merciful, he didn’t kill said Egyptians, but instead gave them waterproof skins, i.e., he turned them into seals.  And that, best beloved, is how the first seals came into being.*  And, being a merciful God, he also allows them one day a year that they are allowed to come ashore, remove their seal-skins, and have a dance and a feast in human form.  Our bus drive thought this might have been St. John’s day, but couldn’t remember for sure.**

The trouble, though is that if the seal-folk can’t find their skins, they are stuck in human form.  One Icelandic folktale tells of a fisherman who was strolling along the beach one night when he found a bunch a shiny seal skins.  Clearly unaware of the seals’ unusual natural history, he simply thought that he was very fortunate to have found a passel of nice warm seal skins.  So he decided to gather them all up, take them home, and make coats and blankets and such out of them, then sell them for a nice profit.  But seal skins are heavy, and he could not carry away more than one, so he picked the one he thought most beautiful and locked it in a trunk at the foot of his bed.

In the morning, he found a beautiful woman stranded on the beach.  They fell in love and got married, and had seven children.  I guess at some point during their many years of being married, she had to explain her impressive swimming abilities and her tremendous appetite for raw fish and crabs, because the next part of the folk tale is that the man kept the seal skin locked at the foot of his bed and the key with him at all times so that he wouldn’t lose her.  It’s not that she didn’t love him, our bus-driver assured us, but more that she really was a seal and would not have been able to resist the urge to return to where she belonged.

But of course, one fateful day, the man forgot to lock the trunk (I’m not sure I understand why he opened it anyway, unless he just enjoyed looking at the skin), and when he got back from a long day of fishing, his wife was gone.  From then on, though, every time he and his sons went fishing, a crying seal helped them find the best shoals of fish and bring in the fishing nets.

Let us quickly get past the fact that this story is sad and move on to its obviously strange implication: that a fair percentage of Iceland’s northerly population is part seal.

Not more than thirty years ago, our bus driver told us, there lived another noteworthy Icelandic fisherman, and he got caught in a storm out at sea in the winter.  The boat was capsized and his comrades drowned or froze to death in the icy waters, but he miraculously swam to shore.  Thirsty from his long swim, he ran through the ice and snow to his neighbor’s stables to drink from the water-trough, but found it frozen over, so he put his fist through the frozen surface and drank it dry.  He then went back to his own house, took a shower, and went to bed.

Of course, all of his neighbors found this simply miraculous, and his story spread.  So far and wide did it spread, that a group of doctors from the U.K. asked him to go to Glasgow for some medical tests.  He obliged them, and the tests revealed that he had a layer of fat just underneath his skin that isn’t supposed to exist in human beings, but does exist in seals.  It wasn’t just the type of fat you get from over-eating, you see, it was actual blubber.  You can imagine the reaction he got from his neighbors, for surely, they thought, this man was descended from the seal-wife mentioned earlier.

The poor man was bombarded with letters and visitors, and other Icelanders were just itching to get his permission to use his story for books, plays, and movies.  So bothered was he that he moved to Canada to escape the attention.  Whether or not this story is true, I couldn’t say.  But it’s good fun.

Here’s a picture of a horse:

Being back in Texas for a few weeks, then coming back to Iceland to cope with jet-lag have made me a bit more lethargic than what’s really acceptable (especially given that I’m now writing the thesis), but I’ll try to get back to you with the next post in a more timely fashion than I have been.

Until then, thanks for reading.



* Just in case “Best beloved” sounded strange to you, here it is a joking reference to Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.  In the off-chance that you aren’t familiar with this book, it is a collection of short stories that give explanations for how different animals got the way they are – for example, “How the Rhinoceros got his Skin”, “How the Leopard got his Spots”, “The Beginning of the Armadillos”, and so on.  They’re written as if they’re told by a father to his children, so the narrator refers to his audience as “best beloved”.  And in the off-chance that you aren’t familiar with this book, I recommend reading it, as it’s great fun.  And while you’re at it, check out his better known Jungle Books, which are also great fun.

** The idea that seals could remove their skins to reveal a human form is very similar to – and probably derived from – the Irish selkie stories.

This entry was posted in Iceland. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s