Angry, angry Icelanders.

Posted on 30. Nov, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

Angry Sheep Red by Kyle May at Flickr.

After a whole month of talking about fighting in the Medieval era I felt it’s time to see if anything’s changed in one thousand years. Are Icelanders still solving their problems by hacking parts off of their enemies? Should you carry an axe around just in case when visiting the country?

Perhaps not, because one thousand years can indeed change societies a great amount. First of all women no longer hide behind femininity if they have a beef with someone – just take a walk down any of Reykjavík’s party streets after the nightclubs close. Curiously they do need alcohol to get their aggression out though, and the same applies to men. It seems that the Icelander of today is having an opposite problem, incapability of showing their anger altogether (unless drunk).

Hafnarfjordur by Shadowgate at Flickr.

In fact negative feelings have become something of a taboo and showing them is almost considered rude, so instead people dance around them and make a great show of pretending NOT to be angry, doubly so if they actually are mad. When you see someone admitting to being angry they may therefore do it in an oddly calm fashion, almost as if they were not really upset at all… but don’t let that fool you. They’re just holding back out of general politeness and are in fact very, very angry.

So how will you ever know that an Icelander is feeling upset? Look for the following words and phrases!

Reiður/reið = angry

Pirraður/pirruð = annoyed

Brjálaður/brjáluð = mad/crazy

Kolbrjálaður/kolbrjáluð = lit. transl. coal crazy, real meaning: filled with rage/hate/anger

Öskuillur/öskuill = lit. transl. ash evil, real meaning: filled with rage/hate/anger

Öskuvondur/öskuvond = same as above

Cutlery protest… by Greg Neate at Flickr.

Some handy things you can say when you’re angry yourself:

Það er svo pirrandi! = It’s so annoying!

Hingað og ekki lengra! = lit. transl. this far and not further, real meaning: now you’ve done it/now you’ve crossed a line!

Þegiðu/Haltu kjafti! = Shut up! You can also add “æ” to the beginning – “æ þegiðu” = Oh shut up.

Þegið þið (öll)! = Shut up (every one of you)! This one’s a plural, in case you want to tell a group of people to shut up and not just one person in it.

Nú er nog komið! = lit. transl. now has enough come, real meaning: that’s enough!

Mér er ofboðið! = I’m outraged!

Nú er mér nóg boðið! = lit. transl. I’ve been given enough, real meaning: I’ve had enough!

Éttann sjálfur/étt’ann sjálfur/étt’hann sjálfur (all spellings exist)! = lit. transl. eat it yourself, real meaning: a generic insult on the lines of “piss off”.

Helvítis andskotans djöfulsins fokking fokk! = Hell’s devil’s devil’s effing eff! You can make almost any combination of these ones by the way.

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Wait how to use them? Here’s a short pronunciation guide! :D

 

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First of all, I’m really, really sorry to be so late with another video, one with some interesting vocabulary for any viking fan: Medieval weapons + related words. You can view it here or at the blog post I chose to add it to (link). I wanted to include it in the series from the start but then my November turned crazily busy; however, I didn’t just want to give up on it either because that would have felt like giving partially up on a project that’s close to my heart (the Medieval era is my favourite and I could talk about it for days in a row if I didn’t have to sleep at nights). This won’t happen ever again.

Secondly, Christmas is coming. I have planned a little Icelandic something for you all regarding the season – it’ll start at, let’s see… 12 days! Until then, remember to be good. In Iceland you really better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, you’ll be finding out why… ;)

Fighting, Viking-women Style pt.2!

Posted on 24. Nov, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

Viking Woman Warrior by Hans Splinter on Flickr.

What would be the biggest difference between Medieval Icelandic women who fought using weapons as opposed to using their wits? I’d say it would be in the amount of casualties. Let’s count!

Auður Vésteinnsdóttir (Gísla saga Súrssonar) 

Deaths – 0, Injuries inflicted – at least 2 severe ones.

Auður is one of the most loyal wives of all sagas. Not only does she fight alongside her husband but also refuses to betray his whereabouts to his enemies, not even when faced with threats of maiming or death. Bribery doesn’t work either, one of her injury count actually comes from smacking a man in the face with a bag of silver that he offers her so she’d tell him where her husband is hiding. She may have in fact caused more injuries: at the final battle she fights an armed warrior wielding only a club but the warrior still fares badly against her. Besides he’s wearing whatever men wore when they went to a battle, she’s wearing a nightie.

Þórdís Súrsdóttir (Gísla saga Súrssonar)

Deaths – 0, Injuries inflicted – 1 severe one.

When her husband insists that she serve her brother’s killer food Þórdís becomes the only known woman of the Icelandic sagas who actually uses a sword. Seeing her dead brother’s sword with his murderer Þórdís feigns dropping a box of spoons, bends down to pick them up but grabs the sword instead and attempts to run him through with it. The only thing that saves his life is that a table is on the way and therefore she merely cuts him in the thigh.

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Brakarsund by Luc Van Braekel on Flickr. Skalla-Grímur is throwing a rock at Þorgerður brák who’s seen trying to swim to safety.

Þorgerður brák (Egils saga)

Deaths – 0, Injuries inflicted – 0.

Wait, why am I mentioning this lady? For one reason – she went alone and unarmed against Skalla-Grímur who was in full berserk rage. He was attacking his own son Egill and would have killed him had Þorgerður stopped him. He then turned towards her instead and drowned her in a place now known as Brákarsund, named after her. She may not have caused any damage but there’s no way that wasn’t a courageous move, especially considering that among all the people gathered she was the only one who dared to step in.

Þorbjörg katla (Harðar saga og hólmverja)

Deaths – 1, Injuries inflicted – 0.

Upon seeing a man attempt to assassinate her son she attacks him and bites him to death. Yes, that’s what happened.

Viking woman by Hans Splinter on Flickr.

Steingerður Þorkellsdóttir (Kormáks saga)

Deaths – 0, Injuries inflicted – not mentioned but likely many.

Steingerður and Kormákur’s love story is somewhat unusual: first they’re engaged to be married but due to a curse Kormákur breaks off the engagement. Steingerður is married to someone else, at which Kormákur stops at nothing, following her and occasionally harassing her (on at least two counts forcibly kissing her). At one point he hits her husband on the head with an oar and Steingerður takes this so badly she steers their ship over Kormákur’s, capsizing it. No one dies, the saga says, but only because there are other ships nearby to save Kormákur’s crew.

Auður, also called Bróka-Auður (Laxdæla saga)

Deaths – 0, Injuries inflicted – 1 severe one.

Here we finally have a woman who deliberately takes on a man’s role as part of her vengeance. Her husband Þórður falls in love with another woman and divorces Auður on a lie that she’s a cross-dresser. Auður then indeed dons men’s clothes and attempts to murder Þórður in his sleep. Only luck saves his life and he gets gravely wounded, his arm never healing completely. This act by Auður is curiously not only praised by her brothers but also accepted by Þórður himself, who says she did only as she should have done.

Freydís Eiríksdóttir (Vinland saga and Grænlendinga saga)

Deaths – 65, Injuries inflicted – none mentioned.

This one’s a real piece of work. On one hand she stands up against a group of natives while heavily pregnant; she’s that saga lady who cuts her shirt open and presses a sword against her bare breast, spooking the attackers to retreat. On another she also kills five unarmed women with an axe because they’re witnesses to her earlier plotting that lead to the deaths of their husbands and other men in their group, 60 altogether.

Kjartan’s death by Andreas Bloch on Wikimedia Commons. A far more typical casualty of a saga woman hellbent on revenge.

This actually brings me to the next point, casualty comparisons between women who fought with weapons and those who used the more typical fighting styles of Medieval Norse women that I spoke of in the previous part.

Hallgerður Höskuldsdóttir (Brennu-Njáls saga)

Deaths – at least 6 , Injuries inflicted – many.

Bergþóra Skarphéðinsdóttir (Brennu-Njáls saga)

Deaths – at least 7, Injuries inflicted – many, also it could be said it was Bergþóra who began the hostilities by publicly humiliating Hallgerður.

These two stand together because they waged a war against each other. Not alone, mind you, there were other people who had their interests in the battles and sought to further stir things up. It’s also possible I may have overlooked some deaths because the saga is long and many, many people die in it! Most of the deaths here are caused by sending men to kill others, which is actually something that men in sagas do far more often than women – women typically ask their male family members to avenge a death, but Bergþóra and Hallgerður actually command forces just like chieftains of their time would have done.

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Gísli, Auður and Guðríður their foster daughter from Wikimedia Commons. Note the clubs the ladies are carrying!

An example of a more traditional role is Hildigunnur Starkaðardóttir, whose uncle Flósi does not agree to avenge her husband. She then fetches her husband’s cloak into which she mopped up his blood and body parts, and throws it over Flósi. At this he can no longer back off from the deed, so we can maybe set Hildigunnur’s casualty count to 6 – Bergþóra, her husband, their three sons and a nephew. It’s thanks to this lady that the whole burning from which Brennu-Njáls saga takes its name happened.

And of course there’s Guðrún Ósvífsdóttir from Laxdæla – the very same whose second husband was the aforementioned Þórður. Death count at 4 but injury count through the roof, Guðrún’s not only one of the smartest but also most ruthless. She has Kjartan, the love of her life killed in revenge to him humiliating her, stands up to the murderer of her husband when he wipes the murder weapon clean on her clothes and eventually sends her 12-years old son to avenge his father’s death. Near the end of her life her son asks her which one of her men she had loved the most, to which she gives the famous reply “Þeim var eg verst er eg unni mest” – the one I treated the worst was the one I loved the best.

 

Previous parts of this series:

Fighting, Viking-style!

Fighting, Viking-women style!

Fighting, viking-women style!

Posted on 20. Nov, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

 

Eiríksstaðir. Front of a Viking woman. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber from Wikimedia Commons

Medieval Norse women tend to make people think of either of two things first: either a stoic-looking linen-clad lady who does nothing besides carrying horns of mead and popping out heroic babies, or a shield-maiden in a skimpy armour. Both images are wrong, but because they answer to two romantic ideals it’s easy to see why they’re as popular as they are.

An Icelandic noblewoman was by no means helpless, yet she was not usually a warrior type either. Going to a battle was not something that was a source of honour for women, which is why you’ll always see a fighting woman have some other motive behind her actions. She may be forced to fight, her husband may be in danger, she’s blinded by anger and gets a chance, these are three reasons I can easily think of off the top of my head for those rare few women that take up arms (on one occasion a whole ship – one lady decided to avenge an earlier attack on herself by sailing her ship onto the attackers’ one, capsizing it).

These cases were treated as unusual. Typically women used what actually was considered a source of honour for Norse women: their wits, strategic thinking, clever manipulation and a technique that is usually referred to as whetting, a way of talking one’s male family members into fighting mood. It was often used in situations where the men seemed none too eager to break an armistice for the sake of revenge.

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Guðrún smiled at Halldor by Andreas Bloch. Halldor has just murdered Guðrún’s husband and is wiping the murder weapon on her clothes, but she merely smiles back at him, already knowing how she’ll avenge her husband. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Because of our modern view whetting is often seen as a sign of evilness, yet back in the day it was actually a way of preserving family honour. It was only done to encourage the men to avenge the death of a family member which, if left unavenged, would tarnish the whole family’s name. It did not matter whether someone’s death was avenged right away or many years after but it still had to be done at some point while people still remembered the case. A whole family could sink in society if they let a member of theirs be killed without retaliation, the men who decided to follow certain noblemen might begin to change sides if they felt theirs was the weaker one, not to mention that a family that was seen as unable to defend itself was an easy target for attacks. A woman who failed her part in these matters risked losing far more than just her own face.

So was that all they did – hid behind their male relatives’ backs, nagging all the while? Far from it. A noblewoman could also command her own warriors as Hallgerður and Bergþóra did in Njáll’s saga, where a disagreement eventually spiraled into an endless vendetta. Both women sent their slaves, servants and allies to attack the other’s side in turn, causing one of the lengthiest and bloodiest family wars of the sagas. This was also no doubt the way women defended their homestead while the husbands were away.

This of course relied a lot on what type of people were left in the house with the womenfolk: in Grettis saga the attackers outnumbered the house-carls, and what even worse, arrived with the precise idea of attacking the ladies of the house. It was therefore only due to Grettir’s quick thinking that the attack was thwarted. Though the Medieval noblewoman might not be helpless she was not always safe from harm either, which brings me to the next point, the myth that “Medieval Norsemen/vikings never harmed women”. They did, sometimes even targeting women as in the above example, but fact is that attacking a free woman was both illegal and not seen as a honourable thing to do. Likewise most warriors would always avoid killing children, because harming one did two things: it set the whole family after your life and gave you a reputation as a coward… but children still did occasionally die during battles.

The Valkyrie’s Vigil by Edward Robert Hughes. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

What about the shieldmaidens then? Alas, they’re largely a myth, possibly based on valkyries. In Iceland it was even illegal for a woman to carry a sword. They could own swords of course, swords were powerful status symbols that could be kept for one’s own children or be given away as priceless gifts, but to use one was strictly forbidden. There are a few exceptions in the sagas but nowhere near enough to make shieldmaidens a thing – if anything, a female warrior was such a rare occurrence (though most likely a few did exist) that she was most definitely written about, therefore perhaps making shieldmaidens seem more common than they actually were. Gesta Danorum (link) may not always be a reliable historical source…

But what about women who actually did fight? Let’s look at these unusual ladies in the next post!

By the way, the article circling around the internet about grave finds supposedly proving the existence of female warriors is a hoax. Sadly, because it would be pretty awesome if it was true! The material it’s based on does not say anything about warriors though, just settlers, and though you might find a sword in someone’s grave it does not mean the person ever used said sword, merely that they owned it. Deciding that a female with a sword was a warrior is just the other side of the coin of modern ideas colouring the past, where the other side is to mark every single sword-grave as a male one.

Other posts in this series:

Fighting, viking-style!

Fighting, Viking-women style pt. 2!