Sunday, November 11, 2012

Icelandic Horse and the Whale

Cornell University Library
Around 1900,  a rider observes a skeleton on the south coast of Snæfellsnes, near Búðir.  During the early settlement years of Iceland to quite late in its history, beached whales were an important source of meat.  Early Icelanders lacked the traditions and ships necessary to hunt whales at sea.

In Grettir's Saga (sagas are stories concerning events in the 10th and early 11th centuries) Thorgils Maksson, a farmer from Miđfjörđr in the northern quarter of Iceland, goes to the Strands to search for wild food and driftage.  He and his companions find a beached whale on the common grounds, which they proceed to process. 

Meanwhile, Thorgeir and Thormod, who are landless foster-brothers and known trouble makers,  plus thier followers show up at the same site to discuss how the whale will be shared.  Though Thorgils offers half the uncut whale, the brothers demand half of all the whale--both cut and uncut.  Discussion escalates to anger which escalates to a fight.  Thorgeir slays Thorgils and Thormod kills two of Thorgils' followers.

Per the saga, the following, disapproving verse was composed about the battle:

"Hard were the blows which were dealt at Rifsker;
no weapons they had but steaks of the whale.
They belaboured each other with rotten blubber.
Unseemly methinks is such warfare for men."

The brothers take the whole whale and Thorgils' followers take his body back to Miđfjörđr.  Thorgils' close kinsman Asmund Grey-Streak prepares the case for later hearing at the Althing.  And the saga continued.

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