Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why you didn't mess with Icelandic women!

An example of níð and its consequences

One the things I do when not writing poetry is teaching about areas of Old Norse-Icelandic culture. One of my classes deals with how insults were dealt with in Iceland during period. In the class, I talk about níð, which the making of images or speaking ill of one´s enemies. Spoken insults are níð and carvings are called treníð. Both are serious offenses, as are dealings with unmarried women or illicit dealings with married women. What follows are the Old Norse-Icelandic and English versions from the Landnámabók, a history of claiming of lands in Iceland. While the translators of this section, Pálsson and Edwards, believe that there may be some exaggeration in this tale, it still presents us with a striking example of justice in turn of the millennium Iceland.

Landnámabók, section 284, in Íslendingabók, ed. Vald. Ásmundarson (Reykjavík, 1891), 191-193.

Uni, son Garðars er fyrst fann Ísland, fór til íslands með ráði Haralds konungs hárfagra, ok ætlaði at leggja undir sik landit, enn síðan hafði konungr heitit honum at gera hann jarl sinn. Uni tók land þar sem nú heitr Unaóss, ok húsaði þar; hann nam sér land til eignar fyrir sunnan Lagarfljót, alt herað til Unalœkjar. Enn er landsmenn vissu ætlun hans, tóku þeir at ýfast við hann, ok vildu eigi selja honum kvikfé eðr vistir, ok mátti eigi þar haldast. Uni fór í Álftafjorð enn syðra; hann náði þar eili at staðfestat; þá fór hann austan með tólfta mann, ok kom at vetri til Leíðólfs kappa í Skóghaverfi; hann tók við þeim. Uni þýddist Þórunni, dóttue Leiðólfs, ok var hon með barni um várit; þá vildi Uni hlaupast á braut með sína menn; enn Leiðolfr reið eftir honum, ok fundust þeir hjá Flangastöðum ok börðusr þar, því at Uni vildi eigi aftr fara með Leiðólfi; þar fellu nökkurir menn af Una, enn hann fór after nauðigr, þviat Leiðólfr vildi at hann fengi konunnar of staðfestist ok tœki arf eftir hann. Nökkuru síðar hljóp Uni á braut, þá er Leiðólfr var eigi heima, enn Leiðólfr eftir honum, þá er han vissi, ok fundust þeir hjá Kálfagröfum; var hann þá svá reiðr at hann drap Una ok förunauta hans alla. Sonr Una ok þórunnar var Hróarr Tungugoði; hann tók arf Leiðólfs allan, ok var et mesta afarmenni; hann átti dóttur Hámandar, systar Gunnars frá Hlíðarenda; þeira son var Hámundr enn halti, er var enn mesti vigamaðr. Tjörvi enn háðsami ok Gunnarr vára systur-synir Hróars. Tjörvi bað Ástriðar mannvits-brekku Móðólfsdóttue, enn brœðr hennar Ketill ok Hrólfr synjuðu honum konunnar, enn þeir gáfu hanna Þóri Ketilsynni; þá hvert kveld, er þeir Hróarr genga til kamars, þá hrækti hann í andlit líkneski Þóris, enn kysti hennar likneski, áðr Hróarr skóf af. Eftir þat skar Tjörvi þau á hniskefti sínn ok kvað jetta:

                      Ver höfum þar með Þóri
                      (þat var sett við glettu)
                      anðar unga Þrúði
                      áðr á vegg of fáða.
                      Nú hefik rastakarns ristit
                      (réð ek mart við Syn bjarta
                      hauka skofts) á hefti
                      Hlín ölbœkis mínu.

Héraf gerðust vig þeira Hróars ok systursona hans.

The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók. Trans., Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. (University of Manitoba, 2006), p. 114-115.

284. Uni the Dane

Uni, son of Gardar who discovered Iceland, went to Iceland at the suggestion of King Harald FineöHair with the intention of conquering the land. The king had promised to make him his Earl. Uni put in at a place now called Una Estuary, and built a house there. He took possession of land south of Lagarwater, claiming the entire districtnorth of Una Brook. When people realizsed what he wanted, they grew hostile and wouldn´t sell him livestock and other necessities, so he wasn´t able to stay there.
Uni moved over to South Alftafjord, but couldn´t settle there either. Then he travelled westwards with eleven companions and came that winter to Leidolf the Champion of Skogarhverfi, who took them in. Uni fell in love with Horunn, Leidolf's daughter, and by spring she was carrying a child. Then Uni tried to run away with his men, but Leidolf rode off after them and caught up with them at Flangastead. Hey fought there, because Uni wouldn't go back with Leidolf. Several of Uni's men were killed, and he went back against his will, because Leidolf wanyed himto marry the girl, settle down there and take the inheritance after him. A little later, Uni ran away again when Leidolf wasn't home, but as soon as Leidolf found out, he went off after him. They met up with each other at Kalfagrffir, and Leidolf was in such a rage, he killed Uni and all his companions.
The son of Uni and Thorunn was Hroar Tongue-Priest, who took the whole inheritance after Leidolf and became an outstanding man. He married Hamund's daughter, the sister of Gunnar of Hildarend. Their son was Hamund the Lame, a fighting man of some reputation.
Hroar's nephews were Tjorfi the Mocker and Gunnar. Tjorfi wanted to marry Astrid Wisdom-Slope, daughter of Modolf, but her brothers Ketil and Hrolf wouldn't let her become his ife and married her off to Thorir Ketilsson instead. Then Tjorfi carved the images of Astrid and Thorir on the privy wall, and every evening when he and Hroar went to the privy he used to spit on the face of Thorir's image and kiss hers, until Hroar scraped them off the wall. Then Tjorvi carved them onto the handle of his knife and made this verse:

                    Once in cruel spite
                    I carved an image
                    of the young bride
                    with Thorir beside her;
                    On the knife handle
                    I've now carved the lady
                    I used to have plenty
                    of pleasure with her.

On account of this verse Hroar and his nephews were killed.


On Uni the Dane, Uni is a man of King Harald fair-hair, who went Uni in a rather ineffectual attempt to “conquer” Iceland. This occurred in approximately 895. (Eric Magnuson, “The Last of the Icelandic Commonwealth, Part I,” Saga Book of theViking Club, vol. 5 (London, 1906-1907), p. 312.  In his cavalier treatment of Hrunn, Leidolf's daughter, Uni has violated section k § 155 of the Icelandic law, known as Grágás. This section reads in part, “If a man forces a woman down or gets into bed beside her intent upon having intercourse with her, then the penalty for that is full outlawry.” (Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás, 2 vol., ed. And trans., Dennis, Foote, and Perkins, University of Manitoba Press, 1980 and 2000, vol. 2, p. 69). The Grágás goes on to say that if a principal for a woman (one who can negotiate her marriage) finds that another man has had intercourse with the woman before her betrothal he can bring suit “on the grounds that [the defendant] has lain [with] the woman and gone so far that he could expect that they would have a child if that was destined for them. ... [He can] claim his penalty is full outlawry.” (Grágás II, § 157, p. 74). A similar punishment is assigned to fathering an illegitimate child. In this case, however, Leidolf chooses a more direct solution than a lawsuit. He hunts Uni down and brings him back for a “shotgun” wedding, and when Uni flees again, Leidolf hunts him down again and kills him. There is no record that any compensation is sought for Uni's death, even though he was associated with a very powerful man. I assume that this is because Uni is a full outlaw and can be killed on sight by the principal in the suit. (Grágás I, p. 246)

The case of Tjorvi the Mocker is easier to understand. This tale takes place at about the time of Njal´s saga, as Gunnar of Hildarund is the same Gunnar who married Halgerd Hoskuld´s daughter and died when his wife refused him a lock of hair to make a bowstring. This puts Tjorvi´s tale prior to AD 992.  Tjorvi violates the law in three (maybe four) ways. First, he could be charged with tampering with an unmarried woman. Grágás § 155 (Grágáa II, p. 159) says in part, “If a man kisses a woman in private [and] she takes offence at it ... the penalty is lesser outlawry.” Compounding this is the making of a poem: “If a man composes a love verse on a woman, then the penalty is full outlawry.” (Grágás § 238, in Grágás II, p. 198). Further, the carving of a likenesses of Astrid and Thorir on the privy wall violates Grágás § 237, “If a man makes a shaming slander about someone, then the prnalty shall be is lesser outlawry. And it is shaming slander if a man carves or incises a “wood-shame” directed against him or raises a “shame pole” against him.” ( Grágás II, p. 197). The same law applies to the carving of Astrid's likeness on his knife handle. All in all, it appears that Tjorvi was begging for punishment which he received.



  1. That is really cool, from a historical criminology, standpoint! Have you written much more about the subject of crime and laws in old Icelandic culture? I'd be very interested, if you have!

  2. Hej, Ren!

    Thanks for commenting. To answer your question, I haven't. but there are two authors I recommend - Walter Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peace-making: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland, and David D. Friedman. Friedman, aka Duke Sir Cariadoc of the Bow, has a very interesting article at

    I will be teaching my class at Academy on November 12 in Angels Keep (Auburn, NY). Maybe you can attend?

  3. Thank you!! I am hoping to make Academy, depending on finances and family plans and such. I've been trying to catch some of your classes, but either I wind up teaching at the same time, or I have some other responsibility preventing it : ( I am not going to sign up to teach at Academy, in case we can't make it, so my schedule will be open : )

  4. I really appreciate the explanations at the end. It adds so much to the story to understand why these were killing offenses.