I, Snorri Sturluson, remember as clear as if it were yesterday. Most people have no such memories from that young an age, but I do. I was there, at the Althing, among the rocky crags of Thingvellir, with my brothers Thordur and Sighvat and our father. I was too young then to understand the importance of such a gathering and saw it only as a wonderous spectacle of people, brightly colored tents and booths, instruments of music and goods made for trade. Of course, years later, I became the Lawspeaker and understood more than any other man that the Althing was the foundation for the independent national existence of our Iceland. It was where our country’s most powerful leaders met to decide on laws and governing and dispense justice. All free men could attend the assembly, which was the main social event of the whole year and drew large crowds of priests, farmers and their families, parties involved in legal disputes, traders, craftsmen, storytellers, travelers, and fancy ladies that smelled of lavender and violet flowers and most of all the Godi, the chieftains.
Those attending the assembly lived in temporary camps all along Thingvellir, during the gathering. They came from all the corners of our Iceland, many having to travel great distances where there were no roads or well-traveled paths to make their journey easier. The center of the gathering was the Lögberg, the ‘Law Rock’, an outcrop on which the Lawspeaker stood as the presiding official of the assembly. It was his responsibility to memorize and recite aloud the laws in effect at the time. It was his duty to proclaim the procedural law of the Althing.
This is perhaps the first strong memory I have in life. I was a four year old child, old enough to be with Sighvat, in his twelfth year, and our eldest brother Thordur, seventeen, with his own beard. Our sisters Helga and Vigdis were too little to make the journey to Thingvellir and they were made to stay at Hvamm with mother. We were the ‘menfolk’, off to do the family business and make serious talk and make a marvel with folk from far places. Above all this, our father was to speak at the Althing.
Chieftains and their people were gathered from all across the land. There was folly and celebration, contests, feasting and drinking. There was great camaraderie among folks that hadn’t seen each other in a long while. There were new tales to tell, adventures, quests to share and fanciful boasting. But most of all there was the law giving. I knew nothing of the seriousness of it, at the time.
The place was a tumult of crags and hollows, crevices and jagged outcrops, but there was magic in the stone. The place where all Chieftains were equal, though some were more equal than others, where every farmer and freeman had a voice and disputes could be fairly judged; the place where new laws were spoken and agreed and old ones, outdated or useless, could be changed or stricken.
Some were sent from the Law Rock, banished. Sent from the land, my father said, because they had robbed or cheated or killed a man or one of his beasts. I reached up to take my father’s hand but he swatted me away like an annoying gnat. There was yelling and fist shaking and the old man standing on the Law Rock, with his long white hair and beard and long robe, so that he looked like the Christ or maybe God, spoke evenly, telling them to be calm. And when the judgements were given, some men hung their heads and some men danced like huddle folk celebrating the yule.
My father, Sturla, was arguing a case against Pall Solvason, the Priest, Chieftain of a neighboring estate. It was all because of Solvason’s daughter Thorlaug. Sadly Thorlaug and her husband, Thorir ‘the wealthy’ Thorsteinsson, both died when they were making a pilgrimage to Rome, to pray for children. When they died they left a sizeable estate and inheritance. Claim was made to the inheritance by Solvason, but also by Thorir’s sister, who was supported by Sturla. The Priest argued that the inheritance was his because word from a traveler came that the husband had died first and thus all the properties came to Thorlaug and at her death went to her family. But my father argued otherwise that the inheritance should be divided and a settlement of forty cows to Thorir’s sister was fair.
Solvason was a meek man, but none the less he refused to settle. He was thin, with long legs and pale blueish white skin, at least on his face, where I could see it. His beard was thin too, sparse and stringy, hanging like strands of wet hair from beneath his long bent nose. He spoke quietly, as a child might when speaking to his own father. He was like a plaything next to Sturla, like a limp doll, though he was thoughtful and well spoken. But the priest’s wife, Thorbjörg, was not. She was a hag of a woman, dour with a sour face. Always grimacing, hard enough to scare a goat off its feed. She was porcine, like a large sow, broad across the chest and hips, heavy atop with large sagging bosoms and a dark eyebrow that crossed her forehead in a single length. Her voice was more manly than her husbands, though she was a fine singer. The greed of her own black heart she saw in Sturla. But I have to say that when I first came into their tent, she spoke kindly to me, stroked my head and patted my cheeks. That kindliness soon vanished.
My father was a bully with the law. He was able to make strong arguments to often win his claims. He boasted of his legal knowledge and prowess, second only to the Lawspeaker, the Lögsögumadur, Sighvatur Surtsson. It was not true, there were many that knew as much or more as my father, but not many that would charge like a bull into the face of an adversary, to make them back down from their claim. He would kill the already dead with his words and angry demeanor, if he could.
But Thorbjörg was not a woman to shrink from ogre, troll or bully of a man. From her sleeve she pulled the kitchen blade, too short to reach a man’s heart but long enough to take out his eye. These are the words she spoke as she lashed at Sturla, hissing like a hot-tempered wildcat.
“Why should I not make you like the one you most want to be like, the one-eyed Odin.”
Her blade fell short of father’s eye, though she did cut a deep gash upon his cheek. She was quickly restrained. Father’s entourage were swift to draw weapons and it seemed clear a bloody slaughter was about to ensue. Father could have demanded immediate retribution for this attack, but as well as being a bully he was also quick to recognize opportunity. He agreed to continue negotiations over the inheritance, after forcing Solvason to grant him the right of ‘self-judgement’ for Thorbjörg’s assault. But he was less conciliatory when it came time to announce what he wanted as his claim. He demanded an outrageous sum from Solvason, an amount that would beggar the Priest.
The wind blew cold up the valley between the rocky walls of Thingvellir. I shivered at the loud voices and threats of violence, though I had often played games of war and Viking raids, swinging my wooden stave at the head of a neibour child, a friend, as my brothers laughed and encouraged us to battle. But this was different. There was venom in the voices, screeching and howling and spittle spewing from bellowing mouths. My father’s face darkened and flushed like an ocean tide of red, thick veins bulged in his neck and on his forehead, his eyes widened and swelled, his brow furrowed in a menacing, mocking curl, the tuberous bulb of his nose turned from red to purple and the pock holes on his face went black. I slipped behind my brother. Blood still oozed from the wound just above father’s beard.
“You will forfeit your property, your livestock and all your silver coin,” father shouted. “And your claim to the inheritance is forfeit too.”
“You would leave me a pauper,” Solvason moaned. He bent himself in front of father, like a dog in humble obedience, giving himself up to the punishment that was befalling him. He pleaded forgiveness for his wife’s attack. He begged for lenience in the claim that was now justly made against him. Not only could his claim to the inheritance now be forfeit but his own properties could now be seized by Sturla and Thorbjörg could be banished from Iceland for three years or more or even be put to death.
“I leave you with what you deserve, that crone you call a wife.”
“Kill him,” Thorbjörg jeered.
But the Priest neither drew a weapon nor made a harsh gesture to my father. Instead he scowled at the woman with the promise of a beating if she spoke another word. She struggled to try to free herself from the grip of her restrainers and would have made the Priest’s plight even worse had she made herself free. My brother Sighvat laughed at her futile attempt. To me, she looked like a sheep being held fast, about to have its throat cut open so it could be made ready for the yule feast.
Father laughed too. “What was yours, Priest, is now mine.”
“No, please,” Solvason begged. “I will see that the woman is punished.”
“You cannot be trusted to make proper punishment; you cannot even control your own wife. Had you beat her more often when deserved, perhaps she would have better discipline. She does not have license to even speak here, yet she takes it upon herself to attack a Godi. She deserves banishment or to be given into my servitude.”
Thorbjörg ceased her struggle, realizing this could be part of my father’s claim.
“Please, you would leave me with nothing?” Solvason pleaded.
“Not even a real knife,” father sneered at Solvason. “You can’t even control your woman; how can it be expected you can manage this inheritance or even your own land holdings. Everything that was yours is now mine, by right. You are beggared.”
This was the paradox at this place of revelry. Joyfulness and merriment against a backdrop of law and justice. Rules for all to make our lives in the harsh land a civil existence.
That is when the revered Jon Loftsson intervened and my whole life was cast into a different direction than otherwise would have been my destiny.
Jon Loftsson stood between my father and the Priest and all became silent. Everyone seemed to know this man and the argument ceased. Even then, as a very young child, I could sense the reverence and respect being shown for this man. He was calm and his calmness spread itself onto everyone, like a mist blanketing all the trees in the valley. I came out from behind Sighvat’s cloak and listened as this man made skillful settlement of the dispute between father and the Priest.
The man, Jón Loftsson, was chieftain of the Oddaverjar clan. His parents were Loftur Sæmundsson and Thora Magnusdottir. His mother’s father was the late King Magnus ’the barelegs’ of Norway. Even though my clan, the Sturlungar, was high placed, we were not considered to hold the royal blood that the Oddaverjar did. Though my father was strong and somewhat clever, Jón Loftsson was one of the most respected chieftains and politicians in our whole country. His clan was revered above all others, not for arms and strength or even wealth, but for understanding equal among all folk, piety and the power of knowledge. His royal blood line also did not harm his standing. Even though he sided with Solvason in the case of inheritance, all agreed that he would be a fair arbiter to settle a negotiation and the dispute from Thorbjörg’s assault.
I watched it all and even though I was too young to understand many of their words let alone the meaning of their arguments, I found this act of negotiation to be an artful and profound thing. The giving and taking and making of a bargain. Sturla was a good speaker, especially when he could contain his anger, but the Chieftain Jón Loftsson, seemed especially skilled. His words flowed without hesitation and most in the gathered crowd were prone to a continuous nodding of their heads, in agreement with his speech. His dress and ornamentation seemed to add to the credibility of his office. Many of the Chieftains had wealth and dressed finely, but Jón Loftsson’s robes were rich cloth with elegant shiny buckles and chains and ornaments that might have had something to do with the Christian God.
There was a great deal of back and forth, but unlike Sturla’s nose to nose confrontation with the Priest, Solvason, the arguments were made calmly and with conciliation and by the end of it Sturla gave the sign of acceptance, with a broad smile upon his face. The blood had ceased oozing from his wound, his cheek now plastered with a healing poultice.
My father came to me with a proud smile on his face, his big hands clasped my small shoulders and he said in his deep voice, “you, my son, will have the finest life. As your father, I have convinced the Chieftain Jón Loftsson, to foster you at his home and in the school at Oddi. You will be given the very best of all possible education and teaching in the business of the law, and church and the making and management of wealth. Your life of prosperity and greatness is guaranteed. I have secured this great honor for you and our family. A proud day for all of us. You are fostered to Loftsson. You will go to Oddi with him. I will tell your mother of this honor I have made for you and she will be proud for it.”
I had no words. I didn’t understand this honor that Sturla spoke. I looked at my father, with my child’s wide eyes and said, “what?”
“You are fostered to the Oddaverjar. There can be no better fosterage than that in all of Iceland. You will go with him, you will mind yourself, learn great things and be surrounded by the smartest children of the highest families in all of Iceland. I will tell your mother.”
I did not understand this word, ‘foster’, but a deep sense of foreboding crept into my belly. Even at my young age I knew that my father’s words could often have another meaning.
‘I was to be fostered’. Did that mean that I was to be made a sacrifice? Was I the one who was to be made like the sheep about to have its throat cut open and cooked for the yule feast. This did not seem like a welcome honor to me.
I looked at the Chieftain Jón Loftsson but he appeared more as a statue or a ghost to me.
“Is he to be my father now?” I asked.
My brother Sighvat laughed and my other brother Thordur struck Sighvat on the arm to quiet him.
“No,” Sturla said. “I will always be your father. You will go with him to his school at Oddi and he will teach you to be great and to have knowledge beyond what I can teach you. This is your duty to me, to take this gift that I have made for you. You will now live in his house and not in mine. I will tell your mother.”
“I am to live in his house? I don’t want to go with him.” Tears came into my eyes and my small body began to shake so that I could not stop it. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry for doing it. I don’t want to go away with him, I want to go home with Sighvat and Thordur.”
My father raised his hand as if he were about to strike my face, but he did not hit me. I collected my small garment bundle and was guided by my shoulder at my father’s hand, to the Chieftain Jón Loftsson’s booth. My father and brothers went to our home in Hvamm and I went to Oddi on the back of a cart.
It was not long after I was given into the fosterage of Jon Loftsson that I was told that my father, the mighty Sturla Thordarson, was dead. I did not know anything of real death then, not even that the hangikjöt or the lundi we were given to eat came from animals that were once alive and were killed and made dead to become our meat.
“He has gone to the long sleep,” said one of my companion students at the Oddi school.
I had seen my father asleep before.
“You will not see him again; he will not return. His body will be sent to the fire or it will rot and be eaten by worms,” said another.
“No,” said another, “he has gone to Valhalla to be with Odin for the Ragnarok, because your father was a Chieftain and a warrior.”
“Or he has gone to heaven because we are all Christians,” said another.
“Or hell, because he was a vile murdering bastard,” said another.
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