The Death of Sturla
Hvamm, July 23, 1183CE
The light of day was long, the sun almost never slept. Every day brought the warmth of summer, the smell of things growing, sheep and cattle grazing in the dale and I was new at Oddi. My father was dead, as if punished for giving me away to strangers, as if God was on my side and not his. But my feelings of abandonment were deepened with the knowledge that it was certain now that I would never be with my father again. Perhaps his death was my fault, for being with him at the Althing.
Even though I wasn’t there to witness it, from stories told me by my fellow students and scholars at the school, I imagined Sturla crashing to the dirt floor of our longhouse, drool leaking from his mouth, snot bubbling from his nostrils, his terror filled eyes flooded with tears as if weeping for his waning life. His face would have pounded flat on the floor, his head would have bounced like a ball until it came to rest. I’m glad I didn’t see that with my own eyes. I don’t know how they might have come by any knowledge of how my father died, perhaps they just made the stories up and duped me because I was so young and naïve. He was dead, just the same and over time I came to understand that Sturla was not an entirely likeable man. As a child though we trust our fathers and believe they do no wrong and possess all the knowledge one might need to lead an appropriate life.
Why was that even important to me. He was just a person, as I am just a person, a life lived, a collection of episodes and circumstances, and then nothing. Life is like that. Years of brain numbing monotony interrupted by a few brief moments of the glory of victory or absolute terror, then gone.
My father was haughty and braggadocious, drunken boasting that he always got his way. Look at all the things he had accomplished. Then he would have had that snide grin, like he had defeated you. There was no empathy in him, just gloating. No restraint. He was the master and he went out of his way time after time to show it.
He was not unusual. Many Godi were just the same as him. I suppose they had to be or they wouldn’t have been able to claim and hold their properties and possessions. Land holders, tithe takers, some being both chieftain and priest, like my father.
He was blind and irrational sometimes, like so many others. In the end, Gudny was probably happy that he choked trying to swallow too large a hunk of meat, in his drunken gluttony.
What did it matter, in the end. My poor father, as strong and mighty as he was, a brute of a man, fell victim to life, just as all of us do. His strength, his position and mean words did nothing to spare his life when it was his time; slain by a piece of unchewed meat. Though my mother must have loved him in her own way, I think she would have been filled with a sense of relief when he fell dead. I don’t know that for certain, I was only four, but it seemed to me from what I’ve been told since then, that a calmness came over her. I’m not saying that I had any contempt for my father, back then while I was still a child. What did I know; he was my father. To me he was the king of my life and I knew no other way but to believe everything he told me, see him as my role model; why would a father say anything untrue to his own child or be anything but the clear example of how to live a life. I could only see every action he took as the way things should be and all others who contested him were certainly wrong in their thinking. There is no other way for a loyal and devoted child to think. Had I grown to adulthood in his household, with him alive to provide my life lessons, instead of Jon Loftsson and the teachers at Oddi, I would have been a different man than I became. I would have been like him. I wanted to be just like him before he sent me away. I should be thankful that he banished me from my childhood home. I shouldn’t have allowed my resentment to fester inside me, until I was old enough to understand more of life, until I understood that he was just a man, plain and boastful and his only claim to greatness of any sort was that he was Sturlunga.
Thordur and Sighvat would have stood resolute over our dead father’s body, as if he were a king fallen in battle. Our sisters were too little to have any sense of anything. But I didn’t even know he was dead until long after he had become worms meat. This is the story of how he ended, his final dance with fate, as Thordur told me many years later. Some even say perhaps he was poisoned.
It was horrifying to think of my father dead, but it was oddly funny as well, to think of him stumbling and falling face first like a young inexperienced goat plunging headlong into the water trough and drowning.
The day we all departed from the Althing was clear and warm. I had grown used to mingling among the crowds of revelers, standing solemn at the frequent homilies and prayers and Christian words spoken in a tongue I didn’t know. I learned, after several swats on my head from my father, to stay quiet when the Lawspeaker was talking and when arguments were being made and judgements given. I had begun to flinch and duck immediately upon letting words slip from my mouth, much to Sighvat’s amusement.
The days were the longest and filled with the most sunlight of the entire year, those two weeks in June. In my later life I attended the Althing many times but that first time was the most memorable, the most exciting and happiest until the departure.
It was not that far from Thingvellir to our home in Hvamm. Three days walk was normal, less if the weather for travel was good, more if it was not. Negotiation through crags and over the sharp black rocks of our volcanic island was slow, though sometimes made easier where pathways had been worn into places in the land by years of constant travel. Still, it could be hard going for carts and those carrying heavy packs.
I did not go on that home bound journey with my father and brothers. They went to the north and I departed south with Loftsson, the great divide widening into an abyss as we travelled apart. The chasm in my heart widened too as my father and brothers grew smaller into the distance and when they finally disappeared past an outcrop and descended into the dale, I knew I was abandoned and alone, even though I was among a great many in Loftsson’s entourage, most of them kind, many plodding southward in silence. I was comforted by a house mother who took notice of my tears and running nose, which I wiped away quickly on the sleeve of my tunic, not wanting to show my weakness.
Those that had to make the journey from the eastern shores travelled two weeks each way and could always expect cold winds and sometimes snow when they passed Vatnajokull. But they came anyway because of the serious importance of the Althing. The journey home would have always seemed much longer for them.
This was Thordur’s recounting to me, many years later.
When they finally returned to Hvamm, Sturla pushed the door of the longhouse, hard enough that one of the leather hinges became loose. He was fierce with victory. There was news to share of triumph and great fortune gained at the Althing. The case he argued was won and he secured a very healthy compensation.
In my mind’s eye, I can see my mother, on that day when my father arrived home with Thordur and Sighvat and his other companions from the Althing. She would have thrown up her arms with happiness that they were finally returned. She would have hugged them all, given thanks that they were all safe and well, but then she would have looked this way and that, for her youngest son. She would have leaned around father’s great bulk, looking for me behind his back; looked for me standing with Thordur and Sighvat, gone to the door and looked among the travelling carts to see if I was sleeping on a bundle of trade goods. Then she would have asked Sturla where her baby Snorri was and he would have given her the good news that would have nearly stopped her heart.
Not only had he won the lawsuit, but he also brought honor to the household by negotiating my fosterage to the renowned Jon Loftsson at the famous school at Oddi. His youngest son would be made brilliant, respected, and would climb to the heights of all the land someday. And I, her baby Snorri, owed it all to him. There would be no doubt that I would bring fortune and great benefit to the Sturlunga and everyone should honor Sturla’s prowess and expertise in negotiation. Only his brilliance with the ways of the law could have made this happen. And then there was celebration and feasting.
A wind cold enough to have been mid-winter would have blown through her body as she pretended to agree with Sturla that my fosterage was a great honor for him and for me and that she had a small part in it as well. I can imagine the mask painted upon her face as she retreated to prepare the feast. She would have been heartbroken, as any mother would be, but she would have such fear within her that she would remain silent, her despondence hidden, her inner soul cowering from Sturla, like a frightened dog might cower. Women were not to have feelings, unless you were a rich or powerful woman, and feared the wrath of no man, not even your husband, like Aud the Deep Minded feared no man.
My dear mother, my dear Gudny, would have fretted at her loss but fought in her mind to convince herself that all is as it should be and that her little Snorri would have the benefit of proper education and upbringing. He would live in a dignified house, among dignified people, scholars and men of the church and that he wouldn’t be condemned to the life of a farmer or thrall or have to raid and plunder to earn his living and that he would grow to be a learned man, a scholar perhaps or maybe a bishop.
Deep in the hidden place within her, she would have looked at Sturla with resentment and contempt, that he had given me away without her even being able to say goodbye to me, though she would have kept her tears hidden from him. She would have been reticent. It was her duty to praise her husband, but I did not return from the Althing with him and my brothers, as she had expected I would. She would have looked often at the empty open doorway after all others had entered, I was not there, I did not come to stand there with my excited child’s face, as she would have hoped. She knew she may never see me again and to her this meant that I was the same as dead. But she could not speak her sorrow because she knew well the honor that was exchanged when fostering was offered and accepted. To be fostered to the Oddivar was indeed an honor true and simple. But still, a greyness fell over her as she brought the hangikjot and svid to the eating table. She would have slumped as if the weight of another burden had been placed upon her.
The meat would have been salted and smoked and filled the air with the deep briny aroma that mingled with the smokey clouds that flavored the delicious mutton. I loved that smell and when it was in the air I let it settle upon me like a cloak of luxury. I loved it because it meant fun and happy times and celebration. I loved the taste and texture of the festive meat. My favorite part was the cheek flesh carved sweet and succulent and pink from the sheep’s head. I was given that piece seldom because I was the youngest boy. Thordur and Sighvat were more blessed, if our father didn’t take those pieces for himself. The sisters of course had to wait for us to finish. I loved the feasting times. To be among the crowd of revelers, everyone joyous in celebration, dancing, singing, enjoying bounty and fellowship. But I was not there this time.
It would have been just like the Yule feast, though I was not at that table. Thordur and Sighvat would have looked at the empty place on the bench where I usually sat, but all the others, the men of father’s entourage, the workers and herdsmen and tillers would not have even known I was not there. I would not even have been a ghost of something past, to them. After the feasting they would have gone to the drinking table or sat with backs against the walls of the longhouse or around the hearth fire and drank the mead or ale or most likely the brennivin, the burnt wine, the black death, until they fell sleeping in their place.
I can imagine it all, from the stories I was told later, coming from Thordur and second and third hand from men who were there at Sturla’s last feast. With most of his companion guests with belly’s bloated from food and collapsed in drunken stupor, Sturla would still have meandered about the great room of the longhouse, kicking sleeping patrons to rouse them so he would have an audience for his continued drunken boasting. Some would have woken, listened to the same stories told over again then returned to their long sleep. Sturla would have continued talking, waving the mead pot in the air, tearing meat from the greasy haunch he held in his other hand, laughing and guffawing at his own stupid jokes and mocking harangues. I know this, because I had seen it before and even though I was just a very young child, these are the things one remembers throughout life. How your own father was. How he acted, how he treated others, how the examples he set were meant as life lessons to be followed.
This behavior didn’t bother me at all, then. The loudness, the chiding, the garrulous singing, the slopping bowls of liquor, the friendly wrestling, sometimes turning mean. I was just a child; it all seemed normal to me, the way it should be. I have to say that in my distant recollection, I loved those early days and would have been happy to grow up in Sturla’s house with my brothers and my sisters too, I suppose.
In my mind’s eye I can see those moments when Sturla’s end came to him.
Gudny, working at the hearth, would have heard the laughter and frivolity cease. One by one the boisterous voices would have turned quiet from their singing and joking. Those telling tales in the corners of the longhouse would have stopped short in their conversations, to look. Once the revelry had quieted she could have heard Sturla grunting, gasping and choking, wheezing desperately, trying to suck in breaths of life. She would have heard him spinning on the dirt floor, crashing into stools and pallets and heard his body thunder down, like a large fallen beast, as he collapsed. She would have looked at the empty bowl of mead that she had prepared especially for him, his last bowl.
Sighvat would have turned from his joking ways and stood uncertain what he was seeing or what he should do, being at the age that lingers between boyhood and man. He would have looked to Thordur, our eldest brother, who had just grown to his manhood, though his beard was not yet full, he was still given the right to carry a short sword and would be first in line to claim our father’s Ulfberht, the long sword owned by very few, mostly Godi or higher class.
Thordur would have tossed his cup and jug to the floor and run to father’s side, perhaps leaning over him, his hands outstretched, uncertain what to do to save father from his death choke. Sighvat would have come too and quickly gazed about the gathered company for any sign that someone present knew how to save our struggling father. It would have seemed like the hearth fire dimmed and the lapping, licking orange flames grown silent. The dark smoke would have ceased to find the chimney hole and the air grown thick in the hall of the longhouse. Our yapping dogs would have ceased their chatter and searching the floor for lost bits of food and begun to whine, perhaps fled the hall in fear of the tragedy taking place. All those still awake and able would have circled Sturla, shocked, watching, not knowing what to do. Someone would have declared that my father was choking and something should be done; someone would have said they could expect Sturla to cough up whatever was lodged in his gullet, just give him time and space. Thordur would have pounded on Sturla’s back trying desperately to dislodge the wad of flesh damming our father’s throat. He would have yelled fiercely, cursing the food that was killing our father; his shouts growing to shrieks as he pounded and pounded until it was more and more apparent that this life could not be saved. The death meat would not come from Sturla’s throat, remaining wedged like a rag stuffed into a hole in the roof to prevent a single drop of rain from passing through. Gudny would have rushed to the circle of bystanders, stood terrified at the sight of her husband rolling on the dirt floor, her eyes circling the crowd, she would have screamed, beseeching somebody to do something to help him, but she would have seen in their faces that they all knew this was how Sturla Thordarson would die and they would be witness to his death. He would have turned red, the blood in his face near to bursting his head, then he would have turned blue. Poor Sturla would have grabbed at his throat, his eyes grown wide with panic as he realized he was about to die. Small pools of wet would have leaked from his eyes; not tears of fear, because he would have never shown that weakness, just his own bodies response to his struggle. Then he would have fallen dead, there on the floor, with peace coming over his face as he departed for Valhalla, even though we were all proclaimed to be Christian.
In that moment, when Gudny could see that Sturla was truly departed this earth and the churning thoughts within her mixed fear and horror, panic and desperation, she too would have felt peace coming to her like a calm wind upon her face. Perhaps this was Sturla’s reward for returning home without her precious Snorri. She would have gathered up Sturla’s empty bowl and wiped clean the residue. Thordur would have firstly comforted her with an arm upon her shoulder. Sighvat would have stepped forward to stand near Sturla’s body, waiting for his brother to come and stand with him.
My brothers. I knew them then, yet I didn’t know them deeply until I was much older. Thordur, strong and silent, becoming the patriarch in that moment of our father’s death. Sighvat, always seeming to be good spirited but always quick to put me in my place. Perhaps I would have been a man of stronger fiber had I spent my young life growing up with their guidance instead of the meek posture of the Oddi scholars and priests. Some came to call me weak kneed, when I was older, when I was a man. Some called me scurrilous, deceitful and conniving, when all I wanted was the best for my people of Iceland. At least that is how I believed it to be.
Our time upon this earth is short and sometimes the things we do in our life make it shorter even still, shorter than it need be, but that is our life. Such was the case for my father. It seems to me, for good or for bad, in the end our life must balance, even though that balance might not appear evident to us and others.
My brothers claimed their share, their pieces of the property and wealth that had been amassed by our father in his life. There was much. We were a family of significant means, some gained honestly, much acquired by the devious and greedy fingers that Sturla managed to clutch around properties and holdings of others. We were a powerful family, then, though not alone in our posturing for prominence. There was the Oddivar, of course, but more than that, to our affect, were the Haukdalir and the dubious Gissur Thorvaldsson, who became not only my own son-in-law but also my arch nemesis, in my later years.
“I will be guardian of Snorri’s share,” Gudny would have said. “He is too young to take ownership of his portion and if the rights to his inheritance were given to the Oddivar to guardian, it would soon be squandered, wasted on priestly things and books and lessons for the children of families unknown to us or perhaps even our own enemies. No, I will guard his inheritance.”
Such as it was said, it should have been different. Thordur should have been regent over my inheritance, to safeguard it from squandering. And squandered it was. No sooner was my father sent to his final glory than Gudny began to make up for all those years of life lost in servitude to my father, her husband. It’s not that she was kept in poverty, she enjoyed much of the fruits of Sturla’s avarice. But she, like most all women, was kept in her place, at the hearth and cradle and tending fields and herds while father was off on his important business, building the purse and prestige of the Sturlunga. It was my inheritance that funded my dear mother’s new freedom. It was my money that put her as a woman of high standing in the public places.
“He doesn’t need it,” she would have said, making a rationalization for her squandering. “He will gain his own wealth; with the teachings he will come by at that school. Your father was right to send him there,” she would have said to Thordur. “His future is secured. It is only right that I avail myself of this fortune, I have earned it. My husband would have wanted it this way,” she would have said, even though she knew that not to be true. But she was my mother, I knew nothing of wealth or fortune, back then, and I never outwardly blamed her for stealing my inheritance.
I never saw my mother; from the time I was sent away until she came to Reykholt in her later years, remaining in my house until she was cold in her own November death. She had her life after Sturla, with the man Ari Thorgilsson, though he died soon too, and she happily fostered Thordur’s son, named for his namesake, our father. That boy, was quick in his mind, took up the quill, like me, and proved to be a learned man and contributor to our history, like me.
I don’t resent Gudny, for taking and using my wealth. A great deal more was built upon my inheritance and when Gudny died, it all came to me anyway, at the very time my own great wealth and fame began to rise.
My view of my father changed over time. When I became a man I could see that the unquestioned fealty I had for my father was misguided. He was like many others, self-interested, brutal, uncaring. A bully of a man that used his size and loud voice to force others to submit to his wants and beliefs. It’s good that I did not inherit all of his traits, though I confess there are a few certain behaviors of mine that I attribute to him. I give him credit for making me greedy with the will to satisfy that trait and for passing into me the need for positions of power. Certainly my better qualities were imbued upon me by Loftsson and others of the Oddivar, though even skill and knowledge do not always turn out to be a blessing.
It has been my own great curiosity, inherent ability to acquire knowledge, my ambitions, good and bad, and the sense that all things I have done in my life are right and just; they must be if I have done them. They have guided my life and actions. I cannot say if I have been a good man or bad. There are proponents on both sides of that argument. But I can say that from the time I was a child, from the times of my first recollections in my life, I have had the sense of connection to all the vast conditions of things in this realm and beyond, human and otherwise. It is this feeling that makes me wonder at the consequence of the actions I have taken in my own life; whether they have any meaning or import within the view of all eternity. If eternity is really eternal that is. I feel as though I am connected to some greater thing that stretches through all of time, yet in my life I only viewed those moments and events that I could see through my living eyes and observe with my living brain, even though I had this feeling that I exist beyond this place, beyond this time.
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