Sunday, 24 April 2011

Laxdæla saga 2: Unnr the deepminded, the matriarch of Dalir

Monument to Snorri Sturluson at Hvammur, looking north-west up Skeggjadalur

Unnr djúpúðga var á Katanesi, er Þorsteinn fell, sonr hennar; ok er hon frá þat, at Þorsteinn var látinn, en faðir hennar andaðr, þá þóttisk hon þar enga uppreist fá mundu. Eptir þat lætr hon gera knörr í skógi á laun; ok er skipit var algört, þá bjó hon skipit ok hafði auð fjár. Hon hafði brott með sér allt frændlið sitt, þat er á lífi var, ok þykkjask menn varla dæmi til finna, at einn kvenmaðr hafa komizk í brott í þvílíkum ófriði með jafnmiklu fé ok föruneyti; má af því marka, at hon var mikit afbragð annarra kvenna (Laxdæla saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit 5 (Reykjavík, 1934), ch. 4, p. 7; 'Unnr djúpúðga 'deep-minded' was in Caithness [in Scotland] when Þorsteinn, her son, fell; and when she learned that Þorsteinn was dead, and her father deceased, then she thought there was no future to be had there. After that she had a knörr [a kind of cargo ship] built in secret in the forest; and when the ship was finished, then she loaded it and had a great quantity of wealth. She took away with her all her relations who were still alive, and men think there is scarecly a parallel to be found of a woman getting away in such war-torn times with an equal quantity of goods and companions; it may be seen from this, that she was greatly superior to other women').

View to the east from Dagverðarnes

As I wrote in my previous post, one feature of Laxdæla saga is that it presents one remarkable woman after another -- Unnr (sometimes called Auðr) is the first of these and in many ways the yardstick against which the other women in the saga are measured. Unnr was born in 834 C.E., the daughter of the Norwegian chieftain Ketill flatnef, and by the time of the passage above, the widow of King Óláfr hvíti, king of Dublin, who died fighting in Ireland. From Caithness, Unnr sailed to the Orkneys, from there to the Faroes, and thence to Iceland where, after her ship broke up on the southern coast, she travelled on with her party and goods to her brother Björn who had already settled in Breiðafjörðr. Most other sagas tell of male first-generation settlers and Unnr is an exceptional example of a female land-taker. She claimed a great swathe of land in Dalasýsla in the north-west of Iceland, established a homestead at Hvammr (at the southern end of Hvammsfjörður, on the northern shore), and gave extensive parts of the land she had claimed to her followers, many of whom were well-born themselves, and others whom she released from bondage.

Ch. 6 of Laxdæla saga tells, for example, of how she gave land to a certain Hörðr, to a man named Sökkólfr, to Hundi, and to Vífill amongst others. The names of many of the valleys in Dalasýsla -- Hörðadalur, Sökkólfsdalur, Hundadalur, Vífilsdalur respectively -- commemorate this first generation of settlers who came to Iceland with Unnr and the land-taking is thus recorded in, or written into, the landscape (a useful sketch/map of the area which includes some of these valleys can be found here). Other place-names in the area are associated in the saga with the journeying process of Unnr´s land-taking. Dögurðarnes ('breakfast' or 'main-meal-of-the-day-nes'; now Dagverðarnes, on the western tip of the northern shore of Hvammsfjörður) is so-called because Unnr and her party ate their morning meal there, and Kambsnes ('comb-nes', a wedge-shaped peninsula on the inner eastern end of Hvammsfjörður) acquired its name -- according to the saga -- because Unnr lost her comb there. An alternative explanation for this latter name that I heard from a local farmer is that when one looks over to the peninsula from the raised vantage point of Krosshólaborg, it tapers off at the end of the Laxárdalsháls ridge (which runs on a north-east/south-west axis) like a comb. 

Kambsnes is now a tiny airstrip; Dagverðarnes is at the end of several kms of rough and winding track which this time of year, presented various snow-drift, ice- and mud-related challenges when I negotiated it in the Embulance -- 4-wheel-drive and the diff lock were on all the way. There is a small church, a house, and some outhouses there now...and just enough mobile reception for me to let people know that I´d got there. The wind howled and rain pelted down overnight; eating my morning meal there -- with the sun breaking from the clouds, the countless islands and skerries that lie beyond the peninsula coming into sharper focus, the mountains that form a chain along the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the southern shore of Hvammsfjörður glittering white, and seabirds screaming -- was an intense experience.

Church and farm at Hvammur

Another noteworthy fact about Unnr is that she was baptised as a Christian prior to her arrival in Iceland. The majority of settlers held pre-Christian beliefs and worshipped the gods and goddesses in the Norse pantheon; Iceland was not converted to Christianity until the year 999/1000 C.E., when the lawspeaker at that time (the chieftain Þorgeirr Þorkelsson from Ljósavatn in the north of Iceland) decreed that the country should officially accept the Christian faith as their 'national' religion. Unnr's farmstead at Hvammr was an important place through Icelandic history: it was a chieftain´s farmstead in the Middle Ages, and later a priest´s residence; the famous politician/historian/poet Snorri Sturluson was born there in 1179, and  Árni Magnússon (b. 1663) -- the great collector of Icelandic manuscripts -- grew up there in the 17th century with his grandfather Séra ('Reverend') Ketill Jörundsson, a priest who produced copies of a number of medieval parchment manuscripts.

The present church and farm at Hvammur are situated at the foot of Hólafjall, about 2kms inland from the water of Hvammsfjörður; by the shore, however, and not marked on any map I looked at but shown to me by another local farmer, are some grassy mounds and stones which are said to be very old and bear the name 'Auðartóftir' ('Auðr's toft/homestead'). Landnámabók is more explicit about Unnr's Christianity than Laxdæla saga, and notes that Unnr used to go up to the top of a nearby hill every day to pray: the rocky outcrop known as Krosshólaborg, on which an imposing (modern) stone cross commemorating Unnr and her Christian faith, is said to be this hill. One local woman suggested that Unnr might have made a daily habit of walking up this hill -- or perhaps one closer to Hvammr which might in fact have been the 'real' Krosshólaborg -- because it offers very good views in every direction and would therefore have been a useful vantage point from which this resourceful and powerful woman could see what was going on in the area.

The modern cross at Krosshólaborg
(looking towards the north)

The chapter in which Unnr's death is related in Laxdæla saga is an incredibly vivid one and there is a nice link between the report of her burial in the saga and a local tradition attached to a rock known as 'Auðarsteinn' ('Auðr's stone') that rises out of the water some metres from the shoreline of Hvammsfjörður, not far from Hvammur. Unnr has grown old but though she does not get up before midday and goes to bed early, her influence and standing has not diminished: she has married off her children and grandchildren and her final matriarchal act is to arrange the marriage of her favourite grandson, the promising Óláfr feilan ('little wolf', from the Old Irish fæl, 'wolf') Þorsteinsson to a woman called Álfdís.

Unnr prepares a lavish bridal feast and invites the leading men from other districts around Iceland to it. On the day of the feast, she sleeps even longer than usual in the morning but gets up when the guests arrive and greets them all with great honour and pleasure, thanking them for travelling such long distances. During the course of the feast, Unnr announces that it is her wish Óláfr inherit Hvammr and her land-holdings, and after this, she retires to her bed-closet. The saga states: Svá segja menn, at Unnr hafi verit bæði há og þreklig; hon gekk hart útar eptir skálanum; fundusk mönnum orð um, at konan var enn virðulig (Laxdæla saga ch. 7, pp. 12-13; 'Men say that Unnr was both tall and strong/stout; she walked quickly from the hall; people spoke about how the woman was still splendid'). Men drink through the evening after Unnr has retired and the next day, when Óláfr goes to Unnr´s bed-chamber, he finds her sat upright against her bolster, dead. 'It seemed to men remarkable how Unnr had maintained her honour until her death-day' (þótti mönnum mikils um vert, hversu Unnr hafði haldit virðingu sinni til dauðadags, Laxdæla saga ch. 7, p. 13). 

Óláfr's wedding feast thus simultaneously becomes Unnr's wake, and Laxdæla saga relates how Unnr was buried on the last day of the feast. According to Laxdæla saga, 'Unnr's corpse was conveyed to that mound which had been prepared for her; she was laid in a ship in the mound, and a great deal of treasure was placed in the mound with her; afterwards the mound was filled in' (var Unnr flutt til haugs þess, er henni var búinn; hon var lögð í skip í hauginum, ok mikit fé var í haug lagt með henni; var eptir þat aptr kastaðr haugrinn, Laxdæla saga ch. 7, p. 13). There is a discrepancy here with the information found in Landnámabók regarding Unnr's burial which states that she 'was buried at the flood-mark, as she had instructed before, because she did not wish to lie in unconsecrated earth, as she was baptised' (var grafin í flæðarmáli, sem hún hafði fyrir sagt, því at hon vildi eigi liggja í óvígðri moldu, er hon var skírð). The stone, Auðarsteinn, that is said by local people to mark her burial place in the shallows just beyond Akursvík in Hvammsfjörður, would seem to correspond with the account in Landnámabók rather than that in Laxdæ with Kjartanssteinn (discussed in the previous post), we will probably never know whether or not this stone really does mark the burial place of Unnr djúpúðga, and whether she was buried in a mound or at the tide-mark under a rock. But perhaps, the very fact that alternative traditions with regard to Unnr's burial exist might be seen in itself as evidence of the far-reaching impact that Unnr -- both as an historical character and the figure as presented in written sources -- had on the construction of the settlement-period history of Dalir, and the hold that this 'founding mother' still has in local people's consciousness.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Love in a cold climate...

The rune-stone at Borg
(a replica; the original is in the Þjóðminnjasafn) 
In the churchyard at Borg in Mýrar, the district in which Egils saga is set -- said to be the oldest consecrated churchyard in Iceland, established in 1002 CE -- there is a narrow pentagonal basalt stone from Mount Baula, measuring approximately 125 cms. Along its length, it is incised with runes. In 1753, the stone was examined by Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson who were travelling around Iceland gathering information about the country on behalf of the Danish crown (their account was published in 1772 under the title Vicelavemand Eggert Ólafsson's og Landphysici Bjarni Pálsson's Reise igjennom Island; an English translation published in 1805 can be found online here). Eggert and Bjarni noted that the stone was in bad repair -- broken into three pieces -- and the runes were difficult to make out but they nonetheless concluded that they read 'Here lies Kjartan Ólafsson' and the stone marked the final resting place of this hero from Laxdæla saga, who died around 1003 CE and whose body was taken to Borg and buried there, according to this saga.

Detail from the rune-stone at Borg
An examination of the stone in modern times has revealed that it actually dates from the later part of the 15th century and the runes in fact read 'her : huiler : halur : hranason' ('Hér hvílir Hallur Hranason'; 'Here rests Hallur Hranason'). Nevertheless, on seeing the stone for myself, I decided that travelling north from Mýrar to Dalir, where Laxdæla saga unfolds and Kjartan died, would make a nice progression. Moreover, one of the principal characters in Laxdæla saga, Þorgerðr Egilsdóttir is (as her second name suggests) the daughter of Egill Skalla-Grímsson of Egils saga fame (see posts of Sunday 20th March, Friday 25th March, Saturday 2nd April); Kjartan Óláfsson was Þorgerðr's and her husband Óláfr pái ('Peacock') Höskuldsson's son -- and thus Egill's grandson. 

Laxdæla saga has always been one of my favourite sagas. It is an immense, epic tale of tragic love; it is more 'romantic' in character and in its descriptive detail than many of the other sagas; and amongst the characters who feature in the saga, there are several remarkable and strong women. The portrayal of these women and the focus and presentation of the narrative has led some to argue that it must have been written by a woman... 

Looking east up the Laxá
So I drove north from Egils-saga-territory to Hvammsfjörður in order to read the saga of the people of Laxárdalur. W. G. Collingwood writes that 'The valley of the Laxá ['Salmon-River'] is well-known to English readers from William Morris's [1870] poem of "The Lovers of Gudrun", which epitomises Laxdæla saga, and tells the tale of the family that lived at the two great houses of Höskuldstead and Herdholt' (Pilgrimage, p. 122). The 'argument' at the beginning of Morris's poetic retelling of the central part of the saga narrative (which was published as part of his work The Earthly Paradise) reads as follows: 'This story shows how two friends loved a fair woman, and how he who loved her best had her to wife, though she loved him little or not at all; and how one of these two friends gave shame to and received death of the other, who in his turn came to his end by reason of that deed' (The poem can be found online as a digital book here).  

Morris's 'two friends' are Kjartan Óláfsson and Bolli Þorleiksson. Kjartan was born at Höskuldsstaðir, on the southern side of the Laxá river. The saga describes him at length and with a string of superlatives: as well as being strong and the most accomplished of all men at sports and fighting, Kjartan was allra manna fríðastr, þeira er fæzk hafa á Íslandi; hann var mikilleitr ok vel farinn í andliti, manna bezt eygðr ok ljóslitaðr; mikit hár hafði hann ok fagrt sem silki, ok fell með lokkum ... Kjartan var hverjum manni betr á sik kominn, svá at allir undruðusk, þeir er sá hann (Laxdæla saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit 5 (Reykjavík, 1934), ch. 28, pp. 76-77; 'the most handsome of all men who have been born in Iceland; he had exceptional features and a well-formed face, the best-eyed of men and light in colour; he had a great quantity of hair which was as beautiful as silk, and fell in locks ... Kjartan was better-formed than any man, so that everyone who looked at him marvelled'). Kjartan was brought up with his foster-brother and cousin Bolli Þorleiksson, who was also handsome, strong, and accomplished: the saga states that Þeir unnusk mikit fóstbræðr (Laxdæla saga, ch. 28, p. 77; 'the foster-brothers loved each other greatly').

The hotpot at Laugar, changing-room (with underfloor
heating) in the sweet turf-roofed wooden hut...
At Laugar in Sælingsdalur, on the inner northern side of Hvammsfjörður (which Collingwood describes as 'resembl[ing] a top boot, laid down, with its heel to the East and its toe to the North', Pilgrimage, p. 115), Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir grew up, 'the most promising of woman who had grown up in Iceland, both in appearance and in intelligence ... of all women, the most wise and most articulate' (hon var kvenna vænst, er upp óxu á Íslandi, bæði at ásjánu ok vitsmunum ... Allra kvenna var hon kænst ok bezt orði farin, Laxdæla saga, ch. 32, p. 86). There were -- and are -- natural hot springs at Laugar (I sat in the recently rebuilt hotpot, alone, in the rain, looking around at the snow-dappled mountain-sides and thinking about Guðrún), and the saga tells how the wise and prescient Gestr Oddleifsson stops off there on a short visit. Guðrún has had four strange dreams in which she throws an ill-fitting headdress into a stream, loses a valued silver ring in a lake, falls and in doing so breaks a cherished gold ring on a stone, and finally, loses a heavy gold helmet studded with gemstones which falls from her head into Hvammsfjörður. Guðrún describes these dreams to Gestr, hoping for his interpretation: Guðrún will have four husbands, and her feeling for the worth of each object -- and reaction to its loss -- symbolises the outcome of each marriage. 

Some years later, Guðrún is back at Laugar with two marriages behind her, and Kjartan is a regular visitor there; Þat var allra manna mál, at með þeim Kjartani ok Guðrúnu þætti vera mest jafnræði þeira manna, er þá óxu upp (Laxdæla saga, ch. 39, p. 112; 'It was everyone's opinion that it Kjartan and Guðrún seemed to be the most equal match of those who had then grown up'). But Kjartan determines to go abroad to Norway, buys a ship, and makes his travel plans. Guðrún longs to accompany him but is refused... At the Norwegian court, Kjartan is held to be the most exceptional man ever to have come from Iceland...with Bolli a close second; they convert to Christianity, and eventually, Bolli goes back to Iceland though Kjartan remains in Norway and doesn't take up Bolli's offer to send any specific message back to Guðrún. Bolli marries Guðrún, and when Kjartan does return to Iceland, he marries a woman called Hrefna. Kjartan eschews Bolli's efforts to rekindle their closeness; jealousy and bitterness and petty-minded acts of theft and insult on both sides develop into open feud -- and Guðrún urges Bolli to avenge their household for the insults Kjartan has directed at them.

The scene is set for an ambush when Kjartan is riding through Svínadalur: Guðrún's brothers attack but Bolli stands by; Kjartan sets his back against a large rock and defends himself against the onslaught. "Bolli frændi, hví fórtu heiman, ef þú vildir kyrr standa hjá?" (Laxdæla saga, ch. 49, p. 153; "Cousin Bolli, why did you leave home if you wanted to stand still to the side?") calls Kjartan to Bolli, and Guðrún's brothers urge Bolli on to take action -- they will be deeply shamed if Kjartan escapes now. So Bolli draws his sword and turns on Kjartan. When Kjartan sees this, he throws down his weapons saying that though Bolli is about to commit a terrible kin-slaughter, he would rather receive his deathblow from Bolli ("Víst ætlar þú nú, frændi, níðingsverk at gera, en miklu þykki mér betra at þiggja banaorð af þér, frændi, en veita þér þat", Laxdæla saga, ch. 49, p. 154; "Certainly you intend now to commit a shameful deed, cousin, but it seems much better to me to receive death from you, cousin, than to grant the same to you"). Bolli deals Kjartan his deathblow without answering, gathers up the fatally-wounded Kjartan in his arms, and Kjartan dies on Bolli's lap.

Kjartanssteinn in Svínadalur
A short distance to the east of the road that runs north/south through Svínadalur, a little south of a gully ('gil') called Drífandagil, is a large stone. The stone stands on a small hill the other side of the stream that runs along the road; it is known as Kjartanssteinn ('Kjartan's stone'; photo to left, the dark silhouette against the snow in the upper right quartile of the picture). The stone is marked on maps of the area though I could not find out when it first acquired the name 'Kjartanssteinn'. Local people who I talked to all commented that the puzzle with regard to this stone is that its location south of Drífandagil does not fit perfectly with the details in Laxdæla saga concerning the ambush and killing of Kjartan. According to the saga, the ambushing party rides to Svínadalur and takes up position beside a gully called Hafragil. Kjartan rides south down the valley towards Hafragil -- and the attack takes place here, by a large stone.

But today, there is no large stone besides Hafragil, which is some 5kms south of the stone known as Kjartanssteinn. Is the saga 'right' in locating the fight by Hafragil -- where perhaps there once was a large stone which subsequently rolled away? Is the stone known as Kjartanssteinn today the 'right' stone, and did the attack 'actually' take place a little to the north of where the saga tells us it happened? Did the 13th-century saga author know of a stone in the area which in local tradition was connected in some way to Kjartan and his death, and which prompted him (or her...) to include the detail that Kjartan set his back against a large stone while he defended himself? Is the identification of the large stone south of Drífandagil as Kjartanssteinn a nice example of the natural human desire to locate a momentous event described in a powerful narrative physically in the landscape? "This is where the great hero Kjartan Óláfsson died! Right here, on this very spot..." The tragedy and pathos of the scene is focused and becomes concrete, the veracity of the narrative is confirmed by the landscape. 

Who knows. Behind these questions are lines of debate that have been pursued by saga-critics throughout the history of saga scholarship; I do not hope or intend to answer questions revolving around the extent to which the sagas are 'true' or not, on the basis of their fit in the physical landscape. But what a deep thrill to sit in the hotpot at Laugar thinking of Guðrún and her dreams, and to walk up to Kjartanssteinn with the desperate image of Kjartan's death at the hands of his foster-brother and best friend in my mind -- the resonance of remarkable characters and events from a long-past era coming together with the present.       

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Egils saga in the past and present (2)

Streetsign in Borgarnes
Streetsign in Borgarnes
(with Landnámssetrið behind)
It is impossible to spend any length of time in Borgarnes and the Mýrar area and to remain oblivious to Egils saga and its place in the region's history and identity. Most of the street names in Borgarnes commemorate characters in the saga and several large cairns (some with accompanying explanatory signs) have been raised at places which feature in the saga. Þorgerðr Brák was an ambátt ('bondwoman') in Skalla-Grímr's household who fostered Egill as an infant: she is described as being 'a large woman, strong as a man and well-versed in magical lore' ('hon var mikil fyrir sér, sterk sem karlar og fjölkunnig mjök', Egils saga, ed. Sigurður Nordal, Íslenzk fornrit II (Reykjavík, 1933), ch. 40, p. 101). The saga relates how, when Egill was 12 years old, the winter-time ice-hockey-like-game knattleikr was played just south of Borg, on the ice of the small bay Sandvík. Egill and his friend Þórðr Granason played against Skalla-Grímr and the game went their way while the day lasted; when the evening drew in, however, as Skalla-Grímr's inherited werewolf/shapeshifting traits came out, he  grows in strength and seizes Egill's friend Þórðr, driving him down onto the ice with the result that he dies instantly. Egill is Skalla-Grímr's next target -- but at this point, Þorgerðr Brák steps in and exclaims 'Hamask þú nú, Skalla-Grímr, at syni þínum' (Egils saga ch. 40, p. 101; 'You're now taken by a fit of berserk-like rage towards your own son!').

Skalla-Grímr grabbed Þorgerðr, but she escaped his grasp and ran all the way down the Digranes/Borgarnes peninsula, chased by Skalla-Grímr. When she reached the end of the peninsula, the saga describes how she threw herself into the water to swim to safety; Skalla-Grímr cast a great stone after her and it hit her between the shoulders, 'ok kom hvártki upp síðan; þar er nú kallat Brákarsund' (Egils saga ch. 40, p. 102; 'and neither of the two came up afterwards; that place is now called Brákarsund ('Brák's Channel')). A cairn stands at the end of the Borgarnes peninsula marking the spot where this part of the saga narrative took place; a bridge now connects the peninsula with the small island, Brákarey, that lies just off the peninsula, and on which local buses are parked and a handful of workshops stand.

Egill composes Sonatorrek 
(Statue at Borg byÁsmundur Sveinsson; on the left, 
Þorgerðr hands a harp to Egill, on the right, with a
gaping hole where his heart and stomach should be)
There is no more in Egils saga about Þorgerðr Brák other than the short description of her quoted above and the few lines which outline the violent climax of the knattleikr. Her story, however, has been made into the subject of the one-woman play 'Brák' written and performed by Brynhildur Guðjónsdóttir and still showing at the National Theatre in Reykjavík. One creative idea that the play presents is that it was Brák who nurtured Egill's poetic talents. The prose of the Icelandic sagas is famously silent as far as the elucidation of saga-characters' inner thoughts and emotional responses is concerned. In the one-man play 'Mr Skallagrímsson', written and performed (at the Landnámssetrið in Borgarnes) by Benedikt Erlingsson, however, Egill's relationship with Þorgerðr Brák, with his father Skalla-Grímr, brother Þórólfr, and others in the saga, are explored from a sympathetic, human perspective, to the end that Egill -- nominated as 'Badass of the Week' on this um interesting website and whose throat-biting, vomiting, excessively violent behaviour in the saga is often unattractive to say the least  -- might be seen almost as a tragic figure.

Egill the Poet, drawn by Guðmundur Þorbjarnarson 
of Borg, aged 6/7. Egill's ability to touch his nose
with his tongue symbolises his poetic talent.
'Mr Skallagrímsson' is a two-hour tour-de-force and an outstanding demonstration of how the sagas (or their component narrative episodes) may have been passed down orally prior to their written composition in the 13th/14th centuries, and were certainly subsequently 'performed' from the manuscripts in which their texts were copied to the assembled members of farm-households, during the long winter evenings, right up until the early 20th century. Benedikt Erlingsson tells Egils saga -- which runs to around 300 pages in printed editions/translations -- with no props, no special effects, and without the expectation that the audience should know the saga well or at all. The energy in his performance when I saw the show was extraordinary and the audience were drawn in and held from start to finish, laughing unrestrainedly for much of the duration of the play -- sometimes at direct quotations from the saga itself. How about that for making the sagas accessible and immediate to audiences today... 

Another way in which Egils saga is made immediate and concrete for those interested in the saga in the 21st century is through archaeological research connected with the saga that has been conducted (and is still ongoing) in the area, especially at Mosfell (back towards Reykjavík), the farm to which Egill moved in his old age, and where he died and was buried. Major excavations have been undertaken here by the Mosfell Archaeological Project (MAP) team headed by Jesse Byock of the University of California in Los Angeles. A full outline of the project and reports covering the excavations so far can be found on the MAP website.

Egils saga relates how initially, Egill was buried in a pagan burial mound but when the country converted to Christianity a decade or so later, Egill was exhumed and his bones laid to rest in the newly-consecrated chuch at Mosfell. When a new and larger church was built 150 years later, Egill was exhumed for a second time by a famous descendant of his, Skapti Þórarinsson, a priest and a learned man. On this occasion, the unusually large size, weight, and appearance of Egill's skull -- the outer surface was ridged all over like a scallop-shell -- provoked interest: the saga describes how Skapti placed the skull on the churchyard fence and hewed at it with an axe to see how thick it was. Remarkably, the blow from Skapti's axe had no result other than that the skull turned white at the point of the impact. Not a bad thing for a viking to have such an indestructible skull, comments the saga...see here, however, for Jesse Byock's argument (published in the Scientific American) that Egill may have suffered from the bone condition known as Paget's Disease. Egill's bones have not yet been found and exhumed for a third time...presumably he is still resting in peace somewhere, and perhaps best to leave him be for the next millennium?