The Haunting at Frodis-Water

Iceland on the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, 16th Century. Wikipedia

Sir Walter Scott tells a shortened version of this story in Letter 3 of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft; it is from The Eyrbyggja Saga (The Saga of the Ere-Dwellers) from Iceland. My retelling here is based on the 1892 English translation by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson. The story encompasses Chapters 50 – 55 of the saga.

The story begins with the arrival of a woman named Thorgunna to Iceland, near the homestead of Frodis-Water. Thorgunna was well dressed and striking:  “a woman great of growth, thick and tall, and right full of flesh; dark-browed and narrow-eyed; her hair dark-red and plenteous.” Rumors circulated that she had wonderful things, “the like of them would be hard to get in Iceland.” This caught the attention of Thurid, the goodwife of Frodis-Water, and wife of the goodman, Thorod. Thurid went to Thorgunna and asked to see her things, which Thorgunna gladly showed her — and they were indeed wonderful — but Thorgunna refused to sell them to Thurid.

Photo: Wikipedia

Thurid invited Thorgunna to come live at Frodis-Water, “for she knew that Thorgunna was rich of raiment, and thought to get the goods at her leisure.” Thorgunna agreed, saying she was willing to contribute to the work of the homestead, but that she would set her rent herself. A shrewd bargainer. And quite as wealthy as the rumors suggested.

She covered over the bed with English sheets and a silken quilt, and took from the ark bed-curtains and all other bed-gear withal; and so good an array that was, that men deemed that of such goods they had never seen the like.

Then said goodwife Thurid: “Put a price for me on thy bed-gear.”

But Thorgunna answered: “Nay, I will not lie in straw for thee, courteous though thou be, and grand of array.”

Certainly, Thurid wasn’t pleased that she had been refused the bed-gear.

Thorgunna made quite an impression at Frodis-Water, though perhaps not a lot of friends.

… of exceeding good manners was she in her daily ways, and she went every day to church before she went about her work; yet not easy of temper was she, or of many words in her daily conversation. Most men deemed that Thorgunna must have come into her sixth ten of years, yet was she the halest of women.

She managed to get on the wrong side of the wife of Thorir Wooden-leg (whose name was Thorgrima Witchface, and can you tell that I had fun reading this story?). She also was quite fond of Kiartan, the goodman’s son, who didn’t seem to return the sentiment.

Fall came to Frodis-Water: haymaking season. On a warm, dry day, the women of the homestead, Thorgunna included, spread the mown hay out to dry. Around 3 o’clock, a black cloud descended over the homestead. Afraid that it threatened rain, Thorod ordered the people to rake up the drying hay. But Thorgunna (for some reason) wouldn’t.

The storm broke, drenching the homestead and all the hay that was still out. Than, as suddenly, the weather cleared — and in the puddles, the people saw that it had rained blood. The sun followed the storm, and soon the blood and water evaporated off all the hay — except that which Thorgunna had spread. Thorgunna’s hayrake remained sodden and bloody too, and so did her clothes. Before evening, Thorgunna fell ill in her bed.

The storm cloud had fallen nowhere else, only Frodis-Water.

The next day, Thorod went to Thorgunna. She told him that if she died, she wished her body to be taken to Skalaholt (some days journey away). She told Thorod that he could have what he wished of her goods for his expenses, and the rest would go to the priests at Skalaholt, with three exceptions. Her scarlet cloak went to his wife, Thurid; her gold ring she would wear to Skalaholt, and all her bed-gear should be burnt.

“Not because I don’t want anyone to enjoy them,” she said, “but because there will be heavy trouble if you don’t do as I ask.”

Thorod promised, and a few days later, Thorgunna died.

They put the body in the church while they made a coffin to carry her to Skalaholt. Thorod had a bonfire lit, and prepared to burn the bed-gear. Thurid stopped him.

“It’s a shame to burn such beautiful things,” she said.

Thorod replied that he had promised, and besides, Thorgunna had warned of bad luck if he didn’t do as she asked.

“She was just jealous of the idea of anyone having her things after her,” Thurid said. “Nothing will happen.”

Thorod wasn’t so sure, but Thurid wheedled him into a compromise: they burned the bolster and mattress, but his wife kept the quilt, sheet, and hangings.

They swathed the body in linen, and Thorod sent off a retinue of corpse-bearers to Skalaholt. The party got caught in a storm, and finally they arrived at a homestead as night approached. But when they asked for food and shelter, the goodman refused to feed them or give them dry clothes. Still, it was late, and not safe to go further, so the corpse-bearers resolved to stay the night, food or no.

When the people of the homestead went to bed, they heard a ruckus in their buttery. Everyone ran to the buttery to find a tall, naked woman busy raiding the pantry. The corpse-bearers recognized her: Thorgunna.

Thorgunna brought out meat and laid the table. The corpse-bearers pointed out to the homesteaders that their charge wanted them to be fed. What could the goodman and goodwife say? When they agreed to treat the corpse-bearers as guests, Thorgunna walked out the door, back to her coffin, I assume. The homesteaders brought their guests dry clothes, and the corpse-bearers sat down to eat while the goodman ordered the house sprinkled with holy water.

The rest of the journey to Skalaholt was uneventful. Thorgunna was buried in Skalaholt, and the corpse-bearers returned to Frodis-Water.

At Frodis-water was there a great fire-hall, and lock-beds in therefrom, as the wont then was. Out from the hall there were two butteries, one on either hand, with stock-fish stored in one, and meal in the other. There were meal-fires made every evening in the fire-hall, as the wont was, and men mostly sat thereby or ever they went to meat.

The night the corpse-bearers returned to Frodis-Water, as the men sat down by the meal-fire, they saw a light like a half-moon shining on the wall of the house. The light went backwards and widdershins (counterclockwise, against the sun) around the house. Every night for a week the half moon came back.

A few days later, two weeks into winter, a shepherd in the household died, after a long period of walking delirium. A few nights later, Thorir Wooden-leg went out in the middle of the night, “for his needs,” and when hr tried to return he saw the dead shepherd blocking the door. First Thorir tried to get past, but the shepherd wouldn’t let him. Then Thorir tried to get away; the shepherd grabbed him and threw him against the door. Thorir managed to get back to his bed, “and he was by then grown coal-blue all over.”

Soon after, he also died, and the people of the household began to see Thorir and the shepherd together, haunting the house. Then a servant fell sick and died after three days, and then someone else fell sick and died, and another, until six were dead.

Photo: Wikipedia

And then they noticed, towards winter solstice (Yule), that the stock-fish in the buttery were being mangled and skinned; they couldn’t find a reason. Thorod and six of his men rowed out to sea to replenish the stock-fish. The night they left, as the meal-fires were lit, a woman came into the fire-hall and saw a seal’s head come up through the floor. She grabbed a club and struck it, but the seal just rose up higher. Then a servant came and beat on the seal, but with every blow, the seal only came up higher, until its flippers were above the floor.

Then Kiartan came and struck the seal’s head with a sledgehammer; the seal shook itself, stunned. Kiartan struck again, and with every blow hammered the seal back down into the floor unti it disappeared. You can imagine the whole incident shook up the household, and Kiartan most of all.

And rightly so. News came back a day or so later that Thorod and his men were lost at sea; they recovered the ship (and the fish), but not the bodies. On hearing the news, Kiartan and his mother Thurid brought out the yule-ale and invited the neighbors to the arvale (the funeral feast, which lasted several days). The first night of the feast, as the guests sat down, who should walk in but Thorod and his men, dripping wet. Contrary to what you might think, this was considered a good sign.

…since folk held it [a good portent] if they, who had been drowned at sea, came to their own burial-ale; for in those days little of the olden lore was cast aside, though men were baptized and were Christian by name.

Thorod and his men passed through the sitting-hall without greeting anyone, into the fire-hall, and sat down. This must have been a breach of etiquette, even for ghosts who come to their own wake; everyone else fled the fire-hall. Remember, this is mid-winter. In Iceland. There the drowned men sat, until the fire died. Every night of the arvale, the men came and sat down at the fire, until it died.

They hoped that when the feast ended, the visitations would stop, but no. The night after the feast, as the household sat down at the meal-fires in the hall, in came Thorod and his men. They sat down and started wringing out their clothes. And soon after, Thorir Wooden-leg and the six who died when he died also came in, all moldy from the grave. Like good guests, they shook the mold from their clothes — then started thowing the clots of mold and dirt at Thorod and his men.

Ghost fight! Everyone living ran from the hall, into the chill of the rest of the unwarmed house. The next night they made the fires in another chamber, hoping to fool the ghosts. Neither Thorod’s company nor Thorir’s were fooled. Finally Kiartan thought to have a fire lit in the fire-hall, and the meal-fires in another chamber. It worked; the ghosts sat in the fire-hall, and the living in the smaller room.

In the meantime, something was still skinning the stock-fish. They almost managed to catch it — they saw a great tail sticking out of the pile of stock-fish, “short-haired and seal-haired.” They grabbed the tail and tugged at it, but the skin of the tail came off in their hands. They took down the stock-fish heap; every single one of the fish had been skinned, but of the seal-tailed thing, they found nothing.

Soon after, Thorgrima Witchface (remember her?) fell sick and died. The night she was buried, she showed up to the fire-hall with her husband Thorir Woodenleg and his company. The dying began again, more women than men this time. By harvest-tide (fall equinox), of the thirty serving folk in the household, eighteen had died and five had fled. Eventually, even Thurid fell ill.

10th century Eyrarland statue of Thor, found in Iceland. Wikipedia.

Finally, Kiartan went to Holyfell to visit his mother’s brother, Snorri the Priest. Scott says in the Letters that Snorri was a priest of Thor, not a Christian priest; skimming the early parts of the saga, I see that Snorri was given the epithet “the Priest” before Iceland’s conversion. He seems to have been tolerant of Christianity, even having a church built at Holyfell. Perhaps he had no choice, since Christianity apparently had been made law in Iceland (Chapter 49).

At any rate, on hearing the story, Snorri counseled Kiartan to have Thorgunna’s bed-gear burnt, and he sent Kiartan back to Frodis-Water with his own son Thord Kausi, a priest (Christian), and six other men. When they arrived back in Frodis-Water, Kiartan was to summon all the ghosts to a door-doom, which is a kind of court or tribunal, and cite them.

That’s right. Snorri told Kiartan to haul the ghosts into small claims court and sue them for trespassing and disturbing the peace. If you had asked me how a priest of Thor would hold an exorcism, this is not what I would have guessed. But hey, whatever works.

Thereafter Kiartan summoned Thorir Woodenleg, and Thord Kausi summoned goodman Thorod, in that they went about that household without leave, and despoiled men both of life and luck; all were summoned who sat by the fires.

Then was a door-doom named, and these cases put forward; and it was done in all matters even as at a doom of the Thing [Assembly]: verdicts were delivered, cases summed up, and doom given.

One by one they passed sentence on each ghost, and one by one they got up and left, mumbling something to the effect of “oh well, it was good while it lasted.” Except the late goodman Thorod, who said “It’s not very peaceful here anyway; I might as well go someplace else.” And off he went.

Kiartan burned the bedclothes and the priest sprinkied holy water everywhere and blessed the house. Thurid recovered from her illness. Frankly, I think this is a bit unfair, since she was the one who started this whole mess in the first place, but obviously sagas are not fairy tales. And it was Thorod who broke his promise.

Anyway, that was the end of the hauntings, and the ghost-seals, and the mangled stock-fish. Kiartan became the head of Frodis-Water, where he governed long and successfully and well.

And everyone lived happily ever after.

5 thoughts on “The Haunting at Frodis-Water

  1. What a wonderfully rich and bizarre tale! I love the detail about the seal coming up through the floor and being bashed back down. It manages to be both slightly horrifying and slightly hilarious at the same time.

    • It was an interesting story even when Scott told it in the Letters; it was even more fun once I could read all of the details that he’d omitted. I guess if fish is one of your staple foods, seals would be your enemy.

      And the idea of suing ghosts — I just find that hilarious, as well.

  2. Did you ever see the box set Complete Sagas of the Icelanders? It is far too expensive to buy unless you are a bit of a nut (I admit I bought a copy, though). You can find it on Amazon here — or much more cheaply directly from the Icelandic publisher. I know that the publisher’s web site looks cheesy, but the set itself seems solid (or is that just rationalization on my part?)

    I don’t read Scandinavian languages (how I admire Joyce, who reportedly learned Norwegian just so he could read Ibsen in the original) — so I am in no position to judge the quality of the translations, but the set was href=”http://www.jstor.org/stable/2887398″>favorably reviewed in Speculum, and Penguin published an abridged edition. In the unlikely case of your ever running out of things to read, you may find this set entertaining.

    • Didn’t M. R. James teach himself Danish so he could read some of the manuscripts he was interested in also? I could have that story completely wrong…

      The abridged version is shockingly more affordable. I’m guessing they cut all the reference material? I do have to say that the translation of the Erybiggja that is online is a bit annoying to read, with that faux King James Bible English, or whatever it is — I’m pretty sure even formal English was not quite as convoluted as the translation’s style, even in 1892. I misliked it (or did it mislike me? Can’t remember).

  3. Pingback: Brief book notes « BLT

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