Law and the (Un)dead: medieval models for understanding the hauntings in Eyrbyggja saga

Law and the (Un)dead: medieval models for understanding the hauntings in Eyrbyggja saga

By John D. Martin

Saga-Book: Viking Society for Northern Research, Vol. 29 (2005)

Introduction: In Chapter 34 of Eyrbyggja saga, the family of Arnkell Þórólfsson suffers the first of many depredations at the hands of one of the malevolent undead:

Sá atburðr varð um haustit í Hvammi, at hvárki kom heim smalamaðr né fét, ok um morguninn var leita farit, ok fannsk smalamaðr dauðr skammt frá dys Þórólfs; var hann allr kolblár ok lamit í hvert bein; var hann dysjaðr hjá Þórólfi, en fénaðr allr, sá er verit hafði í dalnum, fannsk sumr dauðr, en sumr hljóp á fj†ll ok fannsk aldri. En ef fuglar settusk á dys Þórólfs, fellu þeir niðr dauðir.

This event took place in the autumn at Hvammr, that [one day] neither the shepherd nor the sheep came home. In the morning a search was made, and the shepherd was found dead not far from Þórólfr’s cairn; he was completely coalblack and every bone was broken. He was buried near Þórólfr. Of all the sheep in the valley, some were found dead, and the rest that had strayed into the mountains were never found. Whenever birds landed on Þórólfr’s grave, they fell down dead.

The malevolent undead in question is Þórólfr bægifótr himself, Arnkell’s father. His continued presence in and baleful influence on the community from which his death, by rights (and rites), should have separated him provide one of the major narrative threads in the saga. Þórólfr’s violent haunting of his family and neighbours is but one of three major haunting plots in Eyrbyggja saga—Þórgunna’s return and the hauntings at Fróðá being the other two—and it provides an excellent contrast with these others, a contrast that opens up the medieval Icelandic conception of the undead for the modern audience in a unique fashion. Þórólfr is malevolent in his presence and his actions, while Þórgunna, in her brief visitation, is benevolent if eerie. The revenants at Fróðá do not evince any determined malice, but are by their very nature baneful and frightening to the living persons whom they encounter. Eyrbyggja saga alone, then, presents modern readers with at least three possible conceptions of the revenant’s nature.

Click here to read this article from the Viking Society for Northern Research

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