By Minjie Su
When people kill in Icelandic stories, they normally do so for good reasons – good from their own perspective, anyways. In many cases killings are done for revenge, and the killers always claim their deeds as soon as possible. Such ‘crimes’ may be feuds that went a bit out of hand, or escalated conflicts that must be dealt with accordingly, but they do not count as murder.
One man, however, does kill for the sake of killing. He commits murder at random, dumps the bodies of his victims in the nearby lava field (how convenient!), and apparently feels no remorse. But the worst part of the story is: he is by no means fictional.
Axlar-Björn, or Björn of the farm Öxl, was executed in 1596 for having murdered at least 18 people. His story is recorded in Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og æfintýri (Icelandic folk and fairy tales) collected by Jón Árnason, librarian of the National Library between 1848 and 1887 but better known as the father of Icelandic folklore collection.
Although Axlar-Björn is as real as any of us, his story is interwoven with legends and full of folkloric motifs. He is doomed to be a monster even before birth: when his mother was pregnant with him, she was suddenly seized by a strong desire for human blood. Being an indulging husband, Björn’s father Pétur fed her with his own blood to satiate her unnatural appetite, but things took a turn to the worse: though this rid her of the bloodthirst, nightmares started to follow. They were so horrible that she could not even find words to describe them; she believed that the child she was carrying was a monster.
Of course, she was right – after all, what else can you expect from a child who fed on human blood? It was believed that blood had magical property; for it imparts (some of) the nature of its owner to the drinker. There are several saga heroes who drink blood to gain extraordinary abilities: Sigurðr, the famous dragon-slayer in Völsunga saga, acquires wisdom and knowledge by tasting Fáfnir’s blood (and, later, his heart). Böðvarr in Hrólfs saga kraka transforms his mate Hjalti from a coward to a surpassingly daring warrior by making him drink some blood of a monster that he vanquished; Böðvarr himself once drank blood from his brother Elg-Fróði to gain his strength. A young warrior named in Folki in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes) drunk his own blood to rejuvenate himself so he may keep on fighting. In these cases, however, the consumed blood either comes from a non-human creature or from the drinker’s own body or someone related to him (therefore sharing the same blood), and its quantity is always carefully stated. The efforts on the saga author’s part to justify the hero’s blood-drinking reveal a sense of anxiety: what if someone drinks from another human being? Only draugar (undead) and trolls – who regularly store salted human meat in the kitchen – are known to enjoy such a diet. For a human being, once that line is crossed, he simply ceases to be human; by feasting on one of ‘us’, he turns himself into ‘the other’.
In addition to blood, Axlar-Björn also consumed human flesh once, but in a figurative sense only. At the age of fifteen, his monstrous nature was awakened. According to Jón Arnarson, one day Björn skips mass against the will of the others, apparently following the examples of so many saga characters who became draugar or other types of wicked spirit after death. The boy takes a nap and has a strange dream: a man comes to offer him a plate of meat cut into pieces. The meat is so delicious that Björn could not stop eating, but at the nineteenth piece he started to feel sick and just had to stop. Then the stranger instructs Björn to find a certain object in the mountains that would make him ‘famous’. This object turns out to be an axe, and Björn will become more infamous than famous because of it.
Although the legend does not specify what kind of meat the stranger offers, it is implied that it must be human flesh. The eighteen pieces Björn consumes signify the eighteen victims whom Björn will (confess to) have killed. He shall fall when he reaches the nineteenth. Neither is the strange figure appearing in Björn’s dream identified, but he may be modelled on the god Odin, who assumed the role of a devil-like tempter during the centuries after Christianity.
It does not take long before Björn tests his new weapon – a farm boy about the same age disappears, which marks the beginning of Björn’s murder. As the years goes on, people start to notice that Björn’s horses have increased in number for no apparent reason, or Björn wears clothes that are somehow familiar. But no one brings any serious charges against Björn until one day, as the story goes, Björn fails to kill a boy (the lucky number nineteen!). The boy escapes by hiding in a gap between the lavas and finally brings justice to Öxl.
Björn was sentenced to a cruel death: he was torn limb from limb while alive; when he was dead, people feared that he might return as a draugr, so they quartered his body and buried the pieces in three different locations – one of them can still be seen today; it lies just off the road to Hellnar in Snæfellsnes. Björn’s wife Steinunn was also sentenced to death – she was just as evil as her husband and often acted as his accomplice. Her sentence was postponed because she was carrying child at the time. Later, Björn’s son was hanged for attempted rape; his grandson also died by the noose. So, it seems that the murder’s blood passed on. Or is it the stranger’s curse?
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Top Image: The cemetery behind the church at Hellnar on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Photo by James Brooks / Flickr