Getting a Fire Started: A Saga Guide to Dying with Style

By Yoav Tirosh

You‘re in quite a pickle; your enemies have set fire to your farmstead. I don‘t know how to break it to you, but if you are the head of the household, you are probably going to die. But look on the bright side: the Icelandic sagas provide a step-by-step guide on how to die in a farmstead burning with style!

Step 1: Make Sure that the Burning Happens

If you really want to get your enemies riled up, a good idea is to taunt them, preferably by attacking their masculinity. This will ensure that they will have no choice but to redeem their honor through violent vengeance and – preferably – burning you inside your home. This is what Njáll did when he threw a silk garment to Flosi that implied that he was a woman and what Önundr‘s men did when they called Guðmundr dýri a hornless ewe.


Step 2: Ignore Those Paranormal Forebodings

If you did step one successfully, your enemy is now bent on avenging his honor. In case you‘re not sure whether or not you and your household are doomed, wait until you get some helpful paranormal forebodings, like in the Saga of Hrafn the Physician when a servant sees blood appear on his clothes without any wound. Then do nothing at all about the warning from above. In case dying isn‘t on your agenda, do like Hörðr‘s sister Þorbjörg in Harðar saga when she dreams about eighty wolves with fiery mouths and a sad polar bear. She didn‘t take the head’s up lightly and diverted a nearby stream of water to save the house.

Step 3: Advocate Fighting Indoors

Your enemies are now approaching and you know that your only way to defeat them is by meeting them for battle outside. Naturally, you should advocate fighting indoors, as Önundr does when Guðmundr inn dýri comes a-huffing and a-puffing on his door. In Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings we get an interesting taste of what would have happened if the head-of-household had insisted on fighting outside; there, when the enemy hides in a nearby ditch and is about to attack the house, the miserly Atli suddenly steps up and advocates meeting their enemies to fight outside, thereby saving the besieged from certain death.


Step 4: Women and Children First!

Now that you have ensured that the attackers have easy access to the house and they have set fire to it, it‘s time to ask the burner to let out women, children (and occassionally servants). When Hrafn the Physician‘s house is set on fire, Þorvaldr the Burner ignores any request for clemency. But worry not, he got a taste of his own medicine: Some years later Hrafn‘s sons burn Þorvaldr in his home as vengeance. In a wonderfully parodic moment, when Ljósvetninga saga‘s Guðmundr inn ríki threatens to set fire to his enemy‘s house, both Guðmundr‘s wife and son are inside and demand that he quit the attack. This only makes him want to burn the house even more, though this attempt is eventually thwarted.

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Step 5: Let One of Your Men Flee Using the Quarter Given to Women

If your burner has generously allowed you to let women and children out of harm‘s way, don‘t forget to exploit your enemy‘s mercifulness by letting one of your men make a run for it. This is how Þóroddr in Guðmundar saga dýra and Helgi Njálsson in The Saga of Njáll the Burner try to escape the flames. The attempts are … unsuccessful. Both men are killed. If you‘re going to die in a fire, best to let the flames do the work rather than your enemy‘s steel.

Step 6: Be Passive

As the head of the household it is expected of you to be as passive as possible during the violence and raging fire. People are fighting? Hang out and don‘t do much like Önundr in Guðmundar saga dýra and Þorvaldr in Íslendinga saga. People are dying? Hide in a barrel of skyr like Gizurr Þorvaldsson in Íslendinga saga. It‘s the Viking Whey!

Step 7: Die Like the Martyr You Are!

Finally, it is your time to die… with style! As a head of household your death must be Christian and symbolic, and will preferably make people want to avenge you. Þorvaldr jumps into the fire with his arms held in the form of a cross. Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson hands himself over to his enemy in order to save his men. And Njáll famously lies in bed under an ox‘s hide while his household burns and his body is preserved from turning into ashes and making him appear as a martyr. Your pacifist-like death is bound to invoke even more violence!


These similarities between different saga-burning scenes are not coincidental. Perhaps the type scenes are a tool employed by the authors to make sense of the real stories? As Lars Lönnroth suggested, and later William Ian Miller expanded, when people read and hear about the behavior of historical and heroic characters of the past in the sagas, they might consciously or subconsciously choose to imitate it. When the sagas were being read out loud the stories transmitted knowledge of how to behave throughout a real house burning – either in the side of the people being burnt, or the side of the burners. Thus, when Guðmundr dýri chooses to let women and children leave the burning house, he is perhaps doing this because he has in his mind the literary constructed convention of how a burner should behave. When Þorvaldur jumps on the fire in the form of a cross, he perhaps has the association between burning and Christian repentance on his mind as well.

This of course raises the question of history vs. fiction in the sagas. Are the events described, especially in the thirteenth century, based on real ones? How much of reality is preserved in these literary descriptions, especially when dealing with the near past? We are left with the lingering questions of does reality inspire fiction, does fiction influence reality, or are all of these tales simply that have nothing to do with the way people behaved in reality?

To read more about burnings as literary type-scenes, see my article “Feel the Burn: Lönguhlíðarbrenna as Literary Type‑Scene.”


On this see also Lisa Bennett, “The Most Important of Events’: The ‘Burning-in’ Motif as a Site of Cultural Memory in Icelandic Sagas.”

Dr. Yoav Tirosh will soon begin a postdoc on disability in the sagas of Icelanders at the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Iceland. He is also an external member of CVM (Center for Vikingetid og Middelalder) at Aarhus University. He creates the Viking Comics by Yoav webcomic about life in Iceland and Vikings. Click here to view his page. You can learn more about his comics on InstagramFacebook, or Twitter @RealMundiRiki.

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Top Image: Drawing of a burning house from an edition of Heimskringla in 1899.