Did Icelandic outlaws live alone in the mountains or did they gather into bands? Were people generally frightened of them?

Asked By

Eva Heiðarsdóttir


Our knowledge of outlaws in Iceland comes first and foremost from folktales and so it is hard to talk about outlaws other than as folktale characters - of which we have examples going all the way back to medieval times in the stories about Grettir the Strong found in Grettis saga. In oral tales from the 17th century we hear of hidden valleys in the unpopulated wastes of central Iceland. But in these cases the valleys are not the haunts of outlaws who strike fear into the hearts of law-abiding folk, as we find commonly in the folktales of Jón Árnason collected two hundred years later; they are rather places where sheep graze untended all the year round or on the farms of elves and hidden folk. The belief appears to be genuine, but there is a sense that the writer is trying to convince his readers and cannot in all honesty claim that wonders of this kind are as common in his day as they were in former times.

But, as Árni Björnsson has pointed out, this appears to be a general characteristic of folk beliefs in all ages, i.e. that what they describe was commoner once upon a time than it is nowadays. According to Björnsson, there has never been a time when the general run of people genuinely believed in the phenomena of folktales; such beliefs were always restricted to a small group, while for most people so-called popular-belief stories were there to be enjoyed as objects of entertainment (see Skírnir 1966).

More people, though, take the view that, prior to the revolution in thinking that came with the Enlightenment, the belief in paranormal phenomena was considerably commoner than it became in later times. It is worth bearing in mind that there are still people who experience things that they associate with elves and hidden people and go on to tell credible stories about these experiences. How much more so, then, before science had laid down the foundations of the 'official' worldview of the age we now live in?

Jón Árnason's collection contains outlaw tales from many parts of the country, but it is noticeable how many of them go back to stories from the north of Iceland, often from Skagafjörður or Eyjafjörður. Another group originates from Biskupstungur in the south, directly under the highlands. Many of these tales were recorded by Jón's collaborator, Magnús Grímsson. Of other collectors, a name that turns up frequently is that of Thorvarður Ólafsson. Very often there are reminiscences between the outlaws and troll-like beings in the mountains who ordinary people are also apt to run into after losing their way in fog or snowstorms. Generally they lead their lives in fertile valleys up under the glaciers, among the lava fields of Ódáðahraun in the centre or on the heaths of Arnarvatnsheiði towards the west, where time and again travellers run into outlaws fishing for trout and leave them for dead. But there are also examples of ordinary people forming relationships with outlaws and benefiting from their dealings with them - getting exceptional prices for their fish, or receiving gifts, or being well paid for working their hay.

There is thus only a short distance from the world of these stories to the dream world of the elves and hidden people. Girls are spirited away when gathering herbs on the mountains or on the night of their wedding, and carried off into the mountains to serve outlaws and marry them. Here, typically, they lead miserable lives until one of the outlaws, who has also been kidnapped from the lowlands, schemes with them to escape, or help arrives from civilisation. Sometimes the outlaws are under a spell or curse and thus have no control over their actions and conditions. It is remarkable how untroubled ordinary men are about killing outlaws; they chop off their heads and plunge spears into them without remorse, often in so casual a manner that the reader can well imagine that the terror of outlaws felt by people from the lowlands travelling in the wastes must have been reciprocated in equal measure. The bloodlust goes so far in one tale by an old woman from Reykjavík that the farmer's daughter from the Westfjords manages to equal Axlar-Bjarni's record by chopping the heads off eighteen outlaws who creep into her home on Christmas night - though missing the nineteenth, who then sets about exacting savage vengeance.

Once law-abiding lowlanders have killed the outlaws they ransack their dwellings, gather up all the loot that has built up in them, and become wealthy men as a result. These killings are invariably seen as acts of good fortune. A single exception occurs in the minister Skúli Gíslason's tale about a girl from Galtalækur. This girl is stolen away and kept to serve fourteen outlaws for twelve years. In the end she sees a way to escape while they are sleeping, exhausted after having driven home sheep for slaughter. She fills the farm with wood and sets fire to it so they are all burnt alive inside. Two of them manage to get out in flames but die in the farmyard; the elder one looks after the girl with tears in his eyes as she rides away back to the farmlands. 'But her deed was ill spoken of. She was unwelcome wherever she went, and was dogged by misfortune to her dying day.'

However adventurous these outlaw tales may be and inspired by an optimistic belief in a better life up in the mountains, things take a much darker turn in the accounts of the best-known of all Icelandic outlaws of later centuries (and later main characters in Jóhann Sigurjónsson's famous play), Fjalla-Eyvindur (Eyvindur of the Mountains) and his wife Halla. Jón Árnason put together an extended account of them based on a variety of sources collected from Rector Skúli Gíslason, Benedikt of Brjánslækur, and Jón of Gautlönd, written manuscripts by Sheriff Páll Melsteð, and material from elsewhere. Árnason's account blends oral tales and popular beliefs about outlaws with a historical essay about the real outlaw couple in which he quotes from the symbolic descriptions of them issued by the Althingi (national assembly) in 1765: Halla is of dark aspect, 'surly of face and repugnant', while Eyvindur is 'glowing-bright of hair' and everybody's darling.

After the publication of Árnason's piece on Fjalla-Eyvindur and Halla, we find one story after another telling of farmers' sons or working men who go up into the mountains and find thriving farms with an old man and woman, a beautiful daughter, and sometimes more children. The man and woman tend to be either a brother and sister or a couple whose love has been thwarted in legitimate society and so fled to the highlands so as to be able to live in peace safe from the long arm of the law. Now they fear for their lives and want to marry their daughter to the man from the lowlands they have lured into their home. Sometimes there is more violence in these stories and less of brotherly and sisterly love; the man is an evil monster and his sons no better, and so the daughter cannot be won until they have been killed. The young couple end up married and live happily ever after, either among the boy's home pastures or the verdant hidden settlements of the outlaw people.

The great volume of outlaw tales ends with the best-known of all, about the 'Hellismenn' (cave-dwellers), which was taken down 'from common report in Borgarfjörður, with corrections from farmer Thórður Árnason of Bjarnastaðir in Hvítársíða'. The story is unlike other outlaw tales in that it is realistic in all main details. The Hellismenn fled to the wastes after killing an old woman at Hólar and made their home in a cave called Surtshellir. The writer, scholar and public official Eggert Ólafsson investigated the cave and found remains of human habitation, walls, a hearth and a pile of bones, and this may have had something to do with making the story of the Hellismenn more realistic than other outlaw tales: here there was at least indisputable and tangible evidence of human habitation in the mountains that needed neither stream nor fog nor blizzard to get to.

The outlaws tales give expression to a vision of wish-fulfilment among impoverished Icelanders who lived at the mercy of the elements, with little control over their own destinies. Up there in the wilderness they could imagine for themselves sheltered valleys cut off from the harsh forces of nature and unjust laws, where sheep grazed untended and love blossomed and there was life without toil in the surrounding embrace of blue-topped mountains and beautiful women. But the outlaw tales also reveal a pitiless savagery and a fear of the unknown that people did not hesitate to wipe out if need arose. They bear witness to an ignorance and bigotry that we sometimes find almost incredible in a people that needed to go up into the mountains every year to round up their sheep and pick their way in sheepskin shoes or on horseback across those measureless expanses that have now been tamed into well mapped and popular nature reserves for foreign tourists on safari, four-wheel drive enthusiasts, hiking-boot-clad worshippers of the great outdoors and snowmobile racers.

The outlaw tales form the one class of Icelandic stories that have no direct parallel in the oral cultures of neighbouring nations. In them, Icelanders utilised the narrative patterns of adventure stories and drew on ideas from the world of trolls, elves and hidden people to set stories in remote and inaccessible settlements in the highlands of Iceland. They took storylines that do not normally occur in any world like our own and relocate them within a reality that they believed had to lie concealed out in the unpopulated wilds.

The belief in outlaw communities was strong and led men to undertake real missions of exploration, such as when the apostle of the Enlightenment in Iceland, Magnús Stephensen, sent men out to look for outlaws, as noted in Ebenezer Henderson's Iceland: Or, The Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815 (1818). Similarly, the people of Mývatnssveit in the North mounted searches for outlaws, as described by Thorvaldur Thoroddsen in his Landfræðisaga Íslands (Geography of Iceland), Vol. 4 (1904), pp. 51-2. Although it seems to us now that just about all the stories except Jón Árnason's account of Fjalla-Eyvindur and Halla are nothing but the product of fantasy, it is interesting that they should all be bracketed together as a single and distinct group. It shows how deeply rooted outlaw stories are in Icelandic popular culture - so deeply, in fact, that we can hardly contemplate Icelandic society in days gone by without assuming that these stories played a living part in the mental world of ordinary folk.

Translated by Nicholas Jones.

See also the author's reply to the question What are popular beliefs, and how do popular beliefs in Iceland differ from those elsewhere in Scandinavia?

Non-Icelandic writings on Icelandic outlaws
  • Jan Spoelstra: De vogelvrijen in de ijslandse letterkunde (1938)
  • H. Reykers: Die isländische Ächtersage (1936)

This article is based on the author's chapter on Icelandic folktales in Íslensk bókmenntasaga Vol. 3, Mál & Menning: Reykjavík, 1996.

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Answers in English


Gísli Sigurðsson. „Did Icelandic outlaws live alone in the mountains or did they gather into bands? Were people generally frightened of them?“. The Icelandic Web of Science 10.2.2006. (Skoðað 26.5.2024).


Gísli Sigurðssonrannsóknarprófessor á Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum


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