“They Are A Gruesome Lot”

“They Are A Gruesome Lot”

Monstrous cats in the Icelandic sagas

Published August 25, 2014

It is thought that the first cats touched Icelandic soil in the tenth century, accompanied by human settlers. Those first Icelandic cats did not leave much of a mark on history. Though cats appear in Nordic mythology and Icelandic folklore, our furry friends are seldom mentioned in Icelandic historical chronicles, sagas or other ancient literature.

A notable exception to this is ‘Vatnsdæla saga’ (‘The Saga Of The People Of Vatnsdalur’), a thirteenth century family chronicle about Ingimundur the Old, the first settler in Vatnsdalur valley in northern Iceland, and his offspring. In one chapter, Ingimundur’s two sons, Þorsteinn and Jökull, feud with another settler in the valley—who defends his farmstead in a rather unusual manner:

It is now time to tell of the man who was mentioned earlier, and was called Thorolf Sledgehammer. He developed into an extremely unruly individual. […] Though he was without followers, he was the owner of creatures on whom he relied for protection—these were twenty cats; they were absolutely huge, all of them black and much under the influence of witchcraft.

At this time men went to Thorstein and told him of their difficulties—they said that all governance in the region was in his hands, and that Thorolf had stolen from lots of people and done many other wicked deeds.

Thorstein said that was true, “but it is not easy to deal with this man of Hel and his cats, and I’ll spare my men that.”

But despite the threatening presence of twenty huge cats, eventually the brothers decide to raid Thorolf Sledgehammer’s farm to try and get rid of him, once and for all.

[Thorolf] went inside when he saw the troop of men arriving on horseback and said, “Now there are guests to receive, and I intend to have my cats take care of this, and I will put them all outside in the doorway, and the men will be slow to gain entry with them defending the entrance.”

He then fortified them greatly by magic spells and after this they were simply ferocious in their caterwauling and glaring.

Then the Vikings confronted the wicked Thorolf:

Thorstein went to the door and said, “We ask you to come out, Thorolf.”

He said that he knew their visit meant only one thing, and that was not at all friendly. Then at once the cats began to howl and behave monstrously.

Thorstein said, “They are a gruesome lot.”

Jokul replied, “Let’s get in there, and not worry about these cats.”

Thorstein said that they should not, ‘because it is more likely that we would be unable to keep our troops safely together, what with the cats and Thorolf’s weapons, and everything else, because he is a formidable warrior.

Eventually, justice prevails, the brothers succeed in killing Thorolf and burning down his farmstead. However, the cats seem to persevere:

The place where Thorolf lived has been called Sleggjustadir ever since, and cats have always been sighted there, and the place has often seemed ill-fated since then.

(Translation by Andrew Wawn, appears in ‘The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, including 49 Tales,’ ed. Viðar Hreinsson, 1997)

 


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