Perhaps it’s a familiar problem: your brother acquires two ferocious fighters as a gift from a foreign potentate, then palms them off on you when they prove brash, obstinate, and unmanageable. Soon enough, one of them is hitting on your daughter and demanding her hand in marriage. A timeless conundrum. Such is the situation that Styrr Þorgrímsson, a landowner in Snæfellsnes, finds himself in in the 13th century Eyrbyggja Saga.
At the end of a visit to Norway, Styrr’s brother Vermundur returns to Iceland with Halli and Leiknir, two berserkers—fierce warriors known for their superhuman battle rages—from the court of Earl Hákon. Although Hákon warns Vermundur not to defy the berserkers’ demands, Vermundur doesn’t get the memo and refuses to find Halli a wife. When they grow increasingly disobedient, Vermundur foists the berserkers on Styrr and before long Halli starts making moves on Styrr’s daughter and asks to marry her.
Sure enough, Styrr does what any concerned father would do and plots to gruesomely murder Halli and Leiknir and dispose of their bodies in a rugged, volcanic wasteland. Styrr promises his daughter’s hand if the berserkers clear a path through the lava field that separates his homestead from that of his neighbour—a herculean task which the brawny berserkers only manage to complete after exerting every ounce of energy they have. Styrr invites them to unwind in his bathhouse after such superhuman toil, but promptly locks them in, steams them almost to death, and kills them as they try to escape. Finally, he buries their bodies in a deep pit alongside the path they’d wrought in the lava field.
Now called Berserkjahraun (Berserkers’ Lava) after the hapless warriors, the lava field covers a stretch of land between the modern-day towns of Stykkishólmur and Grundarfjörður. A dirt road runs through the volcanic waste, affording a stunning tour of the colourful landscape: green moss grows over jagged grey crags and craters and bright red hills crumble into rough, porous rocks. An old footpath runs through one portion of the lava field and a rectangular cairn rests beside it. Called Berserkjagata (Berserkers’ Path) and Berserkjadys (Berserkers’ Cairn), these sites purportedly confirm the saga’s narrative about the berserkers’ fates. But, the sagas, as semi-historical medieval accounts of an even further past, often provide fanciful explanations for mundane relics in the Icelandic landscape: the medieval author may have known the path and determined that only a berserker could have broken through the unyielding rock of Berserkjahraun.
Whatever the case, the moral of the story is clear and eminently relatable: don’t accept stubborn, murderous retainers as gifts from earls overseas, but if you do, find a novel way to off them and dispose of them in a picturesque, if forbidding, landscape.
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