For decades, Icelandic farmers feared the men of the mountains.
One of the best known of all Icelandic folk songs is “Á Sprengisandi,” by Grímur Thomsen. Therein, a rider dashes across the rocky desert of the title, pursued by increasingly outlandish creatures including unclean spirits, a bloodthirsty fox, outlaws in Ódáðahraun and finally an Elfin Queen. The song does not reveal whether or not the rider makes it to safety—only that he would gladly give his best horse to get away.
The place names are real. Sprengisandur is in the highlands between the Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull glaciers. Its most perilous aspect is not the notoriously fickle weather, but the fact that there is little in the way of grass or water up there, so horses have a hard time making the crossing. The route leads up to the Ódáðahraun lava field, which roughly translates as “Bad Deeds Lava.”
But what about the residents mentioned? Bad spirits and elves remain cause for conjecture, but foxes certainly exist in Iceland, being the only land mammals here when the Vikings first arrived. And there is, in fact, a long tradition of outlaws reaching back to the Saga Age. In a way, the causes were practical. There were no prisons in the country, and so sentencing would consist of fines, or, for more serious crimes, banishment.
A person who was declared an outlaw could be legally killed, and relatives of their assumed victims would more often than not avail themselves of this clause. Some notable Saga figures, such as the famous Gunnar Hámundarson of Njáls Saga or Gísli Súrsson of Gísla Saga (and the subject of the 1981 film Outlaw’) were killed in this manner, while Grettir “The Strong” Ásmundarson of Grettis Saga spent years in the wilderness.
When Iceland became part of the Kingdom of Denmark, reprobates were sent to prison in Copenhagen, from whence few returned. It was only in 1770 that Iceland got its first prison, then the sturdiest building in Iceland, which now houses the Prime Minister’s office. But the tradition of outlawry persisted for those who ran away from the law.
Self-imposed exile for 40 years
The most famous outlaw of them all was Eyvindur of the Mountains. In 1746, at the age of 32, he was accused of fathering an illegitimate child as well as theft. Instead of facing a stiff sentence, he ran away to the mountains. Adding a further twist, he became a farmhand incognito for a young widow called Halla. When he was found out, he took to the hills again and Halla went with him. They spent the next 40-odd years traversing the wilderness, avoiding capture or in some cases escaping again after being apprehended.
You can see the remnants of their dwellings in many places. At Hveravellir in Kjölur, one of the two main routes crossing the highlands, there is a cave he lived in, and you can even bathe in his natural hot tub. At Herðubreiðarlindir, by the majestic Herðubreið mountain, he lived in a little hole with a horse carcass for cover. He later said this was the worst winter of his life, as Halla had been captured and he waited for an opportunity to spring her free.
The tales and numbers of outlaws may often have been exaggerated, and instilled a disproportionate dread. They were usually no more than sheep thieves, but people would mount expeditions to capture them or destroy their hard-earned food stocks and supplies. In the 19th century, as outlawry came to an end, the perception changed. Inspired by national romanticism, Eyvindur and Halla became the subjects of popular plays and even a Swedish silent film in 1918, ‘The Outlaw and His Wife’. Today, they rank alongside the Saga heroes as icons of Icelandic culture.