Olaf the Peacock

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Map of the district of the Laxdaela saga, from an English-language translation Laxdaela Saga - Map - Project Gutenberg eText 17803.jpg
Map of the district of the Laxdæla saga, from an English-language translation

Olaf the Peacock or Olaf Hoskuldsson (Old Norse: Óláfr "pái" Hǫskuldsson, Modern Icelandic: Ólafur "pái" Höskuldsson) (c. 9381006) [1] was a merchant and chieftain of the early Icelandic Commonwealth, who was nicknamed "the Peacock" because of his proud bearing and magnificent wardrobe. He is a major character in the Laxdæla saga and is mentioned in a number of other Icelandic sources. The son of a slave woman, Olaf became one of the wealthiest landowners in Iceland and played a major role in its politics and society during the latter half of the tenth century. In addition to the Laxdæla Saga in which he takes a leading role, Olaf also is mentioned in Egils saga , Njáls saga , Gunnlaugs saga , Kormáks saga , Grettirs saga and the Landnámabók , among others.

Old Norse North Germanic language

Old Norse was a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and their overseas settlements from about the 9th to the 13th centuries.

Icelandic language North Germanic language mainly spoken in Iceland

Icelandic is a North Germanic language spoken in Iceland. Along with Faroese, Norn, and Western Norwegian it formerly constituted West Nordic; while Danish, Eastern Norwegian and Swedish constituted East Nordic. Modern Norwegian Bokmål is influenced by both groups, leading the Nordic languages to be divided into mainland Scandinavian languages and Insular Nordic. Historically, it was the westernmost of the Indo-European languages until the Portuguese settlement in the Azores.

Icelandic Commonwealth republic in the North Atlantic Ocean between 930–1262

The Icelandic Commonwealth, Icelandic Free State, or Republic of Iceland was the state existing in Iceland between the establishment of the Alþingi (Althing) in 930 and the pledge of fealty to the Norwegian king with the Old Covenant in 1262. With the probable exception of Papar, Iceland was an uninhabited island until around 870.

Contents

Birth and upbringing

Olaf was the son of Hoskuld Dala-Kollsson, a chieftain who lived in the Laxardal region. [2] According to Laxdæla Saga, Hoskuld purchased a mute thrall-woman named Melkorka from a Rus' merchant on Brännö while on a trading expedition to Norway, and made her his concubine while away from his wife Jorunn Bjarnadottir. [3] When Hoskuld returned home to Iceland, he took the concubine with him. Despite Jorunn's irritation, the concubine was accepted into Hoskuld's household, though he remained faithful to Jorunn while in Iceland. The following winter the concubine gave birth to a son, to whom they gave the name Olaf after Hoskuld's uncle, Olaf Feilan, who had recently died. [4] Landnámabók mentions that Hoskuld and Melkorka had another son, Helgi, but he does not appear in Laxdæla. [5] According to Laxdæla saga, Olaf was a precocious child, and could speak and walk perfectly by the age of two. One day Hoskuld discovered Olaf's mother speaking to her son; she was not, in fact, mute. [6] When he confronted her she told him that she was an Irish princess named Melkorka carried off in a Viking raid, and that her father was an Irish king named "Myrkjartan" (Muirchertach). [7] Shortly thereafter squabbling between Jorunn and Melkorka forced Hoskuld to move his concubine and his son by her to a different farm, which thereafter was known as Melkorkustaðir. [8]

Hoskuld Dala-Kollsson was an Icelandic gothi or chieftain of the early Icelandic Commonwealth period. He was the son of Dala-Koll who has a fjörd named after him, and Thorgerd Thorsteinsdottir, daughter of Thorstein the Red. His father died when he was a child and his mother married a landowner named Herjolf, who became the father of Hoskuld's half-brother Hrútr Herjólfsson. Hoskuld was enormously influential in northwestern Iceland, particularly in the Laxardal region, and is one of the main characters of the first half of Laxdæla saga. By his wife Jorunn he was the father of Bard, Thorleik, and Hallgerd and the grandfather of Bolli Thorleiksson. By his Irish concubine Melkorka he was the father of Olaf the Peacock and possibly of another son named Helgi.

Thrall

A thrall was a slave or serf in Scandinavian lands during the Viking Age. The corresponding term in Old English was þēow. The status of slave contrasts with that of the freeman and the nobleman. The Middle Latin rendition of the term in early Germanic law is servus. The social system of serfdom was continued in medieval feudalism.

Melkorka is the name given in Landnámabók and Laxdæla saga for the Irish mother of the Icelandic goði Ólafr Höskuldsson. It is possible that her name represents the Early Irish Mael Curcaig. According to Laxdæla saga, Höskuldr purchased Melkorka, who he believed to be a selective mute thrall-woman, from a Rus' merchant on Brännöyar while on a trading expedition to Norway, and made her his concubine while away from his wife Jorunn Bjarnadottir. When Höskuldr returned home to Iceland, he took her with him. Despite Jórunn's irritation, the concubine was accepted into Höskuldr's household, though he remained faithful to Jórunn while in Iceland. The following winter the concubine gave birth to a son, to whom they gave the name Ólafr after Höskuldr's uncle, Olaf Feilan, who had recently died. Landnámabók mentions that Höskuldr and Melkorka had another son, Helgi, but he does not appear in Laxdæla. According to Laxdæla saga, Ólafr was a precocious child, and could speak and walk perfectly by the age of two. One day Höskuldr discovered Ólafr's mother speaking to her son; she was not, in fact, mute. When he confronted her she told him that she was an Irish princess named Melkorka carried off in a viking raid, and that her father was an Irish king named "Myrkjartan" (Muirchertach). Shortly thereafter squabbling between Jórunn and Melkorka forced Höskuldr to move his concubine and his son by her to a different farm, which thereafter was known as Melkorkustaðir. The fact that there is another site known by this name, at Borgarfordur, could indicate that Melkorka's name is not Gaelic in origin, but is instead derived from a name composed of the elements melr and korka. Around 956, Ólafr, at Melkorka's urging, decided to go abroad to seek his fortune. Melkorka taught Ólafr Irish Gaelic and urged him to visit her family. Höskuldr was opposed to the expedition and would not provide trade wares, and the property of Ólafr's foster-father Þórðr was mostly in immobile goods and land. In part to arrange financing for his expedition, his mother Melkorka married Þorbjörn skrjúpur, a farmer who had previously assisted her in the management of Melkorkustaðir. Melkorka and Þorbjörn had a son named Lambi.

At the age of seven, over his mother's objections, Olaf became the foster son and heir of a wealthy but childless goði named Thord, who was at the time engaged in complex litigation with the kinsmen of his ex-wife Vigdis Ingjaldsdottir (another descendent of Thorstein the Red). Olaf's adoption complicated the issues in the suit and threatened to lead to a blood feud, but Hoskuld arranged a settlement and compensated Vigdis' kinsmen with gifts. [9] By fostering Olaf Thord gained the protection of the powerful Hoskuld, and Hoskuld secured an inheritance for his illegitimate son beyond the limited amount he was permitted to leave to Olaf under Icelandic law. [10] Olaf accompanied Thord to the Althing when he was twelve years old, and his fancy clothing earned him the admiring nickname "the Peacock." [11]

Gray Goose Laws ~1157 legal code

The Gray (Grey) Goose Laws are a collection of laws from the Icelandic Commonwealth period. The term Grágás was originally used in a medieval source to refer to a collection of Norwegian laws and was probably mistakenly used to describe the existing collection of Icelandic law during the sixteenth century. The Grágás laws in Iceland were presumably in use until 1262–1264 when Iceland was taken over by the Norwegian crown.

Althing unicameral parliament of Iceland

The Alþingi is the national parliament of Iceland. It is the oldest surviving parliament in the world, a claim shared by Tynwald. The Althing was founded in 930 at Þingvellir, situated approximately 45 kilometres (28 mi) east of what later became the country's capital, Reykjavík. Even after Iceland's union with Norway in 1262, the Althing still held its sessions at Þingvellir until 1800, when it was discontinued. It was restored in 1844 and moved to Reykjavík, where it has resided ever since. The present parliament building, the Alþingishús, was built in 1881, made of hewn Icelandic stone.

Career abroad

Around 956, Olaf, at Melkorka's urging, decided to go abroad to seek his fortune. Hoskuld was opposed and would not provide trade wares, and the property of Olaf's foster-father Thord was mostly in immobile goods and land. In part to arrange financing for his expedition, his mother Melkorka married Thorbjorn the Feeble, a farmer who had previously assisted her in the management of Melkorkustead. Melkorka and Thorbjorn had a son named Lambi. [12] Olaf sailed to Norway with Orn, a sea-captain and hirdman of King Harald Greycloak. He gained great honor at Harald's court, and was a favorite of the king's mother Gunnhild, who had, according to Icelandic sources, been the lover of Olaf's uncle Hrut Herjolfsson. [13] When Olaf expressed a desire to find his mother's people in Ireland, Gunnhild financed his voyage. [14]

Norway Country in Northern Europe

Norway, officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic country in Northern Europe whose territory comprises the western and northernmost portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula; the remote island of Jan Mayen and the archipelago of Svalbard are also part of the Kingdom of Norway. The Antarctic Peter I Island and the sub-Antarctic Bouvet Island are dependent territories and thus not considered part of the kingdom. Norway also lays claim to a section of Antarctica known as Queen Maud Land.

Harald II Greycloak or Grey-hide literally translated was a king of Norway from the Fairhair dynasty..

Gunnhild, Mother of Kings Wife of Eric Bloodaxe

Gunnhildr konungamóðir or Gunnhildr Gormsdóttir, whose name is often Anglicised as Gunnhild is a quasi-historical figure who appears in the Icelandic Sagas, according to which she was the wife of Eric Bloodaxe. She appears prominently in sagas such as Fagrskinna, Egils saga, Njáls saga, and Heimskringla.

Olaf set sail for Ireland with Orn to find his mother's people, taking with him tokens and gifts from Melkorka to her father and her nursemaid. [15] During the voyage, their ship became lost in a fog. When the fog lifted, an argument arose between Orn and most of the rest of Olaf's men about the proper course to reach Ireland. When ask if the decision should be put to a vote of the majority, Olaf is supposed to have said, "I want only the shrewdest to decide; in my opinion the counsel of fools is all the more dangerous the more of them there are." With those words, the matter was accepted as settled, and Orn took charge of the navigation. [16]

Nursemaid female servant employed in the field of the care of children

A nursemaid is a mostly historical term for a female domestic worker who cares for children within a large household. The term implies that she is an assistant to an older and more experienced employee, a role usually known as nurse or nanny. A family wealthy enough to have multiple servants looking after the children would have a large domestic staff, traditionally within a strict hierarchy, and a large house with nursery quarters.

Upon arriving in Ireland they were stranded far outside the protection of the Norse–Gaelic longphorts. [17] The ship was attacked by local Irishmen, despite the efforts of Olaf, who spoke the Gaelic, to negotiate safe passage with them. [18]

Norse–Gaels ethnic group of mixed Celtic and Norse heritage in Viking Age Scotland

The Norse–Gaels were a people of mixed Gaelic and Norse ancestry and culture. They emerged in the Viking Age, when Vikings who settled in Ireland and in Scotland adopted Gaelic culture and intermarried with Gaels. The Norse–Gaels dominated much of the Irish Sea and Scottish Sea regions from the 9th to 12th centuries. They founded the Kingdom of the Isles, the Kingdom of Dublin, the Lordship of Galloway, and ruled the Kingdom of York for a time. The most powerful Norse–Gaelic dynasty were the Uí Ímair or House of Ivar.

A longphort is a term used in Ireland for a Viking ship enclosure or shore fortress. Although it can be assumed that the longphorts were used as bases for Viking raids, it is clear that the term had multiple meanings and that these sites had multiple purposes. The reason it cannot be assumed that longphorts were solely for military purposes as that would assume that there were always large numbers of Vikings at these settlements, which is not true. These camps were fortified areas along rivers, usually at a tributary where both sides were protected such that the Vikings could port ships. The sites were easily defended, sheltered, and gave immediate access to the sea. These camps would be of great importance to the Vikings during their raids of Ireland, which included attacks on many churches and monasteries located on the coast. It can be assumed that the purpose of these sites was to ease travel and trade within the region. Longphorts were essential to the economic prosperity of the Vikings. For example, it is clear that the earliest settlements became major trading centers throughout Ireland. Archeological evidence shows that imports and exports included textiles, animal skins, amber, and glass from England. During this time, the Vikings were able to begin a period of extremely profitable trade. Overall, the longphort settlements were essential in establishing the presence of the Vikings in Ireland during the ninth and tenth centuries.

As luck would have it, the local king arrived on the scene, and proved to be Olaf's alleged grandfather Myrkjartan. Olaf remained with Myrkjartan for a time, and the king, according to Laxdaela Saga, even offered to make Olaf his heir. Olaf, however, ultimately returned to Norway, afraid of provoking Myrkjartan's sons. [19] Olaf returned to the court of King Harald, where he was greatly honored by both the king and his mother Gunnhild. [20]

Return to Iceland

Olaf's father in law Egill Skallagrimsson, from a 17th-century manuscript of Egils Saga Egil Skallagrimsson 17c manuscript.jpg
Olaf's father in law Egill Skallagrímsson, from a 17th-century manuscript of Egils Saga

Olaf returned home around 957 with great wealth. Upon his return, his father Hoskuld arranged a marriage for him with Thorgerd Egilsdottir, the daughter of Egill Skallagrímsson. [21] Thorgerd was initially reluctant to marry the son of a slave, refusing to believe that Olaf's mother was a princess. However, she ultimately agreed to the match after an hours-long private conversation with Olaf. At the wedding Olaf gave Egill an ornate sword from Ireland. [22] Olaf and Thorgerd lived happily together at Hoskuldstead for some time. Around 962 Olaf's foster father Thord died, leaving Olaf his property and goðorð. Olaf bought land and built a new homestead at Hjardarholt, which, according to the saga, he had to cleanse of the draugr of its former owner, Killer-Hrapp. As time went on people began to settle near Olaf's hall and regarded him as their goði. Olaf's ever-increasing wealth caused jealousy from Hoskuld's wife Jorunn. Around the same time Olaf and Thorgerd had a daughter, Thurid. [23] Hjardarholt was renowned for its rich decorations; some two decades later, the skald Úlfr Uggason composed the famous poem Húsdrápa, about certain mythological scenes illustrated on the walls of Olaf's hall. [24]

Olaf's half-sister Hallgerd Hoskuldsdottir married Gunnar Hámundarson, a chieftain who lived at Hlíðarendi in southern Iceland, during this period. [25] Olaf and Gunnar became close friends. [26]

Hoskuld died around 965, leaving Olaf a full mark of gold, causing tension between Olaf and Hoskuld's legitimate sons, Bard and Thorleik. [27] As an illegitimate son, Olaf was entitled to one mark of his father's wealth; this was, however, customarily understood to be a mark of silver and not gold. Olaf eased the tension by paying one-third of the communal funeral feast for Hoskuld.

Olaf and Thorgerd had a number of children after Thurid, the sons Kjartan (named after King Myrkjartan), [28] Steinthor, Halldor, Helgi, and Hoskuld and the daughters Thorbjorg, Thorgerd and Berghora. The ill-fated Kjartan would be his father's favorite. [29]

Second expedition to Norway and aftermath

Jarl Haakon Sigurdsson. Illustration by Christian Krohg. Olav Tryggvasons saga - Geirmund Haakon jarl - C. Krohg.jpg
Jarl Haakon Sigurdsson. Illustration by Christian Krohg.

Around 975, over his wife's objections, Olaf went on a second expedition to Norway. There he stayed with a Viking named Geirmund the Noisy and visited Haakon Jarl, the latter of whom gave him a cargo of timber to take home as a gift. On his return Olaf reluctantly brought Geirmund with him. and Geirmund fell in love with Olaf's daughter Thurid. Though Olaf was opposed to the match, Geirmund bribed Thorgerd to be his advocate, and Olaf relented. The marriage was an unhappy one, and after three years Geirmund decided to return home without leaving any money for the support of his ex-wife and daughter. Enraged, Thurid boarded his ship before he departed, stole his famous sword "Leg-Biter," and left their infant daughter Groa on the ship. Geirmund cursed the sword, and on his return to Norway he and all of his shipmates, including little Groa, were drowned. [30]

Later years

During the closing years of the tenth century, Olaf's kinsman and friend Gunnar became embroiled in a blood feud with several neighboring landowners. A settlement was reached whereby Gunnar would accept "lesser outlawry," a three-year exile, but after agreeing to the settlement Gunnar refused to leave Iceland. Olaf tried to protect his kinsman but was unsuccessful, and Gunnar was killed by his enemies. [31] Olaf's favorite son Kjartan traveled abroad with his beloved cousin Bolli Þorleiksson. The two were very close. Ultimately, however, they grew apart when Bolli married Kjartan's lover Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. According to Oddr Snorrason, Olaf had predicted that strife would ensue between Kjartan and Bolli. [32] Tensions between the cousins grew until a full-blown blood feud ended with Kjartan being killed by Bolli in 1003. Ironically, Bolli killed Kjartan with the sword "Leg-biter," which had been given to him as a gift by his cousin Thurid, Kjartan's sister. [33] Olaf refused to prosecute Bolli for the killing, and arranged for him to pay a fine instead; by sharp contrast, he had Gudrun's brothers, who had goaded Bolli to fight his cousin, driven into exile. [34] Jesse Byock contrasted Olaf's magnanimity towards Bolli with the blood feud mentality of his wife Thorgerd:

Olaf knows that Kjartan, who was involved in a love triangle with Bolli and Bolli's wife Gudrun Osvifrsdottir, caused his own downfall by acting aggressively. In Icelandic terms, Kjartan had surpassed the acceptable limits of immoderation. Whereas Olaf wants to maintain the solidarity of the larger family, keeping workable relations with his siblings and their children, Thorgerd's concerns are different. She focuses more narrowly on the honour of her nuclear family. [35]

Olaf died in 1006, and Olaf's widow Thorgerd subsequently directed a number of revenge-killings herself, including that of Thorkel, a man who had witnessed Kjartan's death but been indifferent to it and had not intervened. [36] Bolli was killed by Olaf's sons and their allies in a raid led by Thorgerd. [37] Some twelve years later, Gudrun, with the help of her friend Snorri Goði, had a number of Bolli's murderers killed in revenge. [38]

Notes

  1. Magnusson 267
  2. Hoskuld was the grandson of Thorstein the Red through his daughter Thorgerd Thorsteinsdottir. Laxdaela Saga § 5 (Magnusson 53).
  3. Lax. § 12 (Magnusson 63).
  4. Lax. § 13 (Magnusson 67).
  5. Ari 2:18.
  6. Lax. § 13 (Magnusson 68).
  7. Lax. § 13 (Magnusson 68). Magnusson notes that there were a number of contemporary Irish petty kings by this name. Magnusson 68 at n.1
  8. Lax. § 13 (Magnusson 69).
  9. Lax. § 16 (Magnusson 7577).
  10. Byock 279-281.
  11. Lax. § 16 (Magnusson 7577).
  12. Lax. § 20 (Magnusson 8688).
  13. Ordower 41–61; Njal's Saga §§ 35 (Hollander 713); cf.Lax. § 19 (Magnusson 82).
  14. Lax. § 21 (Magnusson 8990).
  15. Lax. § 20 (Magnusson 88).
  16. Lax. § 21 (Magnusson 90).
  17. Lax. § 21 (Magnusson 9091); Forte 328329.
  18. Lax. § 21 (Magnusson 91).
  19. Lax. § 21 (Magnusson 9396).
  20. Lax. § 22 (Magnusson 9697).
  21. Oddr § 156 (Shepton 222).
  22. Lax. § 23 (Magnusson 98100); cf. Egil's Saga § 79 (Scudder 168).
  23. Lax. § 24 (Magnusson 101102).
  24. Lax. § 29 (Magnusson 112).
  25. Njal. § 33 (Hollander 6163).
  26. Njal. §§ 5970 (Hollander 118138).
  27. Lax. § 26 (Magnusson 105).
  28. Oddr § 156 (Shepton 222).
  29. Lax. § 28 (Magnusson 110)
  30. Lax. § 30 (Magnusson 112114).
  31. Njal. §§ 7477. (Hollander 144151).
  32. Oddr § 157 (Shepton 224).
  33. Lax. §§ 3249 (Magnusson 117177).
  34. Lax. § 51 (Magnusson 179181).
  35. Byock 200.
  36. Pencak 73
  37. Lax. §§ 5155 (Magnusson 180188); Pencak 73-74.
  38. Pencak 73-75.

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References