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The Legend Of Thorgunna

Source: Folk-lore And Legends Scandinavian

A ship from Iceland chanced to winter in a haven near Helgafels. Among
the passengers was a woman named Thorgunna, a native of the Hebrides,
who was reported by the sailors to possess garments and household
furniture of a fashion far surpassing those used in Iceland. Thurida,
sister of the pontiff Snorro, and wife of Thorodd, a woman of a vain and
covetous disposition, attracted by these reports, made a visit to the
stranger, but could not prevail upon her to display her treasures.
Persisting, however, in her inquiries, she pressed Thorgunna to take up
her abode at the house of Thorodd. The Hebridean reluctantly assented,
but added, that as she could labour at every usual kind of domestic
industry, she trusted in that manner to discharge the obligation she
might lie under to the family, without giving any part of her property
in recompense of her lodging. As Thurida continued to urge her request,
Thorgunna accompanied her to Froda, the house of Thorodd, where the
seamen deposited a huge chest and cabinet, containing the property of
her new guest, which Thurida viewed with curious and covetous eyes. So
soon as they had pointed out to Thorgunna the place assigned for her
bed, she opened the chest, and took forth such an embroidered bed
coverlid, and such a splendid and complete set of tapestry hangings, and
bed furniture of English linen, interwoven with silk, as had never been
seen in Iceland.

"Sell to me," said the covetous matron, "this fair bed furniture."

"Believe me," answered Thorgunna, "I will not lie upon straw in order to
feed thy pomp and vanity;" an answer which so greatly displeased Thurida
that she never again repeated her request. Thorgunna, to whose character
subsequent events added something of a mystical solemnity, is described
as being a woman of a tall and stately appearance, of a dark complexion,
and having a profusion of black hair. She was advanced in age; assiduous
in the labours of the field and of the loom; a faithful attendant upon
divine worship; grave, silent, and solemn in domestic society. She had
little intercourse with the household of Thorodd, and showed particular
dislike to two of its inmates. These were Thorer, who, having lost a leg
in the skirmish between Thorbiorn and Thorarin the Black, was called
Thorer-Widlegr (wooden-leg), from the substitute he had adopted; and his
wife, Thorgrima, called Galldra-Kinna (wicked sorceress), from her
supposed skill in enchantments. Kiartan, the son of Thurida, a boy of
excellent promise, was the only person of the household to whom
Thorgunna showed much affection; and she was much vexed at times when
the childish petulance of the boy made an indifferent return to her

After this mysterious stranger had dwelt at Froda for some time, and
while she was labouring in the hay-field with other members of the
family, a sudden cloud from the northern mountain led Thorodd to
anticipate a heavy shower. He instantly commanded the hay-workers to
pile up in ricks the quantity which each had been engaged in turning to
the wind. It was afterwards remembered that Thorgunna did not pile up
her portion, but left it spread on the field. The cloud approached with
great celerity, and sank so heavily around the farm, that it was scarce
possible to see beyond the limits of the field. A heavy shower next
descended, and so soon as the clouds broke away and the sun shone forth
it was observed that it had rained blood. That which fell upon the ricks
of the other labourers soon dried up, but what Thorgunna had wrought
upon remained wet with gore. The unfortunate Hebridean, appalled at the
omen, betook herself to her bed, and was seized with a mortal illness.
On the approach of death she summoned Thorodd, her landlord, and
intrusted to him the disposition of her property and effects.

"Let my body," said she, "be transported to Skalholt, for my mind
presages that in that place shall be founded the most distinguished
church in this island. Let my golden ring be given to the priests who
shall celebrate my obsequies, and do thou indemnify thyself for the
funeral charges out of my remaining effects. To thy wife I bequeath my
purple mantle, in order that, by this sacrifice to her avarice, I may
secure the right of disposing of the rest of my effects at my own
pleasure. But for my bed, with its coverings, hangings, and furniture, I
entreat they may be all consigned to the flames. I do not desire this
because I envy any one the possession of these things after my death,
but because I wish those evils to be avoided which I plainly foresee
will happen if my will be altered in the slightest particular."

Thorodd promised faithfully to execute this extraordinary testament in
the most exact manner. Accordingly, so soon as Thorgunna was dead, her
faithful executor prepared a pile for burning her splendid bed. Thurida
entered, and learned with anger and astonishment the purpose of these
preparations. To the remonstrances of her husband she answered that the
menaces of future danger were only caused by Thorgunna's selfish envy,
who did not wish any one should enjoy her treasures after her decease.
Then, finding Thorodd inaccessible to argument, she had recourse to
caresses and blandishments, and at length extorted permission to
separate from the rest of the bed-furniture the tapestried curtains and
coverlid; the rest was consigned to the flames, in obedience to the will
of the testator. The body of Thorgunna, being wrapped in new linen and
placed in a coffin, was next to be transported through the precipices
and morasses of Iceland to the distant district she had assigned for her
place of sepulture. A remarkable incident occurred on the way. The
transporters of the body arrived at evening, late, weary, and drenched
with rain, in a house called Nether-Ness, where the niggard hospitality
of the proprietor only afforded them house-room, without any supply of
food or fuel. But, so soon as they entered, an unwonted noise was heard
in the kitchen of the mansion, and the figure of a woman, soon
recognised to be the deceased Thorgunna, was seen busily employed in
preparing victuals. Their inhospitable landlord, being made acquainted
with this frightful circumstance, readily agreed to supply every
refreshment which was necessary, on which the vision instantly
disappeared. The apparition having become public, they had no reason to
ask twice for hospitality as they proceeded on their journey, and they
came to Skalholt, where Thorgunna, with all due ceremonies of religion,
was deposited quietly in the grave. But the consequences of the breach
of her testament were felt severely at Froda.

The dwelling at Froda was a simple and patriarchal structure, built
according to the fashion used by the wealthy among the Icelanders. The
apartments were very large, and a part boarded off contained the beds of
the family. On either side was a sort of store-room, one of which
contained meal, the other dried fish. Every evening large fires were
lighted in this apartment for dressing the victuals; and the domestics
of the family usually sat around them for a considerable time, until
supper was prepared. On the night when the conductors of Thorgunna's
funeral returned to Froda, there appeared, visible to all who were
present, a meteor, or spectral appearance, resembling a half-moon, which
glided around the boarded walls of the mansion in an opposite direction
to the course of the sun, and continued to perform its revolutions until
the domestics retired to rest. This apparition was renewed every night
during a whole week, and was pronounced by Thorer with the wooden leg to
presage pestilence or mortality. Shortly after a herdsman showed signs
of mental alienation, and gave various indications of having sustained
the persecution of evil demons. This man was found dead in his bed one
morning, and then commenced a scene of ghost-seeing unheard of in the
annals of superstition. The first victim was Thorer, who had presaged
the calamity. Going out of doors one evening, he was grappled by the
spectre of the deceased shepherd as he attempted to re-enter the house.
His wooden leg stood him in poor stead in such an encounter; he was
hurled to the earth, and so fearfully beaten, that he died in
consequence of the bruises. Thorer was no sooner dead than his ghost
associated itself to that of the herdsman, and joined him in pursuing
and assaulting the inhabitants of Froda. Meantime an infectious disorder
spread fast among them, and several of the bondsmen died one after the
other. Strange portents were seen within-doors, the meal was displaced
and mingled, and the dried fish flung about in a most alarming manner,
without any visible agent. At length, while the servants were forming
their evening circle round the fire, a spectre, resembling the head of a
seal-fish, was seen to emerge out of the pavement of the room, bending
its round black eyes full on the tapestried bed-curtains of Thorgunna.
Some of the domestics ventured to strike at this figure, but, far from
giving way, it rather erected itself further from the floor, until
Kiartan, who seemed to have a natural predominance over these
supernatural prodigies, seizing a huge forge-hammer, struck the seal
repeatedly on the head, and compelled it to disappear, forcing it down
into the floor, as if he had driven a stake into the earth. This prodigy
was found to intimate a new calamity. Thorodd, the master of the family,
had some time before set forth on a voyage to bring home a cargo of
dried fish; but in crossing the river Enna the skiff was lost and he
perished with the servants who attended him. A solemn funeral feast was
held at Froda, in memory of the deceased, when, to the astonishment of
the guests, the apparition of Thorodd and his followers seemed to enter
the apartment dripping with water. Yet this vision excited less horror
than might have been expected, for the Icelanders, though nominally
Christians, retained, among other pagan superstitions, a belief that the
spectres of such drowned persons as had been favourably received by the
goddess Rana were wont to show themselves at their funeral feast. They
saw, therefore, with some composure, Thorodd and his dripping attendants
plant themselves by the fire, from which all mortal guests retreated to
make room for them. It was supposed this apparition would not be
renewed after the conclusion of the festival. But so far were their
hopes disappointed, that, so soon as the mourning guests had departed,
the fires being lighted, Thorodd and his comrades marched in on one
side, drenched as before with water; on the other entered Thorer,
heading all those who had died in the pestilence, and who appeared
covered with dust. Both parties seized the seats by the fire, while the
half-frozen and terrified domestics spent the night without either light
or warmth. The same phenomenon took place the next night, though the
fires had been lighted in a separate house, and at length Kiartan was
obliged to compound matters with the spectres by kindling a large fire
for them in the principal apartment, and one for the family and
domestics in a separate hut. This prodigy continued during the whole
feast of Jol. Other portents also happened to appal this devoted family:
the contagious disease again broke forth, and when any one fell a
sacrifice to it his spectre was sure to join the troop of persecutors,
who had now almost full possession of the mansion of Froda. Thorgrima
Galldrakinna, wife of Thorer, was one of these victims, and, in short,
of thirty servants belonging to the household, eighteen died, and five
fled for fear of the apparitions, so that only seven remained in the
service of Kiartan.

Kiartan had now recourse to the advice of his maternal uncle Snorro, in
consequence of whose counsel, which will perhaps appear surprising to
the reader, judicial measures were instituted against the spectres. A
Christian priest was, however, associated with Thordo Kausa, son of
Snorro, and with Kiartan, to superintend and sanctify the proceedings.
The inhabitants were regularly summoned to attend upon the inquest, as
in a cause between man and man, and the assembly was constituted before
the gate of the mansion, just as the spectres had assumed their wonted
station by the fire. Kiartan boldly ventured to approach them, and,
snatching a brand from the fire, he commanded the tapestry belonging to
Thorgunna to be carried out of doors, set fire to it, and reduced it to
ashes with all the other ornaments of her bed, which had been so
inconsiderately preserved at the request of Thurida. A tribunal being
then constituted with the usual legal solemnities, a charge was
preferred by Kiartan against Thorer with the wooden leg, by Thordo Kausa
against Thorodd, and by others chosen as accusers against the individual
spectres present, accusing them of molesting the mansion, and
introducing death and disease among its inhabitants. All the solemn
rites of judicial procedure were observed on this singular occasion;
evidence was adduced, charges given, and the cause formally decided. It
does not appear that the ghosts put themselves on their defence, so that
sentence of ejectment was pronounced against them individually in due
and legal form. When Thorer heard the judgment, he arose, and saying--

"I have sat while it was lawful for me to do so," left the apartment by
the door opposite to that at which the judicial assembly was
constituted. Each of the spectres, as it heard its individual sentence,
left the place, saying something which indicated its unwillingness to
depart, until Thorodd himself was solemnly called on to leave.

"We have here no longer," said he, "a peaceful dwelling, therefore will
we remove."

Kiartan then entered the hall with his followers, and the priest, with
holy water, and celebration of a solemn mass, completed the conquest
over the goblins, which had been commenced by the power and authority of
the Icelandic law.

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