The Great Myths #5: A Ghost Story (Icelandic)

After Thorolf died, a good many people found it more and more unpleasant to stay out of doors once the sun had begun to go down. As the summer wore on, it became clear that Thorolf wasn’t quiet, for after sunset no one out of doors was left in peace. There was another thing, too: the oxen which had been been used to haul Thorolf’s body were ridden to death by demons, and every beast that came near his grave when out of its mind and howled itself to death. The shepherd at Hvamm often came running home with Thorolf after him. One day that autumn neither sheep nor shepherd came back to the farm, and next morning, when a search was made for him, the shepherd was found dead not far from Thorolf’s grave, his corpse coal-black, and every bone in his body broken. They buried him near to Thorolf.  All the sheep in the valley were found dead, and the rest that had strayed into the mountains were never seen again. Any bird that happened to land on Thorolf’s cairn dropped dead on the spot. All this grew so troublesome that no one would risk using the valley for grazing any longer.

At night the people at Hvamm would hear loud noises from outside, and it often sounded as if there was somebody sitting astride the roof. That winter, Thorolf often appeared on the farm, haunting his widow most of all. A lot of people suffered badly from it, but she was almost driven out of her wits, and eventually the strain of it killed her. Her body was taken up to Thorsardale to be buried beside Thorolf’s cairn, and after that the people of Hvamm abandoned the farm.

Thorolf now began haunting the whole valley, and most of the farms were abandoned because of it. His ghost was so malignant that it killed people and others had to run for their lives. All those who died were later seen in his company.

Everyone complained about this reign of terror and thought it was Arnkel’s business to put a stop to it. Those who thought themselves safer with Arnkel than anywhere else were invited to stay at his farm, as Thorolf and his retinue caused no harm when Arnkel was around. As the winter wore on, people grew so scared of Thorolf’s ghost, they were too frightened to travel, no matter how urgent their business.

So the winter passed. Spring brought fine weather; and when all the frost on the ground had thawed, Arnkel sent a messenger over to Karsstad asking the Thorbrandssons to come and help him carry Thorolf away from Thorsardale and find him another resting-place. It was the law in those days, just as it is now, that everybody must help bury the dead if asked to give assistance. All the same, when word reached the Thorbrandssons they said they had no reason to help Arnkel and his men out of their troubles. But their father Thorbrand said, “You ought to do whatever the law requires. You must not refuse to do what you’ve been asked.”

So Thorodd said to the messenger, “Go and tell Arnkel that I’ll stand in for my brothers. I’ll go up to Ulfar’s Fell and meet him there.”

The messenger went back and told Arnkel. He got ready at once and set out with eleven men, a few oxen, and some tools for digging. First they went up to Ulfar’s Fell, where Thorodd Thorbrandsson joined them with two more men, then they all travelled together across the ridge into Thorsardale and up to Thorolf’s cairn. When they broke into the cairn they saw his body was uncorrupted and very ugly to look at. They pulled him out of the grave, laid him on the sled, hitched up a powerful pair of oxen, and hauled him up as far as Ulfarsfell Ridge. By then the oxen were so exhausted they had to get another yoke of them to haul the corpse west along the ridge. Arnkel wanted to take Thorolf all the way to Vadilshofdi and bury him there, but when they came to the end of the ridge, the oxen panicked and broke loose. They ran down the ridge, then north by the hillside, past the farmstead at Ulfar’s Fell, and so down to the sea, where they both collapsed. By now Thorolf had grown so heavy that the men could hardly shift him, but they managed to drag him up to a small knoll nearby, and there they buried him. This place has been known as Twist-Foot’s Knoll ever since. After that Arnkel had a wall built right across the knoll just behind the grave, so high that only a bird in flight could get over it, and here Thorolf rested quietly enough as long as Arnkel lived. You can still see traces of the wall.

Eyrbyggja Saga, ch. 34, tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, pp. 93-95

Read the other Great Myths here