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Interesting Icelander for June: Geirmund "Heljarskinns" Hjörsson

by Alfreda Duffy


Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) describes Geirmund as “the noblest of all settlers.” According to my Google search the definition of noble means “belonging to a hereditary class with high social or political standing, aristocratic.” It also means “having or showing fine personal qualities, or high moral principles or ideals.” His lineage fits this category but was he a righteous, honourable, good, virtuous, upright human being? You decide.


Why did he go to Iceland? Part of his reason was to escape the ravaging campaign of King Harald Fairhair, which history buffs know was a hard-fought campaign to bring all of Norway under his crown. This was not unlike the rationale that brought many of the other settlers to this same land. Geirmund, unlike the others, had another reason to sail to this country. Could he not have stayed out of King Harald’s reach elsewhere? Why not northern Russia where his kinsmen lived? What then was his purpose in sailing north to this island?


After years of roaming as a Viking, he went to Dublin to meet up with his brother Hamand and his father’s other allies. This famous longphort [2] was a Viking stronghold known for its thriving slave market as well as for other things. At that time the conversation there was all about the need to find another place to hunt the walrus. Ivory was still king and in the regular hunting grounds in northern Russia, the walrus colonies were nearing extinction. Iceland was now on everybody’s mind as the next place to find this “white gold.” Is this what gave him the motivation to sail northward to this small island? Yes, it was. Since there was a great need to find more colonies and since Iceland was where others were thinking of going, he decided to get there first and claim it all.


With him, on his journey northward, Geirmund Heljarskinns brought astonishing wealth, along with armies of men and slaves. First, they sailed around the country to determine where he would find this valuable commodity, this marine species known as the walrus. They soon found huge colonies scattered along the rugged coastline in the Hornstrandir region, but the land was not suitable for human habitation. Once these mammals were discovered he searched for and found a picturesque fjord with land he desired south of the walrus colonies. He set up his estate in Breiðafjörður. As for the walrus, he was quite familiar with hunting them. He had honed his skills during his time in northern Siberia, in Bjarmaland. With his time spent there, he realized great profits, just as his father had before him. From the walrus skins leather rope was made. They extracted its oil, sold the meat, or ate it themselves. The main profit came from their teeth, their incisors known as tusks. African ivory did not arrive in these northern countries until the 14th century, therefore, the walrus tusks remained in great demand for some time. The only ones who could afford such a product were kings or the church. Once his enormous estate was built, he established his routes with stopover points to the hoards of walrus living along the northern coastlines. He had so many men that he could afford to station small armies of slaves in the West Fjords and the Dalir Regions. He would travel with another army of men, easily eighty men at a time, across the land to access this very important commodity. Not even King Harald travelled during peaceful times with more than sixty men. No one in Iceland challenged Geirmund Heljarskinns or even dared to. He controlled a quarter of its land and lived like a king in this country with his huge army ready to protect or kill for him.


What do we know about this man? Geirmund was born about 846CE in Avaldsnes, Rogaland, Norway along with his twin brother Hamand. Sons of and Ljufvina Bjarmasdottir, they were said to be ugly with dark skin and Mongolian features. Hence the nickname Heljarskinns, which literally translates as “skin like hell.” Their mother, who also had dark skin, was the daughter of the chief or king of Bjarmaland. A cold isolated land in northern Siberia which at the time was teeming with walrus colonies. She is thought to have belonged to an ancient tribe of indigenous people called the Sihirtians. Their legend tells us of a people known to be great hunters and fishermen and thought to have mastered blacksmithing. A people of small stature who had fair hair, light blue eyes, fair skin and lived below the ground. They only came out at night to hunt and fish. They were also thought to have had supernatural powers. Over the centuries though this tribe of peoples was conquered and absorbed into another group of peoples called the Nenets. Eventually, the population of the Sihirtians disappeared as they were integrated into this other group. Their skin became darker and they began to take on the features of this other indigenous group, the Nenets.


King Hjör took Ljufvina to Norway as his wife after negotiating an agreement with her father giving him full access to the trade for their valuable walrus. When the twins were born the father was not present. Disappointed that they did not look like their father, Ljufvina quickly exchanged the twins for a slave boy who was also born at the same time. A fair-haired, blue-eyed child, named Leif who looked more like King Hjör. She thought this would make him happy. A few years later the king expressed disappointment. This boy did not exhibit the strength or intelligence he expected of his own child. Maybe he suspected all along that Leif was not his child, or was it because the poet Brage the old revealed the truth to him and reunited him with his sons? How he found out is immaterial, Ljufvina was left with no choice but to admit to what she had done and to beg for his forgiveness. He could see that she was telling the truth as they had her dark skin and features. It was not long before he realized that both sons had his traits and he accepted them wholeheartedly. They were intelligent, crafty, fierce little warriors. Growing up now with their real father they learned many warrior skills.


Later as a young man Geirmund went Viking and soon established his reputation as a great warrior. With his increasing fame he was headhunted to become part of the Great Heathen Army that invaded England. Through this, he built an even greater legacy and became even more prosperous. In return for his fighting skills, he was gifted land and goods from Guthrum, one of the army’s leaders.


Siberia would not have been an unknown country to him. Between his father and mother, many stories would have been told to both boys. When he was in Siberia is not clear. Was his brother there with him? That too is unknown. But he did apparently spend much time in Bjarmaland where he learned the craft of walrus hunting from his kinsmen and prospered from this commodity adding to his growing affluence and wealth. Unfortunately, at that time the walrus was beginning to be overhunted and the numbers were dwindling. Since the mature female only produced a calf about every three years, the colony's growth rate is slow. And although their life span can be very long, overhunting would certainly have affected the numbers.


At this point, he returned with many slaves and kinsmen from Siberia to Norway only to find his father had lost his land to King Harald. No longer a king of his own land and knowing it was senseless to fight for it against such strength, he left to join up with his brother Hamand and other allies of his father’s living in Dublin. Since Dublin was the centre for the slave trade it was likely that en route to this thriving port, Geirmund would have picked up more slaves in The Northern Isles, Scotland and Ireland and sold them on arrival. After all, business is business. Once there he connected with his brother and his father’s allies. As mentioned previously, the talk was all about the continued demand for the walrus tusk and about locating more hunting grounds. Iceland was becoming the main topic of conversation; it was continually mentioned as a good place to search for these marine mammals. He decided then and there that he would be the one to go to this land before others beat him to this venture. With him, he took the men he already had, a number of slaves, his kinsmen, as well as men from Dublin.


According to Icelandic Roots, he had two women in his life, one from Bjarmaland and the other from Norway. Each one gave birth to a daughter in Iceland. Therefore, at some point, he must have brought them to this country. Whether these two women were with him when he first arrived is unknown, but who did sail with him was a huge group of men who quickly dominated the walrus hunts. He soon controlled a good portion of the land. There is no written account of anyone living there who may have challenged him. Likely he would have been feared by all with such an army of men behind him. He may have lived like a king with great opulence; however, it would have taken a great deal of wealth to maintain that lifestyle, plus feed and cloth such great numbers of people. Also, he would have needed ships, another great expense, to transport this profitable commodity to Dublin. There his brother and their allies would have been the middlemen who sold the ivory to either craftsmen who produced remarkable items for kings and the church, or they would have sold directly to kings, church officials, or merchants from abroad. Those valuable tusks would enhance any treasury or entice any foreign ambassador. Great wealth was amassed by all. With these same ships they would return, possibly bringing his women to him, but it would have brought goods not available in Iceland as well as luxurious items only wealth like his could afford. But was he able to maintain it? According to the website historium.com, when he died in 907CE his friends and family gave him a send-off fit for a king including a ship burial.

 

It seemed that his lifestyle had not yet been compromised but his family, his kingdom, and his legacy would soon disintegrate. Why? Because sometime during the 900s this mammal disappeared from Iceland. Therefore, his family would have lost their valuable and only commodity: the walrus. Without it how could they possibly maintain their lifestyle as before?


There are questions: Did this great fleet of men decimate those numbers along the Icelandic coastline? Or did this species disappear naturally? Iceland is obviously not a friendly land, their northern shoreline is within the Arctic Circle, harsh and uninviting to both man and beast. Could the volcanic activity it has repeatedly displayed have been responsible? Eruptions have been known to have decimated parts of the land, its people as well as animals repeatedly, but that far north is questionable. The walrus colonies had long since acclimatized themselves to this harsh landscape. No one knows the answer for sure... but the timing fits for man’s intervention. It is very feasible that humans, such as these Northmen, had a hand in making a marine species extinct through overhunting and greed. Geirmund Heljarskinns brought the manpower to Iceland, greedy men who were capable of overhunting just to amass wealth from harvesting their tusks. Never allowing these slow-growing colonies to recuperate to regenerate their numbers. Do his actions indicate “having or showing fine personal qualities, or high moral principles or ideals”? What do you think now, is Landnámabók correct? Was he the “noblest of all settlers”?


Check out this original settler, Geirmund Heljarskinns Halfsson (I566169) in the Icelandic Roots Database. Not only is there a lot of interesting information on his page, but you may find out that you are also related to him. He is 28 times my great-grandfather.


A point of interest: Geirmund’s profile includes a note that quotes the Icelandic author Bergsveinn Bergisson: “...some people have been found in Iceland with mitochondrial DNA of Haplogroup Z1a. Haplogroup Z1a is most often associated with Mongolian and other Asian peoples.” [5] The note continues, "To support his theory, Bergsveinn cites Agnar Helgason's research of the Icelandic gene pool at deCODE and the discovery of a special mutation in the haplogroup Z1a by Dr. Peter Forster at Cambridge University, which confirms the nation's part Mongolian origins. This is still apparent in some Icelanders today, Bergsveinn points out, such as in Björk, who has an Asian look in spite of being ethnically Icelandic." [6]

 


Notes

[1] "Geirmund Hel-hide" in Assassin's Creed Wiki [website]. Retrieved from https://assassinscreed.fandom.com/wiki/Geirmund_Hel-hide .


[2] “Longphort was a Scandinavian base or winter camp in Ireland. It was a fortified camp and harbour located at the mouth of a river where the ships could lie with access to the open sea.” See: Dublin as a Longphort.

 

[3] Verma, Vicky. (30 Mar 2022). “Mysterious Race of Underground People Lived in the Arctic Along with Nenets” in JournalNewsOnline [website]. Retrieved from:

 

[4] Nansen, Fridtjof (1861-1930). Nentser (folkegruppe) kvinner og barn foran inngangen til teltet sitt [image]. National Library of Norway, August 1913. Retrieved from Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/national_library_of_norway/6435260555/.

 

[5] Bergisson, Bergsveinn. (2105; 2019) The Black Viking / Den Svarte vikingen. Norway: Vigmostad & Bjørke. See: https://booksfromnorway.com/books/610-the-black-viking .


[6] "Geirmundur 'heiljarskinns' Hjörsson."(I566169). Icelandic Roots Database. Last modified 16 Apr 2022.



Other Sources

Helgason, Asgar, et al.. (2009). "Sequences From First Settlers Reveal Rapid Evolution in Icelandic mtDNA Pool" in PLoS Genetics. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1000343


Victor, Taiwo. (20 Aug 20022). “The Extinct Walrus: How Vikings Hunted a Walrus to Extinction” in A–Z Animals [website]. Retrieved from: https://a-z-animals.com/blog/the-extinct-walrus-how-vikings-hunted-a-walrus-to-extinction/ .

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