Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Vopnafjörður was a main port of Icelandic emigration to America and many of us can trace our families to East Iceland. Therefore, the sagas from this region are of special importance to us. One such story is “The Saga of the people of Vopnafjörður”. This story is the middle segment of a three-part narrative about the area. The first part is “The Saga of Þorstein the White (Hvíti)” and the last is “The Tale of Þorstein Staff-Struck”. These 3 stories describe real people and undoubtedly some of the events are also real. However, in general, these and other sagas are a reworking of history to fit a heroic narrative. Here we focus only on “The Saga of the people of Vopnafjörður”, describing key elements of the story. Our sketch of the story leaves much for interested readers to explore on their own. We also provide genealogical identifiers for Icelandic Roots members who want to learn more about their own relationship to the characters within the Icelandic Roots database.
The Saga of the people of Vopnafjörður is believed to have been written in the 13th century, about 1225-1250 A.D. The main character of “The Saga of the people of Vopnafjörður” is Brodd-Helgi. Helgi "Brodd-Helgi" (IR# I136074), son of Þorgils (IR# I136066) and grandson of Þorsteinn "Hviti" (IR# I136064). The death of his father, Þorgils, occurred when Brodd-Helgi was only 3 years old. At age 12, Brodd-Helgi was known for his bravery after he fought and injured an evil man named Svart who terrorized the people at the Hof farm. Svart was said to place a curse on the people of Vopnafjörður in response to these actions by Brodd-Helgi.
The nickname "Brodd" means "spur" in English. Helgi earned this nickname after tying a spear to a fighting bull's head so that the bull, who was weaker than his opponent, could win. After this trick, the people of Hof called him "Brodd-Helgi". Brodd-Helgi was married twice, first to Halla Lýtingsdóttir (IR# I136071) and second to Þorgerður "Silfra" Þorvaldsdóttir (IR# I136074). Each marriage resulted in 3 children. The Saga describes Brodd-Helgi as:
"a tall, strong man of early maturity, handsome and imposing, not very talkative in his youth, stubborn ... tough from an early age [and] cunning."
The fate of Brodd-Helgi is foretold in a dream. As Brodd-Helgi prepares to leave for the Alþing one year (the annual meeting of all Chieftains), his foster mother reports a prophetic dream. She dreams a rose-colored ox (Brodd-Helgi) arose at Hof (a farm in Vopnafjörður) and was killed at the entrance of Sunnudal valley by a red-flecked ox (Geitir Lýtingsson (IR# I136086)). Then a red ox (Brodd-Helgi's son Bjarni Brodd-Helgason (IR# I136073)) arose at Hof and killed the red-flecked ox. Next, a bull the color of "sea-cattle" (Geitir's son, Þorkel (IR# I136119)) arose at Krossavik and sought the red ox.
Brodd-Helgi interprets this as prophesying his death at the hands of Geitir but believes the red ox, which avenges him, will be his friend Lyting, when in reality it is his son Bjarni.
What led to Brodd-Helgi’s feud with Geitir? Brodd-Helgi and Geitir were friends since childhood. Brodd-Helgi married Geitir's sister Halla. Their son Bjarni was fostered at Krossavík. But Brodd-Helgi and Geitir's involvement in a dispute over the fate and property of another man, Hrafn Austmann, damaged their friendship. Halla, Brodd-Helgi’s wife, became terminally ill. As was sometimes done when women were at the end of life and could not tend to family needs, she asked to end their marriage. Brodd-Helgi expressed interest in keeping the marriage going but ultimately selected Þorgerður "silfra" from Fljótsdalur for marriage while Halla was still alive. This arrangement further distanced Brodd-Helgi from Geitir.
Brodd-Helgi and Geitir both began gaining support from others in their dispute. The story reaches a turning point when Brodd-Helgi seeks payment from one of his closest allies after resolving a land dispute. From this point on, farmers and other goði view Brodd-Helgi as more of a threat than an ally. Eventually, Brodd-Helgi's overambition turns many against him including Gudmundur Eyjólfsson (IR# I128253) a powerful goði in the North. Part of the saga is missing, but we can deduce Brodd-Helgi is killed from the episodes of revenge that follow.
Bjarni Brodd-Helgason also Víga-Björn Brodd-Helgason (nicknamed "The Assassin"), son of Brodd-Helgi carries on the blood feud that started between his father and Geitir. Bjarni views Geitir and Þorkell Geitirsson as responsible for his father’s death. In an act of revenge, Bjarni killed Geitir, Þorkell’s father.
The Saga of the People of Vopnafjörður contains common elements within what is called “The Family Sagas”. These include a strong sense of fate and, also, a contrast between reason and violence. The curse on Vopnafjörður by Svart foreshadows the unstoppable progression of Halla’s disease and his conflict over the affairs of Hrafn. It also alienates Brodd-Helgi from his closest friend Geitir. The saga also contrasts a rash and sometimes violent Brodd-Helgi with a level-headed and peacemaker Geitir. Despite his rational approach, Geitir appears unable to stop events that are foreordained in a dream by Brodd-Helgi’s foster mother. Bjarni also feels an obligation to seek revenge for his father’s death perpetuating the blood feud. As is common in the sagas, the events seem fated to the characters and they each meet them unflinchingly and without fear or regret.
To read this saga in English: The Saga of the People of Vopnafjörður. Also, you may want to visit Vopnafjörður. You can also request a guided tour in English. To do so, call: (354) 473-1331, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Each tour leaves from the Kaupvangur in Vopnafjörður and participants receive a pamphlet describing both the story itself and the places covered on the tour that are described in the saga.
See the website: Visit Vopnafjörður for things to do and see in the northeast of Iceland.