Friday, April 12, 2013

Valley of the Gods in Iceland

Vor Siður – newsletter of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”)

Original article by Kári Pálsson appeared in Vor Siður 22, no. 1 (2013)
Translated by Kári Pálsson and Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried for The Norse Mythology Blog
Read the original article (in Icelandic) here
Original text © Ásatrúarfélagið

As a young boy, I visited Goðdalur (“dale of the gods”) in Bjarnarfjörður in northwest Iceland several times. The valley is extremely remote and not known to many people, since the one road leading to the dale is fairly poor and usually impassible in the winter except with large vehicles. There are two cottages in the valley owned by friends of my family.

When I was teenager, I started wondering about the history of this place and was particularly interested in its name. The valley is not mentioned in any sagas or historical records, but it was said by people through the centuries that this place had a hof (heathen temple) and many kinds of vættir (wights) and other spirits or gods. Legends say that Bishop Guðmundur tried to exorcise the spirits of the dale in the 13th century, but he failed.

The valley was inhabited until December 1948, when a 130-meter wide avalanche destroyed the town and killed six people. A farmer named Jóhann Kristmundsson and his young daughter survived. The girl died soon after; Jóhann lived couple of years longer, but never recovered. Today, the dale still holds ruins of the old farm.

In the foreground are the ruins of the old farm in Goðdalur – Photo by Kári Pálsson

Ingibjörg Sigvaldadóttir, a housewife born in 1912 in Svanshóll, remembered that her father Sigvaldi Guðmundsson had told the farmer then living in Goðdalur that he shouldn’t have removed the remains of the old hof that stood in the valley. The farmer later denied having done so and claimed he only covered it with soil and built over it.

In the 1952 yearbook of Ferðafélag Íslands (Icelandic Touring Association), Jón Hjaltason wrote, “Goðdalur has been a place of tragic events and accidents. It is clear that this place is filled with the wrath of the gods, and that only land-wights want to live there.”

It is interesting how many places around Goðdalur have heathen names. In his 1945 book Heiðinn Siður á Íslandi (Heathen Practice in Iceland), Ólafur Briem names four waterfalls that have the name Goðafoss (“waterfall of the gods”). There are actually five – including two in Bjarnardalur and one in Goðdalur – but Ólafur forgets to mentions one of them. There are also several place-names in Goðdalur that relate to hörgur (heathen stone altars).

Heiðinn Siður á Íslandi by Ólafur Briem

Remains from different eras have been found throughout the valley, and the dale is a popular location for archeologists. Once, when I was playing in valley’s little stream as a boy, I found a small square iron plate that looked like ashtray with a picture of bearded man done in an interesting style. I’m not sure how old this iron tray was; I gave it to an adult and learned nothing more. It was likely from before the time of the avalanche.

In 1960, as excavations were being done to build a small summer house on the spot, an ancient blót (sacrifice) stone was found. Scientists examined black marks on the inside of the stone and found that they were residue of ancient animal blood. The stone was lost, but it resurfaced in 2002 and is now stored in Galdrasafnið á Ströndum (Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft).

It is clear that blóts were held in this location in ancient times. Scholars think that heathens gathered here and held blóts in secret, even two centuries after the conversion to Christianity had outlawed public sacrifices. The discovery of the stone gives clear evidence for stories that this area had a hörg or hof.

Blót stone found in Goðdalur, Iceland

Eyrbyggja Saga tells of a hof raised by Þórólfur Mostraskegg:
There he let build a temple, and a mighty house it was. There was a door in the side-wall and nearer to one end thereof. Within the door stood the pillars of the high-seat, and nails were therein; they were called the gods’ nails. Therewithin was there a great frith-place [peace-place, sanctuary]. But off the inmost house was there another house, of that fashion whereof now is the choir of a church, and there stood a stall in the midst of the floor in the fashion of an altar, and thereon lay a ring without a join that weighed twenty ounces, and on that must men swear all oaths; and that ring must the chief have on his arm at all man-motes [moots, meetings]. 
On the stall should also stand the blood-bowl, and therein the blood-rod was, like unto a sprinkler, and therewith should be sprinkled from the bowl that blood which is called hlaut, which was that kind of blood which flowed when those beasts were smitten who were sacrificed to the gods. But round about the stall were the gods arrayed in the holy place.
The blót stone from the valley was likely used as a hlaut-bowl like the one described in the saga.

It is said that an ancient goði (heathen priest) was buried near the site of the hof in Goðdalur and that around him was a some sort of hex place on which animals were never allowed and which was never mowed. It is also said that the hofgoði (temple priest) threw his gods’ statues in Goðafoss after the conversion to Christianity, although this tale has been probably confused with that of Þorgeir Ljósvetningargoði. Of course, people suspect that this story is pretty one-sided.

Photograph of Goðdalur by Kári Pálsson

Thanks to Kári and the Ásatrúarfélagið for sharing this piece. Þakka þér kærlega fyrir!


Rebecca R. said...

This was such a great blog to read. The information was both awesome and inspiring. Thanks to Kári for allowing Karl to translate and re-post, and thank you Karl for doing so!! :)

Unknown said...

really enjoy reading about the ancient people and found reading this very enjoyable and makes me want to travel to visit some of these places all the more

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