According to the Icelandic Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), a man named Grim Hroaldsson sailed to Iceland sometime during the so-called Age of Settlement (approximately c. 860-930). Likely before his journey, but possibly after, Grim married a woman named Bergdis and they had a son named Thorir (or Þorir). Grim and his family settled in the Steingrimsfjord region of northern Iceland, and their land became known as Grims Isle.
Before long, Grim had his farm up and running, and hired farmhands to help on his land. When Grim and his farmhands were not busy tending their flocks, they all often went fishing out at sea. Grim’s son, Thorir, was brought along on these fishing trips, but he must have still been a child (or was uninterested in fishing), for he was always swaddled in seal skins and stowed securely at the prow of the ship while the others fished. If weather was particularly harsh, Thorir was apparently stuffed into a sealskin bag. The boy’s later nickname, Sel-Thorir, is often attributed to those sealskins in which he was wrapped (or bagged) during his childhood.
At this point of the tale, the wholesome story of Grim’s charming life as a farmer, fisherman and family man took a sudden turn out of the mundane and straight into folklore and myth. According to the Book of Settlements, Grim made an amazing catch during an autumn fishing trip. The creature put up a fight, but the farmer eventually pulled his prey up to the surface of the water. Grim, according to the tale, had caught a merman, and, as it was a sentient being, the fishman and the fisherman naturally began to talk. After they had exchanged pleasantries, Grim asked the merman to predict the future. The merman agreed and indeed gave a prophecy, which was apparently modeled on a Greek myth of Cadmus—the one in which he was instructed by the Delphic Pythia to follow a cow to the location where the city of Thebes would be built. According to the Book of Settlements the conversation between Grim and the merman was as follows: “’There’s no point in my making prophecies about you,’ said the merman, ‘but that boy in the sealskin bag, he’ll settle and claim land where your mare Skalm lies down under her load’” (Landnámabók, Sturlubókmanuscript, chapter 68).
After the merman encounter, life on Grim’s farm apparently returned to normal. For the rest of the autumn, work on the farm held priority. Yet, when winter arrived, Grim and his farmhands once more sailed out to sea on a fishing trip. This time, young Thorir decided to stay behind in the comfort of home instead of being stuffed inside another sealskin bag. It was a good choice, for Grim and his farmhands all tragically drowned at sea that winter.
After the fishing accident, the widow Bergdis was left alone to care for young Thorir and she found the farm on Grims Isle untenable now that all the farmhands were dead. Instead of hiring new workers, she decided to fulfill the merman’s prophecy. After gathering her son, Thorir, and Skalm (the mare), Bergdis set off on a journey inland into Iceland. According to the story, mother and son followed behind their trusty horse, Skalm, as she meandered through the Breidafjord and Borgarfjord regions. The Book of Settlementsdescribed the final leg of the peculiar journey:
“Skalm was still in the lead, and coming down from the moor into Borgarfjord District, just as they reached two red-coloured sand dunes, Skalm lay down under her load beside the westernmost dune. So Thorir took possession of the land south of Gnup River to Kald River below Knappadale, from the mountains and down to the sea” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 68).
As the merman allegedly foretold, the land where the mare lay down was claimed in the name of Thorir. When the boy grew up, he reportedly became a powerful chieftain. Although he faced some misfortune (one of his farms was allegedly wiped out by a lava flow), Thorir lived to a great old age and was laid to rest somewhere on a local cliff.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (merman painted by Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.