During the reign of Harald Finehair (ruled approximately 860-940), a man named Atli Valason sailed away from Norway and settled in Iceland. Atli had a son named Asmund, who married a woman named Thora and set up farmsteads in Langaholt and Oxl. Asmund apparently became a Viking and acquired slaves and wealth, which were used to build new structures on his land. Among his construction projects was a new hall for his wife’s personal enjoyment at Langaholt. Thora was quite the socialite, and according to the Book of Settlements, “she used to sit on a chair outside and invite every guest to come in for a meal” (Landnámabók, Stulubók version, chapter 72). Although the gregarious Thora no doubt spent a great deal of money entertaining her friends, Asmund managed to die a wealthy man.
Regarding funerary practices, early Scandinavian societies apparently preferred cremation. Yet, around the time of the Viking Age (in which Asmund was living), burials were also rising in popularity. Asmund’s family chose the latest fashion and decided to lay Asmund to rest in a ship and entombed both him and the ship inside a burial mound. Some of his prized possessions were also buried in the mound with him, including, unfortunately, one of his slaves. Although such human inclusions in funerals were sometimes ritually slaughtered, the slave inside of Asmund’s burial mound was apparently buried alive and left to slowly die of hunger and thirst (or else the rest of this tale is a ghost story).
Facing doom and boredom, the trapped slave found comfort in one of humanity’s oldest forms of expression—song. The slave began singing an impromptu song that was written from the perspective of the deceased Asmund, lamenting that the once powerful Viking now was accompanied by only a single lowly slave. According to Icelandic folklore, a passerby was near Asmund’s grave when this song eerily began emanating from the burial mound. According to the Book of Settlements, the anonymous Icelander heard these verses:
“On board my ship
in this stony mound,
no crew here
crowding around me;
far better solitude
than feeble support,
a fine sailor I was once;
that won’t be forgotten.”
(Landnámabók, Stulubók version, chapter 72)
The passerby apparently thought that the singer’s line of “far better solitude than feeble support” was a fair point and conveyed that reasoning to those who were responsible for the grave. According to the Book of Settlements, “After that the mound was opened up and the slave taken from the ship” (Landnámabók, Stulubók version, chapter 72). Unfortunately, no further information was recorded about the ultimate fate of the slave.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Burial of a Jarl, by Carl Schmidt (1858-1923), [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.