Hrafsi Ljotolfsson lived in Iceland around the time of the Age of Settlement (approximately 860-930). His father, the blacksmith Ljotolf, had been given permission to settle on lands belonging to Kjallak, a powerful figure who claimed as his domain everything in Iceland between what was then called the Dogurdar River and Klofningar. Under uncertain terms, Ljotolf and his family settled down in a place called Fellswood.
Kjallak had at least eight sons, of which Eilif the Proud, Asbjorn Muscle, Bjorn Whale-Belly and Thorgrim Tangle-Weed are the most important for this story. It should also be noted that Thorgrim Tangle-Weed and Bjorn Whale-Belly both had children, the former a daughter named Alof and the latter a son named Kjallak the Younger. Additionally, the younger Kjallak had a foster-brother named Oddmar, whom the Kjallakssons treated as one of their own. All of these people would play a role in the life of Hrafsi Ljotolfsson.
Ljotolf fathered far fewer children than Kjallak. The blacksmith had with him in Fellswood three sons—Thorstein, Bjorn and the aforementioned Hrafsi. The mothers of these brothers were not recorded, but Hrafsi’s mother was said to have been someone different than the woman who birthed Thorstein and Bjorn. Hrafsi apparently looked physically different than his brothers, and the talk of the town was that his mother had been a giant.
Kjallak’s clan and the smaller family of Ljotolf were able to coexist in peace for a time, but everything was about to change when Kjallak’s granddaughter, Alof Thorgrimsdottir, suddenly fell ill. Without any signs of warning, Alof became delirious or insane and the 10th-century Icelanders could make no sense of her unexpected mental breakdown. In the end, Thorgrim Tangle-Weed (Alof’s father) became convinced that his daughter had been cursed. This theory was supported by other members of the Kjallak clan and they soon pointed the finger at Hrafsi Ljotolfsson, who, after all, was said to have been the son of an otherworldly giant.
Hrafsi responded quickly to the allegations. He rejected the claims and proposed his own suspect—Oddmar, the foster-brother of Kjallak the Younger, who had apparently been with Alof when she fell ill. This accusation obviously soured the relationship between Hrafsi and Oddmar, but the scheme worked and Hrafsi caused enough doubt to be found not guilty of Alof’s madness. Consequently, Thorgrim Tangle-Weed must have felt socially or emotionally obligated to give Hrafsi some sort of apologetic gift for the wrongful accusation. Thorgrim offered him an island called Deildar Isle, yet the stubborn Hrafsi wanted money in addition to the island. While this was being negotiated, Thorgrim’s father, Kjallak, stepped in and forbid Hrafsi from receiving either the money or the island.
Outraged at this outcome, Hrafsi Ljotolfsson then escalated the already mounting tensions by reportedly stealing money from the Kjallak clan and then pointedly sailed with the plunder to Deildar Isle. Eilif the Proud, the mightiest of the Kjallakssons, went to the island presumably to retrieve the stolen wealth, but he was forced to flee after being hit by a non-fatal arrow. Despite the theft and archery, relations between the two sides seemingly calmed for a while. The families, thankfully, became cordial enough for Bjorn Whale-Belly and Bjorn Ljotolfsson to even compete in friendly games together. Yet, when Whale-Belly accidentally killed his opponent during one such game, the feud was destined to continue on its bloody course.
In response to his son’s death, Ljotolf mobilized his remaining sons and friends, preparing them for war. They convinced or tricked Oddmar to send Bjorn Whale-Belly into an ambush. Bjorn’s son, Kjallak the Younger, accompanied his father on the ill-fated trip. Despite the unexpected presence of the innocent son, Ljotolf launched his ambush and killed Bjorn Whale-Belly, likely doing the same to Kjallak the Younger. With the killings complete, Ljotolf and his sons went into hiding.
When the Kjallak clan learned of the deaths, they wanted blood—equal or more than that which Ljotolf and his kin had spilled. Eilif the Proud, who had by now recovered from his wound, led the war party into Fellswood and they scoured the region for their hated foes. Ljotolf and his son, Thorstein, were eventually found hiding together in a cave. Eilif reportedly slew them both single-handedly.
Hrafsi Ljotolfsson, now the last member of his family, was in no way ready to admit defeat. He reportedly infiltrated deep into the territory of his rivals, arriving at Orrastead, where Asbjorn Kjallaksson was hosting a feast for his father and other family members. In a likely-embellished feat, Hrafsi reportedly disguised himself as a woman, snuck into the hall while the revelry was in full swing, and audaciously murdered Asbjorn in sight of all the banqueters. To top off the deed, Hrafsi reportedly jumped out a window or smashed through a wall to make his escape.
The Kjallak clan was obviously going to take revenge, but they decided to take their time plotting the downfall of the giant-spawn, and therefore delayed their payback until the right moment. They eventually won over to their side a certain Thord Vifilsson, who had, until then, been a family friend of Hrafsi. Thord successfully hid his defection from Hrafsi and managed to lure the last Ljotolfsson to a vulnerable cliffside, where the Kjallak clan had set up an ambush. Unfortunately for Thord, the Kjallakssons launched their attack before their accomplice could flee the scene. Hrafsi, realizing that he had been betrayed, reportedly pushed Thord Vifilsson off the cliff in a rage before turning to face the ambushers. Eilif the Proud was present at the fight, but, for whatever reason, chose not to participate in the attack. Instead, he watched as his brothers and friends, in a tight shield-wall formation, advanced against the formidable Hrafsi. The ultimate fate of Hrafsi Ljotolfsson remains vague—the Book of Settlements, the source for this story, abruptly ends with “They couldn’t get at him until they’d crowded round him with boards. Eilif sat by idle when they attacked Hrafsi” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 111). As a supposed son of a giant, and a man who could reportedly break through walls, it is possible that Hrafsi escaped, but the odds of that are silm, and he never made a reappearance in the often-overlapping stories of the Book of Settlements.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene of Egil Skallagrimsson, by Johannes Flintoe (d. 1870), [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.