Thorkel Farserk was a 10th-century Icelander who was a cousin and contemporary of Eirik the Red. The two cousins were close, and when Eirik the Red set out to colonize Greenland around 985, Thorkel was one of the men who signed on for the adventure. Upon arriving in the new land, he set up a home in a fjord near Eirik the Red’s settlement and reportedly started a dynasty that for centuries ruled the land around his homestead. Interestingly, Thorkel’s relationship with Eirik the Red and his participation in the colonization of Greenland were not what he was best known for by the medieval Icelanders. Instead, he was remembered as being a superhuman figure who possessed uncanny abilities both in life and in death.
As described in the Book of Settlements, Thorkel Farserk was “a man of unusual powers” (Landnámabók,Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 93). Much of his uncanny power was apparently physical in nature, such as limitless endurance and a resistance to cold. He performed his most famous alleged feat of strength on a day when Eirik the Red visited Thorkel’s home for a social gathering. Thorkel Farserk may have been superhuman, but he was also a terrible event planner—when Eirik’s arrival was imminent, Thorkel discovered, with shock, that he had no presentable food on hand at his dwelling and no ship nearby with which he could quickly reach his livestock, which were grazing on an island that lay over a mile off-shore. Without a boat, the swath of icy water was an intimidating obstacle that potentially blocked Thorkel from saving his feast and reputation. He, however, was (according to legend) a cold-resistant, supernaturally-gifted man with Herculean strength, so Thorkel Farserk simply dove into the water and swam the mile-long distance to the sheep-inhabited isle. He then picked out the animal of his choice, jumped back into the water with the sheep on his back, and retraced the mile-long journey through the cold water until he reached home.
When Thorkel Farserk eventually died, his legend and reputation continued to grow. According to Folklore, he did not rest in peace, but instead chose to haunt his lands in perpetuity. As the Book of Settlements eerily phrased it, “Thorkel was buried in the enclosure of Hvalseyjarfjord, and has been there, round about the house, ever since” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 93).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (swimming scene from the saga of Olaf Tryggvason, illustrated by Halfdan Egedius (1877–1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).