A curious figure named Thorolf Sledgehammer can be found in a brief passage within the pages of the Vatnsdæla Saga, a text dated to the 13th or 14th century that tells the folkloric history of the first settlers who claimed land in the Vatnsdal region of Iceland. The saga purports to cover events that occurred between the years 875 and 1000. Thorolf Sledgehammer was said to have lived in the earlier years of that timeline, around the time when the first immigrants to Iceland were being succeeded by children who had been raised on the newly settled island. In Vatnsdal, the ascendant generation that was seizing power was a band of brothers named Thorstein, Jokul, Thorir, Hogni and Smid, who had succeeded their father, Ingimund—the first major chieftain of the Vatnsdal region. Thorolf Sledgehammer would ultimately clash with these brothers, resulting in a peculiar and outlandish showdown.
In the saga, Thorolf Sledgehammer is said to have been a mischievous, unruly and, ultimately, criminal individual. Yet, as medieval Icelandic criminals go, Thorolf’s record was relatively light, with accusations of theft making up the bulk of the legal complaints lodged against him. Besides these charges of thievery, Thorolf’s lifestyle seemed to unnerve his neighbors. As told by the saga, he had no relatives living in Vatnsdal at the time when he arrived in the region, and neither did he bring a family with him to his new home. Instead, he built an estate called Sleggjustadir on a piece of land that was dominated by mires and bogs, and mainly kept to himself, living there without any friends or servants. Although he was not one for human companionship, Thorolf did not technically live alone. Quite the opposite, his estate was reportedly a haven for a great number of cats—twenty of them, according to the saga. Due to Thorolf’s hermit-like nature and his general oddness, the people of Vatnsdal soon began to look askance at him, and suspicions arose that the reclusive cat-loving thief was somehow attuned to supernatural knowledge and power. The Vatnsdæla Saga embraced these rumors, portraying Thorolf Sledgehammer as a powerful sorcerer and wizard who was very capable in the ways of magic. His cats, too, were suspected of being supernatural, either innately or otherwise empowered through enchantments or spells.
As time went on, the already unsure relationship between Thorolf Sledgehammer and the rest of Vatnsdal only further deteriorated. Accusations of theft continued to accumulate and suspicions of nefarious magic deepened. Eventually, the community started to petition their leaders to do something about the strange man. Ultimately, the heads of the community did take an openly hostile stance against Thorolf, perhaps asking him to cooperate with investigations into theft, or to leave Vatnsdal altogether. The leaders of the community reportedly paid one peaceful visit to Sleggjustadir to present to Thorolf the complaints and wishes of the people of Vatnsdal. Thorolf, however, was said to have responded uncooperatively to the demands of the community leaders. Nevertheless, Vatnsdal’s leaders would not let the matter go. Instead, the leading brothers, Thorstein, Jokul, Thorir, Hogni and Smid, along with an armed band of eighteen men, tried to break their way into Thorolf’s house. This task, so the story goes, proved to be much more difficult than they might have imagined.
According to the saga, Thorolf Sledgehammer’s twenty loyal cats were more than a match for the posse of eighteen armed men that tried to occupy Sleggjustadir. The cats, described as “absolutely huge” and “much under the influence of witchcraft” (Vatnsdæla Saga, chapter 28), had been corralled by Thorolf into the estate’s main house before the raid was made on his property. Caterwauling, hissing and terrifyingly-fierce glares from these cats were apparently enough of a deterrent to keep the warriors of Vatnsdal from barging straight into the house. During the standstill, the armed militia outside shouted for the barricaded man to come out and face them. Thorolf refused, saying that he did not expect they would give him fair treatment.
With no surrender in sight, the Vatnsdal warriors decided to use a popular tactic prevalent in many sagas—arson. As the story goes, Thorolf’s house was set alight while he and his cats were still inside. With his home burning down around him, Thorolf Sledgehammer made up his mind to attempt an escape. Using the fiery environment to his own advantage, Thorolf began burning wool to further fill the house and the immediate surroundings with smoke. Then, under the cover of the smokescreen, Thorolf jumped out of an opening from his house, lugging small chests of treasure under each of his arms. His attempted escape, however, did not go overlooked by the Vatnsdal militia. One of the men from the posse caught up to Thorolf as he was trying to weave his way through the mires around his home. As the story goes, both the fleeing man and his pursuer fell into a deep section of the bog and drowned. Although Thorolf Sledgehammer did not survive, many of his faithful felines did manage to escape the fire. The anonymous author of the Vatnsdæla Saga claimed that wild cats still roamed around Sleggjustadir in his own time.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration made for Njal’s Saga, artwork by Andreas Bloch (1860–1917), placed on top of 19th century illustration of personified cats, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The British Library).
- Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, translated by Andrew Wawn and edited by Örnólfur Thorsson, in The Sagas of Icelanders. Penguin Classics, 2001.