Hafur-Bjorn was an early settler of Iceland who lived during the so-called Age of Settlement period (c. 860-930). Bjorn and his brothers, Gnup, Thorstein Hrungnir and Thord Leggjaldi, were dragged around Iceland by their indecisive father, Molda-Gnup, who traveled from site to site on the island, searching for an ideal place to settle that met his criteria of wants and needs. Molda-Gnup first brought his family into the Kúðafljót region of Southern Iceland. As told by the medieval Icelandic Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), Molda-Gnup “took possession of land between Kudafljot and Eyjar River, including the whole of Alfaver; at that time there was a large lake there, a fine place for hunting swans” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 329). Despite the picturesque river, lake, and its population of beautiful swans, there was also some trouble in the region that predictably distressed Molda-Gnup. At that time, the local land was reportedly experiencing a rise in volcanic activity and lava flows. This molten peril caused Molda-Gnup and his family to relocate to Hofdabrekka, along with other settlers who were also threatened by the lava. Not long after, Molda-Gnup moved yet again, to a new place called Hrossagard, and, after spending a winter there, he moved his family once more to another site called Grindavik. There, Molda-Gnup’s criteria for a settlement was met, so he began building his home and farm in that region.
As the story goes, Molda-Gnup’s family was wealthy from selling previous plots of land that they had claimed before finally settling at Grindavik, so they had little trouble obtaining materials and setting up buildings on their estate. Yet, filling their pastures with a thriving ecosystem of livestock was another matter. Molda-Gnup was reportedly struggling to be a successful herdsman, but his luck changed when he delegated the job of overseeing the family’s livestock business to his son, Bjorn.
Bjorn did an excellent job managing the family’s animals, and he especially had a talent for raising goats. Under his management, the family’s goats began to multiply at such an extent that a legend formed, claiming Bjorn must have had supernatural help to accomplish his feat. The tale was recorded in the Book of Settlements, which stated “One night Born dreamed that a cliff-giant came and offered him partnership, and that he accepted the offer. Afterwards, a strange billy-goat came to join his herd of goats, and his live-stock began to multiply so fast that soon he was a wealthy man” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 329). According to the Book of Settlements, it was this tale of the mysterious cliff goat that gave the herdsman his nickname of Hafur-Bjorn, which means Billy-goat Bjorn.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Italian Mountain Landscape with Shepherds, by Marten Ryckaert (c. 1586 – 1630) and Paul Bril (c. 1552 – 1626), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Statens Museum for Kunst.jpg).
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.