A woman named Steinunn the Old was a kinswoman of the famed Icelandic frontiersman, Ingolf (or Ingólfr) Arnarson. Also known as Ingolf the Settler, he moved from Norway to Iceland between 870 and 874, eventually building his home at Reykjavik and claiming a great swath of land in southwest Iceland. This adventurer’s importance was summarized in the medieval Book of Settlements, or Landnámabók, which claimed that “Ingolf was the most famous of all the settlers, because he came to this country [of Iceland] when it was still uninhabited and he was the first man to settle here permanently” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 9). Such was the person that Steinunn had as her kinsman.
Steinunn the Old’s arrival in Iceland was less well documented than that of her kinsman Ingolf, but she was known to have arrived at the island in the late 9th or early 10th century, while Ingolf was still alive in Reykjavik. As the story goes, cunning Steinunn decided to stay with her influential kinsman while she looked for land to settle. One thing led to another, and Ingolf eventually offered to let Steinunn make use of a piece of land in the Southern Peninsula Region of Iceland. Steinunn the Old agreed to this proposition, but, as the story goes, she made sure to leave a spotted coat behind with Ingolf before she left. By doing this, Steinunn cleverly was able to claim that she received her land not by a loan or handout, but through a barter exchange—she purchased her estate for the price of a spotted coat. This tale was recorded in the aforementioned Book of Settlements, which stated, “Steinunn the Old, Ingolf’s kinswoman, went to Iceland and stayed with him the first winter. He offered to give her the whole of Rosm-hvalaness, west of Hvassahraun, but she paid for it with a spotted coat and called it an exchange. She thought this would make it more difficult to break the agreement” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 394). Steinunn’s land was approximately in the region of Iceland that now hosts Keflavík Airport.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image labeled “Variant av illustrasjon til “Eirikssonnenes saga” i Snorre Sturlason, Kongesagaer, Kristiania 1899,” by Christian Krohg (c. 1852 – 1925), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Norway).
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.