Thorstein Red-Nose was the oldest son of Hrolf Red-Beard, an early settler of Iceland who built a homestead, called Foss, in the Southern Region of Iceland during the late 9th or early 10th century. For geographical bearings, they reportedly settled slightly to the northeast of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. When Thorstein Red-Nose eventually took over management of the Foss farm, he focused his efforts on raising sheep, and he turned out to be quite good at that job. At the height of his success, Thorstein Red-Nose was said to have possessed well over 2,000 sheep in his flock, which he raised in pastureland that was situated beside a waterfall.
Thorstein’s animals, abounding in quantity and quality, naturally drew the interest of neighbors, who began pondering over the secrets to the Foss farm’s success. Evidently, the prying people undervalued Thorstein’s skill, time and effort, and instead looked for other, more supernatural, reasons as to why Thorstein’s flock was flourishing. In the end, the gossipers concluded that Thorstein Red-Nose’s success was due to the gift of foresight, as well as divine favor that he had cultivated by offering sacrifices to the waterfall near his pastures.
Unfortunately for Thorstein Red-Nose, no skill, time, effort, or even supernatural foresight, could ensure success forever. As the story goes, a giant storm with terrible winds eventually hit the pasture, and presumably Thorstein was caught in the tempest while trying to herd his animals to safety. Thorstein Red-Nose’s intriguing life and mysterious end was recorded in the Icelandic Book of Settlements, which stated: “Thorstein Red-Nose was a great sacrificer. He used to make sacrifices to the waterfall and all the left-overs had to be thrown into it. He could see clearly into the future. Thorstein had all his sheep counted and they numbered 2400…The night he died, all the sheep got swept into the waterfall by a gale” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 355). Such was the reported fate of Thorstein Red-Nose—he and the flock of sheep he had worked so hard to cultivate were allegedly all killed during a storm. Curiously, as Thorstein was rumored to have had the ability to predict the future, he naturally was said to have predicted his own death.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from a painting labeled “En hyrdedreng, der driver en flok far,” by J.V. Gertner (c. 1818 – 1871), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Statens Museum for Kunst).
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.