There was a kindhearted man named Thorstein who moved to Iceland in the 9th or 10th century, settling in the southern regions of the island at a place then known as East Skard. Thorstein’s nickname and his kindly reputation were said to have derived from an incident that occurred after Thorstein had settled down and built his homestead. As the story goes, an eerie ship one day floated into the coastal waters of southern Iceland, and the vessel caused great concern in the minds of the local settlers. Perhaps, the sea craft looked like a ghostship, for there were little signs of active life onboard the vessel. Nevertheless, there were indeed people still alive in the mysterious ship, but news about these passengers and their unfortunate circumstances would bring little comfort to the onlooking Icelanders.
According to legend, the lack of spry movement and lively activity on the ship was due to a worsening outbreak of severe illness among the passengers. With their last remaining vestiges of strength, the deteriorating sailors of the vessel had managed to bring their ship to the shore of Iceland. Yet, their good fortune in reaching land seemed all for naught, because as soon as the Icelanders discovered that the ship carried pestilence, coastal community after coastal community started going out of their way to deny the ship access to their shores. Kind Thorstein, however, was different. While others were focused on blocking and ignoring the ship, Thorstein instead decided to help the sick travelers. Unfortunately, his actions came too late. Iceland’s Book of Settlements preserved the tale of Thorstein’s efforts to save the ill passengers, stating:
“[Thorstein] made his home at East Skard. While he was living there, a ship put in at Rang River Estuary. There was serious illness on board, and people had refused to give any help. Then Thorstein came along and moved them to a place now called Tjaldastead, pitching tents for them and attending to them himself as long as they lived, but they all died” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 358).
Such is the tale that reportedly led to Thorstein’s nickname of “Tent-Pitcher.” Although he was sadly unable to nurse the sickly passengers back to health, the people from the ship appreciated Thorstein’s gifts of solid ground, dry shelter, and kind company. In a curious twist to the story, one of the dying sailors evidently was so appreciative of the humanitarian gestures that he used his last breaths to tell Thorstein about the location of a hoard of buried treasure. If Thorstein ever found the hidden wealth, he never divulged the news to his countrymen.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration labeled ‘Harald Gråfell dro til Danmark om sommeren’ 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.