Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Orkney Yule

The church at Orphir.
Photo © Judith Jesch
As I noted in a festive blog post a few years ago, the Old Norse word jól can refer either to the pre-Christian midwinter festival, or the Christian one. What seems to unite them is that it is very much a time of feasting, as can be seen from both skaldic and saga-references. But the stories are generally interested in conflict, so we rarely get a picture of peaceful feasting, rather the Yuletide feast often seems to be a trigger for violent altercations. These violent events are quite clearly linked to the alcohol consumed at these feasts, and I guess it is these saga-episodes which give us our popular image of violent Vikings indulging in excessive drinking..

In the saga about the earls of Orkney, usually known as Orkneyinga saga, we get two rather different views of the most famous of those earls, Þorfinnr Sigurðarson, at this season. In chapter 20, he is praised for how he treats his followers at this time of year and, yes, it does involve feasting, with perhaps a little moral twist to the tale:
Earl Þorfinnr did that admirable deed in the Orkneys that he gave hospitality, both food and home brew, to all his court and to many other powerful men all through the winter, so that they did not need to go to the tavern, just as it is the custom for kings and earls in other countries to entertain their court throughout Yule.
The anecdote is supported by a half-stanza by Arnórr jarlaskáld 'Earls' poet' emphasising Þorfinnr's generosity. It comes just at the point in the story in which Þorfinnr's brother Brúsi dies, and he takes power over all the Orkneys. The throwaway comment about keeping his men out of the pub also underlines his firm hand on the tiller of state.

The saga is largely about internecine warfare in the families born to rule. So it is no surprise that Brúsi's son Rǫgnvaldr soon comes back home from his travels to challenge for his share of power, which he gets, at least temporarily. Þorfinnr however starts to chafe at the power-sharing arrangement, which also involved political interventions from Norway. After a decisive battle, Rǫgnvaldr flees to Norway but soon comes back and sets fire to the farm where Þorfinnr was staying at the time, but doesn't realise that the earl has managed to escape with his wife Ingibjǫrg. Rǫgnvaldr assumes power and does his ruler's duty by going to Papa Stronsay for the malt with which to brew the Christmas ale (chapter 29).

His followers never get to drink the brew, as Þorfinnr uses the advantage of surprise to attack Rǫgnvaldr and his men and burn the house down over their heads. Rǫgnvaldr has a premonition of his death just before: as they are sitting around the fire he misspeaks and says that 'we will have reached our allotted ages [fullgamlir] when these fires have burnt out', having meant to say fullbakaðir 'fully-baked', or 'well-warmed up', I suppose.

Having eliminated his main rival ('the most popular and most accomplished of the earls of Orkney; his death was a great sorrow to many'), Þorfinnr consolidates his power and continues to rule successfully. His obituary is less positive. In chapter 32, we're told that he was the most powerful of the earls of Orkney. His death was mourned by those in his ancestral lands. But in those lands he had subjugated, people really felt their lack of freedom living under his power.

More dramatic Yuletide events are recounted in chapter 66, as I alluded to briefly in a blog post a few years ago. It is a chapter of great interest since it not only provides quite a lot of detail about the buildings at the earl's residence of Orphir (remains of which can still be seen), but also gives a detailed account of the Christmas festivities as held by the earl, in this case Páll Hákonarson. Páll was at the time resisting claims to power by yet another Rǫgnvaldr, or Kali Kolsson, the nephew of St Magnús who had been killed by Páll's father Hákon. I told you there were family feuds aplenty in the saga.

The sequence of feuds and killings in the saga is really quite complicated at this point, so suffice to say that the episode marks our introduction to the saga's most complicated character, Sveinn Ásleifarson, a great power player in Orkney politics, and variously friend or enemy to several of the earls. At this point in the story, Sveinn's father Óláfr has recently been burned to death in his house with five other people. Sveinn uses the Christmas feast at Orphir as an opportunity to kill another Sveinn, called brjóstreip 'Breast-rope', an associate of the person responsible for Óláfr's death.

The narrative weaves the story of the killing into the sequence of Christmas festivities. Orphir is said to have had a large drykkjuskáli 'drinking-hall', with a fine church right next to it. Going into the hall, there was a large flat stone slab on the lefthand side, behind which were many large beer-barrels. When people came from Evensong, they were placed in their seats. After the tables had been taken up, most of the people went to sleep, but then got up during the night for the canonical hours. Then there was a high mass, and people then went to eat. There was a master of ceremonies, a certain Eyvindr, who was in charge of the feast, with waiters and attendants serving the drinks he poured out. There was a minor contretemps when Sveinn brjóstreip thought he was being served more quickly than Sveinn Ásleifarson, who was holding back on the drinking, contrary to etiquette. After another service at nones, the drinking continued, with speeches and drinking from horns. Then Sveinn brjóstreip, whose horn was smaller, wanted to switch with Sveinn Ásleifarson. Eyvindr intervenes to make this happen and Sveinn brjóstreip mutters under his breath that one Sveinn will kill the other. This is heard by Eyvindr, who basically eggs Sveinn Ásleifarson to kill Sveinn brjóstreip, but not before further drinking up until Evensong. The deed is done beside the aforementioned slab, as people are leaving the hall for church again. Sveinn Ásleifarson is spirited away and thanked by the bishop for his good deed in ridding the country of Sveinn brjóstreip. His responsibility for this (another man is killed too) becomes clear back in Orphir when the earl makes people go back to their seats and only Sveinn Ásleifarson is missing. Clearly, feasting your followers to keep them out of the pub and whatever trouble they might have got into there didn't really work, and the episode does seem to mark Páll out as a rather weak earl.


And so the feuds continue. It's rather hard to sum up all the events of Orkneyinga saga so I won't. But the episode presents quite a complex picture. Two people are dead and, though there are feuds and enmities to explain the killings, the sheer amount of drinking that appears to have gone on must have been a factor, too. Presumably the regular excursions to church broke the drinking up somewhat, but the church is also complicit in this kind of behaviour by the powerful, to judge by the bishop's reaction. Once again, there is a potent combination of the dark of winter, fire, home brew, and murder, here with added multiple church services.

It's rather good to think that nowadays, factions of Orcadians compete and contend at Christmas (and New Year) only in a rough, but not violent, game of surfing a ball from one end of Kirkwall to the other, known as the Ba' - indeed they are doing it more or less as I write this. And Merry Christmas to them.


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