Steinunn Réfsdóttir – A Female Skald at the Age of Conversion

Steinunn Skald was an Icelandic woman and devoted pagan who came from a powerful family of góðar – as in pagan priests. She was the daughter of Refr the Great and mother to a famous skald, Hofgarða-Refr Gestsson, a name which translates as “Refr of the Temple Farms, son of Gest”.

She was also a poet in her own right, and one of the few female skalds whose poetry, albeit only two verses, have been preserved in writing. She composed the verses as a way of letting a Christian missionary know that her lord Thor had crushed his ship and was, therefore, stronger than Christ. She was the only representative of the pagan faith that these missionaries could not outwit in any way.

Steinunn was a real historical person, mentioned in three saga sources: Njáls saga, Kristni saga and Landnámabók.

In Landnámabok (the book about the settling of Iceland), she is listed as the niece of a pagan priest, Hjörleif Góði, whose sister was Finna, married to Refr the Geat, and they had Steinunn, who was the mother of Refr of the Temple Farms by a certain Gest. (Landnámabók 27: Hans son var Skafti, faðir Hjörleifs goða og Finnu, er átti Refur hinn mikli, faðir Steinunnar móður Hofgarða-Refs.)

In Kristni saga (the saga of the conversion to Christianity), we hear that the Saxon missionary Thangbrand had his ship wrecked and that Steinunn composed a verse about it, and we are then given the verses.

But in Njáls saga, we get more detail, so I have chosen to quote from that one:

Steinunn Skald in Brennu-Njáls saga

Erik Werenskiold Heimkringla illustration, Sigrid and Olaf Tryggvason

Erik Werenskiold illustration to Heimskringla

100: “There was a change of rulers in Norway. Earl Hákon had passed away, and in his place came Olaf Tryggvason [King of Norway between 995 and 1000 A.D., and the second king who attempted to convert Norway to Christianity]. The end of Earl Hákon´s life came when the slave Kark cut his throat at Rimul in Gaulardal. Along with this came the news of a change of religion in Norway. They had given up their old faith [actually, more than half the population was still pagan and did not convert until sometime after 1030 A.D., 35 years later]. The king had also converted the western lands to Christianity; the Shetlands, Orkney, and the Faroe Islands. Many people [in Iceland] were saying, and Njál heard them, that it was a great scandal to reject the old faith …

…That autumn a ship came into Berufjord [in Iceland] in the east and landed at a place called Gautavik. Thangbrand was the name of the skipper; he was the son of Count Vilbaldus of Saxony and had been sent out here to Iceland by King Olaf Tryggvason to preach the faith. With him was an Icelander called Gudleif, who was the son of Hogni Ari, the son of Mar, the son of Atli, the son of Ulf the Squinter, the son of Hogni the White, the son of Otrygg, the son of Oblaud, the son of King Hjorleif the Womanizer of Hordaland. Gudleif was a great warrior and very brave, tough in every way….

101: The following spring Thangbrand travelled around preaching the faith, and Hall went with him… [what follows is an account of how Thangbrand and Hall encountered many pagan enemies of the Christian faith and conquered them all in diverse ways – all, until they met with Steinunn Skald:]

102: … Hjalti and Gizur the White went abroad that summer. Thangbrand´s ship, the Bison, was wrecked off Bulandsnes in the east. Thangbrand travelled through all the western part of the land. Steinunn, the mother of Ref the Poet, came to meet him. She preached heathenism at great length to Thangbrand. Thangbrand was silent while she spoke, but then spoke at length and turned all her arguments upside down.

“Have you heard,” she said, “that Thor challenged Christ to a duel and that Christ didn’t dare to fight with him?”

“What I have heard,” said Thangbrand, “is that Thor would be mere dust and ashes if God didn’t want him to live.”

“Do you know,” she said, “who wrecked your ship?”

“What can you say about it?” he said.

“I will tell you,” she said:

  1. The shaping gods drove ashore

The ship of the Keeper of Bells [=Thangbrand]

The  Slayer of the Son of the Giantess [=Thor]

smashed Bison on the Sea-Gull´s Rest [=the sea]

No help came from Christ

when the Sea-Horse [=the ship] was crushed:

I don’t think God was guarding

Gylfi´s Reindeer [=the ship] at all.

She spoke another verse:

 

  1. Thor drove Thangbrand´s Beast of Thvinnil [=the ship]

far from its place;

he shook and shattered

the ship and slammed it ashore;

never will that Oak [=the ship] of Atal´s Field [=the sea]

be up to sea-faring again;

the storm, sent by Thor,

smashed it so hard into bits.

With that, Steinunn and Thangbrand parted, and Thangbrand and his men went west to Bardastrond.”

 

Steinunn´s poetry in the original language:

10.Þórr brá Þvinnils dýri Þangbrands ór stað lǫngu, hristi búss ok beysti barðs ok laust við jǫrðu; munat skíð of sæ síðan sundfœrt Atals grundar, hregg þvít hart tók leggja hônum kent í spônu.

11.Braut fyr bjǫllu gæti (bǫnd rôku Val Strandar) mǫgfellandi mellu môstalls visund allan; hlífðit Kristr, þás kneyfði knǫrr, malmfeta varrar; lítt hykk at goð gætti Gylfa hreins at einu.

 Sources:

Njáls saga 100-102 (The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders III, Viðarr Hreinsson, ed., Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz, Bernard Scudder, Leifur Eiriksson Publishing 1997)

Landnámabók 27 ( https://www.snerpa.is/net/snorri/landnama.htm )

Kristni saga (VIKING SOCIETY FOR NORTHERN RESEARCHTEXT SERIES, GENERAL EDITORS:Anthony Faulkes and Alison Finlay, VOLUME XVIII
ÍSLENDINGABÓK — KRISTNI SAGA, THE BOOK OF THE ICELANDERS — THE STORY OF THECONVERSION ( http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/Text%20Series/IslKr.pdf )

 

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