My mild fascination with labyrinths was revealed in an Ancient Dan post a few years ago (“Lord, Help”), triggered by my literally stumbling upon a carved representation of one at ancient Knidos in Turkey. A recent trip to Iceland provided a chance to investigate the most remote labyrinth of Europe[1] in a more planned and systematic manner. My circuitous trek to arrive at it was unexpectedly matched by the maze of background info on the site, legends in the region, questions about the form of the labyrinth itself, and—ultimately—how we deal with changes of direction and uncertainties of life. It took me down so many different paths that this will have to be a multi-part post.

A Labyrinth at Dritvík

Of four pre-modern stone labyrinths noted by earlier investigators of Iceland, only one remains.[2] The sole survivor lies at the far west end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland, above the ruins of a seasonal fishing camp at a small bay called Dritvík. Always curious about the origin and meaning of place names, I decided to dig up the poop on Dritvík.

Ancient Dan checks out the Dritvík labyrinth with the glacier-covered volcano Snæfellsjökull in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021-06-23)

Names and Sagas

Place names have always held high importance in Iceland. For most of its history, the vast majority of people lived on farms whose names were their physical address. Historic names of farms and physical features of the landscape are often attributed to the earliest settlers of Iceland by medieval documents such as the Landnámabók (“Book of Settlements”), tales, and sagas—especially the Íslendingasögur, or “Sagas of the Icelanders.”[3]

The origins of many locality names on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, including Snæfellsnes itself and Dritvík, are found in the Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss,[4] an odd tale (there is even a character named Odd) with many legendary features (trolls, giants, and witches). It is usually assumed to be later (14th century) than most other sagas of the Icelanders. In addition to providing a colorful origin of the name Dritvík, this bizarre saga raises (in my mind, at least) some of the same questions that surround the labyrinth—at the junction of pagan traditions and Christianized society.

Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss relates the story of Bárðr, son of Dumbr (and therefore conventionally Bárðr Dumbsson) who was born in the northern arctic wastes of Norway. The story has many fantasy elements, including Bárðr’s lineage. His father, King Dumbr, was half giant, half troll, but his mother was fully human, although carefully described as “a most beautiful woman, and bigger than most.” Because of unrest, Dumbr sent Bárðr south to be raised by the “cave-dweller” Dofri. There he had a dream that someone would grow up in Dofri’s cave, become king of Norway, and his descendant would declare a new faith. “The dream was not to his liking,” so Bárðr left, wed to Dofri’s daughter (“the biggest of women and bold in aspect, but not uncommonly pretty”), who gave him three daughters (Bárðar Saga 1).

After several Viking (i.e., violent) adventures in Norway, Bárðr left with his half-brother Þorkell (Thorkell) and their families for Iceland to avoid the taxes of the new king Harald Tanglehair. Sailing to western Iceland they saw a glacier covered mountain they called Snæfell and named the peninsula Snæfellsnes (Bárðar Saga 2-3).

Snaefellsnes Peninsula, dominated by the glacier covered Snæfellsjökull, viewed from the SE as first seen by Bárðr’s group who named the mountain; view to the NW (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021-06-23)

Bárðr moored his ship in a lagoon they named Djúpalόn (“Deep Lagoon”) and made sacrifices at a large cave they called Tröllakirkja (“Church of Trolls”). After this they relieved themselves and beached the ship in a small bay where they encountered their own poop which had washed ashore. So they named that place Dritvík (Bárðar Saga 4), which means . . . , er, politely: “Excrement Bay.”[5] So much for my name curiosity.

Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge; named for Rauðfelder, thrown in from the top to his death there by Bárðr; for scale, note the figure just right of the entrance: Teddy Ko, a great guy who we met serendipitously and encountered at three widely separated spots in Iceland over 10 days (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021-06-23)

Bárðr created other enduring place names in the area and settled his family on a farm he called Laugarbrekka. His half-brother Þorkell settled at nearby Arnastapi and their children often played together, albeit roughly. On one occasion Þorkell’s twelve and nine year old sons pushed Bárðr’s daughter Helga out to sea on an ice floe. When he was told, Bárðr went berserk, stormed to Arnastapi, and hauled the boys to the mountains. He threw Rauðfelder (“Red-cloak”) to his death into a gorge, thereafter named Rauðfeldsgjá, and Sölvi off a cliff (hence Sölvahamar). A fight ensued with Þorkell, who was maimed but survived (Bárðar Saga 5). Bárðr became withdrawn after these events and eventually withdrew to a trollish life in a cave under the glacier, saying “I cannot deal with normal people.” After this, Bárðr was called Bárðr Snæfellsáss (“guardian spirit” or “god” of Snæfells) as he became a shadowy hero savior to the people of of the peninsula (Bárðar Saga 5-6). Several chapters of the saga describe his giving aid to people in distress, especially saving them from trolls and the wiles of witches.

Snæfellsjökull, where Bárðr disappeared under the glacier and became the Guardian Spirit of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021-06-23)

Meanwhile Bárðr’s daughter Helga had drifted on the ice floe to Greenland, where her unusual arrival brought speculation that she was a troll. Nevertheless, her father’s name was known there and she was accepted and lived in the house of Erik the Red (father of Leif Eriksson, Viking “discoverer” of America). Helga sang a poem longing to see again several places of Iceland, including “the gravel of Dritvík”—Dritvík, interestingly, is the only place she mentions with a defining feature (Bárðar Saga 4).

The “gravel of Dritvík,” pined for by Helga in Greenland, which is quite unique and pleasing (photo: Felicia J Browning 2021-06-23)

Helga became the mistress of a traveling businessman who eventually returned to Iceland with her in tow. When Bárðr learned of all this he retrieved her from the married man’s house; but Helga was not happy back with her father. She pined for her lover, became withdrawn much as Bárðr had, and disappeared. She wandered around Iceland lodging in caves and hills, so that many are named for her, and “delighted in nothing anywhere . . . hid her identity and usually kept far from men.” This tragic description, however, ends with the note that “she also stayed with her father now and again” (Bárðar Saga 7). In the Bárðar Saga relationships are torn and partly mended—Bárðr and Þorkell, “it is said,” even reconciled and later lived together. The story is very much like real life in this respect. So what is the point of Bárðar Saga?

Trolls and Christianity

Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss incorporates much genealogical background from other medieval Old Norse sources and features the intense and accurate focus on place names that brought me to the saga. These things imply a historical intent. Indeed, the work is classified with the Íslendingasögur and has the requisite Christian themes of the genre.But Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss stands out in several ways. Trolls, giants, and witches are prominent characters and supernatural occurrences play important plot roles. Such features suggest the work is a historical novel, fantasy, or farce.[6]

Most importantly, the protagonist is part human, part troll, part giant; this lineage is carefully traced and the traits of each component explained to define his character. Despite the Christian themes of the saga and references to the “true God,” Bárðr rejects Christianity—which, of course, would officially deny his existence. Nevertheless, Bárðr defends and helps regular humans against witches and trolls. An enigmatic hero, certainly.

Statue of Bárðr, guardian deity of Snaefellsnes and protagonist of the Bárðar Saga, at Arnarstapi; 1985, by Ragnar Kjartansson (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2021-06-23)

Evaluation of Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss’ intent is complicated by its second half which follows the activities of Bárðr’s son, Gestr. Many scholars conclude the latter chapters are written later by different author. Even so, the addition adds to the enigmatic nature of Bárðr’s character and role. At the end of the saga, after achieving victory over “undead” forces with the aid of a priest (who konks the pagan god Odin over the head with a crucifix), Gestr is baptized as a Christian only to have his father Bárðr appear to him that night in a dream and destroy his eyes for allowing himself “to be forced to change [his] beliefs.” Gestr died the next day (Bárðar Saga 21). A few concluding paragraphs of genealogy do little to soften this confusing ending to a tragic tale.

I—admittedly with no expertise in Old Norse literature—came to view Bárðr as a personification of the pagan tradition in the newly Christianized world of medieval Iceland.[7] Bred and born of the old ways, he was trained by Dofri who was learned in the arts of magic and ancient lore, because “nothing was known of the true God” then (Bárðar Saga 1). After the conflicts on Snæfellsnes, Bárðr could not “deal with normal people,” and moved into caves in the glacier. Despite his disappearance from normal society people of the peninsula “practically worshipped him . . . and called upon him in times of difficulty” and “for many he also proved to be a source of real help in need” (Bárðar Saga 6). Bárðr’s role sounds very much like enduring pre-Christian beliefs that were no longer openly accepted in society but resurfaced as comfort mechanisms in times of distress—as is known to be the case in Iceland up to modern times.

Back to the Labyrinth Entrance

What does this have to do with the labyrinth at Dritvík? I think a great deal, in light of a disagreement about the true original structure of the maze. But that must wait for the second installment of this exploration. The twists and turns continue here in Part 2.

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[1] Jeff Saward, Labyrinths & Mazes : A Complete Guide to Magical Paths of the World (New York: Lark Books, 2003), 147.

[2] Jeff Saward and Deb Saward, “The Labyrinth in Iceland,” Caerdroia 29 (1998): 58–60.

[3] For an excellent map presentation on the relation of placenames to the sagas, see Emily Lethbridge, “Icelandic Saga Map,” http://sagamap.hi.is/is/.

[4] For Icelandic text with English translation, see Jón Skaptason and Phillip Pulsiano, Bárðar Saga, Garland Library of Medieval Literature 8 (New York: Garland, 1984); for Icelandic text only online, see “Bárðar Saga Snæfellsáss,” Icelandic Saga Database, accessed August 1, 2021, https://www.sagadb.org/bardar_saga_snaefellsass.is; English translation only can be found in Viðar Hreinsson, The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, Including 49 Tales (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Pub., 1997), II: 237-66.

[5] Such is found in older translations; Google translates the parts Drit and vík more frankly (https://translate.google.com/?hl=en&tab=TT&sl=is&tl=en&text=Drit%20v%C3%ADk&op=translate); The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, 241 (a government endorsed translation), gives “Shit Inlet;” since vík can also mean “creek,” one translation I found actually anticipated a recent hit comedy series with its rendering.

[6] Warning! This footnote is for literature nerds only; studies that argue for Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss as parody include: Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, “Following the Trollish Baton Sinister: Ludic Design in Bárðar Saga Snæfellsáss,” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 4 (2008): 15–43; and Camilla Asplund Ingemark, “The Trolls in Bárðar Saga: Playing with the Conventions of Oral Texts?,” in Folklore in Old Norse – Old Norse in Folklore, ed. Karen Bek-Pedersen and Savborg (University of Tartu Press, 2014).

[7] A more erudite view with a similar conclusion about Bárðr holds that the Bárðar Saga was intended as history, but expressed in the belief system of the day so that supernatural events were logical explanations; in this well-argued view, “Bárðr and his family are kind creatures who assist people in need and must not be confused with evil trolls . . . nevertheless, their time has passed when Christianity comes to Iceland” and “the family of Bárðr disappears as Iceland becomes Christian;”.see Ármann Jakobsson, “History of the Trolls? Bárðar Saga as an Historical Narrative,” in Saga-Book, vol. XXV (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2001), 53–71.




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