Murder in modern-day Iceland is very uncommon, standing in stark contrast to its bloody and violent past, as so dutifully recorded in the ancient Sagas. Even so, these historical tales of butchery and slaughter often have, at the very least, some justification, be it revenge, self-defence or territorial claims. One, however, stands out for its sheer brutality; the sordid tale of Axlar-Björn, Iceland’s only known serial killer.
A Killer is Born
Björn Pétursson was born in 1555 to working parents, farmers who lived on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. From the moment of his conception, things seemed amiss within the family; his mother, Sigríður, had complained during pregnancy of an insatiable thirst for blood, and her husband—loving as he was—indulged her in this desire, allowing her to drink his own. Having yielded to this desire, Sigríður began to experience terrible nightmares and confided in her farmhand that she was “carrying a monster”.
No doubt, Björn was a difficult and defiant child, known for his insubordination and misbehaviour; even so, he did not appear to show any signs of being a demented soul. On the contrary, at 15-years old he began to work for a wealthy neighbouring farmer named Ormur Þorleifsson, exchanging labour for food and board. It was during this time that he befriended the farmer’s son, Guðmundur. On the surface, at least, it appeared that Björn was becoming the Icelandic male archetype, one who used his strength and wits to work the land and provide for his family.
And yet, still waters often run the deepest.
Dreams & Nightmares
It is said that in a dream, Björn was met by a stranger who offered him meat. Finding it to be the most delicious game he had ever eaten, Björn gave reign to his appetite until the 19th piece, at which point he became overcome with sickness. As proof of Björn’s near-mythic status, writers and scholars have often described this dream figuratively as the soon-to-be killer consuming human flesh.
Refusing to eat more, the stranger then advised him to climb to the peak of Mount Axlarhyrna where he would find an object that would come to define his future. Submitting to the will of his subconscious, Björn ascended the mountain the next day, where he found a large and sharpened axe.
According to a later confession, it was with this axe that Björn committed his first slaying, striking and killing a young farmhand, then burying his body beneath a dung heap. Around this time, the farmer, Ormur, fell ill, finally succumbing to his sickness and leaving his estate to Guðmundur. Charitably, Guðmundur—by now, an increasingly wealthy benefactor—offered Björn his own farmstead, a picturesque home called Öxl, located near the hamlet of Búðir on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Because of his infamy, and his place of residence, he was given the nickname Axlar-Björn, meaning “Shoulder Bear”— Öxl becomes Axlar in the possessive form in Icelandic. That year, Björn moved to his new residence with his wife, Þórdís, beginning a chain of events that would lead to the deaths of an untold number of people.
The exact details of Björn’s crimes have been lost to the fabric of time. No one can say for sure exactly why, or how many victims he killed, but what is certain is that vagabond travellers and farm hands looking for work at Öxl began to disappear at a staggering rate. Björn, on the other hand, prospered during this period, increasing his wealth, property size and number of horses in such a manner as to make local townsfolk suspicious.
Nonetheless, Björn was vouched for and protected by Guðmundur, who by now had become a powerful and influential figure on the peninsula. Whether by design or by sheer misfortune, he had made the killer exempt from others looking too closely into his devilish affairs.
Öxl was one of the most desired pieces of estate on the peninsula, blessed with staggering views of the mountains, fertile land and fortuitous seasonal weather. Despite all of this, Björn was prone to foul moods, a symptom of his blood-lust and the ‘dark clouds’ that affected his vision. According to the legend, he once approached a gathering of young men who were basking in the bright summer climate, stating solemnly “these are dark days devoid of sunshine, my brothers.“
Capturing A Monster
Precisely how Björn’s killing spree came to an end is up to debate, with many claiming that the local’s suspicions simply caught up with him. Another story, however, dictates that his undoing came in 1596, at the hands of a poverty-stricken mother and her three young children who were seeking shelter at Öxl farmstead. During their stay, Björn enticed the children one by one away from safety, murdering them in cold blood while their mother managed to hide and ultimately escape, thus being able to tell of the horrors that were occurring at Öxl.
Whichever the case, Björn was arrested by the authorities and eventually confessed to the murder of nine people. Subsequent excavations at Öxl revealed a number of other bodies, to which Björn argued he had simply found their remains on the property and buried them in new graves accordingly. This defence fell on deaf ears, and thus the murderer was sentenced to death at Laugarbrekkuþing, an assembly nearby to modern-day Hellnar.
In front of Þórdís, his now pregnant wife, Björn was hanged, drawn and quartered, with each piece of his body displayed on stakes. His limbs were broken with a sledgehammer, and his body parts were separated due to the locals’ fear that he would return as a ghost. His genitalia was removed and thrown into his wife’s lap; she too was sentenced to death for the crime of aiding her husband in disposing of the bodies, with many believing that she had also murdered some of the victims herself, or at least held them down while her husband beat them to death.
Nonetheless, Þórdís escaped the death penalty and was permitted to raise her son, Sveinn “Skotti” Björnsson, into adulthood. Sveinn would go on to become a notorious drifter and rapist and was executed for his own crimes in 1648. His own son, Gísli “Hrókur” Sveinnsson, was also hanged as a criminal, permeating the idea that Björn’s sadistic ways were in some manner hereditary.
Today, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is considered a heavenly paradise, one of Iceland’s most popular and beautiful tourist destinations—a far cry from the cruel, natural prison that it must have seemed to Björn’s victims. To date, no one is sure just how many people died at his hand, though the count is thought to be at least eighteen. Not only did he commit his heinous crimes with the sharp edge of his axe, but also through drowning victims in a pond at the edge of Búðarhraun lava field.
Visitors with an eye towards dark tourism can visit Hnausahraun lava field where the crimes took place; it is even still possible to see the pond, known as Íglutjörn, used to hide his murders. Today, a cairn (stone pile) and parking area can be found on the south side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, besides Hellnavegur road. This cairn is known as Dreplakolludys and marks the resting place of this Iceland’s most notorious killer. A display board here tells his story in summary, though you can read more about his deplorable, yet fascinating life in Icelandic Folk And Fairy Tales by Jón Árnason.