The early settlers of Iceland are known for being tough, but tough people can also feel deep affection and longing for others. The characters of the Icelandic Sagas weren’t just fighters, they were also lovers.

This series follows the story arcs of three women in the Sagas who have epic love stories. This instalment focuses on a woman who is perhaps better known for being a thief and an accomplice to murder than a traditional lover.

Hallgerður ‘langbrók’ Höskuldsdóttir – Brennu-Njals Saga

hár

Hallgerður had long hair, like this woman in traditional dress at Thingvellir. Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons, Swedish National Heritage Board.

Þá skal eg nú, muna þér kinnhestinn.”

This quote loosely translates to “I will pay you back for the slap in the face”. Slaps play a significant role in the life and times of Hallgerður langbrók. She is one of the most memorable characters from the first half of The Saga of Burnt-Njáll.

Hallgerður Höskuldsdóttir was known for being tall and having long hair. These characteristics are where her nickname ‘langbrók’ comes from, meaning long-pants. She was also known for having a temper, (aka; being a ruthless badass). When she was a child, her uncle, Hrútur, notes that many will suffer because of her beauty. He also added that she had the eyes of a thief.

When she was growing up, Hallgerður is looked after by a man named Þjóstólfur. He is described as a strong man who has killed many combatants throughout his life. Naturally, some people thought he was a bad influence on Hallgerður.

First Husband

Axe

Axe, a handy tool and deadly weapon. Photo: Flickr, Marco Verch.

As was expected, Hallgerður grows up to be very pretty. A man named Þorvaldur Ósvífursson wants to marry her. He asks her father Höskuldur for her hand and her father says yes. When Höskuldur then tells Hallgerður she’s getting married, her reply was along the lines of “You clearly don’t love me, dad, since you didn’t even ask me”.

Hallgerður and Þorvaldur are married and, unfortunately, the relationship was as bad as expected. The home is lacking food and Þorvaldur blames Hallgerður, claiming this has never happened before. Þorvaldur gets so angry when Hallgerður refuses to take the blame that he slaps her.

This was the first fateful slap of Hallgerður’s life. When Þjóstólfur heard about the assault, he took furious vengeance, killing her husband with an axe. Hallgerður is now a widow.

Second Husband

Another man named Glúmur wants to marry Hallgerður. This time, she’s asked before the engagement and she agrees to the marriage. In a few short years, Glúmur and Hallgerður have a young daughter.

Þjóstólfur, the man who murdered her first husband, moves in with them, annoying Glúmur no end. Hallgerður and Glúmur fight about Þjóstólfur’s presence and Glúmur hits her.

The second fateful slap in her life. Hallgerður asks Þjóstólfur not to kill Glúmur over it, but he kills him anyway. Hallgerður gets mad and sends Þjóstólfur to her uncle Hrútu, knowing that he will kill the man who did this. That is the end of Þjóstólfur, but not the end of slaps directed Hallgerður’s way.

Third Husband

Flirting

Illustration of Gunnar and Hallgerður meeting. Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons, Andreas Bloch.

We are now introduced to Gunnar Hámundarson, the quintessential hero of the Sagas. This dude is described as an Icelandic Prince Charming; tall, handsome, blonde, strong and skilled in the arts of warfare and conversation. Of course, he meets Hallgerður and the pair fall in love instantly.

When Gunnar goes to ask Hallgerður’s father for her hand in marriage, her uncle chimes in again. He’s doubtful that they’re fairly matched and also believes their reasons for wanting to marry are purely lustful. Naturally, no one listens to uncle Hrútur.

Gunnar goes to ask his best friend Njáll—the titular character of the saga—what he thinks about his engagement. Njáll is a very wise man and, with a heavy heart, tells Gunnar that if Hallgerður moves east to be with him, that all the ensuing bad things that might occur there will be her fault. Gunnar says Hallgerður will never come between the two friends, but Njáll isn’t so sure.

Despite the two psychic men warning against it, Gunnar and Hallgerður’s wedding goes ahead. Strangely, Gunnar’s cousin Þráinn divorces his wife at the wedding and marries Hallgerður’s 14-year-old daughter, Þorgerður. Wild times.

The Feud

Coins

Seven deaths were settled with 200 silver coins. Photo: Flickr, Brian Gratwicke.

Hallgerður moves east to live with her husband. They live close to Gunnar’s friend Njáll and his wife Bergþóra. Just as Njáll predicted, Hallgerður brings with her a whole host of trouble. Hallgerður and Gunnar haven’t been married long when the beef between his wife and Bergþóra begins.

As is often the case in the Ancient Sagas, an enormous feast was held. One note on old Icelandic feasts is that it mattered significantly where people sat at these gatherings due to their rank in the clan. At this particular event, Bergþóra asked Hallgerður to move so another woman could sit beside her. This made Hallgerður furious. Offended, she claimed to not be the kind of woman who sits in a corner. Bergþóra still makes her move.

The quarrel between the two women quickly grows from petty insults to them having their employees and kinsmen murder each other. The husbands keep trying to settle the dispute by paying each other silver as compensation. By the end of the feud—which started with Hallgerður having to sit in a corner—seven men have been killed.

Gunnar’s Death

House

Gunnar dies at home in Fljótshlíð. Photo: Flickr, Cornell University Library.

Still, the trouble doesn’t stop. Food and hay was scarce at Hallgerður and Gunnar’s home at Hlíðarendi farm, so Hallgerður sent a man to steal some from a nearby farm. Gunnar realizes what his wife has done, gets angry and… of course, slaps her. This was the third and last fateful slap of Hallgerður’s life.

Hallgerður tells Gunnar that she will pay him back for the slap if she can. Her chance to do so comes much later when Gunnar has been sentenced to three years of exile for killing a man. He chooses not to leave the country and is therefore fair game for the kinsmen of the man he killed.

As was expected, his adversaries attack their home. Gunnar is an excellent bowman and shoots many of them before the string of his bow snaps. He asks Hallgerður to give him a lock of her hair to make a new bowstring but she refuses to do so as payback for the slap. Gunnar is killed and Hallgerður is a widow again.

Gunnar’s mother blames Hallgerður for her son’s death so Hallgerður moves to her daughter’s house. After that Hallgerður fades out of the story, save for one last appearance to insult Bergþóra and her sons, naturally.

That concludes our journey through the life of Hallgerður langbrók, the woman with the thieves eyes whose husbands all made the fatal error of laying a hand on her.