Vol. 28 (2020) pp.230-259.

Title: The Afterlives of an Icelandic “Foremother of Us All”: Auðr djúpauðga and the Making of Cultural Memory

Author: Sofie Vanherpen
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Helga Thorson University of Victoria
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Yoav Tirosh CVM (Center for Vikingetid og Middelalder) at Aarhus University
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Simon Nygaard Aarhus University, Denmark
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Natalie M. Van DeusenUniversity of Alberta
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Marked up to be included in the Scandinavian-Canadian Studies Journal
Source(s): Vanherpen, Sofie. 2020. The Afterlives of an Icelandic ‘Foremother of Us All’: Auðr djúpauðga and the Making of Cultural Memory. Scandinavian-Canadian Studies Journal / Études scandinaves au Canada 28: 230-259.
Text classification:
  • Unnr djúpuðga/Auðr djúpauðga
  • foremother
  • landnámskona
  • memory figure
  • Icelandic folklore and poetry
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The Afterlives of an Icelandic “Foremother of Us All”: Auðr djúpauðga and the Making of Cultural Memory

Sofie Vanherpen

ABSTRACT: During the last few decades an increasing number of Old Norse scholars have drawn from memory studies in their analyses of texts. Yet, so far, these studies have not sufficiently considered other genres of literature besides the Íslendingasögur, such as post-medieval poetry and folk literature, in the discussion of memory. This article looks at the relation between genre and the ways in which the foremother figure Auðr djúpauðga is remembered in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century forms of popular culture as diverse as rímur, popular poetry, such as kappakvæði, vikivakakvæði, and other types of folk poetry, prayers, and þjóðsögur. The article demonstrates how various authors have created and recreated the foremother figure Auðr djúpauðga in accordance with their chosen genres.
RÉSUMÉ : Au cours des dernières décennies, un nombre croissant de chercheurs du vieux norrois se sont inspirés des études de la mémoire dans leurs analyses de textes. Pourtant, jusqu’à présent, ces études n’ont pas suffisamment pris en compte d’autres genres littéraires que l’Íslendingasögur, tels que la poésie postmédiévale et la littérature folklorique, dans la discussion sur la mémoire. Cet article examine la relation entre le genre et la manière dont la figure de l’aïeule Auðr djúpauðga est évoquée dans différentes formes de culture populaire de la fin du XVIIIe et du début du XIXe siècles, aussi diverses que le rímur, la poésie populaire—comme le kappakvæði, vikivakvæði—, et d’autres types de poésie populaire, prières et þjóðsögur. L’article démontre comment divers auteurs ont créé et recréé la figure de l’aïeule Auðr djúpauðga selon le genre choisi.
“Formóðir okkar allra” [The foremother of us all] (Ingibergsson 1965, 1965–1966). That is how Irish immigrant Janet Ingibergsson, who was the pastor’s wife at Hvammur, referred to Auðr djúpauðga [the deeply wealthy], also known as Unnr djúpúðga [of a profound mind], during a 1965 commemoration of the Norwegian-born matriarch on Krosshólaborg in the Dales district of Breiðafjörður in western Iceland. “Þegar ég stend hér á Krosshólaborg og lít yfir Hvammsfjörð og á fjallahringinn allt í kring, þá verður mér hugsað til Auðar, sem hér stóð á undan mér—og var ef til vill formóðir okkar allra” [When I stand on Krosshólaborg and look over Hvammsfjörður and the mountains all around, then I think about Auður, who stood here before me—and was perhaps the foremother of us all] Ingibergsson said (1965, 388; 1965–1966, 23). Her speech explicitly evoked the memory of a Viking Age woman celebrated for her leadership, courage, and piety. Confronted with her own feelings of nostalgia for her homeland, Ireland, Ingibergsson drew inspiration from this courageous woman who preceded her from Ireland to the distant shores of Iceland and “valið þennan stað sem hið fullkomna svið til bænahalds” [chose this place (=Krosshólaborg) as the perfect site to say her prayers] (1965, 388; 1965–1966, 24). That same day, a memorial cross was unveiled, bearing a quote from Landnámabók [Book of Settlements]: “Hon hafði bænahald sitt á Krosshólum. Þar let hon reisa krossa því at hon var skirð ok vel trúuð” [She held her prayers at Krosshólar. There she had crosses erected because she was baptized and a true believer] (Ingason).
In the summers of 2010 and 2013, people gathered there at the cross memorial to celebrate Auðr djúpauðga as Christianized foremother of Iceland (Valsdóttir 26; Magnússon 13). It was during one of those “Auðarganga” or “helgiganga” [procession for Auðr or saint’s procession] held in honour of Auðr—a procession starting from Krosshólaborg, over “Auðartóftir” [the ruins or homestead of Auðr] to the church of Hvammur, in June 2010, that the local priest Óskar Ingi Ingason claimed to have recovered a “bæn eftir Auði djúpúðgu” [prayer by Auðr of a Profound Mind]. The prayer, which he recited during the procession (Ingason), was printed in Jón Þorkelsson’s Þjóðsögur og munnmæli [Folk Tale Collection] (1899, 355; 1956, 312). The text in question “Ein bæn Auðar diúpauðgu” [A prayer of Auðr The Profoundly Wealthy] was copied down by Jón Jónsson langur (ca. 1779–1828) in 1828 in a manuscript, today housed in the Landsbókasafn Íslands – Háskólabókasafn [the National and University Library of Iceland] (MS. JS 494 8vo, 10v). “Ein bæn Auðar diúpauðgu” is just one example of how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Icelandic writers memorialize and remember a famous literary figure of the past in genres different from the medieval saga literature. In fact, Auðr’s story resonated not only with Janet Ingibergsson and her audience as it did with Jón Jónsson langur and his contemporaries in earlier times, but also with modern authors. Among the participants in the 2010 procession was Vilborg Davíðsdóttir, the author of a successful trilogy of fictionalized novels that feature the Christian Auðr as their protagonist (Valsdóttir 26; see also Davíðsdóttir 2009, 2012, 2017a). Heimir Pálsson, reviewing the first installment Auður, notes: “Líklega er konan sem skipar öndvegi í skáldsögunni Auði formóðir okkar allra sem nú teljumst af íslenska stofninum” [Probably the woman who sits in the high seat (i.e. took up the place of honour) in the novel Auður is now considered to be the foremother of us all by the Icelandic population] (121). Pálsson could have been echoing the words of Ingibergsson, who in 1965 made a similar statement about Auðr. Moreover, Vilborg’s trilogy has inspired the travel agent Skotganga to organize a trip to Scotland and the Orkney Islands in the footsteps of Auðr in the spring of 2019, guided by the author herself (Skotganga). The trip was so successful that it was sold out within 36 hours. Furthermore, the film and television rights for Vilborg’s trilogy have been sold to Bjarni Haukur Þórsson and his production house Thorsson Produktion in 2018, with the intention of creating an international television series based on the life of the landnámskona [female settler] Auðr (Sigurðsson). All three are a testament to Auðr’s lasting popularity in Iceland to this very day.
During the last few decades an increasing number of Old Norse scholars have turned to memory studies in their analyses of texts. Yet, these studies have not sufficiently considered other genres of literature besides the Íslendingasögur [Sagas of Icelanders], such as the above-mentioned post-medieval prayer, in the discussion of memory. More recently, Verena Höfig (2014, 2017, 2018) and Sigríður Helga Þorsteinsdóttir (2013, 2015) adopted a similar approach to mine when they discussed how characters from the Icelandic past are remembered through time up to the present in media other than the canonical texts of Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Like their work, this article is dedicated to exploration of the malleable nature of cultural memory by means of representations of historical characters. In this article, I place emphasis on textual representations of the figure of the foremother and founding mother, Auðr djúpauðga, said to have settled in Iceland between 870 and 930.
Methodologically, the article combines two different strands of theoretical inquiry into the representations of figures from the past. Jan Assmann’s concept of cultural memory lends a cultural-studies-based perspective to the way memory focuses on selected points in the past and condenses versions of the past into symbolic figures (Assmann 2011, 37). Understanding the figure of the foremother as such, a “memory figure,” enables us both to focus on the dichotomy between centre and periphery, and to conduct a deeper analysis of the history of Iceland’s remembering of the figure of Auðr in all her forms. In his seminal work, Moses the Egyptian, Assmann distinguished between two figures of Moses, the subject of his case study: Moses the Hebrew, who belongs to the canonical or normative tradition (i.e. the centre), and Moses the Egyptian, who is inherently part of a counter-memory (i.e. the periphery) (1997, 11–12). By analyzing all versions of the Auðr narrative regardless of importance, whether or not they are canonical, comparisons between the “original” and each adaptation can then be made.
As a second perspective of methodological inquiry, I employ an anthropological approach to trace representations of the foremother figure from Icelandic literature to folklore. Kirsten Hastrup’s study of the cultural figure Grettir Ásmundarson over a longue durée proves especially useful for a study of the foremother figure. In contrast to literary studies, whose focus tend to be on the literary image of saga characters in the Icelandic medieval canon, Hastrup’s approach contextualizes the hero within the “literary” and “oral” tradition (289–304). Under the latter, she reads the term to denote all media other than the sagas themselves, “as expressed in a variety of genres such as rímur (‘rhymes’) and þjóðsögur (‘folk-tales’)” (294–95). The Auðr narrative seems to have been easily adaptable to a range of different text genres during the so-called “era of memory”—being the time of the transmission of the saga texts from the late fourteenth to early twentieth century, thus explaining its wide-ranging appeal up until today. In particular, Auðr—as a figure of memory—owes part of her fame to the profusion of afterlives she enjoyed in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century popular culture and folk literature, or what Hastrup refers to as “oral tradition” (294–95). The so-called “popular image” of Auðr can be found in genres as diverse as prayers, rímur [metrical romances; lit. “rhymes”], entertaining as well as didactic poetry—such as kappakvæði [lit. “a poem about heroes”], vikivakakvæði [carols or dance poems] as well as in other types of folk poetry, celebrating exemplary and honourable women—and þjóðsögur [folk tales].
The idea of this article is to trace the tradition of the foremother figure through a rich and varied body of works, in roughly chronological order. To enable a narrower focus, I place emphasis on two distinct periods, chosen particularly because the depictions of Auðr best illustrate the diversity of the character’s myriad incarnations. The first period is between the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, when the earliest representations of the literary character Auðr are found in various early medieval canonical texts. The second period is from the late eighteenth up to the early nineteenth century, when there is a shift from a literary to a popular image of the foremother belonging to popular and folk literature.

Foremothers and Founding Mothers

Auðr is remembered as “hinni fyrstu og einu landnámskonu” [the first and only female settler] (Ólafsson 12) in a newspaper account of the 1965 commemoration in Hvammur, in spite of the fact that the text of Landnámabók mentions nine other landnámskonur. Ólafsson closely mirrors the text of Íslendingabók [Book of Icelanders]. In this, the oldest text that mentions her, written between 1120 and 1133 by Ari Þorgilsson (1068–1148), Auðr is presented as the only female out of the four most prominent settlers of Iceland (Íslendingabók, Ch. 2, 6). Ari designates her as the founding mother of the Breiðafjörður area in western Iceland as well as the foremother, not only of himself, but also of the Roman Catholic bishop of Skálholt, Þorlákur Runólfsson (1086–1133). According to this text:
Auðr landnámskona, es byggði vestr í Breiðafirði í Hvammi, vas móðir Þorsteins ens rauða, fǫður Óleifs feilans, fǫður Þórðar gellis, fǫður Þórhildar rjúpu, móður Þórðar hesthǫfða, fǫður Karlsefnis, fǫður Snorra, fǫður Hallfríðar, móður Þorláks, es nú es byskup í Skálaholti, næstr Gizuri. (Íslendingabók, Ættartala, 26)
[Auðr the female settler, who settled in the west of Breiðafjörður at Hvammur, was the mother of Þorsteinn the Red, father of Óláfr Little-Wolf, father of Þórðr the Yeller, father of Þórhildr Ptarmigan, mother of Þórðr Horsehead, father of Karlsefni, father of Snorri, father of Hallfríðr, mother of Þorlákr, who is now bishop in Skálholt after Gizurr.]
Ari Þorgilsson created a precedent and a prototype for all the later representations of this foremother figure, “Auðr landnámskona.” The landnámskona portrayed in Íslendingabók differs slightly from the foremother figure emerging in other early medieval literature. Many of these texts simply mention Auðr as “mother of …” or “foremother of …”, but do not elaborate further on this character. Rather than slavishly follow Þorgilsson’s literary prototype, two sources, namely Laxdæla saga and Landnámabók, move beyond the archetypal portrait of the foremother Auðr and go on to create two separate figures from the original one.
The first of these nuanced and more detailed depictions of Auðr can be found in the mid-thirteenth-century text Laxdæla saga. The saga opens with the immigration of the hersir [chief, lord] Ketill Flatnose from Norway to the southern isles of Scotland. His daughter, Auðr—named Unnr djúpúðga here—accompanies him on his journey, and shortly afterwards marries Óláfr the White, the first Viking king of Dublin. After the treacherous deaths of her husband and son, she cleverly devises a plan to escape to Iceland with a large retinue of family and followers, emerging, finally, as a formidable political player in her own right. And it is here, when she takes charge of the situation, that the saga’s author overlays the image of the foremother with mythological overtones; Laxdæla saga with the Edda, and, the foremother of the Breiðafjörður area with the Allfather of the heathen pantheon Óðinn. Auðr’s story serves well as an example of what Haraldur Bessason coined mythological overlays—that is, “parallels between the Eddas and the Sagas in the use of literary technique and imagery” (275). A similar parallel between Laxdæla’s Auðr and Snorri Sturluson’s description of Óðinn in Ynglinga saga was noted and briefly discussed over a decade ago by Baldur Hafstað. However, there are stronger similarities between Snorra Edda’s Óðinn and Laxdæla’s Auðr, than between the latter and Óðinn in Ynglinga saga (Vanherpen 2018, 750–55). Like Óðinn in the Prologue to Snorra Edda (Chs. 3–4, 8–11), Auðr is described as possessing both foresight and wisdom (Laxdæla saga, Ch. 7, 11). Auðr is known under more than one name (Auðr—Unnr), as is Óðinn in Snorra Edda (Óðinn—Wodden) (Snorra Edda, Ch. 2, 8–9). Furthermore, Auðr’s journey to and settlement in Iceland (Laxdæla saga, Chs. 4–6) mirrors the migration of Óðinn from Asia to the North (Snorra Edda, Chs. 3–4, 8–11). Auðr is compared with a mythological figure from the Old Norse-Icelandic world and is depicted as a matriarch “in heathen style,” who secures the future of all her progeny and subsequently founds a whole dynasty (Vanherpen 2018, 750–55).
The Laxdæla author calls her achievements “mikit afbragð annarra kvenna” [much superior to (that of) other women] (Laxdæla saga, Ch. 4, 7). Laxdæla relates that at the end of her life Auðr arranged a lavish wedding feast for her grandson. The following morning she was found dead in bed sitting “upp við hœgendin” [up against the pillows] (Laxdæla saga, Ch. 7, 13). The saga continues:
Ok inn síðasta dag boðsins var Unnr flutt til haugs þess, er henni var búinn; hon var lǫgð í skip í hauginum, ok mikit fé var í haug lagt með henni; var eptir þat aptr kastaðr haugrinn. (Laxdæla saga, Ch. 7, 13)
[And on the final day of the feast Unnr (i.e. Auðr) was carried to the grave mound that was made for her. She was laid in a ship in the mound, and much treasure was laid with her in the mound, and after that the mound was closed up.]
Thus, what begins as a wedding ends as a funeral, and she is interred with a ship in a funeral mound—a pagan custom (Vanherpen 2013, 71–73). Here, the story of Auðr concludes. At her death, she is a woman who has successfully fulfilled her role of foremother. The anonymous author of Laxdæla saga utilizes an already-existing character as a springboard from which to create a more detailed and more complex rendering of the foremother figure. He created the foremother in heathen style, called Unnr. In the remainder of this article, I will refer to Laxdæla’s representation of Auðr as “the heathen Unnr.”
A few decades later, Sturla Þórðarson (1214–1284), too, presents us with a more elaborate portrayal of Auðr in his redaction of Landnámabók (Sturlubók)—the first preserved version of this text. Sturla also draws on the original depiction by Ari Þorgilsson, but tells her story differently from the one found in Laxdæla saga. Like its correspondent passage in the saga, Landnáma’s account on Auðr is centred around her migration to Iceland and her subsequent settlement there. The Landnáma narrative likewise concludes with a wedding turned funeral, when the veizla [feast] becomes Auðr’s erfi—a term referring to the funeral feast and the inheritance ceremony (Sundqvist 476; Vanherpen 2013, 65; 2017, 577).
This being so, what then distinguished this particular rendering of the foremother figure from the “heathen Unnr”—the matriarch of Laxdæla? The answer is twofold. Firstly, Landnámabók is devoid of mythological allusions; our heroine is no longer compared to a pagan god as she was in the saga (see above, as well as Vanherpen 2018, 750–52). Secondly, its narrative differs in other important ways from the Laxdæla one. Auðr is represented as “vel trúuð” [a true believer], i.e. a Christian, holding prayers and erecting crosses at Krosshólar (Landnámabók, Ch. S97/H84, 139; Vanherpen 2017, 573–74). The internment of the deceased Auðr takes place in consecrated ground on the shore where the waves wash over the sand, indicating a Christian-style burial (Vanherpen 2017, 575–92; 2018, 751–52).
Þá nótt eptir andaðisk hon ok var graffin í flœðarmáli, sem hon hafði fyrir sagt, því at hon vildi eigi liggja í óvígðri moldu, er hon var skírð. Eptir þat spilltisk trúa frænda hennar. (Landnámabók, Ch. S110, 146–47)
[The night after (the feast) she passed away and was buried at the flood-mark, as she had instructed earlier. Because she was baptized, she did not want to lie in unconsecrated earth. After that the faith of her family was corrupted.]
While neither altering the main plot, nor changing the core of the foremother figure, these transformations do influence the audience’s interpretation of the story as a whole, and in turn, the role of the foremother figure in it. The presentation of Auðr here seems to suggest that she was the “founding mother” of Christianity in her new home of Hvammur. By introducing and emphasizing a specifically Christian tradition, Landnámabók transformed the heathen Unnr into the Christianized foremother Auðr. Consequently, two competing memories exist side by side from the mid-thirteenth century onward: the heathen Unnr, as manifested in Laxdæla saga, and the Christian Auðr, as manifested in Sturla’s redaction of Landnámabók.
What these three texts have in common, beside the foremother figure Auðr, is that they were written for the same purpose. From the outset Ari Þorgilsson’s Íslendingabók, Sturla Þórðarson’s Landnámabók, and, to some extent, Laxdæla saga served certain Icelandic families as narratives to legitimate their origins. We might be tempted to call this the genealogical function of the foremother figure.
From the fourteenth century and in subsequent eras, the older “heathen” foremother figure became overshadowed by her Christian counterpart. This is consistent with the memory of Auðr that later medieval texts, such as Eiríks saga rauða and Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta, evoked in contemporary audiences. The fact that these texts and later saga literature would favour a portrayal of the foremother Auðr as a Christian, underlines that Landnámabók became the dominant vehicle for shaping the memory of the foremother figure. As a result, the heathen foremother is turned into a “counter-memory,” a term coined by Jan Assmann in his seminal work Moses the Egyptian to describe “a memory that puts elements to the fore that are, or tend to be, forgotten in the official memory” (1997, 12). In Icelandic imagery, the heathen Unnr persisted as a counter-memory that has never been completely forgotten, preserved through time in numerous copies of Laxdæla saga. Over time, it came to function as “counterhistory,” when counter-memory becomes “codified in the form of a traditional story or even in a work of written historiography” (Assmann 1997, 12). The Christian image dominated later saga literature and later versions of Landnámabók, which would result in the trend that would continue for centuries.

Prose into Poetry: Popular Poetic Representations of Auðr

The eighteenth century was a period in which poets explored the didactic potential of the story of the strong, independent woman who led her family to settle in Iceland and saved them from destruction. For authors seeking models of virtuous womanhood, models worthy of emulation, Auðr embodies two prime qualities: first, that she was steadfast in her Catholic faith and, secondly, that she showed great courage and initiative in leadership. The people of eighteenth-century Iceland envisioned Auðr as the epitome of Christian womanhood in an age when heroines were needed. They required an infallible heroine in a time when natural calamities and human disasters occurred, a time recorded as one of the most devastating periods in Icelandic history (Eggertsdóttir 226–28). There can be no doubt that in addition to their didactic function these poems—implicitly in some, expressly in others—were also designed to entertain.
Tyrfingur Finnsson (b. 1713) was one of the first poets to devote a verse on Auðr (Sverdlov and Vanherpen 70–71). The first stanza to “Vísur uppá Laxdæla sǫgu” [Quatrains on Laxdæla saga], seven short vísur written in 1747 (Lbs 513 4to, f. 102v), exemplifies the growing emphasis on Auðr’s faith in Icelandic Enlightenment literature:
Auðr var ærleg-tróða,
ýtti mund Rínar-sunda,
heiðrs-verð hárra burða,
her-jǫfurs drottning gǫfug,
órræða-snor í snerru,
snúðug tróð vegu-úðar,
treysti klár-huguð Christo,
á Krosshólum bað gram sólar.
(Lbs 513 4to, f. 102v, st. 1; Sverdlov and Vanherpen 84)
[Auðr was an exceptional woman; she did not spare the “money of Rhinewater” (=gold) (for her retainers); a very honourable woman of high birth; a noble queen of a military king ; a woman who knew how to solve difficult problems; the agile “water’s fire’s =gold faggot” (=woman); clear-minded, she believed in Christ; she prayed to “the Prince of the Sun” (=Christ) at Krosshólar.]
“Vísur uppá Laxdæla sǫgu” is based, as the title suggests, on Laxdæla saga. In each of the seven verses, a different hero or heroine from the saga is praised. Auðr is praised for her generosity (l. 2), her noble birth, and powerful family (ll. 2–3), as well as her quick reasoning and her clear-mindedness (ll. 5–7). Tyrfingur praised her as “ærleg-tróða” [an exceptional woman] (l. 1), similar to the author’s comment in Laxdæla saga that she is “much superior to other women” (Laxdæla saga, Ch. 4, 7). Unlike in the saga on Auðr’s religious beliefs, where she is portrayed as a foremother in heathen-style, the poet calls her a believer in Christ, who prayed at Krosshólar (ll. 7–8).
Tyrfingur Finnsson has remained true to the tradition of the dróttkvætt kappakvæði that enumerates and celebrates heroes of ancient times. His description of Auðr celebrates her as a champion, a foremother of the Christian faith. Yet, the most remarkable thing about Tyrfingur’s account is that in his depiction of Auðr, even though he is clearly referring to Laxdæla saga as a source and even though in the saga she is described as a heathen foremother, Tyrfingur depicts her as a Christian. He supplants one memory figure with another, creating a new composite memory of Auðr as a Christian foremother as though it belonged to the original Laxdæla narrative.
The same trend is also visible in the work of Eiríkur Bjarnason (1704–1791). Bjarnason paraphrased Laxdæla saga, though by means of a different genre than Tyrfingur Finnsson’s kappakvæði mentioned above. Bjarnason undertook the ambitious task of writing a rímur paraphrase of the entire saga, entitled “Laxdælarímur” (1769). The rímur are only preserved in two manuscripts, JS 46 4to, the author’s autograph, and in Lbs 1783 4to, a scribal copy written between 1826 and 1827. Rímur were a new genre of secular poetry that originated in the late medieval period. The earliest dateable ríma is from the late fourteenth century (Einarsson 85; Hughes 2005, 206–12; Ólason 2006, 38). The genre remained popular well into the nineteenth century. The rímur are versifications of preexisting stories, such as, for example, Laxdæla saga. Of the 248 eighteenth-century rímur, only a handful are based on an Íslendingasaga (Sigmundsson 2:193–98).
Bjarnason’s metrical rendering of Laxdæla saga consists of fifty cantos, or fits, that correspond to the seventy-eight chapters of the saga, plus the additional ten chapters following the saga text referred to as Bolla þáttr. This rímur-poet follows the saga narrative closely, as revealed by a comparison of his version with the corresponding lines in Laxdæla saga. Compare, for example, the sentence from the saga, “Unnr in djúpúðga var enn dóttir Ketils, er átti Óláfr hvíti Ingjaldson, Fróðasonar ins frœkna, er Svertlingar drápu” [Unnr (i.e. Auðr) of a Profound Mind was a daughter of Ketill, who was married to Óláfr the White, son of Ingjaldr, son of Fróði the Brave, who was killed by the Svertlings] (Ch. 1, 3), which is the saga beginning and character introduction to the foremother figure. In Bjarnason’s paraphrase (canto I, st. 27–28), Auðr is introduced in wording almost identical with that of the saga:
Dúks var önnur Djúpauðga,
dokk, með vizku gnóttir
Eyjan gulls hin ágæta,
Auður Ketilsdóttir.
Fannst ei slík á Fjölnis kvon,
Friggjan jötna vessa,
Ólafur hvíti Ingjaldsson,
átti konu þessa.
(Canto I, st. 27–28)
[There was another “grassy hollow of the cloth” (=woman), Deeply-Wealthy; with wisdom aplenty; the glorious “island of gold” (=woman); Auður, the daughter of Ketill.
No (other) such “the goddess of the speech of giants (=gold)” (=woman) can be found on “Óðinn’s wife (=Jörð)” (=earth); Olaf the White, son of Ingjald; was married to this woman.]
However, Bjarnason presents an interpretation of the original text. In stanza 27, lines one and two, there appears to be a reference to the duality of her epithets—djúpúðga [of a profound mind] and djúpauðga [profoundly wealthy]. The adjective “djúpauðga” has been the epithet appended to Auðr’s name throughout manuscript witnesses from the latter half of the fourteenth century onwards; the phrase “með vizku gnóttir” [with wisdom aplenty] alludes to her other title djúpúðga, attested solely in the oldest surviving texts. The reference in the first two lines of stanza 27 to both of her epithets suggests that the poet was aware of the existence of the various memory figures, the heathen Unnr and the Christian Auðr.
Bjarnason also occasionally offers commentary on the original text. In the second canto (st. 41–42), for instance, following his description of Auðr’s ship burial, he added the following nota bene:
NB Annað segja fræði fróð,
framar þessu trúanleg,
þar sem mættust fjara og flóð,
frúin býði að jarða sig.
Einninn fá svo yrki tjáð,
er oss birta sannleikinn,
helga skírn hún hafði þáð,
hér því girntist legstaðinn.
(Canto II, st. 43–44)
[Nota bene: Wise tales tell another story, more reliable than this (i.e. Laxdæla saga); (that) where the shore and the flood meet, the lady asked to be buried.
Also the work (i.e. Landnámabók) tells, that shows us the truth; that she had received holy baptism, therefore wished for a grave there.]
It is clear that the author knew of the existence of two separate traditions concerning Auðr’s burial. Bjarnason presents the burial í flæðarmáli [at the flood-mark] (Landnámabók, Ch. S110, 146–47), or, as he puts it, “þar sem mættust fjara og flóð” [that where the shore and the flood meet] (st. 43, l. 3), as superior to the memory of Auðr’s ship burial in Laxdæla saga. Like in the poem of his predecessor Tyrfingur Finnsson, in Bjarnason’s rímur rendition a newer and more reliable memory—the Christian Auðr—supplants the older one of the two—the heathen Unnr. His rewriting of the foremother figure bears witness to a growing shift in how Auðr is remembered. He subverts the authenticity of the original depiction in his reworking of Laxdæla saga, asserting that Landnámabók offers the authoritative version of the past, or, as he phrased it, “er oss birta sannleikinn” [that shows us the truth] (st. 44, l. 2).
Only one year later, in 1770, the prolific rímur poet Árni Böðvarsson (1713–1776) composed a poem titled “Íslands kvennalof” [In Praise of Icelandic Women] (Rask 87, f. 2r–9v; Böðvarsson). Written in hrynhent metre, the poem pays tribute to the Icelandic housewife and provides a great source of information on the daily life and upbringing of eighteenth-century women (Þórólfsson 168). The theme of housewifery was fostered by and reflected in contemporary literature, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books pertaining to women and the household. The housewife’s duties were discussed in domestic conduct books, treatises about proper female conduct, and on household government in the form of poems, and in other related works (Eggertsdóttir 231–33; Sigurðardóttir 2003; 2017, 291–95, 318–20). For example, in his “Arnbjörg æruprýdd dáindis kvinna á Vestfjörðum íslands” [Arnbjörg, a very honourable woman from the Westfjords of Iceland] of 1780, Björn Halldórsson (1724–1794) wrote down, together with his wife Rannveig Ólafsdóttir, detailed instructions on how to become a good housewife and how the housewife should embody Christian virtues in her daily life (Þorgeirsdóttir 2012, 5; 2013, 73).
Accordingly, Árni Böðvarsson’s poem honours the Icelandic housewife by comparing her, though briefly, to exemplary women from Icelandic literature. In the fourth stanza, he speaks of the “tiginborner falda freyjur fyrst á landi margar gistu” [many women of noble birth in the beginning on land settled], meaning the landnámskonur, thus:
Konur þeirra kunna að sýna
kvæðin forn og sögur bæði,
vóru sumar buðlung bornar,
besta slektis nærri flestar,
tiginbornar falda freyjur
fyrst á landi margar gistu.
Auður var af ættum stóru
ein með fremstu moturs reinum.
(Rask 87, f. 2v, st. 4)
[Ancient poems and stories are able to show their women. Some were royal-born, almost all of the best families. Many “goddesses of the headdresses” (=women) of noble birth settled on land in the beginning. Auður was of good ancestry; one of the leading “lands of the female coif” (=women).]
These women are singled out because of their noble lineage and their achievements as settlers, but only one of them is mentioned by name (i.e. Auðr, in l. 7). In the succeeding stanza, the poet then praises the virtues of these noteworthy women:
Álit höfðu, auðlegð, sælu
og kvendyggða nægstu tryggðir,
löstum fjærri, leyndar kostir
ljóst upp runnu í náttúrunni,
miklu framar mun sá blómi
mistum bauga fylgja kristnum
vegligustu á vorum dögum
að vísu jafnan það auglýsist.
(Rask 87, f. 2v, st. 5)
[They had prestige, wealth, happiness, and an abundance of female virtues ensured, far from vices, hidden merits clearly rose in nature. Much rather will that flower be associated with the most noble Christian “valkyries of rings” (=women) in our days; indeed that is always made clear.]
In the final lines Böðvarsson explains why Auðr stands paramount above the other landnámskonur. Even though these women knew “sælu” [happiness, bliss], they would not obtain eternal salvation. Auðr, however, is promised eternal bliss because of her faith in Christ. Böðvarsson’s comparison is rather unusual because it not only extols Auðr’s steadfast faith in Christ, but it also is the first poem of its kind dedicated entirely to the praise of contemporary Icelandic women. Contrary to his contemporaries, Tyrfingur Finnsson and Eiríkur Bjarnason, the poet here seems to indicate that his depiction of Auðr is based upon the Landnáma narrative, the canonical version, noting that her conversion to Christianity “vísu jafnan það auglýsist” [indeed that is always made clear] (l. 8). Notably, Auðr is the only settler among the female ones in Landnámabók who is baptized.
Interestingly, Böðvarsson names another woman—Áslaug Sigurðsdóttir—as the foremother of the Icelanders, in these words:
Áslaug verður allmjög prísuð,
ein sú dýrsta af lindum víra,
Ragnars drottning grams hin gegna
gnótt bar lista Sigurðardóttir,
vor formóðir kostakjörin,
kyns Völsunga og fleiri hinar
sólir banda til sem telja
tign berandi á voru landi
(Rask 87, f. 3r, st. 6)
[Áslaug was much praised (as) one of the most precious “linden-trees of wires” (=women). Queen of Ragnar the fine king, plenty of skills bore the daughter of Sigurðr. Our foremother, an excellent choice (as a wife) (and foremother) of the kin of the Völsungs, and more of the “goddesses of skeins of wool” (=women) who count themselves (among the Völsung kin) bringing nobility to our country.]
The poet resolves the tension between Auðr’s initial dual role as both founding mother of Christianity in the Hvammur area and foremother of the people of the Breiðafjörður by dividing these roles between two characters: Auðr, a Christian landnámskona, and Áslaug, a royal foremother. As mentioned above, “Íslands kvennalof” shows close similarities to conduct books such as Björn Halldórsson’s “Arnbjörg.” In Böðvarsson’s poem, the Christianized landnámskona is presented as a powerful role model for the Icelandic Enlightenment housewife. Throughout the poem, he argues that the same virtues equip the eighteenth-century women to act as proficient household managers, running a farm and being pious wives and mothers, as well as play their part in the socio-economic development of the society.
In another poem composed around the same time, “Sprundahrós” (composed between 1752 and 1800), Auðr is considered to be a “female worthy”—an ideal worthy of emulation by a contemporary female audience (Eyþórsson and Kristjánsdóttir 64–68; Van Deusen 197). Most scholars consider the poem to belong to a group of poems written in response to “Kappakvæði” [Poem of Champions] by Guðmundur Bergþórsson (1657–1705) composed in 1680 (Helgason VIII: 120; Eyþórsson and Kristjánsdóttir 68–69; Hughes 2005, 217; 2013, 41; Van Deusen 208–10). In his conclusion, Bergþórsson notes that none of the hundred or so kappar [champions] is Icelandic and issues a challenge to any poet to create a poem in praise of native heroes (1944–45, 15). “Sprundahrós” seems to respond to this challenge.
Indeed, there are many similarities between the two poems as regards metre, style, and genre (Van Deusen 208–10). Both are kappakvæði—a genre of poetry consisting of lists of champions—written in vikivaka metre (Eyþórsson and Kristjánsdóttir 68–69; Hughes 2005, 217; 2013, 40–41). Whereas the traditional kappakvæði praise male heroes, “Sprundahrós” deals with famous women. The twenty-two stanzas of “Sprundahrós,” each of them nineteen lines (i.e. containing an introductory quatrain and five refrain-segments identical to that of “Kappakvæði”), enumerate twenty-five illustrious women from the Bible, regal history, and Old Norse-Icelandic literature. The refrain is slightly different but parallel to that used by Bergþórsson and other poems written in response to his (Van Deusen 208). In Guðmundur Bergþórsson’s “Kappakvæði,” the viðkvæði or refrain reads:
Eg sá þann riða | riddarana þrjá,
þeir vilja mínum | fundinum ná.
[I saw the three knights riding, they all want an audience with me.]
While in “Sprundahrós,” the refrain reads:
Eg sá þann sóma, silki og fötin blá.
Þær vilja mínum fundinum frá.
[I saw the honourable ones, the ones in silk and blue garments. The women wish to avoid a meeting with me.]
In “Sprundahrós”—by a subtle change in words—the refrain is adjusted to the context of the poem, which is a catalogue of noteworthy women.
“Sprundahrós” is also indebted to the medieval tradition of the Neuf Preuses (Eyþórsson and Kristjánsdóttir 66–68). Les Neuf Preuses or the “nine female worthies” were first described in the late fourteenth century by Jehan Le Fèvre in his “Livre de Lëesce” (1373–1387), and then elaborated more fully by Eustache Deschamps in several of his works, among them “Il est temps de faire la paix” (1387) and “Si les héros revenaient sur la terre, ils seraient étonnés” (1396) (Cassagnes-Brouquet 169–79; Eyþórsson and Kristjánsdóttir 67; McMillan 113–39; Schroeder 168–73; Sedlacek; Van Anrooij 89–97). The “Sprundahrós”-poet sought inspiration for his catalogue of worthy women both within and beyond the confines of the Neuf Preuses tradition. Even as he continued to honour the classic “worthies,” he constructed a parallel pantheon of female exempla drawn from Scandinavian history and Old Norse-Icelandic literature—including Scandinavian female rulers, like Queen Thyre, Queen Louise of Great Britain, Olga (Helga)—grandmother of Vladimir the Great, Queen Margaret I of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and Ástríðr Ólafsdóttir of Sweden—Queen Consort of King Ólafr Haraldsson of Norway; and saga heroines, such as the Christian Auðr, Langholts-Þóra—one of the settlers from Landnámabók, Halldóra—wife of Glúmr of Víga Glúms saga, Ketilríðr—the female protagonist of Víglundar saga, and Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir—the main character of Laxdæla saga and the first anchoress and nun of Iceland (see also Eyþórsson and Kristjánsdóttir 69–74; Van Deusen 198–201).
The seventeenth stanza of “Sprundahrós” is devoted to Auðr and recounts the essentials of her narrative.
Auður fór á Ísagrund
útvegaði þroska,
þeim eð fengu faldahrund
fylgt um engi þorska.
Upp hóf hún með elsku lund
enn það gjörir hljóma.
     Ég sá þann sóma.
Endilanga æfistund
aldrei sinni kristni brá.
     Sóma föt og silkin blá.
Skörulega skála sund
skenkti gestum sínum.
     Þær vilja mínum.
Sig hún erfði í það mund
andláts sé að blundi.
     Þær vilja mínum fundi.
Værni mörgum vella hrund
virtist undir landa skjá.
     Þær vilja mínum fundinum frá.
(ÍB 815 8vo, f. 134r, st. 17; Eyþórsson and Kristjánsdóttir 72–73; Van Deusen 219)
[Auður travelled to Iceland and endowed those who followed the “goddess of headdresses” (=woman) across the “meadow of the cods” (=sea) with energy. She began with a spirit of love that still resounds. I saw that honour. Her whole life her Christianity never wavered. (Saw) honourable clothes and dark silk. Generously, she served “channel of the bowls” (=mead/ale) to her guests. The women wish with me. She arranged her funeral feast when the sleep of death was approaching. The women wish with me a meeting. The “goddess of gold” (=woman) appeared worthier than many under “the window of the land” (=heaven). The women wish to avoid meeting with me.]
The first six lines allude to Auðr’s role as landnámskona, noting that she acted with prudence and love. She is praised in particular for her unwavering faith in Christ (ll. 8–9) and the hospitality and generosity that she showed to her guests (ll. 5 and 12). The poet’s reference to her role as a hostess, serving her guests, conforms to the traditional role of women in Old Norse-Icelandic literature and echoes her earlier characterization in both Laxdæla saga (Ch. 7) and Landnámabók (Ch. S110). Auðr’s steadfastness in faith reminds the reader of her portrayal as a Christianized foremother in Landnáma (Ch. S97 and S110). In the following lines (ll. 14–15), the poem parallels the Laxdæla story:
Unnr mælti: “Svá hefi ek helzt ætlat, at boð þitt muni vera at áliðnu sumri þessu, því at þá er auðveldast at afla allra tilfanga, því at þat nær minni ætlan, at vinir várir muni þá mjǫk fjǫlmenna hingat, því at ek ætla þessa veizlu síðast at búa.” (Laxdæla saga, Ch. 7, 11)
[Unnr (i.e. Auðr) said: “I fully intend that your wedding feast should be held at the end of this summer, because that is the easiest time to obtain all the provisions, as I expect that our friends will gather hither in great numbers, since I foresee this feast to be the last I will prepare.”]
The saga text seems to suggest that Auðr foresees her own death while making arrangements for her grandson’s wedding feast. As the text goes on to state, the wedding will turn out to be her funeral feast. The poem’s portrait of Auðr blends the Laxdæla image with the Landnáma image creating a figure that bears traits of both. Just like in the previous poems, “Vísur uppá Laxdæla sǫgu” and “Íslands kvennalof,” this poem also combines two competing memories of the foremother figure—one in which she is the heathen Unnr and a second in which she is the Christian Auðr—into a single composite memory figure.
Interestingly, each of the other “worthies” taken from Old Norse-Icelandic literature is linked to only one virtue: Langholts-Þóra—hospitality (st. 18), Halldóra—generosity (st. 18), Ketilríðr—loving temperament (st. 19), and Guðrún—redemption through faith (st. 19). However, the depiction of Auðr distinguishes her from these women. She unites all four virtues in her person, thus serving as a paragon to these other saga heroines, each of whom conveys only one virtue. This makes the poet’s final statement on Auðr ring even more true (ll. 16–17), while at the same time echoing Laxdæla saga’s statement “at hon var mikit afbragð annarra kvenna” [that she excelled above other women] (Laxdæla saga, Ch. 4, 7). In this way, the “Sprundahrós”-poet renders Auðr a paragon of feminine virtue. The poet seems to empower her as the most worthy among the listed group of “saga worthies.”
The aforementioned poems illustrate a transition in the depiction of the foremother figure from two competing memory figures to one single, composite memory figure based on both the heathen Unnr and the Christian Auðr. It is essential to place these poems in the context of the kvöldvaka [evening gathering]—a time designated for listening to rímur or to other poems and sagas being read out loud to the members of the household (Driscoll 38–44). Another popular form of entertainment during the late sixteenth century and onwards in Iceland was the vikivakakvæði, a genre to which the poem “Sprundahrós” belongs (Ólason 1982, 43). These poems were sung at a gleði [dance gathering] and accompanied by dancing (Van Deusen 204; Hughes 2005, 215–16). Thus, all four poems have a performative quality to them, in addition to their inherent entertainment value. Furthermore, in at least two of the poems, “Íslands kvennalof” and “Sprundahrós,” the focus is on the didactic side of the foremother figure. Auðr is presented here as a mirror of virtue, a woman whose example sets the standard of virtuous behaviour and proper conduct for Icelandic women.

Auðr in Popular Folk Belief

In the following century, only one of the aforementioned multiple memory figures prevails. The dominant memory—Auðr, the early Christian landnámskona—is then remembered through Icelandic folklore and folk literature. It is Landnámabók that in effect became the canonical text, serving in turn as a source for other compositions such as Gullbrá og Skeggi í Hvammi and, perhaps also for “Ein bæn Auðar diúpauðgu.” Though few of the remaining folklore texts seem to be earlier than the nineteenth century, many of the stories are much older and have had a long oral history before being written down by a particular author (Óskarsson 297).
This is evidenced by the history of the folktale Gullbrá og Skeggi í Hvammi. The tale was recorded by Reverend Jón Þorleifsson (1825–1860) in 1860 as two separate stories, entitled “Gullbrá” (Lbs 531 4to, ff. 66r–69r) and “Skeggi í Hvammi” (Lbs 531 4to, ff. 69r–70v), which were then collected by the Icelandic writer and librarian Jón Árnason (1819–1888) and first published in his well-known collection Íslenzkar þjóðsógur og ævintýri [Icelandic folk- and fairy tales] (1862–1864). The tale, however, is much older than the written version. A rendering of the tale had already been circulating orally in the seventeenth century. In a letter dated 4 September 1690, the Icelandic manuscript collector Árni Magnússon (1663–1730) referred to a story in which a woman named Gullbrá is said to have lived in Dalasýsla at the same time as Auðr:
Slikar traditiones eru nogar á Islandi, um Gullbra, sem atti ad bua i Dalasislu, þa Unnur kom þar, … sem aller menn trua a Islandi, enn verdur bevisad af ödrum, ad þær eru osannar, enn vera kann þeir hafa eckert vist þar um haft, enn hiner seirne hafa vilia skrifa nockud med, (so sem) sia ma af Flateyiarboc, sem full er med þvætting, traditiones falsas og mælge. (Kålund 66)
[There are plenty of such traditions in Iceland, about Gullbrá, who was supposed to live in Dalasýsla, when Unnr (i.e. Auðr) came there, which all men in Iceland believe, yet it was proven that they are false, it is also possible that they had nothing reliable about this, but latter-day or younger authors wanted to add something to it, like among other things Flateyjarbók, which is filled with nonsense, false traditions, and prattle.]
According to his observations, the Icelanders believed the tale “um Gullbra, sem atti ad bua i Dalasislu, þa Unnur kom þar” [about Gullbrá who was supposed to live in Dalasýsla, when Unnr (i.e. Auðr) came there] to be true. To Árni Magnússon, who was familiar with Sturlubók, and with the other redactions or versions of Landnámabók, anything in contrast with the established memory of the settlement is considered “þvætting, traditiones falsas og mælge” [nonsense, false traditions, and prattle] (Höfig 2018, I: 767). This letter serves not only to remind us that the memory of Auðr was very much alive and deeply embedded in Icelandic culture, but also calls our attention to the fact that certain memories of Auðr (i.e. in folktales) were played down in favour of a more “truthful” memory of the past (i.e. in Landnámabók).
Although the memory of Auðr as preserved in Landnáma was considered superior to oral folk traditions, the folktale Gullbrá og Skeggi í Hvammi amplifies the text of Auðr’s myth as it appears in Landnámabók. The first part of the tale (Lbs 531 4to, ff. 66r–69r; Gullbrá og Skeggi í Hvammi 1862, I: 146–49), the only one of relevance here, is set at the turn of the eighth to ninth centuries, at a time when Auðr resided at Hvammur. She has set aside a certain portion of her farmland as sacred, upon which no crops should grow and no livestock should graze. When Auðr has grown very old, a young woman named Gullbrá wishes to purchase this sacred piece of land, because, she says, “því mèr segir svo hugur um, að hèr muni sá siður tiðkast, og það hús byggjast, sem mèr er verst við” [I have a foreboding that a faith (i.e. Christianity) will be practised here and a house (i.e. a Christian church) built that I hate most] (Gullbrá og Skeggi í Hvammi 1862, I: 147; Malone 58). Gullbrá is able to trick Auðr’s overseer into selling her the land for a bag of gold. Auðr then abandons that plot of land, stretching from the sea up to Krossgil [Cross Gully], where she had three crosses raised. The beautiful Gullbrá then reveals her true nature as a wicked witch, and she builds her own heathen temple on her recently acquired “sacred” land.
And so the battle begins between these two women. The two never meet in person and the story informs us that a light from Hvammur and from Auðr’s crosses make Gullbrá forget her pagan practices. After Auðr’s death, Gullbrá’s land is hemmed in by Auðr’s grave on the shore on one side and the three crosses at Krosshólaborg on the other perimeter.
Heitir þar nú Auðarsteinn er hún liggur og er það enn í dag almennt fjörumark á Hvammsfirði […]. Þá festi hún ekki yndi þar sem legstaður Auðar var fram af landi hennar í flæðarmáli, en krossar hennar innar við gillið á hlíðarbrúninni. Var hún þar í nokkurs konar úlfakreppu. (Gullbrá og Skeggi í Hvammi 1862, I: 147–48)
The spot where she [i.e. Auðr] lies is now called Auður’s stone, and to this day is a familiar beach-mark in Hvammsfirth […]. She [i.e. Gullbrá] did not feel happy where Auður’s grave was in front of her land by the sea and Auður’s crosses behind it at the gully on the brow of the hillside. She [i.e. Gullbrá] was hemmed in there after a fashion. (Malone 59)
In her struggle against Gullbrá, Auðr created these landmarks to protect the land, each of which were situated at an extremity of her land claim. So that even in her death, she could continue to protect the land and the members of her clan. The Christian foremother becomes the personification of a protecting spirit attached to the land of the Hvammverjar [the men of Hvammur]. Because of this, Gullbrá moves away from Akur to a remote part of the Dales. Whenever she has to traverse the Dale, she does so blindfolded. One day the blindfold falls off and she is blinded by the light emanating from the three crosses. Soon afterwards Gullbrá dies and becomes a ghost. In this rendition of her story, Auðr—a force of light, an agent of goodness and virtue, is contrasted to Gullbrá—a force of darkness, an agent of evil. The landnámskona is a protective spirit of the land and its people.
This protective element is also present in the prayer “Ein bæn Auðar diúpauðgu” recorded some decades earlier by the poet Jón Jónsson langur (ca. 1779–1828) in 1828.
Kross geri ég yfir mér sem
Drottinn minn gerði yfir sér,
þá hann sté af Jarðríki
upp til himnaríkis,
bak †, brjóst †, friðar †, fagnaðar †, höfuð † drottins míns,
svo ég sé hvorki fyrirlitin
né í svefni svikin,
ekki bráðum dauða tekin,
ekki vakandi villtur (villt).
Sonar guðs helgi † leiði mig í himnaríki.
(JS 494 8vo, f. 10v)
[The cross I do to me as my Lord did to himself, as He resurrected from earth up to heaven. (The cross I do) behind, (and) in front, (for) peace, (and) joy, (over) the head, my Lord. To be neither despised, nor betrayed in sleep, not captured by sudden death, not awake astray. Holy Son of God, lead me to heaven. Amen.]
The prayer, said to be recited by Auðr herself, is one for protection. It bears similarities to another group of devotional texts, such as the Icelandic brynjubænir [a compound of brynja “coat of mail” and bæn “prayer”] and the Irish loricae [lit. breastplate] (Mac Eoin 143–54). Auðr’s prayer bears some of the hallmarks, formulae, and themes of these protection prayers. The prayer opens with an invocation of Christ’s resurrection and ascension (ll. 1–4). She makes the sign of the Cross, in front and behind, and on the (fore)head, so to invoke Christ’s help for peace and joy (l. 5). The next lines of the text (ll. 6–9) enumerate the circumstances or situations for which protection is needed. The prayer ends with a plea for Christ’s guidance to lead the way to eternal salvation (l. 10). Several of these characteristics can also be found in brynjubænir and loricae, such as the invocation of God, depictions of various scenarios in which God’s protection could be solicited, and a petition for salvation (Mac Eoin 150–53).
Though the prayer is not a depiction of Auðr per se, this short text does influence the audience’s interpretation of her character and her story. The authorship of the prayer was attributed by Jón Jónsson langur to Ari Þorgilsson, in deference to him and to lend the text authority. At least that is what seems to be suggested by the subtitle “að vitni Ara prests fróða” [as witnessed by the priest Ari the Wise], although no texts survive to support the poet’s claim. With this subtitle, Jón Jónsson appears to suggest that his inspiration for the foremother figure, and her personal prayer, came from Ari Þorgilsson, who laid the foundations for the figure in his Íslendingabók. However, Ari’s portrayal of Auðr is devoid of any suggestions as to what her religious convictions may have been. We could argue that Jón Jónsson takes the character of Auðr in Íslendingabók and, to a greater extent, in Landnámabók, and bases his character of Auðr on those prototypes. The prayer ascribed characteristics to Auðr that cannot be found in the older descriptions of her. Jónsson completes the description of the foremother figure in a way that remains true to the Christian Auðr in Landnámabók, who “hafði bœnahald sitt á Krosshólum” [held her prayers at Krosshólar] (Landnámabók, Ch. S97/H84, 139).
By introducing the notion of divine protection, these Icelandic folkloric texts construct the idea of a divine individual, who is the founder and protector of a certain community—here, the great family of the Hvammverjar and the Dales district. By the nineteenth century, the concept of Christian Auðr had firmly established itself as the dominant memory figure. Her story as told in all the preserved versions of Landnámabók is by now canonical and normative. The counter-memory—the heathen Unnr—survived, however, solely in manuscript copies of Laxdæla saga during this period.


In Old Norse-Icelandic studies, an interest in memory developed over the past decades, as we saw in the beginning of this article. Up until now, very little work examines how other genres besides the medieval Icelandic canon—genres that developed after the medieval period—remember saga figures. This article offers a contribution to the debate over post-medieval popular genres and the ways in which they represent figures from the Icelandic past. As a case in point, I have chosen the foremother figure Auðr djúpauðga Ketilsdóttir.
In the section on medieval texts, we saw that the present-day figure of “the foremother of us all” has her roots in the twelfth-century depiction of Auðr landnámskona in Íslendingabók. In this work, Auðr is portrayed as the foremother of its very author—Ari Þorgilsson—and the people of Breiðafjörður. The literary archetype of the foremother figure thus was born. Just a century later, two distinct characters are derived from this common archetype: the heathen Unnr and the Christian Auðr, two figures differing in interpretation of the same woman. Laxdæla’s foremother Unnr represents the noble heathen landnámskona, who is djúpúðga—intelligent—and, a conscious and astute political player. Her ship burial is fit for a heathen king. Landnáma’s foremother Auðr, on the other hand, is djúpauðga—profoundly wealthy, and one of the early Christian settlers in pre-Christian Iceland. She was buried, as she wished, í flæðarmáli [at the flood-mark]—a Christian ritual according to Landnámabók. Each author takes a radically different attitude toward the character. Consequently, two competing memories co-exist from then on.
These two memory figures slowly start to merge into one composite foremother figure in eighteenth-century poetry. The Laxdælakappakvæði of Tyrfingur Finnsson exalts Auðr as the exceptional woman from Laxdæla saga and yet, simultaneously, depicts her as a Christian champion. The same tendency is found in other texts from this period, as in, for example, Eiríkur Bjarnason’s rímur rendition of Laxdæla saga and the vikivakakvæði entitled “Sprundahrós.” In these three texts, the Laxdæla image of the foremother in heathen-style is supplanted with the Landnáma image of Auðr as a devout Christian settler. All four poetic texts, written between 1747 and 1800, acknowledged the existence of two competing memory figures but chose to focus on Auðr’s Christian faith and hospitality. The majority of these poets offered Auðr as an exemplary role-model, worthy of emulation, in accordance with the values of their time.
In the following century, Jón Árnason and Jón Þorkelsson began to collect and record folkloric texts, such as þjóðsögur and poetic texts. Both the folktale Gullbrá og Skeggi í Hvammi and the prayer “Ein bæn Auðar diúpauðga” build on the depiction of Auðr in Landnámabók, and transform the Christian heroine into a protective spirit guarding the people and the land of the Dales district. The possibility that the heathen Unnr was diminished to the advantage of the Christian Auðr gets support from the fact that these folkloric texts only remember the Christian Auðr. In Icelandic imagery, the heathen Unnr persisted as a counter-memory and is retained in copies of Laxdæla saga. Yet, the concept of the Christian Auðr had firmly established itself as the dominant, canonical memory.
In conclusion, across various genres—in the Íslendingasögur, in the historiographical works such as Íslendingabók and Landnámabók, as well as in praise poetry, rímur, folktales and prayers—Auðr is remembered in a multitude of ways. Even so, she remains “the foremother of us all.”


I am indebted to Professor Shaun Hughes for checking my translations and advising me on doubtful points. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their comments and advice in the writing of this article. All errors and oversights are my own.


  1. Unless otherwise stated, translations are my own.
  2. The monographs that make up this trilogy consist of Auður [Aud] from 2009, Vígroði [Crimson Skies] from 2012, and Blóðug jörð [Ocean Road] from 2017. For more information on the trilogy, see the author’s website
  3. For more information on this trip, see the website of the travel agent Skotganga at
  4. Consider, for example, the papers on cultural memory delivered at the Saga Conference in Nordvig and Torfing. The 2012 Radcliffe Seminar, “The Ambiguities of Memory Construction in Medieval Texts: The Nordic Case,” inspired a series of theoretically-oriented essays, which have appeared in a special issue of Scandinavian Studies (Hermann and Mitchell). In 2014, the monograph Minni and Muninn was published, which builds further on and applies the theoretical methods developed in the previously mentioned special issue of Scandinavian Studies (Hermann, Mitchell, and Arnórsdóttir). Finally, the recently published Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Glauser, Hermann, and Mitchell) is the most comprehensive single collection of interdisciplinary perspectives on memory studies in Viking Age and medieval Scandinavia published up to this date.
  5. Jürg Glauser postulates three periods for the development of saga literature: the “saga era” (ninth to eleventh centuries), the “writing era” (thirteenth to early fourteenth centuries), and the “era of memory” (fourteenth to early twentieth century) (204). Of these, the period most significant to this article is the last one, those centuries leading from the Middle Ages to the modern period when the saga texts were transmitted. The first is the period when the fictional events took place. The second period is the time of the initial recording in writing of individual texts and of the formation of genres.
  6. In Landnámabók about 430 settlers are mentioned by name. Of these, only nine are listed in the Nafnaskrá [the name index] of the Íslenzk Fornrit edition (1986) as landnámskona or “female settler”: Arndís en auðga Steinólfsdóttir (Ch. S167/H136, 201), Ásgerðr Asksdóttir ens ómálga (Chs. S340–S342/H298–H300/M5–7, 342–44), Auðr en djúpauðga (Chs. S13/H13, 50–1; S95–S103/H82–H84/M27, 136–142; S107–S110, 144–47; S170, 209; S399/H356, 396–97), Geirríðr—sister of Geirrøðr á Eyri (Ch. S86/H74, 127–28), Steinunn en gamla (Ch. S394/H350, 392–93), Þorbjörg stöng í Strangarholt (Ch. S61/H49, 90–1), Þorgerðr at Sandfelli (Ch. S316/H276, 320–21), Þórunn í Þórunnarholt (Ch. S49/H37, 86), and Þuríðr sundafyllir (Ch. S145/H116, 186).
  7. These texts are the following: Eiríks saga rauða (Ch. 1); Eyrbyggja saga (Chs. 1, 5–6); Grettis saga (Chs. 10 and 26); Haralds saga hárfagra (Ch. 23); and Njáls saga (Ch. 1).
  8. The chapters relating to Auðr are Chs. 1–7 in Laxdæla saga and Chs. S13/H13, S95–S103/H82–H84/M27, S107–S110, S170, and S399/H356 in Landnámabók.
  9. The saga might have been composed in the 1240s (Sveinsson xxxiv), in the 1250s (Guðnason 252–53), or in the 1270s (Heller 134–55). The general consensus amongst scholars is that the saga was composed in the mid-thirteenth century.
  10. There are three names and two epithets attached to the same foremother figure: Unnr (Uðr) djúpúðga and Auðr djúpauðga. Each of these contains information on the character’s nature and the roles she takes in each narrative. Unnr is the oldest name, derived from either the verb “unna” [to love] or the noun “unnr” [wave]. The name Auðr appears in younger manuscripts and literally means “wealth.” The relationship of the two first names is not immediately clear nor is it clear why they were applied to the same person. In very early Icelandic, the cluster -nnr- frequently developed into -ðr-. As a consequence, the name Unnr had the biform Uðr, just like Finnr also existed in the form Fiðr. Through folk etymological association we get a similar vowel shift in the nicknames. Synchronically, it might have been attractive for Old Norse speakers to reform the nickname “djúpúðga” [of a profound mind] to “djúpauðga” [profoundly wealthy] by associating it with the noun “auðr” [wealth, riches].
  11. Landnámabók is an Old-Icelandic text that exists in five surviving versions, three of which date from the Middle Ages. These five versions, listed in chronological order of supposed composition, are: Sturlubók, thought to have been written by Sturla Þórðarson (d. 1284); Hauksbók by Haukr Erlendsson (d. 1334); Melabók, of which only fragments survive, also from the early fourteenth century; Skarðsárbók by Björn Jónsson (d. 1655); and, Þórðarbók by Þórður Jónsson (d. 1670).
  12. “Her-jöfur” could be interpreted either as a common compound or as a kenning. On the one hand, “herr” [an army, troops] here functions as a modifier specifying the meaning of the second part which is the heiti “jöfurr” [king], i.e. an army king or military king. In this connection, cf. the compound “her-konungr” [sea-king or warrior-king] used in older writers (Cleasby and Vigfusson 259). On the other hand, “her-jöfur” as a whole can be interpreted as a kenning for king, i.e. “a wild boar of an army” (Cleasby and Vigfusson 327; Meissner 358–59). Both are correct translations, though the former translation is the most suitable in this context.
  13. Lexical reference works consulted for the present article include Lexicon poeticum antiquae linguae septentrionalis, An Icelandic-English Dictionary, Die Kenningar der Skalden, Ordbog til rímur and Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog: A Dictionary of Old Norse Prose.
  14. These findings are based on my own extensive research into the use of these epithets in all the surviving manuscript witnesses, in which Auðr is mentioned.
  15. It remains unclear what inspired Björn Haldórsson to title his instruction book “Arnbjörg,” but it could refer to the famous Icelandic landnámskona of that name.
  16. The literal translation of the verb “gista” is ‘to pass the night, to guest’ (Cleasby and Vigfusson 201), i.e. settled. A paraphrase of the passage would read: “Many “goddesses of the headdresses” (=women) of noble birth were among the first settlers.”
  17. “Sprundahrós” was most likely composed between 1752 and 1800, that is, because the poem laments the death of Queen Louise of Great Britain, who died in childbirth in December 1751, and, while the earliest surviving copy of the poem, ÍB 815 8vo, was produced in ca. 1800 (Van Deusen 200, 202).
  18. Jón Helgason (1962–1981, VIII: 119–20) lists eight vikivakakvæði that use the same refrain as Bergþórsson’s “Kappakvæði,” including “Sprundahrós.”
  19. The particular translation of the folktale used here was the work of Kemp Malone. An earlier translation to English was done in 1864 by George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon, but this one is flawed and inaccurate.
  20. The phrase “fagnaðar †” is omitted from the 1899 and 1956 editions of the prayer. I have retained it in my transcription, as the phrase is in the original. In the case of “bak †, brjóst †,” I take the cross symbol to signal an action. In “friðar †,” “fagnaðar †,” “höfuð † drottins míns,” and “Sonar guðs helgi †,” I take the cross symbol to mean the noun, i.e. a cross, on which the genitives “friðar,” “fagnaðar,” “drottins míns,” and “Sonar guðs” depend.


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