Til þess eru ill dæmi að varast þau

Um Bjarna í Efranesi í Skarðsárannál

  • Katelin Marit Parsons
Keywords: Skarðsárannáll, AT 2401/ATU 1343*, reception studies, annals as narrative, early modern crime and punishment, cultural and social function of annals


The post-medieval revival of the annalistic format in Iceland in the early seventeenth century involved a deliberate and very successful decision to align contemporary history-writing with a long and venerable past tradition. Although the post-medieval annals were not structured around an Easter table like their medieval counterparts, they did not record secular history in a modern sense. Temporal time and space existed within an infinitely vaster eternity, and the true goal of earthly life was accepted to be salvation of the soul. Death was represented in meditative literature of the seventeenth century as a life-long journey rather than a single isolated event, during which journey divine punishments might be deservedly meted out to individuals and communities as corrective action for those who strayed from the straight and narrow path. In this context, annals were a means of situating the past, present and future within a single narrative space. Early modern Icelandic annals such as Skarðsárannáll, compiled by Björn Jónsson of Skarðsá (1574–1655), have been approached as a source of well-structured data on very diverse topics, but far fewer studies have examined their internal narrative structure across and within individual entries. The present article focuses on an entry for the year 1553 in Skarðsárannáll that provides a cautionary tale on discipline and justice for early modern audiences. The entry describes the misfortunes of Bjarni of Efranes in Skagaströnd, who killed his first wife for killing their older son for killing their younger son. What has to date been received as a gory historical account of a chain of deaths set in motion by a mother’s inappropriate threat to castrate her misbehaving young sons is actually a hitherto unknown Icelandic variant of a well-known tale type, AT 2401/ATU 1343* (“The Children Play at Hog-Killing”). Very close parallels can be found in contemporary folklore collected in the twentieth century (Brunvand 03250, “The Mother’s Threat Carried Out”), and the narrative in Skarðsárannáll supports the circulation of older versions of ATU 1343* involving a castration threat. Comparison with a letter written by Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson of Hólar suggests that the character of Bjarni of Efranes in Skarðsárannáll is partly based on a farmer in Skagaströnd whose son died suddenly while fishing with a neighbour and his three grown sons. The incident was not investigated as a possible murder case until many years later, but one of the sons was arrested in c. 1611. The bishop’s letter indicates concern that fair judicial procedure had not been followed in detaining the man, who was later released. There was no evidence that murder had taken place, and the accused swore that the young man had died of natural causes. The case was never prosecuted, but it was an unsatisfactory conclusion for all parties involved, and Skarðsárannáll demonstrates that the suspects were widely believed to be guilty within their local community. According to Skarðsárannáll, the neighbour and all three of his sons met a miserable end as starving vagrants in a famine soon thereafter. The narrative implies that death by famine is their punishment for the crime they attempted to conceal. Through the connection of this event to ATU 1343*, the narrative also suggests the guilt of the victim’s family as an explanation for the apparent failure of justice in the case: the victim is the third son of Bjarni of Efranes. Bjarni supposedly walked three times barefoot around Iceland as a penance for the sin of killing his first wife before settling at Efranes, but even this deed was inadequate justice for slaying his spouse, and his temporal life was one of a condemned man. Although he remarried and attempted to start a new life, murder carried the penalty of death, and penance was inadequate to atone for such an act in post-Reformation Iceland. Just as in other versions of ATU 1343* circulating in early modern Europe, Bjarni of Efranes died of grief. As this is a Lutheran exemplum, no saints could materialise to bring him comfort: the practice of life-long repentance was his only hope of salvation.