Gisli the Outlaw
A series of at least ten warning dreams, mainly between 966 and 973, by Gisli the Outlaw
This account is excerpted from The Saga of Gisli the Outlaw, 1866, translated by G. W. DaSent, from the original 'Gísla saga Súrssonar' (the Icelandic Saga Database has the complete story.) Ignore DaSent's style (he turns Viking chants into Victorian rhymes) and just follow the tale! Gisli, an unjustly outlawed man with a huge price on his head, survives thirteen years by following the advice of two dream-wives. And it's not fiction. Give or take a year, Gisli was outlawed in 960 and lived til 973.
[The scene is Iceland. Gisli's friends and kinsmen Vestein and Thorgrim are at odds, but only Gisli seems to suspect how deep Thorgrim's jealousy runs]
...Gisli was restless at night, two nights together. He would not say what dreams he had, though men asked him.
Now comes the third night, and men go to their beds, and when they had slumbered a while a whirlwind fell on the house with such strength that it tore all the roof off on one side, and in a little while all the rest of the roof followed. Then rain fell from heaven in such a flood the like was never seen before, and the house began to drip and drip, as was likely when the roof was off. Gisli sprang out of bed and called on his men to show their mettle, and save the hay-stacks from being washed away; and so he left the house, and every man with him, except a thrall, whose name was Thord the Hareheart, who was nearly as tall as Gisli.
Vestein [Gisli's sworn foster-brother] wanted to go with Gisli, but Gisli would not suffer it. So when they were all gone, Auda [Gisli's wife] and Vestein draw their beds from the wall, where the water dripped down on them, and turn them end on to the benches in the midst of the hall. The thrall too stayed in the house, for he had not heart enough to go out of doors in such a storm.
And a little before dawn some one stole softly into the hall, and stood over against Vestein's bed. He was then awake, and a spear was thrust then and there into his chest, right through his body. But when Vestein got the thrust, he sprang up and called out: "Stabbed! stabbed!" and with that he fell dead on the floor.
But the man passed out the door.
Meanwhile Auda awakes, and sees what work was being done. Now Thord the Hareheart comes up, and she told him to pluck the weapon out of the wound, for in those days it was a settled thing that the man was bound to avenge the slain who took the weapon out of the wound, and it was called secret slaying, but not murder, if, when the deed was done, the weapon were left behind. But Thord was so afraid of the dead that he did not so much as dare to come nigh the spot. Then Gisli came in, and spoke to the thrall, and bade him let it alone; and then Gisli went up and took the spear away, and cast it, all bloody as it was, into a chest, and let no man see it. After that he sat down on the bedside, and laid out the body as was the custom; and Gisli thought he had suffered a great loss, and many others with him.
Then Gisli said to Gudrida, his foster-child:
"Thou must go over to Sæbol, and find out what men are about there; and I send thee because I trust thee best of all in this and in all other things."
So she went to Sæbol, and found them already risen when she got there, and they were all sitting with their weapons.
There were both the Thorgrims and Thorkel. They were slow to greet her, for most of them had scarce a word to say. At last they ask her what news, and she tells them that Vestein was slain or murdered.
"We should have thought that great news once," said Thorkel.
Then Thorgrim went on: "We are bound to bury Vestein as worthily as we can. We will come and help to lay him in his howe. Tell Gisli we will come, too, this very day. Sooth to say, such a man's death is a great loss."
After that she went home, and tells Gisli that Thorgrim the priest sat with his helm on his head and his sword at his belt, and all his war-gear, when she went in; that Thorgrim Bottlenose had a pole-axe in his hand, and that Thorkel had a sword in his hand half-drawn. All men were up and about, and some of them armed, when she reached Sæbol.
"Just as I thought," said Gisli.
Now Gisli made ready to lay Vestein in his howe, and they meant to lay him in the sandhill which looks down on the tarn just below Sæbol, and as they were on their way with the body Thorgrim. came up with many men to meet them. And when they had heaped up the howe, and were going to lay the body in it, Thorgrim the priest goes up to Gisli, and says, "Tis the custom, brother-in-law, to bind the hellshoe on men, so that they may walk on them to Valhalla, and I will now do that by Vestein."
And when he had done it, he said "I know nothing about binding on hellshoon if these loosen."
Then they sat down outside the howe and talked, and Gisli asks if any one thought he knew who had done that deed, but all thought it most unlikely that any there knew who had done this crime.
Thorkel asks Gisli: "How bore Auda her brother's death? Does she weep much?"
"I should think thou knowest well how she bears it. She shows it little and feels it much. I dreamed a dream," says Gisli, "the night before last, and last night too, but I will not tell it, nor say who did this slaying, but my dreams all point to it. Methought I dreamt the first night that an adder crept out of a house I know, and stung Vestein to death. And last night I dreamt that a wolf ran from the same house and tore Vestein to death; but I told neither dream up to this time, because I did not wish that any one should interpret them." Then he chaunted a song:
"Twice I dreamt it! thrice I could not|
Vestein, Woden's darling, would not
Have been wakened thus I ween, [think]
When we sat in Vibjorg drinking,
Never from the wine-cup shrinking,
No man sitting us between."
The next three years Gisli was sometimes in his house at Geirthiofsfirth, and sometimes with Thorkel the Wealthy, harboured by stealth. Other three years he spent in roaming over the land, and going from house to house asking help and countenance from great chiefs; but something always tripped him up everywhere, so that naught came of it. So mighty was that spell that Thorgrim's witchcraft had thrown on him that it was fated no chief should shelter him, and no one ever went heartily into his cause. After those six years were over he spent his time for the most part in Geirthiofsfirth, sometimes in his house, over which Auda ruled, and sometimes in the hiding-place which he had hollowed out for himself. That was on the north bank of the river. But he had another lair on the south bank among the crags, and there he lurked for the most part.
Now when Bork hears this, he set off from home, and seeks Eyjolf the Gray, who then dwelt in Arnarfirth in Otterdale, and begs him to hunt for Gisli, and slay him as an outlaw, and if he slew him, he said he would give him three hundreds in silver of the very best, and bade him leave no stone unturned to find him out. He takes the money, and gives his word to do his best. There was a man with Eyjolf named Helgi, Spy-Helgi by nickname; he was both swift of foot and sharp of eye, and he knew every inch of the firths. This man is sent to Geirthiofsfirth to find out if Gisli be there. He soon is aware of a man in hiding, but he knows not whether it be Gisli or another. So he goes back and tells Eyjolf how things stand. Eyjolf says at once it must be Gisli, and loses no time, but sets off with six men for Geirthiofsfirth; but he cannot find Gisli, and goes bootless back.
Gisli was a foresighted man and a great dreamer, and dreamt true. All wise men are of one mind that Gisli lived an outlaw longest of all men, save Grettir, the son of Osmund. Eighteen years was Grettir an outlaw.
It is told that one autumn night Gisli was very restless as he slept, while he was in Auda's house, and when he wakes she asks him what he had dreamt?
"I have two women who are with me in my dreams," he answers; "one is good to me, but the other tells me naught but evil, and her tale is every day worse and worse, and she spaes [prophecies] me downright ruin. But what I just dreamed was this: Methought I came to a house or hall, and into that hall I went, and there I saw many of my friends and kinsfolk: they sat by fires and drank. There were seven fires; some had burnt very low, but some still burned as bright as bright could be. Then in came my better dream-wife, and said these were tokens of my life, how much of it was still to come; and she counselled me so long as I lived to leave all old unbeliefs and witchcraft, and to be good to the deaf and the halt, and the poor and the weak. 'Bear in mind,' she said, 'thou hast so many years yet to live as thou sawest fires alight.' My dream was no longer than that." Then Gisli chaunted several staves:
Fires seven, the bard remembers,|
Lady, blazed within that hall;
Men around those glowing embers
Sate and drank like brothers all.
One and all those inmates gladly
Greeted Gisli as their guest;
Gisli hailed them soft and sadly,
Fitting words his thanks expressed.
Thus that weird wife, wise and witty,
"Noble man!" her voice continues,|
"Shun the wizard's hateful lore;
Hero bold, of strongest sinews,
Seek the muse's golden store.
Bear in mind this precept hoary--
Naught so much defileth hearts
As wicked wit, as idle story;
Vile is witchcraft, black her arts.
"Stay thy hand, be slow to slaughter;
Eyjolf was all alive again, and sends Spy-Helgi again round Geirthiofsfirth; and now he takes food with him, and is away a week, and lies in wait to catch sight of Gisli. At last one day he sees a man come out of a hiding-place, and knows Gisli at once. As soon as he sees him he goes back and tells Eyjolf what he had seen.
Now Eyjolf sets off with eight men, and makes for Auda's house in Geirthiofsfirth; but they do not find Gisli there, and now they beat all the thickets thereabouts, and still cannot find Gisli. Then they go back to Auda's house, and Eyjolf offers her a great sum of money if she will betray Gisli; but she would do nothing of the kind. Then they threatened to maim her, but it was all no good, and they had to go back as wise as they came. This was thought a most shameful journey for them; and Eyjolf stays at home all that autumn.
But though Gisli had not been hunted down, he sees plain enough that he must be taken, and that very soon, if he stays there. So he breaks up from home, and goes along the coast to Strand, and rides to see his brother Thorkel at "the Combe." He knocks at the door of the sleeping-house in which Thorkel is abed, and he gets up, goes out, and greets Gisli.
"I want to know, now," said Gisli, "if thou wilt yield me any help? I look to thee for comfort and countenance, for now I am hard pressed, and I have forborne to do this for a long time."
But Thorkel gave him the old answer, and said outright he would give him no help that might get himself into trouble. Silver and horses he would give him, if he needed them, or anything else, as he said before, but nothing besides.
"Now I see," said Gisli, "that thou wilt not help me. Give me now three hundred in wadmel, and make up your mind that henceforth I shall not often ask thy aid."
Thorkel does as he wishes, and gives him the woollen and some silver. Gisli said he would take what was given him, but added he would not behave so meanly were he in Thorkel's place. At their parting Gisli was very down-hearted.
Now he goes out to Vadil, to the mother of Gest, the son of Oddleif, and reaches her house before dawn, and knocks at the door. The housewife goes to the door. She was often wont to harbour outlaws, and she had an underground room. One end of it opened on the river-bank and the other below her hall. One may see the ruins of it still. Thorgerda--for that was her name--made Gisli welcome. "I am willing enough thou shouldest stay here awhile, but I am sure I can't tell whether this is not mere old wife's talk."
Old wife's talk or not, Gisli was willing to take it as it was meant, and said he "had not been so well treated by men that better things were not to be hoped for from women."
So Gisli stays there that winter, and he was never better cared for in all his outlawry than there.
As soon as ever the spring came Gisli fares back to Geirthiofsfirth, for he could not bear to be any longer away from Auda his wife, so much they loved each other. He is there that summer by stealth, and up to autumn. And now as the nights lengthen the dreams lengthen with them, and that worse dream-wife comes oftener and oftener to him, and he has hard nights. Once he says to Auda, when she asks him what he had dreamt, and his answer was in verse:
A weary wife now haunts my slumber;|
If dreams be true, as oft they be,
Not many winters shall I number,
No tongue shall 'Graybeard!' shout to me:
This dream-wife bids me peak and pine,
Vain 'tis to try to break her spell
But little care I, darling mine!
I dream, but slumber soft and well.
Still my dreams are heavy-hearted,|
Still my evil genius lowers;
All my mirth hath clean departed,
Mine no more are blithesome hours:
Sleep no sooner seals my eyelids
Than a loathly wife appears,
Bathed in blood and gore-bedabbled,
Drenching me with dew of spears.
Darling wife, I now have uttered|
All my mind about my dreams
Nothing hidden, nothing muttered,
Words of truth welled out in streams:
Wrath now riseth hour by hour,
Worse my foes shall feel my hand--
High-born chiefs, whose haughty power,
Marked me with an outlaw's brand.
It is said that now only two more years were left of those which the dream-wife had said he had to live. And as time goes on, and Gisli is in Geirthiofsfirth, all his dreams come back on him, and he has hard struggles in his sleep; and now the worse dream-wife comes oftener and oftener to him, though the better visits him sometimes. So it fell one night, as Gisli dreamed that the better dream-wife came to him, and she seemed to ride on a gray horse, and bids him go with her to her abode, and he went gladly. So they came to a house which was almost as large as a hall, and she leads him into that house, and he thought there were pillows of down on the benches, and that it was well furnished in everything. She bade him stay there and be happy: "Hither shalt thou fare when thou diest, and pass thy time in bliss and ease."
And now he wakes and chaunted these verses on what he had dreamt:
Lo! the goddess shows her power,|
Sets me on her palfrey gray,
Makes me ride unto her bower,
Bids me welcome every day:
All her words some comfort bringing,
Vowing ever to befriend;
In my ears soft sounds are ringing,
Still that music knows no end.
There was many a slumb'rous pillow,
Then outspoke that bounteous woman--
So now that summer glides by, and Gisli abides in his earth-house, and is wary of himself, and does not mean to go away any more. For he thinks that the earths are stopped all round about him, and now the years of his dreaming are all spent.
It chanced one night that summer that Gisli suffered much in his sleep. But when he wakes up Auda asks what he had dreamt. He says that worse dream-wife had come to him again and said thus--
"Now will I utterly crush all that the better dream-wife hath said to thee; and if I may have my way, none of those things that she hath spoken shall be of any good to thee."
Then Gisli chaunted:
Spoke the Valkyr, stern beholding--|
"Ne'er shall ye twain woo and kiss,
Day by day your love unfolding,
All the gods forbid your bliss.
Woden, lord of worlds and ages,
Me hath sent to speak his will,
Far from where the battle rages,
Lo! his bidding I fulfil."
She, methought, her face all flushing,|
Bathed my locks in reddest blood,
Flames of lightso rosy blushing,
Woden's balm so bright and good
Still I see her fingers glowing,
Bright with gems and blazing rings,
Steeped in blood so freely flowing,
Welling from the wounds of kings.
Yes! that lady, dark as raven,|
Bound my brow with gory hood;
All my hair was shorn and shaven--
Sad the plight in which I stood:
Still her hands were gore-bedabbled,
Still her fingers dropped with blood;
Something in my ear she babbled,
Then I woke--to find thee good.
"I dreamt," says Gisli, "that men came on us, and Eyjolf was along with them and many others beside, and we met, and I knew that there was merry work between us. One of their band came first, grinning and gaping, and methought I cut him asunder in the middle; and methought too he bore a wolf's head. Then many more fell on me, and methought I had my shield in my hand, and held my own a long while."
Then Gisli chaunted:
Methought that early on a morning|
My foes within my dwelling stood;
Alone I met them, cravens scorning,
Alone I carved the ravens' food.
Fast and thick they fell around me--
Woe is me! I was aware,
Though chains of death not yet had bound me,
My blood bedewed thy bosom fair.
Well my trusty shield stood by me,|
Bold my heart with peril played
Not a man of them came nigh me,
Blithely sang my tuneful blade:
Till at last my doom was spoken,
Ten to one beat down my shield
Well my death was then ywroken, [worked]
Loud clashed swords on fated field.
Thick I spread the ravens' table,|
One I swept like wind away,
Ere those bitter foes were able
Once to wound me in the fray
Nay! my sword with temper eager
Shore a leg from off a wight;
Off he limped, so wan and meagre,
Mine the pledge he lost in fight.
Methought, O wife, the blood was flowing|
Down my sides in crimson rill;
Tis but the debt of suffering owing,
The toilsome task I must fulfil.
Fairly won my wounds, no snarling,
Others' wives for me must weep;--
Such my visions, Auda darling,
When my eyelids close in sleep.
Methought, O wife, with weapons bloody
Methought my foemen, axes wielding|
Both my arms at once lopped off;
Wound on wound, no buckler shielding,
Woe on woe, and bitter scoff.
Worse I dreamt--my forehead splitting,
Cleft in twain by force of hand,
O'er my brow, like goblin flitting,
Gaped and grinned the grisly brand.
Methought that lady wise and witty,
Now Gisli had stayed at home all that summer, and all had been quiet. At length the very last night of summer came. Then we are told Gisli could not sleep, nor could any of these three, Gisli, Auda, or Gudrida, sleep. The weather was in that wise that it was very still, and much rime-frost had fallen. Then Gisli says he will up and away from his house to his lurking-place south under the crags, and see if he can get rest there.
So they all three set out, and are clad in long loose kirtles, and the skirts of the kirtles swept the grass and left a track in the dew and rime. Gisli had a staff in his hand, and scored it with runes as he went, and the chips fell down. So they came to the lurking-place. He lays him down and tries to sleep, but the two women watched.
Then slumber steals over him, and he dreams that fowl came into the house called night-hawks: they are larger than ptarmigan, and they looked evil, and had been wallowing in gore and blood. Then Auda asked what he had dreamt.
"Still my dreams were not good," said Gisli, and chaunted a song:
Wife! what time I rose and hasted,|
Forth I wandered on the hills;
O'er these regions wild and wasted
Streams of song I poured in rills.
Then I heard the night-hawk shrieking,
Then I heard his mournful strain;
Soon the dew of Woden reeking
Shall this outlaw shed like rain.
"Thy best plan is not to fare farther away, and not to let thyself be hunted down like hare-hearted men, for thou art called a brave fellow. We have often met before, and we now wish this to be the last time."
"Come on like men," answered Gisli, "for I am not going to fare farther away. Besides it is thy bounden duty to be the first to fall on me, for thou hast greater ground for quarrel with me than these others who come along with thee."
"I'm not going to leave it in your hands," says Eyjolf, "to place my men, but I will draw them up as I choose."
"Well!" says Gisli, "it was likeliest that such a hound as thou would not dare to cross swords with me."
Then Eyjolf said to Spy-Helgi:
"Twould be great fame for thee now wert thou to be first in leading the way up the crags to Gisli. Such a deed of derring-do would long be borne in mind."
"I have often proved," says Helgi, "that thou likest to have others before thee when there is any trial of courage; but now since thou eggest me on so hotly, well I will do my best, but mind thou backest me like a man, and keep as close to me as thou canst if thou art not altogether a milksop."
Now Helgi busks him to the work where he saw the likeliest place, and holds in his hand a big axe. Gisli was armed thus: he had in his hand his axe, and he was girt with a sword, and his shield was at his side. He had on a gray cloak, and had bound it round with a rope.
Now Helgi takes a run and rushes up the crags at Gisli. He hurried to meet him, and brandished his sword, and smote him on the loins, and exit him in two at the waist; and each half of the man fell down from the crags, each on its own side. Eyjolf got up in another place, and there Auda met him, and smites him on the arm with her club so that it lost all strength, and down he topples back again. Then Gisli spoke and said:
"Long ago I knew I was well wedded, though I never knew I was so well wedded as I am. But now thou hast yielded me less help than thou thoughtest, though thy meaning was good, for had I got at him they would both have gone the same path."
Then two men go to hold Auda and Gudrida, and think they have quite enough to do. And now twelve men rush at once on Gisli, and try to get up the crags. But he defends himself both with stones and weapons, so that great glory followed his deeds. And now one of Eyjolf's band runs up and calls out to Gisli:
"Lay down thy good arms that thou bearest, and give up at the same time Auda thy wife."
"Come and take them then like a man," answers Gisli, "for neither the arms I bear nor the wife I love are fit for any one else."
That man thrusts at Gisli with a spear, but Gisli smote off the spear-head from the shaft with his axe, and the blow was so stout that the axe passed on to the rock, and one horn of the edge broke off. Then he throws away the axe and clutches his sword and fights with it, and shields himself with his shield. They attack him bravely, but he kept them off like a man, and now they are hard upon each other.
In that bout Gisli slew two men, and now four in all have fallen.
Still Eyjolf bade them fall on like men.
"We are getting the worst of it, but that would be worth little thought if we could only make a good end of our business."
Just then, when they were least aware, Gisli whisked about and leaps up on a crag that stands alone there, and is called Oneman's Crag. So he got away from the cliffs, and then he turned at bay and fought. This took them quite by surprise, and now they think that affairs are in a worse way than ever--four men dead and all the rest weary and wounded.
And now there is a break in the onslaught. When they had taken breath Eyjolf eggs on his men warmly, and gives his word to get them many fair things, if they will only get at Gisli. It must be owned that Eyjolf had with him picked men both in valour and hardihood.
It was a man named Sweyn who first was ready to attack Gisli, but Gisli smites at him and cleaves him to the chine, and hurls him down from the crag. And now they think they can never tell when this man's man-slayings will stop. Then Gisli called out to Eyjolf:
"I wish to make those three hundreds in silver which thou hast taken as the price of my head as dear-bought as I can. And I rather think thou wouldst give other three hundreds in silver that we had never met, for thou wilt only take disgrace in return for your loss of life."
Now they take counsel, and no one is willing to turn back for his life's sake. So they fall on him from two sides, and two men are foremost in following Eyjolf whose names are Thorir and Thord, kinsmen of Eyjolf. They were very great swordsmen, and their onslaught was both hard and hot; and now they gave him some wounds with spear-thrusts, but he still fought on with great stoutness and bravery; and they got such knocks from him, both with stones and strokes, that there was not one of them without a wound who came nigh him, for Gisli was not a man to miss his mark. Now Eyjolf and his kinsmen press on hard, for they felt that their fame and honour lay on it. Then they thrust at him with spears, so that his entrails fall out; but he swept up the entrails with his shirt and bound the rope round the wound.
Then Gisli called out and said they had better wait a while:
Wife so fair, so never failing,|
So truly loved, so sorely cross'd,
Thou wilt often miss me wailing,
Thou wilt weep thy hero lost.
But my soul is stout as ever,
Swords may bite, I feel no smart
Father! better heirloom never
Owned thy son than hardy heart.
But they were all much wounded, Eyjolf's companions. Gisli there lost his life with so many great and sore wounds that it was a wonder to see. They say that he never turned his heel, and none of them saw that his last strokes were lighter than the first.
There now ends Gisli's life, and it has always been said he was the greatest champion--though he was not lucky in all things.
Now they drag him down to the flat ground, and take away his sword, and bury him there in the gravel, and so go down to the sea. There on the sea-shore the sixth man breathed his last. Eyjolf offered Auda to take her with him, but she would not. After that Eyjolf fares home to Otterdale, and there, that same night, the seventh man breathes his last. An eighth lies bedridden from wounds twelve months, and then dies. As for the rest, they were healed, and got nothing but shame for their pains.
It has been said, in short, by one and all that there never was a more famous defence made by one man in times of which the truth is known.
Too bad the saga gives so few details of his warning dreams. But in the tenth century, accounts tend to be sketchy. Whatever his dreams said, they did the job! Showing that dreamwork's not just an intellectual or spiritual exercise--it has survival value. Nor is this saga expressing a Nordic belief. It's not fiction but history. Gisli did the impossible! By medieval Icelandic standards, he survived to quite a good age--and achieved lasting fame. Not bad for an outlaw under a curse! (Oh, did I mention the family curse?) Anyway, his dream-advice, whatever its details, had tangible benefits: years of added life.
The spirit-wives are fascinating too. They're a phenomenon known among Siberian shamans but except among the Lapps (far northern Scandinavia) this is the only European case of spirit-spouses I've read of. Its presence as far east as Iceland, just before Christianity took firm root, hints at a wider distribution. The Church would no doubt have called them demons: probably succubi. But Gisli (and Auda, even more interestingly!) see them simply as allies. Yes, one's a spook out to seduce your husband into her little Valhalla, and one's a bloody-minded banshee nag, but Iceland's a hard land--you make friends where you can, and ignore their little quirks.
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