Once upon a time in the western fjords of Iceland there was a farmer who employed a considerate number of servants, one of those was a man named Jon who had in part been raised there as well. Each fall the farmer would send a man to the southern part of the country to row for fish.
Picture by Arni Stefan Arnason
One fall when the farmer recently sent of a man for fishing he is approached by Jon who shares his desire to go fishing as well for he had some talent and note when it came to rowing. The farmer tries his best to convince Jon not to go but in the end relents and gives his permission.
When Jon was ready he was given a tent and two horses with provisions, plus the third horse he could ride. The farmer bids him to hurry so he can reach a convoy of horses who left the day before, among them a man the farmer himself sent. Jon tells the farmer that he needs no one to accompany for he already knows the way south.
He says his goodbyes to the farmer and leaves for the fishing grounds, later he makes his camp by holtavorduheidi (small mountain), the people who had left before him had camped in the same spot. The morning after he left up the heidi, when the day was almost done it suddenly started to snow and before he knew he was lost, still he kept going until almost midnight for a large moon was in the sky. He came upon a flat spot of grass where he stopped and pitched his tent.
The morning after the snow had covered almost half his tent but he does not let it deter him and prepares the horses anyway and makes his way onward. Three days he wanders, completely lost and finally comes to a stop in a small yet a deep valley where he makes his camp again.
The next day he continues along the valley. He encountered some sheep who were not accustomed to the presence of man. The valley continued to expand as he made his way until finally he reached the sea. He could now see how the valley expanded even further by the sea and how a large lake had its home here and how the sea broached inside two cliffs forming a cove, between the lake and cove he could see a large drivel covered hill.
On the beach he could see a boat, not large but quite sturdily built. In the sand he could see unnaturally large footsteps, two times the size of his own. In one of the cliffs who encroached the beach there was a collection of caves, one of them larger than the others.
He makes his way over there and allows his horses to graze after carrying his gear into the largest cave. He could have sworn he smelled smoke further in, yet ignores it and wraps his tent around himself and falls asleep.
He is awakened by the nudge of a foot and a voice: „Come and dry your clothes, man, you shall not be harmed. “
Jon says: „Is this a man or woman who speaks to me? “
„Rather would I call myself a Woman then a man, now come in with me and dry your clothes, you have been beaten by the weather long enough, I shall not harm you.“
Jon gets up and sees a large bulky woman. She tells him that if he has some dry clothes to take them with him for she has none he can wear. He follows her inside the cave and sees where a fire burns and a large cauldron rests. The trollskessa (female troll) sits down by the fire, and jon can see she wears the fur of a bear.
He asks her what her name is. She says her name is Skinnhetta „but my sister is called skinnhufa and is in the cliffs in front.
Jon asks if she and her sister have been there for long and if they were raised here.
She says: „No our parents lived to the south in trollheimi but were banished for theft and moved to the wilderness of Greenland. Then later we all went out to see only to be caught by a great storm and finding ourselves washed up here on this cove.
Here we have lived since and lived on the fish the lake brings us and the occasional sheep we can catch. When our parents died my sister grew so mean I could not handle her at all.
Later her hatred for me intensified and she beat me and starved me until I could bear it no more and left. I came here to these outer cliffs where I have been ever since in this cave for it is the largest.
Not so long ago a large whale was stranded here on the beach not so far from where my sister makes her home, so I reached out to her and offered to help her work it for a share, she refused. Still she allowed me to help only to drive me off as evening came, so I ran away in tears.
Then when I made my way home and was watching the moon and the stars I thought there must be some almighty being who created the earth and the stars and the men and the animals, both in the water and on land; I chanted this poem:
Láttu reyði reka, (Allow the whale to float,)
ríkur, svo mér líki (rich for me to like,)
beint fyrir björgum ytri, (Straight to outer cliffs)
buðlung himintungla. ( prince of stars)
„Then I walked home to my cave and slept through the night. The morning after when I came out a whale had washed up by my shores. Then I walked back to my sister and found her dead by her whale. Then I took what little she had and returned to my cave. “
During the evening she says to Jon. „Would you rather, man, sleep on the floor or sleep with me? “
He says he would rather stay with her, and thus he did for a whole week, for that is how long the weather lasted.
Jon told her how men cut the grass and kept it for the winter to feed to their livestock, and she was so impressed she wished to learn how to do so, so he did just that.
Then she says: „When you have reached your destination then you shall drive your horse to a place I direct. Then I shall take them and take care of them for the winter for the grazing in this valley is unmatched and the shelter good. Then when you return in spring I shall find a way to get them back to you. When you get back I would only ask that you give me as much fish as one horse can carry.“
Then she gave him the skin of a bear and tells him to cover himself with it as he rows out to sea. Then Jon left for the south and she came with him until they could see the gathering of men.
Then she says: „It is my suspicion that I do not leave alone from our companionship and if that is so I would want you to accept your part in it!“
Then she heads for her home but he goes of fishing. Then during the spring a week before he had planned to leave for home his horses had returned and were twice as fat as they were during the fall. Before he left he bought even more horses and loaded three of them with fish.
After that we know nothing of his travels until he reaches the cove where the trollskessa lives, where she happily greets him. He gives her the fish from all three horses for he had caught many. She was quite pleased.
Then she speaks and says: „I can tell you that I am with child and you are as true a father as I am a mother. “
He says he shall accept that as so.
„If it is a girl which I think is likely then I shall take care of her but if for some reason it is a boy, I do not know, then I shall take care of him until he is ten, but after that you must take care of him. I would want you to return when it is time.
„I do not know if my master will allow me“ Says Jon, „for I am engaged to his daughter.“
She says: “ It was not my intention for you to stay here with me, only that I enjoy your company. I would also wish you to have our child baptized“
„How will you get the child to me?“ Says Jon.
„I will find a way“ She says.
Then they go separate ways and we do not hear of Jon until he returns home, shortly thereafter the farmer wished him to marry his daughter. Not long after he is married he leaves again with some sheep and three horses all laden with fish. On his way there he buys a scythe and rake and a child’s cradle and did not stop until he reached the home of the trollskessa, where he taught her how to use the items and gave her the food. Then he returned back home.
It says so in this story that Jons wife had all the benefits of a great woman but two flaws, first one was that she was very curious and the second that she had a temper.
One Sunday many people were at church, among them Jon and his wife, then when the service is almost half over a man leaves the church only to return and tell Jon that there is something on the churches stairs which belongs to him.
Jon walks out and finds a cradle bearing a lovely girl child wearing fine clothes and a golden necklace. He picks up the child and brings it inside the church where he asks a priest to name the child Asdis and proclaim her his daughter.
When the child had been baptized he put it outside in the cradle, where the trollskessa came and hurried away with it, for while the child was named she stood in the window watching where people could see her.
When Jon and his wife were on their way home from the church she started asking him about the child which he had the priest baptize. He tried his best to avoid the question, fearing it would be the cause of their divorce but could not for long and told her the whole story, how the troll had saved him as he came to the cave more dead than alive.
She told him that it would be best to take the child and foster it. He says he will do so. After this he brought the skessa twelve sheep every year and clothes for her and the child, he sought her out three times a year and helped her feed her livestock. It says so in this story that he was a most fortunate man and that he and his wife agreed with each other.
Once when Jon visits the troll she comes to him and says: „Now my daughter is seven as you know but has not learned much of her Christian faith. Now I wish you to take her even if I shall miss her much so she can learn for I would not want to take away her pleasure of learning about our savior Jesus Christ.“
Jon does not wish to take her away from her mother and thus taught her how to read and gave her a school book so she could learn. When the girl had reached the age of affirmation jon returned to find the girl crying beside her mother’s bed for the trollskessa was dying.
The troll speaks and says to Jon: „I want you to stay here with me while I pass away and when I am dead bury me close to this cave; then take what little I have and bring it to your home. I also want you to take care of our daughter and not let her suffer for the fact that she is born of trolls. Then I will wish you success for all your times.“
Then she died and he did all that she had asked him. Then he took all that she had owned and they left together, then we do not hear of them until they get back.
Then Jon says to his wife: „I want you to care for this girl as if she was your own.“
And that she did and treated her as she did her own children. When the girl was fourteen she was affirmed and became a Christian, and when she was twenty she married a kind man and became one of the more successful women on the western part of Iceland and kept her faith till the day she died.
Of Jon we can say that he became of all men most successful and lived out his days in peace on the western part of Iceland. Here ends the tale of Skessu-Jon.