Land-taking and relations with the LandvŠttir

Copyright ę 1999 ┌lfgrim VÝlmei­son


Especially during the early years of the settlement of Iceland, it was the custom of folks to claim land by defining its boundaries with fire. This could either be done by walking with a torch or other flame around the perimeter of the land, or by shooting a flaming arrow over it:

"J÷rund go­i, son of Hrafn Heimski, settled west of Fljˇt, where it is now called Svertingsstadir; there he raised a large temple. A small piece of land lay unsettled east of Fljˇt, between Krossß (river) and J÷ldustein; J÷rund went with fire around this, and made it the property of the temple." (Landnamabˇk v, 3)

"Onund the Wise took up land in the valley of Merkigil. When Eirik (from Goddalir) wanted to settle in the valley west of it, Onund threw blˇtspßn [i.e., cast rune-lots for divination] to ascertain when Eirik would come and take up the land. Onnund then forestalled him, and shot with a burning arrow across the river, and thus took possession of the land west of it and dwelt on it." (Landnamabˇk iii, 8)

In modern practice, walking around the boundaries of newly-purchased land with a candle or torch is the most common practice (since local firefighting authorities usually take a dim view of flaming arrows being lobbed around local neighborhoods).

Witnesses should be present to observe the rite:

"Odd rode to a house which was not quite burnt down [the go­i Blundketil had been burned to death in his house by his enemies]. He stretched out his hand and pulled a rafter of birch-wood out of the house, and then rode against the sun [i.e., widdershins, or counterclockwise] 'round the houses with the burning brand and said: 'Here I settle on this land, for I do not see any homestead; may the witnesses present hear it.' He then whipped his horse and rode away." (HŠnsa Ůori's Saga 9)

It was also possible to dedicate a particular piece of land to one's favorite God or Goddess, which would be reflected in the name given to the property:

"Asbj÷rn Reyrketilsson and his brother Steinfinn took up land above Krossß, and east of Fljot. . . . Asbj÷rn consecrated his land to ١rr, and called it ١rrsm÷rk." (Landnamabˇk v, 2)


The LandvŠttir are guardian spirits of the land; in this way they are analagous to the DÝsir and Hamingja, who serve the same function on the level of the family or individual. The well-being of the land is directly tied to the presence and goodwill of the LandvŠttir, and care must be taken not to offend or frighten them:

"It was the beginning of the heathen laws that men should not go with a head-ship [i.e., a ship with a dragon-head on the prow] out on the main sea, or, if they did, they should take the heads off before they saw land, and not approach it with gaping heads and yawning snout, that the LandvŠttir not be frightened." (Landnamabˇk iv, 12)

And it was also possible to harm an enemy by acting against the LandvŠttir that were associated with their lands (this is the ni­ing-pole):

"And when they were ready to sail Egil went upon an island. He took into his hand a hazel-pole and went on a projecting rock, pointing landwards. He took a horse's head and fastened it upon the pole; then he said the following words: 'Here I raise a pole as a curse, and I turn this curse upon King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild.' He turned the horse's head so that it pointed landwards. 'I turn this curse on the guardian spirits who dwell in this country, so that they shall all go astray, and no one of them shall meet or find his home until they have driven King Eirik and Gunnhild from the land.' He then thrust the pole into a rift in the rock, and let it stand there; he carved runes on the pole which told all this imprecation. Thereupon he went on board ship and sailed." (Egil's Saga 60)

While the LandvŠttir were most often associated with the land itself, it is possible a given person to become favored by them and enjoy their good graces:

"Bj÷rn (an Icelander) dreamt one night that a rock-dweller [LandvŠttir] came to him and offered to enter into partnership with him, and he consented. Thereafter a he-goat came to his goats, and they increased so much that he soon became very rich. After this he was called He-goat Bj÷rn. Second-sighted men saw that all LandvŠttir followed He-goat Bj÷rn to the Ůing, and Thorstein and Thˇrd (his brothers) to hunting and fishing." (Landnamabˇk iv, 12)

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