Kormak and Steingerd Cycle (Short Stories)
I have found myself retelling the story of Steingerd and the warrior Kormak - a failed love story more than a thousand years old.
I love the original story, and find something new each time I read it. But it is a little inaccessible - not the least because the unknown hand that wrote the saga is never prepared to tell the whole story, often resorting to frustrating silence or hints.
Kormak was a real person, an Icelandic warrior who with his brother established the English port city of Scarborough. We do not know if the story of his failed love of Steingerd is a fact or fiction.
The stories below should be treated as fragments, individual parts of a story. Read down this page or jump to the stand-alone original posts.
Let us go back in time, when you and I were still young.
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
I was the younger son of a farmer. Like second sons of the day this meant I had to leave home and travel the world.
During the long dark days of winter, the Icelanders could not leave their farmsteads. Instead we would sit with our friends, male and female, playing checkers and chess in front of a fire - sometimes for days and months at a time. Then, during spring, we got out and exploded into the world.
Maybe it is natural human thing to play games during winter - maybe it gives us a chance to regroup and recharge. And, perhaps, to reshape the world.
It is next to a hearth as winter fades to spring that I conceived a fey love for the fiercely independent woman Steingerd. The romance was cursed soon after we meet. Even though betrothed, my love waned and I failed to attend the wedding with Steingerd. In anger she married first one and then another merchant. But I cannot forget you - our paths cross through the years – and our lives still are interwoven as we travel through through time.
Bitterness dogs us – although you hold some affection for me, you have never forgiven me for failing to marry you. Even though I have undertaken heroic tasks for you (and written some pretty good love poetry), opportunity does not return. Even when I rescued you from kidnappers, you reject me saying that you would not exchange one knife for another.
A scald tells me that my story ends with my brother, Thorgils, and I going off raiding in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. I am seriously injured in battle with a Scot giant, failed by his sword Skrymir. Sadly, I survive long enough to be taken from the battle field and die in bed. Bad move - once you are taken off the field, you become ineligible for an eternity of entertainment and stories in the halls of the gods.
A little while before I die, we establish a town on the coast of England. The saga records: “It was they who established the stronghold named Scarborough.” The name itself comes from Thorgils’ nickname “Skardi” (a reference to Thorgil’s harelip). Scarborough is a port city on the mid-East coast of England. We all know about Scarborough, and its ancient fair, from an old ballad. The ballad itself has had many forms and is of uncertain origin. It is an exchange between disaffected lovers. They take turns at setting each other impossible tasks – some that mirror the events in the life of you and I, Kormak and Steingerd.
You can only be a true love of mine if you complete these impossible tasks. But, if not:
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Let me know that at least she will try
And then she'll be a true love of mine.
In the days before the first millennium, swords were individually crafted. Swords that stood the test of time earned an individual name. In the sagas, they were referred to with respect and keenly sought to settle legal disputes.
Some swords were straightforward. Such was the great sword Skrymir owned by the warrior Steinar. Named after one of the mythic giants, it was said to be never dirty nor troublesome to handle.
Other swords were troublesome. Skeggi owned the sword Skofnung which was often sought by lawyers. The sword had to be carefully prepared before trial. The sun was not to shine on the pommel of the sword. The blade was not to be withdrawn from the scabbard until trial. Skeggi gave the following directions before trial: “Sit by yourself and draw it there, hold out the sword blade in front of you and blow on it, then a little snake will crawl out from under the hilt. Turn the sword sideways and make it possible for him to crawl back under the hilt.”
I do not believe in magical snakes. When I got into legal strife (which poets do from time to time), I had cause to borrow Skeggi’s sword. I listened to Skeggi’s explanation on how to use the sword. After listening I exclaimed “What will you sorcerers think of next?”
Suffice to say, I did not bother to follow the instructions (like most young poets, I was impetuous, and often jump into trouble before looking). Have a little sympathy for poor Kormak. When was the last time you read the instruction manual before using that new piece of equipment?
The sagas record that, when I drew the sword, Skofnung came out of its scabbard howling and I went on to lose my case (fortunately with only a split thumb and the loss of the duel ransom).
With the benefit of hindsight, I now look again at Skeggi’s sword spell.
Sit by yourself before the battle. Catch your breath and relax.
Draw the sword and hold the blade out in front of you. Consider your position and the consequences of continuing.
Blow on the blade. Watch as your breath reveals the detail of the design etched into the metal, of a serpent protected by runes. Recall you are wielding a sword unbroken by past battles.
Turn the sword. The design is replaced by the sharp edge of the blade. Take the responsibility for wielding a named sword.
It is a powerful spell. But, if the spell does not work, and you get hurt, Skofnung had one more trick up its scabbard. Attached to it was a healing pouch.
What will they think of next?
The Otter's Well Gleaming
Steingerd persuaded her hearth-partner, Thorvald the Tinker, to equip a ship to travel to Norway. Thorvald knew of Steingerd's affection for Kormak and opposed it. His opposition was to no avail. Steingerd told him, as she told Kormak, that she alone would make a choice as to how she spent her time. Still Thorvald made his objection plain and litigation followed. The litigation included a series of legal duels although Thorvald's brother fought on his behalf, as Thorvald was reluctant to take to the field.
Kormak, her one-time love, prepared his own ship as well. Thorgils, his brother agreed to come. Thorgils was called Scardi because of a scar on his face. Kormak named the Viking settlement at Scarborough on the coast of England in honor of his brother.
So it was some misgivings that Thorvald sailed. As captains, Thorvald and Kormak steered their ships using a tiller - an oar strapped to the back of the boat. Steingerd took turns with Thorvald, and she became very competent at steering at sea.
On arrival, they were met by King Harald and Kormak was welcomed into his court as a courtier. The other Icelanders took up separate lodgings in the town. Thorvald commenced a trade in making and repairing metal goods and established a small forge at the back of a two story stone house.
A couple of weeks after they arrived, Kormak came to visit.
Steingerd was spinning thread from wool using a drop spindle. The spindle, a straight stick 3 hand lengths long, and weighed by a stone whorl, already had a yard of thread tied around it. With her right hand she drew out some hands-length of wool fibers from her left hand. When happy with the thickness of the fibers, she set the whorl moving, twisting the fiber into yarn. The newly spun yarn then was wound with the rest onto the spindle and she started to draw the fibers down again.
Kormak watched for a moment, then fixed his eyes on the other women-folk and motioned them to leave.
Steingerd asked him, "So you have come to learn spinning?"
Kormak thought for a moment, "You are very slow. Perhaps I could show you how to spin faster."
Steingerd's eyes flashed, "Don’t be foolish, the fleece is coarse and..."
Then she saw a smile at the corners of his mouth. Too late she started to rise, spindle and fibre still in hand. He stepped behind her and pulled her onto him, matching his body to hers. He reached up and caught her two hands at the wrist.
Kormak said, "Let me be your bench."
Steingerd laughed, "But my feet cannot reach the ground".
Kormak said, "Neither did your spindle".
Steingerd smiled and twisted her bare feet around his ankles, she said, "Caught you".
Steingerd relaxed a little into him, warning, "My hearth-partner is nearby. One of the girls will fetch him. "
Kormak said, "Yes. He will come, shouting and panting up the stairs. But you are simply showing me how to spin. Or I am showing you how to spin faster. I cannot remember. Please continue, don’t let me interfere."
Steingerd started to draw the fibers back into form, feeling his arms become light, following her movements.
Kormak said, close to her left ear, "Anyway, the tinker is in my debt and we will not come to blows because his brother remains home".
Steingerd felt a thrill of electricity and spun the whorl low and fast.
Kormak said, "I will tell him you are simply spinning the thread for a shirt for me."
Steingerd frowned, "This thread is not for you. It is for the witch Gunhild, the new wife of the king's son, Eric. She has been sitting here with me."
Kormak's hands tensed, "What have you been speaking of?"
Steingerd said, "Gunhild and I have exchanged life stories. I have told her of your pursuit of me. She told me how she rescued Eric by the white sea one past summer. And how she bewitched him with her eyes."
Kormak became more direct and quieter, "Has she spoken of the king?"
Steingerd said, "Gunhild told me you need have no fear of the King. Both the King and her Erik trust you. He is minded to make you a captain when we raid."
Kormak asked "We?"
Steingerd felt his breath on her neck.
Steingerd said, "Gunhild has persuaded Eric to take her back to the White Sea, with the King. And me."
She spun her head around and looked into his eyes, and then found his lips with hers. She kissed him deeply, feeling his momentary confusion quickly replaced with fire. She pulled back a little, "Do you know why I just kissed you?"
He released her wrists, encircling her waist instead, and she leaned back into him.
Kormak said, "No. I don’t care". And this time he kissed her as deeply as he held her.
Steingerd said, "Gunhild is preparing me a potion, which will let me bewitch you with my eyes."
She disentangled herself from him and carefully put down the spindle. Then she turned to face him. She walked over to him and sat on his knees facing him.
Steingerd took his face in her hands and gave him one more deep kiss. She pulled back to find his eyes closed with tears.
Kormak said, "I would stay with you from now if you agreed. You do not need a potion to bewitch me. That is not the problem."
For the fourth time she kissed him, this time starting with his eyes. Steingerd asked, "And what is our problem, man that I used to love?"
Kormak looked at her and said, "Your love changes with the weather".
Steingerd gasped and hit at him as Thorvald burst up the stairs. Despite all of Kormak's predictions, Thorvald drew his sword. Suddenly the room was full of women-folk who rushed in to part them. Steingerd smiled and walked to her window. She signaled Gunhild to send word to King Harald Greycoat.
King Harald Greycoat arrived shaking his head. He said to Thorvald and Kormak, "You are very troublesome people to keep in order. You may settle this peacefully according to your law, or you may agree to allow me settle this matter between you".
Thorvald and Kormak agreed to the King making an order and attended him in his hall. Erik and Gunhild stood next to the King as he spoke.
King Harald Greycoat said, "I have heard of your past disputes. I would have this settled now because I have need of you all."
He continued, "One kiss shall be atoned for by this, that Kormak helped you Thorvald to get safely to land. The next kiss is Kormak's because he once saved Steingerd from rogues. For the other two he shall pay two ounces of gold."
Later that night, in the King's Mead Hall, Kormak sang a poem to mark the King's decision.
"Here is gold of the otter's well gleaming
In guerdon for this one and that one,
Here is treasure of Fafnir the fire-drake
In fee for the kiss of my lady.
Never wearer of ring, never wielder
Of weapon has made such atonement;
Never dearer were deeply-drawn kisses -
And the dream of my bliss is betrayed."
There was some peace then between Thorvald and Kormak, although Steingerd refused to be seen in Kormak's private company.
Winter fell and the company withdrew to the Kings Halls, playing games, listening to stories eating and drinking. Finally, the snow stopped. As the days became longer and the Northern ice melted, Harald Greycloak finalised plans to travel into the west. There was great interest in the venture, and he attracted a host of ships to the White Sea which was rich in ivory, skins and amber. The king appointed Kormak as a captain in that host, and Thorvald also came, each man in charge of his own long boat.
On their way to the way to the White Sea, Thorvald sailed very close to Kormak while they were navigating a narrow sound. Upset, Kormak swung his steering-oar and hit Thorvald. Thorvald collapsed and fell to the floor of the deck. However, Kormak's move had upset the balance of his own boat, and he struggled to get control of it again.
Steingerd, who had been on the deck sitting beside Thorvald, now took his place holding the tiller. With a glint in her eye, she turned her ship and ran down Kormak's ship, capsizing it and tipping all aboard into the water.
No loss of life occurred, and the ship was refloated with no loss of time. Steingerd, emptied a bladder of water over Thorvald, bringing him back to a semblance of health.
As before, the king offered to settle the matter between them. With a grim smile he gave judgment that Thorvald's hurt was atoned for by Kormak's upset.
In the evening they went ashore and set up their tents for the night. Thovald retired immediately, still unwell. As the host sat down to eat their nightly meal, Kormak offered Steingerd a drink of mead from his cup.
Steingerd looked at him and asked, "And what of the weather today?"
Kormak looked at her. Standing on the soft-grey of the rock platform that ran next to the bay. The western sun setting the night sky on fire. Reflecting in the still water of the great sea. He said, "You confuse me more than ever".
She said, "I can fix that."
She withdraw the small flask Gunhild had given her and drank it.
While the crow's day drags on in the darkness
On the morning tide I saw you searching for my arrival. You were riding along the shore on your dappled mare. I took a small boat into the bay and borrowed a horse from the shore-master. I galloped to meet you at the headland fells.
For a moment the fates had business elsewhere. I jumped from horseback and helped you alight. You slipped into my arms, slowly and full. Our eyes locked and we were lost.
I spread my cloak on the soft grasses and we settled together, softly together under the one roof-tree.
Our horses wandered away. Our shadows became longer as the day passed.
It was not nearly time enough. The fates came looking for us. They found us eyes locked in eyes.
You said, "It is time to look for the horses. I must return home."
I had heard the horses close by but now they were nowhere in sight.
We walked along the coast line to a nearby farm. We were taken into the hall, sat on the cross benches with the head of the household close to the warm hearth and treated with courtesy.
That night in our bed closet you chose to sleep on the other side of a barrier that parted bed from bed.
I say, "Open your eyes and turn around. Defy the fates. Come near to me, so near that only the sheen from the deep is left between."
You say, "No, it is better thus. It is all over and done with. Name it no more."
I say, "I cannot hear you speaking."
I rose and walked outside away from the hall into the moon-lit hay field.
I sit on the far hay field wall, listening to the crash of the cold sea. Inland, hills are draped with thin tendrils of mist, illuminated by the moon dancing with snow clouds. You place your hand on my shoulder. We watch the mist dressing and undressing the hills as as the moon comes and goes. The mist touches us gently with night dew and ocean scent.
A snow flake settles in your hair.
I said: “Woman, your hair sea-dazzle gleaming, can you see that time has stopped. While the crow's day drags on in the darkness, we are the only ones left here on Earth.”
You say, "You once asked me to make you a shirt. You had no business asking that of me. So now I ask you to make me a cambric shirt, without seams nor fine needle work. Wash it in the dry well of your love and see that it is dried on the thorn that has never blossomed. Then you will be a true love of mine."
I do not hear, "I have your face etched on my mind. I ache when I think of you.”
You say, tears forming, "You once promised me a farm house, cattle, fine horses to race and children. You let your bride-price fail. You only get one chance. So now I tell you to find me an acre of land between salt water and the sea-sand. Plough it with a ram's horn, and sow it all over. Reap and barn it in a mouse-hell and thrash it with your shoes. Only then shall you be a true love of mine."
I pause, wondering her words, "You are asking the impossible."
You say, "I ask you nothing more than you ask of me."
Kormak's Saga was written 1250-1300 - saga text available at http://omacl.org/Cormac/?
It is one of my favorite books - an old Icelandic saga from the 10-12th century.
The old sagas should be treated as stories – unless supporting evidence of the happenings can be found. With Kormak’s saga there is more than a little evidence of the events and, whether we realize it or not, the story has already touched all of us. The saga is still fresh and raw. It has strong characterization and some half-decent poetry. It takes us into the ordinary lives of extraordinary people. It gives us some wonderful pictures of Icelandic life. The saga itself deals with the impossible love of the warrior-poet Kormak for the fiercely independent woman Steingerd. This is my retelling of parts of the story . Kormak was a real person - but we do not know if the story of his life-long failed love of Steingerd is fact or fiction. Steingerd is one of the strongest female protagonists in the Nordic sagas, so I would wish her existence was fact rather than pretense.
Those familiar with the saga may wonder about the provenance of the interpolated material and my choice of plot direction, for example the four kisses and the intertwined references to Erik and Gunhild. My approach is simple. I take the poetry of Kormak to be the best source - the saga writer seems to have guessed some of the connecting material and had their own source for some bits and pieces. I take it that the histories of the northern kings (Sturlason's Heimskringla) is the next best source. Likewise I have deliberately introduced some of Kormak's earlier poetry, the challenges in early versions of "Scarborough Fair" (the Viking port of Scarborough in England was established by Kormac) and an early precursor "The Elfin Knight" than conjures "mouse hell".
The relationship between Steingerd and Thorvald is difficult to describe. While this is conventionally described as a marriage, it would appear a very strange form of marriage if all the legal incidents were described to the reader. To avoid misconceptions that might flow, I have chosen to describe it as a "hearth partnership", essentially a domestic relationship that could be terminated lawfully by either at any stage and which involved no emotional commitment (but was beset by challenges to honor). In contrast I have retained the word marriage to describe the relationship between Erik and the young witch Gunhild - because this falls more within the conventional use of the word.
In the old days before the first millennium, northern laws provided strict means for settling disputes – either through formal proceedings before a panel of respected law speakers or by combat. In a trial by combat, a litigant could appear in person, or by their lawyer. Some successful lawyers advertised their profession by appending the title “the dueller” to their name. Each litigant brought or borrowed a sword (preferably a named sword), obtained 3 shields and brought a second, to bear the shield for them. The field was prepared by pinning a square cloak onto the ground by special pins. Surrounding the cloak, hazel poles were placed at a short distance from the cloak. The trial took place by a formalised series of blows struck, alternatively, by each of the litigants. Initially, one became the attacker and the other the defender. After one blow, the positions were reversed. While a defender still had a functional shield, the defendant’s second held it to protect the defendant, and the attacker directed the force of the blow towards shattering the shield. When all three shields were destroyed, the second withdrew and the defender was left standing, on the cloak, to parry the alternate blows directed at him with his sword. The trial continued until a drop of blood fell on the cloak or a defendant was pushed, by force of a blow, beyond the surrounding hazel poles. If one foot was placed beyond the hazel, the defendant was said to have retreated. If two feet were placed beyond the hazel, the defendant was said to have run. The difference went to reputation – no action for slander could be brought for calling someone who had run a coward (although action could be taken to suppress a poem which was designed to provoke ill feeling). Loss of a duel resulted in the loss of the case and any damages flowing from that. In addition, about 950AD, a duel ransom of 2 marks of silver was payable. Through the ages, litigation has not changed much. You are a mug if you do not bring the sharpest sword you can find to court.
The spinning wheel had not been invented at the time of this story ~950AD. An interesting article on the relative cost of medieval spinning is at http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2013/06/the-3500-shirt-history-lesson-in.html
I have called on the old ballad Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme in this story. In the ballad, as in the saga, there is no reconciliation between the former lovers. The fortification at Scarborough (located midway the East coast of England) on North Sea coast of North Yorkshire was subsequently destroyed and rebuilt – but the brother’s choice of location seems vindicated by the re-establishment of a castle on the headland and the grant of charters in 1155 and 1163, permitting a market on the sands. By royal charter in 1253 the fair was allowed to run for a six-week trading period attracting merchants from all parts of the medieval world. It ran from 15 August, until 29th September ("The Burgesses and their heirs forever may have a yearly fayre in the Borough, to continue from the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the Feast of St Michael next following"). The fair continued for 500 years. Learned scholars say the ballad is only 300 years old. Maybe it is of recent origin – but the story it tells of the trials of love, is far far older.