"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 27, 2014

"People's Court" meets "Ghostbusters"

It seems oddly fitting that the crowd who gave the world Necropants should also have pioneered the art of suing ghosts.

Our story comes from the "Eyrbyggja Saga," an ancient Icelandic history that's full to the brim with tasty medieval weirdness. The "Saga" tells us that in the summer of 1000, a ship from Dublin paused along the coast at Snowfell Ness, waiting for a favorable breeze that would take it to its destination of Dogvertharness. During this break in the voyage, many Icelanders went down to the ship to trade with them.

One of the passengers on the ship was a woman from the Hebrides named Thorgunna. According to some of the sailors, she had with her a magnificent wardrobe, unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

This claim immediately aroused the excited curiosity of a local lady named Thurida. Thurida was what we today would call a Fashionista: a flashy type obsessed with looking her best. As shopping malls and mail-order catalogs were scarce in 11th century Iceland, she did not have many opportunities to indulge this passion. When she heard of the sumptuous clothing of this Hebridean visitor, she knew she must see these treasures for herself.

Thurida rowed out to the ship, sought out Thorgunna, and excitedly asked her if she indeed had this remarkable array of finery. Thorgunna answered that she certainly did, but--anticipating the other woman's unspoken question--she had no intention of parting with any of it.

Thorgunna did, however, agree to let her caller see this prized wardrobe. When Thurida examined the clothes, she was puzzled and disappointed to find that while the dresses were nice enough, they were nowhere near as outstanding as she had been led to believe. Despite this, she still made an offer to purchase the goods. Thorgunna flatly refused. Undaunted, Thurida invited the traveler to come ashore and live at Thurida's household at Froda. She may have thought that a little Icelandic hospitality might make Thorgunna relent. The traveler, by now quite weary with shipboard life, readily accepted the invitation.

In her guest room at Froda, Thorgunna unpacked her trunk. Thurida was fascinated to see that she had bed-clothes lovelier and more valuable than anything she had ever imagined--sheets of the finest linen and silk coverlets, elegant bed tapestries and curtains, all of the most exquisite workmanship.

Thurida contained her drooling long enough to ask Thorgunna to share some of these bedazzling beddings. Her guest told her to forget it, adding rudely that "I'm not going to pig it in the rushes for you, madam!"

We are told that Thurida did not take this rebuff well, and one can't really blame her.

Thorgunna--described as a tall, stout, black-eyebrowed woman of about sixty--soon settled into life at Froda. The quiet, reserved visitor went to church every morning, worked at her loom, and helped harvest the hay. She was not a friendly woman--the only member of the household she seemed to take to was Thurida's adolescent son, Kiartan--but she was a hard worker who caused no trouble.

One bright, sunny day, Thurida's husband Thorodd took advantage of the fine weather by ordering everyone to turn out for haymaking. Thorgunna worked along with the rest until afternoon, when a thick black cloud appeared, obscuring the sun so completely that it was nearly impossible to see. The workers raked their cut hay into piles, except for Thorgunna, who for unknown reasons, left hers spread out on the ground. They finished just before a massive thunderstorm hit the area. The rain, though harsh, was a brief one, being over by evening.

When the haymakers returned to the fields, they discovered that this was no normal storm. It had rained blood. Thorgunna solemnly informed Thurida that this was a bad omen for her home and everyone in it. When everyone returned home, Thorgunna stripped off her bloodied clothes and lay in her richly-appareled bed. It soon became obvious that she was seriously ill.

The next morning, when Thorodd visited Thorgunna's bedside, his guest told him she was dying, and asked him to take down her will. She warned him that any failure to follow her instructions to the letter would have the gravest consequences. "This affair has so begun," she sighed, "that it will not pass smoothly off, unless strong measures are taken in dealing with it."

She told him that she wanted to be buried at Skalholt, because she had a presentiment that that spot would soon become the most sacred in the land, with priests there who would chant prayers for her soul. Thurida could have her scarlet gown, "so that she may readily consent to my disposing of all the rest as I please." Her gold ring was bequeathed to the church. Her magnificent bedding, however, was all to be burned. "This I desire," she said, "not because I grudge the use of these handsome articles to anybody, but because I foresee that the possession of them would be the cause of innumerable quarrels and heart-burnings."

Thorodd promised her that all these conditions would be fulfilled. Thorgunna died a few days later.

After his guest had been placed in her coffin, Thorodd, as she had wished, brought all her bed-clothes outside and prepared to make a bonfire out of them. However, before he could start the blaze, Thurida saw what he was doing. Ashen with horror, she rushed to his side and demanded to know what in the world he was thinking in wanting to destroy these lovely valuables.

It was, he pointed out, the dead woman's final request.

Thurida was disgusted by her husband's obtuseness. "Nonsense!" she snapped. "Thorgunna only desired this to be done because she was full of envy lest others should enjoy these incomparable treasures."

"But," Thorodd protested, "she threatened all kinds of misfortunes unless I strictly obeyed her injunctions!"

Thurida was not the superstitious type. "That is all fancy! What misfortunes can these articles possibly bring upon us?"

Thorodd argued with his wife for a while, but in the end, all he could obtain was a compromise. In return for being allowed to burn Thorgunna's pillow and sheets in peace, he gave in and let his wife have the beauteous hangings and bedcovers she so coveted. As is usually the case with compromises, neither of them was entirely happy with the deal.

Even if you're not big on reading medieval Icelandic sagas, you can probably guess what happened next.

The following day, men began the job of transporting Thorgunna's body to Skalholt. The journey was uneventful until they reached the plain of Valbjarnar. It was swampy, unsteady ground, and periodically Thorgunna's coffin fell into the mire.

When it became nightfall, the party stopped at Stafholt, at a farm called Lower Ness. They asked the owner of the farm to give them shelter for the night. The man bluntly refused, presumably because he disliked the idea of having a corpse under his roof. The men carried the coffin into a small outbuilding, after which they were able to persuade the farmer to let them sleep in his hall. He declined to give them dinner, however.

Scarcely had they settled down before they heard strange noises coming from the larder. One of the farm's servants, assuming thieves were breaking in, went to investigate. When he peeked into the room, he was startled to see a tall, strongly-built, completely naked woman cooking a meal. He fled, trembling in horror. A few moments later, the nude apparition marched into the hall carrying plates of food. The men immediately recognized the cook as Thorgunna. She had, it seems, so taken offense at the farmer's lack of hospitality that she temporarily left her coffin to rectify the insult. When the farmer and his wife saw that they were being put in their place by a ghost, they quickly changed their attitude. They provided their guests with dry clothes, a warm fire, and beer to go with their dinner.

No one can teach manners quite like a ghost.

The rest of the trip went without incident. Whenever they stopped anywhere, the travelers told of what had happened at Stafholt. This always ensured them a warm welcome and the most gracious service. At Skalholt, they delivered the body and the gold ring; Thorgunna received a suitably reverent burial, and the men returned home, congratulating themselves on a good job well done.

Skalholt, via Wikipedia

Froda had a large hall, with a closed bedroom at one end. On each side of the hall were closets, one holding dried fish, the other flour. Every night before bed, a large fire would be lit in this hall, and the household would sit around it, warming themselves before retiring. On the night the funeral party returned, the men were clustered in front of the fire as usual, when they saw something very peculiar. A phosphorescent ball appeared on the wall, and slowly floated down the hall. It appeared every evening after that. It was believed this was a portent of someone's death.

A few days after the ball of light first materialized, a shepherd came into the farm. He seemed distraught, and kept muttering strangely. A few days later, he died without ever recovering his wits.

Not long after the shepherd was buried, a member of Thorodd's household named Thorir Stumpleg was walking out the front door when someone suddenly marched past him. It was the dead shepherd. The revenant grabbed Thorir and threw him back into the house. This left Thorir so badly injured that he died a short time later. After that, Thorir was seen walking with the shepherd.

It was as if a plague had struck Froda. Within a few days, six more people mysteriously sickened and died. Other strange things happened at the farm. The stacks of dried fish kept by the hall fell over for no evident reason. Shortly before Christmas, Thorodd left with seven of his men for a fishing trip. While they were gone, a seal's head was seen to emerge out of the floor of the farmhouse hall. A servant girl struck at it with a bludgeon. The apparition ignored this attack, rising higher from the ground to gaze at Thorgunna's bed-curtains. All efforts to beat the seal down failed until young Kiartan was able to smash it back into the earth with an iron mallet.

The next morning, the household received the grim news that Thorodd and his men were all lost at sea. Their bodies were never found.

Thurida hosted a lavish funeral feast for all their friends and neighbors. As they gathered around the table, the seats of the dead men were left empty, as was the custom in those days. When the banquet began, the guests saw Thorodd and his fellow dead fishermen enter the hall. The ghosts walked through the room silently and sat down by the fire. They remained there until the fire went out, after which they left as noiselessly as they left. This happened for several consecutive evenings. Then, they were joined by Thorir Stumpleg and the others who had recently died.

The flesh-and-blood residents of Froda opted to light their nightly fire in another room, hoping to enjoy it without these ghostly interlopers.

They really should have known better. All that happened was that the spirits followed them in, and continued their strange, silent ritual. The household had to resort to lighting two fires--one in the hall for the living, and one in the other room for the dead.

One day, a servant noticed a bizarre sight in the fish closet. It was a tail, shaped like that of a cow, but covered in what looked like seal hair. The man grabbed the tail and tried pulling it out of the stacks of fish, but to no avail. Other members of the household had no better luck with yanking it out. They took down the stack of fish, but no trace of the tail could be found.

Not long after this latest episode of The Weird, Thorir Stumpleg's widow, Thorgrima, fell ill and died. On the evening of her burial, she was seen strolling with Thorir and company. Everyone who had seen the tail now also quickly perished.

At the time of Thorgunna's death, Froda had thirty servants. Now, eighteen of them were dead, and five others had fled in terror. Extreme measures had to be taken before the entire household became extinct.

In our modern era, someone in this position would probably hire an exorcist. These medieval Icelanders were far more sensible and sophisticated. Thorodd's son Kiartan went screaming for a lawyer. He wanted to file the mother of all private nuisance suits.

Kiartan consulted his uncle, Snorri the Lawman, renowned as Iceland's greatest legal expert. Snorri recommended that Kiartan burn all of Thorgunna's bed-clothes, and then hold a court of law at Froda, bringing formal action against these troublesome ghosts. Then, he was to have a priest anoint the home with holy water and shrive all the surviving residents. Snorri sent his own son Thord to act as process server.  It was felt that it would be a bit unseemly to have Kiartan himself issue a summons against his own father.

By the time Kiartan and his party returned to Froda, it was evening. The fires had just been lighted, and the ghosts were at their usual post. Thurida was lying in bed, dying of the same mysterious illness that had befallen the others. Kiartan quickly gathered up Thorgunna's bedding, and set it on fire. Then, the court was held. Kiartan summoned Thorir Stumpleg to appear, while Thord summoned Thorodd. The ghosts were formally charged with entering a house without permission, and bringing trouble and death to the inhabitants. The plaintiffs made their arguments against the defendants. Witnesses gave their testimony. The defendants were then ordered to make their case. When the court received nothing but silence in response, the verdicts were announced for each ghost.

Thorir Stumpleg was the first to be sentenced. He was told to leave Froda immediately. The ghost obediently rose from his place near the fire, sighed, "I sat whilst sit I might," and departed.

The shepherd received the same order. He uttered the words, "I go; better had I been dismissed before," and vanished.

And so on through the list. The last to receive his sentence was Thorodd. He too left, intoning, "There is no peace for us here; we are flitting one by one."

After all the ghosts had departed, the priest sprinkled the walls of the house with holy water, and held a mass.

The ghosts were never seen again. Thurida soon recovered, and life at Froda returned to normal. A happy ending, with smiles, flowers, and Necropants all around.

It's a lucky thing the defendants didn't think to file a counter-suit alleging malicious prosecution inspired by anti-ghost prejudice.


  1. What a strange story. I really don't think lawyers should be so encouraged, however.

  2. Oh, my goodness. This needs to be a Simon Pegg farce STAT.


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