Helgi hinn magri

born: 939 in Ireland
died: 979 in Iceland
married: Ţórunn Ketilsdóttir

Helgi hinn magri (the lean) was one of the first settlers in Iceland. Although he doesn't figure prominently in the sagas, his life story is told in Landnámabók, the history of the early settlers. Like many Viking-age people who converted to Christianity, he maintained his beliefs in the old religion, too.

Helgi's father Eyvindur went on many Viking expeditions to the British Isles from his home base in Norway. He was particularly active along the coast of Ireland, and eventually married the Irish king's daughter Rafarta and settled in Ireland. It was not unusual for people who raided in an area to later make peace and settle there, sealing the peace with bonds of marriage.

Eyvindur and Rafarta had a son called Helgi. For reasons not explained, they gave him in to fosterage in the Hebrides. It was not unusual for Viking-age children to be given to another family to foster. Usually, this was done to promote bonds between the families. It was not the same as adoption, and the bonds between foster brothers might well be stronger than between blood brothers.

After two years, Eyvindur and Rafarta returned to see their son. He had been so starved they didn't recognize him. They took him away and called him Helgi the Lean.

Helgi hinn magri

Helgi went to Iceland with his wife and children. Helgi's faith was very much mixed: he believed in Christ but invoked Thor when it came to sea voyages and difficult times. When Helgi sighted Iceland, he consulted Thor as to where he should put in, and the oracle guided him to the north of Iceland. Then his son Hrolf asked Helgi whether he was planning on sailing to the Arctic Ocean if Thor told him to go there?

Landnámabók, S.217-218
translation: Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, The Book of Settlements, University of Manitoba Press (1972).

Helgi's faith illustrates the mixed beliefs that were not unusual amongst Viking age people who adopted Christianity. There was a comfortable overlap between the old pagan beliefs and the new beliefs of the Christian church. The traditional northern beliefs allowed a man to choose whatever god he wished to ask for favor and protection. If one god was unable to deliver, it was easy to choose another god. It appears that to these people, Christ was yet another God from which to choose.

When times were good and he was safe, Helgi turned to Christ, but at sea, or in other difficult moments, he turned to Ţór for protection and guidance. He asked Ţór to guide him to a place to settle, but Helgi called the spot Kristnes (Christ's headland).


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