Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Norse Libertarians. Otkell, Son of Skarf. Scarphedinn. Burnt Njall's Saga. Libertarian Medieval Icelandic Lives Live.

Iceland Norse.  Norse Libertarians
Before Formal Government
And Before Institutional Christianity.

An interesting, fruitful Libertarianism -- in its way.

Old Norse. Is there a parallel to original libertarians.  Will Libertarians now declare themselves Old Norse?
In the Old Norse, was there minimal government preceding institutional Christianization brought hierarchy,  role limitations, Rules.  Was the institutional Christianity in any way connected to the Founder, who broke ruiles, was nonviolent, let the rich and the dissenters go their own way without pursuit, Inquisition, Crusade.

oatRoskilde DK

How did those systems work then? Can we learn for now?

Here, from Burnt Njal's Saga (Gutenberg), Iceland, meet
 1) Otkell, Son of Skarf, Son of Hallkell;
2) Skarphedinn.*

*Read: "Skarp-Heddin" (see Wikipedia Burnt Njal on that)

I. Overview - Pursuing culture through surnames, sagas
II.  Burnt Njal's Saga - Otkell, Son of Skarf
III. Burnt Njal's Saga - Skarphedinn, Son of Njal
III.  Conclusion

I. Overview: Pursuing culture through surnames, sagas

1.  Otkell, Son of Skarf.  Who?  A rogue? Why include this less than model character in a site for the unsung? Doesn't he deserve to be unsung, our Otkell here? Then again, didn't he pay for his greed, his transgression, according to the times and custom; and even if he is our family (?) black sheep, if we are indeed related (name's same, different spelling). We choose to sing him.

Otkell, Son of Skarf. Hear some far-distant, imagination-loving Scharfes or Scharfs. Have we progressed, or not.
And, if his society's setting was a libertarian one, what can we learn about how that system works - or didn't. What do people do when government is minimal, really.  The Norse were quite civilized about it.

2.  The setting: Old Norse.  Some time after the main raiding eras, perhaps, as those ventures are not mentioned.  This is a farming, a living community in Iceland.  Where told? Probably as sung or narrated tales by the fires in the long hearth, the tellers of tales in the long winter, tales of old names, of forbears real and embellished, sagas of old relationships, glories, trickeries, battles. See the hall at Meet many in this community of story, who would be and are unsung in our culture, but well sung in the Sagas.

The good but informal leader Njal is indeed sung among his own. Read about it and some of the places now, at the Boston Globe's There is an easy-to-read history of Vikings, and Iceland in particular, at

3.  Consider:  Norse as libertarians.  To the later invading Christians, that was heresy.  Their failure to follow Christian rules and regulations and dogma meant they could be killed at will if they did not convert. Crusades, the Northern Crusades. See timelines at Western Ethnic Violence Timeline. The Northern European tribal groups, Saxons, other Germanics, Poles, already felt its bite, with Charlemagne's advances; and rejection by the Roman branch of any Christian not converted by them.  Out with the Orthodox, etc. But that had not hit Iceland yet.  No Christians on those shores. 

To be a libertarian today:  How does it differ.  Today, libertarianism seems to mean advocating low taxes, small government, more freedom. See the Libertarian Party website at . The Old Norse indeed did that. We see no assessments or taxes at all in Iceland, the topic here. Government? Nor really. A system in a context where everyone knew your name, or your family; and everybody could bring suits to resolve issues at an annual Althing. Some persons emerged as counselors, wise, even prophetic (Njal here). But no elected positions. How did the Norse fare, and why did their groups succeed or fail, What to learn.
 Characters:  Two Persons of Interest:
Otkell, Son of Skarf
Skarf himself remains obscure. He is- just a passing mention of Skarf as the Daddy - of Otkell; and Otkell takes center stage. Otkell is a man of wealth in goods, who makes some bad judgments about it. Yet, there are other Skarfs. We look into those names as well.
Skarphedinn, a Son of Njal

Skarphedinn stands out but, as the Saga says, is not a comely man - his teeth stick out but he has a good eye and is a good fighter.
Old roots, talking

First hurdle: Is there a semantic, a linguistic connection between Skarf, as in Otkell Son of Skarf, and Skarphedinn?
We are interested in surnames, and so far conclude yes. That at FN 2. And, at Chapter 22 of Njal's Saga, we learn that the word "Hedinn" means a smith. See (that version is easiest to read start to finish - lines go all the way across the page).  So - Daddy! Daddy! Are we related! And we want to hear, Yes, child, we are here. Boom-thunderbolts-battleaxes, and a nice saddle of elk on the spit.
Otkell, The Man of Wealth Who Would Not Sell to the Needy

And Njal, the Admired Jurist, Counselor, Who Then Did It Himself
Skarf: We offer several references to the word or surname "Skarf" in these examples from Burnt Njal's Saga. See The Icelandic Saga Database at This translation is from 1861, from something called the original "Brennu-Njal's Saga". The translator in 1861 was George W. DaSent. Scroll to Chapter 47: or do a find for Skarf:
 Otkell, Son of Skarf
From Northvegr, Njal's Saga at Chapter 47

"There was a man named Otkell; he was the son of Skarf, the son of Hallkell, who fought with Grim of Grimsness, and felled him on the holm (footnote reference says this is a duel-type event). This Hallkell and Kettlebjorn the Old were brothers.

"Otkell kept house at Kirkby; his wife's name was Thorgerda; she was a daughter of Mar, the son of Runolf, the son of Naddad of the Faroe Isles. Otkell was wealthy in goods. His son's name was Thorgeir; he was young in years, and a bold dashing man. "

Now our summary of the rest of the story at Chapter 47:

Otkell, this Son of Skarf, this man wealthy in goods, had a good relationship with a certain thrall from Ireland named Malcolm. Malcolm was owned by Otkell's brother, but the brother had few good words for him.

Otkell bargains to buy Malcolm because Malcolm works hard. As soon as he owns Malcolm, however, Malcolm slacks off. Otkell is not pleased but is stuck.

Now there comes a bad economic year. Crops fail. A neighbor in need, Gunnar, who is a main character in the Saga, with Njal, helps out other neighbors with his own meat and hay until Gunnar himself comes to be in need.

Gunnar comes to Otkell, to buy hay in such a year. He offers many terms for repayment; and Otkell refuses him at each suggestion.
Then Otkell asks him if he will buy Malcolm.

He does, but still, no hay.
In an era of no formal leadership, there was a respected chief, a jurist, counselor, named Njal. There was no formal government, but the Norse basic legal principles were known and valued, and disputes were resolved at group meetings (the Althing) periodically, with leaders emerging as need arose. Njal was prominent in the community.
Njal, this good but informal head, heard of the bad business of the rich and greedy Otkell. Otkell's refusing to sell to his neighbor Gunnar even though Otkell had hay to sell; and after Gunnar himself had been generous to others, did not sit well.
Njal was not pleased, went and bought hay himself and took it to Gunnar. Gunnar said he was grateful for the gift, but the friendship of Njal was worth more.

Gunnar is a main character in the Sagas, loyal to Njal but a firebrand himself.
If you look at Wikipedia on Burnt Njal, go immediately afterward to the original and compare the summary with what you yourself read. Go ahead and cite Wiki. Wiki at http :// It would take time in a bottle to even begin to point out the misreps. Vet everything. Rush, Wiki, Bible, everything. Read the original about Gunnar and the sale yourself. To us, the moral that it so well stated there is worth including in a summary. Wiki puts in none of it.
. .
B. The Name "Skarf"
Elsewhere in Burnt Njal
Meet Helgi Skarf, the Son of Geirleif
(must be different from Skarf Son of Hallkell?)
Fair use quotes here.

From Northvegr, Njal's Saga, at http ://

"Thorstein, the son of Solmund, the son of Thorolf butter, settled land between Botn's river and Foss river, the whole of Brynjudale. He married Thorbjorg Katla, the daughter of Helgi Skarf, the son of Geirleif, who settled Bardastrand. Their son was Ref the Old, from whom the Bryndalers are descended."

From Northvegr, Njal's Saga, at, at Chapter 25 -

"Geirleif, the son of Eirek, the son of Hogni the White, settled Bardistand, between Waterfirth and 'Berghliðar,' he was the father of Oddleif and Helgi Skarf"


"Helgi Skarf was father to Thorbjorg 'Katla' whom Thorstein the son of Salmund, had for wife; their sons were Ref in 'Brynja'-dale and Thord, the father of Illugi, the father of Hrodny, whom Thorgrim 'Sviði' (singer) had for wife.


"Thordis was the name of another daughter of Helgi Skarf, she was the wife of Thorstein, the son of Asbjorn, from Kirkby in the East"

C. Skarf as Norse for Cormorant *
From Northvegr, Njal's Saga at Chapter 98 http ://

Wolf sang another song in return:

"Swarthy skarf from mouth that skimmeth
Of the man who speaks in song
Never will I catch, though surely
Wealthy warrior it hath sent;
Tender of the sea-horse snorting,
E'en though ill deeds are on foot,
Still to risk mine eyes are open;
Harmful 'tis to snap at flies (6)."

(6) "Swarthy skarf," the skarf, or "pelecanus carbo", the cormorant. He compares the message of Thorwald to the cormorant skimming over the waves, and says he will never take it. "Snap at flies," a very common Icelandic metaphor from fish rising to a fly.

* Also used for the shaley sharp-stoned cliff areas where cormorants nest, see Orkney Road Ways. Big bird, sharp of beak, sharp of dive, standing there on the rock looking silly with big, black wings outstretched to dry, because there is no underdown underneath.


Uncomely, a good fighter, burned with Njal and Household.
In any community, people doomed and dooming others
With Jealousy, Resentment, Revenge;
and Mutual Insult and Attack -

Humanity in Community. Ultimate reasons for failures.
What works, what doesn't, until the greed and jealousy take over.

The Battle:

The cause essentially was insult. And reactions to insult. Escalations and power-seeking. Does a society depend more on the quality, vision and common good interest of people in power, than the ideological form of government. Does greed and ego trip everybody up.

Events happened back in Norway, resentments and anger brought back. Insult and jealousy. Finding and claiming insult, framing issues as "honor," resentments of others against Njal's success in chieftancy, more insults, mayhem; skulduggery and attack and revange.
Skarp. Skarp means "sharp, critical, cutting, strong, able to cut, 'skarpa' " - see, from the Norwegian and Swedish (mixed with the German with settling Norse there, becomes scharfe or German for sharp??)
Skarphedinn: Does this name come from "skarp" or "skarf," see FN 2. Regardless, here is who Skarphedinn is and what he does.

Events and People Examples -
Related to Skarphedinn.

Chapter 25 - Njall has a son named Skarp-Hedinn.
"Now we will name Njal's sons. Skarphedinn was the eldest of them. He was a tall man in growth, and strong withal; a good swordsman; he could swim like a seal, the swiftest-looted of men, and bold and dauntless; he had a great flow of words and quick utterance; a good skald too; but still for the most part he kept himself well in hand; his hair was dark brown, with crisp curly locks; he had good eyes; his features were sharp, and his face ashen pale, his nose turned up and his front teeth stuck out, and his mouth was very ugly. Still he was the most soldierlike of men."

Tall, strong, brave, dauntless, athletic, but not handsome - teeth stuck out, nose turned up, ugly mouth. But good eyes. And soldierly. Overall, not comely. There are other children of Njal as well. Njal arranged a wife for him, Thorhilda. And a wife for his other son, and the sons remained living with Njal.
Skarphedinn features in many stories. Read any version of the Saga, and do a find for Scarphedinn, and the references are too many. That takes a book.

We finally went to Wikipedia for the overview, and were not happy because we had already read most of the Saga, and found different material. Nonetheless, continue to be skeptical of Wiki in specific statements, but it does give an overview of most events, see Njal's Saga at ://

Finally (we understand there have been found burned ruins thought to be Njal's house)

Chapter 20. Berghthora

She is is the wife of Njal, whose name identifies the Saga, and she is the daughter of Skarphedinn.
She was strong of heart, brave of spirit, hard of temper. Njal himself was handsome, wealthy, skilled in legal analysis and argument, generous, a good advisor, owner of multiple homes. Clearly a winner. However, even she got drawn into disputes, rivalries.

Chapter 119. Of Skarp-hedinn and Thorkel Foulmouth -

See this easy to read version at

Skarphedinn goes to meet with Thorkel Foulmouth and is warned. A few excerpts, fair use: This is such a huge saga, that a few paragraphs to show the character of Skarphedinn seems warranted and fair - just picture it -

"Skarphedinn smiled at that. He was so clad, he had on a blue kirtle and grey breeks, and black shoes on his feet, coming high up his leg; he had a silver belt about him, and that same axe in his hand with which he slew Thrain, and which he called the "ogress of war," a round buckler, and a silken band round his brow, and his hair brushed back behind his ears. He was the most soldier-like of men, and by that all men knew him. He went in his appointed place, and neither before nor behind."

Then Thorkel went on and said,

"Who is that big and ugly fellow, before whom four men go, pale-faced and sharp featured, and unlucky-looking, and cross-grained?"

' "My name is Skarphedinn," said Skarphedinn, "and thou hast no right to pick me out, a guiltless man, for thy railing. It never has befallen me to make my father bow down before me, or to have fought against him, as thou didst with thy father. Thou hast ridden little to the Althing, or toiled in quarrels at it, and no doubt it is handier for thee to mind thy milking pails at home than to be here at Axewater in idleness. But stay, it were as well if thou pickedst out from thy teeth that steak of mare's rump which thou atest ere thou rodest to the Thing while thy shepherd looked on all the while, and wondered that thou couldst work such filthiness!"
' Then Thorkel sprang up in mickle wrath, and clutched his short sword and said, "This sword I got in Sweden when I slew the greatest champion, but since then I have slain many a man with it, and as soon as ever I reach thee I will drive it through thee, and thou shalt take that for thy bitter words."

' Skarphedinn stood with his axe aloft, and smiled scornfully and said, "This axe I had in my hand when I leapt twelve ells across Markfleet and slew Thrain Sigfus' son, and eight of them stood before me, and none of them could touch me. Never have I aimed weapon at man that I have not smitten him."

'And with that he tore himself from his brothers, and Kari his brother-in-law, and strode forward to Thorkel.

'Then Skarphedinn said, "Now, Thorkel Foulmouth, do one of these two things: sheathe thy sword and sit thee down, or I drive the axe into thy head and cleave thee down to the chine."

Then Thorkel sate him down and sheathed the sword, and such a thing never happened to him either before or since.

Then Asgrim and his band go out, and Skarphedinn said, "Whither shall we now go?"

"Home to our booths," answered Asgrim.'

Chapter 131 - The Burning of Njal's house, and his household, and Skarphedinn
'Then Kari sang this song:

"Bender of the bow of battle,
Sleep will not my eyelids seal,
Still my murdered messmates' bidding
Haunts my mind the livelong night;
Since the men their brands abusing
Burned last autumn guileless Njal,
Burned him house and home together,
Mindful am I of my hurt."

Kari spoke of no men so often as of Njal and Skarphedinn, and Bergthora and Helgi. He never abused his foes, and never threatened them.'
The Saga also covers the time of conversion to Christianity.
What to learn - See FN 3. A Start.

Also note, at Chapater 48, apart from Skarphedinn, that Gunnar's wife remembered when he had slapped her for her part in some bad stuff, and said she would repay it when she could, and she did - refusing his help in restringing his bow - he needed some of her hair - and he was killed. The Saga of abuse? Or just part of the custom of the time. See (we offer several sites for the same translation) at
FN 1 Brennu-Njal's Saga; Burnt Njal's Saga; Njalssaga;
Find translations at The Online Medieval and Classical Library site, :// This is a harder to read than Northvegr, because of the typeface.
For places such as river vales that are not more specifically located in Njal's, look up other Sagas, such as at the Northvegr site, Landnambok, :// We started reading the whole Njal's, and in the first line had to go elsewhere to find rangrivervales. It is an area of settlements by the Rang River, with vales. Obviously, now.
Saga geneologies are like the begats, but better. Geneologies go into what the people did and what they were like, in pithy bits, quirks, faces, and conundrums and kerfuffles. Begats are there to prove something, tie the chain. Make some lineage irrefutable for later purposes. Sagas don't try to prove points somebody else later wants proven. They just lay it out.
Fans with names now like Scharfe, Scarf, Scharf, Scariff, Scaife, Scarfe, may or may not be interested to find that this old surname has old Norse roots, and the Norse were not only Vikings but Normans, invaders of England and Anglo-Normans invading Ireland, etc. etc.
And in the other direction, Russia, Germany, etc. And in yet another, messing in the Mediterranean, but probably as Normans and in Crusades there. Is there more?
How to vet for truth?
Same issues as with any stories told and retold, and then written down only later. Many slips 'twixt cup and lip. See The Antiquity of Proverbs, by D.E.Marvin 1922, a google book, at page 266.
And we are more interested in the content for what it says. Go back to the proverb about slip betwixt cup and lip. Find what research lays out of its origins - What role the boar? What role the bore. Bore the role. Roar the bole. Weevil?

FN 1 Where odd interests begin.
The names and events in the geneology and tale-telling here make us dizzy. So we hone in on the people with surnames sounding like or from or having a root connection with Skarf.
Here: Skarf - Back to medieval Iceland this time. Hear the genes. Skarf, Scarf, Scharf, Scharfe, Scarfthe, Scariff, An Scairbh.
The forge, the shaley place, the join in the longbow arrow, the sword. The Norman, The Northmen.
Whttthpkpt! The arrow loosed. Unnnh! The hit. Bonk. The skull mashed. A sometime Viking? Or the mere farmer picking a name out of the blue.
Ancestry Imagined. Addictive. Type in "Scarf" in the Icelandic records sites, for example, :// and find a common surname that is not that common elsewhere. Find the queries, Iceland, Orkney, Isle of Mann, England, Ireland, etc. at

FN 2
Are Skarf and Skarphedinn connected in any meaningful semantic way?
  • First, is Skarphedinn pronounced Skarp-he-dinn (with a hard "p") or Skarph -e-dinn (with a soft "f" sound for the diphthong ph). This seems likely, because diphthongs from one language are not usually lifted for another. If the pronunciation is "f" then we think an "f" would be used.
  • If it is Skarp-he-dinn, that is connected to Skarf because of the meanings-occupations-roots of both, we think. See Wikipedia's spelling as Skarp-Hedinn, at Njal's Saga at ://
Skarp and "sharp" able to cut, and skarf coming from forges, connections in swords, ironwork, arrows, shaley places where cormorants nest, and minerals derive, are not that far apart. Look up "Scharfe" at Ireland Road Ways and Orkney Road Ways. The names do seem connected. Ergo, we adopt both variations because we can.
Like the begats? Proving some point in retrospect, regardless? No. This is recreational hypothetical gene-tracking. No old prophesies that we now have to show are legitimately based. But an interest in odd traits, red hair (none in recent generations we know of, but so-and-so the red shows up). Nothing like a good fantasy.

FN 3
Old Norse.
Conservative. Libertarian.
Low Taxes, If Any.
Legal Principles. but No Organized Executive Power
Sagas Tell The Tales.
How did libertarianism and conservatism work out then;
what conditions helped, which hindered.
Does libertarianism and conservatism only work, and then temporarily (greed and self-seeking will always rise), where there is
  • a cohesive society,
  • everybody knows everybody else (listing geneologies)
  • common history and understandings (that does not mean no disagreements),
  • small enough groups so they can get together at the Althing as needed to try to resolve their disagreements directly.
  • Does it require the voluntary generosity that Njal espoused. He was displeased that the wealthy Otkell would not sell to a neighbor, and even took advantage of the neighbor's plight.
So Njal, acting like government, heard and saw the deprivation, and stepped in himself. He sold hay to the needy Gunnar. Now Gunnar was no pauper - he had given his goods to help out others in the community - but the point is that if the community needs, people have to step in. Is that is? And that left Otkell out to stew - had his goods but no respect. While Gunnar repaid Njal in loyalty.Is Rush the newly incarnated Otkell?

IV. Conclusion: Perhaps

So: Sing. What can the stories tell us.
Some important moral views for our national conversation:

  • Njal, and Gunnar are the main characters in Njal's Saga. We learn there that, if your neighbor is in need, there is a response that serves the community (share, provide goods when goods are available) and another that serves self (no help, just drown). What works for the long term. What is the role of leadership, in setting the course; especially generosity in leadership.
  • Meet Njal, prophetic, doomed, loved, prudent, jurist, counselor, a leader in times of no formal leader.
  • At the end, never abuse your foes, or threaten them, reminds Kari, Njal's successor.
Ask about any community, any society: When does a leader have to intervene. What degrees of social cohesion, shared history, isolation, are needed for even beginning libertarianism to function.. Speak, O Iceland!
Njal.  Go to the source. Find this and other Sagas at Online Medieval and Classical Library Site at It is also known as the Story of the Burning of Njall, or the Njala, see broad overview for an everyman's context at
This winter's tale-song we refer to here is the old Burnt Njall Saga, or Brennu-Njal Saga, or Njalssaga, from medieval Iceland. This saga tells of a family-clan's life experiences in the 10th and 11th Centuries, stories finally written down in the 13th and 14th. FN 1. Names from which the rest of us flow. Or do not flow. Either way, explore the lives.

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