This story was told to me by the curator of a historical site in Iceland. I won’t name the site, because the curator might not want the publicity. She was a solid-looking, middle-aged woman with excellent English and an honest appearance. I don’t think she was lying to me, though I can’t be sure. The Icelanders have a strange sense of humor.
I was in Iceland to visit my great-grandparents’ home district and the farm they had left when they came to North America. While there, I visited the historical site: a group of 19th century sod farm houses. I wanted to see the kind of dark, small buildings my ancestors had lived in, before they escaped to North America.
The curator was friendly and not busy. We chatted for a while and ended up talking about Icelandic beliefs. Did Icelanders actually believe in elves and ghosts, as the stories in American news media said, or was that made up to entertain tourists?
“The answer is yes and no,” the curator replied. “It would be best to say that many of us neither believe nor disbelieve in such things. We suspend judgement.” Then she told the story.
A local farmer came to her. He was a man in his 30s, ordinary looking, though somewhat shorter than is usual in Iceland and with darker coloring than most Icelanders had, his hair black and his suntanned skin brown. His eyes were so dark that they seemed black rather than brown. Maybe some of his ancestors had been fisherman from France or Spain. The great North Atlantic fishing ground was off Iceland’s shore, and men from other countries had stopped for visits in the past or been washed up after wrecks.
“I don’t mention this because it matters, but because it’s something I noticed,” the curator said. “We are all made of individual traits, which may or may not be important.”
“You know I don’t believe in ghosts,” the farmer said to her.
“I knew this was true,” the curator told me. “Atli is a practical man, with no patience for the supernatural. His life is made of tangible, real things—mostly sheep and horses.”
In spite of his disbelief, Atli said, he was having a ghost problem. There was an ancient graveyard near his home, the graves marked with nothing except a few rough stones and low places in the sod where the graves had fallen in. It had been there for centuries, causing no trouble, until a prosperous Icelandic-American discovered the graveyard while on a four-wheel drive trip through rural Iceland.
This demands some background. When Icelanders came to North America, they were too few to establish their own churches. So they looked around for denominations that seemed like their church at home. Some became Unitarians, because that seemed closest to the Icelandic Lutheran Church. Other Icelanders joined the local Lutheran churches, which were Norwegian or German; and they learned a version of Lutheranism that was far different from the faith in Iceland.
The Icelanders at home had converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism because the Danish government insisted on it, just as they had converted from paganism to Catholicism because the Norwegian king insisted on it. It was possible to argue about how serious they were in any belief. There are people who say they were better pagans than they are—or ever have been—Christians.
The Icelandic-American in this story was named Magnus Thorvaldsson, a successful businessman and a pious New World Lutheran. He was horrified by the idea of corpses in a graveyard marked only by sunken earth and a few chunks of lava. When he got home, he contacted a contractor in Iceland and ordered a fine iron fence for the graveyard and an iron cross to stand in the middle.
The fence was built. The cross was erected. Then the trouble began, as Atli told the curator. The bodies in the graveyard belonged to pagans, who had rested comfortably for a thousand years. But now they had an iron fence around them and an iron cross in their midst. This woke them up and made them furious.
Atli didn’t own the land the graveyard was on, but his farmhouse was the nearest building. The ghosts flocked to it and stood around it at night, screaming and complaining. Atli could get no sleep.
It made no difference that he didn’t believe in the ghosts. They still ruined his rest. So he came to the curator of the historical site. She knew the nation’s history, the way it had been converted, and plenty of stories about ghosts. Maybe she could suggest a solution.
She thought for a while, then said, “The graveyard is remote, on a farm that’s been abandoned. No one is likely to notice if you take down the cross. That might make the ghosts happy.”
Atli thanked her and went home. Soon after the cross vanished from the graveyard. Atli did not feel comfortable using it for scrap metal, so he put it in a shed on his farm. It could rust there, for all he cared.
For a week or two the ghosts were silent. Then they came back, not screaming, but grumbling and moaning. They didn’t like the iron fence.
“A little iron is fine,” they told Atli. “Some of us are buried with swords or knives. But this fence feels to us like a ring of enemies standing around us with swords and spears. We can’t rest while it remains.”
Atli went back to the curator and described his new problem.
“The obvious next step is to remove the fence,” the curator said.
“That’s what I think,” Atli replied. “But I wanted you to know, in case anyone ever notices the missing fence and accuses me of being a thief. I plan to leave it in my shed next to the cross, until I can decide what to do with it. It isn’t mine, so I can’t sell it or use the iron. But I’m not sure I want to keep it my entire life.”
“If that happens, I will speak in your defense,” the curator said. “But I don’t think anyone will notice.”
Atli took his four-wheel drive pickup to the graveyard and pulled out the fencing, section by section. The day was overcast and gloomy. But as each section of fence came up, his heart felt lighter. He couldn’t hear the ghosts in daylight, but he could feel their cheer. He went home, the pickup bed full of fence. It went into his shed next to the iron cross. The ghosts were quiet for a while, and he told the curator that the problem seemed to be solved. He could get back to what interested him: sheep and horses.
Once the dead have woken up, it’s hard to get them settled down again. After several weeks, the ghosts reappeared around Atli’s farmhouse. This time they did not scream or moan, but they did complain.
“We didn’t like the fence, but it kept your sheep out. Now they are back and grazing on our graves. We’d like a new fence, made of stone and turf, to mark our graveyard and keep the sheep away.”
“These are Icelandic sheep,” Atli told him. “There’s a good chance they will be able to climb right over the fence.”
“Nonetheless, we want a new fence made of stone and turf.”
Atli groaned as loudly as any ghost and told them he would think about it.
‘We know how to shriek,” the ghosts said in ominous tones.
Atli went back to the curator and told her the ghosts’ latest demands. At this point, she was beginning to wonder about him. He was unmarried and living alone, except for a cat and two farm dogs. Granted, he had a girlfriend in a nearby town, but mostly he was alone.
He liked to read old books: the novels of the great Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic family sagas, and Jon Arnason’s collection of Icelandic folktales. This may have made him more vulnerable to strange experiences. A person living alone can become overly imaginative; and after a person reads enough of Jon Arnason’s stories, many things seem possible, especially ghosts and trolls.
But he seemed as down-to-earth as always, except for his story about the complaining ghosts. Instead of advising him to see a doctor, the curator suggested that he consider building the fence. What harm could it do? If it made the ghosts quiet down, then Atli would be saved the trouble of driving to Reykjavik and seeing a psychologist, who might think he was crazy.
“I think you are right,” Atli told the curator. After that, he built the fence, working carefully, taking stones out of a nearby river, and plugging the crevices with turf. As he worked, his heart grew light. It was the ghosts, approving.
Finally, he was done. The watching sheep came over and nosed the stones, but did not seem inclined to climb them.
A few nights after he finished, the ghosts came back and said, “This is well done. Thank you.”
Now, for several months, all through the summer, Atli lived in peace. By day he worked in his fields, baling hay against the approaching winter. At night, he cruised the Internet, with his cat on his lap and his two dogs at his feet. If he grew tired of the 21st century, he settled down with Halldor Laxness or a saga. Occasionally he read a Nordic murder mystery, though not many of these. The detectives were too depressed. Life was difficult, but not that difficult. If a man didn’t like being a police inspector, he should find another line of work; and if his family life was a mess, he should fix it. The people in Laxness had real problems, but they managed to keep going. Surely modern people could do as well.
The mysteries set in Iceland irritated him. There were not enough murders in Iceland to justify a series.
Finally Magnus Thorvaldsson, the Icelandic-American businessman, returned. Fall had come and winter was coming close, the days growing darker. He was on another visit to Iceland and wanted to see the graveyard before winter darkness hid everything. Of course he was horrified. What had happened to his iron cross and fence? Why had his lovely Lutheran graveyard turned into a plot of uncut grass surrounded by stone? He asked around, and people directed him to Atli. They might not know what had happened to the graveyard, but they knew that Atli was the nearest farmer, and they may have suspected he was responsible. It’s hard to hide anything in Iceland. The country is too small, and the people too few. Because of this, the curator’s advice to Atli had not been entirely good. Maybe she thought the American would not come back.
One day Magnus drove up to Atli’s farmhouse in his big SUV and climbed out, looking angry. The two farm dogs began barking, and Atli came out of the house.
“What is it?” he asked.
“What happened to my graveyard?” Magnus asked angrily. He spoke English, because his Icelandic was bad.
Atli’s English was good. “It’s not your graveyard,” he said. “It belongs to the people buried there. They didn’t like the cross or the fence.”
“How do you know that?” Magnus asked.
Atli stood, thinking. The two farm dogs sat at his feet, making soft growling sounds. They didn’t like the look of Magnus, and they didn’t like his tone.
The situation would be difficult to explain in words, Atli decided. He could tell the story, but why should the man believe him? If Magnus could experience the ghosts—“Help me put the cross back,” he said finally. “Then come and spend the night with me in my farmhouse.”
“Why?” asked Magnus.
“To show you why I know what the dead are thinking.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Magnus said firmly.
“Neither do I, in general. But they believe in me and have forced themselves on me. If they aren’t real, you will see and hear nothing and have lost nothing except one night.”
Magnus frowned. He was a big, beefy man with blond hair and a red beard, who looked like a Viking, but was something in information technology. “Very well. But if I don’t hear from the dead, I expect you to put the cross and fence back.”
Atli considered and said, “Yes.”
The two men carried the cross out of the shed and put it in Atli’s pickup truck, then drove to the graveyard. They lifted the cross over the stone fence and set it up in the graveyard’s center in the hole that still remained where it had been before. Atli thought he could feel the ghosts stirring. Icy air moved against the back of his neck. His skin prickled, and Magnus sneezed.
“It’s cold out here,” the American said.
That was the anger of the ghosts, Atli thought. He took a shovel and filled in dirt around the cross. It would hold for a day or so, but he’d have to do a better job, if Magnus was not convinced.
They drove back to the farmhouse. Atli made dinner: cod, along with potatoes and a salad of greenhouse tomatoes and iceberg lettuce.
“The salads in Iceland are terrible,” Magnus said.
“We don’t have a place like California here,” Atli replied. “And you won’t have California much longer, the way it’s drying out.”
“That may be,” Magnus said. “But couldn’t you grow romaine or arugula in your greenhouses?”
“You will have to ask someone who has a greenhouse.”
After dinner, Atli broke out the brennivin. They drank shots and talked about life. Magnus had a lot to say about his IT business in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was doing well. Atli kept quiet and listened. He had been to Florida once on vacation. He hadn’t liked it. America seemed hot and humid and full of large bugs. He had never gone back.
Night came. The ghosts arrived, shrieking around the house.
“What the hell is that?” Magnus asked.
Atli turned off the lights and opened a curtain. Fortunately for him there was a full moon. It shone brightly on the dead in front of the window. They were dressed in the clothing of Viking times. Some of the clothes looked ordinary and clean. Other garments were splotched with black stains. Most likely this was blood, shed when the ghosts received their death wounds. Some of the women held newborn babies, the tiny bodies coated with dark blood. These must be children who had died with their mothers in childbirth. A few of the ghosts were in rags that barely covered their lean bodies. Beggars, Atli decided. For the most part the faces were in shadow, but sometimes a head would turn, and moonlight would gleam off dead eyes.
“Jesus Christ,” Magnus said.
“This has nothing to do with Christ,” Atli said. “These folk belong to the days before Christ, and they do not want to be bothered by your religion.”
“Why didn’t someone have the decency to bury them in clean clothing?” Magnus asked.
“This is the way they died,” Atli said. “Maybe this is what they remember, rather than the clothes they were buried in. Some of them—the men who died in battle and the women who died in childbirth—should have been carried off to join the old gods in Valhalla. I have no idea why this didn’t happen. But here they all are, and they don’t like your cross.”
“Close the curtain,” Magnus said.
Atli did. But the ghosts kept complaining, giving their names and ancestry, telling Atli and Magnus how they had died, saying they did not want the cross in their midst. The old gods might have betrayed them, but they would remain loyal or at least neutral. They wanted no part of the White Christ.
“This is why I took out the cross,” Atli said, after pouring more brennivin. “I can’t sleep with all this noise going on.”
Magnus drank his brennivin straight down and held the glass out for more. Atli filled it.
“As I said, I have never believed in ghosts,” Atli continued. “But I know what everyone knows about them. They can’t cross water. They especially dislike salt water. This is why our ancestors left their dead behind in Norway when they came here. It means these folk can’t follow you back to America. But they can travel over land.
“If you don’t agree to remove the cross, I will tell the ghosts you are the person to blame. It’s my belief that they will able to go wherever you are in Iceland and scream at you.”
Magnus looked troubled by this idea.
“You have three choices,” Atli said. “You can insist on keeping the cross in place and leave Iceland forever. Or you can agree to give the dead what they want.”
“What is the third choice?” Magnus asked.
“To endure their screaming and complaining, their genealogies and their descriptions of the ways they died.”
“I am Thordis the daughter of Thorolf,” a ghost cried. “I bled to death in childbirth when I was nineteen.”
“I am Halfdan Gudmundsson,” another called. “I got a bad cough when I was twenty-three and coughed until I brought up blood and died.”
“I am Olaf Ketilsson, cut down by a malicious neighbor at the age of fifty-nine,” another voice added.
“I was a beggar and died of starvation at forty, after struggling to get by my entire life,” called a fourth. “My name doesn’t matter. My father is unknown.”
Atli sipped his drink. The alcohol warmed his mouth and throat. “Wouldn’t it be better to take down the cross and leave these folk in peace?”
“My minister in Minneapolis won’t like it. I told him about fencing in the graveyard, and he congratulated me.”
“Don’t tell him about the cross and fence coming down.”
“But these people—” Magnus waved at the ghosts moaning outside “—aren’t saved. Shouldn’t I make an effort to help them?”
“These folk are past salvation, unless the gods they believed in finally take them up to Valhalla. I’m not waiting for that to happen.”
“I found the owner of the land in Reykjavik. She agreed to the fence and the cross,” Magnus said. “I have the legal right.”
“‘The land is built on law,’” Atli quoted. “‘And through lawlessness it is brought down.’ That’s very well, but the ghosts died long before that line was written down in the Njals saga. I don’t think they would understand. Right now, they blame me. But if they knew you were the one responsible—”
Magnus finished his brennivin. Atli refilled the glass.
“All right,” Magnus said, his voice blurry. “I will agree. Take down the cross. I won’t bother the people in that graveyard any longer. I’ll be glad to be back in Minnesota, where things like this don’t happen.”
Soon after that, they both went to sleep, Atli in his bed and Magnus on the couch in the living room. They both woke with hangovers in the morning. Atli made coffee. After they had drunk that, Magnus left.
“I’d like your permission to sell the fence and cross,” Atli said before the American went. “I’ll send you a check for the money.”
“Don’t bother,” Magnus replied. “Keep the money for your trouble and your hospitality. I expect I’ll decide this was all a dream, once I get home to Minneapolis.” He shook Atli’s hand. “In any case, I will take your advice and not tell my minister. If you are ever in the Twin Cities, look me up.”
Then he heaved his bulky body into the driver’s seat and drove away.
Atli spent most of the day at home, too hungover for work. In the late afternoon, he went back to the graveyard and took down the cross. It was harder without help and with an aching head, but he managed. He got the cross back into his shed and went to bed, not bothering with dinner.
In the middle of the night, the ghosts woke him.
“Thank you,” they said. “We can rest peacefully now.”
“Aren’t you angry that you weren’t taken up to Valhalla?” Atli asked.
“That was long ago. Now we want rest.”
Just before they left Atli, one of the ghosts quoted a famous old verse from the Viking era.
“‘Cattle die. Kinfolk die.
We ourselves die.
There is one thing that does not die.
The fame of the dead.’”
But the ghosts were not famous, Atli thought. They were ordinary folk who had died before Iceland became Christian. Their names might survive in genealogies, but nowhere else. Did it matter? They were satisfied now. If they could take comfort in an old verse, good enough. He would take comfort in a good night’s sleep.
Later, when the ghosts did not return, he went back to the historical site and told the curator the rest of the story.
“Your original question was, do we in Iceland believe in ghosts?” the curator said to me. “Atli told me that he believes in the ghosts from the graveyard. ‘You cannot quarrel with experience,’ he told me. He was less certain about other ghosts, since he had not met them. As for me,” the curator went on, “I never saw or heard the ghosts. I didn’t see Magnus Thorvaldsson after he spent a night with Atli. So I never got his version of the night he spent with Atli.
“I have no proof that Atli’s story is true. But he seems as he always did: a solid, practical man, not someone to play a prank or lie to his neighbors. I believe that he was honest to the best of his ability.
“Did he imagine the ghosts? That doesn’t seem likely, if Magnus also heard them.” The curator paused, obviously thinking. “Magnus thought he could impose his ideas on the past, because he’s an American. They either ignore the past or try to remake and improve it.
“The land is built on law, as Atli said when he was quoting Njals saga – the greatest of all our sagas, as you ought to know. The land is also built on history. You can change how you understand the past. But you can’t change the past itself. You cannot turn the dead into something they were not. They are set in their ways.
“As for the rest, I am reserving judgment.”
(Editors’ Note: Eleanor Arnason is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2021 Eleanor Arnason