Nowadays, Iceland is a thriving tourist hotspot with full democracy and an advanced economy. 

Despite the devastating economic impact the 2007-08 "Global Economic Crisis" had on its financial sector, it has bounced back and is now one of the cultural and economic success stories of this century so far. 

Being cast adrift from Europe, bobbing in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, Iceland – though very much a modern European nation – had retained a unique culture that can trace its ancestry back to the age when Vikings roamed the seas. 

The story of human habitation in Iceland can be traced back to the early medieval period. 

According to the sagas, it was malcontents and economic exiles who first sailed from Norway following Harald Fairhair's unification of the country under his rule in 872.

Apparently, these exiles felt suffocated by the high level of taxation that Fairhair had imposed, but the modern consensus is that many were simply the defeated foes and their families of Fairhair. 

Regardless, the years 872–930 are known in Icelandic history as the "Age of Settlements". 

By the end of this era, during the mid-10th century, people from Viking societies had built a rudimentary society forged with blood, sweat, and tears. 

This was an age of hard work and heroes, and if we scour the sagas written about this time, one man strides across the pages like a colossus: the legendary Icelandic warrior Gunnar Hámundarson. 

The colonization of Iceland during the Viking Age represented a bold venture into uncharted territories, as bold Norsemen sought new opportunities and a fresh start in the distant island realm. Photo: Diego Delso (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The farmer wants a wife 

What we know of Gunnar Hámundarson largely comes from Njall's saga, written in the 13th century but describing events between 960 and 1020. 

Historians have pointed out that, though this indeed has some historical basis, it is mostly a list of the gory details of familial feuds. 

It has been argued that feuds were an integral part of early medieval Icelandic society and even that the great chronicler of the Norse sagas, Snorri Sturluson, fell afoul of one centuries later in the 13th century. 

Gunnar Hámundarson is one of the most prominent characters in the first half of Njall's saga. According to the story, he was born around 945 somewhere in the western regions of Iceland. 

We know little about his upbringing other than that, like almost all of his fellow Icelanders, he was a small tenant farmer and spent much of his day engaged in laborious agricultural work. 

Although farmers often used slaves to assist them, it is unclear whether Hámundarson had any on his farm. 

Following his entry into the saga as a farmer, he quickly marries a local girl named Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir. 

This is where things get interesting, as Hámundarson was said to be her third husband, and she had killed the first two! 

Hámundarson's friends beg him not to become attached to what seems like a femme fatale. However, had she decided to lop him off, she would have met more than her match. 

Gunnar Hámundarson wielded an impressive weapon called an atgeir, believed to be a type of spear or halberd, obtained during a raid on the island of Saaremaa in present-day Estonia. Photo: Miks Mihails Ignats / Shutterstock

Famed combat skills 

If we are to believe the sagas, then Hámundarson was the reincarnation of Achilles. 

He was an Icelandic Hercules, an extremely powerful and athletic warrior who was also skilled in swimming (a skill not widespread in the medieval world) as well as throwing stones. 

In fact, he was said to be able to hit an enemy between the eyes with a stone from several yards away! 

It has been argued that his athleticism would have resulted from his laborious daily agricultural chores. 

Yet Hámundarson was also said to be an incredibly skilled archer and the bearer of an impressive weapon – an atgeir, a polearm resembling a spear developed in Northern Europe.

He acquired this weapon while on a Viking raid in what is now modern-day Estonia

The fact that this famed farmer took part in a Viking raid should not come as a surprise. For many males in Viking societies, taking part in a Viking raid was commonplace. 

They might have had a farm to tend to throughout the year, then take an annual trip to raid and ravage, coming back with glittering treasures or even slaves. 

A Viking could either be a seasoned warrior, dedicating their life to raids and conquests, or simply a restless farmer seeking adventure and treasure on the high seas. 

Aside from his martial skills, Hámundarson was said to be easy on the eye, with many descriptions of his blonde locks, which were also said to be "well combed" and "flowing." 

This farmer turned Viking turned warrior was also, it seems, a bit of a pretty boy! 

In the dynamic society of medieval Iceland, reminiscent of the "Wild West" of its time, feuds served as essential mechanisms for individuals to uphold honor and establish identity within the community. Photo: Nick Fox / Shutterstock

A bloody feud and a grisly death 

Sadly for Hámundarson, however, he meets a gruesome death toward the end of the first half of Njall's saga

We may never know if Hámundarson's death unfolded exactly as it is painted in the sagas, but it is probable that there is more than a little historical truth in it. 

A blood feud was enacted when Hámundarson killed two men of the same family despite being begged by his friends not to. 

The family swore a blood feud, and soon, Hámundarson was a hunted man. 

His best friend Niall pleaded with him to swiftly depart Iceland, and Hámundarson made plans to do so. 

However, as he was leaving, he gazed one last time at his homestead and was struck by its beauty and charm. He decided to stay. 

In doing this, he had sealed his fate. 

Soon, a posse of men (Viking Age Iceland was the OG "Wild West") surrounded the farm, but he picked them off one by one with his archery skills. 

When his bowstring broke, he asked his wife for a strand of her hair to use. Apparently, though, she refused, as he had beaten her for stealing goods. 

Domestic violence is a heinous crime, and Hámundarson got his just deserts when he was unable to use his bow. 

He then got his trusty atgeir and kept on fighting but was eventually overpowered and slain. 

Thus ended one of 10th-century Iceland's most renowned athletes and feared warriors. 

Depicted in "Our Fathers' Life: Characters and Scenes from the Age of Saga" by Nordahl Rolfsen, Gunnar is portrayed defending himself with his atgeir. Illustration: Andreas Bloch (1860–1917)

Iceland's famous warrior 

Gunnar Hámundarson's character is a quintessential representation of the medieval Icelandic warrior archetype, embodying both the virtues and the flaws attributed to such figures in the sagas. 

His legacy continues to capture the imagination of readers and scholars interested in Icelandic literature and medieval history. 

If this article has whetted your appetite to learn more about this famous Icelandic warrior, we at The Viking Herald suggest you head to Amazon to purchase a copy of Njall's saga. It is essential reading for all lovers of the Vikings!

For more information on how Vikings fought, read an in-depth article with an expert on Viking Age combat in the Grapevine Magazine here.

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