Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Audun and the White Bear

The Icelandic sagas are interesting for anyone to read. I am particularly enjoying Njal's Saga right now but I want to mention a shorter story from the Morkinsinna, a history of the Norwegian kings. (There is another slightly different version of the story in the Flateyjarbok.) It is likely to be a true story and the events date around 1050.
Audun was a poor man from the Westfjords, who took service with Thori on his ship. Before he left, he made sure his mother was provided for for three years. Along their travels they went to Greenland and spent the winter there where Audun met a man, who had caught a particularly magnificent white bear, and he paid the man everything he had for the bear. He decided that he was going to go to the court of King Svein of Denmark and present the bear to him as a gift. So in the spring when Thori left, Audun went with him and crossed the North Atlantic in a little wooden ship with a live polar bear.
They got to Norway, where King Harald heard of the bear and summoned Audun so he could buy the bear off him. Audun would not budge. Harald said he had a lot of nerve bringing the bear for King Svein through his land since they were at war. Audun said he could not do anything about that but he would appreciate if Harald would let him go on his way. Harald did that but only if Audun promised to come back and tell him what Svein gave him for the bear.
Audun proceeded and ran out of money and had to beg for food and lodging for him and this bear but eventually he got to Svein's court. Svein loved the bear and invited Audun to stay with him. After a while Audun left to go on a pilgrimage and Svein gave him money for the trip. He took ill while he was aways and lost all his hair and grew very thin. Svein almost didn't recognize him when he got back. He stayed with Svein a little longer and then said he had to go home now to take care of his mother. Svein gave him a ship with all its cargo, a bag of silver and a golden arm ring that he was never to take off unless he met someone honorable to whom he owed a debt.
Audun went back to Norway to fulfill his promise to Harald and gave the ring to Harald, then he sold his cargo and went home to his mother.
I cannot help but think of how the heck he travelled with a live polar bear, in a boat, on the North Atlantic. The professor, teaching the class, said that the sagas never mention details about the sea voyage, although in some cases one burns to know. He thought perhaps the bear was periodically clubbed to keep it quiet.
Iceland had laws about how to keep your polar bear, it had to be tied up outside like a dog. You were not allowed to let them roam. Thus it may be that there were no details because people did this all the time. A polar bear! For a pet! The mind boggles.


Kristin said...

I can't imagine keeping a polar bear for a pet. They're carnivores and they will eat people.

Anachronist said...

A pet polar bear was certainly a challenge. It eats a lot. It can be dangerous to the owner. It swims and runs faster than humans so it can escape. Perhaps Audun let it drink vodka, made it an addict and so kept it docile? Mind boggles indeed....

The Red Witch said...

I think the only thing worse than a live polar bear on a boat is a drunk polar bear. I can imagine it capsizing the ship.
In the Flateyjarbok, Audun's bear was called a 'red cheek' which says to me that its cheeks were red from human blood and yet the two kings referred to this gift of a bear as a great treasure.

Tracy said...

He thought perhaps the bear was periodically clubbed to keep it quiet.
The poor bear!

No, I agree about a drunken bear - really wouldn't like to be on a boat with a bear with a sore head!
Then again, maybe that's where that phrase comes from? Because either method of keeping your pet polar bear quiet on its sea voyage back home would induce one hell of a headache.

The Red Witch said...

I hadn't heard of that phrase. Maybe.