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Friday night folk tale: Axlar-Björn

In Snæfellsnes in western Iceland there lived, in the 16th century, a man who to this day remains the country’s most notorious serial killer (as a matter of fact, I can't even think of another one). His name was Björn, and he was nick-named after the farm he lived on and called Axlar-Björn. While he was a real person, he has become the subject of several folk tales. His wife, Þórdís, was his accomplice. In the version of the story I am retelling here she is however called Steinunn. Here is his story – one folk tale version:

When Björn’s mother was pregnant with him, she was overcome with a longing to drink human blood. She hid it for a long time, but finally her husband was able to drag it out of her. He loved her very much and so he humoured her and gave her some of his own blood to drink. After this she had some bad nightmares and became filled with a fear that the child she was carrying would be a monster of some kind.

When he was 5 years old, Björn was sent to live as the foster child of his father’s former employer, a rich farmer(*). Once Björn stayed home and slept while everyone else went to church. He dreamed that a stranger came to him and offered him a plate of meat. In the dream he ate 18 pieces of the meat, but choked on the 19th. As a reward for his appetite, the stranger told him where to find an axe that was hidden under a rock, saying it would make him famous one day. Not long after this one of the farm workers disappeared.

As an adult, Björn married one of the maids on the farm and his foster brother gave them the farm of Öxl to live on. They had only a small number of farm workers, but kept them well fed and clothed. People wondered at how many horses Björn owned, and the suspicion arose that he was stealing them, and some even suspected him of murdering people for their possessions.

In those days it was an almost holy duty for all farmers to receive travellers into their homes and give them food and shelter for the night. One of these travellers had a close escape. He had been given a bed in a room separated from the main sleeping quarters (**). He couldn’t sleep and got up and started looking about him and found a dead man under the bed. The man had clearly been murdered, and the visitor suspected that this was to be his fate as well, so he took the corpse and put it into the bed and covered it with the blanket. Then he hid under the bed. Some time in the middle of the night Björn and his wife, Steinunn, came into the room and Björn was carrying an axe – presumable the same one the man in the dream gave him. He drove it hard into the body in the bed, thinking it was the visitor.
Steinunn then said:
“Why isn’t he struggling as he dies?”
Björn answered: “He gave a small sigh. I hit him well and hard, woman.”
Then they departed. The visitor was half-paralysed with fear, but got from under the bed and made his escape.

Although the rumours about Björn’s behaviour were widespread, no-one dared to accuse him because of his friendship with his foster brother, who was an even richer and more powerful man than his father had been. However, their relationship began to cool after Björn came after him with the axe. Steinunn managed to smooth things over, but the man told her that Björn would not long remain on the loose even if he were to give him his protection.

In the Easter week of that same year a young brother and sister arrived at Öxl late at night in bad weather and asked for shelter. They were given dry clothes and food. When both Björn and Steinunn left the common room, an old woman who was putting a baby to sleep started muttering a lullaby:

No-one stay at Gunnbjörn’s house, (***)
Whose clothes are fine and goodly;
He puts them in the pond outside,
The blood flows,
Along the tracks,
Hush, hush-a-bye, my baby girl.

This horrible lullaby naturally made them nervous. After they had eaten, the girl walked into another part of the house. Shortly afterwards her brother heard a strange sound that frightened him and he suspected that his sister was being murdered. He ran out and into the stable and Björn came running after him. The boy made it into the barn and got out through a window there and hid in a hole in a nearby lava field while Björn searched for him (+). When he gave up the search and went back into the farm, the boy climbed out of the hole and made it to the nearest farm. The farmer there took him straight to the local sheriff.

On Easter Sunday the sheriff rode out to Öxl with two strong men and confronted Björn about the rich clothing he was wearing, a hood and vest with silver buttons. The sheriff’s companions recognised the clothing as having belonged to a farmhand of the sheriff’s who had disappeared two years earlier. They then arrested Björn and his wife on suspicion of having murdered the farm-hand and the girl.

Björn confessed that he had murdered a total of 18 people, the first being the missing farm worker from when he was a young boy. That body had been buried under the dung heap in the cow byre, but the rest he had weighed down with rocks and dumped into the pond near the farm with the help of his wife. They were both condemned to death, but Steinunn was pregnant and her execution was delayed until she had given birth (++).

Björn was to have all his limbs broken with a sledgehammer before being beheaded. A cousin of his, named Ólafur, was hired to carry out the execution. Björn made no sound and showed no signs of pain at the torture. While Ólafur was breaking his bones, he let fly comments on his progress. When all the limbs had been broken, Steinunn remarked:
“My Björn is beginning to become short of limbs,” and Björn replied:
“There is still one to go, and better would it be off,” and with that the axe fell and ended the life of this notorious murderer.

(*) In those days fostering children with rich relatives or friends was a common way for poor people to ensure their children a better life.
(**) Space was limited in the old turf houses and everyone would sleep in one room, even the farmer and his wife unless they were very rich.

(***) Gunnbjörn is a poetic metaphor that means ‘Björn (bear) the warrior’ and here refers to his killer’s nature.

(+) One version of the story that I read long ago had the sister's ghost standing in front of her brother and preventing Björn from seeing him.

(++) Björn's real wife, Þórdís, escaped with a triple whipping.

Copyright notice:
The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.


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