26 November 2010

Friday night folklore: The Steward of Skálholt

Iceland used to be divided into two bishoprics: north and south. The one in the north was situated at Hólar in Hjaltadalur, and the southern one in Skálholt, not far from Þingvellir.

Once upon a time there was a bishop in Skálholt who was very hard and inconsiderate in his treatment of his stewards. For this reason they hated working for him and he would send them off without references when they quit the job. Some of them hated him for this and wished that the Devil would take their place when they left. Eventually there was no-one who would apply for the position, and the bishop then had sore need for a steward.

Then a man came to him, stocky and red-haired, and offered his services. The bishop gladly accepted, not the least because the man did not make any demands as to pay, saying they could negotiate that when he left the service. He made no mention of his family or where he came from, saying it did not matter, all that mattered was how well he did his job. He then took up the position of steward and did it well, much to the bishop’s liking.

There was an old farmer in the local parish, an acquaintance of the bishop, who was well-versed in old lore, and soon there arose a quarrel between him and the new steward. Finally the farmer went to the bishop and told him that he feared that the steward would end up being a curse rather than a blessing for the estate. The bishop asked him why, and the old farmer asked him why he didn’t reprimand the man for never coming to mass until after the reading of the gospel and always leaving before the blessing.

The bishop said that he had not given a thought to this, but went and reprimanded the steward, who angrily replied he could not stay in church for long as he was a very busy man, and that if he were not allowed to decide himself when he went to church, he would resign. The bishop then backed off, as he did not want to lose this steward. The steward stayed on for six years and during that time he became increasingly disliked by everyone but the bishop, and even he was sometimes intimidated by him.

On the night before Easter of the sixth the aforementioned old farmer came to Skálholt and quietly walked up to the church yard wall. He saw there three men standing on different sides of the church and the steward was one of them. He saw that they were tying ropes with weights on it around the church under the steward’s direction, and he guessed that the others were his servants. Both me were ugly and brutish in appearance. When they had wrapped the ropes around the church, the steward told them that tomorrow when he came out of the church they should stand on opposite sides of the church and pull on the ropes, but he would stand by the door and hold the rope there, and by those means they could sink the church and everyone in it into the ground.

When the farmer had seen and heard all he could of these nefarious plans, he crept away from the church-yard and into the bishop’s house and quietly woke up the bishop and told him everything. The bishop was startled and did not know what could be done, but the old farmer told him that there should be no hesitation: he should stay up for the rest of the night and prepare a powerful sermon that he would perform himself, rather than have the local priest do it as was the tradition.

“But I,” said the old farmer, “will sit on the bench nearest the entrance and delay the steward when he tries to leave. When you see me stalling him, start the blessing from the pulpit and with God’s will that will be enough to save our souls.”

The bishop followed the farmer’s advice and wrote a sermon to deliver on the morrow. When the bells were rung for mass, the old farmer was seen walking around the church and with his pocket-knife surreptitiously cutting crosses in the wall here and there, but what he was really doing was cutting the ropes put up by the steward and his men.

The bishop entered the pulpit and the steward entered the church after the reading of the gospel. The steward had an ugly look on his face that became even uglier when he saw the bishop in the pulpit. The bishop noticed this and this gave him courage to continue with his sermon in a lively and spirited manner. Every soul in the church was brought to tears by the sermon, but the steward alternated between being pale as a ghost and black as coal in the face, and as the sermon started drawing to an end he jumped to his feet and half-ran towards the door. But the wise old farmer stood in the doorway and would not let him exit, saying there was no hurry and that he should wait for the blessing on this great day. The steward tried to push him aside, but the old man stood like a rock and could not be budged.

The bishop noticed this and lifted his hands to begin the blessing, and had only uttered a few words when the steward started to sink into the floor. The old farmer had a psalter in his hand and started hitting the steward over the head with it to hasten his departure. His head disappeared into the floor just as the bishop finished the blessing. The bishop then gave a lovely speech of thanks for the deliverance from evil of himself and his congregation, and after this he always treated his stewards with full respect.


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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