Sever Punishments of Early Iceland: “…Men should be Beheaded and Woman Drowned”

After the implementation of the Stóradomi [Great Edict] in 1564, incest and infanticide emerged as the most extraordinary reasons for imposing the death penalty.

The Alþingi [National Parliament of Iceland] was established in 930 AD, approximately six decades after the arrival of the first settlers on the island. It was held in Þingvellir, about 45 kilometers east of Reykjavík. Notably, the Alþingi stands as one of the world’s oldest parliamentary institutions. During the Old Commonwealth period (930-1262), the Alþingi convened here each summer, with Lögberg [Law Rock] serving as its central point of legislative and judicial power. People from all corners of the country gathered at Þingvellir, where chieftains held meetings, peddlers, sword-sharpeners, tanners and ale-brewers sold their wares and services, and clowns performed for the assembled visitors. However, as the Old Commonwealth dissolved, Þingvellir’s prominence waned, eventually reducing it to a simple court of law. Over the centuries, the sinking of the rift valley caused flooding of the assembly area and the formation of new fissures. Consequently, the site was abandoned in 1798. The Alþingi itself was abolished by a decree from the Danish crown in 1800 but reconvened in Reykjavík in 1845.

During the Old Commonwealth, the executive power of the Alþingi was considerably limited. The assembly was responsible for passing laws and conducting trials based on those laws, but the enforcement of verdicts fell upon individuals. In less severe cases, fines were imposed as punishment, while more serious offenses could result in three years of banishment or even lifelong exile. If a convicted individual violated the verdict and appeared where they were forbidden, the victim’s family had the authority to take their life. Stories recounting such acts of vengeance can be found in the ‘Sagas of Icelanders’. The collection of laws from the Commonwealth period in Iceland is now known as the Grágás [Grey Goose] Laws.

“It is prescribed that if men meet as they travel and one man makes what the law deems as assault on another, the penalty is lesser outlawry. These are five assaults deemed such by law: if a man cuts at a man, or thrusts at him, or shoots or throws at him or strikes at him. And it counts as an assault if a man swings a weapon and a panel gives a verdict that he meant the stroke to land, and he was moreover at such close range that for that matter it could have landed if it had not been stopped on its way, or that he could have hit him; or that, no matter what missile he shoots or throws, he could have reached him with it and for that matter touched him if it had not been stopped, or that he could have hit hi, an assault is stopped on its way if someone intercepts ot or if a stroke offered meets a weapon or the ground or clothing. The sixth assault deemed such by law occurs when a man fells another, and the penalty for that is outlawry. It is a fall if a man goes down on knee or hand, and especially if he falls further than this. The seventh assault is when one man shakes another and the penalty is outlawry. The eight is when a man wrests something from another’s grasp; the penalty is outlawry. The ninth is if a man throttles someone; the penalty is outlawry.”

Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás (translated by Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote, Richard Perkins)

Punishments became more sever during the Icelandic Reformation period. At that time, the Alþingi primarily functioned as a court of law under the Danish crown. Following the implementation of the Stóradomi [Great Edict] in 1564, jurisdiction over certain immoral acts, such as incest and fornication, was transferred from the church to secular authorities. The establishment zealously punished these acts because there was a common belief that God would exact retribution upon entire societies where sin and evil flourished. In the case of the most sever forms of incest, the Stóradomi prescribed beheading for men and drowning for women. Drowning as a method of execution had been widely employed throughout history in various cultures for different offenses. Convicts would be submerged in marshes, freshwater, or even the sea. Initially, authorities hesitated to impose such drastic punishments. However, resistance declined around 1600, largely due to Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson’s zero-tolerance campaign.

Executions at regional assemblies were abolished in the last decades of the 17th century, and thereafter all executions had to be carried out in Þingvellir following a trial at the Lögrétta [Law Court]. These executions were public spectacles that garnered significant attention. Women faced the gruesome fate of drowning in the Drekkingarhylur [Drowning Pool], a deep pool of the river that flowed through the rift, accompanied by a small waterfall in the backdrop. Although reliable accounts of the drownings are scarce, reports suggest that the women were tied in sacks, pushed into the pool, and held underwater. Between 1602 and 1750, a total of 72 people were executed in Þingvellir: 30 men were beheaded, 15 were hanged, 9 were burned at the stake, and 18 women were drowned. The severe punishments imposed by the Alþingi left their mark on Þingvellir, as evidenced by numerous place names such as Kagahólmi [Whipping Islet], Höggstokkseyri [Execution Block Spit], and Brennugjá [Stake Gorge].


%d bloggers like this: