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

After the implementation of the Stóradomi [Great Edict] of 1564, the most unusual reason for the death penalty was incest, followed by infanticide.

Alþingi [National Parliament of Iceland] was established in 930 AD (about sixty years after the first settlers arrived on the island) in Þingvellir, about 45 kilometers east of Reykjavík. It is considered to be the oldest parliament in the world. Every summer, the parliament assembled here during the Old Commonwealth (930 – 1262). Lögberg [Law Rock] was the center of the old Alþingi, which held legislative and judicial power. People from all over the country also flocked to Þingvellir – chieftains held meetings, peddlers, sword-sharpeners, tanners and ale-brewers sold their goods and services, and clowns performed for the gathered visitors. After the dissolution of the Old Commonwealth, Þingvellir’s importance declined and eventually became a simple court of law. Over the centuries, the sinking of the rift valley has caused flooding of the gathering place and the formation of new fissures. The site was abandoned in 1798. The Alþingi itself was abolished by a decree of the Danish crown in 1800 and then reconvened in Reykjavík in 1845.

During the Old Commonwealth, the executive power of the Alþingi was very limited: laws were passed and cases were tried in accordance with those laws, but the verdicts had to be enforced by individuals. In minor cases, fines were imposed, while sever cases could entail three years of banishment or even lifelong exile. If the convict violated the verdict and turned up where he was not allowed to be, the victim’s family could have killed him – stories of such cases of vengeance are common in the ‘Sagas of Icelanders’. The code of laws from the Commonwealth-period 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 were made more sever during the Icelandic Reformation. By this time, the Alþingi had mostly served as a court of law under the Danish crown. With the implementation of the Stóradomi [Great Edict] of 1564, the jurisdiction of certain immoral acts, such as incest and fornication, was transferred from the church to secular authorities. The establishment zealously punished these acts because it was commonly believed that God would exact retribution over entire societies where sin and evil flourished. For the worst forms of incest, the Stóradomi prescribed that men should be beheaded and women drowned. – From an early stage in history, drowning as a method of execution was widely used in many cultures for various offences. Convicts were drowned in marshes, other freshwater as well as the sea. – In the early years, authorities were reluctant to impose such drastic punishments, but 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; all had to be carried out in Þingvellir after a trial at the Lögrétta [Law Court]. Executions were popular public spectacles. Women were drowned in the Drekkingarhylur [Drowning Pool], a deep pool of the river flowing through the rift with a small waterfall in the background. There are no reliable accounts of the drownings, but the women were reportedly tied in a sack, pushed into the pool, and held under water. At least 72 people were executed in Þingvellir from 1602 to 1750: 30 men were beheaded, 15 hanged and 9 burned at the stake, while 18 women were drowned. Like Drekkingarhylur, many other place names in Þingvellir are derived from the severe punishments imposed by the Alþingi, such as Kagahólmi [Whipping Islet], Höggstokkseyri [Execution Block Spit] and Brennugjá [Stake Gorge].


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