Sæmundur fróði, or “the learned,” was an Icelandic scholar and priest who lived between 1056 and 1133. It is known he studied abroad, possibly in Franconia (in Germany), and he founded the school at Oddi. He was responsible for the legalization of tithing in Iceland from 1096 to 1097, with Bishop Gissur Ísleifsson and lawyer Markús Skeggjason. On his advice, the bishops Þorlákur Runólfsson and Ketill Þorsteinsson established the older laws of Christianity in 1123.

Why he became the source for many folktales is anyone’s guess. But it is believed he was the first Icelander to study abroad. He was young when he left and stayed there until about 1076-1078. He is also thought to have been the most educated man in Iceland at the time.

Sæmundur and the Seal. Statue outside the University of Iceland, by Ásgrímur Sveinsson. Photo: Thorsteinn1996, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For some reason, or just that reason – that he was the most educated man in Iceland – he became the stuff of legends. Literally. Below are three connecting tales about his shenanigans with the devil. You can see a statue depicting the last one in front of the main building of the University of Iceland.

Read other fairytales and legends:

The Black School

Once upon a time, there existed somewhere in the world, nobody knows where a school called the Black School. There the pupils learned witchcraft and all sorts of ancient arts. Wherever this school was, it was somewhere below ground. It was held in a strong room that was eternally dark and changeless as it had no window. There was no teacher either, but everything was learned from books with fiery letters, which could be read quite easily in the dark.

Never were the pupils allowed to go out into the open air or see the daylight during the whole time they stayed there, which was from five to seven years. By then, they had gained a thorough and perfect knowledge of the sciences to be learned. A shaggy grey hand came through the wall daily with the pupils’ meals. It then took back the horns and platters when they had finished eating and drinking.

One of the rules of the school was that the owner should keep one of the students who should leave the school the last year. Considering that it was pretty well known among the pupils that the devil himself was the master, you may fancy what a scramble there was at each year’s end. Everybody doing his best to avoid being last to leave the school.

Three Icelanders in the school

It happened once that three Icelanders went to this school, by name Sæmundur the learned, Kálfur Árnason, and Hálfdán Eldjárnsson; and as they all arrived at the same time, they were all supposed to leave at the same time.

Sæmundur declared himself willing to be the last of them, at which the others were much lightened in mind. So, he threw over himself a large mantle, leaving the sleeves loose and the fastenings free. A staircase led from the school to the upper world, and when Sæmundur was about to mount this, the devil grasped at him and said, “You are mine!” But Sæmundur slipped out of the mantle and made off quickly, leaving the devil the empty cloak.

However, just as he left the school, the heavy iron door was slammed suddenly and wounded Sæmundur on the heels. Then he said, “That was pretty close upon my heels.”

These words have since passed into a proverb (Þar skall hurð nærri hælum). Thus, Sæmundur contrived to escape from the Black School with his companions scot-free.

Some people relate that when Sæmundur entered the doorway, the sun shone upon him and threw his shadow onto the opposite wall. As the devil stretched out his hand to grapple with him, Sæmundur said, “I am not the last; do you not see who follows me?” So, the devil seized the shadow, mistaking it for a man, and Sæmundur escaped with a blow on his heels from the iron door.

But from that hour, he was always shadowless, for whatever the devil took, he never gave back again.

Sæmundur Leaves the Black School

When Sæmundur was abroad, studying in the Black School, he forgot all about himself and his family because of the many wonderful things he saw and learned. At the same time, he forgot his name, so all his school companions called him “Buft.”

One night, as Sæmundur was asleep, he dreamed that Bogi Einasson came to him. He said, “Surely you act ill, Sæmundur, in entering this school, in forgetting your God, in giving yourself up to witchcraft, and in losing your Christian name. If you care for your future welfare, it is time for you to return.”

“That I cannot by any means manage to do,” said Sæmundur.

“More fool you,” said Bogi, “for entering a school you cannot leave at your pleasure. However, I know how you can contrive it if you are willing to return home.”

Sæmundur answered, “You know everything, Bogi; we are all children to you in wisdom. Yes, I am willing enough to return.”

Bogi gives advice

Then Bogi said, “Take my advice, and when you leave the school, throw your cloak loosely over your shoulders. As you go out, somebody will grasp at you but slip out of the cloak and make the best of your way off. You have most to fear the schoolmaster, for he will miss you not long after you are gone.

But when you are fairly on your way, take off the shoe from your right foot, fill it with blood, and carry it on your head all the rest of the first day. In the evening, the schoolmaster will observe the stars, whose movements and aspects he is right well-skilled, and seeing round yours a bloody halo, will think that you are killed.

The next day as you travel, you must fill your shoe with salt and water and carry it on your head. During the day, he will not trouble himself about you. Still, he will again examine the stars at night and, seeing round yours a watery halo, will imagine that you are drowned in the sea.

On the third day, you must open a vein in your side and let the blood from it trickle into your shoe. Then you must mix some earth with it and carry the shoe on your head, as you travel, all the rest of the day.

When the master examines the stars in the evening, he will see an earthy and blood-stained halo around yours and will suppose that you are dead and buried. But afterward, he will find out that you are alive and wel. He will wonder at your cunning and pride himself on having been the means of learning so much wisdom. And the end of it will be that he will cease persecuting you and rather wish you well than otherwise.”

With these words, Bogi Einasson left him.

And after all, it was in that same way that Sæmundur left the Black School and returned safely to his own country.

Sæmundur Gets the Living of Oddi

A copy the statue Sæmundur and the Seal outside Oddi. Photo: Bromr, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As Sæmundur, Kálfur, and Hálfdán were returning from the Black School, they heard that the living of Oddi was vacant. So, they all hurried to the king, and each asked it for himself. The king, well knowing with whom he had to deal, promised it to him who should be the first to reach the place.

Upon this, Sæmundur immediately called the devil and said, “Swim with me on your back to Iceland. If you bring me to shore without wetting the skirt of my coat, you shall have me for your own.”

The devil agreed to this. He changed himself into a seal and swam off with Sæmundur on his back.

On the way, Sæmundur amused himself by reading the book of the Psalms of David. Before very long, they came close to the coast of Iceland. When he saw this, he closed the book and smote the seal upon the head so that it sank. Sæmundur then swam to land. As Sæmundur got to shore, the skirts of his coat were wet. The devil lost the bargain, but the former got the Living.

The Fly

The devil did not forget either this or any other of Sæmundur’s tricks upon him. And constantly looked out for a chance of doing him a bad turn. Many and many a time, he tried to revenge himself upon him, but always in vain. One day he turned himself into a tiny fly. He hid under the skin of the milk in the porringer, hoping this way to get into the stomach of Sæmundur the learned and kill him.

But no sooner had Sæmundur lifted his porringer to drink out of it than he saw the fly. He wrapped it up in the skin of the milk, put it into a bladder and placed it on the altar in the church. So there the fly was obliged to stay till Sæmundur had finished performing the next service, which took a long time. And it is confidently told that the devil never enjoyed himself less in all his life. Sæmundur undid the bladder when service was over and set the devil free.

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