The leading and the sights

The plot of this old Icelandic folktale is reminiscent to that of Charles Dickens’s classic, A Christmas Carol, but in this case the role of the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” we know as Ebenezer Scrooge is occupied by an unnamed parish priest and the role of the three spirits is played by a single angel from God. Given the dominant role of priests in Icelandic history, and the great wealth amassed by the clergy, compared to other Icelanders, it’s not the least bit surprising that it would be a priest who symbolizes the greed and indifference of unchecked privilege in Icelandic lore. Unlike A Christmas Carol and many Icelandic folktales, Christmas does not enter into this story at all. Instead, it hinges on the denial of baptism to an infant and the horrible fate that awaits the child and its parents. Many Icelandic tales from the past concern the fate of the unbaptized or incorrectly baptized, and after the Christianization of Iceland, the law dealt severely with priests who failed in the performance of this crucial duty.

In the beginning of this story, there was once a priest in the western part of the country. He was both greedy and unrighteous, arrogant and eccentric. Among other things, he adopted the custom of having worship in the church no less on weekdays than on the sabbath, and even said that it was a breach of the sabbath not to come to church on weekdays. 

Once, in the wintertime, a child was brought to the priest to be baptized, but the weather was bad and looked foul. The people who had brought the child told him their errand, but he reprimanded them severely, as he was inclined to do, and said, among other things, that they ought to have let him know of their desire beforehand. He refused to baptize the child and sent the family away. But the couple who had brought the child, along with the child itself, died from exposure on their way back home. This in no way troubled the priest's conscience, and he went on quite as before. 

The following summer, the priest sent a notice to his parishioners that he had fixed the following Thursday for service. This was at the high point of the hay harvest. 

No one said they would come, and yet none dared say they would not. When Thursday arrived, the priest waited for the people to come to the celebration of worship. But when he found that his flock were too late in coming, he rushed into the church and began pacing up and down the floor. After he had been there awhile, an unknown man came to him and greeted him. The priest, in his arrogant manner, did not respond to the man’s greeting, but asked him whether he had seen any of the people coming. 

“What people?” asked the stranger. “Why, the church people, to be sure,” said the priest. “Why should they come today, a weekday?” asked the stranger.

The priest answered, “What does that matter to you? The people are bound to come, as I have called them.” 

The stranger said: “This is a strange expectation, especially when everyone is busy making hay. So none will come, naturally enough. You seem strange in many other ways, my good priest, and unlike other people. If I searched further, I would no doubt find much more that was odd about you.” 

At this, the priest became angry, asking: “What is there so strange about me?” 

The stranger replied: “I will show you, if you like; let us both go out together.” 

And so they went. When they got outside the door of the church, the priest saw a large, oblong vat, filled to the brim with milk on one side and blood on the other, which did not mingle together. The priest wondered at this, then went to the container and put his hand in to try to mix them by stirring them about, but they did not mix. 

“This is certainly strange,” said the priest. 

“Sure enough,” answered the stranger, “but you will see more things of this kind.” 

The priest asked what he meant. “That you shall know later,” said the man. Then they walked out of the churchyard and arrived at a lake. There they saw two grown birds swimming, along with one young one. No sooner had they touched the shore of the lake than the young bird flew up, perching in the hair of the priest, pecking his head hard. The priest tried to get rid of the bird, but being unable to do so in any way, he begged his companion to drive the bird away, but his companion answered that he could not yet do so.

After this, they came to a large waterfall in a river, beneath which a man was standing with his mouth wide open, swallowing the whole of the waterfall; but it flowed through his body as though it were a sponge. This, too, the priest found a strange sight. 

Next, they came to another river with a waterfall in it that fell over a mighty rock. Underneath was a man who also swallowed the whole of the waterfall, but no water could be seen flowing through him this time. Once again, the stranger would not tell the priest what this meant.

Now they came to a fine grassy pasture. Here the priest saw two sheep, both ugly and thin, and they were so thin-woolled that one could count the hairs on them. They devoured the grass like wild beasts and fought with one another as if one would drive the other out of the pasture. This, too, the priest found strange, and asked if the sheep had been long in the pasture. 

The stranger answered him curtly: “I believe so.” 

Next, they came onto a rough and barren heath, where little was to be seen except rubble and sand. There the priest saw two more sheep, fat and beautiful, chewing merrily and resting one at the other’s side like brothers or sisters. They rested their heads on one another, as if neither could bear to lose sight of the other. 

They walked on further still until they came to a mansion so beautiful and grand that the priest thought he had never seen the likes of it before. It was surrounded with green moorlands and the scent of countless flowers filled the air. There were all kinds of songbirds and they sang delightfully. Inside the mansion itself, one could hear the sweetest strains of music and of song, and behold all possible manner of glee and merrymaking. Everything was idyllic and beautiful. 

Then the priest said to his companion: “Stop! Now I will go no further. Let me rest here.” 

But the stranger replied: ‘‘No! You may not rest here, for you are destined for another place.” 

So, on they walked further along until the priest saw a house in complete contrast to the mansion. A foul stench filled the air, and everything was vile and ugly. There were also winged beasts in the shape of birds, who swarmed and shrieked. When the priest saw this, and heard the noise, he was stricken with fear and panic. He loathed the place so much that he begged the man to retreat, the sooner the better. 

Then the. stranger said: “No! Here you shall dwell. This is a place for you and all evil men.” 

“Oh, no!” said the priest. “Give me a break from this place. Tell me there is another way, and teach me how I may avoid having this place for my residence.” 

“I will,” answered the stranger, “but you must know that this is the place of torment for all evil people, and but a faint shadow of hell, which you have deserved for your chronic acts of wickedness. But you may escape it by repenting your evilness and henceforth mending your ways.” Relieved at this news, the priest promised to do so.

Returning the same way they had come, they came to the beautiful mansion. “This,” said the stranger, “is the place prepared for good and holy people who fear God. The niceness of this place is a faint foretaste of the eternal joys of God’s children, who have rejected sin and vice.” 

Now they came to the goodly and gentle sheep on the heath. “These sheep,” said the stranger, “are like the poor people who live content with what God gives them, and do not complain, although they do not always have at hand all they may wish for, but live together in harmony.” 

Then they came to the ugly and wild sheep. “These sheep,” said the stranger, “are like the ungrateful rich, who are never satisfied and therefore never thrive, although they have an abundance of all things. But they are addicted to having more, and the discord and hostility of these sheep reflect the envy that the rich have for one another.” 

Then they came to the river with the waterfall the man swallowed up. The stranger observed: “This river shows the sin of wickedness, which the children of this world forever drink and swallow without letting go of it. It fills them. They die in their wickedness, never quitting their sin until the sin quits them.” 

Then they came to the waterfall that flowed through the man and out of him again. “This river,” said the stranger, “shows you the sin of folly, which takes hold of the best of the children of God, but which they drive out from their hearts.” 

Next, they came to the lake on which the three birds had been swimming. Then said the stranger: “These two large birds represent the two people you drove from your door in the wintertime, out into the frost and storm with their unbaptized child.” 

Next, they came to the vat at the door of the church in which the fluids had not mingled together. Then said the stranger: “Here you may behold the blood you have sucked from the poor, and the wealth you have taken from the rich. They can never be mingled together, and therefore, you must give relief to the poor, and be more balanced in what you take from rich and poor.” 

Now their journey had drawn to an end. They went into the church, and the priest begged the stranger to take the little bird out of his hair. 

“That I will do,” said the stranger, “but you must know that it is the avenging spirit of the child whom you refused to baptize, and now you must baptize it.” 

The stranger released the bird from the priest’s hair, and the priest baptized it. This done, the little bird flew away and disappeared; then the priest knelt down in prayer. After he had finished praying, he and his companion walked out of the church, and the stranger vanished into the churchyard before the priest’s eyes. 

Then the priest went home to his farm, where another priest came up to him and greeted him, asking who he was. The old priest told him, and then asked who he might be. The latter answered that he had taken charge of the parish since the former priest had vanished some seven years earlier. 

The old priest was surprised by this and now realized that the angel of God had come to him in a trance, and that they had wandered together for seven years. He took to heart all he had seen, and learned well from it. He mended his life and entered a monastery, where he remained for the rest of his days. And here ends the tale.

This story appears as “Leiðslan og sjónirnar” (The leading and the sights) in the collection of Jón Árnason (1819- 1888), Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og ævintýry (Icelandic Folk Tales and Legends). In the collection, Kvæða- og rímnasafninu, this story is entitled, “Ein merkileg frásaga af einum mjög dramblátum presti” (One remarkable story of one very arrogant priest). This version is adapted and retranslated by Stefan Jonasson based on the translation of George E.J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon, where it appears as, “The priest and the angel.”

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