Tag Archives: Scandinavian History

Shame and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland – The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck

There was a man named Thórarin, who live in Sunnudalur; he was old and nearly blind. He had been a fierce viking in his youth, and in his old age he was not an easy man to deal with. He had an only son, whose name was Thorstein; he was a big man, and very strong, but even-tempered. He worked so hard on his father’s farm that three other men together could not have done better.

This simple introduction to Þorsteins þáttr stangarhöggs (The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck) immediately lays out the problem at the heart of this brief tale. Thórarin was a warrior in his youth and remained a violent and problematic character into his old age, Thorstein in contrast was a farmer, a hard worker who was disinclined to engage in violence and feud. But which man conformed to medieval Icelandic expectations of masculinity? Could Thorstein remain an even-tempered farmer his whole life, even when slighted? What of honour? What of vengeance? What of shame? Continue reading Shame and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland – The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck

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Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð

Hárbarðsljóð is a flyting poem from the Poetic Edda, in which Thor is challenged to battle wits with a ferryman named Harbard (Hárbarðr) for passage across an inlet. Interestingly, Harbard gets the better of the exchange, ultimately denying Thor passage and sending him around the bay on land. By which we may surmise that Harbard is not a simple mortal to have bested a god in a flyting and confidently sent him away.

In fact, it is something of a trope within Old Norse/Icelandic mythological and legendary literature for gods to travel the world in disguise. There are possibly two figures within the Norse pantheon best known for this trick. Loki, variously appearing as a salmon, a mare and, possibly, an old woman, also noted for disguising himself and Thor as a bridesmaid and bride (respectively) in the famous wedding-feast sequence from Þrymskviða. Loki certainly has form for embarrassing Thor and, of all the gods, he is the most noted for flyting, courtesy of his exchange with the gods Asgard after gate-crashing a feast in Lokasenna. (Both Þrymskviða and Lokasenna also form part of the collection known as the Poetic Edda). Yet Loki’s disguises almost invariably involve shape-shifting. The old ferryman is far more in line with the trope of the Odinic wanderer – Odin-as-vagabond, wandering the worlds of Norse mythology and meddling. And, among his varied roles, Odin does perform as the god of (good) poetry. Cases have been made for Harbard being either of these gods in disguise, and that is what I intend to look at today – the elements of the poem that correlate with other representations of Odin and Loki and thus point to Harbard’s true identity. (Spoiler – it’s Odin). Continue reading Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð

Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas

Christmas in the Icelandic sagas is not always pleasant. Perhaps a shipload of berserks will arrive at your isolated farmstead intent on rape and slaughter. Or maybe the undead have become active, killing your shepherds or overrunning your mead-hall. Or, worst-case scenario, are trolls haunting the landscape and ghost seals haunting your floorboards? These are all tales I will be exploring today as we look at the dangers of a saga Christmas.

It is a curious thing that such ill-deeds occur on Christmas in the sagas and there appears to be two reasons for this. The first is didactic. Bad things happen to those who fail to celebrate the festival – for example, things do not end well for the berserks who decided to undertake a raid on Christmas Eve. The second follows from this, and reflects an inherent tension between Christianity and paganism that exists within many Icelandic sagas. The saga world is one in which Christianity was a relatively new player and, in these narratives, there is a recognition that paganism was still active in society, as was belief in creatures of pre-Christian origin, and there is an apparent desire to repress both. This is certainly true of the sagas we are looking at today: the events of both Eyrbyggja saga and Grettis saga occur within a Christianised or Christianising Iceland and, more importantly, the authors of both wrote within a thoroughly Christian milieu. Continue reading Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas

A Traitor’s Banquet – The Blood Feast of Roskilde

In 1146 Denmark descended into chaos and civil war upon the abdication of King Erik III (r. 1137 – 1146). He was the first Danish King to abdicate and, with no legitimate son to inherit the throne, the kingdom did not have the political stability to ensure a smooth succession. Sources written after the civil war, in the knowledge of the turmoil his departure created, judge Erik as a weak and short-sighted ruler. We however will not judge him too harshly. After abdicating Erik took himself off to a monastery and was dead within months – it seems likely he was incapacitated by illness, and it was this that forced him from the throne.

Enter Sweyn III, Cnut V, and Waldemar I. All three men were of direct descent within the Danish royal line, and each had the backing of a faction of the Danish elites as they sought to become sole king of Denmark. The support each enjoyed was legitimising and, in separate ceremonies, all three were crowned king – to this day, despite the fact that they ascended the throne in the same year and reigned concurrently, they are all considered Kings of Denmark. The status quo of three independent kings of Denmark lasted a decade, the kings variously allying or warring as they sought to gain control of the kingdom. Invariably it ended in treachery, at the infamous Blood Feast of Roskilde. The three men had arrived at an agreement to split the kingdom among themselves and met in celebration for a feast at Roskilde in 1157. By the end of the night one king would be a traitor, one would be a corpse, and one would be in exile. The youngest of these men, a noble son who would go on to become *spoiler* King Waldemar the Great, does not wish us to forget this injustice, the greatest treachery of the civil war. Continue reading A Traitor’s Banquet – The Blood Feast of Roskilde

Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Monsters and otherworldly powers are a real danger to the Icelandic saga-hero. Many an Icelander has to deal with ghosts, with trolls, with the undead, or contest with witch’s curses. There are few who have to deal with more monsters than Grettir Ásmundarson (also know as ‘the Strong’), a historical outlaw with a mythologised past. Today I am going to look at three episodes of Grettir’s fighting monsters as he works to clear Iceland of its monstrous inhabitants. Grettir is not always loved or loveable, but he performs a function in a newly Christianised Iceland that other men do not seem able to perform. Grettir alone stands against to monsters. Or rather, Grettir is the only one who seeks them out, as we shall see in each case – the fight against the undead mound-dweller Kar the Old; the famous battle with the revenant Glam; and a fight to the death with a troll-wife and her ‘friend.’ And these are but a sampling of the monsters and monstrous available in Grettis saga! I will be looking at some of the similarities between the tales, the function of the tropes, and what I think the author is up to. However, my main focus today will be on storytelling and, while this is a rather long article, I anticipate it will be an entertaining one! Continue reading Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

The King Lives! Scandinavian Legends of Hastings and Svolder

Tradition (and most chroniclers) tell us that on 14 October 1066, the Anglo-Saxon army saw their King, Harold Godwinson, killed on the field of battle. It was a moment upon which the battle hinged for, seeing their leader dead, the Anglo-Saxons fled the field, pursued and killed by the Normans in their unruly rout.  But is all as it seems? There is also a tradition that Harold in fact survived the battle and, deciding the loss of the kingship was God’s will, devoted his life to God as a hermit (or anchorite). Well, if I am being honest, all is as it seems and, removing the debate about exactly how Harold died, it is pretty clear he did not walk away from the battle. But such legends are a bit of fun and it is not entirely uncommon to find them attached to kings who enjoyed a certain amount of popular support, and who ‘apparently’ lost their lives and kingships in battle (and had no known burial place). Indeed, I have previously written about Olaf Tryggvason’s death at the naval battle of Svolder, and he too is reputed to have survived his fully-armoured plunge into the open ocean, and thereafter journeyed on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. What we see with both men is an element of hagiography creeping into accounts of their defeats, in which martial loss is divinely ordained, thus necessarily turning temporal defeat into spiritual victory. It speaks to a kind of cultic reverence (and nostalgia) among their supporters. Continue reading The King Lives! Scandinavian Legends of Hastings and Svolder

Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture

An act of torture is rarely an act of finality in feud cultures – the family of the tortured man, whether he survives or not, will rarely allow such a deed to stand without vengeance. For that reason, it is rare to find examples of torture in saga literature (excluding perhaps the King’s sagas – that Olaf Tryggvason could be a bit intense). This means that, where saga authors do relate occasions of deliberate mutilation, they stand out within the literature and gain a certain amount of infamy.

So today’s is a brief(ish) post, a kind of follow up to our article on the body in law, looking at the logistics of some of the more famous acts of brutality from saga literature (both from a physical and literary perspective): the ‘fatal walk’ of the Viking Broðir in the aftermath of the Battle of Clontarf, Hrafnkel Freysgoði and his men being strung up by their heels and, of course, the infamous blood-eagle. What we will see in these instances of torture is that, even where the act is physically possible, the sheer unlikeliness of the deed and the manner in which these violent interludes are deployed by saga authors recommends them more as literary tropes than genuine deeds. Which is not to say that brutality did not occur in the Viking settlement cultures of Iceland, Ireland, and Britain during the period, or even that these accounts have origins in cultural memories that evolved over time but, in this article, I want to focus on the acts as written.

Disclaimer: I will only be as graphic as what is written in the saga texts, but there are descriptions of disembowelment, evisceration and bodily torture.

Continue reading Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture

When Justice Cost an Arm & a Leg – The Mutilated Body in Medieval Anglo-Scandinavian Law

The breaking of a body is a powerful act. In the medieval world, it was a matter of life or death. A mutilated body marked out its victim for social censure and, critically for a labour-based society, if the injury impacted the ability of the victim to work, it marginalised their social function and forced them to rely on communal charity. Thus, such an act was both a punishment of great impact when performed within the context of law, and a matter demanding compensation of money or blood when performed outside of the law. With that in mind, today I am going to home in on the body in law and in particular the dichotomy of mutilation as a transgression of the law and as a tool of the law. In doing so I am going to focus on Anglo-Saxon law, and the Icelandic Grágás as representative of Scandinavian law.  I promise to try keep it interesting and provide some feuding, some torture, and some storytelling (alongside wergild legislation and evolving legal cultures) – look out for men being hung by holes cut into their heels toward the end! Fun right? Continue reading When Justice Cost an Arm & a Leg – The Mutilated Body in Medieval Anglo-Scandinavian Law

Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets

The Germanic king or lord as the dispenser of treasure, the ‘giver of rings,’ is a familiar image. The reason it is familiar is that it permeates that famous Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf. In the opening lines of the poem, we are introduced to Scyld Scéfing, a man known for violence against his enemies, and his gifts of treasure to his friends, a man of whom the poet says þæt wæs gód cyning (that was a good king). His son in turn is a chip off the old Scyld and, no less vigorous in war or generous in his gifts, has the loyalty of his men, being praised as léofne þéoden, béaga bryttan (beloved prince, ring giver). Later in the poem, just as Beowulf himself is about to benefit from such kingly largesse at the court of Halfdan, a king of the Scylding line, Halfdan is referred to as sinc-gyfan (treasure/ring giver). All these terms are kennings – evocative poetic metaphors common to Old English and Old Norse poetry – and the Beowulf author is implying that gift giving and Kingship are the same thing.  There were, of course, many other elements to cultural perceptions of successful kingship in the Anglo-Scandinavian world, but those are for a different day. In this article I am going to take the lead of the Beowulf poet and concentrate on the king as ‘giver of rings.’ Continue reading Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets

Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

Dressed in armour, watching his fleet fall to his Danish rival, King Olaf I Tryggvason of Norway threw himself into the sea, sinking to his death and denying his enemies the pleasure of killing him. The death of Olaf (r. 995 – 1000) at the Battle of Svolder returned the Norwegian crown to Sweyn Forkbeard the king of Denmark (r. 986 – 1014), and the Danish hegemony. The Norwegian crown had fallen under the tenuous control of the Danish Kings c. 971 during the reign of Sweyn’s father, Harald Bluetooth. Thus, when Sweyn seized the throne of Denmark at the expense of his father in 986, he also ostensibly assumed the throne of Norway. Continue reading Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich

By 1028, Cnut the Great had brought England, Denmark, and Norway into a vast North Sea hegemony under his kingship. It was an unrivalled achievement that granted Cnut the political clout to deal with the Holy Roman Emperor and Pope as equals. (Despite this, his legacy in the English-speaking world is as an eccentric who attempted to halt the waves – go figure.) Yet only fourteen years earlier, Cnut had been a landless Danish Prince, fleeing England upon the death of his father and before the wrath of the vengeful Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II (the Unready). Continue reading Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich

Viking Identity & Christianity – The Performed Violence of Olaf Tryggvason

Olaf I Tryggvason took the throne of Norway in 995, reigning for a brief but eventful five years. Though Olaf had been a pagan Viking raider, by the time he took the Norwegian crown he was a fierce proponent of Christianity, and his reign was pivotal in the inexorable transition of Scandinavia from paganism to Christianity.  It is natural then that over time Olaf became mythologised figure in a Christianised Scandinavia whose literary culture was invested in clerical scribes. While the broad strokes of Olaf’s life and reign as described within our sources seem plausible, implausible tales of heroism, treachery, torture and prophecy have also attached themselves to his legacy. Continue reading Viking Identity & Christianity – The Performed Violence of Olaf Tryggvason