Book review: The Orkneyinga Saga
Christine Foster Meloni
Who were the Vikings? When this question is asked, what usually comes to mind? Images of violent Norsemen, jumping into their well-crafted ships to go off to raid, plunder, and kill in other lands before returning to Norway.
Sometimes, though, the Vikings decided not to return home but to settle in other lands. Scotland’s Orkney Islands became one of the sites of Norse colonialization. These islands were strategically located in the middle of the Vikings’ sea roads and therefore served as an ideal base for raids on both Scotland and Ireland. And they provided land to settlers who had none in their home country of Norway.
The first Viking raid in the Orkneys took place in A.D. 794 when the monastery on the island of Iona was attacked. The Vikings then returned in 839 with a large fleet and defeated both the King of the Picts and the King of the Scots, the two Orkney kings.
By the middle of the ninth century, the Vikings had settled in Orkney as well as in Shetland, the Hebrides, Man, and even parts of mainland Scotland. In 875 King Harald Fairhair arrived to take “official” control of Orkney for Norway.
The Orkneyinga Saga, written by an unknown Icelandic author, covers the period of colonialization up to approximately 1200. The Vikings continued to control Orkney until James III of Scotland was betrothed to Margaret, the daughter of Christian I of Norway, in 1468. Orkney then finally passed from Norway back to Scotland.
Throughout these centuries Orkney was ruled by earls appointed by the King of Norway. We meet these earls in the saga and see how they sometimes ruled peacefully with another family member (a brother, a son, an uncle, a cousin) and then broke up and formed other alliances. Killing kin as well as foes was commonplace. Not all of the earls died in their beds of natural causes.
While the reader may frequently get lost in the succession of the earls, power shifts, and bloody battles, certain scenes stand out for their magic or their gruesome humor (not meant, of course, to be humorous).
Who can forget, for example, the unfortunate death of the first earl, Sigurd the Powerful? To consolidate his rule, he had to defeat a formidable enemy, Mælbrigte, Earl of the Scots. The battle was hard fought but, in the end, Sigurd was the victor. Mælbrigte and all of his men were killed. Sigurd wanted to make a big show of his triumph, so he had the heads of the dead strapped to the saddles of the victors. He had the head of Mælbrigte strapped to his own saddle. As he was riding away after the battle, he began to spur his horse and a tooth protruding from his enemy’s mouth scratched his calf. His leg became infected and he died.
There was then Earl Harald, who was killed by mistake. One day he discovered his mother and sisters sewing a most beautiful garment. When he asked who it was for, he was told that it was for his brother Paul, who was sharing the rule of the earldom with him at the time. Harald went into a jealous rage and grabbed the garment for himself. His sisters started pulling out their hair and yelled at him to stop. If not, he would die. He ignored their warning and put it on. His flesh immediately began to quiver and he died soon thereafter. The poisonous garment had been destined for Paul. (No shrinking violets these women!)
One of the earls, Earl Magnus, became a saint. He was killed in a rocky spot that was overgrown with moss. But after his death, the location turned into a beautiful green field. This proved that Magnus’s soul had been taken to the verdant fields of Paradise. After his burial, a strong light was visible over his grave and, when ill people came to pray at the site, they were immediately healed. He, therefore, was declared a saint.
The saga is full of stories that cannot, of course, be considered historical. However, the saga is worth reading as it provides the context for Norway’s historical occupation of the Orkney Islands. It also offers an animated account of some very memorable characters who accomplished rather amazing feats (whether they are true or not).
Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney. (1981). Hermann Pålsson and Paul Edwards, Translators. Penguin Classics.
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.