The human behind the Viking
Laguna Woods, Calif.
Too often, the Vikings of old Scandinavia are portrayed as mindless creatures of war and mayhem: men without hearts or souls whose only goals were fame, rape, and plunder. But this is merely a modern-day invention of the past, a cartoon-like portrayal of Vikings that has little basis in reality. The Vikings of the past were actually much more like us than we tend to think, and they enjoyed complex and rich emotional lives that included friendship, love, grief, and many other deeply felt human feelings, including even great kindness.To illustrate this point, let us take a close look at the life of Egil Skallagrímsson, a “Viking’s Viking,” if there ever was one. Born in Iceland about 902 A.D., he entered the Viking life as a teenager and happily and successfully followed that calling until he reached middle age. We know a lot about him for the story of his life was written down in the early 13th century in one of the great Icelandic family sagas, Egil’s Saga. The author of Egil’s Saga is thought by many scholars to have been none other than the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, medieval Scandinavia’s most gifted writer, poet, historian, and political leader. He was also a descendant of Egil Skallagrímsson.
As a Viking chieftain, Egil fought and led Viking raids throughout most of northern Europe. His violent and successful career took him to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, England, Saxony, and Frisia. He fought as a mercenary for King Athelstan, king of England; killed a mighty royal berserker of the king of Norway in a duel; and literarily chewed through an opponent’s neck in another ferocious hand-to-hand duel. He was every bit a Viking and a very dangerous one at that.
Egil’s Saga paints a vibrant word portrait of Egil as he appears in King Athelstan’s feasting hall after a great battle.
Egil sat down and put his shield at his feet. He was wearing a helmet and laid his sword across his knees, and now and again he would draw it halfway out of the scabbard, then thrust it back in. He sat upright with his head bowed low. Egil had very distinctive features, with a wide forehead, bushy brows, and a nose that was not long but extremely broad. His upper body was broad and long, and his chin and jawbones were exceptionally wide. With his thick neck and stout shoulders, he stood out from other men. When he was angry, his face grew harsh and fierce. He was well built and taller than other men, with thick wolf-grey hair, although he had gone bald at an early age. When he was sitting in this particular scene, he wrinkled one eyebrow right down on his cheek and raised the other up to the roots of his hair. Egil had dark eyes and was swarthy. (page 100)*
As this able word portrait makes clear, Egil was not a blond, blue-eyed, handsome Viking; rather, he resembled a more taciturn, menacing troll than a man.
Yet, this violent, brooding, troll-like Viking had deep human feelings and emotions, which he expressed, both in his behavior and through his poetry. Sometime after Egil and his older brother, Thorolf, went into service as mercenary war-band leaders for King Athelstan of England, misfortune struck, and Thorolf was killed in combat against Athelstan’s enemies at Wen Heath (Battle of Brunanburh, 937 A.D.). The death of his beloved brother hit Egil hard, and he recited a memorial poem at Thorolf’s funeral, which conveys his private sorrow—part of which reads:
The ground will grow over
my brother near Wen;
deep as my sorrow is
I must keep it to myself (page 99).
Egil also developed a lifelong friendship with a fellow Viking named Arinbjörn Thorsisson, a Norwegian, and they both protected each other’s backs throughout their long relationship. After a number of decades of close friendship between the two men, Arinbjörn retired in honor from service to the Norwegian king and returned to his estates in the Fjordane area of Norway. For the occasion, Egil composed a long skaldic poem, “Ode to Arinbjörn,” in praise of his great friend. The lines, below, from the poem particularly convey Egil’s deep affection for his good friend and his trust in him.
By my side, better
than every other
spreader of treasure,
stood my loyal friend
who I truly trusted,
growing in stature
with his every deed (pages 179–180).
Egil also enjoyed a close relationship with his children. When both his adult sons, Bodvar and Gunnar, died unexpectedly within a short time of each other, he retired to his bed closet in grief and despair and hoped to die of self-starvation. Finally, one of his daughters, Thorgerd, tricked him into eating and encouraged him to compose a great poem in memory of his sons to help ease his grief. The result, “Sonnatorrek” in Old Norse (usually translated as “The Loss of My Sons”), is often considered his masterpiece.
Retrospective in spirit, the poem moves from grief, reflections on life and poetry, futile raging at the gods, to a final resignation to fate. It is a poem of great sensitivity and feeling; not the words a modern reader would expect from a seasoned and hardened Viking from the 10th century.
And yes, Egil even composed love poetry. After his brother’s tragic death, he fell deeply in love with Thorolf’s widow, Asgerd, and Egil quietly pined away for her, for he was a bashful lover and could not easily express his feelings openly. Finally, Arinbjörn, his friend, and also a close kinsman of Asgerd, got him to reveal the poems he had composed in his head for Asgerd. Here is a brief excerpt from one of these poems:
When young I would easily dare
to lift the sheer cliffs of my brow.
Now I must conceal in my cloak
the outcrop between my brows
when she enters the poet’s mind
Asgerd and Egil were married and stayed so for life. There is no mention in Egil’s Saga after that of any woman sharing Egil’s bed other than Asgerd.
Egil’s values are not just reflected in his poetry but also in his actions. As mentioned earlier, friendship mattered to Egil. When his long-fast friend Arinbjörn was away in England, he quickly rose to the defense of Arinbjörn’s sister Gyda and her son and daughter. Ljot the Pale, a beserker retainer of the king of Norway and a bully, had demanded Gyda’s daughter in marriage. When the marriage was rejected Ljot challenged Gyda’s young son, Fridgeir, to a duel to the death. As a favor to Arinbjörn and his sister, Egil bravely stepped up at considerable risk to his life and took the place of the son in the fight. He cut the leg off the beserker and that was that. It is clear that Egil took the responsibilities that come with true friendship seriously.
He could even be kind. Once, while staying with a family as a guest, Egil noticed that their young daughter was very sick. He offered to help heal her and asked that she be given fresh bed sheets. Then, being a bit of a sorcerer, he cut ritual runes for her, which he put under her pillow. Soon after, she quickly came back to health. You may not agree with the treatment, but Egil’s intentions were good and the family appreciated his healing powers.
After a successful career as a Viking, Egil retired in middle age to his farm at Borg in Iceland. Here he lived well, and for the most part peacefully, into old age. He is said to have lived at least into his 80s when he died of a sudden illness at his daughter Thordis’ farm at Mosfell in around 990 A.D. Thankfully, Egil, a pagan, died at least 10 years before Iceland turned Christian. In his final decades, he continued to compose skaldic verse and he even made light of himself as an old man with a failing body and dwindling power. Here is a poem of his from this period that showcases his wry and depreciative sense of humor.
Time seems long in passing
as I lie alone,
a senile old man
on the downy bed.
my legs are two
need some flame (page 202).
Yes, Egil was a Viking, and a scary one at that, but he, too, was human and had feelings and emotions just like you and I. And he expressed many of them in his poetry, which was among the greatest composed during the Viking Age.
* All quotes are from Egil’s Saga, translated by Bernard Scudder, edited with and introduction and notes by Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, Penquin Books, 2004.
Archaeologists, historians, linguists, and Nordic language specialists fight like cats and dogs about the historicity of Icelandic Sagas. I favor the camp led by Jesse Byock, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and others who argue that the Icelandic sagas, especially the “Family Sagas” contain more fact than fiction, and thus, are at least in part, reliable peepholes into the Viking past.
In a similar vein, it is important to point out that Egil’s poems in Egil’s Saga contain many archaic elements of Old Norse that were prevalent in the 10th century when Egil lived, but had gone out of use by the 13th century when the prose sagas were first written down from oral sources. In light of the archaic language of the poems and the importance of oral tradition in medieval Iceland, it is thought likely by many scholars that the poems attributed to Egil in Egil’s Saga are indeed his own.
If you wish to hear Egil’s poems in Old Norse, visit Jackson Crawford’s YouTube channel. He has five separate segments on Egil’s life and poetry. Crawford is a specialist in Old Norse language and mythology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.