Viking love

Fierce warriors with strong emotions

Image: Wikimedia Commons
“Funeral of a Viking Warrior,” by Charles Ernest Butler, 1909.

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

Several years ago, a fellow classmate at a Sons of Norway Norwegian class swore up and down that the Vikings did not compose love poetry nor even pretend to fall in love. In his mind, they were hard people who were not given to romantic sentiment. He had lived for a time in Sweden and claimed to have good command of the sagas and skaldic poetry. I tried to argue with him back then but failed to convince him of the existence of Viking love. Now that a number of years have passed and I have learned more of love among the Vikings, I shall try to make my argument again, but this time to the readers of The Norwegian American. Perhaps I can make a better case this time for Viking love.

In my last article on the Vikings, I tried to counter the common notion that the Vikings were without human emotions other than hate, lust, and greed by telling you about the softer side of even the fiercest and most dangerous of the Vikings, Egil Skallagrímsson (“Egil Skallagrímsson: The Human Behind the Viking,” The Norwegian American, vol. 132, # 7, April 9, 2021). Even though he was a fierce warrior, he was terribly shy around women and used a love poem shared with a friend to express his affection for his future wife, rather than win her over with direct romantic gestures and intimate banter.

And Egil was not the only Viking to fall in love. Many did, and to judge from the bits and scraps of prose and poetry that have survived from their era, the Vikings were both fascinated by love and yet afraid of its power to shake the very foundations of the social order. Marriages, by and large, were arranged between families. Though it was hoped that husbands and wives would develop deep feelings for one another, love was not usually a driving force behind the marriage contract. Yes, it was, for the most part, true that a potential bride could refuse a match, but she had to convince her family that there was good reason for such a refusal. 

What Vikings feared about love was its power to break alliances and create fissures in the social fabric. When two young people fell in love without sanction or an illicit affair began between two married people, social and political troubles could often follow, sometimes accompanied with serious outbreaks of violence. Yet, whether it caused good or ill, love was a part of Viking life as much as pillage and war.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
In Harry George Theaker’s painting, the ghost of Sigurd smiles upon Brynhild burning on her funeral pyre. He knows she will soon be with him in death.

And love was similarly a part of the lives of the Viking gods, the Æsir and the Vanir. It was often an earthy kind of love that was practiced by the various gods, and if we can believe the poem Lokasenna (Loki’s Truth Telling), these Norse gods engaged in numerous love affairs with each other and even with the “giants” of Norse mythology, the jötnar. The Hávamál (“Words of the High One”), originally composed in 10th century Norway, tells the story in poetry of Odin’s love for “Billing’s daughter” as “fair as a ray of sun,” as well his love for the frost-giantess Gunnlöð, who he says, “rested in my arms.” 

In the course of this long “Eddic style” poem that covers many aspects of daily life, from manners to magic; Odin advises the hearer not to make fun of someone who falls in love, for “love is strong enough/to make a fool/ out of a man who once was wise.” Yet, he also counsels that “nothing is worse/for a wise person/than to have nothing to love/.” (All quotes are from The Wanderer’s Hávamál, translated and edited by Jackson Crawford, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2019.)

Freyr, another major Norse god, likewise fell in love with a Jötunn giantess and expressed his love in a Viking Age “Eddic” poem that was finally written down in the Poetic Edda in the 13th century. Here is a snippet from that poem.

In Gymir’s gardens I saw

a girl just for me;

her arms shone, and from them

all the air and all the sea.

(From a translation in Judy Jesch’s Viking Poetry of Love and War, British Museum Press, 2013.)

A deep interest in love and its consequences, both good and bad, is found in the ancient legendary sagas, such as the Saga of the Völsungs and the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. In many ways, the Saga of the Völsungs comes across as a Viking Age soap opera, a story of strong passions, mistaken identities, heartbreak, and revenge. It appears to have been a popular tale in the Viking Era. At least eight large runestones and a picture stone in Sweden tell bits of the story, particularly that of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, the lover of both Brynhild and Gudrún. 

Both of these women, along with other women in the story, are portrayed as strong, independent, and even dangerous women you do not wish to cross. These are not the passive, bland heroines that populate the stories of the troubadours of late medieval continental Europe. When they do not like a potential partner, they use phrases like “he has never made my heart smile” or my “heart never smiled upon him.” One can perhaps assume from this phrasing that if they were asked about their feelings for Sigurd, both Brynhild and Gudrún would say “he made my heart smile” as a euphemism for “love.”

The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, as you might expect centers on Ragnar’s life as warrior Viking chief, but it does not neglect his love life. His central love interest in the saga is a strange and beautiful girl named Kráka, who he both courts and beds and then takes as his wife. When his men urge him to get rid of her, an orphan girl of alleged humble origins, and trade her in for a high-born Swedish princess, she reveals she is actually Áslaug, the daughter of the Norse hero couple Sigurd and Brynhild. Knowing that she is of royal lineage and the offspring of the most famous couple of Scandinavia, Ragnar keeps her as his wife and, as the saga says, “their life together was good, with much love.”

In one scene of romantic domesticity in the saga, she sits on Ragnar’s lap with her arms wrapped around his neck, as he in turn sits upon his high seat or throne. However, like the women in the Saga of the Völsungs, she is no weak thing. Later in the saga, she leads a Viking war band to avenge the death of two of her sons under her warrior-name, Randalín. Before Ragnar leaves on his last Viking expedition, she gives him a gift from her “whole heart” of “holy armour” that is “blessed by the gods” to protect him. As he sails away on his last voyage, the saga reveals that “saying farewell weighed heavily on Randalín.” After many years and many children, she was still in love with her warrior husband, Ragnar. (Note: All quoted words and lines above are from the book The Saga of the Völsungs with The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, translated by Dr. Jackson Crawford, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2017.)

Many “skaldic poets” of the Viking Age also composed love poetry (mansǫnger), in addition to poems of praise for their patron chiefs and kings. For example, Hallfred Ottarsson, a 10th-century skaldic poet created a love poem for his beloved Kolfinna that clearly came from the mind of a Viking. In the poem he compares her graceful walk to the movements of an elegant longship at sea.

I thought, when I caught sight

of the Gunn of fine linen

that a boat was floating

on the sea between two isles;

and the seam-Saga gleamed

amidst the stream of women

like a well-equipped warship

with sail and golden tackle.

(From a translation in Judith Jesch’s book, Viking Poetry of Love and War, British Museum Press, 2013 [“Gunn of fine linen” likens Kolfina to the Valkyrie Gunn and the reference to linen implies Kolfina is a married woman. The words “the seam-Saga” again allude to Kolfina].)

Even Viking kings dabbled in love poetry. The young King Magnus “Barelegs” Olafsson of Norway composed the poem below in 11th-century Ireland. He is lighthearted and full of himself in the poem.

What’s this talk of going home?

My heart is in Dublin,

and the women of Trondheim

won’t see me this autumn

The girl has not denied me

pleasure-visits, I’m glad;

I love the Irish lady 

as well as my young self

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Odin and Gunnlod by Lorenz Frølich, 1895. Odin embraces Gunnlod as she holds the Mead of poetry.

(From a translation in Judith Jesch’s book, Viking Poetry of Love and War, British Museum Press, 2013.)

Though most of the known authors of skaldic love poetry lived in the 10th and 11th centuries, their poems, carefully preserved in oral tradition, were not written down until the 13th and 14th centuries in Iceland. Here, they appear deftly embedded in the old Viking Age stories that make up the famous Icelandic “family sagas” or in a special category of sagas named the “skald sagas” such as Saga of Gunnlag Serpent-Tongue, Hallfred’s Saga, Kormák’s Saga, and many others.

We know the biographies of most of these skaldic poets. For example, Hallfred Ottarsson (see his love poem above) composed skaldic verse for both Haakon Sigurdsson (Haakon Jarl) and Olaf Tryggvason. Similarly, Kormák Ogmundarson was a warrior and a poet who served with King Harald Greycloak. Despite the fact that their poems were not written down until the late medieval period, linguistic studies show that the poems of these Norse skaldic love poets use archaic grammar and meter that indicate a 10th-century or an early 11th-century origin to their composition.

One of the most famous of the “family sagas,” Eyrbyggja Saga, contains the verses of one of the most creative and sensitive of the skaldic love poets, Björn Ásbrandsson, “the Breidavik-Champion.” Though he was a fighting man and at one time an active member of the famous Jomsborg band of Vikings, his love poetry emotes great feeling. He wrote most of it for his lifetime love, a married woman named Thurid. His love for her was reciprocated, and he had a child by her. Thurid’s husband’s family tried but failed to kill him. Finally, with the help of a major chieftain, they managed to get Björn exiled from Iceland. Ever faithful to Thurid, he returned to Iceland after a few years only to face exile again. This time, his exile was permanent and tragic.

One of Björn Ásbrandsson’s best poems was composed just after one of his surreptitious visits to Thurid. In it he mourns that his visits with her, by necessity, must be brief and of the moment and cannot last.

From fair golden daybreak

to deep blue darkness,

long should the day have lasted,

my delight, my despair!

As the day is dying

a drink I’ll pledge

to the pain-filled memory

of passing pleasures.

(From Eyrbyggja Saga, translated with an introduction and notes by Herman Pálsson and Paul Edwards, Penguin Books, 1989.)

Because the Viking skaldic love poets dealt so skillfully with complex imagery and feelings, Professor Inna Matyushina, an expert in Old Norse poetry, believes they are among “the most outstanding skalds” and the “most creative individuals” of the Viking Age.

Examples of love in the Viking Age are not only found in the poetry contained in the Icelandic “family sagas” and “skald sagas.” They are also found in the actual narrative prose of the sagas themselves. For example, the celebrated Laxdæla Saga tells the tragic tale of one of the most famous love triangles in Old Norse literature. In the story, set in 11th-century Iceland, a strong-willed and beautiful widow, is pursued in by two combative foster brothers who both end up dying in competition for her love. Njál’s Saga, often considered one of the best of the “family sagas,” also explores the relationships between men and women, as do many of the other Icelandic sagas, such as Björn’s Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Hallfred’s Saga, and Kormák’s Saga.

If we accept that Professor Jesse Byock and like-minded scholars are right that the Icelandic sagas provide a more or less accurate reflection of Viking Age life in Iceland, these sagas, the “legendary sagas,” and the large body of skaldic and Eddic poetry would seem to confirm that the Vikings, both men and women, had strong feelings and emotions that included romantic love. Why would they not? They were human.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.