Madman and Lyricist (KH)

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katharinahauptmann02_dlIf you’re reading or talking about the Icelandic sagas you’re bound to come across Egill Skallagrímsson at some point.

To me, Egill is the most interesting, absurd and curious character of Icelandic medieval literature.

Here is why:

Egill is said to have lived from  910  to 990 AD. He was a Viking warrior, poet and farmer. That job description alone should make you curious about this man.

Egils Saga is his life story. Let’s assume everything in that story was true, just for fun.

Egill was born at the farm Borg á Mýrum west of the town Borgarnes as son of Bera Yngvarsdóttir  and Skallagrímur, son of Kveldúlfur (‘Evening Wolf’) who was a sworn enemy of Norwegian king Harald Fairhair.

At age three, little Egill composed his first poem. Early on, the boy showed signs of berserk behavior and had an enormously huge head. Today scientists believe that those are the symptoms for Paget’s disease (Osteodystrophia deformans).

When he was only seven years old, Egill was playing a game with some local boys, I think it was some kind of ball game, when he felt like he had been cheated simply because he lost a game to a slightly older boy. Egill ran home full of rage just to return to the game with an axe and split his opponent’s skull to the teeth.

His parents were so proud of their son, he had killed his first man at just seven years old. That a boy!

His father Skallagrímur was equally bad tempered. One day he got so mad at his son during a game and would have beat him to death  if it hadn’t been for Egill’s nursemaid Brák who stopped the madman. Skallagrímur went right ahead and threw Brák off a cliff.

Egill grew up to be a very hot-tempered man. Whenever he felt insulted, he killed his adversary or challenged him to a holmgangur, a Viking version of a duel.

At some point Egill went to Norway and really upset the Norwegian royals by killing a liegeman to King Eiríkur Blóðöx (‘Eric Bloodaxe’) who was also a kinsman of Queen Gunnhildur. The following years a lot of failed assassination attempts, insults and curses were exchanged.

Egill also possessed knowledge about the magical power of runes which he made use of several times during his journeys. Once, he put a powerful curse over Eric Bloodaxe and Queen Gunnhildur, which was considered the ultimate Viking insult, by setting a horse head on a so-called níðstöng (‘nithing pole’) and saying “Here I set up a  níthing pole and declare this curse against King Eiríkur and Queen Gunnhildur.”

He then turned the horse head to face the mainland and declared the curse “at the land-spirits there and the land itself, so that all will fare astray, not to hold nor find their places, not until they wreak King Eiríkur and Gunnhildur from the land.” Our hero set up the pole in the cliff face and left it standing. He faced the horse’s eyes on the land and he carved runes upon the pole and said all the formal words of the curse. What a delightful scenario.

Sometime later Eric Bloodaxe pardoned Egill because he had written him such an impressive poem.

After fighting some more battles here and there Egill finally returned to his family farm in Iceland and remained a powerful figure in local politics.

Between all that slaying and composing Egill still managed to be the loving father of his five children Þórgerður, Bera, Böðvar, Gunnar and Þórsteinn.

Apart from his berserk rage Egill is most famous for his poems and considered by many historians to be the finest of the ancient Scandinavian poetry.

Sonatorrek (The Loss of a Son) is probably Egill Skallagrímsson’s most celebrated and most beautiful poem. After losing his son Gunnar to a fever, his other son Böðvar tragically drowned in the sea and Egill’s grief was so immense that he wanted to starve himself to death. Instead he composed a touching poem about the loss of his children.

He lived a very long life, into his eighties, and became a wealthy man. Just before he died, he left home and went down south were he buried his silver treasure behind some mountain. In his last act of violence he murdered the servant who helped him bury his treasure. What a sweet old man.

I love reading this saga: full of bloodshed, funny names, poetry, rune magic, never ending feuds, absurd events and not to forget: likeable lunatics.

The cherry on top for every Egill fan is the exhibition dedicated to the life and work of our most popular Viking poet at the Settlement Centre in Egill’s hometown of Borgarnes.

Katharina Hauptmann – katha.hauptmann@gmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.