Thursday, April 18, 2019

Irish Hermit Monks Were Said To Have Inhabited Iceland Before Scandinavian Settlers

Several Irish Christian anchorites (holy-men seeking seclusion from society) reportedly discovered and lived in Iceland before the arrival of pagan settlers from Scandinavia. As questions like “which nation arrived first?” and “which religion was here first?” can inspire nationalistic and theological biases, the existence of such anchorites on Iceland remains hotly debated to this day. Some scholars want to entirely disregard written sources about the Irish anchorites in Iceland until archaeological evidence is found. Other scholars take a more literalist approach and want to blindly believe written records unless archaeology proves the sources wrong. Here, however, we will take a neutral stance and present the earliest written evidence behind the idea that Irish anchorites were present on Iceland, doing this simply for public awareness and intellectual entertainment—the metaphorical “food for thought.”

It is believed that the earliest person to claim that Irish hermits had set up camp in Iceland was the Irish monk, Dicuil, who published a text called Concerning the Measurement of the World in the year 825. In the work, Dicuil claimed that three Irish anchorites sailed to the mysterious island of “Thule” around 795. The so-called island of Thule has a history stretching back to the 4th century BCE, when the Greek explorer, Pytheas, found a large landmass (which he named Thule) after having sailed for nearly a week out into the sea off the northern coast of the British Isles. The identity of Pytheas’ Thule is still debated—many believe the explorer found Iceland, yet others think he may have reached Norway, instead.

It is unsurprising that we are not in agreement on the location of Thule, as even the ancients did not seem to know exactly where to find Pytheas’ Thule. By the time Julius Agricola was the Roman governor in Britannia (r. 77-84 CE), his fleet apparently believed Shetland was Thule. With multiple islands being called Thule by various authors, modern scholars have a difficult task of using the geographical description and latitude information to differentiate the regions. In the case of the 9th-century monk, Dicuil, his description of Thule has convinced many that he was referring to Iceland. The renowned Icelandic scholar and translator, Hermann Pálsson made mention of Dicuil in the introduction of his translation of The Book of Settlements. On Dicuil’s Thule, Hermann Pálsson confidently wrote, “The latitude he assigns to ‘Thule’ makes it certain that this must have been Iceland” (Pálsson, Landnámabók introduction, 1972, reprint 2006).

Another source from outside of Iceland is the Historia Norvegiae (History of Norway), an anonymous work that is believed to have been written in the 12th century. In that text, monkish figures called “Papae” were said to have lived on islands scattered around the British Isles before the arrival of Norse settlers. The anonymous author explained the title given to the religious figures by stating, “the Papae have been named from their white robes, which they wore like priests; whence priests are all called papae in the Teutonic tongue” (trans. A. O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, vol. I, 330-2). The author of the Historia Norvegiae did not specifically mention Iceland as a destination of these so-called papae, yet if they were sailing to places such as the Orkney Islands, who is to say that they did not keep sailing farther out.

Although the Historia Norvegiae did not connect the Papae to Iceland, another 12th-century writer did make that connection. Ari Thorgilsson the Learned (c. 1068-1148) was the first known historian of Iceland to write in the Icelandic vernacular and he claimed that when Norwegian settlers first arrived in Iceland, they found a few Irish monks already present on the island. This claim was first written in Ari’s text, the Book of Icelanders (Islendingabók). The assertion was later repeated in the Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), of which Ari the Learned is thought to have been a major contributor or original author. The Book of Settlements became a generational affair, with numerous versions being produced over the centuries and additional information included in each new edition.

There are five existent versions of the Book of Settlements, the oldest of which is the Stulubók (produced c. 1275-1280). The Stulubók and the Islendingabók have a nearly identical passage about the existence of Irish monks in Iceland before the arrival of Scandinavian settlers. Sturla Thordarson, the author of the Sturlubók, wrote, “before Iceland was settled from Norway there were other people there, called Papar by the Norwegians. They were Christians and were thought to have come overseas from the west, because people found Irish books, bells, croziers, and lots of other things, so it was clear they must have been Irish” (Sturlubók, chapter 1, trans. Hermann Pálsson, 1976, 2006). Ari Thorgilsson’s earlier account matched that of Sturla Thordarson except that Ari also claimed that the Christian monks left Iceland after the arrival of the Norse settlers. Ari the Learned was also slightly less committal to the monks’ origin—whereas Sturla claimed it was “clear” that the monks were Irish, Ari wrote “one could perceive” the monks of having an Irish origin based off of the evidence left behind (the books, bells, croziers, etc…). Although the Book of Settlements and the Book of Icelanders both mention Christian relics being left behind by the monks, no convincing archaeological remains of such pre-settlement items (or of the monks who left them there) has yet been discovered on Iceland.

In addition to the lack of physical evidence, some have questioned the truthfulness of Ari the Learned on the claim of Irish monks in Iceland because of Ari’s close connections to the See of Skalholt in Christianized Iceland. Like most medieval scholars, Ari received much of his education through the church, and two of his greatest patrons were the bishops, Thorlak Runolfsson of Skalholt and Ketil Thorsteinsson of Holar. Nevertheless, the question of whether or not Ari the Learned and other Christian scholars in Iceland would lie about the pre-settlement Irish monks is a debate of opinion, not fact. As of now, with no archaeological evidence to prove or disprove the claims, historians can only fall back on the stereotypical government response—we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of Irish monks in Iceland before the arrival of Norse settlers. Yet, although the existence of the monks cannot be confirmed, a majority of the historical community still seems to give Ari Thorgilsson and his successors the benefit of the doubt on their claim that Irish monks were present on Iceland before the time of settlement.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Public Domain: (An image from the tale of Saint Brendan, published by the Franciscan Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration (La Crosse, Wis.), c. early 1900s, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006. 

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Emperor Wu And His Spirit Mistress

Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) of China was said to have shown great respect to an interesting deity known as the Spirit Mistress. The interactions of the emperor and the spirit were documented by Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the Grand Historian and palace secretary of Emperor Wu. Sima Qian’s passage about the Spirit Mistress appears in his “Treatise on the Feng and Shan Sacrifices(Shi Ji 28), which purports to be a text on the ceremonial rites performed by China’s mythical/folkloric sage rulers, but really expands to be a text on sacrifices, mysticism, religion and miscellaneous supernatural topics.

According to folklore recorded by Sima Qian, the Spirit Mistress came into being after an unnamed woman from Changling died during childbirth. Although the woman’s name was unknown, Sima Qian did provide a name for her brother—Wanruo. The spirit, following her unfortunate death, traveled to the home of her brother. There, the spirit drew major attention to herself by supernaturally possessing Wanruo’s wife. Wanruo reacted to the spiritual possession in an interesting way—he became the spirit’s first worshipper and, perhaps, her first priest. Wanruo, or possibly his possessed wife, invited neighbors to come see the spirit and then neighbors brought their friends, exposing more and more people to the new spiritual being. Before long, the so-called Spirit Mistress became the talk of the town and soon came to be thought of as more of a deity than just a simple ghost.

The Spirit Mistress predated the reign of Emperor Wu, for the emperor’s maternal grandmother, Lady Pingyuan, had reportedly been an avid worshipper of the Spirit Mistress before the emperor was placed on the imperial throne. Nevertheless, it was Emperor Wu who really brought the Spirit Mistress to prominence. After ascending to the throne, the emperor sent agents to Changling (or wherever the spirit had moved), and somehow lured, guided or simply invited the Spirit Mistress to relocate to the Imperial Capital Area. The Spirit Mistress reportedly accepted the offer and was housed with honor in the Tishi Tower at Shanglin Park, located southwest of the capital city, Chang’an. By the time the Spirit Mistress was moved to the tower, she reportedly no longer was possessing a human body and instead inhabited her new home in an invisible ghostly state—Sima Qian wrote, “It was said that one could hear the words spoken by the spirit but could not see her form” (Shi Ji 28).

Sometime later, a man from Youshui named Fa Gen informed Emperor Wu that there was a skilled shamaness living in the province of Shang. This woman, Fa Gen claimed, could commune with spirits and was possessed by ghosts regularly. Emperor Wu reportedly retrieved the shamaness and housed her in the Palace of Sweet Springs, which was a place he recently had constructed for the worship of all spirits.

The shamaness quickly became the chosen spokeswoman of the Spirit Mistress, who apparently moved from the Tishi Tower to be with the shamaness in the Palace of Sweet Springs. This partnership between the Spirit Mistress and the shamaness occurred before the year 118 BCE, at which point Emperor Wu fell ill. He consulted the Spirit Mistress (through the shamaness) about his health, and when he subsequently recovered from his illness, Emperor Wu was convinced that the Spirit Mistress had intervened to improve his health. In thanks, Emperor Wu built for the Spirit Mistress a new home—the Temple of Long Life. This temple was said to have been dedicated specifically for the Spirit Mistress, and with the new temple came more respect and higher rank for the Spirit Mistress in the hierarchy of spirits.

Sima Qian recorded further details about the Spirit Mistress, but the renowned translator Burton Watson warns that anything exceeding the information listed in the preceding paragraphs may have been corrupted over the millennia. Nevertheless, some of the possibly corrupted pieces of information includes that at least one other temple was built for the Spirit Mistress by Emperor Wu and that a group of lesser deities, known as the Great Forbidden Ones, became associated with the spirit and were believed to be her supernatural attendants and helpers. Another possibly corrupted claim of Sima Qian is that Emperor Wu kept a record of all of messages or prophecies delivered by the Spirit Mistress’ mediums, but any such text (if it existed) has been lost.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Painting of Hongxian (紅線), attributed to He Dazi, from his collection called "Gathering Gems of Beauty", [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Tale Of Breeches-Aud

The story of Breeches-Aud is one of the more memorable tales in the Icelandic Laxdæla saga, a 13th-century book filled with strong female characters that were loosely inspired by women said to have lived in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries. Although the exploits of many people described in the sagas were embellished or even invented, the core details (genealogy, settlement locations, poetic evidence etc.) were deemed to have enough truth that later Medieval Icelanders, such as the chieftain Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), proudly and confidently traced their ancestry back to characters in the sagas. Whether or not the sagas were histories with creative license, historical fictions or pure folklore, they were feats of impressive storytelling and, as Icelandic stories go, the tale of Breeches-Aud was one of the more unique narratives.

According to the Laxdæla saga, Aud lived with her husband, Thord Ingunnarson, on a farmstead called Hol in 10th-century Iceland. Aud eventually became a bold woman of action, but in her first scene in the saga she is portrayed in an extremely downgrading light. Poor Aud was horribly described as “a woman who was neither good-looking nor exceptional in other ways, and Thord had little affection for her” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32). Her husband, the prominent lawyer, Thord Ingunnarson, received much better treatment in his introduction: “Thord was a fine, strapping figure of a man, highly capable, and often involved in lawsuits” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32).

Thord Ingunnarson’s law work brought him into contact with one of the central figures of the Laxdæla saga—Gudrun Osvifsdottir. Her father had forced her to marry a man named Thorvald Halldorsson when she was only fifteen years old. After two unhappy years of marriage, Gudrun decided to divorce her husband following an incident where Thorvald slapped her across the face. Before she had made her decision to separate from Thorvald, Gudrun had befriended Thord Ingunnarson, and now, she used his knowledge of Icelandic law to help her case. With her friend’s help, Gudrun successfully divorced Thorvald Halldorsson, and she even received half of his property when they split up.

Thord Ingunnarson remained friendly with Gudrun after her divorce, but he wanted to be more than friends. He was unhappy with his current wife, Aud, and quickly fell for the young Gudrun, who was described as “the most beautiful woman ever to have grown up in Iceland, and no less clever than she was good-looking” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32). Gudrun apparently returned his affection and helped Thord search for a way to extricate himself from his unfulfilling marriage.

According to the Laxdæla saga, Thord and Gudrun were traveling to the Althing, Iceland’s national assembly, when the pair decided on what tactic to use against Thord’s wife. Gudrun claimed that if Aud was accused of cross-dressing like a man and witnesses were found to support the claim, no one would object to Thord filing for divorce. It was also Gudrun, who supposedly first proposed the catchy nickname, Breeches-Aud. Although Thord Ingunnarson responded to Gudrun’s plan by musing that he had never seen his wife dress like a man and similarly had never heard her be called Breeches-Aud, he decided to go with the ploy, anyway. When Thord reached the Althing, “He named witnesses and announced he was divorcing Aud on the grounds that she had taken to wearing breeches with a codpiece like a masculine woman” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32). The announcement shocked, surprised and enraged Aud’s brothers, who were in the assembly at the time. It was through these siblings, Thorkel Pup and Knut, that the now infamous Breeches-Aud learned of her divorce. Thord did not immediately go back to Hol, but instead traveled to the estate of Gudrun’s father in Laugar. A posse did arrive, however, to seize some cattle from Aud’s farm in Hol as Thord’s share in the divorce, and, as soon as the animals reached Laugar, Thord and Gudrun became engaged, with their marriage set at the end of the summer.

Although Thord was ready to forget about his former wife, Breeches-Aud and her brothers were in no way willing to forgive and forget Thord. Thorkel Pup and Knut tried to rally their neighbors and relatives to support their mistreated sister, but Gudrun’s plan to assassinate the character of Aud had worked like a charm, and consequently, everyone was hesitant to give public support to Breeches-Aud. With no allies to be found, Thorkel Pup and Knut gave up hope of finding justice in court or battle. Breeches-Aud, however, did not stop her planning.

In the summertime, ewes were brought out to pasture and the inhabitants of the various Icelandic farmsteads that were responsible for the animals would stay in shielings (pasture huts) to keep watch over their respective flocks. The people of Hol pastured their ewes in Hvammsdal and Aud was one of the people staying in a shieling. Thord and Gudrun’s community from Laugar was pasturing its animals in Lambadal, just southwest of Aud’s location. Using farmhands as spies, Aud gathered information about her former husband. The informants reported back that almost everyone from Laugar was in the pasturelands, including Gudrun. Thord Ingunnarson, however, was not with the others. He was believed to be back at Laugar helping Gudrun’s father build a new hall.

Hearing that Thord would only be accompanied by his aging father-in-law during the night, Breeches-Aud decided that now was the time to strike back against her ex-husband. She invited only one other person to join her plot—a loyal shepherd. At the end of the day, after the exhausted herdsmen had gone to sleep, Breeches-Aud made her move. She even dressed for the occasion: “shortly before sundown Aud mounted her horse, dressed in breeches, to be sure” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 35). Armed with a sword and wearing pants “like a masculine woman,” Breeches-Aud and the loyal shepherd rode through the night to Laugur. There, just as Aud’s informants had predicted, Thord Ingunnarson was sleeping alone, with only his father-in-law nearby in another room of the home.

Breeches-Aud left the horses in the care of the shepherd and then crept, with sword brandished, toward the house. The door was not locked and she easily slipped inside the hall. Before long, she found the room where Thord was in a deep sleep. He did not wake up as his scorned ex-wife tiptoed into the room. He did not even awaken when she prodded him, presumably to hear why he had done what he did, or simply to look into his eyes while she attacked. She did not achieve either of those possible goals, for Thord merely rolled over on his left side in response to the poking.

Not wasting any more time, Breeches-Aud raised her sword to mete out vengeance on her ex-husband for his betrayal and the public humiliation that he had made her suffer. Summoning all of her rage, Aud chopped down with everything she had. In its single arc, the sword cut deep into Thord’s right arm and even sliced his pectorals before the blade lodged itself firmly into the wooden bed frame. As Thord howled in pain, Breeches-Aud escaped into the night. Thord was too wounded to chase after her, and by the time his father-in-law rushed into the room, Aud had already disappeared.

Thord Ingunnarson miraculously survived his wounds. His right arm had taken the bulk of the blow, crippling it for the rest of his life, but the cuts on his chest were minor flesh wounds that healed quickly. At first, because of the breeches, Thord thought his assailant was a man. Yet, after thinking it over, he came to suspect it was Aud. In an interesting ending to the story, Thord sympathized with his ex-wife and, although he was an accomplished lawyer, he decided not to press charges. When explaining his reasoning to his father-in-law, Thord simply said, “what Aud had done was only evening the score” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 35).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of the Valkyrie, Brunnhild, painted by Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason’s Tale, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander and translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Lifelong Payments Of Tribute By King Æthelred The Unready To The Danes

Æthelred the Unready became king of England in 978, following the assassination of his brother, King Edward the Martyr. Æthelred was reportedly only ten years old when he ascended to the throne, and his epithet, Unready (Unraed), actually meant “bad counsel,” as the young king’s regent, advisors and vassals gave him little sound support during his life. Yet, the modern definition of unready also fits King Æthelred, for when a relentless wave of Viking activity began plaguing England in 980, the king and the kingdom were caught totally unprepared.

King Æthelred and his poor advisors may have tried to imitate the success of their famed ancestor, King Alfred the Great (r. 871-899). Alfred had paid the Vikings for peace in his first year as king, but it was only a temporary truce and the Vikings came back to force Alfred into the marshes of Somerset by 978. Yet, Alfred mobilized his forces, wrested back control of Wessex, and, by the end of his reign had implemented a network of military garrisons in the burghs of his kingdom that were strong enough to defeat Viking raiders even when Alfred was not present on the battlefield. The success of Alfred’s defense system was showcased in the Battle of Lea (c. 895), where Anglo-Saxon garrisons worked together to defeat a Viking encampment while Alfred was elsewhere in the kingdom building river defenses. Around a century later, Æthelred the Unready apparently attempted a similar scheme of paying the invaders to buy time and letting his regional garrisons deal with the Viking problem. Unfortunately, the burghs of Æthelred’s day no longer had the individual power to effectively fight off the Vikings, and, unlike Alfred the Great, Æthelred seemed totally incapable of adapting to the new situation. Consequently, while Alfred is remembered as one of Britain’s greatest kings, Æthelred is regarded as one of its worst.

In 991, after over a decade of Viking activity, King Æthelred took one of his first executive actions against the Viking threat. To set the scene, a powerful Viking force had just sacked the city of Ipswich and killed the regional noble, Aldorman Brihtnoth, in a battle at Maldon. One of the leaders of the Viking force was apparently Olaf Tryggvason, who would go on to become the king of Norway in 995. Instead of mustering his forces against this Viking threat, King Ætheltred instead pulled together England’s finances and paid off the invaders with a tribute of 10,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. Æthelred did, however, later make an effort to gather together a fleet of ships in 992, but the man he put in charge of the armada unfortunately defected to the side of the Vikings.

The tribute payment (and the poorly-led fleet) did not bring Æthelred peace, as Vikings continued to wreak havoc on England in 992 and 993. By 994, Olaf Tryggvason had returned, this time with King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. With a large fleet at their disposal, Olaf and Sweyn raided all over England, attacking Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. Once again, Æthelred apparently left the defense of the kingdom to his regional nobles, and no known military action was taken by the king, himself. As the Vikings continued to sow destruction, Æthelred decided to offer a second payment of tribute—this time reportedly around 16,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. The wealth did buy off Olaf Tryggvason, who went to Norway to seize the throne and never returned to Britain. Yet, the money did not stop other Vikings from raiding English soil.

After a brief period of peace, Vikings returned to cause mayhem in Æthelred’s kingdom. Widespread annual raids resumed in 997. By 999, Æthelred finally decided to raise his land and sea power against the invaders, but by this point, the kingdom’s military was in a neglected and pitiful state. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle did not pull any punches when assessing Æthelred’s attempt to take a more personal control over the kingdom’s defense in 999: “in the end neither the naval force nor the land force was productive of anything but the people’s distress, and a waste of money, and the emboldening of their foes” (ASC, 999). By 1002, Æthelred decided to pay a third tribute to the Vikings, giving them a reported 24,000 pounds. Yet, that very year, the Anglo-Saxons idiotically massacred Danish settlers in England, ensuring further confrontation with King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark.

As could be expected, when King Sweyn heard that his countrymen had been ruthlessly purged in England, he set sail for Britain and embarked on a relentless war against Æthelred as early as 1003. By this point, King Æthelred decided to let his regional nobles once again the take lead in the war. Sweyn Forkbeard apparently faced only regional garrisons until 1006, when Æthelred decided to muster another army. Yet, as before, Æthelred’s military was still in poor shape and was woefully inadequate to halt Sweyn Forkbeard’s campaign. As the Danes plundered region after region, Æthelred the Unready pulled together a fourth tribute payment of 36,000 pounds.

King Sweyn accepted the payment and England was at relative peace for several years. In that brief respite, Æthelred tried to build up England’s navy, but his progress was undermined by unruly noblemen, such as Brihtric and Wulfnoth Cild, who reportedly put around 100 of Æthelred’s new ships out of action during a personal feud. Ironically, it was right after the Englishmen destroyed their own ships that Sweyn Forkbeard returned to England in 1009. From 1009-1012, King Sweyn’s forces acted as an unstoppable steamroller, flattening all resistance in their path. King Æthelred’s distress can be glimpsed at the enormous tribute—the largest of his reign—that he sent to the Danes. In 1012, Æthelred sent as his fifth tribute a whopping 48,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. This time, however, Sweyn Forkbeard showed no mercy and continued his campaign despite the money. In 1013, King Sweyn conquered England and Æthelred fled to Normandy.

Sweyn Forkbeard, however, did not have a long reign as the king of England—he died in 1014. Sweyn’s son and heir, Canute, was reportedly in the north of England at the time and eager to return to Denmark to secure his hold on the Danish homeland. In the uncertainty of succession, the people of England invited Æthelred to return to Britain to retake the throne, an offer he gladly accepted. When Æthelred returned to England in 1014, he continued his life-long foreign policy of paying tribute. In an effort to appease King Canute, Æthelred sent a payment of 21,000 pounds to the Danes. It would be his sixth and final tribute. Nevertheless, Canute returned to England in 1015, determined to retake the English throne. Æthelred died in London in 1016, shortly before King Canute’s fleet arrived to besiege the city. In all, Æthelred’s six tribute payments to the Vikings totaled around 155,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. In his book, The Pound: A Biography, author David Sinclair estimated that a single Anglo-Saxon pound from the day of Æthelred the Unready could purchase 15 cows. If that calculation is correct, then the Vikings would have been able to purchase a massive cattle herd numbering 2,325,000 animals with all of the money given to them by Æthelred the Unready.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Miniature of Æthelred the Unready from MS Royal 14 B VI, placed in front of a image of bags of money from, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated, introduced and denoted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

10 More Fun Viking-Age Names And The Stories Of The People They Belonged To

The heyday of the Viking age occurred between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Yet, some Scandinavian noblemen continued to embark on Viking-like activities well into the twelfth century. Jarl Rognvald Kali of Orkney (r. 1137-1158) was one such nobleman and he ironically was said to have gone raiding in the Mediterranean while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Viking Age is a well-documented period, with sources from multiple sides and viewpoints. Viking Age kings wrote about their accomplishments on stone monuments, and historians such as the Icelandic Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241) and the Danish Saxo Grammaticus (c. 12th-13th century) later narrated events from the perspective of Norway and Denmark. There are also substantial sources from the regions attacked by Vikings, such as chroniclers based in the British Isles and France. With such a wealth of information, much is known about the key figures from the Viking Age and their exploits during that chaotic time. Yet, Viking Age Scandinavians did not excel at only daring raids and bold seamanship—they also had some of the most creative names in all of Europe. We previously published an article listing ten fun and unique names from the Viking Age (check it out HERE), yet that was barely scratching the surface. Here are ten more fun names and a brief summary of their lives in the Viking Age.

1) Einar Buttered-Bread: This curious character reportedly lived in the 10th century and is mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga. Einar Buttered-Bread was said to have been a well-respected chieftain in Orkney, yet he had a remarkable fall from grace. He eventually assassinated a certain Jarl Havard of Orkney, causing a power-struggle to erupt. According to the saga, Einar Buttered-Bread was killed by another claimant to the jarldom. For a more in-depth look at Einar’s life and the power-struggle in Orkney, read our article HERE.

2) Killer-Hrapp: According to the Laxdæla saga, Hrapp was a 10th-century Hebridean immigrant to Iceland. He set up a farmstead called Hrappsstadir and, when he died, was buried upright under his kitchen. It is unclear when he was given his nickname, Killer-Hrapp, but he lived up to his reputation even after death. The ghost of Killer-Hrapp reportedly haunted Hrappsstadir and the locals were so afraid of his supernatural power that Hrapp’s body was exhumed and reburied in an uninhabited forest. His remains were later discovered under a cowshed belonging to the Hjardarholt farmstead, which was also plagued by hauntings. When the remains were located, Killer-Hrapp’s body was exhumed for a second time and burned. For a detailed account of Killer-Hrapp’s hauntings, check out our article, HERE.

3) Olaf Peacock: Olaf Hoskuldsson Peacock owned Hjardarholt and was the man who burned Killer-Hrapp’s body. In the Laxdæla saga, Olaf was described as a wealthy chieftain who sailed to Norway and Ireland. Wherever he went, Olaf seemed to obtain items of great wealth and value (read about his gilded belongings, HERE). Such lavish possessions, as well as his prideful preening, were reportedly the inspiration behind his nickname, Peacock. His life is dated to around 938-1006.

4) Sweyn the Sacrificer: Also known as Sacrifice-Sweyn or Blot-Sweyn, he was an 11th-century Swede who resisted King Inge the Elder’s attempts to enforce Christianity in Sweden. He was apparently given his nickname, “the sacrificer,” because of his outspoken support for the traditional pagan sacrifices of the Norse religion. Sweyn the Sacrificer made appearances in sources such as the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson and the Orkneyinga saga. He reportedly put up a good fight against King Inge of Sweden, but Sweyn was ultimately assassinated.

5) Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye: Hallbjorn was a Hebridean who immigrated to Iceland in the 10th century with his parents and brother. According to the Laxdæla saga, his family settled in Skalmarfjord but were unwelcome and faced discrimination by the locals. Accused of theft and sorcery, Hallbjorn’s family fled to Kambsnes, Iceland. Yet, when a young boy died unexpectedly in the region, Hallbjorn’s family was accused of killing the child with witchcraft. In the ensuing witch-hunt, Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye’s entire family was subsequently hunted down and murdered. For a more lengthy account of this tragic story, read our article, HERE.

6) Svein Breast-Rope: According to the Orkneyinga saga, Svein Breast-Rope was a follower of Jarl Paul the Silent of Orkney (d. 1137). Svein had a rude and argumentative reputation and was not a popular man. He apparently became more competitive, jealous and belligerent as he drank. As could be expected, Svein Breast-Rope was eventually killed in a drunken brawl. Sadly, no one mourned his death—not even the local bishop.

7) Harald Graycloak: Harald Graycloak, also known as King Harald II, became the ruler of Norway in 961, following the death of his uncle, King Hákon the Good. Harald’s memorable name reportedly originated from a lordly gray sheepskin cloak that he often wore (check out our article on this cloak, HERE). Both Harald and his late uncle, Hákon, were reportedly Christian, but whereas Hákon took a minimalist approach to religion, Harald put more effort into converting Norway. His attempts to convert the population (as well as assassinations of prominent pagan chieftains) led to massive revolts against his rule. Harald Graycloak was eventually killed around 970 while in Denmark. After Harald’s death, the pagan Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson dominated Norway until 995.

8) Thord Dragon-Jaw: Thord appeared in a section of the Orkneyinga saga that described postmortem miracles attributed to Saint Magnus (d. 1117).  A hard-working but irreligious man, Thord Dragon-Jaw made the fateful decision to thresh barley late into the night on the eve of St. Magnus’ Mass. According to the story, the spirit of St. Magnus did not approve of Thord's conduct and struck the man with a good dose of holy insanity. For over six days, Thord Dragon-Jaw was consumed with madness. His condition was said to have only improved after a vigil was held and money was donated to the shrine of St. Magnus on Thord’s behalf. For more information on St. Magnus and his supernatural exploits, read our article, HERE.

9) Harald Smooth-Tongue: Harald Smooth-Tongue was a 12th-century jarl of Orkney. He shared power with his brother, Jarl Paul the Silent. He died a mysterious death and many believed foul play was involved. The Orkneyinga saga claimed that Harald Smooth-Tongue put on a poisoned garment and died in agony from whatever had been applied to the cloth.

10) An Twig-belly: According to the Laxdæla saga, a man named An the Black lived in Iceland around the turn of the 11th century. He was a devoted companion of Olaf Peacock’s sons and apparently had a gift for foreseeing trouble. In 1003, during a tense Icelandic feud, An the Black reportedly had a nightmare in which someone had gutted him and replaced his entrails with twigs. When he told his friends about the dream, they laughed it off and jovially threatened to give him a nickname based on the nightmare. Yet, people looked on the nightmare differently when An the Black and his friend, Kjartan Olafsson, were soon after ambushed on the road. Kjartan was killed and An was virtually disemboweled during the fight. Although Kjartan died, An miraculously recovered from his wounds. From then on, he was said to have been called An Twig-belly. He reportedly was killed in 1007, while trying to avenge Kjartan’s death.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Norse explorers from a book by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
  • Orkneyinga Saga, written anonymously approximately c. 1200, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981. 
  • Laxdæla saga by an unknown 13th century Icelander, translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.