The Fatal Duel Between A Swedish Berserk And An Icelandic Viking-Poet

 

According to the anonymous Icelandic author of the semi-mythical Egil’s Saga, an opportunist berserk with the ominous name of Ljot the Pale crossed from his homeland in Sweden over to the kingdom of Norway sometime during the 10th century. Once in Norway, Jjot went about challenging wealthy Norwegians to duels, and after killing his opponents, as he always did, the Swedish warrior claimed each victim’s land and wealth as his rightful prize.

For much of his dueling career, Ljot the Pale would have likely been the most talented warrior in Norway—after all, he was a berserk, the most elite of the Scandinavian fighting men. The berserks allegedly were religious warriors who had been bestowed with incredible fighting abilities by none other than the leader of the Norse pantheon of gods, Odin. Through religious meditation (and likely narcotics), they could reportedly achieve a state of unnatural strength and unimaginable pain tolerance. When these warriors went “berserk” their battle-frenzy apparently led the super-soldiers to gnaw at the edges of their shields—consequently, it is this action (as well as bearskin pelt garments) that is used in many visual depictions of berserks. With such strength at his disposal, Ljot the Pale amassed considerable wealth by dueling the prominent men of Norway.

Around the middle of the 10th century, supposedly during the reign of King Hakon the Good (ruled roughly 934-960), Ljot the Pale decided it was about time he became a married man. According to the saga, the berserk set his sights on an unnamed Norwegian woman. Yet, when the Ljot proposed the marriage, the woman’s family firmly refused. The berserk did not take the rejection well—he immediately challenged the woman’s brother, a man named Fridgeir, to a duel.

As it happened, at the same time that this drama was taking place, a famous Viking-poet from Iceland, named Egil Skallagrimsson, arrived in Norway to lay claim to some land that belonged to his late father-in-law. He was a friend of Fridgeir’s family, so he stayed on their farm for part of his stay in Norway. In this way, the poet became entangled in the local events and ended up accompanying Fridgeir to the site of the duel.

The fighters met on Valdero Island, where a stone circle had been specially made to mark where the duel would take place. Once Egil Skallagrimsson laid eyes on the berserk, he immediately knew that the weak and inexperienced Fredgeir was hopelessly outmatched. Therefore, Egil decided to take Fredgeir’s place in the duel, so as to even the odds.

You may wonder why this poet thought he could put up a fight against a berserk. After all, by this point, Egil described himself as an “old bald-head” (Egil’s Saga, chapter 65). Nevertheless, Egil Skallagrimsson was no typical poet. He was not the kind of man who spent his days dreaming, with his thoughts in the clouds. Instead, he was a ruthless killer who had been going on Viking raids throughout northern Europe ever since he was a young teenager. In addition, he was reportedly one of the tallest and strongest men in all of Scandinavia. As a semi-mythical legend, he was also a supposed shape-shifter with berserk blood in his ancestry. If that was not enough embellishment for Egil’s larger-than-life character, the saga also claimed that he had a knack for magic. For sure, Egil was not the average literary artist.

Eager for combat, Egil entered the stone ring equipped with his trusty shield and two swords, named Adder and Slicer—the latter was the blade that the poet wielded in his hand; the other he left sheathed. Even though Egil was ready to fight, Ljot the Pale was still in the process of going “berserk.” Annoyed, the giant poet called out to his opponent in verse, beckoning him to battle. Finally, Ljot found his fighting spirit and he entered the arena howling and biting at his shield.

Egil launched the first strike of the duel, which was deflected by the berserk’s shield. Even so, the momentum was on Egil’s side and, impressively, the momentum would stay with the poet for the entire duel. With an onslaught of blows, Egil forced the berserk out of the stone circle. None of the slashes or jabs met their mark, but they were persistent enough to keep Ljot from making any attacks of his own. Eventually, after the duel had transitioned out from the arena and into a nearby field, Ljot asked for a short period of rest. Egil, interestingly enough, decided to humor the berserk and agreed to the proposal. During the break, however, Egil mocked his opponent with another stanza of highly critical poetry.

The brief respite did not last long. Eventually, Egil became impatient and demanded that the fight resume. Just like in the previous bout, Egil immediately had the overwhelming advantage—with a mighty blow, Egil stripped Ljot of his shield. While the berserk was still disoriented from the impact, Egil cut downward with a savage blow. His sword, Slicer, lived up to its name; the blade cut cleanly through the berserk’s thigh, delivering a wound that would prove fatal. In the end, Egil refused to accept any reward from Fridgeir as payment for his victory in the duel, claiming (in another poetic stanza) that the fun he had while fighting Ljot was reward enough. Yet, it was not too much of a financial sacrifice on the poet’s part, for Egil Skallagrimsson was more than happy to seize all of the fallen berserk’s wealth and property as fair winnings.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture attribution: (berserk from a medieval Swedish helmet plate and Norse god of poetry (Bragi) by Carl Wahlbom (1810–1858), in front of more berserks by Luis Moe, all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • Egil’s Saga (recorded c. 13th century possibly by Snorri Sturluson), translated by Bernard Scudder. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004 edition.

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