Egil Skallagrimsson was one of several prominent Vikings whose lives were recorded by the Icelanders in the form of a saga. Egil’s Saga was anonymously composed around the 13th century, with the Icelandic historian and scholar, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), being one of the likeliest authors of the piece. While most of Egil’s Saga is folklore and embellished history, many historians think that the plentiful poems contained in the saga may have indeed been written by a historical Viking-poet from the 10th century. So, like many other figures from the sagas, Egil Skallagrimsson is often considered to be a historical person whose reputation, over time, became exaggerated to the point of bordering on mythical.
A Strange Family
According to Icelandic tradition, Egil Skallagrimsson was born around the first decade of the 10th century and died within the last decade of the same century. In the saga, Egil’s father, Skallagrim fled to Iceland not too long after the rise of King Harald Finehair, who united Norway under his rule around 885 by defeating his last rivals in the Battle of Havsfjord. Skallagrim settled on the west coast of Iceland, north of modern Reykjavik, in a region known as Borgarfjord. Skallagrim built several farms there, as well as a forge, and a small community made up of family, friends and displaced Norwegian allies began to develop their own homesteads within Skallagrim’s land. It was here, in one of the settlements known as Borg, that Egil Skallagrimsson was born.
(General location of where Egil Skallagrimson would have been born. Derived from a 16th Century map of Iceland produced by Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598), [Public Domain] via Creative Common)
Egil was in no way average. Like most men in his family, he was tall and enormously strong. Unfortunately for Egil, he also inherited a condition suffered by a select few men in his bloodline—a visibly disturbing ugliness, accented by an abnormally thick head. Jesse Byock, a modern-day scholar and translator of Norse mythology and culture has suggested that this condition could have been caused by Paget’s disease, but the sagas had their own explanation for Egil’s distinct look. In the saga, Egil, as well as other members of his family that had his recognizable look, were allegedly shapeshifters of varying power. In fact, the saga heavily hints at that conclusion—Egil’s great-grandfather was named Bjalfi (animal skin) and the poet’s grandfather was nicknamed Kveldulf (Night Wolf). Furthermore, Egil Skallagrimsson and other members of his family were often described as looking and acting like wolves. These ugly shapeshifters also shared common personality traits, such as being moody and violent, especially after dark. Egil, personally, seemed to have been the runt of this supposed shapeshifter line. His visible abilities mainly manifested in remarkably unnatural facial expressions.
(“The Journey” (cropped) painted by Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871–1954), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
While growing up in Iceland, Egil developed his own impressive set of skills. The young poet gained an early reputation among his kinsmen for being an ambitious and independent boy that was unfortunately prone to frequent delinquency. One of his first adventures happened when he was only three years old. The event occurred when Egil’s grandfather, Yngvar, invited the family over to an alcohol-laden feast at his farm. Skallagrim decided to bring his wife Bera, and their oldest son, Thorolf, with him to the feast. Yet, he pointedly left young Egil behind, curiously telling the three-year-old boy “You’re enough trouble when you’re sober” (Egil’s Saga, chapter 31).
Egil, however, had set his mind on attending the feast, and that was exactly what he planned to do. Therefore, the ambitious toddler went to his father’s stable and hopped onto one of the more manageable horses. He then set off for his grandfather’s farm, only losing his way once or twice in the marsh. Nevertheless, the sun had already set by the time Egil finally entered his grandfather’s farmland, and all of the guests were already inside drinking around a table.
When Egil knocked on the farmhouse door, it was Yngvar who opened it and warmly welcomed his grandson inside. After Egil had told him that he had been left behind by his father, Yngvar led the young boy into the hall and sat him down protectively beside his own seat, which placed Egil directly across from Skallagrim and Thorolf. With Yngvar’s blessing, Egil joined the feast and all of the family members soon began to compete in a poetry competition.
Egil impressed the crowd with a poem that combined observations from the feast alongside lines about a dragon with a hoard of treasure. At the end of the skaldic verse, Egil even stuck in a proud boast about himself, claiming, “you’ll never find a better craftsman of poems three winters old than me” (Egil’s Saga, chapter 31). Yngvar deemed the poem worthy of reward, and gave a gift of three shells and a duck egg to the young poet. Egil was so pleased that he was inspired to compose yet another poem about the gifts. The resulting feat of poetry received even higher praise than the first.
Poetry would always remain an important aspect of the Egil Skallagrimsson’s life. It would not only be an art form for the future Viking-poet, but would also be a tool he used to save his own life. While most of Egil’s family was well spoken, the poet’s mastery of words was said to be so great that he could allegedly channel magic through his written runes and words.
(A scene of children playing with sticks from “Children’s Games” (cropped and edited), painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
The poet’s best friend during his early years on Iceland was Thord Granason, who was eight years his senior. Egil and Thord grew close largely because of their shared passion for sports. Egil had originally preferred wrestling, but because of Thord’s influence, he was eventually drawn to a game involving a ball and a wooden bat. When Thord was fifteen years old, he became the captain of the Borg village’s ball team. Egil, only seven years old at the time, was eager to play in an upcoming tournament that matched up athletes from different villages in Iceland. Thord had no problem at all with Egil competing; he even gave the young poet a ride to the venue, which was taking place in the plains by Laxfit, near to the rivers Grimsa and Hvita.
When the boys arrived, Thord directed Egil to where the young children were competing before he himself headed off to join the older participants. After Egil’s strength and ability were assessed, he was paired up against an impressively strong boy of ten or eleven years old, named Grim, who hailed from Myrar. The two played the game with a ball and bat, and it became quickly apparent that Egil was outmatched. Grim soon gained a lead, and he became so assured of his victory that he began to pander to the crowd, showing off his strength and skill at the young poet’s expense. Egil, growing increasingly embarrassed and angry, eventually took up his bat and tried to pummel his tormentor. Nevertheless, Grim, the older and stronger of the two, was able to disarm Egil and tackle him to the ground. When the angry poet was thoroughly pinned, Grim chastised Egil and told him to behave. Then, without another word, Grim went off to find another opponent.
Egil finally got up and brushed himself off. Under the weighty sneers and snickering of other onlooking boys, Egil stomped back to where the rest of the teammates from Borg were congregating. There, he found Thord Granason and told him about the embarrassing game he had just played. In a way, Thord’s response to Egil’s situation was commendable. He told the young poet to stand up against bullies. Unfortunately, this story was set in the Viking Age, so while telling Egil to stand up for himself, he simultaneously gave the young poet an axe.
Like a wolf, the seven-year-old poet stalked his prey. He unobtrusively sauntered over to where Grim was playing another game of ball and waited for a perfect time to strike. Soon, Grim caught a ball and a crowd of boys began to chase after him. Egil, with his axe, joined the chase, navigating through the runners to get nearer to his target. Then, when the time was right, young Egil hefted his axe and split Grim’s head as if it was a log.
The murder surprised everyone (except Egil and Thord), and before long the athletes from the various rival villages were all armed for battle. In the ensuing chaos, the saga claimed that six more men were killed, including Grim’s father and uncle. When Egil was escorted home by his fellow villagers, he faced mixed reactions from his parents. His father, Skallagrim, gave his son only passive-aggressive silence. Egil’s mother, Bera, merely mused that her son had the makings of a Viking.
As Egil kept growing, his abundance of strength became more and more prominent. By the time he was twelve, he was strong enough to defeat most adults in games. At the same time, Egil’s friend, Thord Granason (twenty years old by now), was also improving dramatically. The two became so skilled in sports (especially the ball game) that they could not find any serious competition that posed a challenge, well, except for the strongest man in Iceland—Egil’s own father Skallagrim. Ever since Skallagrim settled in Iceland, he had been the island’s undisputed champion of strength and sport. As such, Egil and Thord tested themselves against the aging champ often and for long periods of play. Nevertheless, even when ganging up, two against one, Egil and Thord could never defeat Skallagrim.
On a certain winter day (while Egil was twelve and Thord was twenty), Egil and his friend finally started to pose a threat to Skallagrim. They played ball all day long at a place called Sandvik, and the boys began to wear down their elder. As the sun started to go down, Egil and Thord thought that their long-awaited victory was near. As soon as the sun set, however, Skallagrim (who the saga hints to be a shapeshifter) seemingly regained all of his strength and stamina. Yet, in exchange, the old man lost all self-control. Under the moonlight, and in the heat of competition, Skallagrim tackled Thord with such excessive force that the young man was instantly crushed to death. Now in a bloodlust, Skallagrim snatched up his twelve-year-old son and made ready to thrash him to death.
At that moment, a village woman named Thorgerd Brak appeared just in time to save Egil’s life. She was an impressive woman of great strength and an even greater knowledge of magic. Thorgerd distracted Skallagrim by shouting that he was behaving like a deranged animal. The yell did not bring Skallgrim back to his senses, but it did cause him to drop Egil. Unfortunately for Thorgerd, Skallagrim’s attention was now solely on her. Thorgerd may have been strong in magic and might, but when she realized that she was now Skallagrim’s prey, she decided to run toward the shore. Miraculously, she was able to dive into the waters of the fjord before her pursuer caught up. Nevertheless, she still did not escape. In the saga, the still crazed Skallagrim lifted up a nearby boulder and, with impressive accuracy, threw the massive rock on an arc that ended directly on top of Thorgerd, pinning her forever underneath the water.
Despite all of the horrendous drama that occurred that night, both Egil and Skalagrim made it home in time for the evening meal, attended by the whole household. Egil was the last person to arrive at the table. He was so infuriated at the death of his best friend, and at nearly being mauled to death by his own father, that he said not a word when he entered the room. Instead, he strode in a silent rage up to where Skallagrim’s favorite farmhand was sitting. To avenge Thord’s death, Egil slew this unnamed employee and then broodingly found his seat. Skallagrim, his earlier rage gone, kept silent during this display. Likewise, Egil refused to speak to his father. This battle of silence continued for the remainder of the winter, with neither father nor son willing to talk to the other.
It was not long after this incident, that Egil decided to leave Iceland. The next summer after the death of Thord, Egil’s brother, Thorolf Skallagrimsson, momentarily returned to Iceland after spending time in Harald Finehair’s kingdom of Norway. When Egil asked if he could join Thorolf’s crew, the young poet was flat-out denied—Thorolf rightly thought that Egil would get himself in too much trouble in Norway. The mischievous teen, however, was determined to change his brother’s mind. The tactic he chose was sabotage, warning Thorolf that he would only be able to leave Iceland if the brothers left together. The ambitious poet even went to the extent of cutting the ropes on his brother’s ship and letting the empty vessel float away into the fjord. In the end, when Thorolf recovered his ship and departed Iceland again, he took his young brother with him out into the chaotic world of Viking Age Scandinavia and Britain. But that is a different story for another time.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top Picture Attribution: (Ingolf settling Iceland, painted by Johan Peter Raadsig (1806 – 1882), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Egil’s Saga (recorded c. 13th century, possibly by Snorri Sturluson), translated by Bernard Scudder. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004 edition.