According to Scandinavian oral history, a man named King Hrolf Kraki lived during the 6th century and ruled the Kingdom of the Skjoldungs in Denmark. From his seat of power in Hleidargard, thought to be located in modern Lejre, King Hrolf made a name for himself in both strength and honor, attracting a host of powerful champions that served in his court. Eventually, the spoken tales of King Hrolf were preserved by the quills of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian writers. He was given the name Hrothulf in the epic poem of Beowulf (c. 8th-11th century), was mentioned in the Gesta Danorum of the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (c. 12th-13th century), was referred to in The Book of Settlements (12th-13th century) from Iceland, and finally received his own saga, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, sometime during the 14th century.
According to the folklore-shrouded tales about Hrolf Kraki’s life, the king was eventually killed by the forces of his own brother-in-law. Even so, relatives and allies were said to have avenged Hrolf’s death and built burial mounds for the king and his champions near Hleidargard. In these tombs, the powerful weapons of the fallen were also sealed away. Skofnung, the sword of King Hrolf could be found there, as well as a magical sword named Laufi, which had belonged to the king’s greatest champion, Bodvar Bjarki. When unsheathed, Laufi was said to always kill its target. Yet, the weapon also supposedly had a limited number of uses. After an owner wielded the magical blade three times, the sword would allegedly stay locked in its sheath until it was claimed by another person.
According to The Book of Settlements, one of Iceland’s first settlers broke into the resting places of Hrolf and his champions, centuries after their deaths. The tomb raider’s name was Skeggi of Midfjord, and, around the year 900, he was said to have stolen King Hrolf’s sword, Skofnung, as well as other weapons and valuables from the tomb. He was also keeping his eye out for the magical blade, Laufi, but he was unable to obtain it. In the most embellished versions of this tale, as Skeggi attempted to take Laufi for himself, the blade’s long-dead owner, Bodvar, reanimated and began to fight off the thief. Thankfully for the tomb raider, the bones of King Hrolf allegedly came back to life and restrained his former companion, allowing Skeggi to flee the tomb.
Whatever the case, when Skeggi of Midfjord arrived in Iceland, he claimed to have in his possession the sword of King Hrolf—Skofnung. Once in Iceland, Skofnung began its own interesting saga, spanning over multiple generations of Icelanders. In one tale, Skeggi let a poet named Kormak borrow the blade for a duel. After the poet used the weapon to win the bout, he returned it to Skeggi, and the blade became a family heirloom. After the sword was passed down to Skeggi’s son, the famous Skofnung eventually found its way into the possession of another relative named Thorkel, who is mentioned in the Laxdæla Saga (c. 13th century). Thorkel then gave the blade to his son, Gellir, who took Skofnung with him on a pilgrimage to Rome. After that, the blade never returned to Iceland—Gellir died in Denmark during his trip home. He was buried with the sword in Roskilde, ironically located a short distance from where King Hrolf’s tomb was said to be located in Lejre.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The Thurmuth Rune Sword, sketched by George Stephens (1813-1895), edited and modified, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, written by an anonymous Icelander in the 14th century, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.