The Scandalous 10th-Century Kidnapping And Voyage of Thora Of The Embroidered Hand

 

According to the semi-mythical 13th-century Icelandic text, Egil’s Saga, a woman named Thora of the Embroidered Hand lived with her brother, Thorir Hroaldsson the Hersir, on their family farm in Fjordane, Norway, sometime during the 10th century. Thora was a great beauty and her brother, Thorir, was very protective of her. On one fateful day, a certain man named Bjorn Brynjolfsson landed his ship in Fjordane. He was a Viking raider and a merchant, often using the former profession to support the latter. While he was staying in the region, Bjorn caught sight of Thora and became immediately obsessed. He asked around and found out that her guardian was her brother, Thorir. Bjorn immediately sought out Thorir Hroaldsson and asked for permission to take Thora as his bride. Thorir, either for his own sake or for his sister’s, refused Bjorn’s request and sent the man on his way.

Bjorn set sail, but his mind was still set on the woman he had seen. For the next few months, he recruited sailors until he had a full crew for his ship. Then, he navigated his way back to Fjordane and scoped out Thorir’s farm. Finally, on a day when Thorir left the farm to do business, Bjorn and his crew charged in and kidnapped Thora of the Embroidered Hand. With his stolen bride onboard, Bjorn sailed back to his own family farm in Aurland, Norway.

When Bjorn’s father, Brynjolf, heard about what happened, he was extremely angry. For one, Brynjolf was a long time friend of Thorir Hroaldsson. Even worse, Thorir was a great friend of King Harald Finehair, the first man to unite Norway under one monarchy, following his victory at the Battle of Havsfjord in the year 885. Trying to do some damage control, Brynjolf proclaimed that while Thora was in his household he would regard her as his biological daughter and demanded that Bjorn treat her as a sister. Bjorn apparently agreed to this illusion, but he utterly refused any mention of sending Thora home. In the meantime, Brynjolf, wrote soothing words to Thorir, promising that he would solve the situation.

Eventually, Brynjolf decided that Thorir needed to go abroad. In exchange for letting Thora stay behind, soon to be sent home to Thorir, Bjorn received a good trading ship and a load of cargo, which he was supposed to bring to Dublin, Ireland. Bjorn agreed to the proposal and hired a crew for the ship. He decided to take one detour, however, before he set off for Dublin. The crew snuck into where Brynjolf had stashed Thora and, after giving her some time to pack, Bjorn kidnapped her for a second time.

After this second audacious kidnapping, King Harald Finehair sent out messengers to the Shetland and Orkney Islands, as well as Dublin, declaring that Bjorn Brynjolfsson was a wanted man, dead or alive. Despite this, Bjorn and his crew managed to successfully land at Mousa, one of the Shetland Islands. After spending the winter there, and performing some sort of wedding with Thora, Bjorn set sail for Iceland. Pushed by powerful gales of wind, his ship randomly found itself in the Borgarfjord region of western Iceland, where Skallagrim, the father of the famous Viking Poet, Egil Skallagrimsson, had founded a settlement populated mainly by Norwegians displaced by Harald Finehair.

When Bjorn met Skallagrim for the first time, he wisely kept recent events to himself. Not only was Skallagrim a friend of Brynjolf, but he also considered Thorir Hroaldsson to be like a foster brother. Thinking that Bjorn and Thora were an ordinary married couple, Skallagrim welcomed the pair into his settlement and gave them farmland. As time went on, Skallagrim eventually found out the truth, that Thora had been kidnapped and married without the permission of her family. He was furious, but Bjorn had already made friends in Iceland, most notably Skallagrim’s own son, Thorolf. In addition, Thora gave birth to a daughter named Asgerd during her stay in Iceland, and Skallagrim’s wife, Bera, quickly became fond of the girl.

Eventually, Skallagrim mended the feud between Bjorn, Brynjolf and Thorir. With his vassals happy, Harald Finehair allowed the outlaw to return to Norway, if he so pleased. Bjorn was said to have eventually befriended Thorir, despite the unorthodox way their dramatic relationship began.

With the dispute ended, Bjorn and Thora returned to Norway. Curiously, they left their daughter Asgerd behind in Iceland to be raised by Skallagrim’s wife, Bera. There is no way to know how Thora of the Embroidered Hand felt about leaving her daughter behind, or about any of the events that had happened in her life—her thoughts and feelings were not recorded. Her daughter Asgerd, would be treated in a similar fashion later on in the saga; her emotions were withheld from the reader as she was married first to Skallagrim’s eldest son, the handsome Thororlf, and, after his death, her brother, Thorir, had her marry the notoriously ugly poet, Egil Skallagrimsson.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Ingeborg, painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892) on top of a seascape by John Brett (1831–1902), both [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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