According to an anonymously-written book of historical fiction from 14th-century Iceland, a band of twelve Vikings silently landed their ship on the shore of Haramarsey, an island off the western coast of northern Norway. This scene was set around the years 1012 or 1013, when Norway was dominated by two powerful jarls, Eirik and Svein Hakonarson. The master of the island of Haramarsey, was a certain Thorfinn Karsson, a trusted advisor to the jarls. The twelve Vikings landed on the island while Thorfinn was away with most of his fighting force, meeting with the jarls in the Norwegian mainland. Therefore, Thorfinn’s wife and daughter were left virtually defenseless on the island.
When the Vikings arrive in Haramarsey, a young wastrel of sixteen or seventeen years of age was the first person to spot them. The young man had been exiled from Iceland and was shipwrecked near Haramarsey. Thorfinn had allowed him to stay on the island and the young man accepted the offer. The stranded boy was a promising prospect-he was tall and immensely strong, with red hair and a freckled angular face. Yet, the youth was a notoriously free spirit, and he neither pledged loyalty to Thorfinn nor took up any jobs on the island. He mainly just loitered about and watched ships sail past. Luckily for the locals, he was lounging by the shore on the day when the Vikings arrived.
As the teen watched, the twelve Vikings hauled their ship onto land. Then they entered Thorfinn’s boathouse, where the master of the island kept a huge ship, called a karfi, which was powered by sixteen oars on each side. Despite the watchful youth knowing that it took about thirty men to launch the karfi out to sea, he witnessed as the twelve Vikings easily carried the craft to the gravelly shore. Although they were stealing Thorfinn’s ship, they were at least polite enough to put their own lesser vessel inside the vacated boathouse.
This tremendous display of strength, in addition to the bear or wolf skins that the Vikings were likely wearing, gave clues as to the true identity of these raiders. They were berserkers, a brotherhood of religious warriors connected to the Norse god, Odin. They were renowned for being able to frenzy themselves into a battle trance, in which they seemingly felt no pain and possessed superhuman strength. While Norway was still fractured into many kingdoms, berserkers had been cherished members of any king’s court. Yet, after Harold Finehair brought all of Norway under a single monarchy in the late 9th century, the berserkers fell out of favor. The sagas said that the unemployed berserkers eventually had to sustain themselves by banditry and dueling, which earned them the ire of local leaders. The jarls of that time outlawed berserkers and tried to end the practice of dueling in their domains. Thorfinn Karsson was apparently one of the advisors who most adamantly pushed for these reforms. So, naturally, the twelve berserkers arrived on Haramarsey to seek revenge.
When the youth realized the identity of the Vikings, he decided to get into their good graces. He politely introduced himself as Grettir Asmundarson. In return, the two leaders of the berserkers divulged their own names; they were Thorir Paunch and Ogmund the Ill-Willed, the worst-of-the-worst of all outlawed berserkers.
With a friendly and calm demeanor, Grettir led the berserkers to Thorfinn’s hall. As they walked, the youth freely told the Viking of the island’s situation, that Thorfinn was gone and that only Thorfinn’s wife, daughter and some housemen remained. The berserkers were delighted and mused that circumstances could not have been better.
When they reached the house, Grettir introduced the Vikings to Thorfinn’s wife. The woman understandably criticized Grettir for being so friendly with the berserkers and charged the youth with dishonoring Thorfinn’s hospitality. Grettir simply stated that, for now, the berserkers were the masters of the island. The berserker leader, Thorir, introduced himself to Thorfinn’s wife and ominously told her that she and all the women of the household would not need to worry about lacking male company while the berserkers stayed on Haramarsey. When the meaning of that comment settled in, all of the women in the hall fled to the shelter of nearby rooms. As the women ran, Grettir merely agreed that they, indeed, did not need to worry.
Now that the hall was filled with only the berserkers and some wary housemen, the friendly Grettir helped the Vikings take off their heaviest weapons and their wet clothing. With the berserkers now made more comfortable, the young man then went to fetch something for the guests to drink. Not caring about price, he grabbed the strongest ale he could find and hauled as much as he could carry back into the main hall. While the berserkers drank, Grettir told them long and elaborate stories. With each tale, the berserkers became more and more drunk. The tales and drinks kept coming until well into the night. By then, Grettir had completely won over the berserkers, and the Vikings cheerfully agreed amongst themselves that Grettir should become their friend and companion. Grettir replied that such decisions should not be made after drinking so much alcohol, but agreed that if their friendship lasted until the berserkers left Haramarsey, then he would definitely join their crew.
After so much drinking and merriment, the berserkers were quite fatigued, so Grettir suggested that the Vikings go spend the night with the women of Thorfinn’s household. As the wobbly berserkers tried to find their footing, Grettir called back to the rooms in the house, shouting for the women to prepare for the company of the berserkers. As you may expect, Grettir only heard angry curses and profanity yelled back at him by the women hiding in the rooms. When Grettir turned back to the berserkers, he looked at their shabby clothing, battered by battle and worn by the waves. The youth told the warriors that such outfits would not do, and told them that he knew of a storehouse where Thorfinn Karsson kept his expensive clothing and other valuables.
Grettir led the berserkers by torchlight over to the storehouse, a building isolated from the main hall. It was a large, rectangular structure, with a stairway leading to an elevated platform where the building’s two doors could be found. Each door had sturdy metal hasps and strong locks on the outside. Grettir led the tipsy warriors inside the storehouse and showed them the rich selection of clothing and plentiful shining treasure. As the berserkers used the torch to browse through the storehouse’s luxurious contents, Grettir quietly slipped outside and locked the door.
Having trapped the berserkers inside, Grettir ran back to the main hall and shouted for Thorfinn’s wife. When only silence came from the rooms of the house, Grettir loudly asked where he could find weapons. To this question, a response was shouted back that there were weapons and armor in the master bedroom. Hearing this, Grettir barged into the bedroom and grabbed a spear that was hanging above Thorfinn’s bed. He also equipped himself with a helmet and a seax, a type of short sword that was popular in northern Europe. Thorfinn’s wife also tried to rally eight housemen to go with Grettir, but they would offer little, if any, help during the upcoming struggle.
While Grettir was arming himself, the berserkers were sobering up and becoming suspicious. As Grettir rushed back to the storehouse, he began to hear loud crashes and wild howling. When the storehouse came into the youth’s sight, a loud crack rang out and splinters sprayed out from the side of the structure. Instead of breaking open the door, the berserkers rammed right through the wall. The teenage Grettir made it just to the bottom of the stairs right before the berserkers began charging down the steps.
The leaders of the group, Thorir and Ogmund attacked first. They launched themselves down the steps with enough force that Grettir needed only raise his spear and thrust for the spearhead to pass straight through Thorir and embed itself deep into Ogmund’s chest. With that, both leaders of the berserkers were dead in a single stroke. Now that the spear was out of action, Grettir drew his seax and engaged each berserker as they rushed down the steps. Many of the berserkers had left their weapons in the main hall, so once they pushed Grettir away from the stairs, they began picking up debris, such as logs and rocks, as makeshift weapons. With the berserkers’ great strength, the logs were no less deadly than any other fighting instrument. Yet, Grettir was no ordinary teen. He was a wandering warrior and monster hunter who would come to be known as Grettir the Strong. So, after Grettir successfully slew six of the twelve berserkers by sheer skill and grit, the surviving six Vikings took off running in fear.
Although his enemies were fleeing, Grettir showed no mercy. He hunted down two more berserkers hiding in Thorfinn’s boathouse. When Grettir found them, the two unlucky berserkers picked up oars in an attempt to defend themselves, but the youthful warrior struck them down like he had the other six. Next, Grettir followed the tracks of two more berserkers into a nearby field of crops. When he finally caught up with the fleeing warriors, a long fight ensued, but, once again, Grettir slaughtered his opponents. Now that ten of the legendary berserkers were dead and only two survived, Grettir decided to head back to the main hall and rest for the night.
When morning came, Grettir set out again to track down the last of the berserkers. He found them collapsed by a boulder, dead from wounds sustained in the fight by the storehouse. The feat of slaying twelve berserkers would spread young Grettir’s name across Norway and bring him great fame. When Thorfinn Karsson returned to the island of Haramarsey, all of the islanders, including his wife and daughter, praised Grettir’s valor and skill. After that incident, Thorfinn became a loyal friend to Grettir and let the young warrior keep the seax as a gift. Grettir would carry that trusty weapon for the rest of his life.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribute: (A Viking Foray, sketched by John Charles Dollman (1851-1934), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Grettir’s Saga (anonymous Icelandic saga, c. 14th century) translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009.