Several figures described in the Icelandic sagas had very gruesome and cruel childhoods involving abuse and violence. Perhaps the darkest childhoods belonged to the 10th-century Viking poet, Egil Skallagrimsson, and the 11th-century wandering warrior, Grettir the Strong. The former of the two allegedly was already a killer at the age of seven, and he loved to play malicious pranks. As for Grettir, he supposedly became a killer later on in his youth, but his childhood was actually much more disturbing than that of Egil. Whereas Egil killed on impulse and emotion, Grettir grew up with all the signs of a soon-to-be serial killer, starting with animal cruelty and working his way up to murder.
Grettir’s Saga, one of many sagas produced in medieval Iceland that skillfully wove together history, folklore and mythology, surprisingly spent fairly few pages describing the childhood of the saga’s namesake. Despite the brevity of the summary, the anonymous 14th-century author of the saga presented several disturbing events that occurred in Grettir’s upbringing in Bjarg, a settlement located in northern Iceland.
In the sagas, Grettir the Strong was the son of Asmund Grey-Streak and Asdis. In his youth, Grettir was described as a redheaded, handsome lad with a squarish and freckled face. He was reserved in action and quiet in speech. Although he grew to be one of the strongest people in Iceland, few of his neighbors knew his true strength, for Grettir rarely exerted himself.
Asmund began giving his son tasks on the farm when Grettir was ten years of age. The boy’s laziness and quick temper did not mesh well with the work that his father assigned, so the mischievous Grettir began using cruelty to avoid his chores.
For his first job, Grettir was put in charge of a flock of fifty full-grown geese and an additional number of young goslings. The boy disliked everything about his assigned task. He thought the job was unimportant. The geese refused to be herded and he found the gosling extremely agitating. Unfortunately for the birds, they had been put in the safekeeping of a psychopath. After a very short period of time, some concerned neighbors came to Grettir’s father, reporting that all of Asmund’s geese now suffered broken wings and all of the goslings had been slaughtered. When confronted, Grettir confessed to killing and maiming the geese, and he even delivered the confession in verse.
Asmund quickly decided that his son needed a job that required less responsibility. Grettir was given the harmless and simple task of scratching his father’s back while he relaxed by the fire. The boy disliked this job, but during the summer, Asmund rarely stayed by the fire and therefore did not want his back scratched often, allowing Grettir to laze about. Yet, as summer began to shift to autumn, Grettir’s father began demanding his fireside massages. Once that began, Grettir found the job to be obnoxious. After accumulating an unhealthy amount of pent-up annoyance, Grettir decided not to scratch his father’s back with his hands, but instead grabbed a wool comb and dragged the rough prongs down Asmund’s back. After that incident, Asmund understandably reassigned his son to a different chore.
Asmund next made the unwise decision to place Grettir in charge of the horses. The task would not be too difficult, as Asmund possessed a talented mare, named Kengala, which supposedly had the ability to predict the weather. When the day would be nice, the mare led the horses out to graze. If a storm was approaching, she would stay in the stables and the other horses would follow her lead. All Grettir had to do was open the doors, watch over the herd, and give them feed and water. It was a job Grettir liked much better than the earlier task of back scratching.
There was little to complain about while he worked with the horses during the summer and autumn, but when winter rolled in, Grettir began to find the horses annoying—an emotion he did not handle well. Asmund’s prized horse, Kengala, had other traits besides weather prediction. When there were no storms, she liked to go out to graze early in the morning and would stay out until night had fallen. This was only a minor inconvenience to Grettir during the summer and autumn, but once it was winter, the young delinquent found freezing all day in the fields to be unlivable. As he frequently did in his youth, Grettir used cruelty and bloodshed to solve his problem. The boy took a knife into the stable and, hopping onto Kengala’s back, flayed off the horse’s hide from spine to flank. After that, Kengala could not stand the feeling of the sun on her mutilated back and therefore stayed indoors. When Asmund eventually went to check on his prized horse, he found her in such a pitiable state that he had to put her down.
As Grettir progressed into his early teens, humans began to join the boy’s long list of victims. When he reached the age of fourteen, Grettir was invited by his brother to join a ball game in which many of the boys from northern Iceland would be playing. Grettir was paired up against a certain boy named Audun, who was several years older. While they played, Audun hit a stray ball that flew way over Grettir’s head. Grettir silently went and retrieved the ball without comment. He nonchalantly carried the ball back to Audun, but when he reached his opponent, Grettir clubbed him hard enough in the face to cause blood to flow. The two grappled each other to the ground, but Grettir lost the fight, as he was the younger and weaker of the two. Before any serious injuries or deaths occurred, Grettir’s brother arrived and put a stop to the fight.
Within the year, Asmund decided to send Grettir along with a chieftain called Thorkel the Scratcher so that Grettir could witness the Althing, Iceland’s governing body. Asmund hoped the trip would mature his son, but little did he know that Grettir would be one of the main topics of that year’s deliberations at the Althing. As Thorkel’s party traveled toward the Althing, Grettir misplaced his bag of food. While scouring the land for his bag, Grettir ran into another follower of Thorkel. The man’s name was Skeggi and he, too, had lost his pack of food. They both decided to work together to find their lost belongings. Unfortunately, they had both stored their provisions in similar packs, so when they came across a bag on the ground, both Grettir and Skeggi thought it was their property. To Grettir’s defense, Skeggi reached for his axe first, and it is unlikely that Grettir was armed with anything but a knife at this point. Nevertheless, Grettir disarmed Skeggi by force and then used the man’s own axe to split open his skull, killing Skeggi on the spot. When confronted later by members of Thorkel’s entourage, Grettir confessed to the killing with a clever poem. Once Grettir finally arrived at the Althing, he was sentenced to three years of exile and outlawry for the killing of Skeggi, thus beginning the adventures of Grettir the Strong.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Kept In. Signed Nicol and numbered 190. Oil on canvas, c. 1871, [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.
- Egil’s Saga (recorded c. 13th century possibly by Snorri Sturluson), translated by Bernard Scudder. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004 edition.