While most of the Yngling Dynasty of ancient Sweden and Norway is considered legendary or semi-legendary, the figures of Hálfdan the Black and especially his son, Harald Finehair (the first king to unite Norway), are more solidly considered to have been real people. Nevertheless, their stories are still heavily filled with fantastical folklore. Almost all of the information on Hálfdan the Black and his famous son comes from skaldic verse and Icelandic sagas—hence the plentiful folklore—yet, armed with caution and a skeptical eye for dramatic filler, readers can glean a general sense of the reigns of these two kings.
According to Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga and Hálfdanar saga Svarta, which were included in his Heimskringla, Hálfdan the Black (so-called because of his black hair) was a powerful 9th-century king in southeast Norway. As the saga tells it, Hálfdan was raised in his mother’s homeland of Agthir. When he turned eighteen, he inherited the throne of Agthir from his grandfather, Harald the Redbeard, and quickly annexed a piece of Vestfold from his half-brother, King Olaf. He also expanded by force into Vingulmork, Raumarik, Heithmork, Thótn, Land and Hathaland. In addition, Hálfdan reportedly also acquired Sogn through marriage.
Hálfdan’s years of military expansion coincided with a palpable agricultural boom, which further extended his reputation as a successful king to the point of his subjects allegedly attributing their good crop yields to their liege. Consequently, when the middle-aged king unexpectedly died reportedly from falling through thin ice near Lake Randsfjorden, the people were afraid that their lands would lose fertility. Similarly, the sagas claimed that the medieval Norwegians also believed that the region where Hálfdan’s body was buried would be supernaturally blessed with bountiful fields. Therefore, at least according to Snorri Sturluson, it was decided that the body of Hálfdan the Black would be divided among several burial mounds located throughout his kingdom. Apparently, the head was entombed at Hringaríki, while three other sections of Hálfdan’s body were buried at Raumaríki, Vestfold and Heithmork.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of Halfdan the Black falling to his death through ice, by Erik Werenskiold (1855–1938), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.