The Poetic Justice That Iceland Served To King Harald Bluetooth Of Denmark


The exact time that Harald Bluetooth became king of Denmark is unknown, but it was likely in the decade prior to 960. He had a long reign, in which he brought all the Danes under a single monarchy and converted the people to Christianity. Harald Bluetooth’s rule came to a treacherous end between 985-990, when his own son, Sweyn Forkbeard, seized the throne of Denmark by killing his father.

Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), an Icelandic chieftain and scholar, wrote often of Harald Bluetooth in the Heimskringla. Although the text was specifically about the kings of Norway, Harald Bluetooth’s habit of meddling in Norwegian affairs and giving shelter to Norwegian political refugees ensured that his name made regular appearances in Snorri Sturluson’s narrative. Similarly, Sturluson recorded stories about Icelandic merchants who sailed to trade in Norway and Denmark. One of the weirdest stories about Harald Bluetooth allegedly originated from one such encounter with a ship of Icelandic traders.

According to Sturluson, an Icelandic merchant ship sank off the shore of Denmark. Much of the ship’s cargo survived the shipwreck and washed up on the local beaches. Harald Bluetooth reportedly believed the merchandise was fair game and sent a bailiff to seize the goods for Denmark.

When Icelanders received news that the king of Denmark had seized their goods instead of returning the merchandise to its owners, they were infuriated and wanted revenge. In order to punish Harald Bluetooth, the Icelanders apparently organized a most cultured revenge. According to Snorri Sturluson, the governing body of Iceland called together its skalds and poets and decreed by law that a collection of ridiculing and lampooning verses be written until there was one Bluetooth-bashing poem per every person living in Iceland. These poems were presumably circulated outside of Iceland, for Harald Bluetooth evidently heard of the existence of the embarrassing verses and supposedly even contemplated launching a punitive campaign against the Icelanders. It was an understandable reaction, as one example of the poetry provided in the Heimskringla described Harald Bluetooth as having a “wax-soft” limb and labeled Danish officials as being “mare-like” (Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, chapter 33).

From this point, Sturluson’s account of the Iceland-Bluetooth encounter transitioned from folklore into bizarre myth. In an unlikely tale, he wrote that a shape-shifting warlock was sent by Harald Bluetooth to scout the shores of Iceland for a good spot to land an army. The warlock took the shape of a whale and swam around the island. During his trip, the shape-shifter was given a tour of the creatures that Norse mythology has to offer. From wights, to dragons, and even mountain giants, the unnamed warlock saw all manner of unnatural beasts. As a last Icelandic slap to Harald Bluetooth, Sturluson alleged that the Danish king was frightened by the warlock’s colorful report and decided it was better not to attack Iceland.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker at Gamla Uppsala, 1018, painted by Christian Krohg  (1852–1925), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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