The Odd Tale Of Herjolf The Avenger

 

Old Herjolf Sigurdsson was reportedly one of the many adventurers to sail to Iceland during the Icelandic Age of Settlement (approximately 860-930). According to the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), the elderly Herjolf, and his son, Thorstein Coal-beard, laid claim to the lands in Iceland between Bulandshofdi and Kirkjuffjord. Unfortunately, little was recorded about Herjolf’s life after he settled in Iceland, and perhaps he succumbed to his old age not long after reaching his destination. Nevertheless, before he died, Herjolf Sigurdsson secured his legacy by telling tales about his wild youthful exploits in the old country. Some of these stories were transformed by Icelandic skalds into poetry, of which one poem still survives.

In his glory days, Herjolf Sigurdsson was reportedly one of the best fighters in the Nordic world. He was, as they say, a chip off the old block—Herjolf’s father, Sigurd Hog’s-Head, was described as a champion among men. Mighty Sigurd, however, was quickly outshined by his impressive son, who reportedly began performing great feats of Herculean strength when he was only a child. Yet, the rivalry between father and son was abruptly cut off when Sigurd Hog’s-Head was slain by a rival sometime during Herjolf’s childhood. In death, Sigurd left one last test for his son, as Herjolf was expected to avenge his father’s killing. Herjolf did, indeed, avenge his father, and reportedly did so when he was only twelve years of age.

The most memorable of Herjolf’s tales, however, occurred four years before he avenged his father’s death. At the time, he was an eight-year-old goatherd. Although young, Herjolf took his job seriously and was incredibly protective of his goats. Humans likely knew not to mess with the growing warrior’s animals. Animals, however, did not have the same insight. One day, as the story goes, a brown bear with a distinctively burned rump ambushed Herjolf’s livestock and successfully bit one of the goats. The young hero, however, did not shy away from the predator but charged forward against the bear to rescue (or avenge) his poor goat. Using whatever he had on hand, eight-year-old Herjolf was able to drive off or kill the bear. Interestingly enough, this is the tale that was preserved and immortalized by an anonymous skald in this curious verse:

“The bear with a burnt arse
bit Herjolf’s goat.
Herjolf with the bent arse
paid the bear back.”
(LandnámabókStulubók manuscript, chapter 80)

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (A scene of Valhalla by George Hand Wright, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.

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