According to Norwegian-Icelandic tradition, a nobleman named Hjor ruled a domain between Hordaland and Rogaland in Norway around the early 9th century. Hjor often traveled and traded, which eventually brought him to Siberia, where he encountered a dark-skinned woman named Ljufvina. Hjor fancied the woman and wanted her as a wife or concubine. He got his wish, but sources disagree on if their relationship was brokered through a formal agreement with her tribe, or if Hjor simply dragged her to his ship and brought Ljufvina as a captive to Norway. Whatever the case, the two eventually had children, a pair of twin boys—Geirmund and Hamund.
As the story goes, the twins were born while Hjor was away trading or raiding. The boys had their mother’s dark skin tone, and Ljufvina feared how Hjor would react when he saw the appearance of his children. In an act of desperation, she found a maid who had recently given birth to a newborn boy and exchanged her own twins for the servant’s son. It was the maid’s child that Ljufvina was said to have presented to Hjor when he returned from his trip. Hjor, however, was instinctively suspicious and showed little affection for the imposter son. Ljufvina, it was said, eventually had a conversation with a wise local poet and their talk convinced her to bring Geirmund and Hamund to their father. Hjor, to his credit, found the twins to be fine young lads and viewed them much more favorably than the maid’s child.
Hjor gave both twins the nickname ‘Heljarskinn,’ which has been variously translated as Hel-Hide, Dark-Skin, Deathskin, or Hel-Skin. The name presumably likened the boys to Hel, a Norse deity of death, described by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson as “half black and half a lighter flesh colour and is easily recognized” (The Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, 34). Geirmund and Hamund embraced the name and were known by it for the rest of their lives.
Little is known about Hamund, but Geirmund Hel-Skin’s exploits were better documented. He reportedly managed a powerful domain in Rogaland, either in his own right, or at the behest of his father. The Icelandic Book of Settlements claimed Geirmund “became a warrior-king. He went on Viking expeditions to the British Isles, but ruled a kingdom in Rogaland” (Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 112). Geirmund Hel-Skin seemed to have neglected his duties in Norway to go on prolonged raids, and consequently remained abroad for most of the late 9th century. During his prolonged absence, things began to dramatically change in Norway—King Harald Finehair (r. 860-940) conquered his rival Norwegian kings and, by the end of the 9th century, became the first monarch to unify Norway under a single banner.
When the long-absent Geirmund Hel-Skin realized that his homeland was no longer independent, he decided to abandon Norway and search for a freer land. He and several friends and kinsmen eventually chose to start a new life on Iceland. They sailed to the Breidafjord region of Iceland, on the northwest of the island. There, Geirmund Hel-Skin masterfully used his life savings to claim a large personal domain, founding several farmsteads. With his wealth and influence, he hired a personal army to defend his territory and, if business negotiations with his neighbors failed, to seize coveted land by force. On Geirmund Hel-Skin’s lifestyle in Iceland, the Book of Settlements claimed “Whenever Geirmund traveled between his estates, he used to have eighty men with him. He had a great deal of money, and plenty of livestock….According to learned men, he was the noblest born of all the original settlers of Iceland” (Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 115). When Geirmund Hel-Skin eventually died, his friends and family reportedly gave him an honorable ship burial fit for a king.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Saga of King Olaf” from Tales of a Wayside Inn, c. 1899, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.