The Long Serpent, Illustrated by Halfdan Egedius (1877–1899)

Halfdan Egedius (c. 1877-1899), a Norwegian artist, illustrated this scene for an 1899 edition of the Heimskringla, an ambitious text by the medieval historian Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241). The text traced the history of Norway from mythical times up to the reign of King Magnus Erlingsson (r. 1162-1184) through a series of saga-biographies. Halfdan Egedius’ image shown above is set in the reign of King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway (r. 995-1000). Specifically, the image depicts an event thought to have occurred in the winter between the years 999 and 1000—the creation of the king’s famous drekkar (dragon) ship, called the Long Serpent. It was an enlarged and improved vessel based on the design of another ship that the king had commandeered. Snorri Sturluson described the construction process:

“It was constructed as a dragon ship, on the model of the Serpent which the king had taken along from Hálogaland; only it was much larger and more carefully wrought in all respects. He called it the Long Serpent, and the other one, the Short Serpent. The Long Serpent had thirty-four compartments. The head and the tail were all gilt. And the gunwales were as high as those on a seagoing ship. This was the best ship ever built in Norway, and the most costly” (Heimskringla, Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, chapter 88).

Despite possessing this mighty ship, King Olaf Tryggvason was still not safe at sea. In 1000, he was caught in a naval ambush by a coalition of his enemies from Denmark, Sweden and Norway in what would become known as the Battle of Svold (or Svolder). As the fight ensued, the huge ship did not save the king. The Long Serpent was overwhelmed and Olaf Tryggvason did not survive the battle.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

 

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