Within the legendary Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, the namesake of the piece, Ragnar, found a certain Swedish ruler named King Eystein, known as “the Wicked” or “the Bad Ruler,” to be one of his most formidable opponents. Ragnar’s troubles and frustrations concerning this Swede was not due to Eystein, himself, but rather a special weapon possessed by the king. As told by the peculiar saga, Eystein had in his employ one of the greatest magicians and warriors of the era. This terrifying figure was named Sibilja, and, believe it or not, she was apparently a cow.
Sibilja, the magical war cow, was quite the super-weapon. Her specialty, it seems, was to cast a brutal spell or curse over armies that were invading Eystein’s realm. This magical assault supposedly caused the invaders to lose their minds and begin to fight amongst themselves. As if that was not powerful enough, Sibilja reportedly also had a secondary weapon that she could use. This power simply came from her bovine nature. According to the saga, when the magical cow decided to let out a “moo,” the impact of the bellowing sound could be just as destructive as the cow’s magical spells. If, by chance, the spells and powerful sounds did not do the job, the magical cow was also said to have been a very good fighter in physical combat. Utilizing the cow, however, had a steep price—which was paid through endless sacrifices and religious ceremonies held in her honor—but King Eystein usually managed to keep Sibilja happy. All in all, she was a fearsome and reliable beast, as Ragnar’s family would find out. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok colorfully described Eystein’s use of Sibilja in a battle against two sons of Ragnar Lodbrok:
“The cow was turned loose, and she charged in front of the ranks and bellowed horribly, and there was such great confusion among the fighters who heard it that they fought each other, except the two brothers who managed to hold out. The evil creature gored many men with her horns that day. Though the sons of Ragnar were mighty, they could not withstand such overwhelming forces and such sorcery…” (Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, chapter 10).
The two brothers involved in the battle quoted above lost their lives as a result of the chaotic fight, but their deaths only made the rest of Ragnar’s legendary family all the more angry at Eystein and his magical cow. According to the saga, it was one of Ragnar’s most prominent sons, Ivar the Boneless, who eventually managed to overcome the power of the great cow. He reportedly blinded the beast with well-placed arrows, then clambered onto Sibilja’s back, where he dispatched the creature by hand.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Painting of Audhumla, by Nicolai Abildgaard (1743–1809), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, translated by Ben Waggoner. The Troth, 2009.