This illustration, created by the Norwegian artist Christian Krohg (1852–1925), was produced for an 1899 reprint of the Heimskringla, a medieval collection of sagas, composed by Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), that tells the story of Norwegian rulers from mythical times up to the reign of King Magnus Erlingsson (r. 1162-1184). The artwork featured above re-creates a scene from the third saga of the collection, the Saga of Harald Fairhair (or Finehair). In terms of chronology, this particular incident reportedly occurred in the early reign of King Harald (r. 860-940), at a time when Harald was a regional ruler who controlled only a portion of Norway. As he was a young king, he was looking to arrange a marriage for himself, and his search for a potential bride brought him to the woman depicted above—Gyda, daughter of one of Harald’s rival kings, Eirik of Hordaland.
Gyda, however, was as ambitious as Harald. According to legend, Gyda had no interest in marrying petty kings or powerful chieftains; instead, she wanted as her husband a true king to whom all the other nobles in the land paid homage. Therefore, when King Harald’s messengers arrived at Gyda’s abode with their liege’s marriage proposal, she declined the offer. Yet, she did leave a glimmer of hope for the promising young king. As told by Snorri Sturluson in the Heimskringla, “she spoke to the messengers and asked them to carry this message from her to King Harald: that she would consent to be his lawful wife only if, before that, he would, for her sake, conquer all of Norway…” (Saga of Harald Fairhair, chapter 3). When King Harald heard this, he took up her challenge. For added effect, he also reportedly refused to cut or groom his hair until all of Norway fell under his sway—a decision that temporarily gained him the nickname Tanglehair or Lúfa (“Slovenly Person”).
King Harald succeeded in his task, defeating the last major challenge to his ascendance at the momentous Battle of Hafrsfjord in the late 9th century. After that battle, so legend claims, the king finally cut and washed his long-neglected locks and assumed the name King Harald Fairhair or Finehair. With his task complete, Harald reportedly did indeed bring Gyda into his household, but by that time, he had supposedly already married well over ten women.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.