In early 11th-century Norway, a chieftain named Thórir the Hound reigned supreme in the northernmost stretches, known as Halogaland, of the Norwegian countryside. On this influential character, the Icelandic scholar and saga-writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), wrote, “At that time there lived a man on the Island of Bjarkey called Thórir the Hound—the most powerful man in the North” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 106). He originally was said to have backed the ascendance of King Olaf II (later known as Saint Olaf, r. 1015-1028), but the two quickly became fierce enemies as family feuds, political power struggles and trading (and raiding) disputes drove wedges between the chieftain and king. In particular, the dynamics of the lucrative northern fur market was an issue, for the king wished to monopolize the trade route under his legal crown authority, whereas Thórir the Hound had his own stranglehold over the trade due to his positioning as the strongest chieftain in the north.
Thórir the Hound’s access to the fur and hide market not only brought him wealth, but also supplied him with a legendary set of cloaks that left a great impression on his contemporaries. Snorri Sturluson, likely inspired by the accounts of 11th-century court poets, summarized the rumor and gossip about the northern chieftain’s storied wardrobe, stating, “[Thórir the Hound] had many kinds of dealings with the Finns. He had there made for him twelve cloaks of reindeer skin charged with so much witchcraft that no weapon could penetrate them, less even than a coat of chain mail” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 192). The magical reputation of these cloaks likely developed because of the noticeable good fortune that Thórir seemed to always have in battles whenever he wore his trademark reindeer-hide gear.
For more information on Thórir the Hound’s accomplishments in war, we must turn back to the fate of King Olaf II. Around 1028, Canute the Great—ruler of England (since 1016) and Denmark (since 1019)—used a powerful mixture of diplomacy and threat of force to usurp the Norwegian throne from King Olaf II. Saint Olaf survived his dethronement and instead fled into exile to fight another day. He returned in 1030, leading an army of allies and supporters into Norway in an attempt to reclaim his kingdom. Yet, the Norwegians were divided over Olaf’s return, and a great host of warriors rallied together to confront the invasion. Among the anti-Olaf army’s leaders was Thórir the Hound, and he played a significant part in the brawl that ensued between the two forces—the Battle of Stiklestad. During the battle, Thórir was notably wearing one of his cloaks, and the sight stoked the imagination of those present at the battle. To preserve the magical rumors about Thórir the Hound’s gear during the battle, Snorri Sturluson quoted verses written by Sigvat Thordarson (c. 995-1045), also known as Sigvat the Skald, who was a prominent court poet to Nordic kings in the 11th century. On the battle between Thórir and Olaf, Sigavat the Skald wrote:
“The free-handed king found out
full clearly himself, how
the mighty magic of Finns from
maim protect Thórir,
when with slaughterous sword he
slashed across the shoulders
of the Hound, but blunted,
bit not gold-dight Hneitir.
Who would call in question—
courage lacked not Thórir—
the Hound’s hardihood when
having it out with Oláf?
The stalwart storm-of-arrows-
starter basely dared ‘gainst
the king himself in cruel
combat to lift his broadsword.”
(Sigvat the Skald, cited in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 228).
Such was the reputation that formed around Thórir the Hound during the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Due to his talent as a warrior, a set of expensive armor, and a helpful dose of luck, Thórir’s defenses that day seemed impenetrable—the only wound he reportedly sustained during the battle was a cut on an unarmored and uncloaked hand. Although it was his defense that was legendary, Thórir’s offensive capabilities were not too shabby either. As the story goes, Thórir the Hound stabbed King Olaf II through the stomach with a spear during the battle and this blow, along with others, led to Saint Olaf’s death on the battlefield at Stiklestad. Ironically, Thórir the Hound did not outlive Olaf for long. After the battle, Thórir allegedly set out on an adventure toward the Mediterranean Sea and he never returned.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (cropped Illustration till “Fjolners saga”. Plansch 18, by Fredrik Wilhelm Scholander (c. 1816-1881), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Stockholm Sweden).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.