Deep puncture wounds to the stomach area have always been identified as especially lethal injuries, but they were particularly so in the ancient and medieval world, due to the primitive state of medical practices at that time. Therefore, if an ancient or medieval warrior suffered a puncture through a wall of their stomach, they were often regarded as dead men walking. To be able to sift wounded men with superficial injuries to their abdomens out from untreatable injured men with punctured stomachs, Nordic battlefield physicians who treated the wounded were said to have cultivated a simple trick that would determine how bad an abdominal wound was in a patient. According to oral tradition and folktales recorded in the sagas, Viking-Age medical practitioners would allegedly feed particularly injured patients an odious porridge-like concoction made of the smelliest edible materials available. If slash or stab wounds had cut or punctured the warrior’s stomach, then the pungent odor of the phycisian’s potion would waft out of the wound and could supposedly be smelled by the medical practitioner. This curious technique was described in detail by the prolific scholar, poet and chieftain, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), who claimed that this method was use to treat injured men after the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Narrating the final moments of a man named Thormod Kolbrúnarskald, Snorri Sturluson wrote:
“When she [a nurse] inspected his wounds she looked closely at the wound he had in his side. She noticed that there was an iron in it, but did not know which path it had taken. She had made a concoction in a stone kettle in which she had mashed leeks and other herbs and boiled them together, and that she gave the wounded men to eat. In that manner she tried to find out if they had wounds in vital parts, because she could smell the leek through a wound which went into the body cavity” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 234).
According to the tale, Thormod Kolbrúnarskald refused to take the nurse’s potion, shouting, “Take it away! I am not porridge-sick” (Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 234). Unfortunately, even without the odious porridge, the nurse concluded that she could do nothing to save Thormod Kolbrúnarskald. As the legend goes, Thormod settled down and composed some stanzas of poetry before finally succumbing to his wounds.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image labeled “Illustration till Njals saga”, by August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Stockholm Sweden.jpg).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.