This painting, by the Swedish artist August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), was inspired by famous Germanic and Norse legends involving a woman named Aslög (or Aslaug). Her tale is intertwined with the stories of several famous figures. Most notably, Aslög would become a companion of the storied Viking-era adventurer, Ragnar Lodbrok. Yet, long before that future encounter, Aslög was already tied to other celebrated characters—her legendary parents. Aslög’s father was said to have been the Norse dragon-slaying hero, Sigurd (equivalent to the Germanic hero, Siegfried), and her mother was Brynhild, a shield-maiden and alleged Valkyrie. The tragic romance of Sigurd and Brynhild, however, did not last. Both Sigurd and Brynhild married different people and neither parent wanted to bring Aslög along into their new households. Instead, Brynhild tasked her foster father and brother-in-law, Heimir (or Heimer), with the responsibility of looking after Aslög. Heimir agreed to the proposal, and he cared for young Aslög as Brynhild and Sigurd self-destructed.
As the story goes, when Heimir eventually received the sad news that Sigurd and Brynhild were both dead, he assumed that Aslög might be in danger from enemies and opportunists. Therefore, Heimir decided to hide the girl. He was said to have assumed the guise of a traveling musician, and in the wooden body of his musical instrument—a harp—there was a compartment in which little Aslög could fit herself, along with some extra supplies. This was mentioned in the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, which stated, “He had a harp made that was so large that he put the girl Aslaug inside it, along with many precious objects of gold and silver. Then he went away and traveled widely throughout the land…” (Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, chapter 1). Journeying in that peculiar way, Heimir and hidden Aslög fatefully arrived one day on the farm of an old couple named Åke and Grimma (also spelled Aki and Grima). Unfortunately for the travelers, all their time on the road had not been kind to Heimir’s disguise and the harp’s integrity. Åke and Grimma witnessed coins falling out of the harp, and also saw bits of fine clothing bursting through the joints of the wooden instrument. Consumed by greed, the couple decided to murder Heimir and take his treasure for themselves. They attacked the weary traveler with an axe while he slept and ran off to inspect the harp as he lay dying. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok described what happened next: “Now they kindled a fire, and the old woman took the harp and tried to open it. She couldn’t get it open in any other way than breaking it, because she didn’t have the skill. But once she got the harp opened up, there she saw a girl-child, and she thought that she had never seen anyone like her” (Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, chapter 1).
Such is the scene that August Malmström re-created in his painting. It is set just after the murder of Heimir, and shows Åke and Grimma breaking into the compartment of the harp, discovering Aslög inside. With nowhere else for the child to go, Aslög ended up living with the murderers, who gave the girl a new name—Kraka. She would remain with the family of criminals for years, until fate finally brought her into contact with the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, translated by Ben Waggoner. Troth Publications, 2009.
- The Saga of the Volsungs, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990, 1999.