The Top 10 Most Bizarre Moments in Viking Literature
Everyone knows about the Vikings – however, how many people know about how incredibly varied and entertaining their writing was? The Old Norse and Icelandic Viking Sagas are classic works of medieval literature and were mostly composed in the thirteenth century. They are epic, poetic, and filled with characters and stories that span continents and centuries. However, despite these lofty academic qualities, the Viking Sagas are also known to contain fantastically weird episodes of graphic violence, strange sexuality, paranormal phenomena, and are often outlandish, even funny, to the modern reader.
Here are ten of the most bizarre moments from Viking literature!
1. Hrut’s Cursed Erection
At the beginning of Njal’s Saga (also called Brennu-Njals Saga, or the Saga of Burnt Njal, known to many as the longest and most important Viking saga,) Icelandic Viking Hrut travels to Norway to stay with the King Harold and the king’s mother, Gunnhilda. Hrut has just recently become engaged to the beautiful Icelandic woman Unn, whom he left at home
During his time in Norway Hrut becomes Gunnhilda’s lover. He forges strong ties with the Norse court, and profits considerably. However, when Gunnhilda asks him, “hast thou a wife out there?” Hrut lies and tells her, “no.” Enraged by this, the King Mother curses him with the inability to consummate his marriage or have any pleasure with his wife. This curse manifests in a particularly bizarre way, though. Instead of taking away Hrut’s ability to perform, his new wife, Unn, complains upon his return that “whenever he comes to [her] in bed his member is so large that he cannot gratify himself with [her]” and that Hrut is “not able to have marital intercourse with [her].” In the end, Unn divorces Hrut, despite being a good husband in other respects, because of his gigantic, cursed erection.
2. Egil’s Early Violence
Egil, titular character of Egil’s Saga, was a poet as well as a renowned fighter. His violent exploits started early; in fact, he killed someone when he was just seven years old. He had been playing a ball game against Grim, an older, stronger boy in a tournament, and had been bested by him. Embarrassed, the young Egil left and then returned with a halberd, a weapon that is a combination spear and axe, and “bounded upon Grim, and drove the axe into his head, so that it at once pierced his brain.” In typical Viking Saga fashion, though, Egil was not punished, but was instead congratulated by his parents.
3. The Head-Ransom Poem
Egil from Egil’s Saga was not just an extraordinarily violent Viking soldier, but also was a thoughtful poet, and once used his poetry skills to save his own life. Egil had been declared an outlaw by King Eirik, and the hatred between these two was so deep that Egil even went so far as to kill the king’s son, Rognvald. Eventually, when Egil finds himself shipwrecked in Kin Eirik’s territory, he must face his enemy. Instead of fleeing or doing battle, however, Egil uses the power of words to extricate himself from the situation. He immediately composes and recites a long poem in the king’s honour, and in the result was so extraordinary that the King actually pardons him. This poem has since become known as Head-Ransom Poem, as Egil used the poem to save his own head from being chopped off.
4. Freydis’ Fearsome Breasts
In Eirik the Red’s Saga, a Viking expedition sets out to explore Vinland and establishes camp there. Vinland, or “land of the wild grapes”, is an area in North America that the Vikings found and named, and is estimated to be somewhere in modern Eastern Canada.
In this saga the Vikings create settlements in Vinland but are plagued by warring Natives. Freydis, a young Viking woman in Vinland and daughter of Eirik the Red, has a particularly strange way of dealing with this threat. When she and her group are set upon by Natives, she cannot flee as quickly as her fellow men because she is heavily pregnant. She calls out to her fleeing comrades and chastises them, saying “why run away… stout men as you are?” but the men pay her no heed and leave her behind. Facing the oncoming violent horde alone, Freydis takes up a sword from a fallen man and removes some of her clothing, exposing her chest, and “[strikes] her breast with the naked sword.” By slamming the sword against her exposed breasts, she successfully frightens the Natives away and saves herself and her unborn child.
5. The Christian Conversions
Towards the end of Njal’s Saga we learn of the shift from pagan to Christian religion. Christianity has been taken up as the official religion in Norway, and a missionary, Thangbrand, is sent to Iceland to convert its people. Rather than simply preaching Christian doctrine, however, Thangbrand often uses dramatic, even violent methods to convince the Icelanders. For example, Thangbrand is challenged to a duel by Thorkel, a staunch pagan. Thangbrand accepts, wielding a cross as his shield, and kills Thorkel.
Later, Thangbrand visits another household. He and his hosts learn that an army of heathen men is approaching them, and that they have a berserker among their ranks. Berserkers, in Viking culture, were warriors that entered an animalistic, violent trance during battle; they felt no pain and could not be brought down by men, iron, or fire. Thangbrand uses this moment to prove Christianity’s power, saying that they will build fires, one fire to be blessed in the Christian fashion, one fire blessed in the pagan fashion. When the berserker arrives, he barrels through the pagan fire with no injuries, but when he reaches the Christian flames, he is weakened says “[is] on fire all over.” With that, Thangbrand strikes the berserker with a crucifix and is able to kill him.
6. Glam the Zombie
The idea of the undead, or the zombie, is not a new one, and we can find evidence of it in Grettir’s Saga. In this saga, a shepherd named Glam forgoes the practise of skipping meat the night before the period of Yule, and thus ill fortune is brought upon him. He dies on Christmas Eve, however, “a little time after men were [aware] that Glam lay not quiet.” The undead Glam begins to wreak havoc on the town, causing huge amounts of damage and frightening the locals.
Glam continues his strange activities for many days, and is not stopped until he hero of the saga, Grettir, shows up and defeats him. Grettir removes the zombie’s head, burns the body, and relegates the ashes to a remote area, far from the town.
7. The Ghost Seal
The Eyrbyggja Saga has several instances of ghosts and supernatural activity, but perhaps the most bizarre among them is the encounter with the ghost that comes in the form of a seal. The Vikings in this saga reside in a place called Frodis-Water, and they have already been through a lot. They have dealt with human hauntings, and many of the men have died.
One night, as the men gather for their evening meal, they see “a seal’s head [come] up through the floor.” Several people in the household come forward and beat the seal with weapons, but it only continues to rise further out of the floor. Eventually a man called Kiartan strikes the seal so hard so many times in a row that it finally is driven downward and disappears, never to resurface again.
8. The Ice Warrior
The Vikings of the sagas didn’t let things like nature become obstacles to their goals, and nowhere is that more apparent than when Skarphedin attacks Thrain in Njal’s Saga. Thrain, Skarphedins target, is standing with his men on an ice flow on the opposite side of a vast river that is too deep to cross. Rather than turn back, go around, or retrieve a boat, Skarphedin “takes a spring into the air, and leaps over the stream between the icebanks, and does not check his course, but rushes still onwards with a slide. The sheet of ice was very slippery, and so he went as fast as a bird flies.”
Skarphedin slid so quickly towards Thrain that Thrain could not lift his shield in time, and Skarphedin strikes him in the face, using the momentum of his movement, “so that [Thrain’s] jaw-teeth fell out on the ice.” The momentum of the slide then carried Skarphedin away before anyone could attack him in response.
9. Egil Punishes Armod
Egil from Egil’s Saga treats many people horribly, but he punishes Armod in the most strange and digusting way. Armod hosts Egil and his men for a short time, and insults Egil with his poor hospitality by not serving ale from the beginning of the meal. In return, after finally receiving the ale, Egil drinks in excess. He then stands up, forces Armod against a wall, and vomits all over Armod’s face so that it gets into his eyes, ears, and mouth.
As if that were not bad enough, the next day Egil is still not satisfied and goes to Armod’s room with the intent to kill him. Armod’s wife and daughter plead with Egil not to, so he decides to spare Armod’s life. However, before leaving, he enacts another bizarrely specific punishment on his host by shaving his beard and putting out one of his eyes.
10. The Cross-Dressing Divorcé
In the Laxdaela Saga, the beautiful woman Gudrun is plagued by four distressing dreams. Her relative, Gest, helps her interpret these dreams. He claims that each of these dreams represents a future husband. She will be married four times, Gest tells her, but the first marriage will be “no love match” and that she will want to leave him.
Gest’s interpretation proves correct, and Gudrun does indeed marry four different times. And, as Gest predicted, the first marriage was an unhappy one. Gudrun’s first husband, Thorvald, hits her after she asks him for a gift, and she becomes enraged. A close friend, Thord, then came to visit, and she told him of the abuse and asked his advice about how she may leave her husband. Thord has a good plan for such a thing, and advises Gudrun that she should “make [Thorvald] a shirt with such a large neck-hole that [she] may have a good excuse for separating from him, because he has a low neck like a woman.” In the end Gudrun follows this advice and is able to divorce her husband for the act of wearing women’s clothing. As her dreams prophesied, she went on to marry three more men.