The Vikings were infamous warriors from Scandinavia who sailed the seas, raided foreign lands, and established settlements as far west as North America. They're somewhat mysterious in their culture and practices, especially with source material intertwined so fully with myth.
But they are also fascinating. Stories about the Vikings provide insight into some fierce warriors and leaders who are familiar to us right alongside men and women whose names and deeds are much less known. Woven through these stories are instances of humor and levity as well as violence and brutality. Viking tales also remind us about the humanity of a group that dominated aspects of history for hundreds of years.
Here are some lesser-known tales that emphasize just how fierce, intense, and intriguing the Vikings continue to be.
- 1383 VOTES
When Raud The Strong Wouldn't Convert To Christianity, Olaf Tryggvason Literally Had Him Snaked
Olaf Tryggvason, also known as King Olaf I of Norway (r. 995-1000), was incredibly influential in the spread of Christianity in the country. He was also an active raider, having met his wife, Geira, while wintering in among Slavs in 982.
While it's not entirely clear when Olaf converted to Christianity, his dedication to the faith exhibited itself when seafarer Raud the Strong refused to have his ship blessed by a bishop. Olaf and his men apprehended Raud, killed and beat members of his crew and some of his servants, and then offered Raud baptism. Raud made "his scoff of God," and Olaf ordered him to be executed.
At first, Olaf had Raud bound to a board, face up with his mouth forced open. Then,
The king put his horn into his mouth, and forced the serpent to go in by holding a red-hot iron before the opening. So the serpent crept into the mouth of Raud and down his throat, and gnawed its way out of his side; and thus Raud perished.
- 2270 VOTES
Hallgerda And Her Hair Brought On The Death Of Gunnar
One of the major figures in Njáls Saga is Gunnar Hamundarson, who was such a talented warrior that he was considered nearly invincible. His skills as an archer, stone thrower, and atgeir wielder (a pole weapon that remains lost to history) were, perhaps, only outdone by his good looks.
Gunnar was, in fact, killable, and it only took a simple act by his wife, Hallgerda, to end his life. As his enemies attacked his house, he fired arrow after arrow to hold them off. When Gunnar's bowstring broke, he said to Hallgerda, "Give me two locks of thy hair, and ye two, my mother and thou, twist them together into a bowstring for me."
When Hallgerda asked why she should comply, Gunnar told her his life depended on it, and Hallgerda took the opportunity to respond:
I will call to thy mind that slap on the face which thou gavest me; and I care never a whit whether thou holdest out a long while or a short.
Hallgerda never gave Gunnar the hair, and he was struck down soon after.
- 3241 VOTES
Egil Skallagrimsson Got The Ultimate Revenge
Egil's Saga tells the story of 10th-century Viking poet and warrior Egil (also spelled Egill) Skallagrimsson. While on a raid, he and his men were taken prisoner, locked up, and "Egil was bound hand and foot to a post." He managed to free himself while his captors feasted, and then released his men as well. As the group looked to escape, they heard sounds below them and discovered another prisoner named Aki.
Aki led the men out of confinement, but Egil wanted to find treasure, weapons, and anything else of value before they all fled to freedom. Among the goods Egil grabbed was a large cask of mead, which he decided he needed to tell their captor they'd taken, so went to the dining hall and set it on fire. Egil stood ready at the door and "slew most who strove to pass out either in the doorway or outside."
But Egil wasn't done. When his former captor asked who set the fire, Egil volunteered he had and said, "Here now is that same Egil whom you bound hand and foot to the post in that room you shut so carefully. I will repay you your hospitality as you deserve."
At that, the man
...thought to steal out in the dark, but Egil was near, and dealt him his death-blow, as he did to many others. Brief moment was it ere the hall so burned that it fell in. Most of those who were within perished.
Egil returned to his men and their ship, where he discovered "the mead-cask which he carried as his own special prize; it proved to be full of silver."
- 4160 VOTES
Hastein Snuck In To Sack The Wrong City
Hastein was a Norseman who traveled and raided throughout Europe and the Mediterranean region. Commanding alongside Bjorn Ironside during the mid-9th century, Hastein and his fellow Vikings were determined to get to Rome.
Bjorn and Hastein actually thought they had reached Rome when they arrived at the city of Luna (now Luni, Italy). Dudo of St. Quentin, a Frankish chronicler who lived during the 10th and 11th centuries, described how the Vikings tricked their way into the city by telling town officials that Hastein was dead and wanted to be buried on Christian ground.
Hastein's men took his "body" through the city walls and placed it on a tomb. He then jumped up, grabbed his sword, and began killing anyone nearby while "the pagans have blocked the doors of the sanctuary, so that no one can slip away. Then the frenzy of the pagans butchers the defenseless Christians."
After the slaughter, Hastein was so angry when he learned it wasn't Rome that he ordered his men to
Take booty from the entire province and torch that town. Conduct the captives and as much spoil as possible to the ships. Let the tillers of the soil of this land feel that we have busied ourselves in their territory.
This was comparable to Ragnar Lothbrok's deception to enter Paris on Vikings, although the TV character knew where he was.
- Photo: The Last Kingdom / BBC Two / Netflix5213 VOTES
Grettir Slayed Two Berserkers With One Strong Thrust
In Grettir's Saga, the titular figure, Grettir Asmunderson, is an outlaw who goes back and forth from hero to villain throughout the work. He repeatedly faced off against berserkers, even coming to the aid of the residents of Haramarsey.
When Grettir locked a group of berserkers in a homestead,
They strained at the woodwork till every timber groaned. At last they tore down the wooden partition and so gained the passage where the privy was, and thence the steps. Then the berserks' fury fell upon them and they howled like dogs.
When Grettir arrived, he killed a berserker named Thorir with his halberd; Grettir pushed the long blade with such force that it went through him and into the chest of Ogmund the Bad, who was standing behind his ally Thorir. Grettir then slaughtered four more berserkers and sent the remaining fighters to flee.
- 6164 VOTES
Inge Haraldsson Became The Sole King After His Men Killed Both Of His Brothers
After the passing of King Harald IV of Norway in 1136, his sons co-ruled his domain. Eystein, born in Scotland, ventured to Norway in 1142 to rule alongside his younger brothers Inge, Sigurd, and Magnus.
Magnus died in 1045 at a young age, while Inge and Sigurd maintained an antagonistic relationship. When Inge and Sigurd met at Bergen in 1155, the former's men seized Sigurd and put him to death. According to the "Saga of Sigurd, Inge, and Eystein, the sons of Harald" in Heimskringla,
They broke his shin-bones and arms with an axe-hammer. Then they stripped him, and would flay him alive; but when they tried to take off the skin, they could not do it for the gush of blood. They took leather whips and flogged him so long, that the skin was as much taken off as if he had been flayed. Then they stuck a piece of wood in his back until it broke, dragged him to a tree and hanged him; and then cut off his head....
Eystein, who'd been set to meet with Inge and Sigurd, arrived after Sigurd was already deceased. The extent to which Inge was involved in Sigurd's death is somewhat debated, although he may have been concerned about Sigurd and Eystein conspiring against him.
Despite maintaining relative peace, Inge and Eystein were at odds two years later. They met near Moster, where Eystein's troops abandoned him. He was captured by Inge's men, allowed to hear mass, and then executed:
Eystein laid himself down on his face on the grass, stretched out his hands on each side, and told them to cut the sign of the cross between his shoulders....