#1 – Egill Skallagrímsson

About this blog

Hi there! In December 2018 I moved to Iceland. I was not just drawn to this island by its beautiful nature, but also because it is a land of storytellers.

After the first Norwegians, Irish and Scots settled in Iceland in the 9th century, people started telling stories about their adventures and they were written down in the 13th and 14th century. These stories are called the Icelandic Sagas. The popularity of stories hasn’t died down in Iceland since then. Every year Icelanders give each other books for Christmas, in 1955 Icelandic writer Halldór Kiljan Laxness won the Nobel Prize in Literature and nowadays 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book.1

I enjoy reading the old Icelandic Sagas and I would like more people to become acquainted with them. That is why I decided to write this blog in which I will review different sagas one by one.

The first post is about Egill Skallagrímsson. I hope you will find it interesting! Let me know what you think about it, if you like 🙂

 A little bit of context

The saga of Egill Skallagrímsson was written in the 13th century, possibly by Snorri Sturluson, the famous Icelandic historian who also wrote the Prose Edda. Egill, the main character of this saga, lived much earlier, in the 10th century.

Bold, brutal and brave

Son of a bald man (Skalla-Grímur means ‘bald Grímur’), Egill is without a doubt one of the boldest figures in the Icelandic sagas. At the age of seven he kills an older boy in a fit of anger after having lost from him in a game, and this is the first of many killings to follow. Egill is exceptionally strong and often goes berserk2, enabling him to take on many men all by himself.

Egill has a strong will, is quickly enraged and he is not one to be impressed by other people’s status. One of his most famous disputes is with king Eirik Blood-axe and queen Gunnhild of Norway. While Egill’s father, Skallagrím, moved to Iceland because he refused to submit to king Harald Fairhair (king Eirik’s father), Egill will not bow down to King Eirik’s will. He cannot accept that one of the king’s friends, Berg-Onund, has taken possession of an inheritance to which Egills wife Ásgerd also had a claim. When Egill’s attempt to settle the matter in court is thwarted by the king and queen, he takes revenge by not only killing Berg-Onund, but also one of the king’s sons, a boy of only 10 years old.

However, ruthless as he can be, Egill does have a strong sense of justice. He takes matters to court when he can, and he never gets into any disputes with his neighbours in his home country Iceland. He doesn’t just fight battles for himself, but he also helps others, when he feels like it. He stands in for his best friend Arinbjorn’s nephew in a duel, slaying the troublemaking Swede who threatened their family. In many battles he acts as a brave leader, leading his men to victory against all odds.

Life-saving poems

Egill isn’t just a great warrior, he is also an accomplished poet. Poetry seems to be an emotional outlet for him. He writes poems when he is angry, happy or sad, and after the death of two of his sons, writing a poem about it helps him to regain his will to live. In this beautiful poem he breaks with the god Odinn, who gave him fortune in poetry and war, but who allowed the seagod to take his favourite son.3

This isn’t the only occasion in which a poem saves Egill’s life. While making a journey to England he unexpectedly finds himself in the hands of King Eirik, who intends to execute him at dawn, spurred on by a furious Queen Gunnhild. His good friend Arinbjorn tries to persuade the king to spare Egill, and encourages Egill to save his own life by writing the king a beautiful poem. Egill has to make quite an effort to compose a poem in honour of his enemy, but succeeds in writing a twenty-stanza piece overnight, that flatters the king enough to allow Egill to leave with his head on his shoulders.

A sexy Viking?

While some characters in the sagas were famous for their beauty, Egill is described as being very ugly. He doesn’t seem bothered by that though. He appreciates the value of his head, especially when the king allows him to keep it.

“Ugly as my head may be,
the cliff my helmet rests upon,
I am not loathe
to accept it from the king.
Where is the man who ever
received a finer gift
from a noble-minded
son of a great ruler?”4

To sum up, Egill is a person with many opposing characteristics. He isn’t a perfect hero, and he isn’t an evil brute either. Like many other characters in the sagas, he is a real person with strengths and weaknesses. I think this is one of the reasons why these stories are so interesting to read. Moreover, although some events in the sagas are fictional, they offer an insight into the lives of the Vikings and the settlers of Iceland.

What can we take away from this saga?

The Viking Age was a very different time from ours, and many deeds that were considered normal then, we find abhorrent now. But I think we can also learn from these stories. Some of the values that the Vikings had can be an inspiration for us in our modern lives. So what does Egillssaga teach us? Here are three lessons that I have learnt from it:

  • Be bold, be brave. If you have a goal in life, go for it. You can get very far if you believe in yourself and stubbornly adhere to your goals, like Egill did. If people cross your boundaries, stand up for yourself. I wouldn’t recommend killing them over it, but speak your mind.
  • You don’t need good looks to be successful. Egill and Skallagrím were both no beauties, yet they outlived their more handsome, more popular brothers, who died while serving kings. Appreciate both your inner and your outer strengths and use them to accomplish your goals in life. Follow your own path and don’t let other people’s opinions or self-criticism make you swerve from it.
  • We need more poetry. It’s tempting to cope with everyday stress by settling on the couch and watching Netflix, but wouldn’t our lives be richer if we wrote poems about it and shared them with our friends? 😉 We don’t have to write about grand events, also small annoyances can inspire us. Like the poem Egill wrote after his least favourite son borrowed a beautiful cloak without asking and ruined it by dredging it through the mud:
    “I had little need of an heir
    to use my inheritance
    My son has betrayed me
    in my lifetime I call that treachery.
    The horseman of the sea
    could well have waited
    for other sea-skiers
    to pile rocks over me.”5

To conclude

I hope you enjoyed reading my blog on Egillssaga. I have described only some of the intriguing, funny, horrible, noteworthy events that occur in the saga, because I didn’t want to spoil everything. It’s much more fun to read it yourself. The translation of the saga into English in ‘The sagas of Icelanders’ from Penguin Classics is very readable in my experience.

And to end this blog with a fun fact: many Icelanders are direct descendants from Egill Skallagrímsson and other famous characters in the Icelandic sagas. They can check their heritage quite easily via the website https://www.islendingabok.is/

A special thanks to my mom for editing this text and improving my English!

1 Goldsmith, R. “Iceland: Where one in 10 people will publish a book”. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24399599
2 In the Viking Age ‘berserkers’ were warriors who fought in a wild, furious trance.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berserker
3 Scudder, B.  (2001). “Egil’s Saga”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 7.
4 Scudder, B.  (2001). “Egil’s Saga”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 119.
5 Scudder, B.  (2001). “Egil’s Saga”. In The Sagas of Icelanders. A Selection. (Thorsson, Ö., & Scudder, B., ed.). London: Penguin Books, pp. 168.

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