Viking Honor, Viking Humor

11.06.2018 |

Episode #8 of the course Vikings: History and mindset by Tom Shippey


Welcome to Lesson 8!

Lessons so far have described the situation in the west, south, and east.

In the north, the theme was unification, especially in Norway. Successive kings based in the south of the country kept trying to impose authority on the north, as well as Christianity.

Their main obstacle was the jarls (earls in medieval Scandinavia) of Hlaðir, near Trondheim in north Norway, who were determined and independent pagans. Four major battles determined the outcome (we’ll cover two of them today, and the other two will remain for tomorrow’s lesson).


The First Two Decisive Battles

The first battle was won about 880 by King Harald Fairhair of Norway, but when he died, Norway fell apart again, as his sons, including Eric Bloodaxe, fought each other for the pieces.

The second battle was fought at Hjorungavag, near Hlaðir, about a hundred years later. For this, we have several accounts, including “The Saga of the Jomsvikings.”

The Jomsvikings were a band of professional Vikings based at Jomsborg, now thought to have been at Wollin on the Baltic coast of Sweden. They had strict rules: Age range was 18-50, personal feuds were not allowed, all loot was to be shared out, and most importantly, no one must ever show fear.

They were tricked by King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark, who had some control over south Norway and wanted the rest. At a great feast, he revived the old custom of heitstrenging, making boastful vows. Sweyn, sober, had made his plan and vowed to conquer England. The Jomsviking chief Sigvaldi, drunk, had to follow suit and said he would invade Norway and kill Jarl Hakon of Hlaðir. Now the Jomsvikings were honor-bound.

They sailed north, and the two sides clashed in a ship-battle in Hjorungavag fjord. Despite the efforts of Icelanders like Vigfus, son of Killer-Glum—who picked up an anvil and brained Jomsviking berserk Aslak Bald-patch with it—the Jomsvikings were soon winning.

In the crisis, Jarl Hakon called on his family goddess, Thorgerd Bride-of-the-Altars, sacrificing his seven-year-old son for her support. A hailstorm started to blow into the Jomsvikings’ faces, and men with second sight saw Thorgerd, shooting arrows from every finger, bringing a man down every time.

Sigvaldi said, “We did not vow to fight against witchcraft,” and turned tail. Another Jomsviking leader, Bui the Broad, his lower jaw cut off, picked up his treasure chests and leapt overboard. (Who said, “You can’t take it with you”?)


Viking Humor Again: Jokes at a Massacre

In the morning, 70 surviving Jomsvikings were picked up, frozen and exhausted, off a skerry. Jarl Hakon said, “Kill them all.”

One man reminded the others of their rule about not showing fear. Another refused to kneel and be beheaded, and insisted on facing the blow, to show he would not flinch. A third turned the tide by appealing to the Viking sense of humor.

He said he did not want his long hair to get bloody, and called for someone to pull his hair back over his head as he knelt. As the blow fell, he jerked his head back, so the axe cut off the executioner’s assistant’s hands.

This was thought to be so funny that his life was spared. The angry executioner made a rush at another Jomsviking who had taunted him, but was tripped and dropped his axe. The annoying Jomsviking promptly picked it up, cut his foot-rope, and killed the executioner with it.

At this point, Jarl Hakon’s son, Jarl Eirik, intervened, and after some dickering, all the survivors were spared.


Archaeology at the Ridgeway

Too good to be true? A few years ago, not far from Portland, England, road builders turned up a pile of more than 50 skeletons, with a pile of slightly fewer skulls close by. The men were Scandinavians. One had had his jaw cut off by a wild stroke. Some had been beheaded from the front, facing the blow. The Ridgeway massacre happened about the year 1000, but that is all we know about it.

Mass beheadings certainly happened, then, and some of the details are similar. We can’t confirm the Viking sense of fun, but it keeps on showing up in the sagas.

The next lesson looks at two more famous death scenes.


Recommended reading

Facts and Fancy in Jómsvíkinga saga


Recommended book

The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia by Neil S. Price


Share with friends