Skallagrímsson was such a force of nature and personality that he became the central character in his own saga centuries after his death. We look at the life, times, and literary legacy of this Viking poet. 

Look to the sagas 

Our modern understanding of the Viking world – societies in the early medieval period throughout the Nordic world and surrounds – is indebted to the rich tapestry of Norse literature. 

Most of these sagas, however, were compiled in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries, long after the last Viking ship sailed, by figures such as the poet and politician Snorri Sturluson

They spoke of that society's yearning and quest for identity – how people from Viking societies sailed across the North Sea to start a new life in Iceland. 

In fact, in Iceland today, what we call the Viking Age (c. 750–1100), they call the "Saga Age," a time of Viking warriors, the settlement of new lands, and the expansion of Viking societies from Scandinavia to surrounding lands and regions. 

Medieval Icelanders not only have a great wealth of literature on Norse mythology and cosmology, but they also compiled sagas about the settlement of Iceland from c. 870. 

These are foundational myths – with quite a lot of history thrown in – that not only speak of the challenges that early Norse settlers had in building a civilization from scratch on this island of fire and ice but also give detailed descriptions of the early settlers up until about 930. 

One of these early settler families was headed by Ulf Bjalfason, who lived in western Norway around the mid-9th century. 

Located in the Borgarfjörður region of western Iceland, Borg á Mýrum was the homestead of Egill Skallagrímsson and his family. Photo: Linda Harms / Shutterstock

Fairhair, family, and flight to a new life 

Scouring these sagas for historical accuracy can be very problematic, but historians agree that many contain a sort of historical "mode" of events of the time. 

Young Ulf Bjalfason, growing up in Sogn, seems – like many of his compatriots – to have not been entirely happy with Harald Fairhair's consolidation of power in 870. 

A blood feud over a dead relative led to Ulf and his son Skallagrímsson annoying this new King of Norway and having to, quite literally, run for their lives. 

They hopped on a boat and headed for freedom and a new life across the North Sea in Iceland. It was here that Egil was believed to be born around 904. 

Having annoyed one fierce Viking warrior, you would think Egil and his family might stay low for a while. 

However, according to his own saga, it appears that Egil inherited not only his father and grandfather's force of personality but also their intense anger. 

Yet this familial trait did not affect his early life, as he grew up on his family's huge farm in western Iceland. 

Young Egil is said to have gotten into a brawl during a feast that spiraled out of control. The result was that Egil killed a skaldic poet who was the favorite of Eric Bloodaxe

Now, Bloodaxe was not a man to annoy, as he was not only a King of Norway but also a two-time king of the Viking kingdom of Northumbria and, as his name suggests, quite handy with an axe. 

Master fighter and poet 

This bloody brawl, however, also highlights a different side to Egil's character. 

Before he drew a sword on the skaldic poet, he was said to have hurled witty and poetic insults and barbs. This reveals another facet of Egil's character: his talent for flowery artistry, as he was a master skald. 

According to P.T. Andersen in an article in the journal Literature and Honour, throughout the saga, Egil is frequently lauded as a fine poet, a man able to win friends and influence people through the power and beauty of his spoken word. 

Whilst popular depictions on the small and silver screen often portray people from Viking societies as mere warriors, they produced some of the best literature of early medieval Europe. 

Historians believe it is realistic for such a fierce warrior like Egil to be capable of bloody brawn while balancing that with a softer, poetic side. 

Skaldic poetry, the sagas, and stories were highly cherished forms of entertainment and influence in the Viking world and have continued to enthrall audiences through the ages. 

Zoomed in on the Borgarfjord region, the reference map of Egil's saga illustrates the important sites in Western Iceland associated with the saga's events, including Mosfell, where Egil died of old age. Illustration: Swal94 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Life as a mercenary 

Like his grandfather before him, Egil – having annoyed a ruler of extreme power and violence – was forced to flee. 

He sailed to the British Isles and supposedly joined as a mercenary in the service of the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelstan. 

Along with his brother, Thorolf, Egil was reported to have led the Scandinavian contingent in one of the greatest medieval battles fought in the British Isles, the Battle of Brunanburh

Æthelstan's victory against a combined Scottish and Viking force has been seen as a turning point in English history and the origin of an English national identity. 

Yet despite the victory, there was a personal loss, as his brother Thorolf fell. This clearly didn't seem to trouble Egil too much, as he quickly married his brother's wife, Asgerd. 

Following this victory, Eric Bloodaxe ascended to the throne of Norway and declared Egil an outlaw. 

This gave any inhabitants of his realm the legal right to kill Egil on sight, one of the most heinous punishments that could be inflicted in early medieval Scandinavia. 

Yet Bloodaxe was ousted after a year – his rule being too severe – and fled to regain a kingdom in Northumbria. This gave Egil the impetus to move his family to Norway to try to settle down, having cheated death on the battlefields of Britain

A few years later, he sailed to visit his old master, King Æthelstan, but was captured by Eric Bloodaxe. 

Thrown into prison and awaiting execution, Egil escaped death by composing a poem that secured his freedom. This skaldic poem is literally called Head Ransom and is one of the finest composed in Old Icelandic. 

On a sadder note, another significant piece of poetry is the Sonatorrek (Loss of Sons), a poignant and moving elegy mourning the deaths of his two sons, according to L.M. Hollander in an article on the poem in the journal Scandinavian Studies and Notes

After years of raiding and warfare, Egil traveled with his family to Iceland, established a farm, and died at the ripe old age of around 90 in 995. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Death and legacy 

It appears that Egil's bloodlust would not abandon him in his old age. He went on Viking expeditions in what is now Germany and also served as a mercenary. 

He was said to have traveled with his family to Iceland, established a farm, and died at the ripe old age of around 90 in 995. 

It was only a few years after his death that Christianity took hold throughout Iceland, and his legacy somewhat diminished due to his magical prowess. 

Aside from his martial valor and poetic flair, Egil was also said to be an avid sorcerer. 

Among other things, he placed a curse on Eric Bloodaxe with a nithing pole, which eventually led to Bloodaxe's fall from power in Norway. 

This old pagan dark magic was looked down upon by adherents of the new Christian faith. 

His legacy, however, would be cemented more than two centuries after his death when he became the center of his own saga, which blended a mix of historical and fictional accounts. 

We may never know how many of the events, exploits, and adventures depicted in Egil's saga occurred historically. However, you should never let the truth get in the way of a ripping saga. 

Egil Skallagrímsson's larger-than-life personality and exploits, as well as his multifaceted nature, have ensured he remains a popular historical and literary figure more than a millennium after his death. 

For more information on how new technology is helping to discover some of the places that Egil Skallagrímsson visited in his saga, visit the Iceland Monitor here

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