For historians, academics, or anyone passionate about history, one of the most frustrating aspects of researching the early medieval period is the scarcity of historical records. 

This challenge is particularly pronounced in Norway during the era leading up to the traditional unification of the kingdom under Harald Fairhair in 872, leaving many unknowns. 

What little knowledge we have is a combination of archeological finds and color from the Norse sagas

Both sources present challenges: archeological finds offer incomplete narratives, and Norse sagas, written centuries after the events they describe, cannot be relied upon as accurate historical records. 

However, there are kernels of historical truth littered throughout it. 

Any fundamental analysis of figures in this era is difficult due to the scant historical record. 

The man who was said to be the father of the first king of Norway is a classic example of this limited knowledge. 

What we know of his life can only be gleaned from the sagas, specifically the Heimskringla

This was a collection of stories, myths, and legends about Scandinavian kings compiled in the 13th century half a world away in Iceland by that great poet and politician, Snorri Sturluson

We do not know conclusively when Halfdan was born - sometime in the mid-9th century is our best guess – or even where, with the southern coast of Norway postulated by academics as the most likely location. 

Despite this lack of knowledge, The Heimskringla goes into much detail about his early life and paints it as one of great insecurity. 

Though reportedly the son of the king of the petty kingdom of Agder and a descendant of the Yngling dynasty, Halfdan's life descended into chaos after his father was killed by a political rival, forcing the family to flee. 

Years later, when a young adult, Halfdan would reclaim his birthright and become King of Agder. 

Halfdan the Black, depicted in the sagas as fiercely ambitious, significantly expanded his territory to include Vestfold and Vingulmark through military and political strategies. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Absorption of territory and power: a family trait? 

Halfdan's depiction in the sagas, especially the Heimskringla, would have you believe he is hellbent on the conquest and subjugation of all the petty kingdoms in Norway. 

Through a brilliant combination of military conquests, political machinations, and familial ties, Halfdan was said to have expanded his kingdom to include vast swathes of two nearby petty kingdoms, Vestfold and Vingulmark. 

Given that Halfdan is said to be the father of the first ruler of Norway, Harald Fairhair, some academics caution against taking the sagas' accounts of his conquests at face value, given their potential for exaggeration and mythologizing. 

A man who was ambitious and successful, such as Fairhair, must have inherited these traits from his father, thus creating great propaganda for any ruler said to be from the Yngling Dynasty. 

It was this ruthless streak that his son, Fairhair, was said to have inherited and the cause of his moniker. 

Whilst some academics suggest Harald Fairhair's nickname was a nod to his hair color, others believe it stemmed from his bloody and formidable reputation on the battlefield.

Following the enlargement of his kingdom, Halfdan was said to have settled down, married, and produced a son, whom they named Harald after his grandfather. 

Again, according to the sagas, this son was to grow into a man whose ruthless ambition saw him conquer all the petty kingdoms in the land and forge them into the medieval kingdom of Norway. 

There is much academic debate, however, on just how badly Fairhair subjugated these kingdoms and forced his rule on them, or, more likely, they simply doffed their hats, pledged loyalty, and went about business as usual. 

Whatever option it was, growing up in a royal court and seeing his father acquire and wield power no doubt influenced the young Harald with his fair hair. 

Halfdan would add new territory to his kingdom, including parts of Hedmark and Raumarike, making him one of Norway's most powerful petty kings. 

In Norway's Hadeland region, the Hadeland Folkemuseum features one of Halfdan the Black's four burial mounds, rumored to hold a quarter of his remains. Photo: Anders Einar Hilden (Public domain)

Cracked ice, cattle dung, and burial mounds 

Although details of Halfdan's life are scarce, Norse sagas provide us with a surprisingly detailed account of his death. 

Whether this death occurred as detailed in these sagas is open to debate, but it nevertheless is one of the more dramatic downfalls of a king in a collection of colorful anecdotes. 

At least four different sagas state that Halfdan died whilst returning from a campaign near Hadeland. 

Upon crossing a frozen lake, his horse and sleigh broke through ice that the steaming refuse of cattle had weakened. He drowned, but his supporters were able to recover his body. 

The Heimskringla relates how, despite being buried in a mound in Ringerike, each district of his kingdom wanted to claim a piece of their king. 

His body was then rather gruesomely divided up, and different body parts were buried in a mound in each district. 

Only his head was said to be buried in a huge burial mound in Ringerike. 

One of these mounds, named Halfvdanshaugen, now forms an important part of the Hadeland Folkemuseum

Although much of Halfdan the Black's life is shrouded in the mists of legends and myth, he has an important legacy as a pivotal political player. 

As a warrior-king, he played a central role in shaping the destiny of his people, guiding much of what would become Norway through a period of transformation and transition. 

If we believe the sagas, his son, Harald Fairhair, would continue this legacy. Through his vision, determination, and leadership, he left an indelible mark on the annals of early medieval Norwegian history. 

For more information on the Hadeland Folkemuseum, visit its official website here

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