10 September 2021

Gleanings from Heimskringla

Heimskringla is a compilation of sagas about the early Norse kings in Iceland by poet and historian Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. "The name Heimskringla was first used in the 17th century, derived from the first two words of one of the manuscripts (kringla heimsins, "the circle of the world")."  Herewith some excerpts from the book.
"During the night [Fjolnir] went out on the balcony to find a place to relieve himself.  He was drowsy with sleep and dead drunk, and on his way back to his lodgings he went along the balcony and to the wrong loft door and through it  He missed his footing and fell into the mead vat and drowned." 

"It was spring, and the sun shone with great warmth; and when they drove over Rykins Inlet - people had watered their cattle there during the winter, and their dung had fallen on the ice, and the sun's warmth had melted the ice there.  Now when the king [Halfdan] drove over that stretch, the ice broke under him, and he perished with many of his followers.  He had reached his fortieth year then.  There had been excellent seasons during his rule... men of influence came and prayed, all of them, to take the body with them to be buried in their lands; for it was thought that he who got possession of it could expect good seasons... the head was laid in a mound at Stein in Hringariki, but each of the others carried away their share and interred them in burial mounds in the homelands, and all are called the mounds of Halfdan." 

"Sigurth slew Melbrigthi Tooth, a Scottish earl, and fastened his head to his saddle straps.  The calf of his leg struck the tusk protruding from the skull, mortification set in, and he died from it."

"Afterwards, Earl Einar went up to Halfdan and cut the "blood eagle" on his back, in this fashion that he thrust his sword into his chest by the backbone and severed all the ribs down to the loins, and then pulled out the lungs; and that was Halfdan's death."

"He recognized Klerkon there, the man who had killed his foster father, Thorolf Lousebeard."

"Thorir said it was the custom of Bjarmaland that when a wealthy man died, [half of his movable property] was to be carried into the woods, sometimes put into grave mounds, an covered with earth... "In this enclosure is a mound, and in it is gold and silver all mixed up with earth.  Let us go at it.  But inside the yard there stands the god of the Permians [Finns] who is called Jomali.  Let no one be so bold as to plunder him."  Thereupon they went at the mound and took out of it as much gold and silver as they could and carried it away in their garments.  Much earth stuck to it, as might be expected... Karli saw that Thorir had the silver bowl with him.  The Karli ran up to Jomali.  He saw that he had a thick necklace around his neck.  Karli swung his axe and cut in two the thong with which the necklace was fastened in the back of Jomali's neck.  That blow was so violent that Jomali's head came off..."

"He proceeded to the court of King Knut who received him well.  It was then seen that Thorir had with him an abundance of valuables and all the money he and Karli had taken in Bjarmaland.  In the large barrels there was a false bottom, and the drink in between, and both the barrels were mainly filled with squirrel skins and beaver and sable furs."

"Now when they played chess, King Knut and Earl Ulf, the king made a false move, and the earl took a knight from him.  The king put his figure back and said he was going to make a different move.  The earl became angry, tossed the chess board down, rose, and went away... Next morning, when the king put on his clothes he said to his page, "Go to Earl Ulf and kill him..."

"It so happened one Sunday that King Olaf sat in his high-seat at table and was so busy with his thoughts that he was not aware of the lapse of time.  He had a knife in his hand and cut chips of a piece of wood.  A page stood before him, holding a drinking vessel.  He saw what the king was doing, and gathered that he was thinking of other matters.  He said, "It will be Monday tomorrow, sire."  The king looked at him when he heard these words and became aware then of what he had done.  Then the king asked that a candle be brought to him.  He swept all the savings which he had cut into his hand, then set them on fire and let them burn his palm; from which one could gather that from that time on he would strictly observe the laws and commandments, not do anything but what he knew was right."

"... they rowed out into the Golden Horn [the harbor of Byzantium], and when they came to where iron chains were stretched across the entrance of the harbor Harald ordered the men on both vessels to take to their oars; and those who did not row were to run back to the stern, each with his sleeping bag in hand.  So they ran the galleys up on the iron chains.  And as soon as they were fast and the momentum was spent, Harald ordered them all to run forward.  Then the galley on which Harald was, plunged forward and through this teetering slid down from the iron chain; but the other galley hung fast on the chain and broke in two, and many drowned there... In this fashion Harald escaped from Miklagarth and sailed into the Black Sea..."

"They broke his leg bones and arm bones with the hammers of their axes.  Then they stripped him of his clothes and wanted to flay him alive, and did scalp him.  But they could not carry out their intention on account of the flow of blood.  Then they took whips of walrus-hide and flogged him until his skin was completely off as if he had been flayed.  Then they took a pole and broke his backbone.  Then they dragged him to a tree and hanged him.  They cut off his head and then they dragged his carcass away and buried it in a heap of stones... it took a man of rare strength of mind to stand being tortured in such fashion as not to say a word or to budge; nor did he raise his voice anymore than if he sat drinking..."

[an English priest is accused of indecency] "Then Einar took a peg and set it on the eye of the priest.  The servant stood over him and struck down with his axe, knocking out the eye so that it dropped into his beard.  Then they set the peg on the other eye and said to the servant, "Don't strike quite so hard."  He did so.  Then the peg glanced off the eyeball and tore loose the eyelid.  Then Einar took hold of the eyelid with his hand and held it up and saw that the eyeball still was in place.  Then he set the peg outside on the cheek bone, the servant struck, and the eyeball fell down on the cheek bone where it was most prominent.  Next they opened his mouth pulled his tongue out, and cut it off.  Then they undid his hands and his head.  As soon as he regained his senses it occurred to him to lay the eyeballs under the brows in their proper places and to hold them there with both hands the best he could..."

"Then the healer woman said, "Let me see your wounds and bandage them.".. And when she inspected his wounds she looked closely at the wound he had in his side.  She noticed that there was an iron it it, but did not know which path it had taken.  She had made a concoction in a stone kettle in which she had mashed leeks and other herbs and boiled them together, and that she gave the wounded men to eat.  In that manner she tried to find out if they had wounds in vital parts, because she could smell the leek through a wound which went into the body cavity..."

"He came to the town, and both then had speech with the king and Alfifa, requesting them to give permission to disinter the body of King Olaf... Now when twelve months and five days had passed after the death of King Olaf, his holy remains were again disinterred.  By that time the coffin had again emerged considerably out of the round, and looked span-new as though it were but recently planed... A delicious odor met them.  Then the bishop bared the countenance of the king, and its aspect had changed in  nowise, and there was a ruddiness on his cheeks as though he had only recently fallen asleep.  Those who had seen King Olaf when he fell now saw a great change in that his hair and nails had grown almost as much as they would have if he had been alive all the time since he fell... Then Alfifa said, "Mighty little do bodies decompose when buried in sand.  It would not be the case if he had lain in earth..."
The word "tome" was invented to describe works such as this.  850 pages with a seemingly endless litany of pillaging and manslaughter.  But mandatory reading for those of us trying to understand our ancient Norse heritage.

For other excerpts from Heimskringla, see these two prior posts: Enforcement of early Christianity and A "cattle dog" in the eleventh century.

My copy of the book is now listed on eBay.


  1. All of it is great fun to read out loud.

    1. On a cold night, around a roaring fire, each reading a part in turn, with copious supplies of strong drink.

  2. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”

    “Apocalypse Now” – Colonel Kurtz’s Monologue

  3. Ah, so that's where Midsommar got the blood eagle from. Such a cheerful movie. Sunshine, flowers, merry dancing girls, a blood eagle. You name it.

  4. "all are called the mounds of Halfdan"

    Shouldn't those be more properly called 'the mounds of Bits-o-Dan'??

  5. Fascinating read!
    I especially like the precise description of darker manure being warmed by the sun to the point that the ice it is resting onbecomes unsafe.
    I had to read the palm-burning story of King Olaf twice to get that the warning of the servant was meant to remind him of the sabbath, and that he then punishes himwelf for working (whittling wood) on a Sunday. Is that also your understanding?

  6. For anyone interested in The Vikings...do yourself a favor and read Magnus Magnusson's 'The Vikings' - ISBN 978-0-7509-7858-3. Not long but dense. It will add several places to your bucket list and keep you busy using Google and Wikipedia for some of the minutiae.

    1. I totally agree with your suggestion:




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