Styrbjörn the Strong

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Styrbjörn is lifted into a wagon after the Battle of Fýrisvellir, by Mårten Eskil Winge (1888).

Styrbjörn the Strong (Old Norse Styrbjörn Sterki) (died c. 985) was, according to late Norse sagas, the son of the Swedish king Olof, and the nephew of Olof's co-ruler and successor Eric the Victorious, who defeated and killed Styrbjörn at the Battle of Fyrisvellir.[1] As with many figures in the sagas, doubts have been cast on his existence,[2] but he is mentioned in a roughly contemporary skaldic poem about the battle. According to legend, his original name was Björn[3] (English exonym: Beorn).

Prose retellings[edit]

It is believed that there once was a full saga about Styrbjörn, but most of what is extant is found in the short Styrbjarnar þáttr Svíakappa. Parts of his story are also retold in Eyrbyggja saga, Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum (book 10), Knýtlinga saga and Hervarar saga. He is also mentioned in the Heimskringla (several times), and in Yngvars saga víðförla, where Ingvar the Far-Travelled is compared to his kinsman Styrbjörn. Oddr Snorrason also mentions him in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar (c. 1190), writing that Styrbjörn was defeated with magic. In modern days, he is also the hero of a novel called Styrbiorn the Strong by the English author Eric Rücker Eddison (1926),[4] and he figures in The Long Ships, by Frans G Bengtsson.

Contemporary poetry[edit]

The extant poetry on Styrbjörn is found in Styrbjarnar þáttr Svíakappa, where the following lausavísa of c. 985 mentions Styrbjörn::

Eigi vildu Jótar
reiða gjald til skeiða,
áðr Styrbjarnar stœði
Strandar dýr á landi ;
nú's Danmarkar dróttinn
í drengja lið genginn ;
landa vanr ok lýða
lifir ánauðr hann auðar.[5]

The contemporary skald Þórvaldr Hjaltason also described the Battle of Fyrisvellir in the following pair of lausavísur:

Farið til Fýrisvallar,
folka tungls, hverr's hungrar,
vörðr, at virkis garði
vestr kveldriðu hesta ;
þar hefr hreggdrauga höggvit
(hóllaust es þat) sólar
elfar skíðs fyr ulfa
Eiríkr í dyn geira.[6]
Ilt varð ölna fjalla
örkveðjöndum beðjar
til Svíþjóðar síðan
sveim víkinga heiman ;
þat eitt lifir þeira,
þeir höfðu lið fleira,
(gótt vas) hers (at henda)
hundmargs, es rann undan.[7]

Hundmargs ("of a myriad") in the second verse has also been read as Hundings, referring to a chief of the Jomsvikings named Hunding, but there is no other record of such a historical figure, so the argument that this disproves Styrbjörn's historical existence has been generally set aside in favour of the evidence of the other contemporary poem.[8]

Styrbjarnar þáttr Svíakappa[edit]

Styrbjarnar þáttr Svíakappa ('the tale of Styrbjörn the Swedish Champion'), preserved in the Flatey Book, is the source that contains the most material about Styrbjörn.

According to the tale, Styrbjörn, who was originally called Björn, was the son of Olof, a brother of King Eric, who died of poisoning when Björn was still a young boy. When he was 12 years old, he asked his uncle King Eric for his birthright, but was denied the co-rulership until he turned 16. One day he got into a fight with and killed a courtier, who had hit him on the nose with a drinking horn.

When he was 16, the Thing decided that he was not fit to be king, and instead appointed a man of low birth. His uncle Eric did not want him to stay at home, because of his violent nature and the complaints from the free farmers, so he gave him 60 well equipped longships, whereupon the frustrated boy took his sister Gyrid and left. Eric also called him "Styrbjörn", adding Styr- because of his nephew's unruly and quarrelsome nature.

He ravaged the shores of the Baltic Sea and when he was twenty, took the stronghold of Jomsborg from its founder Palnetoke and became the ruler of the Jomsvikings. After some time he allied himself with the Danish king Harald Bluetooth and married his sister Gyrid to him. Styrbjörn married Harald's daughter Tyra, whom he was given by Harald for conquering Jomsborg.

Harald gave him even more warriors and now Styrbjörn set about taking the throne of Sweden. He sailed with a huge force which included 200 Danish longships in addition to his own Jomsvikings. When they arrived at Föret (Old Norse Fyris) in Uppland, he burnt the ships in order to force his men to fight to the end. However, the Danish force changed its mind and returned to Denmark. Styrbjörn marched alone with his Jomsvikings to Gamla Uppsala. His uncle was, however, prepared and had sent for reinforcements from all directions.

During the first two days, the battle was even. That evening, Eric went to the statue of Odin at the Temple at Uppsala, where he sacrificed. He promised Odin that if he won the battle, he would belong to Odin and arrive at Valhalla ten years from then. The next day, Eric threw his spear over the enemy and said, "I sacrifice you all to Odin". Styrbjörn and his sworn men stayed and died.

Eyrbyggja saga[edit]

Main article: Eyrbyggja saga

The Eyrbyggja saga has a short summary of Styrbjörn's career in connection with one of its protagonists:

Hervarar saga[edit]

Main article: Hervarar saga

The Hervarar saga gives an even shorter summary of Styrbjörn and his battle with his uncle Eric:

Knýtlinga saga[edit]

Main article: Knýtlinga saga

The Knýtlinga saga recounts that Styrbjörn was the son of the Swedish king Olaf. When Harald Bluetooth ruled in Denmark, Styrbjörn was making war in the east (í hernaði í Austrveg), then came to Denmark where he took Harald captive. Harald gave his daughter Tyra Haraldsdotter to Styrbjörn and joined him on his expedition to Sweden. On arrival, Styrbjörn set his own ships on fire, but when Harald saw that Styrbjörn no longer had any ships he sailed back out on Mälaren (Löginn) and back to Denmark. Styrbjörn fought his uncle Eric on the Fyrisvellir and he fell together with most of his men. Some of his men fled and this the Swedes called the Fyriselta, the chase of the Fyris.

Gesta Danorum[edit]

Main article: Gesta Danorum

The Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus tells a more pro-Danish version in Gesta Danorum (Book 10). According to him, Styrbjörn was the son of the Swedish king Björn. Styrbjörn had an uncle named Olaf, whose son Eric had taken the Swedish kingdom from Styrbjörn. Styrbjörn came to Harald Bluetooth, bringing his sister Gyrithe with him, and humbly asked Harald for help. Harald decided to befriend Styrbjörn and Harald offered his sister Gyrithe to be Stybjörn's wife. Harald then conquered the land of the Slavs and took the stronghold Julin (Jomsborg), which he gave to Styrbjörn to command with a strong force. Styrbjörn and his force (the Jomsvikings) dominated the seas, winning many victories, and they were more beneficial to Denmark than any force on land would have been. Among the warriors were Bue, Ulf, Karlsevne and Sigvald.

Styrbjörn wanted revenge and asked Harald for help to take the throne of Sweden. Harald wanted to help Styrbjörn and to this end he sailed to Halland, but was informed that the German emperor Otto had attacked Jutland, and Harald was more eager to defend his own country than to attack another one. When Harald had driven away the Germans, Styrbjörn had already rashly departed with his own force for Sweden, where he fell.

Alleged descendants[edit]

Some scholars claim that Styrbjörn and Tyra were the parents of Thorkel Sprakalegg, and that this Thorgil was the father of Ulf the Earl (Ulf Jarl), the father of king Sweyn II of Denmark, and of Gytha Thorkelsdóttir who married Godwin, Earl of Wessex and became the mother of Harold Godwinson. The sole near-contemporary source which says anything about the father of Truls Sprakalegg was Florence of Worcester, who names the father as 'Urso', (Latin for bear) which would be Bjorn. The name Bjorn was widely used among Vikings, and therefore the identification between Urso and Styrbjorn the Strong is likely a late attempt to glorify the ancestry of king Sweyn II and his descendants. Saxo Grammaticus also claims that Thorgil was son of man named Bjorn, but that this otherwise unknown Bjorn was the son of an actual bear.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Maj Odelberg (1995). Styrbjörn Starke. Vikingatidens ABC (Statens historiska museum). ISBN 91-7192-984-3. 
  2. ^ Nationalencyklopedin short-form article Styrbjörn Starke, jomsvikingarnas hövding vars existens har betvivlats, "chief of the Jomsvikings whose existence has been doubted."
  3. ^ C. Georg Starbäck in Berättelser ur Swenska Historien Första delen: Sagoåldern Norrköping 1860 p. 231
  4. ^ Andrew Wawn, Philology and Fantasy before Tolkien, archived from the original on 2005-03-07 
  5. ^ Anonymous Lausavísur (Anon) at Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages. This verse is referred to in the longer version of "Nationalencyklopedin"  |chapter= ignored (help).
  6. ^ at Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages
  7. ^ at Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages
  8. ^ Sten Körner, "Slaget på Fyrisvallarna: Till Tolkningen av Torvald Hjaltasons Skaldeversar," Scandia 28,2 (1962) 391-98, [1] (pdf; Swedish with English summary); the argument was made by Ove Moberg.
  9. ^ The Story of the Ere-Dwellers, trans.William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson London: Quaritch, 1892, chapter 29.
  10. ^ Nora Kershaw Chadwick, Stories and Ballads of the Far Past: Translated from the Norse Icelandic and Faroese, Cambridge University Press, 1921, "The Saga of Hervör and Heithrek"

References[edit]