Egill Skallagrímsson

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Egill Skallagrímsson
Picture of Egil in a 17th-century manuscript of Egils Saga
Picture of Egil in a 17th-century manuscript of Egils Saga
Died995 (aged 90–91)
OccupationPoet, warrior and farmer
LanguageOld Norse
PeriodViking Age
Notable worksEgil's saga
SpouseÁsgerðr Björnsdóttir
ChildrenÞorgerðr Egilsdóttir, Bera Egilsdóttir, Böðvar Egilsson, Gunnar Egilsson and Þorsteinn Egilsson
RelativesSkalla-Grímr Kveldúlfsson, Kári Stefánsson and Bera Yngvarsdóttir

Egill Skallagrímsson (modern Icelandic pronunciation: ​[ˈɛiːjɪtl̥ ˈskatl̥akrimsɔn]; c. 904 – c. 995)[1] was a Viking Age war poet, sorcerer, berserker, and farmer.[2] He is known mainly as the anti-hero of Egil's Saga. Egil's Saga historically narrates a period from approximately 850 to 1000 AD and is believed to have been written between 1220 and 1240 AD.[2]


Egill engaging in holmgang with Berg-Önundr; painting by Johannes Flintoe

Egill is born in Iceland, to Skalla-Grímr Kveldúlfsson[3] and Bera Yngvarsdóttir; he is the grandson of Kveld-Úlfr (whose name means "evening Wolf"). Another of his ancestors, Hallbjörn, is Norwegian-Sami.[4]

Skalla-Grímr is a respected chieftain, and mortal enemy of King Harald Fairhair of Norway. He migrates to Iceland, settling at Borg, the place where his father's coffin lands.

Egill composes his first poem at the age of three years. He exhibits berserk behaviour, and this, together with the description of his large and unattractive head, has led to the theory that he might have suffered from Paget's disease, which causes a thickening of the bones and may lead eventually to blindness.[5]

At the age of seven, Egill is cheated in a game with local boys. Enraged, he goes home, procures an axe, and, returning to the boys, splits the skull to the teeth of the boy who had cheated him.[6] After Berg-Önundr refuses to allow Egill to claim his wife Ásgerðr's share of her father's inheritance, he challenged Önundr to a man-to-man fight on an island (a holmgangr). Berg-Önundr refuses the challenge but is later killed along with his brother Hadd by Egill. Egill is later to kill the last of the brothers, Atli the Short, by biting through Atli's neck during a holmgangr.

Later, after being grievously insulted, Egill kills Bárðr of Atley, a retainer of King Eiríkr Bloodaxe and kinsman of Queen Gunnhildr, both of whom spend the remainder of their lives trying to take vengeance. Seething with hatred, Gunnhildr orders her two brothers, Eyvindr Braggart and Álfr Aksmann, to assassinate Egill and his brother Þórólfr, who has been on good terms with her previously. However, Egill slays the Queen's brothers when they attempt to confront him.

In spring Þórólfr and Egill prepare a large warship and raid along the Eastern route (Austrvegr), where they win much wealth and have many battles. In Courland they make a peace for half a month and trade with the men of the land (ch. 46).

That same summer, Haraldr Fairhair dies. In order to secure his place as sole King of Norway, Eiríkr Bloodaxe murders his two brothers. He then declares Egill an outlaw in Norway. Berg-Önundr gathers a company of men to capture Egill, but is killed during his attempt to do so. Before escaping from Norway, Egill also slays Rögnvaldr, the son of King Eiríkr and Queen Gunnhildr. He then curses the King and Queen, setting a horse's head on a Nithing pole and saying

"Here I set up a níð-pole, and declare this níð against King Eiríkr and Queen Gunnhildr,"—he turned the horse-head to face the mainland—"I declare this níð at the land-spirits there, and the land itself, so that all will fare astray, not to hold nor find their places, not until they wreak King Eiríkr and Gunnhildr from the land." He set up the pole of níð in the cliff-face and left it standing; he faced the horse's eyes on the land, and he carved runes upon the pole, and said all the formal words of the curse. (ch. 57).

Gunnhildr also puts a spell on Egill, cursing him to feel restless and depressed until they meet again.

Soon afterwards, Eiríkr and Gunnhildr are forced to flee to the Kingdom of Northumbria by Prince Hákon. In Saxon England, they become King and Queen of Northumbria in rivalry with King Athelstan of England. In time, Egill is shipwrecked in Northumbria and comes to know who rules the land. Egill seeks out the house of his good friend Arinbjörn, where they arm themselves and march to Eiríkr's court. Arinbjörn tells Egill "now you must go and offer the king your head and embrace his foot. I will present your case to him." Arinbjörn presents Egill’s case and Egill composes a short drápa, reciting it with Eiríkr’s foot in his hand, but Eiríkr is not impressed. He explains that Egill’s wrongs to him were far too great to be forgiven so easily. Gunnhildr calls for the immediate execution of Egill, but Arinbjörn convinces the king not to kill him until the morning.

Arinbjörn tells Egill that he should stay up all night and compose a mighty head-ransom poem or drápa fit for such a king, a poem in praise of his enemy. In the morning Egill goes back before king Eiríkr and recites the great drápa. This twenty-stanza long head-ransom poem appears in Chapter 63 of Egils saga. Eiríkr is so surprised by the quality of the poem that he decides to give Egill his life, even though Egill has killed Eiríkr's own son. The complex nature of these poems, with complex poetic metres and metaphors (including kennings), as well as the fact that they were often about kings reliably attested in the historical record, provides some basis for supposing that they might have been composed by a historically real Egill Skallagrímsson, descending more or less unchanged through oral tradition from the time of their composition to the writing of Egils saga. Egils saga and some other Icelandic sagas appear to hang on a skeletal framework of such complex poetry, a spine of historical truth.[7]

Egill also fights at the Battle of Brunanburh in the service of King Æthelstan; his brother Þórólfr dies there, for which Egill receives two chests of silver from Æthelstan in compensation.[8]

Ultimately, Egill returns to his family farm in Iceland, where he remains a force to be reckoned with in local politics. He lives into his eighties, grows blind, and dies shortly before the Christianisation of Iceland. Before Egill dies he buries his silver near Mosfellsbær. In his last act of violence he kills the servants who help him bury his treasure.

When a Christian chapel is constructed at the family homestead, Egill's body is exhumed by his son and re-buried near the altar. According to the saga, the exhumed skull bone was hit with an axe, and it only turned white, showing the strength of the warrior, but also, according to one modern interpretations, suggesting the traits of Paget's disease.[5]


According to Egils saga, Egill has five children with Ásgerðr Björnsdóttir: Þorgerðr Egilsdóttir, Bera Egilsdóttir, Böðvar Egilsson, Gunnar Egilsson and Þorsteinn Egilsson. In later years, Iceland's Mýrar clan claimed descent from him.


Apart from being a warrior of immense might in literary sources, Egill is also celebrated for his poetry, considered by many historians to be the finest of the ancient Scandinavian poets[5][9] and Sonatorrek, the dirge over his own sons, has been called "the birth of Nordic personal lyric poetry". His poems were also the first Old Norse verses to use end rhyme.[10] The following works are attributed to Egill:

  1. Aðalsteinsdrápa. Drápa for the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelstan.
  2. Höfuðlausn ("The Head Ransom", sometimes referred to as "Head-Ransom"), with which Egill bought his life from Eiríkr Bloodaxe, who had sentenced him to death in England.
  3. Sonatorrek ("The Loss of a Son"). After the death of his son Böðvar who drowned during a storm.
  4. Arinbjarnarkviða. Dedicated to his companion Arinbjörn
  5. Skjaldardrápa.
  6. Berudrápa.
  7. Lausavísur.
  8. Fragments

The following is one of Egill's Lausavísur (no. 3), found in chapter 40 of Egils Saga:

Þat mælti mín móðir,
at mér skyldi kaupa
fley ok fagrar árar,
fara á brott með víkingum,
standa upp í stafni,
stýra dýrum knerri,
halda svá til hafnar
höggva mann ok annan.
Translation by Herman Pálsson and Paul Edwards[12]
"My mother wants a price paid
To purchase my proud-oared ship
Standing high in the stern
I'll scour for plunder.
The stout Viking steersman
Of this shining vessel:
Then home to harbour
After hewing down a man or two."
More literal translation (Wikipedia)
"Thus spake my mother
That for me should they buy
A barque and beauteous oars
To go forth with vikings.
Stand in the stern,
Steer a dear vessel,
Hold course for a haven,
Hew down many foemen."


Egill was also a scholar of runes. His apparent mastery of their magic powers assisted him several times during his journeys. During a feast at Atla-isle, Bard's attempt to poison Egill failed when a rune carved by Egill shattered his poisoned cup.

At a companion's request, he examined a sick woman. A local land owner, after being denied her hand in marriage, had attempted to carve love-runes. Instead, he had mistakenly carved runes causing illness. Egill burned the offending runes and carved runes for health, and the woman recovered. He then sang a poem declaring that "Runes none should grave ever/Who knows not to read them."

As for the sick young woman, in addition to burning the runes, Egill ordered her to be lifted out of bed and her old bedding to be thrown away and replaced with new sheets. Recovery was swift.

Runes were also employed by Egill during the raising of the Nithing Pole against King Eirik Bloodaxe and Queen Gunnhildr.

Egill in popular culture[edit]

  • The Icelandic brewery Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson is named after him.
  • There is a talk show on Icelandic television called Egill's Silver, named after Egill's hidden treasure (the title is also a play on words with the host's name being Egill.)
  • "Egill's Silver" is also the name of a song by Megas, from his first album.
  • In the SCA Barony of Adiantum there is an "Egil Skallagrimsson Memorial Tournament" held annually on memorial day weekend.
  • The novelist Poul Anderson (a member of the SCA) wrote Mother of Kings,[13] a historical fantasy centered on Gunnhildr and the long feud that she, Eirikr, and their children had with Egill. The novel is based on Heimskringla and Egils Saga.
  • "Egil Saga" is a song on the album Licht by the German band, Faun. The lyrics are taken from "Egils Saga" and tell the story of the girl made sick by the runes and how Egil cured her.


  1. ^ Palsson and Edwards pp. 248–49
  2. ^ a b Thorsson, 3
  3. ^ Skalla- refers to his baldness and Grímr was a frequent name, being one of the names of Óðinn, but also being a heiti for snake, billy-goat and dwarf
  4. ^ Pálsson, Hermann (1999). "The Sami People in Old Norse Literature". Nordlit. 3 (1): 29–53. doi:10.7557/13.2143. The following nouns were used about people of mixed parentage:".."halftroll 'a half troll'. This is used as the nickname of Hallbjorn of Ramsta in Namdalen, father of Ketill hoengr, and ancestor of some of the settlers of Iceland, including Skalla-Grimr.
  5. ^ a b c Byock, Jesse L. (January 1995). "Egil's Bones". Scientific American. pp. 82–87. Retrieved 2015-07-06 – via The Viking Site.
  6. ^ "Egil at the Ball-Play". Egil's Saga. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1930. p. 75.
  7. ^ Johnson, Kevin. "What Made the Vikings Tick?".
  8. ^ "Egil's Saga". The Sagas of Icelanders. Penguin Books, 2000. 109–119. Print.
  9. ^ "Egil Skallagrimsson and the Viking Ideal". Retrieved 2016-01-03.
  10. ^ Jansson 1980:26-27
  11. ^ Edited by Margaret Clunies Ross at Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages Archived 2007-08-31 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ Herman Pálsson and Paul Edwards (trs.). Egil's Saga. Harmondsworth, 1976. p. 94
  13. ^ New York: Tor (ISBN 0-765-34502-1, ISBN 978-0-7653-4502-8), 2001, 2003


  • Jansson, Sven B. (1980). Runstenar. STF, Stockholm. ISBN 91-7156-015-7
  • Palsson, Hermann and Edwards, Paul (Translators), Egil's Saga 1976, Penguin Classics
  • Thorsson, Örnólfur, ed. (2000). The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection. New York, New York: Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-14-100003-1

External links[edit]

  • Poems, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages.

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In Iceland Icelandic: