Egil's Saga

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Egill Skallagrímsson in a 17th-century manuscript of Egil's Saga

Egil's Saga or Egill's saga (Old Norse: Egils saga [ˈeɣels ˈsɑɣɑ]; Icelandic pronunciation: [ˈeijɪls ˈsaːɣa] (audio speaker iconlisten)) is an Icelandic saga (family saga) on the lives of the clan of Egill Skallagrímsson (Anglicised as Egil Skallagrimsson),[1] an Icelandic farmer, viking and skald. The saga spans the years c. 850–1000[2] and traces the family history from Egil's grandfather to his offspring.

Its oldest manuscript (a fragment) dates back to 1240 AD, and comprises the sole source of information on the exploits of Egil, whose life is not historically recorded. Stylistic and other similarities between Egil's Saga and Heimskringla have led many scholars to believe that they were the work of the same author, Snorri Sturluson.[3][4][5] The work is generally referred to as Egla [ˈɛkla] by Icelandic scholars.[citation needed]


A map including many of the locations Egil travels to
A reference map of Egil's Saga (Norway)

The saga begins in Norway around 850, with the life of Egil's grandfather Ulf (Úlfr) aka Kveldulf or "Evening Wolf", and his two sons Thorolf (Þórólfr) and Skallagrim (Skalla-Grímr). Strife with the royal house drive the family out of the country, and they settle in Iceland. The brothers Egil and Thorolf Skallagrimsson are born. They have a tenuous tenure in Norway, but Egil is outlawed and they roam Scandinavia and serve the king of England. Egil tries to reclaim property back in Norway (as his wife's inheritance), but this is blocked, and Egil develops a personal vendetta against the King.

There are also vivid descriptions of his other fights and friendships, his relationship with his family (highlighted by his jealousy, as well as fondness for his older brother Thorolf), his old age, and the fate of his own son Thorstein (Þorsteinn, who was baptized once Roman Catholicism came to Iceland) and his children, who had many children of their own. The saga ends around the year 1000 and spans many generations.

Kveldulf's lineage[edit]

Ulf (Kveldulf) had Hallbjorn Halftroll as his maternal uncle, and was known for his surpassing size and strength. He had accrued land and property from viking raids, and was a man of wisdom. He earned the nickname Kveldulf (Kveldúlfr, "Evening Wolf") because of his erratic temper at nightfall, and reputation for manifesting the so-called "shape-shifter" (hamrammr) abilities,[6] explained in later chapters to be comparable (or equatable) with berserk fury.[7][8][9] Extreme personal traits like these are manifested by his son Skallagrim[a] and his grandson Egil as well.

Strife with Harald Fairhair of Norway[edit]

King Harald Fairhair (Haraldr Hárfagri) was warring to unite all of Norway. Kveldulf refused to assist the local king of Fjordane, but rebuffed Harald's overtures as well, incurring his wrath. A compromise was mediated by Olvir Hnufa (Ölvir hnúfa or "Olvir Hump"), Kveldulf's brother-in-law[b] and Harald's court poet: Kveldulf was to send his elder son Thorolf, as soon as he returned from viking expedition. Thorolf served the king well, but suspicion fell on him due to his becoming overly successful, exacerbated by words of slanderers. Thorolf was killed by the king who led a band of warriors, and the rift would force Skallagrim and his father Kveldulf to flee Norway to settle in Iceland.

Skallagrim journeyed to Harald's court seeking compensation for the death of his brother Thorolf, but offended the king and had to make a hasty exit empty-handed. Skallagrim and Kveldulf then recaptured a boat that had been seized from Thorolf, and after killing everyone on board, sent a taunting poem to the King.[12] In the battle, Kveldulf displayed his "frenzy" (hamrammr or hamremi), which left him severely weakened. When the family emigrated to Iceland, Kveldulf did not survive the trip, and his coffin was set adrift. Near the spot where the coffin washed ashore in Iceland, Skallagrim established his settlement, which he named Borg. He took up a peaceful livelihood as a farmer and blacksmith, and raised his sons, Thorolf (named Þórólfr after his slain brother), and Egil (the titular hero).[13]

Skallagrim's sons[edit]

A map showing locations of key character's homes and important events
A reference map of Egil's Saga zoomed in on Western Iceland (Borgarfjord)

The saga then proceeds to describe the lives of Thorolf and Egil Skallagrimsson, born in Iceland, and eventually making their way to Norway in adulthood. Thorolf visited Skallagrim's old friend in Norway, Thorir the Hersir (Þórir Hróaldsson).[c] Here Thorolf befriended Prince Eirik Bloodaxe, Harald's favorite son and Thorir's fosterling. He approached the prince with a gift of a painted warship that Eirik was admiring, on advice of Bjorn (Björn Brynjólfsson), Thorir's brother-in-law.[d][e][15]

Afterwards Eirik Bloodaxe was crowned co-king,[f] and as Thorolf headed home to Iceland, the king gave him a gold-inlaid ax as a gift to Skallagrim. Skallagrim abused the ax (named "King's Gift" or konungsnautr) and shattered it, reciting an insulting poem about it to Thorolf and handing back what was left of the axe, a sooty handle with a rusted blade.[16] Thorolf flung the axe overboard, but reported to King Eirik that his father was grateful for the axe, presenting a bolt of longship sail cloth pretended to be from Skallagrim.[11] In this way Thorolf managed to somewhat keep the peace between Skallagrim and King Eirik Bloodaxe.

Egil (Egill)'s boyhood foreshadowed his future rebelliousness and poetic prowess. His unbridled behavior and strength beyond his age earned him a stay at home when a feast was held by Yngvar (Egil's maternal grandfather). Egil defiantly rode a horse to attend, and composed his first skaldic verse at age three. At the age of seven while playing in the ball games (knattleikr), he committed his first murder (axe-killing an older boy who outclassed him in the sport).[g][11] By the time Egil was twelve very few grown men could compete with him in games, but when he and his friend[h] challenged his father one day, Skallagrim manifested such strength at nightfall that he slammed the friend dead against the ground. Egil's life was only saved when Egil's fostra (a female slave that had acted as Egil's nurse as a child) tried to calm Skallagrim down and was killed instead.[a] Egil was so upset he killed one of his father's favorite workers, and the two were not on speaking terms.[11]

Conflict with Eirik Bloodaxe over ale[edit]

The summer after Egil's father killed his friend, Thorolf came home to visit Iceland. Egil forcibly insisted on accompanying Thorolf back to Norway, although Thorolf was reluctant.[11] On this trip, Thorolf took his prospective wife, Asgerd (Ásgerðr Bjarnardóttir), who had been reared in Iceland,[17] to ask her father Bjorn and uncle Thorir for permission to marry. While staying with Thorir, Egil became attached to Thorir's son Arinbjorn (Arinbjörn Þórisson), an important figure in the saga and Egil's lifelong friend.[19]

Egil missed the wedding on account of illness,[i] and joined Thorir's men on an errand in Atloy, where he was slighted by the king's steward Bard (Bárðr), and wound up killing him. When Bard received Egil's party, he would only serve curd (skyr) to drink, pretending ale had run out.[j] But later that night when king and queen arrived for the feast to the dísir, ale was served plentifully. Egil relentlessly jibed Bard about the deceit with sarcastic poetry, and his unquenchable thirst embarrassed the host. Bard and the queen sent Egil a poisoned drink, but the attempt was foiled by Egil, who inscribed runes on the horn and besmeared it with his own blood, causing the horn to shatter. Egil then went up to Bard and stabbed him to death with his sword. Discovering Egil had fled, Eirik ordered an unsuccessful manhunt to have Egil killed, and lost several men. Despite the affront, Eirik was persuaded by Thorir (his foster-father) to settle this by compensation.[21]

Serving England, Thorolf falls in battle[edit]

Egil joined the army of King Æthelstan, and he composed a drápa in praise of the king.[k] Egil and Thorolf fought with King Æthelstan in a battle against "Olaf the Red of Scotland".[l] Thorolf was killed, and King Æthelstan compensated Egil for Thorolf's loss with two chests full of silver.[m][24]

Inheritance case at the Gula-Thing[edit]

Egil married his brother Thorolf's widow, Asgerd.[25] Some time later, Asgerd's father Bjorn the Wealthy died in Norway, but she received no inheritance, the entire estate having been claimed by Berg-Onund, married to Gunnhild Bjarnardottir (Asgerd's half-sister). Egil wanted to claim half-share for his wife, but the prospect was bleak because Berg-Onund was a favorite of Eirik and his consort Gunnhild. The case was argued at the Gulaþing assembly, where Berg-Onund asserted that Asgerd as a slave-woman entitled to no share (due to the circumstance that her mother eloped without her kinsmen's consent). Asbjorn countered with witnesses swearing that Asgerd was acknowledged as heiress, but the processing was blocked by Queen Gunnhild who ordered a henchmen to disrupt the assembly. Egil made threat against anyone who tried to make use of the disputed farm, and fled by ship. Eirik pursued with a fleet, and a skirmish ensued.[26]

Eirik's power, cursed by Egil[edit]

Harald Fairhair dies, and Eirik becomes King of Norway, eliminating two of his brothers who were rivals to the crown. Eirik declares Egil an outlaw to be killed on sight, and Egil vows vengeance, especially against the manipulative queen. Egil's movements are under surveillance, and when he appears to leave the country, Berg-Onund dismissed the men he had gathered for protection and traveled not far from his home (Ask) to the king's farm at Aarstad. By chance, calm winds force Egil back to shore to the same location. Egil commits massacre, killing Onund, as well as Eirik's 10 year-old prince Rognvald. To top it off, Egil erects a scorn-pole (Nithing pole) with a horse head mounted on top, laying a curse that the nature spirits drive King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild away from Norway.[27] The hoped-for outcome of the curse does become reality.

The saga makes note of the death of Skallagrim, Egil's father.[28]


Eirik ruled just 1 year before being ousted as Norwegian king by his brother Hakon the fosterling of King Æthelstan in England. Eirik left Norway with his family, and eventually appointed king over Northumbria by Æthelstan of England.[n] Two years later, Egil sailed to England intending to see Æthelstan and was captured by Eirik Bloodaxe. Eirik was furious, but Arinbjorn Thorisson convinced Eirik to spare Egil's life if he could compose a poem in his honor. Egil succeeded (by reciting Höfuðlausn or "Head Ransom"), and Eirik allowed him to leave on condition that he never appeared again before Eirik's sight.[29] Egil made his way to see King Æthelstan, who was fostering Thorstein (Þorsteinn), a kinsman of Arinbjorn. While visiting, word arrived from Norway that Thorstein's father died leaving him a large inheritance. Þorsteinn, Arinbjorn and Egil made plans to sail to Norway to claim Thorsteinn's share. Before they leave, King Æthelstan convinced Egil to move to England and command his armies after their task is completed.

Egil returned to Iceland and spent a few years with his family. During this time, both Kings Æthelstan and Eirik Bloodaxe died, leaving Eirik's brother Hakon ruler of Norway. Egil returned to Norway to claim lands won in a duel with Atli the Short on behalf of his wife Asgerd. Along the way Egil stayed with Arinbjorn, whom he convinces to go to King Hákon on his behalf. Hákon denied Egil's claim, so Arinbjörn compensated Egil with forty marks of silver.

Egill and Arinbjörn went raiding in Saxony and Frisia, after which they stayed with Thorstein Thoruson (Þorsteinn Þóruson). King Hakon requested Thorstein to collect tribute in Värmland or be sentenced to outlawry. Egil went in Thorsteinn's place. Egil traveled with some of King Hákon's men to Värmland and fought battles, Egil killing many times more foes than his companions.

Egil lived to be an old age. Arinbjörn became a close advisor to Harald Eiríksson, to whom Egil composed a poem. Egil's son Bodvar (Böðvar) died in a shipwreck. Egil composed a poem in his honor. Egil's son Thorsteinn has many feuds with Steinar, son of Onund Sjoni (Önundr sjóni Anason), over land and cattle grazing. Egil became frail and blind. His one last wish was to travel to the Althing and toss silver he received from King Æthelstan for the people to fight over. Since no one was able to accompany him, he wandered alone and allegedly concealed his silver treasure near Mosfellsbær, giving birth to the legend of silfur Egils ("Egill's Silver").


A view of Borg á Mýrum where Egill Skallagrímsson spent much of his life.

The character of Egil is complex and full of seeming contradictions.[30] His multifaceted nature reflects the extreme qualities of his family, a family of men who are either ugly or astoundingly handsome; a family which includes 'shape-shifters', who become suddenly mad, violent and cruel, though they may at other times be deliberate and wise; a family which neither submits to the will of kings, nor stands in open rebellion.[31] His character is also reflected in the storytelling conventions of the text, a difficult text populated by characters with similar or identical names, living out various permutations of very similar stories. The two handsome Thorolfs (Þórólfrs) die heroic deaths, while their brothers Skallagrim and Egil both die in old age after spitefully burying their wealth in the wilderness. The descendants of Kveldúlfr find themselves involved in two complicated inheritance feuds, at one time rejecting the claims of illegitimate children of a second marriage, and at another time claiming land on behalf of another illegitimate child born to similar circumstances.[32]

At times in Egil's saga Egil comes across as a brute who often acts quickly and irrationally for no reason. He appears to be a shallow creature and in many instances the only time he appears to put much thought into anything is when he composes and recites poetry. Egil is in reality a man of many virtues which are central to his character. He values honor, loyalty, respect, and friendship above all other things. He takes it as a great personal insult when someone breaks any of these values and as a result he typically destroys that person either through physical force or through poetry. His reactions are usually on a grand scale to the point where they are often outrageous and entertaining. The value code by which Egil lived was the same as that of many Scandinavians at the time of the story's composition. The story is set in a time when many people were migrating, most notably from Norway to Iceland. Life was harsh, particularly during the long, cold winters, when it was crucial for people to get along and work together.

Poetry is used throughout most of the saga and Egil is a master of the art. Egil's Saga takes place during a time of oral tradition. Poetry was used to establish a person's reputation for good or evil, and a great poem could make its characters immortal. Rulers valued poets for their ability to make or break a man, increasing his fame or besmirching his good name. As a poet, Egil was a powerful and valued man.

One of the first negative poems in Egil's saga is a threatening poem in chapter 27 that displays Skallagrim's power after he had just plundered a ship and killed many men.[33] Later, in chapter 38, Skallagrim composes an insulting poem about King Eirik after the king had given Skallagrim a gift not commensurate with his worth.[34] In chapters 55 and 81, Egil composes two powerful poems that show how grief-stricken he is when his brother Þórólfr and his son Böðvar (Bodvar) die.[35][36] These poems are also meant to honor the two. These are only a few examples of the many poems in the saga which portray people in a positive or negative light.

There are also poems which show a much softer side to the Icelandic male characters. One of these is in chapter 55 when King Æthelstan acknowledges the death of Egil's brother, Thorolf's, caused by the King's error in judgement.[35] Egil thanks the king with a number of praise poems showing how considerate and generous the king is. We see a very different side of Egil in chapter 56 when he declares his secret love for his future wife, in a love poem.[35] In chapters 60–62, Egil is confronted with a situation where he must greet King Eirik, with whom he is on bad terms. King Eirik wants Egil dead and at the urging of his friend Arinbjörn, Egil composes a drápa (one of the most complicated forms of poetry) of 20 stanzas praising the king. Thanks to the poem, Egil is allowed to leave Eiríkr's court alive, since killing him would make Eiríkr look like a fool. In chapter 80, Egil composes another praise poem of 25 stanzas expressing his gratitude towards his lifelong friend Arinbjörn for saving his life in his meeting with King Eiríkr.[36] These more positive poems show us a kinder side to the typically rough and violent people of Egils saga.

As a work of literature, Egil's Saga is generally considered to be amongst the best of the Icelandic sagas, along with Njáls saga, Gísla saga Súrssonar, and Laxdæla saga.


A detailed family tree connecting major and minor characters through blood and marriage can be found here


  • Nordal, Sigurður (ed.), Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, Íslenzk fornrit, 2 (Reykjavík, 1933)
  • Guðni Jónsson (ed.), Egils saga Skalla-grímssonar (Reykjavík: Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs og þjóðvinafélagsins, 1945) (
  • Bergljót Kristjánsdóttir and Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir (eds), Egils saga: Með formála, viðaukum, skýringum og skrám, Sígildar sögur, 2 (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1994) (
  • Bjarni Einarsson (ed.), Egils saga (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2003), (pdf)
  • Modernised spelling (source unclear), (snerpa)


  • Green, W. C. (1893). The Story of Egil Skallagrimsson. London: Elliot Stock. (,
  • Eddison, E. R. (1930). Egil's Saga. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jones, Gwyn (1960). Egil's Saga. New York: Twayne: The American Scandinavian Foundation.
  • Fell, Christine (1975). Egil's Saga. London: Dent. ISBN 0460872656.
  • Pálsson, Hermann; Edwards, Paul (1976). Egil's Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 0140443215.
  • Scudder, Bernard (1997). "Egil's Saga". In Hreinsson, Viðar (ed.). The Complete Sagas of Icelanders Including 49 Tales. Volume 1. Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson. ISBN 9979929308.
  • Scudder, Bernard (trans.) (2000) [1997]. Örnólfur Thorsson (ed.). Egil's Saga. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. Smiley, Jane (preface), Kellogg, Robert (Introduction). New York: Penguin. pp. 3–184. ISBN 9979929308.
    • Repr. Scudder, Bernard (2004). Egil's Saga. London: Penguin. ISBN 0140447709.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b It has been noted Skallagrim assumed the "shape-shifter's fury" when he nearly killed Egil.[10] This event occurred in chapter 41, when he has already killed Egil's friend Thord (Þórðr Granason). Kveldulf manifested amazing strength, but nothing is stated about a change in appearance.[11]
  2. ^ Olvir was the son of Kveldulf's close friend Kari (Kari from Berle, a berserk). Kveldulf married Kari's daughter Salbjorg.[6]
  3. ^ In fact, Thorir was Skallagrim's foster-brother.[14]
  4. ^ Bjorn had carried off Thorir's sister, and obtained consent for marriage after the fact. In the meanwhile, Bjorn had to flee, and was indebted to the hospitality of Thorolf's family in Iceland.
  5. ^ Bjorn's daughter, fostered with Skallagrim in Iceland, later became Thorir's wife (and afterward Egil's).
  6. ^ King over parts of Norway, Harald was not dead.
  7. ^ Egil proved a sore loser and struck with his bat the boy who was named Grim (Grímr). Grim shoved him to the ground, and after consulting his friend Thord (Þórðr Granason), Egil took revenge by driving an axe through Grim's head.
  8. ^ Thord (Þórðr Granason)
  9. ^ Sayers observes Egil must have faked an illness to skip the wedding, since he was already in love with Asgerd.[18]
  10. ^ Actually Bard also served another beverage that was not ale, called afr. This is translated "whey"[17] but in ancient times it meant an oat-brewed ale.[20]
  11. ^ For which he was rewarded with two gold rings, along with an expensive cloak that the king himself had worn.
  12. ^ Often commented as being the Battle of Brunanburh, but this identification has problems with historicity. Olaf here may be a composite of Olaf (Anlaf) Guthfrithson and Constantine II of Scotland who were chief participants of Brunanburh.[22] Identifying this Olaf as Anlaf Cuaran of Dublin (not a major participant in Brunanburh) is based on an error (mistranslation).[23]
  13. ^ Æthelstan also gave an armring, passing it to him at sword-point.
  14. ^ Eirik made alliance by marrying his daughter to Arnfinn, Earl of Orkney, and was raiding Scotland. Æthelstan mustered a host and then made this arrangement with Eirik


  1. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 3
  2. ^ Scudder 2000, p. 3
  3. ^ Pálsson & Edwards 1976, p. 7
  4. ^ Einarsson, Stefán (1957). A History of Icelandic Literature. New York: Johns Hopkins Press for the American-Scandinavian Foundation. p. 140. ISBN 0801801869. Retrieved 27 April 2014.
  5. ^ Tulinius, Torfi. "Islandica 57: The Enigma of Egill: The Saga, the Viking Poet, and Snorri Sturluson". Retrieved 2021-03-26.
  6. ^ a b Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 1
  7. ^ The term hamrammr is translated as "animal character", and its substantive form hamremi as "frenzy" (chapter 27).
  8. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 27.
  9. ^ Zoega, Icelandic Dictionary, p. 183: "hamrammr, (1) shapeshifter or (2) "seized with warlike fury" (berserks-gangr)"
  10. ^ Scudder 2000, preface, p. 6
  11. ^ a b c d e Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 41
  12. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapters 24, 25, 26, 27
  13. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 28
  14. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 25, p. 43
  15. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 36
  16. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 38
  17. ^ a b Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 35
  18. ^ a b Sayers (2016), p. 149.
  19. ^ Arinbjorn is to become mediator between Egil's family and the royal house, as Olvir had been in the previous generation.[18]
  20. ^ Cleasby and Vigfusson, Icelandic Dictionary, p. 40: "Áfr (perh. better afr) 1. a beverage, Eg. 204, translated by Magnaeus by sorbitio avenacea [beverage of oat] a sort of common ale brewed of oats".
  21. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapters 42–45
  22. ^ Kershaw, Nora Kershaw (1922), Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems, Cambridge University Press, pp. 128–9
  23. ^ Todd, James Henthorn (1867), The War of the Gaedhil with the Gail, Longmans, p. 280n
  24. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapters 54–55
  25. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 56
  26. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 57, Chapters 33–34; Pálsson & Edwards 1976, Ch. 33–34: "Bjorn had eloped with Thora against her kinsmen's wishes, and as a result the King had made him an outlaw in Norway."
  27. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 58
  28. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapter 59
  29. ^ Scudder 2000 trans., Chapters 60–61
  30. ^ "He is inflated far beyond the type of Viking hero, yet he also falls short of it, and while he is often on the edge of the tragic he eludes definition. He can be vicious, absurd, infantile, pathetic, but he is never dull, and though we may not like some of the things he does we are never allowed to settle into a fixed attitude towards him." - Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards translation, Penguin Classics, 1976
  31. ^ "But we have also seen how, in the course of the tale, Egil's personality is explored and elucidated not only in terms of his own actions and poetry, but in the actions and characters of his ancestors." - Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards translation, Penguin Classics, 1976
  32. ^ "At the root of the first half of the Saga are two family conflicts which extend far beyond the domestic issues which give rise to them, and lead ultimately to enmities with the royal household of Norway. These cases both begin with a man of wealth and power who marries twice, one of the two marriages being in some way of doubtful legality, and illustrate the effect upon the family of the two conflicting lines of descent." - Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards translation, Penguin Classics, 1976
  33. ^ Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. 3 May 2013.
  34. ^ Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. 3 May 2013.
  35. ^ a b c Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. 3 May 2013
  36. ^ a b Green, W. C. Egil's Saga. Icelandic Saga Database. 1893. 3 May 2013