Olvir Hnufa

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17th-century manuscript of Egil's Saga, with an image depicting Olvir's nephew Egil Skallagrimsson.

Olvir Hnufa or Ölvir hnúfa was a Norwegian hersir and skald of the late ninth and early tenth centuries, known from, among other sources, Egil's Saga, Skaldatal and the Prose Edda. Olvir was the son of the viking Berle-Kari and brother-in-law of Kveldulf Bjalfason, who married Olvir's sister Salbjorg Karadottir; he was thus uncle to Skallagrim and Thorolf Kveldulfsson and great uncle to the famous poet Egil Skallagrimsson. Olvir also had a brother named Eyvind Lambi.[1] Olvir was a prominent member of the court of King Harald Fairhair, who united Norway under his rule in the late ninth or early tenth century. Among other famous skalds, he served as one of King Harald's court poets. He also served as a warrior in Harald's retinue, and fought at the pivotal Battle of Hafrsfjord on the king's flagship. He is best known for his involvement in the conflict between Harald and Olvir's kinsman Thorolf Kveldulfsson, which ended with the latter's death. Only a few fragments of Olvir's poetry survive.[2]


The name Ölvir has been defined as "priest of the shrine/sanctuary".[3] His nickname "hnufa" is something of a mystery. It is sometimes translated as hump; it is unknown whether this described a physical condition. However, it can also mean "snub", as in snub-nosed. Vigfusson pointed out that under Nordic law, "'hnufa' refers to a bondmaid whose nose has been cut off for theft thrice repeated; as a nickname it must refer to some hurt" suffered by Olvir.[4]

Viking career[edit]

Olvir and Eyvind joined their nephew Thorolf Kveldulfsson on a number of Viking expeditions after the latter received a longship as a gift from his father Kveldulf. They gained a great deal of profit from such voyages.[5] At a thing in Gaular, Olvir fell in love with Solveig Atladottir, the daughter of a jarl in Fjordane named Atli the Slender. The jarl refused Olvir permission to marry the girl, but he was so smitten that he abandoned his Viking life to be near her. A skald of some talent, he composed a number of love poems for Solveig.[6] For reasons not revealed in Egil's Saga, but probably related to his courtship of Solveig, Olvir was attacked and nearly killed in his home by Solveig's brothers shortly after King Harald of Vestfold's conquest of Møre. Atli did not long survive this encounter; after Harald Fairhair conquered Møre and Fjordane he assigned the governance of the former to Rognvald Eysteinsson and the latter to Hákon Grjótgarðsson. Hákon and Atli soon came into conflict over Sogn and fought a battle at Fjalir in Stafaness Bay, in which Hakon was killed. Atli was severely wounded in the battle and taken to a nearby island, where he died.[7]

Life in Harald's court[edit]

Norway ca. 872 CE (with Harald's kingdom shown in red) before the defining Battle of Hafrsfjord.

Fleeing his attackers, Olvir joined King Harald's retinue as a court skald, a post he would hold for many years along with such notables as Þorbjörn Hornklofi and Þjóðólfr of Hvinir.[8]

Olvir mollified the king's rage when Kveldulf refused to come pay homage by convincing Thorolf to join Harald's hird, or armed retinue.[9] Along with Thorolf and Eyvind Lambi, Olvir fought on Harald's ship at the Battle of Hafrsfjord (probably around 885). Over the years, both as a result of slander by Thorolf's enemies, and of Thorolf's growing popularity and power in northern Norway, Harald began to see him as a threat; despite Olvir's continuous attempts to ameliorate the deterioration in the relationship between the two.[10]

Even when the king attacked Thorolf's farm, Olvir still pleaded to save his kinsman's life. After Thorolf was killed by Harald, the king gave his body to Olvir for burial. Olvir tried to convince Harald to pay wergeld for Thorolf but the king consistently refused, claiming that Thorolf was a traitor. Ultimately, Olvir went to Fjordane to tell Kveldulf and Skallagrim Kveldulfsson of Thorolf's death. Skallagrim went with Olvir to King Harald after Thorolf's murder. He demanded compensation, or monetary compensation, which resulted in his being chased out of the king's court. Together with his father Kveldulf, and their kinsman Ketil Trout, Skalla-Grimr took revenge by killing those of Harald's servants who took part in Thorolf's killing before fleeing to Iceland.[11]

Following these events, Olvir begged Harald to permit him to leave the court and return to his own estate, saying that he had "no desire to sit with the men who murdered Thorolf". The king, however, refused, and, in the words of William Pencak, "Olvir, the would-be peacemaker who sold out to the king, is condemned to a life of praising his family's murderers."[12]

Olvir's subsequent fate is not recorded. There is no record of his ever having married or having had children.[13]

The Hauksbók contains a tale called the Skaldasaga Haralds harfagra ("Saga of the Skalds of Harald Fairhair") describing an expedition to Sweden undertaken by Olvir, Thorbjorn Hornklofi, and Audun Ill-skald to expiate an offense. Its historiocity is disputed.[14]


Olvir is quoted by Snorri Sturluson in the Skaldskaparmal as having composed the following stave about the god Thor: "Æstisk allra landa umbgjörð ok sonr Jarðar." ("The encircler of all lands [The Midgard Serpent or Jörmungandr ] and Iord's son [Thor] became violent.")[15] Another poetic fragment attributed to him in the Skaldatal reads: "Maðr skyldi þó molda megja hverr of þegja kenni-seiðs þó at kynni klepp-dæg Hárrs lægvar." ("Yet every man should know how to hold his peace even though -").[16]

William Pencak compared Olvir's poetic career unfavorably with that of his grandnephew Egil: "A tyrant needs insincere poets to praise him, and Olvir's career illustrates the problem of artists and thinkers serving political ends ... the saga does not quote any of his poems. First Olvir is the slave of a woman, then of a king. The difference between his poetry and Egil's will demonstrate the opportunities for talent a free society opens up."[17]


  1. ^ Egil's Saga § 1 (Thorsson 8). In Egil's Saga, Olvir and Eyvind appear to be roughly the same age as Thorolf, despite being from different generations of the same family.
  2. ^ E.g., Vigfusson 26.
  3. ^ Peterson, citing Widmark 1965, 1991 s. 48, 58, Kousgård Sørensen 1989b s. 8, 11 f. notes that some scholars have considered it to contain a cognate of Gothic alhs ("temple") and that the original meaning would have been "priest of the sanctuary".
  4. ^ Vigfusson 25; see also Cleasby 277.
  5. ^ Egil's Saga § 1 (Thorsson 9).
  6. ^ Egil's Saga § 2 (Thorsson 9).
  7. ^ Saga of Harald Fairhair § 12 (Hollander 69).
  8. ^ Egil's Saga § 4 (Thorsson 11).
  9. ^ Egil's Saga §§ 5–8 (Thorsson 12–17).
  10. ^ Egil's Saga §§ 13–16 (Thorsson 23–28).
  11. ^ Egil's Saga §§ 22–27 (Thorsson 34–47).
  12. ^ Pencak 85.
  13. ^ Jochens 357–392.
  14. ^ Islandica 63.
  15. ^ Young ___.
  16. ^ Vigfusson 26.
  17. ^ Pencak 83.


  • Cleasby, Richard and Guðbrandur Vigfusson. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Clarendon Press, 1874.
  • Harris, George William and Halldor Hermannsson et al., eds. Islandica: an Annual Relating to Iceland and the Fiske Icelandic Collection. Vol. 1. Cornell University Library, 1908.
  • Jochens, Jenny. "The Illicit Love Visit: An Archaeology of Old Norse Sexuality". Journal of the History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, No. 3 (University of Texas Press, Jan. 1991), pp. 357–392.
  • Pencak, William. The Conflict of Law and Justice in the Icelandic Sagas. Rodopi, 1995.
  • Peterson, Lena. Nordisk runnamnslexikon (2002).
  • Snorri Sturluson. "Skaldskaparmal". Prose Edda. trans: Jean Young. Bowes & Bowes, 1954.
  • Thorsson, Örnólfur, et al. "Egil's Saga". The Sagas of the Icelanders. trans: Bernard Scudder (Penguin Classics, 2000).
  • Vigfusson, Guðbrandur and Frederick York Powell. Corpus Poeticum Boreale: The Poetry of the Northern Tongue from the Earliest Times to the Thirteenth Century. Clarendon Press, 1883.