The first Viking
Legend and history meet with Ragnar Loðbrók, the Viking forefather who fought monsters and led raids on Saxon England
Listen. Do you hear? That sound. That is the sound of lamentation. Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and Brynhild the Fair are dead. The trees whisper it, the rivers carry tidings to the heaving, restless sea; the rain and the wind, the sun and the stars tell the news: Sigurd is dead. Brynhild has departed.
There was a man who heard the whisper of rain and wind, who saw the tears of the sun and the grief of the stars. That man was Heimir, foster-father to Brynhild, and his grief for the fair Brynhild was as great as if she had been the daughter of his loins. Then Heimir laid down his plough and put aside his crown and forsook his kingdom.
For Brynhild and Sigurd had had a daughter, Aslaug, and they had asked Heimir to take her as foster-daughter in turn. However, Aslaug being only three years old, Heimir had not yet brought her to his own kingdom. But now Heimir put aside all else, even his grief, and rushed to Aslaug. For Sigurd had thrown down many men in his might and now that he was dead and fear of him no longer held his enemies in thrall, they would seek vengeance on his living memory, that the seed of Sigurd and Brynhild be utterly destroyed in this middle-earth.
Heimir brought Aslaug back to his kingdom, Hlymdal. But soon the news began to spread that the flesh of Sigurd and Brynhild lived with Heimir. Aslaug, even as a child, was too beautiful not to be marked. Rumour spread faster than frost: the child of Sigurd and Brynhild the Fair lives in Hlymdal. Heimir, listening, heard the howling, distant but coming closer. The wolves were gathering.
There was no keeping Aslaug in Hlymdal. But Heimir realised that he could not just flee, for wherever he went, the girl’s beauty and bearing would tell her lineage. No, he must go, but in going, he would have to keep his foster-daughter hidden, always, when they were in sight of men.
So Heimir had a marvellous harp made with cunning and craft, so that little Aslaug might be hidden within it. And with her, in the harp, Heimir stowed precious things: gold and silver, and fine clothes, for he foresaw that they would travel far. Leaving his kingdom, Heimir set forth, a wanderer, a beggar carrying a harp that he might play for his supper and his bed. They wandered far.
Whenever they were far from the eyes of men, Heimir would take the harp apart and let little Aslaug bathe. For food while Aslaug was shut in the harp, he gave to her a wine-leek, for its virtue is such that a person may live long on it, even when she has no other food to eat. And when Aslaug cried, for fear of the dark and the confinement of her safety, Heimir would play the harp, quietening her – he was marvellously skilled at the harp.
In his wanderings, Heimir came to Norway, to a farm called Spangareid. An old couple lived there, Áke and his wife Grima. When Heimir knocked on their door, Grima answered.
“Why come you here, stranger?” Grima asked.
“I mean you no harm, old woman,” said Heimir.
“I am a wanderer, a beggar, far from home. I ask only for a space near the fireside so that I might warm these old bones.”
“You’ll be asking me to feed you once you’re sitting by the fire, I’ll be bound,” said Grima.
But Heimir held up his hands, blue with cold. “I am a harpist. I want only to warm these fingers before the black cold takes them.”
“All right,” said Grima. “I’ll let you in. No food, mind. We’ve none to spare for beggars.”
As Grima fed the fire, Heimir set his harp down beside him then held his hands to the flames. But Grima, sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued, sharp-witted Grima, saw something hanging from the harp and as she bustled around the farmhouse she looked closer and saw it was a piece of the richest cloth. Grima realised that this was no ordinary beggar.
“Listen, beggar. I spoke harshly to you, for we see few enough people here on our farm. Stay, for my husband will be back from the forest, and I will give you food to eat, and a place for you to sleep tonight.”
Heimir looked at the crafty old woman but the snow blindness dimmed his sight and he did not see the guile glint in her eye. “I am grateful. I fear another night in the open would be the end of me.”
“Let me show you where you can sleep.”
So the old woman took Heimir to the barley barn and he lay down there, with the harp beside him, to sleep amid the warm sacks of barley.
While Heimir slept, Grima set to her tasks, but she was too excited to do much. So when Áke, her husband, came home, he found the house unswept, the fire unbanked, and the animals not fed.
Áke looked round, then looked to sharp-eyed Grima and said, “You must be very happy. For every day, I work, chopping wood and hauling it home until my fingers bleed while you sit and do nothing.”
Then sharp-tongued Grima said, “Would you like to do the work of a moment and, by that work, keep us fat and contented all the rest of our lives?”
“What work is that, old woman?” asked Áke.
“A man came to our farm today. An old man, a beggar he said. But I saw, with these sharp eyes, the gold glint from his finger and gold cloth in his harp.
“Rumour spread faster than frost: the child of Sigurd and Brynhild the Fair lives in Hlymdal”
He is very old but I think he must have been a great warrior when he was young. I put him in the barley barn and he is lying there.” Grima looked at her husband, and the thought of what she planned to do glinted in her eyes. “Fast asleep,” she added.
But Áke shook his head. “No. No. I will not do this thing that you ask.”
Sharp-tongued Grima cut him with her tongue. “Why did I marry a weakling? My mother told me to marry Svein. He wouldn’t have hesitated. If you won’t kill him, Áke, then so help me, I’ll take the beggar man for my husband and we’ll drive you out. You weren’t here when he came: you didn’t hear the honey words he poured over me. But I would not listen – I vowed to stay true to my husband. Much good that does me! Mark this, Áke, and mark it well: I’ll take him to my bed and kill you if you don’t take this chance.” Grima put her hand on Áke’s arm. “We won’t get another chance like this, Áke,” the woman wheedled, cunningly.
Then Áke nodded his head and he took his axe and sharpened it. Grima brought Áke to where Heimir lay, the harp by his side. He was snoring.
“Do it!” whispered Grima. “But run away after you strike, lest he lay hand on you.” Then Grima took the harp and ran back to the farmhouse.
Áke took his axe and stood beside the sleeping, snoring Heimir. He raised his axe and brought it down but, striking, the axe caught on bone and flew from his hands. Heimir roared from his sleep, limbs thrashing, and Áke fled from the barn. But the blow was deep, a death blow, although such were Heimir’s death throes that the whole barn came down.
Áke found Grima in the farmhouse with the harp. “It’s done,” he said.
“We’ll be rich,” said Grima. “Mark my words.”
But the old man shook his head. “This won’t end well. His blood will bring down blood on us.”
“Pah,” said the old lady. And she opened the harp. But, inside, they found a little girl.
“This will end badly,” said Áke.
“It’s true,” said Grima, “she is not what I expected. Who are you?” But to whatever question they asked, Aslaug gave no answer.
It was as if the young girl had no speech.
“This is bad,” said Áke.
“Nonsense,” said Grima. “I need some help around the house. She will be called Kráka, after my mother, and I will simply say, if anyone asks us, that she is our own daughter.”
“No one will believe you,” said Áke. “We’re both so ugly. No one will believe Kráka is our daughter.”
“I will make her ugly,” said Grima. “I will shave her head, and tar it, and dress her in rags, so people will think she is my daughter”.
Grima set the girl to doing chores on the farm. There Kráka grew up, in poverty and silence.
In Gautland there was a jarl named Harrud. He was wealthy and powerful, and he had a daughter named Þóra. Of all women she was the most beautiful and her manner was as lovely and gracious as her appearance. Her nickname was Fortress-hart, for she excelled other women as the deer excels other animals. Harrud doted on his daughter, and had a bower made for her use, near his hall.
Every day Harrud would send Þóra a gift. One day he sent her a little snake of great beauty. Þóra liked the snake and put it in a box with a piece of gold for its bed. But at once the snake began to grow, so that within a few days it was too big for its box, and it lay curled round it. Once out of the box, the snake grew quicker, so that it soon lay wrapped around Þóra’s bower and none might enter or leave save only the man who brought the serpent its food: a whole ox.
The gold beneath the snake grew with it too, so that it lay upon a great hoard. Then Harrud swore an oath that whatever man killed the snake and freed Þóra would have Þóra as his wife and the snake’s gold as her dowry. Many men heard this, but none dared to face the serpent.
The king of Denmark was Sigurd Hring. His fame was great, for he had killed Harald Wartooth at the battle of Brávellir.
Ragnar was the son of Sigurd. He was a giant among men, handsome, feared by his enemies and beloved of his friends. He had already gathered men to his warship and earned a reputation as a great warrior when he heard of the promise Jarl Herrud had made. But Ragnar made no oath, nor did he talk of the serpent that had imprisoned Þóra. Instead, he had some clothes made: shaggy trousers and a shaggy cape, which he boiled in tar. Then he sailed to Gautland and pulled his warship up on a beach not far from Jarl Harrud’s hall. But Ragnar did not go to greet the jarl that night. Instead, he woke early, before anyone else had got up, and Ragnar put on the tarcovered trousers and cape he had made, and he took a spear from the rack. Climbing down from his ship, Ragnar rolled on the beach, covering his trousers and
cloak in sand. Then he removed the rivet holding the spear head on its shaft.
Ragnar went through the dawn to the jarl’s hall.
All were sleeping there. Ragnar went to Þóra’s bower. He saw the serpent coiled round it, asleep. At once, he stabbed it with the spear. Pulling the spear out, he stabbed again, cutting through the serpent’s spine, and he twisted the spear so the spear head broke off.
In its death throes, a stream of acid blood gushed from the serpent, striking Ragnar. But the sandy cloak and shaggy trousers protected him from the deadly blood. Þóra, wakened by the death agony of the serpent, saw a hooded man striding away and she called after him. But Ragnar did not turn, and answered in riddles, before walking away.
Þóra wondered who the man might be who had killed the serpent and freed her: could such a giant be a man? When Jarl Harrud, wakened by the serpent’s death thrashing, came, he found the spear point embedded in the animal’s spine but so great was its size that Harrud too wondered if a man could have wielded such a weapon.
Then Þóra advised her father to call a great assembly of the people. For whoever had killed the serpent would carry the shaft that fitted the spear head that had slain the snake.
Ragnar and his men heard the call to assembly and went to it, sitting apart from the other men.
Jarl Harrud stood and spoke to his people. “The snake that held my daughter captive is dead and the man who killed it left in the beast its death.
“Let he who wielded that spear bring it forward and I shall keep my promise to him, whatever his degree.” Many men tried, but no one had a spear shaft that matched the spear head. Then Ragnar stood forth, and claimed the spear was his, and fitted the spear head to the shaft he carried. News of this deed spread through all the Northlands and beyond; Ragnar’s name was sung from the white north to Miklagard itself. Jarl Harrud, glad at so worthy a match, gave Þóra to be Ragnar’s wife, and he took her home to Denmark. Ragnar loved Þóra and she gave him two sons, Eirek and Agnar. They grew to be great men. But then Þóra took sick and died. In his grief, Ragnar put aside his kingdom, giving it to the keeping of others, and to still his sorrow he took to his warship and set sail.
One morning when they were anchored in a small inlet, Ragnar’s men woke early and took the rowing boat and rowed to land to bake bread. On the beach, they saw a farm not far away and the men took their wheat to the farm so that they might use its oven.
An old woman greeted them. The men asked her name and the old lady replied to them, “My name is Grima. Who are you?”
“We are the men of the great Ragnar Loðbrók. Now help us bake his bread.”
But the old woman held up her hands. Her fingers were twisted and bent. “These old hands can’t do such hard work. But I have a daughter who can do the baking for you. Her name is Kráka, but she has grown so headstrong I can barely control her. Ask her yourself when she gets back.”
Kráka had taken the cattle to water in the morning. But as she watered the cattle, she had seen the great ship, moored in the inlet, with painted shields lining its sides and the painted head of a great serpent at its prow. Seeing the ship, Kráka undressed and washed herself, despite Grima having forbidden it. Then she brushed her golden hair that had grown long. For few people came to Spangareid and, with so few visitors, Grima had grown lazy and stopped shaving Kráka’s head.
Leading the cattle, Kráka came home. And the men, bent over the fire, stopped what they were doing when they saw her and they turned to Grima and asked, “Is this your daughter?” “She is,” said Grima. “How can that be,” said the men, “when she is so beautiful and you are so ugly?”
“Don’t judge this old woman in her age: I was a beauty too when I was young.”
The men asked Kráka to help them bake the bread, telling her to knead the dough into loaves that they would then bake. Kráka bent over the dough, kneading it, then handing it to the men to bake. But the men could not stop turning to stare at her, so that they burned all the bread as they baked it. With the burnt bread, they returned to the ship. But when they served the bread to the crew, the crew complained that it was burnt.
“You had one task,” said Ragnar, who was hungry. “You could not even do that.”
“It’s not our fault,” said the men. “There was this woman there, and she was so beautiful we could not stop staring at her, and so we burned the bread.”
“No woman is as beautiful as Þóra,” said Ragnar and his voice was low and threatening.
But the men did not hear the threat and protested all the more that the woman they had seen was indeed more beautiful than Þóra.
Then Ragnar spoke. “I will send other men and they will bring back report of this woman of whom you speak. If it be as you say, then I will pardon your incompetence. But if she be one whit less beautiful than Þóra, then you will die.”
But when Ragnar’s messengers tried to sail to the beach, the headwind was too great and they could not reach the land.
Denied, Ragnar’s eagerness to see this maiden waxed and he told his men to give her this message: “If she is truly more beautiful than Þóra, then I want her for my bed. Tell her I will meet her, but that she must come to Ragnar Loðbrók naked but clothed, full yet hungry, alone and with company.”
“The sandy cloak and shaggy trousers protected him from the deadly blood”
When the wind turned, Ragnar’s messengers set sail. They landed and went up to the farmhouse and found Kráka waiting for them. Then they looked upon her and saw that the reports of her beauty were nothing less than the truth: she was more beautiful than Þóra the Fair. The messengers bowed before her, and told her they came with word from Ragnar Loðbrók.
Kráka said, “I will come to your ship tomorrow, as the great Ragnar Loðbrók commands.”
She watched the messengers sail back to Ragnar’s warship, moored in the bay. And through the night, Kráka thought upon Ragnar’s message. Then, when dawn was breaking, she went to see Áke. The old man was chopping wood. His dog, the only creature he loved, snarled at Kráka.
“Will you lend me your fishing net?” Kráka asked him. “I will catch us some fish for our lunch.”
“Take it,” said Áke. “Saves me getting wet and cold, standing in the bay.”
“I’ll need to take the dog too,” said Kráka, “or the gulls will steal the fish.”
“About time someone else did some work round here,” said Áke. “Go with her, dog.” The dog, disgruntled, followed Kráka back to the farmhouse. In the house, Kráka took an onion, then stripped her shift off and, naked, wrapped Áke’s net around her body and draped her long hair over her breasts.
“Come, dog,” Kráka said and, with the animal following, she went down to the bay. Grima saw her walking down to the beach: naked yet clothed, alone but with company. And she realised, suddenly, the wit of the girl who had been so long her drudge.
“But she is not full yet hungry.”
Then Grima saw Kráka raise the onion to her lips, bite into it, chew and then spit it out.
“Ragnar will smell the onion and know she has eaten but is not sated.”
Overnight Ragnar had moved his warship closer to the beach. Now, seeing her upon the strand, he called to her, asking if she was the one whom men said was fairer than Þóra the Fair.
“I come at the bidding of Ragnar, renowned through all the northlands – no maid would dare refuse him. As you commanded, I stand before you naked yet clothed, neither hungry nor full, alone but with a companion.”
“Come to me,” called Ragnar.
“I will come to you if you promise me and my companion safe conduct,” said the brave maiden.
“You shall have it,” said Ragnar. He sent his men to row her to the warship.
When Kráka stood before him, the blood rose in Ragnar Loðbrók as it had not done since Þóra, and he reached for her. But Áke’s dog, seeing this, bit Ragnar’s hand. Ragnar’s men prised the animal off the king and strangled it. Thus died the only creature that Áke, the old man, loved.
Ragnar’s wound was not deep, and he seated Kráka beside him while it was bound, and spoke with her.
“The kindness of a king might expect to be repaid by the embrace of a fair maid,” he said, and as he spoke he had his men lay out rich cloth and gold and jewels before Kráka.
But the maid replied, “A true king keeps his word. You have promised me safe conduct: surely you will honour your oath and let me go hence, a maid intact.” Ragnar said, “I would wish that you come with me.” Kráka shook her head. “I know well you have set forth upon some task: you are a viking, and it may well be that when you return you will have forgotten me. But know this, O King. If, when you sail again past the farm at Spangareid, you remember me, then I will give thought again on coming with you.”
Ragnar had his men bring forth a dress of woven gold, one that Þóra had worn, and laid it before Kráka. But Kráka refused the gift. “What suits this maid, who drives the goats to water, are rags, not the fine clothes of Þóra the All-fair. Nor can I wear such clothes while I live with Grima and Áke. But if you still wish me to go with you when you return, then send your men to call for me and I will listen to their words.”
Ragnar swore oath upon his gold armband that he would not forget Kráka. But Kráka gave him no more answer, and Ragnar had his men take her back to shore. Then, with the wind shifting, Ragnar set sail.
But always before his eyes was the memory of the maid who had come to him naked and yet clothed.
Then came the evening when, looking to the bay, Kráka saw the snake-prowed ship riding there, and men rowing to shore.
“The king has returned for you, as he swore,” Ragnar’s men told her.
“I will come with you in the morning,” said Kráka. As the sun rose, Kráka went to where Grima and Áke lay abed, and spoke to her foster-parents in tones she had never used before.
“You think me too young to remember what you did when first I came to you: how, though bound
by guest law, you killed my foster-father, Heimir the Faithful. But I remember well.”
Kráka pointed at Áke. “I killed the dog, which alone you loved, for in truth none could love Grima Sharp-tongue. I could have paid you back myself, killing you as you slept just as you killed Heimir, but in memory of the years I have lived with you I have stayed my hand. But know this: I now pronounce your doom. From today, each day that passes shall be worse than the day it follows, and the worst shall be your last. Now, we part forever.”
Then Kráka went to where the boat waited for her. The king welcomed her but when night came and he would sleep with her, Kráka refused.
“Before I come to your bed, I would have a wedding feast, and a welcome in your land.”
Ragnar, hearing the wisdom of this, accepted, but urged his men to sail all the faster. Once at his kingdom, Ragnar ordered a great wedding feast and Ragnar and Kráka were married. But that night, when Ragnar would lie with her for the first time, Kráka put her finger to his lips.
“Wait,” she said. “You have waited long, but wait just three nights more. For if we share a bed tonight, then my heart tells me the child I bear shall suffer for our impatience.”
But Ragnar roared with laughter. “I have waited months, Kráka, months.
“I have given you gold and silver, my kingdom and my heart. I will wait for you no longer.”
So that night they were joined, and their marriage healed the pain of Þóra’s loss. But the telling of Kráka’s heart proved true, for their first child, born of that first coupling, had gristle where his bones should have been, and he was named Ivar the Boneless. Though boundless in wit, his men had to bear him on their shields, for he could barely walk.
There were other sons born to Ragnar and Kráka: Björn and Halfdan. But some of Ragnar’s men began to whisper that it was not fit for a king to be married to a peasant. Eystein, king of the Swedes, had a daughter of great beauty. Ragnar should forget Kráka and marry the King’s daughter instead. But Kráka, hearing tell of this, told him the tale of how she was in fact Aslaug, the daughter of the hero Sigurd and the valkyrie Brynhild. But Ragnar would not believe her tale. Kráka said, “If my words be true, then the son who sits now in my belly will bear a mark like a snake lying in his eye, and you will call him Sigurd Snakein-the-eye.”
So it was. Kráka gave birth to a boy and when he opened his eyes for the first time, Ragnar saw there a mark like a coiled snake. And all men came to know that Kráka was, in truth, Aslaug, daughter of Sigurd Dragon Slayer and Brynhild the Fair.
The tale of their sons is told in the saga of the sons of Ragnar. It also tells of how Ragnar met his death when King Aelle cast him into a pit of serpents.
There too is told how Ragnar’s sons took terrible vengeance for the killing of their father, and many other things beside. But now, this tale of Ragnar Loðbrók is done.
“From today, each day that passes shall be worse than the day it follows, and the worst shall be your last”
Ragnar kills the serpent imprisoning Þóra, leaving his spear head embedded in the beast
Ragnar receives Kráka aboard his warship, naked but clothed, alone but with a companion (although the dog doesn’t last long)
An imagining of the discovery of Aslaug by Mårten Eskil Winge
Heimer and Aslaug fled from Sigurd’s enemies with the little girl hiding in Heimer’s harp
Another view of the meeting of Ragnar and the sharp-witted Aslaug