The first Viking

Leg­end and his­tory meet with Rag­nar Loðbrók, the Viking fore­fa­ther who fought mon­sters and led raids on Saxon Eng­land

All About History - - THE FIRST VIKING - Writ­ten by Edoardo Al­bert

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

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