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Egill Skallagrímsson (Egill)
Skj info: Egill Skallagrímsson, Islandsk skjald; o. 900-983. (AI, 34-60, BI, 30-53).
This edition is currently in preparation. The biography below may represent a superseded edition, notes and/or an interim or draft version. Do not cite this material without consulting the volume and skald editors.
Egill Skallagrímsson (Egill) was born in the west of Iceland to the Norwegian settler Skallagrímr Kveldúlfsson (see separate Biography) and his wife Bera Yngvarsdóttir, probably some time in the last years of the ninth century or the first decade of the tenth. Details of his family’s extensive settlement and his descendants are recorded in Landnámabók (ÍF 1, 68, 70-1, 95 n. 8) as well as in the anonymous saga named for him, Egils saga (Eg), usually considered one of the earliest of the sagas of Icelanders and by many the work of Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), who was descended from Egill on his mother’s side. The attribution to Snorri is plausible though by no means certain (cf. Hallberg 1962b; West 1980; Vésteinn Ólason 1968 and 1990; Torfi Tulinius 2004).
Most of the details of Egill’s life come from his saga and the poetry transmitted in it or in connection with it. According to these sources, he took after his father and paternal grandfather in being dark, ugly, aggressive and independent. These character traits caused all three men to fall foul of two generations of Norwegian kings, Haraldr hárfagri ‘Fair-hair’ Hálfdanarson and Eiríkr blóðøx ‘Blood-axe’ Haraldsson, and to seek sanctuary in Iceland. Even as a boy, Egill displayed all these qualities in large measure, as well as an outstanding ability as a poet. His brother Þórólfr, on the other hand, like his paternal uncle of the same name in the previous generation, became a king’s man. Egill travelled to Norway but became embroiled in bitter conflict with Eiríkr and his queen Gunnhildr, who was particularly hostile to Egill, and he was outlawed as a consequence. With his brother, he then travelled to England and sought service with King Aðalsteinn (OE Æþelstan); the brothers participated in the battle of Vínheiðr (thought by many scholars to be equivalent to the Old English Brunanburh, fought in 937; cf. Hollander (1933) on the literary ‘ingredients’ of this narrative). Þórólfr was killed in action and, after Egill confronted Aðalsteinn in an outrageously overbearing manner (as the saga has it), the king compensated him handsomely for his loss and promised him his friendship. Egill then returned to Norway and married his brother’s widow, Ásgerðr, went back to Iceland and took up farming. However, marrying Ásgerðr brought with it some complex legal baggage back in Norway, and after her father’s death, Egill returned to Norway to try to claim her inheritance from her half-sister’s husband, Berg-Ǫnundr. He almost succeeded but the king and queen intervened to prevent him, in the process killing some of his men, and either confiscating or destroying his property. Egill retaliated by killing his enemies, who included a number of the king’s men as well as the king’s son Rǫgnvaldr, who was only a boy. To make sure his vengeance against the king and queen worked, he raised a níðstǫng, an ‘insult-pole’, against them, calling upon the guardian deities of Norway to drive the pair from the land. He then returned to Iceland.
Eiríkr was driven from Norway by one of his own brothers, Hákon Aðalsteinsfóstri ‘Foster-son of Aðalsteinn’, after he had killed two other brothers in a struggle for the throne. With Gunnhildr, he established himself in Northumbria, and ruled this kingdom from York (Jórvík). According to the saga, Gunnhildr’s magic drew Egill from Iceland to England, where he thought to visit his friend Aðalsteinn, who, according to the saga (and quite unhistorically, as the king died in 939), was still alive. (The unhistorical notion that Eiríkr’s reign in Northumbria occurred during Aðalsteinn’s lifetime is also to be found in Ágrip (Ágr 2008, 16-17 and n. 31, pp. 90-1).
Egill travelled to England via Orkney and Scotland, but his ship was wrecked in the mouth of the River Humber, where he heard that Eiríkr was in residence at nearby York. Gunnhildr’s magic had thus drawn him irrevocably into the king’s power and it was in this desperate situation, and on the advice of his friend Arinbjǫrn, who was also one of the king’s men, that he composed his Hǫfuðlausn (Hfl) and so ransomed his head. Afterwards he visited Aðalsteinn, and, after many conflicts and lawsuits, eventually gained his wife’s inheritance in Norway. He then retired to Iceland, settled down and became a successful farmer and landowner, living until an advanced old age. In later life he suffered the loss of two of his sons, a circumstance that occasioned his elegaic poem Sonatorrek (St). He also composed poetry (notably Arinbjarnarkviða, Arkv) in honour of his friend Arinbjǫrn.
Egill was a prolific poet but not a court poet in the conventional sense, as most of his oeuvre has been transmitted only in medieval mss and later copies of Eg, aside from the quotation of some of his poetry in the grammatical treatises. He is credited with forty-eight lausavísur across the mss of Eg, as well as with six drápur, three of which have survived in some form or other. Skáldatal (SnE 1848-87, III, 253, 261, 273, 284, 285) names Egill as a poet of Eiríkr blóðøx, Aðalsteinn of England and the Norwegian hersar Arinbjǫrn Þórisson and Þorsteinn Þóruson.
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