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Danelaw Years - 10: Hrolf 'Kraki', Fated and Feted Warrior King - Origins of the Saga

Updated on May 20, 2019

Heroes are born, not made...

Vendel helmet unearthed from ship burials north of Uppsala in central Sweden, believed to have been linked to the 6th Century Yngling dynasty - forebears of King Hrolf's enemy King Adhils
Vendel helmet unearthed from ship burials north of Uppsala in central Sweden, believed to have been linked to the 6th Century Yngling dynasty - forebears of King Hrolf's enemy King Adhils
'Let us walk together to the mead hall and drink to our friendship!'
'Let us walk together to the mead hall and drink to our friendship!' | Source

Hrolf 'Kraki' Helgisson was of the Skjoldung dynasty of Denmark,

one of the foremost - and semi-legendary - lines of kings of Old Scandinavia. Hundreds of years after this dynasty was washed away by the tide of life the Skjoldungs were recalled by the migrant Aengle (Angles) and Jutes in eastern and south-eastern Britain. They were part of a shared heritage, like Bjovulf (Beowulf). In the words of a Danish monk, Sven Aggesen who wrote in the late 12th Century, who wrote in a Latin history of the kings of the Danes, the dynasty's founder was named Skjold (pron. 'skiold') for his tireless fighting against the Danes' enemies.

Hrolf's Saga is the chief remaining source of the tale of this outstanding line of kings.Remnants of the Icelandic Saga of the Skjoldungs (Skjoeldunga Saga), an unknown writer's history of the Danish kings of pre-Viking Scandinavia also give a broader background knowledge on Hrolf's clan.

The text follows on from the founder Skjold through a score of generations and ends with Gorm 'the Old', the Viking era king who died in AD940 and was succeeded by his son Harald 'Blaatand' (pron. 'Blowtan') Gormsson. The Skjoldunga Saga is one of the earliest written accounts about which we know to be verifiable and may have been set down before AD1200 - in which case it was written at the start of saga documentation in Iceland. We know of a saga of the Skjoldungs extant in the second decade of that century. Snorri Sturlusson used it as reference for his Prose Edda. The original text was lost in the 17th Century, however, but a 16th Century Latin precis of the text still exists. Many writers and historians from between the 13th-17th Centuries used the saga to vase their writings on. Together with the Latin precis a large part of the original has been re-written.

The saga preserves ancient traditions in the assertion that the Skjoldungs were descended from Odin (the Anglian and Saxon kings' lines were 'traced back' to Woden or Wotan). The text's Christian author hid this part of his ancestry by telling of a powerful man from the east (Odin himself was considered to have stemmed from the 'east'). In claiming Odin as the common ancestor the Skjoldunga Saga harks back to Norse tradition, at variance with Danish late mediaeval scribes. The difference in interpretation points to national feeling. Most Danish scribes tracked the clan to a mythical founder known as 'Dan', notably Saxo Grammaticus. The Norse-Icelandic account goes back much further. Snorri Sturlusson relied on several sources - including oral tradition and verse, however agreeing on the general genealogy of the clan.

Godly descent was not only a ploy by the Danes, but was of a broader Germanic tradition. Other royal houses such as the Volsungs - the Norwegian royal line - also claimed Odin to be first in their line. Knowing the Skjoldungs first mortal founder lets the reader see the extent of legendary material that cloaked Hrolf's kindred in myth. Writing in the 12th Century Saxo Grammaticus wrote of Skjold,

"In youth Skjold won renown among his father's huntsmen by beating a huge beast, a great feat that foretold of the later breadth of his courage. He had asked of the guardians who raised him to watch the hunt, when he came across the bear. Although Skjold was unarmed he tied the bear with his belt and then gave it to his companions to slay".

Skjold links Hrolf's Saga with Beowulf, where he becomes Scyld Scefing (pron. 'shild sheffing'), given the prominence of a worthy ancestor. Beowulf opens with the wondrous beginnings of the Danish line, of how, as a child Scyld Scefing came from somewhere unknown, set adrift in a small boat (as if not expected to live). He was borne oversea to Denmark without any clan ties. By sheer willpower and skill Scyld 'came into his inheritance' and rose to power (there is a curious parallel here with the tale of Moses, and it is in this train of thought that the Saga of Beowulf lasted into the Christian world of the Angles), with whom the Geats (Gotar/Goths) and Danes were kindred.

In the writings of the Anglo-Norman 'historian' William of Malmesbury in his 'Gesta Regum Anglorum' the tag 'scefing' (of the sheaf) given by those who found the boat was due to the handful of grain left with the sleeping infant. The founder of the Danish royal line was linked by the shield and the sheaf, meaning he was to be a fruitful guardian.

Icelandic interest in the saga of Hrolf 'Kraki' stems from a story told of Skeggi of Midfjord who stole into Hrolf's grave mound by chance and set about gathering some of the treasures, including the king's sword Skofnung, Hjalti's axe and other 'collectables'. When trying to take the famous sword Laufi from Bodvar Bjarki the shape changer attacked Skeggi. But for Hrolf's spirit saving him, the Icelander would have been fatally mauled by the 'bear'. The idea of the dead living on in their burial mounds was something familiar to the Icelanders, whose own lore furthered the myth.

The sword Skofnung had a story of its own several hundred years after the king was slain. Skeggi loaned the sword to the ill-fated poet Kormak for use in a duel. The sword was given back and later Skeggi's son loaned it to his kinsman Thorkel, fourth husband of Gudrun in the Laxdaela Saga. Their son Gellir took the sword on pilgrimage to Rome. Gellir died on his way home (around AD1073) and was buried at Roskilde (Hroar's Spring - Hroar was Hrolf Kraki's uncle), the town near the earlier Danish capital Hleidargard - later Lejre - from where Skofnung was taken by Skeggi more than a century and a half earlier. We have to assume Skofnung remained there.

The link between the Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki sagas goes further, to the bear 'personality'. In Beowulf the name is derived from Bjorn/Beorn, the bear + Ulf, the wolf.. The name in Danish is hyphenated as 'Bjov-Ulf' (pron. 'byov-ulf'). In the saga of Hrolf Kraki Bodvar Bjarki is a shape-changer, who metamorphoses in a state of trance into a big bear. He is the offspring of a legendary, if far-fetched mating between a bear and a human under a curse that stems from before the time of his own birth. He defend's Hrolf's human army, the bear figure rising from his sleeping body until Hjalti mistakenly awakens him and asks why he is not out in the shieldwall, fighting alongside the others. The bear thus vanishes from the battlefield near the end of the saga, having dispatched untold numbers of Hrolf's elfin half-sister Skuld's army - themselves restored to life by the sorcerer-queen of King Hjorvard, an under-king of Hrolf's.

In the Beowulf saga eponymous hero rids the Danish king Hygelac of the troll Grendel and his mother (the animated film, although entertaining, bears [forgive the pun] little resemblance to the saga. Coming back to the original saga, after a lowly thrall beaks into Hygelac's burial mound Beowulf fights the winged serpent (dragon) and dies of his wounds, having slain the serpent that had guarded the old king's burial mound.

Berserkers are also central to Hrolf's Saga, the remnants of older tales. In pre-Christian Scandinavian culture cults linked with Odin drew a picture of men who went into battle without chain mail, or serks, i.e., 'bare' (pron. 'barre') = without, 'serker' = mail shirts. They are believed to have behaved like mad dogs and bit the tops of their shields (see the pawn in the Lewis chess pieces). Where no mere mortal could kill a berserker without superhuman effort, a berkserker had little trouble slaying the opposition. The madness that drove them was known as the berserker fury. Hrolf's Saga holds many traces of the cult of Odin. In Eddic verse Odin is both Sigetyr (victory god) and Sigefadir (victory father). It is in this capacity that Odin's part in Hrolf's Saga materialises, calling himself Hrani. He puts Hrolf's men through a series of ordeals that only Hrolf's champions stand in the battle against Adhils. The heoes Hrolf keeps around him are much like Odin himself: Svipdag the one eyed holds the fates of the group of warriors around him.

There are several more hints in the Saga of Hrolf Kraki at mythology, and in particular to Odin; as Hrani he is in the niggardly Adhils' hall, testing the stamina and resolve of Hrolf's followers. Odin is known from Norse mythology to be fickle, and he turns vengeful on Hrolf, having already exacted his distaste for his mother's weakness on the hapless Bjarki. In showing Odin's darker side the author of Hrolf's saga has not necessarily followed Christian thought about the old gods. Even before the conversion of Scandinavia men held the view that Odin was not wholly trustworthy. The gods in general were beheld as fickle, not in the least beholden to those who revere them. In the same way the Christian God and his saints viewed mankind with disdain. So the Christian God in the northern world was attributed with the nature of Odin by default - let us not forget the eastern origins of Christianity from the Hebrew, and the eastern origin of Odin. All Christians in this part of the world knew about the new faith was that there were less names to remember. Now there would be one god, his son and the son's mother.

In order to 'cover himself', distance his hero from the pagan gods, the author wrote:

'It is not said that King Hrolf and his champions at any time worshipped the old gods. Rather, they put their trust in their own skills [pretty much as they had done in the old days]. The holy faith at that time had not been widely proclaimed in the northern lands and, for this reason alone, they who lived in the northlands knew little of their true creator'.

*[We have to be mindful of these early Christians in their fervour that they attributed their failures to themselves and any luck or skill was through their faith. There is a saying: 'God helps those who help themselves'. Heroes are needed in the same way as gods are looked up to, but don't let a hero think he is at one with the almighty!].

The geography (and mortal links) of the saga follows as below :-

In England King Nordri, father of Hroar's wife Ogn, ruled over part of Northumbria;

In Denmark Hrolf ruled from Hleidargard. Early in the saga Halfdan ruled until ousted by his brother Frodhi (pron. 'Frothi' - 'th' as in 'the'). Helgi Halfdansson saved the kingship and ruled until slain himself near King Adhils' hall at Uppsala. He was succeeded by his son Hrolf;

In the far north Finnmark was home to Ingebjorg and her daughter Hvit;

Fyrisvellir (Fyri's Plain) was in the kingdom of the Svear south of Uppsala. Hrolf scattered gold here, distracting King Adhils' men who pursued them from their king's hall;

Gautland (or Gotaland) was the kingdom of Bodvar Bjarki's brother Thorir 'Hound's Foot' - modern S W Sweden;

Hleidargard (Leidargarth, later Lejre near Roskilde - Hroarskilde or Hroar's Spring) was King Hrolf's royal seat on NE Sjaelland;

Northumbria, Hroar's kingdom was possibly the southern half of the kingdom known to the Angles as Deira, present-day Yorkshire;

Seaxland or Saxony was the realm of Queen Olof, the wilful mother of Queen Yrsa and grandmother of Hrolf - this would be present-day Niedersachsen or Lower Saxony;

Sweden, the kingdom of the Svear Yngling (pron. 'Uengling') dynasty, ruled by Adhils and homeland of farmer Svip, whose son Svipdag and brothers become Hrolf's champions;

Uppsala, royal seat of Adhils and Yngling dynasty, scene of sacrifice by hanging of men and beasts - later centre for the World Council of Churches (interesting, eh?).

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki has survived in part or in its entirety from over forty manuscripts, the oldest dating from the first part of the 17th Century. The extant manuscripts stem from one lost original. A manuscript penned by Icelander Brynolfur Jonsson contains only Hrolfs Saga Kraka, but was once part of a larger codex written for the bishops of Holar in N. Iceland.

Next - 11: The Saga of Hrolf Kraki (1)

A time of legend...

Beowulf manuscript on vellum, dated back 1,000 years
Beowulf manuscript on vellum, dated back 1,000 years | Source
Vendel helm from near Uppsala, north of Stockholm Sweden - a classic of its day, worn by a king or nobleman at the very least
Vendel helm from near Uppsala, north of Stockholm Sweden - a classic of its day, worn by a king or nobleman at the very least | Source
Topographic map of Scandinavia and the Baltic region
Topographic map of Scandinavia and the Baltic region
Odin the wanderer make an appearance to King Hrolf as a woodsman who gives shelter to him and his men on their way to Adhils' hall
Odin the wanderer make an appearance to King Hrolf as a woodsman who gives shelter to him and his men on their way to Adhils' hall | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

The original version of the saga, translated from the Icelandic by Jesse L Byock. This saga, along with others set down by Icelandic scribes carries on the oral tradition. There is a link here with the Beowulf Saga, bringing down to us a tale of strife within the Danish Skjoldung dynasty, heirs of the man we know as Beowulf

The folk of southern Scandinavia, Danes, Geats, Svear...

Southern Scandinavia, neighbours, enemies, friends at the time of King Hrolf Kraki
Southern Scandinavia, neighbours, enemies, friends at the time of King Hrolf Kraki | Source
Viking assembly - 'Folketing' - a law-speaker summons witnesses to a hearing
Viking assembly - 'Folketing' - a law-speaker summons witnesses to a hearing | Source
Axe combat. One man is armed with a Danish long-handled axe - these weapons could not be used easily in the shieldwall, and a man armed thus would need a comrade with shield and spear to watch his back
Axe combat. One man is armed with a Danish long-handled axe - these weapons could not be used easily in the shieldwall, and a man armed thus would need a comrade with shield and spear to watch his back | Source

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      York as JORVIK was the centre of operations for the Danes in Northumbria, and featured in the 1069 rebellion before the Harrying of the North and the East Anglian rebellion in 1071.

      JORVIK and the area to the north and east features strongly in THE SAGA OF HUNDING HROTHULFSSON, beginning with the eponymous hero in Jylland (Jutland) and coming via the Humber to Jorvik. He sails east to Holmgard (Novgorod) and Miklagard (Constantinople) before coming back through the Black Sea, the river network to the Baltic, back via Denmark and Norway to Jorvik. There's a link in these stories to the main character of the RAVENFEAST series of books (cf RAVENFEAST page) in the later episodes as Hunding brings young Ivar to England in the reign of Knut/Canute.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      6 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Alan, fascinating, I can now see why you advised, taking it from here. My husband, also named Alan and a Yorkshire man, born in York is a bit of a history freak, he'll love reading these even more than I do.


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