Bronze relief depicting Egil's saga hero Egil Skallagrímsson with his dead son Böðvar, made by Danish sculptor Anne-Marie Nielsen. The relief is situated at the entrance of the small Skallagrímsgarður park in Borgarnes (West Iceland).

Grief-Stricken Egill Skallagrimsson

I’ve come to admire the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, particularly their acceptance of fate and things they cannot change.

But recognizing that one’s destiny is often outside our control, that order and chaos are locked in an eternal cycle of death and renewal, does not necessarily remove emotion from one’s life. When bad things happen, when people die, grief still strikes.

From the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 426 fol., now in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.
From the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 426 fol., now in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

Egla, or The Saga of Egill Skallagrimsson, is the story of a Viking Age Norwegian farmer and skald (poet) who lived a full life with many adventures. It likely dates to the 13th century and may be another of the works of Snorri Sturluson; regardless of who put the words to paper, there’s likely an oral tradition about an actual historical figure supporting the story, but there’s some creative license implied as well. The tales in the saga are often extraordinary, though not on the order of dragon-slaying.

One of the most powerful parts of Egill’s story is the tale of the deaths of his sons. One, Gunnar, died of a fever; the other, Bodvarr, died in a storm. Egill was so stricken with sorrow that after Bodvarr’s death, he locked himself away hoping to starve himself to death.

The author of Egla includes in the lengthy prose Egla saga a shorter poem called Sonatorrek (“the irreparable loss of sons”), which describes Egill’s attempt to come to grips with the deaths of his children. Despite lives lived in harsh conditions and with eyes open to the realities of the world, grief was just as powerful in the Viking Age as it is today.

SONA-TORREK (SONS’ LOSS).

1.

‘Much doth it task me
My tongue to move,
Through my throat to utter
The breath of song.
Poesy, prize of Odin,
Promise now I may not,
A draught drawn not lightly
From deep thought’s dwelling.

2.

‘Forth it flows but hardly;
For within my breast
Heaving sobbing stifles
Hindered stream of song
Blessed boon to mortals
Brought from Odin’s kin,
Goodly treasure, stolen
From Giant-land of yore.

3.

‘He, who so blameless
Bore him in life,
O’erborne by billows
With boat was whelmed.
Sea-wavesflood that whilom
Welled from giant’s wound
Smite upon the grave-gate
Of my sire and son.

4.

‘Dwindling now my kindred
Draw near to their end,
Ev’n as forest-saplings
Felled or tempest-strown.
Not gay or gladsome
Goes he who beareth
Body of kinsman
On funeral bier.

5.

‘Of father fallen
First I may tell;
Of much-loved mother
Must mourn the loss.
Sad store hath memory
For minstrel skill,
A wood to bloom leafy
With words of song.

6.

‘Most woful the breach,
Where the wave in-brake
On the fenced hold
Of my father’s kin.
Unfilled, as I wot,
And open doth stand
The gap of son rent
By the greedy surge.

7.

‘Me Ran, the sea-queen,
Roughly hath shaken:
I stand of beloved ones
Stript and all bare.
Cut hath the billow
The cord of my kin,
Strand of mine own twisting
So stout and strong.

8.

‘Sure, if sword could venge
Such cruel wrong,
Evil times would wait
gir, ocean-god.
That wind-giant’s brother
Were I strong to slay,
‘Gainst him and his sea-brood
Battling would I go.

9.

‘But I in no wise
Boast, as I ween,
Strength that may strive
With the stout ships’ Bane.
For to eyes of all
Easy now ’tis seen
How the old man’s lot
Helpless is and lone.

10.

‘Me hath the main
Of much bereaved;
Dire is the tale,
The deaths of kin:
Since he the shelter
And shield of my house
Hied him from life
To heaven’s glad realm.

11.

‘Full surely I know,
In my son was waxing
The stuff and the strength
Of a stout-limbed wight:
Had he reached but ripeness
To raise his shield,
And Odin laid hand
On his liegeman true.

12.

‘Willing he followed
His father’s word,
Though all opposing
Should thwart my rede:
He in mine household
Mine honour upheld,
Of my power and rule
The prop and the stay.

13.

‘Oft to my mind
My loss doth come,
How I brotherless bide
Bereaved and lone.
Thereon I bethink me,
When thickens the fight
Thereon with much searching
My soul doth muse:

14.

‘Who staunch stands by me
In stress of fight,
Shoulder to shoulder,
Side by side?
Such want doth weaken
In war’s dread hour;
Weak-winged I fly,
Whom friends all fail.

15.

‘Son’s place to his sire
(Saith a proverb true)
Another son born
Alone can fill.
Of kinsmen none
(Though ne’er so kind)
To brother can stand
In brother’s stead.

16.

‘O’er all our ice-fields,
Our northern snows,
Few now I find
Faithful and true.
Dark deeds men love,
Doom death to their kin,
A brother’s body
Barter for gold.

17.

‘Unpleasing to me
Our people’s mood,
Each seeking his own
In selfish peace.
To the happier bees’ home
Hath passed my son,
My good wife’s child
To his glorious kin.

18.

‘Odin, mighty monarch,
Of minstrel mead the lord,
On me a heavy hand
Harmful doth lay.
Gloomy in unrest
Ever I grieve,
Sinks my drooping brow,
Seat of sight and thought.

19.

‘Fierce fire of sickness
First from my home
Swept off a son
With savage blow:
One who was heedful,
Harmless, I wot,
In deeds unblemished,
In words unblamed.

20.

‘Still do I mind me,
When the Friend of men
High uplifted
To the home of gods
That sapling stout
Of his father’s stem,
Of my true wife born
A branch so fair.

21.

‘Once bare I goodwill
To the great spear-lord,
Him trusty and true
I trowed for friend:
Ere the giver of conquest,
The car-borne god,
Broke faith and friendship
False in my need.

22.

‘Now victim and worship
To Vilir’s brother,
The god once honoured,
I give no more.
Yet the friend of Mimir
On me hath bestowed
Some boot for bale,
If all boons I tell.

23.

‘Yea he, the wolf-tamer,
The war-god skilful,
Gave poesy faultless
To fill my soul:
Gave wit to know well
Each wily trickster,
And force him to face me
As foeman in fight.

24.

‘Hard am I beset;
Whom Hela, the sister
Of Odin’s fell captive,
On Digra-ness waits.
Yet shall I gladly
With right good welcome
Dauntless in bearing
Her death-blow bide.’

* * *

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