The Saga of the Sword Tyrfing is one of my favorite stories from the Norse sagas, and Hervör’s part in it, this poem in particular, is one of the high points, possibly my favorite non-Thor thing in all that’s been handed down to us. It’s hard to say – there’s a lot of great stuff.
Tyrfing’s is an incredible tale, there are multiple versions, and I want to do it (proper, lengthier, in-depth) justice another day, but here’s the gist:
The dwarfs Dulin and Dwalin forged a magic sword, which was named Tyrfing (1). This magic sword killed every time it was unsheathed, and could only be sheathed if it was still wet with warm blood. If Tyrfing wounded a living thing, then it took that thing’s life, whether the wound was small or severe. It would also be the bringer of three great evils.
The third owner of the sword was Angantyr, son of Arngrim, who was the eldest and most renowned of twelve sons. They were all berserks, the most violent, most unbeatable of warriors.
One of Angantyr’s brothers fell in love with the daughter of a king, one of the most beautiful and accomplished women in all of Sweden. However, the warrior Hjalmar the Great-Hearted also loved the woman (the story’s well known from their perspective, too), and their rivalry came to battle between clans.
The battle came down to single combat between the two best warriors, Hjalmar and Angantyr. Each killed the other.
Hjalmar’s companion Odd, who managed to kill all eleven of Angantyr’s brothers by himself, buried the combatants on the island where the battle took place.
Angantyr’s daughter Hervör was born after his death. When she was old enough, she trained with sword and shield and bow; she eventually grew to be fearsome. She killed for fun and her own gain. It was pretty bad. Some of the slaves of her mother’s father the Jarl insulted her, and said that her father was a swineherd, and she went off to her grandfather.
He told her the tale of her father Angantyr, and how he died. He told her where her father and his brothers were buried. She sought out her heritage (2).
Hervör Claims Tyrfing
1 A young maiden met at sunset
A man with his flock on Munarvag.
To visit this island all alone
Is overbold: go back to your lodging.
I have no lodging: of the island folk
I know none. I will not go back.
Before we part, first tell me
How I may come to the Hjorvard graves.
Do not ask: it is unwise.
You do not know your deadly peril:
Let us flee as fast as our feet can take us,
All without is a horror to view.
It is vain to hinder the viking’s friend.
Show me the way: as a reward you shall have
This gold necklace: you will get nothing,
Nor ring nor ornament if you hold your peace.
To have come hither, all alone
To this land of shadows, was sheer folly.
Over fen and fold fires are soaring,
Graves are opening: let us go quickly.
Fear not the fire, fear not the graves:
Although the island be all aflame,
Never shall warriors while they live
Yield to terror. Tell me the way.
The herdsman had taken to his heels already,
Fled to the wood, far from the maiden,
But the fierce heart in Hervor’s breast
Swelled up at the sight of these things.
She saw now the grave fires and the graves standing open. She went to the howe and was not afraid. She passed the fires as if they were smoke, until she reached the graves of the berserks. Then she said:
Angantyr, wake! Hervor calls you,
Your only daughter whom you had by Tofa.
Give up from the grave the gleaming sword
That the dwarves smithied for Svafrlami.
Hervard, Hjorvard, Hrani, awake!
Hear me, all of you, under the tree-roots,
With sharp swords, with shields and byrnies
And red spears, the rig of war.
Much are you changed, children of Arngrim,
Once so mighty: are you mold now?
Will Eyfurás sons refuse to listen
Or speak with me on Munarvag?
May ants shred you all to pieces,
Dogs rend you; may you rot away.
Give back the sword that was smithied by Dvalin:
Fine weapons are unfit for ghosts.
13 [the very deceased] ANGANTYR:
Evil it is, Hervor, my daughter,
To call down such curses upon us:
Your words are mad, without meaning in them.
Why do you wake the bewildered dead?
Nor father nor brothers buried me deep.
Tyrfing was owned by two who live,
Though only one owned it later.
Tell me the truth, that the timeless gods
If May bless your grave.
Have you got Tyrfing? Why are you unwilling to yield
Your heritage to your only child?
Then it was as if a flame lit up all the graves which stood open. Then Angantyr
Graves open and Hel’s doors,
The island surface is one searing flame,
All without is a horror to view:
Go, while there’s time: return to your ship.
With no flames, tonight or ever,
With no fire can you frighten me,
Nor daunt the heart in your daughter’s breast
With ghosts standing at grave-mouths.
Hear me, Hervor, hear from me now,
Daughter of princes, the doom I fortell:
This Tyrfing will, if the true blade,
Destroy your kindred, kill them all.
You will bear a son, a bold warrior,
Who shall wield Tyrfing, trust in its strength:
After Heidrick shall the hero be named,
The bravest one under heaven.
Churlish cowards! may my curse fall
On all of you: may you ever lie
Wretched shades, in the rot of the pit.
Give back the wondrous work of smiths:
Son of Vikings, it is vain to hide it.
No mortal maiden to me you seem,
Who walk in the dark where the dead lie,
Uncowed by flames, with a carved spear
And mailed corselet on Munarvag.
A mortal maiden to men I seemed
Until advised to visit your halls:
Surrender the blade, the Bane-of-Shields,
Hjalmar’s-Killer lies under my shoulders,
The sharp sword, sheathed in flame:
No maiden on earth, no mortal dare
Touch such a weapon, take it to hold.
I will touch the weapon, take hold of
The sharp edge. In order to get it
I will walk through fire with unflinching step:
The flames are sinking before my eyes.
Reckless maiden, rather than see you
Fling yourself on the flames and perish,
I will grant what you ask, give you the blade:
Such courage of heart I cannot refuse.
You have done well, dead warrior,
To grant what I ask, give me the blade:
To possess the sword seems to me better
Than to own all Norway.
Alas, daughter, little you know,
Wretched woman, at what you rejoice:
I tell you again, this Tyrfing will
Destroy your kindred, kill them all.
With a glad heart I will go now
To ride the horses of the roaring sea:
Little care I what may come after,
What dole my sons may deal each other.
Long may you hold it and long enjoy it!
But conceal it well. Beware the edges
Of Hjalmar’s-Bane: both are poisoned.
Mortal to man is the Measurer-of-Fate.
Farewell, daughter: would I could give you
All the strength and stoutness of heart
That was taken from Arngrim’s twelve sons,
The good of life they lost in death.
I will hasten hence: I am eager to be gone.
Blessed in your graves, may you be at peace.
I deemed in my mind that death was near
When all about me leaped high flame.
This non-Eddic poem is found in the Saga of King Heidrek the Wise. We have added
strophe 1 from the version in the Hauksbók manuscript.
14 Tyrfing. Svafrlami forced Dvalin and Dulinn to forge him a sword which had a hilt and handle of gold, which would never rust, and which would cut iron as though it were cloth. The dwarves forged the sword, but Dvalin cursed it, saying that it would kill a man each time it was drawn, and that it would perform three dastardly deeds, as well as be the cause of Svafrlami’s death. Arngrim then took Svafrlami’s daughter and had twelve sons by her. Angantyr, the eldest, fell heir to Tyrfing. Hjalmar the Haughty and Arrow-Odd (the ‘two who live’) slew all twelve in a fight in which Hjalmar was also slain (‘only one owned it later’). Odd buried the brothers in barrows with their weapons. Svava, Angantyr’s wife, gave birth to a daughter (Hervor) who was inclined to fighting and weapons. Posing as a man (Hervrad) she joined a band of vikings and came thus to Munarvag.
22 Bane of Shields, Hater of Byrnies, and Hjalmar’s Killer are all kennings for Tyrfing.
29 Measurer of Fate is another kenning for Tyrfing.
(1) A name associated with the Visigoths, “dwellers in the trees,” says Christopher Tolkien, Introduction to The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise xxiv [PDF]. My version of the tale is adapted from Tolkien’s translation.
(2) This text of the poem is adapted from that presented in Auden & Taylor’s Elder Edda translation. I’ve cleaned up a version that was transcribed to the web, so… it’s not perfect. I also preserved their footnotes, even though I don’t usually do that. Mainly so you can see a different, shorter summary of the run-up to this poem.