By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
A drengr, in its original, most literal meaning, is a rock that stands alone out at sea. From this image of a rock fortress standing alone against the buffeting waves stems the meaning of drengr for human beings in Old Norse—a person with reckless courage in the face of whatever comes along.
The word drengr is such an important Norse cultural expression that we find it not only abundantly in the sagas, but also on the memorial rune stones of fallen Vikings. It is customary to see on these stones some text to the effect that the deceased was a good drengr, or that he died like a drengr.
Even the gods are as subject to this code as normal human beings are. This code is also deeply bound up with the religious conceptions of the Norse, especially as regards life after death.
The best way to appreciate this drengr code and its potential effects is to look at it in a short story from the sagas.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
In Viking Age Iceland, there lived a man named Thorstein. Thorsteinn quarreled with a neighbor named Thorth.
One of the live entertainments favored in medieval Iceland was stallion fights. During the course of one such stallion fight, with Thorstein and Thorth each goading on his respective stallion, the stick Thorth was using to whack his horse cracked Thorstein in the face, whether by accident or intention no one could say.
Thorstein chose to treat it as an accident and carried on. However, over the next several months, word spread that Thorstein was struck in the face with a weapon by Thorth and did nothing about it. He was shamed for accepting a blow and not striking back, as a man is expected to do.
Then one morning, Thorstein’s father asked him if he had a headache. Thorstein said that he didn’t, but his father said he thought he probably did, because of the blow he took to the face from their neighbor Thorth without avenging it.
His dad’s angry reminder set Thorstein right. He realized that there was nothing to do for his reputation, and the reputation of his whole family, except to go seek some redress from the offending Thorth.
Thorstein picked up his weapons and walked over to the neighboring farm, and killed Thorth.
Thorstein and Bjarni
The employer of the slaughtered Thorth, a wealthy man named Bjarni, was entitled to take some measures against the man who had killed his employee. He sent two of his other employees to attack Thorstein, but the very capable Thorstein killed them both.
Bjarni thus had an imbalance of three lives lost on his farm to set against just one man’s struck face on the neighbouring farm.
Still, Bjarni liked Thorstein and hesitated to take violent action against him. But his wife berated him, reminding him how weak he would seem if he did not show his willingness to fight this man who had killed his men.
So Bjarni, having no choice, picked up his own weapons and marched over to Thorstein’s farm to challenge him to a duel to prove the honor of them both.
However, Thorstein offered to settle the matter without further bloodshed. He even offered to voluntarily leave the district if Bjarni would allow him to pursue his fortunes elsewhere. But Bjarni wanted a formal duel.
Thorstein said that his elderly father, a much poorer man than Bjarni, would have no one on the farm to help him in the fall when the hardest work came; and so he asked, if Bjarni killed him, would Bjarni be willing to take his place doing the work on the farm. Bjarni said it was not even necessary to ask, that of course he would do that.
Bjarni, the more powerful man and the aggressor, agreed to do so because he wished to show that he was a good drengr, fully willing to accept extra responsibility to demonstrate that he feared nothing and respected the men he fought as fellow drengrs.
The Duel between Thorstein and Bjarni
The duel began, and the two men were so evenly matched that the fight wore on for a long time without either getting a clear advantage over the other. After a while, Bjarni told Thorstein that he was getting thirsty. They went down the hill and took a drink from the creek there and proceeded with the fight as before.
The fight went on a little longer, again with both parties evenly matched, until the second time Bjarni interrupted the duel, this time because his shoe was coming untied. Thorstein paused to let Bjarni tie it, while he himself went inside his nearby house to retrieve fresh shields for them both and a fresh sword.
Finally, Bjarni interrupted the fight for the third and last time. He said that he knew an opportunity when he saw one, and that it would be a shame to kill a man of such skill.
He said that he would happily hire Thorstein to work at his farm, and that he would value him the same as he would value any three other men. This, of course, directly alludes to accepted Old Norse principles of retribution and reciprocity.
Thorstein accepted the offer, and the deal was finalized then and there.
Being a Drengr
The two parties to the dispute ended happily at peace and even closer together, and with no injury to the honor of either side, since both Thorstein and Bjarni abundantly demonstrated their lack of fear of one another and their willingness to solve their problems by spilling each other’s blood and risking their own.
Such is the nature of being a drengr—a hard fighter, willing to cut no corners, and willing to take any and all risks to prove his manhood. This is the central value of the Old Norse culture.
Common Questions about the Story of Thorstein and the Drengr Code
The word drengr is such an important Norse cultural expression that it is found abundantly in the sagas, and also on the memorial rune stones of fallen Vikings.
Bjarni agreed to do so because he wished to show that he was a good drengr, fully willing to accept extra responsibility.
Bjarni said that he would happily hire Thorstein to work at his farm, and that he would value him the same as he would value any three other men.