By Kenneth Harl, Ph.D., Tulane University
How do we know about the legendary figures of the 6th and 7th centuries who came to be regarded as the first Viking kings of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway?
The Epic of Beowulf (c. 675–725) and The Saga of Hrólf Kraki (c. 13th century) look back to the 6th century when the legendary kings of Denmark and Sweden ruled from great halls and won great victories. These figures were role models and inspirations to the sea kings and territorial rulers of the Viking Age.
Beowulf and Vergil’s Aeneid: Two Epic Poems
One of these sources from antiquity is the Old English epic Beowulf (c. 675–700), which harkens back to the techniques of oral poetry but was created as a work of written literature. It was written as a single epic, combining three or four stories and probably using Vergil’s Aeneid as its model. Beowulf is set in pagan Scandinavia, but it is also imbued with Christian ideas.
In contrast, the later Norse sources usually include quotations from earlier poems encapsulated in narrative prose sagas. The most famous of these is the saga of the Danish king Hrólf Kraki (c. 13th century A.D.), which discusses the same figures that are seen in Beowulf, but where Beowulf deals with figures from the first half of the 6th century, the saga of Hrólf Kraki concentrates on the generation after Beowulf.
Many chronicles and legendary histories have also come down to us, written in Latin by Danish authors. The most important of these were penned by Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150–1216), a Danish cleric writing in the age of the Christian king Valdemar I (r. 1157–1182).
Again, the Norse accounts were written without an understanding of the fragmented political geography that must have existed before the Viking Age and in the time of Beowulf. These accounts have already cast the heroes of these sagas into the classic three kingdoms.
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The Realm of Beowulf
The realm of Beowulf, along the western shores of Sweden today, is borne out in the archaeology as a royal center, although Beowulf himself is not remembered in the Norse tradition. Beowulf may be represented as Bothvar Bjarki, a Norwegian berserker at the court of Hrólf Kraki who fights in the form of a great bear.
Already in the 6th century on the island of Sjaelland, both the Anglo-Saxon and the Norse sources agree, there was a powerful kingdom, ruled from the great hall of Hleidr (OE: Hereot). At the time, the legendary kings ruling there, the Skjöldung or “kings of the shield”, traced their descent to an eponymous hero who was said to be descended from Odin. These Danish rulers had very little control outside of the main island of Sjaelland.
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Their contemporaries and rivals were the Yngling kings of Sweden, who claimed descent from the god Frey and were remembered in the epics as great opponents. Again, archaeology verifies the fact that there were dense populations around the Uppsala Lake Mälaren area, on the island of Sjaelland, and in the apparent heartland of Beowulf. These three regions would become the nucleus for the later Scandinavian kingdoms.
The action of Beowulf is concentrated on a hero who travels to Denmark to rid the hall Hereot of the horrid creature Grendel.
Beowulf fights Grendel and Grendel’s mother in tremendous combats, then returns to rule over his kingdom after his lord is killed. Ultimately, Beowulf dies fighting a dragon that seems to come straight out of Germanic mythology. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, this story is a fantastic legend embodying creatures and beasts from a primeval past.
In the Norse tradition, the legends concentrate on human action and reveal conflicts between personalities. The Norse writers of the 12th and 13th centuries, in other words, saw these earlier kingdoms as the prototypes of the kingdoms of their own day.
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The Remarkable Hrólf Kraki
Hrólf Kraki, without a doubt, must have been a remarkable figure. He probably lived sometime between 550 and 575 A.D. and was remembered in the tradition as one of the favorites of Odin.
Hrólf’s birth was the result of an incestuous union between his father, a Viking chief named Helgi, and Helgi’s daughter, Yrsa.
Hrólf himself is the epitome of a king of the Age of Migrations and the Viking Age. By his charisma and because of his favor from Odin, he collects around him the greatest heroes of the northland. Hrólf presides over his hall in much the same way that Odin presides over Valhalla.
As a result, numerous heroes and figures, many of them probably unrelated to Hrólf or his time, are incorporated into this Danish legend and become part of Hrólf’s group of retainers. In the 6th and 7th centuries and the Viking Age, these men were probably known as berserkers, although this perspective changed in the later Christian accounts of the 12th and 13th centuries.
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Hrólf clashed with his contemporary in Sweden, Adils, who eventually married Hrólf’s mother/sister. In the legend, Hrólf made a famous ride to challenge the king at Uppsala, a journey through the forests of Sweden that would have taken a month to six weeks.
A great king was a man who attracted to himself great warriors and showed an example of generosity to those warriors.
The story may seem odd to us, but ultimately, it tells of a test of valor and honor. The clash was not about territory but about who was the greater king. A great king was a man who attracted to himself great warriors and showed an example of generosity to those warriors. In the Age of Migration, this ability was politically important; kingship was acquired through personal reputation and charisma.
This same world is captured vividly in Beowulf in the boasting that takes place during the feasts at the great halls. Oaths were sworn on rings associated with Odin, and those who made these boasts had to deliver. These traditions were very powerful, and when we look at the legends of Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki, we see how politics was played out.
The Importance of Legendary Figures in the Viking Age
To some extent, they were added to the great hall of heroes going back to the Volsungs. They also reveal an important point that is now debated among scholars.
The Western Europeans were not prepared to face the Scandinavians, who saw themselves as the emulators of their great heroes of the past.
Revisionist scholars have argued that the impact of the Vikings was greatly exaggerated: They were essentially pirates and were marginal to the development of Western Europe. These same scholars have noted that Western Europeans in Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Europe were hardly models of Christian piety. In fact, the Christian warrior caste was also brutal.
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But the Scandinavians who launched out on raids several generations later than the epics discussed were not burdened with any notion of a “just war.” The Western Europeans were not prepared to face the Scandinavians, who saw themselves as the emulators of their great heroes of the past. The Scandinavians knew that in battle, victory goes to those who have the will and determination to prevail, enabling them, as we shall see, to sweep aside more numerous and better-armed opponents.
Common Questions About the Vikings
Many Vikings were feared for their ferocity in battle such that they were dangerous as a people. Some of the more famous are Leif Erikson, Erik the Red, Ragnar Lothbrok, and Freydis Eriksdottir, a ferocious female warrior.
Ragnar Lothbrok’s name occurs in accounts from two different centuries, and thus there is still debate on whether he was a real or fictional hero.
Historically the Vikings did not wear horns, although the image has been attached to them in American fiction. This is not accurate. The one remaining image of a Viking helmet has no horns.
Viking female warriors were called “skjaldmaer” which means “shield-maiden” in the Old Norse language.