Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Harald Harfagr

Translation of the 9th-century skaldic poem Hrafnsmál, usually attributed to Þorbjörn Hornklofi. Illustrated by Frederick Sandys.



Translated from the Ancient Norse.

Harald Harfagri, or Fair-Haired Harald, also called Lufa, or the Thick-Haired, was born about the year 850, and was the son of Halfdan the Black, King of Uplend, an inconsiderable district in Norway. By the mother’s side he was descended from Ragnar Lodbrok and the renowned Sigurd the Serpent-killer. When he was ten years of age his father died, and he became king of the little district of Uplend. For some years his affairs were managed by Guthorm, his mother’s brother, but when he was about eighteen he took everything into his own hands. Harald was tall and athletic—of an exceedingly handsome countenance—bold and daring, and of a mind of great ambition. At that time there was no universal king in Norway, almost every district being governed by its own petty sovereign or head man, under whom the people enjoyed their othul or right of soil, merely paying a slight tribute to the ruler. This state of things, however, was not doomed to continue. No sooner had Harald become his own master than he made a vow to Odin that he would neither cut nor comb his hair till he had made himself sole king of the country and absolute lord of the lives and property of the inhabitants. All this he accomplished in a few years by dauntless bravery, force of character, and terrible severity. In some instances he experienced a desperate resistance, but he never lost a battle. His hardest conflict was the sea-fight at Hafirsfirth, in which he encountered several confederated kings. In this he was hard pressed, and would probably have been worsted, but for the fall of Haklangr or Longchin, the principal leader of the opposite party, a man of great courage and immense strength. This battle was decisive, for after it Harald was sole master of Norway, from the inhabitants of which he took their cherished othul, reducing them to the condition of bondsmen or servants.

Harald was satisfied with being king of Norway, but the effects of what he did were by no means confined to that country. Perhaps the actions of few or none have had so much influence on the affairs of Europe as those of Harald Harfagr. He was the principal causer and originator of what may be called the Norman March. The people of Norway, in general, submitted to the sway of Harald, and several of the petty kings were glad to become his earls and land-warders, but there were proud, indomitable spirits both amongst the peasants and the chieftains who disdained to be enthralled by him. Many repaired to Iceland, which had been discovered by one Gardr, at an early period of his reign, and colonised it; others betook themselves to the Faroer, and the Shetland and Orkney Isles, where they formed piratical establishments; others to the Sotheries and Man, of all which islands they became masters—thousands to Ireland, where they founded Dublin—immense numbers to that part of England which is north of the Humber, which they entirely took possession of. The élite, however, of the discontented Norsemen repaired to France, a part of which they conquered and occupied, and named—after themselves—Normandy, or the land of the Normans, where, from the connubial relations, which they formed with the women of the country, a race sprang up which in course of time subdued England, Naples, and Sicily, giving kings of the Norman race to all three.

Harald’s life, after he had become monarch, was tolerably tranquil. Any insurrections against him he speedily put down by means of his hirdlid, an armed force, which he always kept about him, consisting of about four hundred of the tallest and strongest fellows whom he could induce to serve him. To these he was very liberal in clothes, bracelets, armour and coin; but it was said of him, during his life and long after his death, that though he was free of gold he was rather stingy of meat.

He had several places of residence, but his favourite one was Rogaland in Utstein. He had a great many concubines, who, in all, bore him twenty sons. On his marriage, however, with Ragnhilda, daughter of the King of Jutland, he dismissed them all to their homes. By this Ragnhilda he had Eirik, surnamed Blood-axe, from his desperate deeds in war, to whom he bequeathed the sceptre of Norway at his death.

He lived and died a believer in the religion of Odin, Thor, and Frey—a religion of blood and horror—the votaries of which held two great festivals in the year, one at Yule or Midwinter, and the other at Haust or Harvest, at which they drank ale and ate horse-flesh in honour of the gods. He was very fond of poetry, and had generally several skalds about him, who sang his praises in alliterative verse. He died at the age of eighty-three, after having been king seventy-three years, and absolute sovereign of Norway about fifty-eight. He was a contemporary of Alfred the Great, his son Edward, and his grandson Athelstan, to the last of whom he sent his son Hakon to be fostered, a child born to him in his old age, and who eventually became king of Norway, and was the first Christian ruler of that country.

The poem, of which the following is a very close translation, was composed by various skalds of his court. It purposes to be a dialogue between a Valkyrie, or chooser of the slain, and a Raven, and gives a graphic account of Harald’s wars and domestic matters:

Ye men wearing bracelets
Be mute whilst I sing
Of Harald the hero—
High Norroway’s king;
I’ll duly declare
A discourse which I heard,
Betwixt a bright maiden
And black raven bird.

The Valkyrie’s vext
No war-field to find;
The speech she knew well
Of the wild feather’d kind,
And thus she bespake him
Who bears the brown bill,
So proud as he perch’d on
The peak of the hill.

What do ye here, ravens,
And whence come ye say,
Your heads turn’d direct to
The dying sun’s ray?
Bits of flesh hold your claws—
There’s blood flowing free
From your beaks, surely nigh
Dead bodies there be.”

Then wiping his beak,
Bloody red on the rock,
The eagle’s sworn brother
Thus answer’d and spoke:
Harald we’ve follow’d,
Of Halfdan the son,
Ever since from the egg
That we egress have won.”

Then ye know, bird, the king,
Whose keep is in Kvine,
The young king—the Norse king—
Whose keels cut the brine;
Red-rimm’d are his bucklers,
Betarr’d are his oars—
His sails are all bleach’d
With the sea-spray and showers.”

Abroad will drink Yule,[1]
The young king, and will try
To wake up, O maiden,
The wild game of Frey,[2]
Of the warmth of the hearth
He weary is grown;
He loathes the close chamber
And cushions of down.

Heard ye not the hard fight
Near Hafirsfirth beach,
Twixt the king of high kindred
And Kotva the rich?
Sail’d ships from the East
Prepared for war stern;
Their dragon heads gaped,
Their gilded sides burn.

They were fill’d with proud freemen
Well furnish’d with shields,
And the very best weapons
The western land yields;
Grimly the Baresarkers
Grinn’d, biting steel,—
Howl’d the wolf-heathens
War madness they feel.

They moved ’gainst the monarch
Whose might makes them pine,
Gainst the king—the Norse king—
Who keeps court at Utstein;
Flinch’d the king’s bark at first,
For they ply’d her right well—
There was hammering on helmets
Ere Haklangr fell.

Left the land to the lad
With the locks long and full,
Rich Kotva, the lord,
Thick of neck, like the bull;
Neath the thwarts themselves threw,
They who’d wounds, in despair,
Their heads to the keel
And their heels to the air.

On their shoulders their shields,
Such as Swafnir’s[3] roof form,
Flinging swift as a fence
From the fierce stony storm;
The yeomen affrighted
From Hafirsfirth speed,
And arrived at their homes
They call hoarsely for mead.

The slain strew the strand
To the very great joy
Of ourselves and of Odin,
The chief of one eye.”


Of his wars and his prowess
With wonder I’ve heard;
Now speak of his wives
And his women, O bird!”


He had damsels from Holmrygg
And Hordaland, too;
And damsels from Hedemark
Dainty of hue;
But he sent them with gifts
To their countries again,
When he wedded Ranhilda
The beautiful Dane.”


I warrant he’s bounteous,
And well doth reward
The warriors and gallants
His kingdom who guard.


O, yes, he is bounteous!
And bravely they fare
Who in Harald’s dominions
Hew food for the bear;
With coin he presents them,
And keen polish’d glaives,
With mail from Hungaria
And Osterland slaves.

O happy lives have they
Who help him in war,
Can run to the mast-head
Or manage the oar;
Make the row-locks to creak,
And the row-bench to crack,
And in their lord’s service
Are never found slack.

Valkyrie and Raven.png


Of the Skalds now I’ll ask thee,
The sons of the strain,
By whom deathless honor
He hopes to obtain;
I doubt not, O Raven,
That thou knowest well
The workers of verse
Who at Harald’s court dwell.


By their gallant array,
By the armlets they bear
All of gold, you may learn
To their lord they are dear;
Ruddy kirtles they have
That are laced at the skirts,
Swords silver inlaid,
And steely mail shirts;
All gilded their hilts,
Their helmets all graven;
Gold rings on their hands.


Now read me, O Raven,
Of the Baresarkers—how
Do ye style them who wade
In blood ankle-deep
By no danger dismay’d?


Wolf-heathens they hight,
To the thick of the fray
Ruddy shields who do bear,
And with swords clear away;
None but those who know nought
Of terror can stand
When stout and strong men
Shiver buckler with brand.


Of jesting and game
Our discourse shall be brief;
What does Andadr do,
Harald’s jester in chief?


Fun Andadr loves;
He makes faces and sneers,
And the Monarch doth laugh
At the loon without ears.

There are others who bear
Burning brands from the fire,
Stick a torch ’neath their belt,
Yet ne’er singe their attire;
Some that dance on their heels,
Or that tumble and spring—
O ’tis gay in the hall
Of high Harald the king.

George Borrow.

  1. Drink Yule: drink his Christmas ale.
  2. Game of Frey—battle.
  3. Swafnir was an appellation of Odin. The roof of Odin’s hall was said to be formed of shields.