Egil Skallagrimsson

A talented poet and a fierce warrior whose words saved his life

Egil Skallagrímsson, a poet, warrior and farmer, was born in Borg, Iceland, c.910, the son of Norwegian settler Skalla-Grimr (bald Grimr) Kveldulfsson and Bera Yngvarsdóttir.

He was one of the greatest Viking poets and composed his first poem at the age of three. Egil was also a scholar of runes. His apparent mastery of their magic powers assisted him several times during his journeys.

His life is chronicled in ‘Egil’s Saga’. He is portrayed as being prone to violence, but was also capable of great sensitivity in his poetry-writing.

Egil was ugly in appearance like his father, although his brother was very handsome. Based on descriptions and analysis of bones, it is believed the family carried the genetic disorder, Paget’s disease, which causes deformation of the bone structure as well as occasional mental derangements. A thick skull and a tendency to go berserk were perhaps an advantage to a Viking!

Egil is said to have killed for the first time when aged just seven, when he took an axe to a ten-year-old boy called Grim. This was the start of a life full of violence, attacks and plundering by Egil and his brother Thorolf.

As a young man, Egil killed King Eríc Bloodaxe’s son and placed a curse upon the king, which he inscribed on a pole in magic runes.

Much later in life, c.948, when shipwrecked off the coast of Northumbria in England, Egil fell into Eríc’s hands. He saved his own life by composing, in a single night, a twenty-stanza poem called ‘Höfuthlausn’ ('Head Ransom'), in praise of his enemy. In the morning, Egil went before the king and recited his poem. Surprised by the quality of the writing, Eríc decided to spare Egil’s life, even though he had killed his son.