A Chieftain in an Old Norse Text: Sveinn Ásleifarson and the Message behind Orkneyinga Saga

A Chieftain in an Old Norse Text: Sveinn Ásleifarson and the Message behind Orkneyinga Saga

By Ian Beuermann

Confluence. Interdisciplinary Communications 2007/2008, edited by Willy Østreng (Oslo: Centre for Advanced Study, 2009)

Introduction: Icelanders are famous for having produced a huge volume of prose literature in Old Norse in the Middle Ages (in a Nordic context, c. 1050 – c. 1530): the Icelandic Sagas. Largely thanks to these sagas, we have formed a vivid picture of the excitement of the Viking Age (c. 800 – c. 1050). The early 13th century Orkneyinga Saga, focussing on the Earldom of Orkney between c. 900 and c. 1200, is a good example. One of Orkneyinga Saga’s most famous passages runs:

“This was how Sveinn used to live. Winter he would spend at home on Gairsay, where he entertained some eighty men at his own expense. His drinking hall was so big, there was nothing in Orkney to compare with it. In the spring he had more than enough to occupy him, with a great deal of seed to sow which he saw to carefully himself. Then when that job was done, he would go off plundering in the Hebrides and in Ireland on what he called his ‘spring-trip’, then back home just after mid-summer, where he stayed till the cornfields had been reaped and the grain was safely in. After that he would go off raiding again, and never came back till the first month of winter was ended. This he used to call his ‘autumn-trip’.” (OS ch. 105)

Farming, entertaining followers, and shipbound plundering raids – the man described here, Sveinn Ásleifarson, seems to epitomise the Viking Age way of life. Entertained by these and other colourful details in Orkneyinga Saga, popular and scholarly authors alike have therefore labelled Sveinn “the ultimate (Orcadian) Viking”

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