The Old Norse had their own brand of humor
Warfare has come and gone since before history was recorded, and to study those times reveals much about the nature of the societies which conducted it. Today, students, we will briefly examine one bloody encounter that took place slightly more than a thousand years ago: The Battle of Horundarfjord, in A.D. 986.
The Old Scandinavians often fought each other when there was profit to be made. In this instance, Earl Hakon, the ruler of most of Norway, crushed an invading fleet of Danes. No fewer than five Icelandic "skalds" (storytellers/poets) took part in the clash, so the battle was well "reported" in the news of the day.
This was a major battle that was fought aboard ships in a fjord. To add to the mystique of this engagement, a storm broke out in the midst of it, and the combatants were pelted with large hailstones. The Norwegian force numbered 150 ships, while the invading Danes had 60. Some among the invaders were "Jomsvikings," members of a warrior community who lived a Spartan-style life in a fortress named Jomsborg. Women and children were not permitted in Jomsborg, and life centered round daily preparation for combat. They were, in reality, 10th Century mercenaries.
The heavily outnumbered invaders lost the fray. This is a portion of one story of the aftermath of the battle when 30 Jomsvikings (the number varies by the source) who had been taken alive were brought up for summary execution. As one author put it, ".... this story gives us men who know how to die. They look death unflinchingly in the eye and with a jest on their lips. They love life, but would not be able to survive the taunt of having begged for it .... It would be difficult to cite in world literature a parallel to that unforgettable scene:"
Eighteen (again, the number varies by storyteller) already had been executed by a Norwegian lord named Thorkel Leira, through decapitation with his sword (or axe, depending on the version read), when this event took place:
Then there was brought up a young man whose hair was long and golden yellow like silk. Thorkel asked the same question (he had of the men he already had slain), "What do you think about dying?"
The young man said: "I have lived the best part of my life. I do not care to live after those who have died here. But I want to be led to the slaughter not by a slave but rather by a man not lower than you; nor will such a one be hard to find -- and let him hold my hair away from head so that my hair will not become bloodstained."
A man from Earl Hakon's bodyguard stepped forward and wound the long hair around his hands. Thorkel slammed down with his sword, and at that moment the young man jerked away his head, and the blow fell on the arms of the one holding his hair and cut them off at the elbow.
The young man leapt up and said: "Whose hands are in my hair?"
Earl Hakon said: "A great mischief has been done. Kill that man at once, and also all the others who are left, because these men are too unmanageable to guard against.”
Earl Eirik (Hakon's son) interrupted and said: "Let us first find out who they are. What is your name, young man?"
To which, the young man replied: "They call me Sigurth. Not yet are all Jomsvikings dead."
Earl Eirik asked: "Whose son are you?"
The young man answered: "I am said to be the son of Bui."
(Bui was one of three chieftains who led the Jomsvikings. When both his hands were severed by a sword stroke during the battle, he took a chest of his personal treasures in his arms and jumped into the sea.)
Earl Eirik said: "You are truly likely to be the son of Bui. How old a man are you?"
The young man replied: "If I live through this one, I shall be eighteen years."
Earl Eirik then said: "You shall. Would you have quarter?"
The young man replied: "That depends on who offers it."
Earl Eirik answered: "He offers, who has the authority to do so -- Earl Eirik."
The young man said: "I would, if you give it to all of us who yet live."
Earl Eirik said: "Release them all from the rope," and accepted them into his personal bodyguards.
Eighteen of the captured had been killed and twelve received quarter. To which, the young man, Sigurth, said to be the son of Bui, noted: "There are Jomsvikings yet living."
This tale, I think, opens a doorway to any number of fascinating questions regarding sociological attributes (or detriments), and about life and death, now and then, particularly from a male viewpoint. Those executed before the young man also posed philosophical or practical thoughts before they were killed. The young man was the eleventh in the line. I like the number, and this more-or-less is the end of the event. The slain Jomsvikings had equally interesting words to say, but the length of the entire piece prohibits running it.
The final thought: No matter who you are or where you are, Fram the First advises to study your origins, and to learn from them.