15 October 2017

Baby Vikings

Heimdall and his nine mothers
by W. G. Collingwood 1908
My North American correspondent has alerted me to a news item in which some 'celebrity' or other refers to her infant daughter as a 'baby Viking' because she celebrated her first birthday by 'feasting on steak'. As it happens, I am not aware that the eating or not eating of steak is one of the aspects of how we define Vikings. Nevertheless, I thought it might be of interest to see what some Old Norse texts see as the defining features of baby Vikings.

Starting with the youngest, there is the legendary hero Helgi Hundingsbani, who is celebrated in two poems of the Poetic Edda. The first of these describes his birth, and quotes this conversation between two ravens who are rejoicing at it:
Stendr í brynju / burr Sigmundar, / dœgrs eins gamall, / nú er dagr kominn; /hvessir augu / sem hildingar, / sá er varga vinr, / vit skulum teitir. (Eddukvæði II, ed. Kristjánsson & Ólason, 2014, p. 248)
'He stands in his mail-coat, the son of Sigmundr, one day old, now the day has come! He sharpens his glance as leaders do; that one is a friend of wolves, we two will be cheerful.'
The ravens are of course, anticipating the carrion that the warrior will provide for them and the wolves during his martial career. He does indeed have a varied and interesting career and eventually grows up enough to fall in love with a valkyrie. But that is another story...

Next up is Magni, son of Thor. In one of his many giant-fighting episodes, Thor manages to fell Hrungnir, but in such a way that the giant's leg lay across his neck, pinning him down. Young Magni saves the day by being the only one strong enough to remove the giant's leg, after all the other Æsir have tried and failed. Magni was three years old at the time (and his name means 'strength'). He clearly felt he could have done more:
Sé þar ljótan harm, faðir, er ek kom svá síð. Ek hygg at jötun þenna mundak hafa lostit í Hel með hnefa ef ek hefða fundit hann. (Skáldskaparmál, ed. Faulkes, 1998, p. 22)
'It is a awful shame, father, that I came so late. I think I would have struck this giant into Hel with my fist if I had encountered him.'
His father is impressed and predicts a glowing future for his son, and gives him Hrungnir's horse Gullfaxi as a reward. This irks  Odin, who thinks he, as Thor's father, should have had this gift, rather than Magni the 'son of a giantess'. Presumably it was Magni's maternal giant heritage that made him strong enough for the deed. Magni's fate is to survive Ragnarök, but that is another story...

Another precocious three-year-old is the hero of Egils saga. We meet him first in ch. 31, ugly, black-haired and clever with words, but a bit obstreperous in playing with other children. When the family sets out for a party at the grandparental home, Egil's father refuses to take him, saying that he can't be trusted to behave when there is drink being taken, indeed he is hard enough to deal with when he's sober. The toddler won't have this, grabbing a horse to follow the party. At the party, grandfather Yngvar welcomes Egil and gives him three sea-snail shells and a duck's egg as a reward for a verse he composed in a drinking game which involved competitive poetic composition:
Kominn emk enn til arna / Yngvars, þess's beð lyngva, / hann vask fúss at finna, / fránþvengjar gefr drengjum; / mun eigi þú, þægir, / þrevetran mér betra, / ljósundinna landa / linns, óðar smið finna. (Egils saga, ed. Nordal, 1933, pp. 82-3)
'Still I have come to the hearth of Yngvar, he who gives to warriors gold (the bed of the gleaming thong of the heather). I was anxious to find him. You will not, giver of the twisted, shining gold (land of the snake) find a better three-year-old craftsman of poetry than I am. [Thong of the heather is a snake, and the snake's bed, according to tradition, is gold]. (Egils saga, tr. Christine Fell, 1975, p. 182).
It's quite a sophisticated poem for a three-year-old. Egil doesn't however, kill his first man until he is in his seventh year, the victim being a boy of ten or eleven who had bested and humiliated him at a ball game. This killing led his mother to declare that Egil was a víkingsefni 'the makings of a Viking'. Indeed Egil goes on to fulfil his destiny, but that is another story...

Anyway, six is a bit beyond babyhood and nearing the age of reason. This little tour of baby Vikings does not suggest that steak played any part in their achieving that status, but then it is not recorded what they ate and only hinted at what they drank. From the legendary poetry of the Edda to Snorri's prose mythology and the historical fiction of the saga, we do find an admiration for exceptional individuals, expressed in their baby Vikinghood. But I do not expect any time soon to read articles claiming that the Vikings started training their warriors at one day old. At least I hope not.