Viga-Glum’s Fits Of Murderous Laughter

Sweden doesn’t have much of a written record for the Viking Period. We have most of the rune stones but hardly any of the sagas. And thus among Swedish Viking scholars it is not uncommon to be rather poorly read, like I am, in the eddas, the sagas and the other written sources of the period. The Viking Period is pretty much prehistoric archaeology to us.

Still, even in Sweden you can’t study the period without picking up a few fragments of the written lore. And in my reading, one of the best passages I’ve come across is this description of Viga-Glum’s reaction to trespassing neighbours from the saga that bears his name. Glum is the son of Eyolf and Astrida and lives with his mother after the father’s death. He is introduced thus:

Glum took very little trouble about household matters, and seemed to be somewhat slow in coming to his full faculties. He was for the most part silent and undemonstrative, tall, of a dark complexion, with straight white hair; a powerful man, who seemed rather awkward and shy, and never went to the places where men met together.

The up-and-coming young chieftain Sigmund and his father Thorkel are grabbing bits of Glum’s family property.

One morning Astrida woke Glum up and told him that many of Sigmund’s cattle had got into their home field and wanted to break in among the hay which was laid in heaps.

“I am not strong enough to drive them out, and the men are all at work.”

He replied, “Well, you have not often asked me to work, and there shall be no offence in your doing so now.”

So he jumped up, took his horse, and a large stick in his hand, drove the cattle briskly off the farm, thrashing them well until they came to the homestead of Thorkel and Sigmund, and then he let them do whatever mischief they might please. Thorkel was looking after the hay and the fences that morning, and Sigmund was with the labourers.

The former called out to Glum, “You may be sure people will not stand this at your hands – that you should damage their beasts in this way, though you may have got some credit while you were abroad.”

Glum answered, “The beasts are not injured yet, but if they come again and trespass upon us some of them will be lamed, and you will have to make the best of it; it is all you will get; we are not going to suffer damage by your cattle any longer.”

Sigmund cried out, “You talk big, Glum, but in our eyes you are now just as great a simpleton as when you went away, and we shall not order our affairs according to your nonsense.”

Glum went home, and then a fit of laughter came upon him, and affected him in such a manner that he turned quite pale, and tears burst from his eyes, like large hailstones. He was often afterwards taken in this way when the appetite for killing someone came upon him.

(Ch. 7, last paragraph, Edmund Head’s 1866 translation with a few 21st century tweaks of mine.)

Thanks to Anne Monikander for helping me find the passage, which I had misattributed first to Gretti Asmundarson and then to Gisli Sursson.

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Secrets of the Runic Lion

The Lion of Pireus is a large 4th century BC marble statue that was moved from Pireus, the port of Athens, to Venice in 1688. It is now at the city’s Arsenal. The Lion has unmistakeable Swedish 11th century runic inscriptions which have been known to Scandinavian scholars since 1798/99. Clearly they have something to do with the Varangian Guard, Swedish soldiers in the employ of the Byzantine Emperor from the 980s onward. But due to poor preservation, the message carried by those runes has been believed lost.

There is a cast of the Lion at the Historical Museum in Stockholm, and I’ve often pondered its silent message and felt frustrated. But frustrated I am no more! Thorgunn Snædal has done what every really good runologist must do: gone to the original and studied it. And re-studied it. And re-studied it again. She’s visited the Lion in Venice four times and spent a total of ~85 hours with it. And now she’s published her new reading in an Open Access report from the National Heritage Board (in Swedish).

Åsmund's inscription, late 11th century.

Åsmund’s inscription, late 11th century.

Left side, early 11th century.

they carved, the troopers … and in this harbour, these men carved runes after Horse the farm-owner … Swedes had this done on the lion. Fell before he could take a ransom.

Left thigh, prob. 11th century.

Young warriors carved the runes.

Right side, late 11th century.

Åsmund carved … these runes, they Æskell … Þōrlæifr and …

Snædal emphasises the skill with which Åsmund composed the third inscription, judging that he was actually a better rune master than e.g. Uppland’s prolific Öpir (though there may have been two masters of that name). She hopes that one day we will find a signed stone by Åsmund at home in Svealand. This is not by any means casual graffiti.

The new reading says a lot about the men who made the inscriptions. The first group is commemorating Horse, who has died early during his tour of duty, much in the same way as his family would on a runestone back home. But they’re also emphasising their own identity in the alien environment in ways that we never see at home. They juxtapose Horse’s Swedish farm-owner status with a comment on the amazing ancient naval harbour, no likes of which could be seen in Sweden, then explicitly identify themselves as Swedes. It is a highly martial monument, re-using a huge fierce lion and created by men who identify themselves as troopers and young warriors who can’t be certain that they will live to ever see Sweden again. Over a period of at least 50 years, two other groups of Varangians take the time to add inscriptions to the lion, suggesting that it was painted in, remembered and talked about as a must-see sight for any Swede in Pireus. As it should be today for any Swede in Venice.