Bronze Swords of Hafrsfjord Tell a Legendary Tale of a Powerful King and a Great Battle
Long ago, the inhabitants of Norway lived in warring tribes and villages. It was not until the 872 Battle of Hafrsfjord that the fractious clans of habitable Norway were united under a single ruler – King Harald “Fairhair” I. The astonishing victory was commemorated in 1983 by a memorial placed in the Hafrsfjord suburb of Madla, near the city of Stavanger, Rogaland. Many believe that the ancient battle took place on the 5.6 mile-long (9 kilometers) fjord. The memorial consists of three bronze swords, each approximately 33 feet (10 meters) tall, planted into a hill of solid rock near the edge of the fjord. The foremost sword represents the victorious King Harald I; the lesser two swords symbolize the two petty kings that were defeated in the Battle of Hafrsfjord. Norway’s King Olav V, who commissioned the piece, says that the work is a symbol of peace and shall never be removed from its bed of stone.
Sverd i Fjell at Dusk. Photo Source: (Ronel Reyes/Flickr)
In reality, one battle did not achieve a lasting peace throughout the habitable regions of Norway. Yet popular legend largely credits King Harald as the first King of the Vikings. Believed to have lived from roughly 850 to 935 AD, most of what is known about Harald Fairhair comes from scraps of court poems that were written during his reign, believed to have been from 872 until his death in 932 AD, as well as from Scandinavian sagas. The contemporary skaldic poems that mention him are Haraldskvæði and Glymdrápa; both are believed to have been written by the Scandinavian court poet Þorbjörn Hornklofi. These poems attest to King Harald’s victory at Hafrsfjord as well as mention that he took a Danish queen and had two sons, Eric Bloodaxe and Haakon the Good, both of who became kings after Harald’s death. Of the Battle of Hafrsfjord, Þorbjörn Hornklofi writes:
“Hearken how the high-born one in the Hafrs-firth fought there,
the keen-eyed king’s son, against Kiotvi the wealthy:
came the fleet from the eastward, eager for fighting,
with gaping figureheads and graven ship-prows….
Their strength would they try, but he taught them to flee,
the lord of the Eastmen who at Útstein dwelleth.
The steeds-of-Nokkvi he steered out when started the battle.
Then boomed the bucklers ere a blow felled Haklang.” (Sacred Text)
Harald Fairhair, in an illustration from the 14th century Flateyjarbók. (Public Domain)
The Saga of Harald Fairhair
In addition to the court poems, much of the legends’ material derives from sagas written several centuries later in the 12th century. The Saga of Harald Fairhair (Heimskringla) is far more elaborate than the contemporary renditions, though not necessarily more reliable. It tells of the handsome young Harald who came to rule several small kingdoms in Vestfold after the death of his father, Halfdan the Black Gudrödarson.
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The scattered sovereignty of Halfdan had come through various means, including conquest and inheritance. Harald is in love with Gyda, the daughter of King Eirik of Hordaland, and offers her his hand in marriage. She rebuffs his advances and says she will never marry Harald until he becomes king of all Norway. So great is his love for Gyda that he vows to do so. Also, he promises to never cut or comb his hair until he is king of the entire region, thus giving him the epithet of ‘Tanglehair’.
Harald later in his life. (Public Domain)
Battle of Hafrsfjord
King Harald makes good on his promise and over the next 10 years, conquers the numerous petty kingdoms that are interspersed between his lands. His campaign culminates in the epic Battle of Hafrsfjord. The fight is vividly described in the Saga:
News came in from the southland that the people of Hordaland and Rogaland, Agder and Thelemark, were gathering, and bring together ships and weapons, and a great body of men. The leaders of this were Eirik king of Hordaland; Sulke king of Rogaland, and his brother Earl Sote: Kjotve the Rich, king of Agder, and his son Thor Haklang; and from Thelemark two brothers, Hroald Hryg and Had the Hard. Now when Harald got certain news of this, he assembled his forces, set his ships on the water, made himself ready with his men, and set out southwards along the coast, gathering many people from every district. King Eirik heard of this when he came south of Stad; and having assembled all the men he could expect, he proceeded southwards to meet the force that he knew was coming to his help from the east. The whole met together north of Jadar, and went into Hafersfjord, where King Harald was waiting with his forces. A great battle began, which was both hard and long; but at last King Harald gained the day. There King Eirik fell, and King Sulke, with his brother Earl Sote. Thor Haklang, who was a great berserk, had laid his ship against King Harald's, and there was above all measure a desperate attack, until Thor Haklang fell, and his whole ship was cleared of men. Then King Kjotve fled to a little isle outside [Iceland], on which there was a good place of strength. Thereafter all his men fled, some to their ships, some up to the land; and the latter ran southwards over the country of Jadar. (Hornklofi)
End of the Battle
According to the legend, King Harald defeated all the remaining Norweigan kings with this battle. Finally, after 10 years, he cut and combed his hair, changing his epithet to ‘Fairhair’. He then went on to remind Gyda of her promise to marry him once he was king of all Norway. She had not forgotten and gladly accepted his proposal. The two lived happily in their castle until Harald’s death at the age of over 80.
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This fantastic saga, similar to the veracity and cultural significance of the Arthurian legends in England, involves much more than the Battle of Hafrsfjord and brings characters in from many Scandinavian countries including Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland. The unifying nature of this shared mythos should not be underestimated. So while the sword memorial at Sverd ifjell may not represent the peaceful unification of Norway, it does attest to the cultural unity among the northern peoples.
Top image: Sverd I Fjell, Hafrsfjord (Gu Jo / Flickr)
Atlas Obscura. "Sverd I Fjell." Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura, 2016. Web. 24 July 2016. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/sverd-i-fjell
Hornklofi, Thórbiorn. "The Lay Of Harold [Haraldskvæthi Or Hrafnsmól]." Legends and Sagas: Iceland. Sacred Texts, n.d. Web. 24 July 2016. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/onp/onp11.htm
Kaushik. "Swords in The Rock, Norway." Amusing Planet. Amusing Planet, 13 Apr. 2016. Web. 24 July 2016. http://www.amusingplanet.com/2016/04/swords-in-rock-norway.html
Sturluson, Snorri, and Lee M. Hollander. Heimskringla; History of the Kings of Norway. Austin: Published for the American-Scandinavian Foundation by the U of Texas, 1964. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg. Web. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/598