Eight Harsh But Hilarious Viking Nick Names and How They Came About
Before surnames became commonplace, a method was needed to differentiate between two or more people with the same name. Many surnames in the English language today are a result of this - John Smith, John Taylor, or John Farrier would all have been answers given to the question, “Which John?!” The three Johns may also have been known as John Williamson, Johnson, and Anderson respectively, depending on what their fathers were called.
Today nearly everyone knows someone whose surname is rooted in one of these two traditions. But whilst you probably know a Mr. or Mrs. Smith, you probably don’t know a Mr. Butter-Penis.
Aside from patronymic indicators (-sons and -sens), the Vikings were fond of giving one another nicknames to help make it easier to know who was being discussed or gossiped about. Famous examples are Erik the Red, Harald Harfagr (fairhair) and Harald Bluetooth , but there is also a slew of more colorful nicknames. Butter-Penis is just one example of these, and in many cases the stories we have of the Vikings behind the names are just as funny as the names themselves.
The TV show Vikings has brought this particular Viking into the public eye, featuring the battles and drama of ‘Ragnars saga loðbrókar’ (The saga of Ragnar Lothbrok ). Ragnar was a legendary king of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark and he was known for his successful and plentiful raiding parties. His name, however, belies his fearsome reputation – Ragnar loðbrók was in fact ‘Ragnar Hairy-Breeches’.
Hallgerðr was the wife of the legendary 10 th Century Icelandic chieftain Gunnar Hámundarson. She had been married twice before her union with Gunnar, and it was rumored that she had killed her first two husbands - in fact, she had only killed the first. Her nickname, meaning ‘long breeches’, was inspired by the fact she was exceptionally tall, and would presumably have worn long breeches to account for this.
Óttarr Vendilkráka (Vendel Crow) was a legendary king of Sweden who is purported to have reigned during the 6 th Century AD. His nickname may sound fierce, but Óttarr earned his nickname posthumously and by unfortunate means - Vendel comes from the fact he was slain in battle at Vendel, and Crow is due to the fact his body was picked apart by crows. The nickname was probably a joke made by his enemies.
Artist’s representation of Ragnar Lothbrok. Source: jere0020/ Deviant Art
Gaange Hrólfr was the nickname of Rollo, a Viking count who became the first king of Normandy. His descendants include William the Conqueror, the British royal family, and every current reigning European monarch. You would expect such a significant historical figure to have a flattering nickname, but Gaange Hrólfr, meaning Walking Rolf, refers to the fact he was too fat to get around on horseback.
King Magnús “Berfœttr” Óláfsson ruled South-Eastern Norway between 1095 and his death in 1103. His reign was a particularly bloodthirsty one – Magnús’ tactics as a ruler ticked off every box on the list of brutish Viking stereotypes. He spent time in the British Isles where he and his men adopted the local fashions, returning to Norway in kilts, which may have led to his nickname “Berfœttr” meaning barefoot or barelegged. The other theory is that he once had to flee from an ambush barefoot as there was no time to put on shoes. Neither option is particularly flattering for a man who was a proud and successful warrior, and he probably would have preferred the nickname of his infamous grandfather Harald Hardrada (Harald the Ruthless).
Hafr-Bjǫrn (Billy-goat Bjorn) was a Viking who dreamed that a cliff-giant offered him partnership. Soon after this a strange billy-goat joined his herd, and they began to multiply rapidly which made him extremely wealthy. Perhaps this was a silly nickname given to him by friends who were a little jealous of his new-found wealth and were looking for a way to tease him.
Ǫlvir Barnakarl is described in Landnamabok, a Medieval Icelandic book which details the settlement of Iceland and famous Vikings who had an impact on the country. The book states that Ǫlvir was a great Viking known throughout Norway at the time. He earned the title Barnakarl which translates directly to ‘children’s man’ as he refused to throw children onto spear points after a place had been successfully raided. It says a lot about the Vikings that it only took “not spearing innocent children” to earn this nickname.
The Lándnámabók: H. Kruse, 1688 (public domain)
Thorbjorg "knarrarbringa" Gilsdóttir was born in Iceland around 875AD and is most famously the mother-in-law of well-known Viking Eric the Red. Thorbjorg’s nickname Knarrarbringa, which means “ship breast”, alludes to her large breasts.
There are so many funny Viking nicknames that in 2015 Paul Peterson published his PHD thesis entitled “Old Norse Nicknames” which boasts a full 275 pages dedicated to the subject. The fact these nicknames survive alongside information and legends about the people who earned them is incredible, but there are many more Viking nicknames on record with absolutely no context. Shriveled-testicle, lethal-fart, anus, hip-thruster, and of course butter-penis are all examples of nicknames that survive with no further information about the people they were assigned to – though many of these names make it possible to make an educated guess at aspects of their physical appearance or personality.
Top image: Crazy Viking face ( khosrork / Adobe Stock)
Balogh, G. 2018. Thorbjorg ‘ship breast’ Gilsdottir. Available at: https://www.geni.com/people/Thorbjorg-Ship-Breast-Gilsd%C3%B3ttir/6000000003645908750
Fisher A-D. 2011. Viking is ‘forefather to British royals’. Available at: https://www.newsinenglish.no/2011/06/15/viking-is-forefather-to-british-royals/
Kane, N. 2016. Gunnar the Hero. Available at: http://spangenhelm.com/viking-legends-gunnar-hero/
Karasavvas, T. 2017. Ragnar Lothbrok: The Legendary Viking Hero That Became a Myth. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/ragnar-lothbrok-ferocious-viking-hero-became-myth-008177
Keyser, H. 2016. 33 Crass and Creative Norse Nicknames. Available at: http://mentalfloss.com/article/74229/33-crass-and-creative-norse-nicknames
Pálsson, H and Edwards, P. 1972. Landnamabok: Translated with introduction and notes. University of Manitoba Press
Peterson, P. 2015. Old Norse Nicknames. Available at: https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/172669
Sturlusonar, S. c1225. Ynglingasaga. Available at: http://www.heimskringla.no/wiki/Ynglinga_saga
Universitetet i Oslo. Date unknown. Magnus Berrføtt (Magnus III Bareleg) 1093-1103. Available at: https://www.dokpro.uio.no/umk_eng/myntherr/mb.html
And my high school in MN carried on this tradition. Can't think of one person that didn't have a nickname.
Great article. Really made me smile. Personally, I like Ragnar Hairy-Breeches
I would contest that Rollo was not fat but rather excessively large to be carried by a horse think Giant Berzerker warrior as opposed to round fat and cumbersome.