Thursday, February 23, 2006

Cool Quote #6: Egil the Melancholy Viking

The sagas, so far ahead of their time, were prose stories about regular people, and often show an amazing insight into human nature and personality. Egil Skallagrimsson was an ugly, irascible, unpredictable Icelander, yet composed some of the most beautiful poetry Norse literature has to offer. Isn't it funny the combination of traits we often find in people? Anyway, check out this quote from Egilssaga:

As autumn progressed, Egil grew very melancholy and would often sit down with his head bowed into his cloak.

Once, Arinbjorn went to him and asked what was causing his melancholy: "Even though you have suffered a great loss with your brother's death, the manly thing to do is bear it well. One man lives after another's death. What poetry have you been composing? Let me hear some."

Now that's a man who understands melancholic personalities! :-D

Actually, it has been suggested that Egil suffered from Paget's disease. The saga says he had exceptionally broad bone structure in his head, disturbingly mobile eyebrows, and was generally in a bad mood. Also, Paget's disease would have given him a low-level headache all the time, as well as another unusual characteristic, useful to a Viking: when a farmer dug up his skull a century or so ago, the bone did not chip or shatter or break when he hit it with an axe, it just turned whiter.

The saga writer obviously had no access to the science that would have explained Egil's condition, but he did have access to a more general explanation: human nature, something the saga writers seemed very good at analyzing.


Ian Myles Slater said...

Thanks in part to E.R. Eddison's old translation (in a style less fevered than his fantasy novels, like "The Worm Ouroboros," but still elaborately archaizing), "Egil's Saga" is a long-time favorite of mine.

The story of Egil's skull is already found at the end of the saga itself; what were believed to be his bones were discovered under the altar when the old church at the farmstead was being dismantled. The priest at the new church -- "an intelligent man" we are assured-- tested the theory; the skull wouldn't break when struck by the blunt ("hammer") part of an axe, so it just HAD to be Egil's!

So, the bones being conclusively identified as that of the old pagan, they were respectfully reburied at the outer edge of the new churchyard.

I recall that W.B. Yeats also told the story of Egil's skull, as a parallel to a bit of Irish folk-belief about thick skulls being a mark of intelligence.

The argument for Egil suffering from Paget's disease was made by Jesse Byock, who has published several articles on the subject; one, in "Scientific American," is accessible through his UCLA website,

The theory has the extra advantage of explaining why his contorted features were said in the saga to be a trait that appeared erratically in his ancestral line; as would not be unexpected in a disease which seems sometimes to run in families.

King Alfred said...

Thanks for such an informative post!