Viking Names, when History is Better than Fiction

in Sep 11, 2020

In all societies names are important linguistic signifiers of identity. They also carry historical information in various ways. In the modern English-speaking world, for example, people are familiar with the convention of given names paired with a surname, such as “John Doe,” but the names of Viking-Age Scandinavians were constructed differently than what we are today used to.

A typically Viking name consisted of single given names combined with patronymics marking paternal descent. As an example, let’s take the legendary hero Ragnar himself, whose name was Ragnarr Sigurðsson (Ragnar, the son of Sigurd). This convention is particularly useful for tracing genealogies. Rather than following the tangled branches of a surname’s family tree, these names more clearly convey genealogical information and can be easily linked together. 

Ragnar’s name could be expanded further to Ragnarr Sigurðsson, Randvéssonar (Ragnar, the son of Sigurd, the son of Randvér). This structure, still in use in Iceland today, has allowed modern Icelanders to reliably trace  their family histories  for a millennium.

Honor your forefathers!

But if he was born  Ragnarr Sigurðsson, where does Lothbrok come from, and what does it mean? The third common component of Viking-Age Scandinavian names was a nickname, Ragnar’s being Lothbrok, or Loðbrókin Old Norse. So, his full name is Ragnarr loðbrók Sigurðsson. Nicknames were especially important to Viking-Age Scandinavians, as evidence suggests that their stock of given names was extremely thin. Apart from introductions, sagas tend to describe their characters solely by their first and nickname for easier identification. This is why we most often hear about  Ragnarr Loðbrók , rather than his full name.

During the Viking-Age, Scandinavians placed a good deal more importance on nicknames than most of us do today, sometimes completely substituting the person’ name with the nickname. Just like nowadays, nicknames were used to describe a particular aspect of an individual’s nature or life that carried particular resonance. Needless to say, this practice didn’t always bestow the most desirable names, as people rarely had a say in the nicknames they carried.

The famous Ragnar himself did not escape an unpleasant nickname: Lothbrok,  meaning “shaggy trousers”. At first this hardly seems a nickname befitting a Viking warrior king, but then again, neither does Fairhair, also known as Lufa (Matted-Hair, his nickname before fixing his hair). Both nicknames belonged to Harald I, who was  king of Norway from c. 872 to 930.

But while some nicknames are downright slanderous, Ragnar’s and Harald’s are in no way belittling. In fact, they actually contain information about the heroic exploits of their bearers. The sagas tell us that Ragnar earned his nickname from his use of shaggy garments to protect against the bites of a giant serpent he killed, while Harald earned his by swearing never to cut nor comb his hair until he had conquered the whole of Norway. 

Harald Fairhair statue, erected in 1872 in Norway at the site where people believed Harald Fairhair was buried in 933.

One of the best sources for nicknames from the Viking Age is the Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), which detailed the settlement of Iceland during the 9th and 10th centuries. It features descriptions of many of the Icelanders who lived during this period, including hundreds that had nicknames for men and women. Here are a few of the most interesting ones:

Óttarr the Vendel Crow: So given because after he was slain in a battle at Vendill, his body was eaten by crows.

Hálfdan the Generous and the Stingy with Food: This contradictory nickname is rooted in a surviving anecdote that claims the king paid his men well, but also starved them.

Walking-Hrólfr: Hrólfr was said to be given this nickname because he was too large for any horses to carry him, and thus he walked everywhere. You may know him as the character Rolo in the tv series.

It is said that he weighed more than 140 kilos and was more than 2 meters tall.

Magnús Barefoot or Barelegged: King Magnus traveled west to the British Isles, where he and his men adopted the kilt styles worn there, and brought the fashion back to Norway. The sartorial choice was especially noteworthy after a blow to his bare leg in battle ultimately cost him his life.

Haraldr War Tooth: There is some discrepancy in the legends about Haraldr—whether he earned his epithet through naturally prominent (and yellow) teeth or whether he was bestowed with a mystical immunity that included re-growing a pair of teeth that were knocked out on his wedding night.

Sometimes, an explanation of the nicknames of non-royal Vikings, however obtuse, was also included in the text. Such as:

Billy Goat Bjǫrn: So-called because he dreamed of a “rock-dweller” and awoke to find an extra male goat amongst his herd, which quickly multiplied and made Bjorn wealthy.

Ǫlvir the Friend of Children: There was a low bar for earning this epithet in Medieval Iceland. Ǫlvir was a friend of children because, according to Landnámabók, “He did not allow himself to catch children on spears, as was then customary among Vikings.”

Þórir Leather Neck: He earned what was likely a mocking nickname after attempting to fashion armor with cheaper cowhide.

Ragnarr Hairy Breeches: The explanation given for this nickname—that Ragnarr was wearing his hairy breeches when he slew a serpent to win his wife’s hand in marriage—makes sense as a momentous occasion worth commemorating, but it doesn’t explain why he was wearing the fur pants to begin with.

Þóra Hart of the Castle: Like many women’s nicknames, this is a reference to beauty. Þóra was said to be so beautiful that she stood out from other women as a hart (or stag) stands out from other animals.

Þorbjǫrg Coal Brow: Her nickname is a reference to her black hair and eyebrows—but it is not intended as a compliment among Vikings.

Hallgerðr Long Pants: The wife of a legendary hero, Hallgerðr’s nickname refers to her abnormal height and thus, presumably, the long pants she would have to wear.

There were also a surprising number of nicknames that were full of potty humor, some even openly insulting, such as: Kolbeinn Butter Penis; Herjólfr Shriveled Testicle; Ásný Ship-Chest (or: Ásný The Busty); Finni the Dream Interpreter; Olaf the Witch-Breaker; Vemund the Word-Master; Hlif the Castrator of Horses; Vékell the Shape-Shifting and even Eysteinn Foul-Fart (a very nasty companion in closed spaces).

Get away from the fire Eysteinn, you will burn the house down!

These nicknames are essential to the portrayals of these characters. Whether used in a medieval saga or a modern television series, they connect characters to complex webs of allusions, involving family histories, personal back stories, and even more distantly related tales. They were vital in driving the narratives of the sagas and today are an under-utilized resource for the reimagining of these stories.

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