Þorbjörn öngull

born: 996 in Iceland
died: 1031 in Constantinople

Þorbjörn öngull (hook) was a bully and a trouble-maker. When Grettir Ásmundarson was an outlaw, he and his brother Illugi took over the island of Drangey to use as their refuge. The island rises starkly from the cold waters of Skagafjörður in north Iceland. It had water and food, but most importantly, it offered safety. When the ladders were pulled up from the top of the island, it was impossible for anyone to climb up.

Local farmers had used the island to graze their sheep. With no place to go and no predators, the sheep became fat without the need for any supervision. As one of the farmers whose ownership had been displaced by Grettir's arrival, Þorbjörn led the attempts to capture and kill Grettir. Þorbjörn's repeated failed attempts to best Grettir showed him to be a coward and bully. This passage from the saga serves to introduce Þorbjörn to the reader.

Thorbjorn Hook was a big, strong man, tough to deal with, and ruthless. His stepmother treated her stepchildren badly, and Thorbjorn worst of all, because he was difficult and brutal. Once when Thorbjorn was sitting and playing hnefatafl using big pieces that fitted into the board on long pins, his stepmother walked by and saw him playing the game. She thought that he was idling away his time, so she threw a few remarks in his direction and he answered her back insolently. Then she picked up one of the pieces and struck Thorbjorn on the cheek with the peg on it, but it glanced off into his eye, gouging it out onto his cheek. He leapt to his feet and gave her such a drubbing that she was confined to her bed by it and then died from the beating. After that, Thorbjorn became a great troublemaker.

Grettis saga, ch. 70
translation: Bernard Scudder, The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, Leifur Eiriksson Publishing (1997).

Through the use of sorcery and evil magic, Þorbjörn was able to best Grettir and Illugi. After the battle, he cut off Grettir's head and took it to Grettir's mother to present it to her. Her poetic response to Þorbjörn's evil deed cuts to the bone, insulting him to the core. He found no support for the killing in Iceland and was forced to flee. He left for Norway, but news of his boasts and stories reached the ears of Grettir's brother, Þorsteinn.

Þorbjörn, fearing a revenge killing, fled to Constantinople to join the Varangian Guard, the elite fighters of the Byzantine Emperor. Þorsteinn followed him to Constantinople and also joined the guard. During a weapons inspection, Þorsteinn spotted his brother's prized sax being carried by Þorbjörn. Unrecognized, he asked to see the beautiful weapon, and Þorbjörn handed it over. Þorsteinn used it instantly to cut Þorbjörn's head in two down to the jaw to avenge the death of his brother.

In the saga, Þorbjörn was playing hnefatafl, the Viking board game. The sagas suggest that people enjoyed the game and often played. Skill at the game was prized and admired.


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