It was in the eighth century that the Vikings burst from Scandinavia and brought fire and pillage to their European neighbors. But there was also Viking-on-Viking violence aplenty as the modern nations of Scandinavia were forged in the white heat of battle. And one fiercely fought clash in 872 saw the birth of the Norwegian nation. The Battle of Hafrsfjord is commemorated today in an extraordinary and massive sculpture of three swords.
What we now think of as the Viking era stretched from the eighth to the 12th centuries A.D. The Vikings came from the countries we now call Sweden and Denmark, as well as from Norway. It’s said that when they first arrived in their longboats, the British actually welcomed them. But things soon went sour in the face of Viking violence.
Perhaps one of the most famous of the Viking raids was the sacking of Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of mainland England, separated by a tidal causeway. Lindisfarne is also known as Holy Island because it was said to be the first place that Christianity was brought to the north of England, then the kingdom of Northumbria, by the Irish Saint Aidan in the seventh century.
So when a major Viking raiding party jumped off their long boats in 793 and proceeded to burn the island’s venerable priory, it was regarded by the Northumbrians as a singular act of barbarity. Indeed, it caused scandal throughout the Western world of the day.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said of the events at Holy Island, “[T]he ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.” This was just the type of outrage that formed the poor opinion that people had of the Vikings and to large extent still do today.
But contemporary Norway could hardly diverge further from that image of a barbaric and cruel people of raiders and looters. Norway’s people today are the fourth richest in the world, thanks to its plentiful reserves of oil and gas. Modern Norwegian citizens have little incentive to run around raiding their neighbors.
The modern image of Norway is more closely tied to its outstanding natural beauty than to the violent Viking hordes of its history. It is after all a place where you can witness the magical delight of the Northern Lights. Then again, the country has its urban attractions as well with the cities of Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim all popular tourist destinations with their lively cultural and entertainment scenes.
But if we travel back in history to that Viking era, we find Norway in a much different condition. In the seventh and eighth centuries in fact, there was really no such thing as a Norwegian nation as we know it today. None of the people who lived in what we now call Norway would have thought of themselves as Norwegian.
Back then, the land was divided between a series of small fiefdoms, often at war with one another. Although there’s evidence of human habitation dating as far back as 13 thousand years ago, there was no consciousness of a Norwegian nation until many millennia later.
But a key turning point came in the 9th century with an event still regarded today as a crucial part of the creation of Norway as a nation. That was the Battle of Hafrsfjord in 872. It was fought between rivals determined to assert their positions as the most powerful warriors in Norway.
The antagonists were Harald “Fairhair” Halvdansson on one side and a group of chieftains from various regions who had come together to oppose Harald. This makeshift coalition may also have included fighters from what is now Denmark and others perhaps even from the British Isles. In any case, historians believe that this battle was the largest ever seen on Norwegian territory up to that point.
The victor in the battle was Harald, who now became the king of most of what we now call Norway, although it may be that some of the territory was still controlled by the great rivals of the Norwegians, the Danes. At any rate, King Harald now had a firm enough grip on the reins of power to start levying taxes from his people.
As for those whom Harald Fairhair vanquished in battle, many of the survivors now left Norway altogether, apparently unwilling to live under his rule. Some of them traveled to Iceland where they founded a new kingdom. Others, it’s believed, made their way to the Western Isles north of Scotland. In fact, if you travel to Orkney or Shetland even today, you’ll find plenty of evidence of Viking influence in the culture, even though the islands are formally part of Scotland.
In fact this tale of the battle of Hafrsfjord and its victor Harald is actually a mix of fact and myth. Much of what we think we know about these ninth century events comes from a saga recorded in a work by Snorri Sturluson called Heimskringla. He actually lived 300 years after the battle, so he was hardly an eye-witness.
Sturluson describes the battle as “both hard and long” and talks of the deaths of Harald’s enemies – King Sulke, Earl Sote, King Eirik and Thor Haklang. Modern historians tend to think that although there was an important battle, it could have happened at any time. They also assert that the emergence of the modern nation of Norway would have been a gradual process – probably taking centuries.
Nevertheless, however much actual historical fact is contained in the legend of King Harald and his victory at the Battle of Hafrsfjord, the story remains an important part of contemporary Norwegian culture and nationhood. And that is why one of the most important Norwegian artists of the 20th century was commissioned to create a monumental piece to commemorate the battle.
Born in the Norwegian town of Bryne in 1928, the sculptor Fritz Røed has come to be best known for his monumental work commemorating the battle. The work that he created is called in Norwegian “Sverd i Fjell,” which we can translate into English as Swords in Rock.
The Sverd i Fjell sculpture looms 33 feet above Hafrsfjord and depicts three swords soaring into the skies, their tips planted into the solid rock, their hilts pointing upwards. The three swords represent freedom, peace and unity, and the hilts are based on Viking swords found in different parts of Norway
The swords are fashioned from bronze, and the permanence of their placement in the solid rock is intended to represent the permanence of peace. Fittingly, Røed’s work was unveiled by Norway’s King Olav V at a ceremony in 1983. Røed himself died at the age of 74 in 2002.
But there’s another tale from the Viking sagas about Harald Fairhair. The reason, it’s recounted, that he took to arms to unite Norway was love. He was desperately in love with one Gyda Eiriksdatter. But she would only marry him if he could impose his rule on the whole of Norway. Harald duly conquered his kingdom and won the hand of his beloved. A romantic tale indeed to underpin the founding of a nation.