The following is an excerpt from the Icelandic national epic, Brennu Njál’s Saga (or simply Njall’s Saga), written c. 1250-1280 and translated into English by George Webbe Dasent in 1861. The text deals with the famous Battle of Clontarf in 1014, in which a Norse force was defeated decisively by Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, thus drawing an end to the Viking presence in Ireland. The content is unsurprisingly distinct from that contained in the Irish saga Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (War of the Gael against the Foreigner), it depicts a Viking by the name of Brodir as Brian Boru’s assassin and Sitric Cáech, the Norse-Gaelic leader of Dublin was depicted as Brian’s main enemy, rather than that of his true foe, Máel Mórda mac Murchada, King of Leinster. The saga itself appears to share distinct Irish influences, the Icelandic name Njál is a cognate of the Irish Niall, suggesting that he may have been of Gaelic descent, perhaps descended from the large colony of Irish slaves, overwhelmingly female, that the Vikings held in Iceland.
Earl Sigurd Hlodver’s son busked him from the Orkneys, and Flosi offered to go with him.
The Earl would not have that, since he had his pilgrimage to fulfil.
Flosi offered fifteen men of his band to go on the voyage, and the Earl accepted them, but Flosi fared with Earl Gilli to the Southern Isles.
Thorstein, the Son of Hall of the Side, went along with Earl Sigurd, and Hrafn the red, and Erling of Straumey.
He would not that Hareck should go, but said he would be sure to be the first to tell him the tidings of his voyage.
The Earl came with all his host on Palm Sunday to Dublin, and there too was come Brodir with all his host.
Brodir tried by sorcery how the fight would go, but the answer ran thus, that if the fight were on Good Friday King Brian would fall but win the day; but if they fought before, they would all fall who were against him.
Then Brodir said that they must not fight before the Friday.
On the fifth day of the week a man rode up to Kormlada and her company on an apple-grey horse, and in his hand he held a halberd; he talked long with them.
King Brian came with all his host to the Burg, and on the Friday the host fared out of the Burg, and both armies were drawn up in array.
Brodir was on one wing of the battle, but King Sigtrygg on the other.
Earl Sigurd was in the mid battle.
Now it must be told of King Brian that he would not fight on the fast-day, and so a shieldburgö was thrown round him, and his host was drawn up in array in front of it.
Wolf the quarrelsome was on that wing of the battle against which Brodir stood; but on the other wing, where Sigtrygg stood against them, were Ospak and his sons.
But in mid battle was Kerthialfad, and before him the banners were borne.
Now the wings fall on one another, and there was a very hard fight, Brodir went through the host of the foe, and felled all the foremost that stood there, but no steel would bite on his mail.
Wolf the quarrelsome turned then to meet him, and thrust at him thrice so hard that Brodir fell before him at each thrust, and was well-nigh not getting on his feet again; but as soon as ever he found his feet, he fled away into the wood at once.
Earl Sigurd had a hard battle against Kerthialfad, and Kerthialfad came on so fast that he laid low all who were in the front rank, and he broke the array of Earl Sigurd right up to his banner, and slew the banner-bearer.
Then he got another man to bear the banner, and there was again a hard fight.
Kerthialfad smote this man too his death blow at once, and so on one after the other all who stood near him.
Then Earl Sigurd called on Thorstein the son of Hall of the Side, to bear the banner, and Thorstein was just about to lift the banner, but then Asmund the white said –
“Don’t bear the banner! for all they who bear it get their death.”
“Hrafn the red!” called out Earl Sigurd, “bear thou the banner.”
“Bear thine own devil thyself,” answered Hrafn.
Then the Earl said –
“‘Tis fittest that the beggar should bear the bag;” and with that he took the banner from the staff and put it under his cloak.
A little after Asmund the white was slain, and then the Earl was pierced through with a spear.
Ospak had gone through all the battle on his wing, he had been sore wounded, and lost both his sons ere King Sigtrygg fled before him.
Then flight broke out throughout all the host.
Thorstein Hall of the Side’s son stood still while all the others fled, and tied his shoe-string. Then Kerthialfad asked why he ran not as the others.
“Because,” said Thorstein, “I can’t get home to-night, since I am at home out in Iceland.”
Kerthialfad gave him peace.
Hrafn the red was chased out into a certain river; he thought he saw there the pains of hell down below him, and he thought the devils wanted to drag him to them.
Then Hrafn said –
“Thy dog, o Apostle Peter! hath run twice to Rome, and he would run the third time if thou gavest him leave.”
Then the devils let him loose, and Hrafn got across the river.
Now Brodir saw that King Brian’s men were chasing the fleers, and that there were few men by the shieldburg.
Then he rushed out of the wood, and broke through the shieldburg, and hewed at the king.
The lad Takt threw his arm in the way, and the stroke took it off and the king’s head too, but the king’s blood came on the lad’s stump, and the stump was healed by it on the spot.
Then Brodir called out with a loud voice –
“Now let man tell man that Brodir felled Brian.”
Then men ran after those who were chasing the fleers, and they were told that King Brian had fallen, and then they turned back straightway, both Wolf the quarrelsome and Kerthialfad.
Then they threw a ring round Brodir and his men, and threw branches of trees upon them, and so Brodir was taken alive.
Wolf the quarrelsome cut open his belly, and led him round and round the trunk of a tree, and so wound all his entrails out of him, and he did not die before they were all drawn out of him.
Brodir’s men were slain to a man.
After that they took King Brian’s body and laid it out. The king’s head had grown fast to the trunk.
Fifteen men of the Burners fell in Brian’s battle, and there, too, fell Halldor the son of Gudmund the powerful, and Erling of Straumey.
On Good Friday that event happened in Caithness that a man whose name was Daurrud went out. He saw folk riding twelve together to a bower, and there they were all lost to his sight. He went to that bower and looked in through a window slit that was in it, and saw that there were women inside, and they had set up a loom. Men’s heads were the weights, but men’s entrails were the warp and wed, a sword was the shuttle, and the reels were arrows.
They sang these songs, and he learnt them by heart–
THE WOOF OF WAR.
See! warp is stretched
For warriors’ fall,
Lo! weft in loom
‘Tis wet with blood;
Now fight foreboding,
‘Neath friends’ swift fingers,
Our gray woof waxeth
With war’s alarms,
Our warp bloodred,
Our weft corseblue.
This woof is y-woven
With entrails of men,
This warp is hardweighted
With heads of the slain,
For spindles we use,
Our loom ironbound,
And arrows our reels;
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work;
So weave we, weird sisters,
Our warwinning woof.
Now War-winner walketh
To weave in her turn.
Now Swordswinger steppeth,
Now Swiftstroke, now Storm;
When they speed the shuttle
How spear-heads shall flash!
Shields crash, and helmgnawerö
On harness bite hard!
Wind we, wind swiftly
Our warwinning woof.
Woof erst for king youthful
Foredoomed as his own,
Forth now we will ride,
Then through the ranks rushing
Be busy where friends
Blows blithe give and take.
Wind we, wind swiftly
Our warwinning woof,
After that let us steadfastly
Stand by the brave king;
Then men shall mark mournful
Their shields red with gore,
How Swordstroke and Spearthrust
Stood stout by the prince.
Wind we, wind swiftly
Our warwinning woof;
When sword-bearing rovers
To banners rush on,
Mind, maidens, we spare not
One life in the fray!
We corse-choosing sisters
Have charge of the slain.
Now new-coming nations
That island shall rule.
Who on outlying headlands
Abode ere the fight;
I say that King mighty
To death now is done,
Now low before spearpoint
That Earl bows his head.
Soon over all Ersemen
Sharp sorrow shall fall,
That woe to those warriors
Shall wane nevermore;
Our woof now is woven.
Now battle-field waste,
O’er land and o’er water
War tidings shall leap.
Now surely ’tis gruesome
To gaze all around,
When bloodred through heaven
Drives cloudrack o’er head;
Air soon shall be deep hued
With dying men’s blood
When this our spaedom
Comes speedy to pass.
So cheerily chant we
Charms for the young king,
Come maidens lift loudly
His warwinning lay;
Let him who now listens
Learn well with his ears,
And gladden brave swordsmen
With bursts of war’s song.
Now mount we our horses,
Now bare we our brands,
Now haste we hard, maidens,
Hence far, far away.
Then they plucked down the woof and tore it asunder, and each kept what she had hold of.
Now Daurrud goes away from the slit, and home; but they got on their steeds and rode six to the south, and the other six to the north.
A like event befell Brand Gneisti’s son in the Faroe Isles.
At Swinefell, in Iceland, blood came on the priest’s stole on Good Friday, so that he had to put it off.
At Thvattwater the priest thought he saw on Good Friday a long deep of the sea hard by the altar, and there he saw many awful sights, and it was long ere he could sing the prayers.
This event happened in the Orkneys, that Hareck thought he saw Earl Sigurd, and some men with him. Then Hareck took his horse and rode to meet the Earl. Men saw that they met and rode under a brae, but they were never seen again, and not a scrap was ever found of Hareck.
Earl Gilli in the Southern Isles dreamed that a man came to him and said his name was Hostfinn, and told him he was come from Ireland.
The Earl thought he asked him for tidings thence, and then he sang this song –
I have been where warriors wrestled,
High in Erin sang the sword,
Boss to boss met many bucklers.
Steel rung sharp on rattling helm;
I can tell of all their struggle;
Sigurd fell in flight of spears;
Brian fell, but kept his kingdom
Ere he lost one drop of blood.
Those two, Flosi and the Earl, talked much of this dream. A week after, Hrafn the red came thither, and told them all the tidings of Brian’s battle, the fall of the king, and of Earl Sigurd, and Brodir, and all the Vikings.
“What,” said Flosi, “hast thou to tell me of my men?”
“They all fell there,” says Hrafn, “but thy brother-in-law Thorstein took peace from Kerthialfad, and is now with him.”
Flosi told the Earl that he would now go away, “for we have our pilgrimage south to fulfil”.
The Earl bade him go as he wished, and gave him a ship and all else that he needed, and much silver.
Then they sailed to Wales, and stayed there a while.