A Bizarre Viking Death: Killed by a bite from a severed head

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Jarl Sigurd the Mighty, Viking ruler of Orkney, cut off an enemy’s head and hung it as a trophy from his horse’s saddle.

Unfortunately, while riding, Sigurd grazed his leg on the severed head’s teeth and died from the resulting infection.

Sigurd Eysteinsson, also known as Sigurd the Mighty, was the second Viking Jarl of Orkney and ruled from 875 to 892 AD.

He was a leader in the Viking conquest of what is now northern Scotland. This was when the Viking presence in Scotland began to increase in the 830’s AD.


The isles to the north and west of Scotland became heavily colonized by Norwegian Vikings. Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides also came under Norse control. Sometimes as fiefs under the King of Norway, and at other times as separate entities under variously the Kings of the Isles, the Earldom of Orkney and the later Kings of Mann and the Isles.

Sigurd the Mighty was killed by the severed head of his enemy, Máel Brigte, who was the Mormaer of Moray (Mormaerdom or Kingdom of Moray).

Sigurd strapped Máel Brigte’s head to his saddle as a trophy of conquest, and as he rode, Máel Brigte’s teeth grazed against Sigurd’s leg. The wound became infected and Sigurd died from the resulting infection.

Saddle – Gotland circa 1100 AD

The Norse Heimskringla and Orkneyinga sagas tell us about Sigurd’s life.

After the Battle of Hafrsfjord unified the Norwegian kingdom in or after 872 AD, the Orkney and Shetland Islands became a refuge for exiled Vikings, who were raiding their former homeland. The King of Norway, Harald Finehair, subdued these pirate Vikings with the aid of the Viking Rognvald Eysteinsson.

During the conquest, Rognvald’s son, Ivar, was killed, and in compensation for his loss King Harald gave Rognvald the islands along with the title of Jarl (Earl). Having interests elsewhere, Rognvald (with the King’s blessing) transferred the title and lands to his brother Sigurd.

In league with Thorstein the Red, Sigurd expanded his domains to the Scottish mainland. His exploits in conquering the north of Scotland became legendary and earned him the epithet, “the Mighty”, or in Old Norse ríki.

According to the Orkneyinga saga, towards the end of his reign, Sigurd challenged a native ruler, Máel Brigte the Bucktoothed, to a 40-man-a-side battle.

Treacherously, Sigurd brought 80 men to the fight.battlebanner2

Máel Brigte was defeated and beheaded. Sigurd strapped the head to his saddle as a trophy, but as Sigurd rode, Máel Brigte’s buck-tooth scratched his leg. The leg became inflamed and infected, and as a result Sigurd died. He was buried in a tumulus known as Sigurd’s Howe, or Sigurðar-haugr, from the Old Norse word haugr meaning mound or barrow.

There was a period of instability following Sigurd’s death.

He was succeeded by his son Guttorm, who died within a few months. Rognvald made his son Hallad Earl of Orkney, but Hallad could not contain the pirate Vikings, resigned his earldom and returned to Norway in disgrace.bringoutyourdead

The sagas say that Rognvald’s other sons were more interested in conquering places other than Scotland, and so the earldom was given to Rognvald’s youngest son, Einarr, whose mother was a slave.


Article by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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