Viking Legends – Gunnar the Hero

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Gunnar Hámundarson was a 10th century Icelandic chieftain.

Gunnar, also known as Gunnar of Hlíðarendi (Old Norse: Gunnarr á Hlíðarenda), lived in Hlíðarendi in Fljótshlíð, a southern region in Iceland, and is featured prominently in the first half of Njáls Saga, an Icelandic sagas which tells of many blood feuds and the chain of events ultimately leading to his death in battle.

Gunnar was the son of Hámundr Gunnarsson and Rannveig Sigfúsdóttur (according to Njáls Saga) or Rannveig Sigmundardóttur (according to Landnáma). He had two brothers, Kolskeggr and Hjörtr, and one sister named Arngunnr, who was the wife of Hróar Tungugoði.

He was married to Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir of Höskuldsstaðir in Laxárdal in Dalasýsla, who was known as Hallgerðr Langbrók (“Hallgerður Longpants”).

Observational note:  His wife’s name was Langbrók, meaning “Longpants.” This name shows us that there was a great possibility that Norse women wore pants in the 10th century. We naturally assume from various historical references that most women of that time period wore layers of dress, but apparently not.

He was her third husband. It was said that she had killed both her former husbands, but she had in fact only killed the first. Their marriage was considered imprudent by Gunnar’s friend Njáll Þorgeirsson, because it was caused by lust and not practicality.

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Gunnar was a great warrior, he’s described as being nearly invincible in combat.

According to Njáls Saga, Gunnar was a powerful and very athletic man.  It was said that he was “capable of jumping his own height in full body armor, both back and front.”

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He was a skilled archer and in close combat his weapon of choice was the atgeir (which many consider to have been a halberd or glaive of some sort).

Gunnar goes a-sea-roving

One day while Gunnar was out on a river aboard a longboat with Kolskegg.  They seen some longboats coming in the opposite direction ahead of them.

Gunnar said to the others in his company, “Let us be ready for anything if they turn towards us! but else let us have nothing to do with them.” (Njáls Saga, ch 30)

The ships did turn towards them to attack, so they made ready to battle aboard their longboats. They secured the longboats together and made a gangway between the boats. Gunnar attempted to fared straight on between the opposing longboats, but they threw a grappling-iron at Gunnar’s ship began at once to drag it towards them.

Gunnar had not yet put on his helm, but drew his sword and leapt at once on the forecastle of the enemy’s longboat. Upon landing, he struck one man his death-blow with his sword. A warrior who ran his ship alongside the other side of Gunnar’s ship, hurled a spear aimed at Gunnar about the waist. Gunnar sees this and turned so quickly, that no eye could follow him, and caught the spear with his left hand. He hurled the spear back at that man and killed where he stood. Kolskegg, who was on Gunnar’s boat, snatched up a grapnel and cast it at the enemy’s longboat. The fluke fell inside the hold and went out crashed through one of the planks. Water rushed in and all the men aboard that longboat sprang on board other boats.

A great battle ensued.  Gunnar fought mostly with his sword, sometimes hurling a spear.

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Against Gunnar came Vandil, and smote at once at him with his sword, and the blow fell on his shield. Gunnar gave the shield a twist as the sword pierced it, and broke it short off at the hilt. Then Gunnar smote back at Vandil, and three swords seemed to be aloft, and Vandil could not see how to shun the blow. Then Gunnar cut both his legs from under him, and at the same time Kolskegg ran Karli through with a spear. After that they took great war spoil.

In several battles, Gunnar thrust his atgeir through his opponent, lifting him off his feet, and then hurling the body away. In the ambush at Rangá told in chapter 72 of Brennu-Njáls saga, Gunnarr thrust through Þorgeirr Otkelsson, then threw his body into the Rangá river, where it drifted until it caught against a boulder in the water.

He was said to have taken this famed weapon in battle from a man named Hallgrímur, while on a Viking raid to the island of Eysýsla (Saaremaa in present-day Estonia ).

From Njáls saga: Gunnar fights his ambushers at Rangá. Illustration from "Vore fædres liv" : karakterer og skildringer fra sagatiden / samlet og udggivet af Nordahl Rolfsen ; oversættelsen ved Gerhard Gran., Kristiania: Stenersen, 1898.
From Njáls saga: Gunnar fights his ambushers at Rangá. Illustration from “Vore fædres liv” : karakterer og skildringer fra sagatiden / samlet og udggivet af Nordahl Rolfsen ; oversættelsen ved Gerhard Gran., Kristiania: Stenersen, 1898.

Probably around 1000 AD, Gunnar Hámundarson from Iceland took part in a Viking raid at Eysýsla (Saaremaa). There he obtained his famous atgeir, by taking it from a man named Hallgrímur. Njáls saga tells the following:

Thence they held on south to Denmark and thence east to Smálönd and had victory wherever they went. They did not come back in autumn. The next summer they held on to Rafala (Tallinn) and fell in there with sea-rovers, and fought at once, and won the fight. After that they steered east to Eysýsla (Saaremaa) and lay there somewhile under a ness. There they saw a man coming down from the ness above them; Gunnar went on shore to meet the man, and they had a talk. Gunnar asked him his name, and he said it was Tófi. Gunnar asked again what he wanted.

“Thee I want to see,” says the man. “Two warships lie on the other side under the ness, and I will tell thee who command them: two brothers are the captains — one’s name is Hallgrímur, and the other’s Kolskeggur. I know them to be mighty men of war; and I know too that they have such good weapons that the like are not to be had. Hallgrímur has an atgeir which he had made by seething-spells; and this is what the spells say, that no weapon shall give him his death-blow save that atgeir. That thing follows it too that it is known at once when a man is to be slain with that atgeir, for something sings in it so loudly that it may be heard a long way off — such a strong nature has that atgeir in it.

Gunnar had many athletic skills.

He was also a skillful stone-thrower, able to hit enemies between the eyes from meters away, and an excellent swimmer. There was supposedly no game at which he had an equal. His behaviour was always polite, but firm — he gave good advice, and was kind and mild, yet he was not thought of as an intelligent man because of his way of talking. However, Gunnar’s wise insights and deep understanding strongly suggested that he was as smart as he was handsome. He was loyal to his friends and kept good company. Gunnar has been called “handsome and beautiful of skin and had a straight nose, turned up at its tip. He was blue-eyed and keen-eyed and ruddy-cheeked with thick lustrous hair, blond and well-combed.” He was described as the most beautiful man in the world, and as having no equal.

Gluggafoss. Fljótsdalur / near Hvolsvöllur, South Region, Iceland
Gluggafoss. Fljótsdalur / near Hvolsvöllur, South Region, Iceland

Gunnar was a close friend of Njáll Þorgeirsson of Bergþórshvol and came to him often for advice. Njáll told him not to kill two men of the same family — this would lead to his death. Njáll’s prediction proved right. When Gunnar killed two family members of Gissur the White, the family sought vengeance and the men set out to Hlíðarendi to do murder. Njáll advised Gunnar to leave Iceland and head abroad to escape them. Initially, Gunnar intended to depart, but when he saw his homestead from the distance, he was so moved by the beauty of it that he changed his mind and decided to remain behind.

This led to the epic battle in which Gunnar was killed.

When Þorgrim and a few other grudge-bearing men were scouting around Gunnar’s house, Gunnar woke up and stabbed Þorgrim through a gap with his atgeir. Þorgrim returned calmly to his comrades, who asked if Gunnar was home. “Find that out for yourselves, but I am sure of, that his atgeir is home,” he said, and then fell down dead.

371px-Njal_saga_-_Gunnars_atgeir
From Njáls saga: Þorgrim get stabbed by Gunnar’s atgeira. Illustration from “Vore fædres liv” : karakterer og skildringer fra sagatiden / samlet og udggivet af Nordahl Rolfsen ; oversættelsen ved Gerhard Gran., Kristiania: Stenersen, 1898

At first, Gunnar managed to fight off his numerous attackers with his masterful archery.

Gunnar ++¡ Hl+-í+-ªarenda

When his bowstring broke in close quarters combat, he asked his wife Hallgerður for hair from her head to mend the bow.
Gunnar had slapped her previously, when he discovered his wife had stolen food from a nearby farm during a famine, and she vindictively refused. He was thus forced to confront his attackers in hand-to-hand combat and was killed as a result.

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Gunnar is probably the most unreservedly admired of Icelandic saga heroes: a man of heroism, energy, virtue, and above all, an unswerving loyalty to the land of his birth and love for its overpowering physical beauty.

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Sources:

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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


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