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Haraldskvæði – a contemporary poem

Haraldskvæði – a contemporary poem

The poem “Hrafnsmál” – Song of the raven

Hrafnsmál, or Words of the Raven, is a poem attributed to Norwegian skald (poet) Þorbjörn hornklofi.  The HRAFNSMÓL, or Haraldskvadet in Norwegian, is a contemporary poem. It features a raven & valkyrie discussing King Harald fairhair Halvdansson’s macho life & bloody deeds. Lee Hollander has translated a version from old norse to english. The translation it is pieced together from fragments found mainly in the large historical work called Fagrskinna, which contains a history of the Norwegian kings. Straight out of these verses and some few other poems and tales, the Northmen, the people of the North way, appear into our history. This is right at the edge of the Norse known history. 

Poems like the Haraldskvadet were initially transferred over generations by oral traditions due to lack of a written language. It was not until the dawn of the Icelandic saga tradition around 10-11’th century that the first tales, poems and sagas were written down, although most of the Icelandic sagas were written in the 13’th and 14’th centuries. These sagas are prose histories describing events that took place amongst the Norse and Celtic inhabitants of Iceland during the period of the Icelandic Commonwealth in the 10th and 11th centuries. Often, these family sagas are introduced by a reference to the period in time when there were troubles in Norway under the harsh rule of King Harald fairhair Halvdansson after the Battle of Hafrsfjord.

Of Thórbiorn hornklofi’s personality we know little, except that he was of high birth and “an old friend of kings, who had always been attached to their courts.” Two longer poems are attributed to him, the Glymdrápa, a lay apparently descriptive of Harold’s many battles before accomplishing the unification of Norway, thoroughly Skaldic in manner, which exists only in inconsiderable fragments; and the present poem, much simpler in style, which is given no name in the sources. This, the Haraldskvæthi or Hrafnsmól, as it has been called by some editors, is in a most deplorable condition.

Five of the stanzas are dedicated to a description of the Battle of Hafrsfjord. Thus, this must have been seen as the most dominating event under Haralds rule. There is considerable difficulty about the authorship of these portions, some editors considering stanzas 7 to 11, in particular, as a separate poem dealing with the battle of Hafrsfjord. Researchers argue that these stanzas 7 to 11 are written by another skald named Thjodolv of Kvin. The remainder of the poem, with descriptions of the life at Harold’s court, is probably incomplete. 

 The history told in the poem

Most historians have dated the battle year to around 872 AC. The battle has been judged to be the larges and the decisive battle in the long civil war like situation which was initiated by Harald Luva’s Halvdansson’s claim for being a king above all other kings of the various firths. The final decisive battle between Harald’s forces against a coalition of chieftains of Hordaland, Rogaland, Agder, Telemark, probably some Danes, and further reinforced by auxiliaries from the British Isles, became a naval action fought in the Hafrsfjord, at the southwest Norway. After this battle, rather than submit and pay tribute to Harald, many nobles left the land with all their kin and possessions, settling in the Western Isles or in Iceland.

On the basis of the sagas and their associated research work, that the overall campaign of Harald took place over a period from around 866-872 AC. The result of the battle initiated the gradual process of forming the kingdom of Norway, the start of the Norwegian nation where everyone gathered under the same monarch; Viking King Harald fairhair Halvdansson. The chieftains that would not accept to be ruled by king Harald did gradually move to western isles of Orkney, Shetland, Faeroe’s and Iceland bringing as much of their properties as possible onboard ships. Of the first new settlers at Iceland were many chieftains from Norway that settled at Iceland with their kinsmen and slaves (thrells), and gradually populated the island. We know this today since the Landnama book provides the names of the first settlers at Iceland, and often telling about where they came from and why they arrived in Iceland. Of course, settlers and slaves also came from the other areas like Ireland, Scotland, England and isles around.

The five stanzas concerning Hafrsfjord

In the following, we have reprinted the five stanzas translated by Lee Hollander. The text has been slightly modified by looking at the Norwegian text as it has been translated from old norse in the new version of Fageskinna. Additional comments are given below each stanza to try to create a better understanding of the words.


“Did you hear, in Hafrsfjord

how hard they fought,

the high born king

against Kjotve the Rich.

Knarr’s came from east

craving battle,

with gaping heads

and prows sculpted.”

The place for fighting the battle was very suitable for the parties. Some historians believe that Harald secured access to this fjord well ahead of the battle. However, from Snorres’s Heimskringla, we can read that Harald mobilized the sea forces downwards along the coastline of the North way after that he had heard rumors about the gathering of allied forces of several firths of the Viken area, Agdir, Rogland and Hordaland. This will take time, and Haralds forces sailed as fast as possible to Hafrsfjord to secure his own position inside the fjord. It was always a benefit to be there first because the attacking enemy then had to break up the defences of the defending sea force, i.e. Haralds force. Kjotve the wealthy is seen as the leading king from the attacking force side, bringing his well known son Tore Haklang as the commanding officer of the battle.

“Loaded with men of war

and white shields,

with Westland spearshafts

and Welsh broadswords.

The berserkers bellowed in anger

as the battle opened,

the wolf-coats shrieked loud

and shook their weapons.”

This verse indicates that the approaching fleet had painted their shields white for this battle, probably for practical issue to know which team each shield bearer is related to. There were additional war men arriving from abroad having arms made in the Western isles and from Francia. These men followed the attacking host from south east. This can be understood by reading the next verse below. They must have had a good feeling about the outcome of the battle since they, after all, entered in after having had the opportunity to estimate size of Harald forces already lined up inside the fjord. The specialist warriors like berserkers and “wolf-coats” are mentioned in particular. Imagine this sight, the new fleet rowing in, the fighters are exited about what will happen, they all longed to get into battle to present themselves as brave warriors.

“Their strength would they try,

but he taught them to flee,

the lord of the Eastmen

who at Utstein dwells.

The steeds-of-Nokkvi

he steered out to the battle.

Then boomed the bucklers

ere a blow felled Haklang.”

It is said in this stanza, that Harald, the lord of the Eastmen, lives at Utstein. This is a farm area believed to be one of Harald’s farms after the Battle of Hafrsfjord. Utstein Monastary is located there, and it is believed that construction of the Monastary started in about 1260, although some parts may be older and may date from earlier royal farm on the site. Nokkve was a petty king from further north. He initially fought against Harald, but had to give in. Thereafter, he and his forces have obviously become one of the most trustworthy units of  Haralds forces since he send them straight to the center of the battle. And probably, they fought highly successfully. Tore Haklang was the commander of the attacking sea force. He is believed to be a well renowned dane that was not engaged in The Great Army occupying East Anglia at that time. Indications on Tore (Toke) Haklang is based on the findings of is name at a rune stone found in Denmark.

They grew loath,

to hold the land against Lúfa,

the thick-necked atheling.

The isle sheltered them.

They who were wounded,

hid under benches,

let their buttocks stick up,

thrust their heads keelward.”

At this stage, the fight is almost over. The attackers have tried their best to break up the tied ships. This has caused many wounded after the hard attack, and they have lost their Commander in charge. They are about to give up, not so willing to fight for victory anymore. They are about to give up holding the land for Lufa, the nickname of Harald Halvdansson. They start to think about protecting themselves. Some may have escaped on top of or behind the isles in the fjord, and some give signs about loss by hiding rather than fighting. The escape has started.


“Their shoulders shielded

the shifty heroes

they were showered

with slung-shots

with the shingles-of-Gladhome.

Home from Hafrs-firth

hastened they eastward,

fled by way of Jæren,

thinking of ale-cups.”

In the end, they ran away with their shields protecting their backs. At this stage, when the distance between the fighters grew, they were hammered by slung-shots instead of axe blows. Now they only thought about getting safely away from Hafrsfjord, they had given up the fight. They fled over Jæren, back eastwards to their safe homes and the ale, they had lost.

Lack of archeological findings

The five stanzas concerning Hafrsfjord claims that this site, the Hafrsfjord, hosted the most famous battle of the Norwegians during the viking age. But we are still missing the final proofs of this today. There have never been done any archaeological surveys that can confirm or deny whether Hafrsfjord has been the scene of this battle or not. Was there ever a great naval battle in Hafrsfjord around year 872 AC? This question still remains to be confirmed. Funn i Hafrsfjord is determined to find the answer to this. 

Based on the description from the poem Hrafnsmál and the succeeding old sagas, and with the aid of modern technologies and equipment, we will reveal the secrets of the Hafrsfjord seabed and uncover more facts about this important event in Northern Europe history.

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