Eystein’s therapy

King Eystein I of Norway, carving in the Bergen Museum. Photo credit: Nina Aldin Thune, Creative Commons LIcense.

I’ve been doing a little translation lately (I’ll tell you more about it later) which reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla.

This story involves King Eystein I, far from the most renowned of Norway’s kings, but very possibly the most likeable.

He was part of a set, sharing a joint monarchy with his brother, Sigurd Magnusson. They were both the sons of King Magnus Bareleg, who never got the memo that the Viking Age was over, and died young and outnumbered in Ireland, declaring, “Kings were made for glory, not for long life.”

Eystein and Sigurd were very different men. Eystein, the older, was handsomer and friendlier, as well as more thoughtful. Sigurd was taller and stronger, and mercurial in his temperament. Some historians suspect, based on saga descriptions, that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder.

Sigurd was actually the first European king to go on a crusade, heading out in 1108 and returning in 1111. He fought in various places in the Mediterranean before helping King Baldwin of Jerusalem capture Sidon. He went home by way of Constantinople. Meanwhile, Eystein stayed home and watched the store.

One memorable scene in their saga has them together at one of Eystein’s estates in the Upplands. During the feasting they decide to amuse themselves by “mannjevning,” what we might call “ranking” today. A bragging competition.

Sigurd boasts about his prowess in war. He tells of his battles in the Holy Land, and all the honors he received from great princes.

This is how Eystein answers:

“I have heard that thou hast won many battles in foreign lands, but it might have been more useful for the land what I meantime did at home. North at Vagar I built booths for the fishing folks, so that poor people could get help, and earn their living. There I founded a priest’s garth and endowed the church. Before this the place was almost heathen. These men will remember that Eystein was King of Norway. The road from Trondheim went once over Dovre-fell, where people were lost in bad weather or had to sleep out of doors and suffer hardships. There I built a mountain inn and gave it an income; those people will know that Eystein has been King of Norway. At Agdenes there is a dangerous rocky coast and no harbour; and many ships were lost every year. There is now a harbour and a landing place for wintering ships, also a church. Afterwards I raised beacons on the high fells and this I hope will be useful for the country. I built at Bergen a king’s hall and the church of the Apostles, with an underground passage between the two. The kings that come after me will remember my name for that.

“I built St Michael’s Church and a monastery besides. I have also, my brother, shaped the laws so that the people can now obtain justice, and when the laws are kept the country will be better ruled. I have set a warping pole with iron rings in Sinholm sound. The Jämtland people are again under the Norse king’s rule, and this was brought about by blithe words and wise persuasion and not by force or fighting. Now these matters are of small importance, still I do not know, if the people in the land are not better served by them, than if thou hast killed black men in Serkland and sent them to hell…”

As good a “guns vs. butter” argument as I’ve ever read, I think.

But though that’s a memorable story, it’s not the best Eystein story. That comes earlier {and is not included in some translations). It represents one of those weird moments you occasionally experience in reading old books when time contracts and you encounter a historical character who seems like someone you might know, and would like to know, today.

There was an Icelandic poet in King Eystein’s court whose name was Ivor Ingemundson. Ivor was a witty conversationalist, and the king enjoyed his company. But a time came when Ivor’s mood changed. He grew quiet and sad, and the king noticed it.

The whole passage is quite long (in Monsen’s translation), but the essence of the story is that Eystein spoke to Ivor privately. Ivor was reluctant to talk at first, but the king asked a series of questions, finally working out through deduction that Ivor was lovesick. He had counted on marrying a particular girl back home, one he couldn’t help thinking about, but his father had arranged for his brother to marry the girl.

King Eystein then proposed a series of remedies – he offered to introduce him to suitable young women; he offered give him property; he offered money to enable him to travel. Ivor replied that none of those things appealed to him. So the king says this:

“I have suggested everything that comes to my mind. There is but one thing else that might help thee, although it is little compared to what I have offered thee. Every day when I am not taken up with important matters, thou shalt come to me and we will talk over this matter about the maid, for it often happens that sorrow shared is sorrow lessened, and every time I shall give thee something before thou goest away.”

The saga says that Ivor agreed to that. “He was thereby consoled in his sorrow and became glad again.”

Talk therapy. We Norwegians invented it.

7 thoughts on “Eystein’s therapy”

  1. That is a very interesting piece. Once my local library gets fully back into service I will have to see if they have a copy of the Heimskringla and read King Eystein’s story for myself. He certainly does not fit the usual mold of a saga hero. Most saga heroes are fascinating to read about but I would not want to be within a country mile of them in real life. They tend to be far too dangerous. Egil Skallagrimson, famous both as a poet and as a killer, is a classic example. As Tom Shippey described him: “…Egil shows the dark as well as the admirable side of the Viking ethic better and in more detail than any other. He was mean, in every sense of the word: so mean even the other Vikings noticed.” ( from “Laughing Shall I Die. Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings” Tom Shippey, 2018 (a work, if you have not already read it, I most earnestly recommend to your attention)).

    1. For readers who can process such ideas, Eystein seems to be seen by Snorri, the author, as proof that the Christian religion was making headway in Norway. I once gave a lecture, long ago, where I said that the fact that this story was remembered and preserved is evidence that the Viking Age was really over. (Just make sure you get the Dover edition of Heimskringla. The Ivor incident is not in other versions.)

      Another case in point is in the Orkneyinga Saga, where the 2 sons of the Earl of Orkney are kidnapped by (I think) the same Magnus Bareleg who was Eystein’s father. One eagerly participates in raiding in Wales, while the other stays on board ship, declaring “I have nothing against these people.”

  2. I just checked and Dover does still offer this edition. They did not list the translator but when I looked on Amazon I found it there. And using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature I saw Monsen’s name. Amazon also offers a Kindle edition.

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