Earl Sigurd Hlodvirsson is one of the best-known characters
in the Orkneyinga Saga.
Also known as Sigurd the Stout, he was
a powerful man, defending his territories in Caithness against the Scots and renowned
for his summertime expeditions plundering the Hebrides, western Scotland
Within the lore of Orkney
his prowess is no less. The tales surrounding Sigurd abound with
sorcery, miracles and omens. In these stories he is a magical, semi-mythical
figure who fights with the power of the Old Gods at his side - the
last great heathen Earl of Orkney.
To best begin the tale of
Earl Sigurd and his magical Raven Banner, I'll leave it to the one
who recorded it first - the author(s) of the Orkneyinga Saga:
"One summer it happened
that a Scottish earl called Finnleik challenged Sigurd to fight
him on a particular day at Skitten. Sigurd's mother was a sorceress
so he went to consult her, telling her that the odds against him
were heavy, at least seven to one.
"Had I thought you might
live for ever," she said, "I'd have reared you in my
wool-basket. But lifetimes are shaped by what will be, not by
where you are. Now, take this banner. I've made it for you with
all the skill I have, and my belief is this: that it will bring
victory to the man it's carried before, but death to the one who
It was a finely made banner,
very cleverly embroidered with the figure of a raven, and when
the banner fluttered in the breeze, the raven seemed to be flying
ahead. Earl Sigurd lost his temper at his mother's words.
He got the support of the Orkney
farmers by giving them back their land-rights, then set out for
Skitten to confront Earl Finnleik. The two sides formed up, but
the moment they clashed Sigurd's standard-bearer was struck dead.
The Earl told another man to pick up the banner but before long
he'd been killed too. The Earl lost three standard bearers, but
he won the battle and the farmers of Orkney got back their land-rights."
The Orkneyinga Saga, Chapter 11
According to the Orkneyinga
Saga, five years after the Battle of Svoldr - in which King
Olaf Trygvasson perished - Earl Sigurd left Orkney for the last
time, sailing for Ireland with the intention of supporting King
Sigtrygg Silk-Beard, the King of Dublin..
In Ireland at the time an internal war was being
waged between the King of Leinster and King Brian Boru. These opposing
sides were seeking allies - so King Sigtrygg, and an alliance
of Norsemen, fought with the King of Leinster.
The two sides met on Good Friday, 1014, and Sigurd's Raven Banner was unfurled. The ensuing battle was so fierce that
it is said that in places the trees wept blood and the nearby River
Tolka turned red.
Within Sigurd's ranks standard bearer after standard
"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
"Hrafn the Red!"
called out Earl Sigurd, "bear thou the banner."
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
The Saga of Burnt Njal Ch 157
From the moment he touched the standard his fate was sealed. As
bearer he was sure to die - and he did, impaled shortly afterwards
on an enemy's spear.
"There was no man who would
bear the raven-standard and the earl bore it himself, and fell
Back in Orkney there was a man called Hareck
who had been ordered by the Earl to stay behind. Hareck reluctantly
obeyed but only on the condition that he'd be the first to hear
Sigurd's news upon his return.
"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 Saga of Burnt Njal, C157
On the evening of the Battle of Clontarf
Hareck saw Sigurd riding home at the head of his warriors. Overjoyed
at the return of the Earl, Hareck rode out to greet the returning
They were seen to meet but then the earth opened
and the spectral horde rode under the hill. The hillside closed and Hareck was seen no more.