An Oxford Historian
Viking Nicknames in Landnámabók
Updated: Apr 26, 2021
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As a continuation from my previous post about Anglo-Saxon nicknames, I thought I'd highlight a few contemporary Viking examples (if you've not read the previous post, check here).
Viking nicknames are a generally more widely appreciated phenomenon, not least because of public familiarity with the Sagas. In fact, research on the corpus of Viking nicknames as a whole has already been undertaken by Paul Peterson - here I draw primarily from his translations. There's a short article version of his work here -
https://www.academia.edu/36488253/Old_Norse_Nicknames_Origins_and_Terminology (although it might be locked behinds a paywall for those without academic logins. Alternatively, if you're willing to slug through 280 pages of PhD dissertation, you can find that here, available to everyone (https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/172669)
I owe Peterson a great academic debt for setting me on my current path of research and can whole-heartedly recommend anything he's written. Where my analysis differs from Petersons, however, is in the analysis of the function of these nicknames within specific communities. To that end, my focus here is only on the nicknames found in Landnámabók.
What is the Landnámabók?
Landnámabók recounts the settlement of Iceland, usually dated from 870 - 930, by Scandinavians (and, it is becoming increasingly clear, people from the British Isles and the Irish). Previously uninhabited (apart from, we are told, a few Irish monks), what unfolds is a piecemeal land-taking across an empty island.
Because of its prose style and real-world census-like content, Landnámabók is far less frequently read than other 'Viking' sources like the Sagas. This is particularly relevant for the study of Nicknames - examples from the heroes of the Sagas are much more widely known.
Historiographically speaking, we must approach the text with some suspicion. Five versions exist, dating from the 13th to the 17th century - even the oldest of these is far removed from the context being described. Indeed, it is clear that the text artificially exaggerates the roots of later dynasties as a political act, essentially emphasising a creation myth. This has led some to discard the source (see Friðriksson and Vésteinsson 2003), while others point towards the possible existence of a now-lost original contemporary document (Ulff-Møller 2016). I am inclined to suggest that the basis of the work, if not clear political polishing, is a valuable source for studying the contemporary context.
There are two editions available I'd recommend if you want your own copy. For a more casual interest/ book-case filler I'd recommend the Huginn and Muninn Publishing edition, available here on Amazon:
The notes in this edition are very interesting but I'm no linguist so I can't vouch for the nature of the translation itself.
The alternative is the Palson and Edwards translation - as far as I'm aware, the definitive academic edition. It is available here on Amazon:
This one I'd recommend for those of you interested in following up on the source in more depth - the set of maps at the back of this edition are very good. However, drawbacks include a higher price and a relatively limited production run (indeed, as I write this, it's currently unavailable on Amazon)
Hrafna-Floki - 'Ravens-Floki' (Peterson 2015, 175)
By far the most famous example here, Floki's name comes from his use of ravens to find Iceland, as the text makes clear. Indeed, Landnámabók goes into fair detail on the origin of some of its nicknames, leaving us guessing much less than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. It is also a prime example of prefix nicknames (ie. before the forename rather than after) - a phenomenon that is not infrequent among the Vikings, but almost entirely absent among the Anglo-Saxons.
Eysteinn meinfretr - Harm-Fart (Peterson 2015, 195)
This one is very strange, and presumably a classic example of a humorous nickname among friends. Certainly, from modern comparisons, the power of nicknames as an 'inside joke', to create group identities from shared experiences, is clear.
Ljot óþveginn - Unwashed (Peterson 2015, 202)
This seems harsh, and is presumably also comedic/ light-hearted.
Hroald bjóla - Small Mouth (Peterson 2015, 133)
This might reflect a physical attribute (ie. a genuinely small mouth) or reference a metaphorical quietness or infrequency of speaking.
Herjolf holkinrazi - Man With A Crouched Arse (Peterson 2015, 163-4)
This is presumably a reflection of some kind of physical disability, and Peterson draws parallels with another nickname found in the 'Viking' world - The Bent.
Thrand mjǫksiglandi - One Who Sails Much - (Peterson 2015, 197)
Presumably this conjured up images of male prowess and exploration, and was intended as a positive nickname. As such, it seems to be a clear reflection of the power of the nickname to create and cultivate social support
Thorir þursasprengir - Destroyer of Giants (Peterson 2015, 245)
Similar in theme to the name above, but this nickname seems to take notions of prowess and bravery even further. It's possible also that this nickname is given in an ironic sense, for a teller of tall-tale or a coward - determining irony remains one of the great impossibilities of the study of nicknames.
Thorolf brækir - Troublemaker (Peterson 2015, 137)
It seems unlikely that this would be applied in a light-hearted manner as would be conceivable in English. Instead, it seems part of a sustained trend in Scandinavian nicknames to publicly shame and discredit potentially harmful activity by individuals. This forms one of my central arguments throughout my work - that nicknames are an extension of social norms and regulations, and act as tools to keep the peace.
Thord beigaldi - The Coward (Peterson 2015, 130)
This seems pretty clear and damning, although potentially it might be more light-hearted than the example above. Perhaps it calls back to a particular event where the individual failed to show bravery, or perhaps it simply reflects his general attitude.
Thorolf Mostrarskeggi Man With A Beard From Mostr (in Norway) (Peterson 2015, 198)
The purpose of nicknames, as a social tool, is unclear. Many argue its simply to distinguish between people with the same forename (a frequent problem in a 'Viking' context). Although this is true, it is my general argument that the names chosen reflect the social concerns and preoccupations of the people that given them (as with Troublemaker above). Having said that, these last two examples seem to be classic attempts at identifying individuals - you can imagine a settler clicking his finger in frustrating saying 'you know Thorolf.... the one with the beard.... the one from Mostr that guy'.
Thorgeir jarðlangr Tall Man With A Farm (Peterson 2015, 172)
Wonderfully specific, but it makes me slightly sad that the life of this man is reduced, over 1000 years after his death, to being a tall bloke with some land.
Peterson, P. R., ‘Old Norse Nicknames: Origins and Terminology’, in Names (published online 24 April 2018), doi: 10.1080/00277738.2018.1452886
Peterson, P. R., ‘Old Norse Nicknames’ (D.Phil. thesis, University of Minnesota, 2015)
Peterson, P. R., 'Old Norse Nicknames' (MA thesis, Háskóli Íslands, 2012)
Friðriksson, A. and Vésteinsson, O. ‘Creating a Past: A Historiography of the Settlement of Iceland’, in J. H. Barret (ed), Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic (Turnhout, 2003), pp.139-61.
Ulff-Møller, J., ‘The Origin of the Book of Settlement and Celtic Christianity in Iceland’, Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni, 82/2 (2016), pp.887-915.
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Why not check out my previous article on Anglo-Saxon nicknames here.
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