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Halvdan the Black

“Halvdan the Black” (820)-860?) seems a strange name to our ears.

Halvdan means “half Dane.” His mother, Asa, was a Danish princess. His father descended from the royal Swedish family of the Ynglings and was king of Vestfold in southern Norway. He was called “black” because of his black hair. Not all Scandinavians are blond. The Swedes are the blondest of the Scandinavians.

The Scandinavian kings in those days did not live in royal palaces such as the kings of France or Byzantium. They were farmers. Mostly women, children, old men and slaves, however, did the actual farm work. Raiding, burning and stealing seemed much more fitting for the men, especially the kings.

Halfdan’s parents had a violent “courtship.” When his father, Gudrod, lost his first wife in death, he spotted Asa, the beautiful daughter of the king of Agder. His marriage proposal was rejected. So he raided their home, killed the royal family and kidnapped the princess. A year after Halvdan was born, Asa had her revenge. When Gudrod was drunk (drinking was a way of life for Viking kings), she had him murdered, took back the child to Agder and assumed power.

At age 18, the age when Scandinavians reached their majority (legal age), Halvdan claimed both Vestfold and Agder as his territory. It wasn’t long before he went on raiding parties and became a “mighty king,” according to Snorri Sturluson, the great Icelandic saga writer.

Queen Asa has been the subject of some interesting speculations. In 1904, the Oseberg Viking ship was discovered in an ancient burial ground southwest of Oslo. It turned out to be the largest collection of objects from the Viking Age ever found in Scandinavia.

Two female skeletons were in the royal ship, one about age 20 and the other about 50. It is speculated that the older woman was Queen Asa and the younger was a female slave who was buried alive with her, according to their customs.

The blood of two royal lines, Swedish and Danish, merged in Halvdan the Black. Asa can rightly be called the “grandmother of modern Norway,” according to Magnus Magnuson, a popular writer on the sagas. She was the grandmother of King Harald Haarfagre (“fine hair”) who united Norway into a single nation.

Halvdan was considered a wise and just king. He not only made laws and enforced them, but he kept them himself.

He came, however, to a tragic death. It was in the spring of the year when he was returning from a feast in Hadeland. Traveling over ice weakened by a late winter thaw, he drowned with all his people in the sledge. During the winter, cattle had been branded on the lake. Some of the cattle’s dung had eaten through the ice in the warmer weather, and it gave way when the king traveled over it.

They were going to bury his body in Ringerike, but the leaders of Romerike, Vestfold and Hedmark demanded equal rights. It was considered good luck for the crops to have a king buried in their territory.  So they quartered him and he was buried in four kingdoms.

The old pagan times were crude and cruel days. One hundred and thirty five years later, Olaf Tryggvason, a descendant of Halvdan, brought a new religion to Norway. The present king, Harald V, also traces his roots to Asa’s son.

Next week: The Scandinavians of Detroit.


ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister, previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas. He is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes, including 2012’s “Sermons in Psalms.”