The Wicked Apostate and the Good Heathen in Njál's Saga

 

Bróđir and Óspakr are two Danish warriors living on the Isle of Man recruited by Sitric to aid them in his battle against Brian Boru.  In Njál's Saga it is said that Sitric SIlkenbeard enticed Bróđir to go to Ireland and fight in the battle by offering his mother, Gormlaith in marriage. His character of an apostate and wicked man is used as a foil in this tale to his brother Óspakr:

Brođir had been a Christian man and a mass-deacon by consecration, but he had thrown off his faith and become God's dastard, and nowworshipped heathen fiends, and he was of all men most skilled in sorcery. He had that coat of mail on which no steel would bite. He was both tall and strong, and had such long locks that he tucked them under his belt. His hair was black."

George Webbe Dasent, Njál's Saga, p. 322.

Dublin City Council, James Ward Mural, Dublin City Hall

Óspakr, on the other hand, is depicted as a good-hearted heathen and the 'wisest of all men'. In Njal's Saga he and his brother quarrel about fighting Brian Boru; Óspakr does not want to do battle with so good a king and instead refuses to fight. This leaves Bróđir quite angry with him. Prior to arriving in Ireland to do battle, Bróđir and his men are besieged by all manner of portents:

Along with that came a shower of boiling blood.

Then they covered themselves with their shields, but for all that many were scalded.

This wonder lasted all till day, and a man had died on board every ship.

Then they slept during the day, but the second night there was again a din, and again they all sprang up. Then swords leapt out of their sheaths, and axes and spears flew about in the air and fought.

The weapons pressed them so hard that they had to shield themselves, but still many were wounded, and again a man died out of every ship.

This wonder lasted all till day.

Then they slept again the day after.

But the third night there was a din of the same kind, and then ravens flew at them, and it seemed to them as though their beaks and claws were of iron.

The ravens pressed them so hard that they had to keep them off with their swords, and covered themselves with their shields, and so this went on again till day, and then another man had died in every ship."

George Webbe Dasent, Njál's Saga, p. 323.

After these events, Bróđir sought out his brother to see what he believed the omens indicated. After hearing the tales, Óspakr announced that there would be bloodshed on both sides of the battle, but that Bróđir and his men would be dragged down to hell. This response angered Bróđir so greatly that he ploted to kill his brother and slay all of his men.

Ospak saw all their plan, and then he vowed to take the true faith, and to go to King Brian, and follow him till his death-day.

Then he took that counsel to lay his ships in a line, and punt them along the shore with poles, and cut the cables of Brođir's ships. Then the ships of Brođir's men began to fall aboard of one another when they were all fast asleep; and so Ospak and his men got out of the firth, and so west to Ireland, and came to Connaught.

Then Ospak told King Brian all that he had learnt, and took baptism, and gave himself over into the king's hand."

George Webbe Dasent, Njál's Saga, p. 324.

Thus Óspakr converted to Christianity and fought on the side of Brian Boru. Although he did not die in the battle, Njál's Saga reports that he lost two of his sons.

The assassination of Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland (926 - 1014).
Original Artwork: Drawing by H Werner and engraved by J Rogers.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Bróđir is depicted as something of a coward in the Battle of Clontarf. When he comes up against one of Brian Boru's fiercest warriors, the author of Njál's saga says that he fled into the woods, setting off a chain reaction which sent many of his Viking allies into the sea in retreat. From his hiding place in the woods, Bróđir caught sight of Brian Boru, alone and relatively unguarded. He attacked and beheads the king, and then proceeds to loudly boast about ending Brian's life.

After killing Brian Boru, he is captured by Brian's men and was executed: having his stomach cut open and led around a tree until all his entrails wrapped around the trunk. 

The Veracity of the Account:

In all likelihood, this depiction of Bróđir and Óspakr was created by the author of Njál's Saga to illustrate two types of people in the battle. For example, Óspakr is a good and wise man and thus converts to Christianity and supports Brian Boru with his sons and men.

This is in stark contrast to Bróđir who used to be a deacon but renounced his faith. Bróđir is depicted as using sorcery to try to change the outcome of the battle and fleeing in the face of danger, qualities certainly not admired at the time of composition, or indeed generally in medieval Scandinavia.

 

Sources: 

Zoe Borovsky, 'Never in Public: Women and Performance in Old Norse Literature' in The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 112, No. 443 (Jan 01, 1999), pp 6-39.

Alexander Bugge, 'The Origin and Credibility of the Icelandic Saga' in The American Historical Review Vol. 14 No. 2 (Jan 01, 1909), pp 249-261.

Robert Cook, intro. and trans., Njal’s saga (London, 2001).

George Webbe Dasent, intro and trans., The Story of Burnt Njal: From the Icelandic of the Njal Saga (London, 1900).

Lars Lönnroth, Njal’s saga: A Critical Introduction (Berkley, 1976).

Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, intro. and trans., Njal’s saga (Harmondstown,1960).

William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago, 1990.

Harold Mytum, 'The Vikings and Ireland: Ethnicity, Identity, and Culture Change' in James H. Barrett (ed), Contact, Continuity and CollapseThe Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic (Turnhout, 2003), pp 113-137.

Donnchadh Ó Corráin,'Viking Ireland: Afterthoughts' in Howard B Clarke, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, and Ragnall O’Floinn (eds), Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age (Dublin, 1998) pp 421-452. 

Brian Ó Cuív, 'Personal Names as an Indicator of Relations Between Native Irish and Settlers in Viking Period' in John Bradley (ed), Settlement and Society in Medieval Ireland: Studies presented to F.X. Martin, O.S.A. (Kilkenny, 1988) pp 79-88.