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Eagles in Love with a Swan

Dreamed c. 982 by Thorstein Egilson of Iceland

Excerpt from an online version of Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu ["Gunnlaug Worms-tongue's Saga"] as translated by William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson, 1901; I added quote marks and fixed a few typographical errors from scanning.--C. Wayan

One summer, it is said, a ship came from over the main into Gufaros [in Iceland]. Bergfinn was the master thereof, a Northman, rich in goods, and somewhat stricken in years, and a wise man.

Now, goodman Thorstein rode to the ship, as it was his wont mostly to rule the market, and this he did now. The Eastmen got housed, but Thorstein took master Bergfinn to himself, for thither he prayed to go. Bergfinn was of few words throughout the winter, but Thorstein treated him well. The Eastman had great joy of dreams.

One day in spring-tide Thorstein asked Bergfinn if he would ride with him up to Hawkfell, where at that time was the Thing-stead [meetingplace] of the Burg-firthers; for Thorstein had been told that the walls of his [trade] booth had fallen in. The Eastman said he had good will to go, so that day they rode, some three together, from home, and the house-carls of Thorstein too, till they came up under Hawkfell to a farmstead called Foxholes. There dwelt a man of small wealth called Atli, who was Thorstein's tenant. Thorstein bade him come and work with them, and bring with him hoe and spade. This he did, and when they came to the tofts of the booth, they set to work all of them, and fixed the walls.

The weather was hot with sunshine that day, and Thorstein and the Eastman grew heavy; and when they had moved out the walls, those two sat down within the tofts, and Thorstein slept, and fared ill in his sleep. The Eastman sat beside him, and let him have his dream fully out, and when he awoke he was much wearied. Then the Eastman asked him what he had dreamt, as he had had such an ill time of it in his sleep.

Thorstein said, "If I tell thee the dream, then shalt thou unriddle it to me, as it verily is."

The Eastman said he would risk it.

Then Thorstein said: "This was my dream; methought I was at home at Burg, standing outside the men's-door, and I looked up at the house-roof, and on the ridge I saw a swan, goodly and fair, and I thought it was mine own, and deemed it good beyond all things. Then I saw a great eagle sweep down from the mountains, and fly thitherward and alight beside the swan, and chuckle over her lovingly; and methought the swan seemed well content thereat; but I noted that the eagle was black-eyed, and that on him were iron claws: valiant he seemed to me.

"After this I thought I saw another fowl come flying from the south quarter, and he, too, came hither to Burg, and sat down on the house beside the swan, and would fain be fond with her. This also was a mighty eagle.

"But soon I thought that the eagle first-come ruffled up at the coming of the other. Then they fought fiercely and long, and, this I saw that they both bled, and such was the end of their play, that each tumbled either way down from the house-roof, and there they lay both dead.

"But the swan sat left alone, drooping much, and sad of semblance.

"Then I saw a fowl fly from the west; that was a falcon, and he sat beside the swan and made fondly towards her, and they flew away both together into one and the same quarter, and therewith I awoke.

"But a dream of no mark this is," Thorstein says, "and will in all likelihood betoken gales, that they shall meet in the air from those quarters whence I deemed the fowl flew."

The Eastman spake: "I deem it nowise such," saith he.

Thorstein said, "Make of the dream, then, what seemeth likest to thee, and let me hear."

Then said the Eastman: "These birds are like to be fetches of men: but thy wife sickens now, and she will give birth to a woman-child fair and lovely; and dearly thou wilt love her; but high born men shall woo thy daughter, coming from such quarters as the eagles seemed to fly from, and shall love her with overweening love, and shall fight about her, and both lose their lives thereby. And thereafter a third man, from the quarter whence came the falcon, shall woo her and to that man shall she be wedded. Now, I have unravelled thy dream, and I think things will befall as I have said."

Thorstein answered: "In evil and unfriendly wise is the dream interpreted, nor do I deem thee fit for the work of unriddling dreams."

The Eastman said, "Thou shalt find how it will come to pass."


Thorstein tries to forestall Bergfinn's prediction by ordering his wife to kill their child if it's a girl. Infanticide among the very poor still happened, but was already thought archaic and cruel; so his wife secretly fosters out their baby. When Thorstein sees the girl several years later he relents. So Thorstein, despite himself, does have a daughter: Helga the Fair.

18 years later, Helga and Gunnlaug Worm-tongue, a brilliant young skald [bard] fall in love. He has as yet no land or gold; before sailing abroad to make his fortune, he wins her father's word not to accept other suitors for three years. Gunnlaug's songs win him fame and gold, but Ethelred of England asks him to tarry past his deadline, and he can't refuse a king.

Once Gunnlaug's three years are up, his great rival, Raven the Skald, hurriedly marries Helga. Her father knows Helga favors Gunnlaug, but he's swayed by Raven's gold--and perhaps an urge to see the matter settled firmly, to foil the prophecy. But when Gunnlaug returns Helga still looks to him. In the end the two singers duel. Relatives halt them, but they simply sail abroad and duel again--fatally.

In the end, a third man proposed, and Helga listlessly consented; but she pined for Gunnlaug the rest of her life.


This saga is not myth but history; Helga and Gunnlaug were born ca. 983. Whole chapters list their families' ancestry and kin; they're the ancestors of modern Icelandic families.

This makes Thorstein's prophetic dream more intriguing. It's not foreshadowing added later to heighten a fictional tragedy; his reaction to the dream nearly killed his daughter and shaped Helga's whole life. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Thorstein did dream this, and made no secret of it.

And the dream (or rather, Bergfinn's reading of it) was spot-on prophetic. Not that it did him, or anyone, much good. This tragic collision wasn't fated by gloomy Nordic gods, nor even by a patriarchal marriage system, but by professional rivalry. Even if Gunnlaug and Raven had been sensible and let Helga choose, the truth is, they were itching to fight. They'd have found another excuse. Like rock stars too spoiled to share applause, the two singers bristled on first meeting--long before they set Helga up as their reluctant prize.

--Chris Wayan

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