From Olafir Thick-Legged to Ragnar Fur-Pants, Viking nicknames were colorful, descriptive and fascinating
An American scholar did both his master’s thesis and his doctoral dissertation on old Norse nicknames as recorded in medieval literature to reveal a world of people with monikers like Wise of Dreams, Harm-Fart, Autumn Darkness, Toil-Skull, Grimacer and The Ridiculer. A nickname in Scandinavia during Viking times could be insulting or laudatory, derived from body parts or mythology, from places or accomplishments or from a number of other inspirations.
Aside from boxing’s Ray Boom Boom Mancini, Carl The Truth Williams, and Smokin Joe Frazier, modern nicknames such as Al or Annie seem prosaic compared to some of the monikers Vikings came up with to describe their contemporaries.
While modern people may use nicknames out of affection, in the Middle Ages in Scandinavia that wasn’t always the case. Take Eysteinn Harm-Fart, Hergils Button Ass Thrándarson, or Authun Coward, for example. One might wonder if Mr. Eysteinn, a settler in Iceland, was given to drinking copious amounts of beer.
A woodcut of Erik the Red from a 1688 book (Wikimedia Commons)
“Nicknames are universal, every human society has had or has them,” Paul Peterson, an expert on Scandinavia, wrote to Ancient Origins in e-mail. “Most other medieval societies had, or recorded, fewer nicknames, even though the practice of adopting family names or surnames is a bit late in the game (late medieval continental practice),” Dr. Peterson wrote. “Nicknames must have been everywhere, but only a tiny sample of them survives in writing.”
A table of Norse nickname sources from Dr. Peterson’s doctoral dissertation
Though some nicknames were insulting, there are many examples of poetic or laudatory nicknames in old Norse literature. There are The Fair or The Handsome, Snowdrift, The Wise of Dreams or Dream Interpreter, Little Bear, The Learned and Autumn Darkness. Other poetic nicknames include Widow of the Heath, Traveler to Limerick, Sun of the Islands, The Quiet, The Amorous.
While world monarchs often had an informal appellation applied to them, such as “the Good,” “the Great,” “the Terrible” or “the Short,” some of the most expressive Norse nicknames were reserved for non-royalty.
Dr. Peterson did his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, which is available to read in its entirety here, specifically on old Norse nicknames. He received his doctorate in Medieval Germanic Studies from the University of Minnesota and is now a teaching fellow in Scandinavian and German at Augustana College in Illinois. He is a member of the International Council of Onomastic Sciences. Onomastics is the study of names.
In the 11th century, King Olaf II of Norway was known as The Holy; this image is from Trondheim Cathedral. (Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Peterson wrote in his thesis:
Nicknames, which occur in all cultures and across all time periods, play a vital role in understanding and highlighting identity. They also provide a unique window into slang and popular culture less accessible through personal names alone. Their study encompasses wide-ranging interdisciplinary scholarship, including onomastics (name studies), historical linguistics, anthropology, history, and narratology. Old Norse nicknames themselves represent diverse forms of cultural expression from the lower levels of discourse, history, religion, and popular entertainment. They have left remnants across Northern Europe in place names, runic inscriptions, and the names of individuals in the saga corpus.
One of the best sources for Icelandic settlers’ nicknames is the 12th century Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements). Many of the nicknames listed in this article (but not all) are from this source.
Ivan the Terrible, an 1897 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov; other cultures had nicknames, but American scholar Paul Peterson says they are not as well-recorded as old Norse nicknames. (Wikimedia Commons)
Nicknames that Dr. Peterson recorded in his master’s thesis and his doctoral dissertation include King Eirkr Blood-Ax, Olafir Thick-Legged, Ragnar Fur-Pants or Hairy Breeches and Bjorn the Wealthy. Still others include Thorbjorn Sour-Drink and Ketill the Silent or Ketill Creaking Noise.
Those nicknames were not necessarily insulting, but many old Norse nicknames were scathing.
“Negative nicknames are rather common, ranging from sexually-charged insults to unflattering physical characteristics, and several nicknames referring to private parts, perhaps the most sensitive areas in terms of insults and otherwise, are found in the corpus. Finnur Jónsson provides a list of these in the second section of his nickname list under the categories ‘penis, cunnus”’ and ‘anus,”’ Dr. Peterson wrote in this thesis. These nicknames include:
- Arni Harm-Penis
- Kolbeinn Butter-Penis
- Herjolfr Shriveled-Testicle
- Sperm Bjalfi
- Butt-[Copulate] Bjarni
- Helgi Seal’s Testicle
- Ivarr Procreation Member
- Jon Silky [Vulva]
- Asni Ship Chest
- Ass Bersi
- Herjolfr Squatted Ass
Other nicknames that Dr. Peterson identified in his thesis that weren’t necessarily sexual but some of which were still insulting included:
- Prince Fortress
- Little Wolf
- Little Blackbird
- Halfdan Sigurdsonn Hook Nose
- King Magnus Barefoot
- Sigurd “Sow”
- King Haraldr Sigurrdson Hard Rule
- King Ólafr Tryggvason Thin-Legged (krakabein)
“The nickname krakabein, most famously held by King Ólafr Tryggvason, appears to have had some currency among earlier Scandinavians who raided and settled the British Isles where it is found in Old English as Cracabam, and it also appears in a 15th century Irish source called The Annals of Ulster as Graggabai. It is unlikely that the nickname refers to Óláfr Tryggvason,” Dr. Peterson wrote. Others include Iron-Knee, Wild Dog and Black Head.
“The use of the nicknames in the literature and how it shaped narratives or demonstrated medieval customs or values is also something that I am fascinated by,” Dr Peterson told Ancient Origins. “Quite a large number of the linguistic forms are rare and ‘frozen’ from older forms of the language, and that is interesting in and of itself, but the meaning of the words also gives modern people a window into the mindset of a medieval Scandinavian. Nicknames are often formed in a familiar context, that is, a small community of people who know each other well, so the references of nicknames are mostly local and personal. A huge number of them must go back to an inside joke or reference to an event lost to us, and because we cannot always know the origin of a nickname, it gives a modern reader room to speculate or guess the real origin.”
(These should be excellent for World-Building.)