Viking Nicknames

Ever wonder why Vikings had so many nicknames? 

The Vikings had to use nicknames because their society was patronymic–they derived their surnames from their fathers. So, if a man named Olaf had a father named Erik, Olaf would be Olaf Eriksson (Olaf Erik’s son), or if his father’s name was Bjorn, he’d be Olaf Bjornsson. If Erik had a daughter named Hilda, she’d be Hilda Eriksdottir (Erik’s daughter). You get the picture. Now add to this the habit that all noble medieval families had of using the same name over and over (just look at how many King Henry’s and King Louis’s there were). It could get quite confusing. There were a lot of kings named Olaf, Harald, and Erik back in the middle ages. They had to have some way to keep them straight!

Hence, the nicknames.

Of course, you have the typical nickname based on where the person hailed from, like Olaf the Swede. Olaf was a Swedish king in the 11th century and to distinguish him from the many other (sometimes contemporary) King Olaf’s, he got his nickname, “the Swede.”

Olaf wasn’t the only king to receive a nickname. There’s Eric “Bloodaxe”, a king of Norway, who also ruled Northumbria in Northern England. He often raided into Scotland, and it was there that he’s believed to have gotten his nickname. I don’t suppose the Scots had much of a liking for Eric Bloodaxe. A contemporary ruler of Eric’s? An earl of Orkney named Thorfinn “Skullsplitter.”

At that time there were several King Haralds. King Harald “Finehair” of Norway (Eric Bloodaxe’s father), Harald “Greycloak” (Eric’s son), and Harald “Bluetooth”, a king of Denmark. Harald Greycloak and Harald Bluetooth were cousins and constantly fighting with each other. The nicknames definitely come in handy when trying to distinguish which Harald is which.

Harald Greycloak got his nickname from wearing…a grey cloak. The story is that a trader from Iceland arrived in Harald’s land in Norway with a shipment of grey cloaks. Unfortunately for the trader, no one would buy his grey cloaks. The trader appealed to Harald, who, according to the saga, was a “kindly-mannered man and merry-hearted.” Harald then asked the “skipper” if he could have a cloak. The trader gave it to Harald, who wore it immediately, and then all the other men fell into line and bought grey cloaks. Harald was forever known as Harald Greycloak.

There are several theories as to how Harald Bluetooth got his nickname. One is that he went about wearing blue. As it was very expensive to dye clothes blue at that time, it is plausible that a powerful king like Harald would want to be conspicuous with his wealth and wear blue. Another possibility is that he had a rotten tooth which looked blue. I like the blue clothes theory better. I like to picture Harald as a bit of a dandy with his blue tunic and cloak. A rotten tooth…not as appealing. 

Kings weren’t the only men with nicknames; just about every man had one.

Some nicknames defined what the person looked like, like “the Red” for someone with red hair and beard, or “the Tall.” Eric the Red is the famous Viking who settled Greenland. Thorkell the Tall is known as a companion of the English King Canute.

Summer in the Greenland coast circa the year 1000
by Carl Rasmussen

A woman might be gifted with “the fair” as a nickname. Or perhaps “the strong-minded” if she was a tough and strong woman. Aud “the deep minded” was a particularly wise and resourceful Viking woman. She was living in Northern Scotland when she learned that her son had died. He had been the only man left to protect her, so his death made her vulnerable. Instead of panicking or allowing herself to be captured, Aud secretly had a ship built in the woods, escaped Scotland, and made for the Orkney Islands. There she married off her daughter and continued on to Iceland. Aud is considered one of the founders of Iceland. Aud’s father’s name was Ketil Flatnose. One guess as to why he had that nickname. 

Some of my favorites are nicknames like “Skull-cleaver”, who I imagine was an excellent, and probably very vicious, warrior. “Knuckle-breaker”, too, must have been quite a brute! Thorolf “Louse Beard” apparently had some hygiene problems. I don’t think I’d like to be married to Louse Beard. Sigurd “Sow” is an enigma to me. Why would someone end up with “sow” as a nickname? To give Sigurd the benefit of the doubt, I’ll say he was an excellent pig farmer. But sow was also an insult, so maybe he wasn’t well liked. 

I wish we used nicknames more in our society. I think they are fun and liven things up!