View Full Version : On Egil Skallagrimsson (by Scientific American)

Wednesday, June 1st, 2005, 11:46 PM


January 1995 Volume 272 #1 Pages 82 - 87

Egil's Bones

An Icelandic saga tells of a Viking who had unusual, menacing
features, including a skull that could resist blows from an ax.
He probably suffered from an ailment called Paget's disease

Egil, the son of Skalla-Grim, is the most memorable Viking to appear in the Old Norse sagas. Born in Iceland in the early 10th century, he participated in Viking raids and adventures throughout Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the east Baltic lands, England, Saxony and northern Germany. Fierce, self-willed and violent, Egil Skalla-Grimsson was also a fine poet and a man with a sense of ethics. He epitomizes the Viking urge to travel into the unknown world seeking action and fortune. From Athelstan, king of the Anglo-Saxons, he receives valuable gifts and pledges of friendship, but from Erik Blood-Axe, the Viking ruler of Norway, he hears death threats. Combining courage and brawn with high intelligence, Egil survives war and treachery to live to an old age of 80. He dies among his kinsmen in Iceland in about 990, apparently from natural causes stemming from longevity.

For all Egil's heroic stature, however, there is something deeply troubling about his character. Despite his prowess and secure social status, his temperament, as well as his physical appearance, causes alarm. He is portrayed as an ugly, irritable, brooding individual. In this respect, Egil resembles his father and his grandfather, men described as physically menacing. The saga clearly distinguishes them as physiologically different from their kinsmen, who are depicted as fair and handsome.

What set Egil apart was more than simply a small, personal peculiarity. Through prose and verse, the saga tells us that Egil became deaf, often lost his balance, went blind, suffered from chronically cold feet, endured headaches and experienced bouts of lethargy. Furthermore, the saga describes unusual disfigurements of his skull and facial features. These symptoms suggest that Egil may have suffered from a syndrome that results from a quickening of normal bone replacement. The disease, first diagnosed by Sir James Paget in 1877, runs in families and is uncannily similar to Egil's affliction.

Is it really important to determine whether Egil suffered from Paget's disease? I pondered this question at the beginning of my research and considered it again when I realized that the enigma of Egil lies at a nexus of medical science, history, archaeology and literary analysis. The answer is yes: such a determination does matter.

An understanding of Egil's affliction is a critical step in assembling the evidence needed to evaluate the historical accuracy of the Icelandic sagas. Do sagas provide accurate information about a Viking period 250 years before they were written? Or are they merely flights of fancy and fabrications by 13th-century authors? Historians, literary scholars, archaeologists and linguists have all had their say, but science has scarcely played a role in the debate. At times the subject has stirred so much passion that one scholar promised to maintain his view until forced by death to lay down his pen. The argument would change drastically if a new source of information could be found. . .. . .

Written by johnjoytree at SF

beowulf wodenson
Thursday, June 2nd, 2005, 12:04 AM
Interesting theory. Egil's saga is one of my favorites.