The biter bit

Sigurd the Mighty, Earl of Orkney, died in 892 CE when he was bitten by the severed head of his foe, Máelbrigte the Bucktoothed.

I, DavidShankbone / CC BY-SA

Following up on my promise in wine immolation to write about some more unusual and noteworthy deaths of European rulers, today’s post is about Sigurd the Mighty. It begins with pirate Vikings.

Wait, I hear you ask, aren’t all Vikings pirates? Not really. You see, some time in the 880s CE (the exact year is disputed) two Viking kings battled each other at sea. The winner, Harald Fairhair, founded the Kingdom of Norway. Survivors of the losing side fled to the islands north of Great Britain – Shetland and Orkney – and took up piracy, raiding their former homeland and generally causing the newly forged kingdom some serious trouble. Harald responded by invading the islands, conquering them, and installing an ally as the earl.

(A side note: all of this comes from various Viking sagas; while there is some archaeological and historical corroboration, you always have to take them with a grain of salt.)

The locals of these islands, probably Picts, were less than pleased about being invaded by Vikings. The new Earl of Orkney, Sigurd Eysteinsson, also known as Sigurd the Mighty, spent much of his reign trying to defeat them. And he did that, but at the cost of his own life.

Máelbrigte, a Pictish leader, had dental problems. In the sagas, it was his defining characteristic – so much so that he’s  also known as Máelbrigte the Bucktoothed and Máelbrigte Tusk. Sigurd challenged him to a battle: forty men each side, winner takes all. Máelbrigte accepted, and turned up with the agreed-upon forty warriors. Sigurd turned up with twice as many, and promptly set about slaughtering the Picts. (Classy, Sigurd, real classy.) He chopped off Máelbrigte’s head and hung it from his saddle. (Show-off.)

And here’s the thing: as Sigurd rode away, Máelbrigte’s buck tooth scratched his leg. The wound became infected. Sigurd died, posthumously bitten to death by the one he betrayed. This is how the Orkneyinga Saga describes it:

There was a fierce fight, but it wasn’t long before Máelbrigte and his men were dead. Sigurd had their heads strapped to the victors’ saddles to make a show of his triumph, and with that they began riding back home, flushed with their success. On the way, as Sigurd went to spur his horse, he struck his calf against a tooth sticking out of Máelbrigte’s mouth and it gave him a scratch. The wound began to swell and ache, and it was this that led to the death of Sigurd the Powerful.


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