Harald Fairhair

Harald Fairhair

Harald Fairhair, (Old Norse Haraldr hinn hárfagri; Norwegian Harald Hårfagre; Swedish Harald Hårfager; c. 852; † 933), was the first king of Norway.

Ancestors of Harald Fairhair

Harald Fairhair's ancestors are unknown except for his father Halvdan Svarte (Halfdan the Black) and his mother Åsa. (After the Oseberg ship was found in 1904, it was first suspected that the female skeleton found in the burial chamber on the ship might be Åsa).

The genealogical list was constructed late and stems from the effort to substantiate the legitimacy of rule through noble descent from old age.

The Icelander Sæmundur fróði had written a Latin work on the Norwegian kings, which is lost. His grandson Jón Loftsson used the work in the 11th century for his poem Konungatal. There only Halfdan the Black is mentioned.

The skald Thorbjørn Hornklofi also refers to Harald as "Halvdansson." The Fagrskinna begins with his supposed father "Gudrøð Veiðikonung" (Gudrød the hunter king).

Ari fróði, a somewhat younger contemporary of Sæmundur, was probably the first to trace Harald's lineage far back to the legendary kings of Sweden and Uppsala.

These kings were originally called Skilvinger. Ari renamed them Ynglinge and traced them back to the god Yngvi-Freyr, who was supposed to have been the main god in Uppsala in ancient times.

On that occasion he also knotted himself into the Ynglinge family. The model may have been Sæmundur's ancestral line for the Danish kings with about 30 generations, which he traced back to the Skjoldungen, whereby he also included himself in this ancestral line as a descendant.

Report of the sagas about Harald Fairhair

Little that is certain has survived about Harald Fairhair. Most of it is ruler praise without historical relevance. Snorri Sturluson says that Harald had gathered many skalds around him, who had written poems that were well-known among the people.

Snorri, however, is only able to quote very few. Probably only Harald's son, Olav Haraldsson, gathered the skalds around him in larger numbers. In the sagas, many fairy-tale features were used, such as in the Ágrip (Old Norse for "summary") the love madness into which Harald fell over the Samin Snæfrid Svåsedotter.

The Fagrskinna describes Harald on ten printed pages, which Snorri expands to 30 printed pages. The Fagrskinna actually says nothing more than that Harald was the founder of the royal house of Norway and the first king of the realm.

The skald Thorbjørn Hornklove is said to have written the poem Glymdråpa about Harald's struggles. The poem of praise speaks in eight stanzas of gaping wounds and streams of blood. Fagrskinna adopted the stanzas and related them all to the battle at Hafrsfjord.

Snorri uses the poem as a source for several of Harald's battles and assumes that some stanzas have nothing to do with this battle. The problems of interpretation and attribution have not changed much since then.

Of the skaldic poems about him, eleven fragments with about 50 stanzas have survived. They are scattered over eight sagas.

These poems are of varying source value, especially since they had already been passed down orally for several hundred years by the time they were written down between 1210 and 1230. Thus, the stanzas attributed to Harald himself are unlikely to have been written by him.

A contemporary skald poem Haraldskvæði, also attributed to Thorbjørn Hornklove, reports that Harald was a son of Halvdan, and all sources agree that he was the son of King Halvdan Svarte in the (Norwegian) East Country.

However, the literary trend was to move the family further and further west. In Snorri, Halvdan is then king of Vestfold.

The Icelander Sæmundur fróði, the father of Icelandic historiography, apparently did not trace Harald's lineage further back than to his father Halvdan, at most to his father Gudrød Veidekonge (his work written in Latin has been lost).

A work by his grandson Jón Loptsson Noregs Konungatal from the end of the 12th century gives a summary of his grandfather's work.

It begins with Halvdan. For the first time in Ynglingatal, whose author and time of origin are disputed, the lineage of the Vestfold kings, as the last of which Harald's cousin Ragnvald Hederhög is mentioned, was traced back to the legendary kings of Uppsala, which Snorri then adopted in the Heimskringla.

Sæmundur fróði and the contemporary scholars around him made the later Norwegian kings Olav Tryggvason, Olav Haraldsson and Harald Hardråde descendants of Harald Hårfagre. Thus they had established a long continuity of rule.

But it is not known how many sons Harald really had. The numbers vary from eleven to 20, but even the lowest number is considered too high. Harald soon became a legendary figure, and it is natural to associate him with many women in various parts of the country, some of whom are themselves legendary figures.

Many later kings were at pains to trace their ancestors back to Harald for the legitimization of their rule. A clue that has some probability in itself is provided by the Hákonarmál of Øyvind Skaldespiller.

It is a memorial poem to Håkon the Good from the beginning of the 10th century. It says that when he came to Valhalla, he was greeted by eight brothers.

Assuming that Håkon lived the longest of all brothers, Harald must therefore have had nine sons. The names are hardly known.

Only four or five are known: Erik, Håkon, Ragnvald, Bjørn, and Halvdan (possibly two different ones with the latter name). With the fact that Harald had a son Bjørn, it is also not said that it is the legendary Bjørn Farmann mentioned above in the descendant table.

That Harald chose his son Erik as his successor is attributed in the sagas to the fact that his mother was a king's daughter, namely Ragnhild the Mighty of Jylland.

There are also contradictions concerning the mother: Sæmundur only reports that Halvdan married Ragnhild, the daughter of the king of Sogn, and that Harald was her son. Fagrskinna and Snorri are not satisfied with this.

They report that Ragnhild was the first wife of Halvdan. She and her son Harald died soon after. Thereupon Halvdan married another Ragnhild; this one was descended from the legendary Skjoldunger Ragnar Lodbrok. Their son Harald was Harald Hårfagre.

Thus, in addition to the Ynglingen descent, another glorious line of ancestors was assigned to him.

More recent views suggest that Harald's descent from Halfdan and the Ynglingen is a later construction from the 13th century to link him to Vestfold and to reject the influence of the Danes in the Oslo area and the territorial claims to it.

It is also thought possible that he came from the powerful Karmøy dynasty, since his center of power was Avaldsnes on Karmøy.

Snorri also reports that Harald refused to groom his hair until he had subjugated Norway. After the battle at Hafrsfjorden he had his hair combed for the first time and thereupon received the nickname "Fairhair".

Here we find again the motif that is also found in Gregory of Tours and in the Old Testament: Samson's strength lay in his hair, likewise the royal dignity of the Merovingians was linked to their hair splendor.

Whether this was a ubiquitous view and therefore Harald actually did not shave his hair, or whether this is a later learned ingredient to his life picture, can no longer be decided.

In contemporary Skaldic poetry the epithet is not used. Except in the Heimskringla, this name still occurs in its original, the Ágrip.

This has survived in a copy, but here it looks as if it is an erroneous copy for the Old Norse expression afaraudga, which means "the extraordinarily rich and fortunate one." But this expression does not occur in the skalds either.

Conquest of Harald Fairhair

Snorri reports that Harald Fairhair made the plan for his conquests because this was the condition for him to marry Gyða Eiriksdóttir. The real reason, however, is expressed in her answer to Harald's courtship, handed down by Snorri: "It does seem strange to me that no king can be found who wants to subdue Norway as an autocrat in the same way as King Gorm [the Old, † after 935] did with Denmark and King Erich [Eymundsson, † 882] with Sweden." The example of the Frankish Empire had a powerful effect.

Further, Snorri reports that according to this condition of Gyða's, Harald made an oath not to shear his hair or comb it until he had appropriated "all Norway, tributes, revenues, and dominion."

Therefore, he soon got the name Haraldr lúfa ("tousled head"). After he had eliminated the last resistances, he had taken a bath on the occasion of a visit to the Jarl Røgnvald Eysteinsson in Møre, cut and combed his hair and thereupon received the nickname "Fairhair" from the Jarl.

He gained a special prestige at home and abroad by managing to place one of his younger sons, Haakon, with King Æthelstan of England for education.

Harald I fought many battles to gain dominion over all of Norway, the most famous being the Battle of Hafrsfjord probably in 872.

However, the number is calculated from the data of Ari fróði and the Sagas. Other researchers assume the year 900 or shortly before. The rule "over all Norway" is probably due to Snorri's late praise of the Harald dynasty and does not correspond to reality.

Harald's domain is considered to be limited to Vestlandet and the southern coast around Lindesnes to the border with Grenland at the Oslofjord.

It is also assumed today that Harald started his conquests from Sogn and that the battle at Hafrsfjord was their conclusion. Even if this reduces the importance of Harald as the unifier of the Norwegian Empire, he still remains the initiator of this process.

At the Hafrsfjord he was defeated by the Great of Vestland, led by King Erik of Hardanger, as well as King Skúli of Stavanger, the King of Agder and his son of Telemark and of Sørland, also chieftains, of whom Kjotve and Haklang are named. In Denmark there is a rune stone erected for a Haklang. Whether it is the same person is not certain.

Despite the reports of a great victory, however, no "unification of the empire" can be attributed to Harald. The empire term was not even used by Snorri in his Heimskringla (c. 1230). There it only says: "After this battle, King Harald found no more resistance in Norway."

And a little later, "King Harald had now become sole ruler of all Norway." Later the Heimskringla claims that he distributed his sons as sub-kings all over Norway. This statement stems from the 12th century desire of the local Jarle to trace their lineage back to Harald.

According to the Faroese saga, his lust for power led to a wave of emigration to the Faroe Islands and especially to Iceland. But the real conditions in his time probably contradicted this. The Landnámabók about the settlement of Iceland knows nothing about it and gives other reasons.

In 880, according to the Heimskringla and the Annals of Ireland, Harald should have conquered the Orkneys and appointed Røgnvald Eysteinsson (Mørejarl) as the first Jarl.