A Duel From Egil’s Saga

I’ve been reading Egil’s Saga again, one of my favorite Sagas. I reached one of my favorite parts when Egill duels Atli at an assembly over a land dispute. Here is an excerpt from the duel:

After that they prepared themselves for the duel. Egill came forward wearing a helmet on his head and carrying a shield in front of him, with a spear in his hand and his sword Dragvandil tied to his right hand. It was the custom among duelers to have their swords at hand to have them ready when they wanted them, instead of needing to draw them during the fight. Atli was equipped in the same way as Egill. He was strong and courageous, an experienced dueler, and skilled in the magic arts. Then a huge old bull was brought out, known as the sacrificial bull, for the victor to slaughter. Sometimes there was one bull, and sometimes each of the duelers brought his own. When they were ready for the duel, they ran at each other and began by throwing their spears. Neither stuck in the shields; the spears both fell to the ground. Then they both grabbed their swords, closed in and exchanged blows. Atli did not yield. They struck hard and fast, and their shields soon began to split. When Atli’s shield was split right through, he tossed it away, took his sword in both hands and hacked away with all his might. Egill struck him a blow on the shoulder, but his sword did not bite. He dealt a second and third blow, finding places to strike because Atli had no protection. Egill wielded his sword with all his might, but it would not bite wherever he struck him. Egill saw that this was pointless, because his own shield was splitting through by then. He threw down his sword and shield, ran for Atli and grabbed him with his hands. By his greater strength, Egill pushed Atli over backwards, then sprawled over him and bit through his throat.

Atli died on the spot. Egil rushed to his feet and ran over to the sacrificial bull, took it by the nostrils with one hand and by the horns with the other, and swung it over on to its back, breaking its neck. Then Egil went over to his companions. He spoke this verse:

Dragvandill did not bite
the shield when I brandished it.
Atli the Short kept blunting
its edge with his magic.
I used my strength against
that sword-wielding braggart,
my teeth removed that peril.
Thus I vanquished the beast.

Egill then acquired all the lands he had fought over and had claimed as his wife Asgerd’s inheritance from her father. Nothing else of note is said to have happened at the assembly.

Too bad Iceland no longer has trial by combat. I’m fairly certain it would have made the legal proceedings over the bankers more interesting.


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