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  Earl Sigurd and the Raven Banner

The Fate of Earl Sigurd: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieEarl Sigurd Hlodvirsson is one of the best-known characters in the Orkneyinga Saga.

Also known as Sigurd the Stout, he was a powerful man, defending his territories in Caithness against the Scots and renowned for his summertime expeditions plundering the Hebrides, western Scotland and Ireland.

Within the lore of Orkney his prowess is no less. The tales surrounding Sigurd abound with sorcery, miracles and omens. In these stories he is a magical, semi-mythical figure who fights with the power of the Old Gods at his side - the last great heathen Earl of Orkney.

To best begin the tale of Earl Sigurd and his magical Raven Banner, I'll leave it to the one who recorded it first - the author(s) of the Orkneyinga Saga:

"One summer it happened that a Scottish earl called Finnleik challenged Sigurd to fight him on a particular day at Skitten. Sigurd's mother was a sorceress so he went to consult her, telling her that the odds against him were heavy, at least seven to one.

"Had I thought you might live for ever," she said, "I'd have reared you in my wool-basket. But lifetimes are shaped by what will be, not by where you are. Now, take this banner. I've made it for you with all the skill I have, and my belief is this: that it will bring victory to the man it's carried before, but death to the one who carries it."

It was a finely made banner, very cleverly embroidered with the figure of a raven, and when the banner fluttered in the breeze, the raven seemed to be flying ahead. Earl Sigurd lost his temper at his mother's words.

He got the support of the Orkney farmers by giving them back their land-rights, then set out for Skitten to confront Earl Finnleik. The two sides formed up, but the moment they clashed Sigurd's standard-bearer was struck dead. The Earl told another man to pick up the banner but before long he'd been killed too. The Earl lost three standard bearers, but he won the battle and the farmers of Orkney got back their land-rights."
The Orkneyinga Saga, Chapter 11

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, five years after the Battle of Svoldr - in which King Olaf Trygvasson perished - Earl Sigurd left Orkney for the last time, sailing for Ireland with the intention of supporting King Sigtrygg Silk-Beard, the King of Dublin..

In Ireland at the time an internal war was being waged between the King of Leinster and King Brian Boru. These opposing sides were seeking allies - so King Sigtrygg, and an alliance of Norsemen, fought with the King of Leinster.

The two sides met on Good Friday, 1014, and Sigurd's Raven Banner was unfurled. The ensuing battle was so fierce that it is said that in places the trees wept blood and the nearby River Tolka turned red.

Within Sigurd's ranks standard bearer after standard bearer fell....

"Then Earl Sigurd called on Thorstein the son of Hall of the Side, to bear the banner, and Thorstein was just about to lift the banner, but then Asmund the White said, "Don't bear the banner! For all they who bear it get their death."

"Hrafn the Red!" called out Earl Sigurd, "bear thou the banner."

"Bear thine own devil thyself," answered Hrafn.

Then the earl said, "`Tis fittest that the beggar should bear the bag;'" and with that he took the banner from the staff and put it under his cloak."
The Saga of Burnt Njal Ch 157

From the moment he touched the standard his fate was sealed. As bearer he was sure to die - and he did, impaled shortly afterwards on an enemy's spear.

"There was no man who would bear the raven-standard and the earl bore it himself, and fell there."
Orkneyinga Saga

Back in Orkney there was a man called Hareck who had been ordered by the Earl to stay behind. Hareck reluctantly obeyed but only on the condition that he'd be the first to hear Sigurd's news upon his return.

"He would not that Hareck should go, but said he would be sure to be the first to tell him the tidings of his voyage."
The Saga of Burnt Njal, C157

On the evening of the Battle of Clontarf Hareck saw Sigurd riding home at the head of his warriors. Overjoyed at the return of the Earl, Hareck rode out to greet the returning heroes .

They were seen to meet but then the earth opened and the spectral horde rode under the hill. The hillside closed and Hareck was seen no more.