Starkadder (Starkad/Starkather) was a man of enormous stature, both physically and of deed. This mighty man of legend was known for his temperance in all things except the arts of war, to which he dedicated his life. He is one of the most famous heroes of the north and his heroic acts were known from Ireland to Byzantium. He travelled far and wide in his adventures and was never bested, although he suffered many wounds. His deeds were recorded by many ancient historian and in several Icelandic sagas. In these times of gluttony and cowardice, it is no wonder his name is little known. As such I feel it important the tales of this temperate hero be told.
The exact origin and birth of Starkather is disputed in the literary sources. The Gautreks saga, has him as the son of a Jotun by the name of Storkvid son of Starkad, ala-warrior. Starkad ala-warrior was slain by no less than Thor himself, after he had kidnapped Alfhinder. Saxo grammaticus, says he was washed up as a child after a shipwreck, although still names Storkvikr as his father. This account also places his origin in Estonia, not Norwegian Jotun territory. Whilst others place no real emphasis on his origin other than that he lived in Sweden, of Finnish decent.
Because of this, the exact date of his birth is also unknown, but his deeds span a stretch of time far exceeding the lifespan of any mortal. This in the Gautreks saga is put down to blessings given by Odin.
It is written that Starkadder after washing up ashore in Norway was brought up in the court of King Harald along with his son Vikar. King Harald was later killed whilst defending his territory from raiders and Vikar was taken captive. After Vikar had grown to maturity, he called upon Starkadder in his plots for revenge. With Starkadder by his side Vikar and his men made short work of his old captor and his nobles. Over the years Starkadder became Vikars greatest champion, always by Vikars side in matters of war. With Starkadder at his side Vikar gained victory after victory, till one day whilst at sea Starkadder was given an ominous task by Odin himself. It is said that by means of divination, that Odin demanded a sacrifice for all the victories he had granted. Lots were drawn and each time it was Vikar who drew the short straw. After much deliberation it was decided to postpone the “sacrifice” till the following day. This is when Starkadder’s adopted father revealed himself to be none other than the mighty Odin. After this revelation, Odin told Starkadder that because of Vikars reluctance to honour the lots, that he must kill him. Starkadder with heavy heart, felt he had no choice, but to honour the will of Odin. Before he was sent to do the the deed Odin granted him blessings, of the lifespan of three men, to posses mighty weapons, to amass great riches, victory in battle, the art of poetry and to be held in high esteem by nobles. It was then that Thor appeared, who is said to of hated Starkadder because of his Jotun ancestry. Thor proceeded to curse Starkadder, in an attempt to undo Odins Blessings. Cursing him, to never bare children, To never feel satisfied with his riches, to commit a dishonourable crime for each lifetime and to be inflicted with grave wounds in battle. It was then with both blessings and curses, that Starkadder committed his first dishonour and bending to the will of Odin, killed his King and friend.
Saxo writes a similar account, but puts him in Denmark after his shipwreck and only meeting Wiccarus (Vikar) after joining his raiding party. Saxo, being a devout Christian also calls into question many of the more superstitious elements of the story, such as the blessings and curses. Whatever the truth of his origin, be it son of a Jotun blessed and cursed by the Gods, or because of his huge stature and mighty deeds his origin was given more grandeur and mystery, we will never know. What we do know though is his deeds spoke for themselves and thus Starkadder became a celebrated hero in times of old.
Starkadder’s most famous quality aside from his ability to vanquish foes, was that of temperance. He was known to hate all pomp and ceremony and pick hardship over comfort at all askings. As he was also a Skaldic poet, I will share a few verses said to be from one of his works, to give insight into his thinking
Valiant men eat raw rations.
No need for sumptuous feast, I think.
For stout hearted breasts that contemplate
The trade of war.
Fitter for you to sink your teeth
In your bristly beard, bite and rend it,
than greedily drain that bowl of cream
with cavernous mouth.
I’ve shunned the taint of this lavish cook shop,
staying my hunger with rancid fare.
Few took joys in days gone by
to simmering sauces.
As we can see, he kept his diet simple and even abstained from alcohol, in a time when it was given high status. It is also said that he would flog or punish those that even invited him to a lavish feast. Starkadder thought to feed of another’s table, in the quest for richer eating, was only for jesters and parasites. His hardiness to the toils of life was also shown in his many deeds. When fighting in place of King Helgi of Norway against nine champions, he is said to of lay bare-chested in the snow till they arrived. When his opponents turned up, they thought he was late, but soon found him sleeping under a blanket of snow. It is suffice to say that Starkadder dispatched of all nine, suffering though, as foretold by Thor a great wound to his abdomen. He is also often said to of walked or ran everywhere, refusing the use of a horse. This effort he did with great ability, often arriving before others who had set out before him on horse back, to their destination. This mighty warrior believed that manliness came through hardship and only if this was constantly endured, would a man remain able and willing for war.
despite is hatred for a lavish lifestyle, he did hold nobility in high regard. This like all things with Starkadder though came along with high expectation. When Ingeld, King of Norway had fallen into a life of debauchery, with excessive drinking and wanton womanising, Starkadder could not bare it. upon hearing the news he immediately set off from Sweden, on foot as usual with a large sack of charcoal over his shoulder. When curious folk asked him why he carried the charcoal, he told them, that he would use it to build a furnace under Ingeld and forge him anew. This he did with great effect, taking Ingeld from a weakling at the mercy of temptation to brave warrior and avenger of his fathers death. The Ingeld in question is the very same one Mentioned in Beowulf. Starkadder is almost certainly the unnamed old warrior, that stirs Ingeld into such a rage he avenges his father with open war.
Starkadder being a man who valued honour, was also known to hunt down “champions” who acted in ways unbefitting of their ability. One such occasion was that of the Swordsman and magician Wisin of Russia. Wisin was a warrior of great renown and was said to have the ability to make blades blunt just by looking at them. He had though in his arrogance thought himself unbeatable, thus allowed perversions to overtake him. He was said to of taken the wives of nobles he had raided and proceed to rape them in front of their husbands. Starkadder upon hearing of such ignoble behaviour wasted no time in setting off for Russia. Being a man not just of brawn, but also of brain, he wrapped his blade in leather, so that Wisin’s eyes could not look upon it. Only removing the cover mid fight, when Wisin’s attention was else where and slaying him on the spot.
Over his three lifetimes Starkadder performed many feats of bravery and valour. He is said to of defeated the Saxon champion Hama, although not before Hama knocked him to the floor with a single punch. He wrestled the Giant of the east, Tanna, of whom it was said that no man could defeat and forced him into exile. In a duel he defeated the great Polish champion Vasza, and stayed Ali the bold of Denmark. His most famous act though was at the battle of Brávellir, where he lead the Swedish forces. It was here that Starkadder came closest to being bested, by the Champion Ubi of Friesland, this story though I will save for another day. Starkadder’s deeds were so great in number that even he could not recount them all, as he noted in song.
“My valiant achievement’s surpass number,
and if I try to recount and celebrate in their entirety the feats of this hand,
I give up; the total Sum transcends description, performance defeats reporting,
nor can speech correspond with my actions.”
So what became of this great hero, how does such a man meet his end?
After a extraordinary long life of constant war, many a grievous wound and being cursed to commit three crimes, he began to become weary of life. His last crime seemed to hang heavier than most upon him, that of the slaying of Lenni. Although Lenni was a Tyrant, Starkadder was tricked into his murder. He carried around his neck the coin in which he was paid for the deed, as if to signify externally the weight of burden he carried inside. He had been seeking the end of his life for some time when happened upon Hather son of Lenni. Hather being of Noble blood and with vengeance to seek appeared to Starkadder as the perfect accomplice in his own demise. He asked Hather to cut of his head, and would be paid not only with vengeance for his father but also the coin around his neck. Here is some of what he is said to of remarked, to convince Hather of his duty.
“What you cannot flee, you may take in advance. A young tree must be nourished an ancient one hewn down. Whoever overthrows what is close to its fate and fells what cannot stand is an instrument of nature. Death comes best when sought for, life becomes tedious, when the end is craved; do not let disagreeable age prolong an insupportable existence.”
Hather agreed and this was the end of the giant among men. It is said though, that Starkadders head bit and tore at the grass after being severed, showing the ferocity of life even in death.
In an age when life was hard, Starkadder laughed and sought greater hardship, by this nature no ill fortune could fell him. He faced the struggle of life, as a man should, unflinching in his duty. But as Starkadder was a fine poet as well as warrior, I will let him give the last words of wisdom.
“(he who) covets his mean pittance, fondly soliciting a sluggish life, by handling entrusted commissions with venal tongue. He infringes laws by violence, assaults men’s rights with the sword, tramples down innocents, feeds on debtors, loves greed and lechery, sneers with his biting laugh at fellowship and picks whores as a hoe weeds grass. Faint hearts perish, though battlefields in peace time are silent. Though he lies at the heart of a vale, no screen will protect one who fears fate. Eventual doom snatches everyone alive; there is no hole for evading death.”