Before surnames were a well-established way of telling one Olaf or Astrid from another, identifying nicknames were far more prevalent. Historical figures had their share of quirky epithets—from Albert the Peculiar to Zeno the Hermit—but the Norse Vikings seem to have had them beat when it comes to comical range and sheer absurdity.
Paul Peterson, now a teaching fellow in Scandinavian and German at Augustana College in Illinois, dedicated his advanced studies to Norse nicknames, completing a masters thesis and doctoral dissertation [PDF] at the University of Minnesota on the subject. He writes in the abstract, “The quantity of nicknames in Old Norse literature is incomparably rich, and recurring nicknames provide a tool for understanding saga transmission, cultural history, slang, and etymology.” Plus, some of them are really silly.
Many—although not all—of the nicknames he cites through the text are pulled from a compendium of Icelandic settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries called Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) and fall into the following rough categories: “those describing physical features, mental characteristics, and one’s deeds or habits (good or bad).” Often, they're not exactly flattering.
Monarchical nicknames—both legendary and historical—are especially descriptive, and often survive in the Norse canon along with an explanation for the epithet that helps to contextualize the king. These include:
1. Óttarr the Vendel Crow: So given because after he was slain in a battle at Vendill, his body was eaten by crows.
2. Hálfdan the Generous and the Stingy with Food: This contradictory nickname is rooted in a surviving anecdote that claims the king paid his men well, but also starved them.
3. Walking-Hrólfr: A royal count, Hrólfr was said to be given this nickname because he was too large for any horses to carry him, and thus he walked everywhere.
4. Magnús Barefoot or Barelegged: King Magnus traveled west to the British Isles, where he and his men adopted the kilt styles worn there, and brought the fashion back to Norway. The sartorial choice was especially noteworthy after a blow to his bare leg in battle ultimately cost him his life.
5. Haraldr War Tooth: There is some discrepancy in the legends about Haraldr—whether he earned his epithet through naturally prominent (and yellow) teeth or whether he was bestowed with a mystical immunity that included re-growing a pair of teeth that were knocked out on his wedding night.
Sometimes, an explanation of the nicknames of non-royal Vikings, however obtuse, was also included in the text. Such as:
6. Billy Goat Bjǫrn: So-called because he dreamed of a “rock-dweller” and awoke to find an extra male goat amongst his herd, which quickly multiplied and made Bjorn wealthy.
7. Ǫlvir the Friend of Children: There was a low bar for earning this epithet in Medieval Iceland. Ǫlvir was a friend of children because, according to Landnámabók, “He did not allow himself to catch children on spears, as was then customary among Vikings.”
8. Þórir Leather Neck: He earned what was likely a mocking nickname after attempting to fashion armor with cheaper cowhide.
9. Ragnarr Hairy Breeches: The explanation given for this nickname—that Ragnarr was wearing his hairy breeches when he slew a serpent to win his wife’s hand in marriage—makes sense as a momentous occasion worth commemorating, but it doesn’t explain why he was wearing the fur pants to begin with.
10. Þóra Hart of the Castle: Like many women’s nicknames, this is a reference to beauty. Þóra was said to be so beautiful that she stood out from other women as a hart (or stag) stands out from other animals.
11. Þorbjǫrg Coal Brow: Her nickname is a reference to her black hair and eyebrows—but it is not intended as a compliment among Vikings.
12. Hallgerðr Long Pants: The wife of a legendary hero, Hallgerðr’s nickname refers to her abnormal height and thus, presumably, the long pants she would have to wear.
Many nicknames survive without any explanation (though many are obvious enough that you could probably guess why the epithet was given). A surprising number are openly insulting and include crude sexual allusions or “potty humor”:
13. Kolbeinn Butter Penis
14. Eysteinn Foul-Fart
15. Herjólfr Shriveled Testicle
16. Ásný Ship-Chest (or: Ásný The Busty)
17. Þórir Billy Goat’s Thigh
18. Skagi the Ruler of S**t
19. Ásgeirr the Terror of the Norwegians
20. Bǫðvarrthe Little Bear
21. Auðr the Deep-Minded
22. Finni the Dream Interpreter
23. Olaf the Witch-Breaker
24. Vemund the Word-Master
25. Hlif the Castrator of Horses
26. Astrid the Wisdom-Slope
27. Ófeigr the Grimacer
28. Tjǫrvi the Ridiculer
29. Vékell the Shape-Shifting
30. Þorfinnr the Splitter of Skulls
31. Bjarni the Tall Man with a House
32. Hjǫrleifr the Amorous
33. Þorgeirr the Frantic