The 23rd of April is the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf, where Jarl Sigurd the Stout of Orkney was killed, wrapped up in his magic raven banner. The story is well known in the Nordic countries from the Icelandic Sagas, but there seems to be another side to the story that is little known. To commemorate the event the Orcadian Story Trust, who run the Orkney Storytelling Festival, are holding a special talk on the day of the anniversary called ‘Formidable Forces: Women, Fate and the Battle of Clontarf’. It will be given by two well-known local storytellers and folklorists, Tom Muir and Marita Lück. Tom will tell the story from the Icelandic Saga tradition; of how Jarl Sigurd was bribed to support King Sigtrygg Silk-beard of Dublin in his fight against King Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. He says:
“This is a fantastic story, having elements of courage, betrayal, sorcery, curses and ghosts, all wrapped up within a real historical event that changed the political map of Ireland. Sigurd was the last pagan jarl of Orkney who put his trust in a magic banner depicting a raven; a bird associated with the god Odin. But Odin took the life of the standard bearer in return for success, until the lot fell upon Sigurd himself to carry it. Other elements in the story include magical battles, monstrous ravens with beaks and claws of iron, a lucky shoelace, one of the grizzliest deaths ever devised and a returning ghost army. It is one of the great saga stories and deserves to be remembered.”
Marita Lück will talk about the lesser known Celtic elements within the story, and how women played such an important part in what might otherwise be seen as a male dominated tale. She says:
“In my talk, I will investigate the formidable female forces that seemed to have shaped the fate of the men who fought at the Battle of Clontarf. One well known example from Orkney is Earl Sigurd’s mother. She created the infamous Raven Banner that proved to be fatal for Sigurd, and I wonder whether she had only the Norse Raven in mind when she embroidered Sigurd’s banner – or could we suspect something much more sinister? After all, she was a sorceress and the daughter of an Irish king, and my research led to possible connections between her and a powerful Celtic deity of many shapes and forms.
Other examples are the Valkyries described in several Norse manuscripts, and also in a poem from North Ronaldsay. They are supernatural women using bloody intestines and severed heads to weave the future fate of those about to fight at Clontarf.
But are these women really what they appear to be? Or could they just be threads in a much wider, and much older web, embedded deeply in the human psyche up to this day? I will look at these and other aspects of the Battle of Clontarf from the perspective of Norse and Celtic mythology as well as cultural psychology.”
The event is being held to raise funds for the Orcadian Story Trust. The Trust’s Chair, Fran Flett Hollinrake, is heartened to see the rise in support for storytelling events within Orkney. She said:
“It is not very often that anyone gets to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of anything, so this is a very special occasion. The Battle of Clontarf is such an amazing story and such an important part of Orkney’s Viking heritage that we could not let the event pass without having the story told and elements of it explored in greater depth. The admission is by donations and tea, coffee and cake will be available afterwards. Tom and Marita are giving their time and knowledge free of charge so all donations will go towards the Orkney Storytelling Festival.”
‘Formidable Forces: Women, Fate and the Battle of Clontarf’ by Tom Muir and Marita Lück will be held at the St Magnus Centre at 7.30pm on the 23rd April. Admission is by donation.