Road

Egil's or Paget's disease?

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.313.7072.1613 (Published 21 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1613
  1. Thordur Hardarson, professor of medicinea,
  2. Elisabet Snorradottira
  1. a Department of Medicine, Landspitalinn, University Hospital, 101 Reykjavik, Iceland
  1. Correspondence to: Professor Hardarson.

    Under the altar some human bones were found, much bigger than ordinary human bones, and people are confident that these were Egil's because of the stories told by old men. Skapti Thorarinsson, the Priest, a man of great intelligence, was there at the time. He picked up Egil's skull and placed it on the fence of the churchyard. The skull was an exceptionally large one and its weight was even more remarkable. It was ridged all over on the outside like a scallop shell, and Skapti wanted to find out just how thick it was, so he picked up a heavy axe, swung it in one hand and struck as hard as he was able with the reverse side of the axe, trying to break the skull. But the skull neither broke nor dented on impact, it simply turned white, and from that anybody could guess that the skull wouldn't be easily cracked by small fry while it still had skin and flesh on it.1

    This somewhat irreverent exhumation of a legendary Viking takes place at the end of Egil's Saga, one of the most widely read and popular of the medieval Icelandic sagas. Egil Skallagrimsson whose bones these were believed to be is one of the saga's most colourful characters: a vicious killer (from the age of 6), a violent drunkard, a gifted and sensitive poet, a farmer, and a lawyer. He died in his 80s—an extraordinary age for a man of his times and lifestyle—and was buried in a pagan grave mound.

    About a decade later his son in law was converted to Christianity and built a church at his farm. Egil's bones were then disinterred and moved to the church. About 150 years later a new church was built, and again Egil's bones were exhumed to …

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