Queen Asa’s Tomb

Above the Oslofjord, in the Vestfold of Norway, is a hill known locally as Oseberghaugen, which is to say: “Asa’s burial mound”.  This, they say, is where the legendary Queen Asa was buried.

Sightseers at the Oseberg excavation 1904

Early in the 20th Century, archaeologists dug into Oseberg and discovered the remains of a magnificent Viking ship. Inside the ship were the skeletal remains of two women, one about 60, the other somewhat younger. The grave had been looted and no gold or silver remained. The old woman’s arm was broken, possibly by a thief removing a bracelet.

The old woman, most assumed, was Asa, Queen of Agder, and the younger was a slave sacrificed to join her mistress in death. Nay-sayers appeared immediately, saying that Asa was legend or that folk memory of Oseberg’s meaning was faulty. These have been joined recently by those saying that there was no queen in the mound, but rather a volva or seeress and that perhaps it was the young woman and not the old whose grave this is. These last are ageist or sexist or some other variety of romantic. The evidence, as we will see, all goes to the idea that the old woman was Asa and this is her grave.

Oseberg ship at Oslo Ship Museum

There was no Norway in the 8th Century, only a bunch of ill-defined kingdoms. A “king” at this time and place was probably no more than a great patriarch, a clan chieftain. Many of these were Danes, who were the dominant group in the area. One of these was Guthroth the Hunting-King, whose father was named Halfdan, which is to say “half Dane”. Guthroth’s wife died and he decided that he wished to marry Asa, daughter of the king of Agder. (maps of Norwegian kingdoms)

Guthroth had built a large kingdom in the Westfold, around Oslofjord. A large chunk of his territory had been brought to him as dowry by his deceased wife. Now Guthroth looked south to Agder. King Harald of Agder refused to marry his daughter to Guthroth. So the king of the Westfold decided to take by force what he could not have through marriage ties. He invaded Agder, killed Harald, and took Asa to wife.

Asa soon became pregnant. She bore a son, Halfdan, later called Halfdan the Black. When Halfdan was a year old, Guthroth was attending a royal event. He was very drunk when a man leapt from the crowd and thrust a spear through him. In the morning light, the killer was recognized as one of Asa’s slaves. Asa admitted that she had persuaded one of her slaves to murder Guthroth. Then she returned to Agder and took up rule of her father’s kingdom. This was, perhaps, around 790.

When Halfdan was eighteen he travelled north to the Westfold and persuaded the king, his elder half-brother, to give up half his realm. Then Halfdan began a campaign to enlarge his family’s holdings. He would ask a king for half his territory, and if refused, invade the place. His kingdom grew.

Halfdan married the daughter of the king of Sogn, on Norway’s west coast, and took that territory. Here the story is confused and has Halfdan marrying a woman named Ragnhild who bears a son named Harald. Then these both die and Halfdan marries another woman named Ragnhild who bears a son, Harald. Whatever the actual events, this second son was to become famous as Harald Finehair and he is associated with western Norway. In 860,  Halfdan fell through thawing lake ice and perished. His ten-year-old son Harald succeeded him.

Young Harald immediately came under attack from neighboring kings, but Harald’s regent, his mother’s brother Guthorm, was an able soldier and defended the kingdom. Here I want to note the tenacity and unity of this family as they sought to better their place in the world. The warfare of families is the basis of European monarchy and here we can see a rather successful example.

Harald went on to become known as the first real king of Norway and is remembered today as such. His grandmother, Queen Asa, did not live to see that event. She died in 834.

Recently, DNA was extracted from the skeletons at Oseberg. That of the younger woman shows genetic heritage from the Black Sea area. This fits with the legendary Norse origin story — that they were a Germanic tribe serving as a Roman force in the Black Sea area, who returned to their homeland after the collapse of Rome. Studies of teeth show that both women lived for a long time in Agder. Finally, dendrochronolgy shows that the timbers used to frame the grave was felled in 834, which agrees with the traditional date of Asa’s death.

It seems to me that the evidence is substantial that the old woman in the grave was Asa. She may have been a volva, other Norse queens were said to be seers, but she was also the magnificent progenitor of a great lineage.

Much of the above comes from Snorri Sturluson’s account in Heimskringla, the story of Norway’s kings. Confusion (as noted above) may come from Snorri’s sources, some of which were Swedish. Snorri himself seems to have tried to rationalize the contradictions he discovered, but that only leads to more confusion.

Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway

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