Signe and Hagbard show shameful, death-destined love

Apparently dating from no later than the ninth century, the Viking love story of Signe and Hagbard became “one of the most beloved tales of Danish medieval literature.”[1] Signe and Hagbard betrayed family and friends as they ultimately led themselves to death. Despite their tale’s popularity through the ages, most persons in relatively enlightened medieval Europe probably would have perceived Signe and Hagbard’s love as equivalent to ignominious suicide.

Princess Signe, King Sigard’s daughter, originally was part of a love triangle that didn’t include Hagbard. A noble German man named Hildigisl sought Signe’s hand in marriage. Hildigisl believed that his shapeliness and noble rank would prompt Signe to desire to have him as her husband. But she viewed him with utter contempt: “to her he seemed empty of courage and to be building his reputation on the worth of others {fortitudine vacuus aliena probitate fortunam instruere videretur}.”[2] Signe didn’t recognized Hildigisl’s intrinsic worth as a man. Men historically have been valued instrumentally — valued for what they can do, not for who they are.

Signe at first loved Haki. He apparently was Hagbard’s brother and Prince Hamund’s son. Signe valued Haki for his acts:

Haki’s proved reputation for mighty deeds turned Signe’s love towards him. She had a higher regard for the valiant than for the feeble. She admired decorations for achievement more than shapeliness. All the charms of beauty, she knew, grow cheap when valued against sheer courage, for they cannot balance it in the scales.

{ Praecipue eandem in amorem Hakonis magnalium eius spectata deflexit opinio. Quippe maiorem fortium quam mollium respectum agebat nec formae, sed operum insignia mirabatur, sciens omne decoris blandimentum sola virturis aestimatione sordescere nec aequa illi lance conferri. }[3]

Women have long been complicit in violence against men. Signe declared:

Shapeliness doesn’t make a man’s worth, but courage and fame achieved with arms.

{ Huic pretium non forma facit, sed fortior ausus armisque parta claritas. }

Haki had a disfigured face. Perhaps he had suffered a wound to his face in killing or wounding other men. That’s what it means to achieving fame with arms. Such fame has nothing to do with men’s worth as fully human beings bearing the seminal blessing.

Haki’s fame wasn’t sufficient for him to secure Signe’s love. Haki’s brother Hagbard traveled to Denmark with King Sigard’s three sons and his daughter Signe. Without her brothers’ knowledge, Hagbard spoke sweetly with Signe. She in turn secretly promised to become his mistress. Hagbard betrayed his traveling companions by secretly contriving an affair with their sister. Signe’s affection for Haki and his mighty deeds didn’t endure beyond his brother Hagbard’s words to her.

When rumor arose that Signe loved Hagbard, Hildigisl became jealous. With Hildigisl’s instructions and bribe, Bilvis and Bolvis, counselors to King Sigard and a pair only half as bad as Beavis and Butt-Head, instilled hatred between Sigard’s sons and Hamund’s songs. While Hagbard was away, Sigard’s sons killed some of Hamund’s sons. When Hagbard returned, he retaliated by killing Sigard’s sons. Would Hagbard still love Signe after her brothers killed his brothers? Would Signe still love Hagbard after he had killed her brothers?

Hagbard and Signe still loved each other despite the fraternal slaughter. Hagbard disguised himself as a Viking woman-warrior to get into Signe’s room. He pretended to be a “fighting servant-woman {pugnax famula}” sent by his brother Haki to King Sigard. Signe’s servant-women wondered at this alleged woman with a rough and torn body. Recognizing Hagbard’s ruse, Signe explained that this woman hadn’t enjoyed the privileged life that women, but not men, in royal households typically had:

She responded that hands that were accustomed to managing wounds more often than wool, fights rather than fleeces, naturally displayed a corresponding roughness. You would not expect them to be limp with the yielding softness of woman’s hands, nor to feel smooth to others’ fingers. Those hands had been hardened partly by the toils of war and partly by seafaring habits. One of Haki’s warrior-women wasn’t accustomed to devoting herself to women’s chores, but to hurling spears and lances with a blood-stained right arm. There was no cause to marvel if her soles had stiffened through walking long distances. They had been bruised by the rough shingles every time she ran along the beaches and had become tough with calluses, not tender to the touch, like theirs.

{ par esse refert manus vulnera saepius quam vellera, pugnam quam pensa tractantes consentaneam officio praeferre duritiem nec tractabili feminarum mollitudine enervem levitatis speciem alienis contactibus exhibere. Quippe eas partim bellico labore, partim navigandi consuetudine duratas esse. Neque enim bellatricem Haconis vernulam muliebribus inservire negotiis, sed iaculandis hastis torquendisque missilibus oblitam cruore dexteram afferre consuevisse. Quamobrem mirandum non esse plantas ingenti itinerum emensione duratas, quasque decursa toties litora scabris lapidum fragmentis obtriverint, calloso rigore lentescere nec parem earum teneritudini contactum prae se ferre }

Throughout history, men’s bodies have been gendered to suffer physical hardships. A man who has preserved his physical beauty is extraordinary. Daringly pretending to be a woman within King Sigard’s household, Hagbard got into bed with Signe and shared with her delights of physical intimacy.

Hagbard spoke to Signe about the risk that he be caught and killed. Men have always borne the brunt of punishment for illicit sex. Within their deplorable, death-destined love affair, Signe at least showed concern for gender equality in punishment and for men’s lifespan shortfall. She said to Hagbard:

Believe me, my dear, I want to die with you,
if fate presents the lot of death,
nor do I wish to prolong my lifetime
when mournful death has driven you into a tomb.
If you should happen to close your eyes to the sky’s light,
subjected to the rabid will of executioners,
or whatever doom stifles your breath,
whether illness or sword, in water or on soil,
I relinquish all wanton and shameless fires
and vow myself to a similarly violent death,
so that those whom the bed’s contract bound
may be linked by the same suffering.
Even if I should feel death’s pains, I will not desert
the man whom I found worthy of my love,
who took the first kisses from my mouth
and the first fruits of my tender virgin flower.
I think no vow was ever more certain to last
if a woman’s voice bears faith.

{ Me crede tecum, care, velle commori,
si sors exitii praetulerit vicem,
nec ulla vitae prorogare tempora,
cum te mors tumulo tristis adegerit.
Nam si supremam forte lucem clauseris,
lictorum rabido subditus ausui,
quocumque leto praefocetur halitus,
morbo seu gladio, gurgite vel solo,
omnis petulcae labis ignes abdico
et me consimili devoveo neci,
ut, quos idem foedus tori revinxerat,
idem supplicii contineat modus.
Nec hunc, necis sensura poenas, deseram,
quem dignum Venere constitui mea,
qui prima nostri carpsit oris oscula
et floris teneri primitias tulit.
Nullum puto votum futurum certius,
si quid feminea vox fidei gerit. }

True love is life-giving, not death-seeking. Dying for love has long been recognized as a sickness from lacking love. From a Christian perspective, a woman’s voice carried faith and bore salvation. That was the yes to a new birth from Mary, the mother of Jesus. Humans all too readily substitute death for life.

Signe’s servant-woman perceived Hagbard’s disguised visit to Signe and revealed it to King Sigard. King Sigard’s men attempted to apprehend Hagbard. In the ensuing violence, Hagbard killed many men and then was seized. Treated as others’ tools, men often die with little notice. So it was for some of King Sigard’s men. Hagbard in turn was condemned to be hanged. In contrast to false claims to the contrary, men have always borne the brunt of punishment for illicit sex. Signe’s mother taunted him by offering him a goblet of wine to dull the pain of being hung. Hagbard hurled the wine into her face. That’s a harsh way to treat your girlfriend’s mother, even if she had belittled you.

Signe arranged for a group suicide and conflagration. With Hagbard heading to the gallows, Signe asked her servant-women to follow her in suicide:

With tears streaming, Signe said that she sought to follow in death the only man with whom she had ever shared a bed. She ordered that, as soon as the signal from the watch tower was sent, they should fire their bed-chamber with torches, make nooses of their gowns, tie these around their throats, and by kicking away the footstools on which they stood, strangle themselves.

{ Deinde lacrimis suffusa, quem unicum tori consortem habuerit, fato insequi velle se dicit iubetque, mox ut signum e specula datum esset, faces thalamo subdi, deinde laqueos ex peplis fieri iisdemque fauces, pulso pedum fulcimine, strangulandas praeberi. }

Signe thus established a selfish plan for causing deaths and immolation. These women acted as if their responsibilities to others and others love for them counted for nothing.

Hagbard delighted in the thought of Signe’s shameful suicide. “Testing the faith of his lover {experturus amasiae fidem},” he ordered the hangman to hoist his mantle on the gallows to provide a preview of his coming death. Seeing the mantle on the gallows, a watchman signaled to Signe and her servant-women that Hagbard had been executed:

Soon afterwards, they set the building on fire, kicked away the wooden supports under their feet, and let the halters twist tight around their necks. Seeing the palace swathed in fire and the familiar bedroom blazing, Hagbard declared that his joy in seeing his beloved’s faithfulness was greater than the misery of his own approaching death.

{ Quae mox, datis incendio tectis, subiecta pedibus robora depellentes gulas laqueis obtorquendas dederunt. Igitur Hagbarthus regiam igni implicatam conspiciens ac notum conflagrare cubiculum, plus laetitiae se ex amicae fide quam maeroris ex propinqua morte sentire perhibuit. }

That’s empty faithfulness and miserable joy. Hagbard then sang to the hangmen about his delusional presumption for the world beyond death:

More quickly, O young men, having seized me, swing me into the air!
Sweet to me it is, my wife, to die after your destined death.
I see rosy halls with crackling flames.
Now your promised love reveals the long-established pact,
and your agreement by unequivocal vows is fulfilled.
In destruction as in life you are to me an intimate friend.
One will be our end, and one our union after death,
for first love cannot perish randomly.
Happy am I who has merited to delight with such a consort,
not to go alone cruelly to the underworld gods.
Thus let this knot squeeze my throat in its middle!
Nothing but what pleases can this final pain bring me,
for sure hope remains in the restoration of my beloved to me,
and death will soon bring its own delight.
Each axis pleases. In the twinned world will be celebrated
one rest for our souls and equal faith in love.

{ Ocius, o iuvenes, correptus in aera tollar!
Dulce mihi, nupta, est post tua fata mori.
Aspicio crepitus et tecta rubentia flammis,
pollicitusque diu pacta revelat amor.
En tua non dubiis completur pactio votis,
cum vitae mihi sis interitusque comes.
Unus erit finis, unus post funera nexus,
nec passim poterit prima perire Venus.
Felix, qui tanta merui consorte iuvari
nec male Tartareos solus adire deos.
Ergo premant medias subiecta tenacula fauces!
Nil, nisi quod libeat, poena suprema feret,
cum restaurandae Veneris spes certa supersit
et mors delicias mox habitura suas.
Axis uterque iuvat: gemino celebrabitur orbe
una animi requies, par in amore fides. }

Such sentimental claptrap surely doesn’t transform death into life.[4] Their mutual death-pact doesn’t constitute a marriage, nor does having sex with each other make a marriage. Moreover, neither Signe nor Hagbard were loyal to their family and friends. With Hagbard testing Signe’s vow and Signe waiting for Hagbard’s death to commit suicide, they seemed to have rightly distrusted each other. Hagbard cannot credibly judge their relationship after death.

Love should not entail suicide, neither for men nor for women. Nonetheless, throughout history stories of love suicides have been eagerly received and widely reproduced. In ancient Carthage, Queen Dido committed suicide and burned her bedroom in fury that her beloved boyfriend Aeneas had moved on. In the ancient Viking story, Signe committed suicide, leading all her servant-women with her, when her beloved Hagbard was hung. In the sixteenth-century tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, the lovers committed suicide in misguided love for each other. The historical prominence of these stories suggests perversity in the public propaganda apparatus.[5] Never was a story of such woe so sadly foretold ages ago. Those considering their lives until death do them part shouldn’t enter into a suicide pact.

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[1] Holmqvist-Larsen (1998), Abstract. Apparent references to the story exist in scaldic poems dating to no later than the ninth century. The oldest complete account of the love of Signe and Hagbard is that of Saxo Grammaticus in his Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum}. Id. p. 106. That’s the version subsequently presented above.

The story of Signe and Hagbard was represented in popular ballads from no later than the sixteenth century. It has long been well-known:

The popularity of the tale is also indicated by the amount of learned or ‘learned’ explanations of place-names connected with the tale in both Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It was also used in Denmark as a patriotic and moral fable during the century of Enlightenment. Eventually it became a subject for national romanticist paintings, and even a theme for a high-strung ‘erotic tragedy’ in 1815 by the ‘Nordic King of Poets’ Adam Oehlenschlager. More recently, the tale was the subject for a movie — the Red Cloak by Gabriel Axel in 1967 — which at the time was rather famous for its nude scenes.

The tale has thus been part of popular and learned beliefs — used in historical writings, in Enlightenment morality, in the birth of Danish national feeling, in the romanticist movement — and it played a (very minor) role in the ‘sexual revolution’. It is certainly part of the Danish cultural heritage.

Id. Using Nordic myths in the arts was controversial early in the nineteenth century. The 1967 film is more commonly known as Hagbard and Signe or The Red Mantle. The soundtrack for the film (music by Marc Fredericks) was released in 1972 on RCA Victor. The song “When Will the Killing End?” ignores Signe’s preference for warrior men and more generally elides women’s complicity in violence against men.

There’s little scholarly literature in English about Hagbard and Signe (Hagbarth and Signy). For some commentary on the tale by the leading scholar of Saxo Grammaticus, Friis-Jensen (1995).

[2] Saxo Grammaticus, Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum} 7.7.2, Latin text from Olrik & Raeder (1931), English translation (modified) from Davidson & Fisher (1979-80). For a freely available, online English translation, Elton (1894). Subsequent quotes from Gesta Danorum are similarly sourced from 7.6.1-16, unless otherwise noted. The poems are given in my, more literal, translation.

[3] Dronke interpreted Signe to speak “of Hagbard under a senhal, the assumed name Hakon.” Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 244. That seems to me less plausible in context than Haki being Hagbard’s brother. Gesta Danorum 7.8.1 refers to “Haki, son of Hamund {Hakon Hamundi filius}.” Gesta Danorum 7.7.1 refers to “Helvin, Hagbard, and Hamund, sons of Prince Hamund {Hamundi reguli filii Helwin, Hagbarthus et Hamundus}.” Hagbard kills Sigar’s sons for killing his brothers Helvin and Hamund. Moreover, the tale has an undercurrent of distrust and betrayal. That’s more consistent with Haki and Hagbard being brothers, not two names for the same man.

[4] Promotional material for the 1967 movie Hagbard and Signe or The Red Mantle features the tag line, “A love as eternal as the midnight sun.” Both lovers die young. A promotional poster for the film quotes Time Magazine: “together, the lovers pay with their lives, leaving behind a shining triumph of love.” Penal execution for illicit sex and suicide don’t make “a shining triumph of love.”

[5] Dronke declared:

The verses of Hagbard and Signe belong almost to the summits of medieval love-poetry. What they lack in concision and subtlety is made up by a dignity which is lucent and moving.

Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 246. While that may be a common view, a much different view of “dignity” seems to me more humane. Men-abasing courtly love similarly seems to me rightly viewed as oppressive and undignified.

Saxo’s Gesta Danorum and Shakespeare’s plays have commonalities. In broad outline, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is similar to Saxo’s story of Hagbard and Signe. Saxo’s legend of Amleth is a precursor to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Saxo also has an army hidden as a moving forest. Gesta Danorum 7.8.2. That’s similar to Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

[image] “Hagbard Og Signe {Hagbard and Signe}” sung by Ragnhild Furholt from her 2008 album Lån Meg Vengjene. Via YouTube. Furholt’s version follows that of the famed Danish folksinger Svein Hovden, who lived from 1841 to 1924. Sten Lerche’s 2013 recording of Hagbard and Signe is more like a children’s song.


Davidson, Hilda Ellis, commentary, and Peter Fisher, trans. 1979-80. Saxo Grammaticus. History of the Danes. Vol. 1 (English translation). Vol. 2 (commentary). Cambridge, GB: D.S. Brewer.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Elton, Oliver. 1894. The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: D. Nutt. Alternate presentation.

Friis-Jensen, Karsten. 1995. “Hagbarth and Signe, Saxo’s star-crossed lovers.” In Cipolla, Adele, ed. L’immaginario nelle Letterature Germaniche del Medioevo. Milano Italy: F. Angeli.

Holmqvist-Larsen, Niels Henrik. 1998. “Saxo Grammaticus, Love and Law. The Tale of Hagbard and Signe.” Pp. 105-114 in Hanne Petersen, ed. 1998. Love and Law in Europe. Brookfield, USA: Ashgate, Aldershot.

Olrik, Jørgen and Hans Raeder, eds. 1931. Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta danorum. Hauniae, Levin & Munksgaard.