Viking King Herlaug and His Men Choose to be Buried Alive -
The year is 871 AD, and King Herlaug of the Namdalen district in Central Norway fulfills his last wish: instead of surrendering to King Harald Fairhair, he and eleven of his men choose to be buried alive inside a large burial mound on the island of Leka.
Herlaug’s brother King Rollaug, on the contrary, chooses to obey King Harald as the sole ruler of Norway. As reward, Rollaug is appointed Earl of the Namdalen district, a power center controlling the lucrative coastal trades between Northern and Southern Norway.
King Harald Fairhair (Old Norse: Haraldr hárfagri, reign c. 872-932), who was heading northwards to Namdalen, already had crushed several petty kings while moving his army from the fjords of Western Norway.
King Herlaug realized that he only had two real choices: to flee, or voluntarily give up the power. He would surely lose an open battle facing King Harald who brought with him an army consisting of battle proven warriors.
The burial mound on the Leka island containing King Herlaug and eleven of his men originally was about 12.5 meters (41 ft) high with a diameter of more than 70 meters (230 ft). It is one of the largest Viking graves discovered in Norway – and the largest containing people.
Instead, King Herlaug chose to be buried alive and eleven of his men voluntarily followed him into the burial mound, Snorre Sturlason writes in the Saga of Harald Fairhair, the third of the sagas in the Heimskringla Old Norse kings’ sagas:
North in Naumdal [today the Namdal district in Central Norway] were two brothers, kings: Herlaug and Rollaug, and they had been for three summers raising a mound or tomb of stone and lime and of wood.
Just as the work was finished, the brothers got the news that King Harald was coming upon them with his army. Then King Herlaug had a great quantity of meat and drink brought into the mound, and went into it himself, with eleven companions, and ordered the mound to be covered up.
King Rollaug, on the contrary, went upon the summit of the mound, on which the kings were wont to sit, and made a throne to be erected, upon which he seated himself. Then he ordered feather-beds to be laid upon the bench below, on which the earls were wont to be seated, and threw himself down from his high seat or throne into the earl’s seat, giving himself the title of earl.
Now Rollaug went to meet King Harald, gave up to him his whole kingdom, offered to enter into his service, and told him his whole proceeding. Then took King Harald a sword, fastened it to Rollaug’s belt, bound a shield to his neck, and made him thereupon an earl, and led him to his earl’s seat; and therewith gave him the district Naumudal, and set him as earl over it.
Honor and Greed
At the end of the 1700’s, three tunnels were dug into Kong Herlaug’s burial mound. Among other discoveries, there were found a skeleton of a person who was leaning against a wall and who was believed to be King Herlaug himself.
In the early 19th century the skeleton was exhibited, but all the findings that can give us valuable information have unfortunately disappeared over time. There were also found remains of a sword and many animal bones.
King Herlaug’s burial mound is larger than most other Viking Age graves found in Norway, and it is presumed that it also contains one or more longships.
Surveys with georadar back in 2012 did not give any new concrete answers to what still might be hidden inside the mound.
The somewhat bizarre grave documents both Viking honor and extreme willpower – and that there also were people (including close relatives) in the Viking Age who literally were willing to walk on people’s graves to get powerful positions and wealth.