The Viking Who Faked His Way Into the Wrong City

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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There are a lot of solid reasons to fake your own death. Maybe you owe someone so much money that they don’t want you to be alive anymore, so you try and get out ahead of that. Perhaps life has led you to a road diverged in a yellow wood, you have chosen the path less traveled, and that path is life insurance fraud. Or maybe you just want to see who would show up to your funeral?

Sometimes faking your own death is the only way to make the world your oyster. In the 860s a viking chieftain named Hastein learned this the easy way when he approached the city of Luna and hatched a plan to fake his death, infiltrate the city, do very bad things, reap the material profits, and soak his ego in glory.

The only problem? The dude sacked the wrong gods-damned city. He was looking for Rome.

The Lost Vikings

Hastein is an enigmatic figure, not so much because he was an inherently mysterious man, but because he lived in the Dark Ages. Keep in mind: the term “Dark Ages” generally refers to a lack of modern understanding about the time period. It’s a part of the Middle Ages that has particularly spotty extant records. The Norse, in particular, weren’t big on record keeping, so even stories of historical viking leaders, like Hastein, rarely distinguish between fact and legend.

Hastein, rising from the dead. Note the mail sleeve under his death shroud and the battle axe.

What I’m getting at is we don’t know much for certain about Hastein. Here are the things we think we know.

Hastein had different names and aliases, depending on where he was robbing and killing people. It seems like his real name was something closer to “Halfdan,” and other names included “Alsting” and “Hæsting.” Because of this, it’s hard to pin down his movements. “Hastein” was the name given him by Latin chroniclers in connection to the sacking of Luna, so let’s just stick with that.1

Hastein was a “Dane.” You might think that means he was Danish, and maybe it did. But “Dane” was the catch-all term for Norsemen, vikings, etc. Most of them came from Denmark, and their victims were usually too busy being ransacked to ask, “Now, are you boys coming from Denmark proper, or from the southern tip of the Scandinavian peninsula?” If it looks like a Dane, talks like a Dane, and pillages like a Dane, it’s a Dane.

Some popular accounts—especially Internet articles inspired by History Channel’s series, Vikings, like to replace Hastein with Bjorn Ironside—a contemporarily more famous historical viking leader—in this story. It looks like they’ve half got it right: Hastein and Bjorn Ironside were viking their way along the European continent together. But Hastein is the guy attributed with faking his own death.

Hastein and Bjorn might have been brothers. This is because they both might have been Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons—Ragnar being a legendary figure who might have existed.2

That’s a lot of “mights,” so let’s just drop the brother thing. For our purposes, Hastein and Bjorn were just two buds who shared 62 longships and a dream: a dream that they could raid the coastal peoples of the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean Sea, kill them, and steal all their stuff.

Wam, Bam, Thank You, Imam

In 859, Hastein, Bjorn, and their 62 ships filled with Norse pirates launched this dream from their base on the Loire river in modern-day France. They sailed to the Iberian peninsula—which is Spain and Portugal today, but was part of the Islamic Emirate of Córdoba in the ninth century—and started hitting sites along the northern coast.

Vikings engender certain ideas, even today: martial prowess, a joyful attitude toward violence, and a desire to die with their boots on. This is accurate within reason, but I think a lot of their “unstoppable” reputation comes from the fact that they liked soft (or at least soft-ish) targets. Sure, the vikings rolled the monks at Lindisfarne 70 years before Hastein raided the Mediterranean. But that was an unguarded monastery. You could take one of those with a JV soccer team and a duffel bag full of claw hammers.

TL;DR: Just look at this map of what Hastein and Bjorn were up to.

Unlike the Anglo-Saxon monks at Lindisfarne, the locals on the northern coast of Iberia put up some resistance. Vikings may have enjoyed a good bloodbath, but not when it was their own blood. So, the name of the viking game was to search out the path of least resistance. If a target was too hard, they’d sail on by to find a softer one.  

Bjornstein (my couple’s nickname for Bjorn and Hastein) decided to move on to greener pastures: the Iberian peninsula’s west coast. It looks like they had a better time of it there—when the Emirates’ coast guard captured two of the viking longships sent ahead as scouts, they found the ships were already laden with treasure and slaves. Usually, scout ships are meant to be light and quick, so the fact that Bjorn and Hastein’s scouts already had lots of junk in their trunks indicates that the rest of the fleet probably did, too. This is a sign: the viking fleet had much better luck on the west coast than they did along the resistant north coast, meaning the viking system worked.

It worked enough of the time to be a viable strategy, anyway. The fleet was bounced off the southwest coast of Iberia by more resistance, and headed toward Seville, possibly, to give that city a sacking. There they hit a Moorish fleet that had an edge over the vikings: Greek fire. Bjorn and Hastein decided “f**k this,” and kept moving, preferably somewhere where the ships didn’t have Dark Age flamethrowers.3

To Rome! Almost.

Our two anti-heroes made their way past the Strait of Gibraltar, winning some and losing some along the way. Once through, they raided bits of North Africa; hit Spain again, just in case they missed something there; and raided their way along the Rhône, in Francia.

Bjorn and Hastein weren’t done. They had seen so much of Southern Europe, yet they hadn’t even touched the Italian peninsula. This was a particularly interesting place for glory-hungry vikings: they had heard of the famous city of Rome, seat of one of the last great civilizations. Sacking Rome wouldn’t just bring immense fame—there was probably a lot of expensive stuff within its walls, too.

I’m going to be real with you on this: this story comes from the Norman monk Dudo of St. Quentin, and it’s probably more legend than fact. But here it is: Bjorn and Hastein arrived at the port city of Luna (now Luni). The city was indeed founded by the Romans, but its heyday as a leading exporter of white Carrara marble was long gone. The city had since devolved into a large village peppered with ruins leftover from antiquity.

Dudo of St. Quentin had the best handwriting I’ve ever seen. I think. I can’t read Norman.

But, to a bunch of viking pirates from the untamed subarctic north, Luna still looked impressive enough to be confused with the world’s most famous city. And, in fairness to Bjorn and Hastein, Luna must have been in half-decent shape, because its defenses looked too strong for a straightforward attack. Instead, Hastein opted for deception.

Hastein’s gambit—or, as I like to call it, viking Ocean’s 11—was a multi-staged plan. First, Hastein sent his emissaries to talk with the people of Luna. I’ll paraphrase here: “You, Mediterraneans, we are but sickly exiles, in need of food and shelter, and perhaps mead or such other fermented drink preferred in these lands. Ah, and our unfortunate chieftain is very sick. So, you know. It’d be a solid if you could let us in.”

The emissaries were sent back to Luna for a second visit, presumably because the people of Luna didn’t buy their original story. The vikings weren’t the first pirates to set sail in the Mediterranean, after all. On the second trip, the plight of the vikings evolved: “Well, wouldn’t you know it, but our chieftain, Hastein, has died from the illness that we told you about last time. Here’s the curveball: he converted to Christianity on his deathbed! Almost unbelievable, right? Well, believe it. Could we just bring his corpse in for a good, Christian burial? We’re not really kitted out for it.”

“Vikings,” the people of Luna might have replied, “we did not trust you before, but you know what? You seem like decent, heavily armed people. We’d be happy to give that dead Hastein of yours a Christian burial, as that seems the Christian thing to do.”

After allegedly making that very stupid decision, a viking funeral procession carried Hastein to the grave site. Here’s the kicker: Hastein wasn’t dead. No sh*t, right? Hastein jumped from his coffin, fully armed, and promptly murdered Luna’s bishop, who was presiding over the false funeral.

Some sources say Hastein stabbed the bishop in the neck, others say he cut the bishop’s head clean off. Either way, killing that bishop really shook things up in Luna. In the ensuing chaos, Hastein and his vikings sacked the city.

Ooh, yeah, buddy . . . that’s not Rome.

Very clever, Hastein, save for one detail: Luna wasn’t Rome. Rome was over 200 miles thataway (points south-southeast). Hastein was so embarrassed that he had every man in Luna massacred. I guess he figured people would remember that massacre more than they would remember his navigational mistake. Instead, chroniclers remembered both.4

Grim Stuff.

Yeah. Keep in mind that this might not have actually happened, though other peoples in the Mediterranean recorded viking attacks during this time period, suggesting that Hastein and Bjorn did, in fact, make an expedition to the area.

It’s far from the end of their story: the expedition continued until a Moorish fleet sunk about 40 of their 62 ships while the vikings tried to sail against the Strait of Gibraltar’s strong current to escape the Mediterranean. You’ve got to hand it to Hastein and Bjorn, though: with only 20 ships left, they got right back on the horse and kept on raiding. Before they would return to their base on the Loire, they captured the king of Pamplona, scoring a sum of 70,000 dinars for his return—literally a king’s ransom in dinars. By the end of their raiding expedition, over two-thirds of their vikings had died, but Hastein and Bjorn were both very rich men.

While there isn’t much of a moral to the story of Hastein’s trickery, it teaches us a lot about medieval values. This story would later appear in Norman chronicles, though with different characters. Later Norman leaders like Robert Guiscard, Bohemund of Taranto, Roger I of Sicily, and other men you’ve never heard of filled in for Hastein in subsequent revisions.

The takeaway: medieval warrior culture wasn’t entirely about bravery, skill at arms, chivalry, and all that “knightly” stuff that people like to wax poetic about. It was also about cunning and deception. It was less “chivalric code” and more Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Hastein understood that. The only problem? He didn’t need Sun Tzu. He needed Rand McNally.5

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Riddle, John M. (2008). A History of the Middle Ages, 300-1500. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=rhWpPr93KjMC&pg=PA207&lpg=PA207&dq=looting+of+city+luna&source=bl&ots=KU_IvaXUOD&sig=qfsZvjY3BMQ6QAVts4to3drmlPs&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi44e6yuvTbAhXL5IMKHaZXBOkQ6AEIYTAR#v=onepage&q=looting%20of%20city%20luna&f=false
  2. Adrien, C.J. (2016, May 20). Three Vikings Who Were More Interesting (and Notorious) Than Ragnar Lothbrok. Retrieved from https://cjadrien.com/three-vikings-who-were-more-interesting-and-notorious-than-ragnar-lothbrok/
  3. Weapons and Warfare. (2016, September 22). The great raid of Hastein and Bjorn Ironsides. Retrieved from https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2016/09/22/the-great-raid-of-hastein-and-bjorn-ironsides/
  4. Weapons and Warfare. (2016, September 22). The great raid of Hastein and Bjorn Ironsides. Retrieved from https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2016/09/22/the-great-raid-of-hastein-and-bjorn-ironsides/
  5. Weapons and Warfare. (2016, September 22). The great raid of Hastein and Bjorn Ironsides. Retrieved from https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2016/09/22/the-great-raid-of-hastein-and-bjorn-ironsides/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Adrien, C.J. (2016, May 20). Three Vikings Who Were More Interesting (and Notorious) Than Ragnar Lothbrok. Retrieved from https://cjadrien.com/three-vikings-who-were-more-interesting-and-notorious-than-ragnar-lothbrok/
  • Riddle, John M. (2008). A History of the Middle Ages, 300-1500. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=rhWpPr93KjMC&pg=PA207&lpg=PA207&dq=looting+of+city+luna&source=bl&ots=KU_IvaXUOD&sig=qfsZvjY3BMQ6QAVts4to3drmlPs&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi44e6yuvTbAhXL5IMKHaZXBOkQ6AEIYTAR#v=onepage&q=looting%20of%20city%20luna&f=false
  • Royal Historical Society. (2003, December). Transactions of the Royal Historical Society: Volume 13: Sixth Series. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=8fgbhLokuVIC&pg=PA24&lpg=PA24&dq=hastein+biography&source=bl&ots=vg97dxI2b0&sig=R2MCVNz_xdBhXYOsLErcB2gmrKk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjcvf7q-_bbAhVC0oMKHfNJAgsQ6AEIhgEwBw#v=onepage&q=hastein%20biography&f=false
  • Weapons and Warfare. (2016, September 22). The great raid of Hastein and Bjorn Ironsides. Retrieved from https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2016/09/22/the-great-raid-of-hastein-and-bjorn-ironsides/

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