‘Watch out – there’s a barbarian about’ say sagas

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EPIC Icelandic sagas from the Viking age may be the first attempt at criminal profiling, according to an expert who believes the epic poems may have been intended as a warning about traits associated with criminals.

Icelandic sagas from the Viking age contain detailed descriptions of physical characteristics associated with high testosterone levels and aggression, according to historian Dr Tarrin Wills, such as wide foreheads and faces, bushy beards, broad shoulders, and receding hairlines.

He believes the poems served as warnings at a time when Iceland struggled to cope with disorder and violence.

They featured colourful characters such as Egill Skallagrimsson, who committed his first murder at the age of seven and “had a lifelong interest in homicide”.

Dr Wills began investigating the way testosterone fuelled Viking behaviour after reading an article about hormones and aggressively reckless city traders.

“I followed this lead by reviewing the scientific literature on physiological and behaviour traits linked to testosterone,” he said. “The profiles seemed to describe patterns I was familiar with in early 13th century Icelandic literature.”

Such descriptions were very unusual in this time period.

“I found clear indications that the authors of these sagas were acutely aware of the markers of high testosterone,” said Dr Wills, who spoke yesterday at the British Science Festival at the University of Aberdeen.

“A good Viking should be aggressive and dominant, he should go abroad, he should rape and pillage,” said Dr Wills, from the University of Aberdeen. “But many of these guys end up back home having to settle down to what is basically farming and family life.

“The kinds of guys that are good at rape and pillage aren’t very good husbands and farmers.”

He suspects that the sagas were trying to warn people who to watch out for.

Dr Wills told the journal Viking and Medieval Scandinavia: “So were the Icelanders the first criminal profilers?

“I’ve yet to encounter any similar kind of descriptions in the early literature that I’ve read.”