Egil Skallagrimsson, the ambiguous poet–Viking hero of Egil’s Saga, had bone deformities and symptoms that are known only from their descriptions in the Saga. By “excavating words”, previous workers have concluded that Egil suffered from Paget’s disease. However, the descriptions in the Saga are arguably also consistent with skeletal fluorosis, a condition not previously considered in Egil’s differential diagnosis. The literary and historical evidence available about Egil and the environment in which he lived is reconsidered to examine this possible alternative diagnosis.
Endemic fluorosis occurs in places with high fluoride levels in soil, water, and food, with one environmental source being volcanic ash. There are ample records of fluorosis in Icelandic sheep and other stock (including gaddur), and a possible historical reference to human fluorosis following the Laki Fissure eruption in 1783. A travel history removing Egil from fluoride exposure does not support the diagnosis, but the reliability of the various pieces of evidence presented in the Saga must be weighed against their presumed significance in the historical and sociocultural context in which the Saga was written.
The location and analysis of Egil’s actual bones, which were re-interred “on the edge of the graveyard at Mosfell”, would put the question of Egil’s diagnosis to rest. The case illustrates the potential value of interpreting historical narrative as a supplement to archaeological and palaeopathological investigation.