Today is Good Friday, so Easter is just around the corner. If you’re lucky enough to get an Icelandic Easter egg, you’ll find a proverb or saying on a little note inside. If not, we have a proverb for you to learn about: “Ber er hver að baki nema sér bróður eigi.”

See alsoIcelandic literature for beginners

“Ber er hver að baki nema sér bróður eigi” directly translates to “Bare is each person’s back unless a brother they have”. This proverb comes from the Icelandic Saga about Burnt Njáll. 

In the story, the titular character, Njáll, has been (spoiler alert) burnt alive along with his whole family, except for his son-in-law, Kári. As was a tradition in the Viking Age, Kári wants to avenge his family.

To avenge his family, he needs help. He asks his friend Björn, who proves to be a big help when fighting their enemies. After fighting side by side – or rather back to back – with him Kári speaks this line about Björn.


Gunnar and Hallgerdur feature heavily in Burnt Njall Saga. Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons, Andreas Bloch.

In this context, brother means a teammate or supporter rather than someone of the same parentage as you. The proverb is saying you need someone at your back, not that you need to have a literal brother or your back is naked. 

See also: Lovers in the Icelandic Sagas, part 3 Hallgerdur Langbrok

Today there are no swordfights to stand back to back with your friends in, but that doesn’t mean this proverb is any less relevant. We all need someone to watch our back sometimes. The proverb champions the importance of a support system, having friends make you safer.

If you have a good friend who always has your back, we recommend you get them an Icelandic Easter egg with sweets and a proverb inside to show them how much you appreciate them.