Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition 2503575315, 9782503575315

The Icelandic sagas have long been famous for their alleged realism, and within this conventional view, references to th

450 89 3MB

English Pages VIII+266 [276] Year 2018

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition
 2503575315,  9782503575315

Table of contents :
List of Illustrations vii
The Supernatural in Old Norse Literature and Research: An Introduction / Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen 1
"Bergbúa þáttr": The Story of a Paranormal Encounter / Ármann Jakobsson 15
The Pre-Christian Jól: Not a Cult of the Dead, but the Norse New Year Festival / Bettina Sommer 31
Scandinavian Folklore Parallels to the Narrative about Selkolla in "Guðmundar saga biskups" / Bengt af Klintberg 59
Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla / Margaret Cormack 75
The People, the Bishop, and the Beast: Remediation and Reconciliation in Einarr Gilsson's "Selkolluvísur" / Mart Kuldkepp 105
Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good / Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson 123
From the Inside Out: Chronicles, Genealogies, Monsters, and the Makings of an Icelandic World View / Arngrímur Vídalín 143
The Troll and Old Norwegian-Icelandic Law / Jan Ragnar Hagland 175
Between a Rock and a Soft Place: The Materiality of Old Norse Dwarves and Paranormal Ecologies in "Fornaldarsögur" / Miriam Mayburd 189
The Literary Reuse of Myths in "Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns": A Key Elf Queen Legend and Another Twist on the Twist / Eldar Heide 215
"Flagð undir fögru skinni": The Tricky Transmission of Trollwives in "Illuga saga Gríðarfóstra" / Philip Lavender 239
Index of Personal Names 261

Citation preview

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition

Borders, Boundaries, Landscapes

Volume 1

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition

Edited by

Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

© 2018, Brepols Publishers n.v., Turnhout, Belgium All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. D/2018/0095/3 ISBN: 978-2-503-57531-5 e-ISBN: 978-2-503-57532-2 DOI: 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.112962 Printed on acid-free paper


List of Illustrations


The Supernatural in Old Norse Literature and Research: An Introduction Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen

Bergbúa þáttr: The Story of a Paranormal Encounter Ármann Jakobsson

The Pre-Christian Jól: Not a Cult of the Dead, but the Norse New Year Festival Bettina Sommer

Scandinavian Folklore Parallels to the Narrative about Selkolla in Guðmundar saga biskups Bengt af Klintberg

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla Margaret Cormack

The People, the Bishop, and the Beast: Remediation and Reconciliation in Einarr Gilsson’s Selkolluvísur Mart Kuldkepp









Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson

From the Inside Out: Chronicles, Genealogies, Monsters, and the Makings of an Icelandic World View Arngrímur Vídalín

The Troll and Old Norwegian‑Icelandic Law Jan Ragnar Hagland

Between a Rock and a Soft Place: The Materiality of Old Norse Dwarves and Paranormal Eco­logies in Fornaldarsögur Miriam Mayburd

The Literary Reuse of Myths in Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns: A Key Elf Queen Legend and Another Twist on the Twist Eldar Heide

‘Flagð undir fögru skinni’: The Tricky Transmission of Troll­wives in Illuga saga Gríðarfóstra Philip Lavender

Index of Personal Names






239 261

List of Illustrations Arngrímur Vídalín Figure 1: The Jerusalem map from Hauksbók (AM 544 4to), c. 1302–10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147 Figure 2: Depicted here are the Arimaspi fighting a griffin; a Cyno­ cephalus ‘dog-head’; Hippopodes, ‘horse-footed’, with hooves instead of feet; the Panotii who could cover their whole body with their ears; and the Cyclopes with a single eye in their forehead which they can pass between them. Some of the figures have not been identified. . . . . . . 152 Figure 3: Depicted here are, among others, Blemmyes, a sciopod, snakeeaters, and a grass-eater. Some of the figures have not been identified. . . . 153 Eldar Heide Table 1. The saga’s main opposition. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 218 Table 2. The general direction of the narrative. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 218 Philip Lavender Figure 4. Visual representation of Davíð Erlingsson’s two possible explanations of the origins of Illuga saga, through the coalescing of two tales (truth-telling for fire and rescuing a princess from a troll). . . . 245 Figure 5. Examples of the shift from third to first person taken from three representative manu­scripts of Illuga saga. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 247 Figure 6: Examples of the gradual replacement of ‘Gríður’ with ‘Signý’ taken from three representative manu­scripts of Illuga saga. . . . . . 251

The Supernatural in Old Norse Literature and Research: An Introduction Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen


n the conventional view of saga literature, the alleged ‘realism’ and downto-earth character of the sagas of Icelanders, or family sagas, as they were formerly called, are regarded not only as central but, indeed, as defining. For a long time, this view has influenced saga research to the effect that the social factors and social values that drive the development of the plots have frequently occupied the centre stage.1 In Theodore Andersson’s well-known portrait of the structure of the sagas of Icelanders, everything evolves around feud: conflicts between Icelanders and between Icelanders and people abroad.2 In Andersson’s scheme, as in this view in general, there is hardly any room for the supernatural, neither as a driving force behind the plot nor as central events that carry their own weight. Frequently, such elements are simply neglected (as 1  2 

See, for example, Meulengracht Sørensen, Fortælling og ære. Andersson, The Icelandic Family Saga.

Daniel Sävborg ([email protected]) is Professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Tartu, Estonia. He has published extensively on Eddic elegies, love in Old Norse literature, post-classical Íslendingasögur, the Uppsala version of Snorra Edda, supernatural motifs in the saga literature, and medi­eval Swedish historiography. At present, he leads the research project ‘Encountering the Otherworld in Medi­e val Nordic Literature’, financed by the Estonian Research Agency (PUT479). Karen Bek-Pedersen ([email protected]) is an independent scholar based in Århus. She has previously worked at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses mainly on Old Norse mytho­logy, but she has also published on Celtic mytho­ logy, Icelandic sagas, and the relationship between folklore, myth, and religion.

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 1–14 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116077


Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen

is the case in Andersson’s description of several sagas) or they are described as elements with no or little importance to the plot.3 In such a view of the saga literature, supernatural elements are seen as anomalies, as different and as deviating from the norm. A typical example is the idea of the so-called post-classical sagas, a group of sagas whose interest in the supernatural and fantastic is supposedly an essential feature that separates them from other sagas of Icelanders. These sagas are considered a later degeneration and treated as not fully genuine. This is evident in the Íslenzk fornrit series, which has constituted the standard edition of the family sagas for a long time. There, they are collected separately in the two last volumes of the family sagas instead of being included into the geo­graphical order used for the main part of the series. The same view is, moreover, manifest in many scholarly works. With the exception of Grettis saga, the post-classical sagas are not included in Andersson’s influential analysis, although it claims to depict ‘the Icelandic family saga’ (our italics); meanwhile, in Carol Clover’s works on the family sagas, for example, they are hardly mentioned at all.4 The claim is that they are influenced by another allegedly late genre, the fornaldarsögur, where fantastic themes are, indeed, often in focus. An interest in the supernatural as well as the fornaldarsögur and the post-classical family sagas themselves were for a long time regarded as signs of the deterioration over time of saga literature, as is clearly expressed by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson in his description of the emergence of these saga groups: ‘Before long character-drawing fades and all kinds of excesses develop. The interest in magic and supernatural happenings increases. Taste declines, as well as moderation […]. Bad taste is more in evidence, and there is a predilection for the gross and vulgar.’5 During most of the twentieth century, remarkably little was written about the sagas belonging to these two groups, where supernatural elements are so much in focus. However, no matter what subgenre of medi­eval saga literature we look at, it is clear that supernatural elements and stories are not only common but are often important — also in sagas of Icelanders, be they classical or not. A portrait of the sagas of Icelanders cannot exclude the post-classical ones, which constitute more than one-third of the whole group,6 nor can it be taken for granted that all of these so-called post-classical sagas are later than the so-called 3  For example Vésteinn Ólason, ‘The Fantastic Element in Fourteenth-Century Íslendingasögur’; Vésteinn Ólason, ‘The Icelandic Saga as a Kind of Literature’. 4  Clover, The Medi­eval Saga; Clover, ‘Family Sagas, Icelandic’. 5  Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, Dating the Icelandic Sagas, pp. 125–26. 6  Sävborg, ‘Den efterklassiska islänningasagan’.

The Supernatural in Old Norse Literature and Research


classical sagas — in many cases they are, in fact, dated as late precisely because of their supernatural content.7 Even in the supposed realistic, classical sagas of Icelanders and contemporary sagas, supernatural elements are relatively frequent, both in the form of encounters with supernatural beings and supernatural traditions of different kinds. The fornaldarsögur constitute a large group of sagas whose roots are in part evidently old, and recent research indicates that they are not much younger than the classical family sagas and contemporary sagas.8 In the kings’ sagas, supernatural elements were originally important. For example, in the sagas of the two Ólafrs (from c. 1200) the protagonists struggle repeatedly against trolls and monsters, and in the greater versions of both (from c. 1300), this aspect persists. In fact, it is Snorri’s versions, wherein such stories are often omitted, that are the exceptions — but even in these we still find many supernatural elements. In short, supernatural elements and encounters with the Otherworld are not anomalies or rare exceptions in the Old Norse saga literature, but they constitute frequent and important parts of it. For a full picture of this literature, it is necessary to pay closer attention to these elements and to the commonly neglected works and subgenres than has hitherto been customary. During a large part of the twentieth century, research on Old Norse had a strong literary and philo­logical focus; focus was on the text. The domination of this trend arose as a consequence of the scholarly adherence to the Book Prose school from around 1940 onwards. The comparative approach used was mainly an internal one, whereby individual sagas were compared to and interpreted in the light of other sagas in order to establish the relationship between them. The method is well known by all Old Norse scholars from the lengthy introductions found in the Íslenzk fornrit text editions. Regarding external influences, scholars predominantly turned to contemporary European literature; again, the sagas were primarily examined in the light of other written works from the same time. The sagas were to an increasing extent analyzed as literature or fiction, and motifs and events were treated as literary motifs following literary narrative patterns: this holds true not least for the supernatural elements found in the sagas. The methods and theoretical approaches used in such analyses came primarily from comparative literature and textual philo­logy. This textual focus had advantages. Concentrating on preserved texts meant maintaining a focus on concrete facts and in this sense to a great extent avoid7  8 

Sävborg, ‘Fornaldarsagan och den “efterklassiska” islänningasagans uppkomst’. See, for example, Torfi Tulinius, The Matter of the North.


Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen

ing speculation and subjectivity. But it also meant that other aspects were neglected. Examining influences from an oral tradition, which must have existed, was avoided in favour of studying texts. Comparison of motifs, traditions, and beliefs to parallels from subsequent periods or other cultures was also generally avoided, as was the reconstruction of pre-Christian views and traditions. In short, anything that smacked of the supernatural was not treated as real belief — in spite of the fact that just about every single saga contains such aspects in one form or other — and therefore supernatural motifs and rituals were usually not examined. As a consequence, a lot of pre-Book Prose research, which had employed methods and theoretical concepts from folkloristics, was considered out of date. Dag Strömbäck’s works, where folklore parallels are often used in the study of Old Norse literature, was rarely referred to, and Hilding Celander, in whose eyes Old Norse tradition and later folklore are closely connected, was entirely forgotten.9 The increased textual focus in Old Norse research moreover created gaps between the disciplines so that, in several countries, folkloristics and Old Norse studies lost contact with one another. This happened in Sweden, where folklore studies directed its course towards ethno­logy with little, if any, interest in Old Norse. A similar development took place in Finland, where the interest in Old Norse traditions among early folklorists, such as Kaarle Krohn,10 was not followed up in the latter part of the twentieth century. Historians of religion to some degree maintained the long-term perspectives and interpreted the Old Norse sources in the light of later as well as international parallels while continuing to reconstruct oral traditions and pre-Christian beliefs through high medi­eval Norse texts. This, however, gave the discipline of history of religion a bad reputation among Old Norse scholars from philo­logy and history of literature, who did not accept this retrospective and reconstructive way of treating the Old Norse material. As a result, a frustrating lack of understanding between the different perspectives and methods emerged, even among scholars using the same sources and focusing on similar topics. The exclusion of folklore among Old Norse scholars was never complete. Bo Almqvist used such comparison in works from the 1960s and 1970s, Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson likewise from the 1970s, and in the 1980s and 1990s, 9  See, e.g., Strömbäck, Folklore och Filo­logi; Celander, ‘Oskoreien och besläktade föreställningar’. 10  Krohn, ‘Germanischen Elemente in der finnischen Volksdichtung’; Krohn, ‘Tyrs högra hand, Freys svärd’.

The Supernatural in Old Norse Literature and Research


John Lindow and Terry Gunnell followed suit.11 But such efforts were exceptions and did not influence the main trend of Old Norse studies. A more fundamental change did not occur until the early 2000s and with several points of departure. A  series of conferences devoted to the fornaldarsögur were held between 2001 and 2009, which sparked a remarkable revival of the scholarly interest in this previously rather neglected genre. These conferences also resulted in three important publications.12 The International Saga Conference of 2006 followed up on this with ‘The Fantastic in Old Norse/ Icelandic Literature’.13 A number of individual scholars likewise embraced the revival. During the first decade of the new century, Ármann Jakobsson published several articles on Old Norse trolls, giants, and witches as well as on previously neglected sagas, such as Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss. Folklorists such as Stephen Mitchell, John Lindow, Merrill Kaplan, and Frog have successfully revived the tradition of analyzing the Old Norse texts with parallels and methods from folkloristics. In 2009, Eldar Heide launched the Retrospective Methods Network, which resulted not only in a conference, but also in a new scholarly journal for Old Norse Studies, RMN Newsletter. In 2011, the Old Norse Folklorists Network was founded by the editors of this volume with a grant from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, and between 2011 and 2015 this network organized four conferences and workshops with the explicit aim of bringing folkloristics and Old Norse studies back together. In 2014, the network published Folklore in Old Norse — Old Norse in Folklore of which the present volume is a continuation developing the aims of the network even further.14 This volume contains articles concerned in different ways with the supernatural in Old Norse literature in a broad sense. It is the hope of the editors that it will inspire a continued interest in and research on Old Norse subjects in the light of folklore perspectives — as well as entirely new perspectives. The main idea behind the selection of topics has been to show the diversity of the new research within the field. Generally, we have also preferred to focus on the more ‘realistic’ genres rather than on the ‘fantastic’ fornaldarsögur, which have already been frequently discussed during recent decades, and on 11 

See, e.g., Almqvist, Norrön niddiktning; Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, Kristnitakan á Íslandi; Lindow, ‘Þorsteins þáttr skelks’; Gunnell, ‘Skírnisleikur og Freysmál’. 12  See Ármann Jakobsson, Lassen, and Ney, Fornaldarsagornas Struktur och Ideo­logi; Ney, Lassen, and Ármann Jakobsson, Fornaldarsagaerne, myter og virkelighed; and also Lassen, Ney, and Ármann Jakobsson, The Legendary Sagas. 13  McKinnell, Ashurst, and Kick, The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature. 14  Sävborg and Bek-Pedersen, Folklore in Old Norse.

Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen


non-literary sources, such as laws and learned literature. We have also preferred less known sagas before the best-known ones. As mentioned, many of the sagas most explicitly concerned with the supernatural were relatively neglected by earlier scholars. But from around the turn of the present century, scholars focusing on aspects that had previously been deemed ‘degenerative’ and ‘bad taste’ were no longer exceptions; examples include Ármann Jakobsson’s and John Lindow’s articles on Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss,15 a saga where the protagonist is only half human. One of the aims of Old Norse Folklorists Network has been to stimulate an interest in such sagas, and the second symposium of the network, held in 2012, was entirely devoted to Bárðar saga, with contributions by, among others, Annette Lassen, Camilla Asplund, Ralph O’Connor, and Eldar Heide.16 The present volume contains no less than four articles about another saga featuring encounters with a supernatural being, Selkollu þáttr (a semi-independent work preserved as part of the bishop saga Guðmundar saga Arasonar), by Bengt af Klintberg, Margaret Cormack, Mart Kuldkepp, and Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson. Yet another saga entirely about an encounter with a supernatural being is Bergbúa þáttr, which has attracted virtually no scholarly attention during the last centuries and has only recently become the subject of in-depth research.17 In the present volume, this short saga is for the first time ever the main subject of a scholarly study in the essay by Ármann Jakobsson. Renewed interest in the fornaldarsögur is also represented here by Philip Lavender, who analyzes aspects of Illuga saga Gríðarfóstra, another neglected saga about a trollish encounter. The term ‘supernatural’ has turned out to be problematic, rooted as it is in the Christian distinction between nature and what exists beyond it (to the latter belong both miraculosa and magica, i.e., acts of God and the devil).18 The Old Norse sources were certainly created in a Christian society, but many of them and the stories they transmit must have earlier roots. Most scholars who have discussed the problem have, however, come to the conclusion that the term rather than the concept is problematic. In the overall international discus15 

Ármann Jakobsson, ‘History of the Trolls?’; Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’; Lindow, ‘Mapping Identity in Bárðar saga’. 16  Lassen, ‘The Old Norse Contextuality of Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss’; Asplund, ‘The Trolls in Bárðar saga’; O’Connor, ‘Bárðar saga between Orality and Literacy’; Heide, ‘Bárðar saga as a Source’. 17  Sävborg, ‘Scandinavian Folk Legends and Icelandic Sagas’. 18  See also Arngrímur Vídalín, ‘Some Thoughts on the Supernatural’; Mitchell, ‘The Supernatural and the fornaldarsögur’; Mitchell, ‘The Supernatural and other Elements of the Fantastic’.

The Supernatural in Old Norse Literature and Research


sion, terms such as ‘enhanced natural’19 have been suggested, or scholars have preferred a starting point in ‘the normal’ rather than ‘nature’, which has yielded terms such as ‘extranormal’.20 In Old Norse research, a distinction between ‘supernatural’ — perceived as real — and ‘fantastic’ — thought to be unreal — has been common.21 Close to the term ‘extranormal’ is ‘paranormal’, which in the present volume is used in the analysis by Ármann Jakobsson, who argues for it in a general discussion on termino­logy. In the title and introduction of the present volume, the more established term ‘supernatural’ is nonetheless used, albeit in a broad sense, including ‘extranormal’ and magic phenomena considered to belong to the real world as well as ‘fantastic’ phenomena belonging to stories where the question of truth or not is irrelevant. The recent decades have furthermore seen a new interest in the various types of supernatural beings. Earlier scholars rarely problematized terms such as tröll, álfr, jǫtunn and dvergr, and they tended to take the specific character of such beings for granted on the basis of modern understandings of the words — thus relying implicitly on the folklore of which they were otherwise so dismissive. Recent scholarship has changed that. Important works on álfar,22 tröll,23 jǫtnar,24 and dvergar25 have shown not only that these concepts are complex but also that the Old Norse meanings of the words in fact do not correspond to the modern equivalents. In the present volume, Miriam Mayburd examines dwarves and their special character in Old Norse tradition by means of an interdisciplinary and comparative approach, which includes material from different times and cultures. Retrospective perspectives, wherein later material such as folklore recordings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are used to shed light on the earlier Old Norse texts, have been important to the Old Norse Folklorists Network from the very start. Such perspectives have proved extremely fruitful in, for example, Stephen Mitchell’s work on witchcraft in Old Norse tradition,26 19  Sered, ‘Afterword: Lexicons of the Supernatural’. See also Valk and Sävborg, ‘Introduction: Placelore, Liminal Storyworld and Onto­logy of the Supernatural’. 20  Dégh, Legend and Belief. 21  See, for example, Mitchell, ‘The Supernatural and other Elements of the Fantastic’; Mundal, ‘The Treatment of the Supernatural’. 22  Gunnell, ‘How Elvish Were the Álfar?’. 23  Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Trollish Acts of Þorgrímr the Witch’. 24  Schulz, Riesen; Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Identifying the Ogre’. 25  Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Hole’; Mikucionis, ‘The Family Life of the Dwarfs’. 26  See Mitchell, Witchcraft and Magic.

Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen


and, in the present volume, Bengt af Klintberg throws light on the Old Norse Selkolla story through parallels in Scandinavian folklore from the last centuries, while Eldar Heide uses a late folk legend to interpret otherwise obscure passages in an Old Norse fornaldarsaga. Such attempts bring to the fore the question of the degree of continuity between Old Norse times and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Stephen Mitchell has discussed this problem in the earlier volume from the Old Norse Folklorists Network.27 But also others have demonstrated that stories from Old Norse texts sometimes live on in almost unchanged form in later folklore, with Daniel Sävborg focusing precisely on Old Norse stories about supernatural encounters that have close parallels in recent Scandinavian folk legends.28 In the present volume, the issue of continuity is treated by Margaret Cormack in a comparison between the Old Norse Selkollu þáttr and folk legends about Selkolla recorded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Reconstruction is the most controversial aspect of retrospective methodo­ logy. Is it possible to reconstruct oral stories or pre-Christian traditions and beliefs on the basis of extant Old Norse texts and late-recorded information? For historians of Old Norse religion, such reconstruction has been essential, while textually orientated philo­logists have tended to dismiss the idea completely. The respective views on reconstruction constitute one of the issues that have resulted in the unhelpful gap between different disciplines that share an interest in Old Norse. The divergent treatments of Óðinn by two leading Old Norse scholars, Annette Lassen and Jens Peter Schjødt, exemplify this gap.29 There is no doubt that many early attempts at reconstructing lost sources and traditions lacked a critical evaluation of methods as well as sources, but this does not mean that reconstruction as such is not possible. The last decade has seen a return of reconstruction within Old Norse research, now with a suitably thorough and critical treatment of the sources. Recent examples include Joseph Harris’ reconstruction of the oral background of the Eddic poem Svipdagsmál, based on a comparison with the late-recorded Scandinavian ballads about Ungen Svejdal,30 and Karen Bek-Pedersen devoted her article in the previous 27 

Mitchell, ‘Continuity: Folklore’s Problem Child?’. Harris, ‘The Masterbuilder Tale’; Almqvist, ‘Norrländsk folktradition’; Sävborg, ‘Scandinavian Folk Legends and Icelandic Sagas’. 29  Lassen, Odin på kristent pergament; Schjødt, ‘Óðinn, Warriors and Death’; Schjødt, ‘Óðinn, Þórr and Freyr’. 30  Harris, ‘Edda and Ballad’. 28 

The Supernatural in Old Norse Literature and Research


volume of the Old Norse Folklorists Network to exactly the problems and possibilities of reconstruction.31 In the present volume, Bettina Sommer produces an excellent example of how strong source criticism can refute the hitherto established view of the pre-Christian jól and how source-critical methods can be used constructively in a new, convincing reconstruction of the pre-Christian jól, based on comparison between Old Norse texts, ancient learned literature, and late-recorded folklore. An important part of the Old Norse Folklorists Network has been to focus on the supernatural in Old Norse texts not only as a set of literary motifs but also as a possible reality to the contemporary audiences. One source for this type of understanding has been late-recorded folk beliefs. Another, equally important, source for the understanding of the supernatural as part of reality in the Old Norse mindset is the learned literature contemporary with the sagas. Such sources have for example recently been studied with a focus on Old Norse revenants.32 The learned tradition and its links to saga literature take centre stage in Arngrímur Vídalín’s essay in the present volume. Here, the medi­e val world-view and the place it allots to monsters are presented in a detailed survey that includes the European early and high medi­eval sources as well as the Icelandic translations. There are, however, also native ‘non-literary’ sources that may shed light on the saga authors’ and audiences’ views on the supernatural as part of reality. The Icelandic annals contain information on the appearance of giants, information presented as dry facts of the same kind as other events, as has been examined in recent studies.33 This type of material is treated by Jan Ragnar Hagland, who looks at the laws in his contribution to the present volume. Both Norwegian and Icelandic laws from the thirteenth century contain para­graphs prohibiting the waking up of trolls and mound-dwellers as well as other activities associated with magic and heathendom: Hagland examines these passages and shows how they form a necessary background for the understanding of various troll episodes from the sagas. The rekindled interest in the supernatural in Old Norse literature has also included the use of theoretical concepts and models from other disciplines, not least folkloristics, where the study of living folk belief is fundamental. John Lindow has already demonstrated that Lauri Honko’s model for the 31 

Bek-Pedersen, ‘Reconstruction: On Crabs, Folklore and the History of Religion’. See, for example, Martin, ‘Law and the (Un)Dead’. 33  Helgi Þorláksson, ‘The Fantastic Fourteenth Century’. 32 

Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen


supernatural experience, based on his field research on memorates recorded in Ingria, could successfully be applied to Old Norse texts.34 More recently, both Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir and Daniel Sävborg have made use of concepts and distinctions established by the Swiss folklorist Max Lüthi.35 In the present volume, Bengt af Klintberg makes use of concepts from folkloristics in his analysis of the Selkolla story in bishop Guðmundr’s saga, and Bettina Sommer uses concepts developed by anthropo­logy and folkloristics in her study of the tradition of jól and its supernatural components. Another theoretical perspective that has recently generated scholarly interest is the dichotomy between learned and popular discourse and the conflicts and interaction that emerges from it. These concepts provide useful tools in the study of views and depictions of the supernatural. For example, the Swedish historian Mikael Häll has demonstrated the relevance of these two discourses in his study of seventeenth-century Swedish trials against people accused of having sex with nature spirits.36 But the interaction of these two discourses, conflictive though it be, is important also to an understanding of the treatment of supernatural events within the saga literature. This becomes clear in the case of Selkolla, a story told in learned bishops’ sagas and referred to in the secular Sturlunga saga, and which clearly reflects popular belief. The interaction between the two discourses within the Selkolla story is central to Mart Kuldkepp’s, Margaret Cormack’s, and Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson’s essays in the present volume. * * * The contributions to this book are based on papers delivered at the third gathering of the Old Norse Folklorists Network, ‘Sagas, Legends and Trolls: The Supernatural from Early Modern Back to Old Norse Tradition’ (Tartu, 12–14 June 2014), organized by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen. The conference was financed by a grant from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. Daniel Sävborg’s work with the present volume formed part of his research project ‘Encountering the Otherworld in Medi­eval Nordic Literature’, financed by the Estonian Research Agency (PUT479).


Lindow, ‘Þorsteins þáttr skelks’. Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir, ‘On Supernatural Motifs’; Sävborg, ‘Avstånd, gräns och förundran’. 36  Häll, Skogsrået, näcken och Djävulen. 35 

The Supernatural in Old Norse Literature and Research


Works Cited Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir, ‘On Supernatural Motifs in the Fornaldarsögur’, in The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature: Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York 6th–12th August, 2006, ed. by John McKinnnell, David Ashurst, and Donata Kick (Durham: Centre for Medi­eval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), pp. 33–41 Almqvist, Bo, ‘Norrländsk folktradition — ett äreminne över en folkminnessamlare’, Svenska landsmål och svenskt folkliv (2005), 115–34 —— , Norrön niddiktning: traditionshistoriska studier i versmagi, 2 vols (Stockholm: Alm­ qvist & Wiksell, 1965–74) Andersson, Theodore M., The Icelandic Family Saga: An Analytic Reading (Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967) Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Bárðar saga and its Giants’, Mediaeval Scandinavia, 15 (2005), 1–15 —— , ‘History of the Trolls? Bárðar saga as an Historical Narrative’, Saga-Book, 25 (1998), 53–71 —— , ‘The Hole: Problems in Medi­eval Dwarfo­logy’, Arv, 61 (2005), 53–76 —— , ‘Identifying the Ogre: The Legendary Saga Giants’, in Fornaldarsagaerne, myter og virkelighed: studier i de oldislandske Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, ed. by Agneta Ney, Ármann Jakobsson, and Annette Lassen (Copen­hagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2009), pp. 181–200 —— , ‘The Trollish Acts of Þorgrímr the Witch: The Meanings of troll and ergi in Medi­ eval Iceland’, Saga-Book, 32 (2008), 39–68 Ármann Jakobsson, Annette Lassen, and Agneta Ney, eds, Fornaldarsagornas Struktur och Ideo­logi, Nordiska Texter och Undersökningar, 28 (Uppsala: Institutionen för nordiska språk, 2004) Arngrímur Vídalín, ‘Some Thoughts on the Supernatural, the Fantastic and the Paranormal in Medi­eval and Modern Literature’, in Folk Belief and Traditions of the Supernatural, ed. by Tommy Kuusela and Giuseppe Maiello (Copen­hagen: Beewolf Press, 2016), pp. 7–26 Asplund, Camilla, ‘The Trolls in Bárðar saga — Playing with the Conventions of Oral Texts?’ in Folklore in Old Norse — Old Norse in Folklore, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, Nordistica Tartuensia, 20 (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2014), pp. 120–38 Bek-Pedersen, Karen, ‘Reconstruction: On Crabs, Folklore and the History of Religion’, in Folklore in Old Norse — Old Norse in Folklore, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, Nordistica Tartuensia, 20 (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2014), pp. 83–101 Celander, Hilding, ‘Oskoreien och besläktade föreställningar i äldre och nyare nordisk tradition’, Saga och sed (1943), 71–175 Clover, Carol, ‘Family Sagas, Icelandic’, in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, ed.  by Joseph Strayer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984), iv, 612–19


Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen

—— , The Medi­eval Saga (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982) Dégh, Linda, Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001) Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, Dating the Icelandic Sagas: An Essay in Method (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1958) Gunnell, Terry, ‘How Elvish Were the Álfar?’in Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Essays in Honour of T. A. Shippey, ed. by Andrew Wawn, Graham Johnson, and John Walter, Making the Middle Ages, 9 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 111–30 —— , ‘Skírnisleikur og Freysmál: Endurmat eldri hugmynda um ‘forna norræne helgileika’, Skírnir, 167 (1993), 421–59 Häll, Mikael, Skogsrået, näcken och Djävulen: erotiska naturväsen och demonisk sexualitet i 1600- och 1700-talens Sverige (Stockholm: Malört, 2012) Harris, Joseph, ‘Edda and Ballad: Svipdagsmál and the Uses of Poetic Afterlife’, in Nordic Mytho­logies: Interpretations, Intersections, and Institutions, ed. by Timothy Tangherlini (Berkeley: North Pinehurst, 2014), pp. 35–49 —— , ‘The Masterbuilder Tale in Snorri’s Edda and Two Sagas’, Arkiv för nordisk filo­logi, 91 (1976), 66–101 Heide, Eldar, ‘Bárðar saga as a Source for Reconstruction of Pre-Christian Religion?’ in Folklore in Old Norse — Old Norse in Folklore, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, Nordistica Tartuensia, 20 (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2014), pp. 170–80 Helgi Þorláksson, ‘The Fantastic Fourteenth Century’, in The Fantastic in Old Norse/ Icelandic Literature: Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The Thirteenth Inter­ national Saga Conference, Durham and York 6th–12th August, 2006, ed.  by John McKinnnell, David Ashurst, and Donata Kick (Durham: Centre for Medi­eval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), pp. 365–71 Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, Kristnitakan á Íslandi (Rey­kja­vík: Almenna Bókafélagið 1971) Krohn, Kaarle, ‘Germanischen Elemente in der finnischen Volksdichtung’, Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Litteratur, 51 (1909), 13–22 —— , ‘Tyrs högra hand, Freys svärd’, Maal og minne (1911), 541–47 Lassen, Annette, Odin på kristent pergament: en teksthistorisk studie (Copen­hagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2011) —— , ‘The Old Norse Contextuality of Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss: A Synoptic Reading with Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta’, in Folklore in Old Norse — Old Norse in Folklore, ed.  by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, Nordistica Tartuensia, 20 (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2014), pp. 102–19 Lassen, Annette, Agneta Ney, and Ármann Jakobsson, eds, The Legendary Sagas: Origins and Development (Rey­kja­vík: University of Iceland Press, 2012) Lindow, John, ‘Mapping Identity in Bárðar saga’ in Greppaminni: Rit til heiðurs Vésteini Ólasyni sjötugum, ed. by Margrét Eggertsdóttir and others (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka bókmenntafélag, 2009), pp. 247–57 —— , ‘Þorsteins þáttr skelks and the Verisimilitude of Supernatural Experience in Saga Literature’, in Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature: New Approaches to

The Supernatural in Old Norse Literature and Research


Textual Analysis and Literary Criticism, ed. by John Lindow, Lars Lönnroth, and Gerd Wolfgang Weber, Viking Collection, 3 (Odense: Odense University Press, 1986), pp. 264–80 Martin, John D, ‘Law and the (Un)Dead: Medi­eval Models for Understanding the Haunt­ ings in Eyrbygg ja saga’, Saga-Book, 29 (2005), 67–82 McKinnell, John David Ashurst, and Donata Kick, eds, The Fantastic in Old Norse/ Icelandic Literature: Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The Thirteenth Inter­ national Saga Conference, Durham and York 6th–12th August, 2006 (Durham: Centre for Medi­eval and Renaissance Studies, 2006) Meulengracht Sørensen, Preben, Fortælling og ære: Studier i islændingasagaerne (Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 1993) Mikucionis, Ugnius, ‘The Family Life of the Dwarfs and its Significance for Relationships between Dwarfs and Humans in the Sagas’, Maal og mine, 2 (2014), 155–91 Mitchell, Stephen, ‘Continuity: Folklore’s Problem Child?’, in Folklore in Old Norse — Old Norse in Folklore, ed.  by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, Nordistica Tartuensia, 20 (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2014), pp. 41–58 —— , ‘The Supernatural and the fornaldarsögur: The Case of Ketils saga hængs’, in Fornaldar­ sagaerne, myter og virkelighed: studier i de oldislandske Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, ed. by Agneta Ney, Ármann Jakobsson, and Annette Lassen (Copen­hagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2009), pp. 281–98 —— , ‘The Supernatural and Other Elements of the Fantastic in the fornaldarsögur’, in The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature: Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York 6th–12th August, 2006, ed. by John McKinnnell, David Ashurst, and Donata Kick (Durham: The Centre for Medi­eval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), pp. 699–706 —— , Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Penn­ sylvania Press, 2011) Mundal, Else. 2006. ‘The Treatment of the Supernatural and the Fantastic in Different Saga Genres’, in The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature: Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York 6th–12th August, 2006, ed.  by John McKinnnell, David Ashurst, and Donata Kick (Durham: Centre for Medi­eval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), pp. 718–26 Ney, Agneta, Ármann Jakobsson, and Annette Lassen, eds, Fornaldarsagaerne, myter og virkelighed: studier i de oldislandske fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda (Copen­hagen: Museum Tusculaum Press, 2009) O’Connor, Ralph, ‘Bárðar saga between Orality and Literacy’, in Folklore in Old Norse — Old Norse in Folklore, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, Nordistica Tartuensia, 20 (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2014), pp. 139–69 Sävborg, Daniel, ‘Avstånd, gräns och förundran: Möten med de övernaturliga i islänningasagan’, in Greppaminni: Rit til heiðurs Vésteini Ólasyni sjötugum, ed. by Margrét Eggertsdóttir and others (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka bókmenntafélag, 2009), pp. 323–49 —— , ‘Den efterklassiska islänningasagan och dess ålder’, Arkiv för nordisk filo­logi, 127 (2012), 19–57


Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen

—— , ‘Fornaldarsagan och den “efterklassiska” islänningasagans uppkomst’, in The Legendary Sagas: Origins and Development, ed. by Annette Lassen, Ármann Jakobsson, and Agneta Ney (Rey­kja­vík: University of Iceland Press, 2012), pp. 323–49 —— , ‘Scandinavian Folk Legends and Icelandic Sagas’, in New Focus on Retrospective Methods: Resuming Methodo­logical Discussions — Case Studies from Northern Europe, ed. by Eldar Heide and Karen Bek-Pedersen, Folklore Fellows Communications, 307 (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2014), pp. 74–86 Sävborg, Daniel, and Karen Bek-Pedersen, eds, Folklore in Old Norse — Old Norse in Folklore, Nordistica Tartuensia, 20 (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2014) Schjødt, Jens Peter, ‘Óðinn, Warriors and Death’, in Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World: Essays in Honour of Margaret Clunies Ross, ed.  by Judy Quinn, Kate Heslop, and Tarrin Wills, Medi­eval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, 18 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2005), pp. 137–51 —— , ‘Óðinn, Þórr and Freyr: Functions and Relations’, in News from Other Worlds: Studies in Nordic Folklore, Mytho­logy and Culture, ed. by Merill Kaplan and Timothy Tangherlini, Wildcat Canyon Advanced Seminars, Occasional Mono­graph Series, 1 (Berkeley: North Pinehurst, 2012), pp. 61–91 Schulz, Katja, Riesen: Von Wissenshütern und Wildnisbewohnern in Edda und Saga (Heidelberg: Winter, 2004) Sered, Susan, ‘Afterword: Lexicons of the Supernatural’, Anthropo­logical Forum, 13 (2003), 213–18 Strömbäck, Dag, Folklore och Filo­logi: Valda uppsatser utgivna av Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Aka­demien 13.8 1970, Acta Academiae Regiae Gustavi Adolphi, 48 (Uppsala: AB Lunde­quistska boghandeln, 1970) Torfi Tulinius, The Matter of the North: The Rise of Legendary Fiction in ThirteenthCentury Iceland, trans. by Randi C. Eldevik (Odense: Odense University Press, 2002) Valk, Ülo and Daniel Sävborg, ‘Introduction: Placelore, Liminal Storyworld and Onto­ logy of the Supernatural’, in Storied and Supernatural Places: Studies in Social and Spatial Dimensions of Folklore and Sagas, Studia Fennica Folkloristica, 23 (Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2018) Vésteinn Ólason, ‘The Fantastic Element in Fourteenth-Century Íslendingasögur: A Sur­ vey’, Gripla, 18 (2007), 7–22 ——  , ‘The Icelandic Saga as a Kind of Literature with Special Reference to its Representation of Reality’, in Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World: Essays in Honour of Margaret Clunies Ross, ed. by Judy Quinn, Kate Heslop, and Tarrin Wills, Medi­eval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, 18 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2005), pp. 27–47

Bergbúa þáttr: The Story of a Paranormal Encounter Ármann Jakobsson Medi­eval Paranormal Encounters in the North In the following study, the focus is on a single paranormal encounter from medi­ eval Iceland. However, the examination is intended to be a first step towards a radical remapping of Old Norse attitudes towards this topic — as such it is a part of the larger research project ‘Encounters with the Paranormal in Medi­ eval Iceland’.1 The word paranormal has been chosen deliberately instead of the more traditional supernatural for a variety of reasons. One is that, given the ambiguous nature of the occult, the prefix para- (‘beside, alongside of, by, beyond’) seems more apt than super- (‘above, over’). Furthermore, the reference to normality situates the encounter within human experience rather than in the more abstract concept of nature. The term has also been chosen precisely since it will 1 

The research project is subsidised by Rannís, the Icelandic Centre for Research. The present author is the official principal investigator, but several other professors and postgraduate students, mostly from the University of Iceland, also participate.

Abstract: Bergbúa þáttr is a somewhat neglected medi­e val narrative that is primarily con­ cerned with a single paranormal encounter. Thus it can be an excellent case study of how to approach medi­e val paranormal encounters as narrated in the prose literature of Iceland. The author argues that scholars should take care when using nineteenth-century concepts and categories, also in how they deal with medi­e val Icelandic terms (that are not necessarily concepts in the modern sense), and that one neglected scholarly avenue is to focus more on the witness than the imagined paranormal entity. Ármann Jakobsson ([email protected]) is Professor of Medi­e val Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland and the author of several scholarly books and articles.

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 15–29 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116078

16 Ármann Jakobsson

probably not seem immediately appropriate in discussing the Middle Ages to everyone but is rather suggestive of the modern world of UFOs, aliens, and parapsycho­logy. In our project, we do not wish to exoticize the Middle Ages more than is necessary, and one of our premises is that the human mind, even across a time span of a millennium, can still be studied from the inside. We firmly believe in the strength of the classic approaches of the humanities (elegantly expressed by Sigurður Nordal2) where the human mind itself with its powers of reasoning and argument must be in the vanguard of all human understanding, although, as reasoned as long ago as 1781 by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, the human mind will always simultaneously limit this understanding. By focusing on the human mind, the point of view in the study of the paranormal has been firmly and decisively reversed. When we see a man encountering a ghoul, we do not focus on the ghoul. Our study of the paranormal is actually no less a study of the ‘normal’, a concept that we feel needs to be problematized. When we investigate a paranormal encounter, we try not to become immediately ensnared by those murky images of otherness which normally engage the attention during such encounters and which are firmly situated outside the human brain. Instead, we are as if by accident stuck behind the door, facing away from the danger to turn our attentive gaze to the humans who experience and then attempt to define and explain the paranormal. Our project is concerned with precisely that moment of the paranormal encounter: when human experience is turned into language and the paranormal begins to be expressed, named, and defined. Our stance is highly critical, and our stated aim is to question all previous definitions of the paranormal and demonstrate how they are framed within a certain historical situation as well as based on premises that modern scholars may or may not accept. This project is in a way a continuation of the previous work of all the scholars involved. In my case, it began with my study of elves, dwarves, and giants, which later evolved into a more general study of the paranormal.3 It was initially not a particular aim of that study to engage with the concepts themselves or the scholarly tradition of recent centuries, but I found this more and more necessary as my studies progressed. This became particularly evident in my engagement with the concept of the troll and discovered that it was in its very nature more broad than most of the modern concepts used in modern taxonomies of the ethnic or the 2 

Sigurður Nordal, ‘Samlagning’. See, for example, Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, ‘The Hole’, and ‘The Extreme Emotional Life of Vǫlundr the Elf ’. 3 

Bergbúa þáttr: The Story of a Paranormal Encounter


paranormal and did not yield easily to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century methods of taxonomizing the otherworldly.4 Since then, it has been my firm conviction that the scholarly road to the paranormal must run along a different path than has so often been traversed and also that we cannot take for granted many of the premises or even methods of our predecessors, such as the taxonomies of otherness invented in the nineteenth century.5 I hope to illustrate this with the help of the following case study of Bergbúa þáttr.

The Narrative Itself As Bergbúa þáttr is one of the relatively lesser-known medi­e val narratives of Iceland and a very short narrative as well, the plot can be narrated in brief. The narrative starts by localizing the events in Djúpafjörður west of Kollafjörður (in the Westfjord region of Iceland) where a certain man called Þórðr lives west of Hallsteinsnes (p. 441).6 Þórðr is described as a prosperous man in the prime of his life (á góðum aldri). The narrative is concerned with a single episode in his life, taking place during winter when Þórðr takes one of his servants with him to church. It is a long way to travel, and, while they are on the road, a snowstorm breaks out. Þórðr remarks that they are lost, and since he does not want to journey into the dark in this weather they seek shelter immediately under a steep cliff, where they unexpectedly find a cave previously unknown to them. Þórðr prudently uses his staff to mark a cross at the mouth of the cave, and they rest close to the entrance since they do not want to venture further inside. What follows is the paranormal encounter: during the first third of the night, they hear something (nökkut) moving inside the cave. This terrifies the servant, who runs out, but Þórðr instructs him to sit still and tells him to pray because, he says, if men run out into the night their eyes may deceive them, a statement not clarified further. They make the sign of the cross together and pray to God for mercy when they hear awe-inspiring noises from within the cave; then, looking into the dark, they see two large lights almost like two full moons and figure that these eyes must belong to a being of some enormity. And 4  Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Trollish Acts of Þorgrímr the Witch’, ‘Vad är ett troll?’, and also ‘Vampires and Watchmen’. 5  For further discussion, see, for example, Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Taxonomy of the NonExistent’. 6  Quotations from Bergbúa þáttr are quoted from the edition of the þáttr in Harðar saga, ed. by Þórhallur Vilmundarson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson. Henceforth, page numbers will be allowed to suffice when referring to the þáttr text in the Íslenzk fornrit editions.

18 Ármann Jakobsson

then they hear a huge voice reciting with a great din a poem of twelve stanzas, more or less in the skaldic metre, although the last line in each stanza, eerily and uncharacteristically, is repeated. This happens three times during the night, and when the poem is recited (skaldic verse actually takes up more than half of the narrative),7 they see the big moving lights but nothing other than that. When the poem has been recited the third time, the eerie presence seems to retreat further into the cave; soon they see the light of the day and hurry out. When Þórðr exits, he places his foot on the cross he previously made on the cave doorstep. Then they go and find the church they were heading towards but discover that they are too late for the service. On the way home, they reach the place where they thought that they spent the night but do not find any cave there and feel that this is extraordinary. Then they go home. Þórðr remembers the poem, but the servant does not recall a single word. The next year Þórðr moves his farm closer to the church, whereas the servant dies. Þórðr himself has a long life and does not experience any queer things, and the narrator wraps up this story by informing us that this event was an extraordinary thing. For some reason, this narrative has received scant scholarly attention until very recently.8 It is found on pages 4r–4v in the manu­script AM 564a 4to from the late fourteenth century, the so-called Pseudo-Vatnshyrna,9 which also contains fragments of Bárðar saga, Harðar saga, Víga-Glúms saga, Þórðar saga hreðu, and some smaller narratives, including Kumlbúa þáttr, another short narrative focused on a paranormal encounter which has become intertwined with Bergbúa þáttr in twentieth-century works of reference, possibly because of their concurrence in this and other manu­scripts.10 In addition, the þáttr exists in seventeenth-century copies by Árni Magnús­ son (AM 555h 4to and AM 564c 4to), Jón Eggertsson (Stockholm, Papp. 7 

The story is on pp. 441–50 of Harðar saga, ed. by Þórhallur Vilmundarson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, the verses on pp. 443–50. The stanzas are related just once in the text. 8  See, e.g., Falk, ‘The Vanishing Volcanoes’; Sävborg, ‘Avstånd, gräns och förundran’; O’Connor, ‘Astronomy and Dream Visions’; Sävborg, ‘Scandinavian Folk Legends and Icelandic Sagas’. 9  See Stefán Karlsson, ‘Um Vatnshyrnu’; McKinnell, ‘The Reconstruction of PseudoVatnshyrna’. 10  Kumlbúa þáttr, also included in Harðar saga, ed. by Þórhallur Vilmundarson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, is the tale of a certain Þorsteinn who finds a sword in a small kuml (burial site) and then has a dream where a man, a draummaðr or kumlbúi comes to him and wants his sword back. Þorsteinn argues with the man in the dream, with each of them composing a skaldic verse. When he wakes up, he is unable to find the grave mound.

Bergbúa þáttr: The Story of a Paranormal Encounter


fol. no. 67), and Jón Gizurarson (AM 165m fol.), in the saga book AM 426 fol. from roughly the same time which introduces the title ‘Bergbu þättur’, and in AM 560c 4to, dated to 1707, which was used for the first published edition of Bergbúa þáttr, for which Guðbrandur Vigfússon was responsible.11 Þórhallur Vilmundarson used the vellum manu­script and six paper manu­scripts in his edition, in Harðar saga. One reason why Bergbúa þáttr remains little known is that, following Guðbrandur’s edition, it was not published again until 1946 when Guðni Jónsson included it in Volume iv of his Íslendinga sögur, but since then it has been included in Íslendingasögur antho­logies based on the 1986 Svart á hvítu edition, as an Íslendingaþáttr.12 Þórhallur Vilmundarson included it in his Volume xiii of the Íslenzk fornrit series, along with Harðar saga and Bárðar saga. His introduction is clear but brief and mostly focuses on landscape, as was Þórhallur’s custom, and, as all twentieth-century scholars who paid the narrative any attention, he is far more interested in the poem contained within it, the so-called Hallmundarkviða, than in the þáttr as a whole.13 A question that may be raised is: why has the narrative been categorized as an Íslendingasaga? The obvious reasons are that it takes place in Iceland and it appears in manu­scripts that also contain Íslendingasögur. However, it is quite unclear whether the narrative takes place during the traditional ‘saga age’ from 930 to 1030 or possibly in the twelfth or even the thirteenth century, as nothing is revealed about that in the narrative and Þórðr is an otherwise unknown figure. We cannot really date the events with greater precision than between 1000 and 1350.14 The title Bergbúa þáttr does not appear in the medi­e val manu­s cript, making its first appearance in the aforementioned late seventeenth-century manu­s cript AM 426, and neither does the word bergbúi (known from Bárðar saga and other medi­e val sources)15 11 

See Barðarsaga Snæfellsass, ed. by Guðbrandur Vigfússon. Íslendinga sögur, ed. by Bragi Halldórsson and others, ii. 13  Þórhallur Vilmundarson, ‘Formáli’, esp. pp. cciii–ccxii. 14  After 1000, since a church is mentioned, and before 1350, since the oldest manu­scripts are from the late fourteenth century. 15  There are eight examples of the word given in Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog, ed. by Knirk and others: these are taken from Bárðar saga (two), Gríms saga loðinkinna, Jarlmanns saga ok Hermanns, Sigurðar saga þǫgla, Heiðreks saga (Hauksbók), Landnámabók (Hauksbók), and Landnámabók (Sturlubók). So this indeed is a well-attested fourteenth-century word. However, I would warn against treating it as a technical term, as modern scholars sometimes do with medi­eval terms, because, as I have demonstrated in several studies (see Ármann Jakobsson, 12 

20 Ármann Jakobsson

appear in the narrative (the being in the cave seemingly refers to itself as a bjargálfr instead).16 As mentioned earlier, the poem within the narrative, which has been edited and published by Finnur Jónsson in his Skjaldedigtning,17 by Þórhallur for the Íslenzk fornrit series,18 and which is currently being re-edited by Tarrin Wills for publication in the Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages series,19 has received more attention than the þáttr. The poem, which is sometimes referred to as Hallmundarkviða, possibly a nineteenth-century name,20 has usually been dated to the thirteenth century21 and is generally thought to be older than the prose narrative, although its preservation is nowhere independent from it. Guðmundur Finnbogason drew attention to the kviða in an article in Skírnir,22 and Þórhallur Vilmundarson spends all the space allocated to the þáttr in his Íslenzk fornrit introduction (eight pages out of ten) on the kviða rather than the þáttr.23 ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, ‘The Trollish Acts of Þorgrímr the Witch’, ‘Vad är ett troll?’, and ‘The Taxonomy of the Non-Existent’), medi­eval words do not necessarily denote a single species or race in the same way that words tend to in our post-Linnaean universe. 16  This word is unfortunately a hapax legomenon in medi­eval Icelandic, not found at all in Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog and only found on this one instance in Lexicon Poeticum, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, p. 49. 17  Finnur Jónsson characterizes it as a drömmevers (dream-verse) (see Den norsk-islandske Skjaldedigtning, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, A ii, 210–13; B ii, 226–29) and does not list it under the title Hallmundarkviða, although he mentions this as an occasional heading in the B-volume. The poem is dated to the thirteenth century in his edition and comes right after those stanzas from the Íslendingasögur that he does not categorize as traditional (uægte vers af slægtsagaer). 18  Bergbúa þáttr, in Harðar saga, ed. by Þórhallur Vilmundarson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson. 19  ‘Hallmundarkviða’, ed. by Wills. 20  Guðbrandur Vigfússon mentions this name in his 1860 edition and characterizes it somewhat colourfully as the death song of the last giant; see Barðarsaga Snæfellsass, ed. by Guðbrandur Vigfússon, p. viii. The title is also used in nineteenth-century manu­scripts. It may originate in the Grettis saga narrative of Grettir’s encounter with the cave-dweller Hallmundr, who recites six stanzas in the fornyrðislag metre that are given this heading (Grettis saga, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, pp. 203–04) and the modern scholars who use it for the Bergbúa þáttr verses possibly see it as another version of this poem. 21  Guðmundur Finnbogason (‘Hallmundarkviða’) connects the poem with the volcanic eruptions in Sólheimajökull in 1245 and 1262; cf. Falk, ‘The Vanishing Volcanoes’; Nordvig, ‘Of Fire and Water’. 22  Guðmundur Finnbogason, ‘Hallmundarkviða’. 23  Þórhallur Vilmundarson, ‘Formáli’.

Bergbúa þáttr: The Story of a Paranormal Encounter


Both scholars were mostly interested in the volcanic eruption apparently depicted in the poem, and in a way this reception is typical of how the sagas have been interpreted for the last four hundred years, continuing even to this day. The main trend, as was famously argued by Tolkien when discussing the Beowulf studies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,24 is that the ‘source value’ of the sagas tends to attract scholars far more than their literary value, and this trend has seemed to continue even after the ‘Icelandic school’ had elevated them to the status of great literature in the 1940s.25 Thus Bergbúa þáttr, even in the late twentieth century and beyond, receives more attention as a possible source for geo­logical information than as a narrative about a paranormal encounter. This latter aspect of the narrative is, however, what I will focus on below.

The Christianization of Iceland: Lithic Encounters As previously indicated, the tale does not take place at a specific time in history, although the casual mention of Þórðr’s journey to church service indicates that Iceland has been Christian for a while when the story takes place. This may be highly significant. The Christianization of Iceland around the millennium may be one of the main reasons why the late tenth and early eleventh centuries attracted so much attention from twelfth- and thirteenth-century historio­ graphers who, however, seem to have largely neglected the late eleventh and the twelfth centuries, if the extant saga literature gives a reliable indication. The apparent obsession with this particular period in history may indicate that Christianization was regarded as the most significant break with the past in the history of Iceland, more decisive, for example, than the demise of the commonwealth. This preoccupation with the shift from pagan religions to Christianity is also of much interest to any student of the paranormal, as paranormal activity tends to be closely identified with the pagan in the thirteenthand fourteenth-century historio­graphy of Iceland. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar in Flateyjarbók, where history becomes a struggle between darkness and light, good and evil, the miraculous and the 24 

Tolkien, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’. This term is usually used for Icelandic scholars Björn M. Ólsen, Sigurður Nordal, and Sigurður’s most influential students and companions in the Íslenzk fornrit project, such as Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, Guðni Jónsson, and Jón Jóhannesson. However, they also had allies outside Iceland, such as Gabriel Turville-Petre in Oxford; see, e.g., Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, ‘Íslenski skólinn’. 25 

22 Ármann Jakobsson

magical. As Þórhallur Vilmundarson has noted,26 there are also echoes of apocalyptic narrative in Hallmundarkviða, a tradition that in the North is best exemplified in the eddic poem Völuspá, but which was also closely connected to the watershed events that the arrival of the new millennium constituted.27 In Bergbúa þáttr, Þórðr is going to attend tíðir (canonical hours) during the hátíðir (‘holidays’, presumably Christmas, Easter, or possibly Pentecost, as in Iceland a snowstorm is possible almost any time) and so, importantly, during the whole encounter his mind is clearly focused on the spiritual life, as is proper for a good Christian. The sign of the cross he makes at the mouth of the cave illustrates this.28 In the constant struggle between good and evil, he has taken a clear stance in the Christian camp and is thus better suited for the ordeal that awaits him than his hapless servant.29 The weather and the landscape also serve a vital function in many a paranormal encounter, and Bergbúa þáttr provides a good example of this. The very reason for the encounter is the sudden onset of snow; in the Far North the fierce weather combined with the cave-dweller may well serve as a Scylla and Charybdis threatening the human traveler. Furthermore, the setting is within stone, in the cave that serves as an entrance to the Otherworld and that can appear and then disappear according to an unknown set of rules.30 That stones, carved by nature in various shapes that may sometimes resemble a person to the human eye, can acquire a mystical quality, possibly precisely on account of their quiet immobility, is well known to us even in this civilized age of human conquest.31 A cave is also a traditional setting for liminal encounters in medi­ eval Iceland, a natural setting perhaps given the island’s rocky landscape where the human is so often dwarfed by stone.32


Þórhallur Vilmundarson, ‘Formáli’, p. cciv. See, for example, Gunnell and Lassen, eds, The Nordic Apocalypse. 28  The servant joins him in this, but Þórðr is clearly the instigator. 29  Possibly there is an even stronger link between the (holy) church service they miss, the expected encounter intended to bring comfort, and the (unholy) paranormal event, the unexpected encounter which brings discomfort that they receive instead. 30  This is also an important theme in classical narrative; see Ustinova, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind. 31  This is used to great effect in Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, and even more effectively in Peter Weir’s 1975 film of the same name. 32  The relationship between medi­e val humans and stone have only just now begun to be explored in detail; see Cohen, Stone: An Eco­logy of the Inhuman. 27 

Bergbúa þáttr: The Story of a Paranormal Encounter


It is interesting to note that Þórðr and the servant are from the outset reluctant to venture further into the cave than necessary. For someone who denies the existence of the paranormal, this would make no sense, since there are no dangerous animals in Iceland to take up residence in caves like this, and rationalist modern people are not likely to regard stones as dangerous in themselves, but it is abundantly clear from the narrative that they, and the narrator as well, have been trained to expect the worst from any cave encountered. There is a practical dimension to this: in medi­eval Iceland, the very landscape can prove a possible enemy, and it is not hard to imagine the claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere pervading the small portion of the land defined as normal, human, and civilized.33 Thus, the two humans bring their own expectations of the ensuing encounter with them into the cave, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, these are in some way realized.

The Danger Inside The most important feature of any paranormal encounter, and the main focus of our previously mentioned research project, are the humans who experience the paranormal and how they use language to frame it. Bergbúa þáttr is in some ways the perfect example since the focus rests primarily upon the experience of the individuals rather than the unnamed monster they encounter. We cannot really be sure what was in the cave, if anything, and need not worry too much about it — the emphasis here will instead be on the human thoughts and emotions externalized in the narrative.34 The two humans involved are very clearly established as binary opposites. There is the protagonist and hero Þórðr, the one who lives, and the anonymous servant who later dies. The servant fears the paranormal while Þórðr remains calm and composed throughout. The servant is also unable to remember even a single line from the paranormal poem whereas Þórðr remembers all of it and in doing so seems to ensure his survival. In the poem itself it is actually stated, not very clearly but as clearly as this poem becomes, that it is important for survival 33 

home. 34 

The references in the poem to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions also help to drive this

This is following the psycho­logical tradition of folklore interpretation, particularly relevant to nightmare studies; see, e.g., Jones, On the Nightmare, and, more recently, Hufford, The Terror That Comes in the Night.

24 Ármann Jakobsson

to remember it and perhaps this is why it is repeated three times, although paranormal beings may not always be so accommodating and it must also be kept in mind that they generally tend towards repetition, somewhat in accordance with Freud’s theory of the death drive.35 Constantly throughout the whole narrative we are told what Þórðr and the servant hear and see and remember. Also mentioned are the rituals that somehow, never explained in the narrative, are essential to their survival. It seems that these two humans represent the audience and the choices it faces: to be, like the nameless servant, a fairly average and anonymous human who fears the unknown and loses his head in the crisis, or to be a righteous or even a heroic figure like Þórðr, a good Christian who knows what to do in such a situation, remains calm and gains strength from the rituals of Christianity and, presumably, from his imperturbable faith which strangely, almost paradoxically, also enables him to deal with the unknown by following its instructions and memorizing its poem.36 Apart from the large and luminous eyes, the creature in the cave never reveals itself and remains unidentified,37 a point that is highly significant. In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and even the twentieth century, folklorists were expected, much like zoo­logists, to identify and define and usually even taxonomize paranormal creatures and rarely was the question asked whether this task was possible or even desirable. In this narrative, there is no being to taxonomize. The two eyes are all we ever see of this metonymic monster that is never revealed but represented only by a terrible part of an even more terrible whole. Like the nameless terrors of Lovecraftian horror or the eponymous enemy in The Lord of the Rings, the creature could not be more terrible if it ever revealed itself and thus it does not, since like all danger it is at its most potent lurking in the dark, watching rather than attacking, leaving fear to do its work from within.38 The skaldic poetry indicates that this creature is a bjargálfr — a word which echoes Bárðr Snæfellsálfr’s (or Snæfellsáss) ambiguous status as a cave-dwelling 35  Originally proposed in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud saw repetition as representing an urge to restore an earlier state of things, an essentially thanatic impulse. 36  A reminder perhaps of the ‘economy’ of many a paranormal encounter; see also Tangherlini, ‘Barter and Games’. 37  Sävborg (‘Avstånd, gräns och förundran’, p. 338) has noted the distance between the humans and the ogre. 38  In fact, having read Bergbúa þáttr to two children at the age of six and eight while preparing this article, I can verify that the unspecified nature of the danger in the cave provides the greatest allure even in an electrically lit modern living room in the middle of a bright Icelandic summer.

Bergbúa þáttr: The Story of a Paranormal Encounter


elf — and it is at this point that any comparison with Tolkien’s world is no longer helpful and is even, to my mind, outright dangerous. Medi­eval elves are not the fair and angelic beings of Middle-Earth; indeed, they can be downright evil. Most importantly, however, they are not a single race or a species, even though this is assumed in almost every single encyclopaedia one comes across, but rather a much broader category which may include any superhuman figure that has to be venerated or at least placated by humans.39 Thus the bjargálfr may save us, since it is in its power to do so, but it may also become destructive, as the narrative seems to strongly suggest. The role of the poem within the narrative is ambiguous and not surprisingly so since it is a fairly opaque poem. Its pagan nature is evident in the abundant heathen kennings used with references made to heathen gods, Þórr and Óðinn (Þundr), and giants such as Surtr, Hrungnir, Hrímnir, and Aurnir. Thus, the bjargálfr in the cave is clearly situated inside a heathen, parallel universe, and its presumably superhuman powers belong to a past which is evil, savage, and, most importantly, has refused to go away as the past is supposed to do. On the contrary, it continues uncannily to exist in the present, albeit slowly disappearing into the caves and shadows, away from the light of Christianity. To my mind, the reference to the eruption and the apocalyptic imagery is not so interesting as evidence that Icelanders knew volcanic eruptions — that seems to be a fairly self-evident fact to anyone raised in Iceland — but due to the atmosphere of threat and doom that such events can awaken. When Þórðr and the servant, the latter only temporarily, have escaped the doom that has been glaring at them through the darkness in the form of the terrible, luminous eyes, they speak of the whole experience as undr (wondrous). The category of the wondrous defies simple classification. The wondrous can be either good or evil, Christian or pagan, miraculous or magical. The occult nature of the wondrous is fundamental to the continued existence of wonder; it is an impossible riddle, it is everything which cannot be explained and thus must retain its enigmatic state. As it turns out, the servant has come under a curse — the audience will have suspected this from the outset since in this sort of narrative the bell must be tolling for someone.40 His death had been more or less predicted in the impenetrable skaldic verse and thus his worst fears, which seemed so silly just before, are in fact realized. His is the same fear with which every mortal human 39  40 

Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Beware of the Elf !’. See, for example, O’Connor, ‘Astronomy and Dream Visions’, pp. 490–97.

26 Ármann Jakobsson

is familiar, presumably including everyone in the medi­eval audience of the tale, fear of the sudden transformation from life to death that is beyond our imagination, despite all epistemo­logical systems invented to rationalize and reduce it. The servant has no name because he is us, as we really are: timid and easily disposable humans. In stories, however, we can choose a different role and a more heroic ending. In the end, the narrative of this paranormal encounter focuses on the survivor, Þórðr, who escapes doom. The audience is offered the chance to identify with this heroic man rather than the everyman who accompanied him and to survive along with him; indeed, it is encouraged to do so by this strong focus on his survival at the end of the story, a survival based on how Þórðr conquers his fear aided by his Christian faith in the transcendence and the immortality of the soul. The survivor is the most important person in any disaster narrative as only the survivors are able to relate their story. Identifying with the survivor means temporary relief so enormous that it can only be acquired in a brush with death. As we all know, however, his release is only temporary and the eventual salvation must be a matter of faith to him as it is for all other Christians.41


On this relief, see, e.g., Davíð Erlingsson, ‘Frumdrög til fagurfræði’.

Bergbúa þáttr: The Story of a Paranormal Encounter


Works Cited Manu­script and Archival Sources Rey­kja­vík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, AM 165m fol. —— , AM 426 fol. —— , AM 555h 4to —— , AM 560c 4to —— , AM 564a 4to —— , AM 564c 4to Stockholm, Kungliga biblioteket, Papp. fol. no. 67

Primary Sources Barðarsaga Snæfellsass, Viglundarsaga, Þórðarsaga, Draumavitranir, Völsaþáttr, ed.  by Guðbrandur Vigfússon, Nordiske Oldskrifter, 27 (Copen­hagen: Berlingske bog­tryk­ keri, 1860) Breiðfirðinga sögur, ed.  by Guðni Jónsson, Íslendinga sögur, 4 (Rey­kja­vík: Íslendinga­ sagnaútgáfan, 1946) Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. by C. J. M. Hubback (London: Inter­national Psycho-Analytical, 1922) Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed.  by Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 7 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1936) ‘Hallmundarkviða’, ed. by Tarrin Wills, in Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, v: Poetry in Sagas of Icelanders, ed. by Guðrún Nordal and Tarrin Wills (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming) Harðar saga, ed. by Þórhallur Vilmundarson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 13 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1991) Íslendinga sögur og þættir, ed. by Bragi Halldórsson and others, 4 vols (Rey­kja­vík: Svart á hvítu, 1985–86) Lexicon poeticum antiquæ linguæ septentrionalis: Ordbog over det norsk-islandske skjaldesprog oprindelig forfattet af Sveinbjörn Egilsson, ed. by Finnur Jónsson (Copen­hagen: Møller 1931; repr. 1966) Lindsay, Joan, Picnic at Hanging Rock (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1967) Den norsk-islandske Skjaldedigtning, ed.  by Finnur Jónsson, 2  vols (Copen­ hagen: Gyldendalske, 1915) Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog, ii: ban-da, ed. by James E. Knirk and others (Copen­ hagen: Den arnamagnæanske kommission, 2000)

28 Ármann Jakobsson

Secondary Works Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Beware of the Elf ! A Note on the Evolving Meaning of álfar’, Folklore, 126 (2015), 215–23 —— , ‘The Extreme Emotional Life of Vǫlundr the Elf ’, Scandinavian Studies, 78 (2006), 227–54 —— , ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Bárðar saga and its Giants’, Mediaeval Scan­ dinavia, 15 (2005), 1–15 —— , ‘The Hole: Problems in Medi­eval Dwarfo­logy’, Arv, 61 (2005), 53–76 —— , ‘The Taxonomy of the Non-Existent: Some Medi­eval Icelandic Concepts of the Paranormal’, Fabula, 54 (2013), 199–213 —— , ‘The Trollish Acts of Þorgrímr the Witch: The Meanings of troll and ergi in Medi­ eval Iceland’, Saga-Book, 32 (2008), 39–68 —— , ‘Vad är ett troll? Betydelsen av ett isländskt medeltidsbegrepp’, Saga och sed (2008), 101–17 —— , ‘Vampires and Watchmen: Categorizing the Mediaeval Icelandic Undead’, Journal of English and Germanic Philo­logy, 110 (2011), 281–300 Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, Stone: An Eco­logy of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2015) Davíð Erlingsson, ‘Frumdrög til fagurfræði: Þekkingarfræði þess nykraða og feginleikans’, in Skorrdæla, gefin út í minningu Sveins Skorra Höskuldssonar, ed. by Matthías Viðar Sæmundsson and Bergljót  S. Kristjánsdóttir (Rey­kja­vík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2003), pp. 43–56 Falk, Oren, ‘The Vanishing Volcanoes: Fragments of Fourteenth-Century Icelandic Folk­ lore’, Folklore, 118 (2007), 1–22 Guðmundur Finnbogason, ‘Hallmundarkviða’, Skírnir, 109 (1935), 172–81 Gunnell, Terry, and Annette Lassen, eds, The Nordic Apocalypse: Approaches to Völuspá and Nordic Days of Judgment, Acta Scandinavica, 2 (Brepols: Turnhout, 2013) Hufford, David, The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1982) Jones, Ernest, On the Nightmare (London: Hogarth Press and Institute of PsychoAnalysis, 1931) Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, ‘Íslenski skólinn’, Skírnir, 165 (1991), 103–29 McKinnell, John, ‘The Reconstruction of Pseudo-Vatnshyrna’, Opuscula, 4 (1970), 304–38 Nordvig, Mathias, ‘Of Fire and Water: The Old Norse Mythical Worldview in an EcoMytho­logical Perspective’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Aarhus University, 2014) O’Connor, Ralph, ‘Astronomy and Dream Visions in Late Medi­eval Iceland: StjörnuOdda draumr and the Emergence of Norse Legendary Fiction’, Journal of English and Germanic Philo­logy, 111 (2012), 474–512 Sävborg, Daniel, ‘Avstånd, gräns och förundran: Möten med de övernaturliga i islänningasagan’, in Greppaminni: Rit til heiðurs Vésteini Ólasyni sjötugum, ed. by Margrét Eggertsdóttir and others (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka bókmenntafélag, 2009), pp. 323–49

Bergbúa þáttr: The Story of a Paranormal Encounter


—— , ‘Scandinavian Folk Legends and Icelandic Sagas’, in New Focus on Retrospective Methods: Resuming Methodo­logical Discussions — Case Studies from Northern Europe, ed. by Eldar Heide and Karen Bek-Pedersen, Folklore Fellows Communications, 307 (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2014), pp. 74–86 Sigurður Nordal, ‘Samlagning’, Vaka, 1 (1927), 52–66 Stefán Karlsson, ‘Um Vatnshyrnu’, Opuscula, 4 (1970), 279–303 Tangherlini, Timothy, ‘Barter and Games: Economics and the Supernatural in Danish Legendry’, Arv, 54 (1998), 41–62 Tolkien, J. R. R., ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, Proceedings of the British Aca­ demy, 22 (1936), 245–95 Ustinova, Yulia, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind: Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) Þórhallur Vilmundarson, ‘Formáli’, in Harðar saga, ed. by Þórhallur Vilmundarson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 13 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1991)

The Pre-Christian Jól: Not a Cult of the Dead, but the Norse New Year Festival Bettina Sommer


he pre-Christian festival jól is a classic topic of research which was more or less abandoned in the second half of the twentieth century, possibly because it was felt that the sources were insufficient and further research was largely futile. In recent years, research into jól has been revived, mainly by Andreas Nordberg, through his mono­g raph Jul,1 which provides great insights on the 1 

Nordberg, Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning.

Abstract: This essay discusses the meaning of the pre-Christian Norse festival of jól and argues that the central function of the festival was as a liminal period to create the coming year in Norse culture. Initially, the classic theory of jól as a festival for dead ancestors is investigated and the main sources, folkloristic records from later centuries, are examined with reference to older sources, including Roman and medi­eval, but it is concluded that this theory does not in fact have any basis in the sources and that the element of a cult of dead ancestors in the Nordic countries is of later provenience, not pre-Christian. Folkloristic sources about the later Yule festival from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are then examined in an attempt to throw light on the pre-Christian jól, and it is found that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the festival in popular custom in the later period is primarily concerned with the creation of the impending year. It is found that the predominant ritual activities during the Yule period are divination as well as protection from malevolent supernatural entities, activities which typically are characteristic of New Year festivals. Divination as an active act of creating the coming year is discussed, and the practice of divination in the later folkloristic sources is linked to one earlier, medi­eval source. Fear of malevolent supernatural forces also establishes continuity between older and newer sources. All of these traits also confirm that jól/Yule should be seen as a typical example of a so-called liminal period, and that this is the most useful concept through which to analyse the festival. It is thus concluded that the later Yule certainly functioned as a liminal period in which the coming year was created, and this was very likely also the case for the pre-Christian jól. Bettina Sejbjerg Sommer ([email protected]) is mag. art. of the Science of Comparative Religion, specializing in folklore and in pre-Christian Nordic religion. She currently teaches courses at the University of Copen­hagen.

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 31–58 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116079

Bettina Sommer


calendar and the dating of jól but which is not primarily concerned with the content and meaning of the feast, and with Olof Sundqvist in their article ‘Förkristen jul’,2 which provides a clear and concise overview of the older scholarship as well as a discussion and appraisal of the classic sources and theories. But these two works stand rather alone, and most of the general works published on Norse religion in recent decades do not mention jól at all. One exception is the recent Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe, where Britt-Mari Näsström concludes that: ‘Jól or Yule-tide was held in memory of the dead ancestors, who returned home during the darkest nights and were celebrated by drinking beer and mead.’3 This hypothesis, that the pre-Christian jól was a festival for the dead ancestors, has been one of the most prevalent theories for over a century now.4 Of great importance to this theory was Henning Frederik Feilberg’s comprehensive work Jul. In this mono­graph, which for decades became enormously influencial in establishing the theory as one of the dominant interpretations of jól, Feilberg argues strongly for the theory and presents copious amounts of folkloristic sources in support of his case. The premise of this method, namely that folk customs and folklore from later centuries were regarded as survivals from pre-Christian times, was an established part of the evolutionistic paradigm of the time and was considered unproblematic. As the fallacy of this paradigm was understood during the course of the twentieth century, the method was abandoned, as scholars realized that folklore was not static but fluid, dynamic, and everchanging.5 It is a measure of the level of acceptance, which was at one point accorded to the ‘cult of the dead theory’, that Jan de Vries, in the second edition of Alt­ger­ manische Religionsgeschichte, declares that: ‘Hat also das Julfest zweifellos den Charakter eines den Toten gewidmeten Kultes, so ist es andrerseits auch mit der Verehrung von Fruchtbarkeitsmächten verbunden’ (Even though the Jul festival undoubtedly can be characterized as a cult dedicated to the dead, it is also connected to the veneration of the powers of fertility).6 2 

Nordberg and Sundqvist, ’Förkristen jul’. Näsström, ‘Old Norse Religion’, p. 333. 4  There is no explicit distinction in the scholarship between the terms jól/Yule. I shall employ jól when referring specifically to a pre-Christian context, and Yule when referring to a later context and sources. 5  For a thourough discussion of this development, see Nordberg, Fornnordisk religionsforskning. 6  De Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, p. 450 (my translation). 3 

The Pre-Christian Jól


However, there has never been complete concensus on the matter and most modern scholars are at least less conclusive about it than Näsström. Rudolf Simek, for example, writes that: ‘it is uncertain whether the Germanic Yule feast still had a function in the cult of the dead and in the veneration of the ancestors’.7 The main rival theory is the one also mentioned by de Vries, that jól was a fertility festival, and for the last few decades the prevailing opinion seems to have been that fertility must have been an important aspect of the festival, even if other aspects also played a part. The idea of jól as a solstice festival with the primary purpose of celebrating the return of the sun has long since been widely dismissed by specialists as having little foundation in the sources.8 Nordberg and Sundqvist conclude: Den förkristna och tidiga kristna julen var således med stor sannolikhet en frukt­ barhetsfest där också solens återkomst hyllades. Man firade det nya året och därmed både ljusets seger över mörkret och det kommande årets agrara avkastning. Men det är dessutom troligt att även de döda ättemedlemmarna kunde bjudas in och delta i dessa festligheter.9 (The Pre-Christian and early Christian Jul then, was very probably a fertillity festival where the return of the sun was celebrated as well. People celebrated the coming year and thence both the victory of light over darkness and the harvest of the coming year. But it is furthermore likely that the dead family members could also be invited to participate in these festivities.)

I agree with Nordberg and Sundqvist that it was a fallacy of the older scholarship to insist upon jól having one and only one function, whereas the festival most likely was multifaceted and had many different aspects,10 and I generally concur with their conclusion cited above. However, I believe I have actually found evidence against jól having been a cult of the dead. As the above quotations demonstrate, the interpretation of jól as a festival for the dead ancestors is still prevalent, but after having investigated this theory and the main evidence pertaining to it in detail, I believe that I have found convincing arguments against it. 7 

Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mytho­logy, p. 379. Birkeli, Huskult og hinsidighetstro, p. 129; Nilsson, Årets folkliga fester, p. 148; Hoffmann-Krayer, Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, p. 869; Nordberg, Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning, pp. 100–02. 9  Nordberg and Sundqvist, ‘Förkristen jul’, p. 22 (my translation). 10  Nordberg and Sundqvist, ‘Förkristen jul’, p. 16. 8 

Bettina Sommer


In the following, I shall first present my investigation and argument against a cult of the dead as the function of the jól festival. Second, I shall present an investigation of the interpretation of jól as a New Year festival and suggest that this aspect should perhaps be accorded more prominence than has hitherto been the case.

The Theory of Jól as a Cult of the Dead The pre-Christian jól is a classic example of a problem field where scholars, because of the scarcity of pre-Christian or even medi­eval sources, have felt compelled to base their discussions on folklore sources from later periods, Feilberg being a point in case. The hypothesis of jól as a cult of the dead is to a great extent based on these sources from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. And it is perhaps because this type of use of folklore as a source fell into disrepute and because of the acknowledged uncertainty, which is an inescapable part of working with these sources, that the research of jól was abandoned and most scholars are reluctant to speak with much conviction. Famously, we have one single pre-Christian source which mentions jól: one stanza in the poem Haraldskvæði, traditionally dated c. 900 and attributed to the skald Þorbjörn hornklofi, in which the skald praises the Norwegian king Haraldr hárfagri by saying that the brave king, if he has his own way, will ‘drink jól out at sea’ instead of skulking indoors by the fire: ‘Úti vill jól drekka, ef skal einn ráða, fylkir enn framlyndi ok Freys leik heyja.’11 The dating of this poem has been discussed by scholars such as Sverrir Jakobsson and Klaus von See, who agree that the poem in its entirety is a later construction. However, for the present discussion only stanza 6, which contains the quoted passage, is relevant. This stanza is found in two separate sources, Fagrskinna and Heimskringla,12 and neither Sverrir nor von See question the traditional dating of this particular stanza. Von See argues that the second half of the poem is composed in the twelfth century but accepts the traditional early dating of the first half, including stanza 6.13 Sverrir Jakobsson, although he questions the age of the poem as a whole, also does not object to the early dating of stanza 6.14 The Skaldic Editing Project, edited by Margaret Clunies Ross and others, also concurs in the tradi11 

Den norsk-islandske Skjaldedigtning, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, p. 23. Sverrir Jakobsson, ‘Erindringen om en mægtig personlighed’, p. 220. 13  Von See, ‘Studien zum Haraldskvæði’, p. 105. 14  Sverrir Jakobsson, ‘Erindringen om en mægtig personlighed’, p. 222. 12 

The Pre-Christian Jól


tional dating of the poem, stating that Haraldskvæði, ‘traditionally dated c. 900, is the earliest of the three early eddic praise-poems in the skaldic corpus’.15 I conclude that the pre-Christian provenience of this stanza seems to be generally accepted. This one phrase is all we have, obviously just enough to establish the existence of jól as a pre-Christian festival and one more thing: that drinking was important, indeed it seems to be the drinking which is the main element, the defining and constituting element of the festival. Both predating and subsequent to this source there are other sources which give some information relevant to the dating of jól, a question that I shall leave out of the present discussion. But as to the content, purpose, and manner of the celebration, the sources are almost entirely silent, until the first collections of folklore in the eighteenth century.16 There are two customs found in the folklore records in Sweden and Norway in particular that have formed the basis for the cult of the dead theory. 1. In many places it is recorded that people during the Yule period abandon their beds and sleep in straw on the floor. Sometimes this is explicitly said to be done because the beds must be left empty for the dead, who come and sleep in them in the Yule nights. 2. The food for the Yule festival must be left out on the table during the night. This is also sometimes done explicitly because the food is said to be for the visiting dead or other supernatural visitors. Sometimes no reason is given or, frequently, that leaving the food out will ensure abundance in the coming year. These two customs are in the scholarly literature considered widespread and common in both Norway and Sweden. There are examples from other European countries, such as Denmark and Estonia,17 but these are either rare and sporadic, or without any reference to dead visitors, or both, and researchers have mainly based their argument on the Norwegian and Swedish examples.18 Þorbjǫrn hornklofi, Haraldskvæði. For a thorough overview of the research and sources pertaining to jól/Yule, I refer to Nordberg, Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning; Nordberg and Sundqvist, ‘Förkristen jul’; Hultgård, ‘Jul’. Due to space restrictions, I shall not here attempt to relate the entire history of the research but limit myself to my specific topic. 17  See, e.g., Tang Kristensen, Gamle folks fortællinger, p. 100; Kamp, Dansk Folketro, pp. 26, 182; Andersen, Folkeliv i Skippinge, pp. 5, 34; Uhrskov, Højtid, pp. 7, 15; Møller, Fester og Højtider, p. 294; Eisen, Estnische Mytho­logie, pp. 43–44. 18  Whereas space does not permit me to quote the entire source material, quotations and 15 



Bettina Sommer

These two customs constitute the weightiest evidence for jól as a festival for the dead. However, other evidence has sometimes been cited, an example being the fact that many sagas mention jól/Yule in connection with the dead. The one clear and strong impression we glean from the sagas is that Yule is a time of ghosts, this is indeed the time when the dead come back to haunt the living. This has often been cited as evidence of jól as a cult of the dead. However, it has long since been remarked by many scholars that this tradition of the Yule haunting in no way constitutes such a cult. One such scholar was Hilding Celander, one of the greatest specialists on the topic of Yule, who pointed out that a belief in ghosts and haunting is something entirely different from an ancestor cult.19 Another point frequently presented is the tradition of the Wild Hunt, in Norway often known as Oskoreia, the terrible riders, a terrifying procession of ghosts, monsters, and demonic forces which is said to ride through the sky on nights of winter storms. In this widespread European migratory legend, the procession is often said to be lead by Odin, especially in Norway. This together with one of Odin’s bynames, ‘Jólnir’, leads many to conclude that jól is Odin’s festival and, as he is god of the dead, that jól is probably a feast for the dead.20 Nordberg and Sundqvist mention this theory, but are cautiously critical and also explain how Odin’s connection to jól can be adequately explained as a result of his importance as the prevalent god of the aristocracy and of ritual drinking.21 There are numerous other examples of Yule customs and folklore which refer to the dead or other supernatural visitors and which have often been cited as evidence, for example, food sacrifices to house spirits such as the tomte or customs about ‘chasing the Yule away’, and so forth. I have chosen to disregard this type of customs, as I find them too unspecific and general and too reminiscent of folklore customs common in a wide variety of contexts to form convincing evidence for a specific Yule context. I have also chosen to disregard Yule folklore which consists of legends and traditions but not of actions that may an extensive analysis and critique of all sources referred to in this article, as well as a more detailed discussion of theory and methodo­logy, can be found in my masters thesis, available from The Royal Library in Copen­hagen, or which can be supplied electronically by contacting me at [email protected] 19  Celander, Förkristen jul enligt norröna källor, p. 66. 20  Näsström, Blot, 107. 21  Nordberg and Sundqvist, ‘Förkristen jul’, pp. 20–21.

The Pre-Christian Jól


be defined as ritual or cultic, as this in my opinion makes it problematic to use them as evidence of a cult. For the most recent overview as well as a critical discussion of both the straw and the table custom, as well as other relevant customs, I refer to Nordberg.22 In my opinion, all of the above-mentioned traditions are too weak and sporadic to stand alone as evidence and are therefore dependent on other sources for persuasive power. The later, folkloristic sources are usually employed in this capacity — as there are none others — and it is the two customs of sleeping in the straw and leaving food on the table for the dead visitors which constitute by far the most powerful evidence. I conclude that the theory of pre-Christian jól as a cult of the dead rests to a very large extent on these two customs from Norwegian and Swedish folkloristic sources. If these sources are not convincing, neither is the theory.

The Straw Custom In the following, the sources for these two customs will be examined, beginning with the custom of sleeping in straw and leaving the beds empty for the dead. The Norwegian primary sources in published form consist of original records published by folklorists Hallv. A. Bergh, Joh. Th. Storaker, Nils Lid, A. J. Reitan, Emil Birkeli, and Lily Weiser-Aall, in addition to various collected records from Norsk Folkeminnelags Skrifter.23 After having closely investigated these sources, my conclusion is that the main purpose behind the custom, as given in the sources, refers to the fear of the dangerous, demonic forces which were known to be about during the Yule nights, the Wild Hunt being a classic example, and that people slept in the straw on the floor of the main house to avoid having to go out into the dangerous Yule nights. This is in Norway the most commonly presented reason for the custom in the sources themselves. Leaving the beds empty for visiting dead ancestors is sometimes mentioned as the purpose of the custom, but the Norwegian sources that mention this are all late, from the twentieth century, whereas the earlier sources only mention fear of the evil forces outside as the reason. And, as mentioned, the sources citing fear of evil forces outnumber the ancestor explanation. 22 

Nordberg, Fornnordisk religionsforskning, pp. 292–99. See Lid, Norsk Folkeminnelags Skrifter. See also See, e.g., Bergh, Nye Folke-Eventyr, pp. 55, 64; Storaker, Folkesagn, p. 56, and Tiden i den norske Folketro, pp. 1, 126, 154–55, 160; Lid, Joleband og vegetasjonsguddom, pp. 75–76; Reitan, Ålen, pp. 74, 105; Birkeli, Huskult og hinsidighetstro, pp. 139–41; Weiser-All, ‘Julhalmen i Norge’, pp. 3, 10–12, 16, 44, 45. 23 

Bettina Sommer


The Swedish sources are both earlier and more numerous than the Nor­ wegian examples. They consist, in chrono­logical order, of records collected and published by Gustav Gaslander, Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius, L. Lloyd, Gabriel Djurklou, Eva Wigström, Wegelius and Wikman, Hilding Celander, and David Arill. In Sweden, the reference to dead visitors is present also in earlier records from the eighteenth and ninteenth century and is also more common. However, references to other supernatural visitors are equally frequent. These include Jesus, angels, trolls, the tomte, and others. Sometimes no reason is given at all, or the reason given is that people sleep in straw in commemoration of the Saviour’s birth in the stable.24 I find it most likely that the latter and other Christian explanations are later rationalizations, but we must note the fact that the sources do not paint a uniform picture of a belief in visiting ancestors, and that this explanation may likewise be a later rationalization of the custom. I therefore conclude that the custom of sleeping in straw on the floor is insufficient evidence for a cult of the dead. It is a reason which in the sources themselves is outnumbered by other reasons and which can be adequately explained by other factors, mainly the fear of evil forces during the Yule nights. This also fits with the fact that the custom was more common in Norway and Sweden where more people slept in separate houses on the farm and therefore would have had to venture outdoors to go to their beds, as opposed to Denmark where it was more common for all household members to sleep in the main house, and it was therefore not necessary to sleep in straw on the floor to avoid going outside.

The Table Custom The custom of leaving food on the Yule table during the night is a rather more complex matter, and the discussion pertaining to it will therefore be related in more detail. For reasons of brevity, references to the table custom in Scandinavia


Gaslander, Beskrivning om Swenska Allmogens, pp. 21–22; Hyltén-Cavallius, Wärend och Wirdarne, i, 176, 264, 492–93, and ii, 416, 443–45, liii; Lloyd, Svenska allmogens plägseder, pp. 91, 94, 95; Djurklou, Unnarsboarnes seder och lif, p. 71; Wigström, Folktro och Sägner, p. 149; Wegelius and Wikman, ‘Om vidskepliga föreställningar’, pp. 134–35; Celander, Västsvensk forntro och folksed, pp. 75, 86–89, 94; Celander, Nordisk jul, pp. 139–40, 203–04; Arill, Värmländska folkminnen, pp. 59–60.

The Pre-Christian Jól


are included in the above-mentioned references to the straw custom, as the two customs frequently occur together in the same sources. The table custom is commonly found in Sweden and Norway and is mentioned by all of the above-mentioned sources, except Gaslander and Reitan. The sources note a variety of reasons for the custom: the food is for ghosts, dead family members, angels, trolls, the Wild Hunt, or other supernatural visitors. Sometimes no reason is given, or it is said that leaving the food out will ensure future abundance. No single explanation is particularly prominent. Whereas the straw custom appears to be a primarily Scandinavian and to some extent Finno-Ugric phenomenon, although there are a few scattered examples from elsewhere in Europe, 25 the table custom is widespread across Europe and recorded as going back to not only medi­eval but to Roman culture. For this reason, it is necessary to investigate the possible connections between the custom in Scandinavia and elsewhere, connections that were in the early twentieth century the subject of a major discussion between Alexander Tille and Gustav Bilfinger on one side, and Martin Persson Nilsson on the other. I shall return to this discussion in due time. After close investigation of all of the medi­eval examples mentioned in the scholarly literature, one fact that emerges is that, even though the sources do mention the custom of leaving food out on the table during the local New Year festival, this is in older sources never done with reference to dead ancestors or any other supernatural visitors. The earliest source is St Hieronymus, who writes about the phenomenon in a bible commentary c. 400 ce, and following that, the custom is mentioned in five separate sources during the seventh and eighth centuries. Space does not permit me to quote all these extensively, but the relevant sources are: St Hieronymus, c. 400; Caesarius of Arles, early sixth century; Audoënus of Rouen, c. 600; St Bonifatius, 742; Concillium Romanum i, 743; Homilia de sacrilegiis, eighth century.26 All of these sources are written with the purpose of condemning practices perceived by the writer as pagan and to describe the practice of setting up a special table at the New Year festival in January and leaving food on this table 25 

Weiser-All (‘Julhalmen i Norge’, p. 5) concludes that, even though the custom of spreading straw on the floor over Yule/Christmas is widespread in Europe, to actually sleep in it is rare outside Scandinavia. In my view, this constitutes an important difference between these two straw-customs. 26  See St  Hieronymus, Commentariorum in Isaiam; Caesarius of Arles, Sermo cxxix; Audoënus of Rouen, Vita Eligii; St Bonifatius, Epistola xlix; Concillium Romanum, ed. by Mansi; Homillia de sacrilegis, ed. by Caspari.

Bettina Sommer


overnight. The perceived purpose of the custom varies and is sometimes unspecific, but it is clear that the purpose is never for the sustenance of ordinary people, but what we would usually describe as ritual or cultic or, in the eyes of the writers, pagan worship. In the earliest source, St Hieronymus, the purpose is said to be the taking of omens of fecundity for the coming year. Caesarius of Arles states that the table is believed to procure abundance. In Audoënus, St Bonifatius and Concillium Romanum there is no clearly stated purpose. In Homilia de sacrilegiis the table is associated with the unspecified taking of omens. Thus, we find that in these early sources the only stated reasons are connected to divination and to securing abundance in the coming year, with no reference to any supernatural recipients. We might notice that the above-cited reasons are also commonly found in the Swedish ninteenth-century records. The next medi­eval source is the German author Burchardus of Worms, with a terminus ante quem of 1025, the year of the author’s death.27 He differs from the previous sources in several ways: he gives far more detailed information, he describes not one but two separate ritual tables which are left spread out with food, and for the first time we have a reference to supernatural recipients. The two tables are described in the same chapter, but in two separate sequences with separate titles, separated by several pages describing unrelated details. The reason for relating this in so much detail is that previous scholarship has mistakenly assumed that both these sequences dealt with one and the same table, so that all scholars refer to only one table in Burchardus, mixing together the details of the two tables. However, upon examination of Burchardus’s text, it is quite clear that the two descriptions of the tables are not only different, but, as they are separated by several columns of text dealing with various unrelated topics, there is no reason to believe that Burchardus is not giving us two independent descriptions of two separate tables. As Burchardus is a key source, I shall quote the main passages: 1: Observasti Kalendas Januarias ritu paganorum, ut vel aliquid plus faceres propter novum annum quam antea, vel post soleres facere, ita dico ut aut mensam tuam cum lapidibus vel epulis in domo tua praeparares eo tempore, aut per vicos et per plateas cantores et choros duceres, aut supra tectum domus tuae sederes, ense tuo circun­ signatus, ut ibi videres et intelligeres quid tibi in sequenti anno futurum esset? 2: Fecisti ut quaedam mulieres in quibusdam temporibus anni facere solent: ut in domo tua mensam praeparares, et tuos cibos, et potum cum tribus cultellis supra mensam poneres, ut si venissent tres illae sorores, quas antiqua posteritas et anti27 

Burchardus of Worms, Ecclesiae episcopi decretorum libri viginti.

The Pre-Christian Jól


qua stultitia parcas nominavit, ibi reficerentur, et tulisti divinae pietati potestatem suam, et nomen suum, et diabolo tradidisti, ita, dico, ut crederes illas quas tu dicis esse sorores, tibi posse, aut hic aut in futuro prodesse?28 (1: Have you observed the January day with the rites of pagans, so that you for example did more on the occasion of the New Year than you used to do before or after, so I say, that you prepared your table with precious stones or dishes of food in your house at that time, or you conducted singers and choirs through streets and alleys, or you sat on the roof of your house, in a circle traced around you with your sword, so that there you could see and perceive what would happen to you in the coming year? 2: Have you done, what some women are wont to do at certain times of the year, that you prepared a table in your house and placed food and drink with three knives on the table, so that if the three sisters arrived, whom the posterity and folly of antiquity called parcas, so that there they might be refreshed? And did you hold up your own authority and your own name in place of divine piety, and did you surrender to the devil, so I say, that you believed that those whom you say are sisters, may benefit you, either here or in the future?)29

As this demonstrates, we have two different customs relating to laying out a ritual table with food. The first table, at New Year, is believed to create abundance in itself and strikingly resembles the tables in the earlier sources. The description is very likely based on Concillium Romanum, as the wording is very similar. The second table is left out for ‘three sisters’ that Burchardus refers to as the parcas. These parcas are well-known Roman goddesses of fate and must be understood as Burchardus’s interpretatio romana for certain local female pagan divinities. This is the very first mention of a table being left out at certain times of the year for the benefit of supernatural visitors, and the description does not greatly resemble the earlier sources. The supernatural recipients are also found in the final medi­e val source, Guilielmus Alvernus from 1248, who states that foolish people leave food out at night for certain ladies of the night — dominas nocturnas, led by the figure ‘Domina Abundia’ — Lady Abundance.30 The tables in these sources, sometimes referred to as the tabula fortunae, were, as mentioned, the subject of a major discussion between scholars Alexander Tille and Gustav Bilfinger on the one side and Martin P. Nilsson on the other. 28 

Burchardus of Worms, Ecclesiae episcopi decretorum libri viginti. Translation kindly supplied by Jacob Engelbrecht. 30  Guilielmus Alvernus, Opera Omnia, pp. 1036, 1066. 29 

Bettina Sommer


Put very briefly, Tille and Bilfinger argue that the custom of the table was not Scandinavian but was adopted by Germanic tribes from the Roman New Year festival, Calendae Januariae.31 Nilsson contends that there were two unrelated table customs, the Roman custom of a New Year feasting table for ordinary people, and a Germanic custom of a table left out for supernatural visitors.32 As demonstrated, two such separate tables is exactly what we actually find in Burchardus, which in my opinion strongly supports Nilsson’s conclusion. Paradoxically, Nilsson himself never employs this argument in the discussion, since, like Tille and Bilfinger, he mistakenly understands Burchardus’s two tables to be one and the same.33 I therefore find that the two separate tables in Burchardus and the description of the second table support the hypothesis that the table to the supernatural female visitors was a pre-Christian Germanic custom and unrelated to the tabula fortunae of the Roman New Year. But even though Burchardus provides evidence for a Germanic ritual table ‘at certain times of the year’, there is no mention of any dead human visitors. Having exhausted the medi­eval sources and turning to the later, folkloristic records, it is a very common custom all over Europe that a table is left spread out with food on certain nights of the year, typically Christmas, New Year, or All Souls’ Eve. In these records, the recipients of the table are often the souls of dead humans, but it is also very commonly said to be one or more female supernatural creatures. These vary, but include well-known folklore figures such as Holda and Perchta.34 It is striking that the earliest sources that mention nightly visitors, Burchardus and Guilielmus Alvernus, refer only to supernatural females, an interpretation which is consistently repeated in the sources up into the nineteenth century, whereas the earliest mention of dead ancestors is much later. The earliest specific example I have managed to find is from Finland, published in 1754, by pas-


Tille, Yule and Christmas, pp. 84–88, 107–09; Bilfinger, Untersuchungen, pp. 40–86, 99. Nilsson, ‘Studien zur Vorgeschichte des Weihnachtsfestes’, pp. 52, 65, 122–32, Årets folkliga fester, pp. 129–36, and ‘Årets Højtider’, p. 18. 33  Even though I arrive at the same conclusion as Nilsson, I find his argument severely flawed. However, the particulars of that argument are not essential to the present discussion. 34  Panzer, Bayerische Sagen und Bräuche, i, 247, and ii, 103, 262–63; Montanus, Die deutschen Volksfeste, p. 23; Schönwerth, Aus der Oberpfalz, i, 282–83; Zingerle, Sitten, Bräuche und Meinungen, pp. 127, 176–77, 186; Birlinger, Aus Schwaben, p. 54; Drechsler, Sitte, Brauch und Volksglaube, pp. 35, 51. See also the entires for ‘Allerseelen’, ‘Speiseopfer’, ‘Weihnacht’ (II B 7), and ‘Weihnachtstisc’, in Hoffmann-Krayer, Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens. 32 

The Pre-Christian Jól


tor Eric Castrén.35 Examples from continental Europe cannot be found before the mid-nineteenth century. It is also striking that the one explanation which is found throughout the entire period, from the earliest to the latest sources, is that leaving food on the table overnight will in itself ensure abundance. In the light of these sources, I find it reasonable to conclude that there is no evidence in the sources that the table left with food is a remnant of a Nordic preChristian cult of the dead. In fact, I find that the most likely conclusion is the exact opposite. The early examples of this custom all refer to female divinities or to the table bringing abundance in itself, and I therefore consider the sources as supporting the conclusion that the connection between this table and the dead ancestors is a later reinterpretation, which may have taken place sometime during the thirteenth to eigteenth centuries. Even in the later sources, the dead ancestor explanation is no more prominent than other explanations. I hasten to add that, as ever, no firm conclusions can be reached. To summarize: as to the custom of the table, all our evidence points away from a connection to a Nordic pre-Christian cult of the dead. Regarding sleeping in straw and leaving the beds empty, the traits of what could be called a cult of the dead are present and are somewhat significant in the later Yule folklore of Scandinavia, but they are outnumbered and relatively weak in comparison to the overwhelming role played by the fear of the dead, ghosts, and demonic forces. As Hilding Celander wrote, fear is not the same as cult, and I conclude from my reading of the sources that the element of fear is far stronger than the traits that can be defined as ritual or cultic. One possibility is that the cultic elements we do find in the folklore are the result of influence from Christian or Finno-Ugric cultures and became attached to Yule precisely because it was perceived as the time of the dead, originally not as worshipped ancestors but as feared revenants.36

The Bathhouse Custom In light of this hypothesis, I find a third custom, which has often been cited as evidence for a cult of the dead, of great importance. This is the custom of leaving the fire burning in the bathhouse of the farm on the Yule nights, so that the dead may visit and bathe during the night. This trait is quite sporadic in 35 

Castrén, Historisk och Oeconomisk Beskrifning, pp. 75–76. Even though ‘ancestor cult’ and ‘cult of the dead’ are not synonymous, the difference is of no great importance in the context of this discussion. For a discussion of the two concepts, see Nordberg, Fornnordisk religionsforskning, pp. 55–59. 36 

Bettina Sommer


Sweden and only found in a single Norwegian source, and for this reason it has never formed the main body of evidence in the theory of the cult of the dead in Scandinavia, although it has played a supporting role. I agree that it is indeed too sporadic to form the main basis of a hypothesis, but it is interesting because it is, in my opinon, more convincing as an actual trait of an ancestor cult. The custom is mentioned in Sweden by Gaslander, Hyltén-Cavallius, Djurklou, and Lloyd. Of these, Hyltén-Cavallius’s wording is strikingly similar to Gaslander’s, and it seems clear that the former is based on the latter, which is the earlier source. Djurklou acknowledges his debt to both these two and his wording implies that he may have been asking leading questions. We thus have two independent sources which mention leaving the fire burning in the bathhouse. One is Gaslander, who says: ‘Vid badningen får ej all elden utsläckas, eller värman ur badstugan utsläppas, för spökens skuld, som vilja bada’ (At the bathing one must not put out all the fire or let the heat out of the bath-house, for the sake of the ghosts who would come to bathe). 37 Lloyd, in contrast, informs us that: ‘I badstu’n skall också elden underhållas den natten, “ty eljest skulle trollen komma dit och bada”’ (In the bath-house the fire must be kept burning that night, ‘for else the trolls may come there and bathe’).38 Notice that the purpose of the custom in Lloyd is the exact opposite of that in Gaslander: a classic use of fire as an apotropaic remedy against dangerous forces. We might of course also take note that Lloyd refers to ‘trolls’, not dead humans, but this does not necessarily disqualify the source, as categories of supernatural creatures are notoriously interchangable. The single Norwegian source is Hilding Celander, according to whom, in Sogn in Norway, the bathhouse is heated so that den underbuande (the ‘underdweller’) may come and wash himself.39 I therefore conclude that we have only two certain sources referring to this custom in Scandinavian sources. Even if we count all the Swedish sources, the custom seems to have been sporadic at best and is therefore inadequate support for the theory of a widespread cult of the dead. Even so, this phenomenon is of interest to this discussion in that it is far more common in Finno-Ugric cultures, such as Finland and Estonia, and I would like to suggest that this trait is possibly a genuine trait of ancestor cult, which may have been imported into Sweden and Norway from these cultures. It may even have influenced the 37 

Gaslander, Beskrivning om Swenska Allmogens, p. 21. Lloyd, Svenska allmogens plägseder, p. 91. 39  Celander, Nordisk jul, p. 111. 38 

The Pre-Christian Jól


entire complex of traits of ancestor cult that we do find in nineteenth-century Scandinavia. It is generally acknowledged that the departed dead play a great role in Finno-Ugric culture, to the point where one may talk of ancestor cult and that the bathhouse or sauna played a significant role in rituals.40 I suggest that the traits of ancestor cult found in Sweden and Norway may be the result of influence from Finno-Ugric culture. The strong ties between Sweden and Finland alongside the rich cultural exchange that took place across the Baltic would have made such an influence extremely likely. Indeed, Nordberg concludes that the inter-Baltic perspective is probably one of the most fruitful areas of future research into folklore from the perspective of the history of religion.41 Of course the possibility of an influence from the strong Catholic tradition for ancestor veneration, for example, as evident in the widespread continental versions of the table custom, cannot be disregarded either. In regard to this theory, that traits of ancestor cult spread from Finno-Ugric culture to Scandinavia, it is striking that the earliest example of visiting ancestors at Yule in any Nordic source at all is the one recorded in Finland in 1754 by Eric Castrén, and moreover that the traits of such a cult are earlier as well as more numerous in Sweden than in Norway while virtually absent in Denmark. This certainly fits with the degree of contact between the Finno-Ugric culture and the three Scandinavian countries respectively.42 It is also noteworthy that the ‘ancestor explanation’ seems more convincing and uncontested in the case of the bathhouse-custom, in that the custom is always explained with reference to supernatural visitors. There seem to be no alternative explanations or practical applications to the custom, as is the case with the straw and table-customs. A final factor is the fact that the bathhouse itself is a far more pervasive cultural phenomenon in Finno-Ugric cultures, whereas it is uncertain whether bathhouses existed at all in pre-Christian Sweden and Norway,43 which further supports the idea that customs connected to the bathhouse are more likely to be derived from Finno-Ugric influence. In Nordberg’s discussion of the traits of ancestor worship in later folklore, he 40 

DuBois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, p. 75, and ‘Finno-Ugric Tradition’, p. 136; Nordberg, Fornnordisk religionsforskning, pp. 295–99; Anttonen, ‘Religion in Prehistoric Finland’, p. 385. 41  Nordberg, Fornnordisk religionsforskning, pp. 368–73. 42  Here I define ‘Scandinavian’ as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and ‘Nordic’ as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in addition to Iceland and the Finno-Ugric cultures. 43  Granlund, Kulturhistoriskt lexikon, i, 384–85.

Bettina Sommer


concludes that a connection between the Scandinavian and Baltic cultures is likely.44 Even though I cannot claim to have studied the Baltic material in detail, I would go as far as to conclude that the traits of ancestor worship in Scandinavian folklore are sporadic and late, whereas, according to scholarly consensus, in the Finno-Ugric cultures they are widespread and solidly founded in the culture, and I would therefore suggest that, in the specific case of a cult of the dead at Yule, the influence has most likely come from the Finno-Ugric cultures into Scandinavia and most likely after the time of the Christian conversion. Nordberg mentions that the Finnish ancestor cult is more closely connected to the harvest feast and less to either the Yule feast or the Yule straw.45 This to me supports the argument that the straw-custom is not originally connected to the dead but that this is a later interpretation. It also fits with my hypothesis that the cult of the dead was not part of the pre-Christian jól, but that when these traits were later imported to Scandinavia, they became attached to Yule, the time of year which was indisputably connected to the dead — not as worshipped ancestors, but as dreaded ghosts. In conclusion, I find that the folkloristic and medi­eval sources do not support the theory of pre-Christian jól as a cult of the dead in Scandinavia, and without these sources the theory lacks evidence. It must be emphasized that this conclusion only pertains to the question of jól as a festival of the dead: whether or not ancestor worship was part of the Norse pre-Christian religion in general is a different question altogether.

Jól as New Year As I believe that I have established weighty arguments against the theory of jól as a feast of the dead, I will now suggest that there are convincing arguments for interpreting the feast as the Nordic pre-Christian New Year festival. The evidence, obviously, can only be the folkloristic sources from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I will first present these sources and then adress the crucial question of how valid they may be considered for the pre-Christian period as well as the inherent methodical problems of employing folklore in this capacity.

44  45 

Nordberg, Fornnordisk religionsforskning, pp. 292–99. Nordberg, Fornnordisk religionsforskning, p. 297.

The Pre-Christian Jól


Looking at sources about the later Yule, it is overwhelmingly clear that rituals predicting and influencing the coming year play an enormous role during the entire festival period. Some scholars have long been aware that the coming year played a part in the Yule festival, up to and including Britt-Mari Näsström, who in her mono­­graph Blot uses phrases such as: ‘since the year was renewed, it was natural on this occasion to make promises for the future’, and ‘yule was considered the changing of the year’.46 Likewise, Nordberg and Sundqvist mention the celebration of the coming year as one of the aspects of pre-Christian jól in the above quotation,47 but like Näsström, they do not explore it further. Whereas some previous scholarship has noted the presence of a New Year aspect in the jól/Yule celebration, nobody has, to my knowledge, hitherto explored this aspect in detail, which is what I shall do in the following. Furthermore, I would like to suggest that the aspect of a New Year celebration in jól is perhaps more significant than has hitherto been recognized and that the importance of the New Year aspect has so far been underestimated. One could even go so far as to suggest that instead of incidental rituals of prediction and divination that happen to be connected to the Yule feast, these New Year rituals could be the main point and purpose. The end of the old year and the beginning of the new one may not be a side issue or byproduct of a solstice celebration, a feast for the dead, or of a fertillity festival, but the main purpose and essential function of the feast, so that the purpose of the jól feast was to create the coming year. I would like to stress that I do not find it necessary to go this far: it is not productive to return to the unilateral perspective of the past, which rigidly insisted on a single-level interpretion. I merely wish to emphasize the importance of the New-Year perspective as a separate function in itself, as it has never been subject to separate attention and in-depth discussion, unlike the other aspects mentioned. An important point that clearly emerges from numerous folkloristic sources is that in the Yule period the coming year is not predicted, it is created. In this period, the impending year comes into being and that is why the coming year is shaped by the Yule period: everything that happens in this period influences and creates the coming year, which is a very different concept than just predicting the future.

46  47 

Näsström, Blot, p. 109. Nordberg and Sundqvist, ‘Förkristen jul’, p. 22.

Bettina Sommer


First, the one thing which is overwhelmingly characteristic of the Yule season in the old agrarian society is that it is a time of constant divination. The accounts of Yule overflow with countless examples of how people try to divine the future regarding everything, but especially regarding the classic topics of human interest: the coming harvest, marriage, and death. Abundant examples can be found in all the main folkloristic accounts of Yule.48 It is clear from the sources that thoughts about the future year was the one overwhelming concern which was constant and paramount in peoples mind, a factor which indicates that Yule functions as a New Year feast. To understand the importance of this factor, it is necessary to understand that divination in an Old Norse context has a greater meaning than just predicting the future. It is a widely recognized fact that in the area of Norse religion there is no sharp line between predicting the future and shaping it, and that divination and prediction is widely perceived as an activity that does not passively discern the future, but to some extent actively shapes it. The Norse word for divination, spá, actually has implications of creating, not just discerning, the future.49 Therefore, the ubiquity of divination is a factor which in itself shows that Yule is all about the coming year, that it is in fact a New Year festival. But there is also specific evidence that makes it abundantly clear just how the coming year is being created in this period. One example is the type of weather divination known as making ‘Yule marks’. Somewhere in the house, typically on a roof beam, one would draw twelve circles and mark the weather of the twelve days of Yule: the weather on the first day of Yule in the first circle, the second day of Yule in the second, and so on. Each day corresponded to a month and predicted the weather for that month, the first day of Yule corresponding to January, and so forth.50 This example makes it very clear that Yule is a period of power during which the future is being created: the weather in the coming year is actually being created now. Another example is the widespread custom that when you gazed upon the new moon for the first time after the beginning of the year, whatever you were holding in your hands you would possess in abundance for the entire year. This again demonstrates that everything that happens during the Yule period influ48 

See, e.g., Celander, Nordisk jul; Feilberg, Jul; Nilsson, ‘Årets Højtider’. De Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, p. 325. One may also note Mircea Eliade’s theory of how New Year festivals are commonly perceived as a time of recreation: see Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane. 50  Møller, Fester og Højtider, p. 297. 49 

The Pre-Christian Jól


ences the coming year; that everything which is present during Yule will also be present in the year that comes.51 The latter example also sheds new light on the one feature which characterizes Yule more than anything else: an abundance of food and drink, also noted by Nordberg and Sundqvist.52 The view of Yule as a period of power shaping the future makes it clear that enjoying great quantities of food and drink during the Yule festival is more than just a matter of pleasure and enjoying a rare period of plenty. The abundance of food and drink will create the presence of the same thing in the coming year. This is why drinking and eating to excess — gluttony, even — is not only the centrepiece and most striking characteristic of the feast, it is a sacred duty, as is evident in the widespread custom that a visitor must partake of food and drink, to refuse is not acceptable, because then he ‘carries out Yule’.53 Furthermore, Þorbjörn hornklofi’s poem, in which jól is defined and constituted by the act of drinking alcolhol, springs to mind. This future-creating aspect of the festival’s abundance is actually made explicit in some sources, even though it is most often only implied.54 This is also the implicit logic underlying the table custom in those cases where the table is left out with food, not for any visitors, but because it is said in itself to bring abundance. So far, I have used the generic term ‘period of power’, but there is an established ethno­g raphic term for this phenomenon: a liminal period. The term liminality, coined by Arnold van Gennep and developed by Edmund Leach and Victor Turner, describes a situation which is set apart and separate from the normal world, normal time.55 The twelve days of Yule is clearly a liminal period, as described by van Gennep and Turner. It is a period of so-called anti-structure, meaning the invalidation of all normal rules. In this case, the cosmic rules are invalidated: the sun is said to stand still, that is, linear, progressive time is suspended.56 The borders between the cosmic spheres are broken down, so that evil powers are free to roam the Earth, and extra precaution must be taken. This 51 

Feilberg, Jul, ii, 77. Nordberg and Sundqvist, ‘Förkristen jul’, pp. 17–20. 53  Storaker, Tiden i den norske Folketro, pp. 159, 171. 54  Storaker, Tiden i den norske Folketro, p. 172; Møller, Fester og Højtider, p. 415. 55  Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, p. 21; Leach, Rethinking Anthropo­logy, pp. 132–36; Turner, The Ritual Process, pp. 94–130, 166–203; Schjødt, ‘Ritualstruktur og ritualklassifikation’, pp. 10–12. 56  Storaker, Tiden i den norske Folketro, p. 115. 52 

Bettina Sommer


is an ambivalent phase, where nothing is settled, but everything is created anew — in this case the coming year, which is the reason for the all-pervasive importance of omens and divination. This is a classic example of a liminal period: everything is amorphous and pregnant with potential, as everything new is created, and this is why everything that happens during this period influences the year to come. That Yule is a super-liminal period and the calendrical highpoint of liminality in Nordic culture, will, in fact, be obvious to anyone familiar with the concept of liminality, but the concept did not achieve scholarly prominence until c. 1960, after the study of the pre-Christian jól and the folkloristic Yule had largely been abandoned.57 I therefore find that employing the concept in this context and subjecting these sources to a closer analysis in the light of liminality will prove enlightening and will clarify the mechanisms of what takes place in the sources. For example, the liminality concept also explains why the spoken word is perceived as possessing more than ordinary power during this period: to speak of something, to name it, is to imbue it with reality, to bring it into existence. This is why, for example, during Yule, one must never speak of vermin such as rats and mice with their true names but must use various euphemisms, such as ‘the grey ones’.58 If their true names are mentioned, they will prosper and become more numerous in the coming year, due to the creative power of the liminal Yule period. This is an example of another classic feature of liminal periods: they are invariably characterized by heightened ritual control of all human behaviour, in order to control the future. Finally, some records mention the custom that it is important during the Yule period to both rise early and finish the work day early, because this will then continue the entire year, a case which again demonstrates how the Yule period creates a matrix, a pattern which the entire year will follow.59 This is just a selection of examples demonstrating that the concept of liminality is eminently applicable to the Nordic Yule and that employing it enhances our understanding of the festival. Examples are plentiful, and it is purely for convenience that I have restricted myself to a single reference in each case. I believe I have now convincingly established that Yule in the old Nordic agrarian society as seen in the folkloristic sources can be defined as a liminal 57 

Schjødt, ‘Ritualstruktur og ritualklassifikation’, pp. 1, 8. Møller, Fester og Højtider, p. 466. 59  Storaker, Tiden i den norske Folketro, p. 167. 58 

The Pre-Christian Jól


period which functioned as a New Year festival during which the coming year was created.60 Another question is whether this conclusion is valid for the preChristian jól. Here, of course, is the crux of the matter — the crucial and perhaps insurmountable problem of the method: how can the later, folkloristic sources be assumed to yield knowledge about the pre-Christian period? In Nordberg’s discussion of this problem he suggests that maybe the rejection of folkloristic sources as potentially valuable for the study of earlier periods has been too rigid, and I am inclined to agree with him.61 Even so, continuity obviously cannot be taken for granted, and in most cases we must possess sources from both ends of the time spectrum to attempt any conclusions. We must have at least some indicators for continuity between the two time periods or we are reduced to guesswork. I believe that there are sufficient indicators to support the hypothesis that the pre-Christian jól, like the later Yule, functioned as a New Year festival.62 First, it is possible to point to some basic similarities between the two feasts. It is clear from medi­eval sources, sagas, and so forth, that jól at this time was characterized by feasting, eating, drinking, just like the later Yule. As I have pointed out, this is not incidental but very likely the single main future-creating aspect of the feast, possibly the main point of the celebrations. Furthermore, the preChristian jól is generally described as a prolonged period of feasting, like the later Yule, not a single or a few days. The one trait which the sagas associate with jól/Yule is overwhelmingly the fact that it is the time of supernatural visitors, usually threatening and dangerous, very often ghosts. As we have seen, ghosts and dangerous forces are also present in the folklore records. As has likewise been pointed out, this can in no way be used as evidence of a cult of the dead but rather of a fear of the demonic forces of the winter nights and as such it does certainly forge a link between the sagas and the later folklore. Apart from establishing continuity between the two feasts, this factor is also a supporting argument for the New Year theory, in that it is a typical New 60  I hasten to point out that this conclusion is not meant to exclude multiple other possible aspects of the feast, including religious, economic, socio­logical, psycho­logical, etc. Like most religious phenomena, the festival is without doubt highly multifaceted. 61  Nordberg, Fornnordisk religionsforskning, pp. 365–67. 62  Out of necessity, I shall regard the medi­eval sources such as the sagas as our best representation of the pre-Christian jól, although this is of course subject to all the familiar uncertainties and caveats of using these texts as sources of Norse religion.


Bettina Sommer

Year trait in many cultures that the dead and other chaotic forces are wandering loose upon the earth during the New Year period. This trait is famously prominent in the Celtic Samhain festival, but it is also found in many other cultures, such as the Finnish Kekri feast, which also carries traits of a New Year festival.63 It is a fact that in many cultures the main festival of the year is New Year, and we should therefore not be surprised when we find evidence that points to the main Nordic festival as the making of the coming year. These similarities are somewhat general and unspecific, but regarding the table that brings abundance and is laid out with food for supernatural visitors at the festivals, we can actually establish a tentative continuity to pre-Christian Germanic religion. As noted earlier, this table is mentioned by Burchardus of Worms shortly after 1000 ce. In Burchardus, the table is clearly perceived as a pagan custom and interpreted as an offering to pagan Germanic deities, which can be seen as evidence that the table does, indeed, go back to pre-Christian Germanic customs. Considering that we find the same custom in the Nordic countries around 1800, this actually allows us to establish an — albeit slender — continuation from pre-Christian Germanic jól into ninteenth-century Scandinavian Yule. In both cases the recipients are not dead ancestors but other supernatural visitors. Burchardus’s specific explanation of particular powerful female visitors is also found, not in Scandinavia, but in nineteenth-century German folklore. Furthermore, there is, in fact, one saga that may also establish a tentative link to the folklore customs of divination at Yule. In Oddr Snorrason’s Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, it is told that the mother of King Valdimar of Gardariki is able to predict the future and that she does so every jól. Every year on the first eve of jól, she is carried to the king’s seat, where the assembled people ask her about the future: I þenna tima reð firir Garða riki Valldamarr konungr með miclum ueg. Sua er sagt at moðir hans var spakona oc er þat callat ibokum phitons andi er heiðnir menn spaðu. Þat geck miok eptir er hon mælti. Oc var hon þa a orvasa alldri. Þat var siþr þeira at iola aptan hinn fyrsta scylldi bera hana astoli firir hasæti konungs. Oc aðr menn tóki til dryckio þa spyrr konungr moður sina ef hon sæi eða vissi nocquorn hasca eða skaða yfir gnapa sinu riki.64

63  Green, Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, p. 185; Granlund, Kulturhistoriskt lexikon, viii, col. 371. 64  Oddr Snorrason, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, p. 20. Translation mine.

The Pre-Christian Jól


(At this time King Valldamarr ruled over Gardariki with much honour. It is said that his mother was a prophetess and in books that is called the spirit of Python when the pagans made divination. What she said usually came true. And she was then of ancient age. It was their custom on the first eve of Yule to carry her chair before the highseat of the king. And before the men began to drink, the king asked his mother if she could see or knew of any harm or damage which threatened his kingdom.)

Here is one, to my knowledge the only, explicit connection in the saga literature between jól and divination, which can be interpreted to point both to nineteenth-century divination customs and to New Year festivals in general. I therefore believe that, in addition to the general traits which characterize typical New Year festivals, Burchardus and Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar provide us with two, admittedly slender, connections between the medi­e val sources and the later Yule customs: divination as part of the festival procedings and the table as a sacrifice to supernatural visitors.

Conclusion After thorough examination of the above-mentioned sources, I would like to suggest that the jól festival not only functioned as the pre-Christian Norse New Year festival, but that this aspect was more significant and important than has previously been recognized: indeed, it may even have been the primary function of the festival. However, I agree with Nordberg and Sundqvist that there is no need to designate a single, specific function and definition to the festival since it was undoubtedly multifaceted and contained a variety of different aspects, including most certainly an important fertillity aspect as part of the creation of the coming year. As with most religious phenomena, it is a far more fruitful approach to acknowledge the multiple levels which function together to create a rich and complex whole. I merely wish to emphasize the importance of the New Year aspect which I believe has been underestimated. One significant point of this approach is that there is an important difference between simply predicting the impending year and actually creating it. When the jól/Yule period is seen as creating the coming year, this throws the rituals connected with the New Year festival into a new light and significantly alters their meaning and our understanding of them. Whereas the fertility aspect has received much attention over the years, explicitly connecting it to the concept of the creation of the coming year alters our understanding of the concept. While scholars have long been aware of the


Bettina Sommer

strong fertility component in the jól festival, applying the concept of liminality enables us to better understand the ritual mechanisms surrounding the creation of fertilitily, such as how the liminal period creates a matrix for the future. Likewise, looking through the lens of the liminality concept strenghtens and improves our understanding of many different aspects of the Yule customs, such as the heightened ritual control and the presence of anti-structure, expressed in the idea of the sun standing still and the breaking down of the barriers between different cosmic spheres. If the countless rituals of divining and creating the future year, which have most often been seen as incidental, are regarded not as a byproduct of a fertillity festival, a cult of the dead or some other function, but as the central purpose of jól/Yule in themselves, this changes the essential perspective and alters our understanding of the festival. My second conclusion pertains to the theory that a cult of the dead was a part of the Norse pre-Christian jól, which, even though it has never been universally accepted, has also never been rejected. Whereas no certain conclusions can ever be reached and the topic is notoriously unprovable either way, I believe I have presented weighty indicators that the traits of a cult of the dead found in later Scandinavian folklore do not stem from pre-Christian Norse religion but are the result of later, post-conversion influence from Finno-Ugric culture and possibly also from Catholic Christianity. As always, when working in the field of Norse pre-Christian religion, to attempt a conclusion is a daring enterprise which we must acknowledge is fraught with uncertainty. This is doubly the case when attempting to draw lines from folkloristic sources back to pre-Christian times. I only dare to undertake this endeavour because I believe that there are slender lines of evidence running from the medi­eval sources to the later ones. I therefore present my conclusion, not as a claim to have the final word on the matter but as a modest attempt at improving our understanding of the Norse jól.

The Pre-Christian Jól


Works Cited Primary Sources Andersen, Lars, Folkeliv i Skippinge og Tudse Herreder (Kolding: Konrad Jørgensens Bog­ trykkeri, 1922) Arill, David, Värmländska folkminnen, upptecknade av Edvard Olsson (Karlstad: Västsvenska folkminnesföreningen, 1932) Audoënus of Rouen, Vita Eligii, liber ii, in Patro­logiae cursus completus: series latina, ed. by Jacques-Paul Migne, 221  vols (Paris: Garnier, 1844–64), lxxxvii (1863), cap.  15, cols 0528 A–B Bergh, Hallv. A., Nye Folke-Eventyr og Sagn fra Valders (Christiania: Cappelens Forlag, 1879) Birkeli, Emil, Huskult og hinsidighetstro: Nye studier over fedrekult i Norge (Oslo: Dybwad, 1944) Burchardus of Worms, Ecclesiae episcopi decretorum libri viginti, in Patro­logiae cursus completus: series latina, ed.  by Jacques-Paul Migne, 221  vols (Paris: Garnier, 1844–64), cxl (1853), xix. 5, cols 0960D–71D Caesarius of Arles, Sermo cxxix. De Calendis Januariis. Auctor Incertus (Augustinus Hipponensis?), in Patro­logiae cursus completus: series latina, ed. by Jacques-Paul Migne, 221 vols (Paris: Garnier, 1844–64), xxxix (1863), cols 2001–02 Castrén, Eric, Historisk och Oeconomisk Beskrifning öfwer Cajanaborgs län (Åbo: Merckell, 1754) Celander, Hilding, Förkristen jul enligt norröna källor (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1955) —— , Nordisk jul (Stockholm: Hugo Gebers Förlag, 1928) —— , Västsvensk forntro och folksed. Göteborgs jubileumspublikationer xv (Gothenburg: Elanders Boktryckeri Aktiebolag, 1923) Concillium Romanum, in Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, ed.  by Giovanni Domenico Mansi (Florence: Antonii Zatta Veneti, 1766) Djurklou, Gabriel, Unnarsboarnes seder och lif (Stockholm: Central-tryckeriet, 1874) Gaslander, Gustav, Beskrivning om Swenska Allmogens Sinnelag, Seder wid de årliga Högtider (Stockholm: Lars Wennberg, 1774) Guilielmus Alvernus, Opera Omnia, tomus primus (London: Scott, 1674) Homillia de sacrilegis, in Eine Augustin fälschlich beilegte Homilia de sacrilegiis, ed. by C. P. Caspari (Christiania: Dybwad, 1886) Hyltén-Cavallius, Gunnar Olof, Wärend och Wirdarne: Ett försök i Svensk Ethno­logi, 2 vols (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1863–68) Lid, Nils, Joleband og vegetasjonsguddom (Oslo: Dybwad, 1929) Lloyd, L., Svenska allmogens plägseder (Stockholm: Berg, 1871) Montanus, Die deutschen Volksfeste, Volksbrauche und deutscher Volksglaube (Iserlohn: Julius Bädeker: 1854) Den norsk-islandske Skjaldedigtning, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, 2nd edn, 2 vols (Copen­hagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger, 1973), B-I


Bettina Sommer

Oddr Snorrason, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, ed. by Finnur Jónsson (Copen­hagen: Gads For­ lag, 1932) Reitan, A. J., Ålen (Trondheim: Aktietrykkeriet i Trondheim, 1936) St Bonifatius, Epistola xlix. Bonifacius Zachariae, in Patro­logiae cursus completus: series latina, ed.  by Jacques-Paul Migne, 221  vols (Paris: Garnier, 1844–64), lxxxix (1863), cols 0746D–47A St Hieronymus, Commentariorum in Isaiam, liber xviii, in Patro­logiae cursus completus: series latina, ed.  by Jacques-Paul Migne, 221  vols (Paris: Garnier, 1844–64), xxiv (1865), cols 0638C–39B Storaker, Joh.  Th., Folkesagn, samlede i Lister og Mandals Amt (Flekkefjord: Kjønig Hansen: 1881) —— , Tiden i den norske Folketro (Kristiania: Norsk Folkeminnelag, 1921) Tang Kristensen, Evald, Gamle folks fortællinger om det jyske almueliv, som det er blevet ført i mands minde, samt enkelte oplysende sidestykker fra øerne, 6 pts in 2 vols (Kolding: Sjodt & Weiss, 1891–93) Wegelius, J.  O., and Rob.  V. Wikman, ‘Om vidskepliga föreställningar och bruk förenade med julens firande hos den svenska allmogen i Finland’, in Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland cxxviii: Folkloristiska och etnografiska studier (Helsingfors: Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland, 1916), pp. 134–35 Weiser-Aall, Lily, ‘Julhalmen i Norge’, in Småskrift nr. 3 fra Norsk Etno­logisk Gransking (Oslo: Norsk Folkemuseum, 1953), pp. 3–66 Wigström, Eva, Folktro och sägner upptecknade i Skåne (Malmö: Framtidens Bokförlag, 1914) Þorbjǫrn hornklofi, Haraldskvæði (Hrafnsmál), in Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas, i: From Mythical Times to c. 1035, ed. by Diana Whaley, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), p. 91

Secondary Works Anttonen, Veikko, ‘Religion in Prehistoric Finland’, in The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe, ed. by Lisbeth Bredhold Christensen, Olav Hammer, and David War­ burton (Durham: Acumen, 2013), pp. 372–91 Bilfinger, Gustav, Untersuchungen über die Zeitrechnung der alten Germanen, ii: Das germanische Julfest (Stuttgart: Liebich, 1899) Birlinger, Anton, Aus Schwaben (Wiesbaden: Rillinger, 1874) de Vries, Jan, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2nd edn (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1970) Drechsler, Paul, Sitte, Brauch und Volksglaube in Schlesien, ii: Schlesiens volkstümliche Überlieferungen. Leipzig: Teubner 1906) DuBois, Thomas, ‘Finno-Ugric Tradition’, in Medi­eval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs and Customs, ed. by John Lindow, Carl Lindahl, and John McNamara (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 322–25 —— , Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999)

The Pre-Christian Jól


Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1959) Eisen, M. J., Estnische Mytho­logie (Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1925) Feilberg, Henning Frederik, Jul: Allesjælestiden, hedensk, kristen julefest, 2 vols (Copen­ hagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger, 1904–05) Green, Miranda, Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997) Hoffmann-Krayer, E., ed., Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, ix: Nachtrag: Weihnacht (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1941) Hultgård, Anders, ‘Jul’, in Reallexicon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, ed. by H. Beck and others (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2000), xvi, 100–05 Kamp, Jens, Dansk Folketro (Copen­hagen: Munksgaard, 1943) Granlund, John, ed., Kulturhistoriskt lexikon för nordisk medeltid, 22 vols (Malmö: Allhems Förlag, 1956–78) Leach, Edmund, Rethinking Anthropo­logy (London: Athlone, 1977) Lid, Nils, ed., Norsk Folkeminnelags skrifter (Oslo: Norsk Folkeminnelag 1921–40) Møller, J. S., Fester og Højtider i gamle Dage (Holbæk: Haase, 1933) Näsström, Britt-Mari, Blot: Tro og offer i det førkristne Norden (Oslo: Pax: 2001) —— , ‘Old Norse Religion’, in The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe, ed. by Lisbeth Bredhold Christensen, Olav Hammer, and David Warburton (Durham: Acumen, 2013), pp. 324–37 Nilsson, Martin P., Årets folkliga fester (Stockholm: Geber, 1936) —— , ‘Årets Højtider’, in Nordisk kultur (København: Schultz Forlag, 1938), xxii, 18 —— , ‘Studien zur Vorgeschichte des Weihnachtsfestes’, Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, 19 (1918), 52–132 Nordberg, Andreas, Fornnordisk religionsforskning mellan teori och empiri. Kulten av anfäder, solen och vegetationsandar i idéhistorisk belysning (Uppsala: Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien, 2013) —— , Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning: Kalendrar och kalendariska riter i det förkristne Norden. (Uppsala: Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien, 2006) Nordberg, Andreas, and Olof Sundqvist, ‘Förkristen jul: Kalender och kult’, Tidsskrift for religion og kultur, 2008.4 (2008), 12–25 Panzer, Friedrich, Bayerische Sagen und Bräuche: Beitrag zur deutschen Mytho­logie, 2 vols (Munich: Kaiser, 1855) Schönwerth, Fr., Aus der Oberpfalz: Sitten und Sagen, 3 vols (Theil. Augsburg: Math. Rieger’sche Buchhandlung, 1857–59) Schjødt, Jens Peter, ‘Ritualstruktur og ritualklassifikation’, Religionsvidenskabeligt Tids­ skrift, 20 (1992), 5–23 Simek, Rudolf, Dictionary of Northern Mytho­logy (Cam­bridge: Brewer, 2000) Sverrir Jakobsson, ‘Erindringen om en mægtig personlighed: den norsk-islandske historiske tradisjon om Harald Hårfagre i et kildekritisk perspektiv’, Historisk tidsskrift, 81 (2002), 213–30 Tille, Alexander, Yule and Christmas: Their Place in the Germanic Year (London: Nutt, 1899)


Bettina Sommer

Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995) Uhrskov, Anders, Højtid (Copen­hagen: Aschehoug, 1924) Van Gennep, Arnold, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975) Von See, Klaus, ‘Studien zum Haraldskvæði’, Arkiv för nordisk filo­logi, 76 (1961), 96–111 Zingerle, Ignaz V., Sitten, Bräuche und Meinungen des tiroler Volkes (Innsbruck: Der Wag­ ner’schen Universitäts-Buchhandlung, 1871)

Scandinavian Folklore Parallels to the Narrative about Selkolla in Guðmundar saga biskups Bengt af Klintberg


s has been pointed out by several scholars, Guðmundar saga biskups may be characterized as a mixture of continental Christian hagio­graphy and local Icelandic folk beliefs.1 An illuminative example is the narrative


See Cormack, ‘Fjölkunnugri konu skallatu i faðmi sofa’, and ‘Visions, Demons and Gender’; Skórzewska, Constructing a Cult. The saga, which is also called Guðmundar biskups saga and Guðmundar saga Arasonar, exists in four different versions known, respectively, as A (AM 399 4to, c. 1330–50), B (AM 657c 4to, c. 1350), C (written c. 1320–45, now extant only in seventeenth-century manu­scripts), and D (Stockholm Perg. fol. no. 5, c. 1350–60); Guðmundar sögur biskups I, ed. by Stefán Karlsson, pp. xi–xii. Abstract: The aim of the article is to investigate possible connections between the Selkolla episode in Guðmundur saga biskups and more recent Scandinavian folklore about seals. There are many legends about humans appearing in the shape of seals and vice versa, but nothing in this material shows any affinity with the ghost called Selkolla. One has to question the accuracy of the statement in the saga that people named the mountain cliff Selkollukleifar after her. The development seems to be the other way around: the place-name (which is not the only one derived from the word selkolla, ‘sealhead’) came first and gave its name to a feared ghost in the area. Some details in the narrative about Selkolla are unique, for instance, her development from a dead, unbaptized child into a sexually active succubus demon. Others are well documented in Scandinavian folklore, such as her ability to transform herself so that a man mistakes her for his wife. Like all ghosts of the dead, she cannot pass water, and she makes vehicles heavy in invisible shape; when she embarks on a ship, the gunwale sinks close to the water surface. Finally, the author discusses a possible connection between an ominous horse bone in the saga and the Scandinavian belief in life power contained in a skeleton bone. Bengt af Klintberg ([email protected]) taught folklore at the University of Stockholm in 1967–87 before he became a full-time writer. His publications amount to over forty books and numerous articles.

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 59–73 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116080

Bengt af Klintberg


in which Guðmundr exorcizes Selkolla, a demonic female being that sometimes appears with a seal’s head. Selkolla is mentioned in three of the sources on the life of Bishop Guðmundr — versions B2 and D3 give detailed accounts, while version A4 only mentions that Guðmundr expels Selkolla — most fully in an addition to version B of the saga, composed at the same time as the latter, around 1330.5 Since I am no medi­evalist, have not previously done any research on Icelandic sagas and have no intentions of taking up either, I  will not give any close analysis of Selkollu þáttr, as the story about Selkolla is known.6 Those in search of such an analysis need, however, look no further than Margaret Cormack’s contribution to the present volume. Instead, my task in this context is very much that of the folklorist, namely to point at legends from more recent Scandinavian folklore, which show similarities to the Selkolla episode, and to present a folklorist’s view on Selkollu þáttr. The Icelandic sagas are, as is well known, a rich source for the study of medi­eval Norse beliefs and world-view. Those saga scholars who have also taken an interest in the later Scandinavian legend tradition have noticed that many of the traditions documented in the sagas can likewise be found in recent legend material.7 The similarities are often so striking that one ventures to assume a continu2 

Biskupa Sögur: Fyrsta bindi, ed.  by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, pp. 604–08; chaps 34–35 of Viðbætir i: Brot úr miðsögu Guðmundar; this is the most detailed account. 3  Byskupa sögur: Þriðja bindi, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, pp. 294–313; chaps 39–43 of Guðmundar saga Arasonar efter Arngrím ábóta; this version of the saga is also detailed in its descriptions of Selkolla and contains the poem known as Selkolluvísur. See Byskupa sögur: Þriðja bindi, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, pp. 302–13. For futher discussion of this poem, see Mart Kuldkepp’s contribution to this volume. 4  Guðmundar sögur biskups i, ed. by Stefán Karlsson, p. 168; chap. 146 of Guðmundar saga A. 5  Skórzewska, Constructing a Cult, p. 99 n. 75; Guðmundar sögur biskups i, ed. by Stefán Karlsson, pp. cxxxviii–cxxxix. 6  Indeed, my command of Old Norse language fits into a very small space, and I make no pretence of doing anything other than relying on translations and works in languages other than Icelandic. This, however, is no hindrance when it comes to assessing potential similarities between motifs. As for Selkollu þáttr itself, I am relying on an unpublished English translation (based on Biskupa Sögur: Fyrsta bindi, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, pp. 604–07) kindly supplied to me by Karen Bek-Pedersen. 7  Examples of such scholars include Mitchell, Witchcraft and Magic; Lindow, Trolls: An Unnatural History; Gunnell, ‘Nordic Folk Legends’; Gísli Sigurðsson, The Medi­eval Icelandic Saga; but there are many others.

Parallels to the Selkolla Narrative in Guðmundar saga Biskups


ity between the narratives of the saga period and those of later centuries, even if there is a gap of some three hundred years between the latest sagas and the seventeenth century when legends were once again documented in writing. At this time, Scandinavian legends were recorded to an extent previously unheard of, through the so-called clerical relations or antiquity inquiries.8 The late Bo Almqvist was aware of the many correspondences between the legend material in the Icelandic sagas and Scandinavian folklore. In an article on the Swedish folklore collector Ella Odstedt’s book Norrländsk folktradition (‘Folk Tradition in Northern Sweden’), he notes that the narratives are sometimes so similar as to yield the impression that time has stood still during the span that separates them.9 Almqvist gives a number of examples of how saga narratives and later legends resemble each other: for example, the legends about arrogant chieftains who have their horses shod with shoes of gold and silver; malevolent practitioners of witchcraft who make fertile, grassy ground wither by looking at it; and famous sorcerers who can transform themselves into animals. Before taking a closer look at similarities between the tale of Selkolla and later folklore, I will summarize the main features of the narrative, as it is rendered in Guðmundar saga B, chapters 34–35. I will not account for the whole narrative, only those parts where I have found parallels in later folklore. First, the story of how Selkolla comes into being is told: Two people, a man and a woman, are given the task of bringing a newborn girl to church to be baptized. On their way to church, they are overcome with lust for one another, put the child aside and have sex. When they pick up the child, it seems to them to be both dead and horrible in appearance. This impression affects them so strongly that they dare not keep it, nor even go near it, so they return home and relate what has happened. People search for the child without finding it, but a short time later a woman is observed in the area. Her face is sometimes human, sometimes that of a seal, and therefore she is called Selkolla (‘Sealhead’). People understand that an unclean spirit has entered the body of the child.10 From this demonic being, the tale says, the rocky cliff Selkollukleifar takes its name. Then, a number of people’s encounters with Selkolla are related: Dálkr, a farmer and blacksmith living in this area, is readying his ship in a boathouse when he sees what he thinks is his wife entering the building. He has sex 8 

Bringéus, ‘Antikvitetsrannsakningarna som folkloristisk källa’. Almqvist, ‘Norrländsk folktradition’, p. 124. 10  An unbaptized child would have been considered heathen and as such fair game for the devil, as it were. 9 

Bengt af Klintberg


with her, but afterwards he realizes that she is not his wife at all but the evil spirit Selkolla. When he comes home, he is totally exhausted and goes to bed, and people have to protect him both day and night against Selkolla and her demands (ákalli).11 The spirit attacks him and other men, both indoors and outdoors, so fiercely that everyone in the area becomes frightened. When Bishop Guðmundr comes to the area, he is met by sorrow and weeping among the people who have been troubled by the unclean spirit. In the evening, when he is about to go to bed, a woman comes to him, trying to haul off his socks.12 The bishop realizes that the woman is Selkolla, he tears the socks away from her and shoves them in her face, commanding the spirit to return to where she came from. Then Selkolla sinks down into the ground. The next day the bishop has six wooden crosses made, but Selkolla appears once again, although only those of the bishop’s followers who have second sight can see her. The bishop exorcizes her into the ground a second time. Then he asks for the largest cross to be placed on that very spot. The end of the narrative tells of Selkolla inspiring fear into people of the district one final time. This occurs some time after Guðmundr has exorcized her. Dálkr, the farmer who mistook her for his wife, has died. Another man has left the shore with his sailing ship when members of the crew observe that the vessel is lying suspiciously low in the water, as if it were heavily loaded. Then they notice in the stern a raw and disgusting horse bone, and this frightens them. The weather is bad, and they dare not throw the bone overbord until they are near the other shore. When the bone sinks into the water, one of the men sees that Selkolla appears on the shore, and they all understand that they might have drowned and thank God that she was not able to harm them. Thus the tale of Selkollu þáttr as it is rendered in version B of Guðmundar saga. I will now compare the relevant parts of it to later Scandinavian folklore. The name of the demonic female ghost that is exorcized by Bishop Guðmundr, Selkolla, and the information that she sometimes appears with a seal’s head, justifies asking whether there are links between the tale of Selkolla and the folklore about seals from later centuries. Such folklore is well documented in the countries bordering the North Atlantic, such as Scotland, the Faroes, Iceland, and Norway, countries where the hunting of seals has played an 11 

Biskupa Sögur: Fyrsta bindi, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, p. 605. There is, apparently, nothing exotic about this pulling off of Guðmundr’s socks, since it was common on Icelandic farms, even into the twentieth century, that women would draw off the men’s socks at night, mend their clothes, and other such tasks. 12 

Parallels to the Selkolla Narrative in Guðmundar saga Biskups


important role in the traditional economy.13 It seems to have been a widespread idea that seals may sometimes appear in the shape of humans and, inversely, that some people may take on the shape of seals. This belief seems to have existed in Iceland during the saga period; a seal with human eyes appears in Laxdæla Saga 18.14 The transformation is often said to take place during one single night of the year, for example the night of Epiphany. In Scottish folklore, the seal people are known as selkies or selchies. The idea that seals are Pharaoh’s army, drowned in the Red Sea, has been especially well known in the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, but it also turns up in Icelandic folklore.15 The most widespread legend is the one called ‘The Seal Woman’ in Reidar Thoralf Christiansen’s The Migratory Legends (ML 4080). A man marries a woman who has exited her seal shape, and he has children with her but loses her when she discovers where he has hidden her sealskin. The legend is considered a North Atlantic ecotype of the internationally spread Swan Maiden tale and its earliest instances are no older than the seventeenth century.16 Another migratory legend, which is not encountered in Icelandic saga literature but which is well known in Scottish tradition, concerns a man who stabs his knife into a seal but fails to kill it; the seal disappears with the knife stuck into its body. Later, he recovers the knife when he visits an unknown man — the one who appeared in the shape of a seal.17 This legend (type M 101 in The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend) most frequently portrays a flying, grain-stealing witch as the target of the stabbing.18 In this rich folklore, however, I have not found any single motif that shows affinity to the figure of Selkolla. One searches in vain among the later legends for demonic female beings who appear with a human body and a seal’s head. The women who shift their shape between human being and seal in the folk legends totally lack Selkolla’s violence and aggressiveness. She is considerably closer related to the horrifying revenants and trolls of the Icelandic sagas than 13 

Krappe, ‘Scandinavian Seal Lore’; Almqvist, ‘Of Mermaids and Marriages’; Brimnes, ‘Forestillingen om sælkvinden’. 14  Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, The Folk-Stories of Iceland, p. 157; Laxdæla saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, p. 41. 15  Loorits, Faraos Heer in der Volksüberlieferung. 16  Holmström, Studier över svanjung frumotivet; Simpson, Icelandic Folktales and Legends, p. 102; Almqvist, ‘Of Mermaids and Marriages’, p. 6 n. 12. 17  Thomson The People of the Sea, pp. 16ff. 18  For references, see af Klintberg, The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend.

Bengt af Klintberg


to any of the beings that appear in more recent North Atlantic folklore about seal people. Indeed, elsewhere in Guðmundar saga we find beings that show a much closer resemblance to Selkolla than the seal people of later folklore do; in the story about Kolbeinn Tumason’s wife, who is miraculously brought back to life by Guðmundr, it is said that the wife died after she was ‘af trorllu[m] volkaða’ (tossed around by the trolls).19 A consequence of all this is that one has to question the accuracy of the statement in Guðmundar saga that the memory of the dreadful Selkolla motivated people to name a mountain cliff Selkollukleifar after her. My experience from Swedish folklore on nature spirits is that it is often the other way around; the spirits have usually been secondarily attached to already existing nature names.20 A well-known example is the tradition about Queen Omma, which has become attached to the mountain Omberg.21 According to the Icelandic place-name expert Svavar Sigmundsson, the first element, Selkollu-, can be found in several Icelandic place-names and thus it is quite possible that the nature name Selkollukleifar is older than the tale in Guðmundar saga,22 and I therefore consider it likely that Selkollukleifar could be the origin of the conceptions about the thirteenth-century female demon who was said to sometimes appear with a seal’s head. Another Icelandic place-name scholar, Jónína Hafsteinsdóttir, has recently investigated the place-name Selkollufoss and suggested that Selkollu- here may refer to a wooden vessel used in shielings and manufactured from hemispheric outgrowths on trees reminiscent of seal heads. She furthermore discusses other place-names with the first element Selkollu-, such as Selkollustein and Selkolluholt.23 My interpretation thus is that Selkolla in the tale in Guðmundar saga acquired her name because the demonic ghost was thought to have her residence in Selkollukleifar. A secondary trait is that the name has caused people to believe that she could appear with a seal’s head but nota bene only sometimes. Like most demonic beings, she had the ability to change her shape, but the tale also portrays her in the guise of a local woman and as a horse bone. 19 

Skórzewska, Constructing a Cult, p. 93; Biskupa Sögur: Fyrsta bindi, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, p. 561. This event, incidentally, appears in the appendix to Guðmundar saga B, referred to as Viðbætir in the text edition of 1848. 20  af Klintberg, The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend, p. 151. 21  Zachrisson, ‘The Queen of the Mist’. 22  Personal email from Svavar Sigmundsson, Rey­kja­vík, 6 February 2014. 23  Jónína Hafsteinsdóttir, ‘Selkolla og Selkollufoss’.

Parallels to the Selkolla Narrative in Guðmundar saga Biskups


However, although the place-name seems in this case to be primary to the demonic seal-woman, Icelandic sagas know other demons in the shape of seals. In Eyrbygg ja saga 54 we find a seal-shaped being that tries to grab the bedclothes of a deceased woman and destroys the dried fish at a farm.24 As for the episode concerning a man and a woman taking a child to be baptized, there are to the best of my knowledge no direct parallels in later folklore. The time between birth and baptism was, both in the Middle Ages and later, considered a critical period when the child was subject to perils, not least the risk of abduction by supernatural beings. A motif found in changeling legends and bearing some, more general, resemblance to that in Selkollu þáttr, is that those who carry a child to baptism are distracted on their way with fatal consequences. One example of this is a legend type, which has been documented in northern Sweden, type K141 in The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend. The father, who carries the newborn child, sees some large birds and is enticed to leave the child in order to shoot them. The fairies exchange the child for one of their own, which is baptized instead of the human baby. After some time, the parents realize that they have a changeling. The narrative about the farmer and blacksmith Dálkr in Hafnarhólm, who thinks that it is his wife who comes to the boathouse and proceeds to have sex with her, has many parallels in later legend traditions of Scandinavia. In Swedish legends, it is above all the so-called skogsrået (the forest spirit) or sjörået (the water spirit) that takes the shape of a man’s wife (The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend, type E24A). The historian Mikael Häll has recently analyzed a dozen cases wherein Swedish men or women were brought to court, accused of having sexual relations with spirits of the woods or waters. Most of them are from the seventeenth century and, since the courts interpreted such relationships as entering a pact with the devil, the punishment was frequently death. The accused men often describe the enticing demon as a woman who was partly equipped with animal attributes, for instance, a horse’s tail.25 The nature demon belongs to a lower, wilder, more animal-like level than man, and therefore sexual relationships of this kind result in the man being dragged down from the level where he belongs due to his Christian identity. But the animallike appearance is not invariable — the demon can change its shape — and that is why Selkolla only sometimes has a seal’s head. 24  Kanerva, ‘The Role of the Dead in Medi­e val Iceland’, pp. 28ff.; Eyrbygg ja saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarsson, pp. 148–50. 25  Häll, Skogsrået, näcken och djävulen, pp. 287, 349 passim.


Bengt af Klintberg

What the later legends and the account of Dálkr’s liaison with Selkolla have in common is that the man’s own strength is not enough for him to resist the spirit. This is a trait that recurs in many Scandinavian legends about men who have become victims of a forest or lake spirit or a hulder woman.26 A western Swedish legend about the forest spirit opens with the following description: Skogråa hade fått makt med en karl. Han gick till skogen kväll efter kväll. Han var pinad och mager. Men så en gång hade en hoper karlar sammangaddat sej och skulle hålla honom, när den tia blev att han skulle i väg. Skogråa ropa, men han kom inte. Då kom hon närmare och närmare. Och han blev totalt vilden, så han bet och änna tugga fragge.27 (A forest sprite had gotten a man under her power. He went to the woods night after night. He looked tormented and gaunt. But then some other men got together and decided they would hold him back the next time. The forest sprite called, but he did not come. Then she came closer and closer. And he became quite wild, biting and foaming at the mouth.)28

The tale about Selkolla differs from the later legend tradition on a central point: Selkolla is a ghost that came about from a dead, unbaptized child, although she in all other respects resembles the nature spirits of later legends. There is, as far as I know, no instance in more recent tradition of the ghost of a dead human acting in the role of a sexually active succubus demon. The Nordic ghosts of abandoned or murdered children have in most cases maintained their child character.29 This clear distinction between ghosts of the dead and spirits in nature does not seem to have existed in Iceland at the time reflected in the sagas. Jacqueline Simpson has noted ‘the essentially physical character of Icelandic ghosts’.30 Revenants and trolls act with the same horrifying wildness when they terrorize a farm or, as in the Selkolla tale, a whole district. The description of Bishop Guðmundr and his actions show both similarities to and differences from what has been told about legendary clergymen in recent Scandinavian tradition.31 Episodes lacking direct counterparts in more 26  Granberg, Skogsrået i yngre nordisk folktradition, pp. 243ff.; Guðrún Bjartmarsdóttir, ‘Vättetro i isländska huldrefolksägner’, p. 44. 27  af Klintberg, Svenska folksägner, no. 16. 28  Kvideland and Sehmsdorf, Scandinavian Folk Belief, pp. 215–16. 29  Pentikäinen, The Nordic Dead-Child Tradition. 30  Simpson, Icelandic Folktales and Legends, p. 153. 31  Bishop Guðmundr became a well-known stock figure in later Icelandic folklore, where he is often called Gvendur góði; see Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, The Folk-Stories of Iceland, p. 280.

Parallels to the Selkolla Narrative in Guðmundar saga Biskups


recent legends are those that have to do with the bishop’s missionary and saintlike activities: He christens springs, has crosses erected, and heals cripples. However, when Guðmundr exorcizes Selkolla into the ground, he acts exactly like the clergymen of the later legends when they use powerful words to force harassing revenants to sink into the ground. The episode where Guðmundr discovers that the girl who pulls off his socks is none other than Selkolla, who has taken her shape, likewise has many parallels in later legends. Guðmundr is, however, not taken in by the appearance of the girl but throws the socks in her face and makes her to sink into the earth. In a similar way, many clergymen in later legends demonstrate that they are not deceived by the illusions of the devil. As Margaret Cormack notes, temptations of spiritual men by the devil, which is otherwise common in hagio­graphic writings, hardly exist in Icelandic stories.32 In the stories of Guðmundr and other men of his kind that she cites in her article, it is laymen who are attacked by demons while the holy men solve the problem. The most interesting episode in the tale is, from my comparative perspective, the final one. It takes place after Bishop Guðmundr has left the district. Some men crossing a fjord on a sailing ship discover that the gunwale of the ship has sunk towards the surface of the water, as if it were weighed down. This is a legend motif which has been preserved in innumerable later Scandinavian legends and which reflects a widespread belief that people could be accompanied on their vehicles by invisible ghosts or revenants. The sign indicating their presence is that the vehicle becomes heavier. If the ghost has entered a ship, the gunwale sinks close to the surface of the water. If this happens on land, one becomes aware of the unbidden passenger when the horse is hardly able to pull the wagon, is sweating, and finally stops.33 There has also been a widespread belief that ghosts could not pass water.34 This belief is expressed in a well-known Swedish legend (C190 in The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend) in which a ghost calls to a man in a rowing boat and asks to be taken across the water to the opposite shore. When he enters the boat, it becomes very heavy. On the opposite shore there is another ghost who shouts: ‘Don’t come here!’ The man takes his passenger ashore and a fight breaks out between the two ghosts.


Cormack, ‘Fjölkunnugri konu skallatu i faðmi sofa’, pp. 221–22. af Klintberg, ‘“Gast” in Swedish Folk Tradition’. 34  Haavio, ‘“För strömdrag rygga de tillbaka”’. 33 

Bengt af Klintberg


In Guðmundar saga, the men discover a raw and disgusting horse bone in the stern. It is not explicitly said, but my interpretation of the motif is that this is Selkolla who has entered the ship in the shape of a horse bone. The men wait until they reach shallow water near land before they throw the horse bone overboard. Why?, one might ask. The answer must be that they suspect that Selkolla could otherwise have caused a storm that would have drowned them all. Sure enough, they see Selkolla on the shore near the spot where they throw the bone overboard. The belief expressed here survived for a long time in Scandinavian narrative tradition and has been treated by, among others, C. W. von Sydow, H. F. Feilberg, and Louise Hagberg.35 In brief, its essence is that the soul or some kind of life force remains in the skeletons of the dead, which makes it possible for the dead to materialize in the human shape he or she had when still alive. Most legends on this theme take place after nightfall. A widespread Swedish legend concerns a man on a horse-drawn wagon who is out late and gets the impression that the load has become heavier. He suspects that a ghost might have entered the wagon, but upon turning around he cannot see anything. However, when he stabs with his knife into the darkness behind him, he notices that the load seems to disappear. In the morning, he discovers a piece of a bone from a skeleton on the point of his knife (type C183 in The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend). In another legend, a ghost is blocking a road or a footbridge for a man who is walking in the darkness. The man pulls out his rapier and runs it into the ghost. The ghost exhorts the man to pull out the rapier and thrust better, which the man refuses to do. He remains standing with his weapon stuck into the ghost’s body until the sun rises. Then the ghost disappears, but on the point of the rapier there remains a piece of bone from the skeleton (type C181 in The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend). The bone most often mentioned in the records is the top vertebra, which has many vernacular names such as gaststycket (the ghost piece), dökotan (the death vertebra), bölkota (the executioner’s vertebra), or heligbenet (the holy bone). In Icelandic legends, the word banakringla (death disc) occurs. But there are records stating that the bone is a shoulder blade and records not specifying which bone of the human skeleton it might be. The important issue seems to


von Sydow, ‘Tors färd till Utgård’, pp. 68ff.; Feilberg, ‘Dödskota’; Hagberg, När döden gästar, pp. 600ff.

Parallels to the Selkolla Narrative in Guðmundar saga Biskups


have been the thought that the ability of a dead person to come alive was stored in the skeleton. Several of the later Icelandic legends express the same idea as the Swedish ones. But in Iceland there are also legends of sorcerers who come across the banakringla of a dead person and create a so-called sending from it. A sending is a ghost that could be sent out to people in the area to cause damage or to steal food and drink. Jacqueline Simpson’s Icelandic Folktales and Legends contains two such examples, both taken from Jon Árnason’s collection.36 One of them is entitled ‘The Neckbone on the Knife’, the other is called ‘The Vertebra’. A widow who has second sight sees a black ghost with a white mark on its body entering the larder where she keeps her food. She stabs a knife into the white spot but loses her grip on the knife, just as if it were jerked out of her hand. The next morning, the knife is found in the courtyard with the top vertebra from a man’s back on its point. In the other legend, the bone of a dead ghost sent out by a sorcerer is found on the prong of a pitchfork.37 In the story about Selkolla, it is not a vertebra that constitutes the visible part of the ghost but a horse bone. Even so, I think this concerns the same belief complex: namely, that some kind of life spirit or life force remains in the skeleton or a specific part of it after the death of both humans and animals. In this context, we may recall the well-known ancient practice among the Sami to bury all the bones of a bear in their proper skeleton position, after which the life spirit of the skeleton would revive the animal. The same idea surfaces in the well-known myth about Thor’s goats from Gylfaginning 44.38 The article by Feilberg mentioned earlier contains ethno­graphic data showing that we are dealing here with a global set of conceptions about the skeleton as the residence of the soul or the life spirit.39 One may then ask: how could the bone of a horse remind the men of Selkolla? The answer is, I  believe, Selkolla’s capacity for changing shape. Sometimes she appears with a seal’s head, but she can also take on the shape of women in the community. Therefore it is less odd than it might first seem that the men suspect Selkolla of sneaking on board in the form of a horse bone. The Swedish ethno­logist Albert Nilsson40 proposed the term ‘dominant inter36 

Jon Árnason, Íslenzkar þjoðsögur og æfintýri, i. Simpson, Icelandic Folktales and Legends, pp. 152–53. 38  von Sydow, ‘Tors färd till Utgård’, pp. 65ff. 39  Feilberg, ‘Dödskota’. 40  Much of his work was published under the name Albert Eskeröd. 37 

Bengt af Klintberg


est’ (intressedominant) for a phenomenon that dominates people’s world-view and makes them interpret external sensory impressions in accordance with this world-view.41 Dominant interest, then, functions as a psycho­logical explanation for people’s ideas about unusual or supernatural experiences. What this means is that, when questions fill the mind, dominant interest constitutes the window through which the external world is observed and interpreted. In the Icelandic district that Bishop Guðmundr visited, Selkolla was a dominant interest and therefore the local people linked eerie and unusual events to her. To conclude: I  am convinced that a comparative perspective involving Icelandic sagas and later legend tradition could inspire many fruitful studies. Even if the changes that over the centuries have taken place in people’s worldview must not be underestimated, many elements in narrative tradition do show a remarkable continuity.

Postscript During the discussion following after my paper on Selkollu þáttr at the conference ‘Sagas, Legends and Trolls: From Early Modern back to Old Norse’, held in Tartu, 12–14 June 2014, an interesting alternative interpretation of the horsebone episode was suggested by my colleague Frog. Could it be that Selkolla has made herself invisible when she enters the ship, and that she brings with her the raw and disgusting horse bone? Horseflesh was not allowed to be eaten since this aroused strong associations to pagan cult; it is therefore likely that the horse bone possessed an ominous significance in the recently Christianized Icelandic society. I can in no way deny the possibility that this interpretation comes closer to the intentions of the medi­eval Icelandic Selkollu þáttr than the one put forward in my paper, namely, that Selkolla herself takes the shape of a horse bone. My interpretation is influenced by the fact that many later Scandinavian legends contain the idea that a demonic being transforms itself into an object. Examples in The Types of the Swedish Folk Legends are a log, a bowl, a pitchfork, and a feather (C261, C263–264, F132, Q23, Q25–26, and S10).


Nilsson, ‘Interessedominanz und Volksüberlieferung’.

Parallels to the Selkolla Narrative in Guðmundar saga Biskups


Works Cited Primary Sources Biskupa Sögur: Fyrsta bindi, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon (Copen­ hagen: Møller, 1858) Byskupa sögur: Þriðja bindi — Hólabyskupar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson (Rey­kja­vík: Íslendinga­ sagnaútgáfan, 1948) Eyrbygg ja saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 4 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1935) Guðmundar sögur biskups i: Ævi Guðmundar biskups, Guðmundar saga A, ed. by Stefán Karlsson, Editiones Arnamagnæana, ser. B, 6 (Copen­hagen: Reitzel, 1983) Jon Árnason, Íslenzkar þjoðsögur og æfintýri, 2 vols (Leipzig: Heinrichs, 1862–64) Laxdæla saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 5 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1934)

Secondary Works Almqvist, Bo, ‘Of Mermaids and Marriages: Seamus Heaney’s “Maighdean Mara” and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “an Mhaighdean Mhara” in the Light of Folk Tradition’, Béaloideas, 58 (1990), 1–74 —— , ‘Norrländsk folktradition — ett äreminne över en folkminnessamlare’, Svenska lands­mål och svenskt folkliv (2005), 115–34 Brimnes, Anna, ‘Forestillingen om sælkvinden i vestnordisk tradition’, Unifol (1991/92), 99–121 Bringéus, Nils-Arvid, ‘Antikvitetsrannsakningarna som folkloristisk källa’, in Rann­ sakningar efter antikviteter: Ett symposium om 1600-talets Sverige, ed. by Evert Badou and Jon Moen (Stockholm: Gyllenstiernska Krapperupsstiftelsen, 1995), pp. 79–95 Christiansen, Reidar Thoralf, The Migratory Legends: A  Proposed List of Types with a Systematic Catalogue of the Norwegian Variants, Folklore Fellows Communications, 175 (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1958) Cormack, Margaret, ‘Fjölkunnugri konu skallatu i faðmi sofa: Sex and the Supernatural in the Sagas of Icelandic Bishops’, Skáldskaparmál, 2 (1992), 221–28 —— , ‘Visions, Demons and Gender in the Sagas of Icelandic Saints’, Collegium Medi­evale 72 (1994), 185–209 Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, The Folk-Stories of Iceland, rev. by Einar G. Pétursson, trans. by Benedikt Benedikz, ed. by Anthony Faulkes, Viking Society for Northern Research, Text Series, 16 (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2003) Feilberg, H. F., ‘Dödskota’, Fataburen (1913), 99–104 Gísli Sigurðsson, The Medi­eval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method (Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004) Granberg, Gunnar, Skogsrået i yngre nordisk folktradition (Uppsala: Lundequistska bok­ handeln, 1935)


Bengt af Klintberg

Guðrún Bjartmarsdóttir, ‘Vättetro i isländska huldrefolksägner’, in Nordisk hedendom: Et symposium, ed.  by Gro Steinsland (Odense: Odense Universiteitsforlag, 1991), pp. 41–46 Gunnell, Terry, ‘Nordic Folk Legends, Folk Traditions and Grave Mounds: The Value of Folkloristics for the Study of Old Nordic Religions’, in New Focus on Retrospective Methods: Resuming Methodo­logical Discussions — Case Studies from Northern Europe, ed. by Eldar Heide and Karen Bek-Pedersen, Folklore Fellows Communications, 307 (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2014), pp. 17–41 Haavio, Martti, ‘“För strömdrag rygga de tillbaka”: Ett bidrag till de folkliga föreställningarna om färden till dödsriket’, Arv (1947), 155–75 Hagberg, Louise, När döden gästar: Svenska folkseder och svensk folktro i samband med död och begravning (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1937) Holmström, Helge, Studier över svanjungfrumotivet i Volundarkvida och annorstädes (Malmö: Maiander, 1919) Häll, Mikael, Skogsrået, näcken och djävulen: Erotiska naturväsen och demonisk sexualitet i 1600- och 1700-talens Sverige (Stockholm: Malört, 2013) Jónína Hafsteinsdóttir, ‘Selkolla og Selkollufoss’, in Geislabaugur fægður Margaret Cormack sextugri 23. ágúst 2012, ed. by Margrét Eggertsdóttir and others (Rey­kja­vík: Menningar- og minningarsjóður Mette Magnussen, 2012), pp. 48–50 Kanerva, Kirsi, ‘The Role of the Dead in Medi­eval Iceland: A Case Study of Eyrbygg ja saga’, Collegium Medi­evale, 24 (2011), 23–49 af Klintberg, Bengt, ‘“Gast” in Swedish Folk Tradition’, Temenos, 3 (1968), 83–109 —— , Svenska folksägner (Stockholm: Pan, 1972) —— , The Types of the Swedish Folk Legend, Folklore Fellows Communications, 300 (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2010) Krappe, Alexander H., ‘Scandinavian Seal Lore’, Scandinavian Studies and Notes, 18 (1944), 156–62 Kvideland, Reimund, and Henning  K. Sehmsdorf, eds, Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) Lindow, John, Trolls: An Unnatural History (London: Reaktion, 2014) Loorits, Oskar, Faraos Heer in der Volksüberlieferung (Tartu: K. Mattiesens Buchdruckerei, 1935) Mitchell, Stephen A., Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) Nilsson (Eskeröd), Albert, ‘Interessedominanz und Volksüberlieferung’, Acta Ethno­logica 1936.3 (1936), 165–86; repr. in Swedish as ‘Intressedominans och folktradition’, in Folkdikt och folktro, ed. by Anna Birgitta Rooth (Lund: Gleerup, 1971), pp. 169–86 Pentikäinen, Juha, The Nordic Dead-Child Tradition: Nordic Dead-Child Beings. A Study in Comparative Religion, Folklore Fellows Communications, 202 (Helsinki: Suoma­ lainen Tiedeakatemia, 1968) Simpson, Jacqueline, Icelandic Folktales and Legends, 2nd  edn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979)

Parallels to the Selkolla Narrative in Guðmundar saga Biskups


Skórzewska, Joanna, Constructing a Cult: The Life and Veneration of Guðmundr Arason (1161–1237) in the Icelandic Written Sources, The Northern World, 51 (Leiden: Brill, 2011) von Sydow, C. W., ‘Tors färd till Utgård’, Danske Studier (1910), 65–105, 145–82 Thomson, David, The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend (London: Turnstile, 1954) Zachrisson, Torun, ‘The Queen of the Mist and the Lord of the Mountain: Oral Traditions of the Landscape and Monuments in the Omberg Area of Western Östergötland’, Current Swedish Archaeo­logy, 2 (2003), 119–38

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla Margaret Cormack


agas about a controversial Icelandic holy man, Bishop Guðmundr Arason, provide some of our best evidence of fourteenth-century Icelanders’ concerns regarding dangerous supernatural beings.1 One of the most striking of these, the creature known as ‘Selkolla’ (seal-head), is first referred to in the thirteenth century in a passing reference in Íslendinga saga written by Sturla Þórðarson (d. 1284). This saga was incorporated into the compilation Sturlunga saga (c. 1300)2 and into the A version of Guðmundar saga Arasonar from the early fourteenth century. In a description of Bishop Guðmundr Arason’s movements in 1210, Sturlunga states that: 1  I thank Carol Leininger, Einar G. Pétursson, Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir, Gunnvör Karlsdóttir, and Rósa Þorsteinsdóttir for help and suggestions with this article. All opinions or errors are my own. 2  The earliest manu­scripts, both copies of earlier ones, are AM 122a fol. (c. 1350–1370) and AM 122b fol. (1375–1400).

Abstract: The saga of Guðmundr Arason contains several accounts of Guðmundr’s conflicts with monsters called flagð or trollkona. Selkolla, the subject of one of its more detailed accounts, does not fit neatly into known categories of supernatural beings, neither those of the Middle Ages nor those familiar from more recent folklore. The medi­eval story of Selkolla was composed by an Icelandic cleric who drew on native and learned traditions to create a terrifying exemplum designed to promote certain ecclesiastical ideals. Selkolla takes on very different forms in nineteenth-century folklore. Twentieth-century accounts appear to be influenced by the publication of the medi­e val narrative. Translations and summaries of both medi­e val and more recent stories about Selkolla allow readers to consider the extent to which folklore can be used to interpret medi­eval texts. Margaret Cormack ([email protected]) is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston and Affiliate Professor of the Faculty of Theo­logy and Religious Studies, University of Iceland. Her research focuses on medi­eval Icelandic religious history and folklore, in particular the cult of saints.

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 75–103 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116081

Margaret Cormack


En um vetrinn var hann á Breiðabólstað í Steingrímsfirði með Bergþóri Jónssyni, ok urðu þar margir hlutir þeir, er frásagnar væri verðir ok jartegnum þótti gegna, þótt þat sé eigi ritat í þessa bók, bæði þat, er biskup átti við flagð þat, er þeir kölluðu Selkollu, ok margt annat.3 (During the winter he was at Breiðabólstaður in Steingrímsfjörður with Bergþórr Jónsson, and many things took place that were worth telling of and amounted to miracles, even though they are not written in this book, both the dealings of the bishop with the flagð who they called Selkolla, and much more.)4

The earliest surviving version of the tale itself appears in AM 204 fol., which can be traced to an early fourteenth-century manuscript containing Guðmundar saga.5 While this manuscript makes use of Íslendinga saga, the narrative about Selkolla is not found at the appropriate chrono­logical position but in an addition containing a collection of miraculous materials. A fourteenth-century reviser of the saga about Guðmundr attributes the saga’s Selkolla narrative to Sturla Þórðarson.6 Sturla has also been credited with the delivery of another story about a troll-woman to no less a person than the queen of Norway.7 It is possible that Sturla himself wrote the story but omitted it from the politically focused Íslendinga saga. However, the compiler of Sturlunga saga is known to have deleted material of a miraculous nature from his sources. The emphasis on sex and on the necessity of baptism in the medi­ eval narrative suggest that a cleric, rather than Sturla, was the author. Before discussing the narrative in detail, it is worth quoting the story in its entirety.

The Medi­eval Narrative Now the event shall be told that took place earlier in the story, before he went abroad, when Bishop Guðmundr was in Steingrímsfjörður and overcame a demon that injured people and wrought so much havoc that a comparable example cannnot be found in that period of Christianity.8 A baby girl was born on a farm called á 3 

Sturlunga saga, ed. by Jón Jóhannesson, Magnús Finnbogason, and Kristján Eldjárn, i, 254–55; Sturlunga saga, ed. by Kålund and Hansen, i, 290; Guðmundar sögur biskups i, ed. by Stefán Karlsson, p. 168. 4  Unless otherwise stated, translations are my own. I use medi­e val spelling for personal names, and modern spelling for place-names so that they can be found on a map. 5  For sagas about Guðmundr Arason, see Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’. 6  Biskupa sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon (hereafter BS), ii, 78. 7  Sturlunga saga, ed. by Kålund and Hansen, ii, 326. 8  The comment that the haunting was unheard of ‘in that period of Christianity’ must

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla


Eyjar, north of Kaldaðarnes. Two people, a man and a woman, were appointed to take it to be baptized at Staður in Steingrímsfjörður, because there was no church at Kaldaðarnes at that time.9 When they came to Miklisteinn (‘the big rock’) they lay down, and the woman put the baby aside, and he lay with the woman. And when they came to the baby it looked dead and evil-looking and they left it behind. And when they had gone a short distance they heard the crying of a baby and went towards the noise. It appeared to them even more evil-looking than before, and they didn’t dare to come near it. They went home and told everything clearly at that time. People went to look for the child and didn’t find it; but a little later a woman appeared there, not beautiful in appearance because she sometimes seemed to have a seal’s head: for that reason she was called ‘Selkolla’. People understood from this happening that an unclean spirit had entered the body of the child, and the fiend could be seen by day as well as at night; the name ‘Selkollu-Kleifar’ (‘Selkolla cliffs/ shelves’) derives from this. There was a farmer named Dálkr, son of Þórir. He lived at Hafnarhólmur in Steingrímsfjörður when these events took place; he was a craftsman, and was considered to be a popular man.10 There was another craftsman called Þórgils, son of Dálkr; his wife was Vígdís, she was attractive and a good housekeeper.11 One day the farmer was alone in the boathouse working on his ship. He was lustful, and during the day it seemed to him that his wife came into the boathouse; he began to caress her, because they were accustomed to such sport. Now he lay with this woman (no less fiend than woman, in that the fiend was sent to cause shame to him and harm to others) and when they separated, he began to realize that it had not been his wife but rather the unclean spirit Selkolla. He tried to go home, but Selkolla wouldn’t part from him, and he was extremely exhausted when he came home, and deprived of all human nature,12 but realized who he was and knew what had happened to him. He took to his bed and people had to defend him from Selkolla, from the attack of that devil, day and night. The fiend was so bold that throughout the district even strong men didn’t dare travel on necessary business. refer to the fact that in the sagas of Icelanders stories of hauntings and revenants are usually set in the conversion or pre-conversion period (c. 1000 and earlier); they were typically associated with paganism. 9  The church at Kaldaðarnes was probably consecrated in 1317, the same year as the nearby church at Eyri í Bitru was consecrated by the same bishop; cf. Diplomatarium Islandicum, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and others (hereafter DI), ii, 407–09. 10  In the sagas popularity is indicative of good character. 11  The wording of the saga suggests that Þorgils is the son of a different Dálkr than the one just mentioned. He is presumed to be identical to Þorgils dani later in the story. 12  ór allri mannligri náttúru. As the following phrase indicates, the reference is to his mental state. Beings that have been ‘taken’ by the trolls tend to end up looking troll-like, as in the account of Guðríðr in Guðmundar saga (see BS, i, 560–61, and ii, 140).

Margaret Cormack


The fiend walked during the daytime as well as at night, and there was no-one in the district who was not fearful, because she could appear anywhere; she rose up from the earth, inside as well as outside. She attacked Dálkr so fiercely that no-one dared come near him. Þorgils dani lay beside Dálkr during the night.13 One night Selkolla attacked Þorgils, and put both his eyes out, and then both of them lay there, one half dead and the other in a miserable state, and the troubles increased.14 […] Now Bishop Guðmundr went to Hafnarhólmur at the request of Ólafr and Helgi and many others, to pray to God for the miserable people who were in a bad way on account of the unclean spirit that went about there. The bishop and his clerks were six in total, and all but the bishop were terrified. He arrived in the evening, and it was not pleasant to come there because of the misery of the people and the stench in the buildings.15 The people who were tormented by the unclean spirit grieved and wept: consolation for the misery of the people there had arrived. Nothing happened, and a bed was prepared for the bishop in the main room on the right side opposite the entrance; the bishop made the sign of the cross over the sick men, and then went to his bed, and sat down on it and got ready to undress. The servant was afraid to take the bishop’s leggings off; at once a woman, as it seemed to them, ran forward, and grasped the bishop’s foot and pulled his leggings off.16 Now the bishop sees what kind of woman it is, that Selkolla had arrived, the fosterling of the farmer Dálkr,17 and she doesn’t conceal herself from the bishop. The bishop sees that something must be done, grabs the leggings from her and strikes her head with them, and orders that fiend to go down where it had come from, and that happened, she sank down into the ground. Then the bishop had all the inhabitants of the farm stay in the main room with him during the night. People didn’t sleep much, and the bishop prayed most of the time. In the morning the bishop had six crosses made, one of them very large, so that few harbor-crosses are larger, and went to Hamar, where there was a chapel. When he crossed the brook that separated the farms, Selkolla came up [out of the ground] 13 

It was normal for two people to share a bed. BS, i, 604–05. 15  Evil spirits are often accompanied by a horrible smell: see Appendix, ‘Guðmundr in Kerlingarfjörður’; Jóns saga ins helga, ed. by Sigurgeir Steingrímsson, Ólafur Halldórsson, and Foote, p. 300. In recent folklore, it is believed that draugar can also be recognized by their smell (Einar G. Pétursson, personal communication). 16  It was traditionally the duty of serving women to pull off men’s footgear. That a male servant is assigned this task for Guðmundr (and is apparently too awestruck to carry it out) may be due to Guðmundr’s clerical status and/or his growing reputation for sanctity. An episode similar to this one is found in Laxdæla saga, where the housewife treats a serving-woman (who was also her husband’s mistress) the same way as Guðmundr treats Selkolla; Laxdæla saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, p. 28. 17  The term fóstri/a usually refers to a foster or adoptive parent, child, or sibling; when applied to Selkolla, it implies that a similarly close and unbreakable relationship has been created. 14 

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla


and wanted to taunt his followers, but only those with second sight saw her. When the bishop saw her, he made the sign of the cross towards her, and said: ‘go down, unclean spirit, and never come up in the Westfjord quarter, and don’t harm anyone here from this day onwards, and don’t make it necessary for me to drive you down for the third time in the name of God’. And at once she went down into the ground, and they went to Hamar and celebrated mass there; and the bishop blessed the six crosses that he had previously had made, and he ordered that the water that he had consecrated for the crosses should be poured onto the south side of the chapel roof and said that people would benefit from the grass that grew there if they did as he said, and told them always to leave some of the outermost sod when re-roofing.18 Then the bishop departed from Hamar with the crosses, and when he came to where Selkolla had sunk down, he ordered the large cross to be set up there, to stand there as long as the wood survived; people should venerate it with lights and prayer in honour of God and the Holy Cross.19 People visit it as they do holy places and burn lights before that cross, outside just as if inside a church, even in stormy weather. Then Bishop Guðmundr returned to Hafnarhólmur and set up the other crosses in the four directions, and he put the fifth in the main room where Selkolla went down when struck by his leggings. These crosses stand there to this day. Bishop Guðmundr said that the farmer Dálkr should be taken to Staður, and said he would live only a few days, and it happened as the bishop said; Dálkr died when he came to Staður, but Þorgils dani lived for a long time after that, but was blind for the rest of his life.20 A man was called Teitr, father of Steingrímr who lived at Kambur on Strandir. After the death of Dálkr Teitr went over the bay Flói to Miðfjörður. When they had put out from the land, they thought it strange that the ship floated as if laden to the sinking point, though they didn’t have anything in it. Then they saw a raw and unpleasant-looking horse-bone in the stern of the ship. They became fearful when they saw it, and said that they should throw it overboard, but delayed doing so because the wind was so strong that they were in fear of their lives and there was no opportunity to throw the bone away. They went swiftly across the bay and landed at Hvammsnaustar, and as soon as the ship touched bottom Teitr threw the bone overboard. Then one of them saw that Selkolla went up onto the land where the bone landed, and thus they departed from each other.21 They thanked God that Selkolla had been unable to harm them. They had met Bishop Guðmundr earlier in the day, and received a blessing from him before they set off; he told them to go safely in God’s peace.22 18 

The chapel would have been thatched with growing turf. For the cult of the Holy Cross in Iceland, see Cormack, The Saints in Iceland, pp. 102–07. 20  BS, i, 608–09. 21  Presumably Selkolla, like some other supernatural beings, was unable to cross water by herself. 22  BS, i, 608; cf. BS, ii, 76–87. 19 

Margaret Cormack


Place-Names I agree with Bengt af Klintberg that the place-name ‘Selkollukleifar’ is likely to have preceded the story of the seal-headed woman.23 The area where these events take place is known today as Selströnd (seal-shore), where seals gathered and were hunted until firearms led to a decrease in their numbers in the eighteenth century.24 Several other ‘seal-head’ place-names were known in the twentieth century: one ‘Selkollur’ is a skerry that looks like a seal’s head at Tunga in Tálknafjörður, another is a stone covered with seaweed where seals bask at low tide.25 There is also a Selkollufoss (Selkolla waterfall), with no obvious connection with seals; Jónína Hafsteinsdóttir suggests that the gorge into which it empties is reminiscent of a giant chamber pot (another possible meaning of kolla). If we assume that seals were inclined to gather or stick up their heads in the vicinity of the cliffs, the genitive plural of kollur (head, pate) could have given rise to ‘Selkollakleifar’, which, given the minimal stress that the middle vowel would have received, could easily have been pronounced and interpreted as if it were a feminine singular noun with a genitive ending -u, ‘Selkollukleifar’, appropriate for a seal-headed female monster.

Medi­eval Saints and Monsters The episodes involving Selkolla clearly illustrate Guðmundr’s saintly power, and this portion of the saga was probably compiled with the the intention of promoting his canonization.26 Guðmundr’s ability to deal with trolls sets him apart from Iceland’s other two native saints, Þorlákr and Jón. If the reference in Íslendinga saga is contemporary, he was believed to have done so within his own lifetime, or a generation thereafter. While Ármann Jakobsson has pointed out that the word ‘troll’ can be used for a variety of supernatural ‘others’,27 it has been noted that in Iceland, as well as in the earliest example from skaldic poetry, ‘trolls’ tend to be predominately female.28 It is from such supernatural 23 

This and other references to Prof. af Klintberg refer to his article in this volume. Vestfirzkar þjóðsögur ii, ed. by Arngrímur Fr. Bjarnason, p. 13. 25  Jónina Hafsteinsdóttir, ‘Selkolla og Selkollufoss’, p. 49. 26  See Mart Kuldkepp’s essay in this volume. 27  Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Hvað er tröll?’. 28  For the skaldic example, see Arnold, ‘Hvat er troll nema þat?’, pp. 120–21. For more on trolls, see most recently Schulz, Riesen, and Lindow, Trolls: An Unnatural History. 24 

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla


female monsters, known as troll women or skessur in both medi­eval sagas and nineteenth-century folklore, that Guðmundr protects his followers. They are referred to in Guðmundar saga as flögð or trollkonur. Another term for them that appears to be a taboo avoidance is kerling (old woman) found in the place-name Kerlingarfjörður, a fjord which his saga claims had been terribly haunted until the monsters (flögð and óvættir) were driven away by Guðmundr. Guðmundr also saves a man travelling to church at night from attack by a creature called both flagð and trollkona (for these episodes, see Appendix). Guðmundr thus seems to have taken over the job of defender against dangerous supernatural beings that had been unfilled since the departure of the god Þórr at the adoption of Christianity.29 No comparable episodes with people being defended from trolls, male or female, are found in the sagas of St Þorlákr or St Jón, both written about a century earlier than Guðmundr’s. The authors of these works comment on the lack of life-time miracles performed by their protagonists, as opposed to postmortem appearances in dreams or visions, which are ascribed to both saints. This is not surprising because the amount of folkloric material in sagas about the Icelandic saints reflects the length of time that has passed between their lifetimes and the time of writing. In Þorláks saga, based on a Latin vita and composed within a few years of Þorlákr’s death, miracles are largely limited to traditional vows and apparitions, usually involving cures. St Jón Ögmundarson had been dead for some eighty years when his story was composed in Latin and then translated into Icelandic, and the author probably felt free to supplement his material with episodes involving dangerous supernatural beings. The author of Jóns saga tells how St Jón deals with demonic beings who attack humans, but he presents them differently from the author of Guðmundar saga. A man called Sveinn is said to have been deceived by a demon in the form of a woman and now wanders around aimlessly, very much like someone who has slept with a skogsrån (see Appendix and the discussion of nineteenthcentury folklore below). Similar symptoms are described in the Eddic poem Hávamál’s warning against sleeping with a witch: 29 

In Norway St Olaf took over the role of Þórr as giant-slayer. In Iceland it is possible that St Martin, whose saga (translated from a Latin vita) describes his dealings with pagans and demons, may have had a similar reputation in some circles: two churches at either end of a major route across the highlands, prime territory for monsters, are dedicated to him, at Haukadalur in Biskupstungur and Hof in Goðdalir. He also appears, after the Virgin Mary and before St Þorlákr, to free a woman from a demonic attack; Jóns saga ins helga, ed. by Sigurgeir Steingrímsson, Ólafur Halldórsson, and Foote, p. 301.

Margaret Cormack


fjǫlkunnigri kono skalattu í faðmi sofa, svá at hon lýki þik liðom; hón svá gorir, at þú gáir eigi þings né þióðans máls; mat þú villat né mannzkis gaman – fer þú sorgafullr at sofa. (in a witch’s arms you should never sleep, so she encloses you with her limbs; she’ll bring it about that you won’t care about the Assembly or the king’s business; you won’t want food nor the society of people, sorrowful you’ll go to sleep.)30

The demon never appears directly on the scene. St Jón cures Sveinn by recognized pastoral means, talking to him till be comes back to himself. In an episode which first appears in versions written many years after the original saga, when Jón’s sancity had been recognized for a century or more, St Jón appears posthumously to deal with animate corpses (draugar, sg. draugr), although the saga’s author vacillates between calling them draugar and referring to them as a mere illusions (sjónhverfingar).31 The beings dealt with by Guðmundr are definitely not thought to be illusory, nor are they human witches.

Selkolla The Icelandic flögð whom Selkolla most closely resembles are monstrous beings associated with uninhabited, mountainous areas. That the baby is put down beside a big rock may be significant, as stones were known to be habitations of supernatural beings; conceivably the author had in mind that the demon that entered the child’s body lived in the rock. However, Selkolla could also appropriately be designated a draugr, although in the sagas draugar are normally adults. They can be amorously inclined; in Eyrbygg ja saga, the deceased Þorólfr bægifótr attacks his wife more than anyone else, and she has almost gone 30 

Hávamál, st.  113–14. See Edda, ed.  by Neckel and Kuhn, p.  35; The Poetic Edda, trans. by Larrington, p. 27. 31  See Jóns saga ins helga, ed. by Sigurgeir Steingrímsson, Ólafur Halldórsson, and Foote, pp. 249–52. The episode is an addition in the L version of the saga, written a century or so after Jón’s translation and the composition of the original Jóns saga, which is best represented by version S. The care taken to provide a chain of informants for the story of the draugar suggests that special pleading was necessary if the tale was to be believed (p. 252).

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla


mad when she eventually dies.32 In Eiríks saga rauða a recently deceased woman tries to get into bed with the sick husband of another woman.33 It takes reburying and cremation to get rid of the very physical Þorólfr in Eyrbygg ja saga; even after cremation, his ashes have baleful effects. In Selkolla’s case cremation is impossible, as her body is inaccessible. The crosses planted at the locations where she has risen out of the ground, presumably to prevent her using those routes again, are paralleled in later Danish folklore.34 Þorólfr bægifótr was most active in the dark; Selkolla is so powerful that she is visible in daylight, and is called a ‘midday demon’ (miðdegisdjöfull) by a later redactor of her story;35 she can sometimes be seen by ordinary people, not just those with second sight. We are told that even strong men were so terrified they did not dare travel between farms, although the walls of the house are in fact no protection: Þorgils dani, sleeping in the same bed as Dálkr, presumably to protect him, is attacked by Selkolla and has his eyes put out. Dálkr himself is exhausted, nearly but not quite out of his mind, and sick in some undefinable way.36 For the non-human part of Selkolla’s physical appearance — her seal’s head — there are no exact parallels. A few accounts of supernatural seals were composed in medi­e val Iceland. Prof. af Klintberg mentions the seal with ‘human eyes’ of Laxdæla saga; this seal is described as huge, and is undoubtedly to be understood as the revenant Hrappr, who causes the drowning of Þorsteinn surtr, who had taken charge of Hrappr’s family’s wealth and was planning to move to the farm where Hrappr had lived. Þorsteinn was apparently unconcerned that when Hrappr’s own son started to live on the farm, he went mad and died shortly thereafter.37 32 

Eyrbygg ja saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarsson, p. 93. He also causes loud thunderings, dunur miklar — the same sound that is heard in Kerlingarfjörður — and rode the skáli, the main hall. 33  Eiríks saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarsson, p. 215. 34  See Tangherlini, ‘“Who ya gonna call?”’, p. 171. The traditional Icelandic expression for ‘go to Hell’ is ‘go north and down’ (far norður og niður), those being the directions with which the devil is associated. 35  BS, ii, 78. Generally speaking, supernatural beings of whatever nature appear to be most active after dark, and thus, at Iceland’s latitude, in winter rather than summer, and most of all at mid-winter, which is a very liminal time. See ‘Selkolla 2’ below, and Gunnell, ‘The Coming of the Christmas Visitors’. 36  After the Reformation, mysterious illnesses could lead to accusations of witchcraft, which were particularly common in the Westfjords. 37  Laxdœla saga, by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, pp. 40–41.

Margaret Cormack


Another supernatural seal, this one connected to a dead woman, is known from Eyrbygg ja saga. When the apparently Christian but somewhat uncanny Hebridean Þórgunna dies at Fróðá, she gives strict instructions as to the disposal of her possessions, including some elegant bed-clothes. Needless to say, her orders are not obeyed. Þórgunna receives a proper Christian burial at no less a place than Skálholt, the site of the future cathedral of Iceland, which makes it seem unlikely that she is personally responsible for the hauntings which end only when her instructions are followed and the bed-clothes are burned. One of the episodes in these hauntings is the emergence of a seal’s head from the fire-pit, the very centre of the household.38 As people try to hammer it back into the ground, more and more of the seal emerges, until finally a boy who had been a special favorite of Þórgunna’s (and is also the illegitimate son of a local hero) successfully beats it back into the earth. At the same time, something with a long tail which is covered with hair like a seal’s is eating up the supplies of dried fish.39 Possibly the supernatural seal is meant to be Þórgunna, more likely its appearance is the result of disobeying her instructions to destroy objects that may have had their own magical power.40

Unbaptized Babies The medi­eval Selkolla story serves as a warning against infanticide, a heathen practice that was allowed to continue for a while after Christianity was adopted in Iceland c. 1000. Infanticide, accomplished by ‘bearing out’ and abandoning a newborn, was, however, definitely illegal in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The fact that the corpse of a girl baby is involved need not be taken as an example of clerical misogyny or as a warning against specifically female infanticide; it is more likely to reflect Scandinavian beliefs about sleeping with supernatural females, whether witches, as in Hávamál, or other supernatural beings, as in nineteenth-century folklore and in Jóns saga. In this case


Although the seal is expelled, the next group of supernatural beings, drowned members of the family and others who have died of sickness shortly before, successfully take over the central fire-room, forcing the human inhabitants of the farm to build, and congregate round, a smaller cooking-fire elsewhere. 39  Eyrbygg ja saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarsson, pp. 139–50. 40  This seal is discussed in detail by Kjartan Ottósson (Fróðárundur í Eyrbygg ju, pp. 85–94), who concludes that there may have been evil spirits around (p. 91). That would certainly be the contemporary Christian explanation.

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla


of Selkolla, however, the author is primarily concerned with illicit sex and the necessity of baptism. Taking baptism first, Augustine was explicit about what happened to the souls of children who died unbaptized: they were damned. 41 The Christian Laws’ section of the Icelandic law-code Grágás, composed c. 1120–30, was explicit about what should be done with their bodies: they were denied burial in sacred ground.42 An unbaptized baby had never properly joined the Christian community and therefore could not, by Christian ritual means, be appropriately conveyed to the next world. Like the mortal remains of outlaws, suicides, unbelievers, and the excommunicated, it had to be disposed of far from human habitation.43 Such ‘dead without status’, no longer part of the world of the living but not appropriately transferred into the next one, could be a source of terror to living populations. That medi­eval Icelanders were concerned with the problem of unbaptized children can be seen from the requirement of Grágás that adult males know the words of baptism, for which even melted snow could be used in an emergency. The church law of Bishop Árni Þorláksson (c. 1270) repeats the prohibition of churchyard burial in terms nearly identical to those in Grágás. His saga, however, clearly recognized the dangers that could arise from this practice and states that he allowed burial right outside the churchyard. Árna saga informs us that: Hann skipaði at þau börn sem ekki fengi skírn skyldi grafa utan við kirkjugarð, en áðr vóru þau grafin fjarri vígðum stöðum sem sekir menn ok kölluðu fáfróðir menn þau útburði. Veitti þat ok mörgu sinni at í þeim stöðum sem þau vóru grafin fengu menn fyrir sakir eiginnar vantrúar ok andskotans umsátar ýmisligar sóttir eðr undrsamligar sjónir og margs konar mein sinna fylgjara. En síðan virðuligr faðir Árni byskup eyddi þessari villu fengu menn í þeim stöðum sem þau vóru síðan jörðut ekki mein af þessari fjandans umsát. Fann ok fyrrnefndr Árni byskup dýrðarfullt dæmi hins mikla Augustini til þessarar skipunar; þess er heldr kvaðst vilja vera sem þessi börn en eigi vera; þat taka svá vísir menn at hann vildi heldr eiga þeira heimván.44 (He ordered that children who did not receive baptism should be buried just outside the churchyard [i.e., at the foot of the churchyard wall], but formerly they had 41 

Augustine of Hippo, ‘On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins’, bk i. See Laws of Early Iceland, trans. by Dennis, Foote, and Perkins, p. 30. 43  Unbaptized children are referred to as ‘heathen’ in early law codes. In Denmark, this term for unbaptized children has survived to the present day, although it is highly unusual and in the eyes of many also inappropriate (Karen Bek-Pedersen, personal communication). See also Häll, Skogsrået, näcken och djävulen, p. 439. 44  Árna saga biskups, ed. by Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir, pp. 23–24. 42 

Margaret Cormack


been buried far from consecrated places, like outlaws, and ignorant people called them útburðir [those who had been ‘borne out’ as described above]. It often happened that in the places where [the children] were buried, people, on account of their own lack of faith and the deceits of the devil, received a variety of illnesses or amazing visions and all kinds of harm to their followers. But after the worshipful father Bishop Árni wiped out this superstition, people no longer received, at the places [such babies] were buried after that, any harm as a result of the devil’s ambushes. Bishop Árni quoted the glorious example of Augustine the Great for this order, who said he would rather be like these children than not exist; wise men consider this to mean that he would rather have their expectation of salvation.)

The reference to illness and harm to the individual’s followers fits well with the Selkolla story, except that Árna saga locates the haunting at the place where the baby died, while Selkolla actively moves from that place to human habitations. Interestingly the passage implies that places haunted by útburðir before Bishop Árni’s decision remained dangerous. It should be noted that the ideas attributed to Augustine are at odds with his teachings on the fate of unbaptized children, but consistent with thirteenth-century teachings about limbo (a concept which did not exist in Augustine’s time). Such teachings may well have been attributed to him in medi­e val writings, but I have not been able to identify them. In any case, the baby that became Selkolla was not baptized, nor was it anywhere near holy ground. It is thus hardly surprising that its body could be taken over by a demon as stated by the saga author, who refers to Selkolla quite simply as a fjandi (fiend). Clerical authorship (as opposed to that of Sturla Þórðarson, which is not, to the best of my knowledge, taken seriously) accounts for an unusual feature of this seal-woman story: in Guðmundar saga the creation of the monster — and Dálkr’s victimization by it — result from inappropriate sexual activity. The unnamed individuals charged with carrying the infant to church are presumably not married, and should certainly not have taken time out for dalliance while on so urgent a mission. Dálkr, characterized as lustful, should have been paying attention to his boat rather than sporting with his wife, whose form Selkolla had taken.45 (It is his own wife, not, as one half expects, Vigdís, the wife of Þorgils, whom Selkolla impersonates.) The author is making a point about when and where even marital sex was appropriate. Having slept with Selkolla in a liminal space where human culture, represented by the boathouse


In a younger version of the story it is Selkolla, not Dálkr, who makes the first move: ‘hún slær í fyrstu á leik nökkurn við hann bóndann, þar til hann leggr glenz í mót’ (BS, ii, 78).

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla


and boat within it, meets nature at the edge of the sea, Dálkr is subject to her attacks which, as Prof. af Klintberg has noted, are exceptional in their violence.

Folklore Motifs The narrative of Selkolla provides an interesting case study for comparison with similar motifs in folklore.46 As a medi­evalist — not a folklorist — I have surveyed the folklore collections of Jón Árnason and Sigfús Sigfússon, whose informants lived in the nineteenth and/or early twentieth century. They contain a number of accounts of supernatural seals, the most famous being the story of Sæmundr Sigfússon, who rides the devil in the form of a seal to Iceland.47 However, this appears to be an ad hoc transformation. In eastern Iceland, the Lagarfljótsormur (the Icelandic equivalent of the Loch Ness monster) has as a companion a seal with glowing eyes.48 There are several cases of draugar who become seals; in each case the draugr is sent by a magician to harm someone else. Galdra-Imba comments that she felt a ‘glowing warm seal’s head in the fireplace’.49 Galdra-Manga drags a draugr to the sea where it becomes a seal,50 while Galdra-Erlendur sends a draugr to upset a boat and drown the crew; the draugr is seen in the form of a seal long afterwards.51 The motifs found in Eyrbygg ja saga and Laxdæla saga are thus seen to be long-lived, though in neither case do the nineteenth-century or medi­eval accounts explain each other. Eyrbygg ja as we have it does not allow us to identify the seal as a draugr sent by a magician; indeed, such sendingar appear to be unknown in medi­eval sagas. In the Icelandic folklore tradition, beings that are part seal and part human are rare. A single Icelandic folktale tells of a troll-woman, who, wanting a princess’s beautiful head for her own daughter, cuts it off and replaces it with the head of a seal.52 The seal’s head is the only thing this tale has in common with 46  Motifs in the sagas have been classified in Inger Boberg’s Motif-Index of Early Icelandic Literature, which analyses their texts according to the classification of Stith Thompson. For more on contemporary North Sea seal-lore, see Krappe, ‘Scandinavian Seal Lore’; Thomson, The People of the Sea. 47  Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, i, 478. 48  Sigfús Sigfússon, Íslenzkar þjöðsögur, iv, 155–59; v, 247–48. 49  ‘Þegar ég fór að kveikja þuklaði ég um glóandi volgt selshöfuð í hlóðunum’; Sigfús Sigfússon, Íslenzkar þjöðsögur, v, 333. 50  Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, i, 518. 51  Sigfús Sigfússon, Íslenzkar þjöðsögur, v, 348. 52  Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, iv, 633.

Margaret Cormack


Selkolla. A woman who gives birth to a child that is human from the waist down and a seal from the waist up explains that she had been terrified by a seal when newly pregnant; the child does not, however, survive, either physically or as a ghost.53 As early as the seventeenth century, a selkie story was told in Iceland, in which a seal-woman is captured when her skin is taken by a human, but returns to the sea when she recovers it.54 The seal-women in these stories, like swanmaidens and mermaids, are victims of human males rather than aggressive seducers or attackers.55 And they are beautiful humans on land, seals in the sea, not a combination of the two species. Aside from draugar, two types of supernatural folkloric beings immediately spring to mind for comparison with Selkolla. Her origin is reminiscent of útburðir or changelings, while her amorous activity is similar to that of álfar/ huldufólk (elves/hidden people) in Iceland, älvor and/or nature spirits such as the skogsrån (forest spirit) and sjörån (lake spirit) in Sweden. Comparable spririts are also known elsewhere in Scandinavia. Einar Ólafur Sveinsson has no doubt as to Selkolla’s classification: The ghosts of exposed children [útburðir in the original Icelandic56] can be quite vindictive […]. It is immaterial that the story claims that an evil spirit entered the child; that was the ecclesiastical explanation, and ordinary people saw it quite differently.57

I agree with Einar Ólafur Sveinsson that the Scandinavian tradition of deadchild beings, the term used by Juha Pentikäinen for the ghostly remains of unbaptized babies, is the best match for the story of Selkolla’s origin.58 However, in none of the evidence cited by Pentikäinen do the beings take adult 53 

Sigfús Sigfússon, Íslenzkar þjöðsögur, iv, 331–32. Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, ii, xxii, with reference to Jón lærði (1574–1658); cf. Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, i, 629–30, iv, 10–11; Sigfús Sigfússon, Íslenzkar þjöðsögur, iv, 187–88. Selkie literally means ‘seal’, but is now so closely associated with the idea that seals can take human form on the land by removing their skin that it has become a convenient term for such beings. The title ‘The Seal Women’ designates these stories in Reidar Thoralf Christiansen’s The Migratory Legends, no. 4080. In his Verzeichnis isländischer Märchen-Varianten, Einar Ólafur Sveinsson collected seven examples, his type 400. 55  See Almqvist, ‘Of Mermaids and Marriages’, p. 5, esp. n. 8. 56  Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, Um íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, p. 168. 57  Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, The Folk-Stories of Iceland, p. 185. 58  Pentikäinen, The Nordic Dead-Child Tradition. 54 

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla


form and attack specific individuals as Selkolla does. In the nineteenth-century Icelandic tradition, when útburðir appear they wear a brown rag (which they were wrapped in when disposed of ) or, on occasion, appear in the form of a brown sphere or sheep. If in human form, they scrabble along on one knee and one elbow. They are primarily known for their unearthly screeching, which may presage bad weather. Their activity is, as in Árna saga, highly localized, though they can apparently travel short distances and may lead travellers astray. Although they may drive people mad, they do not usually do them physical harm. There is no sexual element to their hauntings.59 In the folklore of Iceland and Scandinavia seduction by female supernatural beings is characteristic of elves and/or nature spirits. I have found a single, Swedish example in which the supernatural being takes the form of the victim’s wife; they are more likely to appear as unknown handsome men or beautiful women.60 They may or may not have animal characteristics.61 Dálkr becomes susceptible to Selkolla by engaging in sex with her, and one suspects that something similar happens to Sveinn in Jóns saga. Sveinn’s symptoms are similar to those of men who sleep with female spirits in later centuries. The story of Álfa-Árni (Elf-Árni) shows that it could be equally dangerous to reject amorous supernatural beings. The protagonist becomes sick and weak, unable to eat or sleep, and spits up blood as a result of the curse of an elf-girl he has spurned.62 He is helped by her father, an elvish priest; in part, this story addresses the question of whether or not the ‘hidden people’ were devils, as claimed by the clergy — in this and many other Icelandic stories they clearly were not, having their own churches, priests, and services just like humans. In fact, their sexual aggression towards humans could be seen as a desire to marry them and thus obtain a soul. In the seventeenth century an herb called in Latin felix herba, in the vernacular ‘Cross herb’ or ‘Cross leaf ’, was thought to be a good defence

59  Sigfús Sigfússon, Íslenzkar þjöðsögur, ii, 71–85. Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, i, 215, 217–19; iii, 289–91, 501; iv, 20, 44. In the only instance of physical harm, the útburðr strikes its mother in the face with its rags and blinds her; Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, iii, 290. 60  Häll, Skogsrået, näcken och djävulen, p. 178. 61  Häll, Skogsrået, näcken och djävulen, p. 396. The earliest mention of the hollow back as a distinctive feature is from c. 1650 (see p. 374). By the time of the folklore collectors, the skogsrån usually has a hollow back and/or a tail, the latter in common with animals as opposed to humans. 62  Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, vi, 12–18. The story of Álfa-Árni also features a skessa (p. 14) who, however, plays no more threatening a role than as an omen of future evil.

Margaret Cormack


against aggression from álfar (nothing is said about trolls).63 In Sweden amulets called ‘elf-crosses’ provided protection against elves.64 In Scandinavia, female spirits who closely resemble Icelandic álfar, the skogsrån and the sjörån, inhabit the woods, lakes, or other areas of wild nature they rule over — areas which may be exploited by human beings such as hunters and fishermen. In the one Icelandic example I have found of a supernatural being aiding seal hunters, the being is a land-based trollkona or skessa, and what she receives in exchange is part of the catch, not sex.65 Nineteenth-century Icelandic álfar are not ‘nature spirits’ in the sense that they rule or embody some aspect of nature; rather, they are an invisible society comparable to that of humans, living in close proximity to it. Selkolla does not match either model well; originating in a deserted area and first approaching her victim in a liminal one between the wild and civilized, she actively seeks the human dwellings of her victims.

Selkolla 2 The best-known male selkie, the one at Sule skerry in Shetland, apparently made contact with (raped?) his human lover on land and left her there, eventually to marry another human, although he takes their son with him into the sea.66 This contrasts with the being who appears in a story about a creature the recorder describes as a ‘different Selkolla’, although I will argue that she is in fact the same Selkolla in nineteenth-century guise. For purposes of identification, I will use the editors’ designation ‘Selkolla 2’ for the following story. a.  About Selkolla’s origin In 1806 there was an adult, unmarried woman in service at Gautshamar on Selströnd [Seal-beach] in Steingrímfjörður; her name was Álfþrúður [the first element of her name means ‘elf ’]. Late in Advent that year she told the farmer’s wife about the very strange dreams she was having. She had dreamed that a man had come to her and tried to caress her, but she drew back and didn’t want to have anything to do with him. Álfþrúður dreamed this same dream eight nights in a row, the only difference being that the man became more and more importunate, and at last began to threaten her. But Álfþrúður had a temper of her own, and was unyielding 63 

Einar G. Pétursson, ‘Við ásókn Ljúflings’. ‘Älvkors’ or ‘ellekors’; Häll, Skogsrået, näcken och djävulen, p. 434, citing Tillhagen, Folklig läkekonst, p. 36. 65  Sigfús Sigfússon, Íslenzkar þjöðsögur, iii, 258. 66  Bruford, ‘The Grey Selkie’. 64 

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla and hard to deal with if she needed to be; in her dream she didn’t give way to these attacks. The eighth time she had the dream she thought she remembered how often the man had come to her, and that she had become tired of his incessant harassment. In her dream she spoke to him angrily and said that if he didn’t stop carrying on like this it would be the worse for him. It seemed to her that the man became very angry at her words and said that even if he stopped coming to her, he would arrange things so that she would have to come to him. Two days before Christmas the people on the farm noticed that Álfþrúður sometimes seemed to be in a daze, and she was seen this way a few times, but in between she was perfectly normal; this went on for a while. On the third or fourth of January the next year it so happened that Álfþrúður went out in the evening to bring in the wash, and didn’t return. When a long time had passed since she went out and people began to be concerned about her absence, they went to look for her and soon found her tracks, which took many detours but ultimately headed towards the sea, and then along onto socalled Bælisklöpp [a klöpp is a low, flat rock]. There they stopped, and everything seemed to indicate that she had walked off the rock into the sea, and it seemed to them that it was the colour of blood right by the land. The searchers then returned home and slept the remainder of the night. But the next morning, as soon as it was light, the search was continued. One of Álfþrúður’s mittens and her headscarf were found beside the aforementioned Bælisklöpp. The searchers also saw a gigantic seal, the size of which they had never seen before, right by the rock. They thought it so evil-looking that they were terrified and went home, and were sure that Álfþrúður had walked off Bælisklöpp and been eaten by the huge seal. They nonetheless tried to drag the sea by the rock for her body. And when their attempts bore no success, their opinion concerning Álfþrúður’s disappearance was strengthened. Shortly after this the farmer’s wife dreamed that Álfþrúður came to her and said that she was now married to the man who used to come to her in her dreams, but it wasn’t a happy marriage and she wasn’t doing very well. Then she begged the farmer’s wife to take on both her and her husband as servants, because she wanted to come back to her. But in her dream the farmer’s wife didn’t agree to this entreaty, and gave as a reason that such an arrangement would be extremely disagreeable to her husband. It seemed to her that Álfþrúður became very angry at this refusal, and said that she would come to her, with her permission or without it. Later the farmer’s wife said that she repented not having allowed Álfþrúður to come when she asked to in the dream. Just after that Álfþrúður began to appear on the farm, especially in the evenings when it began to get dark, and particularly in places where she had been accustomed to work. This haunting soon increased, and ordinary people could see her as well as those with second sight. She appeared to be dressed as before except that she was missing one mitten and her headscarf. But her body appeared to have changed, because her neck was now much longer than before and her head had changed so that it was like a seal’s. She played various tricks there on the farm, scaring people, especially towards nightfall, and kept them awake at night with rustling and other


Margaret Cormack


noises when they had gone to bed. She often led travellers astray if they were passing by Bælisklöpp in the dark. As a result of all this the revenant became notorious in the district. All the people who lived at Hamar, with the exception of the farmer, were terrified of her. He said he wasn’t afraid of the damn woman with the seal’s head, no matter how she flitted around him. It was best from now on to call her ‘Selkolla’. This was done, and she has gone by that name ever since. The next fall it happened that a boat with two men in it was lost right off Bælisklöpp, and it was thought that Selkolla had caused the accident. Time passed and Selkolla continued her mischief; as mentioned above, it consisted primarily of scaring people and leading them astray, and she was especially troublesome to those whose way passed Bælisklöpp after dusk. Here is a story of her harassment of travellers.67 b.  Selkolla harasses the archdeacon Hjalti Jónsson In those years the Reverend Hjalti Jónsson served the church at Staður in Steingrímsfjörður (1798–1827) and with it the annex at Kaldrananes by Bjarnarfjörður. One Sunday in the autumn the archdeacon held a service at Kaldrananes and afterwards went over to Bjarnarnes to baptize a baby. Having done so he started home and stopped at the farms at Bær and Drangsnes, which delayed him a bit; he had planned to get to Hella in the evening. The archdeacon was on horse-back and had a teenage boy riding with him. Nothing unusual happened during their journey until they came to Hamarsbæli (or Bælisklöpp). There the horses stopped all at once and refused to go on. It had begun to grow dark. The archdeacon had second sight and saw that Selkolla stood right in front of the horses, straddling the path. The boy became terrified, and begged the archdeacon to turn back. But the archdeacon didn’t want to do so, and dismounted. At that moment the boy fell from his horse in a faint, and the archdeacon began to do what he could for him, until he came to. Then the archdeacon prayed to God to clear their path. It is said that he recited the ‘Our Father’ three times. After these prayers Selkolla had vanished. However, the horses still could not be forced to go forward, and the boy fainted again. Then the archdeacon summoned up his courage and said, ‘If you dare meet me in the Lord’s name then come, Selkolla!’ As soon as the archdeacon had said this, it seemed to become lighter on the path ahead of him. Where it had formerly been dark and pitch black, it had now become almost as bright as noon. And it is said that this wasn’t moonlight. The boy at once recovered from his faint, and said he was able to travel. They mounted their horses and went forward without hesitation, as there was no further obstacle in their way. They didn’t stop until they came to Hella, and the archdeacon was very exhausted and worn after that ordeal. But he recovered quickly as a result of their care and hospitality, 67 

From the account of Ingimundur Magnússon of Bær, Króksfjörður. Told in Rey­kja­vík in May 1933.

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla


and confided to the farmer he would not want to be in the vicinity of Hamarsbæli after dusk again.68 c.  Guðmundur and Selkolla A man was called Guðmundur Guðmundsson. He lived with his wife, Helga Jónsdóttir, at Grænanes by Steingrímsfjörður early in the nineteenth century. He had grown up with his parents, Guðmundur Guðmundsson and his wife, Ásný Andrésdóttir, at Gautshamar. One morning, when Guðmundr was twelve years old, he lay in his bed, but the other people on the farm had gotten up and gone about their tasks. A loud scream was heard from Guðmundur, and at once people went to see what was wrong: the cries decreased when they reached him. He said that some kind of monster had come up through the trapdoor to the loft, grabbed his leg and tried to drag him out of bed. He had struggled against it with all his might. The monster had vanished when the noise of people approaching was heard in the corridor. People thought that Selkolla must have been responsible. Guðmundur bore the signs of this all his life, because the joints of his ankle and hip on the right side had been pulled so badly that the leg was practically useless afterwards, and Guðmundur always walked with a cane, because he could only hobble on the ball of his foot. There is a verse about some of the damage Selkolla did, and the event that has just been described could be the occasion on which it was written. The verse is as follows: My thigh is swollen, black and blue and broken by Selkolla. After that a loud noise was heard to resound in the corridors. Selkolla continued to haunt Bælisklöpp for a long time after that, and travellers were often aware of her, even into the present century. But now most people must think that she is gone for good.69


From the account of Ingimundur Magnússon of Bær, Króksfjörður. Told in Rey­kja­vík in May 1933. 69  Mostly based on the story of Steinunn Jónsdóttir of Skjaldfönn in August,1935, when she was ninety-four years old. Guðmundur of Grænanes was Steinunn’s stepfather and fosterfather. The verse is from the account of Sigurjón Sigurðsson from Hólmavík. It is clear that the married couple, Guðmundur Guðmundsson and Ásný Andrésdóttir, must have farmed Gautshamar in 1806, when Álfþrúður vanished, because they were living there in 1801 and 1828. Census lists do not exist for the parish of Staður for the intervening years. The younger Guðmundur would have had his accident in 1822, because he was twelve years old that year. The saga of Bishop Guðmundr the Good tells of a different Selkolla in this area, and she was not better to deal with. Most of the stories of her malicious activities concern Hafnarhólmur,


Margaret Cormack

‘Gautshamar’ is ‘Hamar’ of Guðmundar saga. In spite of the desire of the editors to separate the two Selkollas, the latter stories contain echoes of the medi­ eval one. In b, a baptism is associated with the cleric’s presence in the vicinity of Kaldrananes, and he is the only one able to confront Selkolla. As in the case of Snorri of Skálavík (see Appendix), a bright light is associated with forces more powerful than Selkolla. In c, Selkolla comes ‘up’ in a house and attacks someone in bed, with the result that he is maimed for life. She also pulls at the foot of an individual named Guðmundr, even though he plays a very different role than in the medi­eval story. Frustratingly, the only record of Selkolla and Guðmundr Arason in Jón Árnason’s collection is the mention of a shepherd who fell into speech with Selkolla who informed him, when asked, that she ‘hræðumst öngvan nema hann Skitu-Gvend’ (feared nothing except Shit-Gvend), ‘Gvend’ being a common nickname for the name ‘Guðmundr’.70 No additional information about informant or location is supplied, and the rest of Jón Árnason’s account is a retelling of the episode in Guðmundar saga, to which reference is made. Since Guðmundr was well known in Icelandic folklore as a protector against monsters, the reference to him does not imply that any particular version of the Selkolla story was known.

Selkolla 3 Another collector summarizes stories which depict Selkolla very differently. This tradition will be referred to as ‘Selkolla 3’. Arngrímur Bjarnason considers that Selkolla got her name because of her conflicts with the farmers over their seal-hunting;71 she seized their kill, even when there were many against her. Arngrímur mentions in passing that his informants considered that Selkolla was descended from trolls and grew up in the caverns of Goðdalsá, but provides no details. She may have lived at Selkollutóft (now a deserted farm, still indicated on maps and atlases), or possibly in Goðdalur, in which case she herself was thought to have moved the stone that bears her name to its current posiwhich is the next farm up the fjord from Gautshamar; there is only a short distance between the farmhouses. Finally Bishop Guðmundr sent her back down where she came from, between the two farms, after she had done a lot of damage. Vestfirzkar sagnir ii, ed. by Arngrímur Fr. Bjarnason and Helgi Guðmundsson, pp. 88–94. 70  Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, ii, 30. 71  Vestfirzkar Þjóðsögur ii, ed. by Arngrímur Fr. Bjarnason, pt 2, pp. 13–16.

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla


tion, and rested there when she was carrying heavy burdens home. Far from fearing water, she sailed on a large ship, with eight or ten oars, which was either hers or stolen from the farmers. In either case, she managed it on her own, including beaching it and putting out to sea. She caused trouble for travellers in her vicinity. Arngrímur also tells — in some detail — the only story in which Selkolla aids a traveller, a girl who would have died in a snowstorm if Selkolla had not helped her reach a farm.

The Twentieth Century In 1952, the annual publication of Ferðafélag Íslands focussed on Strandasýsla. The author, Jóhann Hjaltason (1899–1992), gives the story of Selkolla on pages 89–90, based on the fourteenth-century D version of Guðmundar saga (which differs little from the one translated above). He mentions Selkollutóttir (a plural variant of Selkollutóft) and two Selkolla stones, one down by the sea and another up on Bassastaðaháls (‘Bassastaða ridge’). This one, he says, is much larger and not everyone would be able to climb it. Informants of the placename archive at the Árni Magnússon Institute in Rey­kja­vík also refer to two rocks called Selkollusteinn, and a Selkolluholt: the latter is the place where she was supposed to have been exorcized.72 Two individuals who grew up in the area associated with Selkolla in the twentieth century (slightly younger contemporaries of Jóhann Hjaltason) report being terrified of Selkolla as children. However, they did not represent her as actively aggressive; the only story I was able to obtain concerning personal experience of Selkolla involved a horse being spooked when ridden by Selkolla’s cairn (dys) on Drangsnes. This informant’s story of Selkolla’s origin differs from both nineteenth-century versions, being closer to the medi­e val one. She refers to two locations associated with Selkolla as dysjar, or cairns. In her version, the parents (not servants) left the baby near a fornaldardys (cairn from ancient times) when they turned aside to relieve themselves. When they came back, the baby was an umskiptingur (a changeling, i.e., a supernatural baby that had been exchanged with the human one) with seal’s eyes. My informant later repeated that when the couple had gone aside, someone exchanged the baby. The child went into the sea and became a seal, but also appeared, in adult form, on land, where she wore a scarf [cf. Álfþúður’s headscarf, which however plays a different role] to hide her seal’s head, though sometimes she appeared 72 

See records for Gautshamar.

Margaret Cormack


with a human head as well. She would be seen about and then vanish for a while, presumably into the sea as a seal. She apparently died a normal death and was buried in another dys by the sea on the banks of Hafnarhólmslækur. It is her ghost that subsequently walked and still scares animals and people who enter its sphere of activity, including the informant’s horse. My informant rejected all attempts by myself and the third person present, also from the area, when we tried to insist that the baby had been left by a stone on Bassastaðaháls and to introduce Guðmundr goði into the story and find out where he had exorcized Selkolla. To her there was no such place, and other powers were stronger than Guðmundr’s exorcism.73 Of interest in this account is that Selkolla is explained as a changeling, that is, not human at all. For the most part changeling stories deal with infants. However, Selkolla is clearly conceived of as an adult. In this she differs from the typical Icelandic útburðr as well, although the localized region of haunting is consistent with útburðr stories (and indeed many kinds of ghost stories).74

Summary and Conclusions Knowledge of a supernatural being haunting the vicinity has been part of the local culture of individuals living in the vicinity of Gauthamar from the Middle Ages to the present day. The stories describing her origin in detail agree that Selkolla was originally human, and when she appeared in human form, she was an adult. However, they give very different explanations for how she came to be. Some stories involve her being left alone as an unbaptized baby. These remind modern readers of different supernatural explanations — some think of útburðir, others of changelings. The saga of Bishop Árni suggests that medi­eval people would have favored the former explanation, and the medi­eval author of Guðmundur saga clearly invokes the fears associated with unbaptized infants. The nineteenth-century stories, however, offer completely different explanations and do not contain babies. In Selkolla 2, an adult human is taken by a seal-being, as other kinds of supernaturals might do.75 Although superficially 73 

A recording of the interview, which was taken on 13 July 2007, has been preserved at the Folklore Collection of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Rey­kja­vík. 74  For the similarity of útburðir to draugar, see Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, i, 217. 75  In the present article I have focused on female supernaturals attacking men, but women could also be victims. Sigfús Sigfússon (Íslenzkar þjöðsögur, iv, 167) makes the interesting observation that seal-stories resemble merman stories. One of his examples has a woman

Saints, Seals, and Demons: The Stories of Selkolla


different, Selkolla 2 shares not only the protagonist’s name but enough incidental detail to show that it is derived from a version similar to that found in Guðmundar saga. In Selkolla 3, Selkolla is simply a troll, whose origin is of no interest, and her activity now involves competition with the farmers for resources. Although the útburðir of medi­eval and nineteenth-century Iceland resemble each other, we could not use Selkolla 2 or 3 to shed light on the medi­ eval Selkolla, nor is there a consistent tradition of locations connected with her. Were there, in fact, multiple Selkollas? I doubt it very much. I suspect that recent references to Guðmundr Arason and the story of Selkolla’s origin as a baby temporarily abandoned before baptism reflects its re-introduction from printed sources. When I discussed Selkolla with contemporary informants, it was striking that the one who pressed for information about Guðmundr was all too willing to concede that the medi­eval version of the story was ‘correct’. It is likely that the nineteenth-century versions represent continuous oral traditions, one of which (2c) contains structural remnants of the story told about Guðmundr Arason, while the other has remodelled Selkolla entirely on the model of a mountain-dwelling troll-woman. It is also worth examining how Arngrímur Bjarnason treats his sources. He provides no sources for Selkolla 3, giving us a summary of beliefs before telling one story in great detail. In Selkolla 2, he presents two separate accounts attributed to named informants (a and b). We cannot, of course, know how much he cleaned up the narratives for the printed page. The story of Guðmundr Guðmundsson, however, is said to be ‘mostly’ by one informant, implying that several sources were used. The medi­eval material also falls into two parts, the story of Teitr and Steingrímr, which stands on its own, and the initial story of Selkolla’s origin and subsequent activity, which is carefully crafted to present the lesson its author wishes to make. We cannot see beyond it into the narratives he may have heard. Is the medi­e val Selkolla best described as a draugr, a skessa, an útburðr, a changeling or simply (in the most general sense of a harmful supernatural monster) a troll? Such questions hardly matter. In creating her, a medi­eval Icelandic attacked by a seal which gets up and runs on its back flippers (iv, 189). An examination of the overlap between such tales (and those involving elves and trolls) in the Icelandic and international context would surely prove rewarding. Appendix 1 contains an example of a prevented bergtagning (abduction into a mountain by trolls; for a successful bergtagning, see Guðmundar saga in BS, ii, 140). Selkolla 2 could be seen as a comparable example of abduction into the sea rather than a mountain.

Margaret Cormack


cleric drew on both native and learned traditions. He knew that revenants could take the form of seals, and that sleeping with supernatural beings had disastrous results. His monster came into being in an accepted clerical manner — a demon took over a human body, an explanation for útburðir also found in folklore.76 By making the resultant creature particularly malevolent — far more comparable to troll-women or draugar than to the álfar of later folklore, or the witch of Hávamál — the author presented a strong warning against leaving babies unbaptized and against engaging in sex at inappropriate times. A horror story like this would be far more effective than either legal provisions or Sunday sermons on those topics.77


Sigfús Sigfússon, Íslenzkar þjöðsögur, ii, 71. For the story of Selkolla as a horror story, see Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Öskudags- og miðdegisdjöflar’. 77 

Appendix Guðmundr Arason and Snorri in Skálavík Then word came from the Westfjords that west in Skálavík a man called Snorri was haunted by a flagð, and the trollkona attacked him so much he didn’t think he could stand it. And the night before the day that we mentioned before [i.e. Saturday night], before daylight, Snorri had to go to church alone, and it was a long way to go. Then the trollkona comes and attacks him continuously and tries to force him into the mountain. Then he called on the priest Guðmundr Arason to aid him, if he were as dear to God as he thought, and free him from this troll. At that exact instant it seemed to him that a great light appeared over him; with the light was a man in a cope with a holy-water sprinkler, and he sprinkled her with it; then the troll-woman vanished, as if she sank into the earth. The light accompanied him until he reached the farm [where the church was]. He thought he clearly recognized that the priest Guðmundr Arason came with the light.78 Guðmundr Arason in Kerlingarfjörður [Bishop Guðmundr is hiding from his enemies in Kerlingarfjörður.] During the summer he spent a long time at Eið, which was an uninhabited desert; there were terrible hauntings, so that people were unable to be there, before the bishop and his men put up their tents. One night, when the bishop and his men were in bed, they heard loud roaring and all kinds of horrible noises and the sound of wrestling. Then one flagð spoke: ‘here men sleep, and here men sleep.’79 At that the bishop leapt up, and told his men to sleep quietly, and he went out with his relics, [holy] water, and holy-water sprinkler. People heard great screeching and running about outside, like when cattle play and bellow: they thought the tent and the earth under them were shaking. A horrible stench and odor accompanied these wonders. They were terrified by these horrors and all ran out, and wanted to know what was happening to their bishop. They found him a long way from the tent, and asked what had happened. ‘Not much,’ said the bishop, ‘but I have never come anywhere that so many monsters (óvættir) and flögð came together in one place as here in Kerlingarfjörður; but I think 78  79 

BS, i, 464. The repetition indicates that a supernatural being is speaking.


Margaret Cormack

it likely that they will not be so troublesome from now on as hitherto, and may God let it be so.’ And everyone says that no one has been aware of hauntings there since Bishop Guðmundr was there.80 Jón Ögmundarson and Sveinn Þorsteinsson A man called Sveinn Þorsteinsson was so horribly deceived by the devil that he almost threw off the Christian faith and forgot all the conduct that Christians are supposed to observe. It came about in this way, that he went mad on account of a monster (skrímsl) which appeared to him to be an extremely beautiful woman; she maddened him so that he would not have anything to do with other people. He wandered around as if lost in thought and paid no attention to his needs. But through the mercy of Almighty God, who does not desire the destruction of any of his people but wishes to help them all, this man was seized and brought to the holy Bishop Jón. This was when he had just arrived at Hólar. The blessed Jón received him warmly and cheerfully, and led him into the church, and then closed the church doors. He began to ask him in detail about the event and then exhorted him vehemently to repent. And by means of his holy admonitions this young man began to be very affected, and then truthfully told the holy bishop Jón the entire story about all the deceits and ambushes of the devil in which he had been entangled. And when the blessed Johannes81 saw true repentance in him he was so happy that he shed tears, since he had been able, like a good shepherd, to bring this sheep back to the flock of the Lord. After that he imposed a penance on him, with holy prayers and exhortations, and commanded him first of all that for the greater shame and humiliation of the devil, he should be eager to tell his story to everyone who would listen, and he did so. He also stipulated in exchange from every priest to whom he told the tale that the priest should sing a Requiem Mass for him when he heard of his death. After that they went out of the church, and such a change had taken place in Sveinn’s state that he who before that time had lived a life that was a burden both to himself and to others was now cheerful and easy-going to everyone, and took good care of himself from then on. As long as he lived he thanked Almighty God and the Holy Bishop Jón for his health.82 80 

BS, i, 598. Here the translator uses the Latin form of the name. 82  Jóns saga ins helga, ed. by Sigurgeir Steingrímsson, Ólafur Halldórsson, and Foote, pp. 225–27. 81 



Works Cited Primary Sources Árna saga biskups, in Biskupa sögur iii, ed. by Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir, Íslenzk fornrit, 17 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið Íslenzka fornritafélag, 1998) Augustine of Hippo, ‘On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants’, trans.  by Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis, rev. by Benjamin  B. Warfield, in  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol.  v, ed.  by Philip Schaff  (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing, 1887); rev. and ed. by Kevin Knight [accessed April 2017] BS = Biskupa Sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, 2 vols (Copen­ hagen: Møller, 1858–78) DI  = Diplomatarium Islandicum: Íslenzkt fornbréfasafn, sem hefir inni að halda bréf og g jörninga, dóma og máldaga og aðrar skrár, er snerta Ísland eða íslenzka men, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and others, 16 vols (Copen­hagen and Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka bókmenntafélag, 1857–1972) Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern, ed. by Gustav Neckel, rev. by Hans Kuhn, 4th edn (Heidelberg: Winter, 1962) Eiríks saga rauða, in Eyrbygg ja saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 4 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1935), pp. 193–237 Eyrbygg ja saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 4 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1935) Guðmundar sögur biskups i: Ævi Guðmundar biskups, Guðmundar saga A, ed. by Stefán Karlsson, Editiones Arnamagnæana, ser. B, 6 (Copen­hagen: Reitzel, 1983) Íslendingabók — Kristni saga: The Book of the Icelanders — The Story of the Conversion, trans. by Siân Grønlie (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2006) Jóns saga ins helga, in Biskupa sögur i, ed. by Sigurgeir Steingrímsson, Ólafur Halldórsson, and Peter Foote, Íslenzk fornrit, 15 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 2003), pp. 173–316 Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur og ævintýri, ed. by Árni Böðvarsson and Bjarni Vilhjálms­ son, 2nd rev. edn, 6  vols (Rey­kja­vík: Bókaútgáfan Þjóðsaga: 1954–60; orig. pub. Leipzig: Heinrichs, 1862–64) Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás i, trans.  by Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1980) Laxdæla saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, Íslensk fornrit, 5 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1934) The Poetic Edda, trans.  by Carolyne Larrington, 2nd  edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) Sigfús Sigfússon, Íslenzkar þjöðsögur og sagnir, ed. by Óskár Halldórsson, 11 vols (Rey­kja­ vík: Bókaútgáfan Þjóðsaga, 1982–93) Sturlunga saga, ed. by Jón Jóhannesson, Magnús Finnbogason, and Kristján Eldjárn, 2 vols (Rey­kja­vík: Sturlunguútgáfan, 1946)


Margaret Cormack

Sturlunga saga, ed. by Kr. Kålund and Olaf Hansen, 2 vols (Copen­hagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1906–11) Vestfirzkar sagnir ii, ed. by Arngrímur Fr. Bjarnason and Helgi Guðmundsson (Rey­kja­vík: Bókaforlagið Fagurskinna; Guðmundur Gamalíelsson, 1945) Vestfirzkar þjóðsögur ii, ed. by Arngrímur Fr. Bjarnason (Rey­kja­vík: Ísafoldarprentsmiðja, 1956) Þorláks saga biskups, in Biskupa sögur ii, ed. by Ásdís Egilsdóttir, Íslenzk fornrit, 16 (Rey­ kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 2002), pp. 45–99

Secondary Works Almqvist, Bo, ‘Of Mermaids and Marriages. Seamus Heaney’s “Maighdean Mara” and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “an Mhaighdean Mhara” in the Light of Folk Tradition’, Béaloideas, 58 (1990), 1–74 Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Hvað er tröll? Galdrar, tröll og samfélagsóvinir’, in Galdramen: Galdrar og samfélag á miðöldum, ed. by Torfi Tulinius (Rey­kja­vík: Hugvísindastofnun Háskóla Íslands, 2008), pp. 95–119 —— , ‘Öskudags- og miðdegisdjöflar’, in Geislabaugur fægður Margaret Cormack sextugri 23. ágúst 2012, ed. by Margrét Eggertsdóttir and others (Rey­kja­vík: Menningar- og minningarsjóður Mette Magnussen, 2012), pp. 15–17 Arnold, Martin, ‘Hvat er troll nema þat? The Cultural History of the Troll’, in The ShadowWalkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mytho­logy of the Monstrous, ed.  by Tom Shippey (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medi­eval and Renaissance Studies, 2005), pp. 110–55 Boberg, Inger M., Motif-Index of Early Icelandic Literature, Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana, 27 (Copen­hagen: Munksgaard, 1966) Bruford, Alan, ‘The Grey Selkie’, Scottish Studies, 18 (1974), 63–81 Christiansen, Reidar Thoralf, The Migratory Legends: A Proposed List of Types with a Sys­ tematic Catalogue of the Norwegian Variants, Folklore Fellows Communications, 175 (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1958) Cormack, Margaret, The Saints in Iceland: Their Veneration from the Conversion to 1400, Subsidia Hagiograpica, 78 (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1994) Einar G. Pétursson, ‘Við ásókn Ljúflings’, Maukastella færð Jónasi Kristjánssyni Fimmtugum (1973), 12–14 Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, The Folk-Stories of Iceland, rev. by Einar G. Pétursson, trans. by Benedikt Benedikz, ed. by Anthony Faulkes, Viking Society for Northern Research, Text Series, 16 (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2003) —— , Um íslenzkar Þjóðsögur (Rey­kja­vík: Ísafold, 1940) —— , Verzeichnis isländischer Märchen-Varianten, mit einer einleitenden Untersuchung (Helskinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1929) Gunnell, Terry, ‘The Coming of the Christmas Visitors: Folk Legends Concerning the Attacks on Icelandic Farmhouses Made by Spirits at Christmas’, Northern Studies 38 (2004), 51–75



Häll, Mikael, Skogsrået, näcken och djävulen: Erotiska naturväsen och demonisk sexualitet i 1600- och 1700-talens Sverige (Stockholm: Malört, 2013) Jóhann Hjaltason, Strandasýsla (Rey­kja­vík: Árbók Ferðafélag Íslands, 1952) Jónína Hafsteinsdóttir, ‘Selkolla og Selkollufoss’, in Geislabaugur fægður Margaret Cor­ mack sextugri 23. ágúst 2012, ed.  by Margrét Eggertsdóttir and others (Rey­kja­vík: Menningar- og minningarsjóður Mette Magnussen, 2012), pp. 48–50 Kjartan  G. Ottósson, Fróðárundur í Eyrbygg ju, Studia Islandica, 42 (Rey­kja­vík: Men­ ningarsjóður, 1983) Krappe, Alexander H., ‘Scandinavian Seal Lore’, Scandinavian Studies and Notes, 18 (1944), 156–62 Lindow, John, Trolls: An Unnatural History (London: Reaktion, 2014) McCreesh, Bernadine, ‘Structural Patterns in the Eyrbygg ja Saga and Other Sagas of the Conversion’, Mediaeval Scandinavia, 11 (1978–79), 271–80 Pentikäinen, Juha, The Nordic Dead-Child Tradition: Nordic Dead-Child Beings. A Study in Comparative Religion, Folklore Fellows Communications, 202 (Helsinki: Suoma­ lainen Tiedeakatemia, 1968) Schulz, Katja, Riesen: Von Wissenhütern und Wildnisbewohnern in Edda und Saga (Heidel­berg: Winter, 2004) Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, in Medi­eval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia, ed. by Phillip Pulsiano and others (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1993), pp. 245–46 Tangherlini, Timothy, ‘“Who ya gonna call?”, Ministers and the Mediation of Ghostly Threat in Danish Legend Tradition’, Western Folklore, 57 (1988), 153–78 Thomson, David, The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Seal-Folk (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2000) Thompson, Stith, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Medi­eval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends, rev. and enlarged  edn (Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 1955–58) [accessed April 2017] Tillhagen, Carl-Herman, Folklig läkekonst (Stockholm: LT, 1962)

The People, the Bishop, and the Beast: Remediation and Reconciliation in Einarr Gilsson’s Selkolluvísur Mart Kuldkepp


his essay1 approaches the complicated question of how Icelandic folk­ lore was mediated in Old Norse literature through a case study of a single dróttkvætt poem: Einarr Gilsson’s mid-fourteenth-century Selkollu­ vísur. I will briefly consider the poem’s cultural and political background, but my main focus will be on its reconciliation of folk tradition, elevated in poetry, and ‘high’ Christianity. In particular, I will analyse the poem’s skaldic diction and imagery (kenningar and heiti) as likely indications of its intended audience, 1 

This essay is published as a part of the project PUT479: ‘Encountering the Otherworld in Medi­eval Nordic Literature: New Perspectives’, financed by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research. The author wishes to thank Frog for his kind advice in the initial stages of this paper. Abstract: This article takes a look at how Icelandic folklore was mediated in Old Norse literature through a case study of Einarr Gilsson’s mid-fourteenth-century dróttkvætt poem Selkolluvísur. After sketching out what is known about the poem’s cultural and political background, how the poem attempts to reconcile folk tradition, elevated in poetry, and ‘high’ Christianity is considered, thus providing an example of literary transmission and transformation of folklore in Medi­e val Iceland. A particular focus is on skaldic diction and imagery (kenningar and heiti) as likely indications of the poem’s intended audience, expected impact, and relationship to hypothetical earlier folk narratives. I argue that Selkolluvísur demonstrates the continuing potential of skaldic imagery as rhetoric in the fourteenth century, while also saying something about the transmission and reinterpretation of Icelandic folklore in Old Norse literary texts. Mart Kuldkepp ([email protected]), works as Lecturer in Contemporary Scandinavian History at University College London. His main academic field of research is twentiethcentury Scandinavian and Baltic history, but he also has a keen interest in saga studies and has translated several Icelandic sagas into Estonian.

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 105–122 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116082


Mart Kuldkepp

expected impact, and relationship to possible earlier folk narratives. In my final theoretical discussion, I employ the broader concepts of remediation and reconciliation as useful in this case (and perhaps others), where literary texts have been used to negotiate complex cultural values.

The Canonization Project and the Saga What I refer to as ‘the canonization project’ was a fourteenth-century initiative to have Bishop Guðmundr Arason of Hólar (1161–1237) canonized as a saint. Had the plan been successful, Guðmundr’s name would have been added to those of the two Icelandic saints already in existence: St Þorlákr Þórhallsson of Skálholt and St Jón Ögmundsson of Hólar. The saga that I will consider in this connection is Arngrímr Brandsson’s Guðmundar saga Arasonar (also known as Guðmundar saga D, referred to hereafter as GD), most likely written as a prospective saint’s life for the canonization project. For my purposes, it is also notable to include the poem Selkolluvísur. Guðmundr (known as inn góði, ‘the Good‘) was a widely popular figure due to his religious zeal, concern for the poor, and reputation for miracle-working, as well as for being the only Icelandic bishop with a reputation for sanctity already during his lifetime.2 His veneration, however, seems to have been disapproved of by the Icelandic elite. Among the clergy, the distrust for Guðmundr’s borderline magical activities,3 as well as memories of him freely spending the Church’s money and behaving obstinately in other ways, persisted long after his death.4 One of his successors, Bishop Árni of Hólar, is even said to have ordered one of his springs to be blocked up.5 Although there was some interest in collecting materials about Guðmundr in the mid-thirteenth century, perhaps with the objective of establishing his sanctity, this early project came to an end when the collected documents were


Whaley, ‘Miracles in the Sagas of Bishops’, p. 160. Guðmundr’s characteristic habit of ‘blessing cliffs, springs and just about anything else’ had been regarded as suspect by members of the upper classes already during his episcopacy; see Cormack, The Saints in Iceland, pp. 99–100. As Peter Hallberg (‘Imagery in Religious Old Norse Prose Literature’, p. 156) puts it: ‘the zealotic bishop’s many enemies among his fellow-countrymen seemed to have regarded his consecration of springs as a kind of spectacular humbug’. 4  Ciklamini, ‘Folklore and Hagio­graphy’, p. 171. 5  The significance of this information can be debated; Cormack, The Saints in Iceland, p. 100. 3 

The People, the Bishop, and the Beast


lost in a fire in 1258.6 Guðmundr’s potential usefulness as a saint was therefore only recognized when the issue was taken up by the Norwegian Bishop Auðunn of Hólar (1313–22). Auðunn was interested in promoting Icelandic saints, likely as a way of gaining local support in Iceland, and was acting partly on the advice of King Hákon of Norway.7 The campaign for Guðmundr’s canonization was initiated and then revitalized by the two translations of his relics, respectively in 1315 and 1344.8 Guðmundar saga D (GD) seems to have come into existence in connection with the second translation, and its author, Arngrímr Brandsson, was probably a collaborator of the second translator of the relics, Bishop Ormr of Hólar (1343–56).9 Selkolluvísur, in turn, must have been composed roughly at the same time as the rest of the saga. Margaret Clunies Ross even suggests that Arngrímr Brandsson and Einarr Gilsson, the author of Selkolluvísur, worked in tandem composing poetry to ornament the saga.10 I will henceforth refer to these two men as ‘saga authors’ for the sake of brevity (counting the poetry as part of the saga). To have a proper vita of the future saint was a necessary prerequisite for canonization, which is the natural reason for the saga to be written. Therefore, it can be regarded as an essentially political and propagandist work with the goal of presenting Guðmundr’s life in a way that would best further his canonization. One useful way for a scholar to approach the saga is to try to understand how (and how well) it fulfilled this purpose. A thorough analysis of the Guðmundar saga tradition from this perspective, focused on the texts’ internal evidence, has been conducted by Stefán Karlsson.11 His conclusion is that GD, compared to other and earlier sagas about Guðmundr, is indeed closest to what might have been expected from a saint’s life.12 It introduces new miracles, omits other and less important ones, and groups the miracles together by type by taking them out of the chrono­logical sequence of the story. In this way, it presents to the reader a more concentrated proof of Guðmundr’s spiritual strength. Likewise, 6 

Cormack, The Saints in Iceland, p. 100. Cormack, The Saints in Iceland, pp. 22, 101. 8  Cormack, The Saints in Iceland, pp. 101–02. 9  Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, pp. 988, 1002. 10  Clunies Ross, ‘Christian Skaldic Rhetoric’, p. 90. 11  Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’. 12  As also established by Peter Hallberg in his comprehensive analysis, the theo­logical and hagio­graphical elements in GD are abundantly developed in comparison with earlier sagas in the tradition; see Hallberg, ‘Imagery in Religious Old Norse Prose Literature’, p. 122. 7 


Mart Kuldkepp

the author of the saga omits everything that could show Guðmundr in a negative light: he is presented as totally spotless and sinless right from his childhood. For added effect, Arngrímr includes his own learned explanations and interpolations, especially drawing parallels between Guðmundr and Thomas Beckett.13 Stefán Karlsson also makes the argument that GD was written for a foreign audience. This would not be surprising, given the international scope of the canonization initiative. It is also supported by the text’s internal evidence. The saga includes lengthy descriptions of Icelandic scenery, geo­g raphy, and local working conditions that would have been superfluous for an Icelandic audience. At the same time, unlike the earlier sagas, GD does not name minor characters and localities, probably so as not to overload the text with details irrelevant to foreigners.14 There are differing opinions on whether the extant Icelandic saga is a translation from Latin15 or whether it was composed for translation into Latin — whether such a translation was actually made or not.16 Whatever the answer to the last question, it is clear that foreigners could not have been the only intended audience of the saga. First, the only extant text is in Icelandic, which means it must have had an Icelandic (and possibly Norwegian) readership. Second, the saga includes an unusually large amount of skaldic verse, which certainly could not have been intended for translation.17 Einarr Gilsson alone has authored altogether sixty-one dróttkvætt stanzas distributed throughout the text. Twenty-one of these, quoted together in the two primary manu­scripts of the saga, are usually considered a separate poem called Selkolluvísur.18

Selkolluvísur and its Purpose Selkolluvísur tells two stories of giantess-banishment involving the same triad of characters: the seal-headed giantess Selkolla, Bishop Guðmundr, and ‘the people’, that is, the villagers and sailors in the West Fjords who ask for and receive Guðmundr’s help in dealing with Selkolla. 13 

Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, pp. 999–1002. Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, p. 1002. 15  See, for example, Clunies Ross, ‘Christian Skaldic Rhetoric’, p. 90. 16  Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, p. 1003. 17  For a short description of the included poetry, see Skórzewska, Constructing a Cult, pp. 266–67. 18  Clunies Ross, ‘Christian Skaldic Rhetoric’, p. 90. 14 

The People, the Bishop, and the Beast


In the saga, Selkolluvísur immediately follows the prose versions of the same stories, meaning that the reader is already familiar with the material when encountering the poem.19 Margaret Clunies Ross, furthermore, convincingly argues that the verse is intentionally secondary and dependent on the prose text, pointing out several references which cannot be understood independently of previous knowledge of the story.20 Therefore, it can be said that Selkolluvísur was very probably intended as an adornment of the saga text rather than as, for example, an independent source lending credibility to the prose presentation. The first episode begins with a young couple going to the church to have a child baptized. On their way, they are overcome with lust and put down the child on the other side of a large rock while they have sex with each other. When they want to proceed, they discover the child has turned blue and horrendous. Out of fear, they run away. Shortly afterward, a troll appears in the area, later identified by Guðmundr as Selkolla, a seal-headed giantess (sts 1–3). The troll becomes a major nuisance for local people. The chieftain of the village, Dálkr, has sex with her without knowing who she really is as she has taken the shape of his wife. He becomes mad as a result, and another man, who attends him, becomes blind (sts 4–7). After villagers ask for Guðmundr’s help, he arrives on the scene and enters the farmhouse where Selkolla has hidden herself. Having taken over the role of the woman of the house, Selkolla rushes to remove Guðmundr’s socks, which the servants had neglected to do. Immediately, Guðmundr recognizes her for what she is and sinks her into the ground with a well-directed blessing (sts 8–12). The next day, Guðmundr holds mass, sprinkles holy water, and raises seven crosses to free the people from the demon. Then the sick become healed, and the people are henceforth rescued from Selkolla (sts 12–16). The second and shorter episode tells of some sailors who are caught in a strange storm when they discover a large horse bone on board. The men pray to Guðmundr to save them from their misfortune. The sea calms and the ship comes ashore safely. When one of the men throws the bone into the sea, they see that it was Selkolla (sts 17–21). The prose versions of the Selkolla stories can be compared to some other unusual episodes in the saga, most of which likely derive from oral folk tradition about Guðmundr. Marlene Ciklamini counts among these narratives also the banishment of a host of troll-women; the abduction and recovery of Gyriðr, 19  20 

Prose versions are found in GD, pp. 294–302. Clunies Ross, ‘Christian Skaldic Rhetoric’, p. 95.


Mart Kuldkepp

Guðmundr’s cousin; the adventurous journey of Guðmundr’s emissary to the papal court; and the excommunication of an arctic fox.21 At least for us, it is easy to see how they include other elements besides purely ‘Christian’ ones. Ciklamini has in particular pointed out the extent to which Guðmundr’s spiritual strength is combined with purely physical force, making him appear as a ‘syncretic’ character, not only a spiritual leader but also close to a traditional folk hero.22 Content-wise, the poem Selkolluvísur basically repeats the prose stories but does so with much stylistic sophistication. Margaret Clunies Ross has drawn attention to the unusual extent to which Einarr imitates poems by earlier skalds and the frequency with which he uses heiti, found largely or only in the þulur of the Prose Edda.23 As many as eleven different heiti (giantess names) are used for Selkolla in the twenty-one stanzas of the poem. Selkolluvísur is also characterized by very convoluted syntax and complex kennings, especially in the last few stanzas of the poem. For example, stanza 20 contains the kenning svölnis beðju reyðar barðs eyðöndum, which resolves to: {{{{Óðinn’s bed’s} [i.e. Valhöll’s] rorquals’} [i.e. snakes’] land’s} [i.e. gold’s] destroyers} [= men]. Sometimes one helmingr also contains more than one kenning, such as the first part of the twelfth stanza, which has njótr benloga vindar resolving to: The {user/Óðinn24 of {scar-flame} [sword] winds} [= man], and brjóta saegs sindrs resolving to: {{sea slag} [gold] breakers} [= men]. Such poetic feats make Selkolluvísur rather unique in an era when the old, strict rules of skaldic poetry were being relaxed and abandoned, nowhere more so than in religious contexts. Indeed, Arngrímr Brandsson’s own Guðmundar drápa, also found in GD, contains a remarkable stanza arguing against the use of Eddu list, stating that: ‘søde skrifters lyse vidnesbyrd passer til hellige mænds lovprisning’ (the bright testimony of sweet writings is suitable for praise of holy men), whereas kennings ‘øger ingen mænds styrker men formørker glæden’ (increase the strength of no man but darken the joy).25 Already this curious disparity between two contemporary poems, treating the same subject matter and found in the same saga, makes Selkolluvísur worthy of closer attention. Who was its target group and what was its purpose? 21 

Ciklamini, ‘Folklore and Hagio­graphy’, p. 171. Ciklamini, ‘Folklore and Hagio­graphy’, p. 178. 23  Clunies Ross, ‘Christian Skaldic Rhetoric’, p. 96. 24  As noted in Lexicon Poeticum, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, s.v. njótr, it is often impossible to know whether it means simply ‘user’ or whether it is employed as one of Óðinn’s names. 25  See Finnur Jónsson’s translation into Danish, quoted in Lindow, ‘Narrative and the Nature of Skaldic Poetry’, p. 119. 22 

The People, the Bishop, and the Beast


For an answer, we can turn again to Clunies Ross, who rightly argues that Selkolluvísur must presuppose an audience similar to Einarr himself, that is, a mid-fourteenth-century intellectual elite of clerics and laymen whose support was needed for the canonization project and who ‘appreciated the finer points of skaldic rhetoric […] while demonstrating the ability to highlight points of Christian doctrine within the conventions of skaldic diction’.26 This goes well with her opinion that the purpose of Selkolluvísur was ‘to enhance the sanctity and dignity of Guðmundr Arason by enhancing the stylistic register and complexity of the saga, by composing a miracle story about one of his more spectacular feats in vernacular verse, and, further, in the skaldic verse-form of highest traditional prestige and greatest difficulty, dróttkvætt’.27 Yet, these two statements do not completely explain the decision to compose a lengthy and elaborate skaldic poem about the banishment of Selkolla. Given that the ultimate aim of the clerics who wrote the saga and the poetry was to have Guðmundr canonized, it is important to understand in this context why his vita includes the folk stories where he combats supernatural creatures originating from popular superstition — and why these are repeated again in verse for extra emphasis. Marlene Ciklamini has pointed out that, at least by an international audience, Guðmundr’s unorthodox methods of combating monsters could have easily been interpreted as magic rather than miracles, which certainly would not have benefited the canonization project.28 There is some reason to believe that this might have been the case, even though it questionable whether a clear line can be drawn between miracles and magic. While some authorities, such as Augustine, had argued that ‘[i]t is one thing for magicians to perform miracles, another for good Christians, and another for bad Christians’,29 and Valerie Flint has among other things pointed out how ‘Christian leaders actively invited non-Christian magic of certain sorts into the medi­eval Christian community’,30 it is also clear that the debate over which forms of magic were acceptable for a Christian miracle-worker was an ongoing one and ‘could not but produce divisions within the Christian ranks’.31 26 

Clunies Ross, ‘Christian Skaldic Rhetoric’, p. 91. Clunies Ross, ‘Christian Skaldic Rhetoric’, p. 91. 28  Ciklamini, ‘Folklore and Hagio­graphy’, p. 171. 29  Quoted in Flint, The Rise of Magic, p. 34. 30  Flint, The Rise of Magic, p. 397. 31  Flint, The Rise of Magic, p. 399. 27 


Mart Kuldkepp

At the same time, of course, one should refrain from claiming anything about possible international audiences: since there is no extant Latin version of the saga, we do not know how the saga authors might have made these stories appealing to foreigners. It is similarly difficult to know how these audiences might have reacted to such episodes. But even if presuming that the audience of the Icelandic text was the learned elite of Iceland, it seems probable that the authors of a well-composed and politically important saga like GD must have understood the importance of giving such episodes an unambiguously Christian interpretation — especially since the Church itself had regarded Guðmundr with some suspicion for a long time (see n. 2 above). It is also likely that these stories could not have simply been left out. The authors had to draw on the already existing tradition, and the saga would hardly have been complete without them — in particular, Selkolla was so notorious that she had received a notice already in Sturla Þórðarson’s Íslendinga saga (hereafter referred to as ÍslS).32 Rather, what seems likely is that the saga authors had to adopt some kind of a literary strategy in order to cope with the fact that certain of Guðmundr’s best-known miracle stories stemmed from the folk tradition, and so they tried to integrate them with the overarching goal of the canonization project: to show Guðmundr in as saintly a light as possible. The question is: what was this strategy, and how is it manifested in the text? Again, we can turn to Marlene Ciklamini, who argues, based on an analysis of the prose episodes, that Guðmundr in GD is deliberately presented as an ambivalent and syncretic figure, exemplifying a ‘transformative transmission of traditional belief into the normative Christian mould’.33 He is connected to both high Christianity and the popular tradition, and made to appear both as a spiritual leader and as a successor to the traditional folk hero. But even in this last role, Guðmundr is superior to his pagan predecessors, since his supreme physical force emanates from superior (Christian) spiritual strength.34 For my part, I would suggest that similar integrative aims — to anchor Guðmundr in both of these roles, while emphasizing primarily the spiritual one — were behind the authors’ decision to compose and include in their saga a dróttkvætt poem about the most famous of Guðmundr’s ghost-busting feats. Selkolluvísur seems to have been deliberately composed in a ‘traditional’ style, imitating old skaldic poetry and closely following the teachings of the Poetic 32 

ÍslS, p. 223. Ciklamini, ‘Folklore and Hagio­graphy’, p. 172. 34  Ciklamini, ‘Folklore and Hagio­graphy’, p. 178. 33 

The People, the Bishop, and the Beast


Edda. In this way, it imparts to its subject matter a dignity it would otherwise have lacked, elevating it to a high level in the genre hierarchy of vernacular culture. At the same time, the ornate imagery of traditional skaldic verse is utilized to subtly reconcile the underlying folk tradition, now presented as elite poetry, with the high Christian goals of the canonization project — suggesting that two spheres are compatible parts of the same cultural reality. In the last part of this paper, I will further elaborate this thesis with the help of the concepts of remediation and reconciliation of traditions. First, however, I will try to support it through an analysis of the ways in which skaldic imagery is used in the poem.

Patterns of Skaldic Imagery in Selkolluvísur Margaret Clunies Ross remarks that Einarr’s use of kennings and heiti is not ‘merely ornamental’, citing in support of this point his use of Njörðr, the god of sea, in a kenning for sailors.35 While this is certainly true, I would argue that there is a broader rhetorical pattern in Einarr’s use of skaldic imagery. His kennings and heiti are not only often deliberately descriptive of their referents, but he describes them in ways that serve the two purposes mentioned above: to elevate their referents in the manner of traditional skaldic poetry (following Snorri Sturluson’s canonical presentation of the skaldic art in his Prose Edda) and, second, to invest them with a Christian meaning, thus reconciling the potentially problematic folk story content with the goals of the canonization project. This can be best demonstrated by analyzing the imagery used for the main characters of the poem, Guðmundr and Selkolla.36 The kennings used for Guðmundr,37 apart from two mentions of his real name (in sts 10 and 18) are: Vítr byskup and snjallr sækir allra manndáða (st. 8); lægis leygs vörðr (st. 9); byskup (st. 10); vitr lands-höfðing and fríðr víðis glóða þollr (st. 11); njótr benloga vindar, Gauta Góins skers, and dáðmildr glaðr djöfla sigrir (st. 12); sæll söngs meistari (st. 14); ráðviss mítrugramr and seims verkendr


Clunies Ross, ‘Christian Skaldic Rhetoric’, p. 96. For the sake of compactness, I use prose word order in my quotations from the poem. 37  Taking the cue from Fredric Amory, I count as kennings even the sannkenningar or borderline kennings that ‘denote persons by their qualities of character, relations to others, and possessions, just as they are or are supposed to be’ (Amory, ‘Kennings, Referentiality and Metaphors’, p. 88). Developing a systematic, formal characterization of kennings in Selkolluvísur (ideally comparative across the whole skaldic corpus) would be useful, but lies outside the present scope. 36 


Mart Kuldkepp

(st. 15); skreytir hyr foss and dádlistandi böls græðari (st. 16); hvatr þjónandi himna hildings (st. 20); svinnr heiðrs vinnandi (st. 21). Of these, byskup (sts 8, 10), lægis leygs vörðr (‘warden of the communion wine’, st. 9),38 dáðmildr glaðr djöfla sigrir (‘benevolent, glad overcomer of devils’, st. 12), sæll söngs meistari (‘blessed song master’, st. 14),39 ráðviss mítrugramr (‘council-wise miter king’, st. 15), dáðlistandi böls græðari (‘skilful redeemer of sin’, st. 16),40 and hvatr þjónandi himna hildings (‘brisk servant of the heaven king’, st. 20) are clearly suggestive of a Christian context. Guðmundr is either directly called a bishop or else characterized by the attributes of one: handing out the communion wine, holding mass ,and wearing a miter, as well as redeeming sins and being the servant of God. Dáðmildr glaðr djöfla sigrir most directly refers to the banishment of Selkolla, but it can also be interpreted as a broader characterization of Guðmundr. Fríðr viðis glóða þollr (st. 11), njótr benloga vindar and Gauta Góins skers (st. 12), seims verkendr (st. 15), and skreytir hyr foss (st. 16), however, rather hark back to the kennings of traditional skaldic poetry.41 Þollr is mentioned in Skáldskaparmál as a component of tree-kennings for men;42 njótr is used in Þórsdrápa, also quoted in Skáldskaparmál;43 and Góinn is found in a þula for the names of serpents.44 Many other examples of the use of similar kennings in traditional poetry could be named. In addition to being invested with the Christian imagery that anchors him in the role of the bishop, Guðmundr is thus also shown to be a traditional skaldic hero. Finally, vítr lands-höfðing (‘wise chieftain of the land’, st. 11), as well as perhaps snjallr sækir allra manndáða (‘wise doer of all the good deeds’, st. 8) and svinnr heiðrs vinnandi (‘wise doer of honorable deeds’, st. 21) do not seem to have particular connotations to either Christianity or traditional skaldic poetry. Therefore, there are eight descriptions of Guðmundr that are explicitly Christian and at least five which elevate him in the manner of traditional 38 

According to Lexicon Poeticum, ‘uddeleren af (kalkens) vin’ (dispenser of wine). According to Gert Kreutzer (Die Dichtungslehre der Skalden, p. 60), söngr is likely to be ‘mass song’, evident in paraphrases such as söngs gramr and söngs meistari, meaning ‘priest’. 40  According to Lexicon Poeticum, böl usually means ‘sin’ when used in Christian poetry. 41  I refrain from trying to translate the more traditional kennings, since, due to their nature, they must be resolved rather than simply translated (see the few examples above). 42  Snorri Sturluson, Edda, ed. by Faulkes, p. 65. 43  Snorri Sturluson, Edda, ed. by Faulkes, p. 27. 44  Snorri Sturluson, Edda, ed. by Faulkes, p. 90. 39 

The People, the Bishop, and the Beast


heroes of skaldic poetry. It is readily evident that he is in this sense a liminal figure, bringing together the two worlds. Furthermore, something similar can be seen in the way Guðmundr’s troll fighting is described. There, religious connotations freely combine with suggestions of actual physical action, complete with strength and movement. In stanza 11, Guðmundr ‘blessaði af fullri frægð’ (blessed with full glory), so that the monster plunged into the ground, while in stanza 14, he ‘nam harðr sökkva trölli ströngu með helgum orðum’ (sank hard the strong troll with holy words). After this initial struggle, Guðmundr’s actions become more unambiguously spiritual, when he holds mass and the sick are healed thanks to his ‘blíðar bænir’ (‘mild prayers’, st. 16). In the end, however, there is no contradiction between the roles of the bishop and the hero. Guðmundr is able to fulfill both. A similar duality is present in the descriptions of Selkolla. The heiti and kennings used for her (apart from the two mentions of her ‘real’ name, in sts 13 and 19) are the following: Svört Gneip (st. 3); g jósorð Gríðr (st. 4); harðr Hál and Bil hrauna (st. 7); auma Ámgerðr and ginljót Greip (st. 10); Leirvör, Ljóta and greypt flagð (st. 11); mein vættr (st. 13); tröll, hellis grams Mella, and Mörn (st. 14); alklökk Áma (st. 15); and Hála (st. 20). Of these names, Gríðr (the giantess with whom Þórr lodged on his way to Geirröð’s courts45), Gneip, Hála, Ámgerðr, Leirvör, Ljóta, Mörn, and Áma are all listed in a þula of troll-wives in Skáldskaparmál.46 Also mentioned in the Prose Edda are Greip, the daughter of giant Geirröð,47 and Bil, a companion of Moon who is included in a þula about Æsir where she is counted as one of the ásyniur.48 Of Mella, several examples are listed in Lexicon Poeticum, one of them in Háttatal (Háttatal, st. 5).49 Thus, all of these heiti have a demonstrable background in what was considered to be traditional poetry, to the degree that Selkolluvísur might have easily been written with a manu­script of the Prose Edda open on the side. Unlike the case with Guðmundr, no descriptions of Selkolla are directly suggestive of a Christian context; perhaps simply due to the lack of suitable poetic synonyms for the devil or his henchmen. The kennings and heiti outside of the giantess names, greypt flagð (‘dreary female troll’, st. 11), mein vættr (‘evil being’, st. 13), 45 

Snorri Sturluson, Edda, ed. by Faulkes, p. 171. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, ed. by Faulkes, pp. 112–13. 47  Snorri Sturluson, Edda, ed. by Faulkes, p. 25. 48  Snorri Sturluson, Edda, ed. by Faulkes, p. 114. 49  Lexicon Poeticum, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, p. 402. 46 

Mart Kuldkepp


and tröll (‘troll’, st. 14), have no particularly obvious connotations. However, clear Christian associations are evident in the prose text where Guðmundr twice calls Selkolla fjandi (i.e., ‘devil’).50 Also in the poem, Selkolla is referred to as heiðið barn and af tál fjanda (‘heathen child’ and ‘of the devil’s flock’, sts 1 and 2), similarly associating her with the devil. Likewise, after defeating Selkolla, Guðmundr is referred to as ‘dáðmildr glaðr djöfla sigrir’ (see above, st. 12). This suggests that, in spite of the fact that Selkolla is depicted as strongly anchored in the popular tradition of giantesses, she is also equated or associated with the devil. Therefore, just as Guðmundr fulfills two roles at once — that of the hero and that of the bishop — so does Selkolla: that of the monster and that of the devil. Another example that could be taken as evidence of the integrative nature of the poem (and of the fact that the stories have roots in the popular folk hero tradition) is the frequent mention of ‘the people’ in the poem. The struggle is not only between Guðmundr and Selkolla, but is moreover an action that also benefits the local community. It is said that ‘lýðum varð glatt’ (‘the people became glad’, st. 11), ‘svá létti móð þjóðar’ (‘so was the people’s sorrow lifted’, st. 14), ‘svá nam hvatr þjónandi himna hildings bjarga ljónum fagrliga’ and ‘margr lýðr fékk mikla miskunn’ (‘so did the brisk servant of the king of heaven beautifully save the men’, ‘many people received great mercy’, st. 20), ‘eigi verðr i orðum manna tínt það happa er henti’ (‘all the good things that happened cannot be recounted in the words of men’, st. 21). ‘The people’ as an actor in the story also appears indirectly in the words ‘Dálkr réð fyrri fólki’ (‘Dálkr ruled over the people’, 4) and perhaps also in the characterization of Guðmundr as ‘vítr lands-höfðing’ (see above, st. 11). But as the narrative is invested with heavily Christian connotations, the relationship between Guðmundr and the community is also defined primarily in religious terms and comes close to that of a bishop and his congregation. The tendency to bring together the folk tradition, elevated in traditional skaldic poetry and more explicit Christianity, is therefore readily evident in the poem. But of course, there is a strict hierarchy to this characterization. Einarr is not trying to demonstrate that a bishop is a kind of hero, or that the devil is a kind of troll. It is, of course, the Christian discourse that is the primary one. As argued by Marlene Ciklamini, Guðmundr is the spiritual successor to the traditional folk hero. But something similar also holds true of Selkolla, who exemplifies that even traditional monsters derive their evilness ultimately from the devil in the Christian sense. 50 

GD, p. 299.

The People, the Bishop, and the Beast


While the popular traditions of folk hero and troll are thereby evoked in this high Christian context of Guðmundr’s attempted canonization, it is done in order to integrate them into a larger Christian framework, making Ciklamini’s point about ‘transformative transmission of traditional belief into the normative Christian mould’ valid even concerning Selkolluvísur.51 If anything, the ‘syncreticism’ is even more evident there, as it also extends to the level of skaldic imagery.

Remediation and Reconciliation of Traditions The decision to compose Selkolluvísur for inclusion in GD should be seen as part of the saga authors’ strategy to invest the folktale material within the saga with a high Christian superstructure, making Guðmundr’s traditional heroism more appropriate for the vita of a future saint. In the case of the Selkolla stories, it is furthermore remarkable that this strategy is realized in what I would call double remediation: that is, by initial adaptation of oral folk tradition to written prose and by the adaptation of this prose into skaldic poetry. The term ‘remediation’, broadly meaning the incorporation or representation of one medium in another, can be used for example for the adaptation of a book to film, but also the adaptation of an oral story to one written in a book — ‘rendering […] face-to-face performance forms through the mediation of another communicative techno­logy’ — or that of prose into poetry.52 I make use of it here in order to conceptualize the transformations of the Selkolla material in the framework of the canonization project. We can first of all presume that the prose stories about Guðmundr and Selkolla, rather than being invented outright, were composed on the basis of one or more oral versions, which we no longer have. Putting these oral stories into writing was a major transformation in itself, meaning that they were most likely radically reinterpreted when taken out of their original societal context. This makes it difficult for us to deduce anything about the oral versions on the basis of the written texts in GD. The best we can assume from the traces of the folk hero discourse is that the oral tradition was not particularly ‘Christian’, making it entirely possible that, in the popular view, Guðmundr had by that time become a figure more akin to Grettir Ásmundarson53 than anything close to the spiritual leader that the canonization activists would probably have preferred. 51 

Ciklamini, ‘Folklore and Hagio­graphy’, p. 172. Regarding this term, see Bauman, ‘The Remediation of Storytelling’, p. 23. 53  Interestingly, Diana Whaley (‘Miracles in the Sagas of Bishops’, p. 160) points out that even Guðmundr’s life, especially his being exiled from his bishopric at Hólar for half of his epis52 


Mart Kuldkepp

The second instance of remediation occurred when the prose stories were, in turn, used as the source for Selkolluvísur: a skaldic poem composed in a particularly convoluted and elitist style. What makes this second instance especially interesting is its apparently regressive nature: the content previously put into writing, and thereby distanced from the oral tradition, is cast in a pseudo-oral genre which imitates not contemporary Christian skaldic poetry, but the traditional skaldic art as taught in the Prose Edda. This necessarily means that there must have been some propaganda benefit to adorning the saga with such poetry and that it had to appeal to a certain kind of audience, as argued earlier. The working of the second remediation is most visible on the level of skaldic imagery, which, together with strict metrical requirements, is of course the most characteristic feature of traditional skaldic poetry. As Margaret Clunies Ross puts it: ‘[a]side from the very fact that Einarr decided to compose in dróttkvætt, surely by the middle of the fourteenth century a signal that he wished to dignify his subject by employing the metrical resources of classical skaldic poetry, his use of kennings and heiti proclaims a desire to endow his subject with antique and elevated connotations’.54 This is true, but as we have seen in the analysis, the antique and elevated connotations make up only part of the imagery used in the poem. The other part, both in the case of Guðmundr and Selkolla, consists of markedly Christian references. By deliberately creating this poetic duality, Einarr acts in a ‘syncretic’ way, presenting the tradition about Guðmundr as something with both Christian and ‘traditional’ vernacular characteristics. But at the same time, he is also giving a clear signal that Guðmundr’s primary nature is the Christian one: he is a hero slaying a monster only in so far as he is a holy man helped by God. In a way, this could be read as criticism of the folk tradition, which probably emphasized the folk hero aspect more. But it is criticism through appropriation: by subordinating the folk tradition to the goals of the canonization project, Einarr substitutes his own, doubtlessly more high-status, interpretation in place of the popular one. In this connection, it should be noted that the oral folk tradition underlying it all and Selkolluvísur are by no means the same thing. In the successive instances of remediation in GD, Selkolluvísur is the tertiary transformation, even further removed from the oral tradition than the prose text. However, both the oral tradition and traditional skaldic poetry belonged to the sphere of copacy, had something in common with that of an outlaw such as Grettir. 54  Clunies Ross, ‘Christian Skaldic Rhetoric’, p. 23.

The People, the Bishop, and the Beast


Icelandic vernacular culture, and, in that sense, their differences were of degree rather than of kind. Therefore, even though well-composed skaldic poetry had a place much higher in the genre hierarchy than any folk story, it could probably still more easily integrate certain kinds of vernacular material — such as heroes and monsters — than any comparable Christian genre. As Selkolluvísur indeed demonstrates, the poetics of traditional skaldic poetry could be used to elevate such material to a level where it could be successfully integrated with the aims of the canonization project. By using this change of genre to lift the folkloristic aspects of the Selkolla stories to the level of high heroism, they could be more convincingly shown as carrying an ultimately Christian meaning. I think that therein lies the core of the explanation why the poem was useful to the canonization project. Taking over the form of traditional skaldic poetry, Guðmundr’s exploits are cast in the mode of old heroes; people known to have had similar poems composed about them. And since some of the most praised heroes of this kind of poetry had been Christian, or even the bringers of Christianity, writing such a poem about Guðmundr must have encouraged the reader to understand his actions in this framework, rather than in relation to low-status folk stories and superstitious belief in monsters and giantesses. In other words, through poetry, Guðmundr is turned into a character less like Grettir and more like, for example, Óláfr Tryggvason — both of whom are traditionally depicted as having a special benefactor-relationship with the community but who still represent the opposite ends of the pagan-Christian scale on the folk hero spectrum. In this connection, it should be noted that the emphasis on the saint having been victorious over trolls or demons of the heathen age was also one of the main features of the canonization projects of both Óláfrs, in our case best exemplified in the almost contemporary Flateyjarbók (1380s), where the canonization project focusing on Óláfr Tryggvason was revitalized under the patronage of Jón Hákonarson. This suggests that a similar strategy of reconciling traditions was widespread in Old Norse religious-political literature, and that the image of Guðmundr could even have been shaped in imitation of this well-established literary tradition on Norwegian kings. In any case, there is certainly room for further comparative studies on how exactly such elevation of material worked in the Old Norse context.55 55 

On a related note, Margaret Clunies Ross interestingly argues that the poem Húsdrápa, most likely consciously composed within the Norwegian courtly tradition with its pagan roots, probably served as a recognition of the royal pretentions of Óláfr pái; see Clunies Ross, A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics, p. 57.

Mart Kuldkepp


Conclusion I would suggest that there are two main lessons that can be drawn from Einarr Gilsson’s Selkolluvísur. First, the poem demonstrates the continuing potential of skaldic imagery as rhetoric. By the fourteenth century, it had become little more than a formula extracted from the Prose Edda but — as with all formulas — it could be reinvested with meaning, and Einarr obviously put much learning and effort into the composition of the poem to accomplish this goal. On one level, this was certainly a success. Selkolluvísur is without doubt a well-composed poem, appropriately dignifying its subjects and rendering the popular origins of the Selkolla stories thereby remarkably less suspect — adding its own layer of Christian connotations, while still remaining relatively true to the spirit of the story as it was probably related in the oral tradition. At the same time, however, the endeavour to have Guðmundr canonized did not bear fruit. But regardless of that, Selkolluvísur remains evidence of how Old Norse literary genre conventions could subtly be used for political purposes even as late as 1344. Second, Selkolluvísur also says something about the transmission and reinterpretation of Icelandic folklore in Old Norse literary texts. GD is particularly useful as an example of how and why the remediative processes work. It is a text with a clear political agenda, trying to negotiate an acceptable compromise between the popular origins of some of its contents and the high Christian aims of the canonization project. Once again we can agree with Valerie Flint, who argues that ‘[s]killed hagio­graphers preserved the type of religious leader who had been prominent in the non-Christian magical scene and made him prominent in the Christian one too, but with his activities and obediences deftly changed’.56 Similar ‘deft changes’ were also at play when ‘Guðmundr the folk hero’ being transformed into ‘Guðmundr the saint’. It could be argued that the compromise is successful in its own particular context. However, on the basis of GD and Selkolluvísur alone, it is difficult to say what Icelanders actually thought about Guðmundr and in what sense they might have believed in supernatural beings such as Selkolla. But this only demonstrates once again that, while Old Norse literary texts can be said to offer us a unique insight into the culture of Medi­eval Iceland, they are not transparent windows into another world. Rather, they are opaque objects participating in cultural practices and exchanges just as much as the texts of our own time.


Flint, The Rise of Magic, p. 398.

The People, the Bishop, and the Beast


Works Cited Primary Sources GD = Guðmundar saga Arasonar eftir Arngrím ábóta, in Byskupa sögur: Þriðja bindi — Hóla­byskupar, ed.  by Guðni Jónsson (Rey­kja­vík: Íslendingasagnaútgáfan, 1948), pp. 155–506 ÍslS  = Sturlunga Saga Incuding the Islendinga Saga of Lawman Sturla Thordarson and Other Works, ed. by Guðbrandur Vigfússon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1878) Lexicon poeticum antiquæ linguæ septentrionalis: Ordbog over det norsk-islandske skjaldesprog oprindelig forfattet af Sveinbjörn Egilsson, ed. by Finnur Jónsson (Copen­hagen: Møller 1931) ‘Selkolluvísur’, in Den norsk-islandske Skjaldedigtning, ed.  by Finnur Jónsson, 2nd  edn (Copen­hagen: Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1978), B ii, 434–40 Snorri Sturluson, Edda. Skáldskaparmál i: Introduction, Text and Notes, ed. by Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998)

Secondary Works Amory, Frederic, ‘Kennings, Referentiality and Metaphors’, Arkiv för Nordisk Filo­logi, 103 (1988), 87–101 Bauman, Richard, ‘The Remediation of Storytelling: Narrative Performance on Early Commercial Sound Recordings’, in Telling Stories: Language, Narrative and Social Life, ed. by Deborah Schiffrin, Anna De Fina, and Anastasia Nylund (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2010), pp. 23–43 Ciklamini, Marlene, ‘Folklore and Hagio­graphy in Arngrímr’s Guðmundar saga Arasonar’, in The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature: Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York 6th–12th August, 2006, ed. by John McKinnnell, David Ashurst, and Donata Kick (Durham: Centre for Medi­eval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), pp. 171–79 Clunies Ross, Margaret, ‘Christian Skaldic Rhetoric in Einarr Gilsson’s Selkolluvísur’, in Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference Bonn/Germany, 28th July–2nd August 2003, ed.  by Rudolf Simek, and Judith Meurer (Bonn: Hausdruckerei der Universität Bonn, 2003), pp. 90–98 —— , A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics (Cam­bridge: Brewer, 2005) Cormack, Margaret, The Saints in Iceland: Their Veneration from the Conversion to 1400, Subsidia Hagiograpica, 78 (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1994) Flint, Valerie I. J., The Rise of Magic in Early Medi­eval Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) Hallberg, Peter, ‘Imagery in Religious Old Norse Prose Literature: An Outline’, Arkiv för Nordisk Filo­logi, 102 (1987), 120–70


Mart Kuldkepp

Kreutzer, Gert, Die Dichtungslehre der Skalden: poeto­logi Termino­logie u. Autoren­kom­ mentare als Grundlagen e. Gattungspoetik (Meisenheim am Glan: Athenäum, 1977) Lindow, John, ‘Narrative and the Nature of Skaldic Poetry’, Arkiv för Nordisk Filo­logi, 97 (1982), 94–121 Skórzewska, Joanna A., Constructing a Cult: The Life and Veneration of Guðmundr Arason (1161–1237) in the Icelandic Written Sources, The Northern World, 51 (Leiden: Brill, 2011) Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups: Authorial Viewpoints and Methods’, in The Sixth International Saga Conference 28.7–2.8.1985: Workshop Papers, ed.  by Jonna Louis-Jensen, Christopher Sanders, and Peter Springborg, 2 vols (Copen­hagen: Det Arnamagnæanske Institut, 1985), ii, 983–1005 Whaley, Diana, ‘Miracles in the Sagas of Bishops: Icelandic Variations on an International Theme’, Collegium Medi­evale, 7 (1996), 155–84

Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson


few years ago it occurred to me that it might be of interest to examine points of comparison between two famous men of medi­eval Iceland who were both renowned for vanquishing monsters and ghosts, namely Grettir Ásmundarson inn sterki ‘the Strong’, the early eleventh-century outlaw and hero of Grettis saga, and Guðmundr (or more familiarly Gvendr) Arason inn góði ‘the Good’, the uncanonized saint and controversial bishop of the northern diocese of Hólar who died in 1237. After delivering a paper on this topic at the conference in Tartu,1 I found a passage in Örnólfur Thorsson’s introduction to Bernard Scudder’s English translation of Grettis saga where some observations are made concerning similiarites between the outlaw and the bishop and their relations with the supernatural realm: 1  I am grateful to the Theo­logical Faculty at the University of Copen­hagen for providing me with a place on Købmagergade to prepare the talk for Tartu and complete the present paper. I would also like to thank Gunnvör Karlsdóttir for helpful discussions concerning the C- and D-versions of Guðmundar saga.

Abstract: The paper explores various points of comparison and contrast between two folk heroes of medi­eval Iceland that were especially celebrated for having travelled through the land destroying monsters and ghosts: the early eleventh-century outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson the Strong and the early thirteenth-century bishop-saint Guðmundr Arason the Good. These two figures are considered more closely in relation to one another on the basis of their respective medi­ eval sagas — Grettis saga and the sagas of Bishop Guðmundr (Guðmundar sögur biskups) — and other types of sources, including place-names and post-medi­eval folk legends. A central question in this study is whether the medi­eval traditions about, respectively, the bishop and the outlaw could have influenced one another in some way, and especially in terms of Christian typo­logy. Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson ([email protected]) holds a PhD in Old Norse from the University of Cam­bridge, and his main fields of research includes medi­e val church history, Old NorseIcelandic Christian (religious) literature, Norse mytho­logy, and onomastics.

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 123–141 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116083


Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson

The only major saga hero not to witness the transition from paganism to Chris­ tianity (he was only four years old at the time of the conversion), Grettir campaigns in his own way for the newly established faith: Christians must take on the evil spirits, trolls and berserks that are the last vestiges of heathendom. Although his heroics might appear anachronistic, in his role of ghostbuster Grettir acts in a sense as a standardbearer of the new Christian faith. He has something in common with another great traveller and folktale favourite, Bishop Gudmund Arason, who roamed Iceland with his band of followers in defiance of the authorities in the first decades of the thirteenth century, consecrating springs, fighting trolls and laying ghosts to rest. Both the Bishop and Grettir are associated with Drangey and they are also important champions of Christianity: the Bishop as a model of faith and piety, Grettir as a liberating force who dispatches heathen presences. It is surely no coincidence that his main battles with supernatural beings are all fought at Christmas.2

Medi­e val traditions surrounding Bishop Guðmundr góði may indeed be of assistance in appreciating the figure of Grettir sterki. But the reverse seems a no less interesting approach to the figure of Guðmundr, and one might even wish to consider whether traditions about, respectively, the bishop and the outlaw could have influenced one another in some way. Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar is usually dated to the first half of the fourteenth century, although it may well have been composed considerably later and perhaps even sometime in the first half of the fifteenth century.3 The earliest manu­script of Grettis saga is dated to the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and another manu­script from the same period contains Grettisrímur, an epic poem in eight fits based on the saga’s account of Grettir’s early life (chs 14–24) which comprises 478 stanzas.4 Mention of Grettir in sources that certainly predate his saga demonstrates that he was a well-known legendary figure in the thirteenth century,5 and the saga of Grettir, which includes much poetry (some forty-six verses are

2  Örnólfur Thorsson, ‘Introduction’, pp. xxx–xxxi. I also subsequently discovered that Örnólfur had already, but more briefly, noted such basic similarities between the outlaw and the bishop in an introduction to his Icelandic edition of Grettis saga; see his ‘Inngangur’, pp. xxxvii–xxxviii. 3  See Örnólfur Thorsson, ‘Grettir sterki og Sturla lögmaður’, pp. 918–19; Guðvarður Már Gunnlaugsson, ‘“Grettir vondum vættum”’, pp. 39–40. 4  On the manu­scripts of Grettis saga, see Guðvarður Már Gunnlaugsson, ‘“Grettir vondum vættum”’, pp. 60–68, and further, pp. 53–59 for additional information on Grettisrímur and other poetry about the outlaw. 5  Guðvarður Már Gunnlaugsson, ‘“Grettir vondum vættum”’, pp. 39–42.

Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good


attributed there to Grettir), reflects a rich tradition about the outlaw and its author’s familiarity with a wide range of written works.6 The earliest saga with Guðmundr Arason as its subject appears to be the socalled ‘Priest’s Saga’, Prestssaga Guðmundar góða, which is thought to have been compiled soon after the bishop’s death. It describes Guðmundr’s origins (he was born in 1161), education, and career as a priest up to his consecration as bishop of Hólar in 1203.7 The Prestssaga, which has not survived as a separate work, is incorporated (in various ways) into four bio­graphies of Guðmundr that are now designated as versions A, B, C, and D of Guðmundar saga Arasonar. These later sagas were evidently composed sometime between c. 1315 and c. 1350, a period that witnessed the earliest attempts to have the bishop’s sanctity recognized officially; his relics were first elevated for veneration at Hólar cathedral in 1315 when a feast day (16 March) was also established.8 The A-version of Guðmundr’s saga is not written as a traditional saint’s life, but it is at all events meant ‘to preserve his memory and increase his fame’.9 The B-, C-, and D-versions can, however, be described as hagio­graphic lives or vitae, and they contain numerous accounts of miracles that Guðmundr is supposed to have worked in his lifetime and after death. A somewhat abbreviated form of the Prestssaga was also incorporated into Sturlunga saga, a compilation of Icelandic and mostly contemporary sagas from around the turn of the fourteenth century, and another important and contemporary (or at least near-contemporary) source on Guðmundr is Lawman Sturla Þórðarson’s (1214–84) Íslendingasaga, which forms the core of Sturlunga saga.10 In this work of Sturla, who was personally acquainted with the bishop (Sturla’s father, it might be added, was a close friend and relative of Guðmundr), he in one place mentions miracles associated with Guðmundr’s travels in the Westfjords of Iceland in 1210 and the bishop’s dealings there with a female monster or flagð named Selkolla (‘Seal-head’).11 Vivid descriptions of 6 

See Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, pp. xvii–lx, and Örnólfur Thorsson, ‘Inngangur’, pp. xxvii–xxix. 7  Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, pp. 153–57. 8  Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, pp. 153, 156, and 158–69. See Ciklamini, ‘Sainthood in the Making’, for (potential) hagio­g raphic aspects of the Prestssaga. For further information concerning Guðmundr’s life and cult, see Cormack, The Saints in Iceland, pp. 98–102; Skórzewska, Constructing a Cult; Wolf, The Legends of Saints, pp. 129–49. 9  Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, p. 159. Stefán edited this version; see Guðmundar sögur biskups i. 10  Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, pp. 156–57. 11  Sturlunga saga i, ed. by Jón Jóhannesson, Magnús Finnbogason, and Kristján Eldjárn, pp. 254–55.


Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson

these events are recorded in the B-, C- and D-versions of Guðmundar saga.12 Version D, which is attributed to Abbot Arngrímr Brandsson of Þingeyrar (d. 1361 or 1362), contains moreover a poem of twenty-one stanzas concerning the Selkolla episode and a reference to Sturla the lawman being the author of an account of Guðmundr’s struggles with this notorious monster.13 It is of interest in the present context that Sturla also has close ties with Grettis saga, whose author may well have drawn on some now lost account of the outlaw written by the lawman (although this suggestion, which was put forward by Sigurður Nordal, has been challenged by some commentators).14 In Chapter 49 of Grettis saga, we are told of a spear that Grettir had lost and which was discovered in a bog ‘eigi fyrr en í þeira manna minnum, er nú lifa; þat spjót fannsk á ofanverðum dǫgum Sturlu lǫgmanns Þórðarsonar’ (not until a time within the memory of people now alive; that spear was found towards the end of Lawman Sturla Þórðarson’s life).15 Sturla’s redaction of Landnámabók (the so-called Sturlubók-version) is repeatedly used as a source in the first part of the saga, which concerns Grettir’s ancestors,16 and later in Grettis saga (chap. 69), Sturla is cited as an authority on the hero when it is stated that Grettir had been outlawed for fifteen or sixteen years before he moved to the island Drangey, ‘at því er Sturla Þórðarson hefir sagt’ (according to what Sturla Þórðarson has said).17 Furthermore, the final chapter of Grettis saga provides a kind of epitaph that is ascribed to Sturla and which sums up the outlaw’s legacy: Hefir Sturla lǫgmaðr svá sagt, at engi sekr maðr þykkir honum jafnmikill fyrir sér hafa verit sem Grettir inn sterki. Finnr hann til þess þrjár greinir. Þá fyrst, at honum þykkir hann vitrastr verit hafa, því at hann hefir verit lengst í sekð einnhverr manna ok varð aldri unninn, meðan hann var heill; þá aðra, at hann var sterkastr á landinu sinna jafnaldra ok meir lagðr til at koma af aptrgǫngum ok reimleikum en aðrir menn [my emphasis]; sú in þriðja, at hans var hefnt út í Miklagarði, sem einskis annars


Biskupa sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, i, 604–08; ii, 77–82. The C-version is as yet unedited. 13  Biskupa sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, ii, 82–87, 78. For discussions of the Selkolla episode, see the contributions by af Klintberg and Cormack in the present volume. 14  Sturla’s connections with Grettis saga are discussed in Örnólfur Thorsson, ‘Grettir sterki og Sturla lögmaður’. 15  Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 157. 16  Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. xxiv. 17  Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 226.

Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good


íslenzks manns; ok þat með, hverr giptumaðr Þorsteinn drómundr varð á sínum efstum dǫgum, sá inn sami, er hans hefndi.18 (Sturla the lawman has said that he considered no other outlawed man to have been as great as Grettir the Strong. For this he found three reasons. First, he thought that Grettir had been the most intelligent since he was longest in outlawry of any man and was never defeated while he kept his health. Second, that he was the strongest in the land for his age and more able than other men to get rid of the walking dead and hauntings [my emphasis]. Thirdly, that he was avenged out in Constantinople, unlike any other Icelander, and in addition what a lucky man Þorsteinn drómundr, the one who avenged him, was towards the end of his life.)

This appraisal of Grettir might be falsely attributed to Sturla in order to enhance the authority of the saga, but the saga author could in any case have appreciated how Bishop Guðmundr and the famous outlaw differ in the ways in which they destroyed monsters and put an end to hauntings. In encounters of that kind, Grettir sterki relies solely, or so it seems, on his own might and main, his prodigious size and bodily strength, whereas Guðmundr góði, as a holy exorcist with divine support, is less bound by constraints of nature. For example, when the latter was invoked on one occasion by a man assailed by a flagð in the Westfjords (according to an account related in a Prestssaga-section of Sturlunga saga and the later sagas of Guðmundr), we are told that Guðmundr was at that moment praying far away in Vatnsdalr in the Northern Quarter, and as he leaned on his attending cleric as if asleep and apparently weightless, Guðmundr suddenly appeared to the man in distress, accompanied by a great light, dispelled the troll-woman with holy water and led the man to safety.19 A related contrast between Grettir and Guðmundr may be seen in their treatment of natural adversaries: whereas Grettir wrestles with a ferocious bear in Norway before driving his short sword or sax into the animal’s heart,20 Guðmundr uses his spiritual weapon of excommunication to kill an Icelandic fox that was in the habit of attacking the sheep of a certain farmer who had appealed to the bishop for help in this matter. The carcass of the fox was subsequently found with its bones transformed into a soft gristle.21


Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 290. Translation mine. Sturlunga saga i, ed. by Jón Jóhannesson, Magnús Finnbogason, and Kristján Eldjárn, p. 145; Biskupa sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, i, 464; ii, 26. 20  Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, pp. 76–77 (chap. 21). 21  Biskupa sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, i, 587; ii, 137–38. 19 

Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson


Unlike Guðmundr, and despite the fact that Grettir is Christian, the latter is on no occasion depicted as appealing to God or invoking a saint, and eventually his faith in his own natural strength appears to lead him into pride or superbia, the gravest of the seven deadly sins. Grettir’s first slaying of a man (in selfdefence) occurs when he travels, around the age of fifteen, to Iceland’s General Assembly, the Alþingi at Þingvǫllr. When he has been sentenced there to lesser outlawry (for three years) for this killing, it is described in the saga how he stops in one place on the way home to his family’s farm at Bjarg (‘Rock’) in the North and lifts a great rock that was for this reason named Grettishaf, ‘Grettir’s Lift’ (chap. 16). After this turning point, the hero’s ever-increasing eagerness to test his own prowess and strength becomes a prominent and fateful feature of his character. He soon seeks out superhuman foes, the first of them being the mound-dwelling revenant Kárr, whom Grettir beheads on his first trip to Norway as a lesser outlaw (chap. 18). Grettir thereby acquires the sax Kársnautr (‘Kárr’s Gift’), with which he later slays twelve berserks in Norway (chap. 19) and various other adversaries, both human and monstrous, back home in Iceland before he himself is ultimately beheaded with Kársnautr on the island of Drangey (chap. 82). Once Grettir has returned to Iceland from his first journey to Norway, the saga says: ‘Þá gerðisk ofsi Grettis svá mikill, at honum þótti sér ekki ófœrt’ (Grettir’s vehemence then became so great that he felt nothing was beyond him).22 After a series of further exploits, the outlaw uses his sax to behead the revenant ghost Glámr, and, in his famous struggle with this monster, Grettir pays a great price for his pride. Before he is destroyed, Glámr lays a curse on Grettir who is thereafter doomed to downfall: his deeds shall henceforth bring him misfortune, the peak of physical strength he was hitherto destined to attain later in life shall be reduced by half, he will become a full outlaw forced to live in the wild, find it unbearable to be alone, and fear the dark (chap. 35). For all his feats of bravery and reliance on his own powers, Grettir can give the impression of embodying a pre-Christian heroic ideal. And yet Grettir can also be regarded as a ‘standardbearer of the new Christian faith’ in his encounters with malevolent creatures representing ‘the last vestiges of heathendom’ (as suggested by Örnólfur Thorsson — see quotation above), and here it may be recalled how in some redactions of the saga Ísleifr Gizurarson, who would later become the first bishop of Iceland (1056–80), is made instrumental in the burial, by popular consent, of the remains of the outlaw in consecrated ground, the 22 

Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 95.

Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good


severed head at Bjarg and the body at Reykir near Drangey (chap. 84). Grettir is nevertheless portrayed in the saga as a cursed, excessively proud, and ultimately overreaching hero, and his relations with God remain obscure and ambiguous to the end. By contrast, and although the sources on Bishop Guðmundr’s turbulent career reflect a good deal of ambiguity towards him, the hagio­graphical literature has him exhibit the essential signs of humility expected of a holy man and he is time and again depicted as a conduit of great miracles and blessings. From a Christian perspective, Grettir thus fights the forces of darkness on an entirely different and more earthbound level than the saintly Guðmundr, and Grettir’s fate may be said to illustrate the spiritual dangers of engaging with such powers without the proper protection and weaponry provided by the true faith. Following Glámr’s curse, Grettir grows terrified of the dark and is ultimately defeated by means of sorcery, whereas with his prayer-charms, invocations, portable relics, and holy water, Guðmundr góði has, in clear contrast to Grettir sterki, the wherewithal to prevail over the powers of darkness without being contaminated or corrupted by their evil. The bishop’s accomplishments in that field lived on in folk legends for centuries after the Reformation. The aforementioned island of Drangey lies in the middle of Skagafjörður in Northern Iceland, and farmers from the mainland have over the centuries used it to graze sheep, catch sea-birds, and gather eggs from the high and steep cliffs that gird the island. Drangey’s formidable cliffs make it an ideal natural stronghold, and this is why, according to Grettis saga (chap. 67), the chieftain Guðmundr of Möðruvellir advises the outlaw to retreat to the island. Grettir subsequently moves there with his faithful younger brother Illugi and an (as it turns out) untrustworthy slave called Glaumr, and by doing so Grettir makes enemies of farmers in Skagafjörður who keep their sheep on the island. Grettir’s chief foe among these local farmers is Þorbjǫrn ǫngull, ‘the Hook’, who in order to overcome the outlaw and regain the island (along with his honour) ultimately turns to the witchcraft of Þuríðr, his old foster-mother, who is versed in the magic of the old religion. Þuríðr lays a curse on Grettir, and the outlaw is finally killed and beheaded (with Kársnautr) by Þorbjǫrn and his men as he lies dying from a leg wound caused by Þuríðr’s spells (chap. 82). Grettir had then survived as a full outlaw for nearly twenty years and lived for three years on Drangey. According to a well-known legend recorded in the nineteenth century,23 it was once customary for those visiting Drangey to pray at a rock named Gvendaraltari (‘the Altar of Gvend(u)r’), before ascending the cliffs, and this 23 

Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar þjóðsögur, pp. 138–40.


Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson

was the place where Guðmundr góði is said to have performed mass before proceeding to bless the cliffs surrounding the island. The legend relates that many men had mysteriously dropped to their death while gathering eggs in the cliffs, and it seemed as though their ropes had been cut across with some kind of blade. This was of special concern to the bishop since Drangey then belonged to the see of Hólar and he wished to use its resources to provide for the poor. When the bishop had traversed the cliffs nearly full circle hanging by a rope and performing his blessings and exorcisms, he arrived at a section known as Heiðnaberg (‘Heathen Cliff ’). Then a shaggy grey hand with a red sleeve suddenly reached out from the rock holding a skálm or short sword. With this skálm, the hand cut asunder two of the three strands that made up the rope Guðmundr hung onto, and it is said that the one remaining strand had been blessed by the bishop. At the same time a voice from the cliff-face pleaded: ‘Vígðu nú ekki meira, Gvendur biskup; einhversstaðar verða vondir að vera’ (Do not bless any further, Bishop Gvendur; the wicked must have some place to dwell).24 Bishop Guðmundr is said to have then discontinued his blessings and left this part of the cliffs unconsecrated, and to this day, we are told in the legend, men rarely venture over the face of Heiðnaberg. This legend is in keeping with the image of Guðmundr in the fourteenth-century sagas of the bishop, where he is frequently said to have blessed cliffs or rocks and especially wells, and one miracle account in the B-, C-, and D-versions of Guðmundar saga is clearly related to the legend set on Drangey. This account describes how an Icelandic fowler once came close to death as he hung by a rope on the face of some birdcliffs. All of a sudden, a hand holding a skálm reached out from the rock-face and cut eight strands of the rope, but the ninth remained uncut, and it is said that this remaining strand had been blessed by Bishop Guðmundr, so the fowler’s life was saved.25 The tale is not set in Drangey, and another nineteenthcentury variant of this migratory legend relates how the hand grasping the skálm emerged from a fowling-cliff at Látraströnd in Eyjafjörður in Northern Iceland.26 This variant does not involve Guðmundr góði, but it is plainly stated there that the hand from the rock belonged to a bergrisi, that is a ‘cliff-giant, cliff-dwelling troll’. One must assume that we are meant to think of some similar monstrous creature in the miracle account from the fourteenth century, 24 

Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar þjóðsögur, p. 140. Texts of this miracle account in all three versions of the saga are edited in Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups’, pp. 169–70. 26  Jón Norðmann, ‘Allrahanda’, p. 144. 25 

Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good


and the same applies to the Drangey legend and some other post-medi­eval tales describing Guðmundr’s consecration of dangerous fowling-cliffs and rocks, some of which also involve a skálm and the alliterative and proverbial expression einhversstaðar verða vondir að vera, or variants thereof.27 The aforementioned saying seems especially poignant when one considers the bishop’s cognomen: Guðmundr or Gvendr góði, ‘the Good’, grants this last refuge to the self-proclaimed vondir, ‘wicked, evil’. The adage might of course also resonate with readers of Grettis saga since Drangey was the outlaw’s final sanctuary, and those familiar with his saga might moreover recall in this connection how frequently Grettir is made to express himself with some proverbial phrase. One instance is especially noteworthy in the present context. When a group of peasants capture Grettir on one occasion in the Westfjords (chap. 52) and are about to hang him, the leading lady of the district, Þorbjǫrg digra, rescues the outlaw from the noose. Grettir identifies himself in their exchange, and she asks him then: ‘Hvat rak þik til þess, Grettir,’ sagði hon, ‘at þú vildir gera hér óspekðir þingmǫnnum mínum?’ (‘What drove you to this, Grettir,’ she asked, ‘that you wanted to cause my followers trouble?’) — to which Grettir replies: ‘Eigi má nú við öllu sjá; vera varð ek nǫkkur’ (‘There are things that just cannot be avoided; I had to be somewhere’).28 The final phrase in Grettir’s reply is reminiscent of the saying in the Drangey legend, and one editor of the saga refers to the latter in a footnote for comparison,29 assuming that nǫkkur here has the meaning ‘somewhere’, ‘someplace’ (that is nokkurs staðar, einhvers staðar) although the ending of the indefinite pronoun makes this uncertain and the omission of staðar seems odd. The expression in the Drangey legend appears in any case to encapsulate the plight of banishment, exile, or outlawry, and it is of interest to find that further expressions of this kind occur in the B- and C-versions of Guðmundar saga where they are attributed to the bishop. In an elaborate speech Guðmundr purportedly delivered in defence of his conduct before the archbishop in Trondheim (Norway) in 1214,30 the bishop describes how he was persecuted 27 

A variant from the seventeenth century set in Hornbjarg (in northwest Iceland) is edited in Munnmælasögur 17. aldar, ed. by Bjarni Einarsson, p. 59. For other and later examples of such legends, see Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar þjóðsögur, p. 138; Ólafur Lárusson, ‘Guðmundur góði í þjóðtrú Íslendinga’, pp. 269–73. 28  Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 169. 29  Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 169. 30  Biskupa sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, i, 574–83.


Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson

and had to suffer exile from his episcopal seat at Hólar as a consequence of his efforts to protect the church from chieftains in Northern Iceland who opposed Guðmundr’s policies and practices in ecclesiastical affairs. The relevant passage reads as follows in the B-version: […] hvar sem ek flý undan ófriði þeirra, í útsker eða óbygðir eða afdali, eða í þau öræfi ok útlegðir, er öngir kristnir menn máttu vera firir allskyns óvættum, ok trölla yfirgangi, ok svá má sannliga frá segja, at engi öræfi eða útsker sè svá ill á Íslandi, at ek hafa eigi í komit eða í verit, ok þeir vesalíngar, er með mèr vildu vera í útlegðum. En þó at ek veri í þessu[m] stöðum til friðar mèr, þá var mèr hvergi óhætt, eða þeim mönnum, er með mèr vóru; nú mátta ek þó eigi hvergi vera, sem von var til, þótt mèr þætti hvergi vært.31 ([…] wheresoever I flee from their hostilities, to seaward skerries or uninhabited areas or remote valleys, or into deserts and places of exile where no Christians could dwell on account of all kinds of monsters and the oppression of trolls; and it may truly be said that no seaward skerries or wilderness are so miserable that I have not gone or dwelt there along with the wretches who wished to follow me in exile. And although I stayed in these places for my own peace, I, like my followers, was nowhere free from danger; now I could not be nowhere, as is to be expected, although no place seemed to me bearable.)

The phrase ‘nú mátta ek þó eigi hvergi vera’ (now I could not be nowhere) is paralleled in yet another variation of such existential expressions found in the speech of the C-version: ‘þar verðr hverr at vera sem hann er staddur’ (each man must be where he finds himself ). The bishop’s speech is not found in Guðmundar saga A, and neither is a corresponding passage recorded in the speech as it is presented in Guðmundar saga D,32 a work that appears to have been originally composed, or rather initially conceived, with a foreign readership  and eventual (or perhaps simultaneous) Latin translation in mind. The útsker, ‘seaward skerries’, that Guðmundr mentions in both the B- and C-versions of the speech must at all events recall the time when — albeit much later in the saga — Guðmundr and his followers fled from the bishop’s enemies and sought refuge on the island of Málmey (in the winter of 1221–22), which lies just north of Drangey in Skagafjörður, and thereafter on the island of Grímsey (in the spring of 1222), which lies further north-west off the coast of the mainland and where the bishop’s men famously defended themselves in 31 

mine. 32 

Biskupa sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, i, 580. Translation Biskupa sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, ii, 95–103.

Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good


a battle.33 It may have occurred to people how Guðmundr had here in some ways become like another Grettir, the legendary outlaw of Drangey, and should Guðmundr ever have thought about Grettir it would have been fitting for him to have done so when he sought sanctuary from his enemies on Málmey and Grímsey. It is not hard to see how someone like Sturla the lawman might have entertained such an equation between the two fugitive figures. As a full outlaw (skógarmaðr) who was neither to be fed nor ferried or given shelter, Grettir is expelled from human society and forced to live in the wilderness, the domain of animals, monsters, and unclean spirits. Grettir is thus aligned with the vondir or ‘wicked’, and he is moreover repeatedly portrayed in the saga as a troll-like man of almost unnatural size and strength. Like a trollgiant, Grettir sterki dwells in caves and lifts or hurls great rocks and boulders. The saga describes how he befriends and even lives with some giant half-trolls (chap. 61), and Grettir is sometimes mistaken for a troll or accused of being one. On his second trip to Norway (following Glámr’s curse), when Grettir heroically seeks to save his stranded shipmates by swimming over a channel in the freezing cold to obtain fire (chap. 38), we are told how he suddenly burst into a hut where twelve other stranded Icelanders happened to have sought shelter: ‘Kuflinn var sýldr allr, þegar hann kom á land, ok var hann furðu mikill tilsýndar, sem troll væri. Þeim, sem fyrir váru, brá mjǫk við þetta, ok hugðu, at óvættr myndi vera’ (His hooded cloak was all frozen when he arrived on land, and he appeared amazingly huge, as if he were a troll. The men inside were very startled and thought this was a monster).34 After a great fight with these Icelanders, who hurled firebrands at the stranger, Grettir returns to his companions with fire, but the bodies of the twelve Icelanders are subsequently found in the charred rubble of the hut. Grettir is soon thereafter accused of having killed them, and when he goes to the saintly King Ólafr Haraldsson in Trondheim to prove that he is innocent of evil intent by undergoing a járnburðr, a trial by hot iron, a young man in the church taunts Grettir and calls him the son of a sea-ogress, a margýg jarsonr (chap. 39), whereupon Grettir loses his temper and strikes the lad, who is in fact said to have been an unclean spirit (óhreinn andi) sent to bring Grettir bad luck. Grettir thereby forfeits his chance to clear himself of the crime, and it seems beyond Saint Ólafr’s powers to deal with Grettir’s ill luck when he says to the latter: ‘Mikill ógæfumaðr ertu, Grettir […] ok mun eigi hœgt at gera við ógæfu 33  34 

Biskupa sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, i, 516–34; ii, 116–18. Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 130.


Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson

þinni’ (You are a man of great ill fortune Grettir […] and it is not easy to counter your bad luck).35 The saint speaks again of Grettir’s misfortune later in their conversation: ‘Sé ek þat,’ sagði konungr, ‘at fáir menn eru nú slíkir fyrir afls sakar ok hreysti, sem þú ert, en miklu ertu meiri ógæfumaðr en þú megir fyrir þat með oss vera […] ef nǫkkurum manni hefir verit fyrirmælt, þá mun þér hóti helzt’ (‘I can see,’ said the king, ‘that there are few men who are your equal in strength and courage, but you are a man of such great ill fortune that you cannot remain with us […] if any man has been cursed, you have’).36 An Icelander named Þórir of Garðr, who had lost his sons in the fire, thereafter has Grettir sentenced to full outlawry back in Iceland, and when many of Þórir’s men are later slain as they ambush Grettir by a cleft in some cliffs on Arnarvatnsheiði in the north-west highlands of Iceland (chap. 57), Þórir remarks: ‘Þat hefi ek spurt,’ sagði hann, ‘at Grettir væri afbragðsmaðr fyrir hreysti sakar ok hugar, en þat vissa ek aldri, at hann væri svá fjǫlkunnugr, sem nú sé ek, því at þar falla hálfu fleiri, sem hann horfir bakinu við; nú sé ek, at hér er við troll at eiga, en eigi við menn’ (‘I have heard,’ he said, ‘that Grettir is an outstanding man on account of his strength and courage, but I never knew that he was as skilled in magic as I now see, because behind him twice as many men are slain. I now see that we are dealing with a troll and not a man’).37 It turns out that Grettir’s mysterious and giant-like friend Hallmundr had slain Þórir’s men at the other opening of the cleft. Finally, in another episode recounted in the saga (chap. 64), after Grettir has carried a woman with her girl-child across a raging stream in order to get them to mass at Christmas, the woman says to the priest she later meets that she did not know ‘hvárt hana hefði yfir flutt maðr eða troll’ (whether it was a man or a troll who had carried her across).38 Grettir is indeed a giant of a man and in some ways troll-like, and yet these monstrous aspects of the hero are frequently mitigated in the saga when he helps people in distress and dispatches troublesome revenants like Glámr or the monsters in Bárðardalr, a troll-woman and a jǫtunn, ‘giant’, living under a waterfall (chaps 64–65). Indeed, when he crosses the icy and swollen river to get the woman with her child to mass at Christmas, Grettir may be said to resemble Saint Christopher, ‘Christ-Bearer’, the mighty giant and patron of wayfarers (as 35 

Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 134. Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 134. 37  Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 184. 38  Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, p. 211. 36 

Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good


well as the dying) who according to medi­eval legend once carried the Christchild over a dangerous river and ultimately suffered martyrdom by beheading.39 Clearly, while there are many essential differences between the figures of Grettir and Guðmundr, both became folk heroes who led lives of great hardship and assumed the role of defender of the common people against evil supernatural beings. Yet there are other notable resemblances between these two men from the Northern Quarter of Iceland. Both are remembered as persecuted outcasts who wandered for long periods of time through the countryside and wild wastes of Iceland, surviving on or outside the boundaries of normal human existence — Grettir as an outlaw who could be killed in any place with impunity, and Guðmundr as a rebellious bishop banished from his cathedral or diocese by powerful chieftains.40 Famed for his charity and excessive almsgiving, Guðmundr travels through the land taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and in this way he somewhat resembles an outlaw-hero of the Robin Hood type. This is one of the reasons he made enemies of so many chieftains and farmers in Skagafjörður and elsewhere in Iceland. To many of his contemporaries, Guðmundr and his band of poor followers and armed outlaws must have seemed like marauders as they descended on farm after farm where they had to be lodged and provided with food and other goods, and they engaged in many skirmishes and battles. Furthermore, both Grettir and Guðmundr were fundamentally ambiguous figures, in that Grettir is portrayed as a helpful hero who progressively becomes more and more like the monsters he fights,41 and Guðmundr was a highly controversial prelate whose sainthood was never properly certified by church authorities — though many Icelanders had already during his lifetime made up their minds in this respect, an appreciation that earned him the affectionate cognomen (inn) góði. Whereas Grettir was famously avenged out in Constantinople, Guðmundr was never canonized by the popes residing in Rome or Avignon. The papacy had reserved the right of canoniza39 

On Christopher’s cult in medi­eval Iceland, see Cormack, The Saints in Iceland, pp. 89–90. This study does not pursue any comparison between Grettir and Guðmundr in terms of psychodynamics. The latter has recently been studied from such a perspective in Hjalti Hugason, ‘Áfallatengt heilkenni á miðöldum?’, and a somewhat parodic psychiatric assessment of Grettir is found in Óttar Guðmundsson, Hetjur og hugarvíl, pp. 123–38. The following comment by Hight (‘Introduction’, p. xi) is an earlier example of such concerns in relation to Grettir: ‘The interest of our saga is wholly psycho­logical. Grettir’s character is one of the most complex ever conceived, and is drawn with an artistic mastery which laughs to scorn whole libraries of modern psycho­logy.’ 41  As critics have previously noted. See Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, p. 142. 40 


Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson

tion to the pope alone during Guðmundr’s episcopacy, but he would no doubt eventually have been canonized in Iceland if local (and episcopal) canonization had remained in accordance with ecclesiastical law. Finally, mention must also be made of the numerous place-names associated with the travels of Grettir and Guðmundr through Iceland. No other Icelanders seem to have given their name to so many places in the country.42 In the case of Grettir sterki, these are mostly names of huge rocks and boulders he was supposed to have lifted (there are more than fifty instances on record) and which are usually called Grettistak, ‘Grettir’s Lift’.43 Guðmundr (or Gvendr) góði is for the most part associated with a multitude of wells and springs called Gvendarbrunnur, ‘Gvendr’s Well/ spring’, which the bishop was believed to have hallowed during his lifetime.44 To Icelanders of the thirteenth or fourteenth century like Sturla Þórðarson the lawman or Abbot Arngrímr Brandsson, it might not have seemed farfetched to contemplate how Bishop Guðmundr could be regarded as a kind of ‘second’ Grettir, especially in his capacity as a wandering exorcist and fugitive folk hero. As is to be expected, analogies between Guðmundr and other wellknown saints (like Ambrose, Martin, or Thomas Becket) are often drawn in the hagio­graphic sagas of the bishop, and it does not seem unreasonable to be alert to possible influence from hagio­graphy in Grettis saga and other works classified within the native and secular genre of sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur) such as the thirteenth-century Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar. In a culture where typo­logical thought informed so much of the religious literature and art, it should come as no surprise to find that a given episode in an Íslendingasaga is modelled on or inspired by an episode in the vita or Passion of a saint.45 As noted by Sigurður Nordal,46 when the (tenth-century) hero of Egils saga is disturbed by a swallow while he stays awake and alone one night in York and tries to compose a poem in order to save his life,47 this recalls an episode in the vita 42 

As noted in Björn M. Ólsen, ‘Um Íslendingasögur’, p. 286. On the various place-names that incorporate the name of Grettir, see Guðvarður Már Gunnlaugsson, ‘“Grettir vondum vættum”’, pp. 49–51. 44  On the place-name Gvendarbrunnur and various other place-names incorporating the name of Gvendr (or Guðmundr) góði, see Ólafur Lárusson, ‘Guðmundur góði í þjóðtrú Íslendinga’, pp. 252–60. 45  A discussion of typo­logy in Old Norse-Icelandic literature is to be found in Weber, ‘Intellegere historiam’, and more recently Males, ‘Allegory in Old Norse Secular Literature’. 46  Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, ed. by Sigurður Nordal, p. 183. 47  Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, ed. by Sigurður Nordal, pp. 182–83. 43 

Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good


of Saint Benedict where the saint is disturbed in his solitude in the desert by a demon in the form of a black bird or thrush (this is a black fly in an Old Icelandic translation of Benedict’s vita),48 and the demonic nature of the bird in York is underlined by the notion that this was in fact the evil Queen Gunnhildr, who had changed her shape. Such resemblances need of course not always indicate a direct literary borrowing or adaptation, but the likelihood of direct influence here from the legend about Benedict is supported by another episode in Egils saga. As Régis Boyer has pointed out,49 when Egill receives a poisoned horn of ale from Queen Gunnhildr at a feast,50 the hero reacts like Saint Benedict when the latter is presented with a poisoned cup of wine at an unruly monastery: Egill carves runes on the horn, which then explodes so that he is unharmed by the drink, and Benedict’s wine cup is similarly shattered when the saint makes the sign of the cross over it.51 It is not readily evident why this particular saint should have been associated with the great poet-Viking Egill, but in being made to resemble and call to mind the holy figure of Benedict, the pagan saga-hero might be said to receive a benediction of sorts. Like Egill, Grettir is far from saintly, to be sure. In fact, one might suspect that in the minds of medi­eval Icelanders the cursed and troll-like Grettir would have come perilously close to the category of the demonic, or rather the damned. In his saga, and in later folklore, Grettir sterki undergoes numerous trials which prove his physical strength, but his failed — or perhaps rather aborted — ordeal in the church in Trondheim relates to an altogether different and very central concern in the saga of the accursed outlaw: how good was Grettir the Strong? This question may well already have arisen in the mind of the reader in connection with the accounts of Grettir’s grim childhood pranks (chap. 14), and the author appears to play with our misgivings in this respect, right down to the words he ascribes to Sturla the lawman in the final chapter of the saga, where this fundamental problem remains unresolved. The saga author appears nevertheless to have designed his work in such a way that the reader 48 

Heilagra manna søgur i, ed. by Unger, p. 160. This vita of the saint is apparently derived from a twelfth-century translation of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great made in Norway and where it is said (p. 202) that Benedict was disturbed by a small black bird. See Wolf, The Legends of Saints, pp. 60–61 and 122–27. 49  Boyer, ‘The Influence of Pope Gregory’s Dialogues’, pp. 18–19. 50  Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, ed. by Sigurður Nordal, p. 109. 51  Heilagra manna søgur i, ed. by Unger, p. 160, and see further p. 203 for the same episode in the earlier translation of Gregory’s Dialogues from Norway. On the cult of Benedict in medi­eval Iceland, see Cormack, The Saints in Iceland, pp. 84–85.


Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson

will ultimately wish to regard Grettir as an essentially benevolent folk hero in spite of the obvious flaws in his character. It may be noted here that in AM 152 fol., a manu­script of the saga from the start of the sixteenth century, an old hand has in one place (fol. 2r) written in the margin: ‘godr kall var gretter’ (Grettir was a good man). Any explicit comparison with Grettir could scarcely have seemed appropriate in a vita aimed at promoting the sanctity of Bishop Guðmundr, but a precedent for creating or playing with (albeit non-explicit) analogies between an Icelandic saga-hero and a particular saint was already to be found in Egils saga, which the author of Grettis saga evidently knew, and this might prompt the question whether the author of the latter saga could have conceived the idea of comparing Grettir sterki with Guðmundr góði, a native saint from the same quarter of Iceland. For Grettir the ghostbuster outlaw, no other saint seems as fitting for comparison. I am not about to maintain that there is evidence for direct ties between the saga of Grettir and the medi­e val literature on Guðmundr, but the possibility of some real connection between traditions surrounding these two protective folk heroes can scarcely be ignored when the aforementioned similarities are considered. Certain discrepancies might also have been conducive to suggesting a typo­logical relationship, since these could in fact highlight how Grettir might in a sense prefigure Guðmundr and be superseded by the saint like an Old Testament figure in relation to Christ. And Grettis saga does indeed appear to involve a form of typo­logical comparison and contrast between Grettir and his half-brother in Norway, that is, Þorsteinn drómundr, ‘the Gallion’, the man who famously avenged Grettir in Constantinople when he killed Þorbj ǫrn ǫngull with Grettir’s sax (chap. 86). Earlier in the saga (chap. 41), when the two brothers compare the shape of their arms and different fortunes in life, Grettir remarks on the long and narrow ‘tongs’ of his brother which he doubts can match the strength of a woman, whereupon Þorsteinn vows to avenge Grettir with these very same arms. Like Grettir, who is rescued at the last moment from hanging by Þorbjǫrg digra in the Westfjords (see above), Þorsteinn is, towards the end of the saga (chaps 84–93), saved from execution in Constantinople by Spes (‘Hope’), another (married) lady of high rank. But whereas Þorsteinn is plainly portrayed and explicitly described as a man of outstanding good fortune who eventually wins Spes, goes on a pilgrimage to Rome and ends his life as a devout Christian in a solitary hermitage, Grettir is time and again in his saga presented as a hero of exceptional ill fortune, and his condition in the afterlife naturally remains a matter of concern.

Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good


In the aforementioned folk legend about Bishop Guðmundr’s blessing of the cliffs of Drangey, it is not revealed what kind of ‘wicked’ being appeals to the saint from inside the rock. However, in view of Grettir’s assimilation with trolls or giants and his close association with the sax, which can of course recall the skálm that comes out of the cliff, it might occur to the reader that Grettir could here yet again have been confused with a trǫll.52 The bishop’s reaction seems to imply pity if not pardon, and it is a tantalizing thought that Guðmundr the Good and Grettir the Strong might have met in this way for a moment on Drangey.


After giving the talk in Tartu, I discovered that the idea of identifying the cliff-troll in Drangey with Grettir is mentioned briefly in Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, ‘Grettla’, p. 100.


Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson

Works Cited Manu­scripts and Archival Sources Rey­kja­vík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum, AM 152 fol

Primary Sources Biskupa sögur, ed. by Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, 2 vols (Copen­hagen: Møller, 1858–78) Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, ed. by Sigurður Nordal, Íslenzk fornrit, 2 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1933) Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed.  by Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 6 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1936) Guðmundar sögur biskups i: Ævi Guðmundar biskups, Guðmundar saga A, ed. by Stefán Karlsson, Editiones Arnamagnæana, Ser. B, vol. 6 (Copen­hagen: Reitzel, 1983) Heilagra manna søgur i, ed. by Carl Richard Unger (Oslo: Bentzen, 1877) Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og ævintýri i, ed.  by Árni Böðvarsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson (Rey­kja­vík: Bókaútgáfan Þjóðsaga, 1961) Munnmælasögur 17. aldar, ed. by Bjarni Einarsson, Íslenzk rit síðari alda, 6 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fræðafélag í Kaupmannahöfn, 1955) Sturlunga saga i, ed.  by Jón Jóhannesson, Magnús Finnbogason, and Kristján Eldjárn (Rey­kja­vík, Sturlunguútgáfan, 1946)

Secondary Works Björn  M. Ólsen, ‘Um Íslendingasögur: Kaflar úr háskólafyrirlestrum’, in Safn til sögu Íslands og íslenzkra bókmennta að fornu og nýju, ed.  by Sigfús Blöndal and Einar Ólafur Sveinsson (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka bókmenntafélag, 1937–39), vi.3, pp. 1–427 Boyer, Régis, ‘The Influence of Pope Gregory’s Dialogues on Old Icelandic Literature’, in Proceedings of the First International Saga Conference, University of Edinburgh, 1971, ed. by Peter Foote, Hermann Pálsson, and Desmond Slay (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1973), pp. 1–27 Ciklamini, Marlene, ‘Sainthood in the Making: The Arduous Path of Guðmundr the Good, Iceland’s Uncanonized Saint’, Alvíssmál, 11 (2004), 55–74 Cormack, Margaret, The Saints in Iceland: Their Veneration from the Conversion to 1400, Subsidia Hagiograpica, 78 (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1994) Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, ‘Grettla’, Skáldskaparmál, 1 (1990), 100–17 Guðvarður Már Gunnlaugsson, ‘“Grettir vondum vættum, veitti Hel og þreytti”: Grettir Ásmundarson og vinsældir Grettis sögu’, Gripla, 11 (2000), 37–78 Hight, George Ainslie, ‘Introduction’, in The Saga of Grettir the Strong, trans. by George Ainslie Hight (London: Dent, 1965 [1914]), pp. v–xv

Grettir the Strong and Guðmundr the Good


Hjalti Hugason, ‘Áfallatengt heilkenni á miðöldum? Ráðgátan Guðmundur Arason í ljósi meðferðarfræða nútímans’, Skírnir, 186 (2012), 98–124 Jón Norðmann, ‘Allrahanda’, in Menn og minjar. Íslenzkur fróðleikur og skemmtun IV, ed. by Finnur Sigmundsson (Rey­kja­vík: Leiftur, 1946), not paginated Males, Mikael, ‘Allegory in Old Norse Secular Literature: Theoretical and Methodo­ logical Challenges’, Viking and Medi­eval Scandinavia, 9 (2013), 99–132 Ólafur Lárusson, ‘Guðmundur góði í þjóðtrú Íslendinga’, in Byggð og saga, ed. by Ólafur Lárusson (Rey­kja­vík: Ísafoldarprentsmiðja, 1944), 244–79 Orchard, Andy, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manu­script (Cam­bridge: Brewer, 1995) Örnólfur Thorsson, ‘Grettir sterki og Sturla lögmaður’, in Samtíðarsögur. The Contemporary Sagas: The Ninth International Saga Conference, Akureyri 31.7.–6.8. Höfundar  / Pre­prints, ed.  by Sverrir Tómasson (Rey­kja­vík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, 1994), pp. 907–33 —— , ‘Inngangur’, in Grettis saga, ed. by Örnólfur Thorsson, Sígildar sögur, 4 (Rey­kja­vík: Mál og Menning, 1994), pp. v–xlviii —— , ‘Introduction’, in The Saga of Grettir the Strong, trans. by Bernard Scudder (London: Penguin Books, 2005), pp. ix–xxxvii Óttar Guðmundsson, Hetjur og hugarvíl. Geðsjúkdómar og persónuleikaraskanir í Íslendinga­ sögum (Rey­kja­vík: JPV útgáfa, 2012) Skórzewska, Joanna A., Constructing a Cult: The Life and Veneration of Guðmundr Arason (1161–1237) in Icelandic Written Sources, The Northern World, 51 (Leiden: Brill, 2011) Stefán Karlsson, ‘Guðmundar sögur biskups: Authorial Viewpoints and Methods’, in Stafkrókar. Ritgerðir eftir Stefán Karlsson gefnar út í tilefni af sjötugsafmæli hans 2. desember 1998, ed. by Guðvarður Már Gunnlaugsson, Rit Stofnunar Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 49 (Rey­kja­vík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, 2000), pp. 153–71; orig. pub. in The Sixth International Saga Conference 28/7–2/8 1985, Workshop Papers (Copen­ hagen: Det arnamagnæanske Institut, 1985), ii, 983–1005 Weber, Gerd Wolfgang, ‘Intellegere historiam: Typo­logical Perspectives of Nordic Pre­ history (in Snorri, Saxo, Widukind, and Others)’, in Tradition og historieskrivning: Kilderne til Nordens ældste historie, ed. by Kirsten Hastrup and Preben Meulen­gracht Sørensen, Acta Jutlandica, 63.2, Humanistisk Serie, 61 (Århus: Aarhus Universitets­ forlag, 1987), pp. 95–141 Wolf, Kirsten, The Legends of Saints in Old Norse-Icelandic Prose, Toronto Old Norse and Icelandic Studies, 6 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013)

From the Inside Out: Chronicles, Genealogies, Monsters, and the Makings of an Icelandic World View Arngrímur Vídalín

Eirekr spurði konung vandliga at ömbun réttlætis eða píslum helvítis. Hann spurði ok at yfirbragði þjóða ok grein landa, frá höfum ok útlöndum ok frá allri austrálfu heimsins ok suðrálfu, frá konungum stórum ok frá ýmissum eyjum, frá auðn landa ok frá þeim stöðum, er þeir áttu ferð yfir, frá mönnum undarligum ok búningi þeira ok siðum margra þjóða, frá höggormum ok flugdrekum ok alls kyns dýrum ok fuglum, frá gnótt gulls ok gimsteina. Þessar spurningar ok margar aðrar leysti konungr vel ok fróðliga. Eptir þetta váru þeir skírðir Eirekr ok hans menn.1 1 

Eiríks saga víðförla, ed. by Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, p. 451.

Abstract: This essay gives an overview of learned medi­eval Icelandic sources and the concern they exhibit with a dualistic Christian understanding of the world. Within a system of binary opposition between Christian and pagan, centre and periphery, self and other, a need to argue for one’s placement on the right side of the divide seems to have become ever more important for people already marginalized by the world model. A common way of doing so was by way of pedigree, where noble men would trace their ancestry through legendary kings to Adam. The sources bear witness to an understanding of the world which presumed its apocalyptic end in which the damned and the saved would clash in a cataclysmic battle, which further sharpened the divide between the Christian self and the pagan other. Thus a rhetoric of dehumanization rooted in antiquity came into systematic use by continental scholars of the Middle Ages, while their distant Nordic counterparts simultaneously put the same tools to use in an attempt to demarginalize themselves. Arngrímur Vídalín ([email protected]) has a PhD in Old Norse from the University of Iceland. His contribution in the present volume owes a great deal to Nordisk Forskningsinstitut and Den Arnamagnæanske Samling at the University of Copen­hagen, where he was granted the opportunity to make a detailed survey of the sources over a period of three months in the year 2014.

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 143–174 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116084


Arngrímur Vídalín

(Eiríkr asked the king extensively about the rewards of justice and the torments of Hell. He also asked about the appearance of nations and the various lands, about oceans and distant countries and all of the eastern and southern hemispheres, about great kings and various islands, about the wealth of individual lands and of those places they were to cross; he asked about strange men and their clothing and the customs of many nations, about serpents and flying dragons and all kinds of animals and birds, about multitudes of gold and gemstones. These questions and many others the king resolved well and wisely. After that they were baptized, Eiríkr and his men.)

There is a context in Old Norse texts that has received little attention: an underlying theme of contrast between centre and periphery, civilization and wilderness, humanity and monstrosity. I would argue that this dichotomy is a fundamental building block of even the most run-of-the-mill medi­e val saga. This context is defined by the universal Christian2 understanding of the world and is embedded in Old Norse literature through a transfusion of folk-storytelling, Latin learning, and Christian ideo­logy. Nowhere is this context more evident than in the learned writings of medi­eval Iceland and Norway, though the tension between the civilized centre and monstrous peripheries may easily be seen in many sagas as well, as I have previously argued.3 Here, I would like to take a closer look at the fundamental ideo­logy that influences so much of what we know about Northern European history. The aim of this essay is not to show how learned Icelanders were dependent on Christian models of viewing the world, as this has already been demonstrated time and time again, and the only way one could miss out on this fact would be to actively ignore the obvious.4 As the European influence on 2 

This, in fact, is what the word ‘Catholic’ means. Usually, ‘Catholic’ is used to designate one of the three main branches of modern Christianity, the other two being Protestant and Orthodox. However, prior to Luther and the Reformation, the term ‘Catholic’ was used to emphasize the universal faith common to all Christians. Cf. Sverrir Jakobsson, Við og veröldin, pp. 128–29. 3  Arngrímur Vídalín, The Supernatural in ‘Íslendingasögur’ and ‘“Er þat illt, at þú vilt elska tröll þat”’. 4  Suffice it to name but a few examples: Sverrir Jakobsson (Við og veröldin) shows that the world-view of learned Icelanders in the Middle Ages is by its very nature Christian; Sverrir Tómasson (Formálar íslenskra sagnaritara á miðöldum) demonstrates the influence of continental thought on Icelandic saga writers. Sufficient proof is further to be found in the sheer volume of extant learned writings from medi­e val Iceland, both translations of works such as Honorius Augustodunensis’s Elucidarius as well as homemade encyclopaedias such as Hauksbók and AM 194 8vo, which incessantly allude to and cite directly from learned sources such

From the Inside Out


Icelandic saga writers is undisputed, the aim here is rather to investigate a single aspect of how this influence affected the literature produced in Iceland during the Middle Ages, in order to demonstrate how deeply ingrained the concept of monstrous peripheries was in the medi­eval mind and how this is underlined in the sources. The key question explored in this article is how the natives of Iceland, a peripheral island, viewed themselves in light of this deeply rooted idea of monstrous peripheries.

Defining the Centre The ideo­logical centre of the world lay in Jerusalem.5 More often than not, Jerusalem is shown on medi­eval maps to be quite literally at the centre of the known world.6 The birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem is little less than 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem, and it was in the hills outside of Jerusalem that he was later crucified. Jerusalem was thus considered to be the place on Earth that was closest to God. It was a place with layer upon layer of biblical meaning and its central place in the world-view of medi­eval thought was often, but not as Pliny, Augustine, and Isidore. There are so many more that only ignorance of these sources would excuse a modern scholar of Old Norse from recognizing that medi­eval Icelandic authors were very much in keeping with Western European thought. 5  In the words of John Block Friedman (The Monstrous Races, pp. 43–45): ‘Jerusalem’s placement on the world disk in the Noachid maps is a visual reflection of the belief that it was geo­graphically the centre of the world, an idea that developed from a reading of the phrase that salvation would come “en meso tes ges” from the Septuagint version of Psalm 73:12. This was rendered in the Vulgate as “operatus est salutem in medio terrae” where the theo­logical concept was quickly interpreted as a geo­graphical one, buttressed in part by Ezekiel 5:5, where God says that He will establish Jerusalem in the midst of nations. Isidore of Seville spoke of the city as the “navel of all the land” of Palestine, and Hrabanus Maurus expanded this phrase to read “of the entire earth”. The significance of this city for Christians is clearly stated in a gloss on Psalm 73:12 by the Dominican exegete, Hugh of St Cher. “In the middle of the earth,” he explains, is “Jerusalem, where Christ by his Incarnation, his preaching, and his passion, was the salvation of the human race.”’ 6  See, e.g., the Hereford map (Kline, Maps of Medi­eval Thought, passim). The special importance of Jerusalem for Icelandic scribes is also evident in the three maps of the city extant in Icelandic manu­scripts, out of only fourteen known medi­e val European maps of Jerusalem on the whole (Soffía Guðný Guðmundsdóttir, ‘Uppdráttur af Jórsalaborg’), whereas map-making was, to say the least, not otherwise especially practised in medi­eval Iceland. Rudolf Simek (‘Scandinavian World Maps’) says that out of ‘8000 medi­eval Icelandic manu­scripts that have been preserved, maps play only a minor role: three manu­scripts contain between them a total of five mappae mundi (plus four postmedi­eval copies).’


Arngrímur Vídalín

always, both literal in a geo­graphic sense and figurative in a more abstract, theo­ logical sense.7 It was in Jerusalem that the seeds of salvation were thought to have been sown, and from there religious culture spread along rhizomatic veins throughout the world, enlightening the darkest corners of the Earth with the gospel of Christ. The divine nature of the place lay within its soil8 and in its climate. It was a place marked by the presence of God, where he himself walked the Earth, where his blood was spilt. It was the most sacred of all holy places, barring only Eden itself, which also was considered a place on Earth. This was attested by Christian scholars of authority such as Augustine of Hippo in his De civitate Dei, Honorius Augustodunensis in his Elucidarius, Isidore of Seville in his Etymo­logiae, Hrabanus Maurus, and many more.9 According to them, Paradise lay in the Far East, and we have stories of people such as Eiríkr víðförli who tried to travel to Paradise but found it to be impenetrable, ‘því at eldligr veggr stendr fyrir, sá tekr allt til himins upp’ (for a wall of fire encloses it, reaching all the way to the heavens).10 Equally canonical to the terrestrial location of Paradise was the idea that it was warded by heavenly figures, as stated in the Vulgate: ‘eiecitque Adam et conlocavit ante paradisum voluptatis cherubin et flammeum gladium atque versatilem ad custodiendam viam ligni vitae’ (so he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden the Cherubim, and the flame of a sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life’).11 Since Paradise had been irrevocably sealed off after the Fall of Man, the place closest to God accessible to man was thought to be Jerusalem. The superiority of that city and the surrounding Holy Land could be argued for by virtue of many things. For instance, it was widely believed that, just as the climate of Paradise was in all respects absolutely perfect and mild according to scripture,12 the climate of Jerusalem was the mildest and most perfect one conceivable outside of Paradise. This mild climate in turn produced the mildest people of the most temperate nature. 7 

Mittman, ‘The Other Close at Hand’, pp. 103–07. For a discussion of the soil of Jerusalem as a relic, see Donkin, ‘Earth from Elsewhere’. 9  Cf. Sverrir Tómasson, ‘Ferðir þessa heims og annars’, p. 28. 10  Eiríks saga víðförla, ed. by Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, p. 449. 11  Genesis 3.24. 12  And, by the same token, according to Stjórn (ed. by Astås, p. 100), ‘Paradisus er einn ágætr staðr í austr hálfu […] þar er alldreigin frost ne of mikill hiti’ (Paradisus is the best place in the eastern hemisphere […] neither is there frost nor too much heat). 8 

From the Inside Out


Figure 1: The Jerusalem map from Hauksbók (AM 544 4to), c. 1302–10. Reproduction from Hauksbók, ed. by Finnur Jónsson.

Monsters at the Door The farther one travelled from this centre, the worse the climate, becoming harsher and more susceptible to extremities of all kinds. And as the climate worsened, the more extreme and more monstrous the people it produced.13 The people at the margins of the known world were the most monstrous, godless creatures imaginable. It was further believed that at the end of the world, monstrous nations such as Gog and Magog would join the Antichrist and wage war from their treacherously peripheral countries on the outside on the Christian settlements at the centre.14 13 

Friedman, The Monstrous Races, pp. 51–53. As per Revelations 20. 7–10: ‘et cum consummati fuerint mille anni solvetur Satanas de carcere suo et exibit et seducet gentes quae sunt super quattuor angulos terrae Gog et Magog et congregabit eos in proelium quorum numerus est sicut harena maris et ascenderunt super latitudinem terrae et circumierunt castra sanctorum et civitatem dilectam   et descendit ignis a Deo de caelo et devoravit eos et diabolus qui seducebat eos missus est in stagnum ignis et sulphuris ubi et bestia et pseudoprophetes et cruciabuntur die ac nocte in saecula saeculorum’ (and when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog, and Magog, to 14 


Arngrímur Vídalín

This very same concept is prominent in Snorri Sturluson’s Edda (extant from c. 1300), a work heavily dependent on the Christian world model in which giants and monstrous creatures await the looming world war which will herald the apocalypse (ragnarøkkr) in their habitat in the outermost regions of the Earth (Útgarðr), outside the civilized areas (Ásgarðr, Miðgarðr), though presumably this would make Asia Minor the central point of the mytho­logical world – another place of great importance to the learned elite.15 The tension between the godly in-group and the monstrous out-group is the driving force of all narrative in most, if not all, of the mytho­logical sources.16 Whatever Snorri’s purpose was in writing it, his Edda is structured according to the only world view known to him. After all, it would be wishful thinking to presume that a man of Christan learning would or even could write an authentic heathen mytho­logy.17 The god Þórr keeps watch over the borders and sometimes he travels to distant gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever). 15  The Carolingians were both instrumental in the Christianization of Scandinavia and influential in traditionalizing the inextricable bond between hagio­graphy and legendary saga, Christianity and pedigree. The ancestral bond to great kings of the legendary past became important to consolidate power and legitimize a higher social standing and thus the tradition of tracing one’s genealogy to Troy came to be, a practice which was widespread not only among the continental learned elite but among Icelanders as well. The euhemeristic approach to the old Scandinavian gods employed in Edda is but one example of this practice among learned Icelanders in the Middle Ages. Another is the genealogy of Haukr Erlendsson, lawspeaker, preserved in his Hauksbók which also contains an Old Norse translation of the Historia regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth (Breta sǫgur), in which the ancestral past of the Brits (and thus the Icelanders) is traced to Troy. Cf. Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir, ‘Úr sögu kristni og kirkju’; Clunies Ross, ‘The Development of Old Norse Textual Worlds’. 16  Even Skírnismál, a poem about the god Freyr’s obsessive infatuation with the giantess Gerðr Gymisdóttir, shows Freyr giving away his sword in exchange for his servant undertaking a trip to ask Gerðr to wed him (according to Gylfaginning; see Edda, ed. by Faulkes, p. 37). Although it is not stated in Skírnismál, it is made clear in Gylfaginning that this means Freyr will be without a weapon during ragnarøkkr: ‘Verða mun þat er Frey mun þykkja verr við koma er hann missir sverðsins þá er Muspells synir fara ok herja’ (Edda, ed. by Faulkes, pp. 31–32). I think a similar understanding would have been inferred by medi­eval audiences regardless of it being specifically mentioned in the poem. Notwithstanding its questionable narrative to our modern tastes, it was at the time undoubtedly construed as a romantic sacrifice. 17  Among those who have noted the Edda’s basis in Christian thought are Dronke and Dronke, ‘The Pro­logue of the Prose Edda’; Clunies Ross, Skáldskaparmál, pp. 151–73.

From the Inside Out


lands to fight trolls (although often this happens as a consequence of his travels) while the gods fortify Ásgarðr and those who seek to destroy the world try to gain entry. In fact, all of these elements are combined in the story of the borgarsmiðr (builder of city walls) in which a giant in disguise offers his help in building a wall around Ásgarðr while Þórr is away in Austrvegr ‘at berja trǫll’ (fighting trolls).18 While the story ends on a positive note (at least for the gods) with Loki, half god and half giant, birthing the incredibly useful horse Sleipnir, Loki is also said to breed monsters from inside the Æsir’s fortifications and the gods fail to deal properly with this offspring: a gigantic wolf who will eat the Moon and the Sun, a horrendous serpent encircling the world ocean and being the future bane of Þórr,19 and Hel, the very personification of the underworld. I will come back to concerns of monstrosities being born within society later on. There are many more sources pointing in the same direction. While I will not contend that the elaborate world map preserved in Hereford Cathedral (dated to c. 1285) is by any means a depiction of a monolithic medi­eval worldview, it does nonetheless give us a detailed description, both visual and textual, of exactly the kind we find in many Old Norse texts and their sources. There, we find the earthly Paradise in the farthest Eastern corner, just as in the description of the Elucidarius-like exchange in Eiríks saga víðförla between Eiríkr and the king, quoted in part at the beginning of this essay. Eiríkr asks where Paradise is to be found and the king replies: ‘Í austr er land frá Indíalandi hinu yzta’ (to the East is a land after the farthest India).20 The map also lends confirmation to the view of the periphery described above. Jerusalem sits right in the middle of the map and along its edges monstrous and otherwise strange races are described: Gigantes (giants); Pandea, who are ruled by women (which was considered a strange arrangement); Satirii (satyres); Fauni (centaurs), who are semi caballi homines (half-horse, half-human); Scinopodes (unipeds) who use their feet to shield themselves from the sun; Gens ore (straw-drinkers) who are ‘concreto calamo cibatur’ (people with rigid faces who are nourished through straws); Blemee (blemmyes), ‘os et oculos habent in pectore’ (they have their mouth and eyes in their chests); Epiphagi, ‘isti os et oculos habent in humeris’ (these 18 

Edda, ed. by Faulkes, p. 35. The myth of Þórr’s fishing trip in which he attempts to fish the miðgarðsormr from the ocean is in fact an interpolation of a Christian myth in which it is Christ who goes out fishing for Leviathan. See Janson, ‘Edda and “Oral Christianity”’. 20  Eiríks saga víðförla, ed.  by Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, p.  449. Sverrir Tómasson (‘Ferðir þessa heims og annars’, pp. 28–29) also notes the similarity. 19 


Arngrímur Vídalín

people have eyes and mouths on their shoulders) — the list goes on. A notable exception to the overall monstrosity of the peripheral inhabitants of the Hereford world map are the greatly Christian Nibei, who were most certainly meant to allude to tales of Prester John and his kingdom in Ethiopia. However, we have the Cynocephali (dog-headed people) situated in Karelia, the Essedones who make a banquet of their dead, and a second entry where the Essedones are counted among the Anthropophagi (cannibals), along with this text describing their land: Omnia horribilia plus quam credi potest frigus intollerabile omni tempore uentus acerimus a montibus quem incole bizo vocant Hic sont [sunt] homines truculenti nimis humanis carnibus vescentes cruorem potantes fili caim maledicti Hos inclusit dominus per magnum alexandrum nam terre motu facto in conspectu principis montes super montes in circuitu eorum ceciderunt ubi montes deerant ipse eos muro insolubili cinxit Isti inclusi idem esse creduntur qui a solino antropophagi dicuntur inter quos et essedones numerantur nam tempore antichristi erupturi et omni mundo persecucionem illaturi. (Everything is horrible, more than can be believed; there is intolerable cold; the whole time there is the fiercest wind from the mountains, which the inhabitants call Bizo. Here there are very savage men feeding on human flesh, drinking blood, the sons of the accursed Cain. The Lord closed these in by means of Alexander the Great: for an earthquake took place in the sight of the leader, and mountains fell upon mountains in a circuit around them; where the mountains were absent he himself confined them with a wall that cannot be demolished. And closed in also are believed to be the ones who are called Anthropophagi by Solinus, among whom are numbered the Essedones; for at the time of the Antichrist they will break out and will carry persecution to the whole world.)21

Among the peoples of the east surrounding Paradise are the Pygmies, the Monocoli (unipeds), the Giants, and the Astomi (who live on the scent of apples). To the south, that is, in the enormous land mass south of Egypt commonly referred to as Ethiopia in the Middle Ages, are the Hermaphrodites, the Blemmyes and Epiphagi, the Troglodytes (‘cave-dwellers’). Finally, to the north in Scandinavia and Scythia are the most monstrous and horrible peoples: the cannibals and pagans, the Scythotauri who murder strangers for sacrifices, those who eat their parents, those who will fight alongside the Antichrist, and then there are the griffins which the Arimaspi fight over emeralds.22 In contrast, 21  22 

Latin and translation both from Kline, Maps of Medi­eval Thought, pp. 142–45. Kline, Maps of Medi­eval Thought, pp. 150–53.

From the Inside Out


as Naomi Reed Kline notes, ‘the inhabitants of Europe are not described or illustrated’ on the map, and thus ‘the figure of Christ and those surrounding him serve as their exemplars by default; their long bodies and graceful drapery are linked to the beauty of the Christian message […]. Tellingly, most of the strange and monstrous peoples are relegated to the southernmost and northernmost reaches of the world far from the navel of Jerusalem’.23 The idea of monsters and strange nations in the extreme and wild countries outside of Western European culture was not new in the Middle Ages. It can be traced to Herodotus’s Histories (Ἱστορίαι) written in the fifth century bc, such as his story of the dealings of the Ichtyophagy (fish-eaters) with the Ethiopians,24 but it was made popular in the first century ad work Naturalis historia by Pliny the Elder. The classical types of monsters reported by Herodotus and Pliny are so famous they need no introduction to the habitual reader of medi­e val literature. These are much the same as those on the Hereford map: Troglodytes, Pygmies, Blemmyes, Sciopodes (unipeds who use their single foot to shield them from sunlight), Cyclopes, Arimaspi, and many more.25 Having been popularized by Pliny, these monsters were later dealt with in Augustine’s De civitate Dei in the fourth century,26 wherein he argued that, if such monsters were to exist, they would by necessity be the creation of God, as nothing could exist except by virtue of God and that nothing could exist contra naturam.27 Augustine’s argument seems to have been a sort of Eureka moment in the history of Christianity since all of a sudden all of these strange rumours about wondrous beasts and sightings of monstrous figures recounted in various forms, both written and oral, could simply be explained by the sentiment that, were they real, they were portents of some higher purpose by their very exist23 

Kline, Maps of Medi­eval Thought, p. 162. Herodotus, The Persian Wars, ed. by Rawlinson and others, pp. 26–33. 25  Pliny the Elder, Natural History, ed. by Rackman, pp.  478–79, 520–21; 478–79, 522–25; 520–21 (‘rursusque ab his occidentam versus quosdam sine cervice oculos in umeris habentes’); 520–21; 512–13; 512–13, respectively. 26  Augustine mentions people with one eye in their foreheads (presumably cyclopes), people with their feet turned backwards, hermaphrodites, those who have no mouths but live on the air they breathe, pygmies, females who conceive at the age of five and do not live beyond their eighth year, sciopods, those with no neck and with eyes in their shoulders (blemmyes), and cynocephali, ‘whose dogs’ heads and actual barking are evidence that they are rather beasts than men’. All these, he argues, should they exist and if they be human, are descended from Adam; see City of God, ed. by Sanford and others, v, 40–49. 27  Augustine, City of God, ed. by Green, vii, 56–58. 24 


Arngrímur Vídalín

Figure 2: Depicted here are the Arimaspi fighting a griffin (top); a Cyno­ cephalus ‘dog-head’ (centre); Hippopodes, ‘horse-footed’, with hooves instead of feet (bottom right); the Panotii who could cover their whole body with their ears (bottom centre); and the Cyclopes with a single eye in their forehead which they can pass between them (bottom left). Some of the figures have not yet been identified. Reproduction from Heimskringla, iii: Lykil­ bók, ed. by Bergljót Soffía Kristjánsdóttir and others reproduced here with kind permission from Forlagið.

ence. The explanation might not be obvious, but it certainly was there, written into the fabric of God’s creation. The modern idiom ‘God works in mysterious ways’ fits into this line of thinking. This simple answer to a complicated question was then addressed once more by Isidore of Seville in his seventh-century ‘best-seller’ Etymo­logiae. Much like Naturalis historia, Isidore’s Etymo­logiae is an encyclopaedic work, but it differs in a few important respects. Pliny’s work, written by a Roman polytheist, was meant to be a compendium of all ancient knowledge and as such it was never completed (the work’s completion was permanently impeded when Pliny famously died during the Vesuvius eruption of ad 79). The Etymo­logiae was written by a Catholic bishop whose purpose was to include all important knowledge

From the Inside Out


Figure 3: Depicted here are, among others, Blemmyes (centre left), a sciopod (centre), snake-eaters (centre right; bottom left), and a grass-eater (bottom centre). Some of the figures have not been identified. Reproduction from Heimskringla, iii: Lykilbók, ed. by Bergljót Soffía Kristjánsdóttir and others reproduced here with kind permission from Forlagið.

and at the same time to provide with it a proper exegesis to put it into context. Isidore thus includes monstrous kinds of people in his work and then, diverging from Augustine’s view that one should not seek to interpret them because God’s actions were not to be put under scrutiny, Isidore seeks to discover for what purpose they had been created.28 Such an analysis of the meaning of wondrous beasts was, in fact, the whole purpose of medi­eval bestiaries, which were interesting compendia of animals, both actual and fictitious, explained through bib28 

Isidore, Etymo­logies, ed. by Barney and others, pp. 243–46. Part of the problem with an investigation into the meaning of some lives might have been that such a study may very quickly escalate into an investigation into the overall meaning of life.


Arngrímur Vídalín

lical exegesis. The bestiaries were derived from the second-century Greek work Physio­logus, which is thought to have been translated into Latin around the year 700, some seventy years after the death of Isidore in 636. All these works were as well known in Iceland as they were elsewhere in the Middle Ages, and we find them cited in numerous sources. In the manu­script AM 673a I 4to, known as one of two Icelandic Physio­logus fragments, there is a depiction of many of these monstrous peoples.29 The illuminations show, among other characters, two Blemmyes, one uniped, Ophiophagy (‘snakeeaters’), Cynocephali, and a grass-eater. At first glance, the grass-eater might seem not to belong in such company, were it not for the fact that strange diets warranted strange comparisons, and a grass-eater would have been thought of as equally monstrous as Pliny’s fish-eaters (named homodubii in The Wonders of the East after their doubtful status),30 the aforementioned Astomi who live only on the scent of apples, the snake-eaters, or the butter-enthusiastic Finns of Ketils saga hængs.31 In the Hauksbók manu­s cript AM 544 4to, there is a detailed description of monstrous nations under the heading ‘Her segir fra marghattuðum þioðum’ (Here is Told of Manifold Nations) along with a description of the various lands of the world. A similar passage is found in the manu­script AM 194 8vo, published by Kristian Kålund as Alfræði íslenzk i (albeit not all of its contents), although Kålund himself seems to have made up the heading ‘Um risaþjóðir’ as there is no corresponding heading in the manu­script. This passage, however, draws a connection between the biblical giants that lived before the Flood and the monstrous races, such as Ciclopi, Lamnies (Blemmyes), and Cenocefali, in very much a Plinian fashion (i.e., with no interpretation following their description).32 This same connection is found in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum where Denmark is argued to have been inhabited by giants as, Saxo claims, may be still seen by the enormous ruins they left behind (‘Danicam uero regionem giganteo quondam cultu exercitam eximie magnitudinis saxa


AM 673 a I 4to, fol. 2v. Both Physio­logus manu­scripts have been edited by Halldór Hermannsson as The Icelandic Physio­logus, which includes pictures of the manu­script pages. 30  Wonders of the East, ed. by Orchard, pp. 188–89. 31  Cf. Friedman, The Monstrous Races, pp. 26–28; Ketils saga hængs, ed. by Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, pp. 251–52. I have previously discussed the butter-loving Finns in Arngrímur Vídalín, ‘“Er þat illt, at þú vilt elska tröll þat”, pp. 192–93. 32  Cf. Alfræði íslenzk i, ed. by Kålund, pp. 34–36.

From the Inside Out


ueterum bustis ac specubus affixa testantur’),33 as well as in later works such as Arngrímur Jónsson’s Crymogæa, published in 1609, which argues extensively for the existence of giants, quoting among others the Bible, Augustine, and Saxo as infallible sources for this.34 So extensive are his arguments that they would, in fact, warrant a separate article, but let it be mentioned here that he invokes not only giants as a generic term in his gens islandorum but also the cyclope Polyphemos, the giant Goliath, Trojans, the Nordic gods, and even the Canaanites to prove his reasoning. In this, he takes after his medi­eval forebears. There are also accounts of individual monstrous births, which were considered portents.35 Reynistaðarbók (AM 764 4to) is mainly a chronicle but also contains various ecclesiastic texts, and tucked into its annals is a remarkable tale of a two-breasted, two-headed boy being born in the castle of Emmaus:36 ‘J þeim kastala er emaus heiter fæddiz anuckurum tima einn smasueinn algiorr at allri skapan upp til nafla […].’37 While one half feasted, the other slept, but never were both awake at once. This monstrous child died shortly thereafter (one half after the other), and what is most curious is that no attempt is made to decipher what this monster was meant to portend. This story is found with


Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, ed. by Friis-Jensen and others, p. 84. The constructions Saxo and other sources speak of as creations of giants (or enta geweorc as they were called in Britain) were the monoliths and other structures created by Romans and other ancient societies. See Cohen, Of Giants, pp. 5–7. 34  Arngrímur Jónsson, Crymogæa, ed. by Jakob Benediktsson and others, pp. 105–33. 35  Cf. Isidore, Etymo­logies, ed. by Barney and others, p. 244. 36  Abigail Wheatley (The Idea of the Castle, pp. 87–88) identifies the castle Emmaus as the site Abu Gosh, ‘where Christ supped with his disciples. Emmaus, too, is a Biblical castle, referred to in Luke 24.13 as a castellum. The extremely strong construction of the basilica church on this site, like the central tower with perimeter defences at Bethany, converted Emmaus once more into a castle-like structure, in accordance with the Biblical text. I have already provided evidence in the first chapter to show that both Emmaus and Bethany were referred to as castles quite straightforwardly in medi­eval texts. These sites have not been much discussed in terms of their symbolic or Biblical significance, as far as I know. However, it seems to me highly probable that Crusader building schemes at such sites were meant to recreate symbolically the castles believed to have occupied them in Biblical times. As such, these building projects are every bit as significant as those undertaken at sites such as the Holy Sepulchre. They all express in their form and symbolism a veneration of Biblical architecture, and a desire by the Crusaders to reconstruct it.’ 37  AM 764 4to, fol. 31v. For the definite analysis of the universal history of AM 764 4to, see Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, ‘Universal History in Fourteenth-Century Iceland’.


Arngrímur Vídalín

slight variation in most of the Icelandic annals38 and is perhaps derived from Sigebert of Gembloux’s 1111 work Chronicon sive chrono­graphia: Hoc tempore in castello Uideæ Emaus natus est puer perfectus ab umbilico […].39 Whatever the meaning of this story, it seems to have been considered important in Iceland and, as Reynistaðarbók exhibits, the traditions of annals and other chronicles were very much interlinked. Universal histories like Reynistaðarbók, Veraldar saga, the greatly ambitious Stjórn, along with shorter chronicles and fragments found in Hauksbók, AM 194 8vo, AM 731 4to, AM 415 4to, AM 461 12mo, and other manu­scripts, are of key importance — not just for our understanding of monsters in the literature but for our understanding of the literary corpus as a whole. These chronicles are based on the Augustinian understanding that the universal history should be divided into six epochs or ages. The first age starts with the creation of the Earth and humanity and ends with Noah and the Flood. The second age continues from there and ends with Abraham, the third age reaches the time of David, the fourth age extends from David until the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, the fifth age from then until the birth of Jesus Christ, and the sixth and final age starts with the resurrection of Christ and ends with the coming of the Antichrist during the Apocalypse and the subsequent Judgement. All chronicles of this sort are inherently apocalyptic. They are the known history of mankind from its beginning and until the day of their writing, sometime during the final age of the world. Even though Augustine had objected to it, many theo­logians tried to calculate using various methods how much time was left before Armageddon, and some modern scholars believe that a common fear of the apocalypse started spreading around the year 1000, as it had done before and continued to do with regular intervals thereafter.40 Although the reality of the fear of an apocalyptic year 1000 is debated, it does seem that medi­e val scholars were always mindful of the end of days. 41 The Icelandic annals, which are based on the same chrono­logy as the universal histories, 38 

Islandske annaler, ed. by Storm, pp. 5, 38, 163. I have yet to scour all of the annals for this tale but undoubtedly there are more instances. 39  Sigebert of Gembloux, Chronicon, p. 4. 40  Landes, ‘The Fear of an Apocalyptic Year 1000’. 41  As Sigurður Nordal (‘Völuspá’, pp. 172–76) put it, it was more common to calculate the coming of Judgement Day than it was to calculate the next lunar eclipse. Abbo of Fleury speaks of a sermon he heard as a youth in which the Antichrist was said to make his appearance quickly following the year 1000, and Sigurður further argues that a fear of the Apocalypse was a driving force of Óláfr Tryggvason’s missionary efforts.

From the Inside Out


from Genesis to the present, report various kinds of apocalyptic symbols. Frequently interspersed among news of the death of the Pope, the conquests of Theodoric the Great, and other important milestones are signs of the end times, sén cometa (a comet was seen), sól rauð (red sun), rægnde blode (blood rained), eldsuppkváma (volcanic eruption), eclipsis solis, and more. At one point in Konungsannáll three moons are seen at once and the mark of the Cross appeared on the central one,42 as if to indicate the two criminals on either side of the crucifix and thus the return of Christ and the beginning of the end. These are all highly dreadful portents, meticulously copied from annal to annal, and they had neither been copied nor reported in the first place had they not been considered important.43 As the monsters on the margins are inseparable from the condemned nations and armies of the Antichrist, they are also regarded as especially important in a world where the apocalypse is always looming.

Monsters under your Bed I have so far discussed civilization at the centre, monsters on the peripheries of the known world, and their connection to apocalyptic anxieties in the Middle Ages. But there are also monsters born within society, monsters that are the unquestionable offspring of humans. While the annals rarely mention monsters, with the notable exception of the monstrous birth of Emmaus, the chronicles and other encyclopaedic texts frequently do. Notwithstanding the ones already mentioned, an especially thought-provoking example is the great chronicle and biblical translation Stjórn, in which the reader is offered the mandatory chapter on monsters with the over-emphasized title skyssilig skrimsl (monstrous/trollish monsters), in which we get perhaps the most interesting hypothesis concerning their origins in all the Old Norse texts: they are described as post-human in a similar fashion to the post-hobbit Gollum of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Sithia, er vér köllum miklu Svíþjóð, var forðum eitt stórt land, kallað svo af [Magog] einum syni Japhets. Henni liggur áfast það land er Hircania heitir. Hafa þessi lönd bæði saman margar þjóðir víða reikandi og farandi sakir landanna ófrjóleiks, af hverjum er sumar plægja akra sér til viðurlífis, sumar af þeim orðnar svo skessulegar og hræðilegar og fæðast viður manna líkami og drekka þeirra blóð sem matropoph42 

Islandske annaler, ed. by Storm, p. 115. Landes, ‘The Fear of an Apocalyptic Year 1000’, p. 131 passim. Cf. Mosley, ‘Past Portents Predict’, p. 5 passim. 43 


Arngrímur Vídalín

agi heita. Þar er sú þjóð er Panothios heitir, hafandi svo stór og víð eyru að hún hylur drjúgum allan sinn líkam meður einum saman eyrunum […].44 (Scythia, which we call the greater Sweden, was once a big land, so called by [Magog] one of Japhet’s sons. Next to it lies the land called Hircania. Both these lands have many nations widely wandering and travelling for the sake of the infertility of the lands, of which some plow fields to survive, some of them having become so monstrous and terrible and feast on human bodies and drink their blood who are called matropophagi. There is the nation called panothios, having so big and wide ears that they cover most all of their body with only their ears […].)

We are also offered an interesting description of a woman giving birth to a child ‘sua sem blalendzkan burð’ (in the liking of an Ethiopian45 birth), for at the moment of the child’s conception the woman saw a graven image of a similar sort. This story, attributed to Quintillianus, is followed by a story of Hippocrates’s intervention in the case of a young woman who has given birth to a child quite unlike its parents. The woman is accused of adultery until Hippocrates asks the mob to search her house to see whether they will find anything in the likeness of the baby, and when, indeed, they do, the woman is cleared of the wrongful charges made against her.46 This passage is taken from Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum historiale,47 one of the sources mentioned in Stjórn’s pro­logue, although it has hitherto gone unrecognized that this passage is also a direct translation of St Jerome’s fourth-century biblical commentary Quaestiones hebraicae in libro Geneseos in which both accounts appear together, as they do in Stjórn.48 Vincent’s Speculum is a much younger work, dating from the thirteenth century, and is in turn partly based on the previously mentioned Chronicon sive chrono­g raphia by Sigebert of Gembloux. I  am not aware of any older form of these accounts so Jerome may very well be their originator, 44 

Stjórn, ed. by Astås, p. 117. Although the meaning of the word blámaðr is somewhat ambiguous, Ethiopian or otherwise African is what the adjective blálenzkr must refer to, and Aethiops is indeed the word used by St Jerome in the original passage and by Vincent of Beauvais in his later redaction of the same passage. 46  Stjórn, ed. by Unger, pp. 178–79; Stjórn, ed. by Astås, pp. 269–70. 47  According to Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog (s.v. blálenzkr), although neither the edition of Stjórn edited by Unger nor that edited by Astås identifies the citation. This attribution to Vincent of Beauvais is confirmed by Jakob Benediktsson, ‘Some Observations on Stjórn’, pp. 28–29. 48  Jerome, Quaestiones hebraicae, ed. by de Lagarde, p. 48. 45 

From the Inside Out


although this concept of maternal imagination, which was to gain prominence more than 1100 years later in the sixteenth century, such as in the surgeon Ambroise Paré’s medical treatise Des monstres et prodiges (On Monsters and Marvels)49 is also present in Pliny’s Natural History, although Pliny speaks of human imagination rather than the imagination of women alone.50 So much is clear, at least, that the Hippocratic corpus does not include this story or anything like it, although the Hippocratic treatise Nature of the Child states that anything affecting the child in utero is brought from the mother to the foetus, ‘just as things growing in the earth are also nourished from the earth, and whatever that particular earth possesses, the things growing in it will have the same’,51 and in the treatise Superfetation it is said that ‘[if ] a pregnant woman wishes to eat earth or coal, and she does so’, although the reason why she should want to do so is never presented, ‘a mark will appear on the head of the child at birth as a result’.52 If the mother can produce offspring in the liking of things she can imagine, it means she can also give birth to monsters, such as usually happened in maternal imagination cases during the Renaissance period.53 Even though the Ethiopian child mentioned in Stjórn is not a monster per se, it is wildly different from other members of its society, and in fact it belongs to a marginal out-group living in the torrid zone, which was frequently associated with mon49  Paré, On Monsters and Marvels, pp. 38–42. Cf. Shildrick, ‘Maternal Imagination’, passim; Roodenburg, ‘The Maternal Imagination’, passim. 50  ‘Similitudinum quidem inmensa reputatio est et in qua credantur multa fortuita pollere, visus, auditus memoriae haustaeque imagines sub ipso conceptu. cogitatio etiam utriuslibet animum subito transvolans effingere similitudinem aut miscere existimatur, ideoque plures in homine quam in ceteris omnibus animalibus differentiae quoniam velocitas cogitationum animique celeritas et ingeni varietas multiformes notas inprimunt, cum ceteris animantibus inmobiles sint animi et similes omnibus singulisque in suo cuique genere’ (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, ed. by Rackham, pp. 540–41: ‘Cases of likeness are indeed an extremely wide subject, and one which includes the belief that a great many accidental circumstances are influential — recollections of sights and sounds and actual sense-impressions received at the time of conception. Also a thought suddenly flitting across the mind of either parent is supposed to produce likeness or to cause a combination of features, and the reason why there are more differences in man than in all the other animals is that his swiftness of thought and quickness of mind and variety of mental character impress a great diversity of patterns, whereas the minds of the other animals are sluggish, and are alike for all and sundry, each in their own kind’). 51  Hippocrates, Generation, ed. by Potter, pp. 60–63. 52  Hippocrates, Anatomy, ed. by Potter, pp. 330–31. 53  Cf. Shildrick, ‘Maternal Imagination’; Roodenburg, ‘The Maternal Imagination’.


Arngrímur Vídalín

sters and demons.54 The apparent supernatural quality of the event further indicates the negativity with which it was interpreted. In this way, Stjórn not only provides insight into the origin and distribution of ideas of the monstrous in Western thought in the Middle Ages, it also shows that medicinal explanation for birth deformities during the Renaissance period in Europe had already been an object of fancy in medi­eval Iceland long before, and that its roots lay not in the works of the medicinal father Hippocrates but in the writings of the earliest Church Fathers. Why is this so? It would not make much sense but for a very particular reason: namely, that monsters were an integral part of the Christian world model, and that it was vital to show that perhaps evil did not only reside ‘out there’ — it also had the capability to affect anyone. The monster, as the antithesis to us, also resides within us — just as the half-giant, half-god Loki has potential to becoming impregnated by something alien and consequently birthing horrible and dangerous monsters into Ásgarðr.55 Whereas demons are often portrayed as attacking and punishing women for their sins,56 the implication here seems to be that the monster is an agent of evil that has the capability to corrupt you from the inside, birthing the Other into society by violently inserting its seed in the imagination of women. It is a world with a centre in Jerusalem and Christendom, with an antithesis in the heathen peripheries whence monstrous nations will attack alongside the armies of the Antichrist during Armageddon to wage war against humanity. It is a world model where the whole of history seems to lead to this eventuality of the End of Days. It is one of the most defining aspects of Christianity as a religion, or in the words of theo­logian Jaroslav Pelikan, apocalypticism ‘was the mother of all Christian theo­logy’,57 so it should come as no surprise that it is also the most defining aspect of the Old Norse religion as it was reconstructed by Christian scholars in the Middle Ages. But one question remains: If this was how remote countries were perceived in general


I address this association of Ethiopians to Blemmyes, demons, and trolls in a separate article focusing on the semantics of the word blámaðr, aimed for publication in 2018. 55  Loki is already father to three dangerous monstrosities: Fenrisúlfr, Miðgarðsormr, and Hel. Although there is great use in the benign eight-legged horse Sleipnir to whom Loki is the mother, an eight-legged horse remains a monstrosity regardless — a monstrosity fit for a pagan god such as Óðinn, perhaps. 56  Cormack, ‘Visions, Demons and Gender’; Helga Kress, ‘“Grey þykir mér Freyja”’, pp. 45–47. 57  Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, p. 123.

From the Inside Out


by Christian authorities, how then did the peripheral nations view themselves? How did the Icelanders see Iceland?

Self and Other It has been convincingly argued by Margaret Clunies Ross that the key to Icelandic literature lies in genealogies. She writes: How could a society relatively recently emerged from paganism construct for itself a respectable social and cultural history when its own histories, myths, and legends were both non-Christian and orally transmitted? […] Like many other European societies in the twelfth century, Icelanders turned to the classical Troy story to provide one kind of solution to this problem.58

Genealogical tracings to a legendary past was common practice during the Middle Ages and is also quite prominent in Icelandic sources. Íslendingabók written by Ari Þorgilsson in the period 1122–33 (extant from the seventeenth century) tells the history of the first years of Icelandic settlement out of Norway, which according to Ari coincided with the reign of King Haraldr hárfagri of Norway and the killing of Edmund, king of England, at the hands of Ívarr, son of Ragnarr loðbrók, seventy and eight hundred years after the birth of Christ, respectively.59 Landnámabók starts by claiming Iceland to be the legendary Thule before recounting who was pope and king of Scandinavia, Orkney, and Dublin at the time, while maintaining that Iceland was originally settled by Christians (the Papar)60 — as Ari does in Íslendingabók.61 Landnámabók contains a wealth of genealogical material and is, in fact, still used as a genealogical source in modern Iceland;62 on the one hand, there are few means by which to ascertain how factual these genealogies are; on the other, it is obvious that genealogies are capital in themselves. They are the foundation of hereditary power and proof of pedigree, and the fact that Landnámabók is still the single source for the origin of most Icelandic families 58 

Clunies Ross, ‘The Development of Old Norse Textual Worlds’, p. 372. Íslendingabók, ed. by Jakob Benediktsson, p. 4. 60  Landnámabók, in Íslendingabók, ed. by Jakob Benediktsson, pp. 31–32. 61  Íslendingabók, ed. by Jakob Benediktsson, p. 5. 62  If the Icelandic online genealogical database, aptly named Íslendingabók [last accessed 7 May 2017], is used to look up Ari Þorgilsson, for example, we are told that he wrote Íslendingabók and that the source of this information is Landnámabók. 59 


Arngrímur Vídalín

underlines the importance of establishing who is who in relation to power and influence. It should not come as a surprise then that the genealogy of the Sturlungar is preserved in at least two Edda manu­scripts: AM 748 II 4to and UppsalaEdda,63 in which the line of Snorri Sturluson is traced from Adam himself through legendary history, such as Priam of Troy and the euhemerized Norse gods.64 Haukr Erlendsson’s genealogy in Hauksbók is built up in much the same way65 and, as Annette Lassen has noted, Ari Þorgilsson may have been the first Icelander to claim that Scandinavians are descended from Troy by having Freyr and Njörðr Svíakonungr follow Yngvi Tyrkjakonungr in his genealogy.66 The most important link here is Troy and how Icelanders purportedly descend from there. It is interesting to note that both Snorri’s Edda and Heimskringla utilize euhemerism in similar ways: namely, in the way the Norse gods are said to not actually be gods at all, but very human descendants from Troy who travelled north after the war and became kings of Scandinavia. The locals had lost the name of God although they felt him in nature,67 and when the Æsir came they were mistaken for divine beings, and in this manner the origin of Norse religion is explained while it is emphasized that the people of Scandinavia never really lost their true faith in the Christian God: they just failed to recognize what their true faith was. And it is this very lineage of old Scandinavian kings, pseudo-gods, and legendary heroes that Snorri claims to belong to in his genealogy. Heimskringla is not only the history of the Norwegian kings but also his own history. It is interesting to note in light of this that Hauksbók, with its chronicle, details of the Plinian monsters, and a genealogy linking Haukr to Troy, also contains Trójumanna saga, which is an adaption of the Daretis Phrygii de excidio Trojae historia. In the Old Norse translation, the heroes and gods are revealed 63 

For the latter, cf. Uppsala-Edda, ed. by Heimir Pálsson, pp. 118–20. The Habsburgs had their line traced to Hector of Troy, incidentally making Haukr a relation to one of the greatest dynasties in European history if all were to be taken literally. Smith, ‘Portentous Births and the Monstrous Imagination’, p. 270. 65  Hauksbók, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, pp. 504–05. 66  Lassen, Odin på kristent pergament, p. 237; cf. Íslendingabók, ed. by Jakob Benediktsson, pp. 27–28. 67  As Isidore says in his Etymo­logies, ‘cum voluntas Creatoris cuiusque conditae rei natura sit. Vnde et ipsi gentiles Deum modo Naturam, modo Deum appellant’ (the nature of everything is the will of the Creator. Whence even the pagans address God sometimes as ‘Nature’, sometimes as ‘God’); Isidore of Seville, Etymo­logies, ed. by Barney and others, p. 243. 64 

From the Inside Out


to be the Norse gods (Saturnus is Freyr, there is a Krítar-Þórr, and Freyja, Sif, and Gefjun compete over the Apple of Discord, to name a few examples). At the end of Trójumanna saga we are informed that: Hér fellr nú niðr sú saga er Dares hefir sagt ok þykkir sú saga sannleguz enda var hann þar við ok vissi gjörla en þeir aðrir er þessa sögu hafa sagt váro komnir frá Enea ok bera þeir meir af honum vélar eða þau ráð er honum sömðu illa við sína tengda menn ok þykkir þat flestum vitrum mönnum ótrúlegt en þat vita menn at sú ætt er göfguz í heiminum er frá honum eru komnir ok Cresve dóttur Priami konungs sem eru keisararnir er höfuðs menn eru allrar veralldarinnar.68 (Here ends the saga that Dares has told and is thought to be most truthful as he was present and knew in detail. But the others who have recounted this saga were descended from Aeneas and they circulate more his lies or his council to his disliked confidants which most wise men find incredulous. But it is known that the family is the noblest in the world which is of his [Aeneas’] house and of Cresve the daughter of king Priam who are the emperors who are champions of the entire world.)

Having already shown his relation to this most noble family, Haukr succeeds in drawing the reader’s attention to his own importance and his own authority on matters. Hauksbók also contains Breta sögur, a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (History of the British Kings) in which the British are said to be descended from Troy. Breta sögur ends by linking together the British and Norwegian royal families and thus rejoining the two diverged threads of Trojan ancestry.69 I would argue that this was an absolutely vital lineage to medi­eval Icelandic scholars, a status symbol within the larger world. As is stated in the Melabók redaction of Landnámabók: Þat er margra manna mál, at þat sé óskyldr fróðleikr at rita landnám. En vér þykjumsk heldr svara kunna útlendum mǫnnum, þá er þeir bregða oss því, at vér séim komnir af þrælum eða illmennum, ef vér vitum víst várar kynferðir sannar, svá ok þeim mǫnnum, er vita vilja forn frœði eða rekja ættartǫlur, at taka heldr at upphafi til en hǫggvask í mitt mál, enda eru svá allar vitrar þjóðir, at vita vilja upphaf sinna landsbyggða eða hvers(u) hvergi til hefjask eða kynslóðir.70 (It is said by many that writing about land-claims is irrelevant knowledge. But we feel we are better equipped when answering to foreigners when they castigate us with our ancestry from slaves or evil-doers, if we know our true ancestry; and also 68 

Hauksbók, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, p. 222. Hauksbók, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, pp. 301–02. 70  Landnámabók, in Íslendingabók, ed. by Jakob Benediktsson, p. 336. 69 


Arngrímur Vídalín

those who wish to know old lore or be able to trace genealogies, to start at the roots rather than cutting in mid-way, for all wise nations wish to know the beginnings of their settlement or how far back it can be traced or their generations.)

It seems that for Icelanders it was particularly important to make clear their relation to the outside world, to give Iceland a place within history. For that purpose, the universal history is the perfect medium; through it the history of nations could be explained in regard to their lineage from Adam and Noah, whether through the noble families of Seth, Shem, and Japheth, or through the accursed Cain or Ham (Icelanders, according to most sources, were descended from Japheth). The Icelandic annals often begin with the Creation and then link Iceland with legendary and biblical history. Such is the case in both Oddaannálar and Oddverjaannáll,71 while Forni annáll begins with the archangel Gabriel appearing before the Virgin Mary.72 Konungsannáll begins by stating the number of years passed from the Creation until the time Solomon built his temple,73 numbering Augustine’s six ages of the world, and Lögmannsannáll begins with passio Petri et Pavli apostolorum.74 The universal history, including its legendary digressions, was a standardized method of understanding the world and not least in relation to oneself.75 It was a tradition of viewing history that created a distinction between nations based on their lineage according to scripture and traced their history up until the time of writing. The universal history presents such an all-encompassing Christian understanding of the world that it is unlikely that other histories written by Christian scribes would greatly diverge from the universal model. This in turn leads us precisely to the reason why Icelanders incorporated ‘pseudo-historical’ texts into their universal history writing and why annals are equally focused on great empires and world history as they are on events happening in this or that region or parish in Iceland: it was done to illustrate that Icelanders were equally important, equally Christian people of great pedigree and in possession of a legendary history. This was especially important to Icelanders because of their marginal place within the Christian world model. 71 

Oddaannálar og Oddverjaannáll, ed. by by Eiríkur Þormóðsson and Guðrún Ása Gríms­ dóttir, pp. 5 and 49 respectively. 72  Islandske annaler, ed. by Storm, p. 33. 73  Islandske annaler, ed. by Storm, p. 79. 74  Islandske annaler, ed. by Storm, p. 233. 75  Sverrir Jakobsson, ‘Hin heilaga fortíð’, passim. See also Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, ‘Um aldir alda’.

From the Inside Out


Sverrir Jakobsson has argued that there were many other more decisive factors determining the self-image of medi­e val Icelanders than belonging to a national group. They first and foremost thought of themselves as Christians, and they shared a cultural memory and awareness of their origins, which was articulated through the writing of universal history and thus further cemented. The writing of universal histories was part of Icelandic historio­graphy from the very beginning, and Sverrir further points out that, in many ways, the writing of universal history was a prerequisite for the writing of the history of Icelanders, because through it emerged a model for Icelandic historio­g raphy, evident for example in Íslendingabók which never could have been written without a knowledge of continental histories — the sources being primarily Isidore’s Etymo­logies and Bede’s Ecclesiastic History.76 Sverrir Tómasson has likewise shown that the structure of Íslendingabók is in every respect very similar to Latin chronicles of the Middle Ages.77 How Icelanders viewed themselves is most evident in how ‘the Other’ is represented in the sources. Lotte Motz has shown that most troll-women in Icelandic sources reside on the very periphery of the Nordic countries, in polar regions and mountains or otherwise secluded places, 78 and there are strong indications that northern Norway and Finland were considered a monstrous periphery even within the Nordic countries, a region filled with trolls, sorcerers, and trollish sorcerers.79 The Nordic countries themselves were considered peripheral by European standards and far removed from civilization. This, in fact, continued to be the case for Iceland in particular well into the modern period,80 notwithstanding the fact that in spite of Iceland’s marginal location it was never more isolated from Central Europe during the Middle Ages than was, to name an example, Spain. Britain was also considered to be extremely marginal, even by British authors, so much so that it was conceptually connected to the many monsters and marvels of the East (in this context mean76 

Sverrir Jakobsson, ‘Hin heilaga fortíð’, pp. 150–52. Sverrir Tómasson, ‘Tækileg vitni’, p. 12. 78  Motz, The Beauty and the Hag, pp. 64–65. 79  Arngrímur Vídalín, ‘“Er þat illt, at þú vilt elska tröll þat”; Hermann Pálsson, Úr landnorðri, pp. 10–37; Sverrir Jakobsson, Við og veröldin, pp. 246–60. 80  Cf. the writings of Anderson (1746), Peerse (1561), and Blefken (1607), in Frásagnir af Íslandi, ed. by Gunnar Þór Bjarnason and Már Jónsson; Sumarliði Ísleifsson, Ísland, framandi land, pp. 11–77 passim; Sumarliði Ísleifsson, Tvær eyjar á jaðrinum, pp. 81–120. Peerse in particular gives grotesque descriptions of the diet of Icelanders (pp. 238–41) and thus accentuates their otherness. 77 


Arngrímur Vídalín

ing both Asia and Africa). This changed with Topo­g raphia Hibernica written by Gerald of Wales (c. 1188). By connecting Ireland and the Marvels of the East (c. 1000),81 Gerald’s Topo­g raphia differs from earlier writings in that he effectively demarginalizes Britain by making the inhabitants of Ireland monstrous by comparison and reminiscent, in fact, of Pliny’s monstrous peoples. By shifting ‘the world’s edge further west than earlier writers’, Gerald ‘thereby has moved Britain ever so slightly closer to the centre’.82 The geo­g raphical placement defines the people here, much as it does in Icelandic sources. It would have been imperative for Icelanders to redefine themselves in very much the same way, and there are several indications that they did. Returning again to Ari Þorgilsson, it has been suggested by among others John Lindow and Pernille Hermann that the foundation narrative of his Íslendingabók prefigures Iceland as Christian territory by the mention of various paraphernalia of Irish monks (papar) that were found by the first settlers. As such, Iceland was already a Christian country even when it became settled by pagans, and its conversion to Christianity a little over a century later was thus inevitable. This kind of typo­logical interpretation was, according to Pernille Hermann, ‘one of the dominant principles for understanding history’.83 Another example has already been mentioned, that is, the Scandinavians of Snorri’s Edda who have ‘lost the name of God’ but are depicted as being sensible nonetheless. The notion also surfaces in the conversion narrative of Íslendingabók where the pagan Þorgeirr Ljósvetningagoði is entrusted with the decision of whether the people of Iceland should revert to Christianity, which is the inevitable conclusion he reaches after giving it grave consideration. It was inevitable because the land already was consecrated ground. It was the destiny of Icelanders to assume their God-given Christianity. Much like Gerald of Wales, if Icelanders were to reaffirm their natural place within the Christian world, another margin had to be located, and just as in the case of Gerald’s Topo­graphia, medi­eval Icelandic literature assumes a fixed geo­g raphical centre in Iceland, ‘attaching peripheral Iceland to the centre of the known world’, to quote Lindow,84 while thrusting the peripheries even farther outwards. Such is the case in many sagas where trolls and monstrous


This text has been published under the title Wonders of the East, ed. by Orchard. Mittman, ‘The Other Close at Hand’, pp. 97–98. 83  Hermann, ‘Íslendingabók and History’, p. 23. 84  Lindow, ‘Íslendingabók and Myth’, p. 456. 82 

From the Inside Out


creatures are found in distant countries, such as the finngálkn and flugdreki85 that Þorkell hákr meets in Njáls saga,86 or the giant and the dragon Jakúlus in Yngvars saga víðförla87 (evidently borrowed from the worm Iaculus in Isidore’s Etymo­logies).88 It is also true of the Hrafnistumannasögur,89 which deal with a few famous ancestors of Icelanders and are centred in Norway, in their heavy focus on the trolls and monsters inhabiting the northernmost parts of Norway and Finland, which results in the southerly parts of Scandinavia being pushed closer to Christian Europe.90 The Vínland sagas offer perhaps the most potent examples in that not only does the new western frontier have its own Other, the skræling jar, but in Eiríks saga rauða there are also other kinds of monsters.91 In the relatively few cases where monsters appear in Iceland, they are tied to a different kind of peripheral area, yet also as far removed from civilization as possible, such as behind waterfalls (e.g., the Beowulf-like episode where Grettir wrestles with the two trolls),92 in caves, and in mountains.93 Following the settlement narrative of Íslendingabók, Ari Þorgilsson speaks of the settlement of Greenland, ‘thus placing Iceland not on the western periphery but somewhere on a line leading to that periphery’, as Lindow notes.94 In this context, Haukr Erlendsson’s interest in Vínland should not come as a sur85 

A finngálkn is an unspecified human-animal hybrid, a monster sometimes wrongfully identified as a centaur although at other times that may be the case. The prefix finn- may allude to the paranormal qualities of Finns and thus suggest a country of origin. Flugdreki is simply a flying dragon. 86  Brennu-Njáls saga, ed. by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, pp. 302–03. For a discussion of this and similar episodes in Íslendingasögur, see Arngrímur Vídalín, The Supernatural in ‘Íslendingasögur’, pp. 86–92. See also Sävborg, ‘Avstånd, gräns och förundran’. 87  Yngvars saga víðförla, ed. by Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, pp. 372–73 and 389. 88  Isidore of Seville, Etymo­logies, ed. by Barney and others, p. 257. Sverrir Tómasson (‘Ferðir þessa heims og annars’, p. 33) notes this too. 89  That is, Ketils saga hængs, Gríms saga loðinkinna, Örvar-Odds saga, and Áns saga bogsveigis. 90  Arngrímur Vídalín, ‘“Er þat illt, at þú vilt elska tröll þat”, pp. 191–204. 91  On the Other in the Vínland sagas, cf. Sverrir Jakobsson, ‘“Black Men and MalignantLooking”’; Larrington, ‘“Undruðusk þá, sem fyrir var”’; Williamsen, ‘Boundaries of Difference’; Hanselmann, ‘Perifera representationer’. 92  Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by Guðni Jónsson, pp. 212–17. 93  Cf. Arngrímur Vídalín, The Supernatural in ‘Íslendingasögur’, pp. 93–114. 94  Lindow, ‘Íslendingabók and Myth’, p. 459.

Arngrímur Vídalín


prise. Not only does he note Blemmyes and Cynocephali in Africa and India, but he also finds Sciopods on the western margins, close to Vínland. Vínland lay in Africa according to the geo­graphical fragment AM 736 I 4to written at the same time as Hauksbók which, incidentally, also contains a hemispherical world map and one of the three Icelandic maps of Jerusalem. The Vínland narratives thus seem to function as a tool — and an excellent one — to centralize Iceland within the Christian world model. One might assume there is more than coincidence at work here.

Concluding Remarks In this essay, I have explored the theme of marginalization in light of medi­eval chronicles and genealogies, how the information gleaned from these and other sources betrays the authors’ sense of self, and how they wished to be perceived by others. The Bible provided the basis for the understanding of history and, as the universal history or chronicle was the main vehicle for documenting history, with due aid from the Bible, so too was Icelandic historio­graphy founded in the universal history and its typo­logical interpretation of historical events. A major part of the construction of ‘Other’ in the Middle Ages was played by the divine location of Jerusalem, situated as close to God as humanly possible in the best and most temperate climate, which influenced the good and pious behaviour of its inhabitants. Those belonging to the outer rim of the world, the torrid and cold zones, were hideously deformed monsters with no civility and no faith or they were, even worse, adversaries of the true faith and thus by Isidore’s definition each and every one of them was the Antichrist.95 The prophecies foretold of a terrible end to the world in which the condemned nations Gog and Magog would fight alongside the agents of evil, and a similar anxiety is manifested in the many mytho­logical sources centred on the inevitable ragnarǫkkr, in which the giants and monstrous progeny of the mytho­logical counterpart to the Antichrist, Loki, unleash horror upon the world resulting in its destruction. Much like Loki’s repeated production of monstrous children, the threat of ‘the Other’ being produced into society was also at hand, a possibility which women were made responsible for and which they in turn blamed on their imagination. The threat of monsters thus remained both outwards and inwards.


Isidore of Seville, Etymo­logies, ed. by Barney and others, pp. 184–05.

From the Inside Out


The sheer amount of writings on the subject of monsters in Iceland indicates that Icelanders were very well aware of this monstrous discourse and, by the same token, their own monstrous placement within the world model. Through a clear tendency of placing the monstrous on peripheries even farther away than Iceland and in different parts of the world, Icelanders seem to have attempted a literary displacement of the island from the monstrous periphery towards the Christian centre of Europe. They would further trace their lineage through legendary heroes to Adam and Eve to prove their nobility and piousness, and they would write the histories of such heroes as well as the histories of peoples of classical antiquity, all leading eventually to their own prehistory, the settlement of Iceland, the sagas of Icelanders, and the numerous sagas of kings. All these histories serve the purpose of putting Iceland into its correct place in history, not as some remote island far from the Church and God but as a pious country of great pedigree and history. This re-imagining of Iceland, this inside-out geo­graphical replacement of otherness, is particularly apparent in the way in which they viewed their comparative others: as anti-Christian monsters lying in wait out in the uncharted wilderness. * * * I wish to thank Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, the organizers of the conference ‘Sagas, Legends, and Trolls’, where I first presented the ideas discussed in this essay. I  also wish to thank Asa Simon Mittman, Ármann Jakobsson, Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson, David Carrillo Rangel, and Christian Etheridge for their suggestions and commentary on the paper and this essay. All translations are my own unless otherwise specified. Biblical verses in English are from the King James version.


Arngrímur Vídalín

Works Cited Manu­scripts and Archival Sources Copen­hagen, Den Arnamagnæanske samling, Nordisk forskningsinstitut, Københavns Uni­versitet Amager, AM 194 8vo —— , AM 544 4to —— , AM 764 4to Rey­kja­vík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, AM 673 a I 4to

Primary Sources Alfræði íslenzk i, ed. by Kristian Kålund (København: Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur, 1908) Anderson, Johann, Frásagnir af Íslandi: ásamt óhróðri Göries Peerse og Dithmars Blefkens um land og þjóð, ed. by Gunnar Þór Bjarnason and Már Jónsson (Rey­kja­vík: Sögufélag, 2013) Arngrímur Jónsson, Crymogæa: Þættir úr sögu Íslands, ed.  by Jakob Benediktsson and Helgi Þorláksson (Rey­kja­vík: Sögufélag 1985) Augustine, City of God, v: Books 16–18.35, ed. by Eva Sanford and others, Loeb Classical Library, 415 (Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965) —— , City of God, vii: Books 21–22, ed. by William Green, Loeb Classical Library, 417 (Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972) Blefken, Dithmar, Frásagnir af Íslandi: ásamt óhróðri Göries Peerse og Dithmars Blefkens um land og þjóð, ed. by Gunnar Þór Bjarnason and Már Jónsson (Rey­kja­vík: Sögufélag, 2013) Brennu-Njáls saga, ed.  by Einar Ólafur  Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 12 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1954) Edda: Pro­logue and Gylfaginning, ed.  by Anthony Faulkes, 2nd  edn (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2005). Eiríks saga víðförla, in Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda iii, ed. by Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson (Rey­kja­vík: Forni, 1944), pp. 446–54 Frásagnir af Íslandi: ásamt óhróðri Göries Peerse og Dithmars Blefkens um land og þjóð, ed. by Gunnar Þór Bjarnason and Már Jónsson (Rey­kja­vík: Sögufélag, 2013) Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed.  by Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 7 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1936) Hauksbók: udgiven efter de arnamagnæanske håndskrifter no. 371, 544 og 675, 4to samt forskellige papirshåndskrifter, ed. by Finnur Jónsson (København: Det kongelige nordiske oldskrift-selskab 1892–96) Heimskringla iii: Lykilbók, ed. by Bergljót Soffía Kristjánsdóttir and others (Rey­kja­vík: Mál og menning, 1991) Herodotus, The Persian Wars, ii: Books 3–4, ed. by George Rawlinson and others, Loeb Classical Library, 119 (Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921)

From the Inside Out


Hippocrates, Anatomy, ix: Nature of Bones. Heart. Eight Months’ Child. Coan Prenotions. Crises. Critical Days. Superfetation. Girls. Excision of the Fetus. Sight, ed. by Paul Potter, Loeb Classical Library, 509 (Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2010) —— , Generation, x: Nature of the Child. Diseases 4. Nature of Women. Barrenness, ed. by Paul Potter, Loeb Classical Library, 520 (Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2012) Isidore of Seville, The Etymo­logies, ed. by Stephen Barney and others (Cam­bridge: Cam­ bridge University Press, 2010) Íslendingabók, Landnámabók, ed.  by Jakob Benediktsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 1 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1986) Islandske annaler indtil 1578, ed. by Gustav Storm (Oslo: Grøndahl & Søns bogtrykkeri, 1888) Jerome, Quaestiones hebraicae in libro Geneseos, ed.  by Paul de Lagarde (Leipzig: B.G. Teubneri, 1868) Ketils saga hængs, in Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, ed.  by Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson (Rey­kja­vík: Forni 1943), i, 243–66 Oddaannálar og Oddverjaannáll, ed. by Eiríkur Þormóðsson and Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir (Rey­kja­vík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 2003) Peerse, Göries, Frásagnir af Íslandi: ásamt óhróðri Göries Peerse og Dithmars Blefkens um land og þjóð, ed. by Gunnar Þór Bjarnason and Már Jónsson (Rey­kja­vík: Sögufélag, 2013) Pliny the Elder, Natural History, ii: Books 3–7, ed.  by Harris Rackham, Loeb Classical Library, 352 (Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942) Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum: Danmarkshistorien, ed. by Karsten Friis-Jensen and others (København: Danske sprog- og litteraturselskab, 2005) Sigebert of Gembloux, Chronicon sive chrono­graphia (Paris: Henry Estienne and Jean Petit, 1513) Stjórn: tekst etter håndskriftene, ed. by Reidar Astås, Norrøne tekster, 8 (Oslo: Riksarkivet, 2009) Stjórn: en gammelnorsk Bibelhistorie fra Verdens Skabelse til det babyloniske Fangenskab, ed. by Carl Rikard Unger (Oslo: Feilberg & Landmark, 1862) The Uppsala-Edda, ed.  by Heimir Pálsson (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2012) Veraldar saga, ed. by Jakob Benediktsson (København: Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur, 1944) The Wonders of the East, ed.  by Andy Orchard, in Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manu­script (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 175–203 Yngvars saga víðförla, in Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda iii, ed. by Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson (Rey­kja­vík: Forni, 1944), pp. 361–94


Arngrímur Vídalín

Secondary Works Arngrímur Vídalín, ‘“Er þat illt, at þú vilt elska tröll þat”: Hið sögulega samhengi jöðrunar í Hrafnistumannasögum’, Gripla, 24 (2013), 173–210 —— , The Supernatural in ‘Íslendingasögur’: A  Theoretical Approach to Definition and Analysis (Rey­kja­vík: Tower Press, 2012) Clunies Ross, Margaret, ‘The Development of Old Norse Textual Worlds: Genealogical Structure as a Principle of Literary Organisation in Early Iceland’, Journal of English and Germanic Philo­logy, 92.3 (1993), 372–85 —— , Skáldskaparmál: Snorri Sturluson’s ‘Ars Poetica’ and Medi­eval Theories of Language, The Viking Collection, 4 (Odense: Odense University Press, 1987) Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999) Cormack, Margaret, ‘Visions, Demons and Gender in the Sagas of Icelandic Saints’, Collegium Medi­evale, 7 (1994), 185–209 Donkin, Lucy E. G., ‘Earth from Elsewhere: Burial in Terra Sancta beyond the Holy Land’, in Natural Materials of the Holy Land and the Visual Translation of Place, 500–1500, ed. by Renana Bartel, Neta Bodner, and Bianca Kuehnel (London: Routledge, 2017), pp. 109–26 Dronke, Ursula, and Peter Dronke, ‘The Pro­logue of the Prose Edda: Exploration of a Latin Background’, in Sjötíu ritgerðir helgaðar Jakobi Benediktssyni 20. júlí 1977, ed. by Einar G. Pétursson, and Jónas Kristjánsson (Rey­kja­vík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 1977), i, 153–76 Friedman, John Block, The Monstrous Races in Medi­eval Art and Thought, 2nd  edn (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000) —— , ed., Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2000) Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir, ‘Úr sögu kristni og kirkju í norðurálfu 1000–1400’, in Biskupa sögur, ed.  by Sigurgeir Steingrímsson, Ólafur Halldórsson, and Peter Foote, Íslenzk fornrit, 15 (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 2003), i, pp. xxx–liv Hanselmann, Victoria, ‘Perifera representationer: Vínlandssagorna, “det andra” och repre­ sen­tationens strategier’, Arkiv för nordisk filo­logi, 120 (2005), 83–110 Helga Kress, ‘“Grey þykir mér Freyja”: Um konur, kristni og karlveldi í íslenskum fornbókmenntum’, in Konur og kristsmenn: Þættir úr kristnisögu Íslands, ed. by Inga Huld Hákonardóttir (Rey­kja­vík: Háskólaútgáfan, 1996), pp. 13–63 Hermann Pálsson, Úr landnorðri: Samar og ystu rætur íslenskrar menningar (Rey­kja­vík: Bókmenntafræðistofnun Háskóla Íslands, 1997) Hermann, Pernille, ‘Íslendingabók and History’, in Reflections on Old Norse Myths, ed. by Pernille Hermann, Jens Peter Schjødt, and Rasmus Tranum Kristensen, Studies in Viking and Medi­eval Scandinavia, 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 17–32 Jakob Benediktsson. ‘Some Observations on Stjórn and the Manu­script AM 227  fol.’, Gripla, 15 (2004), 7–42 Janson, Henrik, ‘Edda and “Oral Christianity”: Apocryphal Leaves of the Early Medi­ eval Storyworld of the North’, in Performance of Christian and Pagan Storyworlds:

From the Inside Out


Non-Canonical Chapters of the History of Nordic Medi­eval Literature, ed. by Lars Boje Mortensen and Tuomas M. S. Lehtonen, Medi­eval Identites: Socio-Cultural Spaces, 3 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), pp. 171–97 Kline, Naomi Reed, Maps of Medi­eval Thought: The Hereford Paradigm (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001) Landes, Richard, ‘The Fear of an Apocalyptic Year 1000: Augustinian Historio­graphy, Medi­eval and Modern’, Speculum, 75 (2000), 97–145 Larrington, Carolyne, ‘“Undruðusk þá, sem fyrir var”: Wonder, Vínland and Mediaeval Travel Narratives’, Mediaeval Scandinavia, 14 (2004), 91–114 Lassen, Annette, Odin på kristent pergament: En teksthistorisk studie (Copen­hagen: Museum Tusculanums Press, 2011) Lindow, John, ‘Íslendingabók and Myth’, Scandinavian Studies, 69 (1997), 454–64 Mittman, Asa Simon, ‘The Other Close at Hand: Gerald of Wales and the “Marvels of the West”’, in The Monstrous Middle Ages, ed. by Bettina Bildbauer and Robert Mills (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), pp. 97–112 —— , Maps and Monsters in Medi­eval England (New York: Routledge, 2006) Mosley, Adam, ‘Past Portents Predict: Cometary Historiae and Catalogues in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, in Celestial Novelties on the Eve of the Scientific Revolution 1540–1630, ed. by Dario Tessicini and others (Florence: Olschki, 2013), pp. 1–32 Motz, Lotte, The Beauty and the Hag: Female Figures of Germanic Faith and Myth (Vienna: Fassbaender, 1993) Orchard, Andy, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manu­script (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995) Paré, Ambroise, On Monsters and Marvels, ed. by Janis L. Pallister (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1982) Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, I: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975) Roodenburg, Herman W., ‘The Maternal Imagination: The Fears of Pregnant Women in Seventeenth-Century Holland’, Journal of Social History, 21.4 (1988), 701–16 Sävborg, Daniel, ‘Avstånd, gräns och förundran: Möten med de övernaturliga i islänningasagan’, in Greppaminni: Rit til heiðurs Vésteini Ólasyni sjötugum (Rey­kja­vík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2009), pp. 323–47 Sigurður Nordal, ‘Völuspá’, in Fornar menntir iii, ed. by Jóhannes Nordal, 2nd rev. edn (Kópavogur: Almenna bókafélagið, 1993), pp. 11–192 Simek, Rudolf, ‘Scandinavian World Maps’, in Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. by John Block Friedman and Kristen Mossler Figg (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 537–38 Shildrick, Margrit, ‘Maternal Imagination: Reconceiving First Impressions’, Rethinking History, 4 (2000), 243–60 Smith, Norman R., ‘Portentous Births and the Monstrous Imagination in Renaissance Culture’, in Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medi­eval and Early Modern Imaginations, ed. by Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger, Studies in Medi­eval Culture, 42 (Kalamazoo: Medi­eval Institute Publications, 2002), pp. 267–83


Arngrímur Vídalín

Soffía Guðný Guðmundsdóttir, ‘Uppdráttur af Jórsalaborg’, in 66 handrit úr fórum Árna Magnússonar, ed. by Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir (Rey­kja­vík: Den Arnamagnæanske samling, 2013), p. 97 Sumarliði Ísleifsson, Ísland, framandi land (Rey­kja­vík: Mál og menning, 1996) —— , Tvær eyjar á jaðrinum: Ímyndir Íslands og Grænlands frá miðöldum til miðrar 19. Aldar (Rey­kja­vík: Háskóli Íslands, hugvísindasvið, 2014) Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, ‘Universal History in Fourteenth-Century Iceland: Studies in AM 764 4to’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University College London, 2000) —— , ‘Um aldir alda: Veraldarsögur miðalda og íslenskar aldartölur’, Ritið, 5.3 (2005), 111–33 Sverrir Jakobsson, ‘“Black Men and Malignant-Looking”: The Place of the Indigenous Peoples of North America in the Icelandic World View’, in Approaches to Vínland: A Conference on the Eritten and Archaeo­logical Sources for the Norse Settlements in the North Atlantic Region and Exploration of America the Nordic House, Rey­kja­vík 9–11 August 1999. Proceedings, ed. by Andrew Wawn and Þórunn Sigurðardóttir (Rey­kja­ vík: Sigurður Nordal Institute, 2001), pp. 88–104 —— , ‘Hin heilaga fortíð: Söguvitund og sameiginlegt minni í handritunum Hauksbók og AM 226 fol’, Ritið, 13.1: Minni og gleymska (2013), 147–64 —— , Við og veröldin: Heimsmynd Íslendinga 1100–1400 (Rey­kja­vík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2005) Sverrir Tómasson, ‘Ferðir þessa heims og annars: Paradís — Ódáinsakur — Vínland í íslenskum ferðalýsingum miðalda’, Gripla 12 (2001), 23–40 —— , Formálar íslenskra sagnaritara á miðöldum: Rannsókn bókmenntahefðar (Rey­kja­vík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 1988) —— , ‘Tækileg vitni’, in Sverrir Tómasson, Tækileg vitni: Greinar um bókmenntir gefnar út í tilefni sjötugsafmælis hans 5. apríl 2011, ed. by Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir (Rey­kja­vík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum, 2011), pp. 3–34 Wheatley, Abigail, The Idea of the Castle in Medi­eval England (Woodbridge: York Medi­ eval Press, 2004) Williamsen, Elizabeth, ‘Boundaries of Difference in the Vínland Sagas’, Scandinavian Studies, 77 (2004), 451–78

The Troll and Old Norwegian‑Icelandic Law Jan Ragnar Hagland


he present contribution will look at trolls and the supernatural in the context of medi­eval West Scandinavian law. The trolls will, in consequence, be considered from a legal rather than an early modern folkloristic point of view. The legal tradition, as we know it, coincides from the outset with the earliest stages of the medi­eval West Scandinavian literary tradition. The question what, if anything, a legal backdrop meant to the medi­eval West Scandinavian literary tradition at large will, however, be kept in mind, without being much elaborated upon in the following, thus following John Lindow, who in his recently published book also touches upon trolls in the language of the laws, even if only briefly.1 1 

Lindow, Trolls: An Unnatural History, pp. 38–39.

Abstract: The present contribution discusses the notion of trolls and the supernatural in the context of medi­eval West Scandinavian law by focussing on a particular locution or phrase — at vecia tröll upp (to conjure up trolls) — which recurs in the law texts for a very long time. That is to say from the earliest Norwegian provincial law manu­scripts of the twelfth century to late medi­eval/early modern Icelandic law (the Jónsbók). The idea of waking up trolls and the consequences of such acts thus appears to have had an unchanged legal status throughout the Scandinavian Middle Ages and well into early modern times — in Norway and subsequently in Iceland. There is, however, no way of telling unambiguously what ‘waking up trolls’ entailed in a legal context. The waking up of trolls was, at any rate, illegal as the laws state throughout, because it meant carrying out heathen practices. Jan Ragnar Hagland ([email protected]) is professor emeritus of Old Norse philo­ logy at the Norwegian University of Science and Techno­logy (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway, where he worked from 1986 until his retirement in 2013. He has published extensively on Old Norse philo­logy, runo­logy, and Nordic language history, as well as translated saga texts and medi­eval Norweian law codes

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 175–187 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116085


Jan Ragnar Hagland

The notion of ‘troll’ per se does not at all occur frequently in the texts of medi­eval Norwegian-Icelandic law. The locution or phrase at vecia tröll upp — ‘to conjure up trolls’ — and some terms connoted with it recur, however, in the law texts for a very long period of time — from the Old Norwegian provincial laws well into early modern times. We shall in the following restrict ourselves to making a brief outline of this rather specific verbal feature in the laws. We shall for a start, then, briefly look at one of the Norwegian provincial laws, the so-called older Frostaþingslög (hereafter F), valid for the area of present-day Trøndelag and adjacent areas prior to 1274, in order to see what its provisions have to say about the legal consequences of conjuring up trolls. In order to keep within reasonable limits, I choose here to take this particular provincial law code as a point of departure, representative as it is on this point for the oldest Norwegian laws. The noun troll (n.) is infrequent in F, as it is in the corresponding law code for Western Norway, Gulaþingslög (hereafter G), and in the Icelandic Grágás for that matter, in which it hardly seems to occur at all.2 In F, the word occurs only once, in the specific locution just mentioned. In order to address the idea of trolls expressed in this specific verbal context, we need, it seems, to be aware of some other terms used in conjunction with it, apparently relating to the supernatural in some way or other: The terms fordœðuskapr (m.), gerningar maðr (m.), spásögur (f. pl.), and even útiseta (f.) all occur in close connection with this idea of ‘conjuring up trolls’. These and other related terms, for example, from Grágás, cannot, however, be elaborated on in much detail in the present context. The word troll as such, then, occurs only in F v: 45, in the phrase mentioned above — at vecia tröll upp (‘at fremmane trolde’3 — ‘to conjure up trolls’). The same phrase appears also in G 32, in a context containing nearly the same wording. The part of F v: 45 relevant to us has to do with theft and goes as follows (the other terms just mentioned are in italics): Um þyfsku En þeir er láta lif sitt fyrir þyfscu eða utilego hvárt er þeir renna á scipum eða landi. oc svá fyrir morð oc fordœðu scapi oc spáfarar oc utisetu at vecia tröll upp oc fremia heiðni með þui. oc þeir menn er geraz flugumenn at drepa þá menn er þeir eigi 2 

In several manu­scripts, however, giving additions to G 28, women accused of being trolls is a topic: ‘þat er cono keNt at hon se troll’; cf. Den eldre Gulatingslova, ed. by Eithun, Rindal, and Ulset, p. 51, and even NgL iv: 18. Those particular few cases, added at some stage, will not be elaborated upon in the present study. 3  Hertzberg, Glossarium, p. 700.

The Troll and Old Norwegian‑Icelandic Law


engra sakar við oc taca fé til. nema konungr láte refsa til landreinsanar oc friðar. oc svá gerningar men […] (Concerning theft Those who are killed because of thieving and banditry, whether they rob men on shipboard or on land, and [those who are killed] for deeds of murder or witchcraft or for going abroad at night to call forth evil spirits or for seeking fortune tellers to promote heathendom thereby; and assassins who give aid in the slaying of men with whom they have no quarrel and take money for it (unless the king makes use [of them] to chastise and cleanse the land and thus to promote peace); and sorcerers […].)4

We shall, in order briefly to contextualize the other terms mentioned, need also to consider F iii: 15 and F v: 29 for a somewhat more comprehensive survey of acts connoted with the trolls and the supernatural in early Norwegian law: F iii: 15 Vm blot a heiðnar uettr Ef maðr blotar a heiðnar uetter eða fer han með spasogur eða með gerningum sa maðr er þui lyðir oc þann mann hussar til þess. hann er sua utlægr sem manz bane. en biskup a huern pening fear hans. (Concerning sacrifices to heathen gods If a man sacrifices to heathen gods or practices sooth-saying or sorcery, or if a man gives credence to such a one or harbors him for such purposes, he shall be outlawed like a banesman and the bishop shall have his property to the last penny.)5 F v: 29 [Um fordœðu scap]6 […] heimiscviðar aþingi. En ef cono er kænnt at hon fare með fordœðo scape. þa take hon ikætil. oc fare hennar mal sem hins er til iarns giængrr. sem skill icristnum rette.7


The Earliest Norwegian Laws, ed. by Larson, pp. 290–91. The Earliest Norwegian Laws, ed. by Larson, p. 251. 6  This part of the now lost exemplar of F (Codex Resenianus) had a lacuna at this point. The heading is taken from the table of contents at the beginning of bálkr v. In the translated version of F (see Frostatingslova, ed. and trans. by Hagland and Sandnes) the lacuna has been filled in from Járnsiða. As this is problematic, only the part of the chapter that has been preserved in a medi­e val manu­script fragment (NRA 1 C II) is cited here. This part of F is not included in Laurence M. Larson’s translation and has not been given a heading in his edition. The part of the church law to which this fragment refers must be F ii: 45 – ‘Um iarn burð’ (Concerning the ordeal of the iron); see The Earliest Norwegian Laws, ed. by Larson, p. 244. 7  NgL ii, 506 from NRA 1 C II. Translation mine. 5 


Jan Ragnar Hagland

(Concerning sorcery […] a home-verdict at the assembly. If a woman is found guilty of dealing with sorcery, she shall touch kettle and fare her case as the one who passes through the ordeal of fire, as accounted for in the church law.)

As we can see, there are difficulties in translating the termino­logy relevant to us here into English, and even into modern Scandinavian for that matter. In the text of F v: 45, the notion of troll appears as the grammatical object of the verbal phrase already mentioned: at vecia up — ‘to wake or conjure up’. This is an act closely connected in the text to the notion of útiseta, literally ‘a sitting out’, which is again connected to the act of spáfarar (soothsayings) and fordœðuscapr (translated by Richard Cleasby and Guðbrandur Vigfússon as ‘witchcraft, sorcery’8). As the words útiseta and spáfarar are known in the literary corpus at large primarily in this very verbal context, at vecia tröll up, they have in lexico­ graphical terms been given a semantic content linked to or associated with the supernatural. Thus, útiseta is in most dictionaries given a lexical definition corresponding to Cleasby and Vigfússon’s ‘a sitting out, in the open air, esp. of wizards sitting out at night for the sake of sorcery or prophesying.’9 The latter content relates, as we can see, closely to the notions of fordœðu scap and spáfarar in F. As indicated above, G, although omitting spáfarar, has the same wording as F in one of its para­graphs (G 32) on the breach of truce (trygðrof). The exact content of fordœðuscapr, spáfarar, and útiseta is definitely not easy to decipher. In the actual legal context, however, it is clear that these are all acts which may be performed in order to vecia tröll upp. As explicitly stated in F v: 45, the waking up of trolls was a serious legal offence, indeed. Such acts could be seen to, if not exactly promote (fremia), then at least carry out heathen practices, which would make those who performed it úbótamenn, that is, persons having committed a crime for which fines could not free them from outlawry. As can be seen in the same para­g raph, the term gerningarmaðr cannot in the same way as the three terms mentioned earlier be directly connected to the act of waking up trolls. But in F iii: 15, the act of fara með spásogur is stated to be equivalent to blota a heiðnar uetter10 in the first place and secondly to ‘fara með gerningum: Ef maðr blotar a heiðnar uetter eða fer han með spásogur eða með gerningum’ (‘If a man sacrifices to heathen gods or practices sooth-saying or sorcery’, in Larson’s translation as cited above). These contexts, as we can see, 8 

Cleasby and Vigfússon, An Icelandic–English Dictionary, p. 164. Cleasby and Vigfússon, An Icelandic–English Dictionary, p. 671. 10  An expression used in a legal context also in the Icelandic Grágás, ia: 22 and ii: 27. 9 

The Troll and Old Norwegian‑Icelandic Law


all relate the terms singled out here to the (illegal) act of waking up trolls, running the subsequent risk of carrying out heathen practices. All taken together, the vocabulary listed above clearly connotes the dangerous act of waking up trolls. It should be added here that Gísli Sigurðsson thoroughly discusses in particular the content of útiseta (f.) in a wide range of contexts, legal and literary, when analyzing the cultural meaning of stanza 28 in the Codex Regiusversion of Völuspá (‘Ein sat hún úti, þá er inn aldni kom’).11 It is apparent also in Gísli Sigurðsson’s analysis that a person’s ‘sitting out’ (performing útiseta) was an attempt, originating in ancient times, at obtaining various kinds of occult knowledge. Seen from a Christian point of view, as in the laws, knowledge acquired by an act such as this was, or became, something very negative. The text of the law in F does not per se give any definition of what it meant to ‘wake up trolls’, nor does G. The troll is, however, implicitly presented as a fact of life, something that apparently needed no explanation. Whether the notion of trolls had a concrete or an abstract content is not by any means evident in the texts of the laws. Most probably the troll, also in a legal context, was conceived of as a real, although supernatural, being, the belief in which must have been firmly rooted in society. The seriousness in a legal context of having anything to do with ‘waking up trolls, draugar or haugbuar’ (see below) can, at any rate, be deduced from the fact that such dealings were placed on a par with theft (þyfska) in F, and in G with the breach of truce (trygðrof), both of which were felonious acts. It is, therefore, well worth keeping in mind that the initial wording of F v: 45 quoted here, is kept almost verbatim in Magnús lagabætir’s law of 1274 (hereafter L) for all of Norway, in L iv: 4, dealing with manslaughter (manna aftök): Menn þeir er lata lif sitt firir þyfsku sakir eða utilego huart sem þeir ræna a skipum eða a lande oc sua firir morð oc fordœðo skap oc sua spáfarar allar oc utisætor at ueckia troll upp oc fremia með þui heiðni. Sua oc þeir men sem gerazt flugu men at drepa men er þeir eigu engar saker uið oc taka þar fe til. nema konungr eða hans umboðs maðr late refsa til landreinsanar oc friðar.12 (Men who lose their lives because of theft or robbery, whether at sea or on land, as well as murder or because of sorcery (fordœðuskap), all kinds of augury (spáfarar) as well as sittings out (utisætor) in order to wake up trolls and thereby carrying out heathen practices. This also applies to men who make themselves assassins for 11  Gísli Sigurðsson, ‘“Ein sat hún úti…” Leitar Óðinn þekkingar hjá völvunni’ and ‘“Ein sat hún úti…” Søger Odin viden hos volven i Voluspå’. 12  NgL ii: 51. Translation mine.


Jan Ragnar Hagland

money by killing men with whom they have no account to settle. Cases excepted to this apply to the king’s or his stewards’ freeing the country of enemies in order to create peace.)

That is, as mentioned above, almost the same wording as in F and G. The gerningar menn, however, are not mentioned in the new law. Furthermore, the same wording is kept even in the Icelandic Jónsbók of 1281 (iv: 2), also dealing with manslaughter (skemdarvíg og niðingsverk): Menn þeir sem láta líf sitt fyrir útilego, þyfsku eður rán, hvort sem heldur ræna á skipum eða á landi, og svo fyrir morð og fordæðuskap og spáfarar allar og útisetur að vekja troll upp og fremja heiðni. Svo og þeir menn sem gjörast flugumenn til að drepa þá men er þeir eiga öngar sakir við og taka fé til, nema konungur [konungs umboðsmaður] láti refsa til landhreinsanar og friðar.13

As the phrase that interests us here does not occur in Grágás, it should be added that it emerges in an Icelandic legal text for the first time, it seems, in the 1260s — in the law code of Járnsiða necessitated by the new political situation in Iceland.14 In the Mannhelgi-book of that law code, chap. 6, we find exactly the same phrasing as in F v: 45 quoted above: ‘[…] oc svá firi morð og fordæðuskap og spáfarar og útisetur að vekja troll upp og fremja heiðni með því […]’.15 The implication of all this is that the idea of waking up trolls and the consequences of such acts had an unchanged legal status throughout the Middle Ages and well into early modern times, both in Norway and in Iceland. There is no way of telling unambiguously what ‘waking up trolls’ entailed in a legal context. The waking or conjuring up of trolls is, at any rate, illegal, as the laws state throughout, because it means carrying out heathen practices. There is, in consequence and not surprisingly, an obvious Christian motivation for denying or forbidding it already in the early stages of old West Scandinavian legislation. It is, therefore, relevant to mention also that the expression that interests us here occurs even in the law of the Borgarthing, from which only the kristindómsbálkr is preserved: ‘þat er vbota verk ef maðr sitr vti ok væckir troll up’ (it is a crime which cannot be atoned with fines if a man sits out and wakes up trolls) (NgL i: 362, untitled fragment in AM 31 8vo). In a version of the kris13 

Jónsbók, ed. by Már Jónsson, p. 103. For translation, see L iv: 4 above. See also Járnsíða og Kristinréttur, ed. by Haraldur Bernharðsson, Magnus Lyngdal Magnússon, and Már Jónsson, pp. 13–25. 15  Járnsíða og Kristinréttur, ed. by Haraldur Bernharðsson, Magnus Lyngdal Magnússon, and Már Jónsson, p. 76. 14 

The Troll and Old Norwegian‑Icelandic Law


tindómsbálkr in the Gulathing version of King Magnús lagabætir’s law (that is to say the version of the 1270s), the idea corresponding to waking up trolls is phrased as follows: ‘sua oc þeir er freista draugha upp at ueckia eða haugbua’ (On ‘Willu oc heiðin atrunað’ (heresy and heathen belief ’), cf. NgL ii: 327). That is to say that haugbúi, draugr, and troll are treated as cognates in the same system of belief. Whatever they were called, they all represented heathen belief unwanted in a Christian context. I shall not, however, elaborate on that particular point here. A concluding excursus will, nonetheless, present the most common notions and usages listed in the Norwegian provincial church laws and in the Icelandic Grágás on how to keep Christianity or the Christian faith clear of influences from heathen beliefs and practices. The word ‘troll’ as such does not occur in these contexts. Does this long lasting legal attitude in any way relate to the literary tradition, we may ask? An answer to a question such as this can be affirmative only to the extent that the laws here are accepted as relevant and independent documentation of popular belief in trolls and similar phenomena during the long period of time in which the Old Norse literary tradition was in its making. That is to say that the laws provide material that indirectly documents popular belief in trolls, haugbuar, and draugar. The conclusion that such beliefs existed in the actual societies is a banal one and, of course, not at all surprising. We need not push that point much further here. Let us just state an obvious fact about the explicit term ‘trolls’ in Old Norse narrative texts: As in folkloristic tales there are, of course, saga narratives dealing with trolls and their doings. Sagas about trolls generally belong, as is well known, in genres of their own. We need not elaborate on that here either. But the presence of trolls, draugar, and haugbúar in the laws definitely vouches for a (varying) presence of such beings in saga narratives at large. Sometimes we can, when such beings are concerned, even see the letter of the law reflected in saga narratives, one relatively late example of which may, for illustration, be taken from Flateyjarbók (from the late fourteenth century). The compiler of this work uses Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts (The Tale of Thorstein Bull’s-Leg) in his version of Óláfs saga Trygvasonar. This short tale, containing violent encounters with trolls, obviously has a literary history of its own, which, however, is not of concern in the present context. In Flateyjarbók’s use of the tale, Þorsteinn’s extirpation of the trolls at Heiðarskógr evidently symbolizes the defeat of heathendom.16 The interpolation of Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts 16 

See also Rowe, ‘Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts’.

Jan Ragnar Hagland


in Flateyjarbók should then, as I see it, be considered a deliberate literary device to reinforce the importance of Óláfr’s historic part in the Christianizing of Norway: Þorsteinn did not just refrain from ‘waking trolls up’. On behalf of King Óláfr’s project, he extirpated them, thus not only echoing the letter of the law in fourteenth century Iceland, but even implicitly underscoring its legal intention.

Excursus As the supernatural played an obvious part in Old Norse popular belief, it may be pertinent in the present context briefly to survey how the four provincial Norwegian church laws (the Gulathing law, the Frostathing law, the Eidsivathing law, and the Borgarthing law) and the Icelandic Grágás take legal measures to keep supernatural and thus heathen practices at arm’s length from Christian belief. The measures both differ and coincide, as is clear from the excerpts listed below. The fordœðuscapr, the spáfara, spásǫgur, and gerningar (illar) are all present in one or more of these law texts. As can be seen, the exact meanings of the notions in various contexts are vague and not easily translatable. In addition to the notions mentioned above there are, in the church laws, references to blót generally (Eidsivathing) or blótskap (Borgarthing), the act of blóta heiðit (Gulathing) or blóta a heiðnar uetter (Frostathing), blóta heiðnar vettir (Grágás). There are, in addition, references to the notions of vitt (n.) and rót (f.) in the Eidsivathing law, both of which are associated with heathen practices. This particular law, as the only one interestingly enough, also forbids people to believe in finns, that is to say Sami people, a feature that seems to transmit traditional or even oral law, appearing as it does in an alliterative construction: ‘trua a finna eða fordœðor / finna eða fordœðuskap’.17 One variant of the Eidsivathing law even forbids the keeping of staf eða stalle — definitively paraphernalia of heathen cult. The provisions quoted from the ‘Kristinna laga þáttr’ of Grágás is for the present purposes taken from the Staðarholtsbók-version of the law.18 The church laws, then, definitively warn against the supernatural as far as it associates to heathen practices. The exact content of the beliefs and practices referred to is difficult to disclose. The troll as such does not appear at all in these contexts. The principal excerpts relevant to us here are as follows: 17 

point. 18 

Cf.  also Fritzner, ‘Lappernes Hedenskab og Troldomskunst sammenholdt’, on this AM 334 fol., cf. Grágás, ed. by Vilhjálmur Finsen, p. 27.

The Troll and Old Norwegian‑Icelandic Law

Grágás Menn scolo trua a guð einn. oc a helga menn til arnaðar orða ser. oc blóta eigi heiðnar vettir. Þa blótar maðr heiðnar vettir. er hann signar fe sitt avðrom eN Guði oc helgum mönnom hans. Ef maðr blótar heiðnar vettir oc varðar þat Fiör Bavgs Garð oc scal queðia heimilis bva ix. til a þingi. Ef maðr feR med galldra. eða fiolkyNgi. oc varðar honom þat Fiör Bavgs Garð oc scal stefna heiman. oc søkia við xii. quið. Þa feR hann med galdra ef hann queðr þat. eða keNir. eða lætr hann queða at ser eða fe sino. Ef maðr feR með fordöðo scap. þat varðar scog Gang. Þat ero fordöðo scapir ef maðr gerir i orðum sinum eða fiolkyNgi sótt eða bana mönnom eða fe. þat scal søkia við .xii. quið. Menn scolo eigi fara með steina eða magna þa til þes at binda a menn eða fenað. Ef maðr trvir a steina til heilendis ser eða fe sino oc varðar þat Fiör Bavgs Garð.19 (Men shall believe in one God and in holy men to intercede for them and not worship heathen beings. A man worships heathen beings if he signs (signar) his cattle to others than God and his holy men. If a man worships heathen beings, that act warrants the penalty of fjörbaugsgarðr (lesser outlawry) and requires a homeverdict of nine witnesses in court. If a man practices magic (galdra) or sorcery (fjölkyngi), that earns him fjörbaugsgarðr and is to be summoned from home, with a home-verdict of twelve witnesses. He is guilty of practicing magic if he performs it or teach it, or if he lets it be performed on himself or his livings animals. If a man practises sorcery (fordœðuskap), that warrants the penalty of outlawry (skóggang). It is sorcery if a man by way of his words or black art (fjölkyngi) causes illness or death for people or cattle. That is to be prosecuted with twelve witnesses. Men should not deal with stones or perform strength magic (magna) in order to bind men or cattle. If a man believes in stones in order to heal himself or his cattle, then fjörbaugsgarðr is warranted.)

The Gulathing Law G 28 Vm spár oc Galldra Đat er nu þvi nest at ver scolom lyða spám ne golldrum ne gerningum illum. en sa er kunnr oc sannr verðr at þvi. at hann segir spár. æða ferr með spám. þa er hann maðr utlagr oc uheilagr. oc hverr penningr fiár hans. þat a halft konongr. en halft biscop. En sa annaR er spám lyðir. oc verðr sannr at þvi. þa scal sa bøta. xl. Marca. þat a halft konongr. en halft biscop.20

19  20 

Grágás, ed. by Vilhjálmur Finsen, p. 27. Translation mine. Den eldre Gulatingslova, ed. by Eithun, Rindal, and Ulset, p. 50.



Jan Ragnar Hagland

(Concerning sorcery and soothsaying The next is this, that we must pay no heed to soothsaying, incantation, or wicked sorcery. And if a man is accused and convicted of having practiced soothsaying or of having told fortunes, he shall be an outlaw and shorn of all personal rights; and all his chattels to the last penny shall go, one-half to the king and one-half to the bishop. And if any man gives heed to soothsaying and the charge is proven, he shall owe a fine of forty marks, one-half to go to the king and one-half to the bishop.)21 G 29 Um blot Blot er oss oc oll kviðiat at vér scolom eigi blota heiðit Guð. ne hauga. ne horga. En ef maðr verðr at þvi kunnr oc sannr. þa hever hann firi gort hveríum penningi fiar sins. han scal ganga til scripta oc bøta við crist. En ef hann vill þat eigi. þa scal han fara ór landeign konongs várs.22 (Concerning heathen sacrifices Heathen sacrifices are also banned for we are not permitted to worship any heathen god, or [on any] hill, or [in any] heathen fane. And if a man is accused and convicted of this, he has forfeited all his chattels to the last penny, and he shall go to confession and do penance. But if he refuses to do this, he shall depart from the king’s dominions.)23

The Frostathing Law F II: 4. Vm uarnan uið heiðna menn En þat er þar nest at huær maðr skal kristin vera i konungs uælldi þesso. Ala ma heiðinn mann vm nott ef hann fær til kirkiu þeirrar er prestr er at. En ef hann fer fra kirkiu þeirri er prestr er at oskirðr. þa er hann vœll. þa skal hann einn i buð ser oc kaupa kaupum sinum oc fara af lande sem skiotazt ma hann.24 (Concerning the duty to shun heathen men The next is this, that every man in the king’s dominions must be a Christian. One may shelter a heathen man over night, if he is travelling toward a church where there is a priest; but if he comes from a church where there is a priest and he is still unbaptized, he must not be entertained. Let him keep to himself in his own booth and transact his business and leave the land as quickly as he can.)25 21 

The Earliest Norwegian Laws, ed. by Larson, p. 56. Den eldre Gulatingslova, ed. by Eithun, Rindal, and Ulset, p. 52. 23  The Earliest Norwegian Laws, ed. by Larson, p. 57. 24  NgL i: 132. 25  The Earliest Norwegian Laws, ed. by Larson, p. 227. 22 

The Troll and Old Norwegian‑Icelandic Law


F III: 15 Vm blot a heiðnar uettr Ef maðr blotar a heiðnar uetter eða fer hann með spasogur eða með gerningum sa maðr er þui lyðir oc þann mann husar til þess. hann er sua utlægr sem manz bane. en biskup a huern pening fear hans. En ef dyl. bere karlmaðr iarn firir. en kona take i kætil. En sa er þessor mal kennir manni þa værðr hann af þui fiolmæles maðr ef skirskotat er. nema hann hafe firir ser heimilis kuiðiar vitni.26 (Concerning sacrifices to heathen gods If a man sacrifices to heathen gods or practices sooth-saying or sorcery, or if a man gives credence to such a one or harbors him for such purposes, he shall be outlawed like a banesman and the bishop shall have his property to the last penny. If he denies [the guilt], let him carry the hot iron, or [if a woman]. Let her go to the hot kettle. And the one who accuses any man of this [and the man is cleared], shall be rated a slanderer, if witnesses are called to take note of it, unless he can produce witnesses to common rumor.)27

The Eidsivathing Law — Longer Version: AM 68, 4to. E 45.1. (E)Ngi maðr a at trua. a. finna. eða fordæðor. eða a vit. eða blot eða rot. eða þat er til hæiðins siðar høyrir. eða læita ser þar bota.28 (No man shall believe in Finns or sorcery or charms or heathen worship or roots for witchcraft or what else belongs to heathen customs, nor shall he look for remedy in such things.)

The Manu­script NB 317, 4to E 24.1. Eingin maðr skall hafuæ j husi sinu staf æðr stallæ. vitt. blott æðr rott æðr þat er til hæiðins siðar horfuer.29 (No man shall keep in his house a magic wand or a heathen altar, resort to charms, heathen worship or roots for witchcraft or what else connects to heathen customs.)


NgL i: 152. The Earliest Norwegian Laws, ed. by Larson, p. 251. 28  De eldste østlandske kristenrettene, ed. and trans. by Halvorsen and Rindal, p. 48. Translation mine. 29  De eldste østlandske kristenrettene, ed. and trans. by Halvorsen and Rindal, p. 74. Translation mine. 27 


Jan Ragnar Hagland

Shorter Version: AM 58, 4to E 45 Vm heiðin blot 45. 1. Engi madr skal trua a fin eda fordædoskap. blot. eda rot. eda þet sem til heidins doms væit.30 (No man shall believe in Finns or sorcery or charms or heathen worship or roots for witchcraft or what else belongs to heathen customs.)

The Manu­script AM 77c, 4to E. 45.1. Engi skal trua a fin. Eda fordædoskap. Blot eda rot. Eda þet sem til hæidins doms væit.31 (No man shall believe in Finns or sorcery or charms or heathen worship or roots for witchcraft or what else belongs to heathen customs.)

The Borgarthing law — Older Version: 2. Holm 28, 4to B 16. 9. A Gud skullu aller menn trua en ængi a bolfuan eda blotskap. En ef madr verdr at þui sannr, at han fær medr hæidin blot, þau er firirboden ero at bokmale. þa er han sæckr .iii. morkum.32 (All men shall believe in God and not in evil evocations or heathen worship. If it is established that a man practices heathen worship forbidden in the Latin language, then he is guilty of three marks.)


De eldste østlandske kristenrettene, ed. and trans. by Halvorsen and Rindal, p. 94. Translation mine. 31  De eldste østlandske kristenrettene, ed. and trans.  by Halvorsen and Rindal, p.  114. Translation mine. 32  De eldste østlandske kristenrettene, ed. and trans.  by Halvorsen and Rindal, p.  213. Translation mine.

The Troll and Old Norwegian‑Icelandic Law


Works Cited Primary Sources The Earliest Norwegian Laws: Being the Gulathing Law and the Frostathing Law, ed. by Laurence M. Larson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935; repr. Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 2008) Den eldre Gulatingslova, ed.  by Bjørn Eithun, Magnus Rindal, and Tor Ulset, Norrøne tekster, 6 (Oslo: Riksarkivet 1994) De eldste østlandske kristenrettene, ed. and trans. by Eyvind Fjeld Halvorsen and Magnus Rindal, Norrøne tekster, 7 (Oslo: Riksarkivet, 2008) Frostatingslova, ed. and trans. by Jan Ragnar Hagland and Jørn Sandnes (Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget, 1994) Hertzberg, Ebbe, Glossarium, in Norges gamle Love indtil 1387, v: Supplement til foregaaende bind, glossarium med registre, ed. by Gustav Storm and Ebbe Hertzberg (Oslo: Gröndahl, 1895), pp. 57–834 Grágás efter det Arnamagnæanske Handskrift Nr. 334 fol., Staðarholtsbók, ed. by Vilhjálmur Finsen (Copen­hagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1879; repr. Odense: Odense Uni­ versitetsforlag, 1974) Járnsíða og Kristinréttur Árna Þorlákssonar, ed.  by Haraldur Bernharðsson, Magnus Lyngdal Magnússon, and Már Jónsson (Rey­kja­vík: Sögufélag Íslands, 2005) Jónsbók: Lögbók Íslendinga, ed. by Már Jónsson (Rey­kja­vík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2004) NgL = Norges gamle Love indtil 1387, ed. by Rudolph Keyser and others, 5 vols (Oslo: Gröndahl, 1846–95)

Secondary Works Cleasby, Richard, and Guðbrandur Vígfusson, An Icelandic–English Dictionary, 2nd edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962) Fritzner, Johan, ‘Lappernes Hedenskab og Troldomskunst sammenholdt med andre Folks, især Nordmendenes, Tro og Overtro’, Historisk Tidsskrift, 4 (1877), 135–217 Gísli Sigurðsson, ‘“Ein sat hún úti…”: Leitar Óðinn þekkingar hjá völvunni eða opnast henni sýn fyrir tilstilli Óðins?’, in Heiðin minni: Greinar um fornar bókmenntir, ed. by Haraldur Bessason and Baldur Hafstað (Rey­kja­vík: Háskólaforlag Máls og menningar, 1999), pp. 209–19 —— , ‘“Ein sat hún úti…”: Søger Odin viden hos volven i Voluspå — eller fik hun sin viden hos Odin?’, Tradisjon, 2–1 (2000–2001), 3–13. Lindow, John, Trolls: An Unnatural History (London: Reaktion, 2014) Rowe, Elizabeth Ashman, ‘Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts, Helga þáttr Þórissonar, and the Con­ version Þættir’, Scandinavian Studies, 76 (2004), 459–74

Between a Rock and a Soft Place: The Materiality of Old Norse Dwarves and Paranormal Ecologies in Fornaldarsögur Miriam Mayburd

O 1 


ver the past several decades, the scholarship on Old Norse dvergar has been moving away from a search of origins1 towards tracing their conceptual evolution in Scandinavian and Germanic folklore,2 and

See Motz, ‘Of Elves and Dwarfs’, The Wise One of the Mountain, and ‘The Host of Dva-


Liberman, ‘What Happened to Female Dwarfs?’; Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’; Schäfke, ‘Was ist eigentlich ein Zwerg?’. Abstract: This article proposes that the vagueness and ambiguity of dvergar as portrayed in Old Norse sourses is valuable in itself for understanding their presence in medi­e val Scandinavian imagination. One feature of dvergar that remains consistent throughout the sources is their perceived corporeality and inhabiting stones, their presence carrying over into natural environment of which they are a part. Bringing these observations in dialogue with recently posited anthropo­logical reassessments of materiality and landscape phenomeno­logy, I interpret dvergar-crafted objects in fornaldarsögur not as inert props but as mutable entities comprising of materials sourced from natural environment. Environmental otherness thus trickles into human midst by means of such objects. I take this beyond the text and attempt to situate it within cognitive space of premodern audiences among whom such narratives circulated. The article argues that saga depictions of dvergar and their ambiguous links with what they craft spills into late medi­e val perceptions of physical matter and crafted objects overall that need not be made by dvergar, highlighting underlying tensions in these interactions between human and nonhuman entities, and resonating with broader concerns in late medi­eval natural philosophical discourses as to what, indeed, may be considered human and where on the spectrum from inorganic to organic does life begin. Miriam Mayburd ([email protected]) is a PhD candidate at the University of Iceland and author of several articles on medi­eval Norse literature and cultural history. Her dissertation focuses on early medi­e val onto­logies of self-experience as mediated by textual depictions of paranormal phenomena in medi­eval Scandinavia.

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 189–214 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116086


Miriam Mayburd

also towards investigating their roles and functions within medi­e val Icelandic texts.3 However, the persistence of an iconic dwarf stereotype in post-medi­ eval imagination has proven a challenging, anachronistic factor to overcome, resulting in still-frequently encountered tendencies to interpret dvergar as a distinct group or race of mytho­logical beings with certain racial and classrelated features in need of being defined — at times ending up ‘humanizing’ them and losing sight of the otherness with which medi­e val narratives frequently imbue them. Such approaches are further compounded by the vagueness and lack of uniformity with which dvergar are portrayed in the sources, inviting an observation that their ambiguity may have been their most defining characteristic.4 Preoccupations with definitions, race features, and categories of paranormal beings may be illustrative of old, philo­logical tendencies to regard Old Norse literary sources as remnants of very distant and already vanishing memories of certain beliefs and cultural practices involving these beings, implying a stemmatic progression from pure and lost originals to corrupted and watereddown portrayals in post-conversion narratives. It is granted that late medi­eval Icelandic fornaldarsögur do not reflect actual pre-Christian beliefs and worldviews — which, buried as they are by time and dust, are doomed to remain unrecoverable — but to dismiss these sagas as derivatively lowbrow,5 or as fictitious and out of touch with reality,6 does little justice to their historically contextualized voices, for what they do convey with certainty are their own respective societies’ views, conceptions, and attitudes.7 It is these latter aspects that concern the present study. This essay takes the ambiguity of dvergar as a starting point and proposes that the uncertainty surrounding them is in itself valuable in terms of opening new, interpretative channels towards understanding their presence in late medi­e val Scandinavian imagination. Such a line of inquiry becomes possible only if we divorce ourselves from an anthropocentric approach to the paranormal, with its tendentious emphasis on taxonomies and personifications of 3 

Acker, ‘Dwarf Lore in Alvíssmál’; Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, ‘Groaning Dwarfs at Granite Doors’; Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Hole’; Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Enabling Love’; Barreiro, ‘Dvergar and the Dead’; Schäfke, ‘The Extorted Dwarf ’. 4  Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Hole’, p. 69. 5  Ker, Epic and Romance, p. 282. 6  Vésteinn Ólason, ‘The Fantastic Element in Fourteenth-Century Íslendingasögur’. 7  Orning, ‘The Magical Reality of the Late Middle Ages’.

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


otherworldly beings. While medi­e val Icelandic narratives do profusely and unequivocally personify dvergar, the question at the centre of this investigation is not concerned with their being but with their becoming. The issue I seek to address is not ‘what is a dwarf ’, but rather why — and how — do such personifications emerge? Why do these ambiguous dvergar congeal into the particular images they take in medi­eval minds, and why are they portrayed in these particular manners? Despite their vagueness, one consistent feature of dvergar throughout the sources is their perceived corporeality by virtue of their associations with stone. Yet, the very perception of the corporeality and imperturbability of stone is due to receive further scrutiny. Consideration will be paid to premodern conceptions of organic bodies and physical matter, as well as their emergent ramifications for supernatural beings associated with them. The vulnerability of dvergar to sunlight need not imply their turning into the boulders, which they inhabit: it is enough to know that it triggers some kind of change in their status quo. Dvergar, then, despite their physicality, are not fixed, definite entities but mutable under certain conditions, ‘others’ who are themselves prone to alteration. I suggest that this dynamic mutability is a feature they share with physical matter itself. Physical matter is not inert but prone to undergoing change, whether within the natural environment or through direct manipulation. Bringing these observations into dialogue with recently posited anthropo­ logical reassessments of materiality and landscape phenomeno­logy, I interpret dvergar-crafted objects in fornaldarsögur not as inert props but as comprising of materials that are sourced from the environment: a connection more apparent in the medi­e val context than within modern mass-consumerism milieux. Environmental otherness thus trickles into the human sphere by means of such objects. I take this beyond the text and endeavour to situate it within the cognitive space of premodern audiences among whom such narratives circulated. This essay is thus as much about medi­eval perceptions of stones and minerals as it is about dwarves, arguing that the developing conceptualizations of physical matter in the late Middle Ages contributed to shaping the portrayals of dwarves in literature and folklore of the period. The aim is to question discursive boundaries of what has conventionally been delineated as the ‘supernatural’ in saga scholarship, with its emphasis on classification of otherworldly beings. I suggest that paranormal encounters in premodern cognitive experience hinge rather on obscurity and the lack of such delineations, leaking into the familiar everyday and destabilizing it.


Miriam Mayburd

Leaving Stones Unturned The earliest depictions of dvergar in Old Norse sources involve their inhabiting rocks and boulders, thus linking them to the physical environment in which they are situated. The oldest extant Old Norse mention of a dvergr appears in the skaldic poem Ynglingatál by Þjóðólfr ór Hvíni, dated to the ninth century. In it, a dwarf tricks King Sveigðir into following him into a rock. The king jumps into the stone, whereupon the inside of the rock is described as a shining hall (salr bjartr), which swallows him.8 Seemingly lured into it by this mysterious shining, the king disappears and is never seen again. The stanza paints the dwarves’ association with boulders in a sinister tone and also illustrates the fluidity of boundaries between the familiar everyday and the ominous otherness in the natural topo­graphy of medi­eval landscape. The Eddic poem Völuspá refers to dvergar as ‘veggbergs vísir’ (wise ones of the rock-wall), solidifying their intimate familiarity with mineral substances of the earth.9 The poem also features a section devoted to names and origins of dvergar, which, despite being sometimes regarded as an interpolation into the original text,10 does nevertheless remain consistent with dwarves’ physicalenvironmental connotations. In it, the first dvergar are said to have made other dvergar from the earth (‘gørðu dvergar ór jǫrðu’), thereby further affirming their lithic association.11 In the long catalogue of dvergar names that follow, 8 

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla i, ed. by Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson, p. 28. Völuspá, st. 50, in Eddukvæði, ed. by Jónas Kristjánsson and Vésteinn Ólason, p. 304. 10  The Poetic Edda, ed. and trans. by Dronke, p. 122. 11  Völuspá, st. 10, in The Poetic Edda, ed. and trans. by Dronke, p. 294. This line is from the oldest version of Völuspá included in Codex Regius (c. 1270), referring to a pair of dwarves (Mótsognir and Durinn) shaping many anthropomorphic figures (mannlíkun) from earth. The slight variation of this phrase in the Hauksbók version of Völuspá (c. 1305) — ‘gørðu dverga í jǫrðu’ (see The Poetic Edda, ed. and trans. by Dronke, p. 309) — has led to some interpretative differences of whether these dwarves of earth (or in the earth) are the figures being made, or the makers themselves. Hollander (The Poetic Edda, p. 322) and Dronke (The Poetic Edda, p. 9) read this as referring to dwarves making unspecified figures in the earth, while Larrington (The Poetic Edda, p. 5) and Orchard (The Elder Edda, p. 6) suggest dwarves from the earth are the figures. On the merit of the previous stanza heralding more dwarves about to be created, it is certainly sound to interpret this passage in reference to dwarves being made, whether or not the figures are specified: the catalogue of dwarf names (Dvergatál) immediately following this passage is a specification in itself. It is worthy of note that some of the more imaginative interpretations of this line go as far as to link the dwarf-made anthropomorphic figures to the protohuman Askr and Embla, who do not appear until stanza 17 — predicating that only Dvergatál 9 

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


there are at the near top of the list four names corresponding to the world’s four directions (Norðri, Suðri, Austri, and Vestri),12 prompting Snorri Sturluson in his thirteenth-century Snorra-Edda to interpret these four dvergar as tasked with upholding the sky.13 As has been noted by Terry Gunnell, medi­e val Icelandic longhouses contained small blocks of wood standing on rafters and supporting the roof ’s main beam, and these blocks were actually referred to as dvergar.14 This further underlines the medi­eval association of dwarves with physical and ordered space. Their association with the physical structure of the ordered world appears so innate that one of the omens of Ragnarök approaching involves dvergar being unable to re-enter their gates. They are depicted as groaning by their halls’ doors (‘stynja dvergar fyr steindurum’), suggestively caught in an eerie passivity preventing them from entering, or emerging from, their rocks at this decisive and climactic time. Disoriented amid chaos and confusion, it is as though they are forcibly dislocated and uprooted from their natural position by this cataclysm. As the entire ordered world collapses, it is noteworthy that this dislocation of dvergar plays a vivid part in the cataclysm, adding to the chaos.15 Implicitly, dislocating dvergar from their native rocky environment might carry perilous associations in Old Norse imagination and be potentially fraught with disastrous consequences. Such associations of dwarves with stones might, almost instinctively, prompt the modern audience to visualize an anthropomorphic creature inhabiting presumably hollow boulders as if they were houses. This image seems to be such a given that one may readily assume it was unequivocally the same for medi­eval audiences as well. On this note, it is opportune to draw attention to a text that turns the familiar conception of dwarves upside down. The text in question is Peri Didaxeon, an Old English medical compendium dated to the eleventh or twelfth century, containing recipes, remedies, and medical treatises translated from Latin. Although this falls outside the strictly Scandinavian geo­g raphic borders, it is valuable for broadening our understanding of how dwarves were envisioned in the medi­eval imagination. itself is a later interpolation and reading stanza 10 as detailing human origins; see Steinsland, ‘Antropogonimyten i Vǫluspá’; Tryggvi Gíslason, ‘hverr skyldi dverga dróttir skepia’. 12  Völuspa st. 11, in The Poetic Edda, ed. and trans. by Dronke, p. 294. 13  Gylfaginning ch. 8, in Snorri Sturluson, Edda, ed. by Faulkes, p. 12. 14  Gunnell, ‘Hof, Halls, Goðar and Dwarves’, p. 21. 15  Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, ‘Groaning Dwarfs at Granite Doors’, p. 44.


Miriam Mayburd

Peri Didaxeon contains a description of individuals suffering from shortness of breath and coughing: possibly symptoms of asthma or bronchitis. The original Latin phrase is ‘interdum et febriunt’ (sometimes they are feverish) but the Anglo-Saxon scribe renders this phrase into his own language as ‘Hwire he riþaþ swilce he on dweorge sy’ (at times he shakes as if from a dwarf ).16 The attribution of these disease symptoms not to fever but to a dwarf, is made all the more striking due to the existence of the Old English word fefor to denote ‘fever’. Indeed, in Old English texts, the Latin febris (fever) is glossed as fefor.17 The text’s usage of dweorge in this context takes on a deliberate air of significance, as if attributing the origin of shaking to a dwarf is meant to be selfexplanatory to a contemporary audience. A new spectrum of semantic connections opens up in the wake of such comparison. It ominously ties dwarves to illness and links them with infection and malign contamination of the human body, depicted here as an unwholesome, paranormal invasion into the human organism. This begs comparison with the Old English ælfe as similarly ambiguous agents of disease against which numerous medicinal warding charms were composed.18 Nor is this the only textual occurrence linking dwarves to infection. There are four extant Old English charms containing a remedy on how to ward off a dweorg.19 For all the on-going debates on relationships and contrasts between dvergar and álfar (and not least dweorgas and ælfe) in medi­eval literatures and mytho­logies of the North,20 the present medicinal treatise implies that dwarves and elves, within this context, might have been similarly perceived as malign and ambiguous supernatural agents of disease and threats to human well-being. Contact with such unwholesome entities was believed to trigger a series of bodily side effects, leading to contamination and infection.21 16 

Peri Didaxeon, ed. by Löweneck, p. 31; trans. in Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, p. 34. 17  Peri Didaxeon, ed. by Löweneck, p. 31; trans. in Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, p. 34. 18  Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 96–119. 19  Discussed in greater depth in Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, pp. 33–35; see also Shaw, ‘The Manu­script Texts’. 20  A thorough discussion of the terms dvergar and álfar is beyond the scope of this article, but cf. Motz, ‘Of Elves and Dwarfs’; Gunnell, ‘How Elvish were the Álfar?’; Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, pp. 70–71; Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Extreme Emotional Life of Völundr the Elf ’, p. 236; Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 32–34. 21  Hall, ‘“Þur Sarriþu Þursa Trutin”’.

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


Just what kind of unwholesome entities are these dwarves? Might they be related conceptually to some form of nature spirits, along the lines of landvættir, who inhabit certain areas in the natural landscape and who bring harmful consequences if disturbed? If dwarves are harmful supernatural agents from the environment, could they be likened to a virus, or perhaps even bacteria — can dwarves be ingested or absorbed? Such questions take us further away from an image of anthropomorphic creatures, instead suggesting an ominous ambiguity — yet their perceived physicality and rootedness in the concrete, ordered, physical makeup of the world in Old Norse sources remains intact. It bears pointing out that such an occurrence of dwarves in a medical text implies that they were capable of exercising an imaginary presence outside of mere literature and fable. What we have here are depictions of very real dangers of the everyday physical environment, portrayed in paranormal terms. Given the suddenly physical dimension that the supernatural agency assumes under this interpretation alongside its perceived inseparability from natural phenomena and topo­graphic features of the landscape — such as the rocks that dwarves were depicted as inhabiting — the much-attested property of the supernatural to alter and ‘otherize’ those who come into contact with it gains all the more alacrity and unease.22 Instead of being relegated to an Otherworld or spirit matter, the threat of this supernatural contamination takes on a very physical presence in the medi­e val day to day existence. In effect, the natural, physical medi­eval landscape becomes a zone of supernatural radiation, too much ‘exposure’ to which spells perilous consequences for those affected. The ambiguous materiality of dwarves underlies the extreme confusion and unsettling nature of the physical environment itself — in which there are no boundaries between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ levels and in which these levels are indeed one and the same. Having broached the subject of paranormal contagion, it may come as no surprise that rocks and stones were in medi­e val Europe perceived as potent and capable of exercising environmental impacts of their own. In the widely circulated mineralogical treatises known as lapidaries, rocks and stones in the Middle Ages became ‘a recognizable place to test where the material world ended and the immaterial began’. 23 These lapidaries, or ‘lithic narratives’, 22 

For recent discussions interpreting human contact with the supernatural (in Scandinavian sources) as a gradual mutation into vague and dangerous otherness, cf. Stark, The Magical Self; Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Trollish Acts of Þórgrímr the Witch’ and ‘The Taxonomy of the Non-Existent’; Mayburd, ‘“Helzt þóttumk nú heima í millim…”’ and ‘The Hills Have Eyes’. 23  Robertson, ‘Exemplary Rocks’, p. 95.


Miriam Mayburd

detailed the properties of various stones, attributing to them the capacity to act and exert influence over different environmental and human conditions.24 The most widely regarded aspect ascribed to stones was their healing power, and lapidaries generally recommended them for their curative properties in alleviating pain as well as enhancing happiness and well-being.25 In the writings of medi­e val natural philosophers, stones were regarded as combinations of two elements — earth and water — whose incessant collaboration propels them into motile life. Jeffrey Cohen notes that stones in the lapidaries ‘are rarely found in a solitary or unsociable state, but are forever seeking alliance with organic bodies to spring into expanded agency’.26 In other words, the stones’ potencies and powers manifest in the world precisely via the stones’ relations to, and effects upon, other beings. The stones, as it were, ‘need’ other beings in order to express themselves, just as other beings (the human audience of these texts) can make avail of the stones’ properties and powers for their own needs. The prevalent fascination with mineral powers (both for the writers of lapidaries and for their audiences) as well as the rocks’ entanglement in concerns over health and well-being is illustrative of a perceived vulnerability of the human condition and of a nonanthropocentric awareness of shared participatory immersion into the world with ‘other’ entities, capable of acting and being acted upon. Symptomatic of this eco­logical sensibility, medi­e val lapidaries may be regarded as efforts to establish symbiotic relationships between the human and non-human agents in their shared environment in order to mitigate the myriad dangers to human health and welfare that the same ambivalent environment is also quite adept at conjuring. Yet the perceived dynamic vibrancy of stones did not stop at their ability to act upon the world. Even the stones’ powers and potencies were themselves subject to fluctuation — and even termination. As noted by the thirteenthcentury German theo­logian Albertus Magnus in his mineral treatise De mineralibus, ‘the specific form of individual stones is mortal, just as men are; and if [stones] are kept for a long time, away from the place where they are produced, they are destroyed’.27 Although Albertus drew upon the studies of established 24 

Cohen, ‘Stories of Stone’, p. 60. Robertson, ‘Exemplary Rocks’, p. 96; Riddle and Mulholland, ‘Albert on Stones and Minerals’, p. 209. 26  Cohen, ‘Stories of Stone’, p. 59. 27  Albertus Magnus, Book of Minerals, ed. and trans. by Wyckoff, p. 66. The original Latin 25 

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


authorities already in wide circulation — such as Marbode of Rennes’s eleventhcentury De lapidibus28 — his own work stands out for being notably empirical and even ethno­graphic. His mineral research included travelling widely across Europe, visiting mines as well as consulting with alchemists to obtain valuable first-hand, professional perspectives on ores and metals.29 Albertus’s De mineralibus, then, may be considered a distillation and a synthesis of broader thirteenth-century European conceptualizations of properties and behaviours of rocks, metals, and other mineral substances. Remarkably, medi­e val stones thus emerge as potentially unstable, fragile, and even mortal entities, in stark contrast to the inert, impenetrable, and imperturbable images they suggest to the modern mind. But what ramifications may such medi­eval attitudes to stones hold for the paranormal beings who are imagined to dwell in them? How might the perceptions of rocks as dynamic, active, yet perishable impact the depictions of dwarves? At this juncture, the dwarves’ much-alluded-to fear of exposure to the sun is worthy of further scrutiny. It bears remembering that medi­e val sources are never explicit as to what actually happens to dwarves caught in daylight. This ambiguity has perplexingly led some dwarfo­logists to perpetuate an assumption that Old Norse dvergar turn to stone when exposed to the sun30 — an assumption which has seldom, if ever, been questioned, despite the lack of Old Norse textual evidence of this actually taking place. The textual basis for this assumption is the frequently cited incident in the Eddic poem Alvíssmál, where Þórr engages the dwarf Alvíss in a battle of wits and trickily distracts him into losing track of time until sunlight arrives. But this poem neither depicts nor implies an actual metamorphosis of the dwarf into stone. Þórr simply informs Álvíss at the end of the poem that he is being ‘dawned on’ now that the sun is shining in the hall (‘uppi ertu, dvergr, um dagaðr, nú skínn sól í sali’).31 The actual consequences of this exposure are left undescribed. reads: ‘lapidum species ad individua quodammodo esse mortalia, sicut et homines, et extra loca generationis suae diu contenti corrumpuntur, et non nisi aequivoce retinent nomen specie’; see Alberti Magni opera omnia, ed. by Borgnet and Borgnet, xxix, ii.i.4). For a detailed analysis of Albertus Magnus’s mineralogical treatise in historical context, see Riddle and Mulholland, ‘Albert on Stones and Minerals’. 28  Marbode of Rennes, De lapidibus, ed. by Riddle. 29  Riddle and Mulholland, ‘Albert on Stones and Minerals’, p. 216. 30  Acker, ‘Dwarf Lore in Alvíssmál’; Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Hole’, pp. 62–64, and ‘Enabling Love’, p. 193; Barreiro, ‘Dvergar and the Dead’, p. 7. 31  Alvíssmál st. 35, in Eddukvæði, ed. by Jónas Kristjánsson and Vésteinn Ólason, p. 443.


Miriam Mayburd

We do know from other Old Norse sources of dwarves’ tendency to shun the light of day. In the above-considered skaldic poem Ynglingatal, the dwarf is called dagskjarr (day-shy),32 while the poem Alvíssmál states that dwarves refer to the sun as Dvalins leika (deceiver of Dvalinn), implying an inhospitable attitude towards it as well as the potential fear that it may catch them unaware.33 An explicit transformation into stone due to sunlight does befall one giantess in the Eddic poem Helgakvíða Hjörvarðssonar and several trolls in Grettis saga — but as for the actual implications of dwarves’ exposure to the sun, we are left in the dark. Despite never explicitly mentioning what happens to dwarves when they are exposed to sunlight, the implication clearly is that it is something adverse, to be avoided at all costs. Their vulnerability to light need not imply their turning to stone: it is enough to know that it triggers some kind of change in their status quo, evidently undesirable and suggestively fatal. Indeed, the interpretation of their dreaded avoidance of daylight as a fear of being turned to stone is rather problematic given the dwarves’ thoroughly attested connection to, and affinity with, their stones. The dwarves’ aversion to sunlight appears, rather, to be motivated by their fear of being separated from their stone in general, of being pressured outside of their native rock. It may not be the daylight specifically they fear but the exposure it brings, the vulnerability and diminishment of their powers. If stone is the location of a dwarf ’s power and potency,34 to be deprived of it is a perilous crisis indeed (might it be said that they become ‘petrified’?). This fear of separation from their stones seems to have been a recognizable dvergar-trait for medi­e val Icelandic audiences since it figures in multiple fornaldarsögur and riddarasögur. This recurring motif of the so-called ‘extorted The English translation of this poem by Taylor and Auden (The Elder Edda: A Selection, p. 83) rather oversteps the creative boundaries, doing its popular audience no justice, in ‘translating’ these lines as ‘dawn has broken, dwarf, stiffen now to stone’, more than likely playing a large part in proliferating this notion. 32  Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla i, ed. by Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson, p. 28. 33  Alvíssmál st. 16, in Eddukvæði, ed. by Jónas Kristjánsson and Vésteinn Ólason, p. 440. Even this, however, is subject to debate. The translation of Dvalins leika, as with many other phrases in Eddic poetry, offers a creative range of interpretative possibilities inevitably influenced by the critical perspective assumed by the reader. Thus, while this phrase suggests to Acker (‘Dwarf Lore in Alvíssmál’) an implication of doom and deceit, Motz (‘The Host of Dvalinn’, p. 83) sees in it a more benign reflection of the Eddic dwarves’ cosmic connections (translating the phrase in question as ‘friend of Dvalinn’). 34  Motz, ‘The Host of Dvalinn’, p. 85.

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


dwarf ’35 consists of the human protagonist forcibly preventing a dvergr from re-entering his stone in order to obtain some supernatural aid from him, often in the shape of a magic sword crafted by the dwarf in question — cashing in on the dwarf ’s urgency to get back into the stone.36 Explicit in such narrative depictions is the emphasis on the stone as an object of dwarves’ urgency and desperation: the frequently recurring formulaic pattern of ‘vígja útan steins’ (banishing [separating the dwarf ] out of stone) attests to this.37 The cause of the dwarf ’s distress and his motivation to seek a bargain is ascribed to not wanting to ‘missa steininn’ (lose his stone).38 Apart from mere possessiveness, there is an inherent sense of protectiveness and concern for the stone. It is the urge to get back into the stone that prompts the dwarf to acquiesce to the saga hero’s demands of aid or magic items. In the non-hostile ‘grateful dwarf ’ encounters, the stone is still featured prominently as an integral part of such scenes, dvergar being portrayed as going in and out of their rocks. Everything points back to stone itself and to its perceived potency: a dwarf is nothing without his stone.

Organic Matters In light of the attachment of dwarves to their stones, the stone emerges as part of the same organism: an eco­logical and cognitive extension of the dvergr. Just like their stones, so dvergar themselves might not always be perceived as fixed definite entities, but depicted as mutable and even perishable under certain conditions. Vis-à-vis humans, dvergar are the ‘others’, yet they are not secure in their otherness but are susceptible to even further alteration. They are so 35 

Schäfke, ‘The Extorted Dwarf ’. For a detailed analysis of the motif of the extorted dwarf in saga literature, including the collection of all the textual instances of it, see the recent study by Schäfke (‘The Extorted Dwarf ’, esp. p. 183), which makes the point that the high conventionality of this motif in saga narratives presupposes audience familiarity with it: ‘there is hardly a single instantiation of the motif that can be understood without already knowing it’. 37  The formula using these words, with slight grammatical permutations, occurs in four sagas of the extant corpus: Áns saga bogsveigis, ed. by Rafn, p. 327; Hervarar saga, ed. by Jón Helgason, pp. 2–3, Nítíða saga, ed. and trans. by McDonald, p. 134; Samsons saga fagra, ed. by Wilson, pp. 21–22. Additionally, a similar phrase of coming ‘i millum dvergs ok steinsins’ (between the dwarf and his stone) occurs in Mágus saga jarls; see Fornsögur sudrlanda: ed. by Cederschiöld, p. 24. 38  This phrase, as an expression of the dwarf ’s concern over the potential loss of his stone, occurs in Nítíða saga (ed. and trans. by McDonald, p. 134) and Samsons saga fagra (ed. by Wilson, pp. 21–22). 36 


Miriam Mayburd

integral to the paranormal eco­logy of the natural physical environment that it may be for this very reason they came to be associated with the transformation of natural materials into treasures and magic objects by means of craftsmanship and artifice. Dwarves dwell in rocks and — like the ore, minerals, and gems — they have to be extracted from their rocks by human characters in fornaldarsögur in order to get from them what is wanted. This dynamic mutability of dwarves is a feature they share with physical matter itself. Physical matter is not inert but prone to undergoing changes, whether within the natural environment or through direct manipulation. Likening dwarves to physical matter may seem to be at odds with their depictions in fornaldarsögur as skilled metalsmiths who craft legendary weapons and other wondrous items, but it would not be at odds once the focus is shifted away from the inert and static materiality of physical matter towards the dynamic nature of materials out of which physical matter is comprised. I intentionally juxtapose materiality and materials as being conceptually incompatible. Materiality only refers to the state of being a material, a passive condition rendering an object tangible. In modern connotation it has come to denote some stable, imperturbable reality, arising out of the mental-versusphysical divide.39 Theorists of material culture tend to inadvertently dematerialize the very objects being studied, too often regarding them as vessels of symbolic meanings or as concepts loaded with semantic associations.40 The very definition of the term artefact implies a pre-existing object that has already taken form out of materials being used to fashion it. Ironically, these objects, for the most part, have come to eclipse the very same materials out of which they were fashioned. Discussions of materials themselves not infrequently lean towards describing them as ‘raw’ and unrefined, implying that they achieve optimum state only when they are turned into a ‘finished’ piece by some artisan: yet ‘by the time they have congealed into objects, they have already disappeared’.41 A similar turn may be noted in Old Norse saga scholarship when it comes to crafted objects mentioned in the texts: there is a tendency to ‘abstractalize’ them and turn them into symbols and literary motifs, thus distancing them from the perceived tangible presence these objects exercised for the texts’ audiences.42 39 

Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 58. Ingold, Being Alive, p. 23. 41  Ingold, Being Alive, p. 26. 42  The dwarf-crafted sword Tyrfingr from Hervarar saga has been regarded as little else than ‘emblematic of fallen patriarchy’ (Layher, ‘Caught Between Worlds’, pp. 196–97), while a 40 

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


In a recently posited anthropo­logical reassessment of materiality and landscape phenomeno­logy, Tim Ingold notes that ‘human beings do not exist on the ‘other side’ of materiality’ but ‘swim in an ocean of materials’. This existence is an immersive and ongoing ‘flux in which materials of most diverse kinds’ — both organic and inorganic — ‘undergo continual generation and transformation’.43 Far from being inert, objects are dynamic and ‘alive’ precisely due to transformations their materials have undergone to give them shape. These transformations and dynamic processes have not ended with the object’s creation, but remain ongoing throughout the object’s existence. The materials that make up an object will continue to respond and react to various environmental stimuli in various ways according to the materials’ properties, ‘forever threatening the things they comprise with dissolution or even “dematerialization”’.44 Iron can corrode if left exposed to the elements and untended for too long, while wood can splinter, parchment can deteriorate, and a stone can visibly change its surface appearance due to different weather conditions. Stripping away the veil of materiality allows us to perceive crafted objects as ‘hives of activity’ which are never still, ‘pulsing with the flows of materials that keep them alive’.45 Thus, the ‘supernatural’ aspect of the Old Norse imagined environment fuses with the ‘natural’ — indeed, becoming inseparable from it. That certain features in natural topo­graphy were perceived as inhabited by paranormal entities or were attributed a dynamic vitality of their own need not be dismissed as mere literary motifs or as primitive animistic notions. The natural physical environment, with its materials, as well as crafted objects born from that environment and fashioned out of those materials, may be perceived as dynamic organisms due precisely to the unstable and mutable nature of physical matter itself. Following along this phenomeno­logical strand, the world’s lived-in physical environment emerges as not merely existing but continuously unfolding.46 notch in the blade of the magic sword Sköfnungr in Kormáks saga has been read to signify ‘sexual dysfunction’ of the latter saga’s eponymous protagonist (Sayers, ‘Sexual Identity’, p. 145). In a notable departure from purely literary-textual interpretations, Einarson’s recent study of Völundarkvíða (‘Artisanal Revenge in Völundarkvíða’) stands out in paying careful attention to the material aspects of Völundr’s artisan creations, placing them in the archaeo­logical context of early medi­eval Scandinavia and expanding the poem’s interpretative possibilities yielded by this interdisciplinary perspective. 43  Ingold, Being Alive, p. 24. 44  Ingold, Being Alive, p. 26. 45  Ingold Being Alive, p. 29. 46  Tilley, The Materiality of Stone; Ingold, ‘Rethinking the Animate’, p. 14.


Miriam Mayburd

The experience of it is thus necessarily immersive and participatory. The world does not lie on the other side of some passive observer but is a shared ecosystem in which reality is experienced as a ‘context-bound meshwork of alliances that unites human and nonhuman agents’.47 As the medi­e val lapidaries show, the anthropocentric model of postEnlightenment sciences was quite alien to writers and audiences of these texts. Life, rather, was conceptualized as a spectrum encompassing both the organic and inorganic, human and non-human, with medi­e val scholastic debates in natural philosophy and alchemy revolving around the issue of where exactly on this spectrum sentience begins as well as how to account for the perceived dynamic vitalities of all matter.48 Although this cosmo­logical thinking is derived ultimately from Aristotelian theories of matter, this idea of the world’s holistic fullness (where everything is comprised of elements transmuting into each other) is a noted characteristic of late medi­eval mentalité.49 In this regard, the learned and the vernacular literary traditions were not at odds with one another. What the scholastics sought to theorize, the popular imaginations sought to narrate according to their own conventions and traditions. For all their differences, their literary products reflected, reacted to, and creatively played upon the shared participatory experience of ‘magical reality’50 that fills the world with the non-human agencies and vitalities of ‘vibrant matter’.51

Dvergsnáttúra and Mineral Powers The above considerations of organic matter and materials open up the possibility of reading the dwarf images in fornaldarsögur and riddarasögur as a confluence of these medi­eval mineral notions with the vernacular folkloric traditions. This is not at all meant to say that folkloric images of dwarves in the sagas ‘originate’ from lapidaries. To make such a claim is to deny saga literature a dynamic vibrancy of its own as it thrived and continuously reinvented itself 47 

Cohen, ‘Stories of Stone’, p. 61. Newman (‘Techno­logy and Alchemical Debate’, p. 425) defines medi­e val alchemy as the science of the elements themselves, while medi­eval natural philosophy is more preoccupied with entities that are formed out of the four elements. 49  Allen, ‘Mineral Virtue’, p. 150. 50  Orning, ‘The Magical Reality of the Late Middle Ages’. 51  Bennett, Vibrant Matter. 48 

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


in creative dialogues with its sources and the social concerns of its audiences.52 But the medi­eval perceptions of rocks as dynamic, mutable, and even susceptible to being destroyed if removed from their environment is likely to affect portrayals of paranormal beings associated with them. We are dealing here with the same historical time frame regarding both the proliferation of lapidaries on the continent and the emergence of indigenous romance literature in Iceland. Contemporaneously with the earliest extant versions of romance sagas (c. thirteenth to fifteenth centuries), these mineral notions were well in circulation in the learned discourses of medi­eval Europe. The influence of continental European courtly literature upon the romance tradition in Iceland is well attested. By this time Iceland was, furthermore, already fully integrated within the medi­eval Christian socio-cultural milieu.53 The dvergar of medi­e val Icelandic romance sagas, then, are no mere fossilized remnants from obscure Eddic myths whose original meaning was all but forgotten by the time the sagas came to be written, but flexible and readily adaptable to medi­e val perceptions and preoccupations with environmental matters.54 As has been frequently noted, the conventionality of the dvergar motifs in the sagas attests to audience familiarity with them.55 One characteristic feature of medi­eval Icelandic romance dwarves is that they mostly fulfil the role of helpers to saga heroes, being sought out for their supernatural skills and abilities.56 Some dwarves lend their aid grudgingly by being overpowered (the above-considered ‘extorted dwarf ’ motif ), while others offer it as repayment for a good turn done to them.57 The supernatural skills frequently attributed to them in Icelandic romances may be summed up by the dwarf Möndull from Göngu-Hrólfs saga as he unveils his true identity to the saga’s human protagonist: ‘ek er dvergr í jörðu byggjandi, 52 

Kalinke, Bridal-Quest Romance; Torfi Tulinius, The Matter of the North. Schlauch, Romance in Iceland; Wahlgren, The Maiden King; Kalinke, Bridal-Quest Romance. For an overview of dwarves in medi­eval German sources, see Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, pp. 50–67. 54  For a detailed assessment of Icelandic romance dwarves, see Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Enabling Love’, wherein attention is also given to their differences from mytho­logical, Eddic dvergar. 55  Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, p. 76; Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Enabling Love’, p. 185; Schäfke, ‘The Extorted Dwarf ’, p. 183. 56  Schlauch, Romance in Iceland, pp. 145–46; Schäfke, ‘The Extorted Dwarf ’, pp. 174–75. 57  For more on the ‘grateful dwarf ’ motif, see Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, pp. 44–46. 53 


Miriam Mayburd

ok dvergsnáttúru hefi ek á kynstrum til lækidóms ok hagleiks’ (I am a dwarf from under the earth and of dwarfish nature have I aplenty, for healing and craftsmanship).58 The usage of the term dvergsnáttúra implies that there existed a contemporary notion of what a ‘dwarf ’s nature’ might have been expected to involve. Paul Battles interprets this phrase as the very definition of this term, observing a causal link between the dwarf ’s dwelling in the earth and his aptitude for healing and craftsmanship.59 As it happens, when extant medi­e val Scandinavian, Old English, and German sources on dwarves are taken together, the one dwarf trait that is attested in all three of these traditions is not craftsmanship but their ability to influence human health.60 Yet both healing and craftsmanship, environmentparticipatory as they are, may in fact be semantically linked, going hand in hand as expressions of the same attribute — namely, control over the flow and movement of matter and natural elements under certain conditions, which is also the basis of alchemy.61 It is worth noting that medi­eval alchemy, in contrast to popular images of power-obsessed occultists, stresses sympathetic interconnectivity between human and material agents rather than mere mastery and domination of the latter by the former. Purification of ores and minerals in metallurgy invites such comparisons as well, prompting Albertus Magnus, in his De mineralibus, to remark that honest alchemists behave towards their metals as physicians do towards their patients.62 The material cause of metal was regarded 58 

Göngu-Hrólfs saga, ed. by Rafn, p. 308. For a study of Möndull as a character from a literary perspective, see Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Enabling Love’, pp. 186–89; for a broader analysis of other supernatural themes encountered in this saga, see Martin, ‘Hreggviðr’s Revenge’. 59  Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, p. 75. 60  Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, p. 74. Although a survey of medi­eval German sources on dwarves is beyond the scope of this article, it may be noted that their depictions bear many parallels to Icelandic romance dwarves, and the latter literature is certainly under considerable influence of the former. For an overview of dwarf sources in medi­eval German narratives, which includes Das Nibelungenlied, the Dietrich von Bern material, their related poems, as well as the minstrel epics (Spielmannsepos), see Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, pp. 50–67. For a structural analysis of the parallels between medi­eval German dwarves and saga dwarves, see Schäfke, ‘Deutsche und nordische Zwerge’. 61  Allen, ‘Mineral Virtue’, p. 127. 62  Albertus Magnus, Book of Minerals, ed. and trans. by Wyckoff, pp. 178–79; cit. no. 23. Newman (‘Techno­logy and Alchemical Debate’, p. 425) clarifies that medi­e val alchemy ‘was a perfectly reasonable and sober offshoot of Aristotle’s theory of matter’ and reminds the reader to ‘carefully distinguish medi­eval alchemy from the eclectic, Neoplatonic alchemy of the Renaissance, suffused with theosophy and cabalism’.

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


to be rock itself, whose adjacency to ore was interpreted as gradual evolution and gestation from the former state to the latter. Thus rock itself becomes a (pro)creating, symbiotic organism — a microcosm, an eco­logy unto itself — conjuring its in-dwelling metals into being and sustaining them.63 Despite conceptual entanglements in the Germanic legendary smith traditions,64 images of dvergar remained dynamic and quite adaptable to late medi­e val literary aesthetics, informed as these were by emerging scholastic theories of interpreting the natural world. In their capacity as skilled craftsmen and smiths, the romance saga dwarves may be said to refurbish medi­ eval Aristotelian-derived conceptualizations of the world’s holistic, elemental makeup in which all matter is susceptible to transmutation and metamorphosis. By virtue of the dwarves’ intimate connection to rocks, stones, and raw materials of the earth, their consequent power over natural matter comes as no surprise. Yet the source of this power and skill is not merely the accumulated knowledge of some occult lore (though dwarves can, indeed, be wise in such matters),65 but the dwarves’ rootedness in the physical, material makeup of earth itself. They are innately familiar with the properties of matter because they not only belong to this same eco­logy — í jörðu bygg jandi — but are themselves extensions of it, as they are extensions of what they craft. It is therefore to be expected that violently dislocating a dvergr from his native and intimate rock is liable to invite peril in the wake of the eco­logical disturbance that such action constitutes. When dvergar are forced into crafting magic items for their human oppressors — as befalls the two dwarves Dvalinn and Dulinn in Hervarar saga who are violently pressured by King Sigrlami to make him the magic sword Tyrfingr66 — the curse that the dvergar lay upon the sword may be regarded as a ripple effect of that eco­logical disturbance, which


Allen, ‘Mineral Virtue’, p. 145. For an extensive treatment of the Old Norse dwarves’ thematic connections to the mythic figure of the smith, see Motz, The Wise One of the Mountain. For a structural analysis of metallurgy in light of Iron Age cultic practices, see Dieterle, ‘The Metallurgical Code of Vőlundarkviða’, whose study, despite the now somewhat dated methodo­logy, offers a stimulating interpretation of Völundarkviða. 65  The dwarf Alvíss in his eponymous Eddic poem carried the connotation of wisdom in his very name — but, for all his power, he could not foresee his own demise. The mytho­logical dwarves in Eddic poems have received attention in their capacity as masters of cosmic lore: Motz, ‘The Host of Dvalinn’; Acker, ‘Dwarf Lore in Alvíssmál’. 66  Hervarar saga, ed. by Jón Helgason, p. 3, as per the older Hauksbók version of the saga. 64 


Miriam Mayburd

now passes into the weapon and governs its subsequent behaviour.67 Obtained in such a context, the magic item will echo the agitation, distress and malice of its makers, to which it was witness and out of which it took shape. Long after the dwarves have left the narrative, these ripple effects will continue spreading throughout the saga, affecting destinies and proving the doom of characters who had nothing to do with these dvergar, yet who are swept into the fallout of this eco­logical violation. Dwarf-human relations are governed by reciprocity, following along the established folktale formula regarding human encounters with otherworldly beings at large.68 Every action invites a corresponding reaction and how one treats another — or an ‘other’ — prompts a mirroring response. Such encounters, whether peaceful or confrontational, are fraught with environmental consequences — not least because the crafted objects involved may be said to be extensions of the dvergar themselves, arising out of their same material ecosystem.69

Paranormal Eco­logies Why were there no dwarves in medi­eval Iceland? Given the creative adaptations and developments of dvergar figures in romance sagas, and given the continuous audience interest in — and familiarity with — such narratives, the apparent absence of dvergar from the sagas’ native soil as well as from its regional folklore may well invite perplexity. There is no trace of dvergar in Íslendingasögur, whose narrative preoccupations with the everyday realities of farm life, family histories, and feuds have led some scholars to tag these sagas as ‘realistic’, thereby constructing the dichotomous term ‘fantastic’ to underline the perceived literary unreality of romance sagas.70 The absence of dvergar from the Icelandic scene has attracted much speculation, including a hypothesis that Icelandic

67  Tyrfingr is cursed with causing a death each time it is drawn and with being responsible for three despicable acts (níðingsverk); see Hervarar saga, ed. by Jón Helgason, p. 3. 68  Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Enabling Love’, p. 200. 69  For more on identity continuity and the personhood of artworks as extensions of their creators from the perspective of cognitive science, see Newman, Bartels, and Smith, ‘Are Artworks More Like People Than Artifacts?’. For more on crafted objects, most notably swords, as organic extensions of their material environment with their own personhood, see Gansum’s archaeo­logical study of forging techniques in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (‘Jernets fødsel og dødens stål’). 70  Vésteinn Ólason, ‘The Fantastic Element in Fourteenth-Century Íslendingasögur’.

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


belief in dwarves may not have survived the conversion to Christianity,71 and also an interpretation of Old Norse dvergar as beings who are ‘defined by their absence’ and whose disappearance is necessary to make way for humans.72 Yet to dismiss dvergar as absent from medi­eval Iceland may not be entirely accurate. Their tenacious presence in the imagination of saga audiences is evidence enough. They appear, albeit only in the kind of narratives whose plots can sustain the inclusion of magic weapons and legendary feats for which the dwarf ’s aid is sought out. In their capacity to transform raw materials of the earth into works of magic and wonder, it is they who enable heroic deeds in sagas to unfold through human protagonists’ use of these objects.73 This is of course only possible in fornaldarsögur and riddarasögur, which are occupied with such legendary or chivalric matters. Medi­eval Icelandic dvergar exist — in the minds of saga audiences — where magic weapons exist. In their capacity as supernatural craftsmen of exceptional mastery from whom can be obtained wondrous objects skilfully and cunningly made, dvergar do not feature in narratives taking place within Iceland due to the country’s material poverty in comparison to mainland Scandinavia and continental Europe, lacking metals and other natural resources for such narratives to realistically circulate and making the verisimilitude of such notions unfeasible.74 The European continent makes a fitting stage for dvergar saga narratives for the same reason: in the Íslendingasögur and medi­eval Icelandic historical chronicles, all renowned name-bearing swords (magical or not) wielded by Icelandic personages are originally obtained in Europe. Their fabled quality and exoticism, their scarcity in medi­e val Iceland and the long-distance ripple effects of the dwarves’ presence — far removed and yet persisting — may have contributed to a perception of such weapons themselves as potential agents of otherness, the materials of which are sourced from a paranormal environment and which are transmuted into these lethal shapes by arcane metallurgical processes. The ominous dvergar


Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, Um íslenzkar Þjóðsögur, p. 140, and The Folk-Stories of Iceland, p. 160. 72  Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Hole’, p. 69. 73  Wahlgren, The Maiden King, p. 46; Motz, The Wise One of the Mountain, p. 95; Schäfke, ‘The Extorted Dwarf ’, p. 182. 74  On the scarcity of natural resources in medi­e val Iceland, see Orri Vésteinsson, ‘The Archaeo­logy of Landnám’; Wärmländer and others, ‘Metallurgical Findings’. For a discussion on the verisimilitude of supernatural experience in medi­eval Icelandic literature, see Lindow, ‘Þórsteinn þáttr skelks’.


Miriam Mayburd

encountered in sagas are thus reflections of ‘a shimmering, potentially violent vitality intrinsic to [all] matter’.75 Dvergar might not inhabit the topo­g raphy of medi­e val Iceland, yet the abundance of rocky boulders and unusual lava formations in the Icelandic landscape invites its own narrations of paranormal encounters. Instead of dvergar, stone-dwelling trolls and various kinds of bergbúar rear their heads in Íslendingasögur whose plots unfold upon the Icelandic terrain, prompting the question of whether the oft-assumed sober reality of Íslendingasögur does, in fact, coincide with our own.76 The Old Norse dvergar, then, are capable of ‘blending’ into other beings depending on narrative needs, situational context, and natural topo­g raphy. These unclear category boundaries between dvergar and other paranormal denizens of the natural environment have attracted much critical attention,77 and a common origin for them has been posited as far as these beings’ agencies and powers are concerned.78 The artificiality of long-established and long-taken-for-granted taxonomies of paranormal entities thus stands exposed in the face of this fluid spectrum.79 What remains consistent in all of these varied depictions of paranormal phenomena is a premodern perception of reality ‘not as a way of believing about the world, but a condition of being in it’, demonstrating ‘a heightened sensitivity and responsiveness, in perception and action, to an environment that is always in flux, never the same from one moment to the next’.80 In this shared and participatory paranormal eco­logy of the medi­eval worldview, the familiar everyday environment itself emerges as other — where any stone acquires the potential to become a portal into otherness and any crafted item obtains the potential to be seen as an animate organism comprised of vital materials out of which it is fashioned. As agents of healing or disease, dvergar belong to an eco­logical meshwork of this vibrant matter — in which are also entangled álfar, 75 

Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 61. I discuss the rock-inhabiting and mountain-dwelling paranormal beings in the context of Iceland’s unique topo­graphical features in Mayburd, ‘The Hills Have Eyes’. 77  Motz, ‘Of Elves and Dwarfs’, and Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, pp. 70–71 on dvergar and álfar; Gould, ‘Dwarf-Names’, and Barreiro, ‘Dvergar and the Dead’, on dvergar and the dead; Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, The Folk-Stories of Iceland, pp. 160–61 on dvergar and landvættir. 78  Liberman, ‘What Happened to Female Dwarfs?’, p. 258; Battles, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature’, p. 71; Barreiro, ‘Dvergar and the Dead’, p. 11. 79  Ármann Jakobsson, ‘The Taxonomy of the Non-Existent’. 80  Ingold, Being Alive, p. 10. 76 

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


landvættir, everyday stones in the landscape, magic rocks from lapidaries, natural elements from scholastic treatises, objects crafted out of material resources, and still other non-human entities who act, react, and interact in a myriad of dynamic, fluctuating ways with each other and with humans who share this eco­logy with them. The paranormal, with its broader definition of ‘unexplainable’, may thus include phenomena that need not be explicitly ‘supernatural’, but nonetheless remain uncanny and unsettlingly other. The recent studies by Tilley, Ingold, Bennett, and Cohen demonstrate an emergent interest in anthropo­logy and critical theory to interrogate the Cartesian cognitive model that has dominated much of Western thought since the Enlightenment,81 binding materiality to inert substance and placing the organic and the inorganic on either side of a chasm.82 The increasingly popular focus on the agency of non-human forces, and indeed the very acceptance of such concepts in contemporary critical theory, attest to the relevance of retrospective interdisciplinary re-engagements with premodern mentalités.

81  Tilley, The Materiality of Stone; Ingold, Being Alive and ‘Rethinking the Animate’; Bennett, Vibrant Matter; Cohen, ‘Stories of Stone’, ‘Introduction: All Things’, and Stone: An Eco­ logy of the Inhuman. 82  Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 57.


Miriam Mayburd

Works Cited Primary Sources Albertus Magnus, Alberti Magni opera omnia, ed. by Auguste Borgnet and E. Borgnet, 38 vols (Paris: Vives, 1890–99) —— , Book of Minerals, ed. and trans.  by Dorothy Wyckoff (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967) Áns saga bogsveigis, in Fornaldar sögur Nordrlanda, ed.  by Carl  C. Rafn (Copen­hagen: Popp, 1829), ii, 323–62 Eddukvæði i: Goðakvæði, ed. by Jónas Kristjánsson and Vésteinn Ólason (Rey­kja­vík: Híð íslenzka fornritafélag, 2014) The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore, ed. and trans. by Andy Orchard (London: Penguin, 2011) The Elder Edda: A Selection, trans. by Paul B, Taylor and W. H. Auden (London: Random House, 1970) Fornsögur sudrlanda: Magus saga jarls, Konraðs saga, Bærings saga, Flovents saga, Bevers saga, ed. by Gustaf Cederschiöld (Lund: Berling, 1884) Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed.  by Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit, 7 (Rey­kja­vík: Híð íslenzka fornritafélag, 1936) Göngu-Hrólfs saga, in Fornaldar sögur Nordrlanda, ed.  by Carl  C. Rafn (Copen­hagen: Popp, 1830), iii, 235–364 Hervarar saga Heiðreks saga: Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks konungs, ed.  by Jón Helgason (Copen­hagen: Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur, 1924) Marbode of Rennes, De lapidibus, ed. by John M. Riddle, trans. by C. W. King (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1977) ‘Nítíða saga: A  Normalised Icelandic Text and Translation’, ed. and trans.  by Sheryl McDonald, Leeds Studies in English, 40 (2010), 119–45 Peri Didaxeon, eine Sammlung von Rezepten in englischer Sprache aus dem 11/12. Jahr­ hundert, ed. by Max Löweneck, Erlanger Beiträge zur englischen Philo­logie und vergleichenden Literaturgeschichte, 12 (Erlangen: Junge, 1896) The Poetic Edda, ed. and trans. by Lee M. Hollander (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962) The Poetic Edda, ed. and trans. by Carolyne Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) The Poetic Edda, ii: Mytho­logical Poems, ed. and trans. by Ursula Dronke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) Samsons saga fagra, ed. by John Wilson (Copen­hagen: Samfund til Udgivelse af Gammel Nordisk Litteratur, 1958) Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Pro­logue and Gylfaginning, ed.  by Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research 2003 —— , Heimskringla i, ed. by Bjarni Aðalbjarnarson, Íslenzk fornrit, 26 (Rey­kja­vík: Híð íslenzka fornritafélag, 1941)

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


Secondary Works Acker, Paul, ‘Dwarf Lore in Alvíssmál’, in The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mytho­logy, ed. by Paul Acker and Carolyne Larrington (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 213–27 Allen, Valerie, ‘Mineral Virtue’, in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Washington, DC: Oliphaunt, 2012), pp. 123–52 Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Enabling Love: Dwarfs in Old Norse-Icelandic Romances’, in Romance and Love in Late Medi­eval and Modern Early Iceland: Essays in Honor of Marianne Kalinke, ed.  by Johanna Denzin and Kirsten Wolf, Islandica, 54 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), pp. 183–206 —— , ‘The Extreme Emotional Life of Völundr the Elf ’, Scandinavian Studies, 78 (2006), 227–54 —— , ‘The Hole: Problems in Medi­eval Dwarfo­logy’, Arv, 61 (2005), 53–76 —— , ‘The Trollish Acts of Þórgrímr the Witch: The Meaning of Troll and Ergi in Medi­ eval Iceland’, Saga-Book, 32 (2008), 39–68 —— , ‘The Taxonomy of the Non-Existent: Some Medi­eval Icelandic Concepts of the Paranormal’, Fabula, 54 (2013), 199–213 Barreiro, Santiago, ‘Dvergar and the Dead’, Brathair, 8 (2008), 3–16 Battles, Paul, ‘Dwarfs in Germanic Literature: Deutsche Mytho­logie or Grimm’s Myths?’, in The Shadow-Walkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mytho­logy of the Monstrous, ed. by Tom Shippey, Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, 14 (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medi­eval and Renaissance Studies, 2005), pp. 29–82 Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A  Political Eco­logy of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ‘Introduction: All Things’, in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed.  by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Washington, DC: Oliphaunt, 2012), pp. 1–8 —— , Stone: An Eco­logy of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015) —— , ‘Stories of Stone’, Postmedi­eval: A Journal of Medi­eval Cultural Studies, 1 (2010), 56–63 Dieterle, Richard L., ‘The Metallurgical Code of Vőlundarkviða and its Theoretical Import’, History of Religions, 27 (1987), 1–31 Einar Ólafur  Sveinsson, The Folk-Stories of Iceland, ed.  by Anthony Faulkes, trans.  by Benedikt Benedikz, and rev. by Einar  G. Pétursson (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2003) —— , Um íslenzkar Þjóðsögur (Rey­kja­vík: Ísafold, 1940) Einarson, Leif, ‘Artisanal Revenge in Völundarkvíða: Völundr’s Creations in the Spatial Relations of the Poem’, Journal of English and Germanic Philo­logy, 114 (2015), 1–31 Gansum, Terje, ‘Jernets fødsel og dødens stål. Rituell bruk av bein’, in Minne och myt. Konsten att skapa det förflutna, ed. by Åsa Berggren, Stefan Arvidsson, and Ann-Mari Hållans, Vägar til Midgård, 5 (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2004), pp. 121–55


Miriam Mayburd

Gunnell, Terry, ‘Hof, Halls, Goðar and Dwarves: An Examination of the Ritual Space in the Pagan Icelandic Hall’, Cosmos, 17 (2001), 3–36 —— , ‘How Elvish were the Álfar?’, in Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Essays in Honour of T. A. Shippey, ed. by Andrew Wawn, Graham Johnson, and John Walter, Making the Middle Ages, 9 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), pp. 111–30 Gould, Chester Nathan, ‘Dwarf-Names: A Study in Old Icelandic Religion’, PMLA, 44 (1929), 939–67 Hall, Alaric, ‘Calling the Shots: The Old English Remedy gif hors ofscoten sie and AngloSaxon “elf-shot”’, Neuphilo­logische Mitteilungen: Bulletin of the Modern Language Society, 106 (2005), 195–209 —— , Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007) —— , ‘“Þur Sarriþu Þursa Trutin”: Monster-Fighting and Medicine in Early Medi­eval Scandinavia’, Asclepio: Revista de Historia de la Medicina y de la Ciencia, 61 (2009), 195–218 Ingold, Tim, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (London: Rout­ledge, 2011) —— , ‘Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought’, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropo­logy, 71 (2006), 9–20 Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, ‘Giants and Elves in Mytho­logy and Folktales’, in A Piece of Horse Liver: Myth, Ritual and Folklore in Old Icelandic Sources, ed. by Terry Gunnell, trans. by Joan Turville-Petre (Rey­kja­vík: Háskólaútgáfan, 1998), pp. 129–43 Kalinke, Marianne E., Bridal-Quest Romance in Medi­eval Iceland, Islandica, 46 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990) Kartschoke, Dieter, Geschichte der deutschen Literatur im frühen Mittelalter (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1990) Ker, W. P., Epic and Romance: Essays on Medi­eval Literature (London: Macmillan, 1908) Layher, William, ‘Caught Between Worlds: Gendering the Maiden Warrior in Old Norse’, in Women and Medi­eval Epic: Gender, Genre, and the limits of Epic Masculinity, ed.  by Sara  S. Poor and Jana  K. Schulman (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 1997), pp. 183–208 Liberman, Anatoly, ‘What Happened to Female Dwarfs?’, in Mytho­logical Women: Studies in Memory of Lotte Motz (1922–1997), ed. by Rudolf Simek and Wilhelm Heizmann (Wien: Fassbänder, 2002), pp. 257–63 Lindow, John, ‘Þórsteinn þáttr skelks and the Verisimilitude of Supernatural Experience in Saga Literature’, in Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature: New Approaches to Textual Analysis and Literary Criticism, ed. by John Lindow, Lars Lönnroth, and Gerd Wolfgang Weber (Odense: Odense University Press, 1986), pp. 264–80 Martin, John D., ‘Hreggviðr’s Revenge: Supernatural Forces in Göngu-Hrólfs saga’, Scandinavian Studies, 70 (1998), 313–24 Mayburd, Miriam, ‘“Helzt þóttumk nú heima í millim…”: A Reassessment of Hervör in Light of seiðr’s Supernatural Gender Dynamics’, Arkiv för nordisk filo­logi, 129 (2014), 121–64

Between a Rock and a Soft Place


—— , ‘The Hills Have Eyes: Post-Mortem Mountain Dwelling and the (Super)natural Landscapes in Íslendingasögur’, Viking and Medi­eval Scandinavia, 10 (2014), 88–104 Motz, Lotte, ‘The Host of Dvalinn: Thoughts on Some Dwarf-Names in Old Icelandic’, Collegium Medi­evale, 6 (1993), 81–96 —— , ‘Of Elves and Dwarfs’, Arv, 29–30 (1974), 93–127 —— , The Wise One of the Mountain: Form, Function, and Significance of the Subterranean Smith. A Study in Folklore, Göppinger Arbeiten zur Germanistik (Göppingen: Küm­ merle, 1983) Newman, George E., Daniel M. Bartels, and Rosanna K. Smith, ‘Are Artworks More Like People Than Artifacts? Individual Concepts and their Extensions’, Topics in Cognitive Science, 6 (2014), 647–62 Newman, William, ‘Techno­logy and Alchemical Debate in the Late Middle Ages’, Isis, 80 (1989), 423–45 Orning, Hans Jakob, ‘The Magical Reality of the Late Middle Ages: Exploring the World of the fornaldarsögur’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 35 (2010), 3–20 Orri Vésteinsson, ‘The Archaeo­logy of Landnám: Early Settlement in Iceland’, in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, ed. by William Fitzhugh and Elizabeth Ward (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), pp. 164–74 Riddle, John M., and James A. Mulholland, ‘Albert on Stones and Minerals’, in Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays, ed.  by J.  A. Weisheipl (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980), pp. 203–34 Robertson, Kellie, ‘Exemplary Rocks’, in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Washington, DC: Oliphaunt, 2012), pp. 91–122 Sayers, William, ‘Sexual Identity, Cultural Integrity, Verbal and Other Magic in Episodes from Laxdœla saga and Kórmaks saga’, Arkiv för nordisk filo­logi, 107 (1992), 131–55 Schäfke, Werner, ‘Deutsche und nordische Zwerge: ein Kulturtransfer?’ in Vermitteln — Übersetzen — Begegnen: Transferphänomene im europäischen Mittelalter und in der Frühen Neuzeit. Interdisciplinäre Annäherungen, ed. by Balázs J. Nemes and Achim Rabus (Göttingen: V & R Unipress, 2011), pp. 191–211 —— , ‘The Extorted Dwarf. Cognitive Motif Analysis and Literary Knowledge’, in Skemm­ tiligastar Lygisögur: Studies in Honour of Galina Glazyrina, ed. by Tatjana N. Jackson and Elena A. Melnikova (Moscow: Dmitriy Pozharsky University, 2012), pp. 153–88 —— , ‘Was ist eigentlich ein Zwerg? Eine prototypensemantische Figurenanalyse der dvergar in der Sagaliteratur’, Mediaevistik, 23 (2010), 197–299 Schlauch, Margaret, Romance in Iceland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934) Shaw, Philip A., ‘The Manu­script Texts of Against A Dwarf’, in Writing and Texts in AngloSaxon England, ed. by Alexander A. Rumble (Cam­bridge: Brewer, 2006), pp. 96–113 Stark, Laura, The Magical Self: Body, Society, and the Supernatural in Early Modern Rural Finland (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2006) Steinsland, Gro, ‘Antropogonimyten i Vǫluspá: En tekst- ok tradisjonskritisk analyse’, Arkiv för nordisk filo­logi, 98 (1983), 80–107 Tilley, Christopher, The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomeno­logy (Oxford: Berg, 2004)


Miriam Mayburd

Torfi  H. Tulinius, The Matter of the North: The Rise of Literary Fiction in ThirteenthCentury Iceland, trans. by Randi C. Eldevik (Odense: Odense University Press, 2002) Tryggvi Gíslason, ‘hverr skyldi dverga dróttir skepia’, in Festskrift til Ludvig Holm-Olsen på hans 70-årsdag den 9. juni 1984 (Øvre Ervik: Alvheim & Eide, 1984), pp. 84–88 Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, ‘Groaning Dwarfs at Granite Doors: Fieldwork in Völuspá’, Arkiv för nordisk filo­logi, 118 (2003), 29–45 Vésteinn Ólason, ‘The Fantastic Element in Fourteenth-Century Íslendingasögur: A Sur­ vey’, Gripla, 18 (2007), 7–22 Wahlgren, Erik, The Maiden King in Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Libraries, 1938) Wanner, Kevin, ‘The Giant Who Wanted to be a Dwarf: The Transgression of Mythic Norms in Þórr’s Fight with Geirrøðr’, Scandinavica, 40 (2001), 189–225 Wärmländer, Sebastian, and others, ‘Metallurgical Findings from a Viking Age Chieftain’s Farm in Iceland’, Journal of Archaeo­logical Science, 37 (2010), 2284–90

The Literary Reuse of Myths in Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns: A Key Elf Queen Legend and Another Twist on the Twist1 Eldar Heide 1 

This essay is a continuation of a discussion first started in Heide, Gand, seid og åndevind, pp. 222–33. Abstract: This essay presents a literary interpretation, both intertextual and non-intertextual, of the Icelandic, high medi­e val saga Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns. This saga is known for its extensive reuse of myths, especially about Þórr and his encounter with the giants ÚtgarðaLoki and Geirrøðr. The article argues that the hero’s byname bǿjarmagn (farm might) and its supposed derivation — he is so big that he ‘overpowers’ most houses because the doors are too small — is a direct reference to the macho god Þórr’s surprising humiliation at Útgarða-Loki’s. There, Þórr is so small that he can slip in between the bars of the gate. It seems that the author wanted to link his hero and saga directly to this situation, which represents a twist on the usual image of Þórr, and make another twist on it. At Útgarða-Loki’s, Þórr is humiliated because his opponent controls what he sees as part of an attempt to make him appear small and weak. In Þorsteins þáttr, the hero controls what is seen and therefore is able to crush his opponents in a humiliating way, in spite of his being a dwarf in comparison to them. During a feast similar to the one at Útgarða-Loki’s, he makes himself invisible, thereby staving off humiliation. Then, he blinds his adversaries, thus becoming able to kill/humiliate them in a sexually symbolic way. The motif ‘invisible hero manipulates royal feast’ seems to be taken from an elf queen legend that is probably reused as an exemplum in the first adventure of the saga, the journey to the world of elves. This legend seems to be a key to how the medi­eval author worked with his material, although it is not recorded until the nineteenth century. The interrelations between the legend and the elf adventure in the saga, as well as the internal logic of these narratives, indicate that the saga version is based upon a medi­eval version of the oral legend. If correct, this implies that the saga in combination with the nineteenth-century legend versions represent an overlooked source for elf traditions in the Middle Ages. Eldar Heide ([email protected]) has a PhD in Old Norse studies from the University of Bergen, focusing on Old Scandinavian pre-Christian religion. In his research, he also explores maritime aspects of the Old Norse texts, the history of the Scandinavian languages, and dialects from Old Scandinavian onwards, in addition to Old Norse literature and other topics.

Supernatural Encounters in Old Norse Literature and Tradition, ed. by Daniel Sävborg and Karen Bek-Pedersen, BBL 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 215–237 BREPOLS PUBLISHERS 10.1484/M.BBL-EB.5.116087


Eldar Heide

Introduction The aim of this essay is twofold. First, I want to give a literary interpretation of the Icelandic saga Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns. Then, using this interpretation, I will attempt to demonstrate that the first adventure in the saga is based upon a medi­e val version of an elf queen legend not recorded until the nineteenth century, and that this legend is a key to how the medi­eval author worked with his material. Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns is an Icelandic saga handed down to us in manu­ scripts from the latter half of the fifteenth century and later,2 but it is considered to date from the late thirteenth century (which may or may not be correct), with much content ‘consider­ably older’.3 In length the narrative corresponds to a þáttr or ‘short prose narrative’ (pl. þættir),4 and it is most commonly known under the title Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns (or bæjarmagns, using a younger Icelandic form). However, we only know it as an independent narrative, whereas most þættir have survived as parts of king’s sagas, and the style and topics of the saga are typical of the fornaldarsaga or ‘legendary saga’ genre. But while the legendary sagas usually tell of (mostly fictitious) events prior to the settlement of Iceland (from the late ninth century onwards), Þorsteins þáttr is set during the reign of the Norwegian king Óláfr Tryggvason, just before the year 1000. In Rafn’s edition, the saga only fills twenty-three small pages.5 It has attracted attention mostly because its main section extensively reuses myths and semi-mytho­logical stories, especially about Þórr and Þórr-related heroes, known from other Old Norse texts and from Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, written shortly after 1200 and in Latin. The plot of the saga can be schematized in the following way:


Tietz, Die Saga von Þorsteinn bæjarmagn, pp. 21ff. Power, ‘Þorsteins þáttr bœjarmagns’. 4  See, e.g., Rowe and Harris, ‘Short Prose Narrative’. 5  Saga af Þorsteini Bæarmagni, ed. by Rafn (a modern, critical edition is still lacking ). A PDF of the text in this edition can be found at . Translations of the saga into English can be found in The Northmen Talk, trans. by Simpson; Gautrek’s Saga and Other Medi­eval Tales, trans. by Edwards and Hermann Pálsson; Seven Viking Romances, trans. by Hermann Pálsson and Edwards and online at ; German edition in Tietz, Die Saga von Þorsteinn bæjarmagn; Norwegian edition online at ; and Danish edition online at [all sites accessed April 2017]. 3 

The Literary ReUse of Myths in Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns


1. Introduction. Þorsteinn becomes King Óláfr’s retainer (chap. 1). 2. Encounter with elves in a distant land. Þorsteinn secretly follows a mounddwelling boy to the world of elves where he steals precious objects (chap. 2). 3. Return to the king in Norway with the precious objects (chap. 2). 4. Encounter with a dwarf in a distant land. The hero saves the dwarf ’s child from an eagle sent by Óðinn and receives magical objects in return (chap. 3). 5. Encounter with giants in an even more distant land (chaps 4–13). a. Journey to the good giant Guðmundr beyond fogs at sea, then accompanying him across a demonic river to his demonic king, Geirrøðr, and Geirrøðr’s even more demonic earl, Agði. Þorsteinn kills Geirrøðr and blinds Agði with the help of the magic objects given to him by the dwarf (chaps 4–11). This is the tension climax. b. Return to King Óláfr with treasures and Agði’s daughter Guðrún as bride. Agði comes to the king’s residence and attacks Þorsteinn but is chased off (chaps 11–12). c. Return to Giantland. Þorsteinn settles at Agði’s residence, becomes married to his now Christian daughter, and locks him up in a grave mound with the help of a cross (chaps 12–13).

Interpreting ‘the Text Alone’ Most of the research on Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns has aimed at either placing the saga within a typo­logy alongside other þættir6 or at clarifying intertextual questions, especially in order to identify the texts in which the author found the material for Þorsteins þáttr (§III.). Such questions will be essential to the present study, too. But it is also interesting to read the text as a literary work handed down to us in its own right, regardless of where its material came from.7 Bernard Martin has attempted to do that, using Algirdas Greimas’s semiotic square to obtain a better understanding of ‘the semiotic functions of the major 6 

See, e.g., Harris, ‘Genre and Narrative Structure’; Joseph, ‘The þáttr and the Theory of Saga Origins’; Righter-Gould, ‘The Fornaldar Sögur Norðurlanda’. 7  Cf. the ‘text alone’ approach to literature (as put forward in Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism and Practical Criticism; Jensen, Den ny kritik), which is one of several useful reading strategies.

Eldar Heide


figures or agents’ in the story.8 To me, however, this model seems unnecessarily complicated for Þorsteins þáttr, because this narrative seems to be oriented along one axis, with just two extremes — good/Christian/normal versus evil/ demonic/monstrous — and with the characters distributed along this axis. The ultimate good is represented by the missionary King Óláfr Tryggvason and the ultimate evil by Geirrøðr’s earl, Agði: Table 1. The saga’s main opposition. Good, Christian King Óláfr

Þorsteinn Guðrún

Evil, demonic Mounddwelling boy


Guð­mundr and his men


Agði Eagle from Óðinn

In the logic of the saga, Þorsteinn and Guðmundr’s intermediate positions are a condition of their respective roles: Had Þorsteinn not been giant-like compared to humans — ill-tempered and extremely big (chap. 1) — he would have had no chance with the giants, among whom even he is dwarf-like. Guðmundr is only able to help Þorsteinn because he is Geirrøðr’s vassal. The distribution of the characters along the good–evil axis to a great extent also corresponds to the chrono­logy of the narrative — with Þorsteinn, Guðrún, and the eagle being the exceptions. Guðrún is introduced late in the narrative, but belongs to the far left (‘good’) of the axis in Table 1. For the eagle, it is the other way around. Þorsteinn is presented a few sentences before the king, which is natural because he is the main character of the story. The early appearance of the eagle can be understood as a foreshadowing of the evils that are to come. Guðrún’s role should be seen in light of the general direction of the narrative, which can be laid out in this way: Table 2. The general direction of the narrative. Good, Christian King Óláfr



Evil, demonic Geirrøðr

Agði — conquered by missionary king’s retainer

Martin, ‘Structure and Meaning’, p. 74, followed by Tietz, Die Saga von Þorsteinn bæjarmagn, pp. 17–22.

The Literary ReUse of Myths in Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns


There is an essential missionary motif in the saga (which may explain the chrono­logical placement of the þáttr — with the first missionary king rather than in ancient times, like other legendary sagas): The hero starts out in Norway at the missionary king’s court.9 Then he makes expeditions deeper and deeper into non-human, non-Christian lands and, at the end of the saga, he has conquered the most distant and demonic country, killed its ruler, settled at the mansion of the successor, who is now a living dead, and has converted and married his daughter. Although he is unable to convert the entire country, he does establish a Christian outpost in these non-human lands that cannot be converted (cf. how trolls and other beings in later folklore are defined as nonChristians). Thus, Þorsteinn represents Christianization stretched to the limit, and this is probably why the magnificent drinking horns Hvítingar, which Þorsteinn took from Agði, only remain at King Óláfr’s court as long as the king is alive, after which they mysteriously disappear (chaps 11–13). In this scheme, Guðrún forms a bridge between the antitheses: Having a non-demonic mother, she miraculously turns out to be more comfortable in the Christian world than in the one she comes from. The name Guðrún, the first element of which means ‘god’, fits with this, as does the name Guðmundr (cf. the significance of the element Þor- in Þorsteinn’s name below). The Christianization motif is accentuated by Þorsteinn referring at several points to the king’s luck (haming ja, gæfa) as the key to his success in overcoming demonic dangers (chaps 2, 5, 7). On closer inspection, however, the missionary motif seems more like an excuse for the author to compose an entertaining story in which the hero goes on adventures to prove his superhero abilities against dangerous opponents. Seen from a narrato­logical-technical point of view, the function of the mission on behalf of King Óláfr is mainly to structure and tie together the narrative: The missionary king is the stationary point to which the hero returns after each adventure, bringing him the treasures that he has obtained. The essential entertaining point of the saga seems to be that of inverted size and power: In the beginning of the saga, it is stressed how the hero Þorsteinn is gigantic among other humans. His byname bǿjarmagn (farm might) refers to his being so big that he ‘overpowers’ most houses; the doors are not big enough for him to enter (chap. 1: ‘trautt fengust þær dyr at honum væri hægt um at gánga, ok því var hann kallaðr bæarmagn, því at hann þótti ofmagni bera flestum húsum’). The giants in the later part of the saga, however, find him ridiculously small and instead call him bǿjarbarn (farm child/farm dwarf ). In spite 9 

Cf. Rowe, ‘Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts’.

Eldar Heide


of this formidable handicap, Þorsteinn defeats all his giant enemies and takes over the biggest giant’s mansion in the conclusion of the saga — at which point even the narrator refers to Þorsteinn as bǿjarbarn. To obtain an understanding of why the author wants it this way, we need to turn to an intertextual reading.

The Reused Myths and Semi-Mytho­logical Stories The motifs that are understood as reuses of myths or semi-mytho­logical stories are found in section 5a. (see above),10 which makes up just over half of the saga. They include the following: i. Þórr’s journey to the giant Geirrøðr. ii. Þórr’s journey to the giant Útgarða-Loki. iii. Guðmundr of Glæsisvellir / Glasisvellir (‘the glittering plains’). iv. Mím(i)r’s knowledge-giving head / well. v. Þórr and Aurvandill, whose toe becomes a star. vi. Þórr’s hammer. i. The Geirrøðr myth is told in the skaldic poem Þórsdrápa by Eilífr Goðrúnarson (late tenth century, recorded in Snorri’s Edda) and by Snorri (early thirteenth century) in Gylfaginning.11 Þórr makes the journey to the giant on foot, accompanied by Loki or Þjalfi, and they barely manage to cross the dangerously rapid and cold river that separates Geirrøðr’s land from that of other giants. At Geirrøðr’s residence, Þórr breaks the back of Geirrøðr’s three daughters and engages Geirrøðr in a contest of throwing back and forth a red-hot object taken from the forge; this object has some connection to Þórr’s hammer.12 Geirrøðr is killed by one of Þórr’s throws. 10  See, for example, Simpson, ‘Grímr the Good’ and ‘Otherworld Adventures’; TurvillePetre, Myth and Religion of the North, pp. 31–32; Ciklamini, ‘Journeys to the Giant-Kingdom’; Taylor, ‘Icelandic Analogues’; Clunies Ross, ‘An Interpretation of the Myth’; Power, ‘“An óige, an saol agus an bás”’ and ‘Þorsteins þáttr bœjarmagns’; Martin, ‘Structure and Meaning’; Mundal, ‘Forholdet mellom myteinnhald og myteform’; Mitchell, Heroic Sagas and Ballads, pp. 65–66; Tietz, Die Saga von Þorsteinn bæjarmagn; Frog, ‘Germanic Traditions of the Theft of the Thunder-Instrument’. 11  Snorri Sturluson, Edda, pp. 100ff, 105ff; Den Norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning, ed. by Finnur Jónsson, B i, 139ff, A i, 148ff; and for discussion, see Clunies Ross, ‘An Interpretation of the Myth’; Mundal, ‘Forholdet mellom myteinnhald og myteform’. 12  Clunies Ross, ‘An Interpretation of the Myth’; Mundal, ‘Forholdet mellom myteinn­hald og myteform’.

The Literary ReUse of Myths in Þorsteins þáttr bǿjarmagns


A different version is told by Saxo in the Gesta Danorum:13 The hero Thorkillus (Latinized from Þorkell, -kill), sent by the Danish king Gormus (