Abstracts 2017

Amy Franks
MA student in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies
University of Iceland

The Obsession with Masculine Viking Women in Popular Culture

Judith Jesch opens her 1991 book Women in the Viking Age with the statement ‘Vikings are irredeemably male in the popular imagination.’ In the twenty five years since this statement, the academic study of women’s and gender history has grown vastly and revealed new understandings of these areas. In this paper I will argue that, in spite of this, Jesch’s comment on the popular imagination remains largely true to this day. Within popular media and understandings of Norse culture and society, masculinity has become the most significant value. One noteworthy trope that has not been addressed is the strong female character that embodies understandings of masculinity. Examples of these characters within visual media include Brida in the BBC’s 2015 production of The Last Kingdom and Áshildr in the 2015 Doctor Who episode ‘The Girl Who Died.’ Both of these characters are the only women presented as ‘Vikings’ who have speaking roles in their respective productions. Furthermore, the theme of masculinity is central to the storyline of this episode of Doctor Who. These masculine women are not only limited to the understood fictional field in popular culture: the popularity of the 2014 Tor.com article stating that ‘half of the warriors were female’ shows that there is a strong desire for this notion to enter the popular historical narrative as fact. I will argue that the recovery of women’s history from the Viking Age into popular culture has been limited to the appearance of women who embody masculinity, therefore not truly representing the existence of femininity within Norse society. In attempting to replicate this trope within popular history, what is instead demonstrated is an obsession with masculinity as the overwhelming value of Norse society.

Benjamin Eric Holt
MA student in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies
University of Iceland

 ‘Sá fló eigi at Uppsôlum, en vá með hann vápn hafði’: A Concordance of Literary and Runic Attestations of the Battle at Fýrisvellir

Various written sources, ranging from Saxo’s Gesta Danorum to Flateyjarbók, preserve information pertaining to the Battle at Fýrisvellir, a clash in c. 980 between King Eirik of Sweden and one Styrbjörn, an exiled prince, leader of the Jómsvíkings, and claimant to Eirik’s throne. Also extant are several runestones from Skåne which have been dated to a similar period and mention a battle at or near Uppsala; these may thus be linked to same event. One must, of course, approach medieval sources (whether written or runic) with healthy skepticism; however, the potential parallelism between two separate types of medieval corpus is both fascinating and interest-piquing. In this presentation, I will argue that these stones may indeed memorialize individuals who fought and fell at Fýrisvellir and thus harmonize with the written material.

In the late 19th/early 20th century, Danish runologist Ludvig Wimmer freely understood these literary sources and runic inscriptions to be wholly connected, each supporting the other and increasing the likelihood of the battle’s historical reality. His arguments were soon dismantled and rejected by, among others, the Weibull brothers and Lis Jacobsen. These refuters insisted that, if the Battle at Fýrisvellir even took place, the historical-literary accounts are not linked to the runestones in Skåne, the latter being far too young to reference the conflict in question. Developments in runic dating, however, suggest that these inscriptions may be older than previously believed. Starting in the latter half of the 20th century, Eric Moltke, Thorgunn Snædal, Marie Stoklund, and others have questioned their predecessors’ dating of these stones.

Thus exists the distinct possibility that the Scanian inscriptions offer physical-archaeological evidence that agrees with the textual accounts. Authenticating these stones as part of the Fýrisvellir story would result in a curious phenomenon: a concordance between texts and runic inscriptions that could give us a surer footing when attempting to unravel events a millennium past.

Benjamin Harrison
MLitt student in Scandinavian Studies
University of Aberdeen

Konungs skuggsjá and the Royal Hirð

During the thirteenth century, the Norwegian royal hirð underwent a significant change – transforming itself from an unruly band of bodyguards into a European-modelled court. This development was instigated by King Hákon Hákonarson, who wished to bring Norway closer to its continental neighbours. This effort led to many great cultural works, such as the text Konungs skuggsjá (The King’s Mirror). The text is pedagogical and advisory in nature, likely created for the tutelage of Hákon’s future heir. It has be claimed that its secondary objective was to instil a change of values to the king’s hirð through the dissemination of courtly culture. Current historiography has mainly focused on how the text sought to use courtly ideals to change the social attitudes of its audience. The aim of this paper is to support the idea that Hákon made use of Konungs skuggsjá as a didactic tool in a conscious attempt to develop his hirðmenn into a more sophisticated, devoted group. I will appraise how the text encouraged a further division between the commoners and the elite, promoting a coterie focused around the king. Through a focused study of Konungs skuggsjá, I will examine its pedagogic nature in order to analyse the didactic methods used to entice the king’s men to more devotedly serve their monarch. Consequently, it will be assessed how the text sought to use courtly culture as a method to have aristocrats voluntarily segregate themselves further from the rest of society, centring themselves around the king. Ultimately, this paper intends to contribute knowledge to our understanding of how Konungs skuggsjá was applied to the royal hirð, and showcase how elements of courtly culture were introduced in order to encourage the hirðmenn to segregate themselves from other societal ranks on the premise of gaining closer relations to the king.

Daria Segal
MA student in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies
University of Iceland and University of Oslo

Between image and word: outline of the initial Ólafs saga helga leaf in Flateyjarbók

Flatelyjarbók is one of the best known and exquisitely decorated Icelandic manuscripts. Its historiated initials and playful marginalia adorn many translations of sagas and thus are well renowned. The manuscript was thoroughly examined by Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, who presented a profound insight into its development together with an ideological impact of two scribes, Jón Hákonarson and Magnús Þórhallsson. Possible influences from the benedictine tradition from East Anglia on the art style are discussed in a recent article by Stefan Drechsler. The relations between text and image in Flateyjarbók, however, are rarely examined in depth. Thomas DuBois provides an exceptional overview on that matter, explaining how the illuminations serve to unite sometimes-disjoined narratives into a progressing story, starting with the pagan era and evolving into the Christian society; elevating the manuscript to an embodiment of Icelandic culture of the 14th century.

This paper examines the opening leaf of the Ólafs saga helga, where a large historiated initial, presenting the martyrdom of St. Ólafr, and two scenes on bas de page, showing St. Ólafr fighting an immense boar and a sea-ogress, margýgr, contribute to give a broadened reading of the page’s content. Impish and grotesque bas de page illuminations are often perceived only as an entertaining element and thus have not been given enough attention. According to Michael Camille’s study, marginalia acts as an element of control, narrowing the interpretation, addressing even the functionally illiterate audience, and aiding to consume information effectively. For this reason, illuminations should denote cultural values and the background of the particular society in which they were coined. These perspective forms a basis for the discussion of the fighting scenes in this paper. Textual analysis of the leaf’s contents reveals differences between image and written word, while searching for possible reasoning behind the selection of these particular scenes. Furthermore, this paper argues that the conjunction between the narrative on the leaf and its illuminations emphasises the outline of the page connecting it to the central theme of the manuscript.

Denis Golovanenko
MA student in History
National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow

History of Notions and History of Thought: On the Emergence of the Terminology of the Miraculous in Old Norse Literature

In this paper, it is proposed to look at the words denoting miraculous events in medieval Scandinavian literature from the perspective of historical semantics. It is argued then, that there is a connection between the extralinguistic environment and the facts of a language. Therefore, those words are regarded here as conceptual tools describing collective experience and reflecting the society’s worldview.

The main attention will be focused on the word “jartegn” and on the evolution of its semantics. On the one hand, at least from the beginning of the 11th century numerous cases of employing this word with the meaning of “evidence”, “signification” can be noticed in different types of texts: e.g. in Þórmóðr Trefilsson’s “Hrafnsmál” (cir. 1012), in Icelandic Physiologus (cir. 1200), in Snorri Sturluson’s “Heimskringla” and in some family sagas. On the other hand, approximately in the middle of 12th century, the other meaning of “jartegn” emerges and become widespread and even prevailing: that of “miraculous sign”, “evidence of God’s work”. Probably, one of the earliest texts in which “jartegn” is employed in this sense is the “Old Icelandic Homily Book”; it occurs also in almost every saints’ and bishops’ saga, as well as in some family sagas. It will be argued thus, that such a strong connection of the word “jartegn” with the meaning of “signification” became a necessary and sufficient condition for turning this word into a term for “true” miracles, those made with the force of Christian God. This process will be put in the socio-cultural context of the 11th–13th century Iceland.

Deniz Cem Gülen
PhD Candidate in Scandinavian Studies
University of Aberdeen

Tostig the Bad

Tostig Godwinson is perhaps one of the least studied and yet most interesting historical figures for both Scandinavian and English history. While there are several studies about his father, Earl Godwin of Wessex, the exile of Godwin’s family due to his disagreement with King Edward the Confessor, and of course his brother, Harold Godwinson, Tostig is almost always depicted and interpreted as a secondary character in these events. Unfortunately, Tostig’s life can be seen as comparatively neglected. After being a prominent figure in eleventh century England, he died during the Battle of Stamford Bridge, as an outcast and a rebel. Although his reasons for being there are known, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) and Icelandic kings’ sagas offer different perspectives of his life span.

This paper will look at Tostig’s life from these two different perspectives and discuss why there are differences between them. I will explore: (1) heroism in the saga culture and (2) source availability to Icelandic saga authors. After summarizing the English and the Icelandic stories about him, I will demonstrate the similarities and the differences between them as well as differences in the sagas corpus itself.

I will use the ASC to summarise Tostig’s campaign in Wales, the power struggle with his brother and the events that led him to York, I shall move to the Icelandic perspective in which Morkinskinna, Fagrskinna and Heimskringla will be consulted. While the sagas do not necessarily argue that Tostig was the only reason Harald Hardrada raised an army and went to England, to some extent they try to picture Earl Tostig as the force which led Harald to his end in that final battle.

Francesco Colombo
MPhil in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic / BA student in Icelandic as a Second Language
University of Cambridge and University of Iceland

The igður stanzas of Fáfnismál

This paper aims at providing an analysis of the last thirteen stanzas of Fáfnismál, which feature an undefined number of igður (a kind of bird, probably marsh tits) as speakers addressing the young hero Sigurðr and offering him advice (stanzas 32-39) and prophecies (stanzas 40-44).

This section presents a number of interpretative issues: stanzas in different metres (fornyrðislag and ljóðaháttr) are alternated, the birds sometimes address Sigurðr in the third, sometimes in the second person, the order of their prophecies is bizarre, and it is not even clear how many birds there are.

The paper opens with a summary of the igður stanzas within the context of the Vǫlsung-Niflung cycle and, more specifically, of the young Sigurðr section of the Poetic Edda. Then an overview of the main problems in their interpretation is given, and the main trends in scholarship are outlined.

A close reading of the stanzas follows: significant words and expressions are analysed with particular attention to echoes and variations, both within the igður section and in the other young Sigurðr poems, in order to reach a better understanding of the text, of the organisation of the verses, and of the implications of some poetic choices. Vǫlsunga saga and Snorri’s Edda are taken into account for comparison as primary sources from roughly the same period describing the same episode in different ways, probably drawing on the Codex Regius text itself.

Finally, an attempt is made to reconsider some of the issues outlined at the beginning, suggesting hypotheses with regard to the composition and transmission of these verses, as well as the role of the Codex Regius editor/compiler in their form and disposition.

Heidi Synnøve Djuve
PhD Candidate in Scandinavian Studies
University of Aberdeen

King and Court in Konungastyrelsen

Ever since its discovery, the Swedish fourteenth century text Konungastyrelsen has been surrounded by obscurity and controversy. The original manuscript is presumed lost forever, and our main source today is a transcription of the text from 1634. Up until the nineteenth century it was commonly believed that this transcription was actually a forgery, and that the original never even existed. Despite this claim quickly being discredited, the negative perception of the text and its authenticity remained, and would gradually prove crucially persistent. Accordingly, and undeservedly, these circumstances have often resulted in Konungastyrelsen being overlooked and underestimated.

The text follows in the pattern of a particularly didactic and advisory type of literature commonly known as ‘mirrors for princes’, and was most likely written during the 1340-50s in the effort to educate King Magnus VIII Eriksson’s sons, Erik and Håkan. Its main source has been found in Ægidius Romanus’ French mirror, De regimine principum (c. 1280), wherefrom Konungastyrelsen has adopted the majority of its political programme and endorsement of absolute hereditary monarchy. However, modern research has shown that the text also draws inspiration from a number of contemporary Swedish sources, especially certain legal texts, which suggests that the extent or intention of this absolutist proclamation has been misinterpreted. Consequently, this paper aims to approach the ideological context of Konungastyrelsen, and by assessing its respective European and Scandinavian frameworks contribute further support towards the quantitatively poor amount of evidence that underpin the existence of a courtly culture in medieval Sweden.

Jason Hash
MA student in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies
University of Iceland

Decoding Lbs 764 8vo – A Case Study in Icelandic Cryptography and Medieval Magic

The grimoire, Lbs 764 8vo, held in Reykjavik, is a prime example of a tradition which swept Iceland in the Post-Medieval era – Cryptography, or the art of encrypting text. On a level unparalleled in the known material record, the Icelandic magical corpus contains dozens of cipher examples, with more than fifty known individual cipher alphabets house in manuscripts which span from the Medieval to the Modern era. These ciphers are often found in connection to a religious or magical context, though little research has been done with regards to their intended purpose, not to mention their origin. What makes these ciphers particularly unique for Iceland, is the blend of Scandinavian runes with noticeably Hebrew, Greek, and Latin influences, thereby raising the question as to whether or not the ciphers could be linked to the usage of runes in earlier times – as the magical association would seem to support. Yet while this is true, further study reveal that most of the ciphers are referred to by the authors with varying distinctions, with the main difference occurring with the category of rune or letter. This would suggest a difference in perception of the scripts themselves, or even whether or not they were viewed as native to Iceland or instead a later import.
In this paper, I explain my process of decoding the cipher text of Lbs 764 8vo, and what the contents reveal about the origins of the symbols within. Through further analysis of similar grimoires, and letter books spanning from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the question is raised as to whether the Post-Medieval Icelandic cryptographic tradition exists as a continuation from the Viking Age, or, if it was transmitted to Iceland from magic texts originating in late-medieval continental Europe.

Jessie Yusek
MA in History
Brock University, Canada

Monstrous Women: Exploring Gender in Medieval Icelandic Literature and Society

The supernatural, mythology, and folklore can reflect and represent social and cultural anxieties about gender roles and gender relations. They become a social technology for conceptualising and testing norms by pushing the boundaries of gender roles since these creatures are already abnormal and supernatural. These genres can also be vehicles for making sense of transgressive individuals and behaviours or as a way for women to claim some degree of agency. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that a study of the supernatural, mythology, and folklore of these areas are useful for social historians to more deeply understand various aspects of Norse society.

This paper will focus on monstrous women in the sagas taking the shape of giants, dwarves, and trolls. It will be argued that women who were acting in ways that were directly opposing what medieval Icelandic society believed they could had to become supernatural creatures in order to allow them to be violent, vicious, sexual, or inhumanely dominated. After all, human women in the medieval Icelandic mind could not be more violent and powerful than men, nor could a male hero justly dominate a human woman without moral repercussions. Furthermore, in dehumanizing and ‘dewomanizing’ these characters their ferocity and grotesque nature became more credible.

This alternate and ‘Othered’ understanding of supernatural and mythological figures in Old Norse-Icelandic literature is necessary in order to do justice to women of the Viking Age and medieval Iceland. This paper will argue that it is imperative to study marginalized actors in history through their less-than-factual representatives in other genres, because it is these genres in which they are most free and can use the tools they have available to dismantle the structures restricting them in the temporal realm.

Johann Levin
MA student, Institut für nordische Philologie
Ludwig-Maximilians Universität München

Zombies of the magic river – a new look at the fróðárundr in Eyrbyggja saga

The fróðárundr in Eyrbyggja saga is generally considered to have been caused by a magical woman named Þórgunna and her cursed bedspread. Still, following this interpretation, much of the meaning of the episode, and ultimately, the sense of its pertinence to the text as a whole, remains shrouded in mystery. If Þórgunna did indeed cause the whole fróðárundr, why was she herself the victim of a supernatural blood rain?

A closer, narratological look provides a key to a new understanding of the episode and the saga. I propose that the two separate groups of revenants featured in the episode had two separate causes; those who died at sea being Þórgunna’s doing, yet those who died upon land falling victim to a similar fate as she did, a fate brought on by the Christianisation of Iceland mentioned directly before Þórgunna’s arrival. Applying Lotman’s theory of the Semiosphere, it can be concluded that Fróðá, located on the periphery, with its priestless church and a name which can evoke thoughts of magic, is an ideal place to test the legitimacy of Snorri’s power in the freshly Christianised society. In fact, the whole episode is one of many literary obstacles in Snorri’s path to legitimised power. The revenants whose death occurred on land and who were then buried at a church without a priest, in ground that was likely not sanctified, should therefore not be attributed to Þórgunna, but seen as the result of the not yet fully concluded Christianisation of Iceland. The cosmic ‘uncertainty’ regarding Snorri’s leadership which arises thereby is the true culprit, whilst Þórgunna, herself a victim thereof, is solely to blame for the revenants who defied her last wish.

Julian Eduardo Valle
MA student in Medieval Icelandic Studies
University of Icleand

Using contextual information for dating Eyrbyggja saga: a case study.

Since the translation of the seminal work of Einar Ól. Sveinsson Dating the Icelandic sagas by Gabrielle Turville-Petre, many theories about the dating of Eyrbyggja saga have been proposed. In a recent article, Torfi Tulinius discussed the benefits of using “contextual information” (that is, other sources and data) in order to rethink the time of composition of this saga. In the present article, I would like first to review some of the different theories that have been elaborated in the 60 years elapsed between Einar Ól. Sveinsson’s book and Torfi’s article. The scholarly discussion has been mainly concerned with the authorship of the saga and the relationship between Eyrbyggja, Laxdæla and Heiðarvíga saga. Second, I would like to propose a case study concerning the execution of practitioners of trólldómr. These particular cases could indicate a later dating of the saga, around the time of the submission to the Norwegian crown. To do so, I will compare Chapter 20 of Eyrbyggja saga with a similar scene in Chapters 36-38 of Laxdaela saga. The latter is normally accepted to have been composed between 1250 and 1270, and both sagas have similarities in narrative and context of production. I will then proceed to analyze the Law codes Grágás and Járnsíða in order to find some evidence of the change in the legal procedure regarding these cases. I will argue, following an idea suggested by Stephen Mitchell, that the Icelandic law concerning trólldómr was changed when the island accepted the law coming from Norway and, as suggested by Patricia Boulhosa, that the new codes were known to the Icelanders before they were officially accepted by the Alþing.

Karen Langsholt Holmqvist
MA in Runology, Department of Language and Literature
Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Scandinavian runes and Roman script in contact in the British Isles

The encounter between Scandinavian runes and Roman script led to several changes in the runic script. The changes did, in the main, occur in the medieval period. However, there were encounters between Scandinavian runes and Roman script in the Viking Age as well, for instance in the British Isles. In this paper I will discuss the evidence for these encounters from the British Isles. I focus on the British Isles because contact between the two scripts occurred earlier there than in Scandinavia.

Several traits in runic script have been ascribed to contact with the Roman script. The most obvious is the occasional combination of runes and Roman letters in the same inscription. However, in the Viking Age, this is quite rare. Another rare trait in the Viking Age is the marking of long consonants with double runes; this becomes increasingly common throughout the Middle Ages. The marking of nasals before homorganic consonants (e.g. writing out the n-rune in the word land by writing land/lant instead of the more traditional lat) and the development of new runes are rather more common. The last trait is the most common: the increased use of punctuation marks. The first trait can be termed direct evidence for contact between runes and Roman script; the other four are indirect.

In this paper I will investigate what we can say about the early signs of change in runic script. The changes did not manifest in full until medieval times, but their origins lie in the Viking Age. I aim to demonstrate that the indirect evidence for contact is problematic, and that the direct evidence is thin. Although the material is scarce, I will show that it is possible to conclude that contact between runes and Roman script did take place in the Viking Age.

Kathryn A. Catlin
PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology
Northwestern University

Marginal Households of Medieval Iceland

Medieval Hegranes in Skagafjörður, North Iceland was a dynamic landscape of contradictions and differences. As the land itself changed from subarctic woodland to a patchwork of eroded rocky outcrops and cultivated hay meadows, the way people of varying social stations lived on and engaged with the landscape and with each other was also changing. This paper describes the preliminary results of archaeological survey and excavation at marginal settlements on Hegranes, places that were inhabited soon after the landnám ca. 870, but by the 12th century had been abandoned or converted to animal barns and outbuildings. Life on the social and environmental margins was challenging, but the individuals and families who lived and worked here were part of a society that was tied together by bonds of kinship, obligation, and mutual subsistence. Marginal settlements were likely sites of production for numerous products of the farm and the land, including fish, dairy, wool, charcoal, and turf.  The households who inhabited these sites were heavily involved in a society and economy that depended upon the actions and decisions of more powerful farmers and leaders. Saga literature most often concentrates on the dramatic lives and feuds of those powerful chieftains and their households, rarely if ever describing the lives of common cottagers and tenants. An archaeological perspective on the origins, occupations, and disintegration or transformation of marginal early Icelandic households adds an important dimension to our understanding of medieval Icelandic society, especially the relationship between landscape domestication, environmental degradation, and the development of social inequality.

Kathryn Ania Haley-Halinski
MA student in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies
University of Iceland and University of Oslo

Kennings in Mind and Memory

The kenning system is one of the most easily-recognisable features of skaldic verse. Long dismissed by scholars as baroque ornamentation employed by barbarian poets, cognitive-scientific approaches have done much to rehabilitate kennings as metaphorical devices which use syntactical order alongside universal and culturally-specific semantic frames to engage with the mental processes of decoding them.

This paper will take a memory studies approach to kennings, building upon Bergsveinn Birgisson’s theory that the catachresis, contrast, and bizarreness that was central to their imagery held a practical mnemonic function due to a combination of features such as distinctiveness and interaction. Such an argument is opposed by the work of scholars such as Edith Marold and Michael Schulte, who have argued that the kenning system was logical and even harmonious; taxonomizing kenning-types and positing a communicative rationale underpinning the syntactical and semantic formulae at work in kennings. Although I agree that kennings had a practical purpose, Bergsveinn neglects this in order to elaborate upon his proposed pre-Christian system of contrast-based aesthetics. I feel that rather than viewing harmony and contrast – and tradition and innovation – as mutually exclusive, skalds used these qualities in conjunction to create and transmit meaning.

This paper will address this scholarly dichotomy by conducting a more in-depth inspection of the mnemonic aspects of kennings, with the first five stanzas of the kenning-rich poem Vellekla serving as a case study. Using cognitive theories of memory, I will argue that kennings deliberately exploit tensions between the common/formulaic and the bizarre/contrasting in their imagery to simultaneously engage with vertical (line-by-line) and horizontal (word-by-word) recall. Overall, I aim to show that kennings deliberately tapped into multiple semantic levels at once to effect maximum engagement from the recipient. This not only led to aesthetic enjoyment, but held practical benefits such as enhanced mnemonic potential which may help to explain why and how this device became so ubiquitous.

Lee Colwill
MA student in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies
University of Iceland

Transgender Identities in Norse Society

The issue of gender in Norse society has been the subject of extensive debate among scholars of both literature and history, with recent scholarship emphasising the wide variety of gender performance seen in Old Norse literature. Archaeological studies have also considered the influence of shamanistic practice on Norse conceptualisations of gender, as well as the applicability of queer theory to Norse cosmology. However, the field of transgender studies has still not had a major impact on the discussion of Norse gender, although, as I will argue, this work has important implications for our understanding of the subject.

My paper addresses the possibility that individuals who would today be recognised as transgender existed in Norse society, and that their presence is reflected in both literature and the archaeological record. In the burial record we see ‘ambiguous’ burials, such as the Gerdrup mixed grave and Grave BB at Bogøvej, which show incongruities between osteological sex and gendered grave goods and raise significant questions about the gendering of burials more generally. Although this paper will focus predominantly on earlier archaeological evidence, I will also consider the implications of written sources, such as Njáls saga, the maiden kings’ sagas, and some of the mythological texts, which arguably convey later medieval anxieties about unstable gender boundaries. I will employ an interdisciplinary approach informed by queer theory to argue that transgender individuals have a tangible presence in these sources. This presence both problematises and sheds light on our understanding of Norse mentalities surrounding gender, suggesting that medieval Scandinavian ideas about gender were more complicated than previously understood.

Michel van der Hoeff
MA student in Translation studies with Scandinavian Literature
Universiteit van Amsterdam

The Sami People as ‘the Other’ in Old-Norse Literature

Previous research has somewhat addressed the encounters of Norsemen with the Sami people in the Old-Norse literature. However, the depiction of the Sami people in the Old-Norse literature has not yet been analyzed from a postcolonial perspective. Yet, such a perspective would be interesting as it may help us understand the power structures and power dynamics in the relations between the Norsemen and the Sami in that Age.

Drawing on Edward Said’s Orientalism, it can be argued that the Norsemen from the sagas were part of a ‘hegemony’ who ‘colonized’ the ‘subaltern’ Sami. Within this postcolonial power structure, it is the hegemony who defines the subaltern. This gives the hegemony the opportunity to consistently portray the subaltern as ‘the Other’, which results in the creation of a false dichotomy between the ‘superior’ Self and the ‘inferior’ Other.

In my paper, I shall critically analyze the representation of the Sami people in the Old-Norse literature, using postcolonial theory. By doing so, I aim to examine how these depictions reinforce the image of the Sami people as ‘the Other’. I shall focus especially on the portrayal of the Sami people and their beliefs as ‘mystical’, ‘troll-alike’ and ‘supernatural’, and how these characteristics are put in contrast to the alleged ‘rationality’ and the religious practices of the Norsemen. I shall examine how the creation of this dichotomy resembles the creation of the dichotomy between the West and the Orient in the postcolonial discourse of the Western Orientalists. The texts to be considered in this paper include Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar, Ketils saga hængs and Ynglingasaga.

Selene Mazza
MA student in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies
University of Iceland

Addressing mental illness in medieval Iceland: Ívars þáttur Ingimundarsonar from Morkinskinna.

Mental illness – only in modern times recognised as a legitimate pathology – has always been part of human history, but has rarely been accurately represented in medieval literature. Behaviours and symptoms that nowadays would be called pathological were in fact often ascribed to “strangeness” or insanity, if not diabolic influence, and were either disregarded or attributed to external physical factors.

Contained in the kings’ saga manuscript Morkinskinna, Ívars þáttur Ingimundarsonar is a peculiar short tale that stands out among other þættir for its deep sensitivity in retelling human emotions, and their influence on a man’s life and personal relationships. Although revolving around the historical figure of king Eysteinn, the story also focuses on the sufferings of the king’s friend Ívar Ingimundarson, desperate because he could not marry the woman he loved. The man’s despair, mental anguish and consequent physical afflictions can be compared, with due caution, to the condition of a person affected by depression according to DSM-V.  Furthermore, the constant dialogue between him and his close friend and confidant, the king himself, echoes and antedates sessions between a patient and therapist. Singular is also the description of how such a state of mind can hinder one’s ability to live a normal life.

This paper aims to analyse Ívars þáttur from a new perspective, associating modern theories from psychiatry and psychology with literary analysis, in order to underline how the sensitivity and writing skills of the author converged in what can be considered a unique example of realistic representation and understanding of mental illness in the Old Icelandic literary corpus.

Simon Nygaard
PhD Fellow, Department of the Study of Religion
Aarhus University, Denmark

Var hon borin á bálit ok slegit í eldi: Instances of Procession in pre-Christian Scandinavian religion

Within the Study of Religion, the ritual category of processions is obvious in its relative absence when compared to other, more well-established, categories such as sacrifice or initiation. As Ronald L. Grimes (1987, 7418) writes quoting A. E. Crawley (1918): ‘[N]o comprehensive or scientific work on processions has yet been written. His observation is still largely true (…) Rare is the book that includes a chapter, section, or even an index entry on processions’. This still holds true and can be exemplified by a list of handbooks and general works on religion that do not include an entry on processions, but do for other ritual categories such as sacrifice: Religionens värld (1945), Religionens form och funktion (1972), Religionerna i historia och nutid (1974), The Penguin Dictionary of Religions (1984) and Gyldendals Religionshistorie: Ritualer, mytologi, ikonografi (2011).

While processions are understudied in the Study of Religion in general, they are even less examined within the field of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion. This is despite some of the most well-know and widely used ritual descriptions in the sources for pre-Christian Scandinavian religion containing clear processions or processional elements.

In this presentation, I will survey the evidence, both textual and material, for pre-Christian Scandinavian instances of religious processions and processional elements. Looking at such diverse sources as the Nerthus-myth in Tacitus’ first century account Germania 40, Snorri Sturluson’s description of Baldr’s funeral in Gylfaginning 49, and possible archaeological remnants of processional roads in Vendel Period and Viking Age Sweden, I aim to employ Bernhard Lang’s typology of processions (2015) to assess and analyse which functions these processions might have had in pre-Christian Scandinavian religion.

Whether in the form of the ritual movements of a priest and god through the landscape, or of a chieftain to his funeral pyre, I believe processions were quite possibly a larger part of the pre-Christian Scandinavian ritual world than previous research (or the lack thereof) indicates, and I will argue in this paper that they should have a larger place in scholarship in the future.

Zachary Melton
MA student in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies
University of Iceland

The Lake District of England and Iceland: A Topographical and Literary Connection

In this essay, I examine the similarities between the Lake District in England and Iceland. Both places have tales of a Norse past and settlement, but these settlements were much more closely linked than has previously been discussed. Using place-name studies, I was able to compare almost identical names in both Iceland and the Lake District. I used some of the essential work of Gillian Fellows-Jensen, as well as newer scholarship by Ryan Mark Foster and Martina Domines Veliki to establish historical and onomastic links. Both locations share a distant Norse background with Ireland, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man. Though the Lake District has very little documentary evidence, especially in comparison with Iceland, using place-names, contemporary sources and Landnámabók, I was able to connect activity in Irish Sea to the settlement period of Iceland.

What first alerted me to these similarties was W.G. Collingwood’s nineteenth century work, A Pilgrimage to the Saga-steads of Iceland. Hailing from the Lake District, Collingwood visited Iceland to venture through the Icelandic landscape and to witness firsthand the farms and features the sagas described. In his account, he often compares parts of the Icelandic countryside to landscape features back in the Lake District. Literary tourism was originally born in the Lake District as people followed in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth. This literary tourism that Collingwood brought to Iceland, however, was revolutionary in transforming how people interacted with the sagas and with the Icelandic landscape. This study aims at answering some questions as to why some Norse place-names went out of use in Iceland and how two very different places were eventually defined by their later literary output.