The rise of feminism and the concept of women’s rights are thought to be very recent and many believe that women in the past had no power. However, women in medieval Iceland, though not equal to men, enjoyed a surprising amount of freedom. Not everything is known about social dynamics of the time, but analyzing the Sagas of the Icelanders can reveal the women’s various freedoms and influences. Women could often choose their husbands and had free choice in their relationships; they could run their own farms, have political or social influence either directly or indirectly, and could even in certain cases be heroines, ‘warrior queens’ or ‘shieldmaidens.’ Women could exert their influence by manipulating men using goading, sex, or money, or take charge themselves, either politically or violently.
Though women were often restricted from exerting their power directly, they could be quite effective at acting through men. Throughout the sagas, women are seen as instigators of violence, encouraging men to get revenge. Gudrun is a classic example of a revengeful Icelandic woman. In Laxdaela Saga, she tells her brothers to get revenge on Kjartan for the slights he shows her for marrying Bolli:
“I think it is past hoping that you will ever have courage enough to go and seek out Kjartan in his home, if you dare not meet him now that he rides with but one other man or two; but here you sit at home and bear yourselves as if you were hopeful men; yea, in sooth there are too many of you.”1Laxdaela Saga, trans. Muriel Press, (Cambridge: In Parenthesis Publications, Old Norse Series, 1999), 113.
Bolli initially refuses to take part in this because of his brotherhood with Kjartan, but Gudrun threatens him with divorce and he quickly complies.
Another woman who taunts her way to revenge in Laxdaela Saga is Thorgerd, who incites her sons to get revenge on Bolli for killing Thorgerd’s husband Olaf: “They plan revenge: Now Halldor told Bardi in secret that the brothers had made up their minds to set on Bolli, for they could no longer withstand the taunts of their mother.”2Ibid., 123–4. She goaded them into it by telling them that their ancestors would be ashamed of them, and Egil (their grandfather) would certainly have taken revenge and killed Kjartan.
Not long after her previous quarrel, Gudrun wants revenge for a second time, this time against Olaf’s sons for killing her husband Bolli. First she shames her young sons into it by showing them the bloody clothes Bolli was killed in: “These same clothes you see here cry to you for your father’s revenge.”3Ibid., 136. When she decides they are too young to fight without a leader, she looks to Thorgils to take care of it. She uses a promise of marriage to get Thorgils to help her out, though she does not plan on marrying him. Her adviser and confidante Snorri suggests: “You shall promise marriage to him, yet you shall do it in language of this double meaning, that of men in this land you will marry none other but Thorgils, and that shall be holden to, for Thorkell Eyjolfson is not, for the time being, in this land, but it is he whom I have in my mind’s eye for this marriage.”4Ibid. In this way she exercises her power through men in two ways: she convinces Thorgils to exact her revenge for her, and she does it deceitfully, promising compensation which she does not intend to deliver.
The men in the sagas are generally depicted as wanting to settle matters peacefully or with monetary compensation, but they listen to the women in their lives and kill those who do them wrong. Egil’s saga provides another example: Gunnhilda, ‘mother of kings,’ wants vengeance against Egil for having killed Bard, a member of her household. Gunnhilda then commands a killing from her two young brothers, Eyvind and Alf: “I would fain that you two should so manage matters in this crowded gathering, that ye get to slay one of the two sons of Skallagrim, or, better still, both.”5Egil’s Saga, trans. W. C. Green, Icelandic Saga Database, ed. Sveinbjorn Thordarson, Ch. 49. They did not succeed in killing either Egil or Thorolf, but Eyvind slew one of their men and was outlawed. Later, Eyvind lay in wait to ambush Egil, who knew of it in advance and killed him. The two brothers were young and would never have gone after the powerful, esteemed Egil if not ordered to by Gunnhilda. Though she could not get revenge herself, she got it through her brothers and at great personal cost to them; again, the deal was not in the men’s favor, and yet Gunnhilda succeeds in getting exactly what she wants.
Occasionally, women in the sagas demonstrate an impressive capacity for revengeful bloodlust even against those they love. After the shieldmaiden Brynhild learns that she was tricked into marrying Gunnar and it was actually Sigurd who had ridden through the flames around her castle in order to court her, she is enraged and plots revenge, urging her husband Gunnar to kill the deceitful Sigurd although she loves him.6Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, trans. Jesse L. Byock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), Ch. 29. She motivates Gunnar by telling him that Sigurd had slept with her after braving the fires around the castle, which he had sworn not to do. He had even laid his sword between them in bed to protect her virginity. Brynhild repays her lover’s deceit with more deceit and death rather than suffer being tricked by the two men. Gunnar in turn performs this killing indirectly. He had sworn a pact of brotherhood with Sigurd, so he convinces his younger brother to do the deed instead. Though Gunnar does not act directly either, the vengeful Brynhild is clearly the source of the violence.
Women also exert their power indirectly through breaking cultural taboos on sexuality and nakedness. In the legend of Thorgunna, an old Scandinavian folktale, Thorgunna uses her sexuality to get what she wants from men. When the men transporting her dead body are refused hospitality, she appears as a naked ghost in the kitchen and begins cooking.7Jenny Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995), 76. This frightens the hosts into feeding her men. Nakedness was taboo, and Thorgunna used this to her advantage to manipulate men into getting what she needed. A similar horrified reaction to nakedness can be seen with Freydis in Erik the Red’s Saga who scares away attacking Indians by baring her breasts. When chasing after the invaders with a sword doesn’t work, she pulls out a breast and they flee in terror.8Ibid., 77.
Women could also obtain what they wanted through sexual favors or money. “Conscious of her marital assets, a woman could issue sexual or financial ultimatums such as ‘you shall never come in my bed again’ or ‘I shall let my father repossess my property,’ ” often delivered in bed.9Ibid., 58. Hallgerdr persuades her husband to let her foster father stay with them by putting her arms around his neck, an affectionate gesture that women often used to obtain favors.10Ibid., 71. Asgerdr takes this even further, using it to obtain forgiveness for having an affair. This initially does not work as Thorkell will not let her under the covers, but she has other incentives: she threatens him with immediate divorce, which would deprive Thorkell of her inherited money as well as her body. She has financial power on her side and her threat gets her back in Thorkell’s bed, where she is quickly forgiven.11Ibid. Women’s financial independence as well as their physical assets contributed to their power in medieval Iceland.
The Vikings were fairly sexually liberated for their era. They did not marry for passion (marriages were usually arranged around convenience and politics), but grew to love their spouses. Still, passionate relationships and affairs naturally happened, and women are often portrayed as equal participants and instigators to men in these affairs. Gunnhilda is an obvious example of this. Her ‘sexual appetite’ is notorious and is depicted in many of the sagas. Jochens describes her as known for her “power and cruelty, admired for her beauty and generosity, and feared for her magic, cunning, sexual insatiability, and her goading.”12Jenny Jochens, Old Norse Images of Women (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 180. She instigates an affair with an Icelander named Hrutr, though he has a woman back home. She is far older than he is, but bribes him with clothes and locks him in a bedchamber with her. After a year of this forced affair, Hrutr wants to return to Iceland. She places a curse on him so that he will never be able to enjoy a union with his future wife Unnr.13Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, 73. Gunnhilda instigates the affair and jealously tries to keep Hrutr for herself. Her control over the affair is impressive for the era and shows a good deal of sexual liberty for women.
We also see an instance of mutual romance with Thormodr and Thorbjorg, who meet and fall for each other instantly. Jochens describes its suddenness. “When his wife makes a snide remark, he divorces her and marries the young woman on the spot.”14Ibid., 68. In this instance, they do not have to prove anything to one another to try to woo each other. Brynhild and Sigurd fall in love similarly, and Sigurd clearly wishes to abide by Brynhild’s wishes and respect her. He praises her saying, “this woman seemed to me the best in the world.”15Saga of the Volsungs, 74. When he is warned that “there has yet to be a man that she allows to sit by her or to whom she gives ale to drink. She wants to go warring and win all kinds of fame.” Sigurd replies: “I do not know whether she will answer me or not or whether she will let me sit by her.”16Ibid. He respects her position as a shield-maiden and gives her the choice whether to respond to his courting or not. The fact that she was a warrior and could decline his courting is far more liberal than the modern world expects the stereotypical Vikings to be.
Men in the sagas had to please their women, which would not have been neces sary in many other cultures at the time. Women were somewhat scarce in Iceland, so at feasts they were assigned by lot to share a drinking horn with a man. The young girl who was assigned to Egil’s drinking horn was displeased by his youth and inexperience until he seduced her by “picking her up and placing her next to himself,” a traditional way of saying that he initiated physical contact.17Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, 69. We can also see that it is important for not only the man but also the woman to enjoy a kiss. Upon smashing a man’s jaw, one Icelander remarked that his lover would find him less pleasant to kiss.18Ibid., 70. This comment shows that they kept women’s pleasure in mind as well as their own.
In addition to being physically pleasing, men also sometimes had to meet demands in order to marry or sleep with a woman. Aslaug the warrior queen, Brynhild’s daughter, refuses to marry Ragnar until he completes his raids in Norway. She also refuses to sleep with him until after marriage. This firm resolve lead to Ragnar finishing his raids in Norway, marrying Aslaug, and eventually becoming king of Denmark.19Rory McTurk, Studies In Ragnars Saga Lodbr’okar and Its Major Scandinavian Analogues (Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 1991), 78.
Women did not always sit around as decoration for their powerful husbands. They could have roles of their own: farming, running households or owning land, and taking part in political struggles. Susan Clark, a researcher in Scandinavian studies, writes that it is clear both from the sagas and from more historical sources such as Sturlunga Saga and law codes that women could own farms and land.20Susan Clark, “‘Cold are the Counsels of Women': The Revengeful Woman in Icelandic Family Sagas,” in Women as Protagonists and Poets in the German Middle Ages: An Anthology of Feminist Approaches to Middle High German Literature, ed. Albrecht Classen (Güppingen: Kümmerle Verlag, 1991), 283. It was standard for independent women (particularly wealthy widows) to throw parties and act as hosts just as other successful farmers were expected to do. These independent women more rarely got involved in the politics that come with owning land, but there are examples of politically active women. Steinvör Sighvatsdottir took part in the struggle to maintain her family’s power in Iceland, acting as a negotiator. Normally it would be her husband’s job to handle legal and financial business (even though women were often financially independent), but he decided not to and so she handled the settlement herself, and then claimed the property and chieftaincy, considering herself the head of her household.21Ibid., 286–7. The fact that a woman could do all this despite having a husband and despite the law saying that her husband should be responsible for these affairs shows a considerable flexibility. Not every law and social restriction was enforced, thus leaving women with more freedom if they had the ambition to take it.
Sometimes women took charge with violence instead of law, such as the shieldmaiden Brynhild. Though at first she used her husband and her brother-in-law to exact revenge, after Sigurd’s death at the end of the Völsunga Saga, she kills his young son herself and then throws herself on Sigurd’s funeral pyre. Traditionally in the sagas, a woman would not take this kind of direct and violent action herself, but Brynhild is the exception, proving that women with the ambition and courage can be as deadly as any Icelander.
Gudrun gets her own revenge through plotting in her first marriage when she is only 15. Her husband, whom she does not love, scolds her for her demands for expensive jewels and gives her a blow to the ear. To get revenge, she seeks advice from Thord, who tells her to “make him a shirt with such a large neck-hole that [she] may have a good excuse for separating from him, because he has a low neck like a woman.”22Laxdaela Saga, 69. In this instance she does not work through men and does not use violence, but divorces her unwanted husband by tricking him into dressing like a woman.
Despite the fact that men were the heroes of most of the sagas, women were sometimes heroines too. Rory McTurk, emeritus professor of Icelandic studies, studies Ragnars Saga with this in mind. He looks at Aslaug through a literary lens to see if she follows the same patterns that other heroes do, particularly initiation rites and how she becomes a heroine. He follows a pattern established by the Dutch scholar Jan de Vries called the “heroic biographical pattern” which is “closely connected with initiation rituals, and with creation myths in which organized life was represented as arising out of chaos, the latter being often symbolized by monsters.”23McTurk, Studies In Ragnars Saga Lodbr’okar, 51. The pattern has ten steps from birth to death and is remarkably detailed: Aslaug fits into some of the minute details such as being born of a virgin (she is the daughter of Brynhild and Sigurd, though the two were never married and never had sex). Her youth is threatened and she grows up hiding her noble birth by rubbing tar on her beautiful skin and going by Kråka (crow), working hard for foster parents who killed Heimir, her last living connection to her parents. She proves her cleverness by answering a riddle asked by her future husband Ragnar where he asks her to visit him “neither clad nor unclad, neither fed nor unfed, neither alone nor accompanied by man” and she arrives wearing a net, biting an onion, and with a dog by her side. This fits another common literary pattern that McTurk uses: ‘the clever peasant girl.’24McTurk, Studies In Ragnars Saga Lodbr’okar, 51. She also shows her cleverness and perceptiveness many times with her gift of prophecy. As Sigurd courts her and tells her he will marry none other than her, she says he “will marry Gudrun, the daughter of Gjuki.”25Saga of the Volsungs, 75. Sigurd naturally denies that this will happen, but her prediction comes true.
Step nine in these initiation rites is the return from banishment and conquering of enemies, which happens when Aslaug leaves her evil foster parents, curses them with misery, and proves her true identity as the daughter of Sigurd the serpent-slayer by giving birth to a son with a snake-mark around his eye. McTurk’s analysis shows that neither Ragnar nor Aslaug fit every part of the detailed heroic biographical pattern perfectly, but in some respects she fulfills more criteria of heroism than he does, and is, in the end, “the actual character who finally has our sympathies.”26Axel Olrik, “Epic laws of folk narrative,” in The Study of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 129–41. McTurk concludes from these analyses that Aslaug is a genuine heroine, at least as important in Ragnars Saga as Ragnar himself.
Another requirement for heroes in Icelandic sagas is for them to be skilled with runes. In The Saga of the Volsungs, Brynhild shows her mastery of the runes when she first meets Sigurd who asks for her to “teach [him] the ways of mighty things.” She replies with a poem and a filled goblet, transferring to him runes of healing, of pleasing speech, victory runes, wave runes (mastery of the sea), speech runes, ale runes, aid runes, branch runes, and mind runes in a poetic recitation.27Saga of the Volsungs, 68–9. Not only does this demonstrate her power with runes, but it also shows foresight once again when she instructs him on how to use ale runes to check for poison or potions in a cup. Later, of course, he drinks a potion which makes him forget Brynhild and marry Gudrun. Brynhild once again fits into the mold of a hero by being well-versed in runes and being wise.
Throughout the sagas, we can see that although women are not considered equal to men, medieval Icelandic society was at least flexible enough to allow for some intimidating and powerful heroines who got their way through manipulating men, using their sexuality, and acting of their own free will. From a feminist perspective, the Vikings were far ahead of their time, as women in the sagas are portrayed as actors and not objects. This is important because the portrayal of women in fiction is part of an ongoing debate in our own culture, and modern books and movies could be improved by a few strong, vengeful Brynhilds, Gudruns, and Aslaugs.
Byock, Jesse L. Saga of the Volsungs. University of California Press, 1990.
Clark, Susan. “Cold are the Counsels of Women': The Revengeful Woman in Icelandic Family Sagas.” In Women as Protagonists and Poets in the German Middle Ages: An Anthology of Feminist Approaches to Middle High German Literature, edited by Albrecht Classen. Güppingen: Kümmerle Verlag, 1991.
Green, W. C. “Egil’s Saga.” Icelandic Saga Database, edited by Sveinbjorn Thordarson.
Jochens, Jenny. Women in Old Norse Society. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.
Jochens, Jenny. Old Norse Images of Women. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
McTurk, Rory. Studies In Ragnars Saga Lodbrʹokar and Its Major Scandinavian Analogues. Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 1991.
Olrik, Axel. “Epic laws of folk narrative.” In The Study of Folklore, edited by Alan Dundes. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1965.
Press, Muriel. Laxdaela Saga. Cambridge: In Parenthesis Publications, Old Norse Series, 1999.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Laxdaela Saga, trans. Muriel Press, (Cambridge: In Parenthesis Publications, Old Norse Series, 1999), 113.|
|5.||↑||Egil’s Saga, trans. W. C. Green, Icelandic Saga Database, ed. Sveinbjorn Thordarson, Ch. 49.|
|6.||↑||Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, trans. Jesse L. Byock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), Ch. 29.|
|7.||↑||Jenny Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995), 76.|
|12.||↑||Jenny Jochens, Old Norse Images of Women (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 180.|
|13.||↑||Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, 73.|
|15.||↑||Saga of the Volsungs, 74.|
|17.||↑||Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, 69.|
|19.||↑||Rory McTurk, Studies In Ragnars Saga Lodbr’okar and Its Major Scandinavian Analogues (Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 1991), 78.|
|20.||↑||Susan Clark, “‘Cold are the Counsels of Women': The Revengeful Woman in Icelandic Family Sagas,” in Women as Protagonists and Poets in the German Middle Ages: An Anthology of Feminist Approaches to Middle High German Literature, ed. Albrecht Classen (Güppingen: Kümmerle Verlag, 1991), 283.|
|22.||↑||Laxdaela Saga, 69.|
|23.||↑||McTurk, Studies In Ragnars Saga Lodbr’okar, 51.|
|24.||↑||McTurk, Studies In Ragnars Saga Lodbr’okar, 51.|
|25.||↑||Saga of the Volsungs, 75.|
|26.||↑||Axel Olrik, “Epic laws of folk narrative,” in The Study of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 129–41.|
|27.||↑||Saga of the Volsungs, 68–9.|