Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Marriage and the Creation of Kin in the Sagas

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Marriage and the Creation of Kin in the Sagas

Article excerpt

IN Gisla saga Surssonar, one of the best known of the Icelandic family sagas, Gisli's outlawry and eventual death result from a tragic conflict between two loyalties, one to his brother and the other to his brother-in-law, his wife's brother. This conflict exemplifies an issue that loomed large for both men and women in societies where kinship formed an important base of social organization: which is more important, the group into which one is born or the group with which one chooses (or one's family chooses for one) to affiliate?

In many societies, this question arises only for women. Women are in essence transferred from their natal family to their marital family, and while they may retain ties to the former, they do not create close ties between the two. In those societies in which descent is largely traced patrilineally, the importance of the wife's family may end with the payment of the dowry. Late medieval Tuscany, where women were "passing guests" in their husbands' houses, provides an example of this pattern (Klapisch-Zuber 118). For Iceland, however, while not everyone agrees about the complete bilateral nature of the kinship system, it is clear from saga literature that cognatic kinship was important (see Miller 142-5; Hastrup 70-89).

Gisli's story involves two brothers, Gisli and Porkell, and a sister, Pordis. During the first part of the saga, which takes place in Norway, Gisli kills two men whom he suspects of carrying on liaisons with Pordis and a third who wishes to marry her. These killings greatly please their father and increase Gisli's honor within the community. The saga, however, never mentions Gisli's feelings about the deaths of her rumored lovers. As Thomas Bredsdorff points out, when Gisli reproaches Pordis later in the saga for her disloyalty, citing the killings as examples of how he has looked out for her interests, it does not occur to him that she did not approve of these killings. "The saga's silence about Thordis's desires compared with its insistence on the recurrent rumours about these desires can scarcely be understood unless as evidence that she does have desires--and that they part company with her father's. And with Gisli's which are identical with his father's" (Bredsdorff 68).

The saga describes how the first killing causes a rupture between Gisli and his brother Porkell, who was a friend of the rumored seducer Bardur. The second rumored seducer, Kolbjorn, is challenged to a duel by Skeggi, who on Porkell's advice wishes to marry Pordis. Gisli fights the duel on Kolbjorn's behalf, wounding Skeggi; the brothers then reconcile. Skeggi's sons force Kolbjorn to help them in an attack on Gisl's family; Gisli, his father, and his brother defend themselves, then burn Kolbjorn in his house and pursue and kill Skeggi and his sons. After this they move to Iceland, and Gisli's father dies leaving his farm to Gisli and Porkell who work it together. All three siblings marry. Although Pordis's husband Porgrimur comes from a different region of Iceland, they settle in the west near her brothers on a farm that she receives as her dowry.

Gisli and Porkell attend an assembly along with their sister's husband Porgrimur and Gisli's wife's brother Vesteinn. People comment on their looks and arrogance, and someone makes a prediction that in three years they will no longer be allies. When Gisli hears this, he suggests that the four of them counter the prediction by swearing an oath of brotherhood. They agree, but Porgrimur refuses to bind himself to Vesteinn, to whom he is not related by marriage; Gisll then refuses to bind himself to Porgrimur (to whom he is related by marriage). The lines of the conflict are foreshadowed: Porgrimur and Porkell on the one hand and Gisli and Vesteinn on the other. The men undertake various trading ventures, Porgrimur together with Porkell and Gisli together with Vdsteiun, but when they return to Iceland, Porkell and Gisli still farm together. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.