Women's Weapons a Re-Evaluation of Magic in the Islendingasogur

Article excerpt

MAGIC IS A VERSATILE LITERARY MOTIF in the Islendingasogur, which authors had at their disposal to use in a wide range of settings whether at the splendid Norwegian court, an Icelandic farm, a local assembly, or an isolated fiord in Greenland. In this article, I argue that whether or not the representation of magic in the Islendingasogur has any basis in reality, in these texts magic is fictionalized in and fulfils a literary purpose rather than being employed as a conscious endeavor to document historically authentic pagan religious practices. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that changes in the topos of magic can be arranged in a likely chronological order of composition; in the earliest sagas magic, primarily appears as a plot device, e.g. for foreshadowing and the creation of a mood, but in the course of the thirteenth century, the perception of this motif becomes more complex in the genre and it is employed in more sophisticated ways in order to engage larger socio-political questions and the idea of individual agency. Women's use of magic, the focus of this article, raises questions about the relationships between gender, honor, power, and social organization, and demonstrates the conscious use of the topos as a means of addressing other issues. (1) Finally, the presence of motifs borrowed from folklore and fornaldarsogur indicate that as early as the thirteenth century, the boundaries between what critics have categorized as fantastic and realistic genres had gradually become blurred (or may never have existed for contemporary authors and audiences in the first place).


Magic, witchcraft, and socerty have been defined as cultural beliefs and practices, deeply rooted in the traditional ideas and moral foundations of society, which "provide coherent and systematic means to influence the world in which man lives" (Yalman 527). (2) I will use the word magic as a general term for all supernatural events alleged to be caused by a saga character by various means for any number of reason. Attitudes toward magic in the Islendingasogur are often ambiguous and depend on the perspective of particular characters; most of the terms used of those who perform magic, e.g. fjolkunnig(r), margkunnig(r), fornfrod(r), are, however, socially neutral referring to a character's extensive knowledge of antiquity. According to Francois-Xavier Dillmann, these compounds had probably taken on the specific meaning relating to knowledge of magic considerably earlier than the composition of the Islendingasogur (Dillmann, Les magiciens 207-8). (3) In the sagas, a person who practices magic is not automatically labeled evil, nor is the magic itself necessarily so viewed; thus in what follows, I will avoid terms such as sorcery, witchcraft, and black/white magic, which some critics have used but which qualify the magic and imply a moral judgment. (4) This is not to say that there are no instances in the Islendingasogur referring to practitioners of magic in negative terms, but in those cases the attitude is made clear. A good example is the depiction of porgrimr nef in Gisla saga Surssonar as a seidskratti [seidr-wizard], and the narrative comment that his magic rituals were performed "med allri ergi ok skelmiskap" [with all perversion and devilry] (Gisla saga Surssonar 37, 56-7) is made. Finally, as Stephen Mitchell has suggested, the terminology relating to knowledge and the examples from the texts indicate--e.g. Gunnlaugr's magic lessons with Geirridr in Eyrbyggja saga--the idea that magic abilities are based on skill and knowledge and can be taught and learned rather than being innate is dominant (Eyrbyggja saga 28). (5) This magical knowledge can then be transformed into power if used shrewdly.

Magic is often a crucial narrative element in the Islendingasogur: appearing at the turning point of a story or being employed against someone for better or for worse according to where the audience's sympathies lie. …


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.