Norse Mythology and the Lives of the Saints

By Lindow, John | Scandinavian Studies, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Norse Mythology and the Lives of the Saints

Lindow, John, Scandinavian Studies

ONE OF THE IRONIES of the study of Scandinavian mythology is that the texts that comprise the object of such study owe their existence to the technology of writing on parchment, which was brought by the Church and institutionalized after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. This technology was not intended for the uses to which Snorri Sturluson and the compiler of the Poetic Edda put it, but rather for the needs of the Church. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that the earliest vernacular texts from Iceland are clerical in nature, and that religious prose almost certainly antedated the writing of the narratives of the lives and battles of Norwegian kings and the feuds of Icelandic farmers from the Viking Age as well as the tales about gods and heroes. Such religious prose centered for the most part on materials of foreign provenance and included historical writing, specifically the Veraldarsaga, and, not least, lives of the apostles and saints. These hagiographic texts present the confrontation between paganism and Christianity as essentially one of two proselytizing or missionary forces. The apostles and saints work to convert pagans to the new religion, but at the same time they are confronted with powerful pagans who would have them worship the old pagan gods. Very often the life and death of a saint will turn on this confrontation, and in many of the translated lives of apostles and saints from medieval Iceland as well as in the hagiographic literature of the rest of Europe, such confrontations are the high points of the narratives, as the Christians expose the emptiness of the pagan gods, often converting pagans by this exposure. Many of these holy men and women finally die a martyr's death steadfast in their acceptance of the Christian god and rejection of the pagan gods; others, the so-called confessors, gain sanctity through the example of their lives.

Such works would have been read aloud and contemplated especially on the saints' feast days. Although one assumes that the episcopal residences and monastic houses would have been the center of such activity, it is, as everyone knows, not easy to draw a line between secular and sacral in medieval Iceland. To quote the famous words of Gabriel Turville-Petre:

   The saints' lives and the homilies are not among the best or most
   interesting of Icelandic literature. Only occasionally do they express the
   thoughts or the artistic taste of the Icelandic people, and they tell
   little about the traditions and antiquities of the north. But they were
   more important for the Icelanders of the twelfth century than they are for
   us. They were the first written biographies which the Icelanders came to
   know. The Icelanders learned from them how biographies and wonder-tales
   could be written in books. Thus, they helped the Icelanders to develop a
   literary, style in their own language, and gave them the means to express
   their own thoughts through the medium of letters. In a word, the learned
   literature did not teach the Icelanders what to think or what to say, but
   it taught them how to say it. It is unlikely that the sagas of kings and of
   Icelanders, or even the sagas of ancient heroes, would have developed as
   they did unless several generations of Icelanders had first been trained in
   hagiographic narrative. (1953: 14-1-2)

Although I agree with Sverrir Tomasson (1993: 281-2) that this statement seriously belittles the native modes of expression, certainly there had to be an admixture. However one chooses to regard the origins of Icelandic prose narrative writings, there must have been a considerable interaction between sacral and secular translating and audiences, and Sverrir draws attention to the skill with which translators found expressions that would have spoken clearly to native audiences. What I wish to propose here is that the hagiographic material may also have helped the Icelanders find what they wished to say about their own pagan gods, who were in some sense analogous to the ones encountered by the martyr saints of Italy, the Near East, and Africa, but who also, theologically and in some cases literally, were the same. …

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