Applications 15.   Some Paroemial Usages of Ignoble Heathens in Grettla and in Fóstbrœðra saga.
Session 123. Christianity and Scandinavian Pagan Heresy. International Medieval Congress, Leeds.  13 July 2009.
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, CANADA [heorot@sasktel.net]
 
In this paper I am going to talk about some people in a couple of later Old Icelandic sagas.  Though not in fact pagan, they live in a posited early 11th-century Icelandic generic world where the Christian conversion is fairly recent, and they are represented by the composers of both these sagas as maintaining pagan sympathies with respect to their participation in sorcery, a not uncommon configuration anywhere in the history of magic and of the Christian conversion’s influence upon its status in society.  Among various factors which seem to link Grettis saga and Fóstbrœðra saga, at least in their extant texts, readers have long noticed phraseological similarities between passages in each referring to the “many sparks of heathendom” still remaining among the people. [HANDOUT] 
In Fóstbrœðra saga then, Gríma, a poor woman on an isolated farm in Greenland, uses her possibly magic healing arts to save Þormóðr Kólbrunarskáld when he’s terribly wounded, and subsequently she uses her sorcery to hide him from those who would seek to take their vengeance on him.  In Grettis saga, conversely, Þúríðr, old fóstra(foster-mother) of Þorbjörn Öngull, helps the latter by using sorcery to injure and weaken the almost supernaturally strong outlaw hero, to the point where he can easily be killed.  I am interested in these two women because the attitudes and phraseological expressions with which they go about their activities and their treatment by the composers of their respective narratives seem to me different from those of similarly placed figures in those sagas whose texts are generally considered to have reached their extant form earlier in the 13th century, and I would like to consider reasons for this being so.

1.  Ari Þorgilsson recounts in Íslendingabók how Óláfr Tryggvason, angered by his missonary Þangbrand’s reports of the Icelanders’ negative response to his attempts to convert them, “designed to kill or maim all our countrymen who were there in the east.” [C. VII   HHtr 65]  Only the assurances of two visiting early Christian converts, Gízurr hinn hvíti  and Hjalti Skeggjason, that they would lead a second attempt to persuade their countrymen, gained the king’s Icelandic visitors a reprieve.  Laxdœla saga, from the mid-13th century, places Kjartan Óláfsson among four Icelanders held hostage by the king awaiting the outcome of this new mission.  Kjartan speaks heroic words when under pressure from Óláfr to convert, even suggesting regicide: “I want to burn the king in his house.” [   tr. 146]  Cautioned that Óláfr was a man of uncommon good luck and fortune, he replies paroemially that “courage could fail even in the best of men.”  When Óláfr learns of Kjartan’s heroic threats but forgives him, Kjartan is impressed by this unusual gentleness and when, on Christmas, he decides to convert, the king rejoices, with a proverbial observation, “Kjartan has proved the old saying that holy days are always luckiest.” [  tr. 149]

Kjartan Óláfsson comes from a society traditionally pagan, in which the existence of sorcery creates a potentially deadly nuisance and its destructive practitioners are therefore liable to execution, but they do not apparently represent a force in conflict with the current belief system.  Thus the not surprisingly dishonest Hebrideans, Kotkell and his family, “skilled in witchcraft’ and “great sorcerers” [  tr. 125] are regarded first as an annoyance for their thievery and secondarily for their sorcery. [  tr. 128]  When the latter activity brings about the death of a major figure, Þórðr Ingunnarson, and their position is weakened, they gain protection from Þorleikr Höskuldsson, who eventually uses their supernatural powers against an adversary in a feud.  The composer does not allow Kotkell and his family any significant personal appearance in his world beyond a few lines of direct speech in which they lie to Þorleikr about the vulnerability of their situation.  Their presence is anti-social, and they are used for purely hostile purposes by their protector—although they respond with their peculiar power when their security is threatened, they have no personal involvement in the conflicts for which they are used by others.  These sorcerers of Kjartan’s and by extension Iceland’s pre-Christian youth, although their characters may be coloured in some ways by earlier 13th-century saga composers, are not figures whose activities pose a threat to the ideological interests of an established religion—rather, if provoked or encouraged, with their powers they pose a threat to individual members of of society itself, and in Laxdœla the family are eventually executed for their homocidal mischief.

2.  While the dating of Fóstbrœðra saga in its differing extant forms is an extremely complex issue and certainly remains controversial, Jónas Kristjánsson’s extensively detailed contribution to the debate in 1972 seems fairly persuasive, and I adopt his view in this essay.  Thus, the texts we have, come later in the history of Íslendingasaga composition, and they also create a world in the later saga age, the first decades of the 11th century, with Christianity now the official religion but in a society whose members vary considerably in religious orientation and spiritual commitment.  Þormóðr Kólbrunarskáld, with St Olaf’s permission, heads for Greenland assured by the understanding between them that his journey aims at vengeance for the death of Þorgeirr Hávarsson, his sworn brother and one of the king’s followers.  Although he succeeds in killing Þórgrímr Einarsson, he is severely injured by the latter’s nephew and in this condition is taken by his Greenlandic hosts to the most obscure farm in Eiríksfjörðr.  Its inhabitants, Gamli and Gríma, though poor and without voluntary social contact, are not anti-social outcasts.  Gamli is an excellent hunter and fisherman, his wife “ill-tempered, but with many talents. She was a good healer and quite well versed in the ancient arts.” [  tr. 382]  They live respectably, under the protection of Þorkell Leifsson, of Brattahlíð, Leifr Eiríksson’s son, head of the Eastern settlement.  Gríma is hesitant to take in Þórmóðr, given his legal situation.  She acquiesces, however, and is able to heal his injuries somewhat.  When Þorgrím’s sister, Þórdís dreams of her brother’s killer’s whereabouts, she sets out for vengeance, but taking Þorkell Leifsson with her to ensure no quarrel arises with him later over her treatment of Þórmóð’s protectors.  Þorkell protests, “It seems unlikely to me that Gríma would shelter a man you have had outlawed.” [  tr. 384] but he comes along anyway.  The subsequent stereotypical scene in which vengeance-seekers are duped by their quarry’s host falls clearly in a tradition well developed by the time this narrative is composed.  To an audience long familiar with the usual ploys, entertaining innovation is required.  Gríma has Þórmóðr sit in “a large chair with a figure of Þórr carved into the arms – a sizeable effigy” – while Gamli boils seal meat and throws floor sweepings on the fire to make more smoke.  [     tr.   ]  She spins at the threshold, humming incomprehensibly, surely a spell to conceal Þórmóð’s presence.   Upon their arrival, Þorkell speaks firmly but apologetically to Gríma, agreeing with her professed astonishment at Þórdís’ suspicions.  Þórdís, meanwhile, can see the chair but not its inhabitant—“Gríma still keeps to some of the old ways,” she comments, noticing the Þórr images.  The irony of the ensuing repartee would have been out of place in earlier saga narrative—“I seldom go to church to hear the lessons of the wise because it is so far away,” claims Gríma.  “I can break and burn [the figure of Þórr] whenever I please.  I also know the Creator . . . is far superior to Þórr and that no man can vanquish His power.” [  tr. 385]  “Perhaps that is what runs through your mind,” responds the dubious Þórdís, who doubts equally her vehemently proclaimed innocence of hiding Þórmóðr—“I’m sure we’d make you say more if Þorkell wasn’t here with all his men, for I suspect you know something of Þórmóð’s whereabouts.”  “It’s just as the saying has it” – and Gríma’s response here begins to reveal a cynicism hitherto concealed from the audience, at least:  “‘guessing often leads to error.’ And there’s another saying, ‘if a man’s time has not come, something will save him.’”  [   tr.   ]  Her complacent response, couched as it is in explicitly paroemial terms, moves towards the stunning irony of her final lines. 

It is a generic expectation of the saga world that proverbs are the property of people of stature who can be trusted to utter words of wisdom agreeable to the community and helpful in the resolutions of its problems.  When they are used by other figures in a narrative, it is usually for less positive reasons, with subversive motives on the part of the speaker.  Concluding, Gríma might surprise us all as she turns Christian teaching pretty much on its head, “What you sorely lack is a holy guardian so that the devil lead you not into the evil you are contemplating.  It’s excusable when people guess and are mistaken, but there’s no excusing the man who rejects the truth once it’s proven.”  [  tr.  ]  With nothing proven, and indeed nothing to prove that would be in her interests, the irony of Gríma’s comments and situation could be lost on an audience neither of the 13th century, nor of today.  Here the sorceress, actively inhabiting and respectably protected in the composer’s saga world, is presented with humorous irony as a figure not at all supportive of the Christian status quo.  What might have passed for justice in earlier narratives seems out of place now – she and her husband live happily ever after, so far as the story tells us:  no outlawry for harboring an outlaw, and much more significantly, no execution or even persecution for sorcery.  Composer and audience are now satisfied without such harshly simplistic solutions.

3.  Perhaps more puzzling still is the case of  Þúríðr in Grettis saga.  Like Eyjólfr inn grái before him by several decades in the progress of saga narrative, who undertook at much expense and eventual great loss of face the extermination of Gísli Súrsson, Þorbjörn Öngull has contracted with his community to rid the island sheep-pasture, Drangey, and more generally Icelandic society, of Grettir – the cleansing hero, nemesis of revenants and trolls, but also an outlaw of virtually supernatural strength.  Humiliatingly foiled in his first two assaults on the eyrie, he turns to his fóstra, Þúríðr, marginalized but not outcast, “very old,” and “not considered capable of doing much.”  “She had been well versed in magic and knew many secret arts when she was young and people were heathen.”  The composer remarks prophetically on the penalty of outlawry, under Christian law, for public practice of black magic but speaks paroemially of Þorbjörn’s desperate disposition – “a firm habit is hard to shake” and “what is learnt in childhood becomes second nature.”  He thus went for “guidance where most people would have thought it least likely to be found.”  Þúríð’s response, adorned with another respectable proverb, humorously confirms the unlikelihood of his decision:  “Many people go to the goat-shed looking for wool.”  And she ironically adopts a mock heroic pose, expressing fear of losing face should she “pretend to be greater than everyone else in this district” and then fail in the task.  Though bedridden, she insultingly observes she can’t do worse than her fosterling and agrees to help, with the clichéd provisio that he follow all her directions.

He reluctantly accompanies her on a fatefully burdened third expedition to the island, so she can “see how guarded Grettir is in his speech.  That will give me something to work with when I see how providence favors them.”  Negotiations again failed, Þorbjörn dejectedly observes, “I realize the sort of fiends I have to deal with here,” and Þúríðr concludes her more subtle observations: “These men are brave but fortune does not go with them.  There is a great difference between you.  You have made them many fine offers but they turn them all down, and there are few more certain ways to court trouble than to refuse what is good.”  [   tr. 169]  But the outlaws have not been offered anything good with any sincerity, and her damning observation is thus deeply ironic.  Her following curse arouses the outlaw’s always ready anger, and his injuring her with a rock leads to the retaliation of the cursed log.  Planning revenge, Þúríðr speaks again in what for composer and audience were mock-heroic terms – “I do not fear being unable to take revenge for this” to which Þorbjörn remarks, “You speak like a woman of high courage, foster-mother.”  [  tr. 170]   The cursed log, upon which Grettir injures himself when in his irritability he fails to recognize it as “the evil tree by evil sent,” [   tr. 171] brings low the hero who could not have been defeated by natural means.  The irony of Þúríð’s adoption of righteous observation and paroemial comment is primary in the scene of the third visit to Drangey, and on his fourth expedition, his adversary mortally weakened by his fóstra’s sorcery, body swollen with the infection of the axe wound, Þorbjörn’s comments are imbued with heavy irony by the composer as he proceeds to the kill.  He scolds Glaumr for his disloyalty – “Bad as he may be, you have betrayed your master shamefully.”  No saga audience would agree with Þorbjörn’s judgment of the outlaw as “bad,” nor could there be the slightest doubt of the irony of his reply when Grettir asks how he got there – “Christ showed us the way.”  Grettir’s guess, “that wretched old crone, your foster-mother, showed you the way” confirms the judgment of composer and audience on the dilemma in which Þorbjörn has placed himself.  Grettir, though an outlaw, is not in any sense evil, and Þorbjörn, though he kills Grettir, does so despicably and illegally, using the evil powers of his old fóstra, then regarded as the pre-Christian powers of old Iceland.  Eyjófr inn grái loses much face when he finally succeeds in killing Gísli, but Þorbjörn has committed crimes for which he will eventually be killed, and worse, he has placed his medieval Christian soul in danger.  His is a far more tragic victory.  His fóstra, though, as a last irony, is of no further concern to the late saga audience – her punishment or execution would be a story already told too many times in Old Icelandic literature.  The late Old Icelandic saga composer and her audience set her free.

Considering the saga passages which are the focus of this paper, one is of course conscious of earlier studies of social, political and ideological developments in 13th-century Iceland which might help us understand the observations I have made here.  In “Secular Attitudes in early Iceland,” Peter Foote (1974) showed how the mid-13th-century introduction of Norwegian bishops into Iceland and the hardening of lines of demarcation between ecclesiastical and secular groups, led the populace to “close their minds to the absolute alternatives . . . and hope for the best.” [p. 43]  This secularized attitude could explain how sorcerers are allowed a more secure existence in that later saga world of Grettla and of  Fóstbrœðra, but I do not think such factors external to the literature itself are necessary to our understanding of their situation.  Paul Schach commented “it is remarkable how frequently saga authors explain the fate or fortune of their characters on the basis of magic or sorcery or enchantment, for which there are also many designations.” [p. 118]  This noticed frequency of occurrence seems to me the key to how the stories of Gríma and of Þúríðr found places as they did in their respective narratives.  The completely marginalized, anti-social sorcerer, used as a stock figure by established members of society to work their will on, or to destroy, others, was common enough in earlier saga literature, and particularly in that whose setting was pre-Christian Iceland. To write what was entertaining to the saga audience of the 1280s and later and to imbue that entertainment with poignant meaning, innovation was demanded of the composer.  The response in the characters of the two sorceresses produced figures capable of pretended innocence, even of pretended righteousness – humorously ironic in the case of Gríma, but in that of Þúríðr forming a darkly ironic commentary on the spiritual condition of Þorbjörn Öngull in his unrestrained pursuit of the impossibly powerful outlaw, an obsessively driven pursuit which leads, as Þúríðr obliquely warns him at one point, to his ruin  -- his outlawry, his death, and perhaps his perdition.

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