Applications 20. Víga-Glúms saga and the Ofsi of Godless Men.
Richard L. Harris, English Department, University of Saskatchewan   []
The 7th annual Fiske Conference on Medieval Icelandic Studies. Norsestock 7.   31 May-3 June 2012.

            The biography of a single hero, and thus falling in with a small group of such works as Grettla and Egla among the Íslendingasögur, Víga-Glúms saga is also the story of an extended and rather complexly developed feud between its eponymous hero and a branch of his family associated with Espihóll, at a short distance from his own farm, at Þverá, with the two separated by the Eyjafjarðará.   In a thematic sense, the saga studies the unwholesome relationship between Glúmr Eyjólfsson and the world of the gods, a relationship reflective of a devotional ambivalence of neutral value in his family background but which in his case seems to be associated with the cause of his life’s misfortunes.

            His paternal grandfather, Helgi the Lean, who according to Landnámabók honored both Þórr and Christ, was unexpectedly disappointed when, like many other immigrants, he put to the former deity the question of where to settle in Iceland.  “The oracle guided him north of the island,” and his son asked him if he intended “to sail as far as the Arctic Ocean if Thor told him to go there.”    [HANDOUT] 

            Whencever his guidance, Helgi spent the first winter on the west side of Eyjafjǫrðr, near its mouth, where he found the weather severe.  Noticing that all was less white at the head of the fjord in spring, he moved southwards, releasing a boar and a sow at Galtarhamarr, where three years later their number had grown to 70.  The dependence of this experiment upon Freyr is obvious, though implicit in the settlement story.  Taking possession of the whole of Eyjafjǫrðr, Helgi is said to have believed in Christ, called his home Kristness after him, and yet gave several of his children names whose elements are associated with the god Freyr.  [T-P? source, date?]

            The ancestrally supported theme of devotional ambivalence thus seems well established in the background of Víga-Glúmr, whose saga has been thought to have been written at the monastery of Munkaþverá, at the location of and renamed from the older Þverá, near which there had been a temple to Freyr, south of the river of that name, at Hripkelsstaðir.  Upon his father’s death Glúmr finds life intolerable at Þverá, left alone with his mother Ástríðr, their new neighbours by the inheritance having taken half the property and encroaching upon that left, which is not theirs. “I’m not prepared to put up with Sigmund’s oppression,” he says, “but I can see that I’m not able to stand up to him yet.” [his age at this time?] (274)  And so he goes to Norway, to visit his maternal grandfather Vígfúss, where readers see Glúmr coming under the Óðinnic influence of this figure, first described as “a big and noble-looking man in the high seat, wearing a black cloak with a hood and playing with a gold-inlaid spear.”  Honored there for feats of bravery, Glúmr returns to Iceland with three gifts from Vígfúss, “a cloak and spear and sword on which our family has placed great reliance; and while you keep these precious things, I expect that you won’t lose your status, but I have my fears about what may happen if you let them go.” (276)  Now, asserting his newly acquired heroic stature, Glúmr dons the black cloak, and with the spear slays Sigmundr on the field Vitazgjafi (Sure Giver), unfailingly fertile land clearly sacred to Freyr, thus desecrating it with this blood spilled in violence.  Sigmundr’s son Þorkell, when forced to leave the property, offers an old ox to Freyr at his temple, “I give you this ox, to the end that Glum may depart from the land at Thvera under a compulsion no less than that by which I go now. And let there now appear some token of whether you have accepted my offer or not,” says Vígfúss. (282)  The ox starts violently, bellows, and falls down dead, a sure sign of Freyr’s discontent with Glúmr and his sacrilegious ways. 

            At this point, Glúmr maintains his power and status however, his good fortune no doubt supported by the fylgja of Vígfúss appearing to him in a dream upon his grandfather’s death, approaching him in a form so large “that her shoulders touched the mountains on both sides” of the valley—he “went out of the farmyard to meet her and invited her to stay with him.” (280)  For several decades he dominates affairs in his district, with Óðinnic duplicity and strategically applied violence or at least its threat, composing poetry typical of that produced by warriors who followed this deity.  In an episode years later where he swears a false oath on Freyr’s altar, irreparably losing thus his favor, he then alienates Óðinn when he gives his supporting witnesses to the falsely worded oaths the black cloak and gold-inlaid spear with which his grandfather told him the aristocratic family luck was imbued.  Later, in a dream, he sees large numbers of relatives imploring Freyr for foregiveness, so that he won’t be driven from the land at Þverá, but it is no use, “Freyr answers curtly and angrily and remembers now Thorkel the Tall’s gift of an ox.” Readers are reminded of Hrafnkell’s similar disillusionment, when, upon waking, “Glum said his feelings for Frey were the worse ever afterwards.”  (308)  Banished from his estate, blind in old age, on a farm at Þverábrekka in Øxnadalr, he pretends to seek reconciliation with his enemies. Hiding a short sword in his cloak, he is disappointed when they are too suspicious of his intentions to meet with him, “because I’d expected that if I went to meet them I shouldn’t miss them both.” [see Þorsteins Þáttr Stangarhǫggs and Egil’s crazy plotting for the Alþing]  The composer remarks that this was the end of the encounters between Glúmr and his adversaries in Eyjafjǫrðr and in the next sentence reports his conversion to Christianity, three years prior to his death.

            Turville-Petre’s and other textbooks of mythology cite the tale of Glúmr Eyjólfsson as a cautionary example of what can happen to a man who offends the gods.  By the 13th century, however, one’s loyalty to such deities was of no immediate interest, and it is likely that the saga had some more relevant significance.  Perhaps we are helped by heeding Hermann Pálsson’s opinion that, produced in a literary and Christian context, “One of the purposes of the sagas was to warn people against the errors of arrogance and injustice, of stupidity and excess; another, to inculcate upon the reader the value of knowing oneself and enjoying the friendship of trustworthy men.” (Úr Hugmyndaheimi, 130)  While the fickleness of Víga-Glúmr’s allegiance to the gods is not in question, it is possible that the saga’s composer portrayed a more urgent flaw in his character in its situation in a Christian narrative. 
            After the young Glúmr, back from Norway with confidence in his Óðinnically inspired warriorhood, has warned Þorkell in hávi to mind the boundaries between their properties, his contemplation of impending vengeance is accompanied by a description of physiological symptoms which remind us of similar passages in Fóstbrœðra saga, current views of which suggest its composition at least in part under the influence of a theologically trained eye with an awareness of continental medical knowledge.  If we accept the view that this saga studies, from a Christian perspective, the impact of the pre-Christian proverb that in competitive transactions the more powerful individual always decides, and that ultimately the most powerful entity in that process is God, then we might be justified in seeking a similarly theologically oriented purpose behind the text of Víga-Glúms saga.  Thomas DuBois finds that this work “reflects an author of deep Christian outlook and learning.” (185)  He notices that the hero himself, while emerging in a family where devotional loyalty is interestingly diverse, reveals on one occasion that he doesn’t particularly believe in any of it.  In a game of words where he is testing the loyalty of Ingólfr, each of them is to name what they place their trust in.  Glúmr begins, “there are three things I place reliance on—one is my purse, the second my axe, the third my storehouse.” (288)  For DuBois this establishes Glúmr as a guðlaus maðr, relying upon his own strength rather than the help of the gods for his well-being.  “While his enemy Þorkell gratefully acknowledges Freyr as his fulltrúi . . ., Glúmr makes no such claim concerning Óðinn.  Rather, he places his trust firmly in his own possessions and strength.” (188) 

            Turville–Petre, in his chapter on “Godless Men” (M&ROTN 264-8), explains this pagan atheism historically as occurring where individuals were wrenched from the traditional ties of their communities by the rise of northern monarchies and the seizure of ancestral estates.  “Men like these, cut off from society, were also cut off from the religion of their ancestors and, for them, the cult of the gods had lost its meaning.” (264) The historical instances in Landnámabók of Helgi and his son Halldórr, both bearing the nickname guðlaus, are reflected in such fantastic works as the sagas of Hrólf kraki, who with his champions believed only in his own might (á sinn mátt) and of Ǫrvarr-Oddr, who never sacrificed, thinking it “contemptible to crawl before stocks and stones.” (264)  Turville-Petre thinks Christian writers made more of such figures than was justified: “In their eyes it was better to believe in no god than to bring sacrifice to stocks and stones, idols and demons.”  Other writers, observes Lönnroth, have regarded this self-reliant faith “as a genuine belief of the pagan era.” (17) He considers this view “suitable for a noble heathen in a saga written by a Christian, since to believe in one’s own powers would certainly seem preferable to idolatry,” and it would make conversion stories all the more dramatic, when the hero “at last realizes that here is a god worthy of his adoration, i.e. a god more powerful than the hero himself.” (17)

            In DuBois’s interpretation, however, “Pagan behaviors become embodiments of Christian sin,” (185) and when Glúmr explicitly places his trust in his own possessions and strength he becomes “a victim of the sin of pride: the wrongheaded  belief that one’s success derives from one’s own efforts and worth.” (188-9)  It is out of such pride that he practices his ruthless leadership in his district, his cunning deceptions, celebrating this behavior in Óðinnic verses, in one of which he even self-destructively reveals that he murdered Þorvaldr Hook.  When he offends Freyr by desecrating his land and his temple and gives away the ancestral tokens of Óðinn’s favor, he affirms this prideful self-reliance.  DuBois notices paroemial signalling of the composer’s purpose when the hero’s mother Ástríðr, castigates her son’s adversary, Sigmundr: “Pride and injustice often come to a bad end, Sigmund, and perhaps that may apply to you.” (278)  Sigmundr in turn ridicules Glúmr in a subsequent scene for his arrogance upon his return from Norway and robust response to his neighbors’ trespassing, “you think you’ve done very well for yourself abroad,” he observes, “you’re playing the big man now Glum,” . . . “we’re not going to make our plans to fit your big mouth.” (278-9)

            DuBois finds that in the sagas paganism provides a “thematic basis for the portrayal of a proud and vengeful society one which can escape its failings only with the final acceptance of Christianity.” “The textual depiction of paganism, at first so seemingly ethnographic and intimate,” is then interpretable in a Christian light, when “pagan behaviours become embodiments of Christian sins.”  DuBois cites St Gregory’s examination of pride and its effects on rulers in the Cura pastoralis and Moralia in Job. Glúmr’s early fits of rage, Óðinnic though they may be, consitute a symptom of pride, exhibited in old age by his versified boasting over the kllling of Þorvaldr Hook. (189) Víga-Glúmr’s conversion at the end of his life and saga marks symbolically the transformation of “a recalcitrant pagan realm, foolishly given to excesses of pride,” to a nation whose “leaders behave according to Christian doctrines of noble rulership.” (191)

            As much of the signalling of pagan devotion in the work is expressed in ritual and action rather than commentary, so too the Christian critical element is left implicit.  However, whether coincidentally or as a result of related compositional origin, the Þáttr of Þorvaldr tasaldi, a nephew of Glúmr’s, contains dialogue supportive of DuBois’s reading. Sent by King Óláfr Tryggvason to Barðr, a non-Christian living in Oppland, to bring him to court for his conversion, Þorvaldr contends with this non-believer in a magical setting.  Their wrestling is tied, Barðr’s magical powers offset when Þorvaldr is aided by the power of prayer and a napkin bearing the names of God strapped around his torso. Barðr then calls forth his mysterious warrior helpers from the undercroft, an expedient to which he has never previously had to resort.  When Þorvaldr asks him to come meet the king, Barðr explains that he has no faith: “I don’t trust in any idol or devil. I’ve gone from one country to another and met both giants and black men, and they none of them got the better of me; so I have long trusted in my own strength and ability.” [as pagan Eyjolfr refused to seek royal Xtn audience] Impressed, however, at having been overcome by a man whose power derived merely from the names of God, Barðr “can see that it must be a good thing to trust in such a powerful god if one must trust in any at all.” (326)  To Óláfr he exclaims, “You control a mighty god, my lord king, and because I’ve proved the truth of that I’m now willing to trust in him and let myself be baptized.”  The king, recognizing the pagan’s pride in thinking one controls the divine entity, corrects him, “the true way of putting it is that He is a mighty God who rules me and all things, . . . and calls to Him, albeit in various ways, all those who are worthy of His service.” 

            As Víga-Glúmr in his devotional ambivalence recalls the religious shiftyness imputed by Landnámabók to his great grandfather, Helgi magri, so Barðr’s spiritual attitude seems reflective of that self-reliance which DuBois notices in Glúmr himself.  And the unconscious arrogance of Barðr’s assumption that one controls a god is explicitly noticed and rejected by King Óláfr, that notably perspicacious and robust proponent of Christianity in the North.  It seems likely, as DuBois supposes, that the godless men of pagan times were viewed in 13th-century Icelandic narrative as victims of pride rather than being spiritually admirable in their refusal to rely upon the support of the pagan deities.






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