The Skull and Bones in Egils Saga: A Viking, A Grave, and Paget’s Disease
By Jesse L. Byock
Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 24 (1993)
Introduction: It is often said or implied that, in our profession, a man cannot be both practical and scientific; science and practice seem to some people to be incompatible. Each man, they say, must devote himself to the one or the other. The like of this has long been said, and it is sheer nonsense. —Sir James Paget
As suggested by Sir James Paget, breaking the narrow confines of accepted views and expanding discourse are crucial stimuli for every discipline. Saga studies might profit from Paget’s observations by taking scientific analysis into account, for despite the new awakening to the socio-historical and anthropological potentials of Iceland’s medieval texts, the study of individual saga characters remains largely confined to the traditional analytic tools of literature and folklore. An excellent example is the current understanding of Egill SkallaGrímsson, one of the sagas’ most colorful heroes. Egill’s behavior, poetry, and the saga’s descriptions of this tenth-century Viking are today interpreted solely in literary and mythic terms.
Egill, as an instance of confined analysis, is indicative of the limitations accepted by a whole study. For over a hundred years the related questions of saga veracity and the oral or written origins of Icelandic narrative texts have been continually debated. The arguments have been driven by logic and scholarly creativity, but they are based in textual interpretation without the possibility of proof. Over the years the discourse, limited by the nature of its analytic tools, has often revolved around how well or how forcefully individual scholars have presented their views. The equation would change drastically if a new source of information were found.