Encountering ”Otherness” in the Heimskringla
By Sirpa Aalto
Ennen Ja Nyt, Vol.4 (2004)
Introduction: The Kings’ Sagas (konungasögur) are a genre of Icelandic sagas, which were written at the end of the 12th century and in the first half of the 13th century. This genre concentrates on telling about the kings of Norway and they can be compared with other contemporary historiography in Europe. The Heimskringla is often called the top of the Kings’ Sagas because of its sophisticated style. It was written by an Icelander, Snorri Sturluson (1178/79 1241), around the year 1230. Snorri himself was one of the leading Icelandic figures of his day: a highly educated chieftain, who had personal ties to King Hakon Hakonsson of Norway.
Historical anthropology is methodologically a good starting point for this topic, which is encountering “otherness” in the Heimskringla. Studying “otherness” is about studying mentalities. As Aron Gurevich has said:
One of the main tasks of historical anthropology is to reconstruct images of the world which are representative of different epochs and cultural traditions. This requires the reconstruction of the subjective reality which formed the content of the consciousness of people of a given epoch and culture.
“Otherness”, or “difference” as it is also nowadays called, as an object for study has just found its way into the field of history thanks to the French Annales school and historical anthropology, which have emphasized new approaches to old themes in history. During the last decades historians have studied all kinds of marginal groups and phenomena, and in this sense studying “otherness” continues this trend by giving a somewhat new perspective.
Historical anthropology also emphasizes that it is possible to use narratives, like the Heimskringla, as sources for history. According to Sverre Bagge
… there must be some connection between the specifically medieval kind of narrative and contemporary actors’ intentions and decisions; which means that the historical narratives become important sources for how medieval people understood themselves, their actions, and their society.
The authorship of Snorri has been widely debated, but if we consider that the Heimskringla can be seen as an expression of Norse mentality during the first half of the 13th century, there is no need to further discuss the question of authorship here.
Because the Heimskringla is not a geographical treatise it does not have comprehensive descriptions about countries and peoples. That is why “the others”, or “strangers”, were not easy to find. The best way to find descriptions on “otherness” is to study all kinds of contacts between people by asking the following questions. What kind of contacts would there be? What forms of “otherness” can be found in the Heimskringla? In which situations would “otherness” appear? Could “otherness” be categorized? What kind of elements would be involved with the concept of “otherness”? All in all, it is important to remember that “otherness” in the Heimskringla is just a reflection of mentality. Ultimately, “otherness” can reveal something about the Norse worldview in the 13th century and how the Norse people would define themselves and the world outside. A few examples of “otherness” have been chosen for this article in order to give an idea of how it appears in the Heimskringla.