Bodies, Buildings, and Boundaries: Metaphors of Liminality in Old English and Old Norse Literature

Bodies, Buildings, and Boundaries: Metaphors of Liminality in Old English and Old Norse Literature

Lionarons, Joyce Tally

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 11 (1994)


That the human body may be figured as a building erected to house the spirit is a commonplace of medieval literature: the metaphor recurs in poems and sermons, legends and sagas. It is lexically reinforced in Old English by compounds which refer to the body as a banhus “bone-house” or bansele “bone-hall; a kenning in the Old English Exodus personifies the mind as banhuses weard, “the guardian of the bone-house” (523). Conversely, a building may itself be figured as if it were the body of an animal or a human being: its internal spaces may be seen as analogous to body cavities, its windows may be eyes, its door a mouth or other orifice, its roof-pole a back that can be ridden by monsters or ghosts.

Living bodies are thus the houses of souls; buildings house living beings. Both are naturally permeable: a building allows ingress and egress through its doors, windows, chimneys, and vents, a body through its various orifices. To enter a house or hall by the doors is quite literally to cross a liminal boundary; metaphorically, however, the distinction between the inside and outside of a building, or by extension the internal and external zones of the body, may be interpreted as a distinction between separate or even opposed psychological, societal, or ontological states. When such symbolic liminal boundaries are crossed or destroyed, the order of the inner world is upset and “the shape of fundamental experience is altered.” The dangers of such border-crossings are obvious; they are accordingly often figured in myth and literature as attacks on buildings by otherworldly forces by monsters such as trolls and giants, or by ghosts and other types of supernatural figures. When figured corporeally, the crossing of a liminal boundary can take the metaphorical form of a body ingesting foreign objects, receiving wounds, or undergoing what is usually presented as violent sexual penetration. Perhaps the most familiar instance of a building portrayed in medieval literature as if it were a living body is the example of HroĆ°gar’s hall in Beowulf.

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