go geyja: the limits of humour in Old Norse- Icelandic paganism
North, Richard (University College London)
Paper given at the 11th International Saga Conference (2000)
Laughing at religion was easy for medieval Christians, whose Twelfth Night and Shrovetide revels seasonally encouraged the parody of God’s priests and scriptures (Screech, pp. 220-61). Here it is presumably the worshipper’s, not the agnostic’s, familiarity with the divine which ‘breeds innocent humour within groups who share common knowledge and common assumptions’ (ibid., p. 228). Within religious groups the humour is innocent even when propriety is transgressed, for ‘without the veneration there would be no joke’ (ibid., p. 232), and the common set of beliefs amplifies a shared response to jokes, be they ever so irreverent (cf. Cohen, pp. 25-9). The joker elicits the knowledge of others, who then find themselves contributing the background that will make the joke work; if it works (even tastelessly), the audience joins him in its response (even unwillingly) and both find themselves ‘a community, a community of amusement’ (ibid., p. 40). And yet there are some who fail to see the joke, who might regard religious irreverence as blasphemous. To what extent heathen jokers could blaspheme is a question I shall face here.