The Colour Green in Medieval Icelandic Literature: Natural, Supernatural, Symbolic?

The Colour Green in Medieval Icelandic Literature: Natural, Supernatural, Symbolic?

By Anna Zanchi

Paper given at the Thirteenth International Saga Conference (2006)

Introduction: According to Cleasby-Vigfússon, the Old Norse adjective grænn stems from the verb gróa (‘to grow’, of vegetation). The connection between the colour green and the natural world is clearly represented in medieval Icelandic literature, where the term is most often associated with plants, pastures and the colour of the sea. References to green slopes and meadows appear passim in the corpus in question, often in the form of place-names. Finnbogi rammi is said to have dwelled at Grænmór (‘Green Moor’) during his stay in Hálogaland, Norway, while Hrafns þáttr Guðrúnarsonar refers to the trading of a certain Grœnateigr (‘Green Paddock’) between two Icelandic farmers. Perhaps the most famous occurrence of the toponomastic use of grænn is provided by the Norse colony Grænland, which, according to Íslendingabók, was so named by Eiríkr inn rauði since he kvað menn þat myndu fýsa þangat farar, at landit ætti nafn gótt(‘said that people would be more willing to journey there, if the land had a promising name’).

If the examples mentioned so far seem to point to a descriptive usage of the adjective grænn as related to the natural elements, the evidence from the poetic and prose Edda suggests its parallel metaphorical connotation. In both works, the colour green appears, more often than not, in conjunction with Yggdrasill, the ever-green tree of Norse mythology, symbol of cosmic order, but also of eternal life. A similar significance seems to be attached to the tree appearing to king Hálfdan inn svarti’s wife in a dream, as related in the konungasaga Hálfdanar saga ins svarta. Queen Ragnhildr dreams of the birth of a gigantic tree in her garden, its stem rauðr sem blóð (‘red as blood’), its trunk fagrgrœnn (‘light green’) and its branches hvítar sem snjór (‘white as snow’), so long as to stretch over all of Norway and beyond. The symbolism at the root of the tree’s colouring finds explanation towards the end of Haralds saga ins hárfagra, where the tree is clearly revealed as an allegorical image of the Norwegian royal house and its long-standing lineage.

Click here to read this article from the University of Durham

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