Proceedings of the 11th International Saga Conference. 2-7 July 2000, University of Sydney. Edited by Geraldine Barnes and Margaret Clunies Ross (Sydney, 2000)
Introduction: The idea of studying the symbolic value of eyes and blindness derives from my desire to reach an understanding of Hƒðr’s mythological role. It goes without saying that in Old Norse literature a person’s physiognomy reveals his characteristics. It is, therefore, a priori not improbable that Hƒðr’s blindness may reveal something about his mythological role. His blindness is, of course, not the only instance in the Eddas where eyes or blindness seem significant. The supreme god of the Old Norse pantheon, Óðinn, is one-eyed, and þórr is described as having particularly sharp eyes. Accordingly, I shall also devote attention in my paper to Óðinn’s one-eyedness and þórr’s sharp gaze.
As far as I know, there exist a couple of studies of eyes in Old Norse literature by Riti Kroesen and Edith Marold. In their articles we find a great deal of useful examples of how eyes are used as a token of royalty and strength. Considering this symbolic value, it is clear that blindness cannot be, simply, a physical handicap. In the same way as emphasizing eyes connotes superiority and strength, blindness may connote inferiority and weakness. When the eye symbolizes a person’s strength, blinding connotes the symbolic and literal removal of that strength. A medieval king suffering from a physical handicap could be a rex inutilis. The expression, found in juridical papal documents from mid-thirteenth century, refers to a king, who causes a disaster in his kingdom, due to weakness or incompetence. Saxo Grammaticus uses blindness several times in his Gesta Danorum as a sign of decrepitude and old age, and thereby indicates that the blind king cannot sustain power in his own kingdom. In medieval sources, blindness also frequently connotes a lack of insight and judgement.