By Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir
ARV – Nordic Yearbook of Folklore, Vol. 61 (2005)
Abstract: The following article is about repression, and how repressed culture can find expression in legends. As a discussion of culture in the broader sense would probably demand extensive research and a lot of space, I have chosen to narrow the focus and concentrate on one manifestation: dancing. I will begin by describing the opposition of the Icelandic authorities to dancing, which resulted in its apparent disappearance in the eighteenth century. Then I propose to examine this opposition to dancing in relation to the Icelandic legends in which the “hidden people”, or elves, feature. After that I intend to analyse the attitudes towards dancing that we find reflected in these legends and the “underground” culture that lived on in them.
Introduction: To judge by the written sources that mention dancing as part of ordinary people’s amusements, it seems that dancing as such was practised early on in Iceland, at least as early as the twelfth century. Vésteinn Ólason, regards these sources as indicating that organized dances were commonly held in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and that from the point of view of historical accuracy it can be stated that they were held in Iceland from shortly after 1170, though it is quite possible that dancing was practised before that time, as the saga of Bishop Jón Ögmundsson implies.
However, the sources not only testify that dancing took place in Iceland from as early as the twelfth century, but also that it was regarded in a bad light. Official opposition to organised dancing parties (gleði) seems to have arisen at least as early as the twelfth century, when Jón Ögmundsson, who became Bishop of Hólar in 1106 (d. 1121), campaigned against, and caused to be banned, a game or pastime (leikur) that was common at the time, in which a man and a woman called to each other in verses that were not fit to be heard. This is stated in the saga about the bishop, Jóns saga helga, and a younger version of the same saga makes it clear that the leikur referred to here was a dance. We must remember here, however, that Jóns saga helga is not a contemporary source; it was written at the beginning of the thirteenth century, based on a Latin version that is now lost but is believed to have dated from shortly after 1200. While it can therefore hardly be seen as a reliable source, it is considered certain that it describes practices and attitudes that were current at the time that the author was alive, “before his day or both before his day and during his life”, that is about or before 1200.