Awkward Adolescents: Male Maturation in Norse Literature
Youth and Age in the Medieval North, ed. Shannon Lewis-Simpson, (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 145-60.
The Old Norse language does not have a term for adolescence as such; thus we may wonder whether we can discuss the phenomenon at all if the culture itself does not identify it. However, even if there is no term for it in Old Norse, adolescence is rooted in the biological universal of puberty; cross-cultural psychological evidence suggests that pre-industrial societies usually identify a transitional stage between childhood and the adult world for their young people. ‘Adolescence as a social stage with its own activities and behaviors, expectations and rewards, is well recorded in the history and literature of earlier times’, Schlegel and Barry note. Adolescence, in their broad anthropological definition, is a time when learning is occurring and social roles are being restructured; although the young man remains subordinate to community elders, he is preparing for adulthood and manifestly no longer a child. Many traditional societies mark this transition with rites of passage, formal public events which may involve three or four separate stages, outlined below. Explicit rites of passage are not described in Old Norse sources, although Mary Danielli has argued that initiation rites for the young Icelander might occur at the ancestral home in Norway, involving ritual encounters with bears and berserks.
The sagas of Icelanders do not tend to observe that a boy has become a man. Nevertheless Turner’s analysis of such rites as consisting in separation, a liminal stage, and reincorporation is suggestive both for saga literature and also for the heroic paradigms upon which it may draw. The first independent journey which the saga hero makes, sometimes only as far as Alþingi, but most frequently abroad, to visit Norway or to take part in a raiding trip, might well be regarded as incorporating rite-of-passage elements, marking the young man’s readiness to negotiate the transition into the world of adult political and economic activity.