The Fabulous Saga of Guðmundr inn ríki: Representation of Sexuality in Ljósvetninga saga
By Yoav Tirosh
Master’s Thesis, University of Iceland, 2014
Abstract: Medieval Icelandic gender and sexuality have been a constant source of scholarly debate since the late 20th century, with Preben Meulengracht Sørensen and Carol J. Clover elucidating the volatile nature of Old Norse masculinity. Medieval explanations for sex difference have also been a source of much debate in this period, Thomas W. Laqueur’s controversial and popular one-sex model complemented by Joan Cadden’s more heterogeneous treatment of the issue. This thesis provides an extensive interpretation of Guðmundr inn ríki’s portrayal in Ljósvetninga saga. Guðmundr, a powerful goði living in the late 10th and early 11th century, was subjected to sexual insults by his rivals Þorkell hákr and Þórir goði Helgason. These sexual insults described him as effeminate and cowardly, and the thesis shows that the Ljósvetninga saga text follows suit with these slurs. Guðmundr’s description is tied with medieval medical perceptions of sex difference, and with gender perceptions prevalent in medieval Iceland. It is argued that these are not so distant as sometimes suggested, supported by Lars Lönnroth’s study of Latin scholarship’s influence on Íslendingasögur character descriptions.
Throughout the Íslendingasögur, few characters shine as bright as Guðmundr inn ríki Eyjólfsson of Mǫðruvellir. With appearances in Njáls saga, Grettis saga, Ǫlkofra þáttr, and Víga-Glúms saga, to mention a few notable examples, this goði was a prominent member of 10th and 11th century Icelandic society. His being referenced in Landnámabók and Íslendingabók makes it clear that he was perceived as a ‘historical’ character, if one considers that these texts were written in a rather historical mode compared to the sagas. These appearances were examined by both Theodore M. Andersson and William Ian Miller in their 1989 translation of Ljósvetninga saga and Gísli Sigurðsson in his 2007 article “The Immanent Saga of Guðmundr ríki”. Andersson and Miller attribute differences in the portrayal of the powerful goði to the different viewpoints of the oral traditions that would later become the sagas: for example, the positive portrayal of Guðmundr in Njáls saga due to his support of the Njálssynir, and the negative portrayal of Guðmundr in Ljósvetninga saga due to his opposition of the Ljósvetningar. Gísli, on the other hand, argues for a “coherence and consistency” in Guðmundr’s different portrayals in the sagas, differences in behavior explained by the different stages of his life in which the different sagas take place. Gísli says that Guðmundr “comes across as a multifaceted personality,” with certain distinguishing features that make him identifiable to the audience.