Þur sarriþu þursa trutin: Monster-Fighting and Medicine in Early Medieval Scandinavia
By Alaric Hall
Asclepio: Revista de Historia de la Medicina y de la Ciencia, Vol 61, No 1 (2009)
Abstract: This paper seeks evidence among our extensive Scandinavian mythological texts for an area which they seldom discuss explicitly: the conceptualisation and handling of illness and healing. Its core evidence is two runic texts (the Canterbury Rune-Charm and the Sigtuna Amulet) which conceptualise illness as a þurs (‘ogre, monster’). The article discusses the semantics of þurs, arguing that illness and supernatural beings could be conceptualised as identical in medieval Scandinavia. This provides a basis for arguing that myths in which gods and heroes fight monsters provided a paradigm for the struggle with illness. The article proceeds, more speculatively, to use the Eddaic poem Skírnismál and the Finnish Riiden synty as the basis for arguing that one cause of illness could be the transgression of moral norms.
Introduction: Healing does not feature prominently in those medieval texts canonically associated with what has traditionally been termed ‘Old Norse mythology’. Although healing powers find mention, medical texts themselves are little attested in our medieval Scandinavian manuscript record, while illness and healing are not presented as central themes of medieval Scandinavians’ mythical understanding of the world. Healing in this tradition has, accordingly, also received little attention from scholars. This image contrasts with the medieval Christianity with which non-Christian Scandinavian traditions co-existed: miracles and metaphors of healing are central not only to the New Testament, but also to the many saints’ lives which it inspired, putting the healing of the sick at the centre of Christian ideologies —as the considerations of the relationships between Christianity and healing in later periods by Eilola and Hokkanen in this volume emphasise. We need not doubt that the differences in emphasis between traditional Scandinavian mythological texts and Christian ones do reflect different ideologies or cultural concerns. But I argue here that interactions between ideas about health and healing on the one hand, and wider belief-systems, encompassing morality, on the other, were more important in traditional Scandinavian beliefs than our manuscript record would suggest.