Children of a One-Eyed God: Impairment in the Myth and Memory of Medieval Scandinavia
By Michael David Lawson
Master’s Thesis, East Tennessee State University, 2019
Abstract: Using the lives of impaired individuals catalogued in the Íslendingasögur as a narrative framework, this study examines medieval Scandinavian social views regarding impairment from the ninth to the thirteenth century. Beginning with the myths and legends of the eddic poetry and prose of Iceland, it investigates impairment in Norse pre-Christian belief; demonstrating how myth and memory informed medieval conceptualizations of the body.
This thesis counters scholarly assumptions that the impaired were universally marginalized across medieval Europe. It argues that bodily difference in the Norse world was only viewed as a limitation when it prevented an individual from fulfilling roles that contributed to their community. As Christianity’s influence spread and northern European powers became more focused on state-building aims, Scandinavian societies also slowly began to transform. Less importance was placed on the community in favor of the individual and policies regarding bodily difference likewise changed; becoming less inclusive toward the impaired.
Introduction: Increasingly, scholars have understood the body as both a physical reality and an important conceptual space. The body is infused with meaning and these cultural reflections offer not only insights into the past but also an interpretive lens capable of elucidating the ways in which beauty and bodily norms shaped society. During the Middle Age, the body became an important locus of inquiry. Medieval thinkers acknowledged the relationship between the divine and the corporeal. While the metrics may change over time and place, physical beauty and moral harmony were, and remain, highly sought-after qualities. Culturally defined notions of “physical perfection” could have an amplifying or limiting effect on a person’s social mobility.
Top image: One-eye Odin from 1the 8th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66.