By Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir
Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol.106:3 (2007)
Introduction: People throughout the world have long been fascinated by the idea of shape-shifting. In all corners of the world there are stories about people who have the ability to transform themselves into animals. The ability is generally viewed negatively, and those with such powers are often sorcerers or witches. While the environment may determine the species into which human beings are transformed, the results are most often large predatory animals, for example, leopards, lions, hyenas, jaguars, tigers, and—not least—wolves and bears. Traditions about shape-shifting have been studied from various perspectives: literary, folkloric, historical, anthropological, and even etymological. The following article will focus on stories about werewolves in a wolf-free country, Iceland.
In northern regions much prominence is given to two kinds of shape-shifting: the ability to change into either a bear or a wolf, although the latter seems to have been more popular. In Icelandic narrative tradition, accounts of such events have a special character, and it is interesting to compare these sources with the stories in other European nations. In what follows, an account will be given of the stories composed, preserved, or read in Iceland that deal in one way or another with shape-changing by men who took on the appearance of wolves and lived in the forest.
In Iceland the werewolf motif is found in fourteen indigenous sources, i.e., Gylfaginning, Hrafnagaldur Óðins, Völsunga saga, Helgakviða Hundingsbana I (Völsungakviða), Gibbons saga, Sigrgarðs saga frækna, Sigrgarðs saga ok Valbrands, the Skjöldunga saga of Arngrímur “the learned,” Ála flekks saga, Úlfhams saga, Tíódels saga, Jóns saga leikara, Sagan af Þorsteini glott, and Hvað þýðir “sár”? In addition, the motif is found in two Norwegian texts that were both known and read in Iceland: a short episode in Konungs skuggsjá and the translation of the Lai de Bisclavret (Bisclaretz ljóð) in Strengleikar.