Gender Roles and Symbolic Meaning in Njáls Saga

Gender Roles and Symbolic Meaning in Njáls Saga

By Thomas Rowsell

Published Online (2012)

There are many examples in Njáls saga of characters who fail to adhere to their assigned gender role and as a result perpetuate the chain of events that leads the saga to its grisly conclusion. The principle examples of this gender distortion are found in the central characters Njáll and Gunnarr and their wives Hallgerðr and Bergþóra. This essay will examine these sexual themes and the symbolic implications of the inversion of gender roles. The theme of sexuality is played out through sexual insults and symbolic inversion of gender roles through action and appearance. These sexual insults have parallels in the Eddic poem Lokasenna which connects the theme with mythological tradition.

One of the most prominent sexual insults is when Skarpheðin calls Flosi the bride of the troll of Svinafell, this implies that he is used sexually by the troll. This insult is a form of nið, an insult intended to imply that the object is ragr, a passive homosexual or is used in this way by a man, animal or supernatural creature:


The purpose of nið is to terminate a period of peace or accentuate a breach of the peace and isolate an opponent from society by declaring that he is unworthy to be a member. The man attacked must show that he is fit to remain in the community, by behaving as a man in the system of Norse ethics; that is to say, he must challenge an adversary to battle, or avenge himself by blood-revenge. 

This instance of nið is no different and is a deliberate provocation to Flosi, calling on him to fulfil his expected gender role through violence or suffer the shame of the honour culture society. The specific form of nið portrayed here is enhanced as it involves a troll and the sexuality of trolls was regarded as being unrestrained:


When a man refuses or fails to avenge a blood relative, he is accused of cowardice in general and of niðing in particular. This is not so much homosexuality, but …an accusation that the man is the passive subordinate in a sexual relationship, which may variously be with men, trolls, or beasts.

There is a parallel to this form of nið in Lokasenna, in which Loki exchanges libellous accusations with the Æsir, many of which are of a sexual nature. Oðinn makes the following accusation against Loki:

You spent eight winters under the earth,
as a milking cow and a matron,
and there you bore babies;
that signals to me a cock-craver.

The sexual innuendo is associated with a visit to the underworld; Sørensen interprets this to mean that Loki served as a mistress to giants or trolls. This demonstrates that the symbolic aspect of nið extends beyond the purely sexual, to include other social taboos that are associated with sexual ones by their undesirable nature. When Njáll’s sons are described as taoskegglingar ‘dung-beards’, the insult refers to two taboos, both the accusation of effeminacy on the part of their father and also an association with the taboo-laden dung itself.


Effeminacy is the chief accusation of nið and with it comes an associated immoral nature. When Njáll gives Flosi a silk garment, the feminine connotations place the responsibility of vengeance on Flosi as he is the object of nið, accused of ergi (homosexuality). The mere association with symbols that are affiliated with femininity or other taboos is enough to evoke an accusation of ergi.

The importance of defending one’s masculine reputation in the culture of early medieval Iceland is repeatedly demonstrated in Njáls saga. Hrútr Herjólfsson is cursed by his lover Gunnhildr so that his penis becomes too large for him to have sex with his wife Unnr, and so is divorced by her. This inverted extremity of impotence amounts to the same effect and may be a fitting punishment for the problematic nature of Hrútr’s sexuality; he is overly sexual for pursuing multiple women and so becomes too sexualised to fulfil his duty as a husband and consummate his marriage. O’Donoghue interprets this as almost ironic and as a possible reflection of Gunnhildr’s strong sexuality. This sexual anomaly inevitably leads to accusations of unmanliness and by association, ergi, though communicated in the text through an unexpected source, three children playing and assuming the roles of Hrútr and Mǫrðr. These children are not mentioned elsewhere in the saga and are therefore likely to serve the sole purpose of communicating what many other Icelanders were thinking but were too polite or cautious to say to Hrútr. Nið has serious consequences and this is why Hǫskuldr hits the boy pretending to be Mǫrðr after he has openly mentioned Hrútr’s inability to satisfy his wife.

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