Sex, lies and the Íslendinga sögur

From Njáls saga: Gunnar Hámundarson meets Hallgerðr for the first time at Alþingi - 19th century imageSex, lies and the Íslendinga sögur

By Damian Fleming

Sagas and Society, No.6 (2004)

Abstract: Past scholars used to look upon the Icelandic family sagas as ideal witnesses to pre-Christian Germanic customs and morality. The sagas were believed to contain unbiased accounts of how men conducted their lives nobly and simply before the conversion to Christianity. More recent scholarship however has argued for, and in some cases shown, direct Christian influences informing the action and stories of the sagas. In my paper, I consider the perception of lying as it is described in the family sagas within this scholarly framework. In particular I focus on the lies told in the sagas between men and women in sexual relationships. In doing so, I demonstrate that in these situations the narrators of the sagas do not condone lying, as the clearly pagan Eddic poem Hávamál does when it recommends, among other things, “Ef þú átt annan, / þannz þú illa truir/ vildu af hánom þó gott geta:/ fagrt scaltu við þann mæla,/ enn flátt hyggia/ oc gialda lausng við lygi.” (Stanza 45).” Rather in the sagas often we find condemnation of lying, especially situations involving men and women, not by the characters within the stories, but by the often hidden voice of the narrator. In particular, I examine an incident in Njáls saga where the condemnation of lying in one situation is so subtle as to have been overlooked by scholars. By this investigation, I add evidence to the argument against the idea that the morality of the sagas is free from Christian influence and suggest that close readings of saga incidents can lead to a better understanding of the moral system at work.

Introduction: Even though the Icelandic Family sagas as we have them were composed by Christians, possibly clerics, there has nevertheless been much debate over the role or level of influence Christianity and Christian ethics have in them. The sagas were originally transmitted orally and it is conceivable that portions of them can be traced back to before the conversion (traditionally dated to the year 999 or 1000); some scholars claim that the sagas can give us an accurate glimpse into pre-Christian Germanic mores. This is an ongoing debate within the field.


It is within this context that I wish to explore notions of lying in the Íslendinga sögur, in particular in Njáls saga. As the narrative style of sagas is notoriously terse – almost never providing motives or discussing intent or offering any sort of commentary on the events portrayed – teasing out any sense of morality or judgment concerning the actions of the characters is necessarily problematic. For this reason, my analysis of Njáls saga will rely solely on the internal evidence of the saga itself.

Click here to read this article from the Univerity of Tübingen