The Role of the Dead in Medieval Iceland: A Case Study of Eyrbyggja Saga
By Kirsi Kanerva
Collegium Medievale, Vol. 24 (2011)
Abstract: The article concerns the ghost story of Eyrbyggja saga, the so-called ‘wonders of Fróðá’ (Fróðárundr), and examines the symbolic meanings of this episode as they were interpreted in medieval Iceland. The analysis presupposes that, although the restless dead could be understood as ‘real’ by medieval readers and as part of their social reality, the heterogenic nature of the audience and the learning of the writers of the sagas made possible various interpretations of the ghost-scene, both literal and symbolic. It is argued that the living dead in Eyrbyggja saga act as agents of order, whose restlessness is connected to past deeds of those still living that have caused social disequilibrium. In Fróðárundr these actions involve expressions of disapproved sexuality and birth of offspring with indeterminate social status. For the ghost-banisher the hauntings represent an opportunity to improve his own indeterminate status.
Introduction: In this article I intend to discuss the role of the malevolent restless dead in medieval Iceland by making a case study of the so-called wonders of Fróðá, the Fróðárundr episode in Eyrbyggja saga. In general, for the living such creatures seem to be a source of various forms of malice and fear. They can make people lose their minds, become ill or even die. Their strength often exceeds that of the living, but it is not limitless, and is always ultimately challenged and conquered by the hero, who with great strength and skill banishes the monster for good. In earlier research the living dead have often been considered a part of the natural world of medieval people, something they really believed in, but more recent scholars give the restless dead mythic and symbolic functions, or interpret them as representatives of heathenism portrayed as the counterpart of Christianity.
In this article, I will examine further the possible symbolic functions and meanings of the restless dead in medieval Iceland in the light of Eyrbyggja saga. I will argue that the role of the ghosts in the Fróðárundr is to represent social disequilibria caused by diverse psychosocial conflicts present in the society in question, and thus offer a discourse on various moral issues. In Eyrbyggja saga’s case, these clashes concern failures to follow certain sexual norms, and the psychosocial problems that have resulted from this, such as the birth of offspring with indeterminate status.
My analysis presupposes that the restless dead are not necessarily understood as ‘real’ by the medieval readers and writers of the sagas, though I do not deny the possibility that some, or even most, medieval people took the ghosts to be real. It is also possible that they belonged to the social reality of medieval Icelandic people: that is, they were beings that could not be observed through the senses, and were therefore not objective, but in which thirteenth-century Icelandic society held a firm belief.