“Segja Hvaða!”: Insults in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature
By Tom Defts
Published Online (2010)
Introduction: In looking at Norse sagas, we have to remember that sagas like the Islendingabok (The Sagas of the Icelanders) are reflections of the society in which they are set. As such, they sometimes present a side of that society that we find disagreeable, just as any picture of our society should include the seamier side of life: murder, rape, violence, and pornography.
It is with that in mind that we are looking at níð the telling or making of slander about another man. Níð can be described using two other terms: tunguníð (spoken níð), treníð (carved níð, also called timber-níð), sorðinn, and stroðinn (calling a man effeminate, especially a passive homosexual partner), ragr and argr (accusing a man of being a coward).
As we will see, the act of making or speaking níð was a major crime in a small society (one estimate makes the population at 40,000 living in a relatively small habitable zone around the edges of the island in the year 1100) where a great deal of stake was placed on reputation. By doing committing níð, a man might easily begin a blood feud. Therefore, the earliest laws in Iceland and Norway/Sweden placed heavy punishment on the various forms of níð.
The purposes of níð were several, the three most important being: gaining an advantage over an opponent by showing you are the more “manly”, forcing a feud to become violent, and goading others to take action. The last is the sole purview of women in the sagas. Often, a single case of níð will fulfill two of these purposes. In the end, they come down to achieving power and station through language, whether spoken or physical.