‘Hann lá eigi kyrr’: Revenants and a Haunted Past in the Sagas of Icelanders
By Rebecca Merkelbach
Master’s Thesis, University of Cambridge 2012
Introduction: From Antiquity to the present day, the idea of the dead returning to interact with the living has greatly influenced human imagination, and this has been reflected in literature — the product of that imagination. The returning dead — those who liggja eigi kyrr — have taken all kinds of shapes, appearing in dreams and visions, as spirits that talk to the living, and in recent times as vampires and zombies, dominating popular culture as never before.
The literature of medieval Iceland partakes in this almost universal conception, but the revenants we meet in these texts – and especially in the Íslendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders) are different from the disembodied spirits that frequently appear in the medieval literature of other countries: They are corporeal, and mostly threatening and destructive to human society, and in this they resemble present-day concepts of the undead more than their rather innocuous contemporaries: it is their threatening corporeality that makes them monstrous.
For this reason, the present dissertation will approach the Icelandic undead through theories of monstrosity, especially the ones put forward by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in his ‘Monster Culture (Seven Theses)’. I believe that this will contribute more to an understanding of the place of the monstrous in the Íslendingasögur than former investigations, which for the most part only concentrated on categorising the undead. However, to understand the function the undead have not only within the texts but also beyond them — for the culture that produced them — analysis has to extend beyond categorisation.
The narratives they appear in are set over a long period of time, spanning from the discovery and settlement of Iceland in the late ninth century into the first decades of the eleventh. Within this period, the conversion of Iceland to Christianity and the official adoption of the new religion at the Althing in the year 1000 occur. Strikingly, the undead appear mostly in those sagas that in some way narrate the Christianisation of Iceland or the conversion of one prominent Icelander, or in a context in which the tensions between the old religion and the new one play a role. Among these sagas are some of the greatest of their genre, including Laxdæla, Eyrbyggja, Flóamanna, Grettis and Njáls saga, which will form the core of my analysis, as well as the two Vinland sagas, which will be used for comparative purposes.
See also Rebecca Merkelbach’s blog Everyday Monstrosity