Landscape, Maternal Space, And Child Exposure In The Sagas Of Icelanders
Paper by Robin Waugh
Given at the 3rd International St. Magnus Conference on April 15, 2016
The mother’s “powerful influence during early infancy” has been described as “maternal space” by critics such as Patricia Cramer and Julia Kristeva (Cramer 497; Kristeva, Desire in Language, 247, 281-86). An obvious situation, then, in which to examine the potential construction of maternal space would be the episodes when men try to co-opt such space, for example in the eight or so narratives of child exposure that are extant in the Sagas of Icelanders (Jochens 85-93; Clover 101-10). On the one hand in these narratives men typically wrap the child tightly, place something in the infant’s mouth to replace the mother’s breast, and otherwise attempt to imitate and ritualize maternal space by (among other things) trying to secure the child’s silence while it is exposed. On the other hand these scenes assert women’s highly individual emotions, co-optation of language, and marking out of space.
To offer one example, in Vatnsdæla saga, Nereid’s illegitimate child is exposed with a cloth over its face (Ch. 37). The infant is eventually recovered, but the cloth must be connected to the “kerchief” that a witch named Groa has previously used in her sorcery. Her magic results in the death of an entire household. Not only is the child’s cloth thus connected to a particularly female mode of expression, but it is also connected to the landscape as described in the saga: Groa had been observed walking around her house backwards just before the household’s disaster. In Þorsteins þáttur uxafóts, the many details of clothing and the sense of ritualizing a landscape through setting up a child’s place of exposure as an externalized substitute for maternal space evoke, even more than in the Vatnsdæla saga version, ideas of a female language (Þorsteins þáttur uxafóts, ch 4). The boy’s mother, Oddny, is dumb, and communicates with her family through the inscription of runes (Ch. 3). There follows a pattern of language acquisition in the þáttr that echoes the treatment of landscape by the major characters, and a similar pattern occurs in the story of Selkolla from the Byskupa sögur, which connects child-abandonment with lust, demonology, and fylgjur (pp. 494-95).
A survey of these episodes, then, suggests that maternal space in the sagas reasserts itself generally—and particularly reasserts itself onto the northern landscape—during instances of child exposure, where this mode of attempted infanticide takes on a variant meaning in Northern societies than it would from more Southern ones. Particular treatment of landscape is paired with unusual depictions of heightened expression by female characters in these works—both traditional artisanal modes of expression for women, such as textile usage, and also examples of highly individual language production. This “new language” typically maps the Northern landscape in a sex-specific fashion that is unique to the sagas of Icelanders.