Labour Pains: Scenes of Birth and Becoming in Old Norse Legendary Literature
By Katherine Olley
Quaestio Insularis: Selected Proceedings of the Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, Vol.18 (2018)
Abstract: In spite of the frequent characterization of the maternal body as a site of genealogical corruption and change in Old Norse legendary literature, it is rarely depicted at the moment of its greatest transformation, when pregnancy gives way to labour and birth. The article explores attitudes toward birth in the fornaldarsögur and the Poetic Edda by examining those rare but graphic scenes of labour which do survive.
From Borgný’s traumatic labour in Oddrúnargrátr, which can only be eased by Oddrún’s attendance, to the pregnancy of Völsungr’s mother in Völsunga saga, which drags on for six years until her son must be cut from her body, to the elfin woman in Göngu-Hrólfs saga, who must endure nineteen days of labour until human intervention speeds the process along: such scenes demonstrate that danger arises chiefly when a birth is prolonged or delayed.
The article examines how the drama of prolonging birth extends a liminal moment between the hope of new life and the threat of death, emphasizing birth as a communal process, in which multiple identities, including those of the parents, child and even the midwife, must be (re)negotiated in order to bring the birth to a successful conclusion. Thus scenes of giving birth encapsulate moments of changing identity or ‘scenes of becoming’ wherein a child (in particular a firstborn child) is both created by its parents and creates them in turn, entering them into new kinship roles as mothers and fathers in the genealogical matrix.