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Cannibalism in the Icelandic Sagas: a bad habit or an ancient magical practice?

By Andrea Maraschi

How many times have we heard the saying that “we are what we eat”? Nonetheless, even if this is a quotation from German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, the idea that diet may outline a people’s identity is extremely old.

Going backwards through time to the Middle Ages, and earlier, a number of intellectuals based their definition of civilization (thus, of themselves) on the plants they grew and the food they consumed, and usually ended up defining as “uncivilized” any other people with different customs. Arguably, the first Mediterranean writer to draw the line between the notions of “civilized”, and “uncivilized”, was Homer, who used the word sitòfagoi (“bread-eaters”) as synonymous with “men”: eating bread meant being human and civilized. From the perspective of Mediterranean people, cultivating the soil and producing food implied a whole series of positive and identity-marking actions.

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Cannibalism was part of this system too. Once again, to Homer we owe the first attested mention of cannibalism in Western tradition, namely to his description of the Cyclops: eating human flesh was clearly identified as inhuman already. Huge, monstrous, ugly, barbarous, wild, lawless, with no knowledge of agriculture and ignorant of table manners, the Cyclops were not much different from other stereotypical cannibal figures scattered among many Western texts throughout history, which similarly made barbarity, Otherness, physical ugliness and the consumption of human flesh coincide.

Anthropophagy soon began to function as a proper rhetorical device for defining “the others”, the “barbarians”. This label referred to peoples which did not practice agriculture and consume cereals, but the most “savage” and “alien” of them – or the most threatening – were specifically associated with the practice of cannibalism.

Medieval Iceland was no exception. In Icelandic sagas, giants are described as awkward, evil and uncivilized, and curiously their diet mainly consists of two elements: horse meat (traditionally banned by the Church) and human flesh. There is little doubt that both of them were considered abhorrent foods in late medieval Europe, from a Christian perspective. Concerning horses, the Christian Law Section of the Icelandic Grágás, compiled between 1122 and 1133, listed them, along with dogs, cats, foxes, beasts with claws, and carrion birds, among the forbidden meats. The taboo on such meats had very ancient origins, but that on horse meat would play a delicate role in the Christianization of central and northern Europe, horse being a key element in pagan sacrifices. Writing to the archbishop of Mainz Boniface, in 732, Pope Gregory III (†741) defined hippophagy (the consumption of horse meat, with reference to both wild and tame horses), “a filthy and abominable custom”, while in an epistle to the same Boniface, in 751, Pope Zachary forbid the meat of equi selvatici (“wild horses”) (actually, many a medieval penitential stated that, even though it was not customary, it could be consumed). All in all, the consumption of horse meat was tolerated, but severely punished when forbidden. Most notably, in the year 1000, the Church made an exception to Icelanders, who were expressly allowed to continue eating horse flesh, at least in the beginning.

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As for cannibalism, anthropophagic banquets were often connected with plots of revenge in literary tradition. In this sense, Icelandic literature offers a well-known scene, which is told in Völsunga saga: after killing the King of the Burgundians Gunnar in order to get the treasure of the Nibelungs, Atli – the King of the Huns – heads back home, where a dreadful plan has been planned by his wife, Guðrún, sister of Gunnar. Seeking vendetta against her husband, she kills his sons, and serves him their roasted hearts and mead mixed with their blood. She then waits until the end of the banquet to reveal to him the truth about the gruesome menu.

Legendary sagas let us take a glimpse into the habits of Icelandic giants and, as a consequence, into identity-related matters. In the early Yngvars saga víðförla, originally written in Latin by the monk Oddr Snorrason at the end of the 12th century and then translated into Old Icelandic, the Christian hero Yngvar and his men stumble upon the house of a “terrifying giant”. The attributes of the creature are particularly interesting: his race and size (giant), his appearance (ghastly), and his diet (human flesh).

The same attributes recur in the 13th-century legendary Ketils saga hængs as well. Here, the Norwegian chieftain Ketil Hæng leaves Hálogaland (northern Norway) and heads to Midfjord. He then catches sight of the smoke from a distant fire, coming from a great hut sitting on the coast. He enters the house while its owner (the “huge and grim-looking” giant Surt) is not present, and there he finds carcasses of whales, polar bears, seals, walruses, and salted human flesh. But if cannibalism was a motif which served the purpose of marking “Otherness”, unsurprisingly it is occasionally coupled with hippophagy. In Hálfdanar saga Brönufóstra Hálfdan, the son of the legendary Danish king Hringr, sets out to Bjarmaland but, due to a storm, he is forced to make landfall at an uninhabited part of Helluland (the North Atlantic coast of North America). One day he spots a large cave in the distance, lit by a fire. As he goes inside, he sees two trolls sitting by the hearth, one that looks like a woman and the other like a man. Between them is a kettle in which they are cooking the meat of both horses and men, both taboo for Christians. This scene may well remind us of a very similar one featured in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, where the trolls are similarly represented as “other”, ungraceful, primitive, rude…and cannibals.

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Horse meat and human flesh are also consumed at Þórdr’s wedding banquet in Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss. In this Íslendingasaga, probably composed in the 14th century, the giant Kolbjörn makes an agreement with Þórdr to give him in marriage his daughter Sólrún, and the wedding feast is to take place at a cave in Hrútafjörð. Men are then served “food edible for them”, whereas the giants enjoy their favourite delicacies: horses and humans.

But not all kinds of cannibalism were condemned in medieval Icelandic literature. Certain human saga characters seem to have known ancient magical properties of human (and animal) organs, and to have believed in “sympathetic magic”. This form of magic was widespread in ancient times, and was based on the principle that “like attracts like”: according to it, for instance, eating specific parts of the human body (or drinking its blood) would transfer the qualities of the eaten – his strength, bravery, etc. – to the eater. In this case, cannibalism would make the eater a stronger human, a man with supernatural abilities.

One example is featured in Hrólfs saga kraka, a legendary story set in fifth or sixth-century Denmark and probably composed in the fourteenth century. Here, when the hero Böðvar bjarki entered the house of his brother Elg-Fróði without permission, a fight arose between the two because Elg-Fróði did not recognize him under his hood. They wrestled for a while until the hood fell down and the fight promptly turned into a brotherly chat. Then Elg-Fróði pushed Böðvar and told him he found him rather weak. So, Fróði drew blood from his own calf, and gave it to Böðvar to drink. Then Fróði shoved his brother for a second time, and this time Böðvar stood firm in his tracks, thanks to the strengthening effects of the blood. This is no vampire story, but possibly a remnant of ancient beliefs. Elg-Fróði expects that his blood will benefit his brother, he believes that it will. Böðvar, for his part, does not show any hesitation. And if it is true that such stories were meant to entertain the audience, it is also true that they must retain some relatability to the audience itself.

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Another meaningful case of sympathetic anthropophagy occurs in a popular chivalric saga dating to the beginning of the fourteenth century, Drauma-Jóns saga. The story was probably a widely known Oriental folktale which was eventually turned into a saga in the style of an exempum. It features the hero Jón, a dream interpreter and diviner, whose gift makes Earl Heinrekr of Saxland – who also interprets dreams –  jealous because of his superior ability. Heinrekr thus decides to “steal” Jón’s talent by killing him and eating the organ where it was thought that said talent was located: the heart.

Many centuries earlier Pliny had already observed that, according to magicians, if one swallowed the “heart fresh from the body and still palpitating” of a mole, they would receive the gift of divination and foreknowledge.

According to medieval saga writers, then, anthropophagy could have either a positive or a negative connotation depending on who the eater was. Giants ate human flesh for the mere sake of survival, and were cannibal, uncivilized beasts; human saga characters ate specific parts of human bodies for magical purposes, and thus became wiser, stronger, more powerful men.

Andrea Maraschi is a Lecturer in Medieval History at Università degli Studi di Bari. He has taught courses on Food history in the Middle Ages and Anthropology of Food, and he has published on many aspects connected with food in medieval times such as banqueting, religious symbolism, and magic practice. Click here to see him on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @Andrea_Maraschi

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This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Icelandic troll – photo courtesy Pixabay

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