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The weird story of an Icelandic ghost named Þórgunna

By Andrea Maraschi

In the year 1000 a ship coming from Dublin, loaded with many goods, made landfall at Dǫgurðarnes; among the passengers, there was a woman from the Hebrides named Þórgunna, who was carrying elegant and refined bed furnishings. The very moment Þuriðr, húsfreyja (“mistress”) of Fróðá, saw them, she yearned to put her hands on them: she found Þórgunna and, after her refusal to sell any of her beautiful wares, she invited the Hebridean woman to stay at her house, where she would work to pay for her lodging.

Later that summer, after a mysterious shower of bloody rain that hit Fróðá and no other place, Þórgunna fell gravely sick and, being sure she would soon die, asked Þóroddr – Þuriðr’s husband – to burn her bedclothes after her death and carry her body to Skálholt for burial (a site that was bound to become the center of Icelandic Christianity). Þóroddr would not be able to keep his promise entirely, as his wife Þuriðr swiftly prompted him to keep such refined bed furnishings for themselves.

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Still, he and some trusty men got ready for the burial journey when, at nightfall, they ran into a storm and sought refuge at a farmstead just outside Skálholt. The farmer, though, went to bed and did not greet his hosts, nor give them anything to eat or drink. Then, in the middle of the night, the party was awakened by a noise as of someone fumbling about in the darkness: someone had broken into the farmhouse. The larder: the thief was in the larder.

Still half numb, they steeled themselves but, as they approached the pantry, were shocked by an unexpected vision: whoever was standing before their stunned eyes was no burglar. That tall, naked woman intent on cooking was, without any doubt, Þórgunna! Þórgunna appeared in the form of a draugr (an undead person, a revenant, a “ghost”), and was the first of a series of sinister apparitions which we read about in Eyrbyggja saga (written in Iceland around 1230 at the monastery of Helgafell). Icelandic and – in general – medieval “ghosts” were often depicted as malevolent, homicidal, brutal, bloodthirsty, and vengeful. Their relationship with the living was not meant to be peaceful. But is this true for what concerns Þórgunna as well?

Actually, the role she plays in the circumstance of her encounter with Þóroddr and his men has much to do with humanity and little to do with blood, vengeance, and even the “paranormal”. Indeed, what happened when the men saw her is very meaningful. Bewildered and scared, they stood by and stared at the naked body of Þórgunna in silence, as she cooked the food, entered the hall and laid the table, on which she eventually set the fare.

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The scene may puzzle us, but its meaning was immediately grasped by both the party and the farmer: the latter violated the laws of hospitality, a dishonour that had traditionally been associated with beastliness and barbarity since ancient times. Scared and deeply shocked, the farmer immediately reassured Þóroddr and his companions about their safety and comfort: they were given food, dry clothes and everything else they needed.

It was only then that Þórgunna left the hall to go back to where she had come from. They all sat at the table, blessed the food and sprinkled the house with holy water. The food did not do them any harm, though cooked by a draugr. The following day, Þórgunna’s body was buried in Skálholt.

Skaholt Cathedral in Iceland – photo by B K / Flickr

To some extent, Þórgunna roughly matches the stereotypical characteristics of medieval ghosts. She was no brutal murderer, but she did bring death to Fróðá. In fact, an urðarmáni (“death-moon” or “moon of destiny”) ominously appeared for an entire week in the inner wall of the house at Fróðá farm, and then six people were killed by a strange disease which was connected with Þórgunna’s apparition.

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She was not a beastly man-eater either, but she haunted the estate where she had lived the last days of her life. Indeed, she soon came back to lay claim to her beautiful bed furnishings, which she had not forgotten. This time, though, she only manifested herself indirectly in the form of a seal (probably not a random choice, symbolically speaking). The animal appeared and struggled up through the floor of Þóroddr’s living room, from where it glared up at Þórgunna’s precious bedclothes; only Kjartan, the son of Þóroddr, was able to chase it away.

But then, again, while cooking, Þórgunna was not more dangerous than an average housewife, and she was no enemy of the living. She brought “abundance” (in her own small way), and did not ask for anything in return. Or did she?

Technically speaking, she came back to the world of the living for two reasons: on the one hand, she wanted to make sure that her corpse-bearers’ journey be comfortable; on the other hand, she cared about the fulfilment of Þóroddr’s promise or, in other words, about her soul. Icelandic ghosts were selfish and reluctant to give up their goods, but this was not entirely true in the case of Þórgunna: she calmly cooks and serves dinner to her corpse-bearers who, in turn, stand petrified before the naked spectre. Furthermore, her corporeality allows her to prepare (healthy) food for human beings. Clearly, Þórgunna was not trying to poison Þóroddr and his companions: the sign of the cross they made over the food was as old a ritual as the Middle Ages themselves, with St. Augustine in the early fifth century was already condemning the “superstitious” practice of crossing sacrilegious food. Crossing food was just a way to mark and Christianize it: in other words, to purify it.

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Other ghosts or undead of medieval literature proved benevolent when food was their means of interaction with the living.

Food and food-related rituals naturally lent themselves to put the living and the dead into contact. Another example is featured in Eyrbyggja saga, where it talks about the death of Þóroddr and his companions at sea. Their corpses were not found, but at Yuletide, during their funeral banquet, they returned in the form of ghosts, went into the hall, took a seat by the fire, and continued to reappear every evening, until Yuletide was over. Their apparitions brought sickness and death, as in the case of Þórgunna. However, they looked harmless, and at first people interpreted their presence as an auspicious portent, instead of feeling scared: Christianity had not yet choked the old beliefs, as the saga author himself remarks, and the fact that ghosts were coming to drink their own burial ale was considered a good omen.

Old Viking houses in Iceland – photo by Joxean Koret / Flickr

The story has an happy ending for Þórgunna. Her bedclothes were burned by Kjartan, and she could rest in peace in the sacred ground in Skálholt. Despite reappearing as a ghost, she was rewarded with the gift she so desired. This was because she did not act as a typical draugr, and the reason why she didn’t was probably because she honoured the laws of hospitality by cooking the food for her corpse-bearers. Food-related practices tended to carry positive values even in ghost stories: sharing, abundance, and reception have much to do with humanity, and not with monstrosity. Actually, Þórgunna’s paranormal encounter is shocking because of its normality and not because of its para-normality.

One last thing. Despite being a draugr, Þórgunna is also wonderfully alive, since she embodies a fundamental and positive quality of womanliness in medieval times: by taking care of hospitality, she represents womanliness itself. Honouring guests was not a burden whatsoever, but rather a privilege reserved for queens and princesses in central and northern Europe, and to noble creatures such as the valkyries in Valhǫll. Þórgunna has profoundly human – rather than spectral or bestial – features, and it is not surprising that her humanity coincided with the most basic human needs and rights.

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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

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.

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