By Yoav Tirosh
In the spirit of the times, I have been thinking a lot about how terrible saga men are towards women. Almost every saga has at least one terrible sentence uttered by a man towards or about a woman. Often these are stated at the climax of the sagas, and carry a lot of meaning within them.
Whether or not the saga authors themselves were misogynists is up for debate and varies between the different texts but their characters certainly operated within a world where a form of toxic masculinity was dominant and being a woman was considered, sadly, less than a man. Carol Clover‘s heroic attempt at salvaging women‘s status by suggesting a one-gender model for saga society where men and women were all judged on the same scale falls flat when you realize that even in the quotations that she uses to support her claims men are treated as inherently different from women.
So, in light of recent events, I have decided to compile a small selection of terrible sentences uttered by saga men towards the women around them.
“You‘re either a useless hag or a whore“ – Skarphéðinn Njálsson to Hallgerðr langbrók in the Saga of Njáll the Burner
Few women get as much hate in the sagas as Hallgerðr. From her childhood, when her uncle Hrútr told her father that she has “thief‘s eyes,” to being hit by each of her three husbands, nobody embodies the serial abuse that men inflict on women as well as Hallgerðr. Some have tried to defend Hallgerðr and explain her actions in the context of feud. In this quote, foul-mouthed and quick-witted Skarphéðinn expresses his utter contempt towards Hallgerðr by using the Latin slur púta to really drive his point home.
“Long did I know that I was well wed, but I did not know that I was this well wed. But you give me now less assistance than you wanted or intended, though the strike was good, for I would have sent them both down the same way” – Gísli Súrsson to his wife Auðr Vésteinsdóttir in the Saga of Gísli Súrsson
While this scene does not come across as misogynist, it always bothered me how a few moments before his death, as his wife Auðr stands bravely by his side and fights against his enemies in a hopelessly outnumbered onslaught, Gísli sees fit to remind his wife that he would have struck better than her. It is important to remember that one of the main themes of Gísla saga is a constant comparison between good and bad behavior of women. But, clearly, even a “good” woman is not good enough.
“If you’d rather die here with shame than live with me with honor and reputation, then that can be arranged.” – Guðmundr inn ríki Eyjólfsson to his wife Þórlaug Atladóttir in the Saga of the People of Light-Lake
After his spy (and perhaps lover) Rindill dies, Guðmundr inn ríki is set on burning down the house where his assassin resides. Guðmundr’s wife, Þórlaug has other plans, however, and she refuses to leave the house, nor does their son Halldórr. Guðmundr huffs and puffs, but eventually is stopped from burning the house. His willingness to avenge a dead lover by killing his wife does, however, rub the reader the wrong way.
“This woman does not speak. I have tried many ways to speak with her, but never got a word out. From this I concluded that this woman does not know how to speak.” – Gilli the Russian about the enslaved Melkorka in the Saga of the People of Salmon River
Melkorka is an enslaved Irish princess, who is taken by Gilli the Russian and sold to the Icelander Höskuldr. The idea that a woman would choose not to speak to her captor and enslaver as an act of defiance does not even occur to Gilli, and Höskuldr is shocked when he learns that his non-consenting concubine is able to talk. A statement by Edna Edith Sayers (published as Lois Bragg) is too poignant not to quote in full:
His response to the disclosure that the woman he is about to buy “doesn’t know how to talk,” which is to pull out his wallet and pay the inflated price, suggests that her speechlessness is an asset.
“How large is the scar on Skíði‘s lip?” Hversu mikið er nú skarð í vör Skíða? Karl Karlsson to Yngvildr Ásgeirsdóttir in the Saga of the People of Svarfaðardalr
Probably the cruellest episode in saga literature is performed by a vengeful Karl Karlsson, who repeatedly tortures Yngvildr Ásgeirsdóttir for how she incited her husband Skíði into killing his father. I honestly would rather not go into detail, but Karl employs almost every torture in the book on Yngvildr exposes the cruelty that saga men can exact on women. Since they cannot be killed in vengeance, other means are found that are honestly worse than death.
Men and women are often terrible to each other in the sagas, and the things that they say and do to each other are sometimes crueller than the ones that they do to people of their own gender. But perhaps it is apt to finish on a more positive note. In Ljósvetninga saga’s C-redaction, Guðmundr inn ríki places his daughter Þórdís in the custody of his brother Einarr, when the suitor Sörli tries to marry her against his (but, importantly, not against her) will. Sörli and Þórdís continue to meet at Uncle Einarr’s farm. In one instance, when Þórdís sees Sörli, she utters one of the few romantic sentences in saga literature:
The sun shines bright and a Southern wind blows as Sörli rides into the garden.
Dr. Yoav Tirosh will soon begin a postdoc on disability in the sagas of Icelanders at the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Iceland. He is also an external member of CVM (Center for Vikingetid og Middelalder) at Aarhus University. He creates the Viking Comics by Yoav webcomic about life in Iceland and Vikings. Click here to view his Academia.edu page. You can learn more about his comics on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter @RealMundiRiki.
Top Image: Scene from Gisli the Outlaw, by George W. Dasent, first published in 1866