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UFOs in the Icelandic Sagas

By Yoav Tirosh

The History Channel has two popular shows – Ancient Aliens and Vikings. Both are anything but historical, and yet they both challenge the viewer to rethink the ways that they approach the past. What would happen if you combined the two? Is it possible that UFOs visited and interacted with the Vikings? And where would we find these encounters?

It is no secret that the Icelandic sagas – usually summed up as “farmers came to blows” – are abundant with paranormal and supernatural encounters. It is also no secret that ever since the famous 2017 New York Times article discussing UFOs (unidentified flying objects) and the most recent US congressional hearing on UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena), people have been treating this topic with less eye-rolling and more interest/concern. Still, I confess that I would not have thought to engage with this topic at a widely read venue such as Medievalists.net had I not most recently secured postdoctoral funding for the next three years; hopefully by the end of that period this article will either be forgotten or vindicated. That being said, when writing this article I treated it more as a somewhat light-hearted thought experiment; all of the scenes I discuss have been treated as fulfilling literary functions within the narrative and some have even been tied to religious motifs or practices.

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Alien abduction in Eyrbyggja saga

One scene in the paranormal-heavy Saga of the People of Eyri (Eyrbyggja saga) stands out in particular when discussing UFOs. One night, the young Gunnlaugr walks home alone from Katla the Witch’s farm, and is found bloodied and unconscious near the door of his house. Accusations fly high, with another local witch called Geirríðr being accused of “night riding” Gunnlaugr like a mare. Later on the witch Katla confesses to causing Gunnlaug’s injuries, and she is stoned to death.

This seems like an open and shut case, certainly nothing that would catch Fox Mulder’s (of The X-Files fame) attention. But we need to consider the context of this confession. Katla had just seen her beloved son Oddr hung by his enemies, and even worse: during his death throes, his executor Arnkell points the blame at the mother. This kind of cruelty is bound to be traumatizing, and Katla’s wish to die there and then rather than live on with the memory of her son’s final moments is understandable. But if we re-examine Gunnlaugr’s injuries another possibility opens up. Before he leaves both the witch Geirríðr and Katla’s home, both women warn him about the consequences of his travelling alone. Geirríðr goes as far as mentioning vague paranormal activity on that particular night. Gunnlaugr ignores these words and disappears. This disappearance and later unconscious re-appearance fit the scheme of a typical alien abduction story. What if the paranormal activity that Geirríðr warned about was not, in fact, Katla’s witchcraft, but an alien spacecraft?

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UFO sightings and temporal distortion in Njál’s saga

A sense of time loss and linear confusion are often associated with UFO sightings and alien abductions. Such temporal distortions are quite common in anticipating and following farm burning scenes in the sagas. Before famously causing his family to burn inside their house, Njáll the Burner has visions of blood appearing on the walls, and his wife Bergþóra also senses that this is to be their last night. After the burning, people can hear Njáll’s son Skarphéðinn utter a poem, despite clearly dying from the fire. Most importantly, before the attack on Njáll’s household, the young Hildiglúmr witnesses a glowing sphere and within it what appears to be a man on a grey horse.

What could explain these paranormal occurrences? A lesser scholar might suggest that these are manifestations of guilt that Njáll experiences due to orchestrating his family’s death. But it is worth remembering that many UFO sightings, from the appearance of foo-fighters to the recent tic-tac video, have long been associated with technologies of war. In fact, some accounts tell of UFOs hanging around US nuclear facilities, and some even claim that they actively disabled nuclear missiles. The impossible shape inside a sphere that Hildiglúmr experiences is commonly described in UFO reports, as are the side effects that he experiences following the paranormal encounter.

Alien technology in Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts

The story of Þorsteinn Bull-Leg (Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts) tells of the loving brother and sister Þorkell and Oddný. Oddný is nonspeaking, and therefore communicates with Þorkell by carving runes on a stick. After a sailor gets her pregnant (the story implies that this was rape) and abandons her, her son Þorsteinn is disowned and almost killed by her brother Þorkell, but their kinship is eventually acknowledged later in life. One night, when Þorsteinn is ten, he lies to sleep next to a large mound, with the enslaved man Freysteinn looking over him. When he awakes he relates a tale of how he got involved in a fight between siblings inside the mound. At its end he obtained a piece of gold, which he has in his hands. He places this gold under his mother’s tongue and she is able to speak from that moment on. While Freysteinn stands guard over Þorsteinn all through the night, the fact that he awakes with the gold and also twelve silver coins indicates that something of a physical nature had indeed occurred. These Viking mounds’ shapes are suspiciously similar to some accounts of UFOs, and the paranormal occurrences attached to them strengthen the inkling that these two are connected.

Are UFOs real?

One stormy night in Norway, a group of drunken Icelanders waited out the bad weather in a straw-filled hut. Suddenly, without warning, a misshapen creature as large as a troll enters the hut. The Icelanders start attacking it, throwing fiery logs at the fiend. The straw catches fire and the Icelanders inside the hut die. They will never learn that the person entering their hut was none other than Grettir the Strong, who swam across a frozen channel to reach them and fetch fire for his crew of freezing shipmates. The chilly swim had turned the cloth he had around him icy-cold, and thus gave him an uncanny appearance, enhanced by the dancing light of the fire and the reality-altering effects of the alcohol. Some things will remain forever unexplained to us, but they are in fact rather mundane. Were the stories that formed the saga events described here the same? Or is there a more mysterious, powerful force at play?

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See also the 2016 book Medieval Science Fiction, edited by Carl Kears and James Paz.

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 InstagramFacebook, or Twitter @RealMundiRiki.

Click here to read more from Yoav Tirosh

Top Image: The Northern Lights in Iceland. Photo by Sean O Riordan / Flickr

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