Women and Magic

Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Magic is a versatile literary motif in the Íslendingasögur, which authors had at their disposal to use in a wide range of settings, whether at the splendid Norwegian court, an Icelandic farm, a local assembly, or an isolated fjord in Greenland. In the Íslendingasögur, women’s use of magic is fictionalized and fulfills a literary purpose. The magic topos appears in many contexts, both as a plot device, for example, to foreshadow and create atmosphere, and, at a more sophisticated level, as a way of promoting debate on and illuminating larger sociopolitical questions. As François-Xavier Dillmann observes, roughly the same number of women and men perform magic in Old Norse sources; however, despite a relatively equal gender distribution, male performers of magic appear in fewer texts than women, and their magic performances are less detailed.1 Moreover, as I will discuss below, men have more options available than women to exercise agency. Women’s use of magic raises questions about the relationships between gender, honor, power, and social organization, and demonstrates the conscious use of the topos as a means of engaging with the idea of women’s agency. Finally, the presence of motifs borrowed from folklore and fornaldarsögur indicates that in some sagas, the boundaries between what critics have categorized as realistic and fantastic genres were blurred, or may never have existed in the first place for contemporary saga authors and audiences.


Female Character Oral Tradition Exercise Agency Literary Purpose Supernatural Event 
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  1. François-Xavier Dillmann, Les magiciens dans l’Islande ancienne. Études sur la représentation de la magie islandaise et de ses agents dans les sources littéraires nor-roise (Uppsala: Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien for svensk folkkultur, 2006), p. 157. Jenny Jochens argues that episodes containing the motif of women employing magic are more prominent and impressive than those involving men; Old Norse Images of Women (Philadelpia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), pp. 123–24; see also Helga Kress, “‘Oþarfar unnustur âttu’: Um samband fjölkynngi, kvennafars og karlmennsku i Islendingasögum,” in Galdramenn. ed. Torfi H. Tulinius (Reykjavίk: Hugvisindastofnun, 2008), p. 22 [21–49].Google Scholar
  2. Nur Yalman, “Magic,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 9, ed. David L. Sills (New York: Macmillan & Free Press, 1972), p. 527 [52128]. In what follows, I do not reject the idea that belief in the efficacy of magic existed in the Middle Ages; nevertheless, I highlight the literariness of the topos as it is employed in the îslendingasôgur.Google Scholar
  3. Stephen A. Mitchell, “Magic as Acquired Art and the Ethnographic Value of the Sagas,” in Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society, ed. Margaret Clunies Ross (Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2003), pp. 132–52. Gunnlaugr is said to be instructed in kunnâtta, which can mean “knowledge” or “magical knowledge,” Eyrbyggja saga. ÍF IV, ed. Einar Ol. Sveinsson and Matthias Èôrôarson (Reykjavίk: Hið islenzka fornritafélag, 1935), p. 28.Google Scholar
  4. Ari Èorgilsson, îslendingabok, in îslendingabok. Landnâmabok. ÍF I, ed. Jakob Benediktsson (Reykjavίk: Hið islenzka fornritafélag, 1968), p. 17.Google Scholar
  5. Jochens, Old Norse Images, p. 113, and Chapter 5 in the same volume; Katherine Morris, Sorceress or Witch? The Image of Gender in Medieval Iceland and Northern Europe (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991), pp. 44–48; Helga Kress, Mâttugar meyjar: îslensk fornbokmenntasaga (Reykjavίk: Háskόlautgâfan, 1993), pp. 35–38. See, however, Helgas more recent literary and theoretical reading of women performing magic in Helga Kress, “Oþarfar unnustur âttu.”Google Scholar
  6. See also Neil S. Price, The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Uppsala: The Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, 2002), p. 209.Google Scholar
  7. Hilda R. Ellis Davidson, “Hostile Magic in the Icelandic Sagas,” in The Witch Figure, ed. Venetia Newall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), pp. 20–41.Google Scholar
  8. Price, The Viking Way, pp. 66 and 327; Catharina Raudvere, “Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia,” in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (London: Athlone Press, 2002), pp. 97–101 [75–171].Google Scholar
  9. Gísli Pálsson, “The Name of the Witch: Sagas, Sorcery and Social Context,” Social Approaches to Viking Studies, ed. Ross Samson (Glasgow: Cruithne Press, 1991), pp. 157–68. Magic and supernatural activity of some kind occurs in 32 out of 42 Íslendingasögur.Google Scholar
  10. See for example, John McKinnell, “Encounters with Volur,” in Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society, ed. Margaret Clunies Ross (Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2003), p. 111 [110–131]; Raudvere, “Trolldómr pp. 122–23.Google Scholar
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  18. This is according to the shorter version of the saga, and the Íslenzk fornrit edition’s primary text; in the longer version—the.F edition’s secondary text—Gislis reaction is more moderate; see Emily Lethbridge, Narrative Variation in the Versions of Gisla saga Surssonar (Diss. University of Cambridge, 2007), pp. 124–25. For discussion, see Roberta Frank, “Marriage in Twelfth-and Thirteenth-Century Iceland,” Viator 4 (1973): 473–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  20. Unusually, þόrdis has the help of some sort of spirits to find þormόðr, which can be deduced from her statement: “Viða hefi ek gondum rennt i nott, ok em ek nu vis orðin þeira hluta, er eki vissa eigi aðr” [I have sent sprits to many places last night, and now I am aware of those things which I did not know before]; Fostbrðdra saga, p. 243. For discussion about gandir, see for example, Clive Tolley, “Vorðr and Gandr: Helping Spirits in Norse Magic,” Arkiv for nordisk filologi 110 (1995): 62–75 [57–75].Google Scholar

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© Jóhanna Katrin Friðriksdóttir 2013

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