Advertisement

Monstrous Women

Chapter
  • 269 Downloads
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

The previous chapter showed how in the Íslendingasögur the fantasy of being able to employ magic was used productively to engage with questions of female agency. The fornaldarsögur are even more inclined to employ fantastic and supernatural elements: mythical creatures such as dragons, animal-human hybrids, and giants appear throughout the corpus. Magical objects, weapons and clothes, enchantments, shape-shifting, and heroes’ superhuman strength, skill, and longevity abound. Although these sagas may at times seem to be a never-ending procession of battles on sea and land between men, encounters with giantesses feature prominently in several of them. These female characters appear in many forms, ranging from threatening creatures who are swiftly and brutally exterminated to benign figures providing various sorts of help to the young male hero, including sexual favors, material (and sometimes magical) objects, and advice. Giantesses are often encountered away from the hero’s home territory and civilization on their exploits in search of adventures and plunder, in the far North or East, principally imagined spaces where different rules apply from those of the human world. There has been significant critical discussion about the giant races in Old Norse myth, and how female giants commonly appear as sexual partners and even wives of the gods, but scholars have paid relatively little attention to their counterparts in the fornaldarsögur.1

Keywords

Sexual Partner Female Character Aggressive Sexuality Medieval Literature Male Protagonist 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. For discussion about giants, both male and female, in Old Norse myth, especially negative reciprocity between giants and gods, see Margaret Clunies Ross, Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society, vol. 1 (Odense: Odense University Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  2. Katja Schulz, Riesen: Von Wissenshütern und Wildnisbewohnern in Edda und Saga (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2004), pp. 184–203; Lotte Motz, “Giantesses and Their Names,” Frühmittelalterliche Studien 15 (1981): 495–511.Google Scholar
  3. Lotte Motz, “Giantesses and Their Names,” Frühmittelalterliche Studien 15 (1981): 495–511.Google Scholar
  4. John McKinnell, Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2005), pp. 181–96. Lotte Motz, “The Storm of Troll-Women,” Maal og minne (1988): 31–41.Google Scholar
  5. For discussion about giantesses, see Helga Kress, “Barâttan viö tröllskessur-nar,” Mâttugar meyjar: îslensk fornbokmenntasaga (Reykjavίk: Háskόlautgâfan, 1993), pp. 119–27.Google Scholar
  6. Sandra Ballif Straubhaar, “Nasty, Brutish, and Large: Cultural Difference and Otherness in the Figuration of the Trollwomen of the Fornaldar sögur.” Scandinavian Studies 73 (2003): 105–24.Google Scholar
  7. Lorenzo Lozzi Gallo, “The Giantess as Foster-Mother in Old Norse Literature,” Scandinavian Studies 78 (2006): 1–20.Google Scholar
  8. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 3–25.Google Scholar
  9. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages, Medieval Cultures 17 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  10. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On DÍFficult Middles (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).Google Scholar
  11. Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self (London: Sage, 2002).Google Scholar
  12. Jacques Derrida, “Différance.” Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, LXII, no. 3 (1968): 73–101.Google Scholar
  13. Jesch, Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1991), pp. 14–18.Google Scholar
  14. Guörun Nordal, Tools of Literacy: The Role of Skaldic Verse in Icelandic Textual Culture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 263. A brief survey of the female characters in the Íslendingasögur most known for their beauty confirms this statement: Helga in fagra “the fair,” Hallgerör, Queen Gunnhildr, and Guörun OsvÍFrsdottir are said to be beautÍFul, but apart from Hallgerörs and Helgas glorious hair, no further description is provided. The most detailed passage relating a woman’s physical appearance is probably found in the Fostbr&dra saga description of þorbjörg Kolbrun, though she is not considered very attractive; Fostbr&dra saga, p. 170. Few descriptions of women’s physical attributes appear in konungasögur.Google Scholar
  15. Amy Eichhorn-Mulligan, “Contextualising Old Norse-Icelandic Bodies,” in The Fantastic in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of the 13th International Saga Conference. Durham and York, 6th-12th August, 2006, ed. John McKinnell, David Ashurst, and Donata Kick (Durham: Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), pp. 198–207. 29. Cleasby-Vigfusson translates nefja as “nose, beak.” The name Arinnefja also appears in Rígspula, where it is one of the names of the slaves’ daughters; Rígspula st. 13, in Edda, p. 282. For discussion of giantesses’ names in Old Norse myth and sagas, see also Motz, “Giantesses and Their Names.”Google Scholar
  16. Both Uli Linke and Margaret Clunies Ross argue in their discussions of the Norse creation myth that when Ymir produces children from his armpit, it symbolizes a displaced vagina; Uli Linke, “The Theft of Blood, the Birth of Men: Cultural Constructions of Gender in Medieval Iceland,” in From Sagas to Society: Comparative Approaches to Early Iceland, ed. Gísli Pálsson (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik Press, 1992), p. 275 [265–88]; Ross, Prolonged Echoes, 1: 152.Google Scholar
  17. For a similar account of a giantess growing larger, although in a Danish historiographical source, see Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes: Books I-IX, ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson, trans. Peter Fisher, 2 vols. (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1979), 1: 22–24.Google Scholar
  18. When the Islendingasögur do engage with sexual matters, they are more preoccupied with sexual deviance such as ergi, or, rather, with (often slanderous) accusations of such practices. For discussion, see Preben Meulengracht Sorensen, The Unmanly Man: Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society, trans. Joan Turville-Petre (Odense: Odense University Press, 1983). First published as Normnt nid: forestillingen om den umandige mand i de Íslandske sagaer (Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 1980).Google Scholar
  19. Rory McTurk, Chaucer and the Norse and Celtic Worlds (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), p. 107.Google Scholar
  20. R. S. Loomis, “The Fier Baiser in Mandeville’s Travels, Arthurian Romance, and Irish Saga,” Studi Medievali 17 (1951): 110–111 [103–114]; McTurk, Chaucer, pp. 127–28.Google Scholar
  21. Cf. the wicked stepmother’s function in Arthurian legend; see Larrington, King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006), p. 86.Google Scholar
  22. Gunnar Karlsson, “Barnfóstur a Íslandi aö fornu,” in Miðaldabörn, ed. Ármann Jakobsson and Torfi H. Tulinius (Reykjavίk: Hugvisindastofnun Haskóla Íslands, 2005), pp. 43–50.Google Scholar
  23. Ármann Jakobsson, “Astin a timum þjó0veldisins,” in Miðaldabörn, ed. Ármann Jakobsson and Torfi H. Tulinius (Reykjavίk: Hugv.sindastofnun Haskóla Íslands, 2005), p. 78 [65–85].Google Scholar
  24. See also McKinnell, Meeting the Other, pp. 182–85. 89. The title is postmedieval; the saga’s oldest manuscript dates from ca. 1600. There is some doubt as to whether the saga is originally medieval or based on ballads, but the same story material is used by the Danish historiographer Saxo Grammaticus around 1200, suggesting that it was available in some form in the medieval period; see Judith Jesch, “Illuga saga Griôarfôstra,” in Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia, ed. Phillip Pulsiano et al. (New York: Garland, 1992), pp. 322–23.Google Scholar
  25. Brönugras (orchid) purportedly derives its name from the saga; see Ágúst H. Bjarnason, îslensk flora med Utmyndum (Reykjavίk: Forlagið, 1994), p. 194. Belief in the orchid’s aphrodisiac qualities is recorded as early as ca. 300 BC in Theophrastus’s botanical work Inquiry into Plants; see John Scarborough, “The Pharmacology of Sacred Plants, Herbs, and Roots,” in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, ed. Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 148–49 [138–74].Google Scholar
  26. Aarne Antti, The Types of the Folktale: A ClassÍFication and Bibliography, trans. and enlarged by Stith Thompson. 2nd rev. edn. (Helinki: Suomalainen tie-deakatemia, 1973), p. 104.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jóhanna Katrin Friðriksdóttir 2013

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations