Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.04.05 Antonsson, Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature

19.04.05 Antonsson, Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature

There is no doubt that the hope of salvation and the fear of damnation are fundamental in the medieval world view. In the oldest version of Þorláks saga helga (early 13th century), it is said about St Þorlákr "that it seldom left his thoughts what will occur at the Day of Judgement." [1] Not surprising, when a holy bishop is concerned, a man who is supposed to act as a paradigm. Yet, Dr. Haki Antonsson has shown that the binary theme of salvation and damnation has influenced all Old Norse Saga-writing. In an article of 2012, Antonsson showed how salvation as a theme had shaped twelfth century Icelandic saga writing. [2] He takes the subject a step further in his new book, Damnation and Salvation in Old Norse Literature. Here, he examines how the binary theme of damnation and salvation interacts with the life-cycle, and argues how it has structured secular Saga literature and Old Norse Poetry.

Scholars have been drawing attention to foreign and Christian motifs in Saga literature for a long time. Antonsson's strength lies in his contextualisation of Christian themes. The book is thematically arranged, with ample references and an analytic reading of Saga literature and Old Norse poetry. In his thorough Introduction, Antonsson explains his methods and approach. He emphasizes that although he identifies and demonstrates "recurring patterns of thoughts and expression within a specific textual corpus" (3), his aim is to analyze how the identified pattern plays out in individual works, and to avoid generalising. Understanding relevant details means recognising the overall literary and historical context. Although he humbly states that he does not "offer an inventory of texts of every Old Norse saga or poem" (2) that features the theme of damnation and salvation, he offers the reader a varied and broad choice of texts.

The binary theme is well illustrated with his analysis of Hemings þáttr (21). The following chapters are 1) Confession and Penance, 2) Life's Journey towards Salvation: Salvation and the Biographical Pattern, 3) Betrayal, 4) Outlaws and Marginal figures, 5) Salvation, Damnation, and the Visible World, 6) The Hour of Death, 7) Last things and Judgement Day, and concluding remarks. In "Confession and Penance," Antonsson analyses both prose texts and the penitential poems Sólarljóð, by an anonymous poet, and Harmsól, attributed to Gamli kanóki, translated by Antonsson as 'Old Canon.' I find it more plausable that Gamli is a nickname that turned into a personal name. Jón Gamlason, 'son of Gamli', was abbot in the monastery of Þingeyrar 1444-1448. At least three known priests in the 16th and 17th centuries carry the patronymic "Gamlason."

"Life's journey towards Salvation" discusses mainly narratives of Sigurðr slembidjákn, Ólafr Tryggvason and Yngvars saga víðförla. In this chapter, Antonsson re-visits and deepens his studies in the previously mentioned article of 2012. His main conclusion is that the texts are meant to show that life is a journey towards salvation. In "Betrayal," the focus is mainly on the consequences of a truce broken. The texts studied are examples from Heimskringla, Svínfellinga saga, Þorgils saga skarða and Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar from the Sturlunga saga compilation. The salvation of the souls of those who are betrayed, and die a martyr-like death is clearly implied. The death of Þorgils skarði, to take one example, indeed echoes Thomas Becket´s martyrdom. But, Antonsson argues, the purpose of the narrative is not to sanctify Þorgils, or to make him an Icelandic Becket, but to indicate that his salvation will be helped by the saintly archbishop.

Gísla saga Súrssonar and Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar are the subject of the chapter "Outlaws and Marginal Figures," with an interesting analysis on Arons saga Hjörleifssonar in addition. Aron Hjörleifsson was a supporter of Bishop Guðmundr Arason, who rebelled against the poweful Sturlungar family. This leads to Aron's outlawry for some years. Antonsson points out that the saga's principal theme is the journey of a secular figure towards salvation, illustrated by a eulogy delivered by King Hákon of Norway (136). After having demonstrated how the salvation theme is assocated with travelling, Antonsson turns to landscapes, natural phenomena, and cardinal directions, in the chapter "Salvation, Damnation and the Visual World." With rich textual examples, he shows how nature and landscape respresent heaven and hell.

Antonsson then proceeds to the chapter "The Hour of Death." The chapter is illustrated with death scenes from various sagas that highlight the theme of salvation and damnation. Antonsson rightly points out that the author of Sverris saga, abbot Karl Jónsson, draws on hagiographical tradition (200). Hagiographic influence is evident in many episodes of the saga, not the least the death-bed scene, where all those present claim that they had never seen a more beautiful body than the recently dead king's. Antonsson does not interpret the scene as a sign of the king's possibility of sanctity, but rather an argument for his salvation. He interprets a similiar allusion to sanctity in the case of Ólafr Tryggvason, Sigurðr slemidjákn, and Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson. Antonsson's arguments are convincing, but, however, there can be a fine line between the ideas of sanctity and salvation, especially in the above-mentioned cases. As Antonsson himself mentions, he does not end his book with a "conclusion." "The Hour of Death" is followed, naturally, by the final chapter "Last Things and Judgement Day." Here, Antonsson analyses key episodes of Njáls saga, Gunnarr's appearence in his burial-mound, the killing of Hǫskuldr, the burning of Bergþórshváll, Flosi's Dream, and the battle of Clontarf.

The book is well constructed, written in an elegant, flowing style that makes it a pleasure to read. It is beautifully designed, with a cover image depicting damned souls aurrounded by flames--an altar frontal from Røldal stave church (ca. 1325-1350). No book is flawless, the book without misprints has not yet been published. Unfortunately there are some flaws of this kind, such as more than one reference to page 000 in the footnotes, a typo at the beginning of the chapter "The Death of King Magnús góði Ólafsson' ('he death of King Magnús góði...)" (184), and several misspellings. These are minor oversights, compared with the importance of the book. With this book, Haki Antonsson has made a major contribution to our understanding of Saga-writing and Old Norse history. Damnation and Salvationin Old NorseLiterature is definately one of the most interesting books on Saga-literature that has appeared in recent years.



1. The Saga of Bishop Thorlak (Þorláks saga byskups), trans.Ármann Jakobsson and David Clark (London: The Viking Society for Northern Society, 2013), 14.

2. Haki Antonsson, "Salvation and Early Saga Writing in Iceland: Aspects of the Works of the Þingeyrar Monks and their Associates, " Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 8 (2012), 71-140.