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21.09.18 Jakobsson/Mayburd (eds.), Paranormal Encounters in Iceland 1150-1400

21.09.18 Jakobsson/Mayburd (eds.), Paranormal Encounters in Iceland 1150-1400


The 23 studies collected in this volume are the fruit of an international collaboration between 2012 and 2017 sponsored by the University of Iceland and Icelandic Research Fund. Their purpose is to explore and rethink "paranormal" encounters as described in medieval Icelandic literary texts. The term is "intentionally provocative" (2), chosen to stress (or at least respectfully acknowledge) the very human experience of encountering non-human or preternatural beings without prejudging the authenticity of these encounters or even insisting on their thematic or symbolic purpose in the particular narratives in which they appear. The volume is thus an excursus in historical anthropology, concerned with uncovering the cultural meaning of these experiences to the authors who recounted them so vividly and to the audiences who received these stories with so much obvious appreciation and regard.

The collection is subdivided into three sections: (1) studies that that emphasize the experience of the paranormal encounter itself; (2) those offering a taxonomy of the different kinds of paranormal being thus encountered; and (3) a group that moves on to consider more critically the literary qualities or thematic purposes of these striking narratives.

Part I: Experiencing the Paranormal

In "'I See Dead People'": The Externalization of Paranormal Experience in Medieval Iceland," the lead author Ármann Jakobsson flags the focus of the project as a whole on popular cultural representations or folk beliefs with an allusion to the 1999 film The Sixth Sense about a child psychologist and his young patient who talks with the dead. Ármann explores similar intrusions from a traditional Icelandic "netherworld" into the life of characters in Brennu-Njáls saga, in particular, the premonitory gandreið (witch-ride) seen by the boy Hildiglúmr before the Burning and Flosi's unsettling dream of Irongrim, a figure who steps from a hillside to call out many of the chieftain's followers for bloody reprisals, intimating that violent deeds can never be forgotten, but will continue to haunt the minds of their perpetrators ever after. Even the saintly Njáll comforts his household with the promise that God will not let them burn both in this world and the next, so that the saga-writer externalizes his protagonist's faith in a parallel universe whose frontiers are interpenetrable with our own.

Miriam Mayburd, in "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: Haunted Saga Homesteads, Climate Fluctuations, and the Vulnerable Self," considers the impact of Iceland's stark natural environment and subsistence economy on the experience of ordinary people, not only in its subarctic landscape with a low population density, but also in the country's propensity for extreme weather events and other environmental stressors. Sagas dramatize the physical and psychological vulnerability of their human characters amidst these elemental extremes. They illustrate "the phenomenon of the dissolving self -- an estrangement from oneself that occurs when all the perceived boundaries between self and environment begin to collapse" (21). Mayburd observes that the saga characters most affected by hauntings are also those most challenged by their social environments, "anonymous common house folk and farming staff," that is, underprivileged people "whose marginality is accentuated by their social dependency" in the homes of their betters, removed from the support of their own birth families (30). "[S]aga characters who are strong-minded and fearless in the face of such crises tend to be the socially privileged and educated; these are the regional authority figures to whom the local people appeal for interventions over the hauntings" (30-31). Lack of social autonomy thus translates into loss of personal agency when encountering preternatural threats.

Ásdís Egilsdóttir moves more explicitly into the realm of Christian tradition with "Happy Endings: The (Para)Normality of Miracles," which she finds to be paradoxical phenomena since miracles in medieval narratives, especially of healing, are both ubiquitous and anomalous simultaneously. They are presented as the natural and normal result of an intervention by a very unnatural and abnormal person, in fact one who more often than not is no longer even alive in the flesh, but whose physical remains provide access to his or her spiritual presence and good will for further intercession with God "who is the real miracle worker" (45). The saint's bodily remains, situated on the cusp of this world and the next, thus restore a healthful normative balance between the supplicant's own body and soul.

Andrea Maraschi follows with "Þórgunna's Dinner and Other Medieval Liminal Meals: Food as Mediator between this World and the Hereafter," in which she "deconstructs" the nocturnal appearance in Eyrbyggja saga of an undead revenant, a tall naked Hebridean woman who cooks and serves a meal in the home of an inhospitable farmer as her body is being transported to another location for burial. Meal-sharing is a primeval form of human social relationship and meal-preparing is a further manifestation of traditional womanliness and noble hospitality. In this saga the departed Þórgunna is honored by her return to the kitchen to teach the stingy farmer a lesson, which he takes to heart.

In "A Troll Did It?: Trauma as a Paranormal State in the Íslendingasögur," Marion Poilvez explores the similarities between personal traumas and paranormal encounters in that they can be experienced as inexplicable, "unexpected and disruptive, repetitive, difficult to express, and at the same time contagious," replicating themselves in recursions which perpetuate shared feelings of vulnerability. Poilvez suggests that hauntings embody suppressed memories of violation and abuse, the "past invading the present," or in Freudian terms, the relentless "return of the repressed" (80).

Sarah Bienko Eriksen examines one of the most famous of Icelandic revenants in "Traversing the Uncanny Valley: Glámr in Narratological Space." She notes similarities between Grettir and the undead Glámr who curses the saga hero with a vision of the monster's hate-filled eyes staring back at him whenever Grettir finds himself alone in the dark. This curse implies to many readers that Glámr is, in some sense, Grettir's "double," a projection of the outlaw's own incorrigible hostility which makes his living in society impossible, but also his own company equally unbearable -- a moral and emotional dilemma that ultimately drags him to his death. Eriksen suggests that this doubling effect is created by the subtle use of an innovative technique in saga narrative, "internal focalization" (89), whereby the characteristically objective saga descriptions of words and deeds are manipulated by the author to reveal the interior perspectives of both monster and outlaw. Grettir thus transforms before the reader's eyes into a "monstrous outsider" himself with whose "monstrosity" we are now "forced" to "self-identify," creating a peculiarly intense and interesting character who is "greater than the sum of its parts" (99).

In "On the Threshold: The Liminality of Doorways," Anna Katharina Heiniger considers the paranormal encounters that literally occur at the main entrance to an Icelandic farmstead, leading into or out of a transitional period in a saga's development, but one that brings about "the renegotiation and reorganization of the social order," as described in Arnold van Gennep's classic study, The Rites of Passage (1960).

Sean B. Lawing studies "The Burial of Body Parts in Old Icelandic Grágás," a native law code containing an early statute requiring proper burial for any part of a baptized Christian discovered, as if of the whole person's corpse. Lawing demonstrates that Iceland was no backwater in this theological concern for the proper interment of believers in consecrated ground and that "even the humblest piece of human body ought to be properly laid to rest" in order to facilitate "its physical reassemblage and resurrection at the Last Judgement" (139).

Daniel C. Remein writes on "Paranormal Prose: 'Para-Narrative' and Ice in the Icelandic Sagas." His metaphorical invocation of saga prose as ice may not be crystal-clear to all readers at first, but he proposes that the objective saga style, describing even paranormal events with a certain laconic factuality, replicates the nature of ice as seemingly bright and solid, but also brittle, shifting, unstable and sometimes even dangerous as the platform between up and down, here and there, the water below and air above, and a very uncertain avenue to the distant shore. Ice mimics the surface solidity of saga prose, so seemingly realistic and "hard," but making way for the presence of the paranormal that lies below, above or beyond it.

Part II: Figures of the Paranormal

Andrew McGillivray describes "Encounters with Hliðskjálf in Old Norse Mythology," the "Cliff-Perch" of Ásgarðr, high in the sky above Miðgarðr, from which the All-Father Ódinn looks out upon the world in all directions. It functions as an observation deck or listening post for various Norse gods, a surveillance apparatus or central intelligence headquarters situated to monitor "as many points as possible on the periphery" of the cosmos (185).

Sandra Ballif Straubhaar offers "Ok flygr þat jafnan [And it's always flying]": Icelandic Figurations of Böðvarr bjarki's Monster" in Hrólfs saga kraka. This airborne predator is often adduced as an analogue of Grendel in the earlier Old English poem Beowulf, but Straubhaar concludes that this particular monster, far from being a traditionally pedestrian troll or giant, is more stylishly conceived as "a European Romanesque winged dragon" (198).

Arngrímur Vídalín writes on "Demons, Muslims, Wrestling Champions: The Semantic History of Blámenn from the Twelfth to the Twentieth Century." Blámaður (Black Man) came to denote simply an African person by the nineteenth century in Iceland, but the term had sharply narrowed in semantic range from a whole panoply of paranormal beings from devils, trolls and giants, on the one hand, to berserks, sorcerers, heretics, 'Moors' and other kinds of human heathen, on the other.

Kent Pettit writes on "The New Faith vs. The Undead: Christmas Showdowns," noting the frequent hauntings by animated corpses of refractory pagans during celebrations of Christ's nativity in both Grettis saga and Eyrbyggja saga. The removal or exorcism of these revenants, he argues, is intended to reinforce the triumph of Christianity in the land.

Zuzana Stankovitsová contributes "Following up on Female fylgjur: A Re-Examination of the Concept of Female fylgjur in Old Icelandic Literature." The term fylgja, which literally means "follower," is frequently translated as "fetch" in English, denoting the ghost or wraith of a living person taken to be an omen of that individual's impending death. In Icelandic texts, fylgjur can appear in animal form, but the concept of a personified female fylgja, Stankovitsová argues, seems to be a fiction generated by scholars who associated the term with dísir, female protective spirits associated with individuals or families.

Rebecca Merkelbach argues in "Dólgr í byggðinni [A Fiend in the Settlement]: Meeting the Social Monster in the Sagas of Icelanders," that monstrosity is conceived not primarily as a physical or ontological phenomenon, but as a moral and behavioral one. Humans like Grettir become monsters through their transgressive, antisocial behavior.

Part III: Literature and the Paranormal

Christopher Crocker observes that "Even a Henchman Can Dream: Dreaming at the Margins in Brennu-Njáls saga," noting that many dreams mentioned in that text are only minimally recounted or not at all, and often by low-ranking or "walk-on" characters like the overseer Kolr in the killing-match episode between rival housewives. The significance of unreported dreams by insignificant characters "may in fact be contingent upon the absence of their particular details": they are "words better left unsaid," but by their very suppression only serve to build a sense of foreboding from an independent, "but crucially corroborative perspective" (290).

In "A Normal Relationship? Jarl Hákon and Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr in Icelandic Literary Context," Þórdís Edda Jóhannesdóttir examines an episode in Jómsvíkinga saga in which the pagan Jarl Hákon sacrifices his son to recruit the aid of a female troll against the Jómsvikings. She notes that such a possibility would not have come as a surprise to medieval Christian Icelanders, since the old divinities were already understood to be devils in disguise, as argued by St. Augustine in his City of God, demonic powers who could naturally be invoked for nefarious purposes.

Gunnvör S. Karlsdóttir offers "Priest Ketill's Journey to Rome," a humorous exemplum inserted into a later version of the Saga of Bishop Guðmundur Arason the Good, illustrating the increasing influence of the continental cult of the Blessed Mother in fourteenth-century Iceland.

Ingibjörg Eyþórsdóttir considers "'Darraðarljóð' and Its Context within Njáls saga: Sorcery, Vision, Leizla?" She suggests that this episode in the saga is the adaptation of a West Nordic form, theleizla, literally a "guiding" or "leading," that is, the report of a visit to the Otherworld with premonitory import, here represented to have occurred just after the fateful Battle of Clontarf in 1016. The pagan Norns are seen to weave the fates of men on their bloody loom for the last time, apparently offering a glimpse of the religious change underway in the northern world.

In "Paranormal Tendencies in the Sagas: A Discussion about Genre," Martina Ceolin argues that depictions of preternatural encounters may point to the kind of narrative world into which the reader is being led, but that this effect changed through time as the conventional features of different saga genres were mixed and matched and sometimes ironized in dynamic and heterogeneous ways. She concludes that "the analysis of genre within the saga corpus remains a complex and controversial matter, if not a paranormal experience in and of itself," unsettling the very notion of predictable narrative expectations (358).

Shaun F. D. Hughes offers a novel interpretation of the undead in "Reading the Landscape in Grettis saga: Þórhallur, the meinvættur [harmful creature], and Glámur." By studying the physical topography of his haunted farm, Hughes concludes that Þórhallur had abused his relationship with the landvættir (guardians of the land) by overgrazing his extensive flocks. His shepherd Glámur kills one of these beings, but dies in the struggle, returning himself from the dead to enact their vengeance against his master.

In "Trolling Guðmundr: Paranormal Defamation in Ljósvetninga saga," yoav tirosh (sic) shows how a prominent chieftain, even though manfully providing for and protecting his many children and dependents, could still be "queered" by imputations of argskapr (effeminacy, perversion) in tales told about him by his enemies -- here, the chieftain's nervous consultation with a witch to find out if vengeance would be taken on him for a killing. She says no, not exactly, but that his sons will suffer for his deed and, in fact, Guðmundr dies soon thereafter anyway, fulfilling his brother's prophetic dream of a dying ox. The uncanny nature of Guðmundr's demise in this version of the saga is designed to undermine his character in the eyes of the reader.

Védís Ragnheiðardóttir writes on one of the riddarasögur (knights' sagas) in "'Meir af viel en karlmennsku' [More by trickery than manliness]: Monstrous Masculinity in Viktors saga ok Blávus." She notes that martial misdirection comes to be seen in this late chivalric romance not as quick-thinking cunning or noble fortitude, but as a kind of toxic masculinity or cowardly aggression.

This collection offers a valuable compendium of paranormal episodes recounted in medieval Icelandic sagas, succinctly described and thoughtfully analyzed with depth and insight. The authors incidentally provide a fine update on the current state of saga scholarship in general.