Viking Women & Authority in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas of Gisli and Grettir

There is nothing like a good outlaw story, they tend to contain some very enjoyable motifs – a trickster hero, feats of derring-do, vengeance, comeuppance and, usually, some interesting female characters. A bit of recent Twitter chatter (here and here) have brought to mind a couple of strong women in two Icelandic outlaw sagas – Auð Vesteinsdottir of Gísla saga Súrssonar and Thorbjorg ‘the Stout’ in Grettis saga. So today I thought we would take a look at these two women, and their roles in the male-dominated Icelandic society in which law, feud, and honour created and pursued outlaws. Strong female characters can be found all throughout Old Norse literature – it is one of the things that makes the sagas so pleasurable to read, and speaks to a culture in which women were able to exercise some personal agency. Auð and Thorbjorg are excellent examples of this agency and we will focus on them as such – the broader topic of women in Old Norse society would be a book-length study (which happily Jenny Jochens has provided).

Before we begin, I should acknowledge that the term ‘viking women’ can be a little misleading. While many men within these sagas performed at times in the role of viking, the women we are discussing were not involved in the raiding activities we associated with that term. However, the women of cultures that participated in viking gained a degree of social authority as a direct result of the activity for, while the men were at sea, someone had to make the decisions governing the operations of farms, homesteads and trade.

Now to our sagas, and some context to begin with – we are dealing with Iceland’s two most legendary and long-lived outlaws. Gísli Súrsson survived thirteen years an outlaw, his sentence passed as a result of a vengeance killing he undertook in response to the murder of his brother-in-law. There are a couple of deeply complicated things here, relating to the nature of feud, familial ties in Icelandic culture, laws surrounding murder, and a cursed family heirloom. They are, however, wildly digressive if we are talking about ‘viking’ women, so I will point you to our earlier articles on Anglo-Scandinavian legal cultures, and masculinity in medieval Icelandic culture. Grettir’s outlawry is similarly complicated and came as a result of a hall-burning that occurred in Norway, and which it is very unlikely that Grettir undertook purposefully. Two of the men in the hall were Icelanders and sons of a powerful chieftain who pushed through a judgement of outlawry on Grettir in absentia. It is something of a miscarriage of justice and the saga author clearly intends it as commentary on the corruption of the Icelandic legal system. Thus, when Grettir gets home he is already outlawed, and so begins nineteen-years in the Icelandic wilds.

Auð Vesteinsdottir – Gísla saga Súrssonar

We will begin with Gísla saga and Auð Vesteinsdottir – Gisli’s wife. She is a source of wisdom and an unfailing support for Gísli throughout his outlawry. The particular tale I want to examine shows Auð’s wit, loyalty, and her ability to leverage the fragility of masculine identity through an attack that not only wounds her opponent’s body, but his pride and reputation. As we enter the story, we are in Auð’s house, where she has been visited by the bounty-hunter Eyjolf and his men, who have spent an unsuccessful few months chasing rumours of Gísli’s whereabouts. Gísli has in fact been visiting Auð and is hiding in the wilderness near her home when this event occurs. Notably, Eyjolf specifically operates as a bounty-hunter – a killer for hire in the employ of the man who forced Gísli’s outlawry. As such, Eyjolf had no vested interest in the legal case; however, he has since become personally and emotionally invested in the hunt for Gísli as his lack of success in capturing the outlaw is beginning to wound his own reputation.

Eyiolf says he will visit Aud first. They come to the steading and walk in, and Eyiolf settled down again to have a talk with Aud. He has this to say:

‘I will make a bargain with you, Aud,’ he says, ‘that you tell me where Gisli is and I will give you the sixty ounces of silver which I have taken as the price on his head. You shall not be there when we take his life. It will also follow that I will arrange a marriage for you that will be better in every way than this one has been. You can see for yourself,’ he says, ‘how miserable it becomes for you, living in this deserted fiord, and having this happen to you because of Gisli’s bad luck, and never seeing your kinsfolk or their families.’

She answers, ‘I think the last thing,’ she says, ‘that we are likely to agree about is that you could arrange any marriage for me that I would think as good as this one. Even so, it is true, as they say, that “cash is the widow’s best comfort”; and let me see whether this silver is as much or as fine as you say it is.’

He pours the silver into her lap then, and she puts her hand into it while he counts it and turns it over before her.

[There is a brief interlude here where Auð’s foster-daughter goes to warn Gísli that his wife will betray him, however Gísli asserts that Auð would never do so, and speaks a verse praising Auð’s loyalty. The foster-daughter returns to observe the rest of the exchange.]

‘In no way is the silver less or poorer than you have said, and you will think now that I have the right to do with it as I please.’

Eyiolf agrees with this gladly, and tells her certainly to do what she likes with it. Aud takes the silver and puts it in a big purse; she stands up and swings the purse with the silver in it at Eyiolf’s nose, so that the blood spurts out all over him; then she spoke:

‘Take that for your easy faith, and every harm with it! There was never any likelihood that I would give my husband over to you, scoundrel. Take your money, and shame and disgrace with it! You will remember, as long as you live, you miserable man, that a woman has struck you; and yet you will not get what you want for all that!’

Then Eyiolf said, ‘Seize the bitch and kill her, woman or not!’

Havard has something to say: ‘This errand has been poor enough, without this coward’s work. Stand up, men, and do not let him get his way in this…’

Havard was a well-liked man, and many of them were ready to back him up, besides wanting to turn Eyiolf from a bad act; and Eyiolf has to be satisfied to leave it at this and … goes home to Otradal, discontented with what had been done; and indeed it was everywhere thought to have been most contemptible.

Gisle_med_Aud_och_Gudrid
Gísli, Auð and their foster daughter, illustrated by C. E. St. John Mildmay (1866)

It is something of a longer passage than I would normally transcribe, however there is not much we could leave out, as everything builds to create picture of Auð’s intent in her actions. Auð is not simply trying to protect or hide Gísli from his pursuers, but to humiliate them and turn public good-will away from them. Here she is able to demonstrate that their leader is a man of little honour or wisdom, unable to perform to societal expectations of masculine virtue. In doing so, she creates a political landscape that is less dangerous for her outlawed husband. While her actions may not provide Gísli with any direct allies, the patina of shame that now coats Eyjolf’s reputation makes it less likely that honourable Icelanders would render him and his men aid. Here is a man willing to murder a woman in her own house, yet so cowardly as to order his men to do it on his behalf. A man of so few leadership qualities, of such questionable character, that his men won’t follow the order. The type of man who would expect a wife to betray her husband for a price, who is thoroughly outplayed in the ensuing conversation, and who has his money quite literally thrown back in his face for his gullibility. I think we can agree that the picture the saga author has painted of Eyjolf is not great. There is no honour in rendering a man like that aid and thus Gísli becomes freer to move about the Icelandic landscape in his outlawry for, so long as he avoids the farmsteads of those men directly allied to Eyjolf and his employer, it is unlikely his movements would be reported back to the bounty-hunters.

Those are the broad-stroke results of Auð’s interaction with Eyjolf, now let’s look at specifics. While I have listed many, many socially transgressive things Eyjolf has done in this brief event, I have not mentioned the big one. Most egregious of all within the feud paradigms of Iceland, Eyjolf receives a blow for which he receives no recompense and takes no revenge. Key to this is that women fell outside of Icelandic legal codes regarding feud a wergild. Auð is extremely smart here, she knows that there is no way that Eyjolf could respond to this blow within the moral frameworks of her society. Women were not simply excluded from legal codes governing feud through an unthinking misogyny (though that is certainly an element at play), but because societal norms dictated that a woman’s role within feud was not a violent one and men not strike a blow against women. An example of this is seen in Njals saga where Hallgerð and Bergþóra play out a proxy feud in which they neither experience nor undertake personal violence, yet both arrange for allied men to take violent action on their behalf. Auð is therefore placing Eyjolf in a position with no legal precedent, and few societal guidelines. A smart medieval Icelandic man should not let himself get trapped into such a situation.

Auð clearly has the better of the conversation here. Eyjolf has informed her that he will both provide her money, and arrange her marriage to a newer, better model of husband if she betrays Gísli. Auð immediately states a better match could not be found. It is not a subtle statement, but a clear declaration of her loyalty to Gísli. Yet in his hubris, all Eyjolf hears when Auð asks to see the money is an apparent willingness to give up her husband. Somehow having missed the early warning signs, Eyjolf then only gets more excited as Auð confirms that she may use the money for whatever purpose she deems fit. Eyjolf readily agrees. Unfortunately for him, the purpose Auð deemed fit for the money was as a bludgeon with which to break Eyjolf’s nose. It is one of my favourite moments in the saga corpus, as Auð spits at Eyjolf that it is payment for his gullibility. Auð is conscious of her legal status as a woman within Icelandic culture and is aware that the blow is a problematic one for Eyjolf. It is, in effect, an unreturnable blow. Eyjolf’s gullibility had placed him in a no-win situation – there was no way for him to retain honour from this interaction, and killing Auð would have only made it worse and likely would have resulted in Eyjolf’s own outlawry, presuming Auð’s own kinsfolk did not take vengeance first. With this in mind, Auð would likely have been quite surprised by Eyjolf’s response to her attack (were this a real event). Fortunately there were better men that Eyjolf in the house. Ultimately, every move Auð makes is nuanced and shows and extraordinary awareness of legal and social mores and the power she could wield as a woman within that cultural framework. Her actions provided her husband the social and political space to survive thirteen years in outlawry before dying in a rather extraordinary last stand.  Gísli owes much to Auð for being able to survive so long.

Thorbjorg ‘the Stout’ – Grettis saga

With Auð having given us a good grounding on female agency in medieval Iceland, I will be much briefer here as we are in danger of this becoming a very long article. Plus I have already written a fair bit on Grettir – though mainly on the monstrous and the intersection of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs.

Grettir is a problematic outlaw for Icelandic society. There is a general sense that his sentence is unfair and legally dubious and he is supported by some of the great men of his era. Yet his behaviour while an outlaw is problematic enough that these men are unable to have his outlawry lifted, and Grettir is forced to move from region to region as trouble follows him. In the episode we are looking at, we find that the farmers of Vatnsdal are none too happy to have Grettir arrive on their doorstep, so they have conspired to capture him. Grettir put up one hell of a fight and it took thirty farmers to capture him, but they finally have him at their mercy and are deciding what to do next…

And when they had discussed this for a long time, then they came to an agreement together on this that they would not let their good fortune turn to ill, and they set to and raised a gallows straight away there in the wood and were going to hang Grettir, and they made a great noise about it. Then they saw three people riding up along the valley. One of them was in coloured clothes. They guessed that this must be Madam Thorbiorg from Vatnsfiord, and so it was. She was making for the shieling. She was a very remarkable person and very intelligent. She ruled the district and decided everything whenever Vermund was away from home. She came across to where the gathering was and she was helped off her horse. The farmers welcomed her. Then she said:

‘What sort of an assembly is this you are holding, and who is this thick-necked man sitting here tied up?’

Grettir gave his name and greeted her.

She answers: ‘What made you do this, Grettir,’ she said, ‘that you should want to cause breaches of the peace among my assembly-men?’

‘“I cannot avoid everything”; I had to be somewhere.’

‘This is a great misfortune,’ she says, ‘that these miserable people should capture you without your being able put up a better show. And what do you plan to do with him now?’

The farmers told her that they were going to hang him on gallows for his misdeeds.

She replied: ‘It may be that Grettir deserves that, but it is too much for you Isfirdingers to take on, to take Grettir’s life, for he is a renowned man and comes of a great family, even if he is not a successful person. But what will you do to earn your life, Grettir, if I give you life?’

He answers, ‘What do you suggest?’ ‘You shall swear an oath,’ she said, ‘to do no misdeeds here around Isafiord; you shall take no vengeance on those who have been involved in this expedition to capture you.’

Grettir said it should be as she wished. Then he was freed. And he has said that that was the time he had to work hardest of all to restrain his temper in not striking them when they crowed over what they had done to him. Thorbiorg told him to go home with her and gave him a horse to ride. He then went back to Vatnsfiord and stayed there until Vermund came home, and the lady treated him well. She became renowned for what she had done widely in the area. Vermund put on black looks when he came home and found out why Grettir was there. Thorbiorg told him everything that had happened with the Isfirdingers.

‘What had he done to earn from you,’ said Vermund, ‘that you should give him life?’

‘There were many factors that contributed to this,’ said Thorbiorg, ‘first,’ she says, ‘that you will be reckoned a greater leader than before, in having a wife who dared do such a thing. Then his kinswoman Hrefna would have expected me not to let him be killed. Thirdly, he is a man of the greatest achievements in many respects.’

‘You are a wise woman,’ said Vermund, ‘in most things, and I am grateful to you.’

295px-AM426_Grettir
Grettir Ásmundarson as depicted in a 17C. manuscript (Reykjavík AM 426)

So there are a couple of things to note here. Firstly, that Vermund is a chieftain (goði), a role that is exclusive to men, yet Thorbjorg is understood to wield her husband’s authority in his absence. This is perhaps not that unusual and, as I noted at the start, women married to viking men were expected to take traditionally masculine roles on board in the absence of their husbands. Nonetheless, Throbjorg appears to act with particular authority. Certainly the men of lower social status within her region understand her to operate with the full powers of a goði, otherwise it is doubtful that they would have released Grettir at her command. Moreover, she seems to wield a personal reputation that garners her addition authority – it is unusual that a saga author would note that someone is a remarkable person and very intelligent, no less a woman. It is also unusual for Grettir to hold himself so tightly in check and we are informed that Grettir makes a conscious effort to maintain the oath he swore to Thorbjorg. I should note there is something that could be said of class identity here: Thorbjorg and Grettir are both of a higher social echelon than Grettir’s captors, and Thorbjorg seems almost offended that he should be caught and executed by such men. This despite the fact that Grettir’s outlawry places him outside such social structures and that Thorbjorg identifies the men as her own assembly-men. I won’t dwell on class and social structure though, other than to note that Thorbjorg’s statement that the farmers are my assembly-men once again indicates that she operates with the authority of her husband’s goðorð.

So we will skip down to her justifications of her actions to Vermund. Firstly that Vermund would gain credit from having a wife willing to make such a decision. This speaks to Thorbjorg’s reputation, to Grettir’s social status, and to political allegiances. Thorbjorg has stopped a mob of farmers from executing of a man of a noble family whose supporters include some of Iceland’s most powerful men, including the law-speaker. It’s just good politics. The political leaders of Iceland learn from this that Thorbjorg is politically aware and decisive, well able to manage Vermund’s lands in his absence. Thus Thorbjorg’s reputation grows, Vermund gains esteem from having such a woman at his side, and the goðorð grows in power. Secondly, that Grettir’s kinswoman, Hrefna, would have expected Thorbjorg to intervene. The importance of familial relationships and maintaining the bonds of support was integral to Icelandic society. Hrefna was Grettir’s cousin, and also Thorbjorg’s sister-in-law and, had Hrefna discovered that Grettir was within Thorbjorg’s power and she had allowed his execution, it would have strained or broken those familial alliances. It also demonstrates that women maintained networks of alliance and honour just as their male counterparts did. Lastly, that Grettir is a man of greatest achievements. And who can argue that the revenant-bothering, berserk-massacring, troll-slaughtering, bear-killing, draugr-hunting Grettir did not have role to play in taming the Icelandic landscape for future generations?

-Matt Firth

References:

  1. Feature image: Flateyjarbók – GKS 1005 f.9v. This MS is primarily a collection of king’s saga and does not contain either Gisla saga or Grettis saga. The MSS containing these texts are a little beaten up not conducive to being ‘feature images’ – eg. Grettis saga.
  2. Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
  3. J. M. Dent, ed. and trans., Three Icelandic Outlaw Sagas, 2nd ed., London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2014. [Translations drawn from this text].
  4. Jenny Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
  5. Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas, translated by Peter Foote, Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2007.
  6. William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture

Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets 

Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Shame and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland – The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck

See our bibliographies on the Viking World and Chronicles and Editions.

 

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