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An Insular Marriage in Egils saga .

Santiago Barreiro - CONICET

Egils saga, composed in Iceland c. 1220-1240, is one of the better known examples of
the saga genre. While in many aspects it is possesses the traits typical of the Íslendingasögur
subgenre, it is exceptional in the large number of spatial locations in which the action takes
place. Rather than focusing only in Iceland (and Norway), its geography extends to the
Baltic, the British Isles and the lands near the White Sea. The Northern Isles play a
significant role in one episode of the saga, centred on the events surrounding the marriage
between Bjǫrn and Þóra. This story occupies chapters 32 to 35 of the saga. The episodes
involve several actors beyond the married couple: The heads of three families play a
prominent role in the story, as does the Norwegian king. The narrative begins in Norway,
climaxes in three insular settings (Orkney, the Shetlands and Iceland) and finally returns to
Norway. We will argue that those insular settings appear as spaces of conflict and tension,
while the mainland is contrastingly depicted as a place of order. We will briefly describe the
events before attempting to analyse them.
The story begins in chapter 32 1 . The chapter introduces Bjǫrn, hersir ríkr (“a
powerful lord”) from Sogn in Norway. He has a son and heir named Brynjólfr, who in turn
has two young sons: Bjǫrn and Þorðr. This second Bjǫrn, a great traveller, attends a feast
and meets Þóra, the sister of another hersir, Þórir Hróalðsson. He asks her in marriage, but
her brother refuses. Bjǫrn later kidnaps her (the saga does not inform if she agrees or is
taken forcefully) and brings her back home. They intend to marry; Brynjólfr rejects this, as
he finds svívirðing (dishonour) in the actions of his son, who breaks the friendship between
him and Þórir. Brynjólfr sends an emissary to Þóra’s brother, who reclaims her to go back
home, instead of accepting compensation. But Bjǫrn refuses to let her go, and instead asks
his father for a warship and a crew. Brynjólfr refuses, fearing that his son will cause more
trouble, and instead gives him a merchant ship and orders him to head for Dublin to trade.
He accepts, but (against his father’s will) he brings Þóra in the trip. During the expedition

1

Following the Íslenzk Fornrit edition. All references to Egils saga here refer to it and are listed by chapter
and page number

By the combined efforts of the Icelanders and Brynjólfr. Bjǫrn moves against the established rules of kinship and escapes the country with Þóra. Brynjólfr joins the offer. Bjǫrn marries Þóra. angering both his own father and Þórir. . Þórólfr and other people in the farm intercede. The news of Bjǫrn’s action reach Iceland. It can be seen that the plot of the episode is rather simple. but they leave Ásgerðr to be fostered at Borg. After another winter. Bjǫrn leaves for Norway with Þórólfr and Þóra. They arrive in Shetland. The ship becomes damaged and they get stranded in Shetland with their cargo. bringing back stable kinship and friendship ties between three families. he prepares to leave. The saga now tells that a ship came from Orkney with a message for jarl Sigurðr from king Haraldr that Bjǫrn Brynjólfsson must be killed: the saga tells he also sent the same message to “the southern islands even up to Dublin”. making Skalla-Grímr change his mind and support a settlement. His ship is carried till Iceland by strong winds. Bjǫrn finally confesses he has married Þóra without her brother’s agreement. Conflict arises in Norway due to Bjǫrn’s rejection of the will of both his father and (future) brother-in-law. Meanwhile. Þórir accepts and order is re-established. Skalla-Grímr’s son persuades him to send an offer of compensation to Þórir. saying it is unfair to treat the guest in such a way. Þóra bears a daughter. Iceland is described as almost virgin and uninhabited (Sá þar til lands inn ekki nema boða eina og hafnleysur. reminding of his close friendship with Þórir. the farmer becomes furious. Chapter 35 tells that during the summer. Threatened by the insular representatives of the Norwegian king as a law-breaker. While in Shetland. Due to his kinship ties SkallaGrímr both welcomes him and becomes furious by his actions. Grímr then tells Þórólfr to deal with Bjǫrn himself. but as soon as spring arrives. Þórólfr and Bjǫrn become good friends. and the farmer yields. Questioned by Skalla-Grímr. spending the winter there. where they do what they were unable to in Norway: marrying. SkallaGrímr offers the group residence and help. Bjǫrn escapes further away to Iceland. and they stay there. Bjǫrn arrives at Borg and meets by chance Skalla-Grímr. who happens to know his father Brynjólfr.they have bad weather. But friendship from the young Þórólfr and the local opinion saves Bjǫrn. But his son. and Þórir agrees and pardons Bjǫrn. his son and Þórir hersir. The episode ends with full reconciliation between Brýnjólfr. Ásgerðr. Egils saga 33:86).

Dyflinnar skíði. Ireland. Chapter 4 says: En af þessi áþján flýðu margir menn af landi á brott ok byggðusk þá margar auðnir víða. In any case. where is finally re-created).” ( Egils saga 4: 12) This episode mentions several of these places: Iceland. but only Iceland is presented as a new space. in Egils saga. Ok í þann tíma fannsk Ísland. Orkneyjar ok Hjaltland. Normandí á Vallandi. bæði austr í Jamtaland ok Helsingjaland ok Vestrlǫnd. appear at least nominally as an extension of the Norwegian domain. which is depicted as a land of kings and commerce. It is hard to say how effective royal power was in them at the time of composition of Egla. the Hebrides. Katanes á Skotlandi. And at that time. the Hebrides. Írland. as sources for Orkney are scarce for the period between 1195-1267 (Waerdahl 2011:78). Shetland. the Faeroes. the Northern Isles are a much less defined space than either monarchical Norway or the “new society” Iceland.We can see a dual spatiality: Norway is at the same time where order exists and breaks down (and also. who was the main figure of authority in Shetland. Orkney and Shetland. as the Northern Isles. Caithness in Scotland. if ambiguous and uncertain. but it seems reasonable to assume the earl and bishop in Orkney were able to partly oppose and counterbalance the power of the royally-appointed sheriff. Iceland was found. “And because of this tyranny [King Haraldr’s] many men left the country and settled in many places. which was under direct rule by the king. a frontier of potential solutions but also of uncertain conditions. but as more unpredictable and blurry than the rest of Britain. Dublin shire. This is coherent with the first mention of these places in the saga. Orkney and Dublin. This is a similar situation to the one present in the saga. Similarly. ambiguous place. Normandy in France. The Northern Isles appear as a place of both conflict and of actions against the established order. Færeyjar. even while not as clearly foreign as the lands in the Baltic or the Far North. They are presented as places of resettlement. They appear as a territory for adventure. Suðreyjar. Iceland is an undefined. both east in Jamtland and Helsingland and Vestland. .

In his classical The Ritual Process. as other notions coined by the French sociological school (notably Mauss’ idea of gifts and Halbwachs’ idea of collective memory) became foundational for social anthropology. Durkheim and his disciples. especially in its links with religion. This concept. originally coined by the Dutch theorist Arnold van Gennep in his 1909 Les Rites de Passage. In its basic meaning. The Manchester school is well-known for their emphasis in the analysis of situations of tension and conflict. I intend to analyse it under a different light. I will try to assess the utility of the concept of liminality to understand the spatial and social dynamics of this scene. has to be understood as part of the broader effort of the Durkheimian sociological school to understand the roots of social order. after the separation from a certain institution/structure and before its reintegration into it. derived from an status of undifferentiation (Turner 1974: 104) . The appropriation of the notions of the Durkheimian school by later anthropologists applies also to the concept of liminality. a blank slate. in France. The notion. on which is inscribed the knowledge and wisdom of the group. Britain and beyond. derived from their positive reception of both classical and structural (“French”) Marxism. have been often criticised for a lack of interest in social conflict as a constitutive element of social order. which was adopted by the Mancunian anthropologist Victor Turner. as well as other functionalists. discussed the main traits of liminality and identifies four main traits. building on Van Gennep’s original characterization: 1) Stripping off of pre-liminal and post-liminal attributes (Turner 1974: 102) 2) Submissiveness and silence (Turner 1974: 103) 3) "The neophyte in liminality must be a tabula rasa. liminality refers to the state in which something (more frequently: someone) is in a transitional stage. in those respects that pertain to the new status (Turner 1974: 103) 4) Sexual continence.Liminality? While undoubtedly this narrative is part of a literary construction.

which focuses on the issues of a ritual of kinship through alliance. comradeship. While indeed these terms sound attractive. The limited. Liminality is not simple ambiguity. and these traits are crucial for our episode. . very often theyr are not used in their technical. and common humanity. Communitas and Old Norse sources Liminality has appeared somewhat frequently in Old Norse studies during the last few years. communitas refers to “a state of equality. so to speak. aspects of social structure" (Turner 1974: 127). institutionalized. or hybridization with. the Zambian Ndembu. as opposed to the norm-governed. men are released from structure into communitas only to return to structure revitalized by their experience of communitas” (Turner 1974: 129). and hierarchies” (Olaveson 2001: 93) Liminality. Both kinship and economic ties thus work in very different ways in both groups.In other words. abstract nature of the social structure. roles. the transitional nature of liminality is thus constitutive of its character: “In rites de passage. a person in a state of liminality is undefined and formless. It can be pointed out that Turner himself did not use it at all in his own analysis about Icelandic sagas (Turner 2001 [1971]). concrete nature of communitas. only through its juxtaposition to. Yet. conceptual sense but simply appear as a synonym of “marginal” or “ambiguous”. while medieval Iceland was a bilateral agrarian-pastoral society based around isolated farms. much in the same way the aforementioned notions of collective memory and giftgiving did. yet it is ready to be inscribed with the new structural marks of existence during his or her reaggregation into the social structure. immediate. but where also certain economic ties (like trade and monetary atonement) play a significant role. I suspect that this suggest that it does not apply easily to the saga world. outside of normal social distinctions. In short. communitas is made evident or accessible. The most basic is that Turner was mostly thinking through his fieldwork in a structurally very different society. They are a matrilineal huntergatherer village society. but it is a defined box of a lack of defining features in which someone is in a state of what Turner calls by the somewhat elusive notion of communitas “The spontaneous. at least with some important modifications.

the transition from (juvenile) single to (adult) married life is indeed ritualised. and figures such as the chieftain Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson are unusual in their personal faith. communitas. where the emotional response to mass is emphasized. the main communal activity in saga literature. the mass. a rejection of communitas-inducing behaviour can be clearly seen in Hávamál. and looks about with his eyes. clearly grasps that the last thing happening in the feasts was to promote egalitarian. at least when they are not clerics.Moreover. / svá nýsiz fróðra hverr fyrir. for example. but it appears to work through an individual. feasting. is congruent with this lack of communitas. In Durkheimian parlance. effervescent communitas. but affirms this is limited to clerics (Nedkvitne 2009: 96). For example: Inn vari gestr. seems to be absent in the saga world. the state of mind of those present was of secondary importance” (Nedkvitne 2009: 95. feasts can be said to promote a form of re-creative effervescence which reinforces the existing social bonds (the Turnerian “structure”). For example. (Hávamál 7: The careful guest. he listens with his ears. which does not prescribe how and when people marry and who in strict way. / eyrom hlýðir. keeps silent with hearing finely attuned. so every wise man informs himself ) Nedkvitne compares the situation between the central middle ages and the emotional description in the latemiddle ages Laurentius saga. and the four traits listed above do not seem to be common in ritualised behaviour present in the sagas. for example. sexually and socially differentiated (See Viðar Pálsson. a crucial element in liminal situations. 2 . Furthermore. Any reader of Njáls saga. forthcoming 2016): it reinforces social divisions and pre-established hierarchies in a way reminding much more of a Potlatch or Moka than of the communitas-inducing levelling or inversion of the established order expected in. Moreover. is highly structured. which warns the audience of the dangers of acting improperly in feasts. / þunno hljóði þegir. the prevalent unfocused and individualistic attitude of laymen during the main religious ritual. the Selk’nam Hain or the initiation rituals of the Ndembu. Emphasis is mine)2. There is no hint of personal devotion here. who comes to a meal. case-by-case dynamic as expected in a bilateral community. and was sanctioned by theology “The liturgy had an automatic effect if it was performed in correct form. enn augom scoðar. Moreover. er til verðar kømr.

(Hávamál 19. This can be related to the nature of kingship in the medieval north. A man shouldn´t hold on to the cup but drink mead in moderation. a rite of passage) also applies to law-breakers subjects sentenced to temporary outlawry (see Poilvez 2012). beyond the rule of royal authority. which diminished drastically once the (itinerant) king was not effectively present (Orning 2008. A temporary life abroad as a place for the realization of a transitional instance (this is. / ókynnis þess vár þic engi maðr. / veita gorla. Bjǫrn simply refuses to obey the custom by which men require the agreement of the bride’s closest relative (usually the father or a brother) to marry her. the issues of what is a legitimate marriage is of crucial importance in Egils saga. and the Northern Isles here appear literarily as transitional stages in the resolution of the case. no man will blame you for impoliteness if you go early to bed) Fróðr þicciz. might be historically related to the long and complex process of transition in the ideas about marriage in Iceland from family consent to individual mutual consent (as proposed by Church doctrine). Bagge 2010). Moreover. / þótt hann með grǫmom glami. cf. it also serves in the narrative to illustrate how. as they appear to be both nominally inside but practically outside of the effective reach of Norwegian political power. the man who mocks others at a feast doesn´t reallhy know whether he’s shooting off his mout amid enemies) However. it’s necessary to speak or to be silent. / at þú gangir snemma at sofa. drecci þó at hófi mioð. and in this it resembles Turner’s idea of ritual. as illustrated by the disputes about Ásgerðr’s inheritance (in the later part of the saga) and the wedding of Hilðiríðr (in the earlier). the aspect of chaos and uncertainty which permeates the representation of insular spaces in Egils saga is akin to an aspect of liminality. sá er flótta tecr. This. sá er um verði glissir. and specially the liminal stage. analysed in Property and Virginity. On the other hand. as creative and potentially revolutionary for the established structure. on the one hand. ritual and custom do not work as expected. In this sense. (Hávamál 31: Wise that man seems who retreats when one guest is insulting another. / mæli þarft eða þegi. Bjǫrn subverts the structure . /gestr at gest hæðinn. The marriage between Bjǫrn and Þóra is also a place of tension and potential change of established order as much as of its reproduction.Haldit maðr á keri. the Northern Isles appear indeed liminal.

Grímr here plays his part accordingly: in the uncertain. are presented as a source of a new authority. they take advantage of the uncertainties of the case. to solve the transitional crisis smoothly.of kinship. and of law. but does not challenge it on the spot. and especially Skalla-Grímr and Egill. “new world” of Iceland. grounded on the notion of “founding father” settlement (Barreiro 2015). the last step of transition from liminality back to structure. But more fundamentally. The mýramenn ancestors here play a role similar to arbitrators in a feud and thus promote a brokered return to normality. it can be thought that this must be related to differences in the kinship structure. structure-breaking situations could still be called liminal or they should instead be named something else given that there is no communitas involved. I have argued elsewhere that one of the core ideological messages of Egla is that the Mýramenn. but in a place where he does not need to oppose the structure to succeed. the lendir menn and the monarch. is here realised by the effort of Icelanders. The main question is if transitional. he acts (grudgingly as usual and delegating the task to his son Þórólfr) promoting a peaceful settlement through a structured and culturally accepted response to conflict: the offer of compensation and the use of friendship and kinship ties to mediate in inter-family conflicts. both similar and distinct from the Norwegian authority structures of the hersir. . Reaggregation. and the highly individualistic (and factional) logic of social action promoted by bilateral kinship structuring. of custom. which should have been limited to the families of groom and bride. It seems that this can be applied fruitfully to the case here discussed as long as we are willing to accept there is little resembling communitas. Conclusions I have briefly examined an episode in Egils saga and the theoretical notion of liminality. restoring expected order (and earning honour and prestige for themselves). this opens up the question for thinking if there is some form of communitas to be found in the Norse sources. As unexpected participants in the ritual of marriage. but also of the margin of decision-making given by their new spatial environment. Following Helgi Þorláksson’s (2012) insight about the proper ways to use anthropological cases of comparison to analyse medieval Iceland. simply because the structure is no longer present.

London: Routledge. Marion (2012). Íslenzk fornrit II. Labour and Land: The Settlement of the Mýramenn in Egils saga”. -Nedkvitne. The translation of culture: Essays to E. -Helgi Þorláksson (2012). Gustav (ed. Heidelberg: Carl Winter. Victor (1974).E. Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar.900-1350. Tim (2001). Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag -Neckel. Copenhague: Museum Tusculanum Press. Unpredictability and Presence: Norwegian Kingship in the High Middle Ages. 5-11 august 2012. -Olaveson. en Edda: Der Lieder der Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern.) (1933). Arnved (2009). 349-374. unpublished paper delivered at the XVth International Saga Conference. Victor (2001 [1971]).). O. “An anthropological approach to the Icelandic Saga”. -Turner. Networks and Neighbours 3. -Barreiro. Hans Jacob (2008). (ed.) (1962). Ithaca: Cornell University PRess. Aarhus. Evans-Pritchard .1: 115-136. Leiden: Brill. T. Sverre (2010). Secondary sources -Bagge. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure . “Hávamál”. “Sagas as Evidence for Authentic Social Structures”. . Brathair 12. Santiago (2015).1:22-44. From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom: State Formation in Norway c. “Genealogy. Access to the Margins: Outlawry and Narrative spaces in medieval Icelandic outlaw sagas. Copenhague: Museum Tusculanum Press.Bibliography Primary sources -Sigurður Nordal (ed. Lay Belief in Norse Society 1000-1350. -Poilvez. Dialectical Anthropology 26: 89-124 -Orning. -Turner. en Beidelman. “Collective Effervescence and Communitas: Processual Models of Ritual and Society in Emile Durkheim and Victor Turner”.

-Viðar Pálsson. The Incorporation and Integration of the King’s Tributary Lands into the Norwegian Realm c. -Wærdahl. (forthcoming 2016).. Randi (2011). Feasting and Gift Giving in Iceland and its Sagas. . Language of Power. Leiden: Brill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.1195-1397.