Gunnhildur and the male whores

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Dokumentart: ConferenceObject
Date: 2002
Language: English
Faculty: 5 Philosophische Fakultät
Department: Sonstige - Neuphilologie
DDC Classifikation: 839 - Other Germanic literatures
Keywords: Saga , Island
Other Keywords:
Gunnhildr in medieval texts
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The Queen mother Gunnhildr is one of the most evil Norwegian female characters in the Middle ages. She appears in many old stories where she is usually the female agent for ill in the sagas; she is wicked, promiscuous and very often skilled in magical arts. The purpose of this paper is to focus on how the medieval writers treat Gunnhildr, the sources about her, historical and fiction, and most of all her relationship with Icelandic farmers. Gunnhildr is a 'tröll', for in Old Icelandic the word meant a being skilled in magical arts, and she is treated as one. The descriptions of her are usually very exaggerated and fantastic and they remind one of the adventurous troll women, especially the evil stepmother. In most of the sagas the origins of Gunnhildr lie in Finnmark, a symbolic Útgarðr from which she draws a seductive strength, sexual liaison and magic. Gunnhildr charms the king and corrupts the kingdom and not before long she is the ruler of Norway. Gunnhildr has no stepchildren but she seduces young men to have sexual relationships with her and she is old enough to be the mother of at least some of them. Another parallel to Gunnhildr is the Saami, which is literally and figuratively located in the Beyond, i.e. Finnmark. This is prominent in Egils saga Skallagrímssonar. Gunnhildr and Egill have many things in common; they have a similar background and they are both foreigner and opponent in the Norwegian kingdom. But even though Gunnhildr is unpopular among the Norwegian people she is their queen and Egill is a courtier, in her service. Despite their different position Egill constantly shows her male chauvinism. He never addresses her and barely mentions her in his poetry. Gunnhildr´s origin in the northern wilderness seems to be a false report and most scholars have thought the narrative in Historia Norwegiæ closer to the truth. This history of Norwegian kings was written in Latin around 1150-1200 and is the only source, which tells of Gunnhild´s Danish origin; she is the daughter of the royal couple Gorm and Tyre. But despite of this elevated origin Gunnhildr is still treated as a troll; she is described as a wicked trollwoman, arrogant and heathen. Behind the adventurous tales of Gunnhildr are a real, historical person, a wife and a mother, which was alive during the 10. Century. It is interesting to note that in two Norwegian histories, Ágrip and Nóregs konunga tal, she is described as a beautiful and a small woman and it is really astonishing that a delicate Danish princess is treated as a seductive and wicked witch. The Norwegian histories are the oldest sources of Gunnhildr but the Icelandic sources are much more extensive and they have certainly had the greatest influence on the myth about Gunnhildr. This unfair approach to Gunnhildr is not surprising compared with the treatment of many strong and powerful women in the Icelandic sagas. A well-known example is Hallgerðr langbrók, another one is the Irish Queen Kormlöð and sometimes proud women are treated like giantesses in old stories, like Yngvild fagurkinn in Svarfdælasaga. Strong and powerful women are worth telling of because they stand out in a crowd; few women act as agents in the Icelandic Commonwealth sources. The status of women was out of the sphere of authority and their social position was weak; they could not have any influence or take any political decision except under the protection of men. Women were in charge domestically but they always had to bow for the authority of men. This could be the main reason for the unfair approach to Gunnhildr; her origin does not matter, even though she is the Queen of Norway she receives no forbearance, and she is only treated that way because she is a strong and powerful woman. In Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar, written by brother Oddur, Gunnhildr is said to be the Queen of the whole of the Norwegian kingdom. Her power shows as well in her husband's obedience along with the fact that their sons are never called anything else then Gunnhildarsynir (i.e. sons of Gunnhildr) and what's more is that the time her sons ruled Norway is called the Century of Gunnhildr. Gunnhildr´s sexual behaviour is not prominent in the Norwegian and Icelandic histories but when it comes to the Icelandic sagas sexual descriptions are really striking. The writers of the Middle ages were males and for that reason it may be expected that the stories show some signs of that. Gunnhildr is therefore their image, wakened out of Icelandic farmers' sexual fantasies. A large number of stories tell of Icelanders' journeys to Norway, looking for fortune and fame. Usually they came to the king's court, received his recognition and accepted gifts. The heroes who are considered in this paper all had interests to protect in Norway, whether it was an inheritance or a matter of ambition and honour. Gunnhildr was the most powerful person in Norway and it must have been very important for Icelandic farmers to make her happy if they wanted to reach their goal. In relations between Gunnhildr and Icelandic farmers sexual relationships are either hinted at or made explicit. It has been pointed out that the sources are silent as to why those men succumbed to Gunnhildr´s charm or charisma. My theory is that those men went for their own benefit in to the outstretched arms of Gunnhildr, i.e. she was their ticket to prosperity, and that is why they truly are male whores.

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