Women and Ghosts in Post-Conversion Iceland

Iceland is a country whose modern nationhood depends heavily on its “special snowflake” status. Be it elves, social progress, or the Sagas, this island nation has a penchant for celebrating those things that make it unique, even as it feels the influence of global forces from the rest of the world. One of the most significant of these forces in Iceland’s history was the conversion to Christianity around the year 1000 and, later, the Icelandic Reformation in the mid-16th century. Though the resultant changes in society were slow-moving, the introduction of Christian and Protestant thought seriously altered Icelandic society. According to Jón Steffensen, the change of women’s status in society was one of the most widely felt changes as the Church stripped them of many of the privileges they had enjoyed in pagan society (Tomasson 108). Though undoubtedly a major blow, it was not all-encompassing: Iceland today boasts one of the highest standards of gender equality, and even in the centuries between the Reformation and modernity the power of women persisted in the nation’s folklore, specifically ghost stories. This essay aims to elaborate on the role of women in post-conversion ghost stories and illuminate the connection between these roles and those of actual women in history.

It is perhaps prudent to begin these considerations with women as they were in real life; that is, as living individuals and not ghosts. Reading through post-Reformation ghost stories, there is no shortage of female protagonists. In fact, a significant portion of ghost story heroes are female. In Jacqueline Simpson’s retelling of “The Bridegroom and the Dead Man,” for example, a prospective groom encounters the bones of a very large man and jests that he would like to wrestle with a man of that stature (131). Having no sense of humor, the ghost of the large man visits the groom’s bride-to-be in a dream to announce his plans to attend their wedding feast. This immediately raises the question of why the dead man chose not to visit the man who issued the “challenge,” but rather his fiancee. It is certainly fortunate for the couple, since the woman is the one with the wisdom to heed the dream and the know-how to prevent the dead man from harming her prospective husband. But she took no part in the events that lead to his visit; on the contrary, she has to press her fiancee to think about who this dream-man could possibly be. Clearly there is a stark difference between what the bride and groom know about dreams, ghosts, and the otherworldly; what is not so apparent is why this contrast exists in the way that it does. There is little precedent in the contemporaneous church structure for women to take charge of such matters, but in pre-conversion Iceland women seemed to play a much larger role in pagan worship. As Steffensen puts it, “An important part of the heathen cult practices took part within her domain, in the home itself, and it is understandable that she played an important role in them” (qtd. in Tomasson 108). While there is no overtly religious tone in “The Bridegroom and the Dead Man,” it is not difficult to connect the Icelandic afturganga to Christian— and especially Protestant— ideas of the devil. In his Church Postil, Martin Luther explains, “All ghosts and visions . . . are not men’s souls, but evidently devils that amuse themselves thus either to deceive the people with false claims and lies, or unnecessarily frighten and trouble them” (Luther 7). Though Iceland is by no means famous for its strict dedication to Lutheran theology, revenants were perhaps just pagan enough to receive special attention from the clergy in order to eradicate such folk beliefs, or at the very least to Christianize them. The problem with a devil-ghost, however, is that there is no prescribed, equally Christian tactic to exorcise said spirit.

A lack of contemporary precedence encourages one to look further back in history for appropriate procedure. As was the case as recorded in the Sagas, the primary difference between men and women’s realms of influence is that between public and private, respectively. The distinction in the case of a wedding is not a clear one; though it is an intensely private union between two people, the wedding feast itself was an overwhelmingly public event. The key word, then, is not “wedding,” but rather “hospitality.” In describing the respective spheres of men and women, Zoe Borovsky explains, “The ‘inviolable home’ was inside the fence that surrounded the farm, whereas the public space was outside the fence and the stofa (main room) within the house where guests were received” (15). Thus the impending encounter between the groom and the dead man, though taking place at a public event, is defined by private arrangements of hospitality between host and guest rather than public performances; as such, it falls under the influence of the woman. This is reinforced by the dead man’s contact with the bride via her dreams— a visitor, in a sense, to her sleep— which by nature cannot be made public.

The contrast between men and women’s roles in public and private life continues to be highlighted through the remainder of the story. The groom is helpless to cope with his vengeful visitor, which is perhaps precisely what the ghost is counting on. His bride-to-be, however, has been operating within this private sphere conceivably for her entire life; it is her knowledge and courage that facilitates the happy ending of this particular folk tale. The bride alone is unfazed at the arrival of this ghostly guest, confident in the effectiveness of her instructions to her new husband (and, apparently, in his ability to carry out said instructions). It is true that the actual actions are carried out by the groom; the altercation takes place at the wedding feast itself, and is therefore a public performance that belongs to the male sphere. What sets this tale apart from foreign counterparts, however, is that the hero is still the bride. There is no Macbeth-esque erasure of the cerebral influence of the leading lady; rather, it is the “brains” of the operation that the audience is encouraged to celebrate rather than the “brawn.” What this says about post-Reformation Icelandic culture is twofold: first, despite the social and religious— simply put, the public— exclusion of females, Icelandic women were not erased from history or social memory; and second, even though post-Reformation folktales often hearkened back to Saga-era precedents (as in the case of male/public and female/private spheres), there are traceable changes in story elements, most notably in what makes a hero. While the hero of the Grettis Saga overcomes the revenant Glamr with sheer physical strength alone (Scudder 82-86), later heroes vanquish the undead with cunning and wisdom. Surely the reasons for this shift in perspective are uncountable, but a likely influence is the Protestant emphasis on the written word and learning, and although women may have been excluded from the realm of literacy and literature they were clearly not considered incapable of possessing the qualities of a (church) educated individual.

A less clear cut, but equally provocative, type of haunted women in folklore is in the tales of útburðir. These revenants of exposed children are rife with Christian connections; the term itself comes out of the Middle Ages, after conversion to Christianity. The right to expose unwanted children to the elements was one of three concessions made at the Alþing upon the official acceptance of Christianity around 1000; in later years, it became illegal to bear children out of wedlock, leaving exposure as the only viable option for many unwed mothers. Perhaps, then, útburður tales serve to some extent as a moral warning to young women, as they are said to make particularly nasty ghosts. The most famous example of an Icelandic útburður is “Moðir mín í kví, kví,” translated by Simpson as “Mother Mine, Don’t Weep, Weep” (120). In this tale, a young woman laments that she cannot attend a vikivaki as she has no suitable clothes to wear; in response, a disembodied voice says to her:

Mother mine, don’t weep, weep,

As you milk the sheep, sheep;

I can lend my rags to you,

So you’ll go a-dancing too,

You’ll go a-dancing too (Simpson, 120).

The young woman recognizes the verse as coming from her abandoned child and understandably loses her mind in the process of coping. The situation is clearly unfortunate for all parties, and it is hard to distinguish who in this narrative is the hero and who is the villain. This is both expected and surprising: on the one hand, Icelandic literature has been celebrated for its consistent inclusion of complex and dynamic female characters, but on the other, it is not usual for folktales to be so ambiguous in nature. On one level, the útburður tale evokes motifs from Germanic folklore, particularly that of a cold mother who sends her children into the forest to die when food becomes scarce— the mother of Hansel and Gretel is a particularly well-known example of such a woman. However, it would be unwise to immediately assume a connection between the two motifs; útburðir had, in fact, existed in Iceland for several hundred years by the time Jón Árnason collected these tales, and the sympathetic father present in and important to Germanic tradition has no role in Icelandic tales. In fact, there is no paternal figure whatsoever when it comes to útburður tales: útburðir haunt only haunt their mothers, never the fathers. Of course, conceiving an illegitimate child was also not illegal for men, so it is possible that it never occurred to Icelandic society to connect the father to the útburður. It seems that, despite the near equality of the sexes present in most of Iceland’s history, children in all their stages of growth and development still belonged to the female realm of home and family. The case of útburðir, as something so secretive, is an extreme example, as the child’s entire existence, from conception to exposure, was by necessity an extremely private— and consequently feminine— affair.

It is curious that the exposed child makes such a particularly malevolent spirit. There is a precedent for a vengeful revenant within a society that has historically considered revenge an honorable endeavor, but the útburðir seem to go beyond that. They are not physically violent so much as psychologically, as evidenced by the insanity suffered by the young mother in “Mother Mine, Don’t Weep, Weep,” and they are cited as haunting random third parties, travelers in particular, as well as their mothers. When viewed from this angle, one’s sympathies tend to shift from lying with the exposed child to the haunted mother. Is she not, in fact, a victim of society just as her child is a victim of her? Is the child even her victim, or rather collateral damage resulting from the persecution of the unwed mother by society? Perhaps a difference in opinion regarding the answers to these questions explains why we see a variety of útburður tales and victims within these stories. A devout Christian mind easily places blame with the mother for breaking first the seventh commandment (“you shall not commit adultery”) and then the sixth (“you shall not murder”); it is not unusual to find callous condemnation of young women of this sort within the history of the Church, and it may account at least in part for the viciousness of child revenants. But the mind may just as easily tap into the collective memory of pre-conversion—even pre-Reformation— Iceland, when exposure was a common, if not regrettable, fact of life and sexual relations were much freer. The unwed mother becomes a much more sympathetic character in this frame of reference, and the savage útburður can be seen as a manifestation of the societal aggression against the pregnant young woman who must choose either to leave her illegitimate baby to die or face execution herself.

Returning to the case study of “Mother Mine, Don’t Weep, Weep,” the tone of this tale seems to fall under the Christian mindset more than the historical one. Not only does the útburður particularly target its mother (the other woman tending the sheep is little more than a tool for correlation and, subsequently, confirmation), but the young woman is portrayed as image-obsessed and rather fickle. Showing her as immature could, perhaps, be an effort to emphasize how young and unprepared to be a mother she is, but on a very basic level it simply makes her unlikable, which is a universally important and effective literary technique. No effort is made to make her appear likable, so her fickle nature much more successfully pits the audience against her— the point is not that she is too immature to be a mother, but that she is too immature to have sexual relations. In contrast, however, the útburðir that indiscriminately harass and endanger the mother and passersby alike are the unlikable characters, and the lack of focus regarding their violence minimizes the applicability of revenge as justification for their actions. In these examples, where misery abounds for all parties, the blame is consequently equally dispersed across all of society for masterminding a social climate wherein exposing her baby becomes a woman’s best option.

If both the roles of hero and victim can be successfully filled by an Icelandic woman, then certainly she is capable of being a villain too. In fact, female ghosts— Skottur in particular— are “by far the worst, as they seem to have lost every gentle virtue of humanity, and as they act with devilish brutality” (Powell and Magnússon lxxxii). A Skotta is a female revenant said to haunt a particular family, usually having been sent by an individual to his enemy for such a purpose; the Icelandic term for such ghosts is fylgjur. The fact that modern translations of tales about their male counterpart, Mori, are much easier to come by surely says far more about modern society than it does about the historical peoples plagued by fylgjur; or, if it does inform about the contemporaneous society, it suggests that they preferred to share stories of Morar, perhaps because they were less fearsome than their female counterparts. The Skotta of Hleiðargarður is a characteristic example; the farmer Sigurður Björnsson learns that she has been sent to kill him, so he sends her after an orphan boy claiming that he is the man for whom she is looking. The boy falls as if in a struggle and is beaten severely, but he does not die until later, having experienced many similar fits; around the same time, Skotta kills sheep and beats them to the extent that they cannot be eaten, and manages to murder another farmer before a magician subdues her and ties her to a boulder far away (“Hleiðrargarðs Skotta”).

Clearly, there is no denying that Skotta is a violent, nasty ghost; even Mori has been known to make room for a traveling family member, albeit by killing a neighbor’s cow to empty a stall (Simpson 161), but Skotta shares no such considerations for her family. This distinction between thoroughly evil female fylgjur and mischievous, almost sympathetic male fylgjur is an interesting one, especially given typical western attitudes towards the natural dispositions of men and women. To understand what this indicates about post-Reformation Iceland, one must remember that fylgjur often become what they are due to some wrongdoing— another Skotta, for example, is drowned by a farmer who immediately revived for the purpose of haunting his enemy (“Myvatns Skotta”). Powell and Magnússon, too, characterize such spirits as “parched with the thirst for vengeance” (lxxxiii). This is an important part of the making of a fylgja, because it shifts the characterization of Skottur from “evil for evil’s sake” to “filled with rage at her mishandling”; in other words, the driving force is anger, not evil.

That Skottur are so much more dangerous than Morar suggests, then, that the fury of a woman was much more feared than that of her male counterpart. This attitude can be traced back to the Sagas, wherein women were often responsible in the private realm for inciting her kin to acts of revenge: “Women’s performances— mourning, whetting, goading, threatening— function to arouse and bind together the forces of the kin group and direct those forces toward acts of restitution that often involved violence” (Borovsky 16). Though the Skottur clearly lack family ties and act alone, rather than inspiring a group, the connection between women, extreme emotion, and acts of revenge remains constant. This pointed expression of strong emotion in the face of suffering— be it the death of a kinsman or one’s reanimation as a vehicle of malice— is common to women throughout the history of Icelandic literature and lore, and it stands in stark contrast to continental European traditions. Where the German poet Gottfried remarks that “womanhood and anger . . . accord so ill together” (176), Icelandic tradition not only recognizes the peaceful coexistence thereof, but also allows it particular status as one of the most unpleasant forces in the both the physical and spiritual worlds. These literary traditions may agree that women are more emotional than men, but Icelandic folklore considers it a source of great, even dangerous, power while other western attitudes equate strong emotion with weakness. Skottur show us, then, the most dangerous and potent manifestation of a woman wronged, whose malice and vengeful spirit is both enabled and strengthened by the magician who sends her. Though the (usually male) sorcerer is the instigator of her haunting, Skotta’s fearsome power is entirely her own; perhaps it can be said that female fylgjur are so much more frightening precisely because of their deep capacity for emotional expression, whereas the malice of Mori is mainly imbued by the one who summons him.

Icelandic folklore is a refreshing diversion from comparable western literature for many reasons; the island nation has long been a “special snowflake” among its European brethren, and this independent streak is visible across all aspects of its culture. Long held to be a shining example of equality between the sexes, women nevertheless seemed to disappear from collective thought in the post-Reformation years, but a diminished presence in “high” literature of the time is not the final word on the matter. Rather, women maintained their influence within the private sphere of social life. The only change from the settlement to post-Reformation eras was an increasingly privatized private sphere, particularly, it seems, in the literature and folklore of the respective periods. In reality, however, one must simply know what to look for, and even the seemingly narrow genre of Icelandic ghost stories reveal the presence not only of women, but of women with power. They continued to have enormous influence over private matters, experience complex and competing expectations and ideals, and, perhaps most importantly, be empowered by their uniquely female traits. Post-Reformation ghost tales include a diverse cast of women in equally diverse roles, which indicates a society that viewed women in correspondingly diverse ways. Western norms of representation and interpretation— the “Mary vs. Eve” dichotomy, relegation to supporting roles and plot devices, etc.— do not apply to Icelandic literary tradition, and for this reason it deserves the attention of scholars in literature, social sciences, and gender studies, to name only a few of the disciplines whose canons stand to be enhanced by Iceland’s peculiar and dynamic folklore.

Works Cited

  • Borovsky, Zoe. “Never in Public: Women and Performance in Old Norse Literature.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 112, no. 443, 1999, pp. 6-39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/541400. Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.
  • Gottfried von Eschenbach. Tristan. Translated by A. T. Hatto, Penguin Group, 2004.
  • “Hleiðrargarðs Skotta.” Netútgáfan. Snerpa, Nov. 1997, snerpa.is/net/thjod/hleidrar.htm. Accessed 21 Nov. 2017.
  • Jóhannsson, Frosti F. Íslensk Þjóðmenning. Vol. I, V, VI, and VII, Bókaútgáfan Þjóðsaga, 1987. 
  • Luther, Martin. “Easter Tuesday.” Martin Luther’s Complete Church Postilmartinlutherspostil.com/Easter%20Tuesday,%20or%20Third%20Easter%20Day%20Luke%2024-36-47.pdf . Accessed 24 Nov. 2017.
  • “Myvatns Skotta.” Netútgáfan. Snerpa, Nov. 1997, snerpa.is/net/thjod/myvatns.htm. Accessed 21 Nov. 2017.
  • Powell, George E. J. and Eiríkr Magnússon. Introduction. Icelandic Legends by Jón Arnason. London, 1866.
  • Simpson, Jacqueline. Icelandic Folktales & Legends. The History Press, 2009.
  • Scudder, Bernard. The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Penguin Books Ltd., 2005.
  • Tomasson, Richard R. Iceland: The First New Society. University of Minnesota Press, 1980.
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