Working Papers




Sarah M. Anderson & Karen Swenson, eds.  Cold Counsel: The Women of Old Norse Literature and Myth.  New York and London: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-8153-1966-5. $85.00.

Cold Counsel is described by the publisher as "the only collection devoted to the place of women in Old Norse literature and culture."  The emphasis is apparently on the word collection, since this theme has been treated in depth by several full-length books in recent years, including Jenny Jochens' Women in Old Norse Society (1998) and Old Norse Images of Women (1996), and Judith Jesch's Women in the Viking Age (1994).

A volume such as Cold Counsel, which gathers together 15 essays by a variety of scholars from several disciplines, has both advantages and disadvantages compared to the earlier book-length treatments. The best of these papers make a single point, make it well, and leave you with vivid insights that will expand (or even change) your thinking on these topics. On the other hand, there is no continuity or overall sense of unity binding the various contributions together, and the weakest of these papers seem to serve little purpose beyond bringing the book up to its required page count.

Six of the essays have been published previously, and these include some outstanding and highly readable scholarship. One example is Forrest Scott's "The Woman Who Knows: Female Characters of Eyrbyggja Saga," which originally appeared in the journal Parergon nearly 20 years ago. Scott sets out to examine the role of women in Old Icelandic society through the lens of Eyrbyggja Saga, but his canvas expands as he warms to his task, and in the end we are left to consider whether the saga itself could have been the product of a woman's hand.

Another of the gems of this volume is Carol Clover's classic 1986 article, "Hildigunnr's Lament," which examines the remarkably powerful encounter between Hildigunnr and Flósi in Njal's Saga, ch. 116. Hildigunnr's husband, Hoskuld Hvítaness-gođi, has been killed by the Njálssons. Flósi, as Hildigunnr's most powerful male relative, is the natural choice to take vengeance-but he is intent on pursuing a legal settlement instead. Clover analyzes the scene in which Hildigunnr flings the slain man's bloody cloak over Flósi's shoulders, imploring him to exact blood for blood, and places it in the context of other "whetting" scenes in the sagas and eddic poems. She concludes that such scenes are grounded in an ancient tradition of female death laments which included an obligatory element of goading the surviving menfolk to vengeance.

Zoe Borovsky's "Women and Insults in Old Norse Literature" also takes a scene in Njal's Saga as its point of departure, this time Hrútr Herjólfsson's response to Gunnarr's proposal to wed Hrútr's niece, Hallgerđr. Hrútr tries to dissuade Gunnar by describing Hallgerđr as "rather a mixture" (Old Icelandic blandinn). In English, this description seems no more than mildly derogatory. However, Borovsky demonstrates otherwise. Reviewing the use of the verb blanda in Lokasenna and the Atli poems, she concludes that the term originally connoted a violation of boundaries or roles, suggesting figurative if not literal adultery, and was therefore one of the sharpest insults that could be leveled at a woman.

Sandra Ballif Straubhaar considers the situation of medieval women engaged in a predominantly masculine craft in "Ambiguously Gendered: The Skalds Jórunn, Auđr, and Steinunn." She focuses on three historical female poets who were not identified by such gender-specific epithets as "skaldkona," but were referred to simply as "skalds," including one who served in the company of King Ólaf at the Norwegian court.

Karen Swenson, in "Women Outside: Discourse of Community in Hávamál," approaches Hávamál as a "ritual utterance," in which both the speaker and audience are defined as masculine. She sees the underlying theme of the poem as one of mitigating the dangers of life--and women are a danger all men share. Even though the poet portrays women as desirable in themselves or for what they possess, the women of Hávamál are distinctly placed outside the community of the speaker and his audience.

Jenny Jochens is represented by a perceptive essay, "Vikings Westward to Vinland: The Problem of Women," in which she deals straightforwardly with the question of cultural longevity: why did the Norse settlements in Iceland and the British Isles meet with long-term success, while those in Greenland and Vinland did not? Jochens traces the answer to the relative ease with which Scandinavian women could be imported to the settlements, combined with the willingness of Scandinavian men to interbreed with the respective indigenous populations

In "Saga World and Nineteenth-Century Iceland: The Case of Women Farmers," Ţorunn Sigurđardóttir takes up the debate over whether the strong and independent women portrayed in many of the sagas are an accurate reflection of historical reality (see Olafia Einarsdóttir), or essentially fictional creations masking the historical subjugation of women (see Jochens). The author comes down on the side of ambiguity, arguing that the saga-age reality was one of "rights but not equality" for women. This ambiguity continued down to the early years of Icelandic democracy, when individual land-owning women participated in elections and petitioned the Crown, although women as a class were legally disenfranchised.

Jonna Louis-Jensen's 1993 essay, "A Good Day's Work: Laxdaela Saga, Chapter 49," seems somewhat unsatisfying now that the same field has been plowed more deeply by Jón Hnefel Ađalsteinsson. Still, the possible implications of Guđrun's seemingly offhand remark about her husband's slaying of her lover, "morning tasks are often mixed--I have spun yarn for twelve ells of homespun, and you have killed Kjartan," make for a fascinating yarn (pun intended).

Jón Karl Helgason accomplishes the rare feat of engaging in postmodern analysis without lapsing into complete nonsense in his "'Ţegi ţu Ţórr!': Gender, Class, and Discourse in Ţrymskviđa." Ţórr's loss of his hammer is first interpreted in terms of a masculine fear of loss of sexual power; then the text is given a rather forced gloss in terms of relative social standing, or class; and finally the discourse among the characters is analyzed for the light it may throw on their respective status.

The field of Old Norse literature includes much more than just the Eddic and skaldic poetry and family and kings' sagas that are of most interest to today´s heathens. A number of the contributions to Cold Counsel therefore have their focus in areas that may seem not particularly relevant to pre-Christian social practices and beliefs. For example, Randi Eldevik's "Women's Voice in Old Norse Literature: The Case of Trójumanna Saga," deals with the representation of women in an Old Norse account of the Trojan War, based on foreign sources, while Shaun Hughes' "The Re-Emergence of Women's Voices in Old Icelandic Literature, 1500-1800," as the title implies, deals primarily with the increased recognition of women's literary contributions in the post-medieval era. Marianne E. Kalinke teases more than one might expect out of the late medieval Víglundar Saga in her "Fathers, Mothers, and Daughters: 'Hver er ađ ráđa?'." Kalinke sees the text as a bridal-quest romance which eschews the fantasy that normally characterizes such works, in favor of a dynamic portrayal of a struggle for authority among an unusual triangle of characters-father, mother, and daughter. I'm really not sure what point Kerry Shea is making in "Male Bonding, Female Body: The Absenting of Women in 'Bisclaretz lióđ'" (it has something to do with castration and women whose noses are bitten off), and frankly, I found Regina Psaki's treatment of women's place in the intensely Christian milieu of Parceval's Saga unreadable.

Finally, we must deal with Helga Kress's problematic "Taming the Shrew: The Rise of Patriarchy and the Subordination of the Feminine in Old Norse." Prof. Kress is a highly respected scholar at the University of Iceland whose feminist scholarship is widely published and admired, but as a reviewer I must confess I just don't "get" a lot of her work. Maybe it's because I have a penis. For example, when Kress speaks of the "rise of patriarchy" in pagan Iceland, she seems to be referring to a specific historical event, but it is not clear when it happened or how it can be identified or confirmed. Does she endorse Bachofen's theory-which underlies the modern "Goddess" movement and much of Wicca-that Western culture passed through a golden age of peaceful matriarchal rule before the warlike, patriarchal Indo-Europeans knocked everything topsy-turvy by introducing violence, war, rape, theft, famine, pestilence, exploitation of the masses, and private property? Maybe yes, maybe no. The notion of the "rise of patriarchy" is something we are just supposed to intuitively understand (and of course, accept). For Kress, it seems that every sword, spear, axe, hammer, and even ship is a phallic symbol that stands (so to speak) for the subjugation of women. I suspect many would join me in disagreeing with such generalizations as "The Lay of Skirnir is a poem about sexual violence" (p. 82), or "the whole of Norse mythology is geared to illustrate how the gods conquered nature" (p. 83), or "women's possibilities in [Old Norse] society are limited to subordination, exile, or death" (p. 91). Still, for anyone predisposed to believe that Old Norse literature is "primarily" about the oppression of women (p. 91), you are unlikely to find a stronger or more learned exposition of that premise than this essay.

Overall, I would give Cold Counsel high marks but with the reservation that the best material to be found here is already available elsewhere. Perhaps the book's most important contribution in the long run will be to help establish that a market exists for serious investigations into the role and status of women in the pre-Christian North. Whether or not by coincidence, a second, similar collection was published later in 2002, entitled Mythological Women: Studies in Memory of Lotte Motz (1922-1997) (Rudolf Simek & eds., Fassbaender, ISBN 3-900538-73-5). It's to be hoped that this field will continue to expand, nourished by the reception of volumes like this one.

Reviewed by R. S. Radford
(c) 2006.  All rights reserved.  Reproduction of this review in any form, in whole or in part, without express written permission is prohibited.