Don’t Mess with Norse Women

Humourous Hagiography will be late this week- I’ve packed up Skeat in preparation for trundling off to Awesome’s place to cat-sit for a few weeks.

Instead, have a cross-dressing Norse tale, courtesy of the Goblin:

I have read about sorceresses, and shape-shifters. I learned about preterite-present verbs and how to hate them. I have read of women who murder their children in order to avenge their brothers and women who sleep with their brothers in order to avenge their fathers and (other) brothers.

I have learned not to mess with Icelandic women. Hoo boy.

Guðrun Osvifursdottir, the protagonist of Laxdœla saga, is my very favourite example of this. She has four husbands over the course of the narrative, becomes the first nun of Iceland and achieves great literary fame. She is also a stone-cold bitch when she has to be, even if she is not on the same scale as the other figures named Guðrun in Icelandic sagas.3 The story I want to show is that of her second husband, Thord Ingunnarson. Guðrun gained Thord after she divorced her first husband -using Thord’s advice- and he divorced his wife on Guðrun’s. Thord’s wife Aud does not take kindly to losing her husband.4

The manner in which this is laid out is very amusing. The story should of course be read in context to be fully appreciated, but we shall start with Guðrun’s first husband, Thorvald. Following rumours that Guðrun is having an affair with Thord, Thorvald slaps Guðrun during a fight. After responding that he has given her what every woman wants- good colouring, Thord arrives. She asks him how to respond to the insulting slap:

Thord smiled and said, “I have a good solution for this. Make him a shirt with such a wide neck opening that by wearing it he gives you grounds for divorcing him.

Cross-dressing was illegal in early Icelandic law, and was grounds for divorce. A wide-opened shirt was for exposing…well. You’ve all seen bad fantasy movies. You get the idea.

Of course, poor Thorvald has to wear a shirt his wife made for him, and winds up divorced. One can’t help but think he is better off; Guðrun might be beautiful, but she never liked him.

Later on, Guðrun opens a conversation with Thord along similar lines:

“Is it true, Thord, that your wife Aud always wears breeches with gores in the crutch, like a man’s, and cross-garters almost down to her shoes?

He said he had not noticed it.

“There can’t be much truth to the story, then,” said Guðrun, “if you hadn’t noticed it. But why, then, is she known as Breeches-Aud?”

We can see where Guðrun is headed here. Soon enough:

One day Thord Ingunnarson asked Guðrun what the penalty was for a woman who always wore breeches like a man’s.

Guðrun replied, “The same penalty applies to women in a case like that as to a man who wears a neck-opening so wide that his nipples are exposed: both are grounds of divorce.”

Oh, Guðrun.

Of course, Thord divorces Aud then and there, and Guðrun and he go off and get married. Their marriage is very happy, apparently.

Aud takes her abandonment…bitterly, singing a brief poem. But she does not sit on her hands, because one does not mess with Icelandic womenfolk. She sends a shepherd boy to find out how many men are at Thord’s farm- upon disovering that it is only Thord and Guðrun’s father Osvif, she goes after her ex-husband:

…a little before sunset Aud mounted her horse, and she was certainly wearing breeches then. The shepherd rode the other horse and could scarcely keep up with her, so furiously did she spur her horse. […] She went into the living-room and over to the bed-closet in which Thord lay sleeping. […] She went into the bed-closet; Thord lay on his back, sound asleep. She woke him up, and he turned on his side when he saw that a man had come in; Aud drew a short-sword and lunged at him with it, wounding him severely; the sword caught his right arm and gashed him across both nipples. So fierce was the thrust that the sword stuck fast in the bed boards.

Osvif offers to go after her, as Thord is too weakened by loss of blood. However:

Thord would not hear of it on any account, saying that she had only done what she had to do.

She had only done what she had to do. Thord knew that which we should all learn: do not mess with Icelandic women. They will cut you.===

3: You should all read the poem Atlakviða and the Völsunga saga. Guðrun Gjukadottir is amazing.
4: All quotes are from Laxdœla Saga, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1969. The chapters in question are 34-35, pp. 124-128.

Hum. And now, I shall trundle off to the library at this late hour, to take back overdue interlibrary loans…


2 Responses to “Don’t Mess with Norse Women”

  1. B. Hawk Says:

    That’s right: Norse women are bad-ass.

  2. Bo Says:

    This sounds so cool! I fear I am deeply ignorant about Norse lit (but the wonderful heather o’donoghue very kindly wrote a series of references for me for recent job applications) and I must resolve to read this stuff.

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