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MASCULINITY AND POLITICS IN NJÁLS SAGA

Ármann Jakobsson

Viator 38 (2007)

Masculinity seems to have been imagined as something of a burden in tenth-centuryIceland. In chapter 45 of Njáls saga, it is related how the sons of Njáll go to Hlíða-rendi to kill Sigmundr Lambason, a cousin of their father’s close friend, Gunnarr. Sig-mundr had been goaded by Gunnarr’s wife, Hallgerðr, into making slanderous versesabout Njáll and his sons. These verses (referred to in the saga but present in only someof its manuscripts) are inspired by Njáll’s innovative custom of carrying dung to thehillocks to help the hay grow, coupled with the fact that he (but not his sons) has no beard. The aim of the verses is to cast a slur on his and their manhood. Hence, theycontain the epithets “karl inn skegglausi” (Old Beardless) and “taðskegglingar”(Dung-beardlings) and imply that Njáll has also used dung to help his sons grow a beard (113 and 471–472). Rather than live with this smear, the sons of Njáll killSigmundr and his Swedish companion Skjoldr. One of the premises for this killing isclearly the importance of masculinity in mediaeval Iceland. In this case, Skarpheðinn,the oldest and most prominent of the sons of Njáll, learns of the verses and says:“Ekki hofu vér kvenna skap … at vér reiðimsk við ollu” (114) (We are not made likewomen, that we become furious over everything). In spite of his statement, he isvisibly angry; the saga mentions sweat on his brow and red spots on his cheeks. Infact, if we subscribe to his own outlook, Sigmundr’s verbal assault has indeed struck adouble blow, as it has caused him to lose his manly composure.

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