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Two Enraging Gifts in Egils saga

Santiago Barreiro

Egils saga Skallagrímssonar (hereafter Egla) is a long prose text composed in Iceland in the first half of the thirteenth century (c.1220 – 1240). It is conventionally considered as an early example of the subgenre known as Íslendingasögur, which tell stories about the early generations of inhabitants who settled in Iceland in the ninth and tenth centuries. It is structured in two main parts, each sometimes named after its protagonist, as ‘Þórólfs saga’ and Egils saga proper. The saga is organized around two main axes: on the one hand, a genealogical axis centred on the lineage of Kveld-Úlfr, and on the other, a focus on the relationship between the protagonists and the monarchs. Our goal in this article is to compare and contrast two instances of gifts present in the saga, which in both cases cause a furious reaction in the recipient. Each scene is briefly summarized below. These gifts do not bear any noticeable mark of mockery, which might be the most obvious cause for angering the receiver. An angry reaction to gifts is likely linked to a social dynamic of gift-giving in which the humiliating, competitive nature of generosity constitute one of the main mechanisms to create or underline social standing. These scenes are unusual in the level of detail given about both the gifts transferred and the reactions and emotions of those involved, and so allow for a higher depth of analysis than the often succinct references to gift-giving in the saga corpus. Moreover, to my knowledge they have not been subject to much attention from scholars using an interdisciplinary perspective. We will in the first place give a brief overview of each scene and proceed to comment on the particular way in which a narrative mode driven by genealogy is used to link both scenes. Afterwards, we analyse the possible reasons behind the angry reaction in each case. Later we dedicate a short section to the role of landed property in the saga, which might have influenced the specific meaning of gift-exchange as presented in the text. We conclude by making some remarks on the relationship between the results of our analysis and its link with the two main broad trends in the anthropology of exchange, those focusing on the strategies of the agents and those focusing on the gift as structurally determined. It is likely that both trends are in practice complementary, and that each yields fruitful results when used to analyse a source such as Egla. Finally, we will argue that the ownership of land (as the core element of production and the basic source of wealth) is meaningful to understand the reaction of the receivers to the gifts.

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