Kinship in Old Norse Myth and Legend
Katherine Marie Olley
Welcome to the Medieval Herald! Can you please begin by giving us a short summary of your book?
Of course, the book is primarily about parent-child relationships as depicted in the mythic-heroic sagas and poems of medieval Iceland, but it uses an analysis of those relationships to probe broader questions of how people in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Iceland understood kinship and what kinds of anxieties it provoked for them. Literature tends to be a space where a society can reflect upon key sociological concepts and so the book is really all about trying to recover an Old Norse perspective on what kinship meant to their society at the time they were writing these stories down.
Did something about these relationships especially surprise you? Did you have any assumptions about the different relationships before you began your research and were you surprised by your findings?
In many ways I was surprised by the huge variation in the parent-child relationships depicted. Scholarship tends to cluster around particularly famous characters. Guðrún Gjúkadóttir is a good example. She’s notorious for killing her sons, cooking and feeding them to her husband as revenge for his murder of her brothers. It would be easy to get the impression that mothers in Old Norse myth and legend are these monstrous, transgressive figures but actually the picture is a lot more nuanced than that. In fact maternity in Old Norse literature is so complex that I felt there was a lot left to explore which is why my current research into childbirth in Old Norse literature is building on this earlier work.
There were definitely assumptions I had at the beginning of my research, particularly with a subject like kinship, it can be very hard to break out of your own cultural expectations. I tried very hard in the book to resist the binary opposition of the biological and the social, which are often mapped on to maternity and paternity, which is so pervasive in our thinking (although recent anthropological scholarship is working hard to change this) and to focus instead on the idea of biosociality and what maternity and paternity have in common.
I was also really surprised not to find more evidence for a special bond between a man and his sister’s son in the mythic and legendary texts because it was an assumption I had absorbed from my reading over many years. To discover when I started chasing references more thoroughly how much the idea relied on a passage in Tacitus, which I think has unduly influenced the way people interpreted these relationships in much later texts, was a huge shock.
What is one way that a medieval Icelander’s sense of self would differ from a modern sense of self?
I think medieval Icelanders were a lot more socially minded than we are today. We tend to think of ourselves as individuals with very discrete boundaries between ourselves and others, but medieval Icelanders were more viscerally connected to their families. I think they had a stronger sense of the insufficiency of the self for survival, which is why outlawry, to be excluded from the Icelandic social community, was such a severe punishment in Icelandic society. The self alone in Old Norse is not enough, it has to be part of something greater.
What drew you to Old Norse?
The richness of the literature has always been Old Norse’s greatest attraction for me. There’s such a variety of texts from poetry to prose, history to romance and everything in between. My current research has really broadened my horizons in that regard and I’ve been working with genres of Old Norse literature I’ve never worked with before which has been tremendously exciting. Credit must also go to some wonderful and inspiring teaching at the University of Cambridge where I was introduced to Old Norse for the first time.
What does the image in your cover depict?
The cover image is an initial from AM 226 fol., from a section called Stjórn, which contains an Old Norse version of some of the Old Testament. This particular initial depicts Isaac blessing Jacob with Rebecca looking on. I chose it for two reasons: first, because that triangle of figures—mother, father, child—really encapsulates the parent-child relationships which are at the heart of the book and second, because it depicts a scene of paternal recognition. Chapter five of the book is devoted to what I call the drama of recognition, the moment when kin recognise and acknowledge their relationship with one another and thus by extension what they owe to one another. Although it’s not from an Old Norse story, the tale of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing and thus his inheritance, is all about the significance of that moment of (mis)recognition, so I love the way the image brings that drama to life.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
My greatest hope for the book is that it sparks further research in this area. There are lots of aspects of kinship I simply didn’t have the chance to explore. I realised whilst writing that the moment of childbirth deserved closer attention, which I couldn’t give it in this book, so it has ended up as the subject for my next book instead! The book’s central thesis that Old Norse kinship was made in the telling also raises lots of interesting questions for how we understand foster-relationships and so-called ‘fictive’ kinship (which I think is a misnomer) in the sagas which I would love to see explored in the future.
KATHERINE MARIE OLLEY is the VH Galbraith Junior Research Fellow in Medieval Studies at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.