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Hallgerður and Gunnar

janni in sagafans

Saga men, saga women

So, on the web site for that edition of the English translation of the complete sagas (yes, I'm still thinking about them!), I found this statement:

... Although we invariably find men dominating the foreground of the narrative, the Saga world is also strongly shaped by women: by mothers who instil their sons with ancient heroic values and incite them to noble deeds, by beautiful young women over whose favours poets fight, by women of steely character who rebel against male power and refuse to accept the limitations imposed on them by custom and law.

(The writers go on to posit the The Saga of the People of Laxardal as an exception, and then to trot out the theory that because of this maybe a woman wrote it.)

I've met statements like this before -- I recall one in John Krakauer and David Roberts coffee table Iceland book, where they leave out even the nod to the story even being "strongly shaped" by the women -- and they always puzzle me -- because for me, when I read the sagas, the women are in no way in the background, and are as central to the world and the stories -- and dominant within them -- as the men. But apparently, many readers don't see the same story I do. I can see that there are more men on stage, sure -- but the women, to my mind, more than hold their own with them.

I wonder sometimes if readers equate wielding axes and fighting battles with dominance, and assume that since the men are the warriors, they must dominate the stories, and unconsciously dismiss the women when they play more domestic roles, interpreting such roles as minor by definition (though I doubt anyone at the time saw keeping the household fed and clothed and not-starving and not-freezing as minor) -- while at the same time being deeply uncomfortable when the women step out of those roles and influence the battles after all.

So is there an ongoing tendency to see the sagas as male stories in spite of their many strong women? Where do you think it comes from? In what ways is it justified, and in what ways is it not?


I am also suspicious that the causality goes the other way: that there's an unspoken but still present prejudice that the things the men do are important, and so therefore the men are the focus because they're doing the important things. Circular. But that's just a suspicion.

I think it's a well-founded suspicion. Archaeology is still excited about hunting, even though it's been soundly proved that in most h-g societies, gathering provides the vast majority of calories consumed. But men hunt more than women do, and archaeology until fairly recently dominated by men, so that's where the attention went, and clearly it was the most important thing.
Hallgerður and Gunnar

January 2014

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