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Ógæfa as an Emotion in Thirteenth-Century Iceland

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 84, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 1-26 | 10.1353/scd.2012.0003

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In this article, I will discuss the Old Norse concept of ógæfa, typically translated as misfortune or lucklessness. Scholars have pointed out that it was connected to a person's fate and sometimes caused by another's curse or witchcraft. It could also be part of the person's inherent character or an irreversible burden laid on him by Óðinn. Ógæfa additionally implied a lack of happiness or a destiny that the individual him/herself freely chose, either by striving for the wrong or failing to achieve the right goals. Killing a kinsman or committing other such niðingsverk (villainy) were among the possible causes of ógæfa. In recent scholarship, ógæfa has been given Christian connotations, and gæfumaðr, a man of fortune, has been seen as denoting a good Christian in the pre-Christian period (Hallberg; Hermann Pálsson, "Icelandic Sagas"; Hermann Pálsson, "Um gæfumenn"; Lönnroth, "Kroppen"; Sejbjerg Sommer).

I do not intend to dispute the definitions, but instead to broaden our understanding of the concept of ógæfa. I will argue that this concept was not just a part of a person's fate that denoted bad luck, but that it also had emotional or emotion-like connotations. It could be used to express the inner struggles of the saga protagonist and his feelings of guilt in a culture that did not yet have a word for this kind of affective state. As suggested in the works of William Ian Miller, this culture was a one of shame rather than of guilt, i.e. of emotions of status, not of conscience. According to Miller, scholars who identify guilt in the sagas are interpreting events in the light of "Christian emotional style" (Miller, Humiliation 93-130). This view implies that guilt could not have been experienced until the adoption of Christianity when the concept of sin had been thoroughly accepted and internalized. It is quite possible, of course, that this internalization had already taken place by the time the majority of the sagas were written two centuries after Christianization. Hermann Pálsson has noted the great influence of humanistic thought in Iceland in that period ("Icelandic Sagas" and "Um gæfumenn").

Shame was a very important theme in the sagas since it was often the major cause of the events leading to revenge, whereas feelings of guilt did not elicit any such source of action. The distinction between cultures emerging from guilt or shame should not, however, be taken for granted. Distinguishing different cultures in this way often presupposes that those grounded in heathen shame are more primitive in an ethical and psychological sense than those based on Christian guilt. This rather Darwinian view assumes that lack of guilt diminishes the variety of experience in social interaction since shame is involved in threats to the self, but guilt concerns the welfare of others; it is, therefore, the more moral emotion of the two and has a special link with empathy. A possible shift from heathen shame to Christian guilt may, of course, lie at the core of the concept of ógæfa, but to account for ógæfa with Christian guilt is to ignore the fact that emotions associated with guilt could be felt in non-Christian societies and that shame, too, could elicit a moral sense of social responsibility. Guilt is bound to the presence of moral judgment and a sense of moral responsibility, but the authority that makes the judgment may be worldly or divine. Moreover, both shame and guilt seem to be more or less prominent in all cultures, whatever their orientation, prevailing religious attitudes, or stage of technical development. In addition, it is not always easy to distinguish guilt from shame, which makes the study of these emotions difficult. The phenomenological experience of these two emotions differs in respect to the self: shame is about the self with the attitude in Tangney's words, "I did that horrible thing," whereas guilt is about the act and its negative evaluation ("I did that horrible thing").

Bearing this in mind, any examination of the moral and social aspects that prevail in medieval Icelandic literature necessitates the minimizing of the...


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