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  • Conversion and Convergence:The Role and Function of Women in Post-medieval Icelandic Folktales
  • Eric Shane Bryan

The Spheres of Christianity and Gender

Scholars have regularly observed that in Old Norse sources women often exhibit a strong opposition to the conversion to Christianity. Frequently cited as support for this opposition are the confrontations between Þorvaldr and Friðgerðr in Þorvalds þáttr ens víðförla and Kristni saga as well as Þangbrandr's conflict with Steinunn in Njáls saga. Sources such as these have contributed to the perception of a Christian male/pagan female structural opposition that has helped forge our understanding of gender roles in Norse conversion and Christianization. 1 Some scholars see this oppositional structure as evidence of a specific historical phenomenon regarding pagan women during the process of Norse conversion and Christianization, 2 while others have argued that it functions as a literary construction ultimately reflective of negative ecclesiastical views of women. 3 Recently, Siân Grønlie has challenged these interpretations altogether by arguing that they tend to overlook narrative accounts that paint women in a supportive, Christian light and adding further that "even when the Christian male/pagan [End Page 165] female opposition is clearly drawn, it does not always follow that the narrative sympathy, insofar as we can discern it, lies with the Christian man" (295). Rather than a gendered religious opposition, Grønlie observes a topos in Icelandic literature that instead presents a social opposition that bears a gendered imprint (310). On one side persists a "female sphere"—private, intimate, based in the home, and opposed to conversion—while on the other side stands the "male sphere" characterized as public, political, legal, and in support of conversion.

This article seeks to observe these two spheres in the context of a longer view of religious development in Iceland by paying specific attention to the body of Icelandic folklore material collected from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. 4 Rather than turning to historical, literary, or archaeological sources, I look to the folk record, which preserves a social memory (as explained below) of both cultural and religious developments. As such, I intend this project to contribute a folkloristic viewpoint to that larger context, which I hope will offer a more robust understanding of Icelandic cultural and religious development. 5 I begin with a tale entitled "Gullbrá og Skeggi í Hvammi" 6 ("Gullbrá and Skeggi in Hvammur"), where familiar persons and events from pre-conversion Iceland appear. I then turn to a series of tales about Icelandic magic users 7 who betray much about the spheres of gender and Christian beliefs, though perhaps more through the lack of a female sphere than for its prevalence. Finally, I examine the tale "Álfkonan [End Page 166] hjá Ullarvötnum" 8 ("The Elfwoman at Ullarvatn"), the morphological potency and uniquely Icelandic character of which opens the door to a vision of the reconciliation between the male and female spheres. Analysis of these tales suggests that the gendered spheres observed by Grønlie have not been lost in later Icelandic folktales. Rather, the tales seem to manipulate the topos to reconcile lingering social challenges inherent in both gender and religion.

Iceland's Social Memory

Over the last forty years, scholars have come to recognize the reciprocal relationship between folk material and the culture that produces it. 9 Terry Gunnell has spearheaded recent endeavors to bring this methodological framework to Iceland by arguing that oral narratives act as "doorways" to social meaning: "These earlier narrative 'doorways', however they were collected, have the potential to say something about background context and the wider living space that gave birth to them, spaces that should never be forgotten as scholars examine the structural symmetry of the door frames and the quaintness of the antique door handles" ("Narratives" 12). Bo Almqvist has likewise remarked that Icelandic folk materials are especially valuable to folklorists, citing, among other reasons, the "scope and quality of the source material, old and new, and the extent to which legends survived until recently" (274). Almqvist also argues that the geographic and cultural conditions in Iceland readily lend themselves to a clearer picture of the nature, history, and function of the...


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pp. 165-190
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