Quid Sigvardus cum Christo? Moral Interpretations of Sigurðr Fáfnisbani in Old Norse Literature

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  • Margeson (1980, 18485) dismisses the identification of Sigurr and Gunnarr figures on1bracteates, brooches, picture stones, and other objects from the fifth to ninth centuries.



    Elizabeth Ashman Rowe

    As is well known, the legend of the Germanic hero Sigurr Ffnisbani hadits origin in Migration Age Europe, but its earliest extant manifestationsin Old Norse literature are much later. Unfortunately, many of theseworks were clearly copied into our manuscripts long after they were composed;the concept composition should therefore be understood subject to the contextand conditions of the oral traditions of pre-Christian Scandinavia. We cannot becertain either of the age of these works or the degree to which they have beenchanged in the course of transmission. Using them to establish a chronologicalframework for understanding changes in the use of the figure of Sigurr thus facesproblems from the outset. Although no arguments in support of a given date areincontrovertible, many are plausible enough to be used, with due caution, as thebasis for further analysis. With such caveats, scholarly consensus puts the earliestextant version of part of the Vo3 lsung legend to around 900, with the compositionof the eddic lay Atlakvia (Dronke 1969, 4245; Finch 1993a, 23a). In the thirdquarter of the tenth century this was followed by the skaldic encomium Eirksml(Marold 1993, 161a). In that work, Sigurrs father Sigmundr is the hero whowelcomes Eirkr to Valho3 ll and elicits inns reminder that heroes are neededthere in preparation for the last battle at Ragnaro3k. The tenth century is also whenSigurrs story begins to appear in Scandinavian and Scandinavian-influenced art.Like Eirksml, these artefacts are associated with death and the afterlife. To list1

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    Margeson (1980, 18595) and Fuglesang (1993, 697b) provide discussions of iconographic2and dating issues. For further examples of carvings of Sigurr in England and Scandinavia, seeBlindheim (1973, 9) and Bailey (1980, 11622).

    Blindheim (1965, 53) finds the legend of Sigurr as one of the background themes of the3decorations of a church doorway in Kragelund, Denmark, but in his later list of Sigurr decora-tions (Blindheim 1973, 9) this item is replaced by a Sigurr scene on the portal of a church inLsby, Denmark.

    A closely related example is the fragment of a frieze from the Winchester Old Minster de-4picting the episode from the story of Sigurrs father in which he is about to free himself from thestocks by biting a wolfs tongue (Tweddle, Biddle, and Kjlby-Biddle 1995, no. 88). Most likelycarved between 1017 and 1035, this sculpture has been interpreted as celebrating the traditional

    the most notable examples, we find Sigurr carved not only on four paganmemorial stones in Sweden (in the late Viking-Age Ringerike style) but also onfour crosses from the Isle of Man and one from northern England (ranging in datefrom the second half of the tenth century to the early eleventh century). Sigurr2

    continued to be a suitable subject in certain Christian contexts, for series of scenesfrom his story decorate the portals of five Norwegian stave churches from thetwelfth and thirteenth centuries, and individual scenes are found on Norwegianchurch sites such as door-jambs, capitals, fonts, chairs, and benches from the sameperiod (Margeson 1980, 196207; Hohler 1999, 10203).3

    Just how to interpret the appearance in Christian religious contexts of a figurefrom pagan legend is a matter of controversy. With respect to the Manx crosses,Wilson (1967, 40) considers the images of Sigurr not particularly pagan,undoubtedly secular, and having obvious parallelisms with certain parts of theGospels and with the whole Christian philosophy of evil. Bailey (1980, 125) seesthe operation of typology: Sigurrs slaying of the dragon foreshadows Christsvictory over Satan, and his tasting the dragons heart, which gives him the abilityto understand the language of birds, foreshadows the Eucharist, in which flesh iseaten and blood is drunk. The bird in the image is an antetype of the dove sym-bolizing the Holy Spirit, and Sigurrs understanding of the language of birdsforeshadows a new spiritual understanding. Although agreeing that the Manxcrosses are Christian, Margeson (1983, 10405 and 1993, 406ab) emphasizesthe social function of the images from pre-Christian and therefore at least asso-ciatively pagan myth and legend in her suggestion that they were intended toenhance or celebrate the memory of the dead by implying a parallel between thegreatness of the gods and heroes depicted and the greatness of the deceased, whomay even have counted them among his or her ancestors. With respect to the4

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    history of England and Denmark, a history symbolically united in the marriage of Cnut andAelfgifu-Emma, widow of Aethelred II, in 1017 (1995, 321), as the royal houses of Wessex andDenmark claimed descent from the same ancestor, Scyld, and thus shared a tradition in whichSigmund had played a part (1995, 318). This sculpture resembles the Manx crosses of the samedate in that not only could there have been a genealogical connection with the person(s) itcelebrates, but it, too, is a kind of burial monument, for it came from the part of the Old Minsterin which the kings (including Cnut) were laid to rest. I am indebted to John McKinnell forbringing this example to my attention.

    For more recent scholarship on the Gosforth Cross, see Bailey (1980), Bailey and Cramp5(1988), and Hines (1989).

    Not all scholars agree on this point. For example, Hohler (1999, 23) rejects the idea that6there is any particular Christian content in the stave-church images of Sigurr.

    Northumbrian carvings, Berg (1958) argued that the Gosforth cross shows areconciliation between Christian and pagan beliefs, with Christian teachers usingcertain Norse religious legends, particularly Ragnaro3k, as a means of demonstrat-ing the fall of the pagan gods and the rebirth of the world through Christs deathon the cross and his defeat of the devil. Other scholars perceiving a fusion of5

    Christian and pagan Scandinavian cultures interpret the imagery differently.Smyth (1979, 271) sees a fundamental contradiction in the use of the figure ofSigurr in Christian contexts, as his connection with the cult of inn makes hislegend alien to Christian sentiment, but Bailey (1985, 6061) and Hadley (1996,117) invoke Wormalds argument (1978) that ecclesiastical culture itself hadbecome somewhat secularized with aristocratic and heroic values, and they arguethat the so-called pagan elements in the iconography of the sculpture are moresuitably described as secular. It is of course unlikely that the image of Sigurrserved the same function in all times and places. For example, its deploymentaround church doors was probably due to his having slain the dragon Ffnir.Because the devil and demons could manifest themselves as dragons and serpents,and because these evil beings were believed to be drawn to church entrances inorder to prey on worshippers, the doors were often decorated with images ofdragon-killers such as St George and the Archangel Michael in order to ward offevil spirits (Karlsson 1993, 325b).6

    Art historians have quite rightly used contemporary Old Norse poetry andprose in their analysis of these images (e.g. Margeson 1980 and 1988), but theyhave been satisfied with a relatively limited selection of the literary aspects of thisphenomenon, and these are what I wish to pursue here. For one thing, given thepopularity of Sigurr in Christian decorative programs of the Viking Age and theMiddle Ages in the British Isles and Scandinavia, we would expect him to appear

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    The eighth excerpt from Styrmir Krasons saga of St lfr tells how the King asked one of7his sklds to compose a verse about the subject of a textile (tjald) that is apparently displayed inthe room. The poet sees that it shows Sigurrs defeat of Ffnir and comes up with a suitable verse(Gubrandur Vigfsson and Unger 186068, III, 244).

    Margeson (1980, 208) suggests that the use of motifs found in literature only in Vo3lsunga8saga to decorate Norwegian churches adds weight to the idea that the saga was composed inNorway, but this view has not found wide acceptance (for example Finch 1993b, 711a).

    just as frequently in the literature of those times and places, and for another, wewould expect his literary function(s) to parallel the artistic ones. As I will argue,the first assumption appears to be correct, but the second assumption is not.

    Noting that the image of Sigurr survives in relatively few non-religiouscontexts, Margeson (1980, 210) attributes this imbalance to the accidents ofpreservation and destruction, and she uses a saga reference to a tapestry depictingthe slaying of Ffnir as evidence that Sigurr was probably a popular subject forthe decoration of secular objects as well as Christian ones. Her conclusion is7

    supported by the more balanced distribution seen in Old Norse literature. Inaddition to the skaldic and eddic poems dealing with the Vo3 lsungNiflungmaterial, Sigurr is found in a number of prose texts. These can be grouped intofour categories. The first is narrative, and interestingly there is only one text thattells Sigurrs story: Vo3lsunga saga, composed around 126070 (Finch 1965,xxxvixxxviii). The second category of texts is satirical, and again there is only8

    one example: Sneglu-Halla ttr, written down around 1200 (Danielsson 1993,599b), tells of an Icelandic poet at the court of King Haraldr harri who isrequested to comp