De Mayo (2013 Congress)

Thomas B. de Mayo
(J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College)
“Water as a Medium of Fate in Assorted Icelandic Sagas”

Abstract of Paper intended to be presented at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2013)
[Note: This session was cancelled, so the paper was not presented. The Abstract reports the intentions.]

Session on
Co-sponsored by the Societas Magica and the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Mihai-D. Grigore
2013 Congress

[Published on our first website on 21 May 2012]

In several Icelandic sagas, characters immerse magically or religiously significant objects, whose emergence reveals the workings of otherwise invisible forces. In one recurring Icelandic settlement motif, release and recovery of significant objects determines the site of new households. S eat-pillars of halls, images of gods, a dead leader’s corpse: each bore religious and social significance with it into the current. Its landing-place then mapped the future society. Grettir’s Saga culminates with this tidal magic. The witch Thurid ensorcells a piece of driftwood, then casts it into the ocean. It emerges on the isle of Drangey where the outlaw Grettir has taken refuge with a brother and a servant. Although he detects the malice in the object and orders it cast back, it returns again in circulation, until the slave finally retrieves it. Grettir, not recognizing it, cuts himself while chopping it up for firewood – this wound permits his enemies to overcome him at last. Thus, the trunk both embodies and abets Grettir’s doom in a complex sequence of interwoven human, natural, and supernatural causality.

In these sagas, the circulating action of the water mirrors that of fate. Like the hidden factors of causality, it embodies, the floating object vanishes, into the realm of hidden forces. Its reemergence demonstrates the action of these forces on the visible world. By selecting, casting, and retrieving such objects, the characters of the sagas attempt to invoke and control fate’s shaping role on human life, society, and individual destiny.


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