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Brennu-Njal - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
July 19th, 2003
07:10 pm


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A course I'll be taking next year has a lot of assigned reading, and ravell advised me to read some of the books in advance. Thus I find myself reading Njal's Saga (Njálssaga), an Icelandic epic, translated by Robert Cook (pub. Penguin).

I'm rather ignorant of Norse mythology and epics (I mean, yes, I know Loki and Thor, and I'm familiar with the principal events of the Völssungsaga through Wagner's adaptation of the Nibelungenlied, but not much else), and was expecting something along the lines of Homer: heroism, bloodshed, strife, minus Homer's breathtaking humanism, plus some Norse motifs.

Was I in for a surprise. The flavor is quite different. I mean, sure, you have your brawny axe-wielding men worrying about their honor and all, but you also have, um, elements that Homer would have probably balked at. One of them is an unconsummated marriage. The woman, imagine that, complains about her husband's inability to please her, including graphic descriptions of where the fault lies, and actually divorces him unilaterally! And we're talking pagan 10th century Iceland! Whoo!

Anyhow, it's quite nice so far. The translation seems adequate, and there are helpful footnotes, genealogical charts, maps, etc. Neat.

Lest I wrong Hrut's manly reputation, I must add that his virility failed only with regard to his lawfully-wedded, and that due to a curse laid upon him by a lascivious queen-mother. The fun never stops at Medieval Iceland!

Current Mood: amused
Current Music: David Bowie -- The Letter

(8 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:July 19th, 2003 09:23 am (UTC)

FYI, failing to satisfy a woman is one of the grounds for divorce in Jewish marriage, too

Remember the 'onata' undertaking? It is generally understood to mean "providing one's wife with sexual relations at least once every six months" - failing to do so can lead the rabbis to require the man to divorce her or, uh, rectify the damage.

[User Picture]
Date:July 19th, 2003 10:48 am (UTC)

Re: FYI, failing to satisfy a woman is one of the grounds for divorce in Jewish marriage, too

Yes, I do remember this. But then, I don't know of any mention of the implementation of this ground for divorce in the Jewish equivalent to the epic, i.e. the bible. The closest case I can think of, offhand, is Onan, who refused to impregnate Tamar (but it is certainly not implied that he couldn't).

I'm sure the Talmud does have examples, though.
[User Picture]
Date:July 19th, 2003 10:33 am (UTC)
I dunno...sounds like the fun stopped for Hrut's wife...
[User Picture]
Date:July 19th, 2003 10:50 am (UTC)

Perhaps. The narrator has a habit of announcing characters' departure from the saga, i.e. he actually says: "And so Thorrain leaves the saga." Since he did not yet say that about Unn, Hrut's wife, I'm optimistic.

Btw, a free tip: if you're ever offered Hallgerd's hand in marriage, just say no.
[User Picture]
Date:July 19th, 2003 11:40 am (UTC)
You know, I don't know who Hallgerd is, but that was already the plan ;).
Date:July 19th, 2003 07:52 pm (UTC)
Not his inability to please her, but his inability to have intercourse at all. She is only able to tell her father, and that after a whole year of crying and hesitation. Mörðr gives his daughter some very specific legal advice on the divorce procedure and ritual, that ends in the following words,

Þú skalt ... segja skilið við hann lagaskilnaði sem þú mátt framast at alþingismáli réttu ok allsherjarlögum.

"you shall... call yourself separated from him by a legal divorce that you will be able to forward according to the ruling of the Althing and the common laws".

However, in the main legal Icelandic codex, Gragas ("Grey Goose") we find only three valid reasons for legal divorce: 1) grave wounds given by one spouse to another; 2) extreme poverty that causes the couple to lean heavily on relatives or poverty of one spouse only that forces the rich spouse to pay for the poor one's relatives, and 3) if husband tries to take the wife out of the country against her will.

We find many more causes for divorce in the sagas. Reasons included family violence (some sources include mocking verse in this category). Most frequent cause for divorce in the sagas is slapping, as you have seen or will see with Hallgerd. There is a law that provides for divorce and monetary for this reasons - Norwegian Gulathing law. The sagas also mention divorce for adultery, cross-dressing (male and female) and non-consummation of marriage, the last in Brennu-Njals saga only.

Icelandic and Norwegian laws of the period are based on Germanic law rather than on Bible law. Later codices are influenced by Christianity of course, and divorcing becomes more problematic.

By the way, I don't know if you have read my post on the LJ, but I am now in Israel.
[User Picture]
Date:July 20th, 2003 04:15 am (UTC)

Hey, that's great news!

Is there any way one may reach you?

Date:July 20th, 2003 08:59 am (UTC)

Re: Hey, that's great news!

My email is available - write to me and I will send you further coordinates.
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