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Lorenzo Lozzi Gallo, University of Messina

Imagining Scandinavian identity in saga literature

  • Name: Lorenzo Lozzi Gallo
  • Academic credentials: Associate Professor of Germanic Philology. Dipartimento di Civiltà Antiche e Moderne (DICAM), Università degli Studi di Messina.

Abstract: One of the main issues in the history of early Scandinavian identity is the assessment of relations between the North Germanic settlers invading the Peninsula and the aboriginal population. Such an assessment requires us to deconstruct German manipulations from early 19th-century nationalism as well as later 19th-century ‘politically correct’ interpretations that may be almost as biased.

Genuine accounts of Norse-Sámi relations tell of constant interactions, but at the same time show an ethnical consciousness that is reminiscent of attitudes seen in the 19th-century British Empire. Such cultural studies are closely related with gender studies, as mingling was rather unidirectional, with males of the ‘higher’ ethnicity having intercourse with females of the ‘lesser’ ethnicity.

Margaret Clunies Ross has shown how the relations between Scandinavians and Aborigines can be interpreted in mythology with those between humans (or gods) and giants. Men and gods could take mistresses from the giant race, but it was considered inappropriate for a woman (or a goddess) to wed a giant: Freyja’s indignant reaction to the idea of being married off to a giant is vividly portrayed in Þrymskviða. This may also explain why the name of the aboriginal Kainuu (whatever their relations with Sámi may have been, Norsemen seem to treat them in the same way) was germanised into Kvenir and why they were later believed to be a sort of Nordic Amazons (Kvenland as Terra feminarum). Integration within Nordic society could not happen in lack of a Scandinavian paterfamilias.

In saga literature, similar relations between men and giantesses occur, mostly following the ‘mother-son pattern’ according to McKinnell’s definition. Humans receive benefits of all kinds from giantesses, including sex, but marriage is out of the question (Lozzi Gallo). Children born of these unions are left with their mother if female, while males may be legitimated by their fathers. In sum, female half-humans are expected to experience more difficulties fitting into human society.

This may be explained by assuming that Vikings, among Germanic peoples, were especially aware of the predominant maternal role in conveying customs, language and lore: only Scandinavian women could guarantee bringing up children ‘correctly’. Snorri Sturluson recounts with great gusto the dire fate of Harald’s Sámi wife Snæfríðr – who underwent a damnatio memoriae after an untimely death –  and of her child Rögnvaldr rétillbeini, burnt alive by his half-brother Erik Bloodaxe to the general approval of the Viking community.

Unlike Scandinavians, medieval Sámi society seems to have been matriarchal to some extent: it did not restrain female sexuality, even encouraging ‘hospitality prostitution’ in contrast with medieval Germanic customs that regarded a strict control on female sexuality as a guarantee of legitimate lineage, in keeping with family as well as social order.

Even traditional Sámi shamanism exerted both attraction and revulsion on Norsemen: it was called seið and considered powerful, but involved practises that would undermine male honour (Strömbäck). Men of mixed descent had to prove that they were able to comply with Scandinavian ideals on masculinity (and might still be rejected, like Jökull in Kjalnesinga saga). The revulsion-attraction towards deviant behaviour is so strong in Scandinavian society, that Norse culture created a trickster-god, Loki: a ‘gender bandit’ that may lend crucial help to gods and men, but also infer great damage upon them.

These considerations help to explain Rögnvaldr’s fate: Scandinavian society as a whole was unable (maybe even unwilling) to prevent mingling with the aborigines, as long as it happened within the rigid frame of Germanic ethics.

The conversion of Scandinavians to Christianity would create an additional cultural barrier, that helped Scandinavians to strengthen their bonds with Western European countries and to preserve a clear distinction with the aborigines. The conversion of the latter may even have been regarded as undesirable, since it would promote the integration of aborigines into national Scandinavian communities, as finally happened in the modern age.


  • Bäckman, Louise, “Female—Divine and Human: A Study of the Position of the Woman in Religion and Society in Northern Eurasia.” In: The Hunters: Their Culture and Way of Life, eds. Åke Hultkrantz and Ørnulf Vorren, 143–62. Tromsø: Universitetsforlaget 1982
  • Clunies Ross, Margaret, Prolonged Echoes. The Myths, Odense: Odense University Press 1994
  • Lozzi Gallo, Lorenzo, “The Giantess as Foster-mother in Old Norse Literature”, Scandinavian Studies 78,1 (2006), pp. 1-20. 
  • McKinnell, John, Meeting the other in Norse myth and legend, Woodbridge: Boydell 2005
  • Mundal, Else, “Coexistence of Saami and Norse culture – reflected in and interpreted by Old Norse myths.” In: Old Norse myths, literature and society, Proceedings of the 11th International Saga Conference, 2-7 July 2000, 346-355. Sydney: University of Sydney 2000
  • Strömbäck, Dag, Sejd. Textstudier i nordisk religionshistoria, Stockholm: Geber, 1935

Theme: Scandinavian Identity throughout History