Sociology and Anthropology Vol. 6(4), pp. 355 - 360
DOI: 10.13189/sa.2018.060402
Reprint (PDF) (222Kb)

The Women of Njal's Saga: An Ethics of Ambiguity?

Jørgen Veisland *
Scandinavian Institute, University of Gdansk, Poland


The article applies Simone de Beauvoir's reflections on authentic being in her work The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) and Julia Kristeva's concept of marginal womanhood as developed in Powers of Horror (1982) to central women characters in Njal's Saga and to the character of Njal himself. The woman Hallgerd, wife of Gunnar, asserts her power and independence by refusing to give Gunnar two locks of her hair to make bowstrings out of. The gift denied brings about the death of Gunnar. Hallgerd's refusal constitutes the culmination of a dialectic preconditioned upon de Beauvoir's concept of authentic being as a lack of being precipitating a continuous revolt and an on-going creativity, the subjective creation of being in opposition to an objective, imposed condition. The women of the saga, Hallgerd, Bergthora (wife of Njal), and Queen Gunnhild, possess a fury described by Kristeva as a marginal otherness that cannot be sublimated. Fury propels freedom and independence. The struggle for freedom is continuous as it is predicated upon the insight that the genuinely ethical task of women and men consists in seeking freedom while realizing the ambiguity of their situation: the freedom of the subject is created in opposition to an oppressive objective condition. The women of the saga engage in actions whose violence is designed to be an overt parody on the actions perpetrated by the men in the family feud. Some of the men are also aware of this ambiguity and manifestly display an ironic and self-ironic attitude to fate, i.e. the objective condition, understanding that it is a construction and a projection from within and that it is within their power to change it. This becomes apparent in Njal whose gender is indeterminate as he combines feminine and masculine features and as he accepts his death (by burning) not as the outcome of an incontrovertible fate but as a free choice.

The Icelandic Saga, Women, Ambiguity, Gender Equality, Fate, Irony

Cite this paper
Jørgen Veisland . "The Women of Njal's Saga: An Ethics of Ambiguity?." Sociology and Anthropology 6.4 (2018) 355 - 360. doi: 10.13189/sa.2018.060402.