Most cultures seem to have a signature element that they like to add to their literature. The ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed preparing long and elaborate speeches for their historical characters. The ancient Chinese had a fondness for wise parables and witty proverbs. The medieval Icelanders, too, were no exception. Even though writing sagas did not become popular in Iceland until the 13th century, the Icelandic authors were prolific enough with their literature to create one of the most extensive bodies of medieval European texts, preserving for posterity a great deal of folklore, mythology and history. In their writings, the Icelanders introduced several innovative literary techniques and styles, including the saga structure and skaldic verse. Yet, the focus of this article is an element of Icelandic literature that was a bit more coarse—writers of sagas frequently made their characters engage in verbal battles of wits and insults.
Usually, these debates of insults could be divided into two classifications. If characters randomly met and started spitting insults at each other in a field, the exchange would likely be defined as a senna. If the insult slinging occurred in a more organized environment, perhaps with the contestants sitting around a table, the scene could be labeled a mannjafnađr. Not only did these exchanges create fun dialogue between characters, but the participants in the verbal battles could also refer to pieces of mythology and folklore while insulting their opponents.
In the opinion of the medieval Icelanders, who lived in an age very different from our own, charges of unmanliness or homosexuality were the gravest insults a person could spew. The latter accusation was considered so dire in Iceland that anyone who used that insult unjustly could be outlawed. Even so, the heroes of the Icelandic sagas often used such verbal attacks in their arguments. In fact, in only two paragraphs of dialogue, the character Sinfjotli (from the popular Saga of the Volsungs), used both insults in multiple ways during a senna between him and King Granmar.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Loki Taunting Bragi in a meeting of Æsir, by W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Saga of the Volsungs, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990, 1999.