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Strong Icelandic women: A true Saga

If a woman is slapped in the face in an Icelandic film or novel, you can be dead certain that a terrible act of retribution is soon to come.

Photographed for Nordic Reach by Borkur Sigthorsson
It is likely that someone will be brutally murdered to revenge the humiliation. This isn’t a new trend in Iceland, but a modern echo of the distant medieval era, when a series of histories called the Icelandic sagas were recorded. In several of these sagas, written in the 13th century but usually based on events which took place in the 10th and 11th centuries, a slap in a woman’s face meant bad things would happen: “The audience of that time knew that if a woman was slapped she would take terrible revenge,” explains Asdis Agilsdottir, Associate Professor of Literature at the University of Iceland.
Hundreds Icelandic sagas were created, providing a detailed portrait of the medieval world unique in world literature. Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes, seeking knowledge of their shared historical past, are all forced to turn to the Icelandic sagas for answers. Some of the most famous are: the story of a prophetic lawyer in Njálls Saga; Egil's Saga, recording the life of a warrior-poet; Laxdaela Saga, a triangular love story where women play especially prominent roles; and Gisla Saga, the tragic tale of a heroic outlaw. Women of strength and consequence are important figures in all of these quasi-historical works.
“In general, the ladies were the driving force behind revenge,” Icelandic scholar Egilsdottir explains. If a kinsman was killed, the woman would visit their next of kin to urge them to fight. Women were not allowed to carry weapons. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of examples in these medieval adventure stories of extraordinary and liberated Icelandic women who broke rules and refused to assume traditional female roles.
In the Hervarar Saga, which records the battle between the Huns and the Goths, we meet an independent young woman named Hervor who assumes masculine dress and flights like a man. “She was brought up with the Jarl and was as strong as the boys, and as soon as she could do anything for herself, she trained more with shot and shield and sword than sewing or embroidery. She did more bad than good, too. And when these things were banned to her, she ran into the woods and killed men for their money.”
We meet another unusual woman in Gisla Saga, the story of a heroic outlaw, which was made into a film by director Agust Gudmunsson in 1981. “It was not customary for women to carry weapons,” says medieval literature expert Egilsdottir, “but in this saga, the loyal wife of the outlaw does carry a sword. A man tries to give her a purse of silver so that she will reveal where Gisla is hiding, so she smacks him in the face, and tells him, ‘All your life you must remember that a woman has struck you.’”
There is little doubt that the Icelandic woman, like her sisters in the other Nordic countries, is prepared to fight for her independence and not be bound by the will of men. Part of this feisty spirit no doubt has historical roots. “I think that we, Icelandic women, are not easily controlled,” says Asdis Egilsdottir.

Written by David Bartal
Photography: Borkur Sigthorsson
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