This month: fairy tales from ancient Egypt!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Icelandic Voice in Fairy Tales and Saga


The importance of seeing the future.

Of all the fairy tale genres presented on this website, the Icelandic form is most interested in human relationships. The first paragraphs are often filled with a roll call of character names and a meticulous description of personal associations. Protagonists in these tales are identified by their position within a web of relationships, which in turn is anchored in a specific locale. This sometimes threatens to overload the story for modern readers. but we can only assume ancient audiences were enthralled. German sagas are also concerned with the precise naming of persons, places and times but this naming never suggests a world where the social framework itself is of ultimate importance. Of interest here is also that descent and relationship are often defined through the female line (see the Finnwife's Prophecy: "because you are the daughter's son of Jarls Ingimund."), yet society does not strictly follow a matriarchal structure. This is a land where powerful chieftains determine the fate of underlings and violence seems to lie just beyond the next snow drift.


It is perhaps not surprising in this world that women, who can travel freely and possess their own property, also occupy the important role of seer. But what exactly is the nature of this role? In the tale Groa's Magic the hero is visited in his dreams by a "woman who accompanied his ancestors." She endeavors to change his course of action, but when her arguments flounder, she places her hands on his eyes, perhaps alluding to the woman's own far-sightedness and prescience, which she is attempting to transfer to the hero. In other Icelandic tales women gifted with prophetic foresight often place their hands on the person to facilitate a vision. In Thorstein's case, the seer helps him make decisions crucial for his survival. This type of action is referred to as taking a turn in one's life and underscores an abrupt departure from the past. And although the tale attributes the seer's powers to magic, the goal is quite practical: aligning oneself with the power of destiny and fate to secure money, love, power and prestige.

In the second tale, the Finnwife's Prophecy, the Finns themselves are presented as a race imbued with special powers of prophecy. Their abilities include both on-the-spot prognostication (as in the case of the Finnwife) and bilocation (as in the case of the three Finns dispatched to find Ingimund's lot). In this tale, traveling to Iceland is synonymous with having a prophetic vision, even though the seers remain locked up in a house. Their out-of-body traveling poses enormous danger to them but they are richly rewarded for their efforts. The tale stresses that knowledge of the future is neither good nor bad. However, not heeding its warnings can be disastrous. The protagonists in these stories all initially resist their fate, and the stories spell out the trouble caused by willful disobedience. In the case of Groa's Magic the unlucky ones end up under a heap of rock, snow and mud. It might seem strange that the story is called Groa's Magic, after all, Groa is the one lying under the avalanche in the end. But I would suggest Groa offers a model of the ultimate acceptance of fate: one's own demise. The description of Groa confidently stepping into the last rays of sunshine, equipped with all her riches tied up in a cloth, signals she is ready for safe passage to the afterlife. The sunset on the horizon was considered to be the portal into the next life by many pagan cultures and this might be an allusion to an actual funerary ritual.

Why the Finns were associated with the supranormal powers of prophecy is anyone's guess. German Sagas frequently refer to seers as white women (weisse Frauen), which is often translated as women in white because of the awkwardness and also uncertainty of meaning. This might also be a reference to the stereotypical pale complexion and white-blond hair of many Finns.

The three Icelandic tales provided on this website explore the notion that each person has an individual fate which he must embrace to be successful in life. The characters in these stories use the assets at their disposal to accomplish self-realization: first and foremost strong relationships and the magic of seers. These stories have a sense of weighty pragmatism, where the secrets of redemption are locked in ice and snow.

Please read & enjoy, don't plagiarize or pilfer! 
Thank you!


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