N en Senna
Formal insulting in Old Norse literature

Written and Old Norse translated
by Selvrv Stigr, 1999

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In the prose and poetry of medieval Iceland and Norway, as in the ethnic literature of other cultures, many aspects of that society are explored with a presumption of basic understanding of the concepts existing in the audience. Possibly the most intriguing and confusing theme present is that of formalised, even ritual, forms of invective. Numerous times in the Eddas and sagas, a figure already known for their uncertain morals will engage an enemy in a formal contest of insults, recite a poem of dishonour, or perform a ritual curse against them.

A common function of these insults in Icelandic literature was to allow a protagonist of questionable honour, such as Egill Skalla-Grmsson, Sinfjtli, or Loki, to declare an enemy to be of lesser status. By declaring a n, "shaming", or engaging a senna, "flyting", the protagonist could use imagery which dishonoured their foe, and simultaneously prevented them from responding in kind without acknowledging the basis of the insult.

Possibly the best example of this inversion is in Egils saga Skalla-Grmssonar. After Berg-nundr refused to allow Egill to claim sger's share of her father's inheritance, he challenges nundr to hlmganga, against a threat of cowardice [chp. 56]:

mlti Egill: "Hvrt mun Berg-nundr heyra or mn"
"Heyri ek," sagi hann.
" vil ek bja r hlmgngu ok at, at vit berimsk hr inginu; hafi s f etta, lnd ok lausa aura, er sigr fr, en ver hvers manns ningr, ef orir eigi."

Then Egill asked: "Can Berg-nundr hear my words?"
"I hear," said he.
"Then I will challenge you to ritual dueling, which shall be fought here at the Thing; winner takes all, land and gold, but if you back out, you will be a nithling man, as everyone will know."

While this may ring of schoolyard taunts in the ears of later societies, within the cultural context of medieval Norway, stating that a man would not fight for his honour and property called into his question his capability to manage that property and whether he had any honour to defend. Egill says nundr will be a ningr, literally "niggard", which at that time is inaccurate as he has not proven himself to be without honour. However this claim would become true if nundr refused, which was a standard way of forcing an enemy into a duel. Following this, King Eirkr blx chases off Egill by boat, but fails to catch him.

That same summer, Harald hrfagri dies, and in order to secure his place on the throne, Eirkr kills his two brothers. He then declares Egill an outlaw in Norway, and Berg-nundr gathers a company of men to go after Egill, but is killed in the attempt. In an escape from Norway, Egill kills Rgnvaldr Eirksson and then raises a nstng against his parents [chp. 57]:
stone Hann tk hnd sr heslistng ok gekk bergsns nkkura, er vissi til lands inn; tk hann hrosshfu ok setti upp stngina. San veitti hann formla ok mlti sv: Hr set ek upp nstng, ok sn ek essu ni hnd Eirki konungi ok Gunnhildi drttningu, hann sneri hrosshfinu inn land, sn ek essu ni landvttir r, er land etta byggva, sv at allar fari r villar vega, engi hendi n hitti sitt inni, fyrr en r reka Eirk konung ok Gunnhildi r landi.San sktr hann stnginni nir bjargrifu ok lt ar standa; hann sneri ok hfinu inn land, en hann reist rnar stnginni, ok segja r formla enna allan.

He took in hand a hazel-stick and went upon a particular cliff-face, that faced the mainland; he took in hand a horse-head and set up a pole. He spoke this formally and shamingly: "Here I set up a n-pole, and declare this n against King Eirkr and Queen Gunnhild," he turned the horse-head to face the mainland "I declare this n at the land-spirits there, and the land itself, so that all will fare astray, not to hold nor find their places, not until the wreak King Eirkr and Gunnhild from the land." He set up the pole of n in the cliff-face and left it standing; he faced the horse's eyes on the land, and he rist runes upon the pole, and said all the formal words of the curse.

Soon afterwards, Eirkr and Gunnhild are forced to flee Norway for Northumbria by his brother Hkon, where he is granted a rulership by King Aalsteinn of England. Egill shipwrecks on a nearby shore and comes before Eirkr, where he is forced to compose praise for the king in reparation for the previous slander. When he recites a full drpa in Eirk's praise, he is given his freedom, and no vengeance or settlement is demanded for the killing of Rgnvaldr. This gives the appearance that the insult was actually the greater crime, and once Egill had reversed this act, replacing a curse with a blessing, the 'lesser' act of killing Eirk's son could be forgiven. Although this act is a recantation, when Egill raised the nstng he was making an intentional reversal of Eirk's sentence of outlawry against him. His message has the subtext that while Eirkr had the legal power to exile him from Norway, the king was actually guilty of worse deeds and more deserving of being cast out of the country. The curse is fulfilled the following year, leading to the events surrounding Egil's song of praise. Not only does Egill use a formal insult to reverse the imagery of the dishonour of outlawry onto Eirkr, it is shown to be true when the king is driven from the country by Hkon.

When Egill put up his nstng, he was committing a crime of trn, "tree-shame", which was considered worse than tungun, "tongue-shame", similarly to the modern concepts of slander and libel. Except where under modern law, to write a defamation simply carries a greater fine than to speak one, according to Grgs, to carve a shame against someone could be punished by full outlawry, as opposed to a lesser three-year outlawry for a spoken shame. [Meulengracht Srensen, pp. 17, 28.]

The lesser form of tungun is used when Sinfjtli encounters Granmarr [or his son Gumundur in Helgakvia Hundingsbana I], and engages the Hunding in a senna, a kind of insult-match, with similar aspersions upon his opponent's honour. In this case, the hero is the illegitimate product of incest who has spent much of his life as a vargr, under both definitions of "outlaw" and "wolf". By any understanding of honour in Old Norse society, Sinfjtli's status is questionable at best, but it is he who immediately declares his enemy to be the lesser man, in Vlsunga saga 9, and Helgakvia Hundingsbana I 32 - 44.

The primary difference between Sinfjtli's insults and Egil's, however, is not in the form they take, but in the substance. Nearly every insult the Vlsung hurls is ki, an "exaggeration" which could not possibly be true in the 'real' world, that Granmarr has variously been a witch, a valkyrja, the mother of nine wolves, and a mare [in Helgakvia Hundingsbana I, this last insult is in the other direction]. This is mitigated by the equally dire insults from the Hunding, that Sinfjtli lived as a wolf, killed his brothers, and sucked the blood of corpses. The difference is that Sinfjtli did all of these things.

However even within that context, the insults appear to be have a similar flavour, and Granmarr ends the senna in the same fashion that Sinfjtli began it, by threatening how his enemy will end the day. Again, a basic difference between the two warriors is shown, as Sinfjtli begins the exchange with an image of shaming, a leader of men doing the work of a rll, feeding the farm-animals, and is given the ending with an image of death, feeding the ravens with his corpse. This is the final touch in how the Vlsung clearly wins this contest over the Hunding, as an honourable death is considered a better fate than a dishonourable life. Sinfjtli not only forces his opponent to sink down to his level in self-defence, but shows greater poetic skill while doing so.

Lokasenna takes this form of verbal combat to an extreme, in which Loki engages the rest of the sir in a similar contest of insults, with a similar inversion to Sinfjtli's. Loki is called frumkvea flranna, often translated as "father of lies" but the closest he comes to lying in either the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda is in Lokasenna, where he makes claims which can neither be proven nor disproven, and are not attested in any other source. He is of uncertain heritage, going by the matronymic Laufeyjarson, but he is also brother, or blood-brother, to inn. This is parallel to Sinfjtli having shameful origins, but is brother to Sigur and Helgi.

Every tungun which Loki places upon the other gods is shameful and slanderous, but most notable is the line at the end of both Lokasenna 23 and 24, og huga eg a args aal. Hollander translates the concept rather than the words, with "were these womanish ways, I ween," but this does not convey the weight this line carried in Old Icelandic. The word args is a form of ragr, about which Grgs says,
av ero or ri ef sva mioc versna mls endar manna, er scog gang vara avll. Ef mar kallar man ragan ea stroinn. ea sorinn. Oc scal sva skia sem avnnor full rttis or. enda a mar vgt igegn eim orum rimr.

There are three words from maliced verse between men, which are punished with full outlawry. If a man calls a man ragr or stroinn or sorinn. And they shall be punished as fully slanderous words, and a man is given the right to kill for these words.

loki stone
Perhaps the most noticeable part of this exchange is that inn is the first to use this line, which would be more accurately, if less poetically, translated to and "I think you have unnatural origins". Loki responds by describing equally ragr behaviour by inn and throwing his line back at him, at which point Frigg interrupts to point out not only are these words too shameful to be spoken, but all the more because of their truth. No doubt in a more historic context, such lines could easily have resulted in the killing or outlawry of both Loki and inn.

Honour played an important rle in Old Norse society, as is easily visible by the detail to which dishonours were described. Not only did laws exist to prohibit people from placing aspersions on another's honour, but breaking these laws could easily become a capital crime. In this light, statements and acts which reversed traditional concepts of nobility and honour become especially illuminating to the culture's values.

Egill Skalla-Grmsson is the great anti-hero of Icelandic literature, and in many ways resembles his god, inn, who breaks oaths and attacks the unarmed. Likewise, Egill withholds from his family, kills for trifles, and practices sorcery. But when he is outlawed by King Eirkr blx, who has killed his own brothers to secure his throne and is married to Gunnhild, an adulteress in every source, the irony is not lost upon him. He erects a nstng to curse the royal couple and calls upon the land spirits to exile them, rather than himself.

Sinfjtli Sigmundsson, by contrast, must be considered the least of the Vlsungs, as his very life would be considered unnatural. However, without him the line would not have survived, and in many ways he is the truest to the family line. For just as he is inseparable from this most famous of sagas, the sir could not be complete without Loki. The bale-smith of the gods also brings about the creation of r's hammer, in's spear, Frey's boar and ship, and the wall around garr, amoung other accomplishments. He and Sinfjtli only appear to be more shameful than their peers until challenged, at which time the flaws of others are found to equal or surpass them.

N-curses were a method to bring a depth to the Old Norse concepts of honour and shame, by challenging the conventional understandings. Putting them into a formal structure gave this a recognised place in a society which, in a span of a few hundred years, had gone from heavily egalitarian to highly hierarchal. A living tradition by which the least respected could reveal anyone else to be no better than they were, could undermine the structure which had recently developed. As a result, strict laws were enacted against these insults, and the practice became confined to literature. This has left us with a colourful, if bizarre, selection of writings which preserved this practice along with other, more acceptible, forms of verse and prose.

Primary Sources

Egils saga Skalla-Grmssonar.
Helgakvia Hundingsbana I.
Snorri Sturluson. Edda.
Vlsunga saga.

Secondary Sources

Gade, Kari Ellen. "Homosexuality and Rape of Males in Old Norse Law and Literature." Scandinavian Studies 58: 124-41, 1986.
Meulengracht Srensen, Preben. The Unmanly Man: Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society. Trans. Joan Turville-Petre. Odense: Odense University Press, 1983.
Miller, Ian William. Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.


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