ENCOUNTERING OTHERNESS IN HEIMSKRINGALA
The Kings’ Sagas (konungasögur)
are a genre of Icelandic sagas, which were written at the end of
the 12th century and in the first half of the 13th
century. This genre concentrates on telling about the kings of Norway
and they can be compared with other contemporary historiography
in Europe. The Heimskringla is often called the top of the Kings’
Sagas because of its sophisticated style. It was written by an Icelander,
Snorri Sturluson (1178/79−1241), around the year 1230. Snorri
himself was one of the leading Icelandic figures of his day: a highly
educated chieftain, who had personal ties to King Hakon Hakonsson
is methodologically a good starting point for this topic, which
is encountering “otherness” in the Heimskringla. Studying “otherness”
is about studying mentalities. As Aron Gurevich has said:
One of the main tasks of historical
anthropology is to reconstruct images of the world which are representative
of different epochs and cultural traditions. This requires the reconstruction
of the subjective reality which formed the content of the consciousness
of people of a given epoch and culture. 
“Otherness”, or “difference”
as it is also nowadays called, as an object for study has just found
its way into the field of history thanks to the French Annales-school
and historical anthropology, which have emphasized new approaches
to old themes in history. During the last decades historians have
studied all kinds of marginal groups and phenomena, and in this
sense studying “otherness” continues this trend by giving a somewhat
also emphasizes that it is possible to use narratives, like the
Heimskringla, as sources for history. According to Sverre Bagge
… there must be some connection between
the specifically medieval kind of narrative and contemporary actors’
intentions and decisions; which means that the historical narratives
become important sources for how medieval people understood themselves,
their actions, and their society.
The authorship of Snorri
has been widely debated  , but if we consider that the Heimskringla can
be seen as an expression of Norse mentality during the first half
of the 13th century, there is no need to further discuss
the question of authorship here.
Because the Heimskringla
is not a geographical treatise it does not have comprehensive descriptions
about countries and peoples. That is why “the others”, or “strangers”,
were not easy to find. The best way to find descriptions on “otherness”
is to study all kinds of contacts between people by asking the following
questions. What kind of contacts would there be? What forms of “otherness”
can be found in the Heimskringla? In which situations would “otherness”
appear? Could “otherness” be categorized? What kind of elements
would be involved with the concept of “otherness”? All in all, it
is important to remember that “otherness” in the Heimskringla is
just a reflection of mentality. Ultimately, “otherness” can reveal
something about the Norse worldview in the 13th century
and how the Norse people would define themselves and the world outside.
A few examples of “otherness” have been chosen for this article
in order to give an idea of how it appears in the Heimskringla.
The concept of ”otherness”
derives from social psychology. It is a concept that is used when
group identities are studied. When people are trying to identify
themselves and their group they tend to categorize. This is characteristic
to all human beings. A human being identifies himself with a group,
a so-called inner group, and creates a positive identity for this
group. This positive identity can be created by dividing people
into “us” and “them”, that is, “the others”. This also means that
people are trying to create as great a difference as possible between
“us” and “them” in order to achieve this positive group identity,
and if it is possible they tend to exaggerate these differences.
Ethnicity is one way
of grouping people. It is typical for an ethnic group to have a
strong feeling of togetherness, and “the others” stand outside the
ethnic group. Without this juxtaposition ethnicity as a concept
does not exist. But the definitions for ethnicity vary: common ancestors
are often taken as a starting point, but this raises the question
how many generations do we have to go back in time in order to be
able to talk about common ancestors. We should also remember that
although ethnicity is supposed to reflect cultural differences there
is no clear connection or correspondence between ethnicity and cultural
differences. All in all, ethnicity is a flexible concept.
 Ethnic groups may not be separated from each other territorially;
the dividing boundary can also be a social one. In fact, there may
not be a physical borderline that divides ethnic groups, and interaction
and communication do exist between different ethnic groups.
There are also degrees
of difference inside the concept of ethnicity. When people categorize
ethnicities they also have an impression that there are different
degrees of “otherness” inside the concept of ethnicity. This means
that the categories stretch from people that are “almost like us”
to those, who are “very different from us”. In other words this
degree of difference can be called analog. It is also possible
that everybody outside one’s own group is an alien without any category.
That is, they are more or less outsiders and they may be spoken
of as digital. Both these terms, analog and digital, which I use
in this study, derive from ideas of Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who
has studied ethnicity and identity in history.
The concept of stereotype
is closely connected to ethnicity and identity. Stereotypes help
individuals create order in their social world. Quoting Thomas Hylland
Eriksen, “they [i.e. the stereotypes] make it possible to divide
the social world into kinds of people, and they provide simple criteria
for such a classification”
 . So, the meaning of stereotypes is to define the boundaries
of one’s own group. The negative sides are that stereotypes simplify
and do not reveal the truth (because they are created by someone
or some group) and they can be used to justify, for example, position
and power of a dominating group in a society.
Who encounters “the Other”?
To find out who is
“the Other” in the Heimskringla, it had to be decided first who
is the subject, who encounters “the Other”. Because the Heimskringla
concentrates on Norway it would be natural to look at those who
were seen as “others” in Norwegian society. However, it is not easy
to define Norwegian society, which was still in the process of becoming
a state during Snorri’s time in the 13th century. And
what about Snorri’s society, the Icelanders? What was their part?
I decided that it would be best to call the subject Norse society
without defining its physical boundaries, which would have been
an impossible task as for example Norway was only just on its way
to becoming a state. The concept of Norse society includes both
Norwegians and Icelanders, so it is very convenient to use it in
Nevertheless, I also
studied the relationship between these two groups in the Heimskringla.
The question of when the Norwegian settlers became Icelanders has
been debated by scholars. I think that Gunnar Karlsson has convincingly
proved in one of his articles
 that the Norwegian settlers who came to Iceland at the
end of the 9th century could not identify themselves
as Norwegians – they identified themselves with the region they
came from, for example Sogn, Möre or Hörđaland. This regionalism
is also emphasized by Snorri, who often tells which part of Norway
a character was from. The children and grandchildren of the settlers,
however, could not use these names, and they began to call themselves
Icelanders. But as Karlsson points out, Icelandic self-awareness
did not arise immediately, but would come into being gradually during
the next centuries. The relationship between Icelanders and Norwegians
was close because Icelanders had relatives in Norway and they were
also dependent on the trade with the Norwegians.
In the beginning of
the 13th century the relations between Icelanders and
Norwegians became tense. The Norwegian kings were annoyed that they
could not subjugate the Icelanders. The situation became so critical
that the Norwegian, king Hakon IV, was about to attack Iceland,
but it is said that Snorri Sturluson succeeded in convincing the
king that this was unnecessary. How then does the Heimskringla describe
the relationship between Icelanders and Norwegians? On one hand
Snorri describes how the Norwegian kings try to subjugate the Icelanders:
for example King Olav Haraldsson demanded that Icelanders should
accept the laws he had made and pay him tribute.
 On the other hand Snorri shows that some kings appreciated
and even helped the Icelanders: for example King Harald Hardruler
helped the Icelanders during the famine.
 But the Heimskringla does not reveal much about the ordinary
relations between Icelanders and Norwegians. We only have sporadic
accounts of Icelandic merchants who came to Norway to sell furs  , we know that Icelandic skalds
were highly esteemed in the Norwegian court, and some Icelanders
acted as kings’ envoys according to the sagas
To conclude, it seems
that by the beginning of the 13th century Icelanders
had developed a feeling of self-awareness and they did not identify
themselves as Norwegians. Their close relations with the Norwegians
– shared culture and religion – are reflected in their own way in
Heimskringla, but not in the level of ordinary men. If Norwegians
were considered strangers by Icelanders, they would have been categorized
as “those who are almost like us” according to the terms of analog
The world of the Christians
The connection between
the inhabitants of the British Isles and the Icelanders/Norwegians
is a good example of how Christian people are described in the Heimskringla.
The Norse culture spread to the British Isles with immigrants who
came from Denmark and Norway in the 9th and 10th
centuries. The contacts were not peaceful at the beginning, when
the raiders, who were called Vikings or heathens by the Anglo-Saxons,
plundered and sacked the Isles. But some raiders brought their families
with them and settled down mostly in the eastern part of England.
Norwegians had also settled down on Shetland, Orkney and other small
islands. In Ireland these Norse raiders and merchants founded new
market places and got involved with the internal affairs of the
Irish. The Heimskringla mentions some Norwegians who made trading
voyages to England and that there were some English merchants living
in Viken  .
The case of the Norwegian King Magnus Barefoot, who raided Scotland
and Ireland, tells of less peaceful contacts. After he had died
and his son, Sigurd, was king of Norway, a man came from the Hebrides.
His name was Harald Gille and he claimed to be son of King Magnus
Barefoot. Harald Gille is described as having had dark eyes and
dark hair. He was dressed in Irish style.
 This indicates that he was very different from Norwegians
because his appearance is emphasized.
a new connection between the English and the Norwegians and the
Danes. In the Heimskringla it is mentioned that during the reign
of Harald Gille, the bishop of Stavanger was an Englishman  . There is also a story of
an English priest, who was manhandled by two Norwegians and whose
tongue was cut off. The priest prayed for Saint Olav after which
he could again speak.  This last story does not, however, emphasize
that the priest was an Englishman. The point is to underline the
miracle done by Saint Olav. In reality there was quite a strong
English influence on the Norwegian church: English priests and missionaries
came to Norway, English saints were popular and the Old Norse language
adopted loanwords from English concerning Christianity and the church.
We do not have an
overall picture of the inhabitants of the British Isles in the Heimskringla,
but they seem not to have been very strange. This may be due to
the fact that there were Norse immigrants in the British Isles and
that there were trading contacts between Norway and England. Perhaps
the main difference between the inhabitants of the British Isles
and the Norwegians or Danes was the language and their way of dressing,
as is shown in the case of Harald Gille. Because there were many
Norse settlements on the British Isles and there were contacts due
to trade and missionary work, the Norwegians and the Danes may have
seen the inhabitants of the British Isles as quite familiar. Most
importantly, the inhabitants of the British Isles were Christians
and they belonged to the same sphere of Christianity as the Icelanders
and the Norwegians.
The heathens – the real strangers
My next example is
the West Slavs, called the Wends in the Heimskringla. It is not
surprising that the Wends in the Heimskringla are not described
in detail; Snorri rarely does. It is understandable that because
of their geographical position, the Norwegians did not have as close
contacts with the West Slavs as the Danes, who were neighbours of
the West Slavic tribes. But it is surprising how negative an image
the Heimskringla gives of the Wends. The only positive – or neutral
account – is in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar. The saga tells us
that King Olav, before he became king, was married to a Wendish
princess, but that she died few years after they were married.  After that Snorri concentrates
on the bad side of the Wends. We get an image of a heathen tribe
that tortures the innocent Christians with raiding and pillaging.
The Wends attacked for example the trading place Konungahälla, which
is situated on the present west coast of Sweden. The saga tells
how the Wends tried to use magic against the Christian inhabitants
of the town, how they ‘howled as dogs’ as they besieged the town
and how they finally conquered it and took the inhabitants as slaves. 
between the Christians and the heathens is characteristic for the
European medieval tradition of historiography. In this sense, the
episodes concerning the Wends seem to repeat this tradition. So,
heathenism is the main feature that characterizes the Wends in the
Heimskringla. Knowing the historical background, it is possible
that the Wends got their heathen label in the Heimskringla because
of the crusades against the West Slavs in the mid-12th
century, to be exact in 1147. At the time the Danes united with
the Saxon army and they attacked a West Slavic tribe, the Abotrites.
 It would have been no wonder if Snorri had heard about
these events and that they would have influenced his image of the
Wends. All in all, the Wends could be characterized strange and
different in the eyes of Norwegians or Icelanders according to the
In Magnúss sona
saga (ch. 6) King Sigurd makes a journey to the Holy Land. On
his way he fights with the “heathen blámenn” on the Spanish
Isles of Menorca and Ibiza. These so-called “blue men” in the saga
are Moors. The word blár means here ‘black’ and blámenn
referred to the inhabitants of Blálönd – Black Lands, which
was an undefined, far-away geographical area in the minds of the
learned medieval Scandinavians. As the word itself reveals, it was
the black skin that mattered. In the fornaldarsögur blámenn
were associated with forces of evil. Nevertheless, blámenn
referred later not only to black men but also to Moors and Saracens.
So, here we have the thin line between the supernatural and ethnically
different enemies, which is by no means a deviating feature in the
Heimskringla (or in other Old Norse sources).
As the giants of the Old Norse mythology became the Finnar
in historical writings, so did the blámenn of the fornaldarsögur
become the enemies of Christianity: black men, Saracens, Moors.
As John Lindow has pointed out, it must have been difficult to draw
a line between the supernatural and the natural in these contexts.
Lindow has also observed that what is striking about the description
of strangers and other groups in Nordic tradition are “how closely
they resemble attributes of supernatural beings”.
In fact, in the Middle Ages there hardly existed a division between
the supernatural and the natural. In people’s minds angels were
as real as demons.
It is obvious that in the Middle Ages
Icelanders and Norwegians must have had a faint understanding of
far-off places that they knew only by name: Spain, Sicily, Jerusalem,
Byzantium. But it seems that the geographical distance had less
importance than religion when regarding the “otherness” of people.
Namely, the Christian concept of the world was that it consisted
of Christian peoples. Heathens and heretics did not belong to their
world: they were outside of Christendom. It seems that this Christian
world-view is perceptible also in the Heimskringla, as strangers
are those who stand outside the Christian community. These outsiders
are described as extremely different. “Otherness” based on ethnic
difference does not seem to play a major part in the Heimskringla.
In the case of blámenn it is obvious that skin colour that
differed from the standard is one factor that makes them different,
but I would see the skin colour only as a feature that emphasises
that blámenn were evil and enemies of Christianity as were
also the Wends. All in all, heathens in the Heimskringla seem to
be strangers without any category, which would mean that their degree
of difference is digital.
Based on the results we have formed a model that presents the Norse
worldview in the first half of the 13th century conveyed
by the Heimskringla. The model consists of circles that are inside
one another. In the centre are the Icelanders and the Norwegians.
There is a dotted line that divides them and it reflects the close
relation between them. In the next sphere are the other Christian
countries. In this article the inhabitants of the British Isles
were taken as an example how the Christians were depicted. They
are more or less alien, but as they belong to Christendom, they
are not totally strange. The thick line divides the Christian world
from the non-Christian. The case of the Wends and blámenn
show clearly, that heathens were described as extremely different
in the Heimskringla.
The question is, does this model represent Snorri’s worldview or does it reflect the Norse worldview in the beginning of the 13th century? Snorri was an educated man and he visited Norway twice. Undoubtedly, he had more information of the outside world than many of his contemporaries on Iceland or in Norway. But I suppose it is not too far from the truth to suggest, that also the ordinary, uneducated people shared Snorri’s world view in its main features: Icelanders considered Norwegians to be “almost like us”, Christians formed the world of the saved ones and outside were “the damned souls” of the heathens.
3. The Christian world
List of Abbreviations:
Hgráf Haralds saga
ÓlTrygg Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar
Ólhelg Óláfs saga helga
HSig Haralds saga Sigurđarsonar
Msona Magnússona saga
MblokHg Magnúss saga blinda ok Haralds gilla
Hsona Haraldssona saga
Heimskringla I-III (ÍF XXVI-XXVIII). Bjarni Ađalbjarnarson
gaf út. Hiđ íslenzka fornritafélag, Reykjavík MCMLXXIX.
Bagge, Sverre, Kings, Politics, and
the Right Order of the World in German Historiography c. 950–1150.
Studies in the History of Christian Thought, Volume CIII. Brill,
Leiden, Boston & Köln 2002.
Christiansen, Eric, The Northern Crusades. Penguin Books Ltd., England 1997 (1980).
Gurevich, Aron, Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages. Polity Press, Great Britain 1992.
Hylland Eriksen, Thomas, Ethnicity and Nationalism. Pluto Press, London, Sterling, Virginia 2002 (1993).
Karlsson, Gunnar, ”Upphaf ţjóđar á Íslandi”. In Saga og kirkja. Afmćlisrit Magnúsar Más Lárussonar. Sögufélag, Reykjavík 1988.
Liebkind, Karmela, Me ja muukalaiset – ryhmärajat ihmisten suhteissa. Gaudeamus, Helsinki 1988.
Lindow, John, “Supernatural Others and Ethnic Others: A Millenium of Worldview”, Scandinavian Studies vol 67 no:1 (1995), pp. 8–31.
Lönnroth, Lars, European Sources of
Icelandic saga-Writing. An Essay based on Previous Studies.
Roesdahl, Else, The Vikings. Penguin Books, England 1998.
Whaley, Diana, Heimskringla −
An Introduction. Viking Society For Northern Research Text Series,
Volume VIII. University College, London 1991.
 See for example Whaley 1991, pp. 17, 19; Gurevich
1992, p.103; Lönnroth 1965.
 Liebkind 1988, p. 73.
 Hylland Eriksen 2002, pp. 34–41, 58.
 Hylland Eriksen 2002, p. 66.
 Hylland Eriksen 2002, p. 25.
 Hylland Eriksen 2002, pp. 24–25.
 Heimskringla II, Ólhelg ch. CXXXVI.
 Heimskringla III, HSig ch. XXXVI.
 Heimskringla I, Hgráf ch. VII.
 Heimskringla II, Ólhelg ch. LXX.
 Heimskringla II, Ólhelg ch. LXIV.
 Heimskringla III, Msona XXVII.
 Heimskringla III, MblokHg ch. VIII.
 Heimskringla III, Hsona ch. XXV.
 Roesdahl 1998, p. 260.
 Heimskringla I, ÓlTrygg ch. XXII.
 Heimskringla III, MblokHg ch. XI.
 Christiansen 1997, pp. 54–56.
 Lindow 1995, pp. 14–16.
 Lindow 1995, pp. 19, 22.
 The preliminary results are based on my PhD-thesis