Navigation auf


Deutsches Seminar Workshop Bodies Old Norse Early Irish Literature


Abstract Workshop


The workshop aims to explore how bodies are constructed, deconstructed (and perhaps reconstructed) in Old Norse-Icelandic and Early Irish texts. It focusses on two areas in particular, super-human bodies (of giants or the distorted body of the hero Cú Chulainn) and performative bodily practices, the latter concentrating on the communicative potential of the mutilated bodies of the Heldenlieder. In both cases, bodies are frequently described as in pieces, either because they are too large to be described as a whole or because they have quite literally been dissembled by martial action. In the case of giants and Cú Chulainn, the body is often an integral part in constructing identity and making the figure comprehensible. Certain physical features may express "giantness”, ugliness or monstrosity and clearly help to set these figures apart from ordinary humans. The pieces thus combine to create a particular figure, although the texts may vary in their individual depictions. In the case of the Heldenlieder, the often mutilated bodies testify not for the identity of the now dead person but rather for the heroic status of the attacker. Bodies are deconstructed on a physical level to construct an abstract identity for someone else, inverting the above cited (and more frequently observed) construction of an identity on the body of the person itself. Or individual body parts, once separated from a corpse, can also be tokens of meaning and thus be important in characterising the deceased individual on a more general level. In all the above cases, however, bodies are read not as a whole but as "in pieces”, both within and outside the text: they mediate important information about individuals and thus help to construct particular identities in medieval texts.


Set-up: Participants are asked to read two articles in advance. These articles provide the theoretical base for the discussion during the workshop and a thorough engagement with them is highly recommended. During the workshop, each speaker presents textual examples which are connected to these articles to show how the theories are (or are not) applicable to particular texts, how the bodies appear in these narratives/poems and how exactly they have been constructed or deconstructed. The presentations are followed by a discussion in which further examples may be added but which first of all should provide time to further assess the texts and the bodies therein.


Date: 18.-19. October 2013
Place: Deutsches Seminar, University of Zurich
Organization: Maja Egli & Sarah Erni


Speakers: Prof. Dr. Judy Quinn (University of Cambridge), Dr. Geraldine Parsons (University of Glasgow), Dr. Helen Imhoff (Independent Scholar), MA Maja Egli (University of Zurich), M.Phil. MA Sarah Erni (University of Zurich)


Abstract Prof. Dr. Judy Quinn, University of Cambridge

"Fighting for control of the hero's body"

My presentation for this workshop will involve an exploration of a couple of the narrative phases within the Helgi poems. To begin with, I will analyse the struggle for control of Helgi Hjörvarðsson's life, which is played out between the two opposing personifications of fate, the valkyrie Sváva and the giantess Hrímgerðr. In particular, I will look at the way the personifications are bodied forth as sexual beings, with Hrímgerðr's body also morphing between that of an oceanic force and a petrified rock. The ending of the giantess's life-force is attributed to Helgi's use of helstafir (HHv 29), though the giantess had already revealed that it was the valkyrie's greater air-borne power, in being able to protect the hero from the perils of the sea, which thwarted her desire. The limits of a valkyrie's power to control the mortality of a hero are described in somatically vivid terms in the final phase of the second poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, which will be the second example I will explore. Helgi's undead but fatally wounded body signifies the impossibility of his valkyrie-wife controlling his mortality in anything but the most gruesome way.


Abstract Dr. Geraldine Parsons, University of Glasgow

"Not of the Same Size nor of the Same Time: Some Giants in Medieval Irish Literature"


Abstract Dr. Helen Imhoff, Independent Scholar

"Hearts and heads: some examples from Norse and Irish literature"

In the first part of my paper I will consider the heroic lays of the Poetic Edda and a selection of Irish texts in order to discuss the descriptions and functions of the hearts and heads of characters who have died or been killed. In the descriptions of killings in the heroic poems of the Poetic Edda, the heart of the characters killed plays a noticeable role. This is the case, for example, with regard to Fáfnir's heart in Fáfnismál, but the heart also figures prominently in the accounts of Hjalli's and Högni's deaths in Atlakviða: when their hearts are cut out of their bodies. Hjalli's shaking heart betrays his cowardly nature and Högni's still heart represents his courage. Thus, the heart both stands in for the individual to which it once belonged and also illustrates the individual's qualities. While the heart is used in descriptions of a character's emotions or qualities in medieval Irish literature too, the head functions as a more common representative of the person, as for example in Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó (Ánlúan's head), Aided Chonchobair (Mess Gegra's brain), and the fragmentary poem Inna hinada hi filet cind erred Ulad. I will discuss these examples and consider the reasons for the emphasis on heart and head. In the second part of my paper, I will move on to a brief examination of how the description of (dead) bodies can be used to characterise the deceased individual more generally.


Abstract M.Phi. MA Sarah Erni, University of Zurich

"A body in pieces or pieces of a body? Cú Chulainn beautiful and ugly"

"What manner of man is this hound?" asks king Ailill in Recension I of the early Irish prose-epic  Táin Bó Cúailnge ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley”) when he tries to grasp the hero Cú Chulainn's nature. That Cú Chulainn is a very complex and polyvalent heroic figure has been argued at length, especially in connection with his ríastrad. This ríastrad, an extreme battle-frenzy, changes the otherwise beautiful warrior into a monstrously ugly, werewolf-like figure who attacks both friend and foe because he is temporarily unable to distinguish between them. The extent to which the hero's body reflects this multiple personality is astonishing but has as yet evaded detailed scholarly attention. The present paper aims to offer a first tentative step towards reading Cú Chulainn's body as an expression of his state of mind as he changes from protective hero to aggressive menace. In order to investigate this topic, the paper will offer a contextualised close reading of Recension I and II of Táin Bó Cúailnge in order to contrast his beautiful appearance in every-day life with the monstrously distorted looks he displays during his ríastrad. In order to examine the individual features (such as hair, eyes etc.) which constitute his beauty or his ríastrad, it remains to refer to Amy Mulligan's "Politics of Anatomy”, a system within early Irish literature which aligns corporeal appearance with social identity. For closer research into the topic suggests that, if the various physical traits which are foregrounded in the descriptions are treated separately, their individual meanings may ultimately combine to (quite literally) construct the hero. In order to contextualize the individual features and their inherent meaning, reference will also be made to other figures in early Irish texts as well as to possible links with Old Norse-Icelandic texts. For if one sees Cú Chulainn's corporeal appearance not as a body in pieces but as individual parts constituting one meaningful, if polyvalent, body, we gain a new way of understanding the hero's at times conflicting nature.


Abstract MA Maja Egli, University of Zurich

"Mind the Gap! Bodies and Communication in Eddic Heroic Poetry"

My paper aims to explore to what extent bodies in Eddic Heroic Poetry are used to bridge (or create?) gaps in communication. The frequent face-to-face conversations of Eddic Heroic Poetry allow the characters to involve their bodies in communication. Moreover, unspoken things may be read from or performed with bodies. Considering that the conversations in Eddic Heroic Poetry often either follow deeds of violence or result in violence, the mutilation of bodies appears to be a literary device, which guarantees the continuity of communication and at the same time appears as a medium of communication itself. On a narrative level, verbal remarks about bodies are not only employed as a strategy to stage abstract concepts, emotions and values, but also to bridge the gap between audience/reader and the literary characters. This understanding of bodies as tools to bridge gaps in communication on various levels may help to conceptualize the brutality of Eddic Heroic Poetry.