From Iceland — Ask An Expert: How Were Clothes Symbolically Depicted In The Sagas?

Ask An Expert: How Were Clothes Symbolically Depicted In The Sagas?

Ask An Expert: How Were Clothes Symbolically Depicted In The Sagas?

Published August 5, 2021

Erik Pomrenke
Photo by
Art Bicknick

For a modern reader picking up the Sagas of the Icelanders for the first time, they can often be struck by the strange modernity of the prose. However, there are just as many, perhaps more, instances that leave us confused. The world of the sagas can feel so far away, and many things that made these stories meaningful to their audience are lost on us. For instance, a rider dressed in blue was very often a frightful site for an Icelandic farmer. We ask Dr. Anita Sauckel why:

In the Sagas of Icelanders, depictions of clothing are an essential part of the plot: Different kinds of garments not only help the audience to identify certain characters; in fact, clothing expresses gender, social status, travels, as well as emotions and specific intentions.

Contrary to modern TV series and computer games, saga writers “dressed” their Viking ancestors in colourful garments made from fine wools and even silk. Cloaks and tunics are described to be embroidered or trimmed with tablet-woven braids.

“Saga characters wearing clothing in blue-black more often than not find themselves in dangerous situations or are in the mood for killing their opponents.”

A very special type of garment in the Sagas is a cloak or tunic of the colour “blár.” This Old Norse adjective can be translated as “blue”, “black” or “blue-black”. Scholars have long been debating the meaning of the term in the sagas, but have not come to a final conclusion yet. However, it can be stated that this kind of colour seems to be associated with death, aggression, and violence. In mythology, Hel, the goddess of death, is described to be half the colour of human skin and half “blár”, and the god Odin is depicted wearing a blue-black cloak in the Eddic poem “The Lay of Grímnir.”

Saga characters wearing clothing in blue-black more often than not find themselves in dangerous situations or are in the mood for killing their opponents. In “Valla-Ljóts Saga”, the chieftain Ljót Ljótólfsson owns two outfits that reflect his current state of mind; whenever Ljót was in a good mood he would wear a brown tunic; should he be in “slaying mood”, he would wear a short blue-black tunic. Both outfits are accompanied by different kinds of axes.

Egil Skallagrímsson, the famous hero of “Egil’s Saga,” arrives at the Althing dressed in a blue-black cloak holding a spear, its socket embossed with gold. His depiction resembles the one of the god Odin in the Poetic Edda. Egil, who is already an old man in this part of the saga, intends to support his son Thorstein in a difficult lawsuit. He is accompanied by 80 followers. His clothing, cloak, and spear symbolize Egil’s power as a chieftain and express the will to fight for his family’s right, with violence if necessary.

However, blue-black garments in the Sagas are not reserved for men only. Women are depicted wearing them as well! The most prominent female character wearing blár is Gudrun Osvifsdottir of “The Saga of the People of Laxardal.” After her husband Bolli has been murdered, Gudrun is approached by one of Bolli’s killers; she is wearing a shawl that has a blue-black pattern and is decorated with fringes at the seams. The killer uses the end of her shawl to dry the blood off his spear with which he had pierced Bolli; he addresses the widow, venturing the (correct) guess that his future murderer stood before him under Gudrun’s blue-black clothing.

anita sauckel

Photo by Art Bicnick

Anita Sauckel is a postdoctoral researcher and teacher at the Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Iceland. She holds a Dr. phil. in Scandinavian Studies and Archaeology from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. She specializes in the research of clothing in Old Norse-Icelandic saga literature.

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