Women in Power: An Analysis of Njal’s Saga
many societies of the Viking age, women were treated as second class
citizens. They had little power, no say in their future and catered to their
husband, father, or brother’s wishes. At first glance, the women in Njal’s
Saga appeared to have a higher status than this but still seemed to have a primary
purpose of aiding the men. They appeared to simply give counsel when approached
with a question and take care of the house and slaves while the men did the
This observation would be a grave injustice to the true power the women of this saga seemed to yield. Within Njal’s Saga, women instigated a feud, killed men (or had them killed) and exhibited great amounts of power. By looking at the actions of several of these women, it was very clear that they were much more than the meek and mild assistants of their husbands.
The first woman we encountered that exhibited this power was Queen Gunnhild in Norway. Queen Gunnhild was a woman who was well aware of the power she held within the court. When she first heard of Hrut’s journey to Norway, she sent her squire to him. Before he left though Queen Gunnhild said, “Tell them that if Hrut does what I say, I shall look after his claim and anything else he undertakes, and also get him into favour of the king” (43). She did not tell her squire that she would get Hrut favor with the king in hopes that his claim would be approved. Queen Gunnhild told her squire she would personally look after all his claims and then get him favor with the king. It was almost as if she was saying the king’s favor would never be a problem so long as Hrut had her favor. After Hrut arrived in Norway, the king sent him to stay with his mother saying he could only make the decision after a mandatory fortnight of waiting. When Hrut returned to the king’s court he was placed in the seat of honor by Queen Gunnhild securing his favor with the king. Her most long-reaching power came when Hrut wanted to leave though. At this time, Queen Gunnhild put a spell on him and said, “If I have as much power over you as I think, the spell I now lay on you will prevent your ever enjoying the woman in Iceland on whom you have set your heart” (49). She knew her power and, indeed, Hrut’s marriage to Unn failed.
While Hallgerd’s influence was the first apparent one, the most blatant example of women’s power in Njal’s Saga came in the form of the feud between Hallgerd and Bergthora. Each instigated the killing of members of the other’s households because they disliked each other. Like Queen Gunnhild, these women knew the power they held over their servants and their husbands. Their power was not so much in direct orders but in their knowledge of what words to use to insight the reaction they were looking for. The first killing came when Hallgerd goaded Kol into killing Svart (99). He was reluctant at first but Hallgerd’s exploitation of guilt and honor got to him. When it came time to seek retribution for Svart’s death, Bergthora worked much like Hallgerd. At one point Bergthora said, “You look anything but a coward” (102). She knew that by saying this the man would never turn down her request as it would seem like he was a coward. Once the feud moved past its beginnings, the servants almost stopped trying to protest the killings. When Bergthora asks Thord Freedmansson to kill Brynjolf, he said, “I am no killer, but I will do it if you wish” (102). He had obviously seen and heard what had preceded that moment and knew there was no point in trying to say no. The women always got their way through one method or another so he simply gave in and agreed to kill the man.
While the servants were duty-bound in many ways to complete the killings the women asked of them, their husbands were not bound in this same manner to let the feud continue. Instead of stopping the women after the first or second killings, Njal and Gunnar simply continued to pay each other for the men they lost and then turned their heads as if nothing had happened. After Svart was killed, Njal confronted Gunnar saying, “You must make sure that she does not have her own way in everything” (109). Njal could see that Hallgerd was in control of this situation and was hoping to remedy it with a well-placed warning. Gunnar failed to heed that warning, instead telling Hallgerd that “she might decide her own actions, ‘but I [Gunnar] shall decide how to deal with their consequences’” (100). Unfortunately, Njal failed to take his own advice as well. He never made a concerted move to stop Bergthora from propelling the feud either. She was very aware that she had the power over her husband in the feud and, when talking to Atli, said, “Njal will not mind … he took with him to the Althing the slave-payment we accepted last summer, and which will now be used to pay for Kol” (103). Neither Njal nor Gunnar tried to stop their wives but, instead, they cleaned up the messes their wives made.
Although the feud was the most telling show of power for women, even the burning of Njal and his family exhibited a kind of power in the women. The actual attack on Njal’s family was because of the actions of a woman, Hildigunn. She tried to manipulate Flosi by saying, “Hoskuld would have avenged you with blood if he were in your place now” (239). Even though Flosi saw this statement for what it was, he still did her bidding and attacked the Njalssons. Then during burning, Bergthora exhibits the ultimate power – the power to decide when and where she was going to die. Flosi explained that it was never meant for the women and children to burn. He offered Bergthora a way out, but she declined (267). His plans were not going to play out as designed and Bergthora was actually able to control how and when she died.
While some areas are less prevalent than others, a large amount of Njal’s Saga was exhibited as much through the women’s power as it was the men’s. These women not only pushed the story along, but in many cases single-handedly created the conflicts or resolutions. They were powerful as a plot mover as well as characters within the story. If this saga is any indication of what life was like in the Viking age, the women had far more power and control than most would give them credit for.
Expected Graduation Date: May 2008
Hometown: Longview, WA
reading Njal's Saga I was very interested in and fascinated by how
much power the women of this saga had. This interest led to a paper focusing
primarily on how the roles of women in Njal's Saga were strong, especially
in comparison with the men in their lives. I looked at how specific female characters
reacted to situations as well as how they constructed their own situations fueling