Monday, March 25, 2013

"She was of the old way of mind [i.e. a Witch]" (1878)

"Kona hét Þórhildur og kölluð Vaðlaekkja og bjó að Naustum. Hún var forn í lund og vinur Guðmundar mikill."

The above is a quote from the Ljósvetninga Saga (the full text in Old Icleandic is at the Icelandic Saga Database), which tells of the story of the chieftain Guðmundr and his descendants. In the course of the story, Guðmundr seeks the assistance of Þórhildur, who is described as "forn í lund", where "forn" means "old" or "ancient", and "lund" means "mind" as in mental disposition (according to Geir T. Zoëga's very handy online Dictionary of Old Icelandic).

In 1878, Guðbrandur Vigfússon and Frederic York Powell published their An Icelandic prose reader, with notes, grammar, and glossary. A note on the passage above states that "forn í lund" means "a witch, one given to the dealings of old days; lit. of the old fashion or mind, opposed to the new faith." Then in 1905, Vigfússon and Powell published a series of translations of Old Icelandic material under the title Origines Islandicae, with the Ljósvetninga Saga being translated in volume two of that series. Here is their translation of the passage in question:

"There was a woman named Thorhild, and she was called Wadle-widow, and dwelt at Naust or Dock. She was of the old way of mind [i. e. a witch] and a great friend of Gudmund."

What did Guðmundr ask of the "Witch" Þórhildur, and how did she respond? Guðmundr wanted to know whether or not "any revenge will ever come to pass for Thorkel Hake"? (Hake was a man that Gudmund had killed.) To answer her friend's question, Þórhildur donned fighting gear, and then waded into the sea slashing at the water with her battle-axe. She returned to report that Guðmundr has nothing to fear and that "thou shalt sit in honor all thy days". But then Guðmundr further asked about his sons. Again the Witch enacted a ritual battle with the churning water, but this time "there was a great crash and all the sea turned bloody", and Þórhildur tells Guðmundr that danger "will steer near one of thy sons." At this point Þórhildur says to Guðmundr that she can tell him no more, and that the effort has already cost her dearly.

So, to sum up, this is clearly a case of a "Witch" who is a good friend to the hero Guðmundr, and who is eagerly sought out by him for her ability to foretell the future. When asked to do so by her friend, she willingly expends herself greatly to help him with her magic. So, while this story comes from Old Icelandic, the fact that an English translator working in direct collaboration with a native Icelander who was one of the 19th century's most celebrated Scandinavian scholars and who, moreover, had lived in England for many decades already, chose in 1878 to refer to Guðmundr as a "Witch" is quite significant. In the first place it directly contradicts the three central tenets of Ronald Hutton's so-called "global definition of witchcraft", according to which a "Witch" is (1) hated by others, (2) malevolent toward others, and (3) uses her magic to harm others. Additionally it provides yet another example of the English word "Witch" being used explicitly to characterize those who resist Christianization and stubbornly persist in the Old Ways.


FernWise said...

Interesting. But ... the 1800's were the flowering of MesoPaganism, Romantic Ideals of the "Noble Savage", etc. You have to take into account those biases in translations and approaches.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Fern!

OK, the point here, in my opinion, is that there is a seamless continuity in the, for lack of a better term, "positive" (and in this case, also religious, as in Pagan) attributions for the word "Witch". That is, when these two 19th century scholars assert that a Witch is someone who stubbornly clings to the Old Ways, they were not expressing some new "Romantic" idea, rather they were simply reiterating a view that had already been repeated over the centuries going back to the first appearance of the words "Wicce" and "Wiccecraeft" in Old English, where these were condemned as manifestations of "Heathenism".

Also, the "Romanticism" of the 1800s was itself nothing new. "Pastoralism" is a recurring theme in Western culture, going back at least to Vergil's Eclogues. Pastoral literature was very big in the 1300s in Italy (appearing in the works of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch), and by the 1500s it was a significant theme in English literature as well, with both Edmund Spenser and Christopher Marlowe authoring important "pastoral" works ("The Shepheardes Calendar" by Spenser, and "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" by Marlowe). This "pastoral" literature, by the way, was full of references to the Gods Pan, Silvnaus and Faunus.