The Place of the Evil: Infant Abandonment in Old Norse Society

The Place of the Evil: Infant Abandonment in Old Norse Society

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The Place of the Evil: Infant Abandonment in Old Norse Society

By Sean B. Lawing

Scandinavian Studies, Vol.85:2 (2013)

Introduction: The status of the deformed and disfigured in medieval Norse society is somewhat ambiguous. For instance, in Sturlunga saga, an Icelandic saga compilation of the 13th century contemporaneous with the many of the events it describes, we find powerful chieftains and landholders such as Þorgils skarði, Skeggi skammhöndung, or Halldórr slakkafótr, apparently unimpeded socially by cleft-palates, withered-hands, or slack-feet. Then, there is the Norse pantheon of the Prose Edda, which contains gods that are one-eyed (Óðinn), one-handed (Týr), and blind (Höðr). Yet, in those same source texts mutilating an opponent such as by cutting off a hand, ‘handhögg,’ or foot, ‘fóthögg’ in order to render a permanent, visible injury is a viable means of rendering disgrace.

How do we reconcile these divergent attitudes particularly since the term used for both acquired disfigurements and congenital deformities, örkuml, is the same? We might ask if there is an intrinsic, negative moral valence to disfigurement and deformity in Old Norse society, in other words, whether physical impairments marked their possessors as disabled, a culturally rather than biologically coded category.

This study examines the issue by focusing on one aspect of it: the special case of exposing deformed infants as prescribed in Old Norse laws. The particular aim is to analyze what appears to be less pragmatic if equally real grounds in Old Norse society for exposing infants. Namely, aside from economic and social motives, this study examines the role that fear of the supernatural and monstrous plays and considers the significance this has for determining status (or lack thereof) in society. Emphasis is on the early Christian laws of Norway and Iceland —the oldest extant laws in Scandinavia—and the focus is, thus, on these two countries.

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