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Peace Unwoven: Transgressive Women in Old Icelandic Heroic and Mythological Literature, and in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum
By Naomi Bennett
Master’s Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2009
Introduction: ‘To that end I have done all things, so that King Siggeir should go to his death. I shall now die with King Siggeir willingly, while I married him unwilling.’
The last words of Signy Volsungsdottir are despairing in their triumph. Married without choice to the man who would be the bane of her father and brothers, Signy has to make a clear ranking of her loyalties, and she herself is at the bottom of this list. Out of obedience to her father Volsung she allows herself to be given as a ‘peace-weaver’, and even when she knows that ófriðr, or ‘un-peace’, is inevitable, she is compelled to stay with her husband. When her family is destroyed, her first priority is to avenge them, and she does all in her power to bring this about. She can only save one of her brothers, but by committing incest with Sigmund she ensures that the Volsung line can continue, untainted by Siggeir’s inferior blood.
Yet, despite Signy’s decision to place her own kin at the top of her priorities, she does acknowledge an obligatory loyalty to her husband. She does not kill him herself in bed. She provides him with heirs, and although she brings about the end of his life, she does so also at the cost of her own. She completes her revenge by ensuring that her husband knows that he has no kin that will avenge him in turn. She has no desirable option in the choices before her, and in prioritising her loyalties in order to act with honour regarding her blood-kin, she must transgress in other areas, and bring shame upon herself. Signy is very aware that she has not acted towards her husband in an honourable way. She herself is greatly dishonoured by the deeds, which include incest and murder, that she has done in order to bring about his fall. To redeem herself as much as possible, in dying with her husband (thus atoning for her disloyalty to him, and ending the life which she believes she has sullied irremediably) she once more transgresses, in committing the act of suicide.
Signy is both a very complex and a highly intriguing character, and she is my ‘hook’ into this thesis topic. In researching an honours essay, I was amazed at just how little had been written about her. I expected her to be a major topic for discussion, not least because the episode of her revenge and death appears (in a censored form) in E.V. Gordon’s An Introduction to Old Norse: however, this is not the case. Not only is there very limited critical material about her, but unlike many of the other characters in Volsungs, this appears to be her unique appearance in surviving medieval literature. Due to these limitations, I have broadened my research somewhat, so that while the core springs from Signy’s motivations and transgressive actions, I have extended my field of interest to include other transgressing women in the fornaldarsögur, Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum Books I-IX, Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla and Edda, and the Poetic Edda. These texts contain a great deal of cognate material.