Sunday, 20 May 2012

Þorsteins Þáttr Skelks: Medieval Toilet Anecdote

Today we feeel compelled to exorcise a violent hangover with some hardcore academic musings. Hence we are going to quote Carolyne Larrington's excellent essay "Diet, Defecation and the Devil: Disgust and the Pagan Past" (read the whole thing here) at you, whether you want it or not.

Þorsteins þáttr skelks, unique to Flateyjarbók, is broadly humorous in tone, drawing, as Óláfr himself remarks, on the familiar stereotype of the independent-minded Icelander who takes risks and disobeys the king, yet who proves his courage and devotion, and is consequently cherished by the monarch.48 Apparently sensing diabolical forces in the offing, Óláfr commands that no one visit the privy alone in the night after an evening of heavy drinking. Þorsteinn the Icelander wakes up, has not the heart to rouse his bunk-mate, and so creeps out to the magnificent twenty-two-seater privy alone. He has been sitting there for a little while on the seat closest to the door when a demon pops up through the innermost seat. The revenant turns out to be a heathen warrior, one Þorkell the thin, who had fought in battle with the pagan Danish king Haraldr Battle-tooth. John Lindow characterizes Haraldr as ‘an unsavoury character, a cantankerous old monarch who finally fell to Óðinn himself’.49 Haraldr Battle-tooth is obviously no Óláfr Tryggvason. Þorsteinn engages the demon in conversation about hell, and learns that even men as brave as the most famous pagan heroes, Sigurðr the dragon-slayer and Starkaðr the Old, are yelling in torment there. These two heroes, Lindow speculates, represent respectively the best and the worst of pagan heroism: Sigurðr killed the dragon Fáfnir, avenged his father on his killers, the sons of Hundingr, and succeeded in crossing the flame-walls surrounding the hall of Brynhildr in order to win her as the bride of his brother-in-law, Gunnarr. The noble Sigurðr was only defeated by the treachery of his brothers-in-law and the lies of Brynhildr. Starkaðr, on the other hand, was fated to live for three lifetimes and commit a shameful deed in each one of them; he finally expired when, badly injured in battle, he managed to provoke the son of a man he had killed into putting him out of his misery by cutting off his head. Although the executioner was doing Starkaðr a favour, he narrowly escaped serious injury from the severed head’s gnashing teeth as it fell to the ground.50
Þorsteinn makes an excellent straight man: when he hears that the hero Sigurðr’s torment is to kindle an oven, he remarks that that doesn’t sound so bad. “It is though . . . since he himself is the kindling” quips the demon (“Eigi er þat þó . . . því að hann er sjálfr kyndarinn”). Likewise, Starkaðr is in fire up to his ankles. Þorsteinn thinks that doesn’t sound too bad either. The demon’s punch-line, that Starkaðr is upside-down, has perfect comic timing. Realizing that he is likely to be dragged down via the privy to join these heroes, Þorsteinn persuades the demon to imitate Starkaðr’s howls. The noise is bad enough to induce unconsciousness, and with each of three howls the demon springs closer by three seats – the fact that the privy has eleven seats on each side thus becomes crucial. Þorsteinn somehow endures until at the last minute – after the third howl and with the demon now positioned next to him – the church bells suddenly begin to ring. The fiend vanishes, and Þorsteinn is saved. With the Icelander’s habitual insouciance, he admits the next morning to the king that he had disobeyed orders, that he had ingeniously induced the howling in order to wake the king, in the hope of rescue, and that he had not been particularly frightened, though with the final unconsciousness-inducing howl he concedes that something like a shudder had run up his spine. Þorsteinn is given a nickname, Þorsteinn skelk (‘shudder’), is presented with a fine sword, and he serves the king until the day of his death and Óláfr’s disappearance at the battle of Svölðr. 
This story is less homiletic than the story of the king and the guest, where, once he has grasped the situation, the king takes the opportunity to expatiate at length on the deviousness of the devil and the power of Christ. Here the dominant tone is comic: the repartee between Þorsteinn and his near-namesake Þorkell the thin is beautifully timed, reminiscent of nothing so much as Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale, another narrative strongly rooted in folk-tale. However, the comedy plays also with ideas of terror; the trip to the privy in darkness lays one open to supernatural forces, visiting a place that is both necessary and unwholesome, a building that is separate from yet part of the farm. The privy as liminal space is encountered in Eiríks saga ins rauða also, where the spirits of those who have died in an epidemic throng its threshold; the Icelandic wisdom poem Hávamál warns against going out at night, unless you absolutely have to visit the privy.51 The privy is a gateway to hell; the revenant – draugr – claims to have come straight from there. The hell he describes is a place of fire and unbearable noise, not, as we might expect, a cesspit of filth and corruption. Yet, I suggest, the story taps into an understanding that above and below are not so dissimilar. What Lars Lönnroth has called the ‘double scene’ (‘dubbla scenen’) effect, the identification of the place where the audience (Þorsteinn) is situated with the place narrated (hell), contributes an immediacy that conveys a kind of truth.52 Þorsteinn’s interest in the pagan old days is purely theoretical; his pagans are already detached from the apparatus of the heroic and pagan past of battles, burial mounds and cult animals, and are in their proper place in hell, where their heroic endurance avails them nothing. The narrator of the þáttr tellingly juxtaposes the warrior of the past, who fell in battle, with the disreputable and pagan hero-king Haraldr Battle-tooth and the warrior of the present, who will fall in battle, with the Christian hero-king Óláfr.

48 For discussion of this story in terms of narratives of the supernatural, see J. Lindow, ‘Þorsteins þáttr skelks and the verisimilitude of supernatural experience in saga literature’, in Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature, ed. J. Lindow, L. Lönnroth and G. W. Weber, Viking Collection 3 (Odense, 1986), pp. 264–80.
49 Ibid., p. 271

50 For Starkaðr’s biography, see Saxo, History of the Danes
51 Eiríks saga, p. 215; Hávamál, v. 112.
52 L. Lönnroth, Den dubbla scenen: muntlig diktning från Eddan til Abba (Stockholm, 1978).
53 See Harris and Hill, ‘Gestr’s “Prime Sign”’, for illuminating discussion of this episode

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