Review: Sirpa Aalto’s Categorizing ‚Otherness‘ in Heimskringla

Review: Sirpa Aalto’s Categorizing ‚Otherness‘ in Heimskringla

The study of otherness in the context of Scandinavian sagas is a relatively new insight in the field of Old Norse literature. However, Sirpa Aalto’s efforts in studying this concept in Heimskringla are therefore cutting-edge. Despite the brevity of her article which aims to identify the others in the Kings’ Sagas, the Finnish professor manages to discuss the topic from a few different perspectives. Relying on other scholars and other fields of study, she uses different definitions of otherness and applies them to events in the sagas in which Norwegians (and Icelanders) encounter minorities, or groups of people that do not belong to their community. 

Most of the time otherness is paired with the supernatural, intended as heathenry and witchcraft — in order to stress the strangeness of some characters. Aalto also points out the role of Christianity; as Heimskringla was written by a Christian author, the association of otherness and heathenry is predictable. Her ultimate conclusion is that otherness is primarily identified in deviation from the Christian faith; other factors that could cause a group to be seen as the other, such as ethnic differences, are insignificant.

Aalto’s field of expertise is the encounter of otherness in Northern Europe and in Old Norse sagas, and her knowledge on the topic is easily recognizable in her short article. Her argumentation is supported by a wide range of well-chosen examples; she even occasionally mentions historical events that could have influenced the perception of otherness at that time. Her methodological approach to the source is also remarkable: she draws a distinction between Heimskringla and other Old Norse myths, recognizing that in the former the use and attributes of the supernatural is different [because the Kings’s sagas are less mythical and more historical. This distinction can however become a double edged sword: by categorizing the supernatural as something “alien” to the stories, Aalto makes it the main criterion for the identification of otherness and, unfortunately, keeps the other possible causes of otherness in the background. Aalto’s conclusion is far from being false as she clearly proves the connection between the supernatural and otherness; however, she could have focused on other possible factors.

Aalto’s article is very relevant and easy to read, not only because of its brevity but also because it is well-structured. Its relative superficiality – Aalto does not dwell in specific or deeper reasoning or discussions – makes it an excellent introductory reading in the field of otherness in Old Norse literature. 

Work cited:

Aalto, Sirpa: „Categorizing Otherness in Heimskringla„. In: John McKinnell (Hrsg.). The Fantastic in Old Norse/-Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint papers of The Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August 2006. Bd. 1. Durham 2006. pp. 81-98.

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