Sexual Assault by a Zombie: The Case of Heiðarvíga saga
This is an article about a sexual assault by a zombie in Heiðarvíga saga, which reveals aspects of the sexual ideology of medieval Iceland.
*Trigger warning: this post discusses sexual assault*
The lost manuscript of Heiðarvíga saga
There is a thirteenth-century Icelandic story in which the re-animated corpse of a chieftain named Víga-Styrr (literally, Styrr the fighter) attacks a young woman, causing her traumatisation and death. This attack can be read as a symbolic sexual assault, which indicates some fascinating features of the medieval Icelandic sexual ideology.
The most detailed version of this story was almost lost forever when the only surviving manuscript of the part of the saga that contained it — Heiðarvíga saga (The Saga of the Killings on the Heath) — was burned in the Copenhagen Fire of 1728. Luckily, there was an Icelandic scholar named Jón Ólafsson who had recently read the manuscript and was able to re-write the story from memory. Of course, this might mean that he misremembered or fudged some details, but we can be sure that he didn’t make it up altogether. A version of this ghost story definitely existed in the Middle Ages, since it is also mentioned in Eyrbyggja saga (The Saga of the People of Eyri).
The ghost story
According to Jón’s re-telling, Styrr’s corpse is stored at a farmhouse overnight on its way to being buried. Earlier that day, it had fallen off its horse and into a river, tearing the shroud and soaking the body. The corpse is therefore left by the fire to dry overnight. The farmer has two daughters, one fourteen-year-old who is not named and one sixteen-year-old called Guðríðr. The older sister can’t sleep that night, apparently because of her intense fascination with Styrr’s reputation as a mighty chieftain and her overwhelming desire to see his body. Guðríðr convinces her sister to accompany her and, in the dim firelight, the two girls creep towards the corpse. Unfortunately, Guðríðr steps too close and the undead Styrr sits up. According to Jón, Styrr speaks a verse in which he invites Guðríðr to live with him in the grave. The girl is terrified and starts screaming and convulsing, so powerfully that it takes several men to restrain her, and by morning she is dead. The reference to this story in Eyrbyggja saga is not so detailed, describing neither the lead-up to nor the aftermath of the event. It only says that a man entered the women’s room at the farmhouse to find that the undead Styrr had sat up and was holding a farmer’s daughter by the waist.
From these accounts, we can piece together that there was a medieval story that existed in variant versions, which described the undead Styrr’s assault on a farmer’s daughter. In one version this attack is physical and in another it is only verbal but leads to the girl’s traumatisation and ultimate death.
But how is it sexually symbolic?
In the shorter account from Eyrbyggja saga, the sexual nature of Styrr’s attack might already be clear to modern readers. The fact that this male figure is holding a woman around her waist (Old Norse miðja, literally her middle) seems implicitly sexual. This idea is only strengthened when we recognise that words for the stomach or abdomen are frequently used as euphemisms for women’s groins and even genitals in the sagas.
The sexual symbolism in Jón’s account of Heiðarvíga saga needs a bit more contextualisation. When Styrr says he wants her to live with him in the grave, this draws on a common motif in medieval Icelandic literature — and, indeed, many other literatures — in which two bodies sharing a grave is a symbol of their eternal sexual or romantic union. The most famous example is that of Brynhildr from the Poetic Edda and Völsunga saga (The Saga of the Völsungs), who commits suicide after Sigurðr’s death so they can lie together on the funeral pyre like man and wife. The idea that Styrr’s invitation to Guðríðr included this sexual undercurrent is strengthened in the details of Jón’s attempt to remember the lost verse. He says, “Styrr did not ask her to kiss him, but rather said that she would soon reside with him in the soil-dweller’s realm.” Though Jón denies that there was an invitation of a kiss, the very fact that he mentions such an invitation suggests his recollection of the verse’s sexual undertones. It implies Jón’s belief either that Styrr’s desire to cohabitate with Guðríðr was a veiled reference to such sexual contact, or at least that such a reference would not have been out of place in the scene. Picking up on this idea, one later scholar tried to re-construct Styrr’s lost verse, concluding it with these lines: “My beard is grimy / Kiss me, maiden, if you desire.”
What can Heiðarvíga saga tell us?
If Styrr’s attack can be read as sexual, this scene offers us a rare glimpse into medieval Icelandic considerations of the female experience of sexual assault or rape. Many saga portrayals of such assault treat it primarily as an offence to the woman’s guardian — either her father or her husband. For example, in one memorable episode, a woman manages to fight off her would-be rapist, and then reassures her husband that his property (her!) remains undamaged. In Styrr’s re-animation, however, Guðríðr’s extreme traumatisation and death might symbolise the profoundly negative effect of such attacks on women themselves, encompassing profound mental, emotional, and physical harm.
So, at least according to this story, medieval Icelanders recognised that the male sexual predator was a dangerous figure, causing emotional and ultimately fatal harm to his victims. They used the monstrous figure of the undead to symbolize this threat, allowing them to explore its ramifications more clearly than in most naturalistic depictions. This use of the supernatural to symbolize sexual threats might even remind us of monsters in modern popular culture. The way vampires bite the necks of female victims as they sleep, or the way the mindflayer got on top of Nancy Wheeler in the most recent season of Stranger Things, are both examples of how artists can use supernatural figures to allude to sexual assault, allowing them to explore its horrific effects without portraying it directly.