The Icelandic sagas are often described as one of the most significant bodies of literature produced by Europe in the medieval period. These prose narratives, many set in the 9th and 10th centuries when Iceland was first being settled by Norwegians, recount a myriad of events (of dubious historicity), such as family feuds, heroes, daring deeds, and battles that inspired the fiction of Tolkien and others. They also happen to be rather kinky (and sometimes utter filth).

“What, the beautiful and mysterious sagas?” You may ask. “Especially the beautiful and mysterious sagas” would come the reply.

Now, there is no way that in the space of a short article I can cover all the weird and wonderful sexual encounters and dating lessons contained in the sagas of the Icelanders (or, in Icelandic, the Íslendingasögur). But if, dear reader, you were to inexplicably find yourself in a saga, these few pointers will give you the basic knowledge needed to bag that Nordic hottie (or you could just kidnap the apple of your eye and pop them on the next longboat to Iceland in order to escape their parents; that would also be acceptable). Anyway, without further ado:

Tip #1 Beware the Maiden Kings

This one’s for you, ladies. You don’t often get much say in who you get married to in medieval Iceland. Marriages are usually for forging and maintaining alliances between families, but the sagas have some examples of incredible women who don’t take any of that patriarchal crap. One example is Ingigerðr of Sigrgarðs saga fraekna. She forms part of the rather ruthless “Maiden King”, or meykonungar, genre. Here’s a little sample of what she gets up to:

Þótti mörgumgóðr kostr þar sem Ingigerðr var, ok því réðu til ágætir menn at biðja hennar, en þat fórst öllum einn veg því hon lét alla drepa, ok binda höfuð þeira við garðstaura. En þeir menn semsér tóku vetrvist hjá henni þá forréð hon alla, en tók fé þeira til sín. Varð hon af þessu víðfræg en ei vinsæl, ok þótti mönnum þetta mikil vandræði. Hon gaf sér ei mikit at þessu, ok helt uppteknum hætti.[1]

Ingigerðr seemed a good marriage prospect, and outstanding men decided to seek her hand. But it went the same way for all of them: she had them killed, and their heads tied to the stockade. And she betrayed all those who took winter quarters with her, seizing their money for herself. She grew well known for these deeds, and none too popular, and people started to think this was a serious problem. She didn’t pay them much attention though, and continued her reign as she had begun.

A large part of this saga is dedicated to the failed attempts of Sigrgarðr “the valiant” to woo the mighty Ingigerðr. The ways in which the Maiden King repeatedly outwits and humiliates Sigrgarðr are made all the more entertaining by being set against his extensive history of womanising. In modern parlance I suppose you could say that Sigrgarðr’s failure to get freaky with Ingigerðr is more embarrassing than it otherwise would be due to his reputation for being a massive lad. This tension even boils over into violence:

Líðr nú á daginn, ok er nú slíkt í fyrra lagi til sængr gengit. Sigrgarðr gengr í kastala konungsdóttur, ok liggr hon þar ok breiðir móti honum faðminn. Hann stígr nú upp í sængina, ok jafnskjótt sem hann þar kemr þá grípr hann í burtu koddann undan höfðinu á sér ok áklæðit af sænginni, ok slítr niðr fortjaldit frá sænginni. Snýst síðan at brúðinni vakrt ok fimliga, en hon hefr hendr við honum. Brestr þá upp þilit at baki þeim. Koma þar framtólf þrælar. Þeir höfðu sviga í höndum ok járnsvipur. Létu síðan ganga á honum, en hann var í línklæðum einum, ok markaði því skjótt fyrir hverju höggi, en hann hafði ekki at verjast með nema knefana. Náði hann þá einum at fótunum, ok þarmeð drap hann þrjá, en sá þóttist þó illa leikinn sem hann helt á.[2]

Now the day passes, and just as on the previous occasions everyone goes to bed. Sigrgarðr enters the keep of the king’s daughter, and she lies there and extends her embrace towards him. He now climbs into the bed, and as soon as he’s there, he snatches away the pillow from under his head and the coverlet from the bed, and down the bed hangings. He turns towards his bride, watchful and ready to move, and she puts her hands on him. Suddenly, the partition behind them bursts open and twelve slaves spring out with switches and iron whips in their hands. The slaves set about the prince. He was dressed only in his underwear and so every blow left its mark, and he had nothing to defend himself with except his fists. Then he seized one of the slaves by the feet, and using him killed three of the others—and the one he was holding felt pretty hard done by too.

In short, you would be wise to be careful around Maiden Kings; unless you possess the strength, like Sigrgarðr, to wield a slave as a weapon, you may not even survive the night.

There are different meykonungar sagas, each of which depict their strong women differently and see them meet different fates: Klári saga has the Maiden King humiliated and abused into submission, whereas you could say that Nitiða saga is at the proto-feminist end of the spectrum: Queen Nitida is always one step ahead of the game thanks to her magic rock (yes really) which allows her to disappear at will and see all the events of the world.[3]

But you don’t have to restrict yourself to meykonungar sagas to find strong independent Icelandic women. In Víglundar saga, the Foss dwellers concoct a plan to have their wicked way with the wife of Thorgrim, Olof Geisli (William Morris translates this as “Olof Sunbeam”, presumably because of her sunny disposition). What they don’t bank on is Olof’s quick thinking: she disguises her maid as the lady of the house (so as Olof herself), and while the fake Olof distracts the unwanted creepers, real Olof dresses up as a huge man and scares the Foss dwellers away whilst brandishing a sword.

Among the Íslendingasögur however, Maiden Kings and cunning drag kings are not the only thing to bear in mind when navigating the dating scene…

Tip #2 You’re gonna need a good chat up line

As with my previous advice on how to land yourself a date in Anglo-Norman Britain: chat up lines are a must if you’re to get anywhere in your pursuit of a romantic entanglement in an Icelandic saga. One figure who best demonstrates how to chat up an Icelander, and the explicit language one can use while doing so, is Bosi of Bósa saga ok Herrauðs . Bosi spends fair chunks of this saga going around and sleeping with various farmers’ daughters, achieving this through his silver-tongued conversational skills:

“Hvat viltu hér gera?” sagði hún. “Ek vil herða jarl minn hjá þér,” segir Bögu-Bósi. “Hvat jarli er þat?” sagði hún. “Hann er ungr ok hefir aldri í aflinn komit fyrri, en ungan skal jarlinn herða.” Hann gaf henni fingrgull ok fór í sængina hjá henni. Hún spyrr nú, hvar jarlinn er. Hann bað hana taka milli fóta sér, en hún kippti hendinni ok bað ófagnað eiga jarl hans ok spurði, hví hann bæri með sér óvæni þetta, svá hart sem tré. Hann kvað hann mýkjast í myrkholunni. Hún bað hann fara með sem hann vildi. Hann setr nú jarlinn á millum fóta henni. Var þar gata eigi mjök rúm, en þó kom hann fram ferðinni.’[4]

“Why have you come here?” she said. [he replied] “Because it was not comfortable there as things were,” and asked if he could get under the bedclothes with her. “What do you want to do here?” she said. “I want to battle-harden my earl hard with you,” said Bogu-Bosi.”What earl is that?” she said. “He is young and his strength has never come forth, but an earl should be hardened when he is young.” He gave her a gold ring and got into bed beside her. She asked now where the earl was. He asked her to feel between his legs, but she pulled back her hands and told him to keep his earl and asked, why he would carry such a monster, so hard as a tree. He said that it would soften in the dark hole. She told him to proceed as he wished. He then set the earl between her legs. The path was not very wide, but he completed the journey.

Who could resist such an offer? Here’s another of Bosi’s best lines:

“Hvat viltu hingat?” sagði hún. “Ek vil brynna fola mínum í vínkeldu þinni,” sagði hann. “Mun þat hægt vera, maðr minn?” sagði hún; “eigi er hann vanr þvílíkum brunnhúsum, sem ek hefi.” “Ek skal leiða hann at fram,” sagði hann, “ok hrinda honum á kaf, ef hann vill eigi öðruvísi drekka.” “Hvar er folinn þinn, hjartavinrinn minn?” sagði hún. “Á millum fóta mér, ástin mín,” kvað hann, “ok tak þú á honum ok þó kyrrt, því at hann er mjök styggr.” Hún tók nú um göndulinn á honum ok strauk um ok mælti: “Þetta er fimligr foli ok þó mjök rétt hálsaðr.” “Ekki er vel komit fyrir hann höfðinu,” sagði hann, “en hann kringir betr makkanum, þá hann hefir drukkit.” “Sjá nú fyrir öllu,” segir hún. “Ligg þú sem gleiðust,” kvað hann, “ok haf sem kyrrast.” Hann brynnir nú folanum heldr ótæpiliga, svá at hann var allr á kafi. Bóndadóttur varð mjök dátt við þetta, svá at hún gat varla talat. “Muntu ekki drekkja folanum?” sagði hún. “Svá skal hann hafa sem hann þolir mest,” sagði hann, “því at hann er mér oft óstýrinn fyrir þat hann fær ekki at drekka sem hann beiðist.” Hann er nú at, sem honum líkar, ok hvílist síðan.[5]

“What do you want?” she said. “I want to water my foal at your wine-well,” he said. “Do you think it will be possible, my man?” she said; “it is not used to the sort of springhouse that I have.” “I’ll lead it there,” he said, “and push it deep, if it does not want to drink otherwise.” “Where is your foal, sweetheart?” she said. “Between my legs, my love,” he replied, “and you may touch him, but quietly, since he is very shy.” She took hold of his staff and stroked it and said, “It is a nimble foal, although rather straight at the neck.” “His head is not very well placed,” he said, “but his neck curves better, when he has had something to drink.” “See to it all, now,” she said. “Lie as it pleases you,” he said, “and keep calm.” He now watered the foal rather generously, so that it dove in completely. The peasant girl was very startled at that, so that she could hardly speak. “Aren’t you going to drown the foal?” she said. “He shall have as much as he can take,” he said, “since he is often unruly when he is not able to drink when he wants to.” He continued as long as he wanted, and then rested.

Moral of the saga: if you want to achieve Bosi’s sexual success, you’d better have a decent chat-up line or two up your sleeve, and don’t be afraid to be graphic.

Tip #3 Beware the parents

Parents can be frustratingly protective of their kids in the sagas, especially when it comes to dating; fathers are particularly possessive of their daughters. In Víglundar saga, again, Olof is kept during most of her young life in a cushy house/prison by her father, an earl by the name of Thorir. She becomes incredibly skilled at various arts and crafts in that time cooped up in the house. Annoyingly for Thorir, his strategy backfires as this in fact makes Olof the ultimate eligible bachelorette.

If you ever find yourself trying to score in a saga, you’d better watch out if you get on the wrong side of an Icelander’s parents. The eponymous hero of Kormaks saga, manages to annoy the father of his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Thorkel, and his black-pudding obsessed servant by continuously hanging around and not marrying her. The level of irritation this causes (and this is where you, the saga-dweller on the prowl, should pay close attention) is such that the men get riled to the point where Thorkel sends his cronies, wielding axes, to kill Kormak. He manages to patch things over by sending gifts to his girlfriend’s enraged father, but unfortunately, those axe-wielding murderers have a mother who happens to be a witch, and she curses Kormak into forgetting his wedding day. Surprisingly, I have heard far worse excuses.

Basically, if you attempt to hit on daddy’s precious gem, you need to be able to prove that you’re serious about her (i.e. actually make an offer of marriage). Alternatively, there is always the option of kidnap (see next).

Tip #4 Travel to Norway with care

If you travel abroad, there’s nothing stopping another bloke (either a rival poet or your cousin or something) from marrying your girlfriend. This happens in Víglundar saga: Thorstein goes off warring and Ketil, an older man, swoops in and claims Olof. In a pretty enthralling sequence of events, Thorstein manages to kidnap her back and take her to Iceland. This also happens to Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue, after he travels to Norway, England and Ireland; while he’s away, Gunnlaug loses his beloved Helga to another poet, Hrafn.

Travelling to Norway can be as dangerous as it is exciting in terms of dating prospects. In Njáls saga, Hrutr travels to Norway and hooks up with the Queen Gunnhildr. This is all well and good until he decides to travel back to Iceland to get married to another woman who he was betrothed to before he left for Norway. Gunnhildr, not best pleased with his dishonesty, curses him with a ginormous penis. Now these are not as fun as you’d imagine: his member becomes so long that it makes it impossible for Hrutr to have sex ever again, leaving him incapable of consummating any marriage.

But it’s not all bad. In fact, Norway could do wonders for your sex life if you go about it the right way, just as it did for many a young Viking. [6] Take the story of Bui for example. In Kjalnesinga saga, Bui enjoys a stay with gorgeous giantess named Frid at Dovrefjell in Norway. He is very happy with his catch: the saga describes Frid as “large in every respect” and “beautiful to look at”.[7] Dovrefjell and its reputation for dateable giant women also appears in Barðar saga Snæfellsäss. Bard is adopted into Dofri’s family, and lives with them at Dovrefjell, where he falls in love with Flaumgerd (Dofri’s daughter). The saga describes her as “the largest and most daring of women, but not particularly pretty”[8]. Note that I said “dateable”, not necessarily “hot”. Sorry Flaumgerd.

The only down side to sex holidays in Norway is the possibility that your offspring might come back and kill you. But it is almost impossible to live a life without such risks if you insist on going on the pull in a saga.

Tip #5 Extra special care is to be taken with cross-dressing

Cross-dressing was often a serious offence in medieval Iceland, it could be considered grounds for divorce. I would especially caution you, dear reader, not to get a reputation as a gender-shifting troll-banger. This happens to Flosi in Brennu Njáls saga after he insults Skarp-Hedin’s father, Njál, on account that he doesn’t have a beard and is therefore not a proper man (hipsters, you’re likely to do well in hunting for a saga romance on this front):

Siðan tók Skarpheðinn til sín slœðurnar, en kastaði brókum blám til Flosa ok kvað hann þeira meir þurfa. Flosi mælti: ‘Hví mun ek þeira meir þurfa?’ Skarpheðinn mælti: ‘Því þá – ef þú ert brúðr Svínfellsáss, sem sagt er, hverja ina níundu nótt ok geri hann þik at konu.’[9]

[Skarp-Hedin] snatched the cloak away and tossed a pair of blue trousers at Flosi, saying that he would have greater need of them than a cloak.

“Why should I need them more?” asked Flosi

Skarp-Hedin replied, “You certainly will if you are, as I have heard, the mistress of the Svinafell Troll, who uses you as a woman every ninth night.”[10]

Harsh words. And it’s not only men for whom cross-dressing is taboo. In Laxdœla saga, Gudrun tells her soon-to-be second husband that his wife, Aun, is quite fond of “dressing in breeches, with a codpiece and long leggings”.[11] Aun’s husband apparently doesn’t notice this, but is persuaded by Gudrun to divorce Aun (and marry Gudrun instead). Aun appears to have no issue with her husband divorcing her. That is until she stabs him when he’s asleep in his room. So, be warned that if you enjoy cross-dressing, it is certainly to be kept on the down low, if not avoided entirely in medieval Iceland. On the other hand, if you get on the wrong side of a cross-dressing Icelander, some serious revenge may be wrought upon you.

 

It would be impossible to cover all the sexual exploits of the Icelandic sagas, so my suggestion to you historical daters is to go and read these incredible texts for yourselves to find more hot tips. I mean, how else can you prepare yourselves properly for the medieval Icelandic dating scene? Dating in the sagas is a complicated and sometimes dangerous adventure. But clearly it worked out for some of the characters that I’ve talked about, and even more that I haven’t. From the few hundred (or thousand) settlers of the saga age, the population of Iceland has soared to a dizzying 323,000, which is evidence that they surely must have been doing something right. All I can say is, you keep doing you, Iceland.

[1] Text and translation taken from Alaric Hall, Stephen D. P. Richardson, and Haukur Þorgeirsson, “Sigrgarðs saga frækna: A normalised text, translation, and introduction”, Scandinavian-Canadian Studies, 21 (2012-2013): 108

[2] Hall, Richardson, and Haukur, 118

[3] For more on this genre, check out Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Women in Old Norse Literature: Bodies, words, and power, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

[4] Text and translation from The Saga of Bosi and Herraud, trans. George L. Hardman, 2011.  http://www.germanicmythology.com/FORNALDARSAGAS/BosaSagaHardman.html

[5] The Saga of Bosi and Herraud, http://www.germanicmythology.com/FORNALDARSAGAS/BosaSagaHardman.html

[6] The term “Viking” can be used here because the people in question are travelling abroad. “Viking” refers to a specific group of testosterone-pumped young lads on tour, rather than Medieval Scandinavians as a whole.

[7] “The Saga of the People of Kjalarnes” in The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders, vol.3, trans. Robert Cook and John Porter, (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson, 1997): 319

[8] “Bard’s saga”, trans. Sarah M. Anderson in The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders, (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson, 1997): 238

[9] Brennu Njáls saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, (Reykjavik: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1954): 314

[10] Njal’s saga, trans. Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960): 256

[11] “The Saga of the People of Laxardal” in The Sagas of the Icelanders, (New York; London: Penguin, 2001): 333