Kirsi Kanerva

Representation of the Non-verbal and the Abstract in Medieval Scandinavia

Kirsi Kanerva is a cultural historian specialising in the history of mind, body and emotions in medieval western Scandinavia. In this project, Kanerva will examine the ways in which the relationship between supernatural beings such as posthumously restless dead (draugar), fetches (fylgjur), heathen gods and various spirits (e.g. vættir) and human minds was understood in medieval western Scandinavia. The data consists of  medieval Icelandic saga literature which will be studied from a cultural historical and semiotic perspective.

Kanerva’s study builds on the earlier explorations of otherworldly beings in folkloristic research and history  (Honko 1962; Lindow 1986; Poole 2004; Sävborg 2009; Koski 2011) as well as on historical and anthropological works on various otherworldly creatures and their culturally defined roles, such as the jinn spirits in Islamic culture (Das 1989; Khan 2006; Quareshi 2010).

In medieval western Scandinavian culture where the sources of this study were produced it was typical to depict only what could be seen and heard. Abstract states and phenomena, such as emotions and other mental processes could only be described through somatic changes, in dialogue or through various symbolic expressions (Miller 1992, Larrington 2001; Kanerva 2011b and 2012). For this reason diverse otherworldly beings, such as posthumously active dead, mythical beings, animals or humanlike creatures appearing in both physical environment of the observer and dreams may have served as symbols and indicators of the unseen mental states and emotions or diverse social conflicts, resembling the role often given to various monsters in medieval continental Europe and to the dead in pre-industrial Finland (for these, see Williams 1996; Koski 2011; Kanerva 2011a and b).

Kanerva will hypothesise that the pre-modern Scandinavian people used otherworldly beings to describe the indescribable mind and its functions in their literature – that is as a kind of emotional refuge (Reddy 2001) – in a culture where norms, expectations or lack of proper (verbal) discourse could have limited the possibility to depict them. Kanerva’s analysis does not neglect the possibility that medieval people regarded otherworldly beings as real, but challenges this belief.



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Honko, Lauri. 1962. Geisterglaube in Ingermanland. 1. Teil. FF communications 185. Helsinki: Suomalainen tiedeakatemia.

Khan, Naveeda. 2006. “Of Children and Jinn: An Inquiry into an Unexpected Friendship during Uncertain Times.” Cultural Anthropology 21, 2: 234 – 264.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2011a. “Keskiajan islantilaisten elävien kuolleiden menetetty merkitys.” Synteesi 30, 1:61-67.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2011b. “The Role of the Dead in Medieval Iceland: A Case Study of Eyrbyggja saga.” Collegium Medievale 24: 23-49.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2012. “Ógæfa (misfortune) as an Emotion in Thirteenth Century Iceland.” Scandinavian Studies 84 (2012) 1: 1-26.

Koski, Kaarina. 2011. Kirkonväki. Kuoleman voimat suomalaisessa uskomusperinteessä. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.

Larrington, Carolyne. “The psychology of emotion and study of the medieval period.” Early Medieval Europe 10 (2001) 2: 251–256.

Lindow, John. 1986. “Þorsteins þáttr skelks and the verisimilitude of supernatural experience in saga literature”. In John Lindow, Lars Lönnroth & Gerd Wolfgang Weber (eds.), Structure and Meaning in Old Norse Literature. New Approaches to Textual Analysis and Literary Criticism, 264–280. The Viking Collection: Studies in Northern Civilization 3. Odense: Odense University Press.

Miller, William Ian. “Emotions and the sagas.” In From Sagas to Society. Comparative Approaches to Early Iceland,  edited by Gísli Pálsson, 89–110. Enfieldlock: Hisarlik Press, 1992.

Quareshi, Kaveri. 2010. “Sickness, dreams and moral selfhood among migrant Pakistani Muslims.” Anthropology & Medicine 17, 3: 277 – 288.

Poole, Russell. 2004. “Myth, Psychology, and Society in Grettis saga”. Alvíssmál 11 (2004), 3–16.

Reddy, William M. 2001. The Navigation of Feeling. A Framework for the History of Emotions. Cambridge.

Sävborg, Daniel. 2009. “Avstånd, gräns och förundran: Möten med de övernaturliga i islänningasagan”. In Greppaminni. Rit til heiðurs Vésteini Ólasyni sjötugum, edited by Margrét Eggertsdóttir, 323–349. Reykjavík : Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag.

Williams, David. 1996. Deformed Discourse. The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature. Exeter: Exeter University Press.