Object agency in egil's saga
Lindsay K Williams
Issue 02 - December 2020
ow do objects speak about their past? Archaeologists often focus on the physical information that objects convey, such as their shape, color, and material composition, but there are many ways in which objects impact our interpretation of the past. Alfred Gell, a British anthropologist writing in the late 1990s, wrestled with the problem of categorizing the nature of art objects in anthropological terms. In his book Art and Agency, he theorized that the role of art objects was to make sense of human behaviour and social interactions, accounting for production, circulation, and use within cultures. Gell sees these objects as influential on the minds and actions of individuals and necessary components towards understanding the nuances of social interaction in both past and present cultures.
Gell’s approach only works if material culture objects, as well as people, are seen as having social agency: a perspective most are not familiar with considering. This results in the objects acting as entities that impact other things or individuals, or act as catalysts for action and should not be viewed merely as texts or images. To explain these processes, Gell uses the terms agency, index, agent, and patient. Agency describes the capacity of something to act independently and intentionally. An index is the outcome or instrument of agency. The agent is the active entity in the interaction, and the patient is the entity that is affected by the agency and is typically the recipient of the interaction. While art objects cannot be self-sufficient agents themselves, being inanimate, the art objects can be secondary-agents secondary agents based on the context of their creation, intention, use or handling.
Gell’s theory allows us to use archaeological material from the ninth and tenth centuries, and the gift exchange events of the Icelandic narrative Egil’s Saga, to showcase how objects relay cultural features from the sagas for a later audience in the same way that the sagas relay information about the surviving material culture from that period.
Written in the twelfth century, Egil’s Saga describes events from the ninth century in Iceland, Norway and England surrounding the family and life of Egil Skallagrím. (All excerpts included in this article were taken from Magnus Magnusson’s 1999 English edition of The Icelandic Sagas). As part of this long narrative, there is a brief exchange of gifts between Skallagrím, father of Egil, and the King of Norway, Eirik Blóðöx. This exchange is mediated through Skallagrím’s older son, Thórólf, who plays a vital role in the narrative. The gifts act as agents of character development for the three characters: Eirik, Skallagrím and Thórólf, but they are also examples of Gell’s agents, showcasing the types of relationships that were present in Viking age cultures and the crucial impact these objects had on the relationships described in the narrative. As a piece of literature, this narrative describes elements of social interaction and cultural trends that occur through this gift exchange and subsequently expresses the values of Scandinavians in the Viking age.
Pairing this literary evidence with actual material culture from the period substantiates the validity of the objects’ roles in the saga because the material objects in the text illustrate viable, hypothetical evidence for cultural ideologies concerning objects and gift gift-giving. The objects and the sagas appear to be acting as ekphrasis: a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience. They communicate with each other and about each other by highlighting information that each does not contain in themselves, creating a more succinct interpretation of the period and culture they both represent.
To further explain the correlations between material culture and gift exchange through the anthropological theory of art, the saga will be accompanied by an agency schematic to visually showcase these interactions.
Figure 1: Evolution of the types of Viking axes, from 'Cast in Steel', Report of the Viking Age.
Axes and Heads
The action in Egil’s Saga begins with King Eirik gifting Skallagrím ‘a huge axe, crescent-shaped and inlaid with gold, and the shaft was inlaid with silver; it was a magnificent piece of craftsmanship….’ Axes are the most common weapon found from the Viking age, probably due to their wide functionality from homemaking activities to battle. The more ornate the axe, the more precious and valuable it was. They are often found in male graves with other weapons and metal adornments. The description of ‘crescent-shaped’ could imply a variety of styles of axe from the Viking age, but the crescent-like shape might describe a Peterson G or M style axe (Figure 1). Similarly, shaped axe heads have been found in graves in the Inner Hebrides c. 850-950 C.E., but the majority of these are not ornamented, such as the example from Ballingaby, Islay, Scotland (Figure 2). It is plausible that the ‘crescent-shape’ could suggest a looted item from another country, possibly from the Middle East or the Byzantine Empire, where axe blades of this shape were more common.
Figure 2: Axehead from Ballingaby, Islay, Scotland, National Museum of Scotland.
The saga specifically highlights King Eirik's nickname at the beginning of the narrative. Eirik Blóðöx, or ’Blood-axe’ as it translates, was notorious for his violence and fratricide, which enabled him to take the throne of Norway. ‘Blood-axe’ also describes an axe so powerful that it can decapitate a cow with a single blow, and implies a particular size, shape, and material, so that when the audience hears the name ‘Blóðöx, it is meant to conjure an image in their mind of a harsh, heavy, powerful weapon. The fact that Eirik was given this moniker, suggests that his personhood, and possibly his physical stature, reflected these traits. The interplay between the name of the giver and the type of the gift, an axe, is a form of ekphrasis. Conceivably, this suggests that the type of axe he would give as a gift would reflect his status and prowess and could have been a blood-axe.
Figure 3: tenth-century Mammen axe discovered in Mammen, Denmark, National Museum of Denmark.
Artistically, the closest example to the gift described is the tenth-century Mammen axe discovered in Mammen, Denmark (Figure 3). This axe is made of iron with silver and gold inlay and was found in the burial of a probable chieftain who died during the reign of King Harald Bluetooth, circa 958-986 CE. It is small and likely made as a ceremonial piece. There are few surviving examples of ornamented axes from this period, which could suggest that it was very uncommon to make such lavish weapons, or that inevitable use and value for trade has resulted in their scarcity.
The rarity of an item not only elevates the value of the object itself, but also impacts the value of it as a gift in an exchange. Its material construction with gold and silver reinforces that its value did not solely rely on its functionality, and as a gift from the king, it is a treasure of an object, and something to be highly valued. However, in the saga narrative, Skallagrím appears apprehensive:
When Thórólf arrived home he gave Skallagrím King Eirik’s greetings and delivered the axe the king had sent him. Skallagrím took the axe and held it up and looked at it for a while, but said nothing and hung it up over his bed
Skallagrím had a large number of cattle driven in to be slaughtered. He had two of them tethered against a wall with their necks one on top of the other. He took a great slab of stone and placed it under their necks; then he went up to them with the axe the king had given him and hewed at them together so hard that both heads flew off. The axe crashed down on the stone slab; the steel edge was broken and the blade was shattered. Skallagrím looked at the edge but said nothing. Then he went into the hall, climbed on to a bench and stowed the axe on the rafters above the door; it lay there for the winter
Before Thórólf left Borg, Skallagrím took down the axe, the king’s gift, from the rafters above the door and went outside with it. The shaft was black with soot and the blade had rusted.
The axe, while a symbol of respect, honor, and generosity from King Eirik, was not cordially received by Skallagrím. When used, the axe did not withstand the pressure it was put under, and because of its shattered, rusty blade, Skallagrím discards it because he sees no practical need or use for it. Skallagrím’s overt destruction of the axe and blatant refusal of the gift implies his opinion and distrust of King Eirik’s character, but beyond that, his disrespect for the king’s authority. Skallagrím over-exerted the axe to its literal breaking-point, as if to test the strength of Eirik himself. Because the beautiful axe did not meet the expectations of Skallagrím, it was not worth anything to him. If the axe was a superficial gesture, lacking substance, then the same would logically be true of Eirik’s intended relationship with Skallagrím.
This is further emphasised by Skallagrím’s skaldic verse at the end of chapter 38 of the saga, wherein he describes not only the gift itself but alludes to the giver:
Many flaws in the edge
Of this fearsome fighter;
It is blunt, this big warrior,
Weak in the blade.
Let us send the curved coward,
The sooty shaft, back;
No good reason to regale me
With this royal gift.
If the axe is a ‘blood-axe’ like Eirik himself, then Skallagrím’s poem is not only ekphrastic of the axe, but also of the man. Since Skallagrím did not meet Eirik in person, the only awareness he has about the character of Eirik is the nature of the gift that he received. The flaws and weakness exhibited by the axe become metaphors for Eirik, the giver. Skallagrím appears insulted by the idea that Eirik would presume that he would foolishly accept this substandard gift just based on the social status of the giver: ‘No good reason to regale me with this royal gift.’ Skallagrím does not see a need to reciprocate the gift either, something that would be socially obligatory, especially because it is an exchange with someone of a higher status, the king. If anything, his pride leads him to throw ‘the sooty shaft’ back into the face of the king, to solidify his disregard of the gift.
Thórólf presumes that if King Eirik knew the truth about the state of the axe, he would not respect Skallagrím, and Thórólf would be discredited by extension. Culturally, the actions of one member of the family led to repercussions for the rest of the kin-group. The sight of the damaged axe might have been enough to prompt King Eirik to act violently, either to Thórólf or to Skallagrím directly. While Skallagrím appears to be very comfortable making his opinion known to the king and his court, he apparently has no concern for his son, Thórólf, who has a positive relationship with the king. Thórólf does not want to have his relationship spoiled by the overt rudeness of his stubborn father. Fearing the logical reaction of the king to the pieces of the destroyed gift, Thórólf throws the evidence into the sea and returns with a bolt of sailcloth as a reciprocal gift. The quantity of cloth and the work required to make a sailcloth large enough for a king’s ship would make Thórólf’s gift reciprocal enough to Eirik’s and create a positive impression of Skallagrím, hence easing the potential tension and literally keeping the peace.
Gifts Among Friends
Anthropologically, gift exchange is a social activity that impacts political and religious aspects of society and creates reciprocal bonds between people. There are three main principles of the exchange: to give, to receive, and to give counter-gifts. Actors on differing social strata interact through gift exchange to build connections, gain resources, and solidify loyalties. Jessica Bäcklund’s archaeological analysis in ‘The Norse in Orkney: An archaeological and social anthropological study of the Norse settlement process and the relationship between the Norse and the Picts' explains how saga texts illustrate the variety of social factors that impact the types of exchanges that could take place between people: social status, marriage, personal goals, hardship and so on. With these principles in mind, it is simple to see how the gift exchange in Egil’s Saga describes the nature of social relationships in Viking Age Scandinavia.
The narrative of Egil’s Saga does not make Eirik’s intentions explicit concerning the gift to Skallagrím, but it is plausible that he was hoping to create a bond of loyalty with the man since he already had the loyalty of Skallagrím’s son, Thórólf. Bäcklund explains, ‘[w]ealth in the Viking world was not a passive accumulation of gold and silver, hidden in the ground or in a chest. Wealth [took the form of] high positions in society, alliances and connections. Gold and silver were the means with which to obtain this, so it was practically impossible to demonstrate one's wealth without giving much of it away.’ The routine gifting and counter-gifting created a cyclical movement of wealth and power within society. Those who reacted positively in the exchange were well-respected, which led to more exchanges and stronger relationships.
In the Hávamál, a 13th-century collection of proverbial poems attributed to Oðinn, many of the poems centre around the importance of reciprocating in gift exchanges with friends:
Bestow gifts for pleasure, weapons, clothes, things to treasure: it couldn't be clearer: both giving and taking, good-will's in the making as long as friends last
Make full recompense for what your friend presents to you - gifts to the giver. If it's friendship you're after, give laughter for laughter: pay falsehood with fraud
Nor should you offend the friend of your friend, cultivate his acquaintance; but keep far away from the fellow who may be the friend of your foe…You know, if you've a friend you can really depend on, and want his goodwill, exchange suitable gifts, avoid all social rifts, make him value your visits.
The texts of both the Hávamál and Egil’s Saga showcase examples of the promoted ideals present in Viking Age society. They both highlight physical objects as integral agents in the development of social interactions and the permanence of friendships. The act of giving, receiving, and counter-giving is necessary, but the nature of the gifts themselves, physical, magnificent ‘magnificent ‘treasure’, is also specified.
The Agency of the Axe
The following agency schematic describes the progression of Egil’s Saga through the position and actions of the characters and objects, albeit simplified to the points of gift exchange, and flows left to right and upward (Figure 4). It draws attention to the operative nature of the gift exchange process and the social hierarchies at play. It also illustrates the social context of the objects, the value of the objects themselves as gifts and material objects, and their role as mediators between the characters. Each of the actors, including the objects, is marked as agent or patient. The schematic exhibits the agency of the actors within the narrative, and through this, it is possible to see how the objects not only impact the characters, but characters but drive the momentum of the narrative itself.
The presentation of the axe leads Skallagrím to consider a relationship with Eirik. It also prompts Skallagrím to consider the axe as an evaluation of Eirik’s character and value as an equal or figure of authority. The pieces of the damaged axe convince Skallagrím to return the gift to Eirik, through Thórólf, which would send an overtly harsh and insulting message to the king. The sight of the damaged axe frightens Thórólf, causing him to choose to ignore his father’s wishes and lie to Eirik about the reception of the gift. Thórólf’s giving of the sailcloth in hopes of keeping the status quo creates a false relationship between Skallagrím and Eirik, but safeguards, if only temporarily, the relationship that Thórólf built with King Eirik. The schematic could continue exponentially to include more actors or further describe the relationship between these three characters.
The actual archaeological evidence of axe-heads from this period, as described earlier, can be used along with this scheme to prove the validity of this anthropological theory for historical purposes. Considering the rarity, material composition, and potential status of such axes from this period, the axe becomes not only a singular artifact, but also a universal example of how axes could actually be utilised in gift exchange interactions in this culture. The physicality of the axe enables the twenty-first-century historian to visualize social interactions more clearly than with the text or the object alone.
The complexity of gift exchange in the Viking age is socially bound and not limited to the trade and barter economic structure. Facets of the gift exchange process were grounded in social hierarchies and responsible for creating and destroying relationships within families and across communities. The reception and reciprocation of gifts in the exchange relied not only on the participants, but on the objects themselves, and therefore the agency of the objects in this interplay cannot be ignored if the full scope of gift exchange in the Viking age is to be understood.
Using the text from Egil’s Saga, supplementary text from the Hávamál, and artefactual evidence, the anthropological theory of art concerning the Viking age describes a culture in which objects played a diverse, but poignant role in societal interactions. Objects acting as agents of influence led to developments of personal character and relationships as well as potential rifts in the social order. The people of Viking age Scandinavia, being communal in nature, relied heavily on their relationships with others, and the objects they utilised in their lives impacted these relationships.
Bäcklund, Jessica, ‘The Norse in Orkney: An archaeological and social anthropological study of the Norse settlement process and the relationship between the Norse and the Picts’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2000).
Edwards, Paul and Hermann Pálsson, The Words of Odin (Edinburgh: Lockharton Press, 1998).
Gell, Alfred, Art and Agency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Magnusson, Magnus, The Icelandic Sagas (London: The Folio Society, 1999)
National Museum of Denmark, Viking Axes [Accessed March 15, 2017].
Axehead from Ballinaby, Islay, Inner Hebridies, c.850-950. At: Edinburgh: National Museum of Scotland.
Roesdahl, Else and Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, “Viking Culture,” in The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Volume I: Prehistory to 1520, ed. by Knut Helle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp.121-146.
Lindsey K Williams is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. Using skills and knowledge from a background in studio art, art history, archaeology, and Scandinavian studies, she focuses her research pursuits in the material culture of medieval Scandinavia and the British Isles. She seeks to show how art reflects the ideologies of cultures, particularly concerning their perspectives of self-identity within a global context and through interactions with other cultures. When she's not writing articles, she’s working for the University of Arkansas as a Preservationist, repairing and conserving books and other historical material objects and as a volunteer for the nonprofit Ki Culture.