Date of Award
Angela Weisl, PhD
Russell Sbriglia, PhD
Saga of the Volsungs, Shapeshifting, Conversion, Punishment, Christianity, Iceland
“Fafnir became so ill-natured that he set out for the wilds and allowed no one to enjoy the treasure but himself. He has since become the most evil serpent and lies now upon his hoard” (Byock 59). Regin, recounting the tale of his brother’s transformation to Sigurd, describes an act of shapeshifting, a magical transformation of one’s body. While many scholars of Icelandic sagas focus their attention on the family sagas because of the clear message they provide for the Icelandic society, the magical elements of the mythical sagas also offer insight into the cultural workings of that people. In Regin’s tale, he explains that Fafnir transforms as a result of his greed, literally becoming a monster to protect the treasure he so desired. This transformation leaves Fafnir with no need for treasure, as a serpent has no need for money, as well as no honor, as he has lost his family name and ability to defend his person. Fafnir’s transformation is a punishment. Throughout The Saga of the Volsungs, characters are punished for or by shapeshifting, marking the act with a negative connotation.
However, it is unclear why this correlation exists within the saga. A pattern involving more than five separate accounts of punishment and shapeshifting being correlated is a clear choice by the storyteller or transcriber to send a message to the readers. It is possible that shapeshifting was looked down on as it is an act that is only reserved for the Gods – as Odin and Loki can use it without dilemma – constructing a very visible barrier between the abilities of men and gods. However, it is also possible that the transcriber of the story, working after the Christian conversion of Iceland, saw fit to defend the sanctity of the body that is so important to the Christian ideal. This paper will defend the claim that shapeshifting is viewed as a negative action as well as investigate the possible reasons for why this correlation exists. In doing so, this paper will provide insight into the Icelandic culture and people as well as force self-reflection on readers as they consider what messages are contained in the media they consume.
Mudrak, David, "“Donning the Skins”: The Problem of Shapeshifting in The Saga of the Volsungs" (2019). Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). 2706.