Høyersten, Jon Geir. The Icelandic Sagas and the Idea of Personality and Deviant Personalities in the Middle Ages

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  • Author: Høyersten, Jon Geir
  • Title: The Icelandic Sagas and the Idea of Personality and Deviant Personalities in the Middle Ages
  • Published in: History of Psychiatry 12
  • Year: 2001
  • Pages: 199-212
  • E-text:
  • Reference: Høyersten, Jon Geir. "The Icelandic Sagas and the Idea of Personality and Deviant Personalities in the Middle Ages." History of Psychiatry 12 (2001): 199-212.

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Høyersten explores the way the writer of Njáls saga may have been inspired by European and Classical sources in producing and representing psychological views. At first he discusses the value of the fictional representation of psychologies by presenting Lydia Ginsburg’s thesis that the way we perceive other beings in daily life, and how the authors creates his characters, are alike, and that interaction is impossible without a psychological interpretation. He concludes thus, that if compared to historical chronicles, the sagas had a mission beyond presenting historical events. Høyersten indicates that the author of Njáls saga was at the same time writing history and a fictional account. Høyersten seeks the models that shaped the author’s understanding of personalities, finding that, although there is no direct evidence, the saga presents a similar understanding of ethics as Aristotle’s: a wide spectrum of deficits or exaggerations as vices and of the moral principles of excellence as virtues, a different portrait of ethics than the conventional pattern of Europe in the Middle Ages. Høyersten proposes that the author of Njáls saga was more influenced by a philosophical and theological understanding of psychological traits than by the French romances. He also proposes that the Cistercians may have influenced the saga author’s understanding of personality through the conceptual understanding of psychology they developed, and concludes that the ideas of ego, identity and individual consciousness are well established in the saga along with the ethical, behavioral and emotional dimensions of the persona.


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See also


Chapter 22: Þá mun eftir spurt hver sá sé hinn mikli maður: “Yet another example reflects this tripartite model, namely by the way a well-known person (Kaup-Hedin) is to be imitated by the hero, Gunnar, to enact a part, whereby these three dimensions are listed in order to identify the person. The writer’s conscious and systematic employment of this model in the most important portraits of the text probably represents an effort to structure the general view of humankind expressed in the saga, particularly the shared human traits, as well as to structure Man’s inner world. Moreover, it is this model which lays the foundation for representations of individuals, and which reveals the distinctive qualities of these individuals … The tripartite model of Njáls Saga can be said to bring together the biological, the psychological and the social to form a whole.” (pp. 204-205)

Chapter 25: Hann var mikill maður vexti og styrkur: “Three dimensions are without exception always represented: (a) appearance; (b) actions or relations; and (c) inner/psychological qualities (related to cognition, emotions and values). … the author of Njáls Saga distinguishes and points out these three dimensions as a way to emphasize the individuality of each one of the three sons of Njál, with characteristics which none of the others have. Thus for one of them (Grim) his appearance is pointed out (’handsome, with beautiful dark hair’), for the other (Skarphedin) his actions (’courageous but impetuous’), for the third (Helgi) his psychological traits (’intelligent and even-tempered’)” (p. 204)

Chapter 33: hún er blandin mjög: “a singular wonder is expressed in contemplations of the mystery of the inner being and its motivation, a wonder which may in part stem from a fleeting glimpse of unknown inner psychodynamics. For instance, forebodings are expressed about Hallgerd, of the kind '[she] is rather a mixture'” (p. 206)


  • Written by: Nicolas Jaramillo
  • Icelandic/English translation:
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