Phelpstead, Carl. Size Matters

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  • Author: Phelpstead, Carl
  • Title: Size Matters: Penile Problems in Sagas of Icelanders
  • Published in: Exemplaria 19/3
  • Year: 2007
  • Pages: 420-37
  • E-text:
  • Reference: Phelpstead, Carl. "Size Matters: Penile Problems in Sagas of Icelanders." Exemplaria 19/3 (2007): 420-37.

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In his article "Size Matters", Carl Phelpstead examines mentions of sexual problems relating to the penis as they appear in various saga sources. Phelpstead approaches the topic from a psychoanalytic perspective, citing the work of Freud and Lacan as he analyzes mentions of impotence and penis size in the sagas. The penis, Phelpstead argues, was of great symbolic importance in Icelandic culture, but no necessarily in the same way in which a modern audience might expect. “Rather than simply distinguish men from women, the penis appears to mark position in a hierarchical social binary that distinguishes able-bodied, virile men from all other people.” (433) In the course of his article, Phelpstead utilizes examples from both Egils saga and Njáls saga. In the former case he offers an interpretation of the woes of an aging Egill who seemingly uses impotence to describe his lost glory. In the latter, Phelpstead cites the cause of Hrútr's divorce from Unnr because the large size of his phallus precludes procreation. In both cases Phelpstead relates these differing but interconnected problems to the gender ideologies of Medieval Iceland.


Texta vantar

See also


Egils saga: Chapter 88: borr: ““Blautr erum bergis fótar / borr” says Egill. “Bergis fótar borr” is a kenning, a metaphorical poetic circumlocution, and like many skaldic kennings it has been interpreted in various ways. It might be translated literally as “borer/drill of the hill of the leg/foot.” The “hill of the leg” may then be interpreted to mean “head,” in which case its borer or drill is the tongue and Egill is confessing an inability to compose verse as fluently as in the past. Alternatively a more obscene meaning of “hill of the leg” entails that its borer or drill is Egill’s penis. Given the skaldic love of double entendre it is likely both meanings are intended.” (p. 425)

Njáls saga: Chapter 7: Segðu mér nú allt það er á milli ykkar: “Asking what “really” happened in Hrútr and Unnr’s bedroom is rather like asking how many children Lady Macbeth had, but the close similarities between the language of Freud’s description and Unnr’s account of Hrútr’s problem might lead us to wonder whether Hrútr might “actually” have been afflicted with impotence, a condition which could have a psychological origin in his knowing himself to be cursed by Gunnhildr.” (p. 432)


  • Written by: Colin Scott McKinstry
  • Icelandic/English translation:
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