Shapeshifting in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature

Roda da Fortuna
Revista Eletrônica sobre Antiguidade e Medievo
Electronic Journal about Antiquity and Middle Ages

Lyonel D. Perabo

Shapeshifting in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature
Cambiante en la literatura nórdico-islandesa antigua


This article aims to cast a light upon the colorful yet largely unknown shapechanging motifs found in Old Norse-Icelandic literature as well as in related literary works conceived from Classical times until the middle of the 16th century. This essay analyzes the different sub-types of supernatural transformations and which kinds of texts they most commonly appear in and will posit as to their potential origins, genesis, and development within the context of Medieval Norse-Icelandic literature.


In the past couple of years, the study of magic and supernatural elements in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia seems to have blossomed. All the while numerous key-studies were published within academia, the image of the pagan Viking made new inroads in popular culture. During this period, modern medias such as HistoryChannel series Vikings (2013-), Bethesda’s top-tier video-game Skyrim (2011) or Dreamworks’ movie franchise How to Train Your Dragon (2010-) all reached mainstream recognition due in no small-part to their interpretation of Norse supernatural motifs. At the same time in academia, influential works on the subject such as Francois-Xavier Dillman’s Les magiciens dans l’Islande ancienne (2006), Clive Tolley’s Shamanism in Norse myth and magic (2009) or Stephen Mitchell’s Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages (2011) cast a new, highly analytical light on the subject of magic and the supernatural in the Viking Age. The present paper aims to follow step by focusing on a much more specific aspect of magic and sorcery in the Norse Middle Ages, namely the way shapeshifting is depicted in Old Norse-Icelandic literature. For the purpose of this article, Norse-Icelandic literature will be defined as referring to the literary corpus of Medieval Scandinavia. In addition, supplemental sources not originating from Scandinavia might be brought up as well in order to strengthen the understanding of specific Norse-Icelandic motifs. Finally, while the main focus of this paper will be put on narratives that revolve or feature individuals affected or engaging in shape-shifting, other peripheral motifs such as the relation between specific populations and various animals will also be brought to help further explain possible interpretations of shape-shifting motifs in Old NorseIcelandic literature. It should be noted, however, that sentient animals like the magical ox Harri in Laxdæla saga and supernatural humanoids born of sorcery like Ögmundr in Örvar-Odds saga will not be discussed in the present article as it is believed that such figures fall outside its scope. This article will be constructed as to begin with an analysis of the different terms used in the corpus to describe shapeshifting before presenting the three main narrative sub-categories that feature such elements. However, before looking at actual shape-shifting narratives, one needs to focus one’s attention on the vocabulary surrounding this motif and how it might affect the depiction and understanding of said motif.


Original article: Shapeshifting in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature


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