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Conversation with Professor Terry Adrian Gunnell on Old Norse Religion and Christianity, Women’s Changing Roles Over Time, and Fylgja and Folkloristics: Professor, Folkloristics, University of Iceland (2)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/03/22


Terry Gunnell is Professor of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland. He is author of The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia (1995); editor of Masks and Mumming in the Nordic Area (2007) and Legends and Landscape (2008); and joint editor of The Nordic Apocalypse: Approaches to V†luspá and Nordic Days of Judgement (with Annette Lassen, 2013); and Málarinn og menningarsköpun: Sigurður Guðmundsson og Kvöldfélagið (with Karl Aspelund), which received a nomination for the Icelandic Literature Prize (Íslensku bókmenntaverðlaunin) for 2017. He has also written a wide range of articles on Old Norse religion, Nordic folk belief and legend, folk drama and performance, and is behind the creation of the on-line Sagnagrunnur database of Icelandic folk legends in print (; the national survey into Folk Belief in Iceland (2006-2007); and (with Karl Aspelund) the on-line database dealing with the Icelandic artist Sigurður Guðmundsson and the creation of national culture in Iceland in the mid-19th century ( E-mail address: He discusses: the political context in the early 1900s; when “Christianity comes along; the influence of religion in Iceland now; claimed Christian belief mixing with the worship of the land; a fylgja or a following spirit; and professional folklorist.

Keywords: Christianity, Folkloristics, Fylgja, God, Iceland, Old Norse Religion, Pietist Church, Terry Adrian Gunnell, University of Iceland.

Conversation with Professor Terry Adrian Gunnell on Old Norse Religion and Christianity, Women’s Changing Roles Over Time, and Fylgja and Folkloristics: Professor, Folkloristics, University of Iceland (2)

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*Interview conducted May 23, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What about the political context in the early 1900s with famous writers like Laxness, Halldór Laxness? One individual described some of his writings as a way of giving a tip of the hat to women’s movements in Iceland before there were formal movements, and movements in other parts of the world.

He described them as the ‘big mommas.’ They managed the resources, the young, the finances of the household. Some spheres, not all, at least prominent ones, were dominated by women in the family and in the community.

Was there an adaptation of the lore around this time too? Or were these folklore notions a relatively consistent one regardless of relatively rapid – historically speaking – dynamic changes in either gender relations in the culture, economic situations or technology situations in the culture that can have impacts in the home and in the community?

Professor Terry Adrian Gunnell[1],[2]: It is going to be a long answer too. We need to start off with going back to the Viking Period and going back to Germanic tribes. It is very, very clear that religion was in the hands of women. You had some very powerful goddesses.

I got a sense myself when teaching old Norse religions that even the year was divided into male and female. It was a Winter more associated with women and Summer more associated with men, war, and trading.

Certainly, when we look back at that period, women are much stronger, in a sense, before Christianity comes along. The old Norse religion, certainly, has much more respect for independent women. You see that much reflected in the Sagas. You do not mess with these Saga women.

They give back as much as they are given. Very famous figures in the favourite Sagas, they are being read about on the farms and everyone is very well aware of them. At the same time, in the division of labour, women control the farm.

This is partly why I am talking about the division of the year. Summertime, you’re out working, travelling, and out on the fields. Winter, you move to the farm. Women keep the keys to the farm. They are in charge of the slaves of the farm. They are the bosses in the Wintertime.

There is a strong sense of equality right the way through. Gradually, Christianity raises the idea, priests certainly, of men doing the governing. It is the idea of men going out doing the fighting and the travelling; women are out in the farm, but not in a derogatory sense.

They’re very powerful is what I am trying to underline there. As we start, in a sense, moving through time, people are still reading these Sagas right from the beginning. They’re still coming into contact with these strong women.

Men are, certainly, as in other countries beginning to take over governance, law, and this sort of thing. At the same time, Iceland does become one of the first places where women get the vote. This is happening quite early.

There is this strong sense of women demanding equality. I am trying to think of other places giving that same sense. Iceland and Scandinavia are not the same areas. A lot of similarity of equality running across Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, which is somewhat different from other countries.

Women getting the vote is much earlier than in many countries. It is similar to Scandinavia. As we start moving towards women’s rights, that’s developing quite strongly among Suffragettes n whatever else in Britain. From getting the vote within the city and within the countryside, we have a sense of women demanding equality.

There was the Red Sock movement in the 1960s. It’s not new that Icelanders should be doing this. That’s what I am saying. It’s part of the culture. Certainly, they are held behind other countries in Parliament. They can’t become priests, can’t become sheriffs, and are held more to the farm.

But the respect for the female gender is much higher here than in many other countries. But it also the same in Scandinavia. That provides a foundation for what happens within the 60s, in my mind. I’m glad, at least.

This was a good place to have daughters. We have two daughters who are now in their 30s. I don’t think either of them has grown up thinking they’re lesser to men, which is a good thing in my mind. There’s more equality in wages and jobs than in many other countries. But I think this is a very Scandinavian thing, when it comes down to it.

Jacobsen: You have mentioned the phrase when “Christianity comes along.” What was the sect of Christianity? What is its impact on the present?

Gunnell: We’re going to have two levels. One of them is the slaves who come to Iceland from Ireland and those who have had contact with Irish Christianity. That is brought to Iceland at an underground level.

Certainly, many of the settlers say they are Christian, which is Irish Christianity. A missionary movement comes from Norway and from Norway back to Hamburg-Bremen. That, when it comes to Iceland, led by the Norwegian king; they tried to wipe out the Irish connection and act as if Christianity had never been here.

They tried to pass around the idea that Christianity was wiped out. It wasn’t. It was German Christianity. Britain has less influence here than in Norway, for instance, at that time. It brings in the idea of women had been beginning to lose their position that they had in the old Norse religion.

Men are beginning to take over both religion and politics. This is really the final nail in the coffin as Christianity moves in. You get the idea of the Virgin Mary, for example, versus Freya who will go out and sleep with whoever she wants…

Jacobsen: …[Laughing]…

Gunnell: … who won’t be pushed around by anybody. A very different image of women to the Virgin Mary or Mary the Mother. They’ve been given very new models. The previous model was Valkyries and women on horseback in armour giving back as much as they get.

The idea of the warrior women that you see in the Viking series. It is definitely there. Christianity formally puts an end to that and starts instituting things like women regarded as dirty for four days after giving birth, and having to be locked away, which I’m sure they didn’t know when they first accepted it.

There you go [Laughing]. Catholic, of course, and Protestant come in the late 1500s, early 1600s. There’s more in Iceland, seems to have been more freedom, within Catholic beliefs than there was in the Lutheran beliefs that were brought in.

Jacobsen: What is the influence of religion in Iceland now?

Gunnell: Fading fast, as it is in so many other countries, partly because of the various scandals connected to the Church, you have a number of scandals that have rocked the Church here in the last couple of years.

If you talk about religion, Iceland is different than the other Scandinavian countries. We did a survey of folk beliefs in 2007, 2008. There had been one done earlier in 1970. I was sure things would change radically by that time.

I was tired of people asking about elves based on surveys. We did a national survey with about 1,000 people in 2007/2008. We asked, as part of that, “Do you believe in a God?” I was proved wrong with it. I expected, given a range of questions, differently.

A large number of people said they believed in a God and a good God that you can pray to, which meant that we were dealing with a Christian God here. It was really weird because Icelanders don’t go to church and have no sense of the Bible.

I was teaching a course and doing an oral exam about a piece of literature in which someone was carried across a stage, hanging from a piece of wood, were bleeding from their hands and their side. Who was this character?

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Gunnell: They don’t go to church except once or twice a year, maybe, for Confirmation, which, again, they’ve got no idea about. As a friend of mine who is a son of a bishop and a teacher within the theology department, they say people in Iceland are Christian in spite of the Church.

In a sense, their Christianity doesn’t come from the Church. It comes from the parents. I use the word “superstition.” They think the cross is protective. You find them putting up crosses. You find them putting up icons. You find parents encouraging children to pray.

It is a childish belief rather than anything to do with the Church. It is about the figures. They are probably changing now. At heart, it was something as high as you find in the Catholic countries and the fundamentalist areas of the Stats. 70% of Icelanders would say they are believers in the Christian God.

At the same time, what is fun, it may have changed a little bit. If you ask them in European values surveys:

“Do you believe in God?”


“Do you believe in the Devil?”


“Do you believe in Heaven?”


“Do you believe in Hell?”


“Do you believe in sin?”


Ha! Which means, basically, if you sin, you go straight to Heaven, which explains the banking crash when it comes into it. The Devil seems to have come to more belief since the banking crash, according to figures. But, again, this says something about the idea that everyone will go to Heaven, whatever they do.

It is a different Christian belief. It is very interesting. It needs to be looked into in more detail.

Jacobsen: It sounds like an inchoate, incoherent set of vague beliefs, where, in Daniel Dennett’s terms, it is “believing in belief.”

Gunnell: It is a superstition in a positive sense. In the same sense, we walk around ladders. When I use the word “superstition,” I don’t mean it in a negative sense. I mean it as a form of protection.

But it partly because the Church, in recent years, hasn’t forced itself on people as you get in some areas of Scandinavia. The Pietist Church worked on wiping out old folklore banned it. Here, the priests were not that Christian.

You didn’t have much choice if you were educated. People became priests. Everyone knew about elves. They weren’t really against these beliefs. It has been more open to spiritualism when the theology departments opened here. It is different. It makes Iceland different than other countries.

Jacobsen: How is this claimed Christian belief mixing with the worship of the land, in a sense, and some of the folklore that goes back many, many centuries like the Sagas?

Gunnell: What was interesting about the survey, all of the strongest beliefs in the survey were not the hidden people (Huldufólk), the elves. That’s only about 10% who say that they strongly believe and 10%/15% who say they don’t believe. Everybody else is in the middle, open to it.

Stronger things like belief in dreams, belief in spirits, belief in telepathy, these are quite deeply rooted and go back to Saba times. They don’t believe in Dobby the house-elf from Rowling. They don’t believe in UFOs. If you bump into one, you’re drunk.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Gunnell: [Laughing]. It is not a deep belief. But the things that are believed go back a long way. The idea of having a fylgja when you’re born, the following spirit. They all go back to the Saga times. In a sense, they have been passed on by the reading and telling of the Sagas. These are literal cultures.

Jacobsen: What is a fylgja or the following spirit?

Gunnell: It is the idea that when you’re born; there’s a spirit born with you. It follows you around. A little bit like the Golden Compass books, where everyone has a little animal that follows them.

The oldest version in Scandinavia was an animal. When Christianity came, it was an angel. This idea that you hear a door go five minutes before somebody arrives. That’s the Fylgja coming. Or you think about them all of a sudden.

That is very old. You don’t find it in Gaelic belief as much as you find it here. You do find it in the Sagas. People have a sense. That there is a spirit with you, alongside you, can, sometimes, be a part of you, but, certainly, accompanies you.

Jacobsen: As a professional folklorist, what are some aspects of Icelandic folklore that you do not find in any other culture? Not things necessarily quintessentially Icelandic, but you never find them anywhere else.

Gunnell: First of all, I never learned folkloristics. I just researched and studied it. I never called myself a folklorist. What is different in Iceland compared to other countries, what I try to tell other people, if you go o Western Ireland, you will find similar ideas still alive.

Because there, as in Iceland, the move from an almost medieval world to the one that we have now, a modern, up-to-date, online culture happened in the Second World War, the rural culture, suddenly, because the urban culture.

So, memories of these old ideas are still around with parents and grandparents. Kids are still in contact with this rural, early way of thinking. What makes Iceland different, the fylgja idea is different from Ireland.

At least, the elf idea is very similar to Ireland, but you don’t find it anymore in Britain or Scandinavia anymore in the same way. At the same time, I say to journalists who are coming here. It says more about them than about anything else, about their longing for the fairy tale world that they grew up in, which is reflected in Thrones and Lord of the Rings.

This fantasy literature world, a place where people actually believed in these things. They don’t really understand how the belief is; it is a sense that the landscape is alive. It’s not that Icelanders are out there dancing around rocks with little guys with pointy ears and ballet tutus every Friday night, which is partly what they’re expecting.

It’s not like that. It is a sense of respect for the landscape. That was, certainly, in Scandinavia up until the 40s, 50s, and in Britain until the First World War. It is still alive here. How different it was to Scandinavia, in the past, as I say, Iceland is different from the rest of Scandinavia due to the mix of the Irish and the Scottish.

It is a blend. But it is Nordic as a culture. So, I don’t know if there’s anything hugely different, if Icelanders are that special when it comes down to it in terms of beliefs. On the other hand, what I said about the belief in God, that is very different to anything I’ve seen anywhere else.

One other aspect that is true too, which I haven’t seen anywhere else. You name your children after a dream. I don’t know where that came from. There are a few scraps in Norway during the Saga time.

Your wife is pregnant and dreams of somebody who says, “Let me stay.” Then she names her child after that person. You speak to a group of Icelanders. A large number of them will tell you stories of that kind.

You don’t go against it because there is a fierce, “What will happen to your child if you don’t?” One of our children is named in that way. The landscape is different too. It is a volcanic landscape, which speaks to you through the sounds of the hot springs and the grinding of the glaciers.

People are aware that a volcano could go off by the airport and cut Reykjavik off, at any moment [Laughing].

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Professor, Folkloristics, University of Iceland.

[2]Individual Publication Date: March 22, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2021:


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